Sunday, June 7, 2009

Three by Truffaut

In my introduction to "Reading the Movies," I noted the titles I was reading at the moment. Among the Kael, Sarris, and sundry I declined to mention The Films of My Life by François Truffaut, which I've been reading off and on since April. I already transcribed the marvellous introduction; as for the rest of the book, I'm cool on some of Truffaut's criticism. At times he becomes too absorbed by plot descriptions (which, possibly due to translation, become cumbersome and hard to follow), at others his epigrams seem too obscure (I know, I know, I'm one to talk...). But unlike Truffaut's films, which I can only enjoy from a distance like Moses viewing the promised land, there are passages in his writing which leap from the page and hit me where it hurts - in a good way. Following are three wonderful essays which I've reproduced here for your enjoyment. So making their online debut (to my knowledge):

"Citizen Kane: The Fragile Giant" - Fantastic tribute to one of the greatest movies of all time, not from a perspective of technical admiration but of zealous, totally enraptured enthusiasm (and with a focus on the characters and story, which is also how I first knew and loved Kane - and in some ways, still do).

"Muriel" - Slightly bewildered appreciation of the Resnais film, with a great Hitchcock anecdote. Hitch's punchline, Truffaut's closing paragraph, and the film in question are all somewhat mystifying though I like the first two more than the third.

"Roberto Rossellini Prefers Real Life" - Tip of the hat to a very unique filmmaker, a man Truffaut worked for (much of the essay is devoted to personal reminisces). Years later, he still seems to be astonished by Rossellini's distractible intensity; Truffaut's tone is simultaneously admiring and disbelieving.




Three essays by François Truffaut (taken from The Films of My Life by Truffaut; date of essay given after the title)


CITIZEN KANE: THE FRAGILE GIANT (1967, unpublished at the time)

Though it was made in Hollywood in August - September 1940, and shown in the United States during 1941, because of the war Citizen Kane didn't make it to France until six years later. When it opened in Paris in July 1946, it was a great event for the film buffs of my generation. Since the Liberation we had been discovering American movies and were busily abandoning the French filmmakers we had admired during the war. We were even more emphatic about our disaffection with French actors and actresses as we rushed to the Americans. Out with Pierre Fresnay, Jean Marais, Edwige Feuillère, Raimu, Arletty; long live Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Bennett, et al.

We excused our radical shift on the grounds that French movie magazines, especially L'Ecran Français, were so devoted to corporate anti-Americanism that we were profoundly irritated. During the Occupation, because German films were so mediocre and English-language films were forbidden, the French movie industry prospered, our films were snatched up, the theaters were usually full. After the Liberation, the Blum-Byrnes accords authorized the release of a great many American films in France and the box-office receipts of French films went down. It was not unusual to see French stars and directors demonstrating in the streets of Paris for a reduction in the number of American films allowed to be imported.

Also, a taste for escaping one's own milieu, a thirst for novelty, romanticism, and also obviously a spirit of contrariness, but mostly a love of vitality, made us love anything that came from Hollywood. It was in this mood that we first heard the name Orson Welles in the summer of 1946. I rather think that his unusual first name contributed to our fascination: Orson sounded like ourson, a bear cub, and we heard that this cub was only thirty, that he'd made Citizen Kane at twenty-six, the same age at which Eisenstein had made Potemkin.

The French critics were full of praise - Jean-Paul Sartre, who had seen it in America, wrote an article preparing the ground. Still, a number of them were confused as they recounted the screenplay; they contradicted each other in the various journals over the meaning of the word "rosebud." Some critics said it was the name given to the glass filled with snowflakes that slips from Kane's hands as he dies. Denis Martin and André Bazin were the leaders in this journalistic inquiry and they persuaded the distributor, RKO, to add the subtitle "Rosebud" at the precise moment when a child's sled is going up in flames.

The confusion between the sled and the glass was exactly what Welles wished. The glass was filled with drops of snow falling on a little house, and twice Kane says the word in relation to the glass - first when he picks it up as his second wife, Susan Alexander, is leaving him, and then, as he is dying, drops it.

As magical for us as "rosebud" was the name "Xanadu." In France we didn't know Coleridge's poem about Kubla Khan. Even though it is explicitly quoted in the film, it was lost on our French ears in the text of "News on the March."

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree: ...
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round.
It was thus reasonable to conclude that even the name Kane came from Khan, as that of Arkadin probably came from Irina Ardakina, the actress-heroine of Chekhov's The Sea Gull.

Citizen Kane, which was never dubbed, sobered us up from our Hollywood binge and made us more demanding film lovers. This film has inspired more vocations to cinema throughout the world than any other. This seems a little odd since Welles's work is always rightly described as inimitable, and also because the influence he exerted, if it is sometimes discernible as in Mankiewicz' The Barefoot Contessa, Astruc's Les Mauvaises Rencontres, Max Ophuls' Lola Montès, and Fellini's 8 1/2, is most often indirect and under the surface. The Hollywood productions I spoke of earlier, which we had so loved, were seductive, but they seemed unattainable. You could go again and again to see films like The Big Sleep, Notorious, The Lady Eve, Scarlet Street, but these movies never hinted to us that we would become filmmakers one day. They served only to show that, if cinema was a country, Hollywood was its capital.

So, it was no doubt the double pro-and-con-Hollywood aspect that made Citizen Kane stir us so, as well as Welles' impudent youth and a strong European element in his attitudes. Even more than his wide travels, I think that it was his intense and intimate knowledge of Shakespeare that gave Welles an anti-Manichean world view and allowed him to mix good and bad heroes so gleefully. I will make a confession. I was fourteen in 1946 and had already dropped out of school. I discovered Shakespeare through Orson Welles, just as my taste for Bernard Hermann's music brought me to Stravinsky, who so often was its inspiration.

Because Welles was young and romantic, his genius seemed closer to us than the talents of the traditional American directors. When Everett Sloane, who plays the character of Bernstein in Kane, relates how, one day in 1896, his ferryboat crossed the path of another in Hudson Bay on which there was a young woman in a white dress holding a parasol, and that he'd only seen the girl for a second but had thought of her once a month all his life...ah, well, behind this Chekhovian scene, there was no big director to admire, but a friend to discover, an accomplice to love, a person we felt close to in heart and mind.

We loved this film absolutely because it was so complete - psychological, social, poetic, dramatic, comic, grotesque. Kane both demonstrates and mocks the will to power; it is a hymn to youth and a meditation on age, a study of the vanity of all human ambition and a poem about deterioration, and underneath it all a reflection on the solitude of exceptional beings, geniuses or monsters, monstrous geniuses.

Citizen Kane has both the look of a "first film," because of its grab bag of experiments, and a film of a director's highest maturity, because of its universal portrait of the world.

I didn't understand until long after that first great encounter in July 1946 why Kane is what it is and the ways in which it is unique; it's the only first film made by a man who was already famous. Chaplin was only a little emigrant clown when he made his debut in front of the camera. Renoir was, in the view of the profession, just a daddy's boy keeping himself busy with a camera and wasting his family's money when he shot Nana; Hitchcock was only a credits designer who was being promoted when he made Blackmail. But Orson Welles was already very well known in America - and not only because of the notorious radio play about Martians - when he started Citizen Kane. He was a famous man and the trade papers in Hollywood were laying for him. "Quiet," they ordered, "genius at work." The normal course of events is to become famous after having made a number of good films. It's rare to be famous at twenty-six, and even rarer to be given a film to make at that age. This is the reason that Citizen Kane is the only first film to have for its theme celebrity as such. In the long run, it is clearly Welles's legend and precocity which enabled him to lay before us plausibly and accurately the span of an entire lifetime - we follow Charles Foster Kane from childhood to death. As opposed to a timid beginner who might try to make a good film in order to win acceptance in the industry, Welles, with his considerable reputation already established, felt constrained to make a movie which would sum up everything that had come before in cinema, and would prefigure everything to come. His extravagant gamble paid off handsomely.

There has always been considerable talk about the technical aspect of Welles's work. Had he acquired all that technique in a few weeks before shooting Kane, or had he picked it up by watching a lot of movies? The question is beside the point. Hollywood is full of directors who have made forty films and still don't know how to fade two shots into each other harmoniously. To make a good film, you need intelligence, sensitivity, intuition, and a few ideas, that's all. Welles had all these to spare. When Thatcher challenges him, "So, that's really how you think a newspaper should be run?" the young Kane answers, "I have absolutely no experience in running a paper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try out all the ideas that come into my head."

When I see Kane today, I'm aware that I know it by heart, but in the way you know a recording rather than a movie. I'm not always as certain what image comes next as I am about what sound will burst forth, or the very timbre of the next voice that I'm going to hear, or the musical link to the next scene. (Before Kane, nobody in Hollywood knew how to set music properly in movies.) Kane was the first, in fact the only, great film that uses radio techniques. Behind each scene, there is a resonance which gives it its color: the rain on the windows of the cabaret, "El Rancho," when the investigator goes to visit the down-and-out female singer who can only "work" Atlantic City; the echoes in the marble-lined Thatcher library; the overlapping voices whenever there are several characters. A lot of filmmakers know enough to follow Auguste Renoir's advice to fill the eyes with images at all costs, but only Orson Welles understood that the sound track had to be filled in the same way.

Before he had decided on Citizen Kane, Welles was preparing an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in which the narrator would be replaced by a subjective camera. Something of the idea is retained in Kane. The investigator, Thomson, is shot from the back all through the film, which also discards the rules of classical cutting according to which one scene must be backed onto the next. The story is moved along as if it were a newspaper story. Visually the film is more aptly described as "page setting" rather than stage setting. A quarter of the shots are faked, the camera manipulates almost as if it were an animated film. So many of the shots in depth of focus - the glass of poison in Susan's bedroom, to begin with - were trick shots, a kind of "hide-and-don't-seek," the cinematic equivalent of the photomontage of sensational newspapers. One can also view Citizen Kane as a film of artful manipulation if you compare it to its successor, The Magnificent Ambersons, which is the opposite, a romantic film with drawn-out scenes, an emphasis on action over camera work, the stretching of real time.

In The Magnificent Ambersons Welles uses less than two-hundred shots to relate a story which spans twenty-five years (as opposed to 562 in Citizen Kane), as if the second movie had been shot in a fury by a different director who hated the first and wanted to give Welles a lesson in modesty. Because he's always very much the artist and the critic, Welles is a director who is very easily carried away but who later judges his flights of fancy on the cutting table with growing attention in his subsequent films. Many of Welles's recent films give the impression that they were shot by an exhibitionist and edited by a censor.

Let's return to Citizen Kane, in which everything happens as if Welles, with extraordinary arrogance, had rejected the rules of cinema, the limits of its powers of illusion and, with quick strokes and tricks - some more clever and successful than others - made his movie resemble the form of American comics in which fantasy allows the artist to draw one character close up, behind him at full length the person who's talking to him, and at the back ten characters with the designs on their ties as clear as the wart on the nose of the character in closeup. It's this singular marvel, never reedited, that is brought off fifty times in a row. It gives the film a stylization, an idealization of visual effects that had not been attempted since Murnau's films The Last Laugh and Sunrise. The great moviemakers who are conscious of form - Murnau, Lang, Eisenstein, Dreyer, Hitchcock - all got their start before the talkies, and it's no exaggeration to see in Welles the only great natural visual artist to arrive on the scene after the advent of sound.

If you see a superb scene from a Western, it could be John Ford, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, or Michael Curtiz, whereas Welles's style, like Hitchcock's, is instantly recognizable. Welles's visual mode is his alone, and it is inimitable because, for one reason, like Chaplin's, it emanates from the physical presence of the author-actor at the center of the screen. It is Welles who comes slowly across the image; who creates a hubbub and then breaks it by suddenly speaking very softly; Welles who hurls his retorts over the heads of his characters as if he deigned to speak only to the gods (the Shakespearean influence); Welles, working against all custom, who breaks away from the flat horizon so that sometimes the whole scene spins haphazardly, the ground seeming to seesaw in front of the hero as he strides toward the lens.

Welles might well find all other films slack, flat, static, because his are so dynamic. They unroll before the eyes the way music moves in the ear.

Seeing Citizen Kane again today, we discover something else: this film, which had seemed extravagantly luxurious and expensive, is made up of fragments of stage tricks, actually put together out of odds and ends. There are very few extras and a lot of stock shots, lots of large pieces of furniture but a great many faked walls, and, above all, a lot of closeups of small bells, cymbals, "spliced-in" shots, newspapers, accessories, photographs, miniature portraits, a great many fadeins and dissolves. The truth is that Citizen Kane is a film that if not cheap was at least modest, and was made to look sumptuous on the cutting-room table. This result was achieved by an enormous amount of work to enhance all the separate elements, and especially through the extraordinary strengthening of the visual track by the most ingenious sound in the history of movies.


When I saw Citizen Kane as an adolescent film buff, I was overcome with admiration for the film's main character. I thought he was marvelous, splendid, and I linked Orson Welles and Charles Foster Kane in the same idolatry. I thought the film was a panegyric to ambition and power. When I saw it again, after I'd become a critic, accustomed to analyzing my enjoyment, I discovered its true critical point of view: satire. I understood then that we're supposed to sympathize with the character of Jedediah Leland (played by Joseph Cotten). I saw that the film clearly demonstrates the absurdity of all worldly success. Today, now that I am a director, when I see Kane again for perhaps the thirtieth time, it is its twofold aspect as fairy tale and moral fable that strikes me most forcefully.

I can't say whether Welles's work is puritanical because I don't know the significance of the word in America, but I've always been struck by its chastity. Kane's downfall is brought about by a sexual scandal: "Candidate Kane found in bed with 'singer'"; and yet we've observed that Kane's and Susan's relationship was a father-daughter, protective bond. Their liaison, if one call call it that, is actually linked to Kane's childhood and to the idea of family. It's when he's coming back from a family pilgrimage (he had gone to see his parents' furniture, including probably the sled 'Rosebud' stored in a shed) that he meets Susan on the street. She's coming out of a drugstore, holding her jaw because she has a toothache. He's just been splashed by a passing car. Notice that later Kane twice pronounces the word "rosebud" - when he's apparently dying and once before that, when Susan leaves him. He smashes all the furniture in his bedroom - it's a famous scene - but note that Kane's anger is only appeased when he takes the glass in his hand. At that point, it is quite clear that "rosebud," already connected to his separation from his mother, will henceforth be linked to Susan's abandoning him. There are partings which are like deaths.

What we already have found in Citizen Kane, and will find better expressed in other of Welles's works, is a world view which is personal, generous, and noble. There is no vulgarity, no meanness in this film, only the satirical, imbued by a fresh and imaginative antibourgeois morality, a lecture on how to behave: what to do, what not to do.

What all of Welles's films have in common is a liberalism, the assertion that belief in conservatism is an error. The fragile giants that are at the center of his cruel fables discover that you cannot conserve anything - not youth, not power, not love. Charles Foster Kane, George Minafer Amberson, Michael O'Hara, Gregory Arkadin come to understand that life is made up of terrible tears and wrenches.



MURIEL (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock was very happy to learn that he was a silhouette in L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) (in the form of a life-size photo mounted on plywood standing in front of an elevator in the hotel). When he learned that Resnais' new film was called Muriel, Hitch asked me to tell Resnais Muriel's real story:

"Two fellows are walking in the street when all of a sudden they see an arm in the gutter. 'But that's Muriel,' cries the first. The other shrugs his shoulders. 'How do you know?' A little farther on, they come on a leg, and the first man recognizes Muriel again, but the second is still skeptical. A second leg a few yards farther on still does not convince him. They turn a corner and there, next to the gutter, is a head. 'There, what did I tell you?' cries the first. 'Now, you can see that it's Muriel.' The second fellow, succumbing to the evidence, runs over, picks up the head, hugs it in his arms, and cries, 'Muriel what is it? Is something wrong?'"

A fair exchange. Hitchcock's presence has much more importance in Muriel; not only his image (the subject of a gag in the same spirit) as well as numerous allusions and references - but also, one could say, his "in depth" influence on many levels that makes Muriel (among other fascinating things) one of the most effective tributes ever rendered the "master of suspense."

The film's critical reception was very severe: the critics were disarmed and unjust at the same time. Resnais is the most professional of French directors and one of those rare filmmakers who is an artist. There are any number of ways of constructing a screenplay, and many ways of filming it. It is evident that Resnais envisages all of them, makes his choice, and carefully manages every detail of the enterprise, unlike so many directors who work haphazardly, building their plots any old way, filming confused ideas confusedly.

I have already seen Muriel three times without liking it completely, and maybe not liking the same things each time I saw it. I know that I'll see it again many times. Certainly the critics are right to be demanding with a man of Resnais's importance, a man esteemed and recognized throughout the world - but the shots leveled at Muriel were rarely aimed at the heart of the subject, but rather at its extremities.

I had planned to analyze the plots of two recent French films with some severity to show the negligence with which they are constructed, but I began a new film a week ago and I am filled with humility. You arrive with ten ideas in your head every day, you film three and reject the others, and you think you have done all right. You had wanted to shoot a film, and you realize that all you are doing is patching, dithering, puttering. You had hoped that the film would be a train rolling steadily on its tracks; instead it's a drifting ship that needs constantly to be brought back on course.

Film criticism, like cinema itself, is going through a crisis. It is normal that critics cannot agree on their appreciation of the production; it is not normal that they cannot even manage to describe it.

How can Georges Charensol on page 6 of Les Nouvelles Litéraires review a book about Mallarmé and on page 12 declare that he understood nothing about Muriel?

Muriel is an archetypically simple film. It is the story of several people who start each sentence with "I..." In Muriel, Resnais treats the same subject that Renoir treated in La Règle du Jeu and Chabrol in Les Bonnes Femmes: we act out "Punch and Judy" as we wait to die.



ROBERTO ROSSELLINI PREFERS REAL LIFE (1963)

When I met Rossellini in Paris in 1955, he was utterly discouraged. He had just finished a film in Germany, Angst (Fear), based on a play by Stefan Zweig, and he was seriously thinking of getting out of movies. All his films since Amore had been commercial failures, and they had also been panned by the Italian critics. The admiration of the younger French critics for his recent films, particularly the most rueful, I Fioretti, Stromboli, Voyage to Italy, comforted him somewhat. The fact that a group of young journalists who wanted to be directors had chosen him as their teacher broke through his feelings of isolation and reawakened his enormous enthusiasm.

It was at that time that Rossellini suggested to me that I come work with him. I agreed, and although I continued to work as a journalist, I was his assistant for three years. During that time he did not shoot a single foot of film. Even so, there was plenty of work and I learned a great deal from him.

After a conversation with someone he had an idea for a film. He phoned me to say, "We'll start next month." Immediately I was to buy every book that had anything to do with the subject, make a summary, get in touch with a lot of people; we had to "get going."

Then one morning he telephoned me. The previous evening, at a night club, someone had been telling him about the theatrical misfortunes of Georges and Ludmilla Pitoëff. He was enraptured. He wanted to start "the" film in several weeks. He could identify with this character. He would show Pitoëff as he searched for roles for pregnant women because Ludmilla was expecting a baby, hanging the curtain himself an hour before curtain time, entrusting an important role to the daughter of the cloakroom attendant at the last moment, being made fun of by the critics because of the accents of the actors he used, money worries, debts, tours, etcetera.

A month went by and he had forgotten all about the Pitoëffs. A producer in Lisbon had invited him to discuss making a film of La Reine Morte. He had just spent a day with Charlie Chaplin at Vevey and he was to meet me in Lyons. We drove to Lisbon in a Ferrari, Rossellini at the wheel day and night. I had to keep telling him stories to keep him awake, and every time he saw me dropping off he'd hand me a mysterious bottle to sniff.

The fishermen in Estoril didn't seem real. They looked as though they were staging a pageant for tourists; one of their boats was named Linda Darnell. Roberto didn't like Portugal. We drove back across southern Spain, and in Castile the controls of the Ferrari gave out as we were traveling at top speed. In a tiny village, the mechanics put together a part for the car overnight and we were able to go on. Inspired by the talent, tenacity, and know-how of the garagemen, Roberto decided that he would come back to Castile and film Carmen. We returned to Paris and Roberto started to make the rounds of the distributors. At the Spanish ballet, he had discovered a dark little dancer, only fifteen - the perfect Carmen. The distributors, even in France, were suspicious of Roberto and all his plans and they demanded to see a script. Armed with three copies of a cheap edition of Prosper Merimée's Carmen, a pair of scissors and a good supply of Scotch tape, I manufactured a cut (literally and figuratively) of Carmen. Of necessity, it was faithful to the letter.

Now the distributors wanted a star; they suggested Marina Vlady, who is as fair as a wheatfield. In the meantime, Roberto had lost interest.

For some time he'd been meeting a mysterious character who never came to his hotel, nor did Roberto go to his place. They'd meet in the street, at a different location each time. The man was a Soviet diplomat. Indeed, Rossellini had now conceived the idea of making a Soviet Paїsa, a collection of six or seven stories typical of life in modern Russia. Every day Roberto had Pravda translated; he read basketfuls of books and began to compose his stories. Right off the bat, Rosselini had a run-in with the diplomat over a story the man thought too flippant. This is it: In a street of a small city, a Russian man catches a glimpse of his wife, who seems to be on her way to an assignation. Crazed with grief and jealousy, he follows her, losing sight of her again and again. Several times he thinks he has found her - always on the arm of another man. The denouement is that the largest store in the city has just gotten in hundreds of dresses, all the same model. That particular day, all the women were dressed alike.

So he had to abandon the project after all. And once more Rossellini found himself without work, this time the victim of political rather than commercial imperatives.


When Rossellini writes a script, he doesn't bother about story development. It's enough to have a point of departure. Given such and such a person with a particular religion, occupation, nationality, drive, it follows that he will have certain needs and longings, and a limited number of possibilities of fulfilling them. Any gap between his needs and desires and the possibilities for satisfying them will inevitably create a conflict, provided you accept his historical, ethnic, social, and geographic realities. There are no problems in bringing the film to a conclusion: the end is dictated by the sum of the parts of the conflict; it is either optimistic or pessimistic. For Rossellini, it's a matter of rediscovering the man that so many opposing fantasies have made us lose sight of. He approaches him first by a simple documentary method and then thrusts him into the most ordinary difficulty, the easiest to relate.

By 1958, Rossellini was well aware that his films were not like those of other people, but he very sensibly decided that it was the others who ought to change. "The movie industry in America," he remarked, "is based on the sale of projectors and their wide use; Hollywood films cost too much to be profitable and are deliberately too expensive, in order to discourage independent production. It would be madness for Europe to imitate American films; if movies are really too expensive to be conceived and made with any degree of freedom, then let's not make any more; let's just do outlines and drafts."

That's how Rossellini became, as Jacques Flaud called him, "the father of the French new wave." And it's true that every time he came to Paris, he'd meet with us, have our amateur films projected, read our beginners' scripts. All those new names, which took the French producers by surprise in 1959 when they read them each week on the lists of films in production, had long been known to Rossellini: Rouch, Reichenbach, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Aurel. In fact, Rossellini was the first to read the scripts for both Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge) and The 400 Blows. It was he who inspired Jean Rouch to make Moi, un Noir after having seen Les Maitres Fous.

Was I influenced by Rossellini? By all means. His severity, his seriousness, his thoughtfulness freed me from some of the complacent enthusiasm I'd felt for American movies. Rossellini detests clever titles, especially with scenes preceding them, flashbacks, and everything in general that's included simply for decoration, everything that does not serve the film's intention or the character development.

In some of my films I've tried to follow a single character simply and honestly in an almost documentary manner, and I owe this method to Rossellini. Aside from Vigo, Rossellini is the only filmmaker who has filmed adolescence without sentimentality, and The 400 Blows owes a great deal to his Germania Anno Zero (Germany Year Zero).

What's made Rossellini's career so difficult, I think, is that he's always treated the public as his equal, while he is himself an exceptional man, extraordinarily intelligent and ardent. That's why he doesn't linger over the action, never explains or amplifies. He throws out his ideas very swiftly, one after another. Jacques Rivette said that Rossellini "never demonstrates, he simply displays," but his quick mind, his thought processes, and his extraordinary ability to assimilate thrusts him out ahead of his audience and as a result he sometimes loses it. This ability to absorb so much, this thirst to clarify contemporary conditions is clear in each of his works: Roma, Città aperta (Open City) is about a city; Paїsa is about all of Italy from the south to the north; Germany Year Zero is about a great country that has been conquered and destroyed; Europe 51 is about our whole continent, rebuilt materially but not morally.

The last great cinematic adventure of Rossellini was his discovery of India. In six months he had seen all of the subcontinent and had reevoked it in his India, a film of extraordinary simplicity and intelligence, not merely a series of images of countrysides and of people, but a world view, a meditation on life, on nature, on animals. India is not set in time or place as his other films are. It's free verse, perhaps only comparable to his meditation on perfect joy in The Fioretti of St. Francis of Assisi.

I know it's a dangerous thing to say, but I believe it is true that Rossellini doesn't really like cinema particularly, any more than he cares for the arts in general. He prefers life, he prefers man. He never opens a novel, though he spends his life gathering social and historical facts. Each night he reads books on history, sociology, science. He craves more and more knowledge; he aspires to devote himself to cultural films.

The truth is that Rossellini is not an "activist" nor is he an ambitious man. He is in inquirer, a man who asks questions, who is much more interested in other people than he is in himself.

One might even wonder why he became a director, how he happened to come to cinema. It was by chance - or rather by love. He was in love with a girl who had been noticed by some producers and hired to make a movie. Purely out of jealousy, Roberto went with her to the studio and, since it was a low-budget production, and they saw him there doing nothing, and since he had a car, they sent him each day to pick up the male star, Jean-Pierre Aumont, at his home.

Rossellini's first films were documentaries on fish, and I rather think it was because of his love for Anna Magnani that he turned to making narrative films. He was spurred to it also by conditions in wartime Italy. In the end (and his only recent success, General della Rovere, would seem to confirm it) Rossellini's work is accepted by the public and the critics only when it is about the war. News films have accustomed us to his sort of rough and violent truths.

Are those of us who love and admire Rossellini wrong to think that he's perfectly right to film the wars that rage within families, the antics of St. Francis, and the apes of the Bengal the same way street fighting is shot, just like the news, the same way reportage has always been done?

The last time I saw him, Rossellini had me read a hundred-page screenplay on iron. He was going to shoot from it a five-hour movie for students, a three-hour film for television, and an hour-and-a-half movie for theaters. It was thrilling to read and no doubt it would have made a beautiful film, but I couldn't help wondering whether some day, in spite of everything, he would be allowed to realize his great schemes: a film on Brazil, to be called Brasilia, The Dialogues of Plato, and The Death of Socrates.

6 comments :

FilmDr said...

Congratulations for your success with the "Reading the Movies" meme! Getting Richard Brody and The New Yorker involved is quite impressive.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, FilmDr...but I'm still awaiting your entry!

Sam Juliano said...

Movie Man: After speaking with Allan on the phone he wants to wait until Sunday or Monday rather than tomorrow to post that link with the titles, as he has a bid on e bay for a book he hopes to win and then post. If he doesn't win th ebook he feels its fraudulent to post. In any case, we both continue to believe this is a great project here, and please count on us to contribute.

Sam Juliano said...

Needless to say the Richard Brody involvement is TREMENDOUS!!!!

Congratulations Movie Man. You frankly deserve that honor!!

MovieMan0283 said...

Well, it is definitely not fraudalent to post, but needless to say, I hope he wins!

No rush on posting. I will probably not put up that master list for at least another week, though I don't wait too long, strike while the iron's hot, etc. I'd also love to do a kickoff post (an introduction, not a review of a movie) for my "150" series so that it can piggyback on the Reading the Movies canon post (we bloggers must occasionally get Machiavellian about these things, as you well know...)

MovieMan0283 said...

I have streamlined the intro to this post as it's now become somewhat redundant, but if there are any blog-purists hiding in the shadows, this was the original opening (to which some of the comments are responding):

Before proceeding with several excellent essays after the jump (none by me), let me direct your attention elsewhere. First, to Ibetolis' expansive and generous Counting Down the Zeroes series on Film for the Soul to which I've submitted an entry on 2002's 25th Hour. It's quite long, and as an introduction it includes a memorable but lengthy quote from the film, so proceed with caution.

If too much prose makes your head spin, skip my essay and check out Matt Zoller Seitz's wordless but eloquent "Following", a video tribute to the dollies that have followed on many a character's trail. Though called a "visual essay," it's more of a collage poem. It's shorter than the clip description suggests and hopefully you'll find as absorbing as I did.

Meanwhile, "Reading the Movies" has been taking off, starting with the five blogs I tagged: Some Came Running, Cinema Viewfinder, Moon in the Gutter, six martinis and the seventh art, and Out 1. And others have jumped in too (and if I missed your entry, worry not, as an upcoming post will detail every book mentioned, and every blog that participated). So far, by my count: Radiator Heaven, The Moviezzz Blog, The Cooler, Little Worlds, Screen Savour, The Kind of Face You Hate, Only the Cinema, The Listening Ear, Bad Lit, and in a very nice and unexpected surprise, Richard Brody at the New Yorker blog. (Thanks Jon for bringing this to my attention - Jon's own somewhat splashier run-in with the New York media can be found here). Anyone who's read or is curious about Brody's fascinating and controversial book on Godard (discussed on this blog here) will be interested in the post, as it includes several of the books which pointed Brody down that path.

Which brings me to another New Wave director...