Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Truffaut: The Whiteness of Carl Dreyer

Vampyr (Directed by Carl Dreyer)
‘Through style one infuses a film with a soul, and that is what makes it art,’ wrote Carl Theodor Dreyer. Running until March 23, this month’s BFI Southbank season ‘The Passion of Carl Dreyer’ offers a chance to see all of the influential Danish director’s features, alongside rarely seen short films and the documentary profile ‘Carl Th. Dreyer, My Métier’.

Dreyer’s career spanned four decades from the silent era to sound and included comedies and melodramas to the great chamber dramas for which he is best known. Ranging from 1919’s anti-patriarchal melodrama The President to 1964’s controversial depiction of female autonomy Gertrud, via the powerful witchhunt allegory Day Of Wrath, made while Denmark was under Nazi occupation. Other highlights include an extended run for his striking meditation on faith and madness Ordet, plus screenings of his silent masterpiece The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and his first sound film, the strange and unsettling Vampyr.

Francois Truffaut wrote this famous article on the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer shortly after the great Danish director’s death in 1968:

When I think of Carl Dreyer, what comes to mind first are those pale white images, the splendid voiceless closeups in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) that play back exactly the acerbic dialogue at Rouen between Jeanne and her judges.

Then I think of the whiteness of Vampyr, though this time it is accompanied by sounds, the cries and horrible groans of the Doctor (Jean Hieromniko), whose gnarled shadow disappears into the flour bin in the impregnable mill that no one will approach to save him. In the same way that Dreyer’s camera is clever in Jeanne d’Arc, in Vampyr it frees itself and becomes a young man’s pen as it follows, darts ahead of, prophesies the vampire’s movements along the gray walls.

Unhappily, after the commercial failure of these masterpieces, Dreyer had to wait eleven years, eleven years out of his life, before shouting ‘Camera! Action!’ when at last he made Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath), a movie that deals with sorcery and religion, and is a synthesis of the other two films. Here we see the most beautiful image of female nudity in the history of cinema – the least erotic and most carnal nakedness – the white body of Marthe Herloff, the old woman burned as a witch.

Day of Wrath (Directed by Carl Dreyer)
Ten years after Day of Wrath, at the end of the summer of 1956, Ordet overwhelmed the audience at the Lido Biennale. Never in the history of the Venice Festival had a Golden Lion been more justly awarded than to Ordet, a drama of faith, more exactly, a metaphysical fable about the aberrations dogmatic rivalries lead to.

The film’s hero, Johannes, is a visionary who thinks he is Jesus Christ; but only when he comes to recognize his delusion does he ‘receive’ spiritual power.

Each image in Ordet possesses a forrnal perfection that touches the sublime, but we recognize Dreyer for more than a ‘cosmetician.’ The rhythm is leisurely, the interplay of the actors stylized, but they are utterly controlled. Not a frame escapes Dreyer’s vigilance; he is certainly the most demanding director of all since Eisenstein, and his finished films resemble exactly what they were in his mind as he conceived them. 

There is no active mimicry from the actors in Ordet; they simply set their faces in a particular manner, and from the outset of each scene adopt a static attitude. The important actions take place in the living room of a rich farmer. The sequential shots are highly mobile and seem to have been inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Rope. (In a number of interviews, Dreyer has mentioned his admira­tion for the director of Rear Window). And in Ordet, white predomi­nates again, this time a milky whiteness, the whiteness of sun-drenched curtains, something we have never seen before or since. The sound is also splendid. Toward the end of the film, the center screen is occupied by a coffin in which the heroine, Inger, is laid out. Johannes, the madman who takes himself for Christ, has promised to raise her from the dead. The silence of the house in mourning is broken only by the sound of the master’s steps on the wooden floors, an ordinary sound, the sound of new shoes, Sunday shoes....

Ordet (Directed by Carl Dreyer)
Dreyer had a difficult career; he was able to pursue his art only because of the income he had from the Dagmar, the movie theater he managed in Copenhagen. This profoundly religious artist, filled with a passion for the cinema, chased two dreams all his life, both of which eluded him: to make a film on the life of Christ, Jesus, and to work in Hollywood like his master, D. W. Griffith.

I only met Carl Dreyer three times, but it pleases me to write these few lines as I sit in the leather-and-wood chair that belonged to him during his working life and was given to me after his death. He was a small man, soft-spoken, terribly stubborn, who gave an impression of severity although he was truly sensitive and warm. His last public act was to gather the eight most important men involved in Danish cinema to write a letter protesting the dismissal of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque Francaise.

Now he is dead; he has joined Griffith, Stroheim, Murnau, Eisen­stein, Lubitsch, the kings of the First generation of cinema, the genera­tion that mastered, first, silence, and then sound. We have much to learn from them, and much from Dreyer’s images of whiteness.

– ‘The Whiteness of Carl Dreyer’ in ‘Francois Truffaut: The Films in My Life’

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Kelly Masterson: On ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’

Kelly Masterson started as a playwright in the 1980s with limited success. He wrote the original screenplay for ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’ in 1999. A powerful and bleak crime drama that meticulously reconstructs how an apparently perfect crime goes spectacularly wrong. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an insolvent real estate agent. His younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is falling behind on his alimony payments. To relieve their financial troubles they decide to rob their parents’ suburban jewellery store with tragic consequences. Their father’s (Albert Finney) relentless pursuit of the culprits brings everything spiralling towards a terrible climax. The script was optioned by a succession of producers until, after several false starts, the project was given the go-ahead with veteran director Sidney Lumet on board. A superb crime melodrama it was Lumet’s final and greatest achievement. The following is an extract from an interview in which Kelly Masterson speaks about his experience of writing the script: 

What was the inspiration for ‘Before the Devil Knows You're Dead’?

KELLY MASTERSON: I had read a novel I admired called Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwarz. I really liked the structure. It involved a terrible incident followed by an examination of the incident from the point of view of the various participants. I thought it would make an interesting structure for a movie.

I invented my terrible incident: the robbery and shooting of the mother. Then I took each character and followed them to and from the incident.

I also knew it was a tragedy and purposely gave each of the main characters a tragic ‘flaw’ – obsessive behavior they cannot break. For example, the father becomes obsessed with the notion of revenge and cannot stop himself even when he discovers it is his own son who must wreak revenge upon. Devil was the result of my structure and character choices.

Were you involved in any re-writing before or during the production?

KELLY MASTERSON: Fortunately, and unfortunately, no. The good news is I didn’t have to rewrite the script based on someone else’s vision or ideas. I wrote the script and tweaked it here and there over the years. Sidney did a rewrite to get his final shooting script but I was not involved nor consulted. I wish he would have come to me and asked me to make the changes he wanted. The end result, though, is terrific and I am very proud of the movie.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (Directed by Sidney Lumet)
What surprised you most about the transition from script to screen?

KELLY MASTERSON: Lots of things surprised me and most of them pleasantly. I was surprised by the casting of Brian F. O’Byrne as Bobby, the punk accomplice. I had written the part as a 22 year old, stupid kid. I had see Brian on stage in Doubt and thought him remarkably gifted but not right for Bobby. His performance, however, is spectacular and casting a 35 year old made him more pathetic and frightening. It was a stroke of genius on Sidney’s part.

I was surprised by the remarkable restraint and outer calm Philip brought to Andy’s breakdown late in the film. I wrote a cliché scene in which Andy trashes his apartment. Sidney and Philip came up with an eerie, fascinating, slow meltdown that is so much better. Most of all, I was most surprised by the deep, rich, tense and painful relationship between Hank and Andy – Sidney’s rewrite and the performances of Philip and Ethan took this to a level that surprised and enthralled me.

What did you learn in the process of writing ‘Before the Devil Knows You're Dead’ that you’ll take with you to other projects?

KELLY MASTERSON: Raise the stakes. I don’t mean, put the hero in more jeopardy or add a ticking clock. I mean dig deeper – make it more personal and more emotionally significant. Get right into the guts of the characters. While I often try to pull my characters in two or more directions, I think Sidney’s contribution took my material into richer psychological territory. This gave the wonderful actors great stuff to work with in which the emotional stakes were very high. When I am working on projects now, I ask myself the question: how do I get further into this character and really rock him?

What advice would you give to screenwriters who are still struggling to get their work seen and (hopefully) produced?

KELLY MASTERSON: Don’t give up. I wrote for 20 years before Devil got made. And find your voice. I tried for many years to imitate others or to write in ‘commercial’ genres and did not have any success. I wrote Devil from some original place within myself and never dreamed it would get made, let alone succeed. Keep at it.

 - Interview with ‘Kelly Masterson on “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead”’. From Fast, Cheap Movie Thrills.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Paul Schrader: Notes On Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Paul Schrader was 26 and destitute when he wrote Taxi Driver. In a discussion published in Martin Scorsese - A Journey he reflects on the origins of the script, its transition to the screen and subsequent reaction to the film.

The script of Taxi Driver is the genuine thing. It came from the gut, and while it banged around town everyone who read it realized it was authentic, the real item. After a number of years enough people said somebody should make it so that finally someone did.

In 1973 I had been through a particularly rough time, living more or less in my car in Los Angeles. riding around all night, drinking heavily, going to porno movies because they were open all night, and crashing some place during the day. Then, finally, I went to the emergency room in serious pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital, talking to the nurse, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people, but absolutely, totally alone.

The taxicab was a metaphor for loneliness, and once I had that, it was just a matter of creating a plot: the girl he wants but can’t have, and the one he can have but doesn’t want. He tries to kill the surrogate father of the first and fails, so he kills the surrogate father of the other. I think it took ten days, it may have been twelve – I just wrote continuously. I was staying at an old girlfriend’s house, where the heat and gas were all turned off, and I just wrote. When I stopped, I slept on the couch, then I woke up and I went back to typing. As you get older it takes more work. Hovering in the back of my mind is a fondness for those days when it was so painful it just had to come out.

I didn’t really write it the way people write scripts today – you know, with a market in mind. I wrote it because it was something that I wanted to write and it was the first thing I wrote. It jumped out of my head.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Right after writing it, I left town for about six months. I came back to Los Angeles after I was feeling a little stronger emotionally and decided to go at it again. I was a freelance critic at the time. I had written a review of Sisters and interviewed Brian De Palma at his place at the beach. That afternoon, we were playing chess – we were about evenly matched – and somehow the fact that I had written a script came up. So I gave it to him and he liked it a lot and wanted to do it. De Palma showed the script to the producers, Michael and Julia Phillips, who were three houses down the beach, and he showed it to Marty, who was in town after finishing Mean Streets. Michael and Julia told me they wanted to do it but that Marty was a better director for it. So Julia and I went and saw a rough cut of Mean Streets, and I agreed. In fact, I thought Marty and Bob De Niro would be the ideal combination, so we aligned ourselves – De Niro, the Phillipses and myself – but we were not powerful enough to get the film made. Then there was a hiatus of a couple of years, and in the intervening time, each of us had successes of our own. I sold my first script, The Yakuza, for a lot of money. Marty did Alice the Phillipses did The Sting, and De Niro did The Godfather; Part II.

At the time I remember describing Taxi Driver’s Travis as sort of a young man who wandered from the snowy waste of the Midwest into an over-heated New York cathedral. My own background was anti-Catholic in the style of the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution. The town I was raised in was about one-third Dutch Calvinist and one-third Catholic, and the other third were trying to figure out why they were there, and sort of keeping peace. Well, both cultures, Catholic and Calvinist, are infused with the sense of guilt, redemption by blood, and moral purpose – all acts are moral acts, all acts have consequence. It’s impossible to act amorally. There’s a kind of divine eye in the sky that ensures your acts are morally judged. So you know once you’re raised in that kind of environment, you don’t shake that, you shake a lot of things, but the sense of moral responsibility, guilt, and redemption you carry with you forever. So Scorsese and I shared that. I came from essentially a rural, Midwestern Protestant and Dutch background, and he is urban and Italian Catholic, so in a way it’s a very felicitous joining. The bedrock is the same.

Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else – three sensibilities together at the right time, doing the right thing. It was still a low-budget, long-shot movie, but that’s how it got made. At one point, we could have financed the film with Jeff Bridges, but we elected to hold out and wait until we could finance it with De Niro. It was just a matter of luck and timing. Marty was fully ready to make the film; De Niro was ready to make it. And the nation was ready to see it. You can’t plan or scheme for that kind of luck. It just sort of happens – the right film at the right time...

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Bob was so determined to get the character of Travis down, he drove a cab for a couple of weeks. He got a licence, had his fingerprints taken by the police and hit the streets.

The dialogue in Taxi Driver is somewhat improvised. The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you talking to me?” part. In the script it just says Travis speaks to himself in the mirror. Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, ‘Well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.’ So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.

I remember the night before Taxi Driver opened, we all got together and had dinner and said, ‘No matter what happens tomorrow we have made a terrific movie and we’re damn proud of it even if it goes down the toilet.’ The next day, I went over to the cinema for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block. And then I realised, this line was for the two o’clock show, not the noon show! I ran in and watched the film and everyone was standing at the back and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done.

Jean-Luc Godard once said that all the great movies are successful for the wrong reasons. There were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it brought out the Times Square crowd.

I’m not opposed to censorship in principle but I think that if you censor a film like Taxi Driver all you do is censor a film, not confront a problem. These characters are running around and can be triggered off by anything.

When I talk to younger filmmakers they tell me that it was really the film that informed them, that it was their seminal film, and listening to them talk, I really can see it as a kind of social watermark. But it was meant as a personal film, not a political commentary.

– Paul Schrader in Martin Scorsese - A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly. Pages 87-98.