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'Films Blanc'

Charles Boyer Heaven Bound In Fritz Lang's LILIOM

In your essay on It's a Wonderful Life you said that it was a 'Film Blanc with a self-contained Film Noir episode'. What are you talking about?What is a Film Blanc? Are you making it up?

Most everyone is acquainted with the term Film Noir, those highly entertaining 'dark style' films: existential and expressionist visions of crime, disillusion and paranoia. I first heard of Films Blanc (White Film) about 1975 in Film Comment magazine. I don't know who coined the term but it is a pretty apt description of the complete inverse of Film Noir. Films Blanc are fantasies, whimsical visions of life that deal with the great beyond, the afterlife, heaven and hell. They are usually romances or light morality plays, sometimes satirical, often sentimental.

The 'heavenly waiting room' is a distinctive feature of most Films Blanc. These usually resemble porcelain traveling stations staffed with angels that shepherd newly arrived souls through the heavenly gates. The conflict in a Film Blanc often deals with a freshly deceased person who must resolve unfinished business 'down on earth'. They return to earth in ethereal form to help out friends or loved ones, or to atone for their sins in life. It's a Wonderful Life's heaven is visualized as only a couple of blinking stars, but on the soundtrack it is a familiar hierarcharical operation, complete with angelic guidance counselors and Angels Second Class.

Film Blanc is a pretty broad category. A shining example is Here Comes Mister Jordan, in which saxophone-playing boxer Robert Montgomery dies due to a heavenly clerical error and ends up inhabiting another body for a second chance at life on earth. It was remade as Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty doing the role as a football quarterback. In Stairway to Heaven (A Matter of Life and Death), flier David Niven goes on trial in a B&W heaven to determine whether he'll be allowed to survive an operation. In the original Heaven Can Wait, ladykiller Don Ameche tells the story of his roguish life to Satan incarnate. And Jack Benny as the Angel Gabriel returns to Earth to signal the apocalypse in the farce The Horn Blows at Midnight.

Films Blanc can also encompass Death, Devils and demons, if the tone isn't too dark. Lionel Barrymore traps Death in his tree in On Borrowed Time, upsetting the balance of nature: while Death is thus sidelines, the sick and injured can't die. 'Faust' usually ends up being played for laughs. In Angel on My Shoulder, the Devil returns gangster Paul Muni to Earth in the guise of a judge, hoping that he'll wreak legal hell. To the Prince of Darkness'es chagrin, Muni reforms. In Damn Yankees a baseball fan sells his soul to become a big league ball player. In Bedazzled Dudley Moore signs his name in blood for the love of Eleanor Bron. Bedazzled's impish humor may seem blasphemous but its Devil (Peter Cook) is eventually humbled by an all-powerful God. Films Blanc make sentimental cases, not subversive ones. both Ray Walston's Devil in Damn Yankees and Claude Rains' in Shoulder find themselves powerless when confronted by simple True Love.

Surely these movies have their origin in the stage, if not in Faust, then other sources. A Midsummer Night's Dream comes to mind.

The Ferenc Molnar play Liliom was made as a French film by Fritz Lang in the early thirties. 1 Once beyond the Pearly Gates, petty thief Liliom discovers that the earthly bureaucracy and class privilege that turned him to crime are mirrored in heaven. He waits in line while the rich get served first. Liliom, minus the satire, became Billy Bigelow in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel. The original thief was a chronic wifebeater (no perfect hero he). In the musical version Billy's wife delivers the questionable moral that 'sometimes there's hits that don't hurt'.

An Utopian aspect informs many Films Blanc. Instead of inventing a perfect society, these fantasies simply reassure that our existing reality already functions perfectly: an orderly universe is keeping watch over us all and tidying up the residue of human frailty. Even more common is the theme that human struggle and 'petty' earthly concerns are irrelevant in the face of eternal values: Nothing matters, it'll all get sorted out in heaven. By the rules invented by the filmmakers, of course. Heaven is almost always organized along Judeo-Christian lines.

This can lead to problems depending on how seriously the filmmakers expect us to take their stories. Sometimes the reasoning behind the miracles is flawed. In other instances a sane examination of the fantasy reveals some pretty sick minds at work.

Don't get me wrong; Savant loves most of these pictures. But while creating their smugly righteous universes, some Films Blanc stack the deck in pretty underhanded ways. Let me start with a good example: The Blue Bird, a cloying 1940 Shirley Temple fantasy. At one point Shirley and her moppet brother visit a heavenly waiting room for unborn children. Little cupid-like darlings eager to meet their parents-to-be loll around on pillows and wait for the boat that will convey them to earthly delivery rooms to be born. A boat leaves; Shirley notices a few babes left behind, sniffling and rubbing tears from their eyes. "What's the matter? Why didn't you go on the boat?" Shirley asks. "Because our parents didn't want us! " is the response, and Savant's blood runs cold as he realizes that this cute fantasy has been used to deliver a devastatingly unfair condemnation of birth control. Imagine some poor girl in 1940 who just suffered through an abortion (for whatever reason) and took in a Shirley Temple matinee to cheer herself up.

It isn't fair to slam Films Blanc because of dated ideas, but I must admit many are easy targets. The Utopian Lost Horizon qualifies as Film Blanc; its heaven-on-earth posits a Tibetan Club Med. A few permanent Anglo guests rhapsodize about eternal truths while a primitive Asian population labors around them like slaves, happy slaves of course. The racial setup is pre- Gone With the Wind but most viewers still take Lost Horizon's isolationist sermonizing as something like wisdom. In the wartime A Guy Named Joe the US military seems to be in charge of day-to-day business in heaven. God has definitely chosen sides in WW2. Does this mean souls from the Axis countries are all damned to hell? It may be good propaganda, but Joe bears an ugly taint of oppression.

In contrast to these, I offer a rarely seen Utopian Film Blanc, the Italian classic Miracle in Milan. Its bizarre conclusion openly admits to the limits of whimsical fantasy when confronted with earthly injustice. If you can find it, it is definitely Savant suggested viewing. (Even it has one unpleasantly dated scene about Race, censored in the Criterion laserdisc version.)

Famed critic James Agee tore It's a Wonderful Life up one side and down the other for its stacked deck of emotions. Agee was a bit rough but there certainly are uncomfortable aspects to the film. George Bailey is the complete noble innocent struggling against an impossibly Evil banker. The implied message that Bailey should accept his fate as an 'ordinary Joe' seems unfair, as does the huge public outpouring of support for him at the conclusion. If Angels dispense true love and justice, how come they lavish so much attention on individuals like George Bailey? In the Capra universe, all souls are equal but some souls are more equal than others. You're either the star, or doomed to be some quaint but irrelevant bit player. The points above are debatable, but not the film's most awkward miscalculation: George's wife, Mary. The film predicts that without her husband George the imaginative and intelligent Mary would whither into a frigid Old Maid. Capra often presents good insights about people, but that's really insulting!

Savant thinks the perfectly evolved version of Wonderful Life is Harold Ramis' delightful Groundhog Day. The Capra classic takes as its starting point a man who merely needs some attitude adjustment to find out he's already perfect. The Bill Murray film says that most of us neglect the potential of our lives, when we could all find happiness through simple self-improvement. All that is required is taking the time for self-evaluation and learning consideration for the needs of others. Piano lessons help too.

For some reason, Films Blanc for children tend to be the most irresponsible, as already cited in the case of The Blue Bird. All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 sets up a doggie heaven with bad doggie Charlie Barkin returning to earth to right wrongs. He willfully breaks every single rule of his mission, for all the wrong reasons, and yet is forgiven because he has a 'good heart'. Charlie Barkin is welcomed back to heaven with open arms, while bad dogs that aren't movie stars burn in doggie hell. What a rotten message for kids!: DO WHAT YOU WANT - NO CONSEQUENCES! One of my favorite MGM consumer letters was from a customer incensed that the cartoon dogs in Heaven 2 gambled with cards marked '666'. This was, in the customer's view, blatant Satanism. That's like being offended by Jack the Ripper because he tells off-color jokes.

In the supposed "family" film Fluke, a dead man is reincarnated as a dog and reunited with his family. Soon both son and wife sense that Fido is more than he seems to be. Then, the dog affectionately skootches up to wifey. She starts lovingly stroking his fur. Brrr, the implications are creepy. Sick Dog! Sick Dog!

This brings us to What Dreams May Come, the currently successful Film Blanc for the nineties. A good man loses his wife, and journeys to heaven to be reunited with her. While admiring aspects of the production and the performances of Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra, Savant thought the movie stupefyingly trite. It pretends that most of the flaws of earlier Films Blanc are virtues. First, the movie takes itself far, far too seriously. It demands that we accept without question the premise that the love of these joined souls is the most important Truth in the cosmos. Second, its interestingly visualized heavenly visions are a familiar and dull parade of clichés. Angels float through the air, tormented souls burn in agony. None of the fantastic imagery has the slightest feeling of magic or wonder about it. The wall-to-wall computer graphics soon become tiresome. The CGI 'miracles' seem dead no matter how much Robin Williams oohs and ahhs at them. Would you enjoy living more than a few hours in a heaven resembling a kitschy painting?

Thirdly, Dreams 'stacks the character deck' more abusively than do any of its predecessors. The loving husband and wife are perfect. They're beautiful, talented, fun-loving, nurturing, emotionally supportive ideals. Care is taken to establish that none of their problems are even remotely their own fault. Didn't you feel as if you were supposed to hate those selfish drivers in the tunnel? And assume they went to hell? Gee, maybe they were flawless, too, except for really bad driving habits.

Accompanied by his dog, Robin Williams' character goes on a heavenly search through a paradise that we're told is borne of his own imagination. Fair enough, but if this private heaven is self-created, why does Williams' daughter have control over her appearance instead of him? Everyone we meet is an illusion masking their real identity; Williams has to probe to see through their disguises. Remember folks, the first thing about heaven is, everybody lies! After the second such sneaky trick I felt like advising Robin Williams, "Hey, wait, maybe the DOG is your wife!"

Finally, the Author's Message about reality and illusion is drivel of the worst sort. Writer Richard Matheson's script declares that What Is is meaningless, and What You Believe And Feel is everything. This is false, destructive and cruel on its face. Life is what we DO, not what we feel. 2 Adolf Hitler may have honestly felt he was doing the right thing, and so what? It's what he did that matters. Oscar Schindler's motives about Jews and war profiteering are inconclusive. What matters are his actions. At great risk to himself, where a 'virtuous' man would have failed before he began, Schindler saved a lot of lives. Matheson's Robin Williams is a determined Shrinking Man 3 ready to boldly challenge the limits of heaven. As with many a previous Film Blanc hero, he's told that all those earthly values don't matter, that he's just supposed to relax and accept everything. Sure enough, after a little 'earthly' determined action all the ironclad rules of heaven and earth warp to make room for the personal problems of our anointed pair. The impossible is possible because, hey, they're special.

Fine acting gives What Dreams May Come believeable sentiment, and this must account for the film's success. The 'weepie' film has been gone a long time but there is still an audience for essentially meaningless tearjerkers, just the way there is an audience for meaningless action films. Savant came away loving Robin Williams but rejecting the film's concept. By comparison, the very similar Film Blanc Defending Your Life entertainingly makes some thoughtful points about life and courage without pretending to possess the wisdom of the ages.


1. Incidentally, Fritz Lang's Destiny from 1921 is a fully developed Film Blanc masterpiece. It just came out on DVD from Image Entertainment.

2. The humble Western The Wonderful Country beautifully voices a truer version of this reality-feelings conflict. Adulterers Robert Mitchum and Julie London argue guiltily: HE : "What we did, maybe that was wrong, but not what we feel." SHE: "What a pity then, that life is what we do, and not just what we feel." Ah, wisdom.

3. Robin Williams even shouts, "I still exist!" as did Robert Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man, for which Richard Matheson wrote both source book and screenplay.

Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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