All there is

This may well be the final entry in David Cairns epic Late Show Blogathon. It's been an immense pleasure taking part and reading all the many-splendored accounts of the final works in many an oeuvre. Take some time and read the other entries. They're fantastic!

Anger may never fade, but it does seem to dull slightly with age. We lose the energy with which we used to run around and tear everything down. Bricks get heavier to carry and we pour reasonable amounts of liquor for ourselves to sip from the bottles we used to light on fire and throw in windows. Or something like that. When I first became a committed cinephile, I fell hard for political cinema. Still love it. Still need it. It took me so long to appreciate classical cinema (I'm fairly certain that if it weren't for David's totally brilliant POV-by-POV exploration of Citizen Kane last month, I'd still wrongly think of that movie as a little too 'good' for its own good. Thanks for that by the way, Dave!) because for so many years I had incredibly harsh criteria for a movie's success. It wasn't enough to be art, it had to have something worth saying, and it needed to say it through a megaphone. Society was falling apart before our very eyes, damnit! We needed to speak up! Stand up or shut up. But that changes. You can't fully appreciate everything cinema has to offer if you never get off your soapbox. Don't you know you're blocking the projector? When I started making films myself I quickly forgot Ken Loach's statement about close-ups turning people into objects, which can be exploited and traded and killed and forgotten. I liked close-ups and I liked The Wind That Shakes The Barley. We can all just get along! Sometimes.

Film school was both the perfect and worst place to explore my conviction. I could quietly (sometimes) sneer and roll my eyes at the empty experiments of my classmates "This is your idea of art?! Upper class hackwork!" But before it ever got to that point, I had a lot of catching up to do. There was a hundred years of film I didn't know enough about. I spent a single semester at Temple University and though I was mostly terrified of the place they did have something very valuable: a library with every single Criterion DVD available for rent. I took out ten at a time, the limit, every week, and watched them all. Friends? Who needs friends? I had Salò! In my hands! To watch! Never in my life did I think I'd get to see it. It was out of print but these bastards had a copy! It for so long (well, the few years I knew about it) had felt like that jewel in any cinephile's crown. I had to wait until my roommate, an Cape Verdean engineer and athlete, was away for the night to watch it in our tiny dorm room. He had put up with Blood for Dracula. I doubt very much he'd have spoken to me again if he caught any given frame of the film's last two thirds. The film's famously tough and it rather defeated me on first viewing. Horrific, sure, but why? Two years later I'd read Gary Indiana's book and was staggered to hear him recount his history with the film. After the first time he saw it, he'd drive home by way of the same theatre every Saturday night for months and watch it....everytime. The passage stuck with even if I'm probably fucking it up. Still. Seeing it multiple times in the same month felt like torment. Was I wrong about the film? 

Of course I was. My mistake was not seeing its mise-en-scène as purposeful. I was still feeling out theory and didn't know any better. Too blinded by the inferno of grotesquery. Pasolini had fallen out of love with sensuality and the human body and the film reflects that. Sexuality is used like gunfire against a bulletproof vest. It hurts but unfortunately it's not going to kill you. Not yet. "All's good if it's excessive." And so every crime against the body imaginable is committed with false glee. The men don't even seem to really enjoy what they're doing, even though their reactions to their crimes is always a mask of elation. It's false. They can't get joy from this. They're like Pasolini, or the Italian elite whose leg he was pissing down. The joy is gone or it's imagined. No one's really happy. What we witness is Pasolini's energy being channelled into a completely new, productive direction. He was angrier than he'd ever been, his art failed him, and his rage seethes beneath every drab frame, colorless wall, every rambling, punishing monologue, every 'excessive' act of depravity. It took quite a lot to stage this anti-facist Grand Guignol, evidence that Pasolini was as passionate as he'd ever been. And then just as quickly as he'd opened this new chapter of his artistic life, it was closed for him. Murdered by a prostitute. Where else might his ambition have taken him? It's tempting to think that, like Bellocchio and Bertolucci, he would have always had some kind of support. But if we look at two of his peers, he may well have found himself resorting to a more personal form of cinema. 

The Criterion Collection released two films at almost the same time a little before I arrived at college, and to this day they'd both make me Sight & Sound poll if you asked me. If Lindsay Anderson's If.... and Dušan Makavejev's Sweet Movie hadn't been put out when they did, if I hadn't rented them the same day and watched them both the same night, I can't help feeling I'd be chasing a different muse. These films helped me learn the importance of film preservation, let me see how color and light could really be used, how sexuality could be expressed cinematically, how perfect and wonderful the human body, flesh, blood, fluids, could be, and how perfectly seductive leftwing fury was. Less importantly my preferred ellipses has four dots. If I fell hard for these films, it's because I fell in love with the anti-establishment lovers, fusing their beliefs and sex and violence in a whirlwind I've never been released from. I already suffered from crippling completism by the time I saw these films and made a point to find everything else by their creators. It took me many years but I've seen everything by both men (exception: Lindsay Anderson's TV play Look Back In Anger with Malcolm McDowell. If you have a lead, do drop me a line. I lost twenty dollars to, who claimed to have it and then never did me the courtesy of letting me know they didn't. I've emailed several times to no avail). I was a little disheartened. Each made a few other spectacular films - Montenegro, O Lucky Man, Innocence Unprotected, The White Bus, Love Affair, Britannia Hospital, W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, This Sporting Life, Manifesto, The Coca-Cola Kid - but nothing that ever recaptured that magic of watching those films for the first time. But then I guess a relationship sometimes pales in comparison to falling in love. 

Both directors eventually ran out of people willing to pay them scads of money to make polarizing films. Anderson fell into taking whatever job came his way and greatly embarrassed himself in the process. His last decent film, the tearjerker The Whales of August (David rightly pointed out that Whales is the perfect late movie, between Anderson behind the camera and Vincent Price, Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey, Jr in front of it), is at times so cinematically inert it nearly becomes the kind of British Cinema he so detested. It's incredibly respectful, especially of its aged stars. Too respectful I thought when I first watched it. But even in my anger that Anderson had toned himself down, I couldn't help but be moved. It is a very moving film, no matter how you look at it. But it's not the Anderson I fell in love with. The same is true, to a degree of Makavejev's Manifesto. It does have a little of the old magic in there but it's almost too heart-warming to be as cutting as it could have been. From there? 

In the 90s Makavejev and Anderson made their last films: A Hole In The Soul and Is That All There Is? If you think those sound eerily similar, try watching them back to back. Both films are very gently directed, personal documentaries, one a little more artificial than the other, where the men drift around their home lands, take a passing glance at their legacy and spend time with (and quite coincidentally take boat rides with) old friends. Both look ahead but that look in their eye says they know their best days are behind them. They find the world a bigger place than it used to be. Anderson encounters modern television ads, a rude relation, and the generation beneath him; in essence he lets the audience know that he knows that he's gotten old. His work had gotten crass, compromised: he'd directed a TV miniseries not long before this called Glory! Glory! about a sex symbol used by an evangelist to get converts. It's trash. Uninspired, lacking in wit and charisma. Anderson had grown tired and in Is That All There Is? he as good as admits it. Makavejev never fell as hard on hard times, so he has to less to feel guilty about. His trip is just a little less interesting for it. But neither man asks for pity. Neither throws themself on both knees in despair at what we've become. They don't ask anything of us except maybe...just maybe, we consider looking beneath the sheen of the world around us. New isn't always good. In fact it's easier to couch a lie in 'progress', especially if everyone's doing it. What they ask is that we not forget the past. 

I'll remember one thing from Is That All There Is? until I die myself: Anderson films himself in the bath. I've seen footage of him setting up of that shot. Can you imagine? 71 years old and he freely shows off his aged form hidden only by grey bathwater (is all English water that murky?). I love him for that scene. Here it is: age, death, tomorrow, fear. But it's one of the best images Anderson ever created. He's just a man in that tub, and he's gotten old. We all will. Here's something profound and honest and lovely, even after studios had robbed him of his good name. That's what these essay films allowed these old masters to accomplish. Makavejev and Anderson were once forces to be reckoned with. Makavejev once closed the Berlin Film Festival for heaven's sake! Giant director George Stevens refused to acknowledge Michael Verhoeven's anti-american film Ok! and Makavejev called bullshit on his imperialist ass and the whole festival just stopped. That was politics! That was filmmaking! Then. Now? The early 90s? Dusk falls on their heyday and they make one last, unadulterated statement. No producer to answer to. No story to get right. Just their own. Just them and the crew and their families. If Anderson had lived another ten years I don't know that he would ever set foot behind a camera again. He looks so tired. Makavejev, bless him, is still alive and kickin' at 85 and hasn't made another film. They were always linked by progressive ideology and that beautiful anger and they shared a heartfelt, humble bow in front of just some friends, a few camera technicians and of course me. Like they were writing their life stories with my development in mind, the gracious wonders. They were still mad as hell, but they had let go of enough to look at the world with clear eyes and heads and recognize that their place in it, as filmmakers, had been filled. But they didn't want to go out on a commission. As Martin Sheen says of Brando's Kurtz they "just wanted to go out like a soldier....not like some poor, wasted, ragged ass renegade." So they amble through a narrow corridor in the middle of the present called the past, hoping we'll join them and remember better/worse days. Days when their art made a difference. Days when Pasolini was just getting started. They couldn't know anyone would be watching, let alone writing all this down...

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