Hal Warren and Gertrude Stein:
Masters of Repetition
A great deal of ridicule has been heaped upon “Manos” and its director, Hal Warren. Hal, as we know, was an El Paso fertilizer salesman before going into the film business. I’m sure some of my more crude contemporaries have already mustered the thought that “Warren went from selling shit to filming it.” Well, jokes are a fun pastime and I have no problem with them, so long as they don’t make us forget what true genius is, and true genius is “Manos.”
Some have pointed out, for example, the redundancy of this film’s title. “Manos” is the Spanish word for “hands” thus title might be read as: “Hands” The Hands of Fate. This makes little sense to the uncultivated mind, but what seems to be a stupidly redundant title, is in fact what I believe to be the heart of the entire film, and thus the heart of this review. The “hands” are the heart, you might say. Because this movie is, in my opinion, an avant garde experimentalist exploration of the essence of “redundancy.”
Figure 1 Redunancy or Brilliancy?
Now this might sound like a lot of hogwash to you, but let me allay your agricultural allusions. Redundancy (more kindly referred to as repetition) has been the subject of some of the greatest artists of our time. I think first and foremost of Gertrude Stein. Gertrude wrote an essay entitled “Portraits and Repetition” in which she explains an aesthetic in which she repeats herself over and over. If you think “Manos” is redundant (and therefore bad) here is an excerpt from a piece by Stein:
“Tied and untied and that is all there is about it. And as tied and as beside, and as beside and tied. Tied and untied and beside and as beside and as untied and as tied and as untied and as beside” [from “Van or Twenty Years After”].
That is art. For Stein, every repetition causes us to think of the repeated word or phrase (or image) a little bit differently. Film itself works this way, as Sergei Eisenstein states:
“Placed next to each other, two photographed immobile images result in the appearance of movement… [but] in fact, each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other. For the idea (or sensation) of movement arises from the process of superimposing on the retained impression of the object’s first position, a newly visible further position of the object.”
What’s that? Film is inherently a medium of repetitive images, images which look almost identical, being superimposed on one another to create movement (one of the most astounding technological developments in art history)? Sounds pretty important. And we might therefore think that artistic studies in this repetition of images might therefore be of some interest. And that brings us to Hal Warren’s “Manos” the Hands of Fate: A study in repetition.
We begin with a family on vacation, but there is trouble afoot. The little girl is “cold and hungry” undoubtedly because they are driving in a convertible with the top down. We see a poodle jump up on the side of the car and in the next shot it is instantaneously the little girl’s arms.
Now would be as good a time as any to talk about this film’s issue with continuity as it has been frequently lampooned by other critics. My argument is this: “Just because there is not continuity, does not mean there was a continuity error.” The continuity “gaps” are instead an aesthetic decision made by Warren to jar the viewer from the normal flow of space and time. After all, the great surrealist paradigm shift was to consider “reality” merely as one way of describing the relationship between objects.
Now, I’m sure some of you are already thinking: “Right, that’s just some theory pulled out of a hat juxtaposed to this film to try explain away its badness.” You are idiots for thinking this. Why? Well, is it just coincidence then that the conversation which immediately follows this continuity error [which I will henceforth refer to as” logical dissonances” so as to remove them from the negative connotation of “error”], as I was saying, is it just coincidence that this conversation is about “directions?” That’s right, Mike, the dad, is accused of having gotten the family lost even though the [travel, I’m assuming] agent told him this was the way, and the map said this was the way. What’s this? Everything which we use in modern society to navigate [reality] by seems to be not functioning correctly in this film. Mike says “Listen, I’ve never gotten us lost before” to which I reply, “That’s because you’ve never been in a Hal Warren movie before” which means the same as “that’s because you’ve never been subject to genius before.” (by the by, Hal Warren himself stars as Mike, which I like to celebrate).
“Never mind that, Mike, Debby can come up and sit between us.” Now, never let me be accused of being someone to read too much into things, but let’s consider what happens with that line. Let the child come between the two parents. Pehraps little Debby is interfering with other important aspects of marriage? Have we noticed the age difference between the wife and Mike? Lest you think the sexual curiosities of this scene don’t appear again later, think again, because they do.
“All right, all right,” you say, “Cute little word games and coincidences, but I’m still not buying that this is a conscious experiment in filmic redundancy.” Oh really? Well what will it take to convince. Perhaps the fact that the very next thing we see is a repetition of the first lines spoken (Debby once again reiterates that she’s cold). But even if you discount that, you’d have to be willfully ignorant to ignore that the family then begins singing a song “to pass the time.” And it’s not just any song, but “Row Row Row Your Boat” ( repetitive title and lyrics) sung, no less in a round. That’s right, where every member of the family begins singing the same thing over and over but at slightly different times creating both dissonances and harmonies in the overall fabric of the songs production! Now keep in mind, Warren could have directed them to sing the song anyway or he could have picked any song but no, he picked a repetitive song sung in a repetitive style. What more evidence of conscious directorial choice do you need?
So, moving on, the family departs the little overlook they were parked at continue their quest for the lodge.
Cut to driving. Lots of driving and the credit: “Manos” : The Hands of Fate. Speaking of fate, wouldn’t you know a cop car pulls the family over just after the title card. Officer informs the guy he has a headlight out and then gives the guy a whole litany of excuses. After which dad responds, can’t you just let us off the hook. Apparently this honesty works as the cop lets em go reminding: If you’re late you shoulda startred earlier or something like that.
More driving accompanied by a flute… and woah shit there’s a woman singing. I have no idea what she’s singing as the wife is speaking simultaneously and the woman throws her voice around as much as DMB plus the film keeps skipping around. Anyway, we drive past mountains…
If Gertrude Stein were to describe this screenplay she might have written: driving and driving wheel turn driving driving the shoulder over the mountain mountain over driving driving houses flutes jazz jazzy jazz flute driving driving. But I’ll leave the art to her, and stick to the lowly field of criticism.
Many critics also make fun of this extended driving sequence as being mind numbingly boring. This is the usual Western tripe: it’s all about the destination for these people. A little kernel of wisdom: it’s about the journey.
There is one important detail however, the family sees a sign that reads “VALLEY LODGE” and turns off onto a side road. This is key, because it shows that empirically Mike was indeed following, if not directions, the signs that say the way to go. We’ll come back to the signifier and the signified a little later.
And cut to two “kids” making out and drinking … vanilla extract? That’s what it looks like anyway. Mmm, drinking vanilla andthen kissing while listening to bad rock n roll “come on and do a thing with me…” They see the family drive by and mention “There’s nothing up that road.”
Back to the mellow fluteand over-the-driver shoulder cam. Is this Debby’s POV? Mike says the sign pointed this way. He insists that because the sign points this way, this is the way to go even though they are obvioulsly on a dirt road in the middle of the desert. Well stupid Mike gets the fmaily completely lost (the freqwuent cuts to completely different driving locations [marking the pssge of time] don’t help.
Back to the kids making out. Cops arrive. Oh shit,speed trap. The cop has apparently been “chasing” the kids. This scene is perhaps a great example of editing. Each character takes a good 5 seconds to respond to something else another character said. As usual, the cop let’s the people he should arrest go. Somethig funny with the law enforcement in these parts.
Ah, more driving by Mike who eventually drives… into a bush. He keeps swearing that he didn’t make a wrongturn. I feel like perhaps this movie is just the director’s attempts to vindicate his bad sense of direction by blaiming it on something “supernatural.” Maybe Mike just can’t read a map.
At last we arrive at a house”Where did this place come from, it wasn’t here a few minutes ago.” There’s someone at the door, and yes, it’s Torgo. He’s armed with a hat, a big staff, and sever twitch disorder. Everyone just stares at each other for a good minute without saying anything. Maybe this movie is about taking the initiative? Mike helps his family out of the car… still not saying anything to Torgo. He finally works up the courage to say the most famous line of the film: “I am Torgo. I take care of the place while the master is away.” Torgo is thrown off by the presence of the child. Mike asks where the lodge is. Torgo has never heard of it. Mom is scared b/c it’s getting dark. How do you get out?
“There is no waya out of here. It will be dark soon> There is no way out of here.”
They then ask if they can spend the night. Torgo twitches. Mike can’t think of what else they can do. Mike insists they stay the night even though everyone else thinks it’s a bad idea. Even the master, we learn, wouldn’t approve. Maybe it’s b/c of Debby. Everyone just stands there in a blatantly awkward situation. Seriously I think in real life this would happen too. I mean, Mike just forced the issue on Torgo. Can you imagine someone doing that in real life? Even though we learn the master will be disturbed, mike ushers everyone in.
Torgo goes to help with the luggage. Which means Mike just hands it all to him while torgo drunkenly limps back to the house. Theory .,of the cloven feet.
Get back in the house sequence.What we are seeing isn’t three takes of the same all put into the movie back to back, but really alternate universes, realities, juxtaposed with one another. Interestingly, the onething every reality insists that the wife get back in the house. For that is where she belongs. Always.
Mike then decides they’re leaving (sheesh, after all that ) and even more obnoxisouly, hemakes torgo put the luggage back in the car. Too bad it won’t start, h ahaha. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if torgo did it not b.c of the master at all, but just b.cmike’san asshole