Monday, January 18, 2016

Billy Budd

Peter Ustinov's steely version of Billy Budd (1962) channels Melville's brutal allegory through Kafka.  When Terence Stamp playing the handsome sailor, Billy Budd, is impressed into service on a British man-of-war, he cries out:  "Farewell, old 'Rights of Man'."  Budd, who is illiterate and strangely vacant, is simply referring to the merchant marine vessel from which he was snatched, a big ship with a figure-head of an African slave breaking his chains at its prow.  But the warship where he now must serve is a paranoid place, a self-contained universe operating on the basis of its own inscrutable laws, and Budd's valediction to his previous ship is interpreted as an indictment of the system prevailing on the Man-of-War.  Since Budd is beautiful, forgiving, and naïve, of course, he must be destroyed -- there is no place for him in the iron machinery of war that defines the gunboat.  In Kafka's stories and novels, one has the sense that the bleak and enigmatic systems governing his characters are complete and all-encompassing.  When I read Kafka, I experience the sense that there is no outside, no exterior vantage from which to view the events narrated -- the whole universe is a penal colony; the castle defines an entire world from which there is no exit and only death provides an escape from the punitive processes described in The  Trial.  Similarly, Ustinov's adaptation of Billy Budd suggests that, once the handsome sailor finds himself on the Man-of-War, that vessel is a totalizing system -- there is nothing beyond or outside of the ship and its savage mission.  The first flogging depicted in the film, an event that sickens Budd, ends with his inquiry as to why the man was whipped -- no one has any answers and the only thing that seems certain is that, sooner or later, all of the seamen will find themselves trussed-up to be flogged.  The film is noteworthy for its rigor and discipline -- Ustinov eschews anything that is picturesque; although the film takes place entirely aboard seagoing vessels, the ships are not portrayed in any way other than purely instrumental -- there are no impressive seascapes, no real tempests.  The war ship is viewed in a matter-of-fact way.  Robert Ryan plays Claggart, Melville's version of Satan, and he is weirdly still and soft-spoken with little demonic points of light in his eyes.  (I saw this film on the same weekend that I watched Star Wars:  The Force Awakens and note that the Darth Vadar figure in that movie did not project one-tenth of the menace quivering in Ryan's portrayal of the vicious Claggart.)  Billy Budd, played by Terence Stamp, is profoundly ambiguous -- the officers on the ship can't quite determine whether his Mona Lisa smile is ironic or not.  A kind of holy fool, Budd is continuously suspected of depths that he doesn't really possess.  Stamp's performance doesn't quite carry the metaphorical and allegorical weight of Melville's descriptions -- after all, Melville stages Budd and Claggart's encounters as Christ tempted by Satan -- but he is sufficiently uncanny and unpredictable, a kind of sovereign man, to be effective in this film.  (I can see why Pasolini engaged him to play the bisexual saint and martyr in his later film Teorema -- Stamp has a blithe, otherworldly presence; he is like an animated statue by Donatello.)  Ustinov is brilliant as Captain Vere, a man haunted by the terror of mutiny and the other officers, particularly David McCallum, are impressively feckless and mutable.  Ustinov's film is true to the nightmare logic of Melville's last novella -- the argument that maintenance of our systems of perpetual war requires a steady source of sacrificial victims.  Furthermore, Ustinov's scene showing Billy's hanging is true to the novel's description of the saintly sailor's death without any kind of spasm -- with exquisite taste, Ustinov simply cuts away from the hanging; we aren't shown Billy's death at all -- it's a solution to Melville's inflamed and turgid prose about Billy's hanging that is restrained and, ultimately, accurate to the book, the sort of solution that Rossellini in his later films would have contrived, a mise-en-scene that is as precise as it is understated.  The movie's only false step is its ending -- after Billy has been hanged the men are about to mutiny when a French ship suddenly appears and there is a brief nautical battle.  The battle, also filmed without any particular emphasis, puts a period to the movie -- in the final shot, we see the two ships in their minuet around a barren island.  It's impressive and cinematically effective, but, I think, a bit untrue to Melville -- in a way, the short battle scene suggests an egress from the film's Kafkaesque prison, an outlet that doesn't exist in Melville's novella.

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