Tag Archives: the browning version

Thinking about Mike Figgis

The work of director Mike Figgis has always been of particular interest to me.

From more traditional films, like his adaptation of The Browning Version, through his looser, more playful experiments in video technology (i.e. Timecode and Hotel), Figgis never seems to have touched the same ground twice. But his films are his throughout.

I could point to any number of patterns. My personal favorite, a quality that continues to pop up in these films again and again, is Figgis’s deep investment in sensuality. I don’t mean sex (though that surely is a part of it), I mean a voluptuousness of sound, color, and cutting – especially cutting – that pervades even his starkest pictures. Figgis rarely needs a dissolve; his pictures seem to dissolve all the time, like thin wafers on a hot tongue. And there is no better example than those of Leaving Las Vegas, the centerpiece film of his career, and arguably one of the defining films of the 90s.

No other indie feature of the era started with so little to go so far, beginning with a budget of a few million dollars and Super 16mm film, and ending at the Oscars. Other pictures started with less, and some went farther, but none spanned the entire range like Leaving Las Vegas. Add to that Figgis’s renaissance-man approach to filmmaking, which transcends the confines of the regular old auteur (more than the film’s writer/director, he scored the film, edited, operated, and invented camera equipment specifically for his cinematic needs), and you have the poster child of successful DIY filmmaking.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be interviewing Figgis for something I plan to write for the 15th Anniversary of Leaving Las Vegas (yes, that was fifteen years ago), and because I know pretty much everyone interested in motion pictures has something to say about the film, I thought I’d throw out the line a little early and see what thoughts were tossed my way.

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Master Class

It looks like Dustin Hoffman will be directing Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, and Albert Finney in Quartet. The script will be written by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. I’m so excited I don’t know what to do with myself.

Set in a retirement home for musicians, the stage version of Quartet tells of Reginald, Wilfred, and Cissy, a group of former opera singers, who along with Jean, a newcomer to the home, set about preparing a gala concert in honor of Verdi’s birthday. I’ve never seen the show, but I’m sure it contains a goodly amount of bittersweet good-old-daysing; the kind everyone today seems to be engaged with, in some form or another.

Speculation aside, we can be certain that Quartet, directed by one of the greatest actors in the world, will star three of the greatest actors in the world (review John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar to brush up your Courtenay), with a script by Harwood, one of the greatest dramatists in the world. I suggest you search your search your local internet for a credit roll, but I can’t miss the opportunity to single out his adaptations of The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (no easy gig, that), The Browning Version (The Figgis/Finney version, far better than the Anthony Asquith/Michael Redgrave of 1951), and of course, The Dresser, which provided Finney and Courtney with some of the most succulent acting opportunities of their career (not to mention Eileen Atkins as Madge, who delivers the kind of life-capping, career-summarizing statements that just about every mid-level show business employee might take as their motto: “No, I haven’t been happy. Yes, it’s been worth it.”) I told you I was excited.

It all brings to mind a terrific documentary, a clip of which I’ve included above. To watch Tosca’s Kiss, Danie Schmid’s 1985 film of the residents of Milan’s first nursing home for retired opera singers (founded by Verdi himself in 1896), is to sit in the front row of the world’s greatest magic show, and watch – dumbfounded, if you’re me – as a group of elderly artists are transformed into previously lost, younger versions of themselves in the space of an aria, or a trembling, impossible-to-sustain high note. They’re both the magicians and the white rabbits.

As film and theatergoers, we know firsthand what joys performers can bestow upon an audience, but rarely are we privy to the private ecstasies they offer to themselves, the reasons why they do what they do. Pop psychology has its own reasons, but no textbook theory is expansive enough to match Schmind’s wordless inquiry into the stage artist’s heart and mind. It’s All That Jazz if Bob Fosse lived into his eighties.

Backstage films like All About Eve are good on struggle, the sweat and greasepaint and thankless effort, and today, with Hollywood cynicism at an all-time high, there’s no shortage of behind-the-scenes misery. But what about the good? How does it feel to nail that moment on stage? What kept Albert Finney’s “Sir” (in The Dresser) coming back, year after year, as the theater was crumbling in the midst of an air raid? Tosca’s Kiss. It shows how art sustains the artist, even after the spotlight has been taken away. Perhaps Quartet will too.

Did I say I was excited?