Sunday, August 04, 2013

`I've Found My White Whale'

“`What I feel about Herman Melville is almost a filial admiration,’ he said. `Herman Melville is my father, my grandfather, and my older brother—which means that aside from the unbounded admiration I have for him there is also respect. If someone asked me what I would have liked to have been in life, I would answer without hesitation: ‘Herman Melville’; and to have lived a hundred years ago and write like he did.’” 

A Frenchman spoke these words, not an American, and Jean-Pierre Grumbach took his filial devotion to the author of Moby-Dick seriously enough in the nineteen-thirties, before he had directed a single film, to change his name to Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973). I’ve recently watched three of his films for the first time -- Bob le flambeur (1955), Le doulos (1961) and Le samouraï (1967). All are wonderful, especially the first, and all are fondly saturated in American culture. Bob the Gambler drives a Packard convertible through the postwar streets of Paris and wears a trench coat like Bogart’s. The nightclub combo in several scenes is racially integrated and plays jazz. The entire film is Melville’s hommage to Scarface (Hawks’, not De Palma’s), Little Caesar, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Asphalt Jungle and other American gangster films of the thirties and forties. Melville himself makes a cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), in which Jean-Paul Belmondo makes an overt hommage to Bogart. In “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (The Immediate Experience, 1962), Robert Warshow (who died in 1955, the year Bob le flambeur was released) writes: 

“In ways that we do not easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects `Americanism’ itself.” 

And yet, the gangster film is a uniquely American contribution to world culture, like Westerns, the Marx Brothers, jazz and Moby-Dick. The passage in which Melville speaks of his namesake is from a remembrance of the Frenchman by the American filmmaker Eric Breitbart, who met the director in 1964 as a student at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, the film school in Paris. He writes: 

“I considered it quite possible that Melville identified himself with Captain Ahab as well as with his creator, and asked him if he too was searching for a white whale. He thought for a moment then answered that indeed he was, and for him it was the United States. `When I am in a rented car, driving along a highway in the West or the South, I’m a happy man. At that moment I don’t need anything else. My emotions are contained. I’ve found my white whale.’ I didn’t recognize it then, but I do now—the terrible sadness of a man who feels himself most complete when he is absolutely alone.”

[Later I found this in Melville on Melville (1971). Rui Nogueira asks Melville why he changed his name and the director answers: "Through pure admiration and a desire to identify myself with an author, an artist, who meant more to me than any other." Puzzlingly, Melville adds this: "I discovered Melville, long before Jean Giono's translation of Moby-Dick, by reading in English Pierre: or the Ambiguities, a book which left its mark on me for ever."]

No comments: