Monday, 15 April 2013

A Letter to Elia by Martin Scorsese

I can safely say the last time I watched the annual Academy Awards ceremony was in 1999. It was the year the Academy awarded the lifetime achievement Oscar to writer, producer, director Elia Kazan. As Kazan made his way centre stage to be presented with the award by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the response from the attending film community was decidedly mixed. Warren Beaty clearly emotional stood and clapped, Steven Spielberg offered polite applause but remained seated, while Ed Harris and Nick Nolte sat stone-faced and arms folded, in no uncertain terms at odds with the Academy honouring a man who appeared as a "friendly" witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. For such a carefully stage-managed event, the Academy Awards has had a number of memorable gaffes and slips over the years, but Kazan's snub was one of show's most sour moments. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the Hollywood Blacklist controversy, but I still feel (as I did in 1999) that Kazan's treatment was shabby and he fully deserved the Oscar for his contribution to American Cinema.

A Letter to Elia, Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones' 2010 documentary about Kazan, only briefly mentions the Blacklist by way of an excerpt taken from Kazan's 1988 autobiography A Life (read by Elias Koteas) but position it as a defining moment not only in Kazan's personal life but in his film making life also. It was after 1952, the year Kazan appeared before HUAC, that the director made his most important films - among them On The Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face In The Crowd, Wild River and America America. A Letter to Elia continues in the vein of previous Scorsese documentaries, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy; rather than a definitive career overview of Kazan, Scorsese discusses the director's films in the context of his own life - he saw in On The Waterfront the same streetwise toughs of his Little Italy neighborhood, and considered his difficult relationship with his brother in the light of East of Eden, a film Scorsese "stalked", obsessively following it around theatres in New York in the mid-50's. It's surprisingly frank stuff with Scorsese evidently reliving some awkward memories and emotions. That Scorsese was chosen to present Kazan with the Lifetime Achievement award was no coincidence, in the documentary Scorsese remembers first meeting Kazan in the 60's when he was in film school. Much later when Scorsese was a famous director he and Kazan become good friends, but Scorsese admits that he could never reveal to Kazan how he felt about his films. Instead he put it in a letter.

A Letter to Elia is a fascinating film, Scorsese's passion for Kazan's films is infectious and has awakened my own interest in Kazan. I've begun reading A Life (and I'll be first to admit that Kazan was a sonofabitch) and in the next few weeks I hope to catch screenings of A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden and A Face In The Crowd, and pick up the Blu-Rays of Panic In the Streets and On the Waterfront. A Letter to Elia can be currently seen by US readers on the PBS website while readers in the UK and Ireland can catch the film on Film4.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

In A Silent Way - Jesús Franco 1930-2013

When the news reached me yesterday that Jesús Franco had passed away, it came as a gentle surprise. I knew Franco’s health had been perilous in the last few years – recent interviews with Franco filmed for various DVD supplements were sometimes painful to watch, but despite all this I always had this notion that Franco was immortal, that he would continue to grind out zero-budget quickies long after all the rest of us had bit the dust. I won’t mourn Franco’s death but instead celebrate the career of an extraordinary artist. In the grand scheme of things few people in this world will get to leave behind such a rich and dense body of work like Franco has and I have no doubt that his filmography now finally complete will be studied, discussed, argued and obsessed over as long as people watch movies. How's that for immortality.

I’m listening to a lot of jazz at the moment and I mention this because in a strange way I've always associated Franco with Jazz. One of the first things I discovered about Franco was that he was passionate about Jazz. He often signed his films with the director-pseudonym Clifford Brown, the name of an influential American trumpeter who recorded in the '50's before his untimely death at 25 in a car accident. I would even suggest that Franco's body of work perfectly embodies the spirit of Jazz. One of Cinema's most prolific auteurs, Franco's filmography is a vast ocean of shifting styles and moods, and like Jazz is complex, formidable, it resists any easy definition of what it is exactly. His films include plenty of bum notes and fluffed solos, but he also made films that were blazingly progressive, full of emotion and liberation.

Black Angel's Death Song... Jess Franco on trombone in Venus In Furs (1969)

Franco was legendary for his rapid-fire work rate, stories about the director juggling three of four films simultaneously may well be true (Franco has always denied this), his sprawling filmography reads less like a director's CV and more like a list of sessions by a jobbing horn player. Jimmy Cobb who played drums on Kind of Blue, once described Miles Davis' great masterpiece as "just another date" and one wonders if Franco thought a masterpiece like Succubus, or Eugenie de Sade was "just another production". Probably. Franco had little regard for his own films and would always say he was happy just making movies. The final word goes to the man himself. When asked in 2009 why he made films, Franco replied, "Because I love Cinema. It is the most important thing to me. Life is Cinema"