Archive for Max Von Sydow

Watching and Waiting: Desert of the Tartars

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2014 by dcairns

A regular contributor to the blogathon, Judy Dean, tackles a true late masterpiece for us this year.

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“I have made eight films, and these have a common theme, which is that life has no aim other than to watch itself go by. Force of illusion cannot sustain us, for there’s no idealism strong enough… But we’re not talking about a tragedy, merely a sadness… “ (Valerio Zurlini, 1926 – 1982)

Nothing illustrates this statement more effectively than Zurlini’s last film, Desert of the Tartars, made in 1976.  Adapted from the 1940 novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English under the title The Tartar Steppe), it is set in the late 19th century and tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, an idealistic young army officer setting out for his first posting to an isolated frontier fort.

He explains on arrival that he has been assigned to the fort by mistake and wishes to apply for a transfer but is persuaded, in the interests of his career, to stay for two months.  Caught up in a web of surreal Catch 22–like bureaucracy, and clinging to the vain hope that one day there will be an attack on the fort and his dreams of military action will be realised, Drogo’s two months turn into twenty years.

Buzzati, an Italian journalist, said that “the idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night shift I was working on at Corriere della Sera in those days.  It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly.  It’s a common enough feeling, I think, for most people.”

Indeed it is.  You may not be a soldier, you may not be young, or male, but if you have ever begun a job with high hopes only to find yourself sometime later trapped by inertia, by familiar routine, aware your life is slipping away but apparently powerless to prevent it, then you will find Drogo’s situation all too familiar.

The novel, described as a surrealist masterpiece and most often compared to Kafka and Orwell, became an international best seller and several major directors, including Visconti, Lean and Antonioni, expressed an interest in adapting it for the screen.  However, the film rights were held by Jacques Perrin, the young French actor who had appeared in two of Zurlini’s early features – Girl with a Suitcase (1961) and Family Portrait (1962) – and when, in the seventies, he got together the financial backing, Perrin turned to the man he regarded as his mentor.  Perrin took the lead role as well as co-producing while Zurlini directed and is also credited with the Italian dialogue.

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To play Drogo’s fellow officers an extraordinary international and multi-lingual cast was assembled. The characters portrayed by Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant depict different responses – ennui, stoicism, delusion, fanaticism – to the tedium of a military routine that is punctuated only by false alarms and dashed hopes.  How the casting was achieved is not entirely clear.  Was Zurlini’s reputation among actors riding high at the time?  Perrin’s character has much of the screen time and this illustrious group is given little to work with, but does so supremely well.  Trintignant, for example, playing the garrison doctor, has about four lines of dialogue and Fernando Rey, an ageing Colonel, none at all.  Did some end up on the cutting room floor?  Who knows?  If only we had a director’s cut.

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Two lesser known actors make striking contributions.  Laurent Terzieff, primarily a stage actor, plays Count von Amerling, a sickly Lieutenant, whose treatment at the hands of the sadistic Major Matti results in his death. Terzieff has as few lines as other cast members, but his face alone ought to ensure his place in the annals of cinema.

Major Matti is played by Giuliano Gemma, a former stunt man and better known at the time for sword and sandals epics, but whose performance here was to earn him a Donatello Award.

But it is not the performances, excellent though they are, for which this film is remembered, but its setting, one of the most dramatic – and ultimately tragic – in film history.

Drogo’s nationality is never made explicit, and the uniforms give nothing away.  Some commentators have assumed the fort to be located on the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that is surely too literal an interpretation.  The film starts conventionally enough with Drogo leaving his small-town home, having bid farewell to his mother and fiancée, and setting out on horseback across green meadows.  He says to his companion, a fellow cadet who has come to see him off, that he doesn’t know what the fort looks like, only that it is distant.  In the next shot he is traversing a featureless, rock-strewn desert of a kind unknown in Europe to the accompaniment of an eerie Morricone score.  Clearly, this will not be the standard military adventure the title sequence leads us to expect.

Zurlini, a passionate art collector and student of art history, is reported to have been inspired, in his search for the right location for the fort, by this painting of Giorgio Chirico entitled La Torre Rosso.

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But elsewhere, the choice is said to have been determined by incentives offered to filmmakers at the time by the pre-revolutionary government of Iran.  As one of Perrin’s co-producers is Bahman Farmanara, who went on the following year to produce Kiarostami’s first feature, this may well be the case.  Whatever lay behind it, the final choice was stunningly effective.  The film was shot in the magnificent citadel of Bam in South-East Iran, close to the Afghan border.  A Silk Road fortress, dating to the 5th century BC, Bam was the largest adobe complex in the world, covering an area of more that 180,000 square metres and surrounded by seven-metre high walls.

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It’s necessary to use the past tense because in 2003 the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake in which many thousands in the city lost their lives.  The film has therefore become a poignant reminder of its former glory.  Bam is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the current regime in Iran, with international aid, is undertaking restoration work but its long-term future is far from secured.

The film achieved some commercial and critical success in Europe, especially in Italy where in 1977 it won Donatello awards for Best Film and Best Director (as well as Giuliano Gemma’s aforementioned acting prize), but it was never released in the USA.

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Zurlini committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 56, possibly as a result of financial and alcohol problems.  Here’s what Claudia Cardinale who appeared in Girl with a Suitcase said of him in an NFT interview in 2003.  “He was a wonderful director and a man of great refinement.  His apartment in Rome was full of wonderful paintings.  We became close friends; he gave me one of his paintings after that film.  Then one day in 1981, he invited me to his apartment in Rome.  When I got there the place was bare.  Everything sold.  There were only packing cases.  He ordered in a gourmet meal and we ate it off packing cases.  Then he went to his home in Venice (sic) and killed himself.”  (Other sources give his place of death as Verona.)

Never as well known outside of Italy as he deserved, Zurlini’s reputation went into a decline following his death, but despite something of a revival in the past decade, thanks to DVD releases and retrospectives, there is still a dearth of information about him (at least in English) and you will search in vain for his name in the reference books.  A re-evaluation is long overdue.

My thanks go to Rolland Man of the University of Edinburgh on whose recommendation I first saw this superb film.

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by dcairns

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How do you cast Jesus? It seems a difficult thing to do. Paul Schrader pointed out that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST attempted something quite rare — most Christfilms tend to take a view which is actually, according to church doctrine, somewhat blasphemous — they portray Jesus as a wholly divine figure, walking about in human drag. This is apparently far more acceptable to the faithful than going the other way and showing him as entirely human. Schrader’s script favours a reading of Jesus as a man in some way directly connected to the divine consciousness, and the subsequent movie attracted quite a lot of criticism.

Traditional movie messiahs, from H.B. Warner to Max Von Sydow, haven’t really been very human at all (though only Jim Caviezel’s has reduced him to a literal slaughtered lamb, a dumb animal) — devoid of humour, flaws or convincing uncertainty, they seem to be already in possession of the full script. They embody the problem of the Movie Messiah: we all know the story.

Nick Ray, when casting I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS KING OF KINGS, actually considered Max Von Sydow for the part — but he probably wouldn’t have had the clout to pursue such an audacious call, as George Stevens did. This does suggest that for any generation, the number of options is surprisingly limited — unless you’re Pier Paolo Pasolini and you’re looking outside of Central Casting altogether.

The following are just some random thoughts on actors who might have brought something more interesting to the role.

John Garfield. Firstly, I’m sick of fair-haired Christs. Can’t we have an authentically Jewish King of the Jews for once? Moviemakers seem under the spell of an unspoken assumption that since Jesus was the son of God, a cuckoo laid in the nest of a Jewish handyman, he himself was gentile. (Shades of the WWI draft board chairman who remarked “Jesus Christ was British to the core!”) It’s a sinister, unquestioned and fascinating prejudice that creeps into nearly all mainstream depictions of the Lamb of God.

Garfield would not only have given us a Jewish Jesus, but a really angry one. Which might help Mel Gibson get over his spluttering outrage — I think he’d be down with the idea of a kick-ass Christ. (Suggested caption for the last shot of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: “He’s back. And he’s mad.”) True passion is something Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sideboard seemed unable to really handle or suggest in the role, so Garfield’s trademark intense outrage would be welcome.

A Jewish Jesus might seem outrageous to some, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. Jesus was born in the Middle East, of Middle-Eastern parents (I’m not sure how God affects the genetic mix, but find the Hollywood assumption that he’d pass on light hair and blue eyes rather offensive). I can’t think of any true Israeli movie stars offhand, but if you wanted somebody more ethnically correct than Jeffrey of Louisiana or Max of Lund, you should probably think Omar Sharif. Who would bring a sunny (as opposed to Sunni), sexy and laid-back charm to the part. You can’t say that wouldn’t be at least interesting

I don’t see why you couldn’t be Muslim and play Jesus, just as I don’t see why you have to be Christian to do it — acting is an exercise of the imagination, and the only limit is within the actor’s mind. For that reason I’d also like to see basketball star turned actor Kareem-Abdul Jabbar play the part, just so he can be the only Jesus who, when suspended from the cross, still has his feet on the ground.

The other guys who seem like good casting, in a Mel Gibson kind of way, are John Barrymore and Marlon Brando, because they both loved to suffer. Gibson’s godawful film did seek to correct one major flaw in most New Testament adaptations, which is that Christ never seems to be in any real pain. He just looks a bit sad, as if God was sparing him the physical agony of being nailed up, speared etc. This would seem to defeat the whole point of the sacrifice (whatever the point is — it never made sense to me). Gibson’s problem, arguably, is that he got a bit carried away with this idea. His Jesus does nothing BUT suffer.

Incidentally, you know the controversy around The History Channel’s The Bible, where the make-up applied to Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, playing the Devil, makes him look a bit like Barack Obama? The makeup artist and producers insist this was not their intent, which suggests a somewhat asleep-on-duty approach — aren’t you supposed to notice when your character design turns into a political cartoon? But can I point out that even if the presidential resemblance was unintentional, the fact that they’ve taken a pale-skinned Arab actor and blacked him up to play Satan is, in itself, HIGHLY DUBIOUS.

More Easter musings from 2009.

Now, who would YOU like to see playing God’s favourite revenant?

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile —

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door —

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…

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