Marlon Brando kept hundreds of hours of audio tapes of his own reflections, recorded in meetings, during hypnosis, in therapy and during press interviews. They add up to a magnificent autobiographical account, in his own inimitable voice. The British director Stevan Riley has used them as the foundation of his documentary, Listen to Me Marlon – with a beautiful and elegiac use of archive footage and photos.
Brando tells us, in his own words, about his small-town childhood with his adored but alcoholic mother, and his fear of his violent, intimidating travelling salesman father. It is clear that his biggest debt was to to the actress and teacher Stella Adler, who imported Stanislavski’s Method to the United States – a revolution in stage and particularly screen acting: “everything that you do, make it as real as you can, make it alive, make it tangible.” When Brando was totally unknown, she said to him, “Don’t worry, the world is going to hear from you”. According to Brando, all motion pictures today, all acting today, stems from Stella Adler.
Above all, his thoughts on acting are fascinating, and on how movie actors are mythologised by the public. “It had nothing to do with me. The audience does the work. They are doing the acting.” “We need myths, we live by myths, we die for myths.” He has no illusions about the movie industry: “There are no artists, we are businessmen, we are merchants, and there is no art. Agents, lawyers, publicity people – it’s all bullshit. Money money money. If you think it’s about something else, you’re going to be bruised.“
“Lying for a living, that’s what acting is. All I’ve done is to learn to be aware of the process. All of you are actors, and good actors, because you’re liars. When you’r saying something that you don’t mean, or refraining from saying something that you do mean – that’s acting….. You lie for peace, you lie for tranquility, you lie for love.”
“When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage. Your face is the proscenium arch of the theatre, 30 feet high.”
His remarks on individual films are illuminating. On A Streetcar Named Desire: “There’s nothing about me that’s like Stanley Kowalski – I absolutely hate that person and I couldn’t identify with him.” On Candy: “Probably the worst movie I’ve ever made in my life, Candy. How can you do that to yourself? Haven’t you got any fucking pride left?” We learn that Last Tango in Paris was a film that Bertolucci intended to be about Brando himself – a man who protects his privacy.
What comes across time and again, particularly at the time of his son’s trial for murder and Cheyenne Brando’s suicide, is his extreme shyness and sensitivity. One expression of his rejection of the brutal side of American life was his support of Martin Luther King and the black rights’ movement. Another was his passion for the peace-loving people of Tahiti, initially stirred by looking at library pictures of Tahitians when he was “entranced by their faces, unmanaged faces – that’s where I want to go, that’s where I want to be”. He realised this dream during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty (a film he hated, though his Mr Christian is a delight). This, like so much in his life, comes across as a reaction against his hard, unloving father.
Some more great quotes from the audio tapes:
“You’ve got to be somebody. If you’re not anybody, you’ve committed a sin. And you’re on a goat trail, way out on your own.”
“The neurotic individual’s entire self-esteem shrinks to nothing if he does not receive admiration. To be admired and to be respected is a protection against helplessness and against insignificance. Because he is continually sensing humiliations, it will be difficult for him to have anyone as a friend.”
“The greatest fear an actor has is fear – how you’re going to be judged.”
“Life will have given me the truth, and taken in exchange what’s left of my youth.”
“It took me a while to realise. Unless we look inwards we will never be able to see clearly outwards.”
“I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on psychoanalysis. And those guys do nothing but stick pliers and screwdrivers in your brain.”
“Acting is just making stuff up but that’s OK. Life is a rehearsal, life is an improvisation. I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, six feet under. So that when I wake up in there I can say ‘do it differently’.”
As is well known, acting became a burden for him: “I’ve taken too many punches. I don’t want to be stressed any more.” In his later film appearances – notable principally for their handsome remuneration – he didn’t even learn the script, relying instead on cue cards or a pocket recorder feeding the lines into his ear. Had it not been for Tahiti and the Tahitians, and what they represented for him, he would have given in to blanket disenchantment. For a man who locked the door to his inner life, these audio tapes – and Riley’s use of them – open it up to an extent that is rare in any biographical documentary.
Love and Mercy (2014) is all about Brian Wilson, the genius behind the falsetto wunderkinder. The true story of how they hit on the falsetto route to celebrity is not explained, but otherwise well-known. Wikipedia can outline his descent from musical genius to paranoid and depressive states better than I can. This film focuses on his relationship with a former beauty queen and car salesroom person whom he fell for when he was washed up and unforgiven, and how she extracted him from the grip of a dominating and malevolent group of people who sought to make money out of their guardianship of him.
The young Wilson is played by the very versatile actor Paul Dano (excellent also in the recent movie Youth) and, older and haggard and world-weary, by the wonderful John Cusack. The chief manipulator is Paul Giamatti. Elizabeth Banks is absolutely perfect, in every gesture – every movement of doubt, or attraction – in her role as his heart’s elected.
I have no idea how close this film is to the real story, though my personal fact checks suggest pretty close. In itself, it is a great film – the cinematography is not startling, but, to the eagle eye, subtle and compelling.
This is a movie about a man who is still alive. I wonder what he thinks of it?
I was gripped – it had a true story to tell, with great studio scenes (clearly well-researched) showing Wilson’s creativity with studio musicians, and a very sensitive treatment of the love life that saved him, a woman who was not just seeking connection with one of history’s greats but truly connected with everything that was weak and- through weakness – strong in the man. It joins my list of authentic recent American biopic movies – i.e. films that forgo formulaic emotional taps for an approach that respects the subject and the reality of what that person experienced.
It made me think of Deliverance, of Chinatown, of Bonnie and Clyde – of the very best American crime stories. And yet, who has ever heard of it? Another minor masterpiece that has slipped off the radar or never appeared on it. And yet everything about it is perfect – the cinematography, the story (a woman who writes to a convicted murderer in prison and believes she loves him, but is secretly loved by someone else), the script, the acting – everything. It has a truly star cast – Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, True Detective), Nicole Kidman – not her first role as a Southern slut – Zac Efron and John Cusack.
In my part-time mission to save neglected masterpieces from oblivion, I have found a new cause. Lee Daniels, the director, is a black American, and I haven’t seen his other movies (The Butler most recently), but I will soon.
So many movies I’ve viewed recently are just dull fodder for dead minds. This one is head and shoulders above them all. Everything about it is convincing and naturalistic. The story of interwoven, cross-cutting and internecine romantic obsessions. Amazing.
Back in Touraine after a stint in Paris, this short film is a riff on the Paris-country push-me-pull-you, something I know a little bit about… It may seem a bit biased, because it is. You just have to say “Champs Elysées” to a Parisian and they say “La plus belle avenue du monde !” Excuse me, but it’s just a luxury shopping precinct arranged in a straight line. And since 13 November, if you carry a bag you can expect to have it turned inside out at every shop.
The charms of ne0-ruralism is another thing, and a subject I shall return to. In the meantime, if you want to see this profound, game-changing cinematographic oeuvre – click here!
Today, 1 December 2015, Geraldine and I are in Paris. This morning we went for an hour’s walk through our arrondissement, the 11th – the district that bore the brunt of the terrorist attacks on November 13th. The memorials remain – a photo on a door, showing the young woman who lived at that address, killed at the Bataclan – and there are many signs of heightened security, such as patrols of heavily armed police at sensitive spots. But the hardy Parisians are back in business, and back on the café terraces. During that hour’s walk, I filmed anything and everything that caught my attention and put those adventitious glimpses together, in chronological order, to make a short film, accompanied by a 1949 Francis Lemarque song, À Paris.
Click here to watch the film on YouTube.
The other day, my daughter – Lizzie – asked me to recommend films that address the subject of acting, and the rapport between actors and directors, in movies. I gave her a long list, but top of that list was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
This extraordinary 1968 docu-drama is in two parts, “Take 1” and “Take 2 and a half”, with over 30 years elapsing between the two. It is the work of African-American director William Greaves (1926-2014) and consists of a screen test in Central Park. Several different couples are screen tested, with a first film crew filming them, a second film crew filming the first film crew filming them, and a third film crew filming not only the second crew filming the first film crew filming them, but also anything that happens around the screen test, involving for example curious passers-by – including one delightful intervention by a highly educated homeless man.
The curious title comes from a social science philosopher, Arthur Bentley, who coined the term symbiotaxiplasm to describe all events that human beings are involved in, affecting their character and environment. William Greaves added the “psycho” for mental mechanisms involved in creative processes. The film also owes something to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Stanislavsky, Chaos Theory, mysticism and – well, the 1960s…
Fundamentally, it is about how actors and directors work together – with the added bonus that in 1968 the technical crew mutinied, rebelling against William Greaves whom they considered totally incompetent, and filming their mutinous discussions to add to the debate – confirming the hypothesis that “everybody wants to be a director”. It has also been called “a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavours” and, by Steven Soderbergh – largely responsible for saving the film from oblivion – “the ultimate reality piece”.
In the second “take”, two of the actors and the director and crew get together over 30 years later – a touching encounter, seeing how everyone has changed – and shoot a sequel screen test, again in Central Park, after a showing of “Take 1”. The two films were first screened in 2001.
Even if this metatextual “happening” idea does not appeal to you, it is great fun watching people interacting back in 1968 – nearly half a century ago. Everyone smokes, and the attitudes seem at once modern and dated, by turn. The Actor’s Studio cast show just how varied the same scene – a woman suspecting her boyfriend/husband of being homosexual – can be played. In its way, it is a kind of Master Class.
Last night, a vernissage was held for a new exhibition of photo-montages by members of the Caméra Photo Club du Lochois (CPCL) in the Loches Hôtel de Ville, a beautiful 16th-century building that is part of the Porte Picois, one of the ancient fortified gates of the town. Click here for an article (in French) about this exhibition from La Nouvelle République. The main reception room of the Hôtel de Ville (see photo above, with the President of the CPCL, Didier Gosselin, addressing the assembly) has been wallpapered in red tartan in preparation for the upcoming twinning of Loches with Saint Andrews in Scotland.
The CPCL has been going for half a century and is very active on all fronts. Some years ago, it received a donation of wooden boxes which, upon being opened, revealed a historical treasure: over 200 glass-plate stereoscopic images of Loches dating from 1908 to 1921 – intended for viewing with a wooden handheld stereoscope – showing views of daily life in the town, the local countryside, the flooding of the river Indre, gymnastic events, early automobiles, military manoeuvres, and much more. Putting over 1,000 man-hours into the enterprise, the CPCL took digital scans of the images and painstakingly restored them. The result is a unique archive, a 3D DVD (3D glasses provided) that transports you straight into the past, a century ago.
This is early 20th-century Oculus Rift, the dawn of virtual reality, and time travel rolled into one. The DVD, “Loches à la Belle Epoque”, is a unique example of how a local photo club can bring the past to life for the whole local community.
It’s now a more or less open secret in earnest cultural circles that I’m about to make inroads into film-making, so the moment has come to declare an interest in order to pre-empt any accusations of plagiarism. The film I adore, and would love to have made, is My Winnipeg (2007). The director and writer, Guy Maddin, has achieved the impossible.
Mr Maddin blends autobiography and factual or fictional statements about his home town, turning it into one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a visual vernacular all of his own. It is unfettered delirium, pure surrealism, verbal and ocular poetry of the highest order, every black and white edge-blurred scene fuzzed with snow. And over it all presides his overwhelming, sinister mother, with her fear of birds and grapnel-like clutch on him and his siblings.
The silent movie-style filming, interleaved with shadowplay animation, the refusal to allow any distinction between reality, memory, dream and fantasy, the euphoric humour, the melodramatic voice-over that pulls all the drawstrings to give the whole credibility – this is what film-making was once, and should always be. Where else does one find anything like this, except perhaps in the hands of the Soviet director Dziga Vertov, possibly one of Maddin’s inspirations? I could go on, but everything you might want to know about where this movie came from is online.
They call it a “mockumentary” or a “docu-fantasia”. It is a grid of a secret city, right on top of the named one. It is the portrait of a place that nobody would have thought deserved a portrait. a hymn to the unbridled soarings of the parochial imagination. It is about someone desperate to leave Winnipeg, but psychologically hamstrung and unable to do so. This is the most gorgeously wild hallucination I’ve ever seen. It shows how the language of film can be appropriated to uses that no-one thought possible. Forget Bunuel. Meet Mr Maddin. There are no easy pigeon-holes for this sort of thing. It is art, artifice, parody, beauty, seriousness, frivolity, illusions, delusions and reverie, all rolled into one glorious whole.