Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Auteur's Revenge

I had the pleasure to see a brief documentary produced by Criterion for the 2014 release of their DVD of Serge Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybele (Cybele, ou Les Dimanches de Ville-d'Avray, 1963). Bourguignon, speaking English throughout the short film, recalls the making of the his first feature film, the preparation of the script, the casting of the two leads, Hardy Kruger and Patricia Gozzi, the discoveries and difficulties during shooting, and the release of the film and its phenomenal success. But the critical reaction to the film, as Bourguignon recalls, wasn't unanimously positive. One specific group of critics that might have been relied on by a young French filmmaker making his first film as a source of support, the critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema that included Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, and Truffaut, attacked the film and, according to Bourguignon, their disapproval cast a shadow over the rest of his career.

Having been an admirer of Bourguignon's film since I first saw it forty years ago, I always wondered why he didn't have as full and rewarding a career as some other French directors. In his Dictionary of Film Makers, Georges Sadoul encapsulated Bourguignon's career:

"BOURGUIGNON, Serge Dir. France/USA. (Maignelay Sept 3,1928- ) Studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC). He is passionately devoted to the cinema, delighting in beautiful images and the exotic, but he is sometimes a little mannered. His Sundays and Cybele won an Academy Award."

That last sentence. How final. In the Criterion documentary Bourguignon tells how Cybele was released in France and abroad in the same year as Truffaut's Jules and Jim, one of the great films of the Nouvelle Vague, and, it turned out, Truffaut's last great film. Cybele was entered in competition for the Cannes Palm d'Or against Jules and Jim, and Cybele won. And since France could enter only one film in competition for the American Academy's Best Foreign Language Film, Cybele was entered instead of Jules and Jim. So, what could have been Truffaut's Big Break, a break that might have changed the direction of his whole career, became Bourguignon's.

A common mistake made by critics is to call every French filmmaker whose first film was made between 1958 and 1965 a member of the Nouvelle Vague. Alain Resnais, for example, who saw his first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, released in 1959, is often - incorrectly - labelled a member of the New Wave. The Nouvelle Vague belongs to the group of former critics writing for Cahier du Cinema, the film magazine founded by Andre Bazin. Unlike Bourguignon, who was a graduate of IDHEC, the world famous French film school, the Cahiers critics who created the New Wave made their first films with no prior technical knowledge of how films are made. Bourguignon knew all about lenses and focal lengths and about all the established rules of filmmaking like line-of-sight and reverse angles. The Cahiers critics went to the film school of the Cinematheque Francaise, and their professor was Henri Langlois, who advised them all to consume films at a profligate pace.

For their first efforts, Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer had to rely on the technical knowledge of their collaborators, most notably cinematographers like Raoul Coutard and Henri Decae. One of the reasons why they became filmmakers was so they could express more directly their hatred of the Old School of French filmmaking, represented by directors like Rene Clement and Marcel Carne. Their condemnation of this generation was both deeply political and psychological. The Cahiers critics had all grown up during the German Occupation of France (1940-1944), and had inherited the guilt of the generation of Frenchmen that preceded them. But they also had to kill the old in order to establish the new - kill the old kings of French cinema so that they could supplant them.

The irony was that the two most successful directors of the New Wave, Chabrol and Truffaut, to a large extent became what they had once hated. It was almost inevitable. Entering the industry against the mainstream, they forced the stream to change course, and their films became the mainstream; their work was the new status quo. Godard could see it happening to his old brothers in arms, and he tried to point this out to them. His famous falling out with Truffaut was a direct result of Truffaut becoming a commercially successful film director, of growing comfortable in his position and of his wanting to remain there. Chabrol's work, which had started out with two or three honest and personal films, was, by the mid-60s, almost entirely given over to potboilers redeemed only by their elegant style. Truffaut tried to return to his lost innocence with more Antoine Doinel films and with a more direct retelling of the story of Jules and Jim, in which the two men become Two English Girls. But he never recovered the nerve that had made his first three films so challenging and original.

In the Criterion documentary, Bourguignon lamented that his career subsequent to Cybele was made up of promising projects that never got off the ground, films that he never had an opportunity to make. He suggested that the negative appraisal of Cybele by the Cahiers critics had a negative influence on film producers. But he hoped, in the charming last moments of the documentary, that - who knows - his career might yet get off the ground again. (Bourguignon was 86 when the interview was conducted.)

The fact is, Bourguignon's career wasn't the first that was sabotaged by the Cahiers critics. When Bertrand Tavernier wanted a collaborator to help him writer the scripts for his first films, he located an old French script writer, Jean Aurenche, whose impressive career as a successful script-writer in the 1940s and 50s was brought to an abrupt end by an attack in the pages of Carhiers du Cinema on a script he had written in collaboration with Pierre Bost. They had been hired to write an adaptation of the Georges Bernanos novel, The Diary of Country Priest. The filmmaker who was directing the film was Robert Bresson, who rejected the Aurenche-Bost script and eventually wrote one of his own. Since Bresson was not in any sense a mainstream French director, making only thirteen films in a forty year career, his work was held in highest esteem by the Cahiers critics. Bresson's reasons for rejecting the Aurenche-Bost script were due to their approaching the novel as just another work of literature, instead of some sort of spiritual masterpiece by a devoutly Roman Catholic novelist.

But Bresson's rejection of the Aurenche-Bost script was used as an example to illustrate how ossified French film had become, of how even important works of literature had been adapted in the same dull manner year after boring year, mostly by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The result of the Cahiers dismissal of their work effectively ended their careers. Tavernier saw this as an injustice, and worked with Aurenche on the scripts for his first three, highly celebrated films, The Clockmaker, The Judge and the Murderer, and Let Joy Reign Supreme. He would later adapt a novel by Pierre Bost for the film A Sunday in the Country.

Sundays and Cybele remains an effective, off-beat tale of innocence destroyed. It is a remarkable achievemnt for a first-time filmmaker. But compared to Jules and Jim, it looks awfully tepid. Of course, if compared with Jules and Jim, just about every film would look second-rate. The savants on the Cannes jury made a mistake. (The Oscars probably didn't.) Maybe if Truffaut had won, he would've felt comfortable enough to avoid being compromised, and his friendship with Godard might never have ended.

By now, all this is nothing but an anecdote in the history of film. After Cybele, Bourguignon would make only four more films, the only one of which I've seen was The Picasso Summer, a fascinating portrait of a young architect's efforts to meet an elusive Pablo Picasso in the south of France, using brilliant animation sequences of Picasso's paintings coming to life. (There was a dispute between Bourguignon and his producer during filming that precipitated his quitting the location.) I was always curious to know why Bourguignon seemed to vanish after that. But this is too often the fate of filmmakers who choose to go their own way. The fact that Bourguignon momentarily answered the call of Hollywood (something that Truffaut managed to resist) might also explain how Bourguignon somehow lost his way. I can name several talented filmmakers who suffered the same fate.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Will I Was

A man died four hundred years ago today. The man was an English playwright named William Shakespeare. His plays wouldn't become works of literature until two of his friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, went to considerable expense to publish his plays seven years after his death. On the day he died, according to Shakepeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, there was no great outpouring of public grief. In fact, no one paid more than passing attention to Shakespeare's passing.

Two days ago, Queen Elizabeth II's 90th birthday was observed with general congratulatorial appeal. And the R&B singer Prince was pronounced dead of, as yet, unexplained causes to general outpourings of shock, grief, and praise. There will be no such displays of emotion today, despite Shakespeare's towering reputation as the greatest writer in English.

Some people, however, don't even think Shakespeare wrote any of the plays attributed to him. Stephen Greenblatt has called them "Shakespeare deniers," and has even remarked that their skepticism is in some way comparable to Holocaust denial. In a recent essay for The New York Review, however, Greenblatt insists that Shakespeare can't be found in his plays, that, unlike Marlowe or Jonson, he is one of those writers whose biography is of no importance to the plays. "It is not really necessary to know the details of Shakespeare's life in order to love or understand his plays."(1) This may be a problem for some people, for whom the artist must always supercede the art. The history of art, as an astute observer once described, started with works whose creators were anonymous, deliberately or otherwise, and ends with the works being supplanted by the reputation of the artist. An unsigned painting, sculpture, or cathedral replaced by a monumental signature. This is how a heretofore nondescript canvas in an storage room whose value has always been considered low has recently been discovered to be a Caravaggio, valued in hundreds of millions. Why did the painting's value AS A WORK OF ART suddenly shoot up merely because its creator is now believed to be Caravaggio instead of some unknown master? I admit that this is a silly question since money, which spoils everything, has long since despoiled the world of art.

Greenblatt now insists that Shakespeare's passing four hundred years ago passed unnoticed by the public because the plays are what matters, and the plays have only increased in vitality in four hundreds years. To an ultimately unimportant majority of people, Shakespeare's plays are inaccessible, what with all of those THEEs and THOUs. As everyone who has seen one of his plays performed knows all too well, Shakespeare's language is strikingly and magnificently clear. How else could he have been so popular in his day?

Greenblatt argues that "the real 'life' of the characters and their plays lay not in the texts but in the performances of those texts. The words on the page were dead letters until they were 'revived' by the gifted actor. This belief should hardly surprise us, since it is the way most audiences currently respond to plays and, still more, to film."

In his classic study Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster wondered how the dramatist's art could survive the onslaught of actors who "appear to side sometimes with the characters they represent, sometimes with the play as a whole, and more often to be the mortal enemies of both."

"Is it not extraordinary," Forster asks, "that plays on the stage are often better than they are in the study, and that the introduction of a bunch of rather ambitious and nervous men and women should add anything to our understanding of SHakespeare and Chekov?"(2)

But Greenblatt insists the opposite: "We speak of Shakespeare's works as if they were stable reflections of his original intentions but they continue to circulate precisely because they are so amenable to metamorphosis." It is a commonplace of Shakespeare productions for the past fifty years to set Timon of Athens not in ancient Greece but in the Havana, Cuba of 1959 or to set Richard III not in 15th century England where there was an actual king named Richard III but in Nazi Germany. Whenever I read the play, I read of an old Saxon king named Lear roaming, half-crazed, across an all-too-genuine English heath or a Roman general named Marc Anthony, familiar from Hollywood films, throwing off his armor to embrace Cleopatra in the Alexandria, Egypt. Certainly the context in which we find his plays allows for plenty of imaginative exercise. But the insistence that it is better to set Macbeth in Brooklyn because audiences will somehow comprehend what is happening is a disservice both to Shakespeare and to the audience.

So, so what if we know so little about William Shakespeare's life except the barest of essentials, registered dates and signatures on titles and deeds? Why should it lead some people to suppose that his obscurity was deliberate instead of a natural condition? Anthony Burgess once claimed that if he had to choose between the discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare or Shakespeare's laundry list, he'd go for the dirty laundry every time. But why? Obviously (to me anyway), the play's the thing. Shakespeare is dead. His bones - sans his skull, as recent ground-penetrating radar revealed - are buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. His plays can be found everywhere in the world.

(1) The New York Review, April 21, 2016.
(2) Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt Inc., 1927.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Change Your Heart

Based solely on the world in his novels, on the characters - the human figures - he invented and the conflicts through which they moved, Charles Dickens has been affiliated to a wide range of political sympathies. George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton adopted him as a highly moral writer, while others insisted that he was a revolutionary. In his famous essay on Dickens, George Orwell showed how dangerous it is to attribute any specific or developed political stance whatever to his work:

"His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent....It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's 'as good is from evil'. Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a 'change of heart' - that, essentially, is what he is always saying....If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A 'change of heart' is in fact THE alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the STATUS QUO."(1)

The Dickens tale that presents a change of heart most directly is A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish and spiteful old miser, finds his comeuppance in the form of four ghosts who visit him on Christmas Eve: Jacob Marley, his longtime business partner, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The book has been adapted to film at least twenty times, from Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, made in 1901, to the Robert Zemeckis "action capture" 3-D version from 2009. The success of any adaptation of the book is, I think, based squarely on the performance of the actor playing Scrooge. This has something to do with the talent of the actor who can manage to pull off Scrooge's overnight transformation from the detestable miser into a loving and generous human being. But the actor's talent can't improve the failure of Dickens himself to pull off the transformation, since it represents such an enormous change of heart - a lightning-like spiritual awakening that both terrifies and delights everyone who knows him.

Frankly, as sweet and endearing as A Christmas Carol is (as a work of literature - the movie adaptations are almost invariably and unbearably sentimental), it is a bit hard to swallow outside of its holiday context, rather like stale fruitcake. It is, after all, a Christmas story: a genre that is subject to a specific - and narrow - set of rules. Scrooge's transformation requires an act of faith from the reader in order to work. It is an excellent illustration of the meaning of the word "melodrama" - a sudden, otherwise inexplicable change of a story's (or drama's) direction.

The reason why Scrooge's transformation is singularly unbelievable is that there simply isn't evidence for its existence in what we call real life. It fails to convince because it never happened. We all know the type of person that Dickens presents to us in A Christmas Carol - a person who devotes his life to acquisitiveness, to the accumulation of material value at the expense of everyone around him, including his own family. However much people may believe in justice, whether it is divine or earthly, in the great righting of great wrongs, or whether they believe in karma, the change of heart required to transform such a person as Scrooge into a loving and giving human being is the domain of fairy tales, of which A Christmas Carol is a brilliant example.

At about the same that Orwell was writing his essay, Edmund Wilson wrote "The Two Scrooges," in which he addressed the central problem of Dickens's novels - his inability to create rounded, three-dimensional characters. They are all either completely good people or completely bad. Only on a few occasions was Dickens able to show us a character who could be both. "The only complexity of which Dickens is capable," Wilson wrote, "is to make one of his noxious characters become wholesome. The reform of Scrooge in 'A Christmas Carol' shows the phenomenon in its purest form.

"Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably he would relapse when the merriment was over - if not while it was still going on - into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person."(2)
In latter-day psychobabble, Scrooge would turn out to be bi-polar. The holidays passed, he would show up for work on the first frozen Monday of the new year, in that terrible return to reality that we all endure after Christmas, believing, perhaps, that the visitation of the ghosts was what he first said it was, "a slight disorder of the stomach, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."

Dickens knew that trying to change society, consciously and deliberately trying to make it more just and fair, could lead to yet another tyranny, worse than the last. The only solution he could see was on a personal level, on an individual's realization that something is wrong with the world and that the reformation of his life could put it right. But his choice of metaphors - the Christmas spirit - couldn't have been more of a cliche. And wasn't Scrooge right about Christmas after all?

"A Merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books, and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?"

The forbidding chill of a January morning, with yet another long year ahead of us, is enough to wake us from the dream.

The true irony is that Orwell - who found Christmas to be a harmless break in people's daily routines, a sweet contrast that makes ordinary people aware of happiness, which they can only know in terms of contrast - advocated a society that would banish both extremes, the grasping, greedy Scrooges as well as the Tiny Tims with their turbercular legs. Evidently Dickens didn't know how to solve the world's biggest problem which, then as now, was the obscene gulf that separates the richest from the poorest. The only solution, he believed, was the change of heart illustrated by Scrooge, even if he didn't believe in it. The Scrooges, as Dickens knew well, never change their ways, and the Tiny Tims always die. It was the nightmare vision of Christmas yet to come that was, like the nightmare vision of Pottersville in that other Christmas favorite, It's a Wonderful Life, closer to the truth.

"Spirit," said Scrooge with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live."

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die."

(1) "Charles Dickens," March 11, 1940.
(2) "The Two Scrooges," The New Republic, March 4, 1940.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Little Chaos

The film A Little Chaos, which premiered a year ago in the UK and which I had a chance to see only yesterday, doesn't come bristling with historical details about its subject: the construction of a beautiful grotto-like outdoor ballroom-cum-fountain, the Bosquet de la Salle-de-Bal, at Versailles; or its setting: the court of Sun King Louis XIV. Nor are we treated, as we might expect, to views of the architectural wonders of Fontainebleau or the Palais du Versailles, then under construction. We get very little of the magnificent clothing of the period. Nor do we get what would have come cheaply - the harpsichord-driven music of Couperin or Lully.

All that was forsaken by the film for a largely personal, internal drama about certain characters, including Louis XIV (played by the late Alan Rickman, who also co-wrote and directed the film). A Little Chaos would seem to be not much more than an excuse to use Kate Winslet, who seems to have been away for a few years, perhaps to give a few other actresses, like Cate Blanchett, a chance to shine.

Winslet plays a fictitious character, Sabine de Barra, a horticulturalist and designer of gardens, who is summoned to Louis's court to assist his chief landscape engineer, Andre Le Notre, in the layout of the gardens of Versailles. We learn by stages that she has recently lost her husband and young daughter in an accident in which the coach they were riding in loses a wheel and careens down a hill. (Sabine feels responsible for the accident, and in the staging of the scene, she actually appears to cause the accident when, noticing the shaky rear wheel, she runs after the coach and throws herself in front of it, causing the horses to panic and the driver to brake suddenly.) But precisely why the film takes so long to inform us, via flashback, of the accident isn't clear.

Some critics have questioned how such a "modern" woman (i.e., one in control of her own destiny) could have existed in late 17th-century France - as if strong-willed, fully-realized women are an invention of the 20th century. As played by Winslet, Madame de Barra is an outsider at the court, a stranger to its self-fascinated ways. She is even underwhelmed by the king himself when she meets him, sitting alone in a garden, mourning the death of the queen Maria Theresa. Dressed simply, without his splendid wig and coat, he is charmed by Madame de Barra (who wouldn't be?) and pretends to be the king's gardener until his ignorance of gardening exposes him and she carefully curtsies before him. He insists, charmingly, that the illusion be allowed to continue for awhile.

When summoned to court (and again, nothing is made of the opportunity by the film's costume department), Sabine is introduced to the court's prominent ladies, many of whom are or have been the king's mistresses. After introductory pleasantries, they learn of Sabine's lost family and tell her of all the children they've lost to disease or to the king's momentary favorite. When the king enters, Sabine boldly presents to him a four-seasons rose and employs it as a metaphor for the women who attend him, whose fragile beauty can only fade with time.

Louis himself is presented as an absolute benevolent despot whose authority, though unquestioned, is tempered less by whim than by genuine feeling. As acted by Rickman, he comes across as an all-too-human ruler, grown so weary of the "crush" of the court at Fontainebleau that he's having it moved out into the muck of the country, a country that is "better for the children," one of whom cheerfully announces to him at the start of the film that he's soiled himself.

Despite setbacks, which include the sabotage to the construction of her fantastical amphitheater of Andre Le Notre's jealous wife, Francoise, the project is completed, and the film closes on a lengthy, CGI-assisted crane shot of the king wryly smiling while he dances in the center of Sabine's strange and beautiful dancefloor surrounded by the geometrical perfection of the Versailles gardens. CGI had to be used because the film was shot entirely in England.

A Little Chaos was the second film Rickman directed. His first, The Winter Guest (1997), starred Emma Thompson, and moved Stanley Kauffmann to comment that Rickman "has an extraordinary eye," and that his use of the camera "suggests certain Japanese filmmakers - Ozu, Imamura - with a sense that many shots have been incised, not photographed, and with a tendency toward the rectilinear, straight lines used vertically and horizontally." (1)

I don't know what Kauffmann would've made of Rickman's last directorial effort, except perhaps to remark on its singular lack of what one had every right to expect of a film about the creation of Versailles - namely, splendor. The acting is somewhat disappointing, given the great bookends of Winslet and Rickman in the cast. Stanley Tucci, as Louis's brother, the Duc d'Orleans, provides humor to his few scenes. The Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts is a little stolid as Andre Le Notre, even when he falls in love with Sabine and expresses his passion to her. In a tiny role, Phyllida Law, who is Emma Thompson's mother, and who also appeared in The Winter Guest, graces the scene of Sabine's introduction at court.

Winslet does all she can with a somewhat nebulous role. If some critics thought that she doesn't quite fit in late 17th-century France, it is probably due to the conception of her role, which seems out of place because it is so ill-defined. Alan Rickman is perfect, however, as Louis XIV, magnificent yet weary of his magnificence. He doesn't appear to be enjoying himself at the center of his world - until the transcendent moment when he dances with Sabine in the film's final shot. A Little Chaos could've been sharper, more rigorously upholstered with period detail that would've given it greater substance. But I found it a delightful distraction from the appalling run of the blockbuster mill.

Rickman liked playing Louis and directing his film: "The only way I could do it was because in a way, he's like a director, Louis, so you kind of keep the same expression on your face. As a director, you see everything somehow. It's like a huge all-encompassing eye that sees everything, and it's able to cherry pick; 'Move that,' 'Don't do that,' 'Do it this way,' ' Change this colour'. And I don't know where that comes from, but it does once you're given the job, and I have a feeling Louis probably would've been a great director." (2) Peace to Alan Rickman, but I think Louis would've been a terrible director.

(1) The New Republic, January 5, 1998.  
(2) 9 September 2014.