Thursday, September 26, 2013

Remastering the Film: Bertrand Tavernier

While I am still at it, my list of unfinished business reminds me that I have yet to finish a modest project that I started in 2011, Remastering the Film, a series of profiles of what I consider to be the world's greatest filmmakers.

Some people seem born to make films. Vigo, Fellini, Kurosawa. What would they have done with themselves, I wonder, if they hadn't been filmmakers? Others, like Bruce Beresford, Zhang Yimou, and the man I celebrate today, Bertrand Tavernier, seem to go about their business as filmmakers more deliberately and methodically. It's easy to imagine them excelling at some other pursuit, like philosophy, the Law, or even politics.

If one discounts the critical argument levelled by François Truffaut at the legendary script-writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (1), which was one of the many strange ways in which the Cahiers du Cinema critics cannibalized their national cinema, Bertrand Tavernier is easily the best French filmmaker of his generation. Tavernier saw the sheer idiocy and injustice of Truffaut's argument, and got the elderly Aurenche (2) to write the the scripts for his first three feature films, Let Joy Reign Supreme (1974), The Clockmaker (1974), and The Judge and the Murderer (1976), three first films whose brilliance and uniqueness rival those of Truffaut himself. Tavernier later adapted a novel by Pierre Bost for his luminous film, A Sunday in the Country (1983).

After such a brilliant start to his career, it would've been predictable if Tavernier had slid into a sharp decline, as just about every notable French director (Including Truffaut) had done before him. He did experience a somewhat self-indulgent phase, with Des Enfants Gates (1977), the often charming but slight A Week's Vacation (1980) and the clever but terribly arch Coup de Torchon (1981). He regained his sure footing with the exquisite A Sunday in the Country, which explores the world of a painter of the Impressionist era.   

Of all his films, I've seen, I am sad to say, only eleven. It's difficult for me to choose a favorite. The Clockmaker portrays a loving father's inability to deliver his son from evil. The Judge and the Murderer shows us how clumsily human justice punishes the worst crimes. A Sunday in the Country opens for us the heart and mind of an old artist. It All Begins Today (1999) delineates the heartbreaking inadequacy of compassion.

I recently had the pleasure of viewing one of his latest films, The Princess of Montpensier (2010) (3), based on a story by Madame de La Fayette and starring the stunning Mélanie Thierry. As in his earlier earlier La Passion Beatrice (1987), Tavernier breathed life into past lives and a bygone era with subtlety and great art. Tavernier's latest film, Quai d'Orsay, is a comedy starring Thierry Lhermitte. It was shown at the Toronto Film Festival last month.

(1) The essay was published in 1954 and centered on a treatment the team had written of the Georges Bernanos novel Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne, which was rejected by the director Robert Bresson. Due partly to the essay, and the decline of the directors they had worked for, they found little work in the Sixties.
(2) Aurenche was 71 at the time.
(3) The film premiered in competition at Cannes on my birthday. (It lost to a Thai film called Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Touching a Void

Not that I was waiting with bated breath (not after ten years anyway), but I finally watched the film Touching the Void (2003) a few nights ago, and I found it both a fulfillment of my expectations and something less. What I expected was another paean to mountain climbing in general, a celebration of what compels perfectly healthy and seemingly contented people to risk losing it all scaling the world's highest mountain peaks - going where few people (or no one in Touching the Void) have gone before. What I didn't expect, even after reading Stanley Kauffmann's less than laudatory review, was that the film should ultimately be so, well, vacuous. Not because it is poorly made. It's actually quite beautifully made.(1) I found it vacuous because it's far more impressive than its subject.

With neither elaboration nor embroidery, the film - a "docudrama" (with the dramatic events re-enacted as described by the real participants of the drama) - tells the somewhat belated story of how, in 1985, two experienced mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, climbed the West face of Siula Grande, a 20,813 foot high mountain in the Peruvian Andes. These two Englishmen arrive at their decision because no one has ever attempted to climb the West Face, for excellent reasons (as the film makes clear), and also to attempt an "Alpine Climb," without any preparation, proceeding directly from their base camp to the top of the mountain, carrying all that they think they will need in backpacks. They take on this challenge with a strangely and ominously casual manner, like it's a weekend outing.

The "void" in the film's title is left undefined. It could refer to the void beyond the earth's atmosphere to which standing atop a 20,000 foot mountain puts one a little closer. Or the title could refer to the void to which we all go eventually. Both climbers come up against this second void during the course of their descent from the mountain peak. As I expected, however, the film doesn't come close to living up to its vaunted title.

Leaving all their gear at base camp with a fellow they barely know (he doesn't even know their full names), Simpson and Yates set out and manage to reach the mountain peak without complications. On their descent, however, they choose the North Ridge, and soon find themselves running out of supplies and poorly equipped to get down. While Yates is slowly lowering Simpson, Simpson painfully fractures his leg. With his hands frozen and with poor weather bearing down on them, Yates is faced with no other choice but to cut the rope bearing Simpson. Simpson falls into an ice cave, banged up but alive. When Yates arrives there, he assumes that Simpson is dead, and continues down the mountain. The rest of the story is "re-created" quite effectively. But one has to wonder if the risks that the film's cast and crew took to re-create the events of 1985 weren't greater and more impressive than the events themselves.

What the film also left me wondering, as all these moutaineering movies do, is, finally, why? Why do they do it? The old answer, as George Mallory put it ("because it's there"), was never intended to provide an answer. Another answer I've heard is "if you need to ask why, you'll never understand the answer." This sort of evasiveness makes me think that the mountain climbers themselves don't have a clear grasp of their reasons for so routinely and, to me, foolhardedly risking their necks for such a dubious achievement.

George Plimpton once said that ordinary people admire great athletes because of their ability to perform physical feats with ease and grace that are extremely difficult for us mere humans. A mountain climber is called an "athlete," but climbing a mountain requires neither talent nor athletic ability. A tiny but - significantly - growing number of people climb mountains. There are so few of them, obviously, not because it is so difficult but because, like sky diving, it is inordinately hazardous. Most of us would rather avoid putting our lives at risk. We prefer safer, even vicarious, thrills (like movie thrillers).

The pride that mountain climbers presumably attain in the pursuit of their hobby comes at a price that the vast majority of people is unprepared to pay. In his review of Touching the Void, Stanley Kauffmann was more explicit:

"Mountain climbing, of all dangerous sports, has always seemed to me the silliest . . . The very word 'sport' seems fraudulent. Other risky pursuits have some grace in them, some sense of competition, of victory or defeat: mountain climbing has none. Worse, what we may take for admiration of the climber's courage is - admitted or not - a decline into degeneracy. Death is what we are watching for . . . Further, mountain climbing, more than any other risk-taking, is wrapped is vacuous philosophy, even theology, flourishing out of its physical aspects."

Practitioners of "extreme sports" like mountain climbing have become known, contemptuously, as "adrenaline junkies." But I think this is inaccurate. I think that it is for something much more basic that these people go to such extremes. When a mountain climber reaches the peak and looks out over the world below, is he not feeling, at last, what the rest of us feel upon waking up in the morning? Who we are, where we are, what day it is, what time it is? Neurologists may one day discover, as some already claim to have done, that a chemical present in a sufficient quantity in the brains of most people that is responsible for their feeling of sentience, of being alive, is conspicuously lacking in a few others, who have to climb mountains to attain the same degree of sentience.

(1) Directed by Kevin Macdonald and photographed (spectacularly) by Mike Eley and Keith Partridge.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Scaling the World

Watching an American movie recently (Sean Penn's Into the Wild) with some Filipino friends, left them wondering aloud where all the people could have gone from the deserts of the American Southwest or from the woods of Alaska. I explained that much of the American West is like that - that one can drive for miles at a time on highways without seeing another car or a house. And it's likely to stay that way as long as people continue to migrate to cities. The only way to comprehend the sheer size of America is to drive across it.

But the size of many nations in the world is comparably small. The expansiveness of America makes it hard for many Americans to comprehend the comparable tininess of most modern nations. The Philippines, for example, is made up of 7,107 islands, most of which are uninhabited because of a lack of a fresh water source. The total land area of the Philippines, including it's lakes and rivers, is estimated to be around 120,000 square miles, making it 73rd on the list of the world's largest countries. It also makes the Philippines only slightly smaller than the state American state of New Mexico.(1)

The United States is the 4th largest country in the world, behind Russia, Canada and China. Since a little more than one-third of Americans have bothered to acquire a passport (2), signifying their indifference to the attractions of the rest of the world, it might be diverting to some to conduct an informal survey of the comparative dimensions of different countries in relation to our fifty American states.

Afghanistan, which American soldiers have had to explore for nearly twelve years, is smaller than Texas. So is France, which is the biggest European nation. Sweden is only about ten thousand square miles larger than California. All of the Japanese islands constitute an area that is slightly smaller than Montana. Germany, even with East and West now united, is ten thousand square miles smaller than Montana. No wonder Hitler wanted Lebensraum ("living space").

Italy is less than a thousand square miles smaller than Arizona. New Zealand is about the same size as Colorado. The United Kingdom, which includes (as of this writing), Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is a tad bigger than Michigan (and this is a country whose Royal Navy ruled the waves!). Greece is slightly smaller than Louisiana. Syria, all over the news, is a bit bigger than Washington state. Austria is a bit bigger than South Carolina.

I have written before about the meaning and importance of borders and other lines of demarcation. In another movie, Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece The Wild Bunch, the gang arrives at the banks of a river, on the other side of which is Mexico. Angel, played by Jaime Sánchez exclaims in Spanish how beautiful it looks to him. Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson) says, "Just looks like more Texas far as I'm concerned." Angel replies, "You have no eyes!"

(1) By population, however, the Philippines is ranked 12th in the world, with 98,346,000 people. Try to imagine that many people in New Mexico. California, 40,000 square miles bigger, has about one-third the population of the Philippines.
(2) A pleasant surprise is that the number is on the rise. Nearly 110 million Americans (out of 313 million) now have passports.

[Look closer at the map (click on the image). All the names are in Cyrillic.]

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Long Shadow of Spain

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

from W.H. Auden, "Spain"

Looked at from the perspective of a pacifist (which I decidedly am not), I think it would be impossible to decide which is worse - the man who shouts "Allah Akbar" as he fires a rocket into a crowd of people standing in line for bread or the man who says nothing as he presses his thumb on a button that signals a drone aircraft a thousand miles away to launch a Hellfire missile on a house in which a suspected terrorist, along with members of his family, is residing.

And yet this is where we stand today. Terrorists can't possibly win a "fair fight" with the United States or any other modern army. So they hijack our commercial jets and fly them into skyscrapers. Or try to blow us up by lining their shoes or their underwear with explosives. Or they create bombs for which we had to invent the term "Improvised Explosive Device" that kill American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

By now, we all know that Bashar Al-Assad, dictator of Syria, is a monster to equal previous monsters like Saddam Hussein (death by hanging) and Gaddafi (death by ?). So what are we to do about him? No one appears to have a stomach for another shot at Regime Change. There was another time when no one (except the bad guys) had an appetite for war. It was the Thirties. Most armies were commanded by veterans of The Great War, the war that was supposed to end armed conflicts. Certainly Hitler had to be stopped, but no one in his right mind relished the idea of carrying it out. Certainly enough people remember what that war cost humanity.

Then came Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Shock and Awe, and whatever the ongoing mission in Afghanistan is called. Not to mention the Cold War, which seemed (20 years ago) to end in victory. U.S. and Allied forces are "scheduled" to pull out of Afghanistan next year. Nobody in his right mind could call it a victory. Our leaders' use of the ridiculous term "limited war" is nothing but their resignation to eventual defeat. Despite its coinage in the Boer War, nobody seems to know how to win a "guerrilla war".

In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay he called "Looking Back On the Spanish War". The Spanish War was, of course, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), in which the elected government of the Second Spanish Republic was (eventually) overthrown by a military coup led by Fascist General Franco. Fascist Italy and Germany supported - with men and weapons - the Franco side, while people who touted various left-leaning political agendas went to Spain to fight in "International Brigades", as well as with Spanish militias. Orwell fought in one such militia, and was wounded in the throat. Soviet Russia also provided guns and an untold number of unsolicited and often clandestine Communist spies to the Republican side.

What Orwell wrote about the "Spanish war" in 1942 sounds strangely familiar [italics are mine]:

"As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on an off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they result rather from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be 'pro-war' or 'anti-war', but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds. . . . We have become too civilised to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don't take the sword perish by smelly diseases."

Friday, September 6, 2013

Four Westerns and a Funeral

[I've been writing a piece on the subject of Westerns for a few years now, and it just keeps growing. So I've decided to break it down into five parts and publish them sequentially over the next few weeks [months, more likely].

"What are we to do with Westerns nowadays?" (Stanley Kauffmann)(1)

In his marvelous book, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, Kevin Brownlow quoted a survivor of the Old West who was asked to identify the difference between the West he remembered and the Western film. "What's the difference between daylight and dark," was his response.

To hear Hollywood tell it, the Old West, which existed from the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1804-06 until about 1900, was some kind of moral crucible in which good and evil, painted in monochromatic black and white, grappled in a contest on whose outcome the rest of the the world somehow depended. If the historical record tells a different story, that abounded in human depravity, peopled with armed simpletons, it made little difference in the outcome.

The death of the Western is announced every decade or so, but I don't believe the genre that is almost as old as the American film, has breathed its last. Once or twice in every decade or so, one comes along to remind us that it has enough life left in it to endure another permutation. Some of the first American films were westerns, and the genre quickly became a staple for audiences which lasted into the 1960s, with stars like William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Randolph Scott appearing in westerns almost exclusively.

The very artificiality of the Western has been a guarantee of its endurance. Adherence to its conventions is a kind of testament of faith for filmmakers. In his essay "The Westerner", scholar Robert Warshow defined the hero of movie Westerns:

"The Western hero is necessarily an archaic figure; we do not really believe in him and would not have him step out of his rigidly conventional background. But his archaicism does not take away from his power; on the contrary, it adds to it by keeping him a little beyond the reach of common sense and of absolutized emotion, the two usual impulses of our art."

"But it is exactly here that a problem arises," writes Stanley Kauffmann in rejoinder to Warshow's comments.

"Time has in some measure passed both the Western and Warshow by. The archaicism persists; its relevance diminishes.The Western was always drama simplified. It began in the nineteenth century popular theater, where, as a type of melodrama, it pitted crystalline good against crystalline evil. Film added the motion and the scenery that made these simplicities even more welcome. What a relief it used to be to turn from the daily complications of character and morality to a terrain where such matters were plain. But the last half of this century, piled on top of its first fifty years, has made the Western's simplicities seem reductive, not clarifying."

Of the four most recent films broadly classifiable as Westerns that I've seen, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Appaloosa 2008), and True Grit (2010) only the first has enough distinction to make it a worthwhile effort, not least because it is not, strictly speaking, a Western.

I'd like to begin my personal sojourn through the Western with a bit of nostalgia. Peter Fonda's lingering look at the Old West, The Hired Hand, is experimental in ways that only seemed possible - for a studio film - when it was made in 1971.It is so carefully uninsistent, so measured and loving, it's no wonder it was overlooked when it was first released. It was the best of a string of "hippie" Westerns (Dirty Little Billy is another notable example) that saw the Old West more as a social experiment than the moral crucible I mentioned earlier. Thirty years after its disappointing premiere, The Hired Hand was restored and, given the near-death by that time of the genre, it found a more appreciative audience on limited re-release and on DVD.

The film is a kind of anti-Western, a Western Odyssey, in which Harry Collings - played by Fonda - decides to stop wandering from pillar to post looking for his fortune when a young friend is brutally killed for no good reason in some Nowhere town. He informs a man he's been riding with a long time, Arch Harris (Warren Oates) of his decision to return instead to his abandoned wife, played by Verna Bloom. Arch decides to accompany him. He finds some papers on the young friend's body, and the film dawdles as he reads some lines from the lost gospel of St Thomas:

A disciple said to Jesus, "When shall the kingdom come?" Jesus said, "It will not come by expectation. It will not say, 'See here or see there." But the kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it."

When Harry and Arch arrive at Hannah's ranch, they find her resistant to Harry's proposal to resume his place as her husband. Alone with their daughter (and the occasional "hired hand"), Hannah has learned the value of true independence. StanleyKauffmann recognized an element of the characterization of the wife that he overlooked at first: "When the returned husband hears gossip about her [Hannah's] sexual behavior during his absence, and confronts her with that gossip, she denies nothing. In a response that may have been startling even as late as 1971, she affirms her right to live as she pleased, to bed whomever she wanted, when she was left alone - forever, as she thought. Solely responsible for her life, she has lived it as she chose."

Just looking at the film now is heartening to those of us who have to be reminded of how beautiful America is in places. That extended, five-minute closing take of Arch (Warren Oates) returning to Hannah's ranch with Fonda's body, accompanied by Brice Langhorne's uncanny music is quite unforgettable.

(1) The New Republic, September 8, 2003.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Things People Do

One of the most popular expressions in America these days is, "Guns don't kill people. People do." I hear it so often, it made me think about all of the other things that people do. What follows is my short list.

Knives don't cut steak, people do.

Hammers don't drive in nails, people do.

Ovens don't bake bread, people do.

Scissors don't cut hair, people do.

Baseball bats don't hit homeruns, people do.

Snow shovels don't shovel snow, people do.

Axes and chainsaws don't cut down trees, people do.

Ferraris don't win Grand Prixs, people do.

I could go on and on, but I think I've made my point. We surround ourselves with these tools, that make our lives easier, that facilitate otherwise difficult or tiresome tasks. But if you take away the people, all these useful tools become useless, inanimate objects. I can see the point people are trying so hard to make, that guns all by themselves aren't dangerous - are no more dangerous that a marshmallow.

We don't put guns in the hands of children, intentionally anyway. And we're not supposed to put guns in the hands of mentally ill people, even though we do. Guns aren't the only things people use to kill, but they greatly facilitate killing, as we all know. I would feel menaced if I were confronted by a knife-wielding man, but I would at least think I had a chance to escape if I decided to make a run for it. A gun would make me think twice. 

Guns are not so harmless - nor are all our knifes and scissors and hammers and hatchets - when a chimpanzee gets its hands on them. It would probably take a chimpanzee a few minutes to learn how to pull a trigger. But, in this case, would it be sensible to argue that guns don't kill people, chimpanzees do?