I've been a little paralyzed lately. Great people, artists we'll never see the likes of again, keep dying. I've spent the last few days just staring into the middle distance, unable to speak coherently about the losses. Everything that can or should be said about Philip Seymour Hoffman has been said, and a good deal more besides. Many of us didn't expect to be hit this hard, but the loss is indescribable. We knew him, or anyway, we felt like we did. He was too good, at once untouchable and one of us. A revisit to The Master reveals less a movie than a spell cast upon the audience by Hoffman's self-made oligarch, all vices and flaws that we forgive because it's a pleasure to be in his presence. Sadness hiding confidence, the need to cast aside everything just to remember what real friendship feels like. He was more than an actor to many people. He was a whole cast of alluring acquaintances we wanted as friends and relatives. The best artists don't just create movies or performances, they tear a hole in reality and set up fictive constructions big enough to live in. They build houses for us to live in for the length of a film. Every decision builds ten years of life and experience for a character until we know everything we should know about them. Whole lives can be lived in two hours if the performance is good enough. Philip Seymour Hoffman was always that good. And as crushing, as unthinkable, as torturous as it is to deal with his death, it happened to come in a tidal wave of misery that also claimed the lives of Arthur Rankin Jr., Maximilian Schell, Eduardo Coutinho and Miklós Janscó. How are we supposed to soldier on after this last weekend?
Miklós Janscó was a Hungarian director born in 1921, and if you know his name it's probably because of the higher-profile of two films he had in competition at the ill-starred 1968 Cannes Film Festival, The Red & The White. The other film, The Confrontation, may not be as monumental an achievement as its more famous brother, but it is a dazzlingly built delight. It's little wonder Janscó was the only director to ever compete against himself at the famed festival. No one ever talks about that, for some reason… Hardly anyone talks about Janscó at all. The Red & The White is an inarguable masterpiece, and yet his influence on contemporary cinema is rarely remarked upon. Watch a few of his films in a row and you can see directors entire canons springing in the wake of a couple of elegantly choreographed long takes. Béla Tarr here, Theo Angelopoulos there, Von Trier, Jodorowsky, the Peter Greenaway of The Baby of Mâcon, the Gerardo Naranjo of Miss Bala.
Jean Renoir once said that a director really only makes one film, each entry in a canon just a piece of the same puzzle. For Janscó, that film was The Red & The White, and everything else was a new interpretation of any given scene or idea from his 1967 masterpiece, chased down a new road. He was an old school auteur, each frame, each tracking shot's steadfast commitment to the fleet of dancing performers, were entirely and indisputably his. And though he traveled to France, Italy, Greece and Russia he never really left Hungary, just as he was always telling the story of a forgotten peasant class. His aim was to let the plight of the oppressed be heard through violent uprising, chanting, song, and eye-catching group dances. His films more often resembled ballet than traditionally cinematic antiwar narratives. He frequently put the lie to the "no such thing as an antiwar movie" fallacy. He rarely used squibs, or fake blood of any kind. Characters simply slump over and play dead, which is somehow more frustrating and stinging than if they exploded with some of Peckinpah's Kensington gore. He kills characters we like and whose good intentions he believes. The sound of gunfire, the flight of their abandoned bodies from the frame, and the camera glides over the spot, their lives edited out in camera. He pursued the idea of death with the rigorousness of Ingmar Bergman, though with a more firm sense of play. In his TV movie The Tyrant's Heart, a very theatrical work of myth-making, a character kills himself with a knife; then apologizes to the audience for having forgotten the fake blood. He never delighted in violence, and wanted to offer sympathetic viewers a safe place to contemplate his life's work.
Though his break through was the very excellent The Round Up, a drama of persecution that looked to have been committed to limestone, The Red & The White is his stylistic gauntlet. Politically Janscó never veered too far from The Round-Up, in which Austrian forces torturing Hungarian guerrillas until they give up their leader, but he found himself when he made The Red & The White. Even if it were the first film in his oeuvre that you encounter (as I suspect is common) the sense of an artist freeing himself from all non essential grammar and forging a brand new path comes across with the directness of a shot of Vodka. The confidence with which he articulates his newfound language is deeply attractive. The film concerns opposing forces during the 1919 communist uprising in Russia. Hungarians and Bolsheviks joins forces against the czarists and a bloody struggle ensued. Janscó s biggest revelation was that in depicting warfare in order to make your way to the heart of war itself you must deliberately lose track of who's fighting who. All that remains is the fact of killing, the feeling of perverted order and chaos against all. You're meant to become a buoy floating between islands, uncertain who's who and what they're fighting for. There are no statements of purpose, no politicking. There are speeches, but they're callous, self-aggrandizing and almost abstract. How then could anyone glory in warfare if the only feeling the director allows us is bewilderment and loss? Of identity, of coherence, of so much life. He also discovered brilliantly choreographed long takes, which would become his stock-in-trade. You begin searching for the seams because too much happens in the takes for it to be reasonable that they worked all this out beforehand, but they did. Every time. Winter Wind, his follow-up to the defeat at Cannes, is 80 minutes long and features not many more than a dozen takes. In The Red & The White wins many small victories throughout by staging surreal dances in a wooded clearing and introducing faces we're drawn to, only to do away with them. One bathetic murder after another; it would all be too much if Janscó weren't one of the best directors alive. His sensitivity remains, not to mention his interest in theatrical superimpositions over his predominantly natural storytelling. Between the military actions where the warring sides keep experiencing reversals of favor, there are many haunting interludes like the dance in the forest, a sexual assault in a hospital, a nurse's distraction as troops arrive near a river. The warfare was set dressing and his disdain for on screen violence for its own sale lets him have his cake and eat it too. All in all, a completely bewitching exercise in the deflation of many of man's favourite lies.
War is a man's game and Janscó refused to play it. He had for more sympathy for women and his films are lousy with earth mothers. Women who refused to be victims in a culture filled with men killing each other for ideologies they seemed to invent on the fly. Men see double crosses and conspiracy everywhere. Women are above petty suspicions. Though the nurses of The Red & The White are beguiling, strong women who are far more compelling than the male combatants, Janscó s strongest female character is the heroine of his 1974 Elektra, My Love. A post-modern restating (here Antonioni discovers many new tools: slow-motion, painted bodies, a more geometric and fanciful sense of composition to build into his famed tracking shots) of greek tragedy, it shows Elektra as a world-weary pragmatist. "I won't kill you," she says to her adversary the king, "for another will just replace you." She is never hysterical, never mocked, resigned to always being right and never being allowed to prove it. That is Janscó s underlying theme, in a nutshell. Machinations grind up the land, tyrants kill with purpose and at random and those who want the best for the people are never given the opportunity to do anything about it. Power and corruption always get in the way. After the bold, colourful The Confrontation, he kept right on working and his pace didn't markedly slow until the late 80s. In the wake of The Red & The White he had as fruitful a period of invention as Jean-Luc Godard in the 60s. Winter Wind followed mere months later, about a terrorist cell made up of Balkan agitators assisting in the assassination of French leaders. It trades The Confrontation's primary colors for drab browns and greys, the much bleaker story calling for a reduction in wonderment. It's a tug-of-war between the interests of 'the party' and sympathy for the individual, and in the mise-en-scene between unforgiving snowy zones of combat and the almost womb-like interior spaces of the barracks. Here tenderness is met with violence. Marina Vlady's conspirator keeps attempting some kind of intimate communication with a woman she hopes to keep alive, but something always interrupts her. It's a film of great mystery and one that hints at the impossibility of peace and piece of mind when you've decided to take your country's fate in your hands.
I'm tempted to go film by film, give Janscó the proper eulogy he so richly warrants. He was after all still making films as late as 2012, at age 90, but how would we know that? He'd been all but abandoned by world cinema's tastemakers. I know for sure that I'm done making excuses for Truffaut and Godard at the '68 Cannes Film Festival. Their outrage at the firing of Henri Langlois didn't warrant them keeping works of genius from finding an audience. Janscó deserved better. He was totally committed to his definition of cinema, never giving an inch, even when given bigger budgets and access to big names. He made modern audiences come to him, rather than the other way around. He did everything, musicals, comedies, you name it. In 1971 Carlo Ponti brought him to Italy to make The Pacifist with Monica Vitti, looking for someone to fill Michelangelo Antonioni's shoes after he departed to make Zabriskie Point and The Passenger. Between the master's muse Vitti and Carlo Di Palma, Antonioni's cinematographer, with him at the helm, Janscó's images have a pastel-hued rigidity that brings bourgeoise excess and middle-class guilt, not to mention the vulpine features of his star, into sharp focus. Vitti meets angular naif Pierre Clementi and they instantly revert to a past connection they shared, only to have him taken from her by a gang of tough-as-nails karate enthusiasts who've been on a violence spree in her city. It's entirely an exercise, and his long-takes get claustrophobic in chic Italian residences, but it does feature the typically Janscóian phrase "we have to make noise to be heard," and a very different Vitti than we'd ever seen. She's an adorable wreck, far closer to today's manic pixie dream girls than her typically steely ennui sufferers. For showing us a new (blonde) side of Vitti, we can once more thank the Hungarian dynamo. When he returned to familiar territory it was to make Red Psalm, his first film to utilize experimental grammar, feeling more like a piece of theatre than the alternately ancient and intrinsically cinematic The Red & The White. Here is where he proves his willingness to try anything, his belief in our belief. From here he becomes fearless, trying anything once, even dabbling in something resembling erotica, but filtered through his robustly humane world view. That film, Private Vices, Public Pleasures [thanks for the correction, Roger], is one of the most enchanting films about sexuality ever made. A kind of anti-Salo, it follows a libertine orgy throughout the grounds of a grand estate. No film that I've seen manages to make sex organs seem as natural or beautiful. A proper bacchanalian celebration of innocent sexuality; a reprieve for humanity's worst crimes against itself. It may end, like so many of his films, with a shocking act of violence, but by then the spell is too strong to break. His films, no matter how dark, oblique or melancholy (the height of which must be his return to his homeland, 1979's exhausting but rewarding Hungarian Rhapsody), broiled with vivacity, with a rich appreciation for human creation and emotion. His characters dance across vast landscapes, through history and violence, aware that the best they can do is survive, and teach the dance to the next generation. "If I do not forget, then it is not forgotten."