I do not believe that modern American cinema has taken us on a more fascinating journey than Monte Hellman's. A film from nowhere, unique, celebrated - immortal - then four decades of wandering, of dream projects never getting off the ground, forever postponed and falling into limbo. And some miraculous breakthroughs, born from chance as much as from necessity: the chance of improbable opportunities, such as those Mediterranean escapades whose plenitude barely hides the bitterness and defeat — the need to stand upright despite all opposition and start the machine again, alone, but still fascinated by the wall that never returns so much as an echo of an answer. Breakthroughs that shed a dry desert light on an ocean of salutary questionings, of unceasingly renewed doubts and desires. Breakthroughs that do not hesitate to occasionally soil the surface — always a little too smooth — of a myth that's a little too simple, the myth of The Quiet European, which the pharisees of world cinephilia still have the nerve to periodically trot out and brandish, as if to compensate for the endless compromises that arrive bearing the art-house stamp.
In nearly forty years, Hellman has thus shot only a handful of movies, which the curious have discovered indirectly through (obscure) videos, or, at best, amid the fever of film festivals. The scandal of such rarity undoubtedly has a thousand causes; however, it appears to me as obvious that if Monte Hellman is invisible, if his work is not shown, it may be simply because he is the only honest man in Hollywood. This is by no means a matter of innocence; Monte Hellman is not the village idiot, he is not some blissful twit who tilts at windmills. Quite the opposite, we are dealing here with a rare, keen consciousness of the means cinema offers him, and others; it's about a true belief in what is being filmed, so that each and every object that is offered to the gaze of the camera is given the same attention, without writing anything off; it's about not always needing to be one shot ahead; it's about never forgetting that the unity of the representation - its identity - should never be taken for granted. Whatever their initial inspiration and the ups and downs of production are, films by Monte Hellman are driven by an unfailing respect towards what makes them live: their subject, their actors, their audience.
While his former comrades from the Corman team strive - with occasional success - to invent themselves as captains of cinema through the systematic exhaustion of forms and endlessly revisited myths, through paranoid hyper-ventilation of the circus of appearances, which briskly sweeps the eye of a camera that has become too small for the dreams of spoiled children, Monte Hellman pursues a comparatively quite singular goal - telling stories.
I do not believe that the singularity of his cinema can be reduced to the apparent contradiction between the intellectual austerity of an approach à l'européenne, and the pleasure (an almost guilty one) of a popular spectacle à l'américaine. If such contradiction may surface through some of the first films - and notably in his two westerns with Nicholson, which are perhaps somewhat weakened by the slightly too dazzling edges of these naive frictions - it seems to me essentially external to his cinema, accidental. I'm more willing to embrace the idea that Hellman’s cinema actually solves all contradictions while offering a modest solution to the primitive equation: Cinema = Lumière (Louis) + Action (Walsh, among others). Or non-action - i.e. action as a myth, which comes to same thing (Hawks). Something achieving, through an often unstable - and sometimes miraculous - balance, a kind of sensual objectivity.
The distance between his gaze and both people and objects under scrutiny is set by a forthright but discreet curiosity, a considerate listening, which seeks details without magnifying them, which lightly touches actors without distorting them, which embraces space without deconstructing it. His cinematographic gesture prints each foot of film with the director’s full and complete adherence. The taste for simplicity is never the mark of an affected asceticism, but simply the only way to achieve the desired effect. Obliqueness is prohibited.
If one agrees to take the time to travel back through those forty years of loneliness, to listen to these strange and uneasy objects with the same kind of curiosity and consideration, to care for this handful of films which are sick1 only from not being seen, not constantly returning to our point of departure (Two-Lane Blacktop and its repetitions) by sweeping aside these unfortunate accidents... one would see that they all come from the same source. An always equal flow, which denies falls and weirs; a crystalline color, which filters out nothing but appearances; a generous soil, rich with hidden doubts and regrets. And this in spite of the apparent impurity of the path, the disturbing heterogeneity of materials and forms.
About Better Watch Out!, Monte Hellman once claimed that it was his "best work as a director". That opinion – in which I do not hear a hint of irony — may reflect the imperative need for succeeding in bringing in a professional project under constraints, but above all it reveals all of what his work as filmmaker owes to the humility, the transparency of his approach. Monte Hellman did not try to subvert the assignment, to sweep away the genre. We may smile listening to Robert Culp and Richard Beymer endlessly arguing in the car - like a chorus commenting on some other story - but we smile precisely because we know that what they’re talking about is somewhere off to the side of the movie. Which carries out, with conviction, modesty, and without any prevarication, a program, by carefully avoiding all the worn-out ropes, those distressing tricks that the genre hacks keep reproducing in a loop to make the whole thing sound like cinema. In a remarkable way this movie is perhaps the only slasher in film history which gives its killer no a priori filmic space: he is filmed on the same level as all other characters, evolves with the same degree of (relative) freedom, all codes having been lifted from his shoulders that would otherwise have been crushed under the weight of their grandiose posturing. And if the precision and the economy of the narration barely save such poor material from being simply boring, the neutrality of the filmmaker’s gaze remains exemplary of Monte Hellman's approach.
An approach that is not reliant on a style, and therefore cannot be reduced to one — there is no point in trying to define a Hellman system, a hypothetical set of idiosyncratic rules for his apprehension of film space. His cinema is defined less by its relation to mise-en-scène than by the more precious, less tangible, relation to the world: an honest gaze on a world of doubts. There is therefore no reason to be surprised by the formal ruptures in Iguana, which seems to break all the rules established in the works that precede it, because the subject dictates the form. If words invade the film, as uninterrupted and more meaningful than ever, that's because they are the only hold Oberlus has on others. If tight cutting often replaces those expanded moments that were once open to the void, it is what the interlaced narration requires; the time of the movie is the time of the story, not of the shooting. And always the same rare tact of statement, despite the violence, despite the bestiality. Frontal, the film is never intrusive or merely demonstrative. Assertive, it never plays on the level of pure emotion. Although one may feel slightly embarrassed by the overflow of signification that saturates the language so that it becomes occasionally too explicit. If the film is drawn taut as a bow by Oberlus’ words, those icy and decisive words which give birth to a world of pure reason, it happens sometimes that, through some stealthy shift, the speech act - beyond any commentary on what is being acted, or to come - becomes interpretation. And yet Monte Hellman knows so well how to trust the silence.
Like the radiant silence Warren Oates and Monte Hellman offer during the last scenes of Cockfighter, the sole true silence of a film that is not yet very loquacious. A silence filled with all the regrets of the world - a howling silence. After one of the most astonishing break-up scenes ever, Frank looks at the woman he loved moving away; he has just been released from his silence by the long-awaited victory, but the words take a long time to come out. The space of a few seconds, the camera dwells on his face, drowned by emotions that have been repressed too long. A few seconds until the ultimate deliverance, a few words let out in the desert, for oneself and for no one, swept along on a wave of infinite feelings - She loves me, Omar. The grim sentence of a man who knows exactly where he stands among the living, and who knows the prize of his sacrifice in tracing a lonely path. This serene assurance owes as much to Frank Mansfield-Warren Oates as to Monte Hellman. These two men had to be there, together, for such a moment to come: the total availability of an actor who does not act, the delicacy of a gaze which does not encroach on virgin territories. A shared generosity.
When Two-Lane Blacktop was released, Paul Vecchiali wrote about it as a film “of pure information, (...) a perfect example of what a political film should be.” The political dimension - after Two-Lane, and in the sense that Vecchiali may give to this notion - does not appear that obvious to me in Hellman's cinema2, but even if there is no shortage of dissimilarities between their respective works, the encounter of these two immense filmmakers around this film does not seem fortuitous to me. In 1973, when he wrote those lines, Vecchiali was preparing Femmes Femmes, his cult movie3... nearly forty years later, the two men have in common this sad quality of cult outcasts - I cannot disentangle the anger at this from the resignation - condemned to drift between the dreamed films that remain in the drawers and little things made among friends. Is this simply because they also share, above all, a supreme contempt for what people will say, a constant respect for the things being filmed and for those who will look at them, an obstinate independence from the over-digested codes and prerequisites that are the only key to success (dollars) today? Is silence the inevitable price they have to pay for daring to practice a free cinema?
But Hellman is still on the run, despite everything. After Stanley's Girlfriend, we had reason to be slightly anxious. This brilliant little film into which he invited the (false) brother and the father (Corman), all the better to assassinate them - which seems fair enough for these dead images, as dead as our phantoms of cinema - had the ring of a rather self-satisfied exercise in style, closed off by the least open ending in the oeuvre. A flashback full of despair, this film did not hold out much hope for a next episode. Now Hellman claims that Road To Nowhere is perhaps his first film ever. Shall we say it's a rebirth then? To be continued.
Translated from French with the kind help of Bill Krohn
1 Truffaut used to speak of “les grand films malades”
2 Or let's rather say that this aspect of his work calls me less violently than in Vecchiali's films, who puts up with reality with a rage, an invention, and an enthusiasm that are more communicative
3 I had promised myself not to evoke here the man with the stone... but I shall add that 1973 is also the year when Vecchiali made his Albert Camus…