Art, Ideas and the Profit Motive

Capitalist Executives Evicerate a Working Class Film

The issue of economic equity is appearing on the national agenda. We’re suddenly hearing lots of talk about raising the minimum wage and other reforms to break the cycle of social Darwinism and provide working people at least a livable wage for their labor.

As a political activist, I’m impressed with how issues like these play out in the cultural realm where narrative and storytelling play a powerful role in forming the political consensus for reform in a globalized world.

I’m particularly interested in the genre of noir crime fiction. In our hi-tech, distraction-based culture, it’s arguably the rule that to get ahead one must break rules. Foolish losers follow the rules. Writing on Brazilian culture in Brazil On the Rise, Larry Rohter talks about a tradition there where laws are seen as not applying to the powerful; laws are, instead, used by the powerful against their enemies. A similar, more Anglo Saxon climate of corruption plays out in our North American capitalist world. The rich get richer and the poor, poorer. Money drives elections and justice itself.

There’s no better overarching narrative structure to address this than the genre of crime fiction, especially what is known as noir, a genre the crime fiction maven Otto Penzler, publisher and owner of the Mysterious Bookstore in New York, says is classically about desperate “losers” struggling to get somewhere in a harsh world.

There’s a movement in Philadelphia to resurrect the pulp fiction novels of David Goodis from the 1950s that emphasize ordinary working class protagonists in an essentially lawless, rough underworld in Philly. Utilizing art and entertainment, stories like this ennoble the struggle of ordinary working people.

The 1953 pulp novel's cover and a scene from Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 film of The Moon in the GutterThe 1953 pulp novel's cover and a scene from Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 film of The Moon in the Gutter

The Moon in the Gutter, Goodis’ 1953 classic is a wonderful pulpy noir about the realities of class in a working class river ward of Philadelphia. The plot revolves around stevedore Bill Kerrigan, a beefy, working man struggling with life at the bottom and the effort to retain some dignity. While not all “Marxist,” the novel is about the collision of class, specifically involving “slummers,” well-off, uptown people who like to drown their sorrows or walk on the wild side in a poor working class neighborhood along the Delaware River. Much of the drama takes place in a bar called Dugan’s Den, “the kind of room where every time piece seemed to run slower,” where a double shot of rotgut rye cost twenty cents. “At Dugan’s there was little interest in time. They came here to forget about time.”

The tale of the Goodis novel itself becomes politically interesting when a left-leaning French film director turns it into a film. Goodis’ brand of pulpy American noir especially appealed to French film directors. Francois Truffaut’s film Shoot The Piano Player was made from Goodis’ novel Down There. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1983 film of The Moon in the Gutter starred Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski as class-crossing lovers. The Moon in the Gutter is nothing if not a lurid tale of sex and violence in a context of clashing classes. In Truffaut’s case, the Goodis story became an art house classic. In Beineix’s case, the story of the film is dramatic in its own right.

Beineix made the film Diva in 1981, a film centered on a young bicycle messenger obsessed with a black opera singer played by real opera singer Wilhelmenia Fernandez, who was born and raised in Philadelphia. The film is done in bright and shiny primary colors with opera music galore with a melodramatic plot with cartoonish thugs, a mysterious young Vietnamese woman, a vintage 1940s Citreon automobile and a man who fills the role of ringmaster. The film was a bomb in France but a huge hit in the US.

Thanks to the US box-office numbers, Beineix turned to the Goodis novel and raised enough money to pay for elaborate sets and top-flight actors. He helped write the script and re-set the story in the dock district of Marseilles.

According to the great French noir novelist Jean-Claude Izzo (The Marseilles Trilogy: Total Chaos, Chourno and Solea) Marseilles is a down-and-dirty working class city peopled with rough immigrants from all around the Mediterranean, a volatile melting pot. In essays on “Mediterranean noir” he writes about a Marseilles characterized by “Mediterranean Creoleness.” Izzo rebels against the idea of Marseilles, France, as a “border” between the West and the rest of the rich Mediterranean world. For Izzo, Marseilles is a hotbed of crime and political turmoil. His sympathy is for those at the bottom.

The Moon in the Gutter’s tawdry plot of class-confrontation and sexual romance mixed with violence is the kind of thing the French love. So, again, Beineix uses his signature garish colors and employs a deliberate melodramatic style. He apparently shot miles of 35mm film in and around the rough Marseilles docks to add flavor to the story of lovers crossing class lines. Given Beineix’s clear love of opera, as shown in Diva, Beineix envisioned the Goodis story in operatic terms with intentionally abstract sets, all ensconced in the milieu of the working class dock district of Marseilles.

For the look of the film go to this link.

As he edited The Moon in the Gutter, Beineix made a four-hour and a three-hour version. The producers in the French mainstream film industry, however, had a different vision. They insisted he cut the film down to a two-hour running time, the norm for middle-brow cinema. The film ran in theaters at two hours and 17 minutes.

Roger Ebert summed it up this way: “The Moon in the Gutter is a sumptuous, dazzlingly photographed melodrama that becomes, alas, relentlessly boring. It is all style and no heart, and the giveaway is that we never really care about the characters even though each one has a suitably tragic story.”

In other words, everything is there, but somehow it doesn’t work. Viewers like Ebert are admiring but just not sucked into the drama. It’s like imagining Bertolucci’s epic five-hour masterpiece 1900 — about the left vs. right struggle in Italy — trimmed down to two hours. Viewers would scratch their heads and ask, “What’s going on here?” All the working class, documentary imagery of the Marseille docks was cut from the released version of The Moon in the Gutter, leaving only the melodramatic interplay between the characters and some highly theatrical sets. The longer versions, according to Beineix, added depth to the characters and more fully explained the narrative. So, as Ebert puts it, “we never care really care about the characters.” The viewer is not given enough information and context to become involved and to care. Ebert again: “It is all style.”

Like any talented director with a bomb, Beineix got back on the bicycle and directed Betty Blue, a well-received film that re-established his good name. Betty Blue was also chopped up by studio executives, and after the film’s release Beineix found funding to re-cut a “director’s cut” for DVD release. It was quite successful, which motivated him to find funding to do the same with The Moon in the Gutter.

But it was not to be. Here the story of the film becomes a bit noirish itself. Beineix went to Gaumont, the studio that produced the film, and asked for the stored film to get to work on his directors cut. But because the film had done so poorly at the box office, Gaumont had destroyed all the unused footage without bothering to inform him. The stated reason was cost-cutting, though film storage costs are apparently not that steep and such trashing of unused film is unusual. Beineix was reportedly furious and eventually quite depressed. Since then, he has worked on smaller films in which he is able to secure final editing rights. None of his films since Betty Blue has made it to US screens.

What a longer version of The Moon in the Gutter attuned to Beineix’s vision might have been like is an intriguing question. For me, it’s a case of philistine capitalists, for one reasons or another, virtually castrating a film that’s essentially a vision of working class struggle at the bottom of the economic pile. Possibly, the studio executives had not a clue what was going on artistically, because all they could see was their bottom line. Maybe the longer version would have been twice as “boring.” But, then, maybe not.

I suspect once the characters made sense and the political context they struggled in was made clear, all the operatic weight would have also made sense and Goodis’ “suitably tragic story” would have soared on screen.

But we will never know.