Berlinale Day 4: Courage Against All Odds

To round off my Berlinale visit, I opted for an alternative to movies: a panel talk between jury president, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, jury member, American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and moderated by the film historian and author, GB-born Peter Cowie.

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The discussion gravitated around some of the more popular movies the two guests had been involved in, with the tentative theme of courage somehow wiggled into it. But it was courage in its wider interpretation, with both protagonists venturing into the unknown at different times in their careers.

For Verhoeven, who has established himself as a rather kooky, commercially successful director, it was the transition from the Dutch film world into that of Hollywood. After his first foray, Flesh + Blood (1985), failed to impress, he was ready to go back home, when the script of Robocop (1987) was sent to him. While on holiday, Verhoeven read a bit of it and duly proceeded to throw it in the bin, before going for a long swim. Upon his return, he found his wife, Martine, holding the script, suggesting he take a closer look at it. And, indeed, Verhoeven did, realizing the potential for such a movie, which ended up winning an Academy Award (Special Achievement), spawning two sequels and two TV series, and resting to the present day as a classic of the action-packed 80s. Its influence still lasts, with a fairly recent remake trying (poorly) to re-envision the original.

Equally cult movies followed, with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992) becoming staples of the 90s. Verhoeven’s challenge in getting Sharon Stone to be chosen for the part in Basic Instinct was considerable, as the actress had more of a B-movie status and didn’t really fit the bill alongside Michael Douglas. It had been one particular scene in Total Recall that convinced the director that Sharon Stone was the best choice for the part – a scene culminating in one of Schwarzenegger’s famous lines: Consider this a divorce.

But then Showgirls (1995) turned out to be a miserable failure, and as is common in Hollywood, Verhoeven’s stock plummeted. Labeled as a Sci-Fi auteur, he got another couple of opportunities in Starship Troopers (1997) and the remake of The Invisible Man, entitled Hollow Man (2000). Fun fact, the latter was probably the movie that really triggered my passion for film, as a bunch of classmates and I got together to watch it after school one Friday afternoon. We missed the first few minutes and were excited by the prospect of it being rated above our age group, so we ate it all up, even though I probably wouldn’t rate it any more now. But, alas, it will always matter to me and it took me years to overcome the frustration that Gladiator had beaten it to the Best Visual Effects Academy Award. C’mon, that was just people with silly swords, Hollow Man turned a guy invisible for chrissake!

Unsurprisingly, the combination of factors sent Verhoeven back to the Netherlands, where, several years later, he directed the critically acclaimed WW2 movie about the Dutch Resistence, Zwartboek (2006) – Black Book. An interesting factor in some of his work is the influence of Stravinsky, whose rhythm Verhoeven has found to translate well into film. The best of which was yet to come, as last year’s Elle (2016) first took Cannes by storm, before becoming a critics’s darling, praise falling especially onto Isabelle Huppert with the heft of a waterfall. Interestingly, the movie failed to be nominated for Best Foreign Picture, but Huppert is the front-runner in the Best Actress category. After having worked in Dutch and English, a major challenge was moving into French for Elle, which Verhoeven did by refreshing his language knowledge in a two-week boot camp. Yet, his communication with Huppert mostly came about through ‘the language of film’.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career started, for me, at Donne Darko (2001), another one of the defining movies of my youth. As matter of fact, a particular point of discussion for both talkers was that the films we see between the ages of 12 and 16 end up defining our taste in cinema, with Verhoeven focusing on the influence of Bunuel, while Gyllenhaal mentioned Tarantino. I’m afraid my choices don’t quite stand up.

Whereas her most memorable scene in Darko was the family dinner, climaxing with the this little line, her next project, Secretary (2002), proved to be a big step for Gyllenhaal. Starring alongside James Spader, the unusual movie about dominance and sadomasochism wasn’t quite what a self declared feminist expected to be a part of, yet there are important nuances to how it all comes together in Steven Shainberg’s production. To underscore this, we got to watch one of the Secretary’s highlights, the infamous reading of the letter.

After several other (minor) roles in good movies of the 00s, the leap to AAA movies came with The Dark Knight (2008). The differences in production mechanics were considerable for Gyllenhaal, who remarked that whereas a smaller movie might be constrained to resort to second or third choice talent in certain crew positions, a blockbuster like Christopher Nolan’s Batman works similarly to a ‘well oiled machine’, at the cutting edge. The challenge in TDK was to carve out a space for her character, something which Heath Ledger did exceptionally well in his take on the Joker. After working with one to-be Academy Award winner, Gyllenhaal made another inspired choice in Crazy Heart (2009), which brought Jeff Bridges the prize and Gyllenhaal herself a nomination. The difference in this experience was that Bridges and Gyllenhaal had to support first time director Scott Cooper, which they did in an effort that empowered everyone involved.

For a change of pace, the actress then moved to a different format, electing to lead the TV Mini-series The Honourable Woman (2014). Acting in an eight hour show, filmed in the chronological order that the production plan required (i.e. possibly a scene from episode one shot after a scene from episode eight) brought with itself a different rhythm to that of movies, a feeling ‘unusual and strange’ to Gyllenhaal. Her performance was rewarded with a Golden Globe in 2015 and her upcoming role is particularly exciting, in a new TV series entitled The Deuce (2017), helmed by The Wire creators David Simon and George Pelecanos.

The conversation drew to a close after ninety minutes, with one question from the public arousing my attention: are movies inherently political? Gyllenhaal mused about it, saying that good movies have an element of the unconscious to them and that our politics are inevitably etched into that. Verhoeven, on the other hand, focused on the fact that one should not force a particular political vision on a movie or a director, in the sense that there is no need for explicit (or implicit) politics. This is particularly relevant now, with so much political opining flying around, that trying to do an explicitly political film, say, about a certain US president, could easily be undermined by day-to-day developments. If politics, then with perspective.

Remembering Gene Wilder

My mind has formed a habit of going back to that place where you just want to know what someone is up to, how life is treating him or her. While Gene Wilder has been absent from the big screen for quite some time now, he was one of those actors fitting the bill of interest and concern. His passing a couple of days ago was triggered by Alzheimer’s, which Wilder was suffering of. I say triggered rather than caused because at 83, it’s mostly time that causes someone’s demise. And while I dislike the idea of writing obituaries and plastering the deaths of countless artists to improve IMdB’s…erm, sorry, my click through rate, I reckon I’m insignificant enough to just write whatever I want and not injure my/ most people’s sensibilities. So here goes, a bit about Gene Wilder and why he mattered to me.

As recently as a couple of months ago, I saw him in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Yes, I know, shame on me for only watching it now. I wasn’t even aware that the movie was Wilder’s first major motion picture, but as soon as he popped up, I saw before me the quintessential Wilder character, the naive, endearing fool:

The same year saw him appear in what I would argue to be one of the most sublime comedies ever made. Sure, it’s Mel Brooks, so the humour tends to be sledgehammery, but, as the subsequent remake highlighted (even if in a musical transposition), comedic perfection resides in the execution delivered by Wilder and Zero Mostel. The former, under the guise of clueless accountant Leo Bloom, gets caught in the fiscal schemes of the latter, playing the bombastic theatre/musical producer Max Bialystock – point and counter-point, in a two man show complemented by the talents of Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn.

The Producers wasn’t a great commercial success upon release and even today it is considerably less popular than the three major movies Wilder did within the next decade. The first and arguably the picture he is best known for was  Willy Wonka and & the Chocolate Factory (1971). It’s a very different take to the recent remake starring Johnny Depp and it’s also darker in tone. Wonka isn’t just another eccentric Depp/Burton persona in the original, he is imbued by Wilder’s warmth and candor, in a way the only normal person alongside Charlie in a crowd of mad and overindulgent parents-children combos. And then there’s the song.

1974 introduced a couple of Wilder-Brooks collaborations, widely seen as the crowning jewels of both their careers. The first, Blazing Saddles, is a western parody I honestly remember nothing about. I didn’t much enjoy it in a laugh out loud way, although it sure is witty and biting in taking apart the usual tropes of westerns. The second, however, ranks close to The Producers, with Wilder producing a more deadpan performance in The Young Frankenstein. The movie is a continuous stream of mostly brilliant one liners, speeches and puns, rendered by equally brilliant actors.

Few to none of his later projects are considered (as) accomplished – although I did hear some good things about his collaboration(s) with Richard Pryor. Then again, many actors don’t have more than a couple of pictures to showcase at a level as high as Wilder’s four cornerstone movies. I don’t know if my preference of The Producers says anything in particular about my appreciation of Gene Wilder, seeing how that is the one film in which he appears alongside an equally excellent lead. Fortunately, his performances have enough depth to stand apart from one another and what is really special is that they have a universal appeal – even if they are particularly relevant to the American mainstream of the era. And now that I think of it, there’s a good chance his most famous work is not even his own.

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So, then, here’s more about the man. I was vaguely aware that Wilder had some unfortunate cancer connection, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, which was ruled in remission by the mid 2000s.  But his first brush with the disease occurred in the late eighties, when his second wife, Gilda Radner, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Even having this half-knowledge only came about because Wilder took up a proactive role in improving awareness of the disease. He details some of this in a poignant letter written after the passing of his wife, which encapsulates how unlikely and overwhelming such an ordeal can be. The admittance of how ill prepared he was to handle the situation is a powerful statement to his and our humanity.

Gilda compared the effect of their relationship on her life to going from black-white to Technicolor. That’s not far off from what Gene Wilder did to modern comedy on screen with his endearingly anxious characters. And if not to comedy as a whole, then at least to my sorry ass perception of it, because there are few to no actors whose characters I relate to so easily and can still laugh about it. Being me is serious business, of course.

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The Infinte Delights of Werner Herzog

In his talk with Paul Holdengräber, German filmmaker Werner Herzog appears as a man of detail, focused on the minutia of life. A scene from “Death Row”, the recent documentary TV series, portrays an inmate who ecstatically describes that if he had a thousand dollars and a wad of freedom, he would go to the supermarket, line up shopping carts and purchase as much produce as they can hold, so that he may perhaps remind himself of what an avocado tastes like, what peeling it feels like, what it all means to him who is deprived of it. Whether it is in this, or in Herzog’s recounting of obscure German poets and ignored sixteenth century painters, you get a sense that not only the devil’s in the detail, but also our sense of self.

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Who are you looking at?

Holdengräber tries to push Herzog to define what his “gang of characters” is. There is an element of “herzogianism” to them, it seems, something stemming from the minutia of life that gets transcribed into his films and his writing, that something which allows Klaus Kinski or Bruno S. to be as real as they can be. You recognize solitude in all the leads of his works, the kind of loneliness that comes with great ambition, whether looking at Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God or even Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The latter emphasizes Herzog’s dislike of vanilla stories, the simplified versions of things which usually have a positive causality. In the case of Dieter, it was not some childhood dream that instigated his craving, but a near death experience as an enemy fighter jet flew by his house with guns blazing, commanded by a pilot whose glance young Dieter caught for no more than a fleeting second. And the line between reality and stylization, as the director admits, can be managed according to how the truth can be best expressed.

His focus on such documentaries has garnered Herzog great acclaim, establishing his hallmark narration with strong German undercurrents – something that would be a great addition to spice up the occasional university readings. Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss or Grizzly Man are just some of the exceptional ones produced within the last decade – the latter, a phenomenal piece of analysis on the communion between man and nature. If you have seen any of them, you instantly understand Herzog’s critique of highly journalistic ventures into the world of documentary film making: it is not about putting together a convincing dissertation on film, but rather of finding an expression of humanism which transcends fact or fiction.

For a guy who worked in steel mills in his youth and first used a phone when he was seventeen, you can sense to this day a great fascination for technology. The talk began with Herzog detailing his experience of a 360 degree virtual reality device, which is astounding up to the point you realize there is considerable discomfort in the artificial detachment from reality. His remarks reminded me of Max Frisch’s book, Homo Faber, wherein the protagonist is critically viewed as a serial documentarian, who only perceives reality through the lens of a camera. It does sound kind of familiar and this theme of technological detachment has always felt embedded in the reality Herzog creates on film. But the value it brings needs to be mediated and understood within its limitations. It all parallels nicely with the legendary collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, who he admits that he never fought to control, but only to provide a frame to, for his (devastating) creative potential.

His book with Paul Cronin, “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed”, is the latest addition to the wondrous world of the man. Plentiful herzogianisms resides within, the natural consequence of a life tailored to oneself. Yet, I look at the connection between some of the topics discussed with Holdengräber, such as the potential for obscurity of talented persons and the advent of the Internet, and wonder if unrestricted access to platforms for artistic expression works for or against the former. Herzog would probably say that it all works in favour of those who have the desire to find themselves in the world which surrounds them. Or perhaps he would not say it, because some things are better left unsaid.

Originally published in the weekly newspaper of the LSE Students’ Union at the London School of Economics, The Beaver.