Michal Oleszczyk

Dan Sallitt’s Intellectual Cinema

Published in Polish in Kino magazine, 2008, issue 10; translated into English in the Off Camera Independent Film Festival program.

Not only the French have been exchanging their pens for movie cameras. In the US, too, film critics, tired of theory, have flirted with filmmaking, laying themselves open to comparison to Plato and his attempts at making real his idea of a state in Syracuse, Sicily. Take James Agee, who wrote the screenplay to The Night of the Hunter, or Penelope Gilliatt from the New Yorker, who scripted Sunday Bloody Sunday, or Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun Times, who collaborated with Russ Meyer on his erotic comedies. The great Pauline Kael, encouraged by Warren Beatty, went to Hollywood for a few months with the aim to restore its greatness (which ended up in a bitter essay Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers). So far only Peter Bogdanovich has succeeded in permanently mounting the director’s chair. Rut there is one more person, known only to a narrow circle of aficionados, who has written and directed two outstanding films never ceasing to be an outstanding film critic.

In Rohmer’s Footsteps

Dan Sallitt (born 1955), author of a film blog Thanks for the Use of the Hall, is a writer with a distinctive style — both in the literary and cinematic sense. Sallitt’s texts, as well as films, are marked by exceptional formal and intellectual rigor, focus on detail, and austerity, which never allow for excessive effects where they might distract from the main theme.

Honeymoon (1998) and All the Ships at Sea (2004) both address the phenomenon of conversation, exploring the manner in which people use words to negotiate their space in relation with another person. In this sense — but not only, for similarities can be spotted on the visual level, too — Sallitt is a follower of Eric Rohmer, who has fascinated him, as he actually openly admits. The characters in the two films — the newlyweds in Honeymoon and the two sisters in All the Ships at Sea — resemble Rohmer’s characters in their belief that conversation is an effective means of self-expression. They talk with sense, carefully selecting words and never blurting them out in anger: each of them is convinced (and rightly so) that their interlocutor is listening, deeply concerned with what is actually being said.

Bittersweet Wedding

Sallitt is a Hal Hartley fan, especially fond of his Trust and Surviving Desire. Those who remember the latter will no doubt recall the recurring character of a woman making marriage proposals to passers-by. Will you marry me? instead of How are you? — a morally provocative gesture, implying that love is secondary to obligation. A theme like this has usually served as the basis for a comedy (as in Lean’s Hobson’s Choice or Rohmer’s A Good Marriage), but Sallitt has turned it into a deep psychological drama exploring — without frenzy — the taboo of our culture: the humiliation of the wedding-night failure.

In Honeymoon an educated couple — Mimi (Edith Meeks) and Michael (Dylan McCormick) — decide not to have sex before marriage: a scandalous decision in the light of the success wrought by sexual revolution. “It has been done before. Don’t you like the idea? That’s the original concept, isn’t it? That’s what it was supposed to be,” says Mimi. their decision is not rooted in religion, although at one point Mimi admits to her affinities with Christianity. Instead, their motives are deeply moral in nature: if you feel love for each other, you should get married straight away — what should you wait for?

The failure of their first night and the effort put into breaking inhibitions during subsequent nights are pictured with stunning boldness. This comes not so much from the erotic scenes, which contain no more nudity than any other film, but from Sallitt’s open and straightforward approach to the deeply intimate matter of sexual incompatibility. While other directors engage their characters in a violent exchange of swearwords, obscenities, or reproach, Sallitt’s characters face the situation maybe not with calm (calm is impossible when shared intimacy is at stake) but with the same care and concern which guide them in other spheres of life. Mimi and Michael’s sexual life evolves from inhibition and fear towards fulfillment and joy; it would be hard to quote another film from before 1998 (Eyes Wide Shut was made in 1999) in which the words let’s fuck! express the sexual maturity of the partners.

August Without Whales

In his first feature Sallitt managed to deal with a difficult sexual theme without a trace of vulgarity; similarly, five years later, in All the Ships at Sea he managed to take up a Bergmanian theme steering clear of existential despair. From the opening scene, in which a Catholic priest rinses a chalice he’s just used and starts a conversation with Evelyn, a theologian and teacher (Strawn Bovee), we are close to Bergman’s territory. Evelyn complains about the crisis of faith she is going through, at the same time admitting it has become stable enough to actually contribute to her intellectual comfort.

Her comfort is, however, shaken by the encounter with her sister Virginia (Edith Meeks again), expelled from a New Age cult and remaining in a state of stupor. Evelyn describes to the priest a weekend she spent together with her sister in a cottage by the lake late in the summer. The weekend together was meant to heal the relations between them. Her story, in a sense, becomes her confession.

The confession is intertwined with flashbacks allowing the viewer to trace the history of the sisters’ confrontation. And what we have here is a confrontation, not an encounter: although voices are never raised (Sallitt’s characters don’t shout), each woman fights to bring the other to her point of view. Virginia teases her sister asking tricky questions about her Catholicism, while Evelyn tries to reconstruct the doctrine of the cult Virginia belonged to. And so the weekend passes by; only when it’s over does it become clear that even with some sort of understanding, bringing together two roads going in opposite directions will always remain impossible.

In All the Ships at Sea there is even less movement than in Honeymoon; most of the time the characters just sit and talk and the camera is static. Those who wish to open up to Sallitt’s art should become aware of their own condition as viewers: also seated, static, and facing people on the screen. The cinema is a perfect vehicle for meditations on the nature of conversation — this has been acknowledged by Rohmer, but also by Louis Malle in My Dinner with André (another of Sallitt’s inspirations). To tune into Sallitt’s films and appreciate them fully, the viewer has to be a skilled interlocutor, patiently listening to and observing the other person.

Inscribed in Squares

The acting in Sallitt’s films is immaculate; even the apparently cool and aloof Strawn Bovee playing Evelyn in All the Ships at Sea keeps all her expression and gesture under full control from the first to the last scene. This manifests itself in the rhythm with which she raises and lowers her look, which always carries the meaning in the context of the words she utters. That is why the fraction of a second when she raises her look while criticizing the priest for his caustic tone (at exactly the moment she’s naming the vice) is so acute in effect.

All the Ships at Sea is dedicated to Maurice Pialat, which is no surprise when we consider the precision (and simplicity at the same time) with which Sallitt designs his mise en scene. He is a master of the discreet: everything from costume details through props to his fondness for symmetry and rectangular shapes (characters are typically seen framed by doors or windows), is both subtle and consistent.

Sallitt’s main theme is language: communication between people. What strikes one while watching either of Sallitt’s films is the respect with which he approaches dialog, and the hopes he pins on it. That same respect is manifested by the very characters — and it has to be shared by the viewer, too, if he or she desires to fully appreciate Sallitt’s art. And although the final scenes of the two films actually put into question the possibility of full communication between people, there is no doubt that all was done that could be done, and all that could be rescued has been rescued. After all, it is nobody’s guilt that the semantic field of every language in the world is smaller than the field of individual experience.

Dan Sallitt
b.1955, Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania)
Filmography:  Honeymoon (1998), All the Ships at Sea (2004)