‘A few words to cross the waters,’ as the director puts it, preparing to address his cast and crew, all of them drunk, stranded together under contract on location in Portugal, in mid–schedule, with the last of the film and the Los Angeles money run out and no relief in sight. Their project, referred to as ‘The Survivors’ (but called The State of Things on the clapboard, as if to give it its real name) is an unbearably gloomy science-fiction story – if story is the appropriate word – about survival in the post-apocalypse, four adults and two children trekking painfully over a blasted landscape looking for the payoff, the sea; mercy-killing their children as they go, straggling out of an environment so poisoned that they can’t touch anything for fear of melting, all of it filmed entirely in black and white. Or, as the finished film called The State of Things insists in every shot, in glorious black and white, profound, poetic, true black and white. Even though the people call the director Friedrich, or Fred, or Fried Rice, his name in the film is Fritz, a great movie name, and everything he touches turns to remembered images.
A few beautiful frames to cross the waters, a few obsessive images, signs as stable, abiding and recurring as the seasons, an arc of film to cross the dangerous waters to generic Hollywood. So much accumulated pan-Atlantic yearning, so much hommage and genre-refreshment: Italian Westerns, German private-eyes, French Hollywood musicals, Godard inventing the open-ended reference dictionary to all the great American moments that most Americans missed because we thought we were just going to the movies. As though American light and shadow were the best; no highway, city street, nightclub or open country filmed like ours, no gun showed up like an American gun filmed by Fuller or Lewis or Ray, in illuminating, haunting black and white. The big European romantic hearts fell for it completely, those gorgeous businesslike shapes growing and focusing into symbols, objects of reverence.
The Germans in particular were never more epic in European ciné-mind than when they worked in Hollywood, against the odds and obstacles of studios that were putting out fifty-two features a year, with all the trimmings: cartoons, newsreels, shorts, trailers, advertising, publicity, distribution, the investments, the insurance, ‘the whole equation of pictures’ that Fitzgerald said only a few men – geniuses – could keep all together at once in their heads.