Sunday, March 01, 2015

SVFF 2015: ZERO POINTThe Evening Class Interview With Gregory Bayne and Christian Lybrook

Early on when I arrived in the Treasure Valley and set about to familiarize myself with Boise's local film production scene, I accepted an assignment to survey same for Fusion magazine. I approached Peg Owens at the Idaho Film Office to steer me towards the individuals who she felt best represented Idaho film production. Unfortunately, both Fusion and the Idaho Film Office have since bitten the dust, but the article still exists out there in the ether as a reminder of my first steps into the community.

One of the main names on Peg's list—confirmed by others as a "must" interview—was Gregory Bayne (A Person of Interest, Jens Pulver: Driven, Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man), considered one of Idaho's key filmmakers for having successfully mounted numerous crowdfunding campaigns, achieving cross-platform distribution deals, and authoring a popular advisory column on DIY filmmaking at Filmmaker magazine. (His most recent advice on learning how to tell stories through editing documentaries has been published at No Film School.) Along with profiling Bayne in my Fusion survey, I likewise talked to him about his ongoing Bloodsworth documentary for The Evening Class.

Christian Lybrook came to my attention through his short film Crawlspace (2011), which had been accepted into a shorts program at the inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF). The trailer he presented at a pre-SVFF Boisecutters meeting intrigued me enough to ask for a screener, and to follow-up with an Evening Class interview with his talent and—with his second short film The Seed (2013)a Fandor Keyframe interview with Lybrook himself.

For the past two years the two filmmakers have been collaborating on the pilot for their web series Zero Point (2015), which will boast its SVFF premiere at The Magic Lantern on Saturday, March 7, 3:50PM. Though George Prentice at The Boise Weekly all but snubbed Idaho filmmakers in his overview of SVFF, opting instead to highlight the festival's spectacular dimension, Jessica Murri balanced out reportage at The Weekly with a shout-out to Zero Point, as did Dana Oland for the Idaho Statesman. With Zero Point squaring up to be one of the most anticipated local projects at SVFF, I felt it was time to have the two over for pancakes and coffee to have an informal discussion on the series.  (Photos courtesy of Gregory Bayne.)

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on Zero Point being accepted into the Sun Valley Film Festival.

Gregory Bayne: Thank you.

Christian Lybrook: Thank you.

Guillén: These days I'm interested in narrative seriality, as are many other film writers. It's become a trending topic in film academic circles: why are audiences shifting to web content, serial narrative content on cable, and away from the theatrical experience of movies? Zero Point is a proposed web series and I'm hoping you can talk a bit about why you decided to move in that direction? And, once you decided to do so, how you developed the story and the project? Is it developed through a whole season at this point?

Bayne: It is. I've obviously done documentaries and feature films and there are two reasons why I preferred a web series for this project. First, there's the economics of it. On an independent level, it's no longer economically viable to make a feature film. It's really difficult. Even if you have a well-known cast, it's incredibly hard. If I'm going to do something that's so hard, I want to do something that has more depth of character, can be more interesting, and live longer.

Also, it's reading the writing on the wall and being in tune with how I view things. I like to watch television. I prefer television most of the time. I'll watch movies when I'm flying across country. So, it was while thinking a lot about what I watch, what I'm into, and wanting to do something in more depth, that I thought about this story in particular. I like apocalyptic stories; but, originally, this was a completely different story that got turned on its head. That's about the time Christian got involved.

The idea, the initial brush, for Zero Point was essentially to tell a story about the apocalypse, but not in the way it's usually told where the apocalypse happens and it all becomes about survival and suddenly everybody forgets about our 2000 years of technological evolution. It's too bizarre and I hate it. I watched the first episode of that NBC show Revolution and within the first five minutes the lights go out and then they cut to a few years later when people are farming in the suburbs. I thought, "What?! Did everyone on Earth that had any kind of technological idea suddenly die as well? I don't understand."

With Zero Point it was about how we could tell the story of an apocalypse, but tell it through character and not so much the events with their plot structure, as it were. How could we tell a story of human beings in the near future dealing with situations that could be real, like disease? And basically our being the architects of our own demise? That's essentially what Zero Point is. It's a story of how we ruin it for ourselves by not only dying off from the natural end of old age but suddenly dying off from the wrong end with our children dying.

I wanted to make a mystery that was not solved by violence. It's a scientific mystery that I believe can be just as involving. There's high tension and high stakes that can take place, and there might be brushes of that, but Zero Point is not about two cops or a cop trying to track down a killer. When the "killer" is something elusive and scientific that you have to figure out, it makes for a much more interesting story. I mean, if you look on the internet you'll find conspiracy theories about diseases transmitting from the animal world to the plant world to us. But a scientist debunked that theory, saying: "Here's the problem. In order for this thing to happen, these five things have to happen and they have to happen perfectly at this perfect time, meaning that it will never happen. I sent Christian the article and posed: "What if those five things happened?" That's Zero Point. What if those five things happened and it all actually came together and what if the disease did jump and it started killing off the youngest among us?

Guillén: So you have a narrative that will unfold over a series of episodes, which is, as I mentioned, a current trend in reception, though not necessarily a new one, as people have been interested in narrative seriality since the turn of the last century. Silent cinema explored narrative seriality, television took it on through its weekly melodramas, but it achieved a heightened sophistication with the advent of The Wire, then The Sopranos, and the rest has been history. And though it could be argued that there is sufficient action in dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos to engage audiences, what you're saying confirms that what might actually be engaging audiences with recent narrative serials is their sophisticated character development. Can you speak to why that is?

Bayne: Because it's more unpredictable. When you're writing, you intertwine plot and character of course, but the most surprising moments I've had watching television—and in some films, but mainly television—are character revelations. Not that they do something that reveals their character, as much as it fits within the guise of the character and still surprises you. When you're dealing with a 90-minute scenario, you have to tie everything up. From films in the '70s and onwards, we've programmed ourselves to tie up everything at the end of 90 minutes. The audience needs to leave satisfied. With a serial narrative there's a certain satisfaction that you want to deliver, but you can dole it out over time and people will forgive you if, let's say, this episode of The Walking Dead is more totally engaging than that episode. But that total engagement has been set up by the characters and living with the characters. It's fun and interesting to learn more and think about them.

I'd think about this when I watched movies: you have these bit players who leave the scene and I'd think, "What's going on with them when they're not on screen? What's that story?" That story could be way more interesting than what's in front of me. Christian and I constantly go back and forth on this as we're building the season arc and beyond for Zero Point. What are the stories behind the stories? Yes, it's an epic story, but let's always retain it in character and what are the little stories within those characters that we can blow up and explore and figure out why they're doing what they're doing, how they tick, and how that relates to other characters? That also allows us to spend time to take all these characters that seem so spread apart and disconnected and weave the story so that they actually are connected. That exploration would be too hard to do confined to just 90 minutes.

Guillén: When Star Wars came out in 1977, launching the era of the Spielbergian blockbuster, audiences were dazzled by the film's CGI virtuosity. It initiated a groundswell of spectatorial engagement with visual effects on the screen that superseded their imagination and—as exciting as that all was in the beginning—I suspect the long-term affect has been a weakening of the spectatorial imagination and an increased passivity among audiences. I'm hardly the first to complain that most movies in the multiplexes are catering to 14-year-old boys who want to see and feel explosions, perhaps as an honest impulse to kickstart lethargic imaginations?

These movies were never meant to be like those of my childhood—all those black-and-white science fiction flicks or sword and sandal adventures from the '50s and early '60s that—maybe had modest special effects budgets?—but moreorless relied on silver-painted cardboard and a few flashing lights and whistles to signify the future because that's all our imaginations took at the time. I learned early on that there is nothing the unconscious wants more than to be solicited to participate. So that's all by way of saying that I suspect these days imaginations are being activated by the psychological depths of character motivation and development. A good story is regaining its importance.

Lybrook: The other thing that happened was technology. You go back to Dickens and serialized content, it's not new, right? Greg and I pass back and forth Nerdist Writers Panel podcasts. They interview writers on writing and it's interesting. You listen to why studios or networks greenlight shows, why they don't, why they did, why they didn't. Ten years ago, you couldn't record a show. I mean, you could on your VCR; but, once DVR came out, it changed everything because then serialized content could be consumed back to back.

Guillén: A couple of years back, a colleague of mine Dina Iordanova published a volume with Stuart Cunningham entitled Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-line (2012) and I was struck by how as a viewer—especially since moving to Boise, Idaho—my viewing habits shifted away from in-theater exhibition to streaming platforms where I could devour narrative serials through binge viewing. Part of this was not only because I could, having upped my game with a large flatscreen and home entertainment system, several subscriptions to streaming channels, and—as you said, Christian, DVR recording capabilities—but because I found it easier to follow and absorb narrative continuities rather than waiting week-to-week per the old model. As someone who's getting older by the minute, binge viewing of serial format provides an option of retention that feels welcome. My enjoyment has increased in watching how stories develop and in being able to more accurately detect the curve of a character arc.

Lybrook: Technology only facilitated these changes; but, it's not the key. As Greg pointed out, the key is character. These characters are people we grow to love and miss when they're gone. I remember when The Killing got killed and it went away. I was like, "Oh my God, I've never going to see Linden and Holder again!" Then Netflix brought it back for a final season; a short run of six episodes. I remember watching the first episode of that final season and thinking, "Holder, you ol' rascal!" It was great to see them again, which is stupid to get so attached.

Guillén: No, it's not stupid. These stories inform our lives. I'm fond of a quote by the American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser who wrote in her volume The Speed of Darkness (1968): "The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms." We fall in love with these characters because, at soul, we're compelled by other people. People are interested in other people. A good writer creates relatable characters who affect us as much as flesh-and-blood acquaintances, sometimes even more so. Again, we're talking about what engages and activates the imagination. Characters who engage us are not stupid.

Lybrook: They're not. But I say that jokingly in terms of what we invest ourselves in.

Guillén: Now, I'm not very informed on web series. Is a web series these days a filmmaker's entree into television work? Is that the goal? Can you monetize a web series? Why a web series?

Bayne: I'm not sure where the moniker "web series" was even born, but it specifies a series on the web that isn't from the studios. The House of Cards was a web series. The Amazon series Bosch is a web series. When we went to the Independent Film Week (as part of the IFP), everyone was talking about web series. Finally on Day One we said, "Don't say 'web series' anymore because nobody knows what to do with that. They categorize it in their head as a five-minute episode....

Lybrook: Usually comedic.

Bayne: There are varying degrees to how people commodify these series. You look at somebody like Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island and those guys essentially did web series, web skits, and had the "break" of Kiefer Sutherland thinking they were actually beating up an old person on the street. They were filming an outdoor skit where they were beating up an old woman. One of them was dressed up as the old woman. Kiefer Sutherland happened to see this, stopped it from happening, and then realized it was a joke. Then Andy Samberg and friends get a pilot on Fox that I don't think ever aired but then they became writers for Saturday Night Live. There's that level of it.

Or, as with High Maintenance on Vimeo, it was a series someone on the staff liked and they kept putting it in the "staff picks" and one of the people who created the series Katja Blichfeld is an Emmy Award-winning casting director of 30 Rock. Cinetic Media got involved and then they sold the series back to Vimeo who is now releasing it as their original series. So there's that sort of thing.

One of the earlier successes was a series called The Guild created and written by Felicia Day. She was an actress who had done a lot of sci-fi work, she was a gamer, and she made little six-to-eight minute episodes for a first season. Xbox Live and Microsoft picked up the next season. They funded the series and put it out through their Xbox Live Channel. So there are all these varying degrees of web series.

Guillén: Thank you for that survey. That's quite helpful. But what about you? What are you trying to do with your web series? Are you hoping to monetize Zero Point? Are you hoping to open it out to a more developed assignment?

Bayne: We're platform agnostic at this point, mainly meaning—if Amazon or AMC came to our door, we would be like, "Yes! Thank you!" That's not going to happen. If a bit torrent or Vimeo wanted to get involved, or if we wanted to do it independently, then what we really want is to tell a great serialized story that hasn't been told. It started as 10-minute episodes, but then it grew into: "What do we want to make? We want to make TV. So why don't we just start there as opposed to making little 10-minute episodes? Let's go all in. Let's make a TV-length pilot. Then we'll start beating down doors." We have a number of scenarios we're playing with. We can go in this direction or that. The overarching incentive is we want to film a whole season. Our mantra has been: "If we can get the pilot made and it's good, one way or the other we can make the season."

Guillén: So, at this point, only the pilot's been shot?

Bayne: We've only shot the pilot, yes.

Guillén: Tell me a little bit about your experience at Independent Film Week. Were you looking for backers?

Bayne: Independent Film Week used to be the Independent Feature Film Market in New York and it has since morphed into this broader networking program for narrative filmmakers, documentarians, and writers. This year as part of their writing program, which is mainly scripts in development, they brought in a new web storytellers program. Zero Point was one of seven projects chosen for this program. They set us up with one-on-one meetings with producers and production companies, not so much distributors since—in their first year of this new program—they weren't fully dialed in to episodic content. Organizations like Sundance, the IFP, and others are just starting to get involved with episodic. Our meetings were intended to seek out potential partnerships and we're continuing to talk to some of the folks we met.

Guillén: So let's talk about the pilot, which will be premiering at SVFF. Thank you, first of all, for letting me have a sneak peek of the rough cut. I don't want to talk too much about the plot because I don't want to give anything away for those lucky enough to catch it at SVFF; but, I much enjoyed a visual stylism that I noticed again and again in your camerawork, which was of a scene commencing with a fuzzed out image being brought into focus. For me, this aligned perfectly with the narrative's thematic tone of a mystery being gradually revealed. How conscious was that? Is there a term for that in-camera technique?

Bayne: [Laughs.] It's probably just a "Greg treatment."

Guillén: You use that a lot?

Bayne: I do. Style develops over time, which you can see if you watch my movies. Mine's a weird balance because my style is striving to have no style. Part of that, honestly, is the result of the technicality of me shooting where I have a camera and I'm pulling focus. I don't have a trained focus puller so I'm doing it myself while I'm composing and doing everything else at once. It would be easy enough for me to edit all of that out, but I like it. It gives some life to the image. It also makes you aware of the camera, but not in an overly intrusive way. It also pulls your eye into the scene, literally focusing you in. So, yes, there is a bit of purpose behind it.

Lybrook: One of the things Greg and I talked a lot about, whether it was in the shooting—and Greg deserves all the credit for that—or the music, was a sense of intimacy with Embry and our characters. The style allows you to feel a little closer, because the camera work is raw.

Bayne: If you noticed, there's not any fancy 100-foot dolly shots in Point Zero. The camera work is simple. I much prefer hand-held. I don't want you to be distracted by that, but I like the frame to feel alive and immediate.

Guillén: Again, I feel it served what I saw because your female lead Embry was returning to the site of the incident, investigating, and exploring the vicinity, and the hand-held camera took you right alongside her. At one point the thought crossed my mind, "What kind of forensic experts did they have canvasing the scene of the accident who overlooked all this evidence?" But I enjoyed how you framed the action so we could discover clues along with Embry.

Let's talk about your lead actress Lisa King Hawkes who portrays your protagonist Dr. Alex Embry and who, interestingly enough, reminded me of Mireille Enos from The Killing. I think it's her red hair and the baseball cap. I was completely caught up in her fine performance. Can you tell me about her and how you found her?

Bayne: I was shooting a commercial for the Idaho wine industry with my friend Travis Swartz. I hadn't met Lisa yet. Originally, the role had been written for a male and Christian and I were debating about switching the gender. I have nothing but a roster of testosterone-driven movies and have been making male experience films for so long that I didn't want to do it anymore.  So we had been talking back and forth and were close to convinced to change the lead to a female. We thought it would open up the story in a better way. I was doing this commercial for the Idaho wine industry, which was in essence a comic spot; but, the way Travis writes, if you're doing the comedy right, you're not trying to be funny. The actors deliver it straight. Lisa was playing a river rafting guide who complains about how Idaho is only known for its wine. The bit was that we have potatoes, we have great rivers, we have all these wonderful attributes, but all anyone ever talks about is Idaho wine. Anyways, she's doing this spot as a river rafting guide and I was totally blown away. She had an amazing look, looked fantastic on camera....

Lybrook: Can I pick up the story? So I'm at work and I get this text from Greg and it's got a picture of his LCD screen on his camera and it's a picture of Lisa. I was like, "Why is he sending me pictures of random women?" Of course there was the message that said: "I think I've found our Embry." I was like, "Whatever, Greg, sure." But then he showed me some of her work and we had her come in and read.

Bayne: I started talking to her that day. I was so giddy. She seemed interested. We had her audition and cast her first and built the cast around her for the opening episode. Most of the actual season one cast is in the pilot, which was a strategic play on our part. We knew that was where we wanted to start the story but we hadn't tied ourselves into cast. Lisa's wonderful, absolutely remarkable. She's been here in Idaho for quite a while. She's a producer at Drake Cooper. We rehearsed and rehearsed. With everyone you work with, like me and Christian, you develop a shorthand. It felt nice that Lisa and I just got that right away. She really understood the character and where we were going with the story and she just devoted fully to the project and nailed it.

Guillén: I respect your decision to shift to a female lead character. With regard to narrative seriality, some of the best roles for women are being written on TV. The Killing, as we've mentioned. Top of the Lake. The Fall. Gillian Anderson's performance on The Fall is completely blowing me away. It's, perhaps, the most embodied, unfiltered female character driven by emotional damage that I've ever seen. What The Fall is saying about gender construction, gender presumption, borders on the subversive.

Lybrook: It's interesting because we've put the rough cut of the pilot out there among a trusted circle of peers and compatriots and every once in a while we hear, "Well, it's really good, I really like it, but Embry's not very likeable." That feels like a comment that would have been made 10-20 years ago. Greg had a good point: if this was a male lead, nobody would care if he was likeable or not. The audience would just go with it. That's telling.

Bayne: It's frustrating. Look at Breaking Bad. I can enjoy Walter White, but he's such an ass! Some of the things he does!

Guillén: I've long been interested in how co-directorships are negotiated. Who does what? Who's zooming who in this project?

Lybrook: I learn from others. It's a topic we spent a lot of time talking about. Cultivating our relationship and being sure to have all these conversations in advance because we both have a deep commitment to this project and we don't want something stupid to get in the way of it. When we're on set, Greg gets final word. But Greg knows that when we're there and he gets the look from me that I have something I want to pitch to him, he can either take it or drop it.

What I appreciate is that this is Greg's original concept. He happened to be talking to me about it and I said, "That's really cool. If you want any help, let me know." I was thinking I could help him write it or whatever. We didn't go into our collaboration with labels really. We just wanted to talk about the story and characters and invent this world. Greg came to me and said, "You're co-creator on this." It blew me away, honestly. He didn't have to do that. But what that means to me is that I'm a co-creator and need to share in discussion and decisions. He said I was absolutely right. Even on the smallest things, he'll check in with me or I'll check in with him.

Guillén: You wrote the script together?

Lybrook: Yes.

Bayne: Essentially, the delineation is that anything that has to do with story is a co-creation. We're defining the season together and writing the scripts together. On set, I'm directing. I'm the one talking to the actors. But if there's anything in the casting or rehearsals or even on set, Christian obviously has my ear and anything he says is not going to be dismissed. He is the co-author of this project. And though I shot it and I cut it, even in the editing he and I go back and forth. I'll cut something together, then we'll discuss it, and he'll say this or that, and I'll say, "Oh, you're right. Okay, let's cut that."

Lybrook: It works out pretty darn well because it's nice to have a second brain. Especially when things are so lean and we don't have the full crew we would like to have, it's really nice to have someone there to go, "Hey, did we want to do this?" It's helpful to have two brains that are both empowered to be loyal to the overall vision.

Bayne: Both of us have aesthetic viewpoints. I have a very strong aesthetic viewpoint and I discussed with Christian what that is and it was agreed upon. I'm given free rein.

Guillén: So you say you're dealing with the actors, are you also dealing with the camera work?

Bayne: Yes.

Guillén: Are you both dealing with the camera?

Lybrook: No.

Guillén: Well, what do you do?!

Lybrook: I just stand around. [Laughs.]

Bayne: We're both producing this so when we get on set the delineation is that I'm directing and he's producing. He's making sure everything's running and that we're getting everything we need, everything I said I would get, and going forth from there. I'm hoping that as we go forward I won't have to operate all the time. I love operating, but it'd be nice to switch off.

Guillén: Down the line, would you switch off directing?

Bayne: Yeah, we've actually talked about that. Eventually, probably, I will.

Lybrook: It's hard to do everything. There are very few people who write, shoot, direct, and edit; who do everything in theory. I really don't know anybody who does it.

Bayne: And I don't want to continue to do it all, so..... Let's say things went gangbusters and Zero Point did go to a network. The dream, obviously, is that we're the showrunners.

Guillén: Showrunners are the new auteurs, it seems. To finish up here and to loop back to your presence at Sun Valley, how are you feeling about that? Are you excited? What do you hope to get out of that experience? What kind of feedback might you expect?

Bayne: I'm very excited. I've never been. This is my first project where I've felt it's really getting out there. We submitted to Independent Film Week and we got in. We submitted to the Sun Valley Film Festival and we got in. It's nice to have a little wind straight out of the gate with it. When I think of film festivals, I just want to have a great screening, a good audience, hopefully good feedback. It will be interesting to get that audience reaction.

Lybrook: Especially because audiences at festivals aren't used to seeing serialized content.

Guillén: That's something unique that Sun Valley has done since its inception, is to honor web content. I hope you have a wonderful experience with your Sun Valley premiere and look forward to being a participant in your audience.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

THROWBACK THURSDAY—The Greencine Interview with Béla Tarr (The Man From London, 2007)

With The Man From London (2007), Béla Tarr creates what David Bordwell might characterize as a "grave and majestic" portrait of a conflicted man gripped by a state of scepsis. Tethered to the mundane, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot)—as Tarr describes him—"lives simply, without prospects, beside the infinite sea, takes little notice of the world around him, accepts his slow and inevitable deterioration of life and almost complete isolation. Gradually his contacts shrink and become mechanical." And then something remarkable happens. Maloin witnesses a murder and retrieves a valise of stolen money. "The temptation of a new life of a different quality takes hold over him." But it is exactly a new life configured as "temptation" that thrusts Maloin into moral rupture, a questioning of all with which he has held faith. As Darren Hughes has suggested to me in conversation, the suspense inherent in The Man From London is precisely a question of faith.

Premiering at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, The Man From London then docked on North American shores at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival where I was offered the chance to speak with Béla Tarr. A reputed contrarian, I found myself uncharacteristically nervous on my way to meet him. I didn't know what else to do but to be upfront about it. I admitted to him that I was terrified of him; that I had heard he chewed up journalists like me for lunch and spit them out. His piercing blue eyes twinkled, and he laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and, in a warm, honey-thick accented voice, assured me, "Don't worry."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Béla, when I was a young kid, I was taught that it is in the performance of your everyday tasks that your radiance shines through. Your films demonstrate this repeatedly, specifically The Man From London. Can you talk about why revealing the eternal through the everyday is such an important theme for you?

Béla Tarr: I have to go back to the time when I did my first movie, which was about a social problem. In this re-creation, which was terribly concrete, I could find something that was a little bit more than the daily life. Since that moment 30 years ago, I have always been interested in the concrete situation; but, if it's too concrete, I'm really not interested. I've just always tried to find some cosmological significance in this micro situation. It's a kind of microcosmos. I like very much Bartók's "Mikrokosmos"; do you know this piece?

Guillén: Yes.

Tarr: That's all. For me it's always important to tell you something and show something which is really eternal; but it's always happening. It's happening with us now.

Guillén: It's intriguing to me that you would use that term "microcosmos" because the same person who taught me about radiance coming through the performance of everyday tasks likewise used the term "microcosmic-macrocosmic correspondence"—or as the Taoists would say, "As above; so below"—to describe the human relationship to the eternal.

Tarr: Yes.

Guillén: I've seen three of your films—Sátántangó (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and now The Man From London, which I've found to be the most accessible of the three. In all three, I'm struck not only by the movement of your camera but the movement of your actors and how your camera tracks their ambulations. There are long tracking shots where the actors walk some distance—distances they're familiar with—and with which the audience becomes familiar, as if becoming accustomed to the everyday routes and routines of your characters. Route equals routine, in other words, and how the route varies signifies a change in routine. Further, this abstraction is compounded by the fact that the faces of your characters are nearly void of affect. They reveal little. Which serves to emphasize that underneath there is a lot of thought and emotion going on, a lot of internalization. It seems you try to remedy this through close-ups on the face whereby glimpses are shown of the internal activity, invariably through the eyes. You do this rather than having them act out anything that reveals what's within. Why do you take that taciturn approach?

Tarr: That's really a part of the practical work. I know two kinds of directors. One who reads the script and is concentrating on the story line. That is something I never do. I'm always listening for the characters and the personalities of the actors. For me, the most important thing is to show you how they are living, how it goes for them in their real life, and how they communicate. Normally, it's mostly eye contact. If you watch someone's eyes for a long time, it's not necessary to use any words because you will begin to understand and will see what is happening. You can see what is happening inside because his or her eyes will tell you and show you. That's why I trust my actors and trust, of course, the situation because the situation has to be perfect physically, psychologically. At every point the situation has to be perfect and comfortable because, in this case, the actors are not acting anymore; they are just being. You can see the real life and you can see the real personality of this actor or the character. You can go with them. It's not necessary to tell and tell and tell. I'm fed up with this whole narrative thing because the movie—you know what?—without the narrative, the movie has a chance; you can show something. It's not necessary to tell. Do you remember the end take of the Werckmeister Harmonies? When the old man goes to the eye of the whale?

Guillén: Yes.

Tarr: Nobody can ever tell you by words what is happening in this old man and in this sad eye of the whale. But I can show you and that's enough. I trust your eyes and I trust your heart and I trust your emotions. I really trust the audience.

Guillén: Speaking of what's said with the eyes, in The Man From London there were two scenes that brought my heart to my throat. The first was when Maloin comes to take his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók) away from her abusive employer, the butcher's wife. Her anger, registered through her eyes, could have stopped a clock! Who is that actress and how did you come to cast her?

Tarr: She's Kati Lázár. I've worked with her before in Werckmeister Harmonies. She was in the newspaper office and the post office. She played the woman who selected the newspapers. She's an actress in Hungary working mostly in the theater; but, I like her very much.

Guillén: The other scene I loved was when Mrs. Brown (Ági Szirtes) realizes that her husband—"The Man From London"—has been caught up in something more than she can cope with. I don't know how you did it, maybe it's the sheer magic of the camera, but her tear as it wells in the corner of her eye glitters and sparkles. It is so beautiful and moving.

Tarr: I told her, "You have to do this process." From when she gets the news to when she understands how she's been blackmailed. How they are pushing her. That was also important. One thing is sure, we are really doing movies about human dignity, which is always being destroyed throughout the day. The challenge becomes finding actors who can show you the dignity of the character. In such a situation, you can get real human reactions. That's terribly important for me; that my actors have a strong dignity.

Guillén: There's a genuine momentum to your actors. Their actions don't appear staged. They seem to come right out of the situations they're in, from the storyline.

Tarr: From the situation, not the storyline. We never talk about the story because it's not important. We just talk about the real situation, the physical situation.

Guillén: In this situation then, where you're adapting a novel, which has its own narrative integrity, how do you work with your actors? Do you single out specific scenes or situations that have a psychological validity for their characters?

Tarr: No, no. The script is written. László Krasznahorkai and I decide together how we want the script. I've worked with him for 25 years. Before filming, we decide what kind of situations are going to be in the movie and we write that down. On the other hand, we change things during the shooting. Several times we reduce the text, allowing more chance for the meta-communications than the verbal communication. It's absolutely necessary because several times the actors speak different languages. For example, Maloin was Czech, Tilda Swinton was Scottish, the daughter in the movie, she's Hungarian. You know, she was the small girl from Sátántangó? Now she's 22. I'm very faithful. I like to work with the same people.

Guillén: I imagine they understand what you're going for better?

Tarr: Yes, it's much easier. I don't talk too much during shooting. Maybe just something like, "Louder. Lower. Faster. Slower." That's enough. Because if you have the right cast, if you have the right situation physically and psychologically, and if they are able to be, it is not necessary to direct. I'm not directing. It just looks like a conductor. If you have good musicians and a good musical piece, if you trust the whole staff, then in this case you just say, "Okay, now." That's enough.

Guillén: Part of the artistry of your work, however, is that you have fully thought things out way ahead of shooting. You arrive to the set prepared. The sinuosity of your camera, your track shots, are amazing and require prolonged choreography. How do you set up that choreography? What's your relationship with your camera man? Do you try different things out?

Tarr: No, no. First of all, you have to know I'm terribly autocratic. I have a very strong imagination about the picture and I know very well the whole movie before we start to build the set. They build the set for what I have imagined. When I hunted for the location, it was very important for me to find the geographical conditions for what I imagined. When I found the place, then we could start to build the signal cage and put in the train tracks and the train and the boat. We put everything together and then afterwards it was very easy to build the track for the camera and it was ready.

Guillén: What is it about the long take that you love so much? You're famous for this and your long takes are sinuously eloquent. Why do long takes serve your vision?

Tarr: There are several reasons. First of all, the long take has a different tension. If you are shooting short takes your actors have a chance to escape. Short takes are terribly boring for me.

Guillén: It becomes more editing than filming?

Tarr: No, no, it's just boring. I don't feel I'm creating something. With long takes, you build together the actors and the situation and the camera movement. Building step by step is what I enjoy very much. Here is the first thing, and then you move from here, and this is the turning point, and then here comes a close-up, and then in the next moment we open the picture wide to the landscape, and then another close-up cutting this wide picture, then we move further, and finally, we will arrive to the entry. It has to be very well-composed. The technicians have to be very well-trained. Everything has to work together in a long shot. This is a special tension for the technicians, the camera crew, the actors. The actors have no chance to leave because we are watching their eyes. We are watching longer and longer and longer. That's why everybody is really under pressure. That's why you can watch something finally; what you cannot see if we do the movie in a different way, or the traditional way.

Guillén: I found it incredibly suspenseful when Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt) is deducing what's happened, replicating the actions of the opening murder sequence, which is being filmed with the same camera movements as the opening sequence. However, there's this added layer of the audience (as Maloin) watching Morrison figure it all out. When Morrison goes down to the dock, looks in the water, and then looks back up at Maloin's signal cage, you know he's got it and that Maloin (and you as the audience) have become incriminated.

Tarr: It's a similar shot but it's not the same shot.

Guillén: Can we talk about your score? The music for your movie? You have a hypnotic accordion that keeps playing the same melody throughout the film. It's as if you're purposely mesmerizing your audience through a prolonged contemplation. Would you consider your films to be contemplative cinema?

[Tarr grimaces.]

In the press notes you use the term "pure cinema."

Tarr: Yes.

Guillén: Can you explain what you mean by "pure cinema"? And would pure cinema be comparable to contemplative cinema?

Tarr: [A deep, patient breath.] I'm able to tell you only one thing. What we are trying to do is more and more and more pure cinema, which is maybe less and less and less story, less and less details, and of course, I really would like to go deeper and deeper and deeper in the human soul. I want to understand something because I'm always just discovering, discovering, discovering something, some new thing, some new possibilities in the film language. Of course, I keep some things but I'm always finding new things I can use. I really like to listen to people. I don't like the artificial anymore. I want to go in like a miner, deeper and deeper. That's what I think. That's why I think I can do it always in one way if I'm more and more simple. What we are doing, it's really on the edge. It's a risk.

Guillén: Returning to your music if we may. Most scores in films are manipulative. They signal what the audience is supposed to feel. Your music, however, is not manipulative.

Tarr: It's a part of the movie.

Guillén: It sets a tone of attention. It says, "This is where you mind has to come to in order to absorb the images that are on their way." How did you decide on the music?

Tarr: It's a very simple step. I've been working with the composer Mihály Vig since 1983, about 24 years. He's a poet and a rock musician. He's also writing something. He's a very energetic man. He's a part of my family. We are always together when we are working. Before the shooting, I tell him what we think about the movie, how we believe, and I ask him to do some music. He goes to his studio, he records something, and then he comes back to me with his disk. We listen, we choose, we discuss. Maybe he goes back, maybe several times he goes back to the studio to change something. Maybe he just changes an instrument and then he comes back. Afterwards, the music is ready and we use the music during the shooting.

Guillén: So the actors are actually listening to the music while you're shooting?

Tarr: Yes. The actors are listening, the camera crew is listening. When we watch this stupid, small monitor, we see immediately the movie. We know how it will be. There will be differences of course, because some of the actors will have to be dubbed in; but mostly, the whole staff is ready during the shooting. The post-production is a short period of time. When we finish the movie, it's ready. We cannot change anything on the editing table. We use the editing table only for a few days.

Guillén: I don't know how you'd be able to edit some of your long shots.

Tarr: No, no. We just put it together. That's why I have to know, and everybody has to know, how is the whole movie going to be? We have to know, okay, this take is going to finish in a white out and how will the next one connect and how will we do the lighting?

Guillén: The lighting in The Man From London is phenomenal; the term being commonly used is "noirish." I especially liked how you lit the night scenes with the buildings in the background illuminated from ground level. Is your lighting designer, Fred Kelemen, another individual in your production ensemble with whom you've been working with for years?

Tarr: The director of photography, the gaffer and me, this is our job. I have a strong imagination and we are always discussing the lighting. It has to be perfect.

Guillén: It's lustrous! You've perfectly captured night's luster. Throughout the film you fade to black-outs and yet you make the choice in the ending close-up shot of Mrs. Brown's face to fade to white. Why that choice to fade to white?

Tarr: Because while I was shooting her face, I noticed her face was getting whiter and whiter. So we put the lamps a little bit closer to her face and a little brighter and then finally we did it in total white.

Guillén: Not having read Georges Simenon's novel upon which The Man From London is based, I don't know whether the scene where Maloin takes the food to Mr. Brown is as it was written. Was it your choice not to show us what happens?

Tarr: Something has to happen but you don't know what, yes.

Guillén: Why that exclusion? Why not show us?

Tarr: Because I think it's much more powerful if you don't see. I'm really not an action director. I really don't know. If I tried to direct action, I would become ridiculous. What we wanted to show you was how he went into the shed and then how he comes out. The difference is what is totally important. Afterwards you can understand why he confesses.

Guillén: What I was trying to say earlier about how your characters move in your films—they carry the burden of their own truths. The gravitas is embodied. They don't have to show it all in their faces. Their bodies express the weight of who they are. This is particularly evident in Maloin's body language when he emerges from the shed. He's a different person for what has happened in there. You don't necessarily have to see what happened to know its effect.

My final question: Your casting of Tilda Swinton as Maloin's wife. How did that come about?

Tarr: She immediately said yes when I called her.

Guillén: Was it her face you wanted?

Tarr: Yes, her eyes. Her personality. I must say that, for me, she's not a Hollywood actress. You know she was working with Derek Jarman, she played Orlando, she did some serious acting in Europe, and for Europeans, she's not just somebody from Hollywood. She's really a European intellectual. She's a very clever, well-educated, intelligent woman who is full of sensibility and that's why it was totally natural to work with her. There was no question. It was really nice to work with her and we still love each other. This work couldn't destroy our relationship.

Guillén: You really helped me focus on just how beautiful and unique her face is through this movie. Well, Béla, they're signaling me to stop. This has been one of the highlights of my filmwriting career. Thank you so much for your time, your kindness, and your beautiful film. I hope it's received with an open heart and an open mind.

Tarr: I hope so too. That's important. Thanks a lot.

(Originally published on the Greencine website, February 3, 2008.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


I'm proud to announce the publication of the Spring 2015 issue of Cineaste (40:2) magazine, in which two of my interviews have been published. The print issue includes my conversation with Abderrahmane Sissako ("Hidden Certainties and Active Doubts") regarding his Oscar®-nominated film Timbuktu, and—as a web exclusive—"Cinema as Spiritual Literature: Andrey Zvyagintsev Discusses Leviathan", which won this year's Golden Globe® for Best Foreign Language film, and was Oscar®-nominated as well.

It's a strong issue that includes Brian Neve's feature article "Working-Class Noir in the Blacklist Era: The Making of Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury", which should be of special interest to Noir City aficionados who were on hand for the premiere of the film's restoration print by the Film Noir Foundation two years back. Neve's article is an excerpt from his forthcoming biography, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, to be published this summer by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Steve Erickson's feature article "Voyeurs in the Hermit Kingdom: The Interview and Other Films on North Korea" enables a discussion "on the art and politics of cinema" per Cineaste's stated focus, and is contextualized in the magazine's editorial for the issue, which asserts that The Interview "doesn't earn the headlines it sowed."

A preview of Darragh O'Donoghue's feature article "Monsieur Hulot's History: Jacques Tati Pictures Modern France" will whet your appetite to read the full piece to better appreciate the Criterion Collection's recently-released box set "The Complete Jacques Tati" which includes six feature films and seven feature shorts, accompanied by a 62-page booklet.

A preview of Adam Nayman's review of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice is available, to be paired with Pierre Sauvage's "Beware the Golden Fang!: An Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson." There's also a preview of Gary Bettinson's interview with Ethan Hawke on "Screen Acting and the New Hollywood." Further interviews in this issue include Richard Porton's "Birth of a Whistle-Blower: An Interview with Laura Poitras"—whose Citizenfour just won the Academy Award® for Best Documentary Feature—and Declan McGrath's "Moments of Transcendence: An Interview with John Boorman." As a fellow web exclusive, Cineaste offers Aaron Cutler's "Two Shots Fired: An Interview with Martín Rejtman."

Accompanying my interview with Sissako is Maria Garcia's review of Timbuktu. Further reviews include Rosewater (Karen Blackstein), Human Capital (Darragh O'Donoghue), Life of Riley (Jordan Cronk), and Clouds of Sils Maria (Graham Fuller). DVD reviews include the 1988 and 1993 versions of The Vanishing (Robert Cashill), The Conformist (Deborah Young), Man of the West (Christopher Sharrett), Level Five (David Sterritt), Tootsie (Matthew Hays), Diary of a Lost Girl, Massillon, The Promised Land, The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, and Verdun: Looking at History (recommended by Cineaste Editors), and—as web exclusives—Whiplash (Travis Maiuro and Cynthia Lucia), Che! (Robert Cashill), Bloody Mama (Christopher Sharrett) and The Lusty Men (Leonard Quart).

Book reviews include Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor and Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor (Adam Nayman), The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America and Clint Eastwood's America (Michal Oleszczyk), German Cinema—Terror and Trauma: Cultural Memory Since 1945 (Stuart Liebman), Terence Davies (Jamie Dunn), Approaching the End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film (Joseph Yanick), and Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema (Michael Joshua Rowin).

Finally, available as a web exclusive, Jared Rapfogel reports from The 2014 Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

All available on newstands now!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND—Tulipunainen kyyhkynen (The Scarlet Dove, 1961) / Ye Mei Gui Zhi Lian (The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960)

Now here's a very odd double-bill pairing Finnish director Matti Kassila's Tulipunainen kyyhkynen (The Scarlet Dove, 1961) with Hong Kong's Tian-lin Wang's Ye Mei Gui Zhi Lian (The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960), "where"—as Donald Malcolm writes in his program notes—" 'bad marriages' take on both operatic and oneiric dimensions." The second evening of Donald Malcolm and Elliot Lavine's international noir series "A Rare Noir Is Good to Find" (running Thursday-Monday, March 19-23, 2015, at the Roxie Theater) is encaptioned "Perilous Love" and—though one of the most redeeming qualities of the series is exposure to rare films and the talent behind them (The Scarlet Dove features Tauno Palo in his final feature film performance directed by Matti Kassila, who Malcolm identifies as "one of the giants in post-WWII Finnish cinema")—I have to be honest and say that I had a difficult time appreciating The Scarlet Dove because of Osmo Lindeman's jarring and obnoxious avant-garde "score" that sounds like a feral cat on LSD let loose on piano wires.

If you don't mind your nerves being needlessly jangled for 86 minutes, then perhaps you won't be as distracted as I was from this nightmarish tale of a doctor on the run suspected of killing his wife. In Kassila's nocturnal scenario, middle-aged Dr. Olavi Aitamaa (Palo) suspects his younger wife of infidelity and stealthily follows her into the city where she does, indeed, meet up with her handsome young lover. Cuckolded, and constantly reminded of the fact by a cackling old man who keeps showing up wherever he goes, the devastated doctor licks his wounds like an old dog underneath the piers where he is unexpectedly approached and seduced by a "scarlet dove" (Helen Elde) who invites him to her ramshackle apartment, only to have her abruptly change face. As if he wasn't emasculated enough, he returns to the rendezvous point for his wife and lover only to discover she has been murdered.

A story in the grip of an overused contrivance, The Scarlet Dove begs its audience at the end of the film not to reveal its conceit. I won't, but I found it far from satisfying. The build-up has its surreal moments, with impressive cinematography by Kalle Peronkoski and solid performances from its ensemble—especially Helen Elde as the sweet-and-sour "scarlet dove" (i.e., prostitute) that reminds Dr. Aitamaa of his first love—but the pay-off falters. Maybe it won't for you?

Grace Chang's sensual embodiment of Georges Bizet's most famous opera Carmen is given a postmodern treatment in Tian-lin Wang's The Wild, Wild Rose. Wang transposes the opera's Seville locations to the noirish ambiance of Hong Kong's Wanchai district. This one-off screening at the Roxie Theatre is a not-to-be-missed experience in their international noir series. Back in 2006, anticipating the local premiere of Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud (2005) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Roger Garcia recommended I watch the films of Grace Chang to better appreciate Tsai Ming-Liang's latest effort, so—following his cue—I secured copies of Mambo Girl and The Wild, Wild Rose. What follows are my notes from 2006, revisited with follow-up research.

At Wonders in the Dark, Allan Fish does a good job of enumerating the many filmic adaptations of Bizet's Carmen, from Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 silent version with opera star Geraldine Farrar, to Rita Hayworth in "the bizarre mess" The Loves of Carmen (1948), through Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), and beyond.

Rich with an insider's perspective that deflates Western reductions of The Wild, Wild Rose to mere kitsch—although it can be enjoyed on that level, it is considerably more—Doundou Tchil (Classical Iconoclast) provides the historical and socio-economic context to better situate and appreciate the film's achievement. He writes that the film's importance lies in its "extremely pointed commentary on Chinese values at a time of great upheaval in Chinese society. It's set in Hong Kong, a city where everyone was a refugee, even the local born. Millions of people had been dislocated in China after decades of war and chaos. Like many films at that time, The Wild, Wild Rose begins with shots of neon lights and glittering nightlife, symbolizing prosperity. But this hedonism unfolds against a background of extreme suffering and deprivation." In his Slant essay on the film, Kevin B. Lee concurs: "Ensconced in cosmopolitan culture, from airliners to mambo clubs, Cathay's urbane entertainments envisioned a Hong Kong jet set that presaged the city's eventual ascendance as an economic powerhouse." I'm going to ask my readers to keep these comments in mind when we later approach Salón Mexico (1949), the Mexican noir in the series, to understand how socio-economic conditions and class conflict energize noir's narrative impulses.

Further contextualizing the film's class critique, Tchil reiterates that The Wild, Wild Rose is the "product of an exile community, made in a city where everyone had been a refugee, as Hong Kong itself had been depopulated under Japanese occupation. Everyone involved in this film, at every level, including [Grace Chang] herself, was a refugee who knew about trauma first hand. There are no gypsies in this version of Carmen, and Deng Sijia is an insider, but the whole film is a paradigm of dislocation and social chaos. So this film is, in a way, the voice of a minority that speaks for us all."

As the fiery nightclub singer Deng Sijia, Chang's temptress is an amalgram of Bizet's Carmen and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. It's not her fault that men are drawn to her like moths to the flame. When the naïve new pianist Liang Hanhua (Yang Chang) arrives to work at the club where she performs, Sijia takes a bet that she can seduce him and steal him away from his fiancé within 10 days. It's hardly a challenge, and just as readily leads to ruinous tragedy, not only for him, but for her. Despite herself, she becomes emotionally entangled with this train wreck of a man and the two spiral downwards towards mutually-insured destruction.

Though I can't quite say Sajia possesses duende, The Wild, Wild Rose is rich with flamencano flourishes and transnational guises. Not only does Chang impersonate a Latin femme fatale, but she poses as a contrite geisha as well (but, only to land a nightclub audition). The film's stylized production design, memorable songs by Japanese composer Ryôichi Hattori, and Ming Huang's cinematography set a high standard among Hong Kong films of this kind from the '50s and '60s. Time Out Hong Kong includes The Wild, Wild Rose in its list of the 100 greatest Hong Kong films and—in an Asia Weekly poll of the greatest Chinese films of the 20th century—The Wild, Wild Rose, likewise made the list.

At Senses of Cinema, Frank Bren observed in his 2001 Top Ten list (no longer available on the site) that Hong Kong films of the '50s and '60s "concerned frustrated love" and were made "moving" thanks to great female stars of the era like Grace Chang. Concomitantly, in his Senses of Cinema report from the 40th Golden Horse Awards, Charles Leary noted that one of the familiar traits of the Cathay melodrama of the 1960s is the characterization of its male leads as victimized and pitiful. Further: "As in many Cathay films, the women are the real attraction, particularly the great singer and dancer, Mambo Girl Grace Chang."

Lisa Roosen-Runge's Senses of Cinema report from the 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival (March–April 2002)—again, unfortunately, off the site—included a profile of the Hong Kong Film Archive series of classic Mandarin films presented during that year's festival. She outlined that the Cathay studio started operating as MP & GI in Hong Kong in 1957, and produced roughly 250 films in the following decade. These films often had similar casts, with character actors from amongst the studio group of actors. She concurs with Leary that The Wild, Wild Rose showcases Grace Chang's dynamism in contrast to the ill-destined male lead who plays out the typical path in these films, generally making wrong decisions and exemplifying what Stephen Teo calls the "weak romantic hero" [Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, BFI, 1997, p. 76].

Distinguishing Sijia from her famous Spanish counterpart, Kevin B. Lee details the dynamics of her fatal attraction to her lover: "Sijia tries to make a decent go as a homemaker for Hanhua, but his drunken profligacy forces her to return to the stage, notably as a contrite Madame Butterfly bowing in geisha garb. Recalling Marlene Dietrich's stunning journey of self-discovery in Morocco, Sijia's volatile transformation from a carefree material girl into a bitterly tragic maternal figure for her childish husband (a typical male counterpart to the Cathay heroine) gives layers of drama to the Grace Chang persona. No longer does she simply represent an escapist fantasy for Chinese hipsters, but a fierce assertion of individualist womanhood who insists on her freedom of choice, even in the face of an oppressive reality."

Tchil adds overtones to the scene where Sijia, needing to return to work, auditions for a new nightclub. She sings "Un bel di", Tchil explains, "dressed as Madame Butterfly, the nice girl forced into prostitution who sacrifices herself for love. In 1960 the image was still slightly shocking as memories of the Japanese occupation were still fresh. It's a parody of submissiveness."

Tchil further distinguishes the gender reversals in The Wild, Wild Rose as focused on politics, not sexual preference. "The nightclub is society in microcosm," he writes, "Nightclub hostesses are bought like commodities." Sijia resists, shakes up assumptions, and subverts the trend. "I sing", she tells her friend who has a sugar daddy, "I don't sleep with customers." Just as she doesn't sell out as an artist, she doesn't sell herself. In one scene she hands Liang the score to "La donna è mobile" ("The Woman Is Fickle") from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Rigoletto. "You can't sing this" he protests, because he knows "La donna è mobile" should be sung by a male character, The Duke in Rigoletto. But Sijia understands its meaning, Tchil explains, and "overturns the Duke's refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. Women are fickle, she implies, because they can't depend on men. She's dressed as Escamillo in cape and toreador hat. Later she appears in a man's flamenco costume, wearing tight pants with buttons up to her waist. Gender stereotypes are shattered." Once again, she resembles Marlene Deitrich's cross-dressing subversions. She challenges class, status and social mores; the thorn of the wild rose.

Yet, despite her thorny defiance, Sijia is unable to escape her fate any more than Carmen. Her strength is brought down by a weak male. Her alcoholic lover is so fixated on the old order that—even though unemployed—he won't allow Sijia her creative autonomy. In this tragic consequence, "The Wild Wild Rose could teach western culture a thing or two" Tchil asserts, which appears evident when—55 years after its making—American actress Patricia Arquette feels compelled to make a plea for gender equality during her Oscar® acceptance speech.

Grace Chang's specific portrayal of Sijia in The Wild, Wild Rose, and the general popularity of her career, speaks to a modern vision of emancipated female roles in cinema and, by extension, society. "As a singer and actress," Kevin Lee writes, "Chang exuded a liberated, free-wheeling persona that ushered an era of swinging times among a generation of post-war Chinese. Chang's voice, powered by years of Peking opera training, rings with a bell-like clarity that compensates for its lack of delicacy or restraint. And when hitched to a mean mambo rhythm and lyrics like 'shaking bodies drive everyone wild ... dance as crazy, crazy, crazy as I am!', her clarion call threatens to topple thousands of years of Chinese repression." She does, indeed, become—as Tchil phrased earlier—"the voice of a minority that speaks for us all."

Folded into that, of course—much like the Gay movement took cues from the Women's movement—is queer identification with the larger-than-life cinematic persona of Grace Chang. Lee explains: "The butchiness of her stentorian singing makes her ripe for camp appreciation among contemporary Sino-queers, including Tsai Ming-liang, who offered touchingly makeshift homages to her song-dance numbers in The Hole. But her lasting impact on Chinese cinema is no less important than Brigitte Bardot's on French cinema or Marilyn Monroe's on Hollywood."

That being said, in my case at least there is no question that Tsai Ming-liang is responsible for introducing me to and awakening an appreciation for the vibrant talents of Grace Chang through his incorporation of her vocals into his movies, particularly The Hole. And it's perhaps a bit more clear now why he chose to do so.

Brian Hu's Senses of Cinema analysis of Tsai Ming-liang's The Skywalk is Gone (2002) notes that the film is "nostalgic for three kinds of film: the popular Mandarin Chinese films of the '60s, the films of the Taiwan New Cinema of the '80s and '90s, and the films of Tsai Ming-liang himself. By longing for three major waves of Taiwanese film history, the film demonstrates the interminability of nostalgia for the cinema. From each passing epoch develops a new cinematic tradition to miss."

"As in The Hole," Hu continues, "The Skywalk is Gone communicates with 1960s Chinese cinema through popular song. Famous outside of Asia for its martial arts films, 1960s Hong Kong cinema also saw a flourishing musical genre. Among its most popular stars were Lin Dai and Grace Chang, the latter's songs appearing prominently in The Hole. Tsai has cited these early musical films as direct influences on his own filmmaking . . . ." The musical numbers from The Hole come "from an earlier era of Mandarin music extremely popular in Taiwan in the 1960s" and perhaps signify "an escape from the dull urban sounds of the city."

Fran Martin writes in her Senses of Cinema essay ("The European Undead: Tsai Ming-liang's Temporal Dysphoria") that Tsai Ming-liang's films "perform parallel citations of Chinese cinemas." She notes how The Hole, in particular, is punctuated by song-and-dance numbers featuring the songs of Grace Chang, the star of many 1950s Hong Kong musicals (including The Wild, Wild Rose). Comparably, in What Time Is It There? (2001), he includes a sequence at the video stall where Hsiao Kang buys a copy of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and we overhear another customer asking for films starring Grace Chang, Yu Ming, or Lin Dai. "This double citation of European art film, on the one hand," Martin writes, "and popular Taiwan and Hong Kong cinema, on the other, demonstrates that cinematic citation in Tsai's films is in itself a complex, hybrid practice, rather than any simple emulation of European film modernism."

In her interview with Tsai Ming-liang, Nanouk Leopold asked directly about that scene: "In the beginning of the film there is a scene where someone in a video-store asks for a Yu Ming, Lin Dai or a Grace Chang movie. What kind of films are these?"

Tsai Ming-liang responded: "These are films from the '50s and '60s and also some from the '70s. Yu Ming, Lin Dai and Grace Chang are the great stars from the Hong Kong films of my childhood. In my film The Hole, I used some songs by Grace Chang. I am always searching for videos of these films so I can watch them again. And when I look at them I always think: they have really gone, they exist no longer in this world, there are no stars any more like in those days. And then I think: I am really not up-to-date, I am living in the wrong period if I like these films so much."

Perhaps the reason Grace Chang became a diva for Asian queers is the same reason that several Hollywood actresses became icons for American queers. Nostalgia for golden eras past lend a religiosity to memory. Perhaps the nostalgia felt when seeing these old films, whether from the Cathay/MP&GI or the Hollywood studios is not so dissimilar, and not so much about a time gone by as it is about feeling displaced from the time one lives in and the current cultural attitudes one endures. Tsai Ming-liang seems to admit so himself. A certain surrogacy is sought in cinematic representations of yesteryear. Entrusted to the larger-than-life women of the silver screen are experiences—perhaps imagined experiences, perhaps desires—of who they might have been in another less realistic time? Or more cogently, contemporary disenchantment—as articulated by Patricia Arquette at the Academy Awards®—with how societal change remains as elusive as the stuff of dreams.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A RARE NOIR IS GOOD TO FIND—Un Condamné À Mort S'est Échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956) / Retour De Manivelle (There's Always A Price Tag, 1957)

As an appropriate segué from last November's wildly successful French noir series "The French Had A Name For It", the opening night double-bill for "A Rare Noir Is Good to Find" (running Thursday-Monday, March 19-23, 2015, at the Roxie Theater) is encaptioned "Vive La France!" and pairs Robert Bresson's Un Condamné À Mort S'est Échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956) with Denys de La Patellière's Retour De Manivelle (There's Always A Price Tag, 1957). One celebrates escape while the other denies the possibility.

As Donald Malcolm lays out in his program notes: "A Man Escaped is singularly revered French director Robert Bresson's first overt acknowledgment of film noir as a narrative / stylistic force. (He would follow up on this in 1959's Pickpocket.) This tense tale of a French political prisoner methodically planning his escape from a Nazi prison is justifiably considered a world classic, though its self-contained perfection seems to prevent it from being screened as regularly as it should be. Bresson's masterful use of non-actors reminds us of the intersection between noir and neo-realism; however, Bresson was using such techniques even before neo-realism first flourished in Italy immediately after WWII."

Included in the Criterion Collection, A Man Escaped has been given Criterion's full treatment, including Tony Pipolo's valuable essay "A Man Escaped: Quintessential Bresson", Kate Elmore's list of 10 things she learned from watching A Man Escaped, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's visual essay (which details how a variety of sound techniques can function throughout an entire film), and a visual essay that poses three reasons for watching the film.


Reams have been written regarding Bresson's body of work and A Man Escaped in particular so I'll simply aggregate some recommendations and move on. Though it hasn't been updated in a few years, remains essential and Doug Cummings reviews A Man Escaped with customary depth and insight. Likewise relevant and requisite would be Alan Pavelin's contribution to the Great Directors database at Senses of Cinema; the Offscreen tribute to Bresson with Pierre Pageau's focus on A Man Escaped; Gary Morris's write-ups for Bright Lights Film Journal and Images; Acquarello's reviews at Strictly Film School; Kent Jones's Film Comment introduction; Sarah Jane Gorlitz's Kinema essay "Robert Bresson: Depth Behind Simplicity"; Colin Burnett's essay "Bresson in the 1930s: Photography, Cinema, Milieu"; filmmaker kogonada's visual essay on Bresson's use of hands in his films, and the film's trailer.


Considerably less has been written in English about Denys de La Patellière's Retour De Manivelle (There's Always A Price Tag) so let's start first with Donald Malcolm's synopsis: "A more conventional noir situation is found in Retour De Manivelle, which features an icy twist on the 'collect off the corpse' sub-genre. There's something quintessentially French about a cold-hearted wife attempting to make suicide look like murder—the exact opposite of so many of these schemes!

"The luminous, almond-eyed Michèle Morgan, remembered most by American noir aficionados for her selfless portrayal of the long-suffering wife of a semi-unhinged mob boss in Arthur Ripley's The Chase (1946), takes the temperature reading of frigidity down to absolute zero—despite her suggestive boudoir poses that capture the lower half of men's imaginations. In this case, that man is Daniel Gélin, France's composite 'answer' to Marlon Brando, John Garfield and Dustin Hoffman, a down-on-his-luck artist who walks into a viper's nest when he rescues Morgan's suicidal lout of a husband (Peter Van Eyck) and lands a job as the doomed man's chauffeur.

"Needless to say, Gélin (a man whose off-screen life was, if anything, messier than what his character endures here) is taken for a ride that he (and the audience) could never have anticipated. The alternate title for Retour De Manivelle is There's Always A Price Tag (taken from the source novel by James Hadley Chase, England's answer to James M. Cain)—and truer words have never been spoken."

Inspired by reading James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Hadley Chase became a prolific writer, penning 90 novels, 50 of which have been adapted to film, including two of my favorites from the Roxie's French noir series—Une manche et la belle (Kiss For A Killer, 1957) and Chair de Poule (Highway Pickup, 1963). It's then, perhaps, no wonder that I found Retour De Manivelle such a satisfying noir with all the characteristics I appreciate in noirs: a femme fatale, a chump manipulated into an inescapable cul-de-sac, and a bleak misogynistic attitude that capsizes love into ruthless passion. Chase's pulp thriller There's Always A Price Tag was published in 1956. Some speculate it took its lead from Cornell Woolrich's The Black Path Of Fear (1944), whose filmic adaptation The Chase (1946)—coincidentally enough—starred Michèle Morgan during her brief stint in Hollywood.

Denys de La Patellière pounced on There's Always A Price Tag to deliver Retour De Manivelle a short year later, converting its original setting from a Hollywood mansion to a luxurious villa in Saint-Jean-Cap on the French Riviera. Known for his escapist entertainments (often starring Jean Gabin), de La Patellière was one of those French directors—as Donald Malcolm detailed in our conversation for "The French Had A Name For It"—whose emulation of Hollywood noirs rendered him unfashionable with the advent of the Nouvelle Vague, which purposely sought to break allegiances with American filmmaking.

As Malcolm further suggested in our conversation, despite that petulant rupture in French filmmaking, "We're now in a position to rediscover who was working at the same level as the Hollywood actors we are accustomed to and have internalized in America. These actors and actresses are cooking with the same gas—maybe better gas in some ways than what we have here." Such would be the case with Daniel Gélin whose "uncouthness" had him expelled from college, but which benefited his filmic persona. As the rough-thumbed roustabout Robert Mabillon, Gélin learns—as Oscar Wilde forewarned—no good deed goes unpunished. He rescues well-to-do Eric Fréminger (Van Eyck) from a drunken suicide attempt, drives Fréminger home, is rewarded with employment as Fréminger's private chauffeur, and swiftly begins to think of how this unexpected windfall might benefit him. As the saying goes, that's what he gets for thinking for himself. Once he meets Fréminger's quarrelsome wife Hélène (Michèle Morgan, as an emasculating blonde), fate kicks into second gear. Hélène doesn't like him much and wants him gone, but Mabillon doesn't take to being told what to do, especially by an attractive woman, and he ignores Wilde as much as he ignores Walter Scott who cautioned: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave ... when first we practice to deceive."

Deception becomes the downhill gradient on which this narrative flows, sourcing from the embittered fount of Hélène Fréminger, a woman who has wearied of marketing her wiles in a patriarchal world. "All my life I've been a thing," she tells Mabillon, "that people can buy, that they use. I've had enough. I've always had enough." True to Anastasia Lin's "bend or break" thesis (in her program essay "Feminism Without Feminists" for the Roxie's French noir series), Hélène Fréminger is a woman who "understands power, class, and gender in ways that a political science professor can only hope to do. What makes it noir, of course—and 'French' noir to boot—is that none of that truly impressive knowledge and understanding winds up doing her any good."

Having used her comeliness to navigate the needs of men, Hélène has come to loathe men for the predictability of their physical appetites, and the ease with which she can use their hunger to advance her schemes. The passion she and Mabillon feel for each other as they set out to secure her husband's insurance money converts swiftly into distrust, disgust, and betrayal. In one of their most telling exchanges, Mabillon has just thwarted Hélène's thinly-guised attempt to do away with her husband and confronts her in her bedroom:

Robert Montillon: Bitch!

Hélène Fréminger: Is it an insult?

Robert Montillon: Bitch!

Hélène Fréminger: Don't use up the word. You might want it later. It was always said to me as a word of love.

She hates men, he distrusts women, and therein lies their complicit, if antagonistic, desire. A young maid Jeanne (Michèle Mercier, in an innocent pre-Angélique debut) is unwittingly brought in to further the duo's scheme but serves to remind Mabillon of everything he hates about Hélène, which is in essence everything he loves. Trapped in a corner, Mabillon's misogyny seeps to the surface as he sets out to destroy both women, albeit unconsciously. Jeanne's victimization in this film ironically predicted Mercier's own fate with men during the course of a career blemished by the success of Angélique, marquise des anges (1964). Add a deliciously droll performance by character actor Bernard Blier as a police inspector who's smarter than he lets on and a comic touch is added to the suspense building to its inevitable "icy" twist.

This double-bill is, at once, a primer on the forces during WWII that affected cultural attitudes throughout Europe and specifically France after the war—attitudes that don't escape as successfully as the prisoner Fontaine in Bresson's classic. That film's triumphant ending segués into the unflinching fatalism of Retour De Manivelle, and many other disillusioned films throughout the world represented in this series. Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart. Then again, noir never is.