Flamboyantly Unbound

Flamboyantly Unbound

“Marcel Marceau’s first wife divorced him in 1958,” Shawn Wen writes of the famous mime. “She said he would not speak to her for days on end. She called it mental cruelty. He called it rehearsal.”

This anecdote arrives early in A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, Wen’s 2017 book-length essay on Marceau’s art and life. Wen twines them on the page—art, life—as they’re twined in reality: to disentangle is to lie. How could we possibly separate the man from the work—this man from this work, when it is not merely made by him but made of him: his face, his limbs? “The body was their text,” Wen writes of the School of Dramatic Art in Paris where Marceau trained after World War II to become a mime. Marceau’s body was his language; his body was his clay; his body was his canvas and his instrument and his philosophy. But as with any artist elevated (or reduced) to celebrity, it becomes hard to identify where the rehearsal stops and the performance begins.

Of course, that’s precisely the place that piques the interest of the voyeur. A Twenty Minute Silence teases in this direction: Marceau’s daughter is quoted; his wives are summarized; we are told that his brother was a leader in the French Resistance, that his father died at Auschwitz. Wen points out that Marceau’s given surname, Mangel, means “lack” or “deficiency”—the temptation must be great, when writing about mime, to fill the silence. Connected as they are, however, Wen’s nods to the incomparable life don’t come at the expense of the even more remarkable, if less articulable, art. With great rigor and a feeling patience, she writes into the empty space created by Marceau’s wheeling arms, his gesturing eyes, his open and soundless mouth. (As the art critic Peter Schjeldahl says, “I like the discipline of writing about mute things. It feels like honest work.”)

Biographical facts and quotes are spliced by scenes starring Marceau’s iconic creation, the white-faced, striped-shirted character Bip: Bip dresses for a party; Bip ducks in the trenches. Wen’s language is plain and unadorned as the stage; she does not qualify the “bow tie” and “jacket,” the “canteen” and “comrade,” with their obvious falsity. Only when we might mistake the object for a part of the theater’s architecture does she highlight the illusion: playing a drunken partygoer, Marceau “hangs on to invisible walls for balance.”

How does a man move? How does an author convey movement in the two fixed dimensions of prose?

How does a man move? How does an author convey movement in the two fixed dimensions of prose? If the man is Marceau or the author is Wen, the answer is the same: with unerring grace. Wen writes in a slim, sculpted style; she cuts her sentences, occasionally, into the lines of a poem. (This is hardly necessary, but it doesn’t bother.) No approach can be ruled out, when trying to articulate a viewing experience that is, by definition, resistant to language. As Marceau says, “Mime can do things that words cannot.”

Words can do things that mime cannot, too, but Wen largely rejects interiority, that advantage of the written word over visual art, film, theater, and dance: the mind on display in Wen’s essay is not her own. She can access Marceau’s singular mind only through its physical effects: the body attached, its movement, what it says or doesn’t say, what it does. Wen follows Marceau through his performances with forensic attention. “Bip’s gaze populates the empty stage with a crowd,” she writes. “A ghosted landscape rises up wherever his fingers point.”

I was reminded of this bodily observation when reading Picture, Lillian Ross’s 1952 work of reportage on the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage. “He has a theatrical way of inflecting his voice that can give a commonplace query a rich and melodramatic intensity,” Ross writes. “He made the most of every syllable, so that it seemed at that moment to lie under his patent and have some special urgency.” Ross delineates and categorizes the movements of Huston’s speech as precisely as Wen traces those of Marceau’s fingers and feet: intentional, multivalent, ripe for interpretation. Writing 65 years apart, Wen and Ross couldn’t possess more divergent styles, but they share an ambitious goal: to recreate on the page what is inherently, flamboyantly unbound.

Ross has an easier time of it: her subjects are not mute. Huston talks, his producer Gottfried Reinhardt talks, studio bigwigs and critics and actors and hangers-on talk and talk and talk. Dialogue runs roughshod over the pages of Picture; the journalist’s glee at good copy sparks audibly from Ross’s electric sentences, phrases, even fragments. “‘Well!’” she quotes Huston saying, and adds an aside: “He made the word expand into a major pronouncement.”

Simple words become pronouncements in the director’s mouth, and simple acts become freighted with meaning: Huston sits on the arm of a chair and lights a cigarette, inhales, looks out the window. “Huston looked as though he might be waiting—having set up a Huston scene—for the cameras to roll,” Ross writes. “But, as I gradually grew to realize, life was not imitating art, Huston was not imitating himself, when he set up such a scene; on the contrary, the style of the Huston pictures, Huston being one of the few Hollywood directors who manage to leave their personal mark on the films they make, was the style of the man.”

The problem animating Picture is Huston’s struggle to leave that personal mark on a film that, it turns out, isn’t wholly his. Huston is not Marceau; his art doesn’t belong to him alone. The Red Badge of Courage is a novel by Stephen Crane, a classic of American literature. The Red Badge of Courage, the movie Huston hopes to make of Crane’s novel, belongs to the roaring lion of Metro Goldwyn Mayer: reading Picture, I imagined the film clasped gently between those merciless jaws.

It’s a classic trope, man versus Hollywood: the studio demands clarity, star power, and commercial viability; Huston waves these demands away like cigarette smoke. Reinhardt rushes back and forth, playing peacemaker, playing advocate. “There’s so much about pictures that has nothing to do with art,” he says, a sigh given syllables. A psychologist’s input is solicited as to the veracity of the plot—not so much, is his verdict—and test audiences are surveyed with absurd and contradictory results. Everyone involved offers reassurances, to themselves and to each other, over and over: It’ll be a great picture. It’s going to be a very wonderful picture.

As with so many movies, I’d rather read the book. (Picture, that is.) The film at the frothing heart of this California caper was sliced from Huston’s two hours to a 70-minute running time, with a voiceover added explaining the young soldier’s fears and motivations. The novel’s strength—that interiority—was sawn off and stitched onto the body of the movie, a clumsy Frankenstein frightening the villagers. “The phony talk I’ve had to listen to about this picture!” MGM’s exasperated head of advertising tells Ross. “‘It’s a classic.’ ‘Art.’ Nonsense. A novel is a novel. A poem is a poem. And a movie is a movie.” This particular movie, after the hellbent cuts and conciliatory changes, still lost MGM half a million dollars.

Who cares? No one who doesn’t work for a major movie studio has ever felt bad for a major movie studio, so: not me. But even Huston, the ostensible protagonist in our clash of man and machinations, seems removed from the critical and commercial failure of his film, from its butchering at the hands of producers, psychologists, and test audiences. He vanishes from the book by its final section, gone to the then-Belgian Congo to film The African Queen. It’s too bad: Huston, like Marceau’s Bip, is a pleasure to have around. “‘You know, I just love New York when summer is coming in,’” Ross quotes him as saying. “‘[T]he city is quiet. And you can take walks!’ he said in a tone of amazement. ‘And you pass bars!’ he said, as though this were even more astonishing.”

And isn’t it? Isn’t it all astonishing? There’s artifice to Huston’s art, to be sure—he is both director and star of this little scene performed for Ross’s benefit, and for ours—but that doesn’t mean some small worthy moment hasn’t been crafted. Huston gestures at the blank space of an average day so fervently we see it, suddenly, full to brimming. “The empty stage is a universe without laws,” Wen writes. “Up to the mime to conjure and rearrange, to make the dark space become alive with recognitions and quickenings.”

The director is a conjurer too, though his strength lies in making us see what is there, rather than what isn’t. “This isn’t like a novel,” Huston says to James Agee, working on The African Queen. “This is a screenplay. You’ve got to demonstrate everything, Jim.” And though Ross says, in her introduction to Picture, that she imagined the book as “a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form,” she hews closer to a screenplay’s structure: scene upon scene upon scene, a cinematic rendering of a cinematic undertaking. The drama we’ve been watching, starring Huston as the beleaguered visionary, comes to its tragic, inevitable end. “He spoke mechanically, sounding flat and sad,” Ross writes of Huston, shortly before he leaves town, “and there was nothing at all of the former theatrical emphasis in his manner.”

A description, but it might double as direction. Ross’s journalistic, fly-on-the-wall approach is necessarily imitative; she follows the proceedings with the transparent dispassion of a camera. Behind-the-scenes is both a promise and a method, and Ross’s best lines are transcribed. “I fought in every war there was in history since the Philistines,” says an elderly extra on the set of The Red Badge of Courage. “I even fought the Civil War once before, in Gone with the Wind. I’ve been in all the wars, and I speak from experience—this war is going to be the roughest. You haven’t seen anything yet.”

But transparency isn’t the only route to truth. In the years since Ross wrote, we’ve become increasingly aware of the camera’s penchant for delusion and distortion. “He doesn’t translate well,” Wen writes of Marceau on video. “You can clearly see the pancake makeup, the fake eyebrows, his constant mugging. A stark reminder of what you’ve always suspected: he’s just a clown.” How fine the line can be, between a performance that makes you shiver and a performance that makes you shrug. Art is always a meeting, dependent on mood and view, temperature and temperament, how busy the mind that day, how restless the body. Sometimes no lens is transparent enough; no light gets through.

The pleasure of their creation is embodied, demanding muscles and limbs

How to make art of such art? How to catch and proffer not just a piece but the time in which it was encountered, the encounter itself?

For the blank page, too, is a universe without laws: the text is their body, I might write of Wen and Ross and the rest of us, who try to make the dark space come alive with only words. How frail our work can seem, compared to theirs: the actors and mimes, dancers and musicians, even the painters stretching along with their canvases. The pleasure of their creation is embodied, demanding muscles and limbs. “As we watch the mime’s expressive form, we lose awareness of our own,” Wen writes. “We forget to breathe. Thank God our lungs inflate and deflate on their own.” We become mute things, too, in the face of such beauty. Call it awe. Call it imitation.

Our grief is doubled, then, when the bodies that make up the works of art we love begin to fade. “There was no Huston scene,” Ross writes, toward the end. “Death is always nearby,” Wen says, “for mimes who drink a glass of wine with an empty hand, waltz with no partner, who laugh and cry and not a soul can hear.” Huston died in 1987, Marceau in 2007: Wen’s work is a conscious elegy, Ross’s an unwitting one.

The eras they describe feel dead and buried, too. Mime is a thing of the past even as it’s performed before us: soundless as another time, trying to pass along some vital message we can never hear. Even the mercenary struggles of mid-century Hollywood seem glamorous and nostalgic in Ross’s kicky telling; Huston’s battle with the studio grows quaint—if prescient—in the face of the umpteenth Avengers installment. “Anything that makes money we’re for,” MGM’s head of advertising says to Ross, as if that fact were in doubt.

But art and commerce can still be pried apart, with difficulty, with insistence. How fortifying it can be to see that struggle enacted, embodied, possessed of a spotlit face that we might turn to in the dark. Bip catches butterflies; Bip throws knives; Bip dances with a woman he’s just met. His hands create her hands and clasp them, spinning. Bip plays Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, and then an old man, a heartbroken man, a suicide. “Art should be serious after all,” said Étienne Decroux, Marceau’s teacher, and I’m inclined to agree. Despite the face paint, despite the costume, he’s no clown. “The music is the background to the breathing,” says the composer assigned to Huston’s movie. “When he dies, there is a sudden silence… No music can be as loud as silence.”

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