Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Schrader and Bresson: Seeing and Showing

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
Paul Schrader interviewed renowned French director Robert Bresson in 1976 at Bresson’s apartment in Paris overlooking the Seine, while on the way to Cannes where Taxi Driver was to be shown. Schrader regarded Bresson as the ‘most important spiritual artist living - a spiritual artist who has forged a style so singular it resists imitation’. The article appeared in Film Comment a year after the interview. Bresson had initially objected to its publication after seeing an advance copy and thought it ‘flat and uninteresting’. His producer disagreed and Bresson eventually relented. This is an extract from the final section:

Paul Schrader: You say in your book (Notes on the Cinematographer): make rules, but don’t be afraid to break them.

Robert Bresson: Yes, yes. I don’t think much of tech­nique, or making technique a part of things. If you find a new way to catch life, nature, this could change details, but not the whole. I don’t think so much of what I do when I work, but I try to feel something, to see without explaining, to catch it as near as I can — that’s all. And that’s why I don’t move so much. It’s like approaching a wild animal. If you are too brusque about it, it will run away. I think you must think a lot in the intervals of working and writing, but when you work, you mustn’t think anymore. Thinking is a terrible enemy. You should try to work not with your intelligence, but with your senses and your heart. With your intuition.

I absolutely agree. Symptoms are univer­sal, causes are particular. Symptoms are more interesting because we all have the symptoms, but we have different causes. Movies should be about symptoms rather than about causes.

It is very difficult to see things. So many times you go walking in the street, you look at things, but you don’t see them. If you see the look in a man’s eyes and at the same time see the reason why he is looking as he is, you are not touched.

If movies provide the symptoms truly, the viewer will supply the causes. 

I want people to guess, to think. But it must be very clean and sharp, not fuzzy and confusing. Today movies make people want to know everything in advance, to be shown everything in a way I don’t understand.

What l love about movies is that if you and I are here talking and if you re-cut so that we are now talking in New York, the audience will assume that somehow we got from Paris to New York. You can do the very same thing in spiritual ways. If you show a situation and if you cut to another place, the audience will make the leap with you. The audience will jump across the ocean with you.

Yes, but if you don’t show a succession of things exactly as they are in life, people stop understanding. Pornography has brought that to the cinema, that you must see everything. So the public is now conditioned to films where you show everything. It is terrible, I can’ t work anymore. If I can’ t make people guess, if I am obliged to show everything, it doesn’t interest me to work.

I think that movies and pornography are different. I , personally, am not threatened by explicit movies. In Notes you say ‘the nude, if it is not beautiful, is obscene.’ Do you feel that the explicit is by its very nature wrong?

When it is explicit, it is not sexual. The same as mystery. If you don’t make people guess, there is nothing there.

I believe that sex is mysterious whether you see it or not.

Yes, but when you see too much, it is not mysterious anymore.

Even if you see it all, it is still mysterious.

Only what is lovely - sexual life is beautiful - but how they do it in pornographic films is ugly and dirty.

Light Sleeper (Directed by Paul Schrader)
But could you not show pornography show people fucking - and also be mysterious? It is no less mysterious than watching me drink from the glass.

Not by showing things, but by my sensation of things. Making people feel how I feel. The most important and the most real is my way of feeling - to make people have the same sensation that I have in front of things.

Would you not agree that you learn no more about sexual feeling from seeing pornography than you learn about what cognac tastes like by watching me drink this?

You are quite right. There is no art in only showing things as they are, in a filmed succession of things. An idiot could see what is in front of his eyes and that’s all. If you try to make people feel and think instead of hearing and seeing, then it is artistic.

Do you oppose pornography on moral grounds or on artistic grounds?

Not on moral grounds.

Artistic grounds?


If you could use the new eroticism, would you?

No. Pornography is false sexual life.

But all films are false.

Not to love. Not with a work of art. I tried to see a few pornographic films, but I left because they turned sexual life into something horrible which doesn’t exist. Perhaps for some people, but not for me.

It’s like violence; it has to be used in a certain way. There is a parody of violence in FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER. The suicides are always non-violent; why?

Because I do not like violence. When you see violence in a movie, you know that it is false. It doesn’t touch me at all.

Suicide is a very violent act.

It’s very violent inside you, but it’s not very violent to watch.

For me, the notion of suicide is one of violence. It’s the idea of blasting things out of your head which are destroying you; you don’t really want to die, you want to destroy the way you are thinking. Suicide involves a lot of violence, a lot of blood, it’s an explosion inside your head. I see suicide much more violently than you do. I’m moved when Mouchette rolls, when Femme Douce leaps, when Balthazar falls. I’m moved when the cross comes up in COUNTRY PRIEST, but to me, giving oneself to death is a very violent act, and I would never kill myself in a nonviolent way.

I couldn’t show violence, the blood, and those terrible things, because it would have been faked for the movie. People would say, ‘How did they do that?’

I understand your objection.

Sometimes you see things well done of this sort, but it is not moving – because you know it is false, because it is forced. But what you can do is have the sensation of death. You can be moved by death if you don’t show it, if you suggest it. But if you show it, it’s finished. The same thing about love. You don’t feel love if you see two people making love.

Lancelot Du Lac (Directed by Robert Bresson)
I sense a progression in your films: from the exterior to the interior life, from Amore to Therese in LES DAMES DUBOIS BOULOUGNE, from the Countess to the Priest in COUNTRY PRIEST, finally to the object itself in BALTHAZAR, to purely the external like a graphic object. Ozu did the same thing: he turned to a vase. So many movies are based upon the two-dimensional image of the face – the icon of the face. One thing that bothered me about LANCELOT is that you don’t see the faces.

I don’t know what you mean.

This has to be a conscious decision, because many times in LANCELOT the frame line is just below the face. Then when you see the face, it is often covered by a helmet. When he comes to pray in front of the cross, you see him entirely, you see his face. 

I don’t see what you mean.

In your other films, one always remembers the faces, but in LANCELOT, one doesn’t.

Because the face is not special. It doesn’t work. His face was a very difficult face to take.

Are you saying that the reason the camera doesn’t focus on Lancelot’s face is because you weren’t happy with the actor.

No, I didn’t say that. I say that there are faces which are different from others.

I think it’s very clear that you are not as interested in Lancelot’s face as you were in Michel’s, or Fontaine’s, or even Joan of Arc’s.

I understand what you mean, but it is not proof for me. I don’t see how you can say that.

Are you less interested in faces?

On the contrary. I am more and more interested in faces. You say in LANCELOT you don’t see his face?

So often the mask is over it.

The way it was photographed, per­haps. Maybe the difference between black and white and color.

I also have a sense that in past films you did actions in three’s. In LANCELOT, everything was done in five’s.

I don’t understand what you mean.

You usually did things five times. If it was the jousting combat, you would see the lance five times. Or the horses’ feet: in past films you would see a shot of the feet three times, in LANCELOT, five times.

It was unconscious. I needed it five times. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a hidden reason. I did not show it five times instead of three on purpose.

Do you love iconography?

I like to start with a flat expression, as flat as possible, so that the expression comes when all the shots are put together. The more flat it is when I am shooting, the more expressive it is edited.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
When you come back from Cannes, are you going to pass by Paris?

No, unfortunately I have to get back. This is a strange trip for me because I was too busy, actually, to make it.

But you are pleased with your film, TAXI DRIVER?


Are you going to have the big prize at Cannes?

I think so.

You are pleased with it?

Yes. Although it is not directed the way I would direct it. I wrote an austere film and it was directed in an expressionistic way. I think that the two qualities work together. There is a tension in the film that is very interesting.

Why didn’t you shoot it yourself?

I hope to direct shortly. I am still very young and it takes a while. In TAXI DRIVER, I had great faith in the director and the actor, who are friends. I believed in what they would do.

So I will see it and write to you.

- Paul Schrader: ‘Robert Bresson, Probably’. From Film Comment, Sept/Oct 1977 (full interview at: www.paulschrader.org).

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Theo Angelopoulos: Voyages, Partings, Wanderings

The Weeping Meadow (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos was tragically killed yesterday while filming in Athens. Widely regarded as a true master of modern cinema, Angelopoulos developed one of the most unique styles in the history of film-making, involving an innovative handling of time and space based on long, elaborate takes of great eloquence and beauty.

He established his international reputation with the epic The Travelling Players (1975) and went on to direct the remarkable O Megalexandros (1980) and Landscape in the Mist (1988). In his later films Angelopoulos used well-known actors to reach a wider audience - Marcello Mastroianni in The Beekeeper (1986), Harvey Keitel in Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Bruno Ganz in Eternity and a Day (1998) and Willem Dafoe in The Dust of Time (2008).

The critic David Thomson wrote of Angelopoulos that: ‘By now, it has become clear that his style is deeply personal and poetic - and, of course, it has to be experienced, for the work is not just plastic but temporal. When Angelopoulos moves, he is sailing in time as well as space, and the shifts, the progress, the traveling make a metaphor for history and understanding.’

This is a transcript of a speech 
in which Angelopoulos reflects on cinema, his work and Greece. It was delivered at the University of Essex in 2001 when Angelopoulos was awarded an honorary degree from the Centre for Film Studies:

My relationship with Cinema began almost as a nightmare. It was in ‘46 or ‘47, I don’t quite recall. The post-war years, a time when a lot of people were going to the movies and we, the kids, sneaked in among the jostling adults standing in line at the box office, in order to disappear in the magic darkness of the balcony. I saw many movies then, but the first one was a Michael Curtiz film Angels With Dirty Faces.

There’s a scene in the film where the hero is led to the electric chair by two guards.  As they walk, their shadows grow larger and larger against the wall. Suddenly, a cry…‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die’. For a long time afterwards this cry haunted my nights. Cinema entered my life with a shadow that grew larger on a wall and a cry.

I began to write at a very early age, at the same time, overwhelmed by the tumult and the emotion that the turbulence of previous history had created in me. The sirens of war in 1940.

The Travelling Players (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The German army of occupation entering a deserted Athens. First sounds, first images. Then the Civil War of ‘44. The slaughter. My father condemned to death. My mother’s hand trembling in mine as we searched for his body among dozens of others, in a field. A long time later a message from him, from afar. His return on a rainy day.The first stories. The first contact with words, words in search of an image  I didn’t know then. I understood quite some time later when I wrote the words in my first script.  The words were ‘it’s raining’.

In my days, Homer and the ancient tragic poets constituted part of the school curriculum. The ancient myths inhabit us and we inhabit them. We live in a land full of memories, ancient stones and broken statues. All contemporary Greek art bears the mark of this co-existence.

It would be impossible for the path I have followed, the course I have taken, for my thinking not to have been infused by all of this. As the poet says, ‘they emerged from the dream, as I entered the dream. So our lives were joined together and it will be very difficult to part them again.’

From very early on, my relationship with literature and poetry brought me close to all the investigations, whether language or aesthetics, of modernism. Later, in the beginning of the sixties, in Paris, in the days of political activism, Brecht’s epic theatre which refuted, up to a point, Aristotle’s definition of dramatic art, was becoming a point of reference.

It was years before I went back to Aristotle and his definition of tragedy: ‘Tragedy is an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and perfect action…’ It was years before I discovered that Molly’s monologue in the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses is nothing but a distant echo of the astonishing description of Achilles’ arms from Homer’s Iliad.

Reconstruction, my first film, was born in the period of dictatorship of the Colonels as an attempt to piece together the truth out of its fragments. Reconstruction not as a goal, but as a journey. The little stories as they are reflected but also determined by the greater History.

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The father is symbol, presence and absence, as a metaphorical concept as well as a point of reference.  The journey, borders, exile. Human fate. The eternal return. Themes that pursued me and still pursue me.  All my obsessions enter and exit my films, as the instruments of an orchestra enter and exit, as they fall silent only to re-emerge later. We are condemned to function with our obsessions. We make but one film, we write but one book. Variations and fugues on the same theme.

Many of those who have done me the honour of concerning themselves with my work think that my manner of writing is the result of political choice. That’s not quite how it is. Of course, while I was shooting Days of ‘36, a film about dictatorship during a time of dictatorship, it was impossible to use direct references. I sought a secret language. The allusions of History. The ‘dead time’ of a conspiracy. Suppression.  Elliptical speech an aesthetic principle. A film in which all the important things appear to take place off camera. But my choice of long takes does not stem from this fact.

Working with long takes was not a logical decision. I have always thought it was a natural choice. A need to incorporate natural time and space, as unity of space and time. A need for the so-called ‘dead time’ between action and the expectation of action, which is usually eliminated by the editor’s scissors, to function musically, like pauses. A concept of the shot as a living cell which inhales, delivers the main word and exhales. A fascinating and dangerous choice which continues to the present day.

I have been working with the same team of collaborators since the time I began. They know me and I know them. With the years they have become my family. They often make me angry when we work, I miss them when I don’t see them. I feel uncertain when a new technician joins the team, as though everything depends on this new person. I talk to them about my plans and my uncertainties. So many years have gone by and still the same agitation, the same uncertainty, the same need for us to be close, holding our breath, and waiting for the end of the shot.

O Megalexandros/Alexander the Great (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
Voyages, partings, wanderings. A car, a photographer friend driving in silence and the road.

Very often I think that my only home, the only place where I feel a sense of equilibrium, a peace of mind, is sitting next to my friend who’s driving. The open window, the landscape flitting past.

Images are born during these journeys. I don’t have to keep notes. They are born with their silhouettes, with their colours, with their style, very often with their camera movements as well, with their aesthetic balances, with their light. The hundreds of photographs serve as memory. But nothing ends before the film is shot. During the shooting of the film everything is recreated on the basis of this new reality.  Actors, unforeseen events, fortunate or unfortunate, sudden ideas.

And yet the beginning has preceded it. Long before. From the time when out of nothing, the idea for the film is born. Almost thirty years have gone by since my first film. I could paraphrase TS Eliot and say:

‘So here I am, in the middle way.

My years largely wasted amid the rages of History,

still trying to learn to use images.

And my every attempt is a wholly new start and a kind of failure because we only learn when we no longer have to express ourselves.

And so each new venture is a new beginning in the general mess of imprecision of feeling. Undisciplined squads of emotion.

A raid on the inarticulate.

To recover what has been lost, and found, and lost again.

To recover…

In my end is my beginning.’

- Theo Angelopoulos (1935 - 2012)

Monday, 23 January 2012

Michael Powell: Obsession and Creativity

Peeping Tom (Directed by Michael Powell)
Michael Powell graduated from ‘quota quickies’ of the 1930s to a distinguished career in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, directing such classics as A Matter of Life and Death, Tales of Hoffman, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The Powell and Pressburger team came to be associated with superbly crafted, emotionally and visually intense works that show British cinema at its most creative and accomplished. After their partnership ended Michael Powell went onto direct the cult classic Peeping Tom - a disturbing study of obsession and voyeurism. This is an excerpt from an interview with Michael Powell in the 1980s, while living in America, in which he discusses the making of Peeping Tom and its hostile reaction at the time of its release.

Obsessiveness and creativity link many of your characters - Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes and Hoffmann, and Mark Lewis of Peeping Tom.

All artists are more or less obsessed. They’re more interesting when they are - and obsessive.

What led you to make Peeping Tom?
I got in touch with Leo Marks because I’d heard that he’d done a very clever scene involving a cryptogram for Carve Her Name with Pride. It was just after I’d parted from Emeric Pressburger. He first suggested a story of a double agent who betrays both sides but I said I didn’t want to do a spy story. We talked for two or three weeks. Finally, he came to me with this idea, ‘Would you like to make a film about a young man who murders people with his camera?’ I said [clicking his fingers], ‘Yes! You’re on! Just tell me the idea.’ He gave me some ideas and I commissioned him. After that he came round twice a week with more sequences and I would criticise them and he would re-write them. Gradually the script was done that way but he wrote the whole script. It was his idea. Leo Marks.
Was the idea of audience identification with the killer there from the start?
Yes. It’s the way you shoot it. You can look on at a thing or you can preach about it or you can absolutely identify yourself with the young cameraman. Since any good director turns himself into a camera – I Am a Camera is the story of every director - I decided to do it that way. I did the horrifying sequence with the young boy with my son Columba, who was about seven at the time, because I knew he wouldn’t be frightened if he did it with me. Then, as he played my son, I played his father in the film within the film. It gradually grew like that so it became a family affair and the family practically turned into a lens.
Did you anticipate the storm which arose when the film was released?
No. I was very surprised because they weren’t just bad reviews but vicious attacks. They more or less said that I was morbid and diseased in my mind and was trying to influence other people to be the same. I don’t think any director had a worse attack. I was completely taken aback, very surprised, and it did me a lot of harm professionally. It meant that any subject I wanted to do which was unusual - and I have a whole shelf of them - I wasn’t allowed to. I could not raise the money. What I should have done when I realised this was I should have come straight here [to America]. They have not got the prejudices here. I knew my films were known there. I didn’t know they were so admired although I’ve kept friendships here for the forty or fifty years since I started with an American company. But I clung to England because I’m English and naturally wanted to make English films. But I should have seen the writing on the wall and cut and run.
Was Peeping Tom’s voyeurism influenced by Hitchcock?
No, not at all. In Psycho, which I think is his best picture, there’s so much humour inside which saves it. I think he got criticised but they didn’t take it so seriously as they took me.

Don’t you think England has a particularly negative attitude towards creativity, and people doing things in new directions, which is harmful in the end?
I don’t know whether it is a general thing. If they do attack an artist, they’re worse than anybody because a certain amount of hypocrisy comes into it as well. Look at Francis Bacon. He really got severely mauled. But I don’t think the English public and cognoscenti are worse than any others. Perhaps there is a source of hypocrisy which I added to it. Also, being islanders, they really are insular. They’re a bit isolated from continental thought and I never have been. I’ve always been very closely identified with everything that’s happening there. I know a lot about it, a lot about art, and they may be a little bit jealous.
I’ve read that you originally wanted Pamela Brown to play Anna Massey’s other instead of Maxine Audley.
Yes, because she and Anna Massey could easily be mother and daughter. They look a bit like each other and have almost the same colour hair. Pamela’s was a deep red. Anna’s was more chestnut. They would have made a wonderful mother and daughter.
Mark’s stepmother is blonde. So are the prostitutes he kills. Was he taking something against his stepmother out of them?
Well, I didn’t go that deeply into it except instinctively.

I have read somewhere that you have stated your admiration for Walt Disney.
He was one of the great innovators in film. One of the things I like was - when talkies came in, a lot of the timing of silent films went out of the window and nobody made those marvellous slapstick comedies any more because there were only verbal jokes. But Disney kept on making those wonderful cartoons for at least another ten years so he kept the whole idea of film comedy and narrative through image alive. People don’t realise that they owe an enormous lot to him. His films still move. For five years they just bogged down in a welter of talk. He was a great inventor and innovator. I was very fond of him. Whenever I was in Hollywood after the war, I always spent a day with him.
There are surrealistic and fantasy elements in all of your films, particularly The Small Back Room. Which branch of surrealism interests you?
I don’t altogether agree about surrealism because, trained as I have been from the very early days, films are surrealistic. Any film. Because anybody who can start to tell a story in a street or a field just using a camera and an actor - that’s pure surrealism. Anything may happen. It’s more expressionism that you are referring to. This was a sequence where David Farrar was waiting for the girl to come back to the room. There’s a wonderful shot of him underneath, the bottle falling over on him. We made several bottles of different sizes and shot them from different angles and had great fun doing it. But the critics jumped on me immediately, ‘Oh, Michael Powell with his German tendencies and German art director must have these German expressionist ideas!’
There are somethings which have worked very well like those giant pencils in Mark’s pocket in Peeping Tom.
They were about three-and-a-half feet long. That’s the only way you could have done that. Leo wrote the sequence just like that - the pencils fall out of his pocket. I said, ‘You realise, Leo, they’re only that big. The gantry of a studio is forty feet up. I can do it all right.’ When he saw it, he said that it was one of the best shots in the picture but he never knew at the time. I asked the prop man to give me some dummy pencils and pens to drop in this sequence, three feet long! And it worked.

- Michael Powell interviewed by Tony Williams. Films and Filming: Nov 1981

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Claude Chabrol: The Mystery of Character

La Cérémonie (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Born in 1930, Claude Chabrol was the first of the French New Wave directors into production with Le Beau Serge (1958). He went on to direct a series of classic films starring his wife, Stéphane Audran, including Le Boucher (1969) and Les Noces Rouges (1973). La Cérémonie (1995) was adapted from Ruth Rendell’s novel Judgment in Stone and starred Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, the new housekeeper of a wealthy family, who befriends Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) – a postmistress with a grudge against the family.

Chabrol’s interest in thrillers is not primarily as a source of plot and suspense but as a means of exploring the psychology of murder. He is motivated by what he describes as the confrontation between character and story. The focus is on character and how the camera can best describe the inner attitudes of his two leads. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Claude Chabrol on La Cérémonie from 1995:

The starting point was a novel by Ruth Rendell. Her fifth or sixth. The first, I think, to depart from the normal process of police inquiry, with its recurrent detective figure – interesting though that process is. In this instance, the novel is a thriller only to the extent that she has chosen to maintain the formal appearance of a thriller. She might easily have chosen to make it a straight novel. I loved the book when it came out, fifteen or twenty years ago, but I hadn’t thought of adapting it as it was written, with only two characters, the maid and the postwoman. The maid was called Eunice in the book. She was a wobbly, fat thing, unpleasant really. The postwoman was very different too. They were fairly typically British. So time passed. I read other novels of hers. I saw that she was developing, her work was changing. She was the one to suggest I modified the structure. The process of reading her more recent work told me how I should adapt this one.

Caroline Eliacheff helped me in that … she uncovered the underlying psychological and psychoanalytical structure. That enabled us to restructure it without altering Ruth Rendell’s vision. I’ve tried to remain faithful to her way of thinking.

I asked Caroline to clean up the story for me, and she did a much more thorough job than I had expected. When I started working on the book, I had whole chunks of dialogue ready that would consolidate the psychiatric underpinning, so that the characters’ reactions might remain consistent. Otherwise, we would have spun off into insanity. Very often, when films depict psychopaths, they allow one to forget, for the duration of one or two scenes, that the psychopaths are just that. And then the insanity returns. But in reality, insanity is a continuous phenomenon. Here, Sophie’s illiteracy is always present, and Jeanne’s craziness is always there too.

My last political film was Poulet au Vinaigre (1984). What I was interested in then was to show the provincial bourgeoisie as starkly as possible, not in too heavy a way, but so that that critique was definitely a feature of the film. Subsequently, I found no particularly stimulating social phenomena to observe. And it is only now, in the past two years, that I am beginning to reconsider. I had a conversation with a young hooligan which left me with a feeling that society was about to explode, or implode rather, because it’s not just a marginal phenomenon. So I decided to make something of this feeling, but not in too precise a documentary way. Just as well, because Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine (1995) makes the point much better than I could have done. Our films are related, in that they reflect the beginnings of this explosion. He sees it as an explosion. I see it as an implosion. The young hooligan I mentioned thought things couldn’t go on like this for long, no more than three or four years. Only two more years left!

I remember an article, I can’t recall who by, it was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which said that now the Wall was down, there could be no more class war. Only someone with money could ever say such a thing. Ask the lower orders if class war can ever end! La Cérémonie was an opportunity to deal with this area. Once a screenplay is ready to go, I always try and find a way of including a few personal preoccupations. In this case, it works. The film really does depict a schematic view of class war.

My starting-point is the relationship between the story and a character. On this film, the audience is not aware of the fact that there is no story. The characters gradually reveal themselves, their relationships evolve, but there is no real plot. Like Simenon, I’m a great believer in structures that arise out of the confrontation between different characters. I take an important characteristic that determines the character (e.g. sex, for Betty), and try to monitor its development in relation to others. It’s chemistry, really. A chemistry of affinity. Although I make plenty of thrillers, I am not really interested in plot. What I am interested in is the mystery, the intrinsic mystery of the characters...

- Extract from ‘Claude Chabrol The Positif Interview’, 1995.

Friday, 13 January 2012

John Cassavetes: On Writing for Films

A Woman Under the Influence (Directed by John Cassavetes)
An excerpt from a rare interview with John Cassavetes by Nicholas Pasquariello published in The Daily Californian, May 1975, in which he discusses the writing and themes of A Woman Under the Influence which starred Gene Rowlands and Peter Falk. Two years in the making, independently-produced,  financed largely by family and friends, and with an extraordinary performance from Gena Rowlands, it remains one of Cassavetes’ most popular and provocative films. This interview was conducted during the editing of the film.

D.C.: How did you write A Woman Under The Influence?

Cassavetes: When I first start writing, there’s a sense of discovery. In some way it’s not just working, it’s finding some romance in the lives of these people. You get fascinated with their lives. If they stay with you than you want to do something – make it into a movie, put it on in some way. It was that which propelled us to keep on working at it. I wrote it originally as a play for Gena [Rowlands] and then Peter [Falk] read one of the plays and he said he’d like to act the part. I say ‘Why, I mean, the husband’s part is not nearly as good as the woman’s part.‘ He said, ‘Well, I still like it and I’d like to do it.’ So I began with that in mind, knowing who the two central characters are, and wrote a screenplay in about a month, and then revised it.

I have a very funny view on writing for films. It keeps changing, but my current view on writing for films is that dialogue should be tied up so heavily with the incident that you don’t feel dialogue and you don’t feel talk, rather you feel the emotions of the people.

D.C.: How much improvisation was involved in the making of A Woman Under The lnfluence?

Cassavetes: Hardly any. On Faces there was none either. On the first picture I did, Shadows, was all improvised, Faces was not, Husbands was about fifty-fifty, Minnie And Moskowitz was all written and this one was all written.

D.C.: Can you tell me the story of A Woman Under The Influence, as you now see it?

Cassavetes: It’s about a woman, it’s about her husband. The influence is the male, and she’s terribly in love with this man, and she’s crazy. He’s in love with her, and she counts on him. The rest of the story involves their lives, how they resolve the problem of her being crazy and him being sane, and being in love with each other.

You deal with an impossible situation, a woman who is really nuts, who can only function with the deepest love and respect from her mate, and when she has that she functions just admirably fine. When it’s taken away in the slightest form, if the man is human and has a bad mood, the woman goes totally berserk. Ordinarily you just let that woman go and say she’s a pain in the ass. Outside of having sympathy for her, she’d be impossible, but he happens to be in love with her, so strongly that it’s taken two people who absolutely have no right to be together except that they’re in love with each other, and they find a way to work it out through enormous difficulties.

He’s a working man, a guy that lays sewer pipes. He has a gang and they work outside in the fields, and they’re quite happy. She’s a prisoner in her household, not really caring about anything except a love affair that exists between herself and her husband. It’s impossible for him really to cope, to understand fully his need for her. And he has an enormous need for her. Every scene in the picture is dealing with their mothers, their friends, their families. Everything is on a level that he doesn’t understand, he can’t comply with, because he doesn’t think that she has any friends except himself.

People love her, and when she goes insane and comes back from the institution, when she’s so-called cured, no one likes her that way, they want her to be what she was, in a controlled area. He’s the only one that can make it that way, that can make her that way. A Woman Under the Influence really is about all women being crazy, because I believe that’s true (laughter).

D.C.: Don’t you think all men are crazy, too?

Cassavetes: I think they wish they were crazy (laughter). Our [men’s] stakes are not as high, and our weapons are greater. Their [women’s] weapons are sharp and finely honed and steeled, but their problems remain constant. And sometimes they can’t use their weapons, and then they don’t know what to do because they have no way of fighting, and then they go crazy. So, a woman who is absolutely in love with a man cannot in any way compete, because she’s in love with him, and so she’s not in competition with him. But I do believe at the end of the picture that love is possible, not only possible but it’s practical and appealing and not maudlin and quite noble.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Werner Herzog: Stories and Images

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Directed by Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog, director of ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’, ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and ‘Nosferatu’, on the art of storytelling and the importance of searching for fresh images:

When I sit down to write a script I never attempt to articulate my ideas in abstract terms through the veil of an ideology. My films come to me very much alive, like dreams without logical patterns of academic explanations. I’ll have a basic idea for a film and then over a period of time, when maybe I’m driving or walking, it becomes clearer and clearer to me. I see the film before me, as if I were in a cinema. Soon it is so perfectly transparent that I can sit and write it all down. It is as if I were copying from a movie screen. I like to write fast because it simply gives the story a certain urgency. I leave out all unnecessary things and just go for it. A story written this way will have, for me at least, much more coherence and drive. And it will also be full of life. For these reasons it has never taken me longer than four or five days to write a script. I just sit in front of the typewriter or computer and pound the keys.

Whether I have an ideology is not something that I have ever given much thought to, though I do understand where the question might come from. People generally sense I am very well-orientated and know where I’ve come from, where I am standing now and where I am going. But it is not an ideology as most people think of it. It is just that I understand the world in my own way and am capable of articulating this understanding into stories and images that seem to be coherent to others. Even after watching my films it bothers some people that they still cannot put their finger on what my ideology might be. Please, take what I am saying with a pair of pliers, but let me tell you: the ideology is simply the films themselves and my ability to make them. This is what scares those people who try so hard to describe, analyse and criticise me and my work. I do not like to drop names, but what sort of an ideology would you push under the shirt of Conrad or Hemingway or Kafka? Or Goya or Caspar David Friedrich?

I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today’s civilization. I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out, they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution. When I look at the postcards in tourist shops and the images and advertisements that surround us in magazines, or I turn on the television, or if I walk into a travel agency and see those huge posters with that same tedious and rickety image of the Grand Canyon on them, I truly feel there is something dangerous emerging here. The biggest danger, in my opinion, is television because to a certain degree it ruins our vision and makes us very sad and lonesome. Our grandchildren will blame us for not having tossed hand-grenades into TV stations because of commercials. Television kills our imagination and what we end up with are worn out images because of the inability of too many people to seek out fresh ones.

As a race we have become aware of certain dangers that surround us. We comprehend, for example, that nuclear power is a very real certain danger for mankind, that over-crowding of the planet is the greatest of all. We have understood that the destruction of the environment is another enormous danger. But I truly believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude. It is as serious a defect as being without memory. What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs. We need images in harmony with our civilization and our innermost conditioning, and this is the reason why I like any film that searches for new images no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. One must dig like an archaeologist and search our violated landscape to find anything new. One must go to war, if need be, to find these unprocessed and fresh images.

–  Extracted from Herzog on Herzog. By Werner Herzog. Ed. Paul Cronin. (Faber, 2002).

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Patricia Highsmith II: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (Directed by Rene Clement)

The second part of Patricia Highsmith’s 1988 interview from Sight And Sound. She discusses other cinematic adaptations of her books including the Ripley series - the best of which is René Clément’s stylish 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley - Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) - starring Alain Delon as the pathological Ripley who ingratiates himself into the lives of the rich and idle. 

Several of Highsmith’s favorite versions of her works have been for television: a West German adaptation of Deep Water, and a Quebec retelling of several short stories. She thinks Le Meurtier (Enough Rope, 1963), from her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, is ‘a jolly good film,’ and she is negotiating now to sell rights for a remake. She must choose between competing bidders: an Italian producer and French filmmaker, Claude Chabrol.

‘Lately I ask for 4, 5 ,6-page treatments from [potential] buyers of my books. I turn down plenty of them because they aren’t inspired.’ Le Meurtier, directed by Claude Autant-Lara, moved Highsmith’s New York setting to Southern France. ‘I hope this time it will be set in California,’ she says. And why? A character in The Blunderer is a sadistic New Jersey policeman who commutes into New York and beats up murder suspects as part of his investigations. ‘In a way, I made a mistake,’ Highsmith admits, ‘because a New Jersey policeman can’t operate that way in New York. But in California, he can move between different counties.’

In 1952, under the nom de plume Claire Morgan, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, a novel of lesbian love, notably radical in its day for having a happy ending. The heroine, Therese, rejects her boyfriend (who is given to quoting from A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) for a passionate new life in the arms of sophisticated Carol. This was Highsmith’s only overtly gay novel prior to her new Found in the Street, which is set in the casually bisexual New York art world. Critics, however, have noted homosexual underpinning in Highsmith’s many tales of unusual male friendships, especially the four Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is constantly mistaken for being ‘queer.’ He likes to attend all-guy parties and to masquerade in other men’s clothes, particularily the garments of males who obsess him. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he develops an undeniable crush on Dickie Greenleaf. When Greenleaf spurns him, Ripley kills the young man, By the fourth novel, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, her hero, Tom, has committed eight murders (by Highsmith’s count) and got away with all of them.

‘I don’t think Ripley is gay,’ Highsmith says adamantly in Toronto. ’He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true. But he’s married in later books. I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife.’ In The American Friend, an idiosyncratic reading of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, Wim Wenders made Ripley (Dennis Hopper) into a bachelor once again. ’Ripley has some nice friends though,’ Wenders told an interviewer. ’He’s not a solitary and he’s not a homosexual. Not explicitly. But the way he handles Jonathan has a lot to do with homosexuality.’ When these comments were quoted to her, Highsmith counters, ’Ripley is married. And he’s not lost. He has his feet on the ground.’ As for Wenders, Highsmith says, ’He mingled two books for The American Friend. One of them he didn’t buy.’ (Wenders’ frame story concerns forged paintings, a plot fragment borrowed, uncredited, from Ripley Under Ground).

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
Highsmith met Wenders before The American Friend, when he tried to buy film rights to one of her books. According to Wenders, the novels he was interested in, Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, were already optioned. Highsmith suggested he read the one she had just finished writing. ‘It was Ripley’s Game,’ said Wenders, ’and I liked it from the beginning.’ And Highsmith liked Wenders. ‘There’s something about him that’s OK. His artistic quality, his enthusiasm.’ The American Friend she concedes, has a certain ‘stylishness,’ and she thinks the scenes on the train are terrific. Also, she liked Wenders’s Paris, Texas. But, back in The American Friend, she is confused by Dennis Hopper’s highway cowboy rendition of Ripley. ‘Those aren’t my words,’ she says of his philosophical soliloquies.

Highsmith thinks that handsome Alain Delon was excellent as Ripley in Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1959), Rene Clement’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, though she was jolted by the ending - not hers - in which Ripley is caught after throwing the murdered Dickie Greenleaf overboard. But perhaps she says, Strangers on a Train’s Robert Walker might have been the best Ripley of all, if he had lived. Alas, Highsmith has become bored in Toronto talking about the movie versions of her novels. Finally, she says, film directors can do what they want with her books, once she has signed the contract. Especially since she isn’t interested in doing the scripts herself. ’I started screenplays two or three times, and I can assure you that I failed. I don’t think in the way a playwright thinks. So if people have bought something of mine, they know by now that I will decline writing it for the movies.

Anyway, I don’t want to know movie directors. I don’t want to be close to them. I don’t want to interfere with their work. I don’t want them to interfere with mine.’ She rarely sees movies. When she does, it is usually to catch up, such as on a jaunt to the Locarno Film Festival near her home. A decade ago, Highsmith was president of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival. ’I was not particularily good at it,’ she remembers. ‘I hated cracking the whip, and these juries turn into political things. Some fellow from the Third World kept hammering for prizes for a Communist film which was rotten.’ An obvious final question. Does Highsmith have a favorite movie of all time? ’No.’ Not Citizen Kane or Casablanca? ‘No, no,’ she says again, but then she smiles to herself. ‘Maybe Gone With the Wind - and it’s a great book as well.’ -

Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Patricia Highsmith I: Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Patricia Highsmith gave a rare interview with Gerald Peary for Sight And Sound Magazine in 1988. The author of Strangers on a Train, the Ripley novels, and other suspense classics, she discussed her writing process, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train and other adaptations of her work:

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Highsmith grew up in New York City. She took a degree at Barnard College. Then came years of traveling about Europe. Today she lives in Switzerland alone.‘I can’t write if someone else is in the house, not even the cleaning woman. I like to work for four or five hours a day. I aim for seven days a week. I have no television – I hate it. I listen to the BBC World Service starting at 2 in the morning until 4. I switch off the light and listen in bed. I don’t set the alarm to get up. I get up when I feel like it.’

She owns no copies of films made from her books, not even Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950). ‘It seems to be entertaining after all these years,’ she acknowledges. ‘They keep playing it on American TV, ancient as it is. A few years ago, there were requests to me, “Can we make this?” I said that I have no rights. Contact the Hitchcock estate, which won’t release it for a remake.’

Strangers on a Train was sold outright for $7,500, with ten per cent of that to Highsmith’s agent. A meager recompense, some would say, but Highsmith disagrees. ‘That wasn't a bad price for a first book, and my agent upped it as much as possible. I was 27 and had nothing behind me. I was working like a fool to earn a living and pay for my apartment. I didn’t hang around films. I don’t know if I’d ever seen Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes." Anyway, she heard later that Robert Bloch was paid only $9,000 by Hitchcock for his novel Psycho.

About Strangers on a Train: she adores Robert Walker as the psychopathic Bruno. (‘He was excellent. He had elegance and humor, and the proper fondness for his mother.’) Highsmith is less pleased with Ruth Roman as Ann Morton, Guy’s love interest. (‘She should be much warmer.’) And she regrets Hithcock’s decision to turn Guy (Farley Granger), an architect in her novel, into a championship-winning tennis player. Highsmith: ‘I thought it was ludicrous that he’s aspiring to be a politician, and that he’s supposed to be in love with that stone angel.’ She only talked to Hitchcock once, while Strangers on a Train was in pre-production. ‘I was in New York. He was in California. He rang me to make a report on his progress and said, “I'm having trouble. I've just sacked my second screenwriter.’”

Hitchcock eventually hired Raymond Chandler to write the final script. Highsmith never met Chandler or seemingly any other writer of suspense novels. She doesn’t read them, she says, except, over and over again, the master: Dostoevsky. Also Graham Greene, a declared Highsmith admirer, with whom she exchanges occasional letters. ‘I have his telephone number but I wouldn’t dream of using it. I don't seek out writers because we all want to be alone.’

Highsmith has never seen Once You Kiss a Stranger, a 1969 Warners variation on Strangers on a Train, in which a crazy girl (Carol Lynley) offers to assassinate the chief competition of a golf pro (Paul Burke) if this golfer will bump off her psychiatrist.‘God knows, it was certainly done behind my back!’ Highsmith laughs. ‘Strangers on a Golf Course.’

The writer says she is ‘not mad about’ Claude Miller's 1997 Dites-lui que je l'aime from her novel, This Sweet Sickness, and she loathes Ediths Tagebuch, the 1983 West German film by Hans Geissendorfer, drawn from her Edith’s Diary, a rare Highsmith novel with a female protagonist. In the book, Edith Howland, a suburban Pennsylvania housewife, suffers mightily because her homebound son, Cliffie, is so passive, unambitious, mediocre. In the movie, which is set in Germany, Cliffie becomes a psychotic who lusts after Edith, his mom (Angela Winkler).  ‘It's dreadful!’ Highsmith says. ‘Making the son in love with the mother is a lot of Oedipal crap.’ She was taken aback because Geissendorfer’s version of The Glass Cell/Die Glaserne Zelle (1977) was a decent, sensitive film, a notable portrayal of the anguish of a man (Helmut Griem) out of prison for a white-collar crime, who suspects that his wife (Brigitte Fossey) is enmeshed in a love affair...

- Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary.