I love film.
I want to pay tribute to eight film directors who have changed the way I see life.
Robert Altman 1925-2006
A Midwesterner, Altman’s early work in television served as an apprenticeship to his film making career. He was 45 when he made his landmark MASH in 1970. This and the run of films after until Nashville in 1975 might be unparalleled in American film. While Cassavetes and him might be the least painterly of the eight, they shine mainly because of the freedom they allowed their actors. A European friend of mine once told me the only films where Americans act like Americans are in Altman’s films.
Altman easily crossed genres and made them his own. While Jean Renoir’s films inspired the multi-character epics like Nashville, A Wedding and Short Cuts, Altman’s own way of making films–more community, but still ruling with a steel fist–served his making the western McCabe and Mrs. Miller into a romantic comedy of sorts with a few murders along the way or taking the biopic to new heights with Vincent and Theo.
He fought the studios all the time for control and was proud that he’d never made a film he didn’t want to make, though he made a few turkeys (Kansas City, Quintet), but interesting turkeys with intriguing feather designs. His actors adored him and because later he could get big names to work for little (Julia Roberts), funding arrived as well.
His films revolve around people who often want to be more than they are (McCabe, most characters in Nashville and Short Cuts). There is a strain of dark humor in him. Take this scene from Nashville. The Lothario (Keith Carradine) is trying to get Lily Tomlin, mother of two deaf children, (seated in the back) to meet him and he sings her a song, though his three other lovers are in the audience and they each think he’s singing it to them until they realize there’s someone else there. It’s a Chaplinesque moment with Altman’s signature roving camera, but poignant, real. Watch Tomlin melt as she succumbs, complete with eye blink at 2:58:
Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007
Bergman’s renown as a theater director is not as well known but some disparaging critics say this is where his true genius lies. There is a little truth to this–his oeuvre is filled with theatricality and films set or partially set in the theater or containing actors, most notably in Persona 1967, where Liv Ullmann portrays an actress who goes silent while playing Electra on stage.
Even in childhood Bergman was fascinated by moving pictures. At age nine he traded for a magic lantern (Bergman also named his autobiography The Magic Lantern) an image projector made in the 17th Century–using two glass slides one could produce images in motion. He did this endlessly, creating many theatrical effects (early in Fanny and Alexander you can see Alexander using one and in Cries and Whispers).
The religious aspects of his films (his father was a Lutheran minister) have been played up for years, but his overall fascination lies more with an outgrowth of religion–the spectral side of life most luminously presented with ghosts, demons and dreams that fill Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander. Along with death and the war between men and women, these subjects preoccupied his work. Bergman once said, “It’s the same film we make every time. The only difference is we are older.” (Kiarostami echoes this in his interview clip later)
Though admittedly afraid of death, he wasn’t afraid to have people speak to each other in the most cruel ways imaginable. In Cries and Whispers, one sister says to the other, “Do you realize how I hate you?” But as an example of Bergman’s lighter side I present the “farting” scene in Fanny and Alexander. There are no subtitles, but does one need subtitles in a farting scene?
He had relationships with many of his lead actresses, he used the same cinematographer (Sven Nykvist) for almost all of his films from 1960 on. In the halls of Swedish Film industry he had a stock company of actors and actresses that he worked with over and over again, most notably Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson. Here he talks about working with women:
Perhaps only Fellini can rival his art-house reputation. The public and the critics accepted him very quickly after The Seventh Seal in 1957. His international standing made his films enough money to keep financing the making of at least one and sometimes two a year.
To call Bergman an expressionist might be too simplistic. He incorporated many styles of art in his mise en scene (a French term meaning all elements of the director’s visual style). Renaissance – The Seventh Seal, Baroque – Hour of the Wolf, Rococo – Smiles of a Summer Night, Romanticism – Cries and Whispers, Abstract – Persona, with Fanny and Alexander including all of these. Like all the directors here save Altman, Cassavetes and Ozu, his films are suffused with classical music, most notably parts of a Bach cello suite in Cries and Whispers–he even directed a film version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Bergman once said, “Today I feel that in Persona — and later in Cries and Whispers — I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” Persona is as much about the art of film and film making as it is about the story of a mute actress and nurse sent to look after her. The first shot is of a camera and the images, both sexual and violent, lead back to a character that hovers over the film but is never seen again, the actress’ son. But I don’t want to parse these images too much, I want them to cross your eyes and see how they settle:
Robert Bresson 1901-1999
Bresson might be the most enigmatic of all eight. Little is known of his early life, but he was a POW in WWII, possibly accounting for his so called trilogy of films about men in figurative and literal prisons. To give a sense of perspective, Bresson was older than Samuel Beckett. Early in life he pursued painting but didn’t produce a significant work until he was 45 years old. But let us have a treat and let the man himself tell you about his methods. Here is a startling interview from a French TV show. Two ‘intellectuals’ sit facing Bresson in full interrogation manner, puckering their lips, digging and trolling to break down perhaps the most ‘Zen’ filmmaker outside of Japan:
What an ending! My favorite of their questions is, “Your film is quite unlike others. Are you aware of that?” “No, not at all.” This and Bresson’s insistence on wanting to express a feeling are the keys to appreciating Bresson and many of the filmmakers here, indeed many artists. No message but feeling only. (My review of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer)
Bresson’s images are less stately than Kubrick, but no less potent. He considered actors ‘models,’ and only used non-actors, and only once. He thought when they saw themselves on film they would start making corrections. He favored a roving camera in many of his celebrated films, following the actors or what I’m come to think is the most celebrated character/performer in cinematic history, the donkey Balthazar. Here is the beginning of Au Hasard Balthazar (Watch out, Balthazar) from 1966:
From my article on Bresson at the Rumpus:
This sequence, until the crack of the whip, is so easygoing and childlike, it’s hard to imagine an old man created it. This is Bresson’s magic. A simple showing. There is no ostentatious editing (dissolves dominate the entire film), the camera movements are slow with mostly medium and close-up shots of the characters, though the long shot of the school and people walking toward the camera is a motif Bresson returns to throughout, a cleansing of the visual palette if you will. Bresson blends in some of the main characters in cast during the opening, including Jacques, Marie and her father. He also throws in a sick child who won’t appear again in the film. Her covering her face in agony of not being able to fit in takes about five seconds of real time but everything one needs to know about the situation is shown — Bresson creating multiple worlds.
It seems the purpose of this sequence is not only to show the innocence of Balthazar, but also that of human beings. Children play and happily push each other in swings — life is sweet. The rest of the film is not.
John Cassavetes 1929-1989
From my Bigother piece on Cassavetes:
John Cassavetes is still better known for being in The Dirty Dozen in 1967, Rosemary’s Baby the following year. But he used his acting fees from those movies to make his own. He wrote and directed nine films from 1959-1984 so fearless and individual (he is credited with three others but they were not from scripts of his), it is a wonder they were ever made, it is a wonder they are still around (many had been unavailable for several years and two-Minnie and Moskowitz and Love Streams-are still not available on DVD), finally, it is a wonder for the viewer, who craving something different gets something extraordinary.
The films feel improvised but actually they are not, the dialogue was already in the script. The cinematography is jittery and Cassavetes even pushed his cameraman while shooting a scene to give it a broken look. They were countless hours of rehearsals and takes. Like Ingmar Bergman before him, he developed a stock company of actors. Gena Rowlands (his wife), Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazarra, himself, his mother, his mother-in-law and his children all make regular appearances. The films concern working class people, mothers, fathers, friends, strangers. There are no special effects, no murder/mystery, just raw emotion-people grappling with how to love, with what happiness is.
The film that Viennese director Michael Haneke calls one of the ten greatest films ever, concerns a husband and wife and their three children. Nick (Peter Falk) is a construction worker, his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) a mother. She is acting more and more on the verge of a breakdown. Nick tries to deal with her in this early scene. He has just brought his construction co-workers home early in the morning and what follows is a spaghetti breakfast cooked by Mabel. Most of the workers are non-actors. Again the dialogue is staggering in its naturalism and seemingly random, but artful divergences. I have never seen acting like this on film. It has shattered me again and again to watch it, knowing what the two characters are in for later.
Ultimately Cassavetes died of alcoholism at 59. His characters represent himself-crazy, hard but soft, hard-drinking, searching, laughing, joking, wanting love. His influence on film is still misunderstood and under appreciated. There would not be the Scorsese in the fashion that is Scorsese without Cassavetes. He created American independent cinema. (Essay on Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha” and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence at The Rumpus. It also looks at emotionally naked art, as well as looking a little at their artistic history)
Abbas Kiarostami 1940-present
The Iranian filmmaker is the youngest of the eight and the only one alive. He majored in painting and graphic design in school and like Altman, apprenticed in television, but worked in commercials. Many of his early films have children as main characters with one film’s entire story being a young boy’s quest to return a friend’s school book otherwise the friend will be expelled (Where is the Friend’s Home). As characters walk up hills with switchbacks and other maze-like terrain, one gets the sense of the existential dilemma Kiarostami invokes. There is a documentary aspect to his films as well (he made many of those as well) as he frees up the action to just show old people taking tea or talking about the weather, though they have no effect on the plot of the film, but add a color, showing the Persian culture.
Like Ozu there is an incredible calm and generosity of spirit to his films. Violence is non-existent, though his most famous film Taste of Cherry is about a man who is about to kill himself and looks for someone to bury him. In the following interview he says, “I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice…I prefer films that put the audience to sleep.”
What Kiarostami shows in his films is that he doesn’t know. Everything is a possibility, including finding better cell phone reception in the country:
That was from the The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Three documentary makers are in an ancient village trying to document their mourning rituals after an old woman dies but she doesn’t die. And they wait. The leader seen here (and he is the only member shown, one only hears the voices of the others) cares little about custom but only wants footage and by extension, the death to happen. Life goes on as he starts his car to drive up the hills, even the cows continue to come home. His banter with the ditch digger furthers his consuming stance. He’s wants evidence and he gets a bone. “It’s a leg bone, not a shoe,” the unseen digger says after he asks him whether it was from the left or right leg. The landscape dwarfs the filmmaker, but he can’t succumb to the ancient rhythms of the culture. At the end of the clip he continues to pester a child about the woman to see if she has died and he can get to work.
NOTE: To watch the entire film Under the Olive Trees, start here. The clips are in good condition and this film is not available on DVD. It is one of his best films. Close reading of his film Ten is here. A brief review of Certified Copy is here.
Stanley Kubrick 1928-1999
Kubrick is the most financially successful of the eight–something he strove for, vigorously. From overseeing advertising campaigns to the paint color in movie theaters he would never visit, Kubrick brandished an inordinate amount of control over his product. Like Bresson, there remains 13 films in nearly 50 years of film making. (My article on New found footage in The Shining)
On the surface he might not be as blatantly auto-biographical as Bergman or Cassavetes but I believe he saw himself in each of lead roles of his final three masterpieces: the cheating rogue who fights to get to the top of society’s upper echelons (Barry Lyndon) as Kubrick himself did to become a film maker, borrowing and stealing money to finance the films, Jack Torrance is a failed writer (Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, had just failed at the box office) and a failed husband/father (The Shining) and finally the pompous doctor who is financially independent (Kubrick was regarded as eccentric and pompous by the media, he was very wealthy) but still a failure as a husband (Kubrick’s wife and family speak adoringly in interviews but one can never know what happened behind closed doors)–very ignorant of what his wife is (Eyes Wide Shut).
Because he was able to center his breakout films around such zeitgeist topics as nuclear war and space travel he secured an audience and complete independence, the likes of which no filmmaker ever enjoyed (the five Warner Brothers films after 2001 are the only such motion pictures in Hollywood history). No other films (made as an expression of one soul but told through narrative means) have had such an enormous popular appeal.
Kubrick’s world is darkly humorous. Besides the obvious comedies (Dr. Strangelove, Lolita and A Clockwork Orange), there is no doubt he was laughing as he constructed HAL’s egotistic banter with the astronauts, Jack Torrance’s screaming to his wife, “Wendy, darling, light of my life, I’m not going to hurt you…I’m just going to bash your brains in, I’m gonna bash ‘em right the fuck in,”
Doctor Bill telling everyone he is a doctor in order to get special treatment or Barry Lyndon’s fatuously commenting on paintings he might buy with his wife’s money when he has no artistic appreciation about him, “I love the painter’s use of the color blue.”
After all the presentations of madness, he could still show a humanity as in the scene where Barry’s son is on his deathbed in front of his parent’s. Early in the same film, Kubrick presents Barry’s first meeting and seduction of his soon to be wife:
The establishing shots of the imperial castles punctuate the film (as do the long shots of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining). The fluid dolly shot across the rich garden the characters sit in gives way to a zoom (there are many zooms in the film, but often they start on particulars and back up) as a Schubert Piano Trio and the English narrator’s lilting voice prepare the viewer for the introduction of the main character’s wife. After these introductions, the narrator disappears and the man and woman exchange desirous glances over cards (in the famous candle-lit scenes, for which Kubrick used the fastest lens in the world from NASA to shoot in such low levels of light), a fact that the Reverend soon discovers and is instantly appalled at.
At 4:16 watch Barry Lyndon saunter behind Lady Lyndon. She has set herself up, she knows exactly what she’s doing and Barry does not miss a beat. I’ve always wondered if the wind ruffling her hat just before the kiss at 5:27 was intentional, if Kubrick has a wind machine ready, because it adds so much to something already so pregnant with provocativeness. And then, after all that silence, the narrator bursts back in with a detail only God could know: “Six hours after they met, her ladyship feel in love.” Nothing about Barry’s feelings, only about how he “found innumerable occasions to improve his intimacy,” a direct quote from the source material, the Thackeray novel.
Yasujirō Ozu 1903-1963
There is an incredible warmth to Ozu. He had a singular vision, leaving his camera for the most part stationary and just a few feet off the ground–using a 50 millimeter lens and nothing else. Often his characters are grouped in painterly compositions:
There are no over the shoulder shots, characters are viewed directly speaking to each other in a quasi-documentary close-up:
I would argue this style engages us as a Zen master might. She or he is nothing but the thing itself. One watches how one acts in front of these people. The characters are constantly open to us, though they might be confessing their selfishness or their despair. Like Hitchcock, he planned the entire movie out when scripting, including the length of shots he wanted (Hitchcock did more storyboards).
Ozu himself never left home and lived with his mother until she died a few years before him. Not surprisingly, the theme of children staying with their parents and not marrying is a dominate one in Late Spring, Early Summer, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon.
Here is the beginning of his most celebrated film Tokyo Story is here (unfortunately the audio is original, but there are subtitles).
Each of Ozu’s films begin with a short series of placing shots. Those here–the monument with a boat moving in the background, the children walking to school and the two shots of the train passing through the village–will each reverberate through the film and return at the end. The children mirror the adult children we are about see treating their parents as if they don’t know them and the boat and train are not only a boat and train, they are meditative pauses putting us into the world of the characters because often the old couple sits and watches the outside world throughout the film.
The humorousness of the husband finding the thermos he’s sure his wife has is touching and it should be pointed out there is an abundance of laughs in Ozu, but not at anyone’s expense (most notably in this film where the father comes to his daughter’s house drunk). Ozu simply shows his characters, he does not judge them.
As the film shifts to Toyko there are again a series of placing shots that correspond to the portion of the film there, especially the wash hanging that is so important to their eldest son’s first wife. At the end of this clip the father says, “I just hope we aren’t inconveniencing you,” something very indicative of the culture, but a worry that grows and is shown to be true.
Andrei Tarkovsky 1932-1986
Tarkovsky is his own animal. There is a great concern with artists of the past in his work–especially painters, whose images inform Tarkovsky’s cinematography to such an extent his images come across as the Bruegel paintings he pays tribute to:
as well as classical music soundtracks mostly made up of Bach (music from St. John’s Passion):
Figurative and literal journeys make up some of his best films (Andrei Rubelev, Solaris, Stalker) as he is very interested in why we are here and what we doing to bolster our spirituality. Madness informed him in a slightly different way than Kubrick–less violently–and he let nature dominate his characters, especially his favorite prop, water, who’s presence takes over Stalker, Nostalgia and the end of Solaris. (Close reading of Solaris is here.)
He is one of the only directors to have his art literally kill him as he shot Stalker by a polluted environment. This led to a respiratory problem that ended him at 54 (other crew members and actors also got very ill and died prematurely).
Again from the Rumpus article:
The mother here is seen through her young son’s consciousness, but the young son (the boy will grow to become Tarkovsky the filmmaker) sees wet locks of golden hair and much more. It’s a childhood vision — half lovely, half terrible. All the boy has at that age is his mother (as his father is often away at war) and she is paramount but precarious. She could be safely nestled next to him and then she is gone, the world crashes. Someone could hurt her…