Written to introduce a dossier in Farsi on Alain Resnais prepared by Ehsan Khoshbakht in March 2012. — J.R.
Alain Resnais is clearly one of our greatest living filmmakers. But he’s also one of the most elusive, for a number of reasons. He started out as the most international of all the French New Wave artists, at least in his early features (especially Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, La Guerre est finie, Je t’aime, je t’aime, and Providence), but then went on to become the most French of French directors (not only in obvious cases such as Mon oncle d’Amérique, Stavisky…, Mélo, Same Old Song, Not on the Lips, and Wild Grass, but even in films derived from English or partially American sources, such as I Want To Go Home, Smoking, No Smoking, and Private Fears in Public Places). Even before he got around to making features, he made by far the greatest films in the history of cinema about racism and colonialism (Statues Also Die), the Holocaust (Night and Fog), plastic (La Chant du Styrène), and libraries (Tout la mémoire du monde). Among the most personal of modern filmmakers, he never signs his own scripts, always preferring, as Claire Denis once pointed out to me, to hide behind his screenwriters. He’s also one of the greatest of all film critics and film historians, even without any printed criticism, especially if one considers how much he has taught us about Feuillade and Hitchcock in Marienbad, about Lubitsch in Stavisky…, and about MGM musicals in Not on the Lips, among countless other examples. A poet of memory and emotion, he often gets mistaken for an intellectual (perhaps because he’s French) and overlooked as a Surrealist. Indeed, part of the richness of his films can be found in the fact that many of their treasures are hidden, apart from their beauty and feelings.
From Film Comment (March-April 2012). — J.R.
Ever since Gilbert Adair died three weeks short of his 67th birthday, in London, I’ve been rereading him compulsively. And I’ve had a lot to choose from — not only many online articles (including pieces written for this magazine and for Sight & Sound), but all but one of the 18 books listed on the flyleaf of his nineteenth and last, And Then There Was No One: The Last of Evadne Mount (Faber and Faber, 2009) — the final volume in his inspired trilogy of Agatha Christie pastiches, which somehow manage to combine his taste for pop entertainment with his more avant-garde impulses, to riotous effect. Even though I eventually lost touch with Gilbert as a friend — whom I’d met in the early 1970s as a fellow habitué of the Paris Cinémathèque, and who years later was kind enough to broker my friendship with Raúl Ruiz (with whom he worked on several projects, including three that were filmed [see photo from Le territoire below, second still from bottom], and who tragically and prematurely died just a few months earlier) — I remained a steadfast fan who collected all his books.
For Film Comment, Gilbert made his first appearance in an interview with Jacques Rivette, conducted jointly with myself and Lauren Sedofsky for the September-October 1974 issue, available online at both jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=28298 and jacques-rivette.com. After that, from 1977 through 1982, he contributed six London Journals, nine Paris Journals, a final journal “from a country manor,” a “cliché expert’s guide to the cinema,” and an especially memorable Mae West obituary — which includes a definitive tribute to Sextette, her 1978 swan song, which he called “the most extraordinary compliment ever paid by the medium to one of its stars” and “the most chivalrous film ever made,” adding that its “extreme fascination…derives not merely from its star’s age — she was 86 when she made it — but from the fact that the film pretends not to notice it.” (“To paraphrase Cocteau’s oft-quoted aphorism about Victor Hugo, Mae West is a madwoman who thinks she is Mae West.”)
A singular and highly gifted literary dandy, Gilbert was also a seasoned and voracious film buff — uncharacteristic for a writer in the U.K. (born in Scotland, but in fact a fully self-created English dandy and francophile), yet part of his essential baggage as a frequent Channel-crosser. Characteristically, in Paris he used to discard all the books he read except for those by Cocteau, whose volumes filled the shelves in his hotel room on Quai Voltaire, and one of his sadly unfulfilled dreams was to write a biography of his role model. (Check out his superb audio commentary to Les Enfants Terribles on Criterion.) Equally ambitious and self-critical, he often rewrote his own books when they went into second editions.
Almost half his books qualify as impressive pastiches: sequels to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and Peter Pan, spins on Death in Venice and Les Enfants Terribles that later formed the basis for the film versions of Love and Death on Long Island and The Dreamers, a thriller conceived as a tribute to Hitchcock (The Key of the Tower), a joint takeoff on Barthes’ Mythologies and Perec’s Je me souviens “translated” into an English context (Myths and Memories), and the only book listed on his flyleaf that I don’t own—a brilliant Alexander Pope pastiche called The Rape of the Cock which I read in manuscript circa 1974. (In fact, I strongly suspect this remains unpublished; the only other bibliographic reference I’ve come across, “Caen: Editions Dom, 1991,” suspiciously sounds like a half-buried Adairian pun, caen+dom equaling “condom.”)
Most of his other books are film-related: obviously Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers, but also many entries in his two wonderful collections of “cultural” columns, The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice and Surfing the Zeitgeist. His adapted his own novel A Closed Book for a late Ruiz feature (subsequently retitled Blind Revenge) that was poorly received but deserved more attention than it got (and can be purchased for less than five quid at amazon.co.uk), and even The Death of the Author features a telling interlude related to Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.
He will be missed — but thankfully, he can still (and can always) be read.
I was delighted to discover just now that the Raymond Durgnat web site — relaunched about half a year ago, and one of my favorite movie-related web sites (which, even better, includes a lot of material about things other than movies, including some rare poems), has been growing and expanding lately; see, especially, Articles, Poems, and Additional Resources and Links for some of the new additions. It’s also worth recalling that Ray’s pioneering A Mirror for England came out in a second edition late last year, with a new Introduction by Kevin Gough-Yates, his literary executor, and this was about a year after the publication of a second edition of A Long Hard Look at ‘Psycho’, with a new Introduction by Henry Miller. (May 21 update, wonderful news: Miller has also edited a superb Durgnat collection of previously uncollected pieces that the British Film Institute plans to bring out in December 2012.)…On the web site, I haven’t found any activity yet on the Forum, but I’m hoping that this will start to grow soon as well. [3/11/12]
Written in early February 2012 for “En Movimiento.” my bimonthly column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
The unexpectedly huge acclaim accorded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in the U.S, appears to be motivated by something more than an appreciation for a better-than-average feature. Is this a sufficient reason for it to be the most successful Iranian film to be released in America to date? Why was it named the best foreign language film of 2011 by the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, and the New York Critics Circle, and the best picture of the year by the most popular American film critic (Roger Ebert), meanwhile placing third as the best picture by the National Society of Film Critics (which rarely considers films for this category in any language but English, and included only one other such film in its latest top ten, Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa)? Why was it nominated for two separate Academy Awards?
I suspect that an important reason for this sort of enthusiasm is the desire of many Americans — or at least Americans who see foreign-language films — not to go to war again, shortly after the (very) belated return of American troops from Iraq, and during the incessant and frightening beating of war drums by all of the Republican candidates for President except for Ron Paul (who still isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream media–and not because of his radical economic positions, but, to all appearances, because he refuses to support another American invasion in the Middle East). It’s a good example, in any case, of the way that the cultural impact of some films can’t be gleaned from reading reviews and might even be inexplicable to people years later. Who cares today about Mrs. Miniver, the William Wyler propaganda feature of 1942 that won six Oscars, including best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, actress, and supporting actress, and was nominated for six others?
A Separation also throws into relief a major theme of Iranian cinema that is rarely acknowledged as such, at least outside of Iran — namely, class difference. I can’t speak with any authority about Farhadi’s work because I haven’t seen any of his four previous features, but it does seem evident to me that even though the Persian title of his latest film translates as “[the] separation of Nader [the husband] from Simi [his wife],” which is the major focus of all the reviews of the film I’ve read, the true separation and conflict that produces and sustains most of the film’s drama is between the classes of the two families involved, comfortable middle-class (in the case of both Nader and Simi) and struggling working-class. And if one considers most of the major classics of Iranian cinema, starting with Farrokhzad’s The House is Black and Golestan’s Brick and Mirror in the 60s and continuing through the features of Makhmalbaf and his family, Kiarostami, and Panahi over the next four decades, the huge gap between the rich and the poor — which has lately become a big issue in American politics, for the first time since the Depression, but has been central to Persian culture since its inception — is clearly an inextricable part of their subject matter.
There are also significant differences between the way gender issues are perceived in Iran and in the West. My Iranian-American friend and sometime writing collaborator, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who has seen (and mainly prefers) Farhadi’s earlier features, points out that the huge obstacles Iranian women face in getting divorces — the subject of an excellent 1998 documentary, Divorce Iranian Style (Kim Longinotto & Ziba Mir-Hosseini) — are essentially ignored in A Separation, thus challenging the film’s claims to treat the positions of Nader and Simi with equal amounts of sympathy. In short, what audiences don’t know can be as pivotal in determining the meaning of certain films as what they do know.