Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Swedish deckhand

The aging face of W.H. Auden--that implausibly wrinkled terrain, almost lunar in its creases and corrugations--is an iconic image. Seen in photos, the youthful poet is hard to recognize. Yet even then, he apparently had a striking physical presence. I came across this description the other day in my well-thumbed copy of Humphrey Carpenter's biography. The speaker is Harry Watt, an English film director who worked with Auden on the G.P.O. Film Unit in the early Thirties. They were collaborating on a documentary called "Night Mail," which called for the young (and already celebrated) poet to write a verse narrative (!) and function as a roadie:
He was just an assistant director, as far as I was concerned, and that meant humping the gear and walking miles, and he used to turn up late. Of course, he was an extraordinary looking young man. He looked exactly like a half-witted Swedish deckhand: his jacket was far too short in the sleeves, and he had huge, boney, red hands and big, lumpy wrists and dirty old flannel trousers and an old sports jacket and this blond towhead, and then the rather plummy, frightfully good accent, which was very surprising coming out of him.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Old Masters: Coppola, Frisell

I cannot tell a lie: Youth Without Youth, the first movie to be made by Francis Ford Coppola in a decade, is a mess. The director, who busied himself with hackwork throughout the Nineties to erase his sizable debts--and who meanwhile flourished as a producer and all-American vintner--has clearly relished his return to indie filmmaking. Yet his adaptation of Mircea Eliade's philosophical thriller is one lumpy porridge of a motion picture. The imagery is frequently beautiful. The plot, however, is an incoherent wreck, and Tim Roth, as a Romanian philologist transformed into a brainiac X-Man by a bolt of lightning, fights a losing battle throughout. When he's not rolling in the hay with a sexy Gestapo agent, he's intoning metaphysical pieties about "the supreme ambiguity of the human condition." Indeed, the dialogue is so absurdly stilted that when Bruno Ganz, as the protagonist's kindly doctor, says, "Come, have your chicken," you feel as though a window has been briefly opened into another world--i.e., the real one. It’s a pity. The lustrous compositions (and Osvaldo Golijov’s poignant score) are wasted. Better luck next time. (For an even more jaundiced view of the film, check out Stephanie Zacharek's Salon piece here.)

On the other hand, Coppola himself is a delightful conversationalist (and, as you can see from this crude snapshot, a gifted gesticulator). Clearly his escape to Romania with a skeleton crew and cast has rejuvenated him. And if Youth Without Youth has turned out to be a damp fizzle, it’s hard not to share his excitement at the prospect of more guerrilla filmmaking. My interview with him has just been posted at Propeller, and you can read the whole thing here. A typical exchange went like this:
Coppola: It turns out that Eliade used to write these little fables--maybe for fun, maybe to play around with some of the ideas that were derived from his studies. And when I first read Youth Without Youth, it was like a Twilight Zone thing. Every two pages, something extraordinary would happen to this man. He's hit by lightning. When he wakes up, it turns out that he's young again, and also smarter. Then he turns into two personalities, and one seems to be sending messages about the future of the human species. I said to myself, this is the craziest story I ever read! And I started to become really excited about it: I could make this movie, I could go to Romania. Just bring a crew there, not spend a lot of money.

Propeller: Your excitement about the project makes it sound very rejuvenating.

Coppola: Yes. You know, I didn't count on being so successful so young, with The Godfather. Of course it was great--suddenly I had some money and status. But naturally it bent my career out of shape. I had made The Rain People and The Conversation, and I assumed I would go on to shoot more of these personal films.

Propeller: But that didn't happen.

Coppola: No. So at age 65, I did find myself wishing that I could be that kind of young, European-style film director--like Fellini, when he was making pictures like I Vitelloni. I never got to do that. So I thought, Why can't I be like that now? I'll just go to Romania with the attitude and the budget of an 18-year-old.
Again, you can read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, a week ago Saturday I found myself in the presence of a slightly younger Old Master: Bill Frisell. I had instantly signed up for the guitarist’s master class at the Blue Note, then spent a couple of weeks in a state of high anxiety. What if each participant were called upon to execute three blazingly fast choruses of "Giant Steps"? As it happened, there was no playing involved. I did drag my guitar down to the club, where a line of fans stretched halfway down the block. But the class consisted of an extended Q-and-A session, with Frisell seated onstage. After a few questions, he did pick up his powder-blue Telecaster, and played a few tunes to illustrate his answers: "Strange Meeting" (his own composition, which he obligingly inched up from C to D-flat at the request of an audience member), "Days of Wine and Roses," and a hauntingly transformed "Someday My Prince Will Come."

What struck me most was his humility. As he explained in a response to one question about his improvising strategy, he hears much more in his head than he can possibly express on the instrument. "I just play fragments of what I'm hearing," he confessed. In fact he argued that a player's limitations are the single biggest influence on his or her style--an accurate statement about almost any artist, I think, but all the more striking when uttered by somebody with such technical and conceptual finesse. I did manage to raise my hand at one point and ask whether Frisell planned to make any further recordings with Vinicius Cantuaria. "I'd like to," he said. "I've lost track of him over the past year." He went on to praise Cantuaria's fluency as a songwriter. "He's a melody machine," said the guitarist. True--and coming from Frisell, who invariably opts for burnished bits of melody rather than one more sprint through the harmonic labyrinth, something of a self-portrait.

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