We turn once again to curated streaming service MUBI for João Moreira Salles’ essay film, In the Intense Now, which combines archival news footage with home and amateur film to explore brief but fiery sociopolitical moments with a first-person, personal tint. It looks at four events: May 68 in France, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the March of the One Hundred Thousand in Brazil, all of which took place in 1968, as well as the beginnings of China’s Cultural Revolution, entirely through tourist footage shot by the director’s mother of her holiday there in 1966.
The film is deeply thought-provoking and complex. We discuss the feelings with which it left us, its contrast of cultures and movements across different countries and classes, how its search for understanding of its era is preferable to and more accessible than simple nostalgia, its disappointed examination of how business found ways to insert itself into the counter-culture in order to commodify and sell it, and the way that May 68 lives in cultural memory in a way the film claims is unjustified. A major theme of the film, as the title evokes, is the fleeting nature of some of these uprisings (particularly May 68, its primary focus), and there’s a significant contrast between the positive way this period of revolution is remembered and the contemporaneous state of mind as the movements ended. The film is more melancholy than you might expect.
We also discuss Salles’ use of direct textual analysis of the images he shows, in his narration drawing specific attention to camera movement, editing and framing. He keenly provides his own interpretation of the images and in so doing not only deepens our understanding of them, but also indirectly encourages the audience to apply the same scrutiny to the images of today. It’s a film that provides insight into and tools for evaluating images to viewers that may never have considered it important or even possible. We also discuss the movements of today that the film evokes for us, including Occupy Wall Street and the Parkland protests, and the similarities and differences between them and those of 1968.
We don’t entirely believe that it’s perfect – by which Mike means he thinks it’s too long and self-indulgent towards the end – but it’s a fascinating and rich film, deserving of your time.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
Day 4: The Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin. I think I’ve read everything by Baldwin and probably about Baldwin as well. His writing edges on excess — it’s always blood on nerve-ends of some kind, with the urgings of a prayer, evoking and arousing feeling. I love his novels (Another Country,Just Above My Head, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone) and his great classic essays (Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, The Devil Finds Work). This short book, originally a long essay for Playgirl on the Atlanta Child murders of the early 80s, made a great impression on me. The title’s from the bible but also evoked the two great hermeneutics of the last century that also deal with the evidence of things not seen: Marxism and Psychoanalysis. The book’s conclusion is like what Kanye told Bush, ‘American doesn’t give a fuck about black people’ but in this case made more potent by it taking place in Atlanta where a lot of the people were black, and so class becomes a factor: America kills poor poor black people. Much of the outrage was due to so many of the victims being so young. The analysis is brilliant and the writing superb. There’s a moment where he cites a black spiritual, ‘when the woman gets the blues lord, she bows her head and cries; when a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides’: he then goes to explain what it is about America that makes that black man take that train. It’s electric, consciousness-raising writing.
Day Three: The Charterhouse of Parma. If Haulden Caulfield is a character that stayed with me through my teens, in my early twenties it was Julien Sorel and Fabrice del Dongo, two young men on the make, one who has to fight the lowly origins of his birth, the other who is helped by his high origins. Julien is the smarter, more calculating, more ruthless of the two. Thus, I identified with the romantic and impulsive Fabrice in The Charterhouse of Parma much more. Stendhal’s books are knowing, unsentimental descriptions of a world of power, class and sex. The plots run along at great speed but are psychologically and socially vivid. The opening of The Red and the Black with Julien’s father calculating exactly how much he can get from the local lordling for the services of his son and simultaneously planning to take social and financial advantage of his progeny, bullying him to the extent he flees the home to try his luck with the red (army) and the (black) are marvels of psychology, dramatically rendered so that passion is always close to death. Some people have argued that The Red and the Black is the greater book; and they may be right. But I loved The Charterhouse of Parma more: the lyricism and high comedy of the humour, the dreamy romanticism, the naivete, idealism, haplessness and folly of Fabrice; the way he measures his life in relation to the what he reads; the wonderful Duchess of Senseverina, who could be a character out of Dangerous Liaisons, but even better, warmer, with more facets; the focus on passion; the way Fabrice always seems to be in the process of becoming; until in jail for nine months he’s birthed anew with a different sense of love.
Now, Andy’s question, ‘how did it affect my life?’ I’m not sure. Novels of love and becoming must be especially powerful to a young person trying to find out about these topics in a particularly intense period of development. I think there’s also the question of how an immigrant working class child learns about these things; the culture of home is always so different, from language, to structures of feeling, modes of understanding, that fictions of all kinds occupy a particularly vivid role in our imaginary; like Fabrice, one measures one’s thoughts and desires by those fictions in the hopes of more directly connecting with a culture that is both simultaneously ours but alien: how to be and how to love in a different culture instead of the way your parents insist is right? I think of Fabrice as loveably ridiculous but also the better part of the person I once aspired to be. It’s also probably why I was so socially clumsy then and have remained so since. I wish I’d come across Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son earlier. It would have been a useful corrective. I learned to love Fabrice and Julien, before the quite extraordinary pull of Gérard Phillipe playing those roles in the movies. And I’m glad I did.
Day 2: Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America. There was a period in the early 80s were it seemed all my friends were reading and pushing everyone else to read this book. I quickly did the same. Isabel Allende’s introduction begins, ‘when I was young and still believed that the world could be changed according to our best intentions and hopes….’ Well, we were all young, and still believed – some of us still do — and the book offered a cogent and rousing denunciation of the systematic oppression of all of Latin American by the ‘First World,’ primarily the US in the years preceding the boo’s publication, for the world to redress. I loved: the humour: ‘Fight poverty, kill a beggar’; its dictums: ‘the more freedom is extended to business, the more prisons have to be built for those who suffer from that business’; and it’s oratorical style, one full of facts but also full of feeling that sometimes turned to fury but was usually blackly funny: ‘The division of labour among nations is that some specialise in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialised in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilisations’.
Galeano’s words on the systematic oppression of the poor south spoke to a teenager living in the rich north who had already witnesses waves upon wave of migration that was a direct result of what Galeano was analysing and preaching about: the Chileans, the Argentinians, the Hondurans, the Nicaraguans, the Salvadoreans, who periodically landed in Montreal – destitute, nostalgic, grateful for a new life, sad but hopeful — were evidence of Galeano’s truth. I think there’s also a personal connection in terms growing up in what was then a cultural colony where all tv etc was American and seeing such a direct contestation in a way that was so easily legible. It changed one’s perceptions. It changed one.
Hugo Chavez gifted the book to Barack Obama on his state visit to the US.
Andrew Grimes Griffin has challenged me to a new game: 10 Books in 10 Days, with an explanation of how the book affected your life, thought, or work. I’ll skip the work bit as that would be just too much work. Do join in if you’d like: it would be lovely to see the web full of discussions of books.
Today my choice is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life, the second volume of her memoirs which began with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: from my late teens to well into my forties I was, I wouldn’t say obsessed, but I was a constant reader of de Beauvoir’s work and I’ve read pretty much all of it, from The Second Sex to The Mandarins, to the posthumous journals, letters to Sartre etc. What I kept returning to was her memoirs: They seem to offer a gay Hispanic allophone a model for inventing a life in many dimensions: intellectual – she was always reading and seeing and commenting avidly on it all; romantically (it was all discussed; what is love? what are the parameters of an open relationship, why not marry? – it was all thought through and shaped) morally (and this in reference not only to friendships and relationships but a kind of ethics for living), politically (how to behave under occupation), her relationship with her work (she put in the hours, beavered away like a good ‘Castor’) her participation in the intellectual and artistic life of the period (or not), her quest to be free, to act responsibly, to do good. What I found enthralling and inspiring was this conscious shaping of a life and a world, one which felt out of control and alien to me, but which she offered a model of willing, differently shaping, changing. Of all the diaries, The Prime of Life, which covers her early relationship with Sartre, all of the thirties, and ends with the Liberation, was the one that I returned to over and over again for many years, largely because I was in my twenties and thirties as well when I first read and re-read it. Aside from the pleasures it gave of its own, it also introduced me to French intellectual life between the wars and after, which has remained a lifelong interest.
This week we go arthouse and discuss Xavier Legrand’s first feature film, Custody (Jusqu’à la garde), though ‘arthouse’ perhaps only in the sense that it’s subtitled. In some ways, the film is shot in a realist style, halfway between British kitchen sink drama and the Dardennes’ more leisurely, microscopic style. The film revolves around a couple in the process of divorce battling for custody of their young son. The boy wants to stay with his mother. Has he been coached? Is his mind being poisoned against his father?
We discuss how the first section is basically an exposition of the law where the father is surrounded by women, how the film initially orchestrates the audience’s sympathy around the father, and how this changes as the film unfolds. Is the film a critique of male privilege? Why is it so unpleasant so watch? Is it material that television handles better? What’s the point of putting an audience through this type of experience? We both adore Denis Ménochet as the father but really praise the whole cast. José loved it; Mike did not. The conversation as to why this is so occupies much of the second half of the podcast.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
A few months ago, back in what for me now seems ever so slightly like a previous life, I wrote a post about Ruth Leys and her work on the science behind the burgeoning field of affect theory. The paper mentioned back then, The Turn to Affect: a critique, is now published in Critical Inquiry. For anyone who is interested in the philosophical ideas raised by current debates about intentionality, embodiment, rationality, naturalism and the like – philosophical debates rather mangled in the canonization of ‘affect theory’ – Leys’ intervention should be essential reading. There are a few critical engagements with affect theory already – Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard’s great paper on the selective appeal made to scientific authority in some of this work, Claire Hemmings’ location of affect theory in a broader ontological turn in cultural theory, my own colleague Steve Pile’s effort to mediate between disputes over the…
I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?
In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).
Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful
I solito Ignoti/ Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, Italy, 1958)
I love caper films; European (Rififi, Bob le flambeur, Topkapi) and Hollywood (The Ocean’s, The Thomas Crown Affair (both versions). And I love post-war Italian cinema more than any national cinema of that period: Francesco Golisano struggling to find a place in the sun beam to get warm in Miracle in Milan; the exhausted look on Mastrioanni’s face from having to keep Sofia Loren pregnant in order to keep her out of jail in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; Rocco and His Brothers, which feels as much the story of my family as that of post-war Italy; the fresh faces of dashed hopes in Olmi’s young men in Il Posto and Il fidanzati; Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, the Taviani Bros…one could go on forever. So combining those elements today I chose Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street with a big name cast (Vittorio Gassman, Mastrioanni, Renato Salvatore, Toto) playing small time crooks. Unlike most caper films, this is about the various bunglings of the robbery: at the end, all the crooks manage to get away with is pasta and chickpeas. It’s got great slapstick moments, great warmth towards its characters, and a va bene, fa niente, a cool resigned shrug at the worst that life offers, that I find particularly endearing. There are many wonderful moments but one I particularly treasure is when Mastrionni, completely in love with his baby, and raising him alone whilst his wife is in jail, is told he should put his baby in the marvellous daycare jail offers and says, ‘no, no, no my baby will only go to jail when he’s grown up…and then only if he wants to’. It’s the first movie I heard the if you don’t do this ‘you’ll sleep with the fishes’ expression. The ending, where Gassman and Carlo Pisacane hide amongst a crowd to escape the police, and it turns into a work queue where the former is rumbled into factory work whilst the other yells his horror at what’s happening, is superb. There’s a very mediocre remake with George Clooney called Welcome to Collingwood.
In-keeping with Mona’s recent ’10 things I know about…’ blogs, I have accepted the challenge of attempting to summarise my own research in such a way. Here are 10 thoughts about affect and film scribed without reference to notes or quotation:
Film phenomenologists such as Vivian Sobchack consider ‘affect’ to be the corporeal relationship between spectator and film;
Laura Marks focuses specifically on the notion of haptic visuality (and briefly haptic aurality) considering the ability of the camera to ‘graze’ rather than gaze over surfaces, textures and spaces –to bring us closer to things which provoke sensuous memories of touch or movement;
Psychologist Tomkin considers ‘affect’ to refer to intensity changes rooted inside the body;
While, phenomenologists consider affect in relation to bodily reactions, it has often been used as an umbrella term of emotions, feelings and mood;
I love action movies. Like musicals, they’re spectacular, rhythmic, visually inventive, and something of a lost art. It’s like filmmakers have forgotten how to do a shootout or a fight or a car chase in ways that rev up the senses. For a time, no one filmed action better than John Woo. He was clearly influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville, who made films that were sparer, neater, better. Woo in turn, for better AND worse, influenced Tarantino, Rodriguez and many others. Seeing the Woo-Chow Yun-Fat films in the early nineties was a thrilling revelation: the sheer inventiveness of shot after shot, often each a surprise, the whole ‘number’ thematically coherent, the calm cool presence of Chow Yun Fat himself, the musical structure of the scenes. New, thrilling, and you only have to look at them now to see how Tarantino stole everything from Woo. I also loved how these brilliant action sequences, often designated ‘operatic’ or ‘balletic’, were in turn strung together through the most melodramatic of structures (brotherly loyalties tied by being on different sides of the law in A Better Tomorrow; the blind nightclub singer in The Killer, the hospital setting in the last part of Hard-Boiled etc.) It’s hard to pick a favourite of Woo’s films with Chow Yun-Fat but today I choose Hard-Boiled, if only for the extraordinary sequence in the tea-rooms with the canary and for the equally extraordinary hospital shoot-out scene at the end. These are films that made me think of the visual sublime in films of that period, the way the camera would show violence and brutality, slow it down to make you see the beauty of the bodies and bullets in motion, and then cut from slow motion to normal speed…and splat! Awe and terror at the beauty and horror that is, followed by death, but in Woo’s case also accompanied by great wit. Some of the best action sequences ever filmed.
Most musicals aren’t very good. But I love them. Even the worst have at least one great number; and when the whole film is good, there’s nothing better. The glories of the ‘Astaire and Rogers’ films have already been extolled here. And the best of the Freed Unit (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon) needs no introduction. So today I’m going for ‘not quite top notch Freed-Unit’, which still probably makes it better than anything by anybody else. I’m thinking of films like The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Cabin in the Sky.
The reason for choosing Easter Parade (Chuck Walters, MGM, 1948) is simple. It’s the only film to star Astaire and Garland– to me the two giants of the genre. Each made films that are arguably better (much of the RKO series for Astaire; Wizard, Meet Me, and Star is Born for Garland). Irving Berlin raided his back catalogue and wrote new music for it: the score is a treasure box of standards, most sung by Garland and Astaire, of whom there’s no one better at singing the classic American songbook ,and at its very inception: this is the film that introduced ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. Easter Parade was MGM’s biggest hit of the year one of the greatest successes of both of their careers. The ever-so alive Anne Miller helps anyone shake the blues away. Peter Lawford is the rich, charming but passive and not-fully-there fellar with an umbrellar. This is the film where Judy and Fred do the famous tramp number, ‘A Couple of Swells’.
Judy was supposed to star with Kelly but he broke his leg and aren’t we glad he did? Breaking a leg can indeed bring luck. I used to watch this annually with my sister; and the only thing that’s changed about my feelings for it is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate Garland’s performance more. She’s a truly great and truly inventive comic actress with crack timing. Just look at her parody of Ginger Rogers, feathers moulting off her dress in ‘Top Hat’ (see above). The DVD of Easter Parade has a wonderful series of out-takes on ‘Mr. Monotony’ which demonstrate so well how a film is pieced together of various takes. There are moments where she’s listening on the playback and then turns on the performance on a beat of the music — subtly projecting, fully present, eager to please and express — that are just astonishing to see. And you get to see how she does it the same but with slight subtle variations in take after take. Comparing the out-takes to the final number (excised from the print on its initial release) one realises that it’s almost always the first take that’s chosen. It’s truly amazing.
A dream of a movie, structured as a revery. It’s full of striking images one still remembers (the couple in bed, the men with tuxedoes in a golf course, angels over a nightclub, the cruising in the cemetery, the beautiful man wafting through Mapplethorpe photos projected onto flowing sheets) but was commissioned by Channel Four for ‘Out on Tuesday’. Rarely has the question of ‘Is it film or television?’ mattered less. I was drawn to it for the velvety texture, the sheen, and depth of its images: the film looks like a mixture of the b&w lighting of Hurrell, Beaton, and Mapplethorpe, with a dash of Ven Vechten thrown in to pepper up the look. Rarely had black men been photographed more beautifully to that point. Moreover, the film had a chic, a quality that pointed to Europe. Poitier and Belafonte were beautiful and sexy, and they had a natural elegance, but the only black men I’d seen wear fashion with elegant nonchalance to then was Terence Trent D’Arby. The film itself and the people in it were thrilling to just see. And then there were the sounds: Bessie Smith singing, Langston Hughes reading his poetry in front of a jazz orchestra (‘The day is coming this is gonna be my song… I could be blue but I been blue all night long), Jimmy Sommerville, Essex Hemphill; all layered over images, archival and imagined, structured as a dialogue on diasporic queerness between the past and the present, the UK and the US. If the film tried to make sense of the past, it did so to understand its present: questions are dramatised visually around representation, racism, desire, power, AIDS. It’s theoretically informed too with the writings of Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer and others acknowledged in the credits. So a queer, black, avant-garde, medium-length film designed to spark the mind and fill the senses. A rarity that filled mine. On a personal level, whilst I had already been writing on film for a decade, and indeed already awarded the national prize for film criticism, an article I wrote on the film for Jump Cut was my first scholarly essay to be published, and the process of writing the piece itself led to many life-long friendships.
Day Five: Maria Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, Mexico, 1944)
I have a particular love for melodramas that actually make you cry, and sometimes also gasp at the impossible beauty and sadness of it all, in whatever style: Sirk (Imitation of Life), Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love), King Vidor (Stella Dallas), Lean (Brief Encounter), Maria Luisa Bemberg (Camila). Today I’m in the mood for those directed by Emilio Fernández.. His films often focused on the marginalised in society, fishermen, peasant farmers, prostitutes, gangsters, usually cast from the great beauties of the day (Maria Felix, Dolores Del Rio, Pedro Armendariz) . The setting was usually rural, (Flor Silvestre,La Perla, Maria Candelaria) sometimes historical and revolutionary (Río Escondido, Salon Mexico, Enamorada, Las abandonadas) . The great Gabriel Figueroa filmed Mexico, it’s landscapes and its people with great skill and feeling so as to show beauty, complexity, depth, so that it ennobled those people and that place. The endings were often tragic. Dolores Tierney has already chosen Enamorada so today I chose Maria Candelaria. Particularly because of that moment where Dolores Del Rio as Maria Candelaria goes to sell her flowers, the flowers she needs to make a living, to feed her pig, and thus to marry. And the whole village, who’s been whispering that she’s the daughter of a prostitute, turns out in their canoes to stop her from doing so, thus denying her honest work and almost certainly condemning her to her mother’s life. It’s an unsentimental moment –peasants can be nasty, violent, cruel; communities can destroy and cast out – but a beautiful one in terms of the way its filmed and also the sadness, unfairness, and determination that it expresses.
Martin Scorsese’s appreciation of the director and one of his other great films, Enamorada, can be seen here
Day Four: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1999)
Seeing Law of Desire at the World Film Festival in Montreal in ’87 started a life-long love affair with his work. A retrospective at TIFF a year or so later cemented the relationship. I interviewed him just after, in his flat in Madrid, and several times since. I can measure my adult life, where I lived, and the flow of all my important relationship through his films. I cried to this song from Kika for almost a whole year after the break-up of an early long-term relationship which coincided with the film’s release in 1993. On another day I would have chosen another of his films. Today it’s All About My Mother because I saw All About Eve on TV last night. I remember doing a day school at Film House in Edinburgh when the film came out, and watching all these middle-aged, middle-class ladies come in with their House of Fraser bags and thinking ‘shit. How are they going to react to a film with transvestite hookers, nuns dying of AIDS, etc etc.’ Within half an hour the whole audience was as one in tears (and in laughter). It reminded me of Almodóvar’s great ability to get practically any audience to identify with and feel for those whom their society most marginalises and oppresses. It’s a gift he’s not been making much use of recently.
Claude Jutra’s magnificent ‘A tout prendre’ from 1963. An inter-racial love story and surely one of the first ‘coming out’ films. It’s shot in the new wave style of young cineastes experimenting with cinema in ways that speak their love in almost every frame. I always find this thrilling. It’s got some beautiful songs; it’s about bohemia and art and love in Montreal during the quiet revolution. It’s playful and sad and romantic and all that young people look for in a movie. There’s even a fashion show at Holt Renfrew. It certainly spoke to me when I first saw it and continues to do so. François Truffaut appears. There’s an interesting dossier on it in the current Jump Cut:
Day Two: To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1942)
Day 2: To Be or Not to Be. On another day it might have been another Lubitsch, which I love just as much — Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait. Today I’m in a ‘let’s sneer at Nazis’-mood, thus the choice. And does anyone, Chaplin included, satirise them better? ‘Jump!’ ‘Heil Hitler’ as the Nazi throws himself off the plane. I know some of the lines by heart: ‘Hitler was a vegetarian but he was known to swallow whole countries’: ‘I wouldn’t sneeze at a laugh’, ‘that artists could be so inartistic!’ etc; then there’s Lombard beautifully dressed by Travis Banton: ‘what do you think of this for the concentration camp scene? Imagine me being flayed and whipped in this *lovely* dress’. She’s beautiful and her line readings are most extraordinarily inventive. ‘They call me concentration camp Erdhardt!’, ‘Schulz!’, so many funny moments. Sig Ruman’s playing of Erdhart is a comic masterpiece on its own. Plus there’s Jack Benny; and of course Lubitsch, finding humour and humanity in the darkest, most stranglingly bureaucratic of worlds, attempting to delight with the bleakest of material….and succeeding.
I was asked to do this by a friend on facebook, and having done it. It seems silly not to share more widely: So here it goes:
Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, Japan, 1953):My first choice, almost always my first choice, and what I measure so much of cinema against is Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I always break up at the end: the kindness, the resignation, the understanding, the wisdom: the mixture of motivations and feelings, so beautifully evoked within a liminal zone where things are not stated but clearly understood; and expressed in a way that makes it feel true and beautiful but also mysterious. Plus I just love looking at Setsuko Hara.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg was the son of Geraldine Fitzgerald and…who? That’s the overall arch of the book. Was it Orson Welles or a Sir Edward Lyndsey-Hogg, a minor British aristocrat? Whilst the answer to the question takes several turns in the book, we also hear about his directing ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’, some of the early key concert movies like ‘Let it Be’, a pioneer of the MTV video clip (most of the early Rolling Stones videos), a director of Brideshead Revisited on TV and The Normal Heart off-Broadway.
It’s a lovely book; a not very distinguished career in cinema, but with landmark work in tv and theatre; and then of course through his mother — who most of us probably now remember for her work with Bette Davis in Dark Victory or as Isabelle Linton in Wyler’s Wuthering Heights — he knew all the greats of the classic era (Welles himself but Marion Davies, Hearst, right up to Lumet, Gloria Vanderbilt) then on his own (the Beatles, the Stones, everyone in music really) right up to turning Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart into a hit in the 80s at the height of the AIDS pandemic. Wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of Hollywood in the 40s, Dublin in the 50s, post-war New York, Swinging London etc.
The book’s conclusion about paternity has been disproved in Patrick McGilligan’s Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, but Lynsay-Hogg’s views on so much of the landmark work he helped create on film and in the theatre makes for an insightful and entertaining read: and the book is also an interesting exploration of the lure of celebrity as social currency that each of the protagonists deploys to advantage: would paternity have been such a question if the father were rumoured to be Joe Blow instead of Orson Welles?
A bank holiday labour of love. 1800 people turned up, from all parts of Mexico, coach loads of people to hear Guillermo del Toro speak of cinema, and watching this one totally understands why. This is a translation of the first of three great lectures on cinema he gave at Guadalajara, followed by a subjective selection from the Q&A that followed. It’s possibly an imperfect and certainly a rushed translation. But I did it in the hope that those of you who don’t speak Spanish might be able to understand what Del Toro has to say on cinema in general and The Shape of Water in particular. There’s no one I love hearing talk on cinema more. My hope is that someone else will pick up the baton and translate the other two of what is a series of three great lectures. This is the first.
Guillermo del Toro: The Viceroyal Chair. Thank you. Leonardo García Tsao! Let’s go!
Leonardo García Tsao: There’s something that preoccupies me. Can you hear?
Toro: Can you hear?
Tsao: More or less? OK we’ll speak louder.
Toro: Is this better?
Toro: That means with balls.
Tsao: Where do you keep so many awards.
Toro: I have a big shelf, where we design, and I keep them all there, from the first from Cronos, some don’t have a base, another the trophy dropped off. The one from Havana fell over. There’s a very pretty one I no longer have the base for. I don’t even know who’s responsible. But they’re all there from Cronos to now.
Tsao: You have a pile from The Shape of Water
Toro: Yes a pile. And when we go to design, we move a bit to the side
Tsao: We’re going to talk about The Shape of Water
Toro: Sure. We’ll do forty minutes and open it to the audience for another twenty.
Toro: That’s good.
Tsao: I saw it again recently on a flight. And as an experiment, I saw it without sound.
Toro: That’s what I do on flights. I see films. But without sound.
Tsao: And I realised that the film is told without the necessity of dialogue.
Tsao: It’s practically a Silent Film.
Toro: yes, yes. In fact the very very first incarnation of the film was in black and white and silent. That is the very first time I thought it should be told with pantomime. And then I thought no. Let it be black and white. And then I thought no not even that because I thought two things: black and white was a chess piece I wanted to sacrifice to be reasonable. When we talked about the film we said ‘it’s a film about a mute woman who may or may not be human who falls in love with a man fish in a government lab. It’s a musical, comedy and melodrama and in black and white. So they asked me, ‘could it be in colour’ and to appear reasonable, I said of course, of course. But the truth is that in black and white it appeared to me to be pastiche, kind of postmodern, self-reflexive and I didn’t want it to be. Thus it was very easy to abandon black and white and codify the colours as part of the language (of the film). Now to me, all the films I make, I’d like them to be understood without dialogue. That they could be understood through movement, attitude, acting, colour, light. The language of cinema is something that preoccupies me. This year I’m doing three interviews of two weeks each, it was going to be two, now they will be three with different directors, to discuss their craft exclusively in audio-visual terms. The discourse on cinema has changed a lot in the last few years and what’s discussed are the two things that cinema shares with other narrative forms but that are less interesting on a cinematic level. That is the plot and the characters. That is to say on the most superfluous level. And to me it’s very important to bring in arguments that are super basic. It’s not the what, it’s the how. Kubrick used to say that the level on which cinema lives is infinitely more mysterious and beyond the plot and the story. And I agree with that. I’m very interested in what the film does. A moment in cinema can be a person turning their head, the camera moving in, and a flash of light in the character’s eye. Magic, perfect, completely cinematic. And that is less and less talked about in discussions of movies. There’s talk of what it’s about, what happens to who. Film is rarely discussed on a formal level, that is to say, when we discuss painting, if we talk about a Van Gogh and say, what’s it about? A shitty little room, brother. There’s a bed, a chair. Phhhft! That’s the way we talk about cinema. But the truth is that the vigour of treatment, the composition, the colour, the emotive content of lighting — all that should be discussed in depth about a film — isn’t being discussed. And these three interviews of two weeks, tentatively with Michael Mann, George Miller and Ridley Scott, which I’d like to repeat with other people every two or three years, and what we’d discuss is lenses, dollies, movement, light, editing, the assemblage in editing, the mise-en-scène. To put it in those terms to recuperate that language. Sorry, that wasn’t even a question and I gave you a whole torrent.
Tsao:., no, no, it seems to me quite good.
Toro: …but that’s the idea; and I do that in airplanes. John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, I see it without sound. To have it in the palm of your hand, enchanted by seeing it, …it’s important to recuperate that.
Tsao: The Shape of Water in the hands of another would have been absurd.
Toro: In fact recounting it, it’s almost impossible not to seem nuts….musical etc. But I repeat. There’s a level of film in which it’s not the what it’s the how, and how you sustain that with faith, style, and balls…or great ovaries. It’s sustained only with that. The faith that the combination of those elements is new, that is to say cinema isn’t chemistry. It’s not a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s alchemy. It’s taking elements that you transform, transmute and return converted into gold. That is why for me, since the beginning with Cronos to now, the basic arguments are the archetypal ones in the film: a man who dies, returns, lives in a box, is affected by light, has to drink blood. For sure there’s nothing new in that. But it’s a box of toys, a middle class Mexican family, etc. etc. The how, and the where, etc. etc. The adjectives are what give a film its personality. It’s a series of actions that I think are brought together by the director. The auteur theory badly understood is that the movie is the act of a single person. That’s nonsense. But the most intimate dialogue between the film and those that make it is done through the director because he’s the only one that controls the pulse of all the other disciplines that are interconnected. For example, when someone says ‘what good photography’, they are also saying what great art direction, what good costuming. I understood this when Guillermo Navarro, when we were analysing how Cronos looked, and we were analysing a scene from The Godfather and Guillermo told me, ‘look at this, the scene is in sepia, and for sure we were using a filter that could be a tobacco, could be chocolate, but the art direction predisposes and presupposes. The colour is white but it’s not neutral. The colour of the walls evokes nicotine etc. etc. If you give me a horrible room with horrible walls….it’s the conjunction of things that matter. It’s all one discipline. The same with the sound design. It’s very important to understand that.
Tsao: you have 13 nominations.
Toro: What I think is beautiful is that from Labyrinth, we arrive as a foreign film but with six nominations. That’s lovely because there’s a level in which the making of, the craft, is appreciated it on an academic level, on a technical level, on an artistic level. And to arrive with your team is the best way of arriving.
Tsao: You have basically worked with three cinematographers: Guillermo Navarro, Gabriel Edelstein, who’s here somewhere, and Dan Laustsen,
Toro: yes, it’s an evolution. The basic things remain. Gabriel, Guillermo, Dan know that the placement of camera, movement, choice of lenses, that’s more me but the light is completely theirs. I had a beautiful moment with Gabriel and Wesley Snipes, where I said why don’t we use an 18mm lens and he said ‘if you want your star to hate you, by all means’. We were going to do a close-up. It’s a film where I used more wide lenses. Also Pacific Rim. Normally I think the relationship with the cinematographer is the most important in a film. Day to day it’s the most intimate. There used to be a lovely ritual that no longer exists, which was to see rushes. You came out of work tired, sweating and you went to see a film on a big screen. It was very beautiful.
Taso:..and well there’s a colour you like very much which is that boggy green that dominates The Shape of Water.
Toro: The way that we classify colours in each films…In Blade Gabriel and I sat down and Gabriel said why don’t we make night yellow and the days blue and I thought it fantastic because for a vampire, night is day and day is night. So we made of night a sodium and for days we did the colour timing in blue. You sit down and codify the film in some way. For example, the red that in Crimson Peak signifies the past, sin; here, red is love and cinema. When she makes love with the amphibian God, red begins to appear on her clothes and dominates. It appears in the drops of water. It appears in the light. Appears on a telephone…it begins to appear. In the cinema, the entrance to the cinema, the seats are red. Finally love concludes – there’s a beautiful symmetry that is very simple which is that when she meets the Amphibian God he’s bleeding from the bottom left and at the end when they get together and he saves her he’s bleeding from the lower right. And it’s a moment of symmetry with the colour red. And she loses the red shoe, which is animated, because the underwater scenes that begins and ends the film are filmed with a process called ‘Dry for Wet’ where there’s not a single drop of water. It’s smoke. It’s smoke and slow-motion camera. So she didn’t have the shoe on and so we animated it along with the bubbles etc. So you continue classifying the film and the blue that was the past, the old world in Crimson Peak, here we only used it in her apartment, because for her it’s important to convey the message that she’s aquatic, that she’s probably not human, she dreams of water, she cooks in water, she finds her morning pleasure in water, and so her apartment is all done in blue, with damp stains, as if it had been submerged. And in fact there’s an engraving of that big wave by Hokusai, that’s rendered through damp stains on her wall. Now that I tell you, you can see it in the film. But that’s the blue. The golden, orange, apple, yellow is used for the rest of the houses. The Bad Guy, Selda, the spy, it’s colours of air and sun. No one else belongs to the water. And green is the future, the future that encompasses the whole world. That’s the way we classified. In the film we classified, colour, form and texture so that they would bear narrative weight. And so that light, camera movement etc would also bear narrative weight. The screenplay for me exists on three levels: the literary screenplay; the audio-visual screenplay that you write with adjectives for camera and sound design, and the last one which is the editing screenplay which is where you write your film with the alphabet you constructed for yourself during the shooting.
Tsao: marvellous. It’s your most loving film. There’s a melancholy in your film that manifests itself in endings that are not always happy. Like in Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak.
Toro: Yes, of my ten films, nine are about loss and nostalgia. And this is the first that has hope. It’s curious because the last five years have been very hard for me in lots of ways. And came a very difficult time for me where I thought it important…I think what there’s a great shortage of at the moment is hope and we needed something to feed the soul. So we began working on this film in 2012. And five years later the film is finished. And during that whole trajectory it was one of the hardest films to make. But I felt that if I could make it, I wanted it to be like a song, like one of those songs that you get in your car, turn the volume up and sing along with it. That’s the effect I wanted the film to have. For it to be a song made up of images, light and colour. And that above all, that there should be beauty. Because I think the voluptuous act of creation is that of beauty and mystery. The two things that generate art are beauty and mystery. It could be in equal measures, in different measures, but if you generate those two things, you’re there. The rest I repeat, what we share with dramaturgie, theatre, television, literature – that’s interesting but much more interesting to me is how film remains very much like music, an art that moves people emotionally,
Tsao: and both exist in time.
Toro. Yes, and moreover if you ask me to explain exactly how it works, I can explain the process of creation but Labyrinth destroys me, The Devil’s Backbone destroys me. This movie destroys me. There are moments in each of my films where I get very emotional. And that’s very beautiful.
Tsao: This has more humour.
Toro: yes, after the Hellboys. But Hellboys are more of an American sense of humour. A genre sense of humour. For example I love the moment where Barry Manilow sings in Hellboy 2. But aside from that, I think this is the film where I have the best casting I’ve ever had from beginning to end.
Tsao: All character actors; no stars.
Toro: On the whole, written for them. I wrote the roles for them. Sally Hawkins, I wrote the role for her. Michael Shannon, the bad guy, I wrote the part for him. Octavia Spencer, etc. etc. Richard, I didn’t write for him. But he’s the first actor I went to. I went to him and said ‘Do you want to do it?’
Tsao: And he’s wonderful
Tsao. And there are moments. I find interesting how you like violence to the face. The face is very sensitive. And in all your films, well in many, Labyrinth, Vidal gets cut a new mouth, in Crimson Peak they put a knife through his eye….
Toro: There exists for me a violence that provokes a sensation has to come from unusual places. In most films people get stabbed and you don’t feel a thing. So you can have the scar like Bruce Willis here on the forehead with the little trickle of blood. Or they shoot you in the shoulder. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter, you don’t understand. But if you’re stabbed by a screwdriver on the knee… Well, we’ve all hurt ourselves on the knee. Since you have to make a leap of what would it feel like? Because the Bruce Willis type of wounds, are film wounds. But in the armpit, the audience goes, ‘Oh yes, the armpit’. There’s nothing thematic with the face. I just tell myself, where would it hurt me most? Well, there. But in Labyrinth and Backbone, the wound evolves to make monstruous that which was originally immaculate, which was the villain. The three villains – Jacinto, the Captain and Strickland — originally appear immaculate, appear attractive and powerful, and little by little they decompose. In Strickland’s case, the fingers. He tears them like chicken wings. He asked me, ‘how do I do it?’ Do it like chicken wings. In the case of the Captain the decomposition comes from here (he points to the mouth). They indicate, in a very visual manner, without words, the decomposition (undoing) of the villain.
Tsao: in those moments, the audience pulls back. I’ve tested it.
Toro: for me the idea is to sensorially transmit something, or something on the level of emotion, well that comes from those codes.
Toro: There’s also something about bathrooms.
Toro: Yes, well I love their design. From Cronos, where there was clearly an onanysm. Jesus Gris locked up in the bath. But as a room, in terms of image design, it’s always fascinated me: the mosaic, the porcelain, the colours. Almost all the bathrooms I make are green. Almost all. Who knows why. Maybe my grandmother’s was green. I don’t even remember.
Tsao: In The Shape of Water it’s very important; the bathroom is where they make love for the first time.
Toro: And that why she doesn’t….I thought it important…Two things that are very clear, the egg, which tells you I offer you that which was loneliness. And the fact that she’s Latina. Because when you’re chamaco for the first time in the bed where she was alone something interesting happens, when she suffers her loneliness she’s Latin, it’s woven in with images from Hellboy, Labyrinth,Backbone, Cronos. It’s of a piece. And in some ways The Shape of Water incorporates, rounds off.
Tsao: Yes it brings it all together.
Toro: Yes, it rounds off the other nine. And thematically I tell you if you see the mixture of characters, you can see them in Backbone, to conquer a common enemy; it’s in Hellboy, there’s already a love story with an Amphibian man in Hellboy 2;
Tsao: Yes, there’s a similar character
Toro: Yes in the cylinder, it’s completely the opposite in design. But like a first cousin. An amphibian man is an amphibian man is an amphibian man…Just as when you design a gorilla everything’s going to go back to King Kong, this goes back to Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s the DNA.
Tsao: The difference is that Julie Adams never surrendered to him. And here yes.
Toro: This is what provoked the whole film for me. When I was young in Channel Six they had a show, ‘Cine permanencia voluntaria’ on Sunday, they usually screened films from Universal Studios the whole day. And it was Sunday. So it was usually Church and movies. And I would sit on my knees to watch the film and I was watching Creature from the Black Lagoon and I saw that beautiful image and I was very moved. I started drawing it. I drew it obsessively with crayons, eating an ice cream with Julie Adams, taking a bike ride with Julie Adams, dancing with Julie Adams; and my grandmother kept those drawings for a long time; and then my grandmother died and they threw them away. They asked me, what do you want of your grandmother’s? The drawings. And they said, ‘we threw all those papers out’. And I said well in that case no. There’s nothing. I kept two or three photographs my grandmother had. There are not too many photos of my childhood. I kept two or three, not very edifying ones but there they are. In one of them I’m wearing cowboy boots and reading the newspaper. And in another I’m dressed as a torero. I don’t know what happened there. And in another I’m a vampire.
Tsao: When did you decide to put in a musical number? Because that’s an extremely risky move.
Toro: extremely risky. The same elements that constitute failure constitute success narratively. That is if you’re not scared of what you’re going to tell, it’s very likely that it won’t provoke emotion in anyone. And that was risky. One is aware of which moments will prove powerful because the day we were going to shoot it you ask yourself ‘what am I doing?’ We arrive and there are fifty musicians from Toronto in white dinner dress and a Man-Fish and a woman in evening dress. Is this the weirdest party you’ve ever seen? And there’s a moment where your faith tells you ‘no it’s fine’. But I’ve had moments in other films where you get to that difficult moment and people don’t react well. They react badly. I’ve had moments where my calculations have failed me. And it’s really terrible. You’re in a roomful of people and all of a sudden you feel the bad reaction. When we screened the film for the first time. This moment came. There were two moments that were very difficult, three. We can call them hinge moments. Spielberg explained it beautifully. The place where two train carriages are lined is a place where no one thinks is important. But without them, the train wouldn’t move in the same direction. They’d be separate entities. There are three important hinge moments. One is when the creature first peeks out of the surface of the water and blinks. That’s a moment if we make it well, light it perfectly, you believe it’s organic. An organic creature. That’s one. And then you can believe what follows, the egg, the salt etc. The second moment is where she takes off the dress, enters the room and closes the curtain, we spent more time lighting that scene than on anything else. If you put too much light, it’s funny. Too little light and it’s too aesthetic, if the lens isn’t wide enough, if you’re too close, etc. We spent almost three or four hours on this, which in a film of this size is a lot. And the last hinge moment is the dance. I wanted to shoot it old fashioned, but not black and white, like with Stanley Donen where the camera rises and falls, swoops around. Because normally George Stevens would have chosen a wide shot and let them dance. But here I had to participate because it’s the moment where she’s full of joy. It’s a moment where she who can’t speak, want to say how she loves him, and like a good Mexican, what one learns is that to talk about love one has to sing.
Tsao: it’s the first time in a fantasy film where the monster gets the girl.
Toro: I don’t know if it’s the first one.
Tsao: Mel Brooks did it in Young Frankenstein
Toro: What happens is that the uniqueness of the film, which is very difficult to explain, is that the elements that are combined are not usually elements that go together. Never. ‘What films did you see to prepare for this’, they ask me? Melodramas. By Douglas Sirk and William Wyler. Why are you going to watch monster films? What’s lovely is to act counter-intuitively. I’m going to make a very melodramatic story of a Man-fish and a mute woman. Three elements that shouldn’t go together but that for me is like Japanese umami, the conjunction of flavours that form a whole. That is to say if to make a fantasy film and you consult fantasy films, you create an echo. Who does it very well is Ridley Scott, who to make a science fiction film like Alien consults horror movies. The counter-intuitive is extremely valuable in creation, what I can tell you is that it’s the only domestic melodrama, musical, spy film, comedy about a man fish and a mute woman. Those are the ones that are worth doing. The ones that no one else will make
Tsao: Well let’s move on to take questions from the public.
Here my translation ends but I enclose a summary of some salient points:
‘If you see one of my scripts, it’s fragmented, almost like a poem; that is to say everything that is put in a script, as maestro Jaime Humberto Hermosilla would tell us, every adjective in the script has to be an adjective that has to be proved by or referenced to the camera or sound. Period. ….I put shot/reverse shots etc that give a rhythm to the page. Also you construct the set in relation to what you’ve written so, say, a wall can move to allow the crane in. Planning exists so that improvisation can take place. Everything is completely storyboarded.
You create a system in which you can be free. The only condition is that at the end of the discussion, I’m right.’
‘I wanted the Fish-Man to eat the cat as is his nature and that to happen before the love scene, because as in every relationship, the sooner you eat the cat, the more real the relationship.’
‘There’s a reason I’m here today; and that’s youth; the new generation. I believe the only thing one leaves of value is a path. All we do loses importance….but if I left a path where someone could turn to the right, that would be marvellous.
He tells a story where someone says, ‘Why would I want a Mexican if I already have a gardener.’ Then recounts the ups and downs of his career where he spent almost a decade without filming.
When they ask me what’s Mexican about your films, I say ‘Me’. Virtues and defects are exactly the same. There’s a zen saying ‘the obstacle is the path’….There’s a vocation that’s totally Mexican…You could make films wherever and it’s point-of-view is going to be your point-of-view. How are you Mexican? How are you not? If I suckled here for 33 years before leaving how the hell am I not Mexican. I mean that’s it. One thing is to have roots and another to have a passport. I’m Mexican but I have a passport.
He talks about starting a film school saying; the first thing to ask, is what can I do with the means I have? What can my friends and I do with the means we have? And begin with that.
For me the best education in cinema is to make films with pals. And to see movies.
We must create opportunity here. If they don’t offer it to us, we must create it ourselves.
We spent three years designing the creature. We began in 2013. In 2013 I began to pay out of my own pocket to two sculptures that made 12 variations on the creature, reptilian, more fish, amphibian, and combining those various characteristics we made various models and then combined aspects of each to come up with a creature we could present the studio in 2014. I showed it to friends. I had dinner with Iñarrítu and his wife Maria Hilaria and I asked them what they thought. And Maria Hilaria said I wouldn’t kiss him. The body was fine but the face wasn’t. So I hired another sculptor Mike Hill and we spent weeks sculpting only the face, moving the eyes…The face is extremely simple: it’s two eyes and a mouth. But the mouth had to be sculpted an infinite number of times so that it would be sufficiently human but wouldn’t look too exaggerated
There are many more questions but I’ve run out of time. I hope people find this useful…The eyes. It’s like an emoji. If you turn them too much one way, they seem malevolent, if move here it’s too neutral and seems cold, this way they’re alien. If you separate them, he doesn’t seem intelligent. If you join them together also. …in design you learn one thing: the silhouette is the most important element. And you sculpt three times. In traditional materials. Then in painting which should be counter-intuitive to that of the sculpture. …and lastly you paint with light.
I began writing the script in 2012 and finished it in 2016 so it was four years.
When we speak of faith and hope, which sounds like a Sunday sermon, we must also speak of rage. Rage is very important…Rage is a potent element for youth and creation. Rage is a condition that must be cultivated and is a key aspect of faith.