Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Streaming on Amazon Prime - Peter Hourigan recommends GREEK SALAD and runs through the careers of its showrunner Cédric Klapisch and lead actor Romain Duris

A new series on Amazon Prime has brought me as much pleasure as much else I’ve watched recently – it even had me doing something I’ve never done before. I watched it a second time within a few weeks.

Greek Salad was created by Cédric Klapisch who also directed several of the eight episodes. Klapisch’s wife, Lola Doillon, also directed several episodes and was a major writer for the series.  Klapisch is a director with a solid career, many successful films, with prizes and nominations from many major Film Festivals. Yet, he doesn’t seem to have quite become a “name director”, the kind who attracts scholarly monographs from academic writers. 

But Klapisch has had name recognition for me since I saw his second feature Le Péril Jeune (1993) on SBS quite some years ago. That title makes you think “Yellow peril” (peril jaune) but is in fact the Young Peril (“péril jeune). Just as one of its English titles Good Old Daze  has that double meaning when you hear it said. Péril Jeune featured a 20 year old Romain Duris, who Klapisch discovered in a queue somewhere. Duris has now appeared in many subsequent Klapisch films, often as an erstwhile stand-in for the director himself. 

Romain Duris (3rd from left),Le Péril Jeune

In Le Péril Jeune, Duris plays Tomas. At school, he is rebellious and hedonistic. But several years have passed since his group left school. Now,  it’s his death from a drug overdose that has brought together four of his from school friends to support Sophie who is expecting Tomas’ baby. Their memories of those school days become the film we’re watching. The standout impression is the strength of the friendship that was forged with Tomas and his schoolmates – and Sophie. The group has the warmth and intensity of a family; and it is this ability to create family groups in his films that is a strength of Klapisch’s work. And Tomas was the catalyst. 

In 2002, Klapisch made L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment). This is built around  Xavier, a French economics graduate who has gone to Barcelona to study on an Erasmus scholarship. He finishes up flatsharing with a group of other Erasmus scholars, from  a range of West European countries. 

Romain Duris, Cecile de France, The Spanish Apartment

The film has a strong sense of warmth in the relationships between all young people in this  group welds into a family over the course of the year. But it is not a sentimentally portrayed group. There is conflict, friendship, petty disagreements, and mutual support. It feels like this family could last for years, but the reality is that at the end of the year it must dissolve, and they’ll all go on to their own paths in different countries. Although it does look like Xavier and Martine will be getting back together, a relationship disrupted when Tomas took up the Barcelona scholarship.

A few years later, we meet up with Tomas again in Russian Dolls (2005) and some of the friends from the apartment, when they gather in Russian for the wedding of William,  whose sister Wendy was one of those flatsharing students.  Now, the story gets complicated with sisters, flatmates, friends, but  in Klapisch’s world there’s that creation of the kind of circles we know in real life, where people we meet in one circle, may become part of our life in other circles, and circles overlap with circles, like a crazy geometric painting. 

Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou
Russian Dolls

And this continues with Chinese Puzzle, (2013). Duris is again at the centre as Xavier. And there are more characters carried over from the earlier two films. All we need to worry about at the moment is that Xavier’s relationship history has been quite colourful. His original relationship with Martine sometimes becomes rekindled. Now there are two children, Tom and Mia. Tomas is the father, Wendy (yes, from the Spanish Apartment days) is their mother, though Tom and Wendy are no longer a couple, just sometimes fractious friends.  We don’t see much of Tom and Mia. They’re only kids after all, and the adults around them are probably more focused on their own issues. 

A lot of this film takes place in New York, and we’re in a rich, multi-cultural environment around Chinatown.  Don’t worry if my attempts to trace the family relationships over those three films is not very coherent. But we’re now going to meet Tom and Mia as young adults. Now they are characters in their own right and  I’ve shared enough with you as background.

Wikipedia gives us a neat recap to set the situation: 

Siblings Tom and Mia, the children of Xavier and Wendy from L'Auberge Espagnole, move to Athens after inheriting an apartment from their recently-deceased grandfather. Tom intends to sell the apartment and use the proceeds to fund a startup company, but the anti-capitalist Mia has other plans in mind.

Greek Salad  starts with a funeral, and if you’ve seen the earlier films, you will recognise some of the family/families. But essentially, we’re meeting Tom, an independent, international young man with family in France and England, living in New York and looking to start his own Startup company with his trophy girlfriend. Mia has not come to her grandfather’s funeral, staying behind in Athens where everyone believes she’s studying on an Erasmus scholarship like her father had done in Barcelona. 

But when we meet her, she’s quit her studies, and is working with an NGO that’s trying to assist refugees and asylum seekers. And working out of semi-derelict buildings and sometimes squats. The siblings have been left a building in their grandfather’s will and they’re reunited when Tom goes to Athens for inheritance formalities.

Now, the series can unfold its stories. And I’m not going to go through it. That’s for you to enjoy. But I must comment on some of the things I loved about this. One is Klapisch’s ability to create credible worlds for his characters. One aspect of this is the geography., It’s certainly not limited to his native France. (His filmography includes Paris (2008) and Back to Burgundy (2017). And you’ll have noticed the pattern in the earlier films centred around Duris’ character Xavier – Spanish Apartment, ­Russian Dolls, Chinese Puzzle (though here the main setting is New York.)

Tom (Aliocha Schneider) and Mia (Megan Northam) and refugees and
students with whom they share an abandoned apartment building in Athens

Now we’re in Athens. But in Klapisch’s hands, it is not just an exotic location. Of course, it’s Athens and it’s a city of ancient monuments. They’re there, and acknowledged, but as background. Hey, here’s the view of the Acropolis from our balcony – yes, there it is, between those two building in front of us. and it really is a complete city. 

Much of the action takes place down at ground level, areas where the tourists don’t usually go. Here are the streets with all the graffiti, and buildings left derelict apart from the squatters. The bars where students find work. The storylines explore not only interesting family relationships – and they’re inevitably interesting, with that family that’s had Tomas as its father figure over about twenty years. The position of refugees is a crucial element, and we get a glimpse of the enormous variety of people who become refugees.  These are not deadening statistics of people drowning, but real people worried about where their mother is, or concern over the genital mutilation a young woman may face if she’s forced back home.

Tom and Maria with their parents Xavier (Romain Duris)
 and Wendy (Kelly Reilly)

I enjoyed spending time with these wonderful young people. I was interested and involved in the social issues it featured. 









Monday, 18 September 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (18), Italy Part 2 Roberto Rossellini: In search of the real - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues.

The four phases of Rossellini’s evolving fusion of fiction and non-fiction,1941-75, was initially populist and nationalist in tone. His first features as director, La nave bianca/The White Ship (1941), then Un Pilota Ritorna/The Pilot Returns (1942) and L’uomo croce/ The Man with a Cross (1942) are now recognised as the first steps on Rossellini’s path to neorealism’s internationally acclaimed breakthroughs.

The Pilot Returns

Rossellini denied he was part of any ‘movement’, finding it difficult to understand the claim since for him each film “possesses its own realism” which he saw as nothing more (or less) than a moral position. Asking the question ‘where is liberty? for Rossellini is “a central theme which lies in recognising the nature of one’s imprisonment. Each ideology has good and bad but limits your liberty… perfect in conformity there is no heroism.” (interview Cahiers du Cinema  no. 183 October 1966).

Pierre Leprohon in summarising the postwar period suggests that neorealism was prefigured by Alessandro Blassetti in the mid thirties with his historical feature, 1860, and brought into existence by Visconti with Ossessione. “But it was Rossellini who thrust it into the limelight, thus giving it the magnificent impetus that was to carry it on for several years” (93).

Michelangelo Antonioni, writing in the leftist journal Cinema, noted a choral (coralità) quality/theme i.e. preference given to portraying the group collective over the individual, grounded in history. It is present in some films in the Fascist period films, including Rossellini’s first features, lending a documentary quality that is also evident in Open City and Paisà.  After disintegration of community in the aftermath of war shown in Germany Year Zero (1947), coralità is welcomed back by Rossellini in Francesco giullare di Dio (1950).  In the first of the Bergman cycle, Stromboli (1949), it is necessarily rendered unavailable by the overriding commitment to melodrama after being brought briefly to the fore in the famous tuna fishing sequence in documentary mode, the abstract beauty of the rhythms in the fishing community’s earning of their livelihood. Any potential for coralità is negated by the shocked revulsion shown by Karen (Bergman), in cut-in close-ups, at the reality of the killing.


Anna Magnani, Aldo Fabrizi, Rome Open City

The religiosity controversially apparent in StromboliThe Miracle and Francesco giullare di Dio, is linked to Rossellini’s passionately humanistic concern with notions of liberty which escapes easy definition and has often placed him ahead of his critics. His commitment in his narratives, to observing (the urge to document) rather than telling (the urge to closure) was initially almost universally dismissed other than on the pages of ‘Cahiers du Cinema’. 

Gilberto Perez in ‘Eloquent Screen’ identifies Rossellini’s film realism as “not a realism of meaning but of reticence, of deference to reality, of refusal to manipulate it into sense.” Perez continues, “meaning is an idea, a generality attached to things. If a novelist’s realism moves from the particular to the general in pursuit of meaning, Rossellini’s deference to things in their particularity is a photographer’s realism. It’s not that Rossellini lets things speak for themselves - things never do - but he lets hem be silent.” (224). 

Rome Open City

The challenge of establishing overall coherence in Rossellini’s career starts with the first film of his ‘breakthrough’ war trilogy, Rome Open City (1946). It is regarded, not inappropriately, as one the most  i important films in Italian cinema history, based on “a whole mythology of originality and difference,” to quote Peter Brunette (41), making it as he admits, “an extremely difficult film to write about.” Rather than being seen, as it was initially, as “a direct challenge to the conventional cinema of the time…it is,’ as Brunette identifies, “in fact one of Rossellini’s least typical, most conventional films,” which is not to deny its power as a founding text of neo-realism. Brunette found that  “when it is looked at more closely, what is striking is its overwhelming similarity to previous cinema (imbued with ‘Hollywood realism’), at least in terms of its narrative and dramatic structures. Unlike his earlier ‘fascist war trilogy’ beginning with La nave bianca (1941) in which Brunette notes that the use of documentary elements breaks up the narrative flow, in Rome Open City “all the elements of mise-en-scene…and everything else, however “realistic,” are rigorously enlisted in the service of the linear narrative.” It is the change to something radically different in Paisà and in turn in Germany Year Zero that is more characteristic of Rossellini’s oeuvre placing Rome Open City in this context “as the enigma” (43).*

Peter Bondanella sees the contrasting modes in Open City as “working the melodramatic plot to overwhelm the viewer with a sense of tragedy [moving] freely from moments of documentary realism to others of dramatic intensity.”  Paisà for Bondanella “reflects to a far greater extent, the conventions of the newsreel documentary even though it goes beyond the mere statement of facts or depiction of events.” Its episodic six part structure presents a step-by-step narrative of the American invasion of Sicily. 

Rome Open City

Paisà/paisan is a colloquial form of paesano - countryman, neighbour, even friend, which was typically used by Italians and American soldiers as a friendly greeting. “The Implications of its deeper meanings provide the basis for Rossellini’s exploration of Italian-American encounters” (42). 

In Rome Open City Rossellini offered a tight, suspenseful narrative using parallel montage to affirm the ‘national’ vision of the Resistance and the suffering of the Italian people. Paisà while retaining the latter and its attribution to the war, assumes the difficult task of dealing with the Allied invasion with the Allies as  both invaders and liberators and the Italians both passive victims and active participants; in Open City the Germans are unambiguously the ‘unexplained evil’ cause of the suffering. Rossellini and Fellini (co-scriptwriter with Sergio Amedei on both films), spent six months travelling the length and breadth of Italy in preparation for the filming of Paisà.  Archived early treatments reveal how the dramaturgy changed during the course of filming in response to more ambiguous found realities (see Christopher Wagstaff’s essay “Rossellini and Neo-Realism” in David Forgacs et al eds.).

Peter Brunette sees Paisà returning to the non-classical experimental elements (long takes, non-narrative, purposely temps mort (dead time), and the aleatory in general) already existing in the unconventional narratives of Rossellini’s three features he directed during the Fascist period. 

Paisà “embodies a cinematic practice that can be seen as the model for the vast majority of his later films” (essay in ‘The Cinematic Text’ ed. R Barton Palmer 119). Brunette explores Rossellini’s search in Paisà, on both thematic and formal levels, for discontinuous elements to move against this search for ‘wholeness’ in the narrative that was realised in Rome Open City.  Brunette concludes that “it is the presence of these ‘experimental’ features in this and later films, in fact, which assured that Rossellini was never again, after Rome Open City to have a popular [cinema] audience” (ibid). The contrast is confirmed in his late 50s ‘return to cinema’ with General Della Rovere. To gain financial backing for a return to the themes of Rome Open City and Paisà, after a series of box office failures, he was obliged to make a constructed, professional film in a studio, something he was not comfortable in doing although it garnered a rare box office success.

Germany Year Zero 

Rossellini’s restless search for “a different kind of cinematic language that would depart from programmatic neo-realism demanded by some Italian and French critics” (Bondanella  ‘Films of Rossellini’ 15), is evident in Germany Year Zero (1947). Made little more than a year after the tragic, untimely death of Rossellini’s favourite son, Romano, to whom it is dedicated, features a traumatised young boy filmed amidst the rubble of bombed out Berlin. The theme of the post-war loss of faith is described by Bondanella as “hovering between objective documentary and the depiction of a moralistic horror story” (ibid 51). Rossellini began filming Germany Year Zero with the story unfinished. Like Godard he rejected working with a finished script most often starting with an outline supplemented with notes written (sometimes on a matchbox)   

The filming of Germany Year Zero was interrupted to make two shorter films placed together for release as L’amore (1948), showcases for Anna Magnani. One is adapted from a one-act Cocteau play, La Voix humaine, in an experiment with psychological introspection (foreshadowing the Bergman series) in long takes and The Miracle scripted by Fellini - a confused and somewhat disturbed goatherd claiming the Virgin Birth after being impregnated by a passing tramp (played by Fellini) who persuades her he is Saint Joseph. Although condemned by the Church for blasphemy Rossellini subsequently described The Miracle as “an absolutely Catholic work…filmed during a time of the absolute loss of faith,” a faith that Rossellini seeks to re-discover in Stromboli.

Germany Year Zero 

Another film, in Italy mostly misunderstood and maligned in equal measure by critics and the public, in the making, offered for Rossellini ‘a clear and precise model’ of self- sustaining spirituality in Francesco giullare di Dio/ Francis God’s Jester  (1950), Stromboli (1949), Europe 51 (1952) and Voyage to Italy (1953), the latter two both now widely recognised as the peak achievements of the then highly controversial five films made with Ingrid Bergman. 

Francesco giullare di Dio

Anecdotal and often broadly comic, Francesco, based on a surviving 14th century manuscript, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, epitomises Rossellini’s anti-formalist style well described by Fred Camper as seeming “open and innocent” (“The Little Black Book of the Movies’). Camper notes that Rossellini’s compositions are always constructed to point to the space beyond the borders [of the frame] with a world-embracing hugeness shared by some of his key characters,” here foreshadowing his later deployment of the zoom shot.  

As Bondanella notes, Rossellini was never a practicing Catholic, but he was inspired by the ethical teachings of the church and was fascinated by religious sentiment which he viewed as too often ignored in the materialistic world he inhabited (ibid 17) and in which, it should be said, he participated, eg in his love of fast cars.

Francesco giullare di Dio

While Rossellini has often been identified among the precursors of modern cinema by virtue of neo-realism being recognised as one of its primary sources, Kovács makes the important point that despite becoming an example for many modern directors he never became a modernist filmmaker himself (261). Rossellini dismissed modern art as “superficial, unjust and inconsequential” in its generalising of a negative attitude towards the world while life, he said, is much more diverse than this attitude suggests (ibid). Yet, as Kovács further suggests there is ambiguity in his fervent rejection of modernism which has the same root as realism in the shared “essentially moralistic, even religious approach to art.” In the four films linked together in the previous paragraph Rossellini “created a form that showed a certain way of transcending neorealism” (ibid). Yet he never took the further step.

As Kovács explains, Rossellini was first of all concerned with the morality of art rather than style or narration. However at the beginning of the 1950s he started to make films focusing on personal relationships or on moral questions separated from history and society. His neorealist style became quite ambiguous as was already evident in Germany Year Zero where he used the rubble of bombed out Berlin to act as a psychological expression of the critically conflicted young boy’s state of mind. What Rossellini sought to do was “transcend neorealism as a political project and arrive at something like spiritual neorealism.” (ibid 262). The introduction of an abstract expressionist effect in this way, in principle is in contradiction with the neorealist ethos apparent in the obvious clash between the exteriors of the actual bombed city and the expressive stylisation of interiors filmed in studio sets. 

The war did, however, provide a stable moral standpoint. “Morality, so to speak, was encoded in the environment. Outside the realm of war, embedding of the character in the environment did not invoke unequivocal associations anymore” (264). In social or other terms, an environment had to be shown that would incite the positive moral reactions that Rossellini sought, requiring him “to  develop a certain psychological characterisation of the landscape. By the early 50s the neorealist landscape “became withdrawn into the background, or it became a projection or metaphor of the personal situation of the characters” (Gian Piero Brunetta quoted by Kovács ibid).  Kovács points out that “Rossellini’s essentialist and moral approach” in his ‘trilogy of loneliness’ 1949-53 - stories depicting the lonely individual’s consolation and reintegration into her environment - did not allow him to take the phenomenological approach of recognising a lack of moral contact between environment and characters that was Antonioni’s starting point.

Voyage to Italy 

Voyage to Italy is centred on the estranged relationship between an English couple that is both  seemingly confirmed and challenged through their contact with the foreign environment of Naples.  Kovács concludes “it was in Voyage that [Rossellini] went the farthest into the phenomenological description of estrangement [in Voyage often described as approaching the “banal”], so the last minute step back from the brink was quite shocking. This film provoked argument and embarrassment with its “miracle” ending “ (ibid), that with the passing of time has received wide critical endorsement.

Rossellini hit rock bottom financially in the mid 50s with the box office failure and critical rejection of the Bergman series. The significant exception was Andre Bazin and the then incipient New Wave: filmmakers writing in Cahiers du Cinema who were then alone in recognising the thematic and stylistic consistency of the series with Rossellini’s initially acclaimed neo-realism. In 1958 Cahiers voted Voyage to Italy among the 12 greatest films ever made’. Nowell-Smith suggests that their rescue operation led to the creation of “an apolitical Rossellini.” 


The Miracle 

In the context of the extensive critical reappraisal beginning (in English) in the 80s of Rossellini’s complete oeuvre, from the second and third phases (the first being the films in the Fascist period), I suggest the key defining films in the second (1946-54) are PaisáFrancesco, and Voyage to Italy, the ‘second line’ of this phase being Rome Open City, Germany Year Zero, L’amore Due Storie / Two Love Stories (The Miracle plus The Human Voice), Stromboli (Rossellini’s original cut) and Europe 51. The defining, also transitional, films of the third phase - Rossellini’s ‘return to commercial cinema’ (1958-62) - are the documentary feature India, and Viva Italia.  The ‘second line’ of this phase are, Era notte a RomaGeneral della Rovere and Vanina Vanini. At various times Rossellini’s own nomination as ‘important’ for him: Paisá, Voyage to Italy and Louis XIV, with Francesco guillare di Dio, and Viva l’Italia added as ‘personal favourites’ made clear from the accounts of their making in Tag Gallagher’s biography.

 * On its initial release in Italy, Open City was a flop. The critics disliked it and the public stayed away. The same thing happened on its initial release in the US. It was not successful as the Italian entry in the Cannes Film Festival.  The breakthrough was two months later when its release in Paris was greeted with rave reviews and equally strong box office returns opening the path to re-release in the US and Italy and international success (Brunette 51).

A second part on Rossellini will follow

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Recommended Reading for all fans of Pre-code movies - ARABIAN NIGHTS OF 1934 by Geoffrey O'Brien

Geoffrey O’Brien’s Arabian Nights of 1934 is a remarkable book by an author whose previous works of criticism and poetry now seem to have melded into one volume – a book devoted to memory traces, and no-doubt reviewing, of a host (226 are listed) of Pre-Code movies. The Hurlstone Park Pre-Code Movie Club should be all over it.

The book consists of seventy six short essays, notes, memories (hard to describe) each around a page long, bookended by two essays Dorothy at 17 and Aloysius at 18. These latter are intended to be homages to O’Brien’s parents who were brought up in the short Pre-Code era between the end of silents and the imposition of hard line censorship. The Hollywood studios made wild movies back then and scholars still study them endlessly to discover what the ‘real’ world of the time was all about. O’Brien’s chapter headings give you a quick entrance “This Modern Age”, “City Streets”, “Loose Ankles”, “Fast Life”, “Blood Money”, “Doorway to Hell”, “Turn Back the Clock”, “The Crash”, “Laughing Sinners”, “Bright Lights”, “The Code” and “After Tomorrow”.


Scattered throughout are lines in italics most of them taken from movies but an occasional one of the author’s own invention. They fill you with the pleasure of recall. My favourite, and I have no idea of the movie it came from: Any mug that don’t think so will be treated to the swellest funeral that ever stopped traffic.* Wont think it’s so funny then. 


As is the wont of modern publishing the back cover provides some appreciative quotes to assist possible purchasers. There are thoughts from Stuart Klawans and Albert Mobilio and this from Henry Bean “Shares with Marclay’s The Clock and Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema a total rapturous, insatiable cinephilia. What you feel, finally, is that you have been stuffed to the gills with so much story you will die if you take another bite. And all you want is more.”


A very handsome and beautifully printed volume published by Terra Nova Press in New Jersey, I bought my copy from Booktopia

*Underlined section spoken by Lew Ayres in The Doorway to Hell (Archie Mayo, 1930)


Friday, 8 September 2023

The Current Cinema - Happy Families - SCRAPPER (Charlotte Regan, UK, 2022), SHAYDA (Noora Niasari, Australia, 2023)

Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) and Mona (Selina Zahednia)

You suspect from the start, maybe you even know from the start, that things will eventually work out OK. Some semblance of peace, tranquillity or acceptance will ensue. These are just movies and film-makers don’t want to send their audience home unhappy or believing the world is an utterly grim place where the bad guys always win. 

In Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, the ragged and rough girl whose only outfit is a West Ham soccer shirt has been missing a father since birth. Then he hops over the back fence and takes control. Up to then she’s been OK living on her own, pretending to the authorities she has a carer and stealing bikes for a living. 

In  Shayda a little Iranian girl is being cared for in a women’s shelter by a mother on the run from a violent husband, and by a fiercely determined house mother who knows all the tricks that errant fathers get up to try and regain ownership of their children.


There you have it two stories made by first time directors that start from simple beginnings and build until they grip and don’t let go.


Jason (Harris Dickinson), Georgie (Lola Campbell), Scrapper

In order, Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper had me a bit nostalgic from the beginning. If you were brought up in the fifties and your mother much preferred genteel English comics like The Beano, The Dandy and Film Fun to the likes of The Phantom and Superman,  you might remember Scrapper from the day. He was part of the Ash Can Alley Gang which was a regular in The Beano. Their sworn enemies were the Gasworks Gang. I didn’t get that all from memory. A quick Google search uncovered the info and also the more amazing info that The Beano only ceased publication a decade or so ago.


Scrapper was the go to guy when there was a fist fight to be won by the Ash Can Alley Gang. Regan doesn’t give any clue, beyond the film’s title, now a generic term, that she’s a Beano fan. Her approach is much more MTV with shape-changing screens and flashbacks direct to camera that tell the backstory of teenage lovers, accidental pregnancy, irresponsible fathers, sentimental re-bonding. (Maybe that's what PR leaflet was referring to in bold type when it mentioned the film is full of "aesthetic energy".) There is a classic story arc made good by its telling, the authentic detail and the ability of otherwise inarticulate people to bounce one line zingers around the room. Totally captivating.


Shayda  is a much more serious movie. Noora Niasari’s debut is autobiographical in the extreme – a memory trace of early life in a women’s shelter escaping violent men and incorporating lots of documentary detail about the court process, possible abduction techniques, access arrangements. It is particularly good in establishing the general unsettling sense of continuous dread that such women and children experience. It is also very good in portraying the way men/a man can turn from apparently sweet-natured and kind to instantly violent and threatening. There is no flashy disco-like cutting, no attempts at alleviating humour. The subject itself is a constant story today, unlike Scrapper's story of a kid who can look after herself quite well and has more street smarts at nine or so than most of us ever have. (And yes I know Hirokazu Koreeda did a movie on the theme as well..).


These are both terrific movies and I urge you to see them. Shayda  in particular adds to what seems a rather good year for  independently spirited Australian films – Limbo, The Survival of Kindness, Petrol, Sweet As  and The New Boy spring to mind. (Three of those by established male film-makers and the other three by smart young and very talented women directors…just saying.)

Tuesday, 29 August 2023

Vale William Friedkin - Tom Ryan pays tribute to the great American director - PART THREE: “I often get better ideas about my films after I’ve finished them.”

 Editor's Note. This is the third part of a conversation that took place in Melbourne in 2002 when William Friedkin was visiting to promote the revival of his film Sorcerer. The first part can be accessed IF YOU CLICK HERE. The second part can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


There’s an extremely visceral quality to all of your films: the way you get in close, the cutting, the intensity of the action. There’s no better example of this than the extraordinary sequence in Sorcerer of the two trucks crossing the bridge. When you were planning it, did you have an inkling about how it was going to look?


No. I just had a general idea. I knew what the goal was, what these guys had to do, how they had to get these two trucks across the river. And while it appears to be something that’s actually happening, it is of course impossible, except in the world of cinema. My films are often called realistic, but the last thing I’m looking for is realism. 

We ran into nothing but problems. This scene was shot in a place called Tuxtepek, Mexico, in the deepest part of the Mohave jungle, below Vera Cruz. But it was originally supposed to be shot in the Dominican Republic. We’d found a great rushing river there. It was about twelve feet high and it had never run dry. ‘The memory of man runneth not to the contrary.’ We started building this bridge there, and as we were building it the river began to recede. It became a dry bed. So we had a scene of a bridge across a dry river bed. So we took down the bridge and had to find somewhere else.

We found this place in Mohave, shut down the production, moved the company there, and built the bridge again over a rushing river about twelve feet high that had never run dry. 

‘The memory of man…’ And it went down during the scene to about two feet. I then decided to obscure that fact by adding the rain. We had enormous hoses to make all that rain because the river bed had become virtually dry… again.

That was a mess of a shoot. Someone was trying to tell me something while I was making this film. There were a lot of things that just went wrong. 


The magic of cinema! It convinced me…


Well we had to do everything you see. There were no digital opticals then or any opticals that would be convincing at all. As in The Exorcist, everything had to be done mechanically.

Benicio del Toro, Tommy Lee Jones, The Hunted

If you had to do it today, would you use CGI?


[Long pause] That’s a very difficult question. I’ve just finished a new film called The Hunted, with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro, and it contains some very hair-raising sequences. And we did them all mechanically. You know, part of what I love about film is creating things on the spot. Digital opticals is another world, another discipline, another skill. I think it has an important place in cinema, certainly in creating backgrounds that are otherwise unattainable. 

But I’m not keen on using digital opticals to create an action scene, although the chase scene in the first Mission Impossible is all digital opticals. Tom Cruise is on this train with a helicopter over him that’s trying to kill him. No train, no helicopter, no landscape. It was done on a sound stage with the crew riding around on something. And then they put in the train and the helicopter and bridge and the countryside passing by. And it’s totally convincing. 

To do it that way is much more expensive, but it’s much less dangerous. So I would probably opt today for the opticals and not put people in danger. I mean, these people and the crew and I were all in danger in this scene. There’s no question about it: I used to do that when I was younger. Then, by the grace of God, I got a little older.

I did a lot of things that I’m not all that proud of. It came from a single-mindedness.

Willem Dafoe


There’s an alternative ending to To Live and Die in LA, isn’t there?


Bill Petersen gets killed in To Live and Die in LA. He was the star of the movie. And the producers of the film said, ‘What do you mean, you’re going to kill the star of the movie, the hero?’ They tested the picture. So I shot another ending in which he lives. He just got shot in the head and he lives! And it tested better than when he dies ’cause people didn’t want him to die. But I thought, ‘No, this is just jive! Forget it.’

There’s a new DVD of the film coming out next spring in the US, a perfect print, and they asked me to put the alternate ending on as an extra, and I said, ‘No. Why should people see it? It’s terrible. It’s stupid.’


I understand that there was also an alternative ending for The French Connection? With tramps seeing dumped heroin in the East River.


I often get better ideas about my films after I’ve finished them. I’ll be taking a shower or something and it’ll occur to me how I should have ended the picture. Years after I’d finished The French Connection, I was thinking about an ending where two junkies are sitting by the East River stoned and this barge goes by. 

What they did in those days was take all these packages of heroin which they’d confiscated and put them into their inventory. And then, when the case was closed, they’d cut them up and dump them in the East River. 

And so I had this image of two guys, stoned, by the river, while $15 million of heroin is cut up and thrown into the river in front of them. And thought that would be a really wonderful ironic ending. But unfortunately it never occurred to me while I was making the film. 


I understand there were problems getting The French Connection off the ground?


When the producer and I took The French Connection around to the studios, every one turned it down, some of them twice. No-one was gonna make the picture and then finally the head of 20th Century Fox, Dick Zanuck, the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, called us back months after he had passed on the film. He said, ‘You know, I got a hunch about that film. I don’t know exactly what the hell it is that you guys wanna do, but I’m gonna get fired in about six months. And I’ve got about a billion and a half dollars hidden away in a drawer. If you can make that film for a million and a half, go ahead. I won’t be around when it’s done.’ He was right. He was fired before we finished it.

Oscar Night, William Friedkin (far right) and the Oscar for
The French Connection

We had a budget close to $3 million at the time and it included stars like Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. We told Dick Zanuck and he said, ‘You’re not gonna get Paul Newman. He costs too much, at least half a million.’ Today that amount’s called ‘chump change’ in America. Now $20 million is scale. 

So he said, ‘You don’t need a star. Just get the right guy.’ 

I got the original cops and tested them, but they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t act. And they had a different view of them than I did, getting girls and beating up all these guys on the street. 

I had this friend, a journalist at the New York Daily News: Jimmy Breslin, what we call a two-fisted journalist, a muck-raker, a blue collar guy who’d expose all these slum landlords, and so on, a big heavy-set Irish guy with a dark mop of hair. And he was my image for the lead role. So I said to Zanuck, ‘How about Jimmy Breslin.’ He knew who he was and he said, ‘You know what. That’s a great idea. Why don’t you go back to New York, see if he’s interested and shoot a test?’

We had cast Roy Scheider before I did this, and the young black actor who’s chased by him in the first scene. And I went to Breslin and said, ‘Let’s work on this for about a week or so and then we’ll shoot a test.’ He said, ‘Great.’ He’d never acted. He was a newspaper reporter! We’d go out on a Monday, and he’d be absolutely brilliant. Tuesday, he didn’t show up. He was drunk. He’d come in Wednesday and forget everything he did Monday, didn’t know what he was doing there. On Thursday, he would blow every line. Then we’d come to Friday and I’m thinkin’, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’ But he says to me, ‘Don’t you have a car chase in this picture?’  I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then he said, ‘I gotta tell you. I told my mother on her death-bed that I would never drive a car. I don’t know how to drive.’ I said, ‘You’re fired.’ And that was the end of him for that role.

Then we offered it to Peter Boyle. He did a movie called Joe, which was an interesting picture that was very indicative of what was happening in many American cities. He was an awkward guy with a bald head and he said, ‘Nah. I wanna do romantic roles.’ So he turned it down. Then there were a few other people who turned it down too. 

Gene Hackman was the last man standing. I didn’t want to do the film with Hackman. I thought he was too soft, too laidback, no energy. But he did a great job. There’s such a thing as the Movie God that watches over films, and the casting of The French Connection was presided over by the Movie God.

Then we came to the casting of the French guy. I went to the casting director, who wasn’t really a casting director: he wrote for The Village Voice. But he knew every actor in the country and I said to him, ‘Let’s get that French guy who was in Belle de Jour.’ I didn’t know his name. He said, ‘Oh, that guy. I know him. He’s good. His name is Fernando Rey.’

Fernando Rey, The French Connection

So now I go down to the airport to meet his plane and I see him and it’s not the guy I was talking about. He’s got this little goatee and he’s very dignified and I recognized him. But he was not the actor from Belle de Jour. So I’m driving him to his hotel from the airport and I said, ‘You know, this guy you’re playing is a rough Corsican guy. That little goatee you have is all wrong. He said, ‘You don’t want me to shave my goatee because I have pimples all over my face and this covers them.’ 

In any case, he was not my image of the character at all. We get to the hotel and I go to the hotel pay phone and call the casting director. ‘You imbecile! This is the wrong guy. This is not the guy from Belle de Jour.’ So he says, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘We’ve got to fire him.’ Then by the time I get back to the office I’ve found out at the guy in Belle de Jour was Francisco Rabal, who’s in Sorcerer. And he wasn’t available anyway. So we stayed with Rey. 

Gene Hackman, The French Connection

He was not my choice. Hackman was not my choice. So there is a Movie God.


I want to ask you about your style as a filmmaker. With some filmmakers, you often get the sense that they’re really just shooting dialogue. With most of your films, there’s the impression that your starting-point is an image and that the rest comes later.


The camera moves that I use are never in the script. What I believe – I’m not always successful in doing it – is that a camera should only move to follow an actor, not on its own. Though occasionally I will push it in slowly to somebody’s face to try to draw us more into his thoughts. 

The real influence on the way I move the camera is Michelangelo Antonioni. My films don’t look anything like his, nor are they paced like them. He’d never repeat a shot. He’d get 70 or 80 shots without repeating one, while with most filmmakers, as you know, the shots are repeated all the time. 

So I try never to repeat a shot to ensure that there’s always something and only to move the camera with an actor. 


What did you think of Exorcist II?


When they made it, the people at Warner Bros. told me, ‘This film’s great. You’re a grandfather.’ And then they previewed it for the first time in Pasadena. And at this preview the Warner Bros. executives pulled up in limousines and they went into the theatre and, after about five minutes, there was a stirring in the audience and they knew something was wrong. But they had let their limousines go. They’d told their driver, ‘The film’s two hours long. Why don’t you guys go at get something to eat at MacDonald’s or wherever, down the block.’

Then after about ten minutes, a guy stood up in the middle of the audience and yelled out, ‘The people who made this piece of shit are in this room.’ And this other guy yelled out, ‘Where?’ The first guy turned to the back of the theatre and said, ‘There they are.’ The executives stood up and ran out of the theatre being chased by a handful of people from the audience. They got outside and their cars were gone, and so they had to run down the block to escape the audience. It’s distinguished by being the biggest money-back movie ever made: where people went and asked for their money back. 

To me, it’s like a horrible accident in the street. I don’t need to see it to understand.


You’ve become the go-to guy for car chases. Are you happy about that?


They’re not too easy to come up with. I can’t think of too many great car chases in films. There are a handful that appeal to me. One is in a Buster Keaton silent: it’s a brilliant chase. But they’re hard for me to think up and they’re very difficult to shoot. Critics often deprecate a film by saying, ‘Oh, it’s got a lot of car chases.’ But a car chase is pure cinema. It cannot be done in any other medium. You can’t see it on the stage; you can’t read it in a book; you can’t see it in a still photograph. It can only be done in film, or in reality. 

A lot of early cinema was just recordings of recording productions. But two people talking in a room is not pure cinema.

David Caruso, Jade

I find car chases a big challenge to put in a film and I’ve actually only done three of them – in The French ConnectionTo Live and Die in LA and Jade. But I’d like to do more. Now, of course, they can do them with digital photography and there’s not even any action going on. But I enjoy shooting them because I love cinema and that’s about as pure as it gets. 

Scenes like them and the one on the bridge in Sorcerer are, to me, pure cinema. No-one’s saying anything: it’s just stuff happening in front of the camera. You’re not gonna see that on the stage, except maybe in a Baz Luhrmann show.


What’re your feelings about cinemas like the one we’re standing in [the Astor]?


There is hope. For the most part, films have become the products of giant corporations. When I started making films, they were owned by individuals, men and women who loved movies. Now they’re owned by people who love profits more. But a cinema like this, and a few others in the world, they’re what keep the dream alive.