MoMA Mia: A River Runs Through Mexico

In which the popping, saturated hues of Technicolor start to give way to the shadows of film noir…

Wednesday, July 8, 7pm: “The River” (1951), Jean Renoir

Considering the greatest directors of all time often becomes an apples-and-oranges game of preference in nationalist tendencies – which do you like more, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet spiritualism or Akira Kurosawa’s tradition-infused modernism? Herzog’s Romantic expressionism or Ford’s rugged individualism?

If Jean Renoir has an argument to get ahead of the pack, it’s perhaps that few other filmmakers (off the top of my head, anyway) have been so explicitly concerned with portraying a humanity that transcends social and national boundaries. “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” are both masterworks, slicing through and illuminating the tangled web of class and nationalist divisions that plunged Europe into two brutal, bloody wars. “The River,” which came at the tail end of a largely unsuccessful stint by the director in Hollywood (having fled the Nazis in 1941), deserves to be in the same conversation, a delicate, unhurried and observational piece with a self-consciously international flair. A movie by a French filmmaker, regarding the life of a British family in India, wherein the central action is prompted by the arrival of a forlorn American soldier? One hardly knows what language I should be writing in.

Shot on location (with a young Satyajit Ray serving as an assistant director, speaking of great filmmakers), “The River” is one of the most genuinely respectful fictionalized depictions of Anglo colonialism I’ve ever encountered. There is a real sense, from the director, the writer (Rumer Godden, also of the novel Black Narcissus), and the white family at the heart of the story, that India and its culture may be encountered and experienced without possessiveness. The latent paternalism can’t be ignored (particularly in an early passage describing the father’s factory), but Renoir manages to establish the family’s separation from the Indian society around them while generally avoiding the trap of Otherness – this is the only life that our teenage heroine and narrator, Harriet, knows, and if she’s aware of the racist history that brought her there, she can only address it obliquely, as just another thread in the rich tapestry of life, love and death around her.

That’s not an exaggeration either: showing roughly a year in which Harriet encounters Captain John, the American cousin of a neighbor, and competes for his affection with her two closest friends, “The River” is one of those films that manages to be about both everything and nothing at all. There will be a long-awaited birth, and a sudden death, and joy, and sadness, and meanwhile the river keeps on flowing. Though his most famous films are associated with the World Wars, I honestly don’t believe Renoir was ever much interested in the melodrama of war and violence – except insofar as it affected the romance and simple ambition of people just trying to go about their lives.

There’s so much more to talk about with this film. I haven’t even mentioned possibly the most interesting character – Melanie, the mixed-race daughter of Harriet’s neighbor who also seems to harbor feelings for her American cousin. The actress Radha Burnier’s performance is a triumph of unprofessional understatement, and the fantasy sequence in which she, playing a reincarnation of Krishna’s wife, performs a wedding dance is indelible cinema. Suffice to say this is also the most exuberant use of Technicolor I’ve seen in this series, and it’s entrancing (though I hope, for your sake, that you watch it without a fellow audience member loudly chomping on an apple right behind you, as I did).

Sunday, July 12, 3:45pm: “Cobra Woman” (1944), Robert Siodmak

Like politics, the artistic spectrum is something of a circle, and you could make the argument that “The River,” somewhere towards the highest of the high art, is closer to “Cobra Woman,” the campiest of the camp art, than most would care to admit. Certainly, there’s that gorgeous Technicolor cinematography again – does it matter if those eye-popping reds and oranges come in the lights of Diwali or Maria Montez’s lips?

Unintentional delights abound in this cult classic, long forgotten by the mainstream: Montez’s atrocious acting, hilariously amplified by a double role as long-lost twin sisters; a homicidal chimpanzee; Sabu being Sabu; the most convoluted government ever devised by a cobra-obsessed tribal island; and, of course, the most phallic snake prop ever made (Harrison Ford, eat your heart out). Granted, that’s about all you’re going to get. The intended delights (I presume sumptuous production design, and, uh…that scene where Montez goes swimming?) don’t get you very far when saddled with an awful melodrama script and C-list on-screen talent (poor Lon Chaney, Jr. – how the mighty do fall).

Behind the screen is slightly a different story: cinematographer W. Howard Greene was no slouch (a seven-time Oscar nominee, in fact), and Robert Siodmak was about to quietly become one of the most important directors of American noir with a string of successes including “The Killers” (1946), “Cry of the City” (1948) and “Criss Cross” (1949). So “Cobra Woman” winds up being the kind of wonderful collision only the Hollywood studio system could provide, when overqualified filmmakers got stuck with an atrocious project and had no choice but to make the laughable, subversive best of it.

But speaking of noir…

Saturday, July 25, 7:30pm: “In the Palm of Your Hand” (1951), Roberto Galvaldón

And so here we sidetrack for a bit into a realm I didn’t even knew existed. No matter how well-trained the cinephile, you’re going to have your blind spots, but luckily people like MoMA’s film curators are on hand to let you know that yes, Mexican noir is a thing that happened. I confess even broader ignorance when it comes to Mexican cinema pre-Cuarón/Iñárritu/Del Toro, so I’m not going to be able to do much to place these films, or their makers, in any kind of cultural or historical context. What I can say is that I’ve definitely never seen any American or European noir film whose protagonist dressed at any point like a Vegas stage magician tried to do a subtle take on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper outfits.

That extraordinarily shiny number of a jacket is one of the wonderfully non-standard pieces of setup for what proves, a little disappointingly, to be a far more standard noir resolution in “In the Palm of Your Hand.” Replacing the protagonist’s usual private eye/gumshoe profession with that of a con-man psychic is a stroke of daffy genre genius. No, of course it isn’t subtle that the charlatan chiromancer can’t foresee his own impending doom, but if you want subtlety, go back and find another screening of “The River.” This isn’t the place for color anymore – this is noir, and everything down to the neon lights is going to be black and white as a zebra.

So our leading man (Arturo de Córdova, properly suave and with a penchant for perplexed fascination) must choose between his loyal, blonde, frequently dressed-in-white wife and the mysterious, veiled, “mourning” widow (a charmingly arch Leticia Palma) who happens to have suddenly and conveniently inherited her much older husband’s fortune. Dispensing with the widow’s other lover, desperately eluding the cops and driving the long-suffering wife to tragedy are all a matter of course – though the fortune-telling element adds a playful angle to that engrained sense of fate and inevitable violence. Combine that with some unexpected comedy setpieces (including a terrific bit of business with a dead man in the trunk of a car and a flat tire), and “In the Palm of Your Hand” has a sustained, quirky sense of humor that keeps it bouncing along through the more predictable genre beats. I wouldn’t call it a must-see, but as an introduction to a generally ignored slice of world film history, it’s intriguing. If Galvaldón was laughing even as he delivered the standard formula, how else might have Hollywood’s post-war visions been interpreted south of the border?

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