End of the Road is a fascinating motion picture, not just because it was cinematographer Willis' debut feature. John Barth, the author of the 1958 novel on which it is based, dislikes the movie expansively. Being a fan of the book I anticipated I might come to a similar assessment, if I ever saw it. Which was difficult for some time. It became available for viewing under the aegis of Steven Soderbergh, who also made a documentary about its making; the movie and the doc are available via Warner Home Video. As it happens, Road, while not a very good adaptation of Barth's book, is an engaging, sometimes mesmerizing, and ultimately affecting movie. In transposing the book's action from the early '50s to the then-present day, Avakian and his co-screenwriters Dennis McGuire and Terry Southern concoct an alienated counter-culture anti-parable. If Eustache's The Mother and the Whore depicted personal and romantic dysfunction in Paris as an emblem of the failure of May '68, Avakian's picture implies a sour elegy for the Woodstock Nation. And its imagery is unfailingly striking and beautiful. There are worse things you could do this weekend than to seek it out.
It was beautiful, for a while, to glory in the fact that one of the greats, not just of French cinema, or of "New Wave" cinema but of Cinema, period, still walked among us and was still making films—his Life of Riley, in fact, just premiered at the Berlinale last month!—but this state could not last forever. On the other hand, the fact that Resnais still was active and engaged and productive gives the news of his death a "too soon" stab that, let's be frank, one rarely feels so sharply when it's about someone who's been fortunate enough to reach ninety-one years of age. But a sharp stab it is.
I have loved Resnais' films since, I think, I was old enough to know they existed. As a young movie junkie eager to do nothing but immerse myself in exotic screen environments—any world that I'm welcome to, as the saying goes—the very IDEA of Last Year At Marienbad intoxicated and terrified me. The reality of the film still does the same thing to this day. As an indirect, or maybe not so indirect, result, my defenses of the man's films could range toward the intemperate, as this complaint about certain aspects of the New York Film Festival reception of You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which harps on the perspective of a critic with whom I've since become friendly. My separate account of Nothin' is more on the rapturous side, as are my notes on the delightful Wild Grass, which played the NYFF a couple of years prior. The Eureka!/Masters of Cinema video release of the amazing Muriel occasioned some aspect-ratio musings, and more, for MUBI, or as it was known then, The Auteurs. I examined Marienbad's debt to Gildahere, and took a brief whack at examining Groundhog Day's affinity with Marienbadhere. The interview I wrote up for the blog I had at Premiere, back in 2007, has gone down the Hachette rabbit hole; that it exists so vividly in my memory as both a professional and personal highlight is something I imagine Resnais would have appreciated on a number of levels.
UPDATE: A very kind reader, Fabian Wolff, located the April 2007 interview that I thought lost. I reproduce it below, with the illustration I used for the post.
April 12, 2007
"Hello, Glenn. I am Alain."
The interview was supposed to take place in person, in New York, during last fall's New York Film Festival, which would be screening his latest feature Private Fears in Public Places. But the 84-year-old director Alain Resnais, the constantly inventive creator of such cinematic landmarks as Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, and many others (the great Dave Kehr’s piece on Resnais in April 8's New York Times is a superb primer/update on the master’s career), found himself unable to travel. And so the interview became a phoner.
And as it happens, while Resnais’ English was once such that he was able to collaborate with Marvel comics legend Stan Lee on a never-produced screenplay, and direct English-language films written by David Mercer (1977's Providence, with John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, David Warner) and Jules Feiffer (1989’s I Want to Go Home, which co-starred songwriter Adolph Green, whose own last words 13 years later were that movie’s title), he now considers it a bit rusty. So he was going to be using an interpreter.
I had seen Marienbad and Hiroshima and many more in crappy prints all through my cinephilic teens, and I had read and re-read James Monaco’s 1978 book on Resnais too many times to mention. Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you that I’m one of those peculiar sorts who is only starstruck by directors. I leave it to you to imagine my elation when, before turning things over to his interpreter (whose name now escapes me—many apologies), Resnais took the receiver in Paris and said, in English, “Hello, Glenn. I am Alain.”
I returned the greeting, with a lot of “sirs.” He went on in English: “I am trying to be ready to answer to your questions. But I have to tell you that it's first time in my life that I will do that kind of interview, so be indulgent and patient.” I believe he meant phone interview. I responded, “Absolutely. Thank you, sir.” He said: “Thank you, sir, too.”
He turned the phone over to his interpreter, who put it on speaker. How it went from there was this: I would ask a question, wordier than it should have been more often than not, given my nervous state; the interpreter would pose the question to Resnais in French; he would answer in French; and the interpreter would translate the answer into English. She would also put the answer in the third person, all the way through. A lot of processing.
I began by asking the standard-issue question of how Private Fears came into being. The answer was standard issue, at least at first; Resnais had been working on another project, and the financing fell through, even though the cast was in place. “And they had to make the changes very quickly in order to keep the actors that he was working with. So he was looking for a film that could be shot immediately in order to keep these actors.” Resnais turned to Alan Ayckbourn, the British playwright whose play Intimate Exchanges Resnais had adapted as Smoking/No Smoking in 1993. Ayckbourn had a new play, Private Fears in Public Places. “As is the case with all 44 plays that Alan Ayckbourn has written, none of their titles wrote, translates literally into a French title, so they all need to be transposed,” Resnais' interpreter explained as Resnais paused after a substantial discursion. “So Alain suggested 104 alternate titles to his producer for a French title. And Coeurs, which means hearts, plural, was the one that was chosen.”
Ayckbourn is a very different writer from the putatively difficult French litterateurs—Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras—that Resnais worked with earlier in his career. The fact is Resnais has turned to all sorts of writers for inspiration (his 1980 film Mon Oncle d’Amerique, featuring some startling people-as-lab-rats imagery, was based on the work of physician/philosopher Henri Laborit), Mouse_dameriquebut I was curious about how he got involved with Ayckbourn.
“He started to see Ackbourn’s plays in London in the 70's. Then he read an interview in a magazine in which Ayckbourn said that he preferred directing his own plays in Scarborough where there was a square theater.”
At this point Resnais switched to English: “So I was intrigued by this.”
“And decided,” his interpreter soon continued, “that he wanted to go see how things were played there in Scarborough. [further response] So he says that he was completely convinced when he saw the skill and the cleverness of Alan Ayckbourn, how he could direct in a theater with 4 sides to it.” As it happens, the Scarborough theater is a square, and the theater is in the round, with the audience on all four sides looking in—the same scheme as New York’s Circle in the Square Theater. Resnais was so knocked out by what Ayckbourn did there that he made a pilgrimage there every season for ten years before asking Ayckbourn if he could make a movie of Intimate Exchanges. “Which had,” the interpreter explained, “the particularity of having 9 characters but only 2 actors.”
Here Resnais broke into English again. “Alan said, ‘I am mad, and I think you are even madder, but do you think you will find producers that are even madder than us to produce this movie?
“So we became good friends.”
The structure of Ayckbourn’s piece sees six interlinked characters in a series of “two-handed” exchanges, and Resnais films the piece in a decidedly studio-bound but hardly theatrical fashion. “He wanted to conserve the…what he calls the unity of what was being said and it needed to be done in sort of a plastic way…what he calls a plastic way, which would mean on screen. And if he had tried to do it outside in [real] exteriors, he feels that the scenes and the feelings…would not have been linked together properly. In order for things to continue, or to be opposed, from one scene to the next, he needed to have that plastic unity of the interior.”
Moving on from Private Fears/Couers, I mentioned that during an interview with contemporary wunderkind Michel Gondry, Gondry had acknowledged Resnais’ 1968 time-travel/tragedy/romance Je t’aime, je t’aime as a direct influence on his terrific Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Resnais said he had not seen the film, but was “flattered that [Gondry] knows even the title” of the picture, which is appallingly difficult to see today. He was similarly diplomatic when I brought up how, in his more recent films, he’s less preoccupied in the manipulation of time than he was in earlier works. “He says that the manipulation of time in films today has been so well explored by so many talented directors that he's less preoccupied to put that forward.” Would he care to name some examples? “He says if you name one person, then you have 100 enemies.” He owned up to being a DVD booster: “It’s a different way to consume films and it's also a way to voyage through 100 years of film making and for him it's a great pleasure, it's intoxicating.”
He became, not quite suspicious, but a little, perhaps, concerned, when I brought up his abortive collaboration with Stan Lee on the script The Monster Maker and with his own once-professed admiration for what used to be called comic books. I can’t really blame him, given that what united comic books and cinema in the ‘60s, when the likes of Resnais and Fellini were citing comics’ influence on visual storytelling, is an entirely different thing than what unites them today (e.g.: $).
“He says he's not an expert on comic strips or graphic novels. But he's always taken this genre very seriously. And writers such as Jules Feiffer and Stan Lee are important…He says that if theater is close to cinema, then comic strips are also close to cinema.” He waxed enthusiastic for a bit on comic books’ influences on cutting techniques, ways of “manipulating space in Milton Caniff’s work” and a bit more…and backed off. “I'm afraid of speaking too much about that,” he said, sheepishly, in English. In a bit the interpreter picked up again: “He wants to make one thing clear, OK, he wants to make clear that the two projects that he was working on with Stan Lee, the two screenplays…” I didn’t know there were two… “…had no characters like Marvel Comic characters. There were no Spider-Man kind of people, it was taking a new direction.” I felt chastised, for some reason, and decided not to follow up on that “two” thing.
I wondered if, at age 84, he still feels the same about filmmaking as he did at the beginning of his career (he made his first short as an adult in 1947). “Yes, he has the same pleasure making films today,” his interpreter happily averred, “and it's also his way of making a living. It's the only way he can make a living. And by the way…all of his films were requests by producers and the tricky thing was finding requests that were interesting for him to work on. Or that he had the artistic and physical capacity to direct. For example, he had a proposal to make a movie on a meeting of Americans and Eskimos that needed to be shot either in the North or the South Pole and of course that was something that he couldn't do.” But Resnais reflects that pleasure and difficulty go hand in hand with filmmaking, and that there’s never been a shortage of the latter either. “They're as difficult today to make as they were from day one, the first film, second film, and today's films, not much has changed in that respect.” But the master does not choose to dwell on that aspect. For his past few films he’s relied on a group of actors who’ve become a sort-of rep company, including the actress Sabine Azema, who’s also Resnais’ real-world companion. “It's a great joy to make a film with friends and be reunited with them in the hectic Paris life where it's difficult to see people and it's a pleasure to have dinner with them and maybe that all of this attracts him unconsciously, this pleasure of being with friends.”
I asked him about the humor in his films, particularly the cardboard-cutout of Alfred Hitchcock that makes a cameo early on in Marienbad, which is still misinterpreted by many as one of the most lugubrious, deliberately humorless films ever.
“Without comparing himself to Samuel Beckett—and [Marienbad writer] Alain Robbe-Grillet, who has also made similar complaints—Becket complained that people didn't laugh enough in their plays. And yes, there are some very funny jokes in Marienbad. But that he hopes it doesn't take away from the tragedy and some of the other passages. And he hopes that in Coeurs this mixing of tragic and humor will also be found.”
Having been brought back to Coeurs, I recalled a particularly moving image near the end, of a pair of hands holding onto each other at a kitchen table lit by a single spot.
“First,” the interpreter said after a spell, “he's very touched by the fact that you keep this souvenir, this precise souvenir of this moment of the film. And the first time he read through it with the actors, there was no conscious idea to do it that way. But Alain says he has always he was very impressed by the 30's movements, such as surrealism--[further response] and something of his approach has lasted from that, stemmed from that. He says imagination is so important in our daily life that if it can be transposed into a film, it's almost natural, it's almost like a documentary!”
With that, it was time to wrap up. The maestro got back on the line and thanked me, in English, for my patience. I told him it had been an absolute pleasure...for it had.
I understand that both cinematic and televisual archives offer far better, or maybe more "distinguished" Ramis clips than this one—in which Ramis doesn't really start showing his stuff until about halfway through—but this is my sentimental favorite because, at the time I saw it, it really cemented my identification with the guy, or at least with the guy he's playing. Who DIDN'T want to be the genial smart-ass, especially at my age back then. All of the performers with ties to SCTV were maestros of the comic possibilities inherent in the portrayal of glibness, smarmy or know-somethingish or actually knowing or otherwise. Sorry about all the ad-schmutz surrounding the clip. But that's just how much I love it, and want to share it.
Here's some stuff Ramis said in an interview with The Believer in 2006:
I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”
BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?
HR: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head? Or people’ll say that they don’t want to see any negative emotions. They don’t want to see unpleasantness. I did a comedy with Al Franken about his character Stuart Smalley, which was really about alcoholism and addiction and codependency. It had some painful stuff in it. When we showed it to focus groups, some of them actually said, “If I want to see a dysfunctional family, I’ll stay home.”
So I feel an affinity with that, too. There was always a sense with him—as a performer and a writer and a director, as everything—of a guy who "got it." Even with a project as ostensibly retrograde/vulgar as Caddyshack. At the heart of that movie there's an intense, but never self-righteous, hatred of injustice, and a slight but definiite distrust of the fuck-it-all hedonism it poses as a counter to the class problem depicted therein. The thread of his intelligence, his sensibility, his sensitivity, runs through that film and into such an unlikely-seeming object as Analyze This and the refreshingly mordant passion project The Ice Harvest. He was unique, irreplaceable.
With Henry Fonda in Fort Apache, John Ford, 1948. Of course I'm going to pick the most obviously auteurist option. (Although I would be remiss to not mention Temple was also a great favorite of Allan Dwan, who directed her in Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the late '30s, and that the feeling was mutual.)
Some wag once remarked that had she never existed, Graham Greene would not have written The Power and the Glory. (Look it up.) Western and particularly North American culture still goes into regular conniption fits over the ostensible sexualization of the child performer; and it is arguable also that had Temple never existed, Toddlers and Tiaras would not, either. She was an exceptional performer and by all accounts a bright and sane person, and she may have been her most on-the-mark critic when she put herself in the category of Rin-Tin-Tin, not by way of diminishing her own gifts, but in recognizing her precocious persona as a shiny object that could bring cheer to fed-up, downtrodden folks seeking distraction.
The audio on the above imbed is not, you know, safe for the workplace, and may in fact piss you off in some way even if you listen to it in complete private.
Which, you know, was part of what Amiri Baraka was about. There is SO much about various of the things he wrote and pronounced that I find/found infuriating, but he always had my calloused respect because he could write, he could read, he had, for better or worse, a genuine and full voice, and of course because he was from New Jersey and remained of New Jersey.
His very tough play Dutchman was made into a movie by, of all people, Katharine Hepburn's best friend and all-around Caucasian Person of Refinement Anthony Harvey. And Harvey made it as a passion project; it was the Dr. Strangelove editor's first directorial effort. Godard lifted a scene from the play and plunked it right in the middle of 1966's Masculin féminin, a year before Harvey's film version of the drama was released. The scene fits right in and sticks out, just as it is meant to; its electricity, its immediacy, even with Baraka/Jones' words transposed into French, is still palpable today. I am infuriated by Baraka's flirtations with anti-Semitism, with his 9/11 trutherism, just as I'm appalled by Céline's virulent racial idiocy, even as I'm dogged by the intuition that what's objectionable about them is part of what makes them valuable; they are problem artists; the negative space of their creative output and public pronouncements, what's abject about them, provides a discomfort that in some ways is necessary. But obviously there's a line. "Who Blew Up America?" took the Socialism Of Fools into the lunatic asylum, definitively, and he deserved all the dishonor and disapprobation he got in its wake, and more. I figured I was done with him, but, you know...[sigh]...dig this passage from his essay "You Ever Hear Albert Ayler?" written two years after "Who Blew Up America?" and included in Baraka's 2009 book Diggin': The Afro-American Soul Of American Classical Music (n.b., all inputting sic):
One night Albert, Black Norman, and I, at Albert's insistence, journeyed up to Lincoln Center. It was a Trane concert, armed to the teeth with some of the most impressive of the new musicians, who were now magnetized to the master. Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Rashied Ali, and Elvin Jones. We arrived backstage, Norman's eyes shifting the shadows of the darkened staircase from which we checked and dug the fantastic out bad doom a doom whooah out of the heavy jam.
The whole of the mise en scene entered the playing, as the playing danced and hugged everybody (alive's) tender screamings or head casted to the rest of the audience like a transfusion, the blistering molten blood swishing through our hearing.[...]
At the top of that nuclear "My God!" What emotional convergence turned Albert into the horn he suddenly had in his hands? He began to stride out onto the stage. The horn raised high above his head, as if he wanted to take Pres manque all the way out. The bell pointing as much as possible at the embroidered ceiling of the place. And then, Lord, with that pose as his heart's signature, he began to open a hole in the roof so his angels could descend, summoned by his exploding plaints.
See what I mean? Anyway. I do not write this as an attempt to present anything like a fully formulated theory, or rationale, but to explain my regard for a figure who has been and will be widely reviled. Also, he was pretty funny in Bulworth.
UPDATE: Dan Callahan, who is a saint and a genius, has a great piece on Fontaine at RogerEbert.com. The site, which I must say does quite a bit right, is also featuring a vintage interview its founder conducted with Peter O'Toole.
FURTHER UPDATE: The Siren has indeed given us a wonderful Fontaine post, but you'll likely feel as bad as I do that she had to write it.
Arguably, one of the problems with Lou Reed's 1975 electro-acoustic piece "Metal Machine Music" (the first iteration of which was released on the eponymous double LP by Reed) is that it does too much. The recording is of four tracks feeding-back electric guitar; the mix puts two stacked tracks in the right and left channel. The timbres of the feedback are in some cases determined by the tuning of the guitar plugged into the amplifier. Reed also manipulated tape speed and so on. The result is not (and again this is an arguable point) sufficiently drony to be classified as "minimal" or "minimalist."
As Reed observed—in a perhaps more sober frame of mind than which he conceived and executed the composition—to David Fricke, "the harmonics would start mixing, going into something else." There's a lot of action in the sound, enough so that some more credulous listeners might have reason to have taken Reed at his rather vehement word back in 1975 when he protested to critic Lester Bangs that you can hear sections of famous classical works buried in the aforementioned harmonics. "There's like tons of those things in there, but if you don't know them you wouldn't catch it. Just sit down and you can hear Beethoven right in the opening pat of it." Mmm hmm. Below, in order of relative listenability (from most difficult to almost pleasant, depending) are five more possible lease-breakers, or party-enders, or IMPORTANT PIECES OF 20TH CENTURY CLASSICAL MUSIC!
Lou's forebears, and contemporaries, preferred a less busy approach to their sonic monoliths. Take 1) "Fantastic Glissando", a piece realized in 1969 by Tony Conrad. Conrad is of course the artist and musician who actually played with Reed as a "member" of The Primitives, the ad-hoc trash-rock band that cut "Do The Ostrich," and which tuned all their guitar strings to the same note for a drone effect. Conrad was also, with Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, a member of LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music.
Made with a sine-wave oscillator and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, Conrad's piece is as the title indicates: a glissando, first reproduced as recorded, then reiterated three times, each time at about a quarter of the speed of the prior version. I don't have the math right, probably. I only listened to it once before filing it somewhere that I don't want to go fetch it from again. It's a toughie. 2) "Bohor 1," by Iannis Xenakis, first featured on a nifty Nonesuch vinyl selection of the great composer's electro-acoustic music, in not a walk in the park either, but its ever-building noise component at times makes it function almost like apocalyptic soundtrack music.
While Xenakis never entirely revealed the "instrumentation" for the piece, it's believed he used a mouth organ, and some kind of bells, those of the kind found in ornamental jewelry, perhaps, and shook them in close proximity to a microphone and amplified the sound through a mixing board to produce unholy loudness and distortion. Ginchy. 3) "Modulation With 2 Electric Guitars And 2 Amplifiers," by Japanese super-genius Otomo Yoshihide, is, for all intents and purposes, "Metal Machine Music" only without overdubbing and tape manipulation; the 40-minute piece was recorded live, as it happened, in concert in Hiroshima, of all places. Extremely clean where "MMM" is dirty and teeming with harmonic activity, the drones produced by the amplifiers actually seem to change depending on where you're sitting listening. A fascinating effect, provided you can hang with the sounds themselves.
The only music I ever played on my stereo that made my late, beloved cat Pinky visibly nervous was 4) "The Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1962)" by LaMonte Young. It caused Mr. Young, an animal lover, actual distress when I informed him of this, which made me feel bad. Actually, compared to the other pieces discussed above, Young's work, one of the scant officially sanctioned recordings of his groundbreaking music, is relatively pastoral. Trumpeter Ben Neill, leading a horn ensemble, goes through the piece's four pitches ("isolated in the harmonic structures of the sounds of power plants and telephone poles," per Young) over and over again, holding them for long durations.
The microtones in the harmonics that emerge during these drones might hit certain cat-unfriendly frequencies, but for hardcore meditating humans, the piece can conceivably serve as a readymade mantra. This kinda nirvana ain't cheap, though; the out-of-print Gramavision CD fetches pretty high prices on Amazon and elsewhere. Finally, Tod Dockstader's epic three-CD set 5) Aerial takes electric/electronic drone into an arena I won't call New Age...but the stuff here, basically edits of shortwave radio signals that the composer has picked up over a series of years, is certainly good potential late-night listening for those with adventurous tastes. As Dockstader (whose '60s electro-acoustic masterpiece is titled "Quatermass," hmm) himself puts it, "airwaves allow for a silence that is not dead, representing a presence even without a signal." Ghosts in the (metal) machine (music), if you will.