Films riverrun at the Orson Welles
I FIRST SAW riverrun in the late afternoon of a humid hot May Saturday, a day which drove city-dwellers up the walls or out to the countryside. With a friend, I'd walked up from the Village to Central Park, then full of softball games and lingering couples, street musicians, porno peddlers, family picnics and friendly cops. To walk through it that day, to row a boat in its cramped pond was to welcome back the sentimentality and nostalgia forestalled during the year by sterner pursuits. When with sweat-stained shirts and feet aching we decided to move to the East Side where the John Korty film was playing, in an archetypal art box complete with plants and prints in the lobby and a Film Board of Canada short subject, it was with one of those weird combinations of emotions that occur if climate blends with a state of mind. Disgusted with the academic programs we had been following, with the dogmas of Artforum aesthetes and film school brutalists; confounded by the political considerations overriding all others those days (and by irrational local student reaction to them) we two would-be filmmakers, having spent the day escaping into childish pleasures, wanted some reassurance that these pleasures weren't false ones. Korty was known as an 'independent' filmmaker; reports of his earlier Crazy Quilt and Funnyman had sounded promising. And not only was riverrun reputed to be his most ambitions work yet (befitting the Joycean title quote), but its subject matter jibed with our own quasi-idyllic mood. Korty, if anyone, would be able to give us what we thought we wanted, which wasn't a rigid truth or comforting formula, but an impregnable human warmth and beauty.
But he just didn't come through. A few days later, we realized what a dumb piece of filmmaking riverrun was. In late November, there wouldn't have been that delay.
riverrun tells of a young couple fresh from Berkeley, living together somewhere in the California countryside. Opting out of conventional social strata and consumerism, they settle on a farm and attempt to live in a Walden -esque fashion. Their tranquility is upset when Sarah's father, a merchant seaman, makes a prolonged visit, waiting for the birth of his grandson. The father is a grizzled old Yankee, and ideas predictably clash with those of his equally non-conformist but distastefully aesthetic daughter and her would-be husband (the couple never marry). In a climax as overwrought as the fruitiest of Bergman-either Ingrid or Ingmar-ex-med student Danny delivers his son without a doctor's aid, while fending off his 'father-in-law's' drunken attempts to break into the delivery-room. Just as the babe sees light, its grandfather brains himself on a lampstand.
BESIDES ITS laughable melodramatic contrivance, the most glaring flaws of the film grow out of its unconvincing psychology. Sarah is an American ideal: unquestionably believing in her lover's dreams, she gives her life completely over to him. Danny is, as Sarah's father derisively claims, a middle-class Jesus. And the father himself is totally reprehensible; his self-centredness and irresponsibility would offend anyone of any class or generation. As types. these characters are all terribly stilted and mechanically directed; while we would normally accept actions which challenge initial conceptions of character, when Korty's characters diverge from type, they noticeably cut against a general narrative argument.
Korty's dialectic is readily apparent: The sailor, when confronted with repressive society, ships out to another port. Like the gangster in underworld folklore, he does not wish to change society, for it conveniently embodies all the ideals which he thrives on battling-ideals which he eventually wishes to return to. His place outside society is an excuse for license. His daughter and her friends take a more responsible approach to preserving personal sanctity, attempting to get close to the land and to social basics by living on a totally personal level with their neighbors and environs.
With this essential difference underlined from the opening frames, and with Sarah feeling as deeply about Danny and his ideals as she claims to, it is impossible for the filmmaker to make plausible her constant toleration of her ever-more-combative father. And if Danny throughout the film is a saint whose outrages are always justified, the sudden jealousy finally arising when his infant son takes up most of Sarah's attention remains inexplicable-unless it signifies that his position as a hero in Korty's mythology is summarily halted, and that he is now the father-figure to be fought against: a cheap cosmic statement which undercuts everything which Sarah and Danny have lived through to this point. Even Sarah's father, who is for the most part merely an appropriate villain, is fitted with incestuous cravings which are as embarrassingly emphasized as they are incongruous.
KORTY has obviously not attempted to make, as the Orson Welles claims, "the most honest film to date about a new life-style." Even if you accept the description of the life-style as a new one, Korty is primarily concerned with his attempt to transform that life-style into a primitive art, burdening his film with mythic resonances and overblown settings which his characters-and his camera-cannot really bear.
The mass of critical faculties, it seems, has been blunted by affection for previous Korty films. On the basis of riverrun, it has been said that Korty is a director in search of a screenplay. It seems more likely that he is a technician in search of a creative imagination. His visuals in riverrun are on no higher a level of achievement than the plot-in a narrative film, how could they be? Korty's editing and camerawork go in either for slap-happy pastoral or flash-backing exposition. There are only a few instances when writer-director-photographer Korty shows any flair for metaphor. When Sarah reminisces about sitting with her dying mother, the camera pans up the thin tube rising from her mother's arm to the vial of plasma, a sterile white building jutting vertically on the horizon seen through a window. And when Danny chops wood, the sun produces flare effects on the axe's downward lunge, a pleasant bit of work-glorifying imagery. For the great part of the film's duration, however, the audience is merely lulled into acceptance by the screen's warm colors and the Brahms music on the soundtrack.
Some cock-eyed wonder, either at the Orson Welles Theater or Columbia Studio's booking agency, has double-billed riverrun and Dr. Strangelove. Viewing the two young lovers juxtaposed with Kubrick's maniac militarists gives the lie to the former's life-style. Even to rather lethargic men of good heart disaffected by the chaos last spring, all Korty's emphasis on such personal virtues as civility and vegetarianism seemed dilettantish, ultimately self-gratifying; the moral foundation of the kids in riverrun is perhaps not far removed from that of their parents. Perhaps riverrun is even a reactionary film.