December 31, 1931 [ Entr'acte, À nous la liberté]

How far has René Clair traveled from his Dadaist début, Entr’acte, a half-decade ago? As I recall, the little film remained true to its code, as laid down--like jazz-noise--by Tristan Tzara, who disdained “the love of novelty” as “a pleasant sort of cross,” opting instead for Dada, which he insisted “does not mean anything”--but of course that is its meaning, an opting-out, a rejection of “common sense,” and finally, the embrace of “the roar of contorted pains, the interweaving of contraries and all contradictions, freaks and irrelevancies”--“LIFE,” as he shouts in perorational glee, like a child exhorting his companions to play with fire.

And does it seem quaint already? Has cinema caught up with the Dadaists, the Surrealists--all those mad men fed up with a civilization that could use the words “Great” and “War” in the same bland phrase, while the century’s childhood was crushed? In À nous la liberté Clair seems to feel still the Dadaist’s fierce love of contradiction, as he sends his free men to jail--only to have one of them emerge as a Captain of Industry--in turn imprisoning his workers, automatons even colder than Fritz Lang’s Maria in Metropolis. But his past catches up with him--at first a threat, then a blessing, for he un-alienates his workers--handing it all over to them--and dismantles his class armor, at the end free and wandering with his fellow ex-convict. A quiet slapstick indictment of the straight line--and celebration of the fortunate fall, almost spiritual--again, Tzara’s words ring true here: For him, God’s “existence had already been proved by the accordion, the landscape and soft words.” (And yes it’s a joke: But I too have heard the accordion play, off in the distance, the streets at three o’clock in the morning as hushed as a cathedral--and there is grave danger indeed for the souls of those of us who have never stopped and gazed at a landscape, no matter how mundane; as for soft words, can one ever say too much about their infinite mercy?) Clair has made a comedy of labor--and in the process called it all comic, and turned his back on it, and meandered off into the countryside.

--And one more word from Tzara, who calls for the abolition of “logic,” “every hierarchy and social equation,” as well as “the future”--even “memory”--and “to respect all individualities in their folly of the moment, whether serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, decided or enthusiastic.” What better description of the gentle dismantling of industry and security Clair gives us, at last “freedom for us”?


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