© 2015 by James Clark
Here we go, into a New Year (we definitely won’t call it the Year of the Ram or the Sheep or the Goat); and here we go kicking up a notch our not setting great store by “spoilers.” Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) could be mistaken to be primarily a “suspense thriller” and judged as such. An American go-getter, Jack by name, has come upon some quality control issues in his career of murdering highly placed government and corporate trouble-making functionaries (like spies, expensive underachievers and other irritants and embarrassments) and his contemptuous and unforgiving manager salts him away in Italy and gives him the (low-key) assignment of producing a special gun which in fact is slated to dispose of him. A skirmish in that climax shows him dodging that bullet but being shot dead anyway.
Corbijn could not in truth care less what you think to be the thrills quotient of that eventuation. As a cog in the movie industry he has to cover his ass with a Hollywood star (George Clooney), some attractive women (nude or otherwise) and some attractive cinematography. In this artisanal web, he quite closely occupies the same boat as Jack, where one wrong step spells death (of some kind). The pragmatic underbelly of our helmsman’s craft is exceptionally bathed in epiphantic atmosphere. That disclosure constitutes the heart of the film, an adjunct of endeavor pretending (for the sake of the market) to stand by a beginning, a middle and an end, but in fact offering depths and real, not vicarious, shocks to ponder for a lifetime.
It would be a given that matinee idol George Clooney here moves on the same flight path as matinee idol Alain Delon, in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967)—if, that is, there were any viewers out there that have encountered and taken to heart what a film giant means and who is truly a film giant. Similarly, the rare gun client/antagonist, Mathilde, could have meant plenty (as touching upon the first Mathilde’s associate, Gerbier) if there were any in the popcorn line who ever made their way to Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969). Moreover, the dead-end twisting of Jack, looking to rebrand himself, could be helpfully complemented by a film named Second Wind (1966), by you-know-who. A most fertile rendition of the subject of a skilled outlaw (played once again by Alain Delon) considering a change of occupation also awaits someone spending time with Melville’s The Red Circle (1970). The stand-off (in The American) of a slightly roguish priest not going nearly far enough to suit the protagonist shows up years before in Leon Morin, Priest (1961), and who else could have made it? (The latter’s skeptic is played by the glamorous Emmanuelle Riva.) On a very closely associated note, there is the work of that not generally taken for more than an empty stylist, namely, Michael Mann, who keys his Hollywood fun to a very French, very Surrealist, Jean-Pierre Melville. His outlaws, pulling out all the stops of poetry they can are arrestingly exploratory of initiatives—thematic and cinematographic—broached by Le Samourai, Second Wind and The Red Circle. His film, Collateral (2004), probing a gun-for-hire (played by another matinee idol, Tom Cruise), who endeavors to match his sense of solitude and mystery to his sense of daring, very extensively pertains to the innovative energies of The American.
Since that component, however, is a virtually dead language in the 21st century, we’ll go with something else Corbijn is very good at, namely, optical effects in general and a long-standing specific reservoir of the visual side of rock videos, not to mention camera portraiture. His eye for sensuous apparitions streaming into extremities of sensibility can be usefully put into effect here by a motif, so close to the Samourai’s affinity to Joan of Arc, namely, Jack’s becoming known as “Mr. Butterfly.” George Clooney’s athletic and sombre presence is complemented (as seen when keeping fit in his cul-de-sac retreat in rural Italy) by a set of tattoos depicting that delicate incongruity (reminding us of Jef the Samourai’s pet canary). This phenomenon makes only three other, increasingly tense, appearances, likewise fleeting: during his increasingly tense vigil in the cell-like quarters, he looks through an illustrated book about butterflies; his new girlfriend, Clara, a local whore with loyal affection for him—showing forbearance and intuitive daring recalling Jef’s girl, Valeria (and from there evoking Giuliana in the Italian film, Red Desert —the walls of Clara’s workplace similarly colored a lurid red to match the shack Giuliana lingers in—massages his tensed up shoulders, running her hands over the drawings on his skin in homage to the bid for grace; with Mathilde by a glistening stream in a ravishing verdant countryside, in the course of demonstrating what a fine weapon of death he’s crafted for her, a small grey butterfly lands on her grey sweater and he remarks the moment with a bit of enthusiasm—then he adds, “It’s endangered.” (It’s also largely ignorable. Do Jack’s many powers encompass being that finite?)
The title is The American, and I think we should use it to extrapolate the salad days before Jack was downgraded somewhat into long interludes at the coffee bars of his Italian village exile. Being a person of interest to the shrewd, self-satisfied and selectively warm local priest (“A priest sees everything…”), Jack soon finds himself being made to tell us something definitive which he would actually rather leave in play. In response to our protagonist’s describing himself as a “photographer” of scenes of architecture and landscape, the village leader asks, “You study our history?” The only too predictable reply from the investment-banker-on-vacation-looking stranger living in a shabby pension—“I take pictures”—opens the door for the provocation, “Of course, you’re an American. You think you can escape history…” Father Benedetto smiles on hearing this intriguing package of contradictions declare therewith, “I try to, Padre.” The more appropriate phrasing would have been, “I tried to, Padre.” For the Jack we see and the Jack fitting into the cliché of Yankee kickass boor and financial fat cat represent a distribution of power far in fact more thrilling than the demise of a high roller (a “Flambeur”). Like Melville’s Bob the Flambeur, in the eponymous film, Jack would have definitely been a youthful dogmatist on the subject of never being caught dead “on all fours.” Nuances of historically posited considerations tempering all-out hatred and savaging of palpably inferior spoil sports would have had, in those young and foolish days, no allure at all. But a cash cow gone sour has been just the thing to start proceedings during the surfeit of down time (notably at coffee houses) toward a wider reflection. (The caffeine would also be just what the doctor ordered.)
However, at the same time he was racking up impressive murder stats, he had been attending to butterflies. There is, I think, a way of dispelling any heavy paradox in this. An obsessive cherishing of the pristine and uncanny beauty of those butterflies would be part and parcel of Jack’s hasty and extreme devaluation of people. His getting into a very elite fold of technology would have involved passionately pursuing the design priorities of Lepidoptera into crafts in general—crafts like special weapons production and photography. (Corbijn’s cinematography—every bit as amazing as that of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s in The Assassin—and here we go again with the indispensability of history—becomes a cri de coeur bursting into astronomical disclosures in conjunction with the slow death spiral of our fatally compromised master protagonist of maximum impact.)
The American is not about American violence, American greed nor about American superficiality. The auteur of record here—overseeing a Martin Booth novel called A Very Private Gentleman and a screenwriter, Rowan Joffee—puts into really detailed play his first-hand experience of gifted craftsmanship having to negotiate abominations of power, externally and internally. The prefatory moment of the film introduces Jack already in hiding, in a chalet in a snowbound Swedish forest, from the consequences of his unforgivable slip. Ever the connoisseur of vivid beasts, he has included, within his exigency of regrouping, a woman whom we first notice lying prone on the bed and flashing a lovely bum. Then they caress—she blissed out; he far less so. Next morning he sees footprints in a frozen and snowy lake, expertly kills the two intruders and also guns down the once-happy lady, a victim of her own querulous ordinariness and a victim of his total war, total self-preservation side. (“You have a gun? Is he dead?” she flusters, clearly signalling her recent and impossible tenure.) Straightaway he’s in shades on the phone to Pavel, as close as we ever get to the virtual Pentagon of goneness. “Who was the girl?” the borderline apoplectic asks. “A friend,” Jack replies and the set of his face shows he’s not trying to be tough or funny. Pavel leaves him with, “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t make any friends, Jack…” As we know in hindsight (but even in closely reading his non-party with the girl [“She had nothing to do with it,” he insists to a cynical force on the phone]), Jack has become, even the day after dispatching everyone in sight, very much a student of friendship. A study mired in murder excellence. But also, recall, a study buoyed by that Swedish forest and the gold and red glow from a window as the camera pans toward the hugely inflected intimacy. As soon as he’s rid of Pavel (his Russian, Slavic name perhaps affording a more specific glimpse of the buccaneer distemper Jack has been alright with; if Pavel consorts with Pavo, we could be gaining some enlightenment therewith, concerning the corporate interests of ex-Olympians or other disaffected crafts stars), the next we see of him he’s in silhouette driving in a long tunnel into Italy, an up-to-date tunnel the walls being a golden glow. There is light at the end of that tunnel but the camera experiences overexposure and distortion at the entrance point to the Italian Alps. Then there is a stunning look at the dark car from a distance with verdant farmland stretching as far as the eye can see. A third visual deposit comes in the form of delicious mist and clouds over a rugged range, fully insinuating to those alert to what is being shown that Jack’s retreat involves a counter-attack comprising a stiff shot of relief from human entanglements. (The pathetic scuttlebutt put forward by the production team, led by Corbijn himself [who mortgaged his house to expand the kitty], that we were to delight in an offbeat Spaghetti Western—a scheme that backfired after the earlybird headbangers determined to laugh it off the planet—does at least spin out an exposure of how far from a melodrama of trying to “go straight,” go normal, this vastly alien offering is.) Arriving at the destination which Pavel had firmly recommended, Jack takes one look at the hodgepodge of the street life (design and human) redolent in his eyes of more than annoying emotional impairment, and he turns the car around in search of more of the gusto (the uncanniness, the not normal) that the landscape afforded. He arrives at the town of Castel del Monte and finds it more to his liking, more to the mission that begins to supplant the crock of reinventing his badass. There is a lot of grey stone, akin to other medieval towns, like Poitier, and strangely modern in its minimalist register brimming with infinite quiet tonal and formal initiatives. And cutting through the center like a lively stream there is a narrow passage with cafes and shops, as well as homes. Seen from the heights of the steep avenue, Jack, in an ensemble of casual and texturally un-American, understated expressiveness, with Italian woollen sweater and woollen twilled trousers ( and, the ultimate test in Italy, fine, simple shoes), trips down a set of bluish rock stairs and he comes to an espresso bar. Now we’re getting somewhere! Jack gives every indication of being a regular already. He may have slipped a bit during the interview with the priest; but savoring Italian coffee is but a preliminary to trusting his nose in a much wider sense, to, that is, trusting a range of logic far from Catholic scholasticism. In this manoeuvring we come to the true contours of his insurrection.
An assignation at a farmer’s market between the gunsmith and the gunner (both in shades, both looking as if they’d stepped out of Vanity Fair Magazine) re-establishes that pall of history’s overdrive scrutinized by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835/ 1840 publication, Democracy in America. Though the prospect of artisanal productivity carries along aspects of witty and fertile manipulations and deep solitude, there is for Jack no decisive scenting that remaining a Company Man spells deathtrap. As it happens, the very dubious blend (synthesis) he seems to bank upon encounters a spate of other syntheses, putting in play our protagonist’s enrolment in a viable, difficult dialectical logic which never ceases to put on the spot every human, whether it troubles them or not. After the laconic non-conversation between Jack and Mathilde, seemingly ignoring each other at adjacent tables of a sidewalk cafe, the craftsman sums up succinctly the work at hand: “You want a weapon with the range of a sub-machine gun and the accuracy of a rifle.” (Thrust as to deep space as conjoined with nearby pinpointing is thereby in the air.)
The mission of hybrid within a context of one-note archaism still making some sense—Jack orders an americano; Mathilde has already secured her cappuccino—sustains the sense of a course of action coming to a crisis while less drastic measures have been downplayed. (Has there ever been a film where cafe life has shown such range and investigative integrity?) There ensues a pattern of his transforming a standard sub-machine gun into an innovative form of deadly force. Just prior to his retrieving the middling gun from the post office, he’s seen consulting his butterfly book. (In Le Samourai, Jef rouses himself from close encounter with his canary to picking up [stealing, actually] a car, and then having it rejigged with new plates.) The incongruity of these interests provides a narrative spine far outstripping the “suspense tale” about Jack’s safety (the details of which ranging from Old School—his new girlfriend stubbing her toe on one of his custom-made bullets at a rendezvous point where a test run has taken place with Mathilde—to New School—the relentless warriors hating him very much being tongue-in-cheek Swedes, for Crissake! [one of whom, [looking like a social worker] at the frozen lake, wears a form of camouflage pants that seriously resemble pyjamas].) In face of this less than compelling “action adventure”—the better to realize and dwell upon challenges so not “everyday”—there is a quiet indictment that world history has chosen to reflexively savage efforts infinitely more thrilling than titillation for infantile lives. Corbijn arrestingly manages to inform the crowd-pleasing with the thematic weight and warning of world historical edifices availing themselves of energies dispensing with that increasingly threadbare crock to the effect that every life is as precious as any other.
While bearing down upon his material craft of synthesis at the gun assembly table in his “Casa,” a very-much-in-progress Jack finds himself including the local bordello in his researches. His alliance thereby with Clara fills out a dialectic involving Mathilde, Clara being an entryway to further cultivating those dynamic gifts of primal nature he had been devoted to for a long time. The liaison with the quite dispensable girl at the cabin in the bracing woods helps set in relief what a promising departure that initiated by Clara represents for him, and her. During the first encounter of her easy routine of stripping quickly and offering up her breasts and his copiously tentative set of his face and body, he, after kissing her breasts, slides out of camera range and we see her being aroused by cunnalingus. The penetration which follows is intense and she cries out several times. Their subsequently transcending the service business introduction has established a new field of primal nature on which to construct a vein of rewards with strong continuity. That Jack’s is still very much a craft without a fully effective rudder is never more piquantly revealed than in the aftermath of that promise. He tells her, “You don’t have to act. I want you to be always what you are. I came here to get pleasure, not to give it.” Luckily for him, she knows he really doesn’t mean it. She also tells him, “You’re thinking about something or someone.” During the test run of the gun craft with Mathilde, the details of that crafting clearly couched in such a way that the long periods of solitude and silence and physical motion come to him as a delicious refreshment (the soundtrack holding forth with a resonant string passage performed on, no doubt, a Stradivarius), the formidable woman warrior/ technician (in the mold of Melville’s Mathilde) asks Jack (in the mold of Melville’s Jean-Francois, who considers countering, along with Mathilde, an unworthy power to be necessarily “sport”), “Perhaps you don’t have a woman in your life…” He does not respond to that notably restrained gambit of her attraction to him. Eventually intuiting what that gun is all about, he disables it just before final delivery; and it blows up in Mathilde’s face as she tries to assassinate him at a moment when he and Clara are embracing in the midst of a religious procession. (The shooter’s parting words to him on his completing the delivery were a frosty, “Good-bye, Mr. Butterfly.”) Jack had said to Clara, “We’ll go away together.” “Together? Forever?” she delights.
That latter moment of worlds colliding would constitute a far from successful occurrence of dialectical motion. A second such collision, though far lesser in the eyes of those who watch movies in hopes of being enlivened (if only for a few seconds) by the spread of gore, is far more enlightening, stimulating and germane to the guts of the work—namely, the doctrinal barrages launched upon the insidious foreigner by Father Benedetto—seemingly like Melville’s Leon Morin, a with-it and sweetheart guy but in fact a logically unscrupulous reactionary. A few days after the first interview with Mathilde, ending with her fixing Jack with her new-woman-power stare and asking with smooth pugnacity, “Can you do it?” there is a cut to a hawk gliding over the rooftops of the town pressing with its name its mountainousness, and then a cut to Jack in his bed being startled by a night-noise (in fact his butterfly bedside book falling on to the floor) and sitting up frantically, pistol in hand. His walls and curtains are all golden-glow, like those in Corey’s former girlfriend’s place (in The Red Circle); Corey, that is, who had had a chance to be a truly free agent , would be an enviable factor for a figure like Jack, so ensnared in the consequences of extreme crime. (Prior to his dozing off he had been stalked by an assassin—another Swede—and he had purloined a scooter and chased down the easily frightened would-be-murderer fleeing in his car; and, after noisily shooting out the windows and the tires, he had marched over to the crash site and slit his throat. As a parting shot to that disturbance he calls Pavel and complains rather flat-footedly, “How the fuck did they know I was here?” Pavel, physically shrivelled but clearly imagining himself to be fearsome on the basis of hating everyone, sneers, “You’ve lost your edge, Jack.”) Unable to sleep after his shock and being fazed by the odds, he walks to a park in the pre-dawn and encounters there the priest who can see quite a long way into his doom. After an exchange of excuses for being up at that ungodly hour—Jack: “I need some air”/ Father Benedetto: “I walk here to meditate and ask God to look after my friends who are sinners”—the town’s conscience puts into the stew (a nice stew [synthesis] at his modest manse being his welcome to town for Jack) the unusual murder of the night before. (“Something happened last night…”) Jack had challenged the implication that the clergyman (to whom he had shown considerable amity on repairing his little three-wheeler truck with its lambs [headed for that stew]) was beyond sin. “All men are sinners.” The student of human nature, perhaps assuming that the American is simplistic (he having, after all, at that first encounter at the pay phone, explicitly specified that his photography had to do with “No people”), ripostes, “Some are greater sinners than others. You’ve done much sinning in your past. And you still do.” Jack, in no mood to ease along a presumptuous softie, declares, “Anything I did I had good cause to do.” “Perhaps I can pray for you” [as I do for Fabio, the young car repairman], the priest emotes, from his supposed and massively confirmed unassailable position. Jack, who has noticed the same photo of the priest and the young sinner being prominent at their domains, adds, “You both have the same eyes.” Father Benedetto gets a little real at this point, and, with a troubled face not Jack’s for a change, he flounders, “I do not remember the woman. It was many years ago… In the end it is I who confess to you.” Jack asks, the impasse here eliciting quiet and yet harsh irony, “Do you want me to do the same?” Though he knows the proposition is sarcastic, the divine lays all his trump cards on the table. “For your own good… You cannot count the distance of hell. You live in it. It is a place without love [craftsmanship and its trajectories not, apparently, in the sphere of love]. I have the heart of a father. I am both grateful and happy. What do you have?” (At this turn of the gulf, Jack looks away, his face both bewildered and angry.)
Jack doesn’t get the opportunity to put into play a life of special craft with Clara. Making sure that Mathilde follows through, Pavel is instantly killed by Jack in an exchange of fire right after Mathilde ends up on the pavement—as Melville’s Mathilde did. Jack dies about an hour later; Melville’s Gerbier lasted a few months longer after effecting his Mathilde’s removal. But he had very little to offer at any rate. However, that the singularity of the love of Jack and Clara flourished for even a moment under the circumstances would be the perfect squelch to a conformist’s sneer, “What do you have?”
In addition to an unforgettable film and its unforgettably striking optics, Corbijn has treated us to a visual and sonic genius’ discovery as to pop-up incidents speaking to the zany side of the uncanny ways of that sensuous logic Jack practises with mixed results. The rapturous landscape and architectural details, often including sublime human intervention, never lose their capacity to surprise. Another kind of surprise is the TV set in a perfunctory bar showing one-dimensional Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West. Then there is Jack sitting on the bed in the brothel, his head lined up with a comic balloon space (consisting of a string of tiny lights) showing a good-time-girl and reminding us of another (very small-time) fugitive from justice played by George Clooney, namely, Ulysses, the misplaced Southerner, on the lam from a jail term for practising law without a licence, and glimpsed with old timey smoke from a passing train seeming to go into one ear and out the other, in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? And for good measure, the tiniest trope, at a cafe, Jack hearing the opening bars of Glen Miller’s “In the Mood,” affixed to an Italian pop song—a little moment here, but stemming out to a defining moment (which Jack does not stoop to) of turning one’s back on love, in Melville’s Army of Shadows.
And then something else—wordsmithing. On his first stroll from his pension, he’s caught up and startled by a backfiring scooter. The driver parks close by, and in his extroverted patter he good-naturedly corrects Jack’s Italian in describing himself as an American. “Not ‘Il Americano!’ [But rather] ‘L’Americano! L’Americano!’” Jack’s word choice comprises an awkward isolation; the scooter guy points the way to an individual smoothly and delightfully dovetailing with a vast population. Needing some Old School tools to produce the old/new weapon, Jack visits Fabio’s workshop and (misleadingly and also perfectly accurately) explains, “I need tools for a broken driveshaft.” Let’s leave it as follows: Father Benedetto being stung by the stranger’s temerity, “Did you ever want to be anything but a priest?” He shoots back, “Have you ever wanted to be anything other than a photographer? [Cutting to Jack’s self-destructive judgment]. Jack mutters, “I do what I’m good at.” And the priest checkmates, “You are then an accountant, not a man” [He going on to enumerate the lies Jack had handed him to evade rousing curiosity about his great handiwork skills]. The Father who is also a father—while at this point still riding high—declares, “A man can be reached if he has God in his heart.” Jack smiles (what he is really remarkable at [errancy notwithstanding] being disregarded, as usual, as forever) in recognizing his interlocutor’s canniness. Then he inadvertently brings to the table (eliciting laughter from the fleeting friend) the uncanniness which defines his heart. “I don’t think God is very interested in me, Father.”