Two Deaths

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

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9 Responses to “Two Deaths”

  1. When Lubitsch died someone said to Billy Wilder “No more Lubitsch” to which the great man replied “Worse — no more Lubitsch movies!” I feel the same about Roeg and Bertolucci

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Well said, David E.

  3. I think it was Wyler who gave Wilder his set-up line.

    It’s been clear for a while that there wouldn’t be more Roeg movies but I still had hopes for Bert.

    But I have a few I missed and can catch up with…

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Bertolucci had a lot of ambitious and cool projects that never came to pass: Red Harvest with Nicholson (killed thanks to Heaven’s Gate), Malraux’s Condition Humaine (turned down by the Chinese in favor of The Last Emperor), a biopic about Gesualdo di Venosa, Ann Pratchett’s Bel Canto and others. Many say that Bertolucci declined after The Last Emperor but then the same was said about Visconti after The Leopard and Visconti still turned out an autumnal masterpiece like L’Innocente at the end of his life, and stuff like The stranger which is pretty damn good. In the case of late Bertolucci…Sheltering Sky is pretty good, Little Buddha has moments of interest, The Dreamers’ main contribution is making Louis Garrel and Eva Green stars which had the side-effect of reinvigorating Philippe Garrel. His last film Me and You is a pretty sweet coda to his films but a minor work. Bertolucci was the last survivor of Italy’s golden age when he made his first films, Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, Visconti, Pasolini were all at their peak.

    My favorites of his include: Novecento, Il Conformista (maybe the coolest movie ever made), Partner, Spider’s Strategem, Last Tango in Paris, Prima della rivoluzione, The last emperor, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. Those films will survive.

  5. And Roeg burned so very brightly, from Performance through to the middle of Eureka, maybe, with flashes thereafter. Richard Lester said he was someone everybody noticed: “Watch out, we’re all going to end up working for this bastard.”

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Funny because Roeg started out working for everyone. He worked for David Lean unless I am wrong, then Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451, Lester’s Petulia, and of course he co-directed Performance with Cammell (and it’s now seen as more of a Cammell movie than a Roeg one among cinephiles). But Don’t Look Now is a wonderful movie with the best sex scene ever maybe, The man who fell to earth with Bowie (whose death seemed to herald the culling of the last three years). I saw Bad Timing earlier this year and that was interesting if not very satisfying.

  7. Bad Timing needs to be seen more than once, I can promise you that.

    Roeg shot second unit on Laurence of Arabia, was fired from being DP on Doctor Zhivago because his methods were too individual, and then shot the storm for Ryan’s Daughter, which Lean had really wanted to do himself, but couldn’t for scheduling reasons. So Lean looked at the footage and then didn’t speak to Roeg for a year — because it was too good. He’d have been furious if it had been bad, but this was much worse.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Interesting since there is a famous still of Lean beside a huge camera with production staff before a raging sea. this may have appeared in a UK film magazine MONOGRAM. It implies that Lean directed the scene.

  9. Remember, they filmed in real storms, which meant it went on for weeks. Lean no doubt got to shoot some of it, but then he had to hand it on.

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