I remember Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman.
As Erica Benton – a New York woman coping with life after divorce – she conveyed a calm, even serene intelligence uncommon in American movies. Naturalistic and sensual, Jill Clayburgh appeared to be both brighter, and more striking, than our own friends and family and at the same time, exactly like them. That’s how she managed to be so effective as Erica Benton, who, in Paul Mazursky’s essential film of 1978, conveyed the experience of divorce quite plainly, in modern and very real terms. It’s that rare case of a polemical film free of polemic.
Part of what made – and continues to make –Mazursky and Clayburgh’s interpretation of the experience so resonant is that it didn’t read as an interpretation. They didn’t have an angle. They didn’t cop to “dramatizing” the situation with clearly defined, movie-made conflicts and resolutions. Nor did they get wrapped up in ideas or values. They just gave it to you. As the film’s tagline says, “She laughs, she cries, she feels angry, she feels lonely, she feels guilty, she makes breakfast, she makes love, she makes do, she is strong, she is weak, she is brave, she is scared, she is…an unmarried woman.” That’s it. The only thing Mazursky wants is for us to feel.
Perhaps that’s what makes the loss of Jill Clayburgh so personal. Remembering the film is not like remembering a movie, but like looking back on a conversation with someone you used to see a lot of. Someone you saw through a difficult time (God, that was a while ago! I wonder how she is? I keep forgetting to drop off the coat she left at my apartment.) Were Jill Clayburgh a movie star, or a conventional beauty of the kind we see too much of today, she would not have had that effect, and An Unmarried Woman would feel more like something we saw than something that happened to us.
A few years ago, I had a chance to speak with Ms. Clayburgh about the film, namely about how she and Mazursky managed to evince that feeling of happening to us. “I don’t know,” she said. “Think of the women and the way they dressed. I mean, you know, when you think of women getting together now in film, and I won’t say what, but they’re all dressed to the nines. Who the hell are they dressed for? They’re all so chic! We all looked good, but we weren’t done up. We were just…wonderfully…in our own characters.” That’s what lent the movie, and Clayburgh’s performance, the force of the zeitgeist. Wading in truthfulness, trusting integrity of observation, they happened to catch a wave. “There was something about Erica that was so interesting because she didn’t ask for any of this,” she added. “Feminism was in the air, but it hadn’t trickled down. It was a bit rarified. That makes Erica very vulnerable and kind of…I don’t know…like someone you know.”
I know her and I miss her.
I guess I thought Claude Chabrol, having made fifty-some movies in fifty-some years, wouldn’t die any time soon. Least of all today.
I guess, somehow, I thought the gentleman director of Les Biches, Le Boucher, and the only Madame Bovary worth seeing, would have to live on, if only to show serious film-going Americans that he deserved to be referenced not as a footnote or appreciative aside, but up top with Godard and Truffaut, where every discussion of the French New Wave invariably begins.
I realize now that Chabrol and I have had what I can only describe as a private relationship. Seems an unusual way to characterize an association with a person one has never met, but as I think back on it I’m certain it’s true. I tend not to go on and on about The Story of Women or Merci Pour Le Chocolat, though I’d like to. And on that rare occasion when I can get rapturous about La Femme Infidele without changing the subject, I feel an urge to keep it together.
Am I protecting him from opposition? Am I, like one of Chabrol’s stable of hypocrites, stifling my excitement for the sake of propriety? Maybe. But I suspect there is something darker to it, something more perverse. As I think back on those nights (they must always be nights) when I watched Chabrol in public, with an audience, or at least a group of friends, I remember feeling my attention split. The direct artery between me and Chabrol would fracture and spread to each person around me, and the otherwise volcanic force of blood flow would be slowed. A fidget to my left, a laugh to my right, and the acute sense of focus Chabrol works so hard to maintain would be lost.
Of course every careful filmmaker deserves careful focus, and to say one deserves more than another is to show a personal favoritism that most careful critics try to avoid. But in the case of Claude Chabrol, whose cinematic volume was turned down to whisper level, there is an impulse to sit as close to the screen as possible, to put one’s ears and eyes right up against the image and take a deep breath in, like a lone yogi sitting on a mountain top.
Chabrol is often compared with Hitchcock, and for good reason; they share similar interests, a similar sense of humor, and Chabrol himself invites the comparison (his book, Hitchcock: The First Forty Films, written with Eric Rohmer, is considered to be one of the best of Hitchcockiana’s first generation). But when I watch Vertigo, I sit far away from the screen. Hitch’s English libido – raging with despair, fraught with guilt – can be that overpowering. Chabrol, French as they come, is so at ease with his unease that sometimes it looks like he isn’t doing anything at all.
(June 24, 1930 – September 12, 2010)
Dennis Hopper has died.
In the coming weeks, and months, I think we’ll begin to learn more about Dennis Hopper’s great range of talent, not just as an actor and director, but also as a photographer and painter. From what I understand, late in his life, Hopper had become something of a serious fine artist. I’ll leave that aspect of his career to those who know more about pictures, and look instead to my favorite piece of Hopper, his scene in True Romance.
Film craft aside, what I love about this scene is how un-Hopper like Dennis Hopper is. All the manic volatility we see in the Hopper of Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now has been shut down, and his signature brand of gesticulation – as wild and menacing as his I’m-going-to-eat-you-now grin – is nowhere to be found.
But they are implied. Because he is Dennis Hopper, and we know what it means to watch Dennis Hopper, the suggestion of sudden implosion is present throughout. It lends a time-bomb feeling to the scene. We wonder, will he or won’t he go off? More succinctly, Will Hopper hopper?
Of course, credit is due to director Tony Scott for using Hopper so cleverly, and for throwing a bit of light on the bulging veins in his forehead as if to say, “Don’t forget, this is where the time bomb lives.” If you find yourself smiling at the brutality, that’s why; we’ve been let in on the inside joke. Even though we know Hopper’s character is going down, because it’s Dennis Hopper we know it’s going to be a fair fight; more than fair, it’s going to be a fun fight.
Part of what makes Hopper such an eerily addictive screen presence is the feeling of childlike joy he imbued into deathly circumstances. In Blue Velvet, for instance, the contrast is terrifying, but here in True Romance, it’s actually touching. Playing a man who knows death is upon him, Hopper, toward the end of the scene, can’t help but show a smile, and not because he has a morbid death wish, but because, above all else, he is a man who loves the ride. Even at his darkest, you could see him on a rollercoaster, throwing his hands up in the air when everyone else was holding on for dear life. That’s the kind of man – and actor – he was. Whether it was up or down, Dennis Hopper just wanted the trip.
Furio Scarpelli, the prolific screenwriter of (raunchy, fearless) Italian comedies, died on Wednesday. He was 90.
Scarpelli had a hand in an unbelievable number of films (imdb counts 141), the best and most historically significant of which belonged to the “Commedia all’italiana” movement of the late fifties and early sixties. For director Pietro Germi, (arguably) the unofficial leader of the brigade, he wrote Seduced and Abandoned, which I am certain is one of the greatest film comedies ever made, Italian or otherwise. It tells the story of Don Vincenzo Ascalone (played with outrageous fervor by Saro Urzi), the patriarch of a fairly well off Italian family. He’s a simple man, a proud man, and wants only respectability for his family, so he facilitates the engagement of one of his daughters to a promising young man. Then that young man sleeps with Don Vincenzo’s other daughter (the pretty daughter), impregnates her, and skips town, thereby compromising not only the family honor, but the possibility that Vincenzo’s pretty daughter will ever marry again. So Vincenzo, who now hates this boy, goes off to find him and make him marry his daughter, who also hates him. That’s act I.
Because it is as ridiculous as it is emotionally plausible, this is a sensational premise for a comedy. The “Commedia all’italiana” filmmakers understood, quite profoundly, that an emotion pushed to it’s extreme can be very, very funny, but also deeply problematic. Without moralizing, Scarpelli’s story gets to the heart of this very Italian dilemma: hot-bloodedness, like honor, is both the making and undoing of modern Italy, as much an obsolete, feudal ethic as it is a noble tradition that must be upheld. Seduced and Abandoned plays with this paradox like a feral cat toying with a mouse.
It’s the best kind of satire. Excise the specifics of Italian politics and society, and you still have airtight motivations, fabulous set pieces, and the kind of tempestuous extravagance everyone finds amusing, whether they can relate to it or not (see the film’s trailer above – even without subtitles it’s funny). It’s no wonder that Furio Scarpelli began (like Fellini) as a cartoonist.
As much as I love Seduced and Abandoned, I shouldn’t close without mentioning two of Scarpelli’s other great creations, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (written with three others) and Mafioso, which also fits squarely in “Commedia all’italiana,” and by virtue of its title, needs no introduction. But I’ll say this: imagine The Godfather if Michael were more invested in keeping Kay in the dark about his family than inheriting the Corleone mantle. Again, it’s the best kind of satire. Take Mafioso out of Italy and the point still comes across: Every family is a mafia. Bring your fiancée home to dinner and pray the weapons stay in their holsters.
Dede Allen died Saturday.
There’s something about editors, something mystical. Maybe it has to do with their openness.
I always wished, back in my film school days, that I had more patience in the editing room; that I could allow that period of not-knowing to linger, and that I could get comfortable with the idea experimentation. My problem was, I always wanted it done. But the editors I saw were different – they relished incompleteness. They loved swimming around in the possibilities, and like Zen masters, always managed to muster more openness for more possibilities.
Dede Allen must have been like that. To come up with some of those moves in The Hustler and Bonnie Clyde, she surely submitted herself to not-knowingness. Her best work turned on the idea of surprise, so it isn’t too much of a leap to think she probably surprised herself all day long in the editing room.
The thing about Bonnie and Clyde is that it’s playful without being frivolous. Unlike the French New Wave directors, from whose films Dede Allen was said to have taken inspiration, Bonnie and Clyde never flaunts its technique. Even in the famous shootout sequence – which unfolds over and over, from all sides, like a cubist death dance – we are never spoon-fed bright ideas. Never once do we think of Allen and her assistant (Jerry Greenberg) laboring over a Moviola, trying and re-trying, as they surely must have to get to where they did.
Look at Allen’s work in The Hustler. Ebert wrote that her editing “implies the trance-like rhythm of the players. Her editing ‘tells’ the games so completely that if we don’t understand pool, we forget that we don’t.” In that sense Allen was a translator; she used film to elucidate sensations that we would never understand otherwise. Their experiences repackaged for our comprehension. Simply, this is Expressionism on film.
But today’s Hollywood endeavors less to express than record. Where editors were once responsible for testing uncharted visual languages, for exploring new means of evocation, I fear they are now urged to step back, and subordinate their imaginations to the literal-minded hunger for rigorous, rational objectivity. Thus the inevitable “and then and then and then” quality that weighs down most mainstream American films. These pictures do not set out to show the invisible, as Dede Allen did. They merely show the surface and move onto the next shot, the way a court reporter writes down only what is said and nothing more. Establishing shot, wide shot, medium shot, over the shoulder, over the shoulder, close-up, close-up: This is not always the formula for human experience, this is Hollywood caught in its own gears. A screenwriter’s dream, maybe, but a cineaste’s nightmare.
As always there are exceptions, but by and large, Dede Allen’s acolytes – and there are many, thank God – are losing their voice. It makes the loss of Dede herself that much sadder. She probably tried everything.
“In this business,” said producer David Brown, who died Monday at 93, “you’re either an artist or a salesman. When you fall in between it becomes problematic.”
David Brown fell in between. He came to power in the 1970s, at a time in Hollywood when the industry was losing its first generation, and with it, it’s old-world, old-fashioned power hierarchies. “Things had changed,” Brown said. “Actors were telling the Studios how to make a movie, agents were just as powerful as producers. The Moguls didn’t understand that world and couldn’t tolerate it. It was a Hollywood Darryl F. Zanuck wanted out of.”
The system was in flux. What it needed was producers who could help the young talent translate their ideas – ideas not customarily associated with Hollywood fare – into studio terms; producers, in other words, with one foot in the old and one foot in the new. That was David Brown. To see him you would see good taste. And that’s where you wanted your money.
He was from New York, a journalist, Columbia educated, and he looked like it. He looked like the kind of man you wanted on your side, a gentleman equally at home in boardrooms as he was at Le Dôme. His battles, after all, we waged on both fronts.
It took the vision of an artist to see in the unproven Steven Spielberg the makings of a giant, and it took the chutzpah of a salesman to get the ridiculous proposition of Jaws into production. Everyone in pictures has to fight, but on Jaws, David Brown did double duty in two wars, against the studio and against the Spielberg, the sharks and the shark. Rather than make him seem duplicitous, Brown had a finesse, an air of suave in style and substance, that made his wrangling invisible, or if he got caught, justified, putting him in that ultra rare echelon of Movie Generals, who not only knew which battles were worth fighting, but how to win them.
An artist and a salesman. The salesman saw The Verdict, Driving Miss Daisy, and A Few Good Men to their maximum box office potential, but the artist saw in The Player, Michael Tolkin’s Hollywood novel, a “true authenticity,” and bought the rights. Movies about movies never do business. But Brown was in the business of quality.
As if making a movie of The Player wasn’t risky enough, Brown agreed that Robert Altman – renowned for his temper, the liability he brought to his productions, and his recent succession of flops – was flat-out perfect for the job. “Bob,” he said to Altman, “I agree you were born to direct this, but you have to be a good boy and play ball.” “I will,” Altman said. He didn’t.
Altman might have smirked to himself as he got off the phone with Brown, thinking he pulled yet another fast one on yet another suit, but chances are the fast one was on Altman. At that point, after forty years of finesse, Brown knew what he was getting himself into. He knew Altman thrived on resistance, so he gave it to him, and in the space of a few words, the artist transformed into the salesman, which proved he was a better salesman than he’d ever let on.
David Brown, September 25th 1916 – February 1st 2010.