Sunday, April 15, 2012

Movie phantoms

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

I’d been watching the Criterion DVD of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 film Le deuxieme souffle, and then worked my way through the typically generous extras. One of these, a French on-the-set TV report of the time (who finds this material?!), mentioned in passing that Melville’s cast included the actor Mel Ferrer. Now I know what Mel Ferrer looked like, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t in the movie – no surprise, since his name wasn’t in the credits either. But then I did a Google search and found several sites which did list him as a cast member. Oddly though, those sites didn’t have a specific character against his name, as though he’d been merely an extra.

Mel Ferrer Mystery

Well, in the end I found the story, via a French-language website. According to my own translation, Ferrer started shooting the film, and Melville decided during his very first scene that he wasn’t right for the role (in part because, and again you have to rely on my shaky skills here, he was knock-kneed). Melville then set out to exasperate the actor, quickly succeeding to the point that Ferrer fell into the trap and declared he would have nothing more to do with the film. And things went on with a replacement.

Nothing so strange about that story – actors are recast all the time in the course of shooting. Sometimes (as in Woody Allen’s September) virtually the whole cast turns over. What’s unusual with the Ferrer example is how the alternate universe, in which he does appear in the film, continues to trace through the real world in which he doesn’t, even forty years on. I love these oddities of cinema – I can’t imagine I would ever have searched Mel Ferrer’s name on account of any of the films in which he did appear (maybe the feat of having married Audrey Hepburn is worth the occasional Google search in his memory though).

One of the more famous examples of a phantom film appearance concerns Quentin Tarantino, and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 King Lear. Tarantino was cited for years as one of the film’s cast members, and included it in his own publicity brochure, but he later said he made it up: “I put it on my resume as an actor, and said I was in that, because nobody would ever see the film.”

Fair enough, except I have a distinct memory of actually seeing Tarantino in the film – it’s just about the only thing I remember clearly about it (except, to bring him up again, Woody Allen’s disconnected appearance as the Fool). Assuming Tarantino is telling the truth about lying, what accounts for this? I’m pretty sure I saw the film after Tarantino rose to fame, so I must have picked out some vaguely similar actor and imprinted the then-hot auteur’s identity onto him. Did Tarantino base his lie in the knowledge that a vague look-alike did appear in the film, increasing his chances of getting away with it?

Tarantino Mystery

I don’t think the film is readily available on DVD, but I expect if I had the willpower I could track down a definitive answer to this mystery. But you know, it’s more fun this way.

Tarantino’s recent flop Grindhouse is a different kind of phantom – a film originally released, you’ll recall, as a double-bill, along with faked intervening trailers, only to be rapidly withdrawn from that form and cannibalized into two separate releases. I admired the exercise more than I might have, and there must be another alternative universe in which it hit the spot, unleashing a whole new wave of skuzzy, decaying-before-your-eyes anti-entertainments. But in this universe, it didn’t work too well, and may seldom be seen again as originally intended.

And Tarantino slowly drifts from supreme hero (it’s fair to say no one in the last twenty years of American cinema directly inspired so many imitators) to rather forlorn figure, laboriously injecting his increasingly tedious “touches” into unworthy material. His new project, a remake of the Italian war meller Inglorious Bastards (a film long forgotten by everyone except, perhaps, the same narrow audience who got the Grindhouse concept) hardly seems likely to turn things around.

Tarantino reveres Godard, even naming his production company - Bande a part – after one of Godard’s films. But what a difference in trajectories. I’m currently reading Richard Brody’s Godard biography Everything is Cinema. It’s a long read, but necessarily so to convey the often-painful grit of Godard’s life-long struggle to be at peace with his art, and with himself, if there’s any distinction. For all the detail, the man himself barely comes across – you glean his turbulence and waywardness, and of course his intellectual overdrive, but if you ask if he’s ever been, say, happy?...I’m damned if I can tell.

Of all the filmmakers I most value, Godard’s the one in whom I’ve always felt my investment of time and concentration to be the most inadequate – at worst, you come away from his films with just scraps and impressions (albeit dazzling ones). But I can live with it – I’m just a dabbler. What about Tarantino, a biography of whom might also carry some variant on the “Everything is Cinema” title (such as: “In Search of Kick-Ass Flicks”)? Doesn’t he feel, for lack of a better word, lazy, by comparison with his hero’s giving of himself?

The Tiger’s Tail

Maybe the saddest kind of cinema phantom is the kind haunting us in plain sight. Thirty years ago, Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man who Fell to Earth) was another cult hero – his latest film Puffball opened earlier this year for one lonely, under-advertised week. A similar example just arrived, long after its release in its native UK – John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail. Boorman made Point Black and Deliverance, and while those films still get mentioned from time to time, his more recent work (Country of my Skull and now the new movie) just doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.

It’s a Doppelganger concept – big-shot Irish businessman Brendan Gleeson, struggling to keep his head above choppy economic and personal waters, starts to think he glimpses a double, who then starts to take over his life. This could have, should have been a good platform for the kind of mythmaking Boorman’s specialized in, but the film becomes heavy and weary, and the metaphoric force rapidly dissipates. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not in any sense a necessary one. And where is the veteran director in there? That plot, of a country and then an identity getting away from you, might be all too meaningful for the man notionally at the helm. Unlike Mel Ferrer, he’s certainly there, and yet in all the ways that used to matter, he barely is.

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