sábado, 15 de janeiro de 2011

Interview with director Jean Claude Brisseau

How was The Exterminating Angels received by audiences?
That depends. I was pleasantly surprised when, at Cannes, the audience gave me a ten-minute standing ovation. I wasn’t expecting it. There was a bit of a change of heart when it came out in September, but there was much better feedback from abroad, especially from the U.S., where I heard the nicest things. On the other hand, I also had some negative feedback, particularly from others in the business. I’m thinking particularly of a young woman at the FEMIS film school, whom I showed everything to, and who little by little became my assistant and was really a good worker. From what I understand, when the movie was released, someone involved in the movie in New York sent an e-mail to all of the students at the FEMIS saying that this woman had behaved “like a whore” by acting in a “porno flick”. And when she was giving a class, one of the organizers also said, in public, that she was a whore for accepting to work on this film. I’ve seen a puritanical attitude re-emerge in the last couple of years, which was already around in certain areas – with the critics and especially in universities – in that emotion, and especially sex, are tacit and violent taboos. My goal was very clearly to put these elements, which are a part of life, back into cinema. I realize that it sparked some violent reactions.

That proves how accurately you make your point and that there’s a real problem in representing these themes.
Maybe. People have the right to think what they want about my film. I’m rather pleased about that, but I don’t have to be right. Time, and other people’s opinions, will decide. I hope the comparison I’m about to make won’t seem pretentious: I’m astounded that Freud caused such an uproar when he stated that children had a sexuality before puberty, while the scientific community, including doctors, were claiming the opposite. Doctors were fathers, everybody had the chance to see children in their lives, and children haven’t changed over the last century. It’s obvious that boys and girls have a sexuality. There was an adamant refusal to see this. And I have the impression that it hasn’t changed, particularly for critics. I told a newspaper a while ago: addressing the way people handle emotions, and particularly emotions linked to sex, is looked down upon by some critics, and yet it’s a part of life. Other critics have told me certain colleagues of theirs thought that you have to mistrust emotions in cinema, under the pretext that you may be conned. I think that if people in academia are so hostile to the handling of emotions, it’s fundamentally because they have to seem more intelligent than everyone else and they have to make up something, even if it has no bearing on the construction of a film or on the way emotions are handled, which are in fact the essence of a film. Not everyone’s like that, but I think this attitude has harmed cinema a lot. Of course, I’m not criticizing Brecht, who said that as soon as emotion takes precedence over thought in a show, the show has failed. But what Brecht wanted was for people to become aware of a number of things. For him, awareness was a major element; he sparked another sort of emotion, a revolutionary feeling. Everyone who followed Brecht, including filmmakers like Losey, tried to get the audience interested. You can say what you like, but I still think that The Servant, one of Losey’s best films, sparked a real interest, even if it’s not the same interest sparked by Hitchcock’s films.

You watch DVDs. Do you think this format has changed something in the life a film after its theatrical release, compared to VHS?
I’m absolutely positive. When VHS came out, I knew it would drastically change cinema. First, in terms of education, you had the equivalent of a collection of classical literature: for the first time you could see films, freeze on an image, and reverse. On the other hand, it had an immediate impact on theaters, for two reasons: movie piracy on the one side, and on the other, some collectors thinking that watching a film on DVD is pointless. But it’s important to discover films in different versions, with subtitles in several languages, and why not on big screens, on home cinema? For relatively little money, you don’t have 35mm, but almost, and that’s going to change things. I, for example, don’t see why I’d spend 10 euros in a theater when I can rent the DVD for 2 or 3 euros, watch it when I want, and under better conditions than in some theaters. Concerning piracy and downloading, you can’t fight against it. Recently, I had a conversation with a famous director and an actress who were defending piracy. I’m not casting any stones: it’s obvious that young people, for example, don’t see why they should pay when they’ve gotten used to seeing a movie for free and with excellent quality. Movies are originally made for theaters, but that’s not going to last. Theatrical distribution is becoming an ad for video distribution.

What’s a successful DVD release for you? Are there DVDs that you find exemplary?
The DVDs I’ve most liked are those where the bonuses taught me how the film was made. I’m thinking in particular of the Laserdisc Criterion release of The Splendor of the Ambersons. They explain – by showing you – what was cut in Welles’s version, what was re-shot, and include the storyboard, picture by picture, of the entire film. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve seen. There weren’t any long philosophical commentaries. You saw the parallel between the fall of one social class and the rise of a new one represented by Joseph Cotton and his car. Originally, the movie was 2 hours and 20 minutes long. It was later cut, but it’s not certain that the short version isn’t better. It’s Welles’s film that I prefer, even if the end is silly.
I’ve always regretted that most DVD bonuses are not about how the movie was made. True, it’s easier with films that are twenty, thirty or forty years old than with new releases. With new releases, they usually only make ads, especially since there are a certain number of things you can’t necessarily say. While with films that are twenty, thirty or forty years old, if things come out, it’s because they’ve already become a part of overall movie culture and everybody knows about them. The movie has created its own advertising. It’s easier to do. There are several like that which I’ve enjoyed.
There are sometimes films that I’ve been able to see in their full version. I hadn’t seen Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and I managed to catch it on DVD and project it onto a screen. I didn’t like the movie; I watched it again and liked it better. And when I saw the long version, I changed my mind. A string of important things had been cut from the film, only keeping in the fights and what explained them, while the rest is much more interesting. It’s true that being able to show several versions is of interest to movie-lovers. On the other hand, I’ve found that the long version has worked against certain movies. I’ll give you an example of a DVD that I found fascinating: My Darling Clementine. There are two versions, John Ford’s and the producer’s. In the sequences that were cut, the producer, Zanuck, explains his choices very well. And I have to tell you, for me, Zanuck was right. It’s fascinating to see the real work that went into putting together a movie. It’s what has always interested me as a movie-lover, rather than having commentaries that, for me, are worthless. I also confess that, since I’ve been giving classes more often, at the FEMIS among other places, I’ve realized that there’s an enormous lack of teaching material in terms of basic problems of construction and dramatization.

Could you say that for some young movie-lovers, classic American cinema – arguably the standard in terms of dramatic construction – is a bit looked down upon and that, for them, nothing counts before the French New Wave?
That’s somewhat true. I was born in ’44, we used to go see everything with my mother, and when I bought the Cahiers du Cinéma in high school, I kept going to see everything, especially movies from the New Wave. And then things evolved: the more boring and intellectual the film, the more I liked it, for one simple reason: in conversations in public, I was able to give the impression that I was more important than the masses who understood nothing. Problems of construction didn’t interest me at all. It all came down on me when I wanted to make my first little amateur 8mm film. I was all happy, thought it was brilliant and that everyone would love it, but the audience around me was bored out of their minds. That’s when I wondered how movies are constructed. I must have gone see Psycho 50 times to truly understand how movies are constructed. It interested me so much that I completely forgot about the notion of auteur. My criterion was: I sit down, I watch the movie and I see whether it interests me or not.
But I have to say, American cinema today is rather disappointing. They’ve dropped everything to do with space. The movies are all done in close-ups, and special effects have become the star. The notion of space is, in my opinion, very important. Take an American film called Distant Drums, which I saw when I was seven and which was crystal clear for me: I understood everything. At one point you see Gary Cooper climb over the walls of a fort with his men to open a door so that others can get in. With little things that seem like nothing, there’s a real dramatic effort. There’s a moment when Gary Cooper and two or three of his men are hidden behind a wall, where they risk being discovered. In order for you to understand and to feel the emotion, you have to comprehend the space. It’s handled in such a way that you can say: they’re there or they’re here, but maybe there’s a bad guy hidden in the corner over there. The information has to be laid out: the audience has to systematically understand the space in order for there to be a dramatic effect. Unfortunately, all of that has disappeared in cinema and been replaced by emotion linked to the music, to the special effects, and to screenplays that are generally just slapped together. When I was in Hollywood, I got to see the end that was cut from The Abyss. I asked why it was cut and was told that the end didn’t do well in preview. I saw the film in its full version, which for me is clearly better than the edited version. I told them there are mistakes in the screenplay and asked how they could have made these mistakes. The producers answered, “Simple: we start with a script, the star is the special effects, but we tell ourselves we’ll improve the script as we go along.” But with special effects what they are, you’re limited and have to build everything around them, figuring that the screenplay will be modified, but it isn’t. As a result, you have to shoot because you can no longer do otherwise, and you sometimes try to fix it in the editing room or with the soundtrack. Constructing a movie based on special effects has blocked a lot of things for screenplays.

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