EIFF 2013: The Retrospectives
The last hundred or so years of movies are a treasure trove. You can spend your life with your nose stuck in film books or scouring cinema programmes, DVD shops and TV listings for forgotten classics and there’ll still be gems to uncover – the countless filmmakers whose films, through no fault of their own, dropped out of circulation and slipped through the cracks in cinema history. One such filmmaker is Jean Grémillon. In May last year, when the British Film Institute celebrated the career of Gaul’s favourite bit of rough, working-class hero Jean Gabin, with a month-long retrospective, it leaned heavily on the golden age of French cinema, the ‘poetic realism’ universe of the 1930s. Included in the line-up were films from Jean Renoir (La Grande Illusion, La Bête Humaine), Marcel Carné (Le Quai des Brumes) and Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko). There was no room, however, for Grémillon, their talented but little known contemporary, who directed Gabin in Lady Killer (1937) and Remorques (1941). You’ll find both films, and eight more from this enigmatic director, screening at the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Like last year’s knockout retrospective celebrating the career of Japan’s Shinji Somai, this year’s Jean Grémillon retrospective is an opportunity to submerge yourself in the films of a director from one of the major filmmaking nations whose brilliance remains uncelebrated. “He’s a director whom I’ve long loved, and long been interested in,” says EIFF’s artistic director Chris Fujiwara, who first encountered Grémillon at a Harvard Film Archive retrospective when he worked in Boston as a film critic. “I always had the feeling about him that he was underrated, and when people see his films for the first time they are invariably blown away by them.”
Fujiwara suggests there are similarities between Grémillon and the canonised poetic realists of Renoir, Carné, etc., but Grémillon cinema pushed both parts of this phrase further than his peers. His experimentation allowed him to put the accent on the poetic. “There are things that Grémillon does with sound and music that are absolutely astonishing, that are very experimental and that really take film into a poetic realm that doesn’t have to do so much with superficial things about atmosphere or the tragic destiny of characters or all these sort of clichéd elements of what we think of as poetic realism,” Fujiwara tells me, “but which have to do with extending film language and with finding a very privileged place for sound in film.”
In terms of the second half of this phrase – the realism – Grémillon began his career making short documentaries (most of which are now lost, unfortunately), and what he learned in these formative filmmaking years is evident in the DNA of his fiction films. “He stayed close, I think – he never separated documentary from narrative,” explains Fujiwara. “I think he always had the sense – and he talks about this in his writings, which is why I can say this – he had the sense that documentary was really a central genre, if you can call it a genre. It’s not something separate from fiction; all film for him was, in a way, documentary.”
Grémillon had several successes in his career, particularly the Gabin films, but as Fujiwara notes in the EIFF programme, he was also hampered by commercial failure. Fujiwara suggests that these struggles may have been down to his intransigence as an artist: “He had a very particular vision of the role of the filmmaker in relation to culture – French culture certainly – and it may have been that he was just unwilling to compromise and was unable to come up with a project that matched his own view of things with the commercial view.”
Unlike Grémillon, Richard Fleischer never wanted for commercial success and is in no need of discovery. Even those with a passing interest in cinema will have stumbled across his eye-popping wide-screen fantasy films like Fantastic Voyage or Soylent Green on TV during wet weekends as kids. “My experience was like that,” says Fujiwara, when I ask how he came to appreciate Fleischer’s cinema. “His reputation was always based on that of a director who could do pretty much any kind of commercial film, but he wasn’t considered to be an artist.” Fujiwara shared similar sentiments until he sampled a clutch of Fleischer’s films on the big screen at Turin Film Festival in 2004. “I was very impressed,” he says, “I started to understand that he was one of those directors who had a very special idea of the need for film to communicate with an audience on different levels.” This then is a retrospective of reappraisal; an opportunity to join the dots between films that on their own seem throwaway, but become more rewarding as a whole.
However, scanning Fleisher’s eclectic career, which took him from brilliant noir B-movies (The Narrow Margin) to gripping true-crime dramas (The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place) through to plodding musicals (Doctor Dolittle) and borderline insane schlock (Mandingo and Red Sonya), it seems a leap of faith on EIFF's part to argue for auteur status; it’s a CV that screams ‘journeyman’ (the less generous might say ‘hack’). But Fujiwara makes a strong case for the defense. “Obviously [Fleischer was] a commercial filmmaker in a commercial industry, so his films had to have elements like stars and stories and excitement that would sell them,” explains Fujiwara, “but at the same time I think he was aware of the need to find ways to touch the audience on deeper levels, and you can see this in the psychological studies, for example, the serial killers of The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place, or the two killers in Compulsion, which we’ll be showing at Filmhouse after the festival.”
As well as this psychological depth, Fleischer also had a clear flair for visual storytelling and rhythm. “He had a great sense of how to make a film move, almost in the way you compulsively turn the pages of a very interesting book that you can’t put down,” says Fujiwara. “I think Fleischer had a sense of a film as something that needed, in a very basic way, to give pleasure and to make the audience watch it out of fascination and out of a desire to see what happens next. And you see him doing this, you see him making this comic book-like pleasure in a film like the Vikings or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea [both screen at Filmhouse in July]. They’re like comic books on the screen, and they have all of the fun and visual flair and compulsive watchability (or readability) of the best comic books.”
A thoughtful look back at the cinema of a director like Fleischer is one in the eye to the growing tendency for the tribalism in film culture that suggests one who enjoys the austere art-house stylings of, say, Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Bela Tarr can’t possibly see merit in the fizz of a good romantic comedy or the excess of a Tony Scott movie (see the recent proliferation of the ‘vulgar auteurism theory’ in the US). Fujiwara’s eclectic approach to programming shows he’s not interested in drawing these arbitrary lines in the sand. “I don’t like to make a distinction between a so-called ‘art director’ and a so-called ‘commercial director’,” says Fujiwara. “I think that someone like Richard Fleischer or Gregory La Cava [the great comedy director, whose films were shown at last year’s festival], they show us that there’s not necessarily a difference between the two, that a commercial director can be a conscious and successful artist with films that are widely popular.”
Soylent Green (1971)