Monday, June 22, 2015

Sam Fuller's Forty Guns

Samuel Fuller knew the importance of a good start. “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage,” he once said, and his 1957 film Forty Guns commands the viewer’s attention before the opening credits have even rolled. Fuller fills the CinemaScope frame with a shot of a vast empty landscape, through which three weary men are travelling. They hear the horses before they see them, a distant rumbling catching their attention moments before a band of gunmen appears on the horizon, surrounding and passing this small carriage in a storm of hooves and dust. The men look behind them as the horses disappear into the distance, scarcely able to believe what they’ve just seen. Forty men on black horses led by a single woman on a white stallion. That woman is Barbara Stanwyck.

Read the rest of my article on Mostly Film

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Look of Silence

After making his monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah in 1985, Claude Lanzmann spent the rest of his career revisiting the same territory, sharing more of the stories that he collected while making that film and finding new angles on the horror. Joshua Oppenheimer has taken a similar approach to the issue of the anti-Communist massacres that took place in Indonesia in the 1960s. His 2012 film The Act of Killing was an extraordinary picture, in which those responsible for these murders were invited to share their stories and recreate their actions, an invitation they gleefully accepted. It was an audacious move that reaped powerful rewards, presenting us with an unforgettable portrait of evil, madness, denial and guilt.

Oppenheimer's latest film is called The Look of Silence, and instead of posing the questions himself, the director has given a man named Adi the opportunity to investigate his traumatic personal history. An optician and family man, Adi was born in 1968, two years after his elder brother Ramli was brutally murdered. Even if this event took place before his birth, it weighs heavily on Adi's shoulders, both through the knowledge that he was seen as a replacement for the dead son, and the fact that his 100 year-old parents – the mother still frank and sharp-witted, the father ailing in body and mind – never got over his death. Adi is quiet and impassive, but he proves to be a disarmingly effective interviewer as he confronts the men who lead the death squads a half-century earlier. “You ask much deeper questions than Joshua ever did,” one rattled veteran complains before telling Oppenheimer to stop filming.

Such fractious encounters are littered throughout a film that is more conventional and sober in its construction than The Act of Killing, but no less powerful for it. In fact, that silence is one of Oppenheimer's most potent weapons, as he lets the camera rest on the faces of his subjects while they size each other up. It's fascinating to watch the way these interviews unfold, with the killers freely discussing their role in the purge until they learn that Adi is asking these questions as the brother of a murdered man. Some of the men try to deflect responsibility and claim they were only following orders, some get angry and accuse him of unnecessarily opening old wounds, while another in a grimly amusing moment suggests “Can't we all just get along, like the military dictatorship taught us?” One Komando Aksi squad leader begins asking Adi where he lives and what his family name is when his realises that his brother was a victim, information that Adi refuses to divulge. The men responsible for the purge are still in power in Indonesia, a fact that emphasises just how courageous people like Adi are for daring to ask questions.

Many of the people Adi speaks to wonder if he is looking for revenge, but that's not the case. He is simply seeking some sense of understanding and closure, and he is even willing to offer forgiveness if those responsible for his brother's death show signs of remorse. As we have already seen in The Act of Killing, however, these men are more inclined to boast of their exploits than to regret them, and one piece of footage Oppenheimer frequently returns to shows two elderly death squad members, Inong and Amir, retracing their steps down to Snake River, where many murders were committed. They are happy to play-act and demonstrate how they dragged terrified victims through the woods and sliced off heads and penises, and they pose for photographs, smiling at the scene of their crimes. Amir even wrote a book telling his story, adorned with graphic illustrations “so our descendants will remember us.”

History is written by the victors, and the stories being passed down to the next generation in Indonesia are giving them a skewed sense of their nation's past. In a classroom we see Adi's son being told about the cruel behaviour of the communists and the heroic actions of the military that destroyed them, a perspective that Adi later tries to correct, and this is one reason why Oppenheimer's films are so vital. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are attempts to fight back against propagandist rhetoric and engage with the past in a direct and honest manner, and taken together the two films represent a staggering achievement. I don't know if Joshua Oppenheimer will return to this story again or if he feels that his work here is now done, but one hopes his many brave collaborators – almost all of whom are credited here as 'Anonymous' – will succeed in their pursuit of truth, and will one day find peace.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"I like to film reality when it's beautiful, when it's ugly, when it's unpleasant, I don't care." - An Interview with Olivier Assayas

André Téchiné's Rendez-vous was a breakthrough film for both screenwriter Olivier Assayas and star Juliette Binoche in 1985, but over the course of the subsequent three decades the pair only collaborated on the 2008 masterwork Summer Hours. In 2013 Binoche decided to take the initiative and called Assayas out of the blue, asking him to write something that they could make together, and he responded by creating a complex study of fame, ageing and culture in the 21st century. Clouds of Sils Maria stars Binoche as Maria Enders, an actress plunged into crisis as she prepares to star in a new production of a play she last performed in twenty years earlier, but this time she is playing the older characters who is seduced and destroyed by a younger woman. As she rehearses the play with her assistant  played with great wit and understatement by Kristen Stewart – the lines between truth and artifice become increasingly blurred, and Assayas's typically adroit, intelligent, fluid filmmaking ensures it is an engrossing, stimulating experience. I met him in London last week to discuss it.

This project began when Juliette asked you to write something that you could make together quickly. After she had made that request, did this story come easily to you? Do you usually write quickly?

Sometimes it does come easily and sometimes it does not. In this case, I felt confident that I had the elements to build a film fairly early in the process. I spoke with Juliette and called her back a week later and said “OK, Juliette, I will try to do this”, but I only called her back because I sensed I had two or three elements that I could articulate. It was a bit of a surprise, because it happens once in a while that you discuss possible films with actors and say things like “I would really like to work with you...I admire you so much...I would love to write something for you,” and it never happens. With Juliette it was based on the fact that we had history, that we had known each other for a very long time and had strangely parallel careers, in the sense that we were both attracted by the notion of stepping out of France and making movies that had a richer dialogue with international film culture. We did it coming from completely different places but that's where we ended up.

What about writing something for a specific actor, is that something you have done often? How does that change your process?

I did it a couple of times. I wrote Clean for Maggie Cheung, I wrote Boarding Gate for Asia Argento, but that's pretty much it. Oh, and in a certain way I wrote Irma Vep also for Maggie. But Clouds of Sils Maria is specific in the sense that I feel I am going further, while the other movies were a bit on the surface. I mean, Clean is a melodrama written for Maggie but ultimately it could have been another actress playing it, and Irma Vep I wrote for her but I hardly knew her at the time and I had a very abstract notion of who she was. With Asia, I hardly knew her and I wrote this kind of action movie B-thriller – or Z-thriller, if you like [laughs] – around her. Here I am just dealing with it. I'm not just using Juliette or just being inspired by her, I'm trying to understand her, to explore what she is doing and understand the process. I'm trying to articulate my fantasy of her with something that's universal, one person trying to connect with emotions we all share. It's a complicated question and it's not something I've ever really thought about, but I do think there's something different going on.

If you are writing your fantasy of Juliette's life, does she then have to push back against some of those ideas to bring her own perspective to it and make it a more rounded character?

She had to appropriate it, and she started working very early. I gave her the screenplay as soon as I had finished it and she was very quickly calling me and saying “On page 32 there is this line, I don't think she would say this...I think this is wrong...I'm not sure what she is saying,” and I would tell her that we will change stuff a million times when we start shooting so please do adapt it however you feel comfortable. She has to appropriate things very early in the process, and what I knew of Juliette from my previous experiences is that sometimes she can feel a bit stuck within what she has originally envisioned. It is not her first language so I thought she would be scared of moving away from what she had memorised and the work she had done with the dialogue coach. I didn't know if she would move away from that comfort zone, but what made the film work is that I saw on the very first day that she did not care and that it was a completely different Juliette than I had known before. She was incredibly open and patient, and happy to be trying new things and taking risks. I believe in instinct in movies, I hate rehearsing and I don't like table reads or whatever, but I think everything should be focused on bringing the actors to the point where they can make something happen in the smoothest and least-directed way.

I know you prefer to have minimal screenplays and to allow a lot of freedom for the film to develop as you shoot, but in Clouds of Sils Maria you also have this play within the film, and that text has to be very specific as it comments on the central relationship.

Obviously it's a play I wrote, but you're right, in those scenes I can't really play around. There are long moments in the film when they are rehearsing the play and they have very little room to reinvent. Still, between those bits they have ways to adlib, rephrase things, adapt it and...again, I don't think there's a better word than appropriate. It's just about making it into spoken language as opposed to a wooden script.

Is working in theatre something that interests you at all? It seems to be the anithesis of the way you like to work in film.

Yes, you're right. I have never been attracted to working in theatre because it is ephemerous. You do it and after three months it's gone, and only a few people remember it. “Oh yeah, I saw that, it was great...” I think the only way I could relate to theatre is to write for theatre, why not.

I know one of the reference points for you has been The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but I think that film is so cinematic and so much about what Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus do with the camera, it's hard for me to imagine it working on stage. So it still feels like you are approaching theatre through cinema.

Yes, I only know it as a movie. I had the book and at some point I wanted to use elements of the play but it did not work, possibly for the reasons that you are describing. I knew I wanted the dynamic from that story between an older woman and the younger woman, but it did not connect with the situation I was imagining so I re-wrote my own version. You know, it reminded me of the great Italian director Carmelo Bene, who was an underground filmmaker in the '70s and would be doing really weird stagings like Macbeth in 25 minutes. Straight to the essentials! [laughs]

It has been suggested that the playwright in the film is inspired by Fassbinder too.

Not really, it's a mixture. It's part Bergman, part Fassbinder, part Thomas Bernhard, he was just one of those radical central European artists.

Are these all figures who you are inspired by?

Fassbinder was a big influence for similar reasons as Ingmar Bergman, because he was a great playwright who happens to also be a great filmmaker, and I've always been a bit obsessed with this connection between writing and filming. I've been obsessed with how words become flesh, which is something that's also beautiful in the writing and filmmaking of Pasolini. So to me, all the writers who have become filmmakers based on the process of incarnation or embodiment of the imagination of the poet are the closest to what fascinates me in cinema.

There's a sense of poetry in your location too. Although your film is very much rooted in reality, it seems the clouds and the isolation of the mountains gives you the license to introduce a sense of mystery into the film.

Oh yes, absolutely. What was exciting for me was the fact that the thing that should be the simplest aspect of the film was bringing the most strangeness, mystery and menace to the story. Because this landscape has inspired writers, poets, philosophers throughout the 20th century and the end of the 19th century, it is filled with ghosts, and the ghosts are very present in the story. It's kind of a ghost story, you can put it that way. It's not so much the ghosts in the story, in the house, the ghost of Wilhelm, or whatever, it's the ghosts floating around this beautiful and peaceful landscape.

This is the first film you have edited with Marion Monnier, someone whose work with Mia [Hansen-Løve] I have admired in the past. How did you work with her to establish the rhythm of the film?

The thing is, Marion was the assistant of Luc Barnier, who had been my editor since I started making films. Luc was like a brother and he died a couple of years ago, but when he died I had already worked a couple of times with Marion. I introduced Marion to Mia, actually, because they are of the same generation. When we were doing Carlos, Luc was not available full time because it was such a big film and he had another project going on, so I really edited half of Carlos with Marion. Because she was taught by Luc and has been involved as a co-editor and assistant on many of my films, really she has learned filmmaking on my films, so we have this very easy relationship. At first I was scared of the process on this movie because Luc wasn't around, but it was so simple and obvious, and the thing is that I have always edited my own films, I mean, I was working with Luc but we were really co-editing and that's what I was doing with Marion. It was very simple and efficient and fast.

I liked the way the film flowed through these fade-outs and ellipses that link the scenes.

Yes, that has to do with the way I write. I like the rhythm of books when you have a sense of the chapters. Something ends and you have a chance to restart with some kind of new energy, so that's something I try to reproduce, and I love those fades because hopefully they will renew the interest and energy of the viewer.

You spoke earlier about your desire from the start of your career to step out of French filmmaking and engage with a more global view of the world, and in this film you look at global cinema through the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters. Are those films something you look at with any kind of curiosity or envy?

[laughs] No, It's another world, it's completely another world. I mean, it's a world where I am very happy to be a viewer, but I have no envy or anything like that. It's not the same job, I mean it's genuinely not the same job. To make those movies you need a knowledge of the cliques of special effects and having actors on green screens, and it's a much more technical job that requires skills I don't have. You end up working with a thousand people but you only know maybe 50 or 60 of them. When I see those movies I hardly know what the director has been doing, I mean, he has been giving some overall mood and supervising various crews. It's just a different job, and far too technical for me. I would get bored instantly. I'm not idealogical about it, in the sense that I can break realism if it works for me, but basically I like filming reality. I like filming real people, I like to film reality when it's beautiful, when it's ugly, when it's unpleasant, I don't care. I think when you make movies you capture something from the present that belongs to the present, and it's precious because movies are also time capsules. Not that blockbusters aren't time capsules in their own way. With those movies you can hardly pinpoint where the creative moment is, and because of the vastly collective ambition of those endeavours they end up capturing some kind of collective subconscious. Those movies do tell us something about the world we live in, often in deep ways, but no I don't think I could work in that world.

You did come close to making an American film recently with Idol's Eye. Has that bad experience put you off working in the US?

That was just a nightmare experience, it was horrible. The thing is that it's just about being associated with the wrong people and making bad choices of collaboration, not on my side but on the producer's side. He just got involved with the wrong people. We haven't put the last nail in its coffin so it still could happen, but it's still happening in the sense that you can still get a signal from the black box, or something like that. [laughs]  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Fuller Life


Before he had ever stepped behind a camera, Samuel Fuller had led a life that was worthy of being documented. A newspaper boy at the age of six, Fuller followed his passion for print to become a copyboy on Park Row when he was barely a teenager, and he was working the crime beat just a few short years later. For Fuller, death was a daily occurrence as he reported on murders and executions in New York, but that was nothing compared to what he saw on the front lines of the Second World War, earning a Silver Star for his actions on Omaha Beach, surviving a bullet in the chest, and taking part in the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp. These experiences haunted him for the rest of his life, leaving him with nightmares that he couldn’t shake and images that he felt compelled to revisit on the big screen.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Louder than Words: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy on The Tribe

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet!” When Al Jolson startled cinemagoers with that epochal line in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, he didn’t know how prophetic his words would be. In the decades that have elapsed since sound entered the movies, the chatter has been near-constant. Whether through spoken dialogue or voiceover, subtitled or dubbed, the sound of people talking has become such an integral part of the cinema experience that its occasional absence can have a bracing effect. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe is a film in which we don’t hear a single word uttered, and yet its characters never stop communicating with each other. The entire film is populated by deaf actors whose lingua franca is Ukrainian sign language and none of what they say is translated for viewers, so unless you’re part of the small subset of people who can understand their gestures, you’ll need to find other means to decipher this story.

Read the rest of my interview with Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy at The Skinny