The official version is formatted so as to leave myself out of it. To let Mr. Szabo, whose body, mind, and soul contain a complete secret history of French cinema from the late '50s until...now, and probably beyond, speak for himself, as best as I could reproduce that speech. The lived reality of encountering Mr. Szabo is, for this correspondent, something rather different than what I put together for the Auteurs. Not to say that what I put together for the Auteurs is inaccurate. No, I think it's a good representation and I hope it's illuminating and enjoyable for everyone. But. Here's the deal.
I'm not someone you could call star-struck. I've had tea with Scarlett Johansson and interiorly bemoaned, while speaking with her, the fact that she was just so much less interesting than I'd hoped. Cinephile I may be, but the number of times I've felt relatively Cowed In The Presence can be counted on the fingers of one of my hands. Yep, I was gobsmacked in 1987, before I was a film critic or any such thing, on glimpsing Jean-Luc Godard pacing in the lobby of Manhattan's Parker-Meridian Hotel one morning. And when Martin Scorsese strode into his office a few minutes prior to a dual interview with him and Spike Lee that I had put together for Premiere, and said, "Good to see you again, Glenn," I have to admit my heart flipped. And interviewing Miss Olivia de Havilland...forget it.
Laszlo Szabo is a guy who's been in my film consciousness for so long...well, for example, when I was a kid, and was almost fatally curious about Godard's Alphaville, having read about it in Carlos Clarens' history of sci-fi and horror films, I'd scour TV Guide, and when the film would turn up at two a.m. on Channel Seven I'd beg my parents to let me take their 13-inch Sony up to my room to tune the thing in after hours. And Alphaville is just one of the several Godard pictures of the '60s in which Mr. Szabo, always an intriguing, shifting, enigmatic presence, appeared in. He wasn't a lead player, like Belmondo or Brialy, or a star anomaly like Constantine or, later, Leaud. But he was there, and he was interesting, and you always thought, "What's his deal?"
And then he'd turn up in a Truffaut, and a Rohmer, and a Rivette, and you'd look backwards and find him in early Chabrol, and he seemed almost mythic, a Zelig of the French cinema. But—he actually existed. Exists! And one day, when the smart guys at Rialto Pictures got hold of Godard's Made In USA for U.S. exhibition, you get the press release that says Laszlo Szabo is available for interviews...and you think, "Well isn't that a kick in the head?"
And of course you're going to raise your hand and say, "May I?"
Laszlo Szabo, January 7, 2009, Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Mighty Cub Enterprises
Well. What a marvelous afternoon. Szabo is a born storyteller and a dyed-in-the-wool cinephile, and as he recollected friendships and discrete encounters he would every now and again succumb to very sincere emotion. But he still had the bearing of a creator who looked ahead to doing more; in his mind the past was not gone but rather just a portion of his own creative and spiritual continuum. An inspiring fellow. I wish I had brought a video camera of sorts, because his way of telling stories was delightfully visual; he frequently acted things out, drawing out numbers on the fabric of his couch, looking at his watch when describing figures who were concerned about time, making gestures that took the place of what could have been whole paragraphs. In writing the interview up for The Auteurs, I left out one very good anecdote, because it would have needed prose interpolations along the lines of stage directions to get across properly, and that would go against the format I decided on for the piece. I'll present it here, with my own clumsy prose interpolations/stage directions.
SZABO: (In the course of describing Godard's directing methods, he hooks on to a memory of working on Alphaville.)
I remember in '65, Godard was making Alphaville, with Eddie Constantine. An actor born in America, here in France playing this hardboiled hero Lemmy Caution. I liked him very much. But, you know...he drank a little. And one day he came to the set, he was, you see, an hour late. And he was a little ashamed for being late. And Jean-Luc didn't say anything, he didn't shout. But...he was not going to shoot what had been scheduled for the day. Instead...
(Szabo's shoulders sink.)
...he had Eddie in a hotel room, with one of the girls playing the prostitutes of Alphaville, and he directed Eddie to slap the girl. It was just a small scene, and Jean-Luc said to him, "This girl, Eddie, here, just slap her." And Eddie went up to her, and he went...
(Szabo mimes a very soft slap, not even a slap, really, just a tap on the cheek. He smiles, a little ruefully.)
And then, Godard comes up to Eddie, and says, "No, you don't slap her lightly, you slap her for good, like this!"