So. New Yorkers. Were you lured into paying money to see Richard Kelly‘s “Southland Tales” after evil bitches J. Hoberman and Manohla Dargis swore it wasn’t the total disaster everybody else said it was? Did it leave you never wanting to see a movie again? Yeah, me too. Luckily, tonic was readily available in several forms: Julian Schnabel and cast showed off the extraordinary new film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly“, the Museum of the Moving Image kicked off its “Glorious Technicolor!” series with an informative talk on the history of color in cinema, and several institutions celebrated the cinematic genius that was Ingmar Bergman.
Schnabel Previews “Diving Bell”
On Thursday night, the Museum of the Moving Image and Variety hosted a preview screening of Julian Schnabel’s stunning “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, followed by a spirited Q&A with the cast and crew. One of the best films of the year, “Diving Bell” is the true story of Parisian fashion editor Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who was left completely paralyzed after a stroke; he learned to communicate through blinking, and eventually wrote his memoirs with just one eye.
It’s a wholly unique experience, both delicate and profoundly moving, whose real achievement is its total avoidance of any easy sentimentality, a feat accomplished by primarily telling the story through Bauby’s one working eye. “I struggled with it at first,” explained screenwriter Ronald Harwood, “but when I got the idea that the camera should be him, it was quite easy to tell the story- it was just natural.”
The mercurial Schnabel (who arrived 15 minutes late for the Q&A) built upon Harwood’s idea of letting the camera stand in for the lead character by having Amalric record live voiceover as the film was being shot. “We built a sound box so that Matthieu could see the actors talking to his character and say whatever the hell he wanted, but they didn’t hear him. He would tell the camerman “let the camera go over there, I’m not looking at her anymore”, so the camera would drift off, and the actress would see the camera drift and yell “Monsieur Bauby, regardez moi!”, and the camera would look at her again.”
Every aspect of the production reflected this idea of verisimilitude; all of the sound was recorded live, every phone conversation was performed as shown, and the film was shot in the actual hospital that Bauby recuperated in. “This film is what it is because we shot it there,” said Amalric. “How could we have got this much feeling in a studio, with just a medical consultant coming in to explain everything?”
As might be predicted from one of the more intense directors currently working (who stepped on everybody else’s answers, prompting some eye-rolling and chuckling amongst the cast), it was an overwhelming experience for the actors. “Everybody was doing something for the first time,” said actress Marie-Josee Croze. “Everybody felt lost sometimes. It was the most difficult work I’ve ever done, but it was thrilling, every moment.” The film will be released on November 30th.
MoMI Goes “Technicolor”
On Saturday, MoMI kicked off its series “Glorious Technicolor!” with a showing of Rouben Mamoulian‘s “Becky Sharp” an adaptation of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” and the first full-length feature film to be made with Technicolor’s three-strip process. The occasion of the series is two-fold: MoMI’s recent acquisition of a Technicolor camera for its permanent display, and the publication of Wesleyan professor Scott Higgin‘s “Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow.” Professor Higgins was on hand to introduce “Becky Sharp” with a brief lecture on the development and usage of Technicolor.
It is amazing to think it now, but color in film was once as much of a gimmick as 3D or IMAX, more of a curiosity than a potentially standard practice. Technicolor, which was formed in 1916 with the goal of bringing a reproductive, natural color to motion pictures, had previously developed a two-strip process (with Red-Orange and Blue-Green) that gave a pale imitation of color which did not appeal to mass audiences beyond an initial viewing. The three-strip process was finalized in 1931 when technicians discovered that almost every color in the known spectrum could be recreated using magenta, green and blue.
Rather than making the technology widespread, Technicolor maintained a tight control over its use, manufacturing only 21 cameras which they rented, rather than sold, along with their own cinematographers and color consultants, who went over every color scheme choice with agonizing detail. “This is an interesting phenomenon,” explained Higgins. “A single company monopolizes color production, and also strives to control how it is used; it’s not just a technology, it’s a look. And this level of control was worthwhile to the company, because it ensured that their process wasn’t a novelty.”
The resultant “Technicolor look” eschewed oversaturation or clashing colors; “the goal,” said Higgins, “was to maintain a pleasing and harmonious tone, while highlighting narrative, like music…. They found ways to let color fall silent. A musical score only works when it can drift into the background sometimes to burst forth at other times, and it’s the same with color.”
MoMI will be showing off the Technicolor look through December 2 with screenings including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Vertigo,” and a specially dyed print of “Apocalypse Now Redux.”
A New York Tribute To Bergman
When Swedish film giant Ingmar Bergman died in July, a few particularly galling film critics published stories wondering if his legacy might not already be dimming. He was too austere, we learned, and modern audiences no longer have interest in his bold statements of the elemental questions of human existence. This week, New Yorkers were invited to see how wrong they were.
First up, the IFC Center began a two-week run of a beautiful new print of Bergman’s 1953 tale of alienated youth “Monika“, starring Harriet Anderson as a young woman whose summer romance is only a brief respite from her daily drudgery. The film was Bergman’s first film to bring him much exposure in the United States, mostly owing to a badly butchered exploitation version centering around a nude scene.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music held several events to commemorate Bergman, as well they might; BAM has held several stage productions directed by Bergman (remotely – he did not leave Sweden) over the past twenty years, with screenings of “Persona,” “Fanny and Alexander,” and “Shame,” the latter as the closing event of BAM’s “Jonathan Lethem Selects” series, and including an introduction by the Brooklyn-based author.
On Monday night, the institution held a tribute to him, including performances and readings of some of Bergman’s writings by such Bergman collaborators (and fans) as Bibi Andersson, Pernilla August, Lena Olin and Wallace Shawn, as well as a screening of sections of Marie Nyreroed‘s documentary “Bergman Island“, about Bergman’s home on the island of Faro. BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins gave the opening remarks, describing with fondness the director’s uncompromising ethics- he insisted his 3.5 hour Swedish production of Hamlet be shown with no English translation, and it sold out 10 showings. When Absolut Vodka offered to sponsor a Bergman Festival, said Hopkins, “I reached out to Mr. Bergman to ask if he would let us title the Festival “Absolut Bergman”. His reply: “Absolutely not.”