The '68 Comeback Special: The Confrontation

If you're just tuning in, the inestimable David Cairns (who, it must said, is currently kicking ass on the festival circuit with his new film Natan) and I have been tagteaming everything that should have played the 1968 Cannes Film Festival. I realize I've lately made a bit of a blunder. When David posted his latest, on Frank Perry's Trilogy, I was so wrapped up in his description and so caught up in remembering its haunting details that I forgot to mention it here. Naturally I feel like a cad of the highest order, but I do hope he feels comforted by the fact that his words moved me into a place of deep thought and melancholic reflection and that he can forgive my slip-up! As he points out Trilogy's a very interesting film, if not always quite as successful as its best moments. If Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood are the two poles, so to speak, of Truman Capote adaptations Trilogy sits square in the middle. Deeply uncomfortable and darkly funny, Capote seems to be getting out all his issues with middle aged women. Perry's direction is claustrophobic and nerve wracking; you expect it to become Night of the Living Dead any second. In terms of extreme humiliation and bad behavior it's almost the more upsetting film. 

There were many films at Cannes that year that share thematic and/or tonal similarities and it would probably smart if I chose one, but, heck, I'm in the mood to be contrary today. So I'm going to continue my Hungarian streak and look at the other Miklós Jancsó film that playd Cannes that year. The Red & The White is justly lauded and might be the most visible high of a quite brilliant director's career. The phenomenon of directors having minor works is fairly new, if I'm not mistaken. It's easy to look at the work of prolific directors like Joe Swanberg, Steven Soderbergh, Takashi Miike or Hong Sang-Soo and figure out which films have a little less to offer to anyone who isn't already a committed fan. Auteurists could look at the career of Roman Polanski or Orson Welles and figure out which does less for them (Speaking for myself Pirates and The Immortal Story) but at the time they must have struck the public as either huge embarrassments or imperative pieces of an ongoing narrative. Digital film has allowed many directors to work faster and endless availability of work has allowed us to much more quickly sum up a career because you could, if you knew how, find and watch everything by any director with a manageable filmography in 24 hours. Judgments about a work's impact and context become easier, in theory anyway, today than they were when any given New Wave was cresting. 

Which brings us to The Confrontation or Fényes Szelek, what could be called a minor work in Jancsó's canon. It's easier to call it minor in direct comparison to The Red & The White, which stages combat with the same rigorousness that Andrei Tarkovsky and Akira Kurosawa brought to their epics, but with a kind of discipline neither stuck to. The Red & The White has the same weight and depth as Seven Samurai or Andrei Rublev, but at half their running time. The key: his unbelievably choreographed long takes. That said, application makes a difference. A film about student debates is just not going to feel as sturdy or "important" as a film about the Russian Civil War. And I don't think that should matter but Jancsó was clearly not trying to change the world with The Confrontation, and it felt like he was with The Red & The White. First of all the characters don't make the individual impressions of the interchangeable soldiers of his war film and it would read like a flaw except he clearly designed it this way. The films are variations on a theme: ultimately we stop being individuals when we form a mob or an army. In The Red & The White that's a bad thing, in The Confrontation it's ok, if never quite good. Or rather because the point of the film is student revolutionaries trying to get the young members of a religious order to defect, it highlights the individual by showing the differences in the mobs and allowing them to advance and retreat when necessary but there are still no victors. It's a compassionate way to make sense of the kind of thing that filled TV screens throughout the 60s. It's a riot without violence, a march that turns into a celebration, an argument where everyone is heard and respected. In other words a fantasy. 

The film makes resplendent use of long takes, filled with many, many reveals and reversals and as always making complete use of the very edge of the frame. Jancsó turns every location into a broadway-sized stage for his characters to sing and dance upon when they aren't pursuing their somewhat oblique political agenda. When the young communists are met with resistance from the head of the school they've infiltrated, any of its students or the local police, they dance and sing protest songs to rouse them and distract. It's a lively and vital film. The subject matter and light tone suggest a diversion along the lines of Marco Bellocchio's playful, superior contribution to the omnibus film Love And Anger. There is the wonder of discovery about the piece. At points I found myself rubbing my eyes like a cartoon character witnessing a miracle, not simply because the film bursts with the indelible and ineffable, but because I'd never been told by anyone to watch it before! Those luscious, endless shots (the film unfolds more or less in real time) must have taken quite a lot of planning but still feel entirely off-the-cuff, making Jancsó the only company Theo Angelopoulos has in the realm of naturalist modernism (the students even do the same Greek dance that the newlyweds celebrate with in future Palme d'Or winner Eternity And A Day!). The use of colour (his first) is nearly as revelatory as Bertolucci's or Antonioni's virginal efforts. His camera stands a safe distance away from many of its characters for much of the film so their brightly coloured clothes become the way we tell them apart, which makes me think that somebody must have been a Nicholas Ray fan. A revisit to Johnny Guitar reveals a tense, real-time opening stretch filled with flamboyant colors where everyone is shouting to be heard in a stand-off with no clear winners. So not only is he a singular voice, he's a cinephile to boot. Why in heavens don't we talk about this fellow more often?
The images are so sharp and vibrant that they might have been shot yesterday, whereas The Red & The White, like Seven Samurai or Andrei Rublev, looks purposely ancient and timeless. They're supposed to look like wood carvings come to life, whereas The Confrontation feels like it's being painted before our eyes. Jancsó pushed into a new era in just a few months and for his trouble he remains the only director to have two films in competition in the same year. How was anyone supposed to compete with that? Maybe that's secretly the reason they closed the festival. Someone made a blunder on the selection committee and they needed to cover it up but quick. It's almost stupid enough to be true. Almost...

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