Thursday, April 5, 2012

Great Directors, Part One

So much I could/should write about in the Frisco Bay film scene right now. Why are there three costume-centric collections of film screenings happening here this weekend? I don't know. How mandatory is the April 14th pair of films at the PFA? pretty mandatory. What do I think of the lineup for the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival? I'll get to that.

But for the moment, all the oxygen in my writing brain is being taken up by Napoléon, which I was extremely lucky to be able to see twice in a period of nine days at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. The first time, I was sitting in the third row (the cheapest seats) and my senses were absolutely overwhelmed. The second time I was in the third-to-last row of the orchestra section and found myself able to enjoy the film on a more analytical level. I realized why this film so easily overcomes my general dislike of biographical films, for instance.

Watching most biopics, I find myself unable to trust the filmmakers' lens onto true historical events. When grinding facts into drama, filmmakers usually want to include the most iconic, seemingly pivotal scenes from an individual's life. Some will approach a well-documented event as careful to maintain historical accuracy as they can be, while others are more interested in re-enacting the way these events are passed down as legends in the popular imagination. How to deal with a less-documented event is more troublesome, especially when the storyteller's instinct to create character arcs, foreshadowing, and other techniques of dramatic license kicks in. An event springing from the screenwriter's imagination can try to pull the same dramatic weight as one documented by the most careful historians, leading to a flattening-out that feels oh-so-fraudulent to me about 95% of the time. In Napoléon, such pitfalls are avoided with the simple usage of the word "historical" in certain intertitles to indicate which scenes are drawn from verified accounts, and perhaps more importantly, by the word's absence, which are not. Rather than creating a cinema of footnotes, this distinction freed me up to appreciate the drama, as well as director Abel Gance's technique and point-of-view on the material.

On point-of-view, I must contest those who summarily insist that Gance's view of his subject is wholly uncritical and therefore counter-revolutionary or even fascistic. Remember that Napoléon is only the first installment of his planned hexalogy of films on Bonaparte; that it was only one of two he was able to film deprives us of knowing just how certain threads (such as the apparitions of Robespierre, Marat, etc. urging the general to carry their reforms outside the French borders, which Gance may well have intended to be a self-justification) would have resolved in later episodes. I hope a local venue can facilitate a chance to see Gance's 1960 reworking of his Part 3, Austerlitz, and/or Lupu Pick's silent-era filming of Gance's scenario for Part 6, Napoléon At St. Helena, sometime.

A word on the technique. It's just as astonishing as everyone says. I don't feel the need to go into the detail of how his shots were achieved, or even which moments were particularly dazzling to me. I was of course impressed by Gance's use of quick-cutting, of irises and filters, of overlapping images, of splitting the screen (all in-camera, as optical printing had not yet come onto the scene), of animation, of removing the camera from its tripod and shooting hand-held or using an imaginative array of makeshift dollies, and of shooting scenes with three cameras for the magnificent three-projector, three-screen panoramic finale, Many of these are often considered "avant-garde techniques" even today. Seeing them applied to a thoroughly accessible, crowd-pleasing film like Napoléon makes me want to retire that term though. Perhaps there are no "avant-garde techniques" but only "avant-garde" applications.

Though I understand the temptation to use the shorthand. Kevin Brownlow makes a convincing case that Gance's 3-screen Polyvision inspired major Hollywood studios to attempt widescreen processes (particularly Cinerama), arguably the purest application of his triple-projection vision today is a strand of multi-projector performance practiced by underground/experimental filmmakers through the tradition of "expanded cinema". Kenneth Anger once told Scott MacDonald that he was inspired by Gance's film to create his three-screen version of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which has not screened since the 1950s. Since then, Andy Warhol, Roger Beebe, Bruce McClure, and a host of others have made multi-projector work, and there will be opportunities to see modern-day examples by the likes of Greg Pope and Kerry Laitala at SF Cinematheques' upcoming Crossroads festival in May. More details on that forthcoming.

After these two screenings, I'm convinced that Abel Gance was a great director. I long to see Brownlow's documentary on him entitled The Charm of Dynamite. I'm sure it would be a wonderful addition to the currently-running screening series at Yerba Buena Center For The Arts. I've been able to preview a number of the selections in this series, entitled Great Directors Speak!, and I think it's a brilliant programming idea that hopefully will be successful enough to become a regular series at the venue. Of those I've been able to see so far, Marcel Ophüls, Jean Luc-Godard, John Cassavetes, Chantal Akerman, and Robert Bresson are each profiled in fascinatingly diverse ways in these documentaries, and I'm sure one's own experience and relationship with each director will make viewing the films a different experience for every single viewer.

Tonight's pairiing is of two hour-long pieces. Marcel Ophüls and Jean-Luc Godard: the Meeting in St-Gervais is simply documentation of an onstage discussion between the two directors (with very minimal contribution from moderators) after a screening of Ophüls' film about French Resistance and Nazi collaboration during World War II, The Sorrow And The Pity, in Godard's hometown of Geneva, Switzerland a couple years ago. The discussion is fascinating to me, even though I've never seen the Ophüls film (or any film made by the son of Max Ophüls, I must shamefully admit). Godard's eyes open up wide like the aperture of a camera trying to collect the maximum available light as he describes his own wartime boyhood, his admiration for Ophüls, and the shelving of the two directors' plans to make a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict- or was it more generally about "Jewishness"- together in recent years. Ophüls for his part maintains a polite smile even when the discussion becomes contentious; "I don't want to be your Jewish whipping boy," he at one point exclaims. For one who has followed some of the controversies regarding Godard's alleged anti-Semitism since the release of Richard Brody's biography Everything Is Cinema, it's particularly illuminating to have Godard speak about some of the issues that caused contentiousness in his own voice.

The second screening tonight is of a 1968 episode of the French television program Filmmakers of Our Time, focusing on another legend often compared to Godard: John Cassavetes. (For instance, both Godard's Breathless and Cassavetes' Shadows were remarkable in their day in part for their unabashed employment of jump cuts, albeit in different ways.) Here Cassavetes is energized as he shows his French visitors around his Los Angeles studio in the midst of editing his second independent feature Faces, and less so in an interview conducted after the film's completion and uncertain release. Cassavetes diehard fans are likely to have seen this documentary before, as it is included as a special feature on the Criterion DVD set. For someone like me, who is a Cassavetes admirer but not obsessive, it's a very rewarding viewing. The famous director even comments briefly on the first version of Shadows which was rediscovered by Ray Carney some years ago and suppressed. Hearing what he has to say to the camera in the presence of his wife Gena Rowlands puts a new perspective on that controversy as well.

The Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman episodes of Filmmakers of Our Time, which screen together at YBCA next Thursday were apparently released on VHS at one time, and an excerpt of the latter is found on the Criterion DVD of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. But to see them in full is rare today. François Weyergan approaches his interview with Bresson rather aggressively, stitching together a barrage of comments from the formidable auteur. Bresson distinguishes "cinema" from the higher form of "cinematography" that is not mired in roots of literature and theatre. When Weyergan asks when "cinematography" began to emerge, his subject answers, "It still hasn't happened. There have been attempts." Speaking this between The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (which, along with Pickpocket and the non-Bresson films Goldfinger and The Testement of Orpheus, the episode excerpts) and Au Hasard Balthazar, frequently considered his greatest masterpiece, made me wonder if he ever changed his mind about this- and if so, how soon afterward.

I have more to say on this series, and much more to say on the Frisco Bay screening scene, but I'd like to get this particular post published before tonight's screenings. So let me pause for now and continue in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend, either as a compliment to the YBCA screening series, or on its own, the new work by imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, This Is Not A Film; it opens for a week-long engagement tomorrow at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema a.k.a. New People. One of the major commercial releases of the year, I particularly recommend Noy Thrupkaew's review in The American Prospect for background on it. Might as well also link to Michael Sicinski's discussion of French director Bertrand Bonello, director of the also-excellent, but unfortunately-named House of Pleasures, which leaves town after tonight to make way for the Panahi film.

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