Sunday, September 29, 2013

Two late films

Quentin Tarantino recently talked about why we shouldn’t expect him to be still making movies as an old man: “I’m really well versed on a lot of directors’ careers, you know, and when you look at those last five films when they were past it, when they were too old, and they’re really out of touch with the times, whether it be William Wyler and The Liberation of L.B. Jones or Billy Wilder with Fedora and then Buddy Buddy or whatever the hell. To me, it’s all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography... I do think one of those out-of-touch, old, limp, flaccid-dick movies costs you three good movies as far as your rating is concerned.”

Out of touch

Well, it’s easy to know what he means (although I could take a stab at defending Fedora in particular) but I think the formula underlying the “rating” is more complex than that. I don’t think anyone narrowly extrapolates back from a filmmaker’s weaker late movies to retrospectively downgrade the merits of earlier masterpieces (although of course there might be any number of reasons why reputations rise and fall), and the sense of a director being “out of touch” with the times can constitute multiple strengths: perhaps because being out of touch with the times isn’t necessarily a bad vantage point for commenting on the times, or because the supposed “limpness” seems to reveal or confirm something elemental about the man (and what’s the point of pretending, it almost always is a man). Actually, for many directors – Hitchcock, Bunuel, Ozu, Rivette, Rohmer - I find myself rewatching their late films more often than the objectively more perfect earlier ones, although this might only tell you something about my own sentimental flaccidity.

I recently rewatched two late movies – each in fact the last full-length work by its maker – which would almost certainly have made Tarantino’s list of geriatric mediocrities if he’d continued to add to it. The Osterman Weekend, made in 1983, holds little or no place in the usual conversation about Sam Peckinpah’s mastery, and indeed it’s shockingly flat at times, as if going through motions with little remaining sense of why they matter (Peckinpah uses his well-honed slow motion effects in various action scenes, with miserably uninteresting results). Based on a Robert Ludlum book, it’s a bewildering narrative, about a TV talk-show host manipulated into laying a trap for three of his old friends, claimed by a government agent to be traitors; actually, he’s a pawn in a bigger game, although it’s all but impossible to tell what that is (as with much of Peckinpah’s work, he argued with the producers and was reportedly unhappy with the final product). The film ends on a monologue about the manipulative power of television, and the difficulty of freeing oneself from that influence, but this hardly seems like a logical summation of what we’ve been watching. It’s not hard to see how one might dismiss the whole thing as a tired mess.

The Osterman Weekend

And yet, that’s oddly appropriate for a Reagan-era document, as a missive from the time when cold war stridency was losing conviction and old economic models staggering, and everyone was looking for the next renewal; in Hollywood, likewise, the immense creative energy of the 70’s had largely run its course, but without yet yielding the reductive clarity of the full-blown blockbuster era. The Osterman Weekend overflows with notions of fragmentation and alienation, personal and structural and institutional; the ending dramatizes an era where you’ve lost all capacity to know who you’re talking to, not just ideologically, but even literally (the TV show’s title, Face to Face, is a monster irony, and the duplicitous agent’s name, spelt “Fassett” in the credits but sounding like “Facet,” is carved right out of that irony). The ultimate point, perhaps, isn’t really the bankruptcy of television, but rather of all discourse, and looked at that way, many of the film’s weaknesses become arguable as relative strengths, because to believe we could ever extract narrative or moral clarity from any of this would only be a capitulation to fragile establishment claims (whether Hollywood’s claims about entertainment or Washington’s about national purpose). Played straight, the film would be a self-contained mediocrity, as vacuous as The Hunger Games, but in Peckinpah’s hands, it comes to seem eloquently despairing, and perhaps more relevant now than then as things become more desperate and dissociative.

I suppose that might sound like something of a stretch, and perhaps it is; as I said, it’s not hard to dwell on the film’s weaknesses. On the other hand, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds – a series of four short narratives, connected by scenes of a film director considering his next project - seems to me as easy to defend as any film of the last twenty years. Antonioni was 83 when he made it, and hadn’t worked for a long time after a stroke left him seriously incapacitated, unable even to speak; Wim Wenders joined the project to provide insurance cover and to film some linking material. Some people liked the film, but the Village Voice, summing up another common view and laying down the tracks for Tarantino, thought it embodied the “discomfiting experience of watching the giants inch into their dotage, refusing against better judgment to retire.” Indeed, I don’t think I valued the film particularly highly when I first saw it at the time.

Beyond the Clouds

But now it seems to me a beautiful expression of the persistence of possibilities, and of our imperfect grasp of them. In all four stories, characters reach out impulsively to each other, with mixed results, but through their actions exploring and embodying a more refined sense of life. “More refined” might sound like code for elitism, and indeed Beyond the Clouds is one of the last great expressions of the classic “art” cinema – emphasizing beauty and eroticism and pictorial splendor and the struggle of creation, barely concerned with economics or other practicalities of life. But this isn’t just an affectation – Antonioni brings his people closer to their elemental needs and desires, movingly illustrating the nobility of pushing through the fog of normal human transacting, even if that only sometimes inevitably yields profound losses or sadness that might have been avoided otherwise.

Where Peckinpah dramatizes the need to engage with the painful human mess, Antonioni reasserts the possibility (or at least the need to believe in the possibility) of evading it. And his capacity for creating mesmerizing cinematic structures remains undiminished; the physical interplay of his people and their settings continually deepens the film’s emotional subtext. It’s a defiant film in many ways, eloquently testifying against the apparent limits of Antonioni’s own condition, and so likewise against the turgid preconceptions and rituals that condition so much of our existence. Such as the preconception, perhaps, that the only sane creative response to the difficulties of age is to surrender to them.

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