Wednesday, 21 January 2009

DIJONNAISE (Walter Friend, 1941)

Underground legend Friend's influential concern with the minutae of existence began with this experimental masterpiece, shot in an afternoon in 1941. Dijonnaise simply shows an unnamed man eating a meal. Shot in the grainiest of black-and-white-and-grey, this absolutely quiet movie is strangely compelling and tense: When, the viewer wonders, will the man sit down to eat? What is he eating? Who is he? Why? What is this all about? What time is it? When? Now? Who are you? What are you doing with that bread-knife? Why do I feel hungry? What? Et cetera, Et cetera.

Friend was a student of the Diktat School, a collision of ex-pat Americans in Paris between the wars who idolised both Renoirs, Robert Bresson and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and saw in them a way to breathe humanity into American cinema. They returned home to stalk Hollywood en-masse, and using cameras borrowed from studio lots, set about making difficult shorts, albeit difficult shorts that contain a multitude of Hollywood paraphernalia- in Dijonnaise, the protagonist wears the same coat that Humphrey Bogart wore in The Maltese Falcon, Friend's cheeky admission to the fact that he 'borrowed' Warner Brothers equipment. Fellow Diktat members John Vigour and Herb Silence shot their respective shorts Arrows (about lost Native Americans) and Sebastien (about the legendary drag cabaret star) in the same week as Dijonnaise and with the same equipment, causing celebrated film historian Dizzy Bordell to call that manic period of filming as 'the shots heard around the world'.1

Dijonnaise is famously notable for having a place in culinary history too, as a movie that created a new condiment- remarkably, dijonnaise (a winning combination of dijon mustard and mayonnaise) wasn't seen on the kitchen table before Friend invented it for this short (Friend actually owned the copyright to the recipe, before selling it to Kellogg in 1951 for an undisclosed amount). He repeated this trick of collapsing words together to invent a new one with Brunch (1941), in which we see a woman eating a meal that is neither breakfast or dinner, but somewhere in-between, and with Ham-Fisted (1943), in which we see a man with a ham for a paw attempt, clumsily, to eat himself. Fans of alternative cinema would keenly await each Friend release, anticipating the far-sighted nomenclature on the posters as much as the cinematic brilliance within.

Friend's reputation as a prime contributer to the lexicon was not affected by the lesser known works that failed: Brynner (1944) was not a word that passed into common parlance (there was already a word for the meal between breakfast and dinner- it was known, to 1940's Americans at least, as lunch), but it did become the stage-name of upcoming young actor Yul Jones, later to star in The King And I (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Stone-Cold Leprosy Soundworld (1971).2

By the fifties Friend influenced a new generation with the lyrical Intern-net (1957) and Motorheed (1959), speculative fictions about trainee psychic fishermen and electric skull replacement surgery respectively. But perhaps Friend's most lastingly memorable piece was At The Drive-In (1959), a documentary recording of a screening of Rebel Without A Cause at a drive-in theater in California. After some shots of cars arriving and young couples buying popcorn, the camera finds a spot and doesn't move; it simply watches the screen for the duration of the film. The technicolor melodrama attains a stark truth when reduced to greys, and Friend's detached viewing of the excitable youths on camera (and on the screen on camera) articulates the confusion of the generation gap as well as Ray's masterpiece itself, but from the other side: By this point Friend was well into his sixties.

He retired shortly afterwards, and wrote a memoir about alternative American Cinema entitled A Bit Of The Other, in which he expressed regret at having never topped his first film. 'It was never bettered. I have played with the ingredients, jumbled my technique, started the whole thing from scratch, not measured anything at all, measured everything; but nothing in my career is as sweet as that simple, wonderful, Dijonnaise'3

Dijonnaise Directed by Walter Friend Produced by Walter Friend, Herb Silence Starring Samuel Hartley Diktat Pictures Release Date US:Winter 1941 Running Time: 24 mins.

1. At Them There Movies: The Collected Dizzy, Roger House Publishing, 1966.
2. Interestingly for Fictional Film Club fans, Yul Brynner died on the same day as Orson Welles (October 10th, 1985), his co-star in The Battle of Neretva (1969). Brynner also appeared in the Welles-directed Perseid (1967), which was part of a never-ending sequence of inter-locking narratives that Welles planned would 'pull together every arc of myth, philosophy and truth into a rainbow of religious noise'. The series was called NOTES, and contains six finished movies, an unfinished seventh, a stage-play, and a cryptic novel. There is a link back to Walter Friend here: Friend was approached by Welles to assist with the cinematography of several of the movies, but Friend resisted. 'I took my Mount Olympian bulk to the Zeus of underground cinema; but Zeus was hiding in the sewers' Welles said about Friend's rejection.4
3. Macmillan Publishing, 1980.
4. Well, Well, Welles: Reasons to Disbelieve Or: A Life Against Hollywood Penguin Putnam, 1982

1 comment: