Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Remastering the Film

When Charles Thomas Samuels (1936-1974) was writing his unfinished book, Mastering the Film, which was to be his overview of film from the perspective of its greatest directors, he arrived at a list of twelve filmmakers, each of whom had created at least two great films and had arrived at an individual style. The twelve filmmakers were Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Clair, De Sica, Fellini, Hitchcock, Olmi, Reed, Renoir, Truffaut, and Vigo.

The structure of Samuels' book appeared to force some of his choices upon him. His prejudices took care of the rest. For example, Samuels was honest enough to admit to feeling "deracinated" by the work of Asian filmmakers, and disqualified himself from passing judgement on them. Clearly, Jean Vigo did not live long enough to show us the full extent of his gifts. What remains is tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying. I agree with Vernon Young's assessment of the work of René Clair, which he epitomized as "champagne on corn flakes." My own estimation of Bresson's work is common knowledge to readers of this blog. I would add that his hatred of actors is typical of filmmakers who insist on absolute control of every aspect of the creative process. Antonioni hated actors as much as Bresson, but at least he recognized that he needed their contribution to his work. The less said about Hitchcock, the better. His influence on the work of Truffaut was deleterious in the extreme.

Due perhaps to a lack of enthusiasm from publishers, the reception of his book of interviews with many of the his chosen filmmakers, Encountering Directors (1), and his own unforgiving self-criticism, ultimately resulting in his suicide, Samuels came nowhere near to finishing Mastering the Film. Tantalizing fragments were published posthumously both in his honor and to provide financial relief for his surviving wife and children.

I hang on to the memory of Samuels if only because film criticism on the level at which he was writing for publications like The American Scholar and The Hudson Review remains extremely rare, and because, knowing the lengths of his commitment to what he wrote and what he was writing about, I know that I will never be as good a critic as he was.

The following exchange between Samuels and Michelangelo Antonioni, included in Encountering Directors, reveals just how much Samuels expected of film, and one of the reasons that his splendid book was so slighted by journalistic reviewers:

Samuels: By the end of L'avventura, Sandro recognizes that his promiscuity is harmful to Claudia, with whom he has had the one intense relationship of his life, so far as we know. Do you mean us to believe that his ensuing guilt (inspiring him to tears) is an error because what makes him feel this guilt are conceptions of romantic love and personal responsibility that have become irrelevant burdens?

Antonioni: Sandro is a character from a film shot in 1960 and is therefore entirely immersed in such moral problems. He is an Italian, a Catholic, and so he is a victim of this morality. What I said awhile ago is that such moral dilemmas will have no right to exist in a future that will be different from the present. Today we are just beginning to glimpse that future, but in 1960 we lived in a country with the Pope and the Vatican, which have always been extremely important to all of us. There isn't a school in Italy still, not a law court without its crucifix. We have Christ in our houses, and hence the problem of conscience, a problem fed to us as children that afterward we have no end of trouble getting rid of. All the characters in my films are fighting these problems, needing freedom, trying to find a way to cut themselves loose, but failing to rid themselves of conscience, a sense of sin, the whole bag of tricks.

Samuels: I don't think you're proposing something that's only a matter of time. Would it indeed ever be good to dispense with the bag of tricks, as you call it? I wonder if we shouldn't be more proud of this tradition going back to Homer than of the trip to the moon. Speaking only for myself-no, I'm sure I speak for others, too-the ending of L'avventura is so powerful because Sandro has the conscience to regret what he has done. To feel such regret, one has to believe in the supreme importance of human responsibility, and I can't conceive of art without that belief.

I could not begin to write as comprehensive a study as Samuels devised. But if I were to come up with my own list of filmmakers to include in such a study, it would look like the following.

Gianni Amelio (b. 1945)
Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)
Bruce Beresford (b. 1940)
Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)
Jean-Pierre Dardenne (b. 1951) Luc Dardenne (b. 1954)
Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
Shohei Imamura (1926-2006)
Hirokazu Koreeda (b. 1962)
Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)
Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963)
Jean Renoir (1894-1979)
Vittorio De Sica (1901-1074)
Bertrand Tavernier (b. 1941)
Jan Troell (b. 1931)
Zhang Yimou (b. 1951)

Several filmmakers who did not make my list, for one or another reason, would make my list of Honorable Mentions: Claude Autant-Lara, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi, David Lean, Louis Malle, Ermanno Olmi, François Truffaut, Carol Reed, Andrzej Wajda, and Lina Wertmuller. I will expound on my choices next week.

(1) In his interview with Bresson, Samuels quoted a proverb that best explains the critical reception of Encountering Directors: "A jackass can look into a mirror, but a philosopher can't look back."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a splendid read. Your taste in films is unimpeachable. One thing, I believe that John Simon, a great admirer of Samuels, said that his suicide occurred after a book of literary criticism that he'd written received mostly mixed to negative reviews. There use have been others reasons. I remember when I first heard the word all those years ago. Horrible.