Thing I Read Off The Screen in The French Connection
SHOE SERVICE for flatfeet.
In a creative solution to a scheduling issue, William Friedkin appeared at Filmhouse to talk about his career the day BEFORE Edinburgh International Film Festival launched with his new movie KILLER JOE. This year the Festival has soft edges — it starts before it starts, and it goes on after it finishes, via the La Cava retrospective which runs on into July. Six films in the fest, and six after.
Plot: Fernando Rey basically smuggles into the states a Lincoln Continental made of heroin. When I’m as rich as Fernando Rey I will drive a Sherman Tank made of marzipan.
Counter-plot: a friend says she first saw the film while slightly stoned (ironically, perhaps) and it seemed to consist purely of random men following each other about. Which is what it seemed like to me when I saw it as a kid. Theory: being a kid = being stoned all the time.
Sub-plot: today the film seems incredibly tight, linear and pretty logical, apart from the car chase. This has been cleverly stapled into the surrounding narrative (which is fact-based, unlike the El-train pursuit) but you can still see the staples.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a shot-on-the-streets kind of thing, which means that reality is constantly commenting on the action. My eye goes to signs and seeks meaning. Rather than a director’s commentary, the film features a running commentary by Brooklyn itself.
IMAGINATIVE FRAMING reads one sign, moments before Friedkin shoots Fernando Ray reflected in two mirrors. Also, DO NOT PARK, one of countless state injunctions, the ten thousand commandments of urban living, which poke their heads into the film like pop-up ads.
The Siamese Connection! (can you read the sign, lower right?) I dunno what DORAL, or is it BORAL PARKING is all about.
Friedkin talked about how all actors are different and require different approaches — some may need “the utmost gentleness,” some require ferocity. Somehow, all of his stories seem to involve the ferocious approach. Gene Hackman had trouble finding his character’s aggression, so Friedkin provoked him into a state of fury for the entire shoot. I felt sorry for the actor playing the hood that Popeye Doyle slaps around — fifty takes, because Friedkin wasn’t satisfied by his star’s level of viciousness.
Given that Friedkin slapped a Catholic priest when making THE EXORCIST, and a death row inmate while making THE PEOPLE VS PAUL CRUMP, I have to fight the suspicion that Friedkin became a filmmaker in order to slap people.
EYVAN PERFUMES — AIRBORNE
Fiona asked if W.F. was influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s techniques of working with actors. He said he wasn’t, but he immediately knew what she meant. “I’ve heard he was tough on actors, but I don’t have any evidence of that.” We do!
LE DERNIER CRI
Friedkin is a practiced, glib and funny talker, so the session flew past. At 76 he’s still full of beans, and probably piss and vinegar too, but he was charm itself in Edinburgh. He talked about the recalled Blu-ray of FRENCH CONNECTION and how something went wrong in the one part of the process he didn’t check… hard to believe that a control freak like Friedkin could make such a slip. Some suspect that he radically revised the look of the film, then changed his mind when the response was bad. Certainly he should have involved cinematographer Owen Roizman in the process. But the movie looked great on the big screen, now that the extreme revision of the original look has been adjusted to give a more authentic 1970s appearance.
SQUIBBS MINERAL OIL
The climax of the film takes place in a blasted landscape where no text survives… Friedkin was vociferous in his denunciation of modern comic book and video game inspired movies, but the pealing paint and crumbling masonry of THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s last sequence feel like something video games are now trying to achieve — that pervasive sense of decay. They haven’t quite gotten there yet.
The final onscreen writing in the film is the summary of what happened to the characters afterwards. The cops are punished and the guilty get off. The film may be inspired by a true story, but it hasn’t explicitly said so yet, so this is a left-field move in a film full of narrative surprises. Friedkin’s best dramas move like documentaries and his documentaries move like dramas (although there’s another strand to his work which is unashamedly theatrical, from THE BIRTHDAY PARTY to KILLER JOE). This end note, which affects a purely factual, neutral tone, actually tips the film’s hand somewhat. While casually showing the cops’ racism and obnoxious qualities, the movie has successfully balanced between a cool, telling-it-like-it-is distance and a more involved, propulsive story where we root for the goodies against the baddies. No political view on the “war on drugs” is offered. But the ending takes us into conservative values, and the DIRTY HARRY sense of alarm that criminals sometimes have lawyers who sometimes get them off. But, since this is a Hollywood movie, we’re still free to look at it another way — all this effort to arrest traffickers and seize drug hauls is a futile waste. Friedkin’s misanthropic nihilism is happy to be taken either way.