How Big Can You Get?

FACES PLACES (12A) 2017 France 94mins. Directors: Agnès Varda and JR.

Just when you despair that maybe film can only do one thing, and that not a thing which seems to be the most important thing in our times of rampaging isolation and loneliness (speak for yourself), along comes a film from someone, a person indistinguishable from the nouvelle vague, a person you would have thought most likely to be focussed on the inner life, who comes up with a film which gives an answer to the question: if not that, what?

How can film turn its attention away from the inner life, from the great turning inwards that seems to characterise our benighted age, and look toward something outside, something larger, something which connects rather than isolates? Can image be put to such a use? Or are images, as the situationists contended, fundamentally destructive to society? Are we doomed to live vicariously, forever playing our own film on the inside screen of our mind’s eye?

Agnès Varda and JR (not Ewing) tour the French countryside in JR’s especially kitted out van, searching for likely subjects, people in their location, in their milieu, where they maybe interact or make a difference, where there is some kind of connection to the larger story of place.

JR’s van is a reverse or anti-photo booth, in the sense that it is a photo booth but rather than the result being a tiny, passport size or slightly larger, picture, it prints out gigantic, enormous images, pictures the size of the side of a house or even the size of dozens of shipping containers stacked on top of each other. This isn’t exactly a simple thing, either technically or in terms of person-power (JR seems to have a large team in the background) but the result is wonderful. People scaled up to a size suggestive of their true place in the scheme of things.

JR is a man who wears sunglasses, at all times, and there is an ongoing gag, a sort of needling relationship between Agnès and these glasses, which is resolved in a very satisfying way. I say no more, other than it suggests a kind of renunciation, or rethinking perhaps, of those ideas to which she ascribed in the ‘60s, in the mythic days of the Left Bank.

This is an unusual, but very satisfying, and funny film; a kind of exclamation mark writ large to an historic moment in film culture.

Paul Corcoran

Drama Turned Inward

A MASTER BUILDER (12) 2014 USA 122mins, from a play by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Wallace Shawn, directed by Jonathan Demme, with Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory made two films with the French director, Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street; A Master Builder (with different director) completes a kind of trilogy, an exploration of sorts of their relationship and obsessions, both together and severally. There is a progression: in the first film, set in a restaurant, Andre Gregory is a theatre director, urbane, educated, dissatisfied, searching for truth; Shawn is an actor, inquisitive, in need of a good meal (which he gets), eloquent, individual, thoughtful, concerned. Both have a sly sense of humour, an intent in the direction of self-parody. By the film under review, Shawn has graduated to master (the eponymous Master Builder) and Gregory represents the older generation (the architect surpassed), cast off, disregarded, treated with disdain. There is still the sense that they are taking the whole thing with a grain of salt, that the overall project is to prick the bubble of self-aggrandisement, to make somewhat ridiculous the whole idea of presenting the theatre as a realm of personal exploration, personal affirmation.

There’s no doubt that My Dinner with Andre has entered the pantheon of films which everyone (everyone who is interested in film maybe) has heard of, if not seen. It’s a kind of post ‘60s hippy-ish exploration, to exhaustion, of the idea that creativity is all about the search for one’s inner life. In Andre Gregory’s case, his search extends to a theatrical guru, Jerzy Grotowski, Polish and famous, again in certain circles, for his explorations in the fields of ‘Poor Theatre’ and ‘Holy Theatre’, concepts made widespread by another theatrical saint, Peter Brook, in his book, The Empty Space. (Who cares about this stuff, you may well ask?)

Theatricality, the word, the concept, doesn’t really have a good press. If there’s one connecting theme or spirit in all three films, it’s an attempt to undercut the very idea of theatricality, to make theatre everyday, accessible (the word du jour), not highfalutin. Wallace Shawn, in his quiet way, is a familiar face and voice (though most people wouldn’t recognise his name) in many popular films, Toy Story, for example, despite his background as almost New York royalty (his father edited The New Yorker magazine for many years).

So, A Master Builder: Ibsen, just as Chekhov as discussed re. The Seagull, was writing in a time when what we would call melodrama was the style du jour. In other words, the theatre was a place where audiences were accustomed to a certain exaggerated method of expression. Film hadn’t yet been invented. There was no such thing as a ‘close up’. Exaggeration was another way of saying ‘this is for everyone, this is how we relate to each other, this is a picture of our society’. It was external, ‘out there’ as it were, the opposite of an inner, contained, life.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, in these films, seem to be searching for a way to make theatre, theatricality, acceptable for these times. A Master Builder is presented as taking place entirely inside the mind of the dying architect. The exhortation to idealism, which takes theatrical form in the original, is presented on film as an inner morality, an inner search for the sublime.

As much as I have enjoyed all three of these films, there is an unresolved conflict, a sense perhaps that no one involved really knows the answer to the burning question: how do we deal with the great issues of the day when the only thing on offer is to look inward, that the answer, if it doesn’t lie inside, where does it lie? We as filmmakers know there’s a problem but we have no idea how to confront it. I guess that’s really what gives these films their charm, their honesty.

Paul Corcoran

A Master of Over-Statement

FILM: THE SEAGULL (12A) 2018 USA 98mins, from the play by Anton Chekhov, screenplay by Stephen Karam, directed by Michael Mayer, with Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy.

It’s kind of a relief to write about a film like The Seagull because you don’t have to worry about spoilers. Everyone knows the story, or mostly everyone, and even if you don’t the fun is in the details rather than worrying about what happens next.

That said, the problem which then appears is that much of the joy and humour in Chekhov is the way his characters sit around all day talking but never really get down to doing much and film is, unfortunately and as we all know, not really a talking medium. It’s a truism that it does visuals best, so what you get, drama-wise, is both concentrated and diluted at the same time. Lots of the dialogue is excised but there’s some very pretty scenery.

And just as it’s true of Ibsen (see A Master Builder), Chekhov is from a tradition of melodrama, of exaggeration, of hyperbole. He’s a master of the over-statement. In fact, all the talking is what connects the characters, what they have in common. And it’s what connects us to them. We love their exaggerated self-pity, their concerted attempts at unhappiness. That’s what creates community, a shared experience. There’s nothing like a bit of grumbling to pass the time.

But once you focus all this down to a kind of dialogue which gets on with things, which is about momentum, progress, transaction, then you end up with something completely different. Characters no longer talk just for the sake of talking. They talk with an end, a result in mind. They want something specific. You end up with a film about the inner life; the inner life of a particular character, not the outer life of a group of characters, all trying to get along, to connect.

This is now a reflexive choice. It seems impossible for film to do anything else. All we, as an audience, look for is inner life. What is that person thinking? What are they feeling? What do they want? This is very limiting, and not at all in the spirit of the original play.

And this isn’t to say the film isn’t well acted. It is, in the sense that we are privy to the characters’ inner lives. But what’s missing is the sense that all the characters have their own lives in their community. What’s lost is what connects them, externally, rather than simply as an expression of one particular character’s inner life. This is Chekhov so of course there are flashes, moments where the original tapestry can be glimpsed, but once again a kind of reflexive idea of what constitutes a film takes over, submerges, what is a great play.

Paul Corcoran