August Newsletter: On River… and Radio Silence


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
I still haven’t watched all River Phoenix’s movies. I like the feeling that there are still movies of his I am yet to discover, that I have to wait to watch another film of his. But I have recently watched Dogfight. And I rediscovered the really good actor that he was and also the River Phoenix I would have loved to see evolve and succeed in Hollywood. He was too sensitive for it all. There was something mysterious and impenetrable about him, something quiet yet powerful that easily caught your attention and often held the screen. And he could outshine just about everyone, but really he didn’t, everyone just seemed to act better around him. A reader once wrote to me, “I know it’s easy to assume that his whole life would have been an inspiration, but with extremely talented people like him the chances of him falling to pieces were just as big.” But the thing is he did fall, and we didn’t wait a lifetime to see him fall. That is not the reason why we become so obsessed with people who die young, the reason is the realisation of how much they achieved in their short life. So I think they deserve us to celebrate their life and career they did have, without questions and assumptions and without making their death the defining moment of their life, and without imagining a future that never was.

I keep thinking about how everyone nowadays has an opinion about everything. Since when have we become such experts, especially on someone else’s life? Since everyone wants to consume everything too fast, wants to know, without really “knowing”, everything as soon as it happens. I don’t think I have appreciated quarterly, bi-annual or even yearly publications more than I do now. I seek them out (and I am recommending one further down this newsletter). I remember how photo-journalist Susana Gíron was telling me in our interview about her “90 varas” project, which she started in 2015, and she is still photographing the story. “The world goes too fast. Thousands of images around us every moment. I don´t know how big that place is for storytelling, but what I know is that I need time to tell my stories. Perhaps for many people it is too slow and they don´t enjoy the discovery of every picture when you look at it with attention. It takes time and effort, but the feedback, the kind of feeling that comes back to you is more powerful as well. I need to belong to the places and the people who live in my stories, understand them, share the life with them… I don´t know any other way to tell a story well. Good things need time. Good storytelling needs time.”

During Cannes Film Festival this year, Sebastian Meise’s film Great Freedom played in Un Certain Regard, accompanied by the official film poster, by one of my favourite film poster designers, Vasilis Marmatakis. I had talked to Vasilis before on a couple of different occasions and I reached out again to him to discuss his latest work. His answer took me by surprise, in a revelatory way. He told me that he had just given a lecture at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin and he thought best to take some time off from elaborating for now, suggesting we would postpone our conversation for later this year, when he will have new work ready. How I wish others picked their conversations and let the audience breathe and also made us make an effort and dig deeper and appreciate the waiting for something new, to wait for a new film in theaters, to wait for a new interview with a favourite artist, to really wait for the good things.

Adventures in living your life just for yourself. A little radio silence would do us all good.
 

“Well, that the style today – pipe things – can things –
freeze things – computerize things. Have to be careful
about that. You can’t develop a mind full of beauty or
tender imagination and independence of spirit tearing
along in a box without a lot of space and air.”

Katharine Hepburn, Me: Stories of My Life

 

 
 
Viewing
 
The African Queen, 1951

This week, of August 5th, marks 115 years since the birth of John Huston, one of the true storytellers in cinema. The African Queen is at its 70th anniversary this year. The inspiring pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart resulted in one of the great film classics and one we are still talking about today. And I wonder, will people still be talking about any of the movies made today, 70 years from now? Neither Bogart nor Hepburn were the first choices for their roles, but they turned out to be perfect, worked so naturally together, “they complemented each other and became the film,” is how John Huston described it. “They weren’t sure whom they were going to have for the man,” Katharine Hepburn recalled in her autobiography. “First, John felt it should be an authentic cockney. But when they began to think of Bogie, there was no one who could compete with him in personality or looks. They had him be a Canadian. Can you imagine anyone else in that part? He was perfection.” Bogie’s part was indeed different than what he had done before. Huston often said he never wrote a script with Bogie in mind but he somehow always found a way into his films. That’s what a great actor does, isn’t it? “I was sure this was actually one part of Bogart, and it took him a little time getting into it – but he found it,” Huston told Urs Egger in 1977.

As for Katharine, John Huston would fondly recount their experience working together in a Playboy interview with Lawrence Globel, from 1985: “Katie was born suspicious, and she had great reservations regarding me that she was in no pains to conceal. She knew that both Bogart and I were wastrels, but Katie has a weakness for wastrels. Spencer Tracy was also one. But we put it on for her. We pretended to be even bigger wastrels than we were.” Discussing the film with Bertrand Tavernier, Huston confessed that he had a particular tenderness for The African Queen, which he considered one of the happiest experiences – its shooting having allowed for a certain amount of improvisation and working with the most dedicated people – he had ever had, “although it is a work that feels external to me. I don’t feel like it’s one of my movies. It’s from another vein.”

Watching The African Queen, you sense that feeling of adventure that came so naturally to John Huston. Making a film was an adventure back then, especially with him, who, in contrast to Howard Hawks, for example, who was a storyteller, too, but made much more stylised films, kept everything realistic. This film is so simple, yet it feels like the greatest adventure, with these two characters who so naturally discover each other.

Dogfight, 1991

The rules of the dogfight were simple: everybody puts in fifty bucks. And the guy with the ugliest “date” wins. River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Dogfight. A love story.
 
Kiss of Death, 1947

Richard Widmark, at his debut role, as one of the most spectacular characters of villains in film history. I love how uncompromising Henry Hathaway, so comfortable in creating an underworld where violence and crooks reign, is in showing Widmark act as he does, psychotic punk that he is, no explanations, no apologies. Watching him I couldn’t help imagining him in the role of Joker, the Heath Ledger kind.
 
The Report, 1977

This was Abbas Kiarostami’s first film. His films emerged from the simplest of things, from the smallest of moments. He didn’t make up extraordinary stories and extraordinary worlds in his movies, but he looked for ordinary lives in exceptional moments, which also happens in The Report, where a tax collector is accused of taking bribe and he also has to deal with problems at home. In the simplicity of the people and in the simplicity of the dialogue, there is a deep understanding of life, that would permeate all Kiarostami’s films.
 
Key Largo, 1948, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, because this summer we are channelling their characters. When John Huston watched Key Largo for the first time years after its release, he told Barbara Thomas in 1978, “I liked the whole picture.” There is something to this film that I really love. I think it just feels very entertaining despite or maybe because of the contained, claustrophobic setting of a small hotel in Florida, and all the actors do such a fantastic job playing out their fates during a compressed period of time, during a hurricane, as contrasting characters brought together by circumstance. Raiders of the Lost Ark, which, at its 40th anniversary this year, remains for many the quintessential adventure movie, is an exercise in pure cinematic style, and has every bit of action held together by an irresistible mixture of boyish spirit and a romance with classic cinema. Drawn from forgotten Saturday matinee serials of the 30s, comics, and Howard Hawks films, Steven Spielberg created the kind of adventure he would have loved as a kid. Throughout his career, Hawks, too, had wanted “to merge his fictional ideals with his real life, a boy’s fantasy being played out every day“.
 
Jaws, 1975

A summer tradition. It never gets old. And after costume designer Justine Seymour told me how Quint’s cap inspired the wardrobe for Justin Theroux’s Ally Fox in the new adaptation of The Mosquito Coast, I was even more eager to watch it again this summer.
 

 
 
Reading

A Mano/By Hand is a beautiful short essay written during quarantine last year, where poet and publisher Nicole Cecilia Delgado (with translation by Carina del Valle Schorske) wonders how to live a life of poetry, live independently out of poetry and publishing books by hand, while living in and moving from New York City, to Mexico and then Puerto Rico. “This is what my daily quest is about. I’m calling up the stereotypical specter meant to scare young poets: you’re going to die of hunger. The challenge – the project – is to live with dignity, to achieve real quality of life, to create community in the process and find joy doing so. The project is to live with/in poetry: poetry is the project’s basic unity.”

In my July newsletter I wrote why Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is the film I wish I could watch for the first time in cinemas this particular summer. But because I can’t have that, the recently released novel is the next best thing.

The rest of my reading has been comprised of research material, for the most part: an amalgamation of John Huston interviews, Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall, but the one that tops it all is Bertrand Tavernier’s marvelous Amis Américains: Entretiens avec les grands auteurs d’Hollywood. This book, a beauty of a book, makes me shout with joy. It’s hands down my favourite book about film at the moment. I do believe that the French write the best books about film and their passion for cinema can hardly be equaled. And, further more, this one is the most exclusively and expressively illustrated (why so many specialty books lack proper photography, I will never understand). And because I have just mentioned Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, here are some of Bertrand Tavernier’s impressions after its release, as related in the book: “Tarantino always elicits endearing reactions, a sometimes excessive idolatry that ends up masking the depth of his work. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is an anthem to cinema, to the power of cinema. It’s a touching, warm, childish and funny tribute. Tarantino makes no distinction between the cinemas he shows: he moves away from the mainstream cinema of the time to take a loving look at the filming of a series western in a completely cheap setting. He takes his time, takes detours through dialogue, through a camera that lingers, through a cinematography that creates nuances that have become rare in today’s American cinema, à la Jackie Brown, of which Once Upon a Time often makes me think.”

I love how Dustin O’Halloran talks about his favourite films, revolving around the soundtracks and musical scores.

 

 
 
Listening

Revisiting a Fresh Air interview with Anthony Bourdain, as the new Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner, has been released. For impressions about the film, Alicia Kennedy’s opinion piece is my choice.

Entreprendre dans la mode, le podcast des industries créative et de l’art de vivre, where Adrien Garcia talks to fashion designers, entrepreneurs and the most creative people, their inspiring conversations having led to Adrien’s co-founding of his own fashion brand, RÉUNI. A good reminder of the power that comes with asking.
 
The playlist
 

 
 
Exploring

Toc Toc Toc Editions, the bi-annual independent magazine created by Sophie Denux. Born from the desire to share a certain vision of creation, of contemporary craftsmanship and its various players, TOC takes the form of an invitation to discover their world, their living spaces, their workshops, their journeys…
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Sophy Robert’s The Art of Travel. Monocle magazine, in print.

 

 

“Silence, slowness and space are the new luxury.
We go where the crowds don’t,
we explore what others won’t.”

Travel writer Debbie Pappyn and photographer David De Vleeschauwer

 

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