(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2002)
John Cassavetes made intensely personal films with a recognizable style, and he put himself on the line for his art. He turned down a lot of commercial work, allegedly including the Barbra Streisand A Star is Born. But at the end of his career, he needed money, and accepted an offer from his friend Peter Falk to take over the troubled production Big Trouble (a farce co-starring Alan Arkin, about an insurance salesman who gets caught up in a wacky fraud scheme). According to Ray Carney’s book Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he worked hard on it for a year, but the film was edited in ways he didn’t agree with (he said the only scene that reflected his wishes was a scene in which Arkin gags on Falk’s sardine-flavoured liquer). After that, Cassavetes became too ill to work any more, so Big Trouble weirdly stands as his last work.
I finally got to see it the other day. Priding myself on my Cassavetes antennae (I’ve seen Love Streams maybe five times and most of his others at least twice), I was convinced I’d sniff out some subtleties, some hidden personal touches. But the movie really is as bland as everyone says. In a few scenes, bits of behaviour are allowed to run unusually long, or there’s a particular deadpan feel to the camera work, or there’s a peculiar moroseness. I think I felt Cassavetes behind the camera at those moments, shrugging and thinking what-the-hell and letting it go a certain way. But for most of the time, he perfectly sublimated his instincts, which is presumably what he was hired to do.
Still, just the knowledge of who was behind the camera made Big Trouble far more engrossing than an off-the-shelf comedy with a lesser pedigree. It pays to know your directors. Now, a recent film presented me with a very different problem. Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is 93 years old. The Internet Movie Database lists his first film as being made in 1931. There are some big gaps in his career – nothing between 1942 and 1956. But he’s sure making up for it now – he’s made a film every year since 1990, and has another at this year’s Cannes festival.
Let me emphasize what I just said – de Oliveira is 93 years old and he’s making a movie a year. We may be in an aging society, but it’s still generally regarded as “wonderful for his age” if a 93-year-old can even string a coherent sentence together. So de Oliveira is a miracle indeed. But are the films any good? It’s hard to know – because it’s hard to get to see them. To my knowledge, they’re never shown here except at the film festival – and it’s never worked out for me to see any of them there. So the recent commercial release of his I’m Going Home marks my introduction to him.
I’m Going Home
It’s fair to assume a 93-year-old director would have established his creative personality by now. I’m Going Home feels like a summing-up; it feels self-referential. From such an aged filmmaker, it’s hard not to read the title as a metaphor for the end of a broader journey. The film supports that interpretation. Michel Piccoli stars as an esteemed actor whose wife, daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident. We don’t witness his grief directly – the film takes place mainly three months after the tragedy, as he goes about his life. He discusses new projects, reads the paper in his local café, buys new shoes, plays with his grandson, eventually accepts a new film (the director of which is played by John Malkovich). This is all presented in a very simple, elegant manner – often viewed through a window or from a distance. Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail summed it up this way: “The film’s point is, as W H Auden wrote of Breughel’s portrait of Icarus tumbling from the sky while farmers kept ploughing their fields, that the superficial business of life rolls on, while personal catastrophes happen mostly at the periphery.”
I think that is indeed the film’s point, more or less. But I was taken by Lacey’s rather strenuous importing of the Auden/Breughel reference to make his point. Lacey doesn’t indicate in the article whether he’s seen any of de Oliveira’s other work, so it’s tempting to think he hasn’t, and rather like me, he’s rather lost for a frame of reference. As such, one is drawn to read the film through whatever off-the-shelf artistic framework is handy. At various times the film’s style might remind the viewer of Angelopoulos or Chantal Akerman or Jacques Rivette or Antonioni. But maybe all I mean is that it has a manner we recognize as distinctively European and associated with a taste for restraint and ambiguity and elegant characterization (the casting of Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve and Malkovich is archetypally arthouse too). The film feels inherently ethical – Piccoli uses that word in turning down a lame-sounding action series – and the measured, poised style avoids any possible sensationalism or cheap gratification.
Among the many things I wish I knew about de Oliveira is how deep his sense of humour goes. Near the end of I’m Going Home, Piccoli accepts a part in an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses. He plays a character much younger than himself, and fails completely to make his French accent sound even remotely Irish – I found the whole thing extremely funny. The fact that Malkovich seems generally pleased with the performance, correcting words or mispronunciations here and there while letting much else go by, makes it even funnier. More broadly, de Oliveira appears to use this cultural absurdity to drive home the incoherence or absence at the centre of Piccoli’s life. This is reinforced by the way de Oliveira presents the film-making process – the action takes place off screen while the camera stares unblinkingly at Malkovich, watching, correcting, occasionally reacting.
The Carlton is to be praised (actually, barely a week goes by when the Carlton’s not worth praising for something or other) for bringing us this film. Still, seen in isolation from de Oliveira’s other work, it can hardly avoid seeming like something of a curio. At various points, we may feel that our ability to engage with it gathers strength and then recedes, but we can have little confidence in these quivering assessments. Familiarity counts for so much in cinema – so much so that a broken-backed formulaic work like Big Trouble may carry as much resonance and impact as an objectively much finer work.