Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lovely Delphine, Gone Too Soon

I recently watched Daughters of Darkness and was reminded that it's beautiful star, Delphine Seyrig, died at the too young age of 58 from lung cancer. But what a career she had. From Last Year at Marienbad and Stolen Kisses to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, she had one of the most interesting careers an actress can have. In response to Peter Bogdanovich's remark about Greta Garbo that it was "too bad that she had only been in two really good pictures," Orson Welles famously replied, "You only need one." Well, Delphine had a whole stock of them.

Daughters of Darkness isn't the best vampire movie you'll ever see, in fact, it might not even be a vampire movie at all, not in the strict sense of the term. But it is an interesting movie, well shot, well composed and well paced and the fact that it plays away from normal vampire tropes keeps it mysterious and dreamlike.  The ambiance is enticing and inviting and it's Delphine that really makes the whole thing work. I won't lie to you, when she's not on the screen, it's not nearly as interesting but when she is, her charms take over.

A friend of mine, Dennis Cozzalio, recently had the pleasure of seeing Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on the big screen and wrote it up here. I thought it was a stunning film when I saw it first but found it didn't stick with me and a second viewing felt pointless. Why is that? I defer to Dennis or anyone else who has seen it for the answer. However, none of that changes the fact that to see it is to celebrate the discreet charm of Delphine Seyrig. She left us too soon.

P.S. Won't someone please release her 1976 documentary on sexism with actresses in the movies, featuring Maria Schneider, Shirley MacLaine and Jane Fonda,Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Pretty and Shut Up). I'd love to see it!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Nearer the Bound of Life

This post is a contribution to the March in March Blogathon hosted by Jill at the excellent classic movie blog, Sittin' on a Backyard Fence. The blogathon celebrates the career of Fredric March. Please check out all the excellent contributions so far.

A little over twenty years ago, I was speaking with an acquaintance about acting. Both of us were involved in theatre and the conversation turned to those actors we most admired. I mentioned several but only one elicited a response that took me aback: Fredric March. The mention of his name evoked the response, "Who's Fredric March?" This was a fellow actor and I couldn't believe he didn't know March but he didn't and twenty years later probably do fewer still. Somehow, I don't think that would have bothered March.

What mattered to Fredric March, and what matters most to fans of great acting everywhere, is the performance. Fredric March didn't give bad performances because Fredric March didn't give false performances. He didn't engage in elaborate constructs like fellow actor Paul Muni to convince us of the sincerity of the performance. He simply gave a performance, sincerely. There's a difference.

Paul Muni, make no mistake, was a great actor. He employed accents and make-up and mannerisms and all form of other tools he felt necessary to make the character work for him and thus, work for us, the audience. That's something to admire and as an actor, I've long admired Muni for just that. But March didn't go that route. Of course, he employed an accent on occasion and certainly used make-up for some of his most famous roles (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Inherit the Wind) but for the overwhelming majority of them, he used the most necessary and simple tool he possessed, his sincerity. Fredric March didn't become the character; the character became him. This has always been, in my experience, the best way to wring a testament of truth from a character: Make it personal.

What do I mean?

Let's say Fredric March had been given the role made famous by Muni in Scarface, the lead role of Tony. While we can all agree March's look and stature would have worked against such strange casting I use it simply as an example of an actor making the character himself and not the other way around. March would not have wondered how Tony talked or walked or acted out his desires. March would not have cared how a small-time hood would deal with sudden power and wealth. March would have, instead, asked himself, "What if things had worked out differently for me and I had been a small time hood? How would I deal with this? How would I act and talk and walk and carry myself?" Once an actor makes the character himself, rather than the other way around, the actor instantly knows the character to his very soul. It is bound up to the life of the actor, inextricably.

Throughout his career, March played characters that could have been him under different circumstances: Al Stephenson, the returning veteran from World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives who sinks into alcoholism feels like Fredric March showing us an honest portrayal of how he would be under the same circumstances. His characters in so many movies, from I Married a Witch to Executive Suite, whether the character was good or bad, felt like March and that honesty sometimes made us confuse the character for the man himself. In The Desperate Hours, held hostage with his family in his own home, he does what he can to survive and save them. He isn't heroic and he isn't a coward, just an average man trying to deal with an uncommonly anxiety-ridden situation. Separating March from the character is almost impossible.

March did step outside these boundaries on occasion. His method wasn't an all-or-nothing equation. Playing a character like Mr. Hyde requires something more, it's true, but still the actor can imagine himself turning into a monster rather than imagining what a monster would be. Here, too, March feels true to the character. It feels like a man who has let all inhibition, all common decency, all consideration of the social contract purge from his system as he devolves into the worst of his primal instincts. It's hard to imagine Fredric March, the man, acting so monstrously but there he is, just as he is with all the other characters.

Later in his career, Fredric March walked into one his greatest and yet least celebrated roles, that of President Jordan Lyman in the expertly done thriller, Seven Days in May. That Lyman's decency, sense of fairness, intelligence and compassion feel completely at home in the body of Fredric March is a testament to how finely March had honed his craft. When Lyman scolds would-be usurper General Scott (Burt Lancaster) it may just as well be March himself giving someone a lesson in decency. It seemed the culmination of the decency he brought to bear upon his minister William Spence in 1941's One Foot in Heaven, and one could easily imagine Spence and Lyman as the same character, separated only by time and career.

Fredric March achieved more than most actors in the history of film and he achieved this by not achieving eternal superstar status. Not being a superstar allowed March the luxury of playing roles honestly and sincerely and true to his soul, even if that meant exploring the dark side of that ethereal region. He didn't have to worry about audience expectations, aside from expecting a great performance. But playing roles in such a direct and honest way while affecting no method or manner to entice the masses also meant that being a superstar never stood much of a chance anyway.

So when I think back to that day my partner in conversation expressed ignorance of March's career I can't be disheartened. You see, when I named Inherit the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my acquaintance did know March, he just didn't know the name behind all those brilliant portrayals. I think Fredric March would have laughed at the knowledge that his name didn't evoke any recognition but that his performances did, and when viewed by anyone, fan or first-time viewer, still hold up as some of the most beautifully expressed realizations of characters the silver screen has to offer. March probably would have smiled gently and thought to himself, "I did my job."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pina: Keep Searching

She told a dancer in her troupe, "Keep searching." She didn't say where or for what or even if the dancer was on the right track. Just to keep searching. The documentary, Pina, a tribute to modern dance pioneer Pina Bausch, directed by Wim Wenders, evokes that sentiment beautifully. Every dancer in it speaks lovingly of Pina's direction, always vague and seemingly formless but important and meaningful at the same time. The documentary was intended to star Pina but she died two days before shooting began. As a tribute to her, the dancers continued on, filming all the dance sequences as prepared and, as a result, the film starred Pina after all.

As a work of interpretive documentary filmmaking, the film succeeds effortlessly. Dance is blended with interviews in which the interviewees are shown but their interviewed statements heard in voice-over, while they stare at us and ponder. The locations, from factory to street and river to forest, provide extraordinary backdrops for the beautiful and mesmerizing movements of the dancers and more than once I thought, "I want to be there. Now." The dances are not explained nor given any context whatsoever. Occasionally, there will be a brief snippet of a discussion about the physical origins of a piece ("She said there must be more chairs.") but that's as close to explanation as we get. Any more and there'd be no point to showing the dance. And it was the dance that Pina used to communicate all that she couldn't with words.  And that expression wasn't meant to be specific or prosaic but expansive and personal.

But the film chooses to provide Pina's communication cinematically, not theatrically, and there, especially for dancers and dance fans alike, is the film's only problem of presentation. As Fred Astaire once said, "Either the camera will dance, or I will." In Pina, the camera dances. A lot.

Wim Wenders is a brilliantly visual filmmaker and that gift, at times, gets in the way of the dance. We get a tantalizing snippet, maybe even a full minute or two, of a dance in which we can see the dancers in full frame before, suddenly, the camera cuts to close-up or a different angle or a tracking shot or, worse yet, just that part of the body that is moving. The film is filled with little non-contextual exercises in movement that are short and hypnotic and yet Wenders keeps moving the damn camera. At one point one of the dancers stands before us in a pinstripe suit, standing erect with only his fingers and hands moving up and down along his torso. To watch him full on, of course, is the point. The hands and fingers are only meaningful in relationship to the whole motionless body behind them. And yet, Wenders repeatedly cuts in to close-ups of the hands. It could have been one of the best spots in the movie. Instead, it now resides in my memory as one of the most infuriating.

This doesn't happen with every dance sequence (and the dances are communicated so strongly it hardly matters) but it does with many of them. It happens enough that when the camera does settle on a dancer the viewer wonders why it didn't for the rest. Worst of all, in the opening performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the camera, after starting out static, moves in to several close-ups of the dancers' faces. Yes, closeups of the dancers' faces. In a dance. On their faces. Which aren't dancing. Fortunately, the faces are beautiful to look at, filled with emotion, lines, dirt and age.

All that said, I still found the experience to be a tremendous one and one I'd happily repeat. The musical choices are terrific (I immediately bought the soundtrack upon return from the theatre and am listening to it as I write this), the dancers are wonderful and Pina Bausch's inspired and emotionally powerful choreography is a wonder to behold. And more than anything, the dancers all seemed genuinely connected and deeply in love with Pina and their art form. Yes, I wish Wenders had held that camera still for much of the dance but no, it didn't spoil the experience. It didn't because, dammit, as bothersome as it is to have a camera move around during a dance, Wenders does make the moves cinematically interesting on their own and uses them in such a way as to hint at hidden moments that a stage audience couldn't necessarily see. But mainly it worked because the spirit and soul on display are undeniable and seductive and inspiring all at once. When we get to the final frame we can only be moved by Pina's final and ghostly plea, "dance, dance or we are lost."