Hitchcocko-Hawksien

Christopher Prendergast

  • Projections 7 edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue
    Faber, 308 pp, £11.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 571 19033 2
  • Cahiers du cinema. Vol. I: The Fifties. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave edited by Jim Hillier
    Routledge, 312 pp, £65.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 15105 8
  • Cahiers du cinema. Vol. II: The Sixties. New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood edited by Jim Hillier
    Routledge, 363 pp, £65.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 15106 6
  • Cahiers du cinema. Vol. III: 1969-72. The Politics of Representation edited by Nick Browne
    Routledge, 352 pp, £65.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 415 02987 2

In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) remarks that Las Vegas is about ‘selling people dreams for cash’ and, in a memorable elaboration of this cliché, that ‘it does for us what Lourdes does for hunchbacks and cripples.’ Much the same has been said about the culture of cinema, and how Scorsese’s film stands in relation to its subject is an interesting question. In fact, the marriage between movietown as the factory of illusions and Las Vegas as the palace of dreams is ostentatiously consummated in the credits sequence, as lights and camera-work produce a cascade of glittering special effects that mirrors the dazzle of Vegas itself. But the cascade is also enveloped by flames and this narrative allusion to the car firebomb that nearly finishes off Rothstein can also be read as a kind of hellfire, consuming both the world of Las Vegas and the cinematic image before us. It is accompanied on the soundtrack by an excerpt from the St Matthew Passion.

Is Casino therefore a movie about movies? Michael Wood described it in these pages as an ‘essay’, offering ‘brooding considerations of the big questions’, the biggest being why things always go wrong (‘In the end we fucked it all up,’ is how Rothstein’s sidekick, Nicky Santori, puts it). But it is also an essay about itself or the cinematic genre to which it belongs, in that it replicates and quotes from the repertoire of the thriller, while at the same time resisting the standard requirements of the genre. The plot, for instance, is wilfully slack and slow-paced. There is also a wilful breaking of the sealed world of celluloid naturalism: for narrative purposes, the film deploys a dual retrospective voice-over, Rothstein’s and Santori’s, but, since in the story Santori is killed, we cannot locate where the latter voice is coming from unless, implausibly, from beyond the grave. Wood comments that this sort of thing is reminiscent of ‘a character in a Godard movie’.

And so the French connection emerges. For Scorsese the historian, both in and out of his films, this connection matters. The extent to which it matters is reflected in another marriage – of Scorsese and the 500th edition of Cahiers du cinéma (supplied to us in English translation in the latest issue of Projections). Described as a ‘Scorsese special’, it is not only devoted to, but in part orchestrated by, Scorsese himself. Much of it is about Casino. Some of this is plain silly (for example, the claim, typical of a certain kind of Cahiers over-excitement, that Casino is ‘a great political film’). Scorsese, however, is extraordinarily interesting to read, above all in the long interview which embeds an account of the making of the movie in the social history that produced Vegas as a quintessentially American creation. On the other hand, asked where he got the idea of using the musical score from another film, he replies: ‘from Truffaut’ (he also mentions inclusion in the collage-like soundtrack of the theme music from Godard’s Le Mépris and Vivre sa vie). It would seem that we are travelling full circle, back to the original moment of Cahiers du cinéma and its ardent espousal of the virtues of American film and, from there, through the story of its vicissitudes between the Fifties and the early Seventies which this three-volume anthology seeks, with varying degrees of success, to reflect (a fourth volume on the rest of the Seventies is in preparation).

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