Monday 5 February 2024

Kon Ichikawa: Politics and Desire

Conflagration (Directed by Kon Ichikawa)
In a career extending from the mid-1930s to the mid-2000s, Kon Ichikawa directed almost 80 films that ranged widely in genre, form, and tone. He has made ferociously humanist war films (The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain) and light-hearted domestic comedies (Being Two Isn’t Easy); formalist documentaries (Tokyo Olympiad) and extravagant period pieces (An Actor’s Revenge); his celebrated adaptations of famous Japanese novels such as Enjo and The Makioka Sisters earned him a reputation as a “deadpan sophisticate”(Pauline Kael) with an elegant compositional style, venomous wit, and narrative daring, but he was also a crafty master of populist entertainments.

The problems of apprehension and evaluation posed by the diversity and magnitude of Ichikawa’s oeuvre are compounded by other factors, notably the formidable influence of his wife and scenarist, Natto Wada, whose withdrawal from writing his scripts in the mid-1960s marked a turning point in his career; and the difficulties he encountered with the studios, who occasionally punished his failures and transgressions by assigning him dubious projects, or hired him only on “salvage operations.” While often referred to as a link between the “golden age” of Japanese cinema and the New Wave of the ’60s, Ichikawa has rarely been given his due as an innovator, even though his experiments with formal elements (the CinemaScope frame, the tonalities of black and white and colour, the graphic design of compositions, the use of freeze frames, masking, flash cutaways), with unconventional registers of dialogue and acting, and with subjective or surreal imagery are among the most daring and influential in postwar Japanese cinema.

In the following excerpt from an interview with Joan Mellen from 1972 Kon Ichikawa discusses his influences as a filmmaker and the political dimension to his films.

Q: How did you start making films?

A: When I was a youth it was the time of the Western film world’s so-called renaissance. There were so many great European and American films. They had a great impact on the Japanese. Japanese then began to pursue filmmaking seriously. This influenced me considerably.

Q: Which European and American films or directors most affected you?

A: I should mention the names of filmmakers who moved me very much rather than individual titles. Among them, in America, Charlie Chaplin stands out, as does William Wellman. In France René Clair. Nor can I forget Sternberg and Lubitsch.

Q: Why have Japanese filmmakers been so interested in historical themes and period films?

A: I don’t think Japanese films lean particularly toward the jidai-geki, or costume drama. Some people are interested in episodes of a certain era, but I would not want to make the distinction between jidai-geki and gendai-geki. To me they are the same. If I may add my opinion, films which have modern themes and modern implications should not be simply classified as jidai-geki, even if they are set before the Meiji era. They are indeed modern films although they may take the form of costume plays.

Q: You don’t think there are more historical films made in Japan than in the United States, although we do have the "Western", which may be thought of as similar to the jidai-geki?

A: We probably have a few more and it may have some significance, in my case for one. It is true of course that there are more jidai-geki made here than gendai-geki. You see film is an art which involves the direct projection of the time in which we live. It is a difficult point to state clearly, but my general feeling is that Japanese filmmakers are somewhat unable to grasp contemporary society. In your country, there seem to be many more dramatic current themes to portray. To render something into film art we really need to understand thoroughly what we want to describe. Unable to do this, many of us go back to history and try to elucidate certain themes which have implications for modern society.

Q: Is it because Japanese society is undergoing great political and social change at the present time?

A: Yes, that is correct.

Q: Are you interested in the theme of political apathy or indifference in the Kogarashi Monjiro stories?

A: Yes, the protagonist is an outlaw and a loner, like an "isolated wold". He is like the character in many Westerns. He is always anti-establishment.

Q: Do you suggest through this character that political action is fruitless, especially in the sense that an isolated individual attempting to do away with evil would find it impossible?

A: You might say that in terms of the political implications, although the political element is not the main theme. I am much more interested in the search for what defines human nature.

Q: In general would you say that you are more interested in psychological aspects than political?

A: Yes, generally so...

Q: What aspect of the original novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, were you interested in when you made Enjo?

A: In this film, I wanted to show the poverty in Japan.

Q: Who wanted to show the poverty especially, you or Mishima?

A: No, I.

Q: Is it a material or spiritual poverty?

A: I started from the economic and naturally pursued the spiritual also, because it is the story of man. The economic side represents sixty per cent and the spirital forty percent.

Q: Doesn’t this indicate a strong political element in your words?

A: Only for this film in which spiritual poverty is caused by economic poverty. Usually I don’t consider myself a politically minded director. When I am making a film, I don’t think of the political side of the film very much; it is not the main thing.

Q: Maybe political is the wrong word. By "political" I mean social consciousness, the relationship between the individual and society, not in the sense of political parties.

A: Then yes, that is important to my work. I am both aware of and concerned with social consciousness.

Q: Is there any similarity between your private Mizushima in Harp of Burma and Goichi Mizoguchi in Enjo?

A: They represent the youth in Japan. In the case of Mizushima the time was the middle of the war, and with Goichi it was just after the war. In this sense, both whether a soldier or not, represent Japanese youth.

Q: What is the origin of their disillusionment with the world? Are they each disillusioned about in a general way? Although their behaviour is, of course, different: one leaves the world to become a Buddhist monk and decides never to return to Japan and Goichi in Enjo burns down one of the most famous shrines in Japan.

A: Both are very young, and both are in search of something. Neither knows exactly what he is after, as they are still young. Both thrust themselves against the thick wall of reality and disillusionment trying to find out what they desire.

Q: As in the burning of the temple. What do they desire?

A: Truth.

Q: Is it the truth of themselves or of the world?

A: The truth of their own lives.

Q: Is the meaning they seek in their lives similar to that of Watanabe in Kurosawa’s Ikiru? Watanabe of course is an old man.

A: Possibly so. I can say it is close. It depends on the viewer’s interpretation.

Q: What is the statement about the nature of war that you are making in Fires on the Plain?

A: War is an extreme situation which can change the nature of man. For this reason, I consider it to be the the greatest sin.

Q: Do you use a social situation like war as a device to explore the human character? The social situation would be a means of showing what the human being is capable of – as in Tamura’s cannibalism, homicide, or the massacre in the film – as opposed to showing what happens in a society that leads to war?

A: I use the situation of war partly for this reason, but also to show the limits within which a moral existence is possible.

Q: Why do you have Private Tamura die at the end?

A: I let him die. In the original novel he survives to return to Japan, enters a mental institution, and lives there. I thought he should rest peacefully in the world of death. The death was my salvation to him.

Q: What he saw made him unable to continue to live in this world?

A: Yes, he couldn’t live in this world any longer after that. This is my declaration of total denial of war, total negation of war.

Q: In Alone in Pacific you seem to be saying that determination is important, not what you do, nor the nature of the act.

A: Yes. That was my precise conception.

Q: Isn’t what we do important? Wouldn’t you say that there is some distintion between doing some useful thing and voyaging alone on the pacific?

A: No, no difference.

Q: In Japanese films and in yours in particular, much more so than in Western films, there seem to be mixtures of styles or rather varied methods of filmmaking which are combined sometimes even within a single film. Many of your films, and those of Oshima and Shindo for example, are so completely different from one work to the next. Is this a special characteristic of the Japanese film? I am thinking in particular of your segment of A Woman’s Testament.

A: [Laughs] Do you think so! Probably you are examining the films in great detail! We don’t see this particularly. I believe that expression should be free, so this notion may affect the fact that you have just described. But I am never conscious of differentiating my methods or that I have one single special style. All depends on the story or the drama on which I am working.

Q: This seems to be something unique about the Japanese film. In American films one director’s works are generally similar, especially among the older directors.

A: I think each should differ according to what is being expressed. As I am Ichikawa and no one else, even when I try to change the style according to the theme there is always some similarity from one film to the next. Right now I am working with an Italian director, Pasolini. I have really been influenced by him. I consider him one of the greatest filmmakers today. Do you know his work?

Q: Which films of Pasolini do you admire the most?

A: Oedipus Rex, Medea, The Decameron, The Gospel According to St. Mathew, Teorema. I consider Pasolini the finest director making films today. Among American directors I was impressed with Peter Fonda, not with his Easy Rider, but with The Hired Hand. He seems to be very young, yet he has a very good grasp of his subject. He understands love so beautifully. How old is he?

Q: He is about thrity-five. Whom do you admire among the younger Japanese directors?

A: None among the young ones. I don’t know any of their films.

Q: How about among the older ones?

A: Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, of course.

Q: In connection with Mizoguchi’s Oharu I visited the Rakanji Temple in Tokyo. Didn’t he film one of the main scenes there?

A: But it could be that he made that movie in Kyoto. Is Oharu the American title? The title in Japanese is Saikaku Ichidai Onna. You know, there are several Rakanjis.

Q: Is there a contradiction in the fact that you seem to praise the family system in Ototo (Her Brother) but attack it in Bonchi? Or were you criticizing the matriarchal family in particular in Bonchi?

A: "Attack" is a strong word, but yes, I have criticized the family system in Ototo and yes, in Bonchi I attack the matriarchy. Ototo takes place in the Taisho era, before the war, about forty years ago, but today we still have much the same problem in our family system. I hold the opinion that each family should be accustomed to respecting the individuality of every member. This is what I wanted to say.

Q: What is your viewpoint in Hakai (The Outcast)?

A: The theme is racial discrimination. Japanese discriminate against burakumin. Originally when the Koreans emigrated to Japan, they brought their slaves with them; these were segregated and called burakumin.

Q: Were you then treating the great discrimination against the Koreans by the Japanese?

A: I think all human beings should be equal.

Q: Could you say something about how you used the visual details of the architecture in Enjo to reveal the psychology of the boy?

A: Yes, I sought to do this. This beautiful structure was simply nothing but old decayed timber, no more than that. The boy didn’t think so at first, but he gradually realized it.

Q: What is the relationship bewteen his feeling about himself and his feeling about the building?

A: Let me add this. It doesn’t have to be the Golden Pavilion. It can be any one of the so-called great monuments in our history. They are so fine. Nobody questioned their greatness because many generations were taught to revere them. Well, in actuality some people think the particular monument, in this case the Golden Pavilion, is great, but some think it is not. Varying opinions should be accepted because excellence is solely dependent upon the viewer’s conception.

Q: Does he hate the building and burn it down as an act of self-hatred?

A: Yes, he hated himself and destroyed himself.

Q: The building represented everything which oppressed him?

A: Yes, that expresses it.

Q: Is that why people are shown as very small and the building huge in some scenes? They are individuals very vulnerable to and unable to control outside influences which dominate them, of which the Kinkakuji stands as a symbol.

A: Yes, that’s right. One further thing, I wish to stress is that Goichi was handicapped. He stutters and cannot express himself well and in a sense he closes himself off from society. He has a sense of inferiority in relation to that magnificent building and he suffers from his isolation. I myself did not think the Golden Pavilion so great or beautiful a structure. I may be wrong but my point here is that the presence of this great structure does not secure the well-being of human beings around it, or make them happy.

Friday 5 January 2024

Bertrand Tavernier: Crime and the Surreal

Clean Slate (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
 ‘I always try to show social consequences in my films. This is a challenge, of course, but consequences are always more important than the action itself.’ 
One of France’s premiere directors, screenwriters, and producers, Bertrand Tavernier is renowned for making dramas encompassing themes as diverse as familial relationships, World War I, and contemporary social ills. Regardless of the subjects they explore, Tavernier lends his films great introspection and humanity, something that has established him as one of the French cinema’s more progressive and compassionate figures.

Born in Lyon on April 25, 1941, Tavernier grew up with a love of film and wanted to be a director from the age of 13. He was particularly influenced by such American directors as Joseph Losey, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and William Wellman, and – during a spell at the Sorbonne, where he studied law – he became involved in the film industry as an assistant director for Jean-Pierre Melville. Tavernier became then a film critic and worked for prestigious publications as Positif and Cahiers du Cinema. His first feature film, L’Horloger de St. Paul (1974), received international acclaim and a Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It also featured a starring turn by Philippe Noiret, whom Tavernier featured often in subsequent projects. Many of his films – from Le Juge et l’Assassin to Un Dimanche à la Campagne from Une Semaine de Vacances to La Passion Béatrice gained great critical success and earned a number of awards – (World Cinema Foundation).

In an interview with Michael Carlson in 2008 for the Crimetime website Bertrand Tavernier discussed his fondness for the crime genre and his early embrace of American crime movies:

BT: Well, I was interested in all kinds of film in those days, but perhaps because everyone wanted to write about Visconti and no one was writing about westerns, or musicals, or film noir, I was drawn to that. I was attracted by style; these crime films were saying much more than what they were supposed to say; they were full of information about the American way of life, there was lots of social context, and they were written or directed largely by progressive people, or people forced to leave their own country...

MC: So many of the great noir directors are immigrants.

Yes, they brought things that were not existing, so much, a sense of doubt or skepticism...well, this is too simple but American cinema tends to be about affirmation, and the European was more about doubt. Directors like Siodmak, Preminger, Lubitsch, Wilder, bring this with them.

You could argue film noir was European sensibility meeting the American gangster film.

Oh yes, but even in France at the end of the 1930s, you had Carne, and films written by Prevert.

‘Quai des brumes’?

Of course.

You were a critic before you started as an assistant director with Jean-Pierre Melville.

I never considered myself a critic; I did it merely out of passion because I wanted to be a film director. But I was not a good AD working with Melville; it was a bad experience, and he was not an easy man to work with, very intimidating to people on the set. But he knew I was not suited, so he suggested I might be better as a press agent, and that proved perfect: I could learn about films without the problems of being an AD, sit in on every stage of the process, and as I became more successful in PR it was special because I could work only on films I liked: so I did PR for Ford, Walsh, Henry Hathaway, and also for Godard, Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda... the second thing I did as a press agent was to make a trailer for the Godard film.

The Watchmaker of St Paul (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
And for your first feature, you adapted Simenon.

Because I loved him. I had already written one screenplay, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach Of Falesa, and I’d got James Mason and Jacques Brel to agree to be in it, but I couldn’t get the finance. I tried to write another screenplay, about the French Gestapo, but when I showed it to (the screenwriter) Pierre Bost he said ‘these people were scumbags, to make them into heroes is dangerous’, well, not heroes, he meant they become interesting by being the main characters.

Which is interesting, because that’s one of the themes of Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct).

Yes, and the French critics called that picture an attack on the New Wave, and they didn’t know I’d worked on pictures like Pierrot Le Fou or fought for him on Le Mepris. I saw Godard at his tribute at the Institute Lumiere, and he was very nice to me. But Laissez-Passer is about the spirit of resistance, and the behaviour of people under occupation.

I think of someone like Soderbergh today, and wonder if the crime film helps provide a structure for film makers.

Yes, it does, and it’s a structure that you can break or destroy – but you must have a basis. Dexter Gordon said to me once ‘before trying to break all the barriers, learn how to play Laura. When you know Laura in the right mood, then you can expand.’ John Boorman once said he only needed the shot of someone putting a rifle in a suitcase. After that, you can go in a lot of innovative ways, because you have that moment of danger and conflict. And in film noir they found thousands of ways, flashbacks, false flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks.

Yes, I just saw ‘The Locket’ again.

Exactly. Resnais called film noir the best school for telling a story in the most modern way, and it’s amazing how they are still very much alive and not dated. Pitfall, The Big Clock, as interesting as they were, maybe moreso. They give the opportunity for the writer to write different dialogue, always interesting. Out Of The Past has wonderful dialogue, it’s not one note, and you have the literary, very sparse, like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave. The people doing the writing knew they could smuggle ideas in.

The Watchmaker of St Paul (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Which brings us back to ‘The Watchmaker of St Paul’.

Yes, because Simenon is on of the most important writers in France – at least thirty masterpieces, plus all the great Maigrets. He’s often reduced to atmosphere, but suddenly he gets the essence of something, the naked man: we had this wonderful scene, when Noiret lies down on his son’s bed, after learning he’s a killer, and he’s a man deprived of what society has made of him.

Noiret conveys an amazingly lonely man, which I associate with Simenon’s characters

Yes, he is alone. My early films are always broken families, people are always lonely. Perhaps because my parents never got along, so I was raised that way.

And it’s odd to see Simenon set in the summer, in Lyon.

He’s always done in fog and rain, but I wanted to shoot the film in summer, in great light, because the foggy atmosphere is merely superficial. In fact, about 80 per cent of the screenplay is original, but when you add, when it’s good, it’s what Jean Aurenche called a gift inspired by the love you have for the book.

The Judge and the Assassin (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Your third film, ‘The Judge And The Assassin,’ combined crime, like your first one, with a period piece, like your second, ‘Que La Fete Commence’.

I was doing a trilogy with Noiret, dealing with issues of justice, and this was based on a very famous case at the time. I was looking for the texture behind the crime story; the time of Dreyfus, the battle between religion and the state. It’s set between the death of Van Gogh and the birth of Freud. As the killer, we cast an actor who’d done only low class bad comedy films, but he was very good, and brought the uncertainty to the role.

It’s in Cinemascope.

We shot in the Ardeche, and tried to integrate the landscape. I was influenced by Delmer Daves and he saw that and loved the film. The early films I loved, of John Ford especially, rooted the heroes in their environment, and with wide screen you can show them close up with the landscape still there behind them. I love Anthony Mann, how he gets the landscape into the film, and Cinemascope lets me do that.

You mention Daves; what did you think of the remake of ‘3:10 To Yuma’?

Oh I hated it! Hated it! They take a shortcut through the Apaches and discover a town full of Chinese the sheriff had no idea existed there! Really. In the original, two men are killed in the opening, and those deaths mean something; the first reverberates throughout the picture.

His funeral in Contention that morning...

Exactly. But in the remake, they kill dozens, randomly. The town, everyone is shooting. It makes no sense.

It seemed to me they deliberately inverted the most crucial things about the film. The son is now the hero, not the father...

Yes, perhaps because of the audience. They make films for children, so the big choices in this film are made by a child. And the father must die, not triumph.

Clean Slate (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Then we move to 1981, and ‘Coup De Torchon’ (Clean Slate), which is many people’s favourite of your films and favourite Jim Thompson adaptation.

It took me five years to adapt. At first I wanted to set it in Lyon, my native city, but it didn’t work. You can’t kill someone in France without someone else noticing, the body turning up. I asked Perec, Blier, to help, but nothing worked. Then I was re-reading Celine, and I thought ‘Ah ha’! I wanted to ask Jean Aurenche to write it, because he had lived in Africa, and he brought that surreal sense of irony – his sister was married to Max Ernst, by the way – the paying of the workers in cinema tickets for example. Though the scene of the pigs and the dead bodies, that we took from Gide.

But the surreal is there in the original too.

Oh yes. But when the Americans adapt Jim they wipe that out, they lose the metaphysical. There is always something strange going on, you’re not walking on solid ground, that’s why I used the stedicam so much; things are not stable, you can suddenly fall into a pit, that’s what Jim’s books are about. It leaves no way out for the audience, and I decided to keep that. There is no character who the audience can embrace at the end.

Which is true of ‘The Grifters’, to an extent, as well.

Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, said he thought Coup de Torchon was the best Jim Thompson, and Westlake is a very very great writer.

L. 627 (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
It would be another decade before ‘L.627’, which was very different for you.

It’s a story about someone trying to do what he’s been asked to do, in this case a cop on the drug squad, but he becomes a pain in the ass because he tries, and he’s told not to think about results.

I worked with a real detective in his office, his boss left me completely free, he showed me people dealing, explained the situation. But I made that film out of anger, because I’d had lunch with Laurent Fabius, who was Minister of the Interior, and he asked me for an example of something he could work on. So I told him my son had been a drug addict, and had taken me in the Metro, at Chatelet, where you could walk through an open drug market, to schools where people were selling, so I said, you could do something about that. And he said he wanted something important! I was speechless! The film created a big controversy in France, the Minister of Interior was angry, and said their policy was against drug-dealing, but they actually did nothing, so the film was supported by the cops who understood. And it became a racial issue, because many, if not most, of the dealers were black. That was simply a fact. But by avoiding a crackdown, they opened the door for the likes of Le Pen, because it allowed him to then damn all blacks as dealers.

There is a documentary feel, less lyrical, and you’ve done many documentaries.

Maybe it reflects the change in the social situation, the generation. My films seem to take on the energies of their main characters. All the actors were unknowns, Didier Bezace, Phillipe Torreton, Milo, and my son actually plays a young cop. But I wanted to show a hero who is sometimes doing things that are wrong, beating up suspects, because he has grown so frustrated with the so-called correct way, because it doesn’t work. My films are about people who are passionate, and that can lead him over the line, into doing things that are evil. In all my films people make mistakes.

Fresh Bait (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Which is the sense one gets from The Bait (L’Appat, aka Fresh Bait) that it is the culture, perhaps, which has let down these three killers.

I felt it was an uncomfortable subject, how three people who would not harm anyone, but are ignorant, and dream of becoming rich in America, how could they kill people.

It’s as if it’s the easy way out?

They are lazy, too. And the pressure eventually turns them into killers. It was released in France on DVD, and I’m sorry it wasn’t in cinemas. The New York Times called it a French Natural Born Killers, the same subject but opposite in treatment.

Which brings us to ‘In The Electric Mist’, with Tommy Lee Jones and based on the novel by James Lee Burke. Is there a connection with ‘Coup de Torchon’, with the American South, the original setting of Thompson’s ‘Pop. 1280’?

Not intentionally, but as you say it, I think there is a similarity. I adore Burke, and his books present something different, and like Thompson there is a surreal element to them.

Especially in ‘Electric Mist’...

Yes, with the dreams. So I tried to shoot the dream sequences very straight-forwardly, very very realistically, with no distorted lenses or bizarre angles. He’s like Thompson too, in that his books have long sequences written in italics, because they are different from the real, and how do you film italics? In Thompson crime is explained by prejudice, intolerance, humilation. And the other element is Burke’s great sensitivity to social context, his sense of place. The past is always there, it’s his obsession, it explains the crimes of the present: it all goes back to slavery and the Civil War, things kept under the blanket and not dealt with.

In the Electric Mist (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
It’s very Faulknerian.

Faulkner was a nightmare to interview; the critics were asking all sorts of intellectual questions, and he wanted to talk story specifics. Very American. If you ask is Burke intellectual, I don’t know how you answer. Raoul Walsh could quote any line from Shakespeare; Olivia de Haviland once said she walked in on him and he was reading Stendahl, and he hid the book lest she see it.

If not intellectual, Robichaux is a reflective character, the thinking man’s cop, and Tommy Lee Jones isn’t always seen that way.

Oh but for me he embodies everything about Robichaux, for me he is the best American actor. In No Country For Old Men and Three Burials he showed that side. He worked on our script, he’s very obsessive, even changing punctuation, and wrote some beautiful scenes, including one with Bootsie where he defines understanding by asking what salamanders understand, that won’t be in the finished film. But when you say ‘action’ there’s no fuss. He gives you the inside of Dave Robichaux, and I have never seen an actor who can express contempt for another character in such a restrained way; it couldn’t be more intense. Jacques Tourneur understood this: he had his actors speak very low all the time, shot them using only real light: there’s only one scream in I Walked With A Zombie, it plays like a confession.

That’s an interesting comparison, because the Creole culture is common to New Orleans and Haiti...

And the food! I used a lot of hot sauce there; I came back with a case of Bin Laden’s Most Devilish hot sauce. There is also a very Catholic element, very religious to Burke, but very progressive, very anti-Bush, with the post-Katrina setting...

– ‘Simenon and the Surreal: Bertrand Tavernier talks to Michael Carlson’.  
Original article here

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Werner Herzog: Writing and Dreams

Werner Herzog is celebrated as one of the most influential and innovative filmmakers of our time, but his ascent to acclaim was far from a straight trajectory from privilege to power. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Herzog survived a WWII bombing that demolished the house next door to his childhood home and was raised by a single mother in near-poverty. He found his calling in filmmaking after reading an encyclopedia entry on the subject as a teenager and took a job as a welder in a steel factory in his late teens to fund his first films. These building blocks of his character — tenacity, self-reliance, imaginative curiosity — shine with blinding brilliance in the richest and most revealing of Herzog’s interviews.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed presents the director’s extensive, wide-ranging conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin.

Herzog’s insights coalesce into a kind of manifesto for following one’s particular calling, a form of intelligent, irreverent self-help for the modern creative spirit — indeed, even though Herzog is a humanist fully detached from religion, there is a strong spiritual undertone to his wisdom, rooted in what Cronin calls “unadulterated intuition” and spanning everything from what it really means to find your purpose and do what you love to the psychology and practicalities of worrying less about money to the art of living with presence in an age of productivity. As Cronin points out in the introduction, Herzog’s thoughts collected in the book are “a decades-long outpouring, a response to the clarion call, to the fervent requests for guidance.”

And yet in many ways, A Guide for the Perplexed could well have been titled A Guide to the Perplexed, for Herzog is as much a product of his “cumulative humiliations and defeats,” as he himself phrases it, as of his own “chronic perplexity,” to borrow E.B. White’s unforgettable term — Herzog possesses that rare, paradoxical combination of absolute clarity of conviction and wholehearted willingness to inhabit his own inner contradictions, to pursue life’s open-endedness with equal parts focus of vision and nimbleness of navigation.

– Maria Popova.

In the following excerpt Werner Herzog elaborates on his approach to writing screenplays and the role of dreams in that process.

Do you have an ideology, something that drives you beyond mere storytelling?

“Mere storytelling,” as you put it, is enough for a film. Steven Spielberg’s films might be full of special effects, but audiences appreciate them because at the centre of each is a well-crafted story. Spielberg deserves the position he is in because he understands something that those who are concerned only with the fireworks of flashy visuals don’t. If a story in a narrative film doesn’t function, that film won’t function.

My films come to me very much alive, like dreams, without explanation. I never think about what it all means. I think only about telling a story, and however illogical the images, I let them invade me. An idea comes to me, and then, over a period of time – perhaps while driving or walking – this blurred vision becomes clearer in my mind, pulling itself into focus. I see the film before me, as if it were playing on a screen, and it soon becomes so transparent that I can sit and write it all down, describing the images passing through my mind. I don’t write a script if I can’t see and hear the entire film - “characters, dialogue, music, locations – in my head. I have never written a screenplay for anyone else because I see my stories in a certain way and don’t want anyone else to touch them. When I write, I sit in front of the computer and pound the keys. I start at the beginning and write fast, leaving out anything that isn’t necessary, aiming at all times for the hard core of the narrative. I can’t write without that urgency. Something is wrong if it takes more than five days to finish a screenplay.

A story created this way will always be full of life. I saw the whole of Even Dwarfs Started Small as a continuous nightmare in front of my eyes and was extremely disciplined while typing so I wouldn’t make any mistakes. I just let it all pour out and didn’t make more than five typos in the entire screenplay.

People sense I am well orientated, that I know where I have come from and where I’m headed, so it’s understandable that they search for some guiding ideology behind my work. But no such thing exists as far as I’m concerned. There is never some philosophical idea that guides a film through the veil of a story. All I can say is that I understand the world in my own way and am capable of articulating this understanding through stories and images that are coherent to others. I don’t like to drop names, but what sort of an ideology would you push under the shirt of Conrad or Hemingway or Kafka? Goya or Caspar David Friedrich? Even after watching my films, it bothers some audiences that they are unable to put their finger on what my credo might be. Grasp this with a pair of pliers, but the credo is the films themselves and my ability to make them. This is what troubles those people who have forever viewed my work with tunnel vision, as if they were looking through a straw they picked up at McDonald’s. They keep searching. No wonder they get desperate.

Some of these milkshake-drinkers have located themes running throughout your work.

Apparently so, but don’t ask me to do the same. A film is a projection of light that becomes something else only when it crosses the gaze of the audience, with the viewer able to connect what he is looking at with something deeper within himself. Everyone completes images and stories in a different way because everyone’s perspective is unique, so it’s never been a good idea for me to explain what my films might mean. The opinion of the public, however different from my own, is sacred. Whenever anyone asks me if Stroszek kills himself at the end of Stroszek, I tell them they’re free to choose the ending that best works for them. If anyone is expecting a statement from me on such matters, it would be best if they put this book down right now and poured themselves a glass of wine. Consider this line from Walt Whitman: “Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity. When I give I give myself.” None of my films were made following deep philosophical contemplation. My way of expressing certain ideas – our deep-rooted hopes and gnawing fears – is by rendering them visible on screen.

Those hordes who write about cinema have often been trained to think in certain ways, to analyse a body of work and investigate apparent connections, to bring certain rigid, fashionable theories to bear and show off everything they know while doing so. They read their own intellectual make-up and approach to life into my films, apparently deciphering things that for me don’t need to be deciphered, and by churning out page after page of unappealing prose actually obscure and confuse. It doesn’t mean they’re right, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. They function in their world, and I in mine. “I want to appeal to people’s instincts before anything else. When I present an audience with a new film I hope they bring only their hearts and minds, plus a little sympathy. I ask for no more than that. Film isn’t the art of scholars but of illiterates. It should be looked at straight on, without any prefabricated ideas, which is something Henri Langlois knew all too well. At the Cinémathèque Française he would screen films from around the world – in Bengali, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese – without subtitles. It means audiences had to cultivate a kind of intelligence and intensity of vision that has little to do with rational thought. They almost developed their own sense of illiteracy, tapping into an innate but usually long-dormant facility.

You must be able to see some connections between your films.

People say I’m an outsider, but even if everyone finds me eccentric, I know I’m standing at the centre. There is nothing eccentric about my films; it’s everything else that’s eccentric. I never felt that Kaspar Hauser, for example, was an outsider. He might have been continually forced to the sidelines, he might have stood apart from everyone, but he’s at the true heart of things. Everyone around him, with their deformed souls, transformed into domesticated pigs and members of bourgeois society, they are the bizarre ones. Aguirre, Fini Straubinger and Stroszek all fit into this pattern. So do Walter Steiner, Hias in Heart of Glass, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, the Aborigines of Where the Green Ants Dream and the desert people of Fata Morgana. Look at Reinhold Messner, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Nosferatu and even Kinski himself, or Vladimir Kokol, the young deaf and blind man in Land of Silence and Darkness who connects with the world only by bouncing a ball off his head and clutching a radio to his chest, much like Kaspar, who plays with his wooden horse. None of these people are pathologically mad. “It’s the society they find themselves in that’s demented. Whether dwarfs, hallucinating soldiers or indigenous peoples, these individuals are not freaks.

I have always felt that my characters – fictional or non-fictional – all belong to the same family. It isn’t easy to put my finger on exactly what binds them together, but if a member of the clan were walking about town, you would intuitively and instantly recognise them. If you were to sit and watch all my films in one go, you would see the cross-references, the relationships and similarities between characters. They have no shadows, they emerge from the darkness without a past, they are misunderstood and humiliated. If you turned on the television and saw ten seconds of something, you would immediately know it must be one of mine. I look at my films as one big story, a vast, interconnected work I have been concentrating on for fifty years. Like the separate bricks that make up a building, taken together they constitute something bigger than their individual parts.

Does investigation of these individuals tell us anything about their surroundings?

We learn more about the buildings, streets and structures of an unknown city by climbing to the top of an overlooking hill than by standing in its central square. Looking in from the outskirts, we come to understand the environments in which these characters live.

How close do you feel to the characters in your films?

I have a great deal of sympathy for these people, to the point where Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein joked that I should play everyone in my films myself. I function pretty well as an actor and in several of my films could have played the leading character if necessary. I could never make a film – fiction or non-fiction – about someone for whom I have no empathy, who fails to arouse some level of appreciation and curiosity. In fact, when it comes to Fini Straubinger in Land of Silence and Darkness, Bruno S. in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or Dieter Dengler, these people are points of reference not just for my work, but also my life. I learnt so much from my time with them. The radical dignity they radiate is clearly visible in the films. There is something of what constitutes them inside me.

– Excerpt from Werner Herzog - A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin.

Monday 6 November 2023

John Cassavetes: Chasing Shadows

Shadows (Directed by John Cassavetes)
John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) is one of the pioneering works of American independent cinema. Made for $40,000 with a non-professional cast and crew, using rented and borrowed equipment, the film portrays several days in the lives of three African-American siblings – Hugh, Ben, and Lelia. Though most critics consider Shadows as being about the issue of race, Cassavetes always thought of the film as more personal. Almost all of the scenes were based on his own experiences and feelings at the time: from the humiliation of his early auditioning days, to Ben’s aimless detachment and cruising for girls, to the lonely, night-time wandering that lasted throughout Cassavetes’ life. Aspects of Cassavetes’ feelings and beliefs are also present in the portrayal of Lelia’s romantic impulsiveness, Rupert and Hugh’s belief in friendship and Tom’s angry speech about academic life. Most significantly of all, the relationship between self-centred drifter Ben and his dutiful brother Hugh mirrored the relationship of John Cassavetes with his older brother Nick. 

As the critic Raymond Carney claims: ‘Beyond these specific references, the general subject of Shadows was close to Cassavetes’ view of his own situation at this point in his life. He thought of himself as doing the same thing in his world as Lelia and Ben did in theirs. In their different ways, he and they were attempting to ‘pass’ for something that was not necessarily a reflection of their true identities. As would be the case with all of his subsequent works, the issues in the film were close to Cassavetes’ heart. He could not satirize or mock characters who were so similar to him.’

The following excerpts express Cassavetes’ thoughts on the making of Shadows:

We tried to do Shadows realistically. I just was as tough and as mixed up and screwed up as anyone else and made a picture about the aimlessness and the wandering of young people and the emotional qualities that they possessed.

The story is of a Negro family that lives just beyond the bright lights of Broadway; but we did not mean it to be a film about race. It got its name because one of the actors, in the early days, was fooling around making a charcoal sketch of some of the other actors and suddenly called his drawing Shadows. It seemed to fit the film. The NAACP came to us to finance it, but we turned it down. We’re not politicians. One of the things that has to be established when you’re making a movie is freedom. Everyone will get the wrong idea and say we’ve got a cause. I couldn’t care less about causes of any kind. Shadows is not offensive to anybody – Southerners included – because it has no message. The thing people don’t like is having a philosophy shoved down their throats. We’re not pushing anything. I don’t believe the purpose of art is propagandizing.

At the time I made Shadows I wished that I was a black man, because it would be something so definite and the challenge would be greater than being a white man. But now, American black men are white men so there’s no challenge and I don’t really wish to be that anymore. I don’t know about other men’s desires but it is my desire to be an underdog, to win on a long shot, to gamble, to take chances.

There is a great need in the cinema for truthfulness, but truth is not necessarily sordid and not necessarily downbeat. Unfortunately, the art films have dealt mainly with the evils of society. But society is more interesting than rape or murder. I think you can do more through positive action than in pointing out the foibles and stupidities of man. Yes, any man is capable of killing any other man, we know that, we don’t have to stress that. To say that it’s right and normal, to continue to say it, to have society and the Establishment confirm that view, is wrong.

Art films reach for the most obvious fallacies of society, such as racial prejudice. That’s been a fault of the art film – devoting itself to human ills, human weaknesses. An artist has a responsibility not to dwell on this and point it up, but to find hope for this age and see that it wins occasionally. Pictures are supposed to clarify people’s emotions, to explain the feelings of people on an emotional plane. An art film should not preclude laughter, enjoyment and hope. Is life about horror? Or is it about those few moments we have? I would like to say that my life has some meaning.

I think that there are certainly many, many wonderful things to be written about in this day and age of disillusionment and horror and impending doom. We must take a more positive stand in making motion pictures, and have a few more laughs, and treat life with a little more hope than we have in the past. Shadows is a realistic drama with hope – a hopeful picture about a lower echelon of society in the United States – how they live, how they react. The people are hopeful. They have some belief. I believe in people.

I’m not an Angry Young Man. I’m just an industrious young man. And I believe in people. I don’t believe in ‘exposés’, as exposés have just torn America apart, and the rest of the world. I don’t believe in saying that the presidential campaign is all phony, going inside it and looking at it. It’s been going on for years this way, but for the first time in history we’re going in and saying, ‘Yeah, see what they do? See how they get votes? See how this is done? See?’ Human frailties are with us. People aren’t perfect. But we have good instincts that counterbalance our bad acts. The main battle is you don’t make ugliness for the sake of ugliness. By attacking, constantly attacking everything in sight, no matter what anyone does, it’s not good enough because it can’t be trusted. And nobody, starting with the top of our government, can be believed. Everybody is a phony. So if everybody’s a phony, what’s the sense of going on, because there isn’t anybody worth making a picture about, talking about, writing about. There’s no hope in living and you might as well pack it all in and forget about it. Why should young people’s minds constantly be filled with the corruption of life? Soon they can’t do anything but believe there’s total corruption.

I adore the neo-realists for their humaneness of vision. Zavattini is surely the greatest screenwriter that ever lived. Particularly inspirational to me when I made Shadows were La Terra Trema, I Vitelloni, Umberto D and Bellissima. The neo-realist filmmakers were not afraid of reality; they looked it straight in the face. I have always admired their courage and their willingness to show us how we really are. It’s the same with Godard, early Bergman, Kurosawa and the second greatest director next to Capra, Carl Dreyer. Shadows contains much of that neo-realistic influence.

I’d like to feel that people have influenced me, but then when you get on the floor you realize you’re really alone and no one can influence your work. They can just open you up and give you confidence that the aim for quality is really the greatest power a director can have – if you’re in quest of power. In a way, you must be out for power. We wouldn’t make films if we didn’t think that in some way we could speak for everyone.

I’m not part of anything. I never joined anything. I could work anywhere. Some of the greatest pictures I’ve ever seen came from the studio system. I have nothing against it at all. I’m an individual. Intellectual bullshit doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in working with people who like to work and find out about something that they don’t already know. If people want to work on a project, they’ve got to work on a project that’s theirs. It’s not mine and it’s not theirs. It’s only yours if you make it yours. With actors, as well as technicians, the biggest problem is to get people who really want to do the job and let them do it their own way. The labels come afterwards. If your films have no chance of being shown anywhere, if you don’t have enough money, you show them in basements; then they’re called underground films. It doesn’t really matter what you call them. When you make a film you aren’t part of a movement. You want to make a film, this film, a personal and individual one, and you do, with the help of your friends.

Shadows from beginning to end was a creative accident. I was going on Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio show, because he had plugged Edge of the City, and I wanted to thank him for it. I told Jean about the piece we had done, and how it could be a good film. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrific if [ordinary] people could make movies, instead of all these Hollywood big-wigs who are only interested in business and how much the picture was going to gross and everything?’ And he asked if I thought I’d be able to raise the money for it. ‘If people really want to see a movie about people,’ I answered, ‘they should just contribute money.’ For a week afterwards, money came in. At the end it totaled $2,500. And we were committed to start a film. One soldier showed up with five dollars after hitchhiking 300 miles to give it to us. And some really weird girl came in off the street; she had a mustache and hair on her legs and the hair on her head was matted with dirt and she wore a filthy polka-dot dress; she was really bad. After walking into the workshop, this girl got down on her knees, grabbed my pants and said, ‘I listened to your program last night. You are the Messiah.’ Anyway, she became our sound editor and straightened out her life. In fact, a lot of people who worked on the film were people who were screwed up – and got straightened out working with the rest of us. We wouldn’t take anything bigger than a five dollar bill – though once, when things looked real rough, we did cash a $100 check from Josh Logan.

When I started, I thought it would only take me a few months; it took three years. I made every mistake known to man; I can’t even remember all the mistakes we made. I was so dumb! Having acted in movies, I kinda knew how they were made, so after doing some shooting, I’d shout out something like ‘Print take three!’ I’d neglected to hire a script girl, however, so no one wrote down which take I wanted – with the astounding result that all the film was printed. It was really the height of ignorance. We did everything wrong, technically. We began shooting without having the slightest idea of what had to be done or what the film would be like. We had no idea at all. We didn’t know a thing about technique: all we did was begin shooting. The technical problems of the production were endless and trying. The ‘Sound Department’ often looked at the recorder, only to see no signal whatsoever! The only thing we did right was to get a group of people together who were young, full of life and wanting to do something of meaning.

There was [also] a struggle because the actors had to find the confidence to have quiet at times, and not just constantly talk. This took about the first three weeks of the schedule. Eventually all this material was thrown away, and then everyone became cool and easy and relaxed and they had their own things to say, which was the point. Though I had to scrap most of what we shot in the first eight weeks’ shooting, later on, once they relaxed and gained confidence, many of the things they did shocked even me, they were so completely unpredictably true.

The things we got praised for were the things we tried to cure. All those things were accidents, not strokes of genius. We didn’t have any equipment, we didn’t have a dolly. And we had all this movement, so we used long lenses. And [we were] photographing in the street because we couldn’t afford a studio or couldn’t afford even to go inside some place, you know. And our sound – when we opened Shadows in England, they said, ‘The truest sound that we’ve ever seen.’ Well, at that time, almost all the pictures, certainly all the pictures at Twentieth Century Fox, were looped. You know, all the sync that the actors actually spoke on the stage was cleaned up and made to be absolutely sterile, so that there was no sound behind anything. If you saw traffic, you wouldn’t hear it. You’d just hear voices so that the dialogue would be clean. But we recorded most of Shadows in a dance studio with Bob Fosse and his group dancing above our heads, and we were shooting this movie. So I never considered the sound. We didn’t even have enough money to print it, to hear how bad it was. So when we came out, we had Sinatra singing upstairs, and all kinds of boom, dancing feet above us. And that was the sound of the picture. So we spent hours, days, weeks, months, years trying to straighten out this sound. Finally, it was impossible and we just went with it. Well, when the picture opened in London they said, ‘This is an innovation!’ You know? Innovation! We killed ourselves to try to ruin that innovation!

When it was finished, we didn’t have enough money to print [all] the sound. There was no dialogue [written down] so every take was different. So we looked at it and said, ‘What the hell are we going to print here? I don’t know what they’re saying. It looks terrific, everything’s all right, it’s beautiful – we’ll lay in the lines.’ So we had a couple of secretaries who used to come up all the time and do transcripts for us. They volunteered their services, they had nothing to do, we had all silent film. So we went to the deaf-mute place and we got lip-readers. They read everything and it took us about a year.

We used a 16mm camera, partly because it was cheaper and partly because we could do more hand-held stuff with it, and it was easier to handle in the streets. We used a [Nagra] tape-recorder and a hand-held boom. We rarely had rehearsals for the camera, even though Erich Kollmar, the cameraman, likes rehearsals. I encouraged him to get it the first time, as it happened. Erich found that the lighting and photographing of these actors, who moved according to impulse instead of direction, prevented him from using a camera in a conventional way. He was forced to photograph the film with simplicity. He was driven to lighting a general area and then hoping for the best. So we not only improvised in terms of the words, but we improvised in terms of motions. The cameraman also improvised, he had to follow the artists and light generally, so that the actor could move when and wherever he pleased. The first week of shooting was just about useless. We were all getting used to each other and to the equipment, but it was not because of the camera movement that we had to throw footage out. In fact, when you try it, you find that natural movement is easier to follow than rehearsed movement, since it has a natural rhythm. A strange and interesting thing happened in that the camera, in following the people, followed them smoothly and beautifully, simply because people have a natural rhythm. Whereas when they rehearse something according to a technical mark, they begin to be jerky and unnatural, and no matter how talented they are, the camera has a difficult time following them.

I think the important contribution that Shadows can make to the film is that audiences go to the cinema to see people: they only empathize with people, and not with technical virtuosity. Most people don’t know what a ‘cut,’ or a ‘dissolve’ or a ‘fade-out’ is, and I’m sure they are not concerned with them. And what we in the business might consider a brilliant shot doesn’t really interest them, because they are watching the people, and I think it becomes important for the artist to realize that the only important thing is a good actor.

Normally to shoot somewhere like Broadway there would be ten or a dozen gaffers [lighting men], then another five or six grips [technicians] to move the cameras and cables, and then all the producers and directors on top of that. They wouldn’t want anything [out of focus]; everything would have to be clear cut. In a [Hollywood] picture you have marks to hit, and the lighting cameraman always lights for you at a certain mark. The actor is expected to go through a dramatic scene, staying within a certain region where the lights are. If he gets out of light just half an inch, then they’ll cut the take and do it over again. So then the actor begins to think about the light rather than about the person he is supposed to be making love to, or arguing with.

In my own case I had worked in a lot of [commercial] films and I couldn’t adjust to the medium. I found that I wasn’t as free as I could be on the stage or in a live television show. So for me [making Shadows] was mainly to find out why I was not free – because I didn’t particularly like to work in films, and yet I like the medium. The actor is the only person in a film who works from emotion, in whom the emotional truth of a situation resides. If we had made Shadows in Hollywood, none of the people could have emerged as the fine actors they are. It’s probably easier technically to make a film in Hollywood, but it would have been difficult to be adventurous simply because there are certain rules and regulations that are set specifically to destroy the actor and make him feel uncomfortable – make the production so important that he feels that if he messes up just one line, that he is doing something terribly wrong and may never work again. And this is especially true, not for the stars, but with the feature players who might be stars later on, or with the small players, the one-line players who might become feature players. There’s a certain cruelty in our business that is unbelievably bad. I don’t see how people can make pictures about people and then have absolutely no regard for the people they are working with.

In the course of [the filming] the tide of outside enthusiasm dwindled and finally turned into rejection. The Shadows people continued, no longer with the hope of injecting the industry with vitality, but only for the sake of their pride in themselves and in the film that they were all devoted to. [On] the last day of shooting, I couldn’t turn on the camera. I was so fed up with doing it because there was no love of the craft or the idea or anything. We’re doing this experiment, and now it’s the last day, nobody’s here except McEndree and me. He couldn’t turn on the camera and I couldn’t turn on the camera and Ben was standing there asking, ‘Are you going to roll this thing or not?’ We’re just standing there looking at each other. We couldn’t turn on this camera because it had been such a hassle.

I went to a theater-owner friend of mine and I said, ‘Look, we want to show our film and we can fill this theater.’ It was the Paris Theater in New York and 600 people filled that theater and we turned away another 400 people at the door. About 15 minutes into the film the people started to leave. And they left. And they left! And I began perspiring and the cast was getting angry. We all sat closer and closer together and pretty soon there wasn’t anyone in the theater! I think there was one critic in the theater, one critic who was a friend of ours, who walked over to us and said, ‘This is the most marvelous film I’ve ever seen in my life!’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to hit you right now. I’m a little uptight, not feeling too hot and none of us are, so’ And he said, ‘No. This is really a very good film.’ So, like all failures, you get a sense of humor about it and you go out and spend the night – when it’s bad enough, and this was so bad that it couldn’t be repaired.

I could see the flaws in Shadows myself: It was a totally intellectual film – and therefore less than human. I had fallen in love with the camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake. All I did was exploiting film technique, shooting rhythms, using large lenses – shooting through trees, and windows. It had a nice rhythm to it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with people. Whereas you have to create interest in your characters because this is what audiences go to see. The film was filled with what you might call ‘cinematic virtuosity’ – for its own sake; with angles and fancy cutting and a lot of jazz going on in the background. But the one thing that came at all alive to me after I had laid it aside a few weeks was that just now and again the actors had survived all my tricks. But this did not often happen! They barely came to life.

– Excerpts from ‘Raymond Carney: Cassavetes on Cassavetes’.


Thursday 5 October 2023

George Axelrod: Breaking the Rules: The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (Directed by John Frankenheimer)
George Axelrod was born in New York City, the son of silent screen actress Betty Carpenter. He often frequented Broadway theatre as a child and finally obtained a job working there backstage. Following service in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, he found work writing for various television and radio shows throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1952, he had his first major breakthrough with the performance of his play The Seven Year Itch. Tom Ewell played a Manhattan businessman who takes advantage of his family's absence to have an affair with his attractive neighbour. Ewell would receive a Tony Award for his performance in the stage version. In 1955, Axelrod released the comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Axelrod's debut Hollywood screenplay was 1954's "Phffft!" starring Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday about a divorced couple. In 1955, Ewell reprised his stage role alongside Marilyn Monroe in the film adaptation of The Seven Year Itch directed by Billy Wilder. Adultery, particularly in a comedy, was prohibited by the production code in 1955. Studio bosses were opposed to the male lead consummating the romance, and therefore confined Ewell's role to merely fantasising about it. Axelrod eventually distanced himself from the film, expressing his disappointment. Although the play was sanitised for the movie, the film included one of Hollywood's most famous images - Monroe astride a subway air vent, fighting to keep her dress down as the draught blows it up over her legs. 

Axelrod was not involved with the film version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955) a witty morality story about a fan magazine writer who sells his soul to a Hollywood agent with demonic abilities. Jayne Mansfield reprised her stage role for the 1957 film, directed by Frank Tashlin. Axelrod had relocated from New York to Los Angeles in part to oversee the handling of his screenplays more carefully. Though he chose not to adapt his own play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? for the screen, he did adapt William Inge's Bus Stop, Truman Capote's novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate. His penultimate screenplay was for The Fourth Protocol, a 1987 British Cold War spy thriller starring Michael Caine based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth. 

In the following extract George Axelrod is interviewed by Pat McGilligan about adapting The Manchurian Candidate for director John Frankenheimer.

Tell me more about how you put ‘Manchurian’ together. 

Johnny [Frankenheimer] and I had become friends and were looking around for something else to do. I read a review of The Manchurian Candidate in the New Yorker and bought the book [by Richard Condon (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959)] the next day. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, what a fucking movie!’ There was a lot of resistance. It was everything the studios didn’t want —political satire, worse than regular satire. It was not easy, but [Frank] Sinatra made it all possible. Sinatra agreed to play [Bennett] Marco, and that’s the only way United Artists would let us do it.

Was Condon or Frankenheimer involved in the script? 

I worked with Frankenheimer on it from the beginning.

Was he helpful? 

Very much so. Condon was not involved, although Dick became a very good friend. I wrote the first draft of The Manchurian Candidate in New York, in a house in Bedford Village, in the summer. Then I came out here in August or September of ’61 to work with Frankenheimer, who produced Manchurian with me, and to prepare the film... For film, I do two very specifically different things. I’m a pretty good adapter, and I can do the odd original. They’re two very different techniques. The very best adaptation I ever did was The Manchurian Candidate. It is a brilliant, wildly chaotic novel. Wonderful voice. To take the essence of that and try to make it so that it worked for a film was a challenge.

A very good example of breaking the rules of the craft is The Manchurian Candidate screenplay: it breaks every single known rule. It’s got dream sequences, flashbacks, narration out of nowhere. When we got in trouble, it had just a voice explaining stuff. Everything in the world that you’re told not to do. But that was part of its genetic code, the secret of the crossword puzzle. It worked for this script.

For example, one scene: When the book describes the reading matter of the hero, it says his library consists of books which have been picked out for him at random by a guy in a bookstore in San Francisco from a list of titles he happens to have on hand at the moment. What I did was transpose that, so when the colonel [played by Douglas Henderson] comes in to fire Marco, he notices that Marco has a lot of books. I had Frank read off the titles of all his books: ‘The Ethnic Choices of Arabs, The Jurisdictional Practices of the Mafia...’

With Frank saying the titles, it makes an excellent scene. But it was not a scene in the book—I had to make a scene out of a piece of description by Condon. That’s what I mean by transposing the gene.
The main trick of Manchurian was to make the brainwashing believable. What I did was dramatize the way the prisoners were brainwashed into believing they were attending a meeting of a lady’s garden society. I had the further idea of making Corporal Melvin [played by James Edwards] black and doing the whole second half of the dream with black ladies. I remember we shot for days, getting all the different angles—front and back, black and white. At the time, we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to fit together. We had miles of film. It was bewildering.

Meanwhile, we had to screw the [production] board all up and schedule all Frank’s scenes up front. We had to shoot all his stuff in fifteen days—because he has the attention span of a gnat— to keep his interest. Then he was set to leave. He was going off to Europe or some place.
Before he left, he announced, ‘I want to see every foot of film that I’m in before I leave.’ Johnny Frankenheimer said, ‘You can see everything except the brainwashing sequence.’ Frank said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I want to see everything,’ in a voice where you felt kneecaps were going to be broken. Now, this is totally self-serving but absolutely true: I said, ‘Let me take a crack at it because I really understand what I am trying to do . . . ’ The editor, Ferris Webster, and I went back to my office, and we got the script out. I just penciled the script where the shots were—cut, cut, cut—then he went back and put it together, and we never changed the sequence. That’s how it was cut, that magical sequence.

Was Frank a good actor, acting out of continuity? 

Frank is one of the best screen actors in the world. He’s magic. Like Marilyn. But you have to understand how he works. When he won’t do many takes, it’s because he can’t. He has no technical vocabulary as an actor. Something magical happens the first time, and sometimes, he can do it a second time. After that, it’s gone.

But can he work out of continuity? 

He understands how to do each scene—what it’s about. He’s a musical genius, and he’s lyrically sensitive. He knows that each scene tells a little story. He never tries to change a line. He has enormous respect for the dialogue. He was just a dream to work with.