Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn Academy of Music’

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Q&A Notes: Liv Ullman at BAM

December 6, 2009

For the past few weeks, BAM has been showing a retrospective of Liv Ullman’s films in conjunction with her staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, a production that has gathered a fair share of enthusiastic acclaim.

During a Q&A session after an afternoon screening of Cries and Whispers, Ullman gave some amusing and self-deprecating insights into her work, particularly her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman.

Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead.

To start, she singled out this extended close-up in Cries and Whispers, where Erland Josephson details all the changes in her character’s face:

“You are beautiful… but you have changed. These days you cast rapid, calculating, sidelong glances. You’re gaze used to be direct, open, and without any disguise. Your mouth is an expression of discontent and hunger. It used only to be soft. Your complexion has become pallid, you use make-up. Your fine, broad forehead now has four creases above each eyebrow… And this fine contour from the ear to the chin… it’s no longer quite so evident. That’s where complacency and indolence reside… Look here, at the bridge of the nose, why do you sneer so often, Maria?… Beneath your eyes, those sharp, barely visible wrinkles of boredom and impatience.”

Ullman admitted she wasn’t feeling modest when they filmed this scene – fairly confident about her appearance, she was filled only with bewilderment at Josephson’s lines. (“How can he make all of this up?”) When she finally saw a cut of the film, she realized how damning the scene looked with her puzzled expression…to her, it was a fine example of how an actor can find the right note without fully grasping what they’re doing.

The most revealing anecdote involved a pivotal scene in Bergman’s Face to Face, where her character attempts suicide in her childhood bedroom. Apparently, Bergman gave her very little direction, telling her, “Okay, in this scene, you take some pills, you lie down and then you die.” (cue audience’s laughter) As soon as he said that, Bergman then turned to the prop master and said, “Are you sure you replaced the Valium with fake pills?” An obvious joke, but Ullman entertained herself with a touch of paranoia, wondering if he was serious, and that was enough to spark her imagination. To her, that was the key to any convincing performance – in other words, good direction set off the imagination (or “fantasizing”) necessary for any actor lose themselves in a character or a scene. Beginning with Bergman’s remark, Ullman detailed her entire thought process throughout that take: following the paranoia, her hands were able to shake from anxiety. Then, she realized she had to take many pills, perhaps all of them, in order to successfully kill herself, and Ullman didn’t liked swallowing pills in general, much less many pills – that ratcheted up her anxiety even more. Then when she laid down to die, Bergman remained silent, which meant the scene had to continue. She then began to pick up details in the room, like a mural, and she felt it because she thought it was something she had seen in this room throughout her childhood so she wanted to touch it one last time. She then looked at her watch because she curious what her time of death would be. Finally, Bergman said, “Thank you,” and that was the end of the scene.

She later noted that bad direction gave her a better idea on how to handle actors, recalling one experience (without identifying the film or director) where she was given very technical instructions. “Walk over here, say your line, count to five, then go here…” Following such instructions (especially counting out beats in her head) took her completely out of the scene.

Ullman discussed Persona, pointing out that she and Bibi Andersson were already best friends when they made that film and kept virtually no secrets from each other. The one scene she focused on was Andersson’s famous retelling of an orgy – apparently the physical details of her character’s reactions were all carefully scripted (the look she needed in her eyes, even the growth in her character’s lips). It struck her as excessive, a lapse in Bergman’s direction, but he was able to get her to follow through.

(As a side-note, five years ago, I caught a restoration of “Persona” presented by MGM archivist John Kirk. Though he wasn’t fluent in Swedish, he knew enough that he was dissatisfied with most translations of the film’s dialogue. So for the ‘orgy scene,’ he got several translators to work on it and then used the least inhibited translation for the new film prints and the DVD reissue.)

Ullman then briefly discussed her only line in the film (“Nothing!”) which she claims she’s seen mistranslated in some prints (not Kirk’s, I hope), and she confessed that she and Andersson believed Persona “would never be heard from again because it was soweird.”

Ullman then said that the most satisfying experience she’s ever had making a film was actually Jan Troell’s The Emigrants/The New Land. She credits that to Troell’s background as a cinematographer – apparently the camera was constantly filming and hovering about on the set, a tactic that kept her ‘lost’ in the film which she believed reinforced her performance.

She had some amusing things to say about her last directorial effort on film, Faithless, which Bergman wrote. In that film, the director’s name is “Bergman,” but when Ullman brought up the explicit referential nature of that character, Bergman went coy, telling her, “Oh no, it’s just a name I came up with…” Bergman tried not to interfere with Ullman’s work, but he initially disagreed with two of her choices (showing forgiveness to the lead male character and a shot of “Bergman” looking at himself on the beach). In both cases, he eventually told Ullman that she was right and he was wrong, and in the case of the latter, he even duplicated the shot for his own autobiographical documentary.

Ullman also said she would never direct another film – unfortunate but not surprising if you read Vogue‘s recent feature on Cate Blanchett. She said she no longer had the stamina to deal with the business side of filmmaking (mainly getting backers), and she didn’t like producers who meddle, something she claims is comparatively absent in her experience in the theater.

The afternoon’s most amusing anecdote involved her only experience in a stage musical back in the 1970s. She told the producers she didn’t know how to sing or dance, but apparently they just said, “Oh, you’re charming and pretty, you’ll do fine.” She repeated the same fears to the composer Richard Rodgers, who was by then fairly old. He told her, “Don’t worry, I’ve worked with plenty of actors who’ve never had any singing experience…I’ll write something that’ll fit your voice and you’ll have nothing to worry about it. I just need to know your range, so just sing for me ‘Happy Birthday.'” Ullman obliged, and she swears that Rodgers aged ten years right in front of her. She followed through on the project, and she admits there was a great deal of fun, “but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have done it?” (Very hysterical the way she delivered this.)

Finally, she closed the Q&A by discussing her plans to tour a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in her home country – something Norwegians can look forward to next year.

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Juliette Binoche at BAM

September 22, 2009

Tonight, I saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue as part of a Juliette Binoche retrospective at BAM. First time I saw it was 1994, when I was just getting acquainted with film, and at the time, it was like solving a puzzle: every detail had to be broken down and analyzed over and over again until the characters and the whole picture could be easily explained. 15 years later, there wasn’t any need for analysis – everything was recognized and understood, easily and immediately. I credit this to familiarity, not from repeated viewing, but from experiences since then…

I’ll write more about this later (and about two films by Martin Scorsese – time for me’s a rare commodity these days), but I want to share one shot before moving on to Binoche:

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent

I’ve never noticed this until tonight, and it’s further proof of how much is lost when you see a film on a television set (or a computer screen). Projected in 35mm, the detail was obvious: Binoche is soft while Régent is in razor sharp focus. (FWIW, I doctored the image above to make this more apparent.)

The one on the left is escaping an enormous amount of pain and will leave behind memory and emotional attachment. The one on the right is in love with her.

The depth of field is so shallow, Régent only needs to be placed a few inches to Binoche’s right, allowing her shadowed features to dissolve ever so slightly, inching towards anonymity.

•     •     •

Binoche is currently performing a dance-theater piece at BAM’s Harvey Theater, just a few blocks down the road, and she showed up after the screening to discuss Blue and her career. She was kind to the audience and very articulate (not to mention radiant).

Possibly the most surprising revelation about Blue was that Kieślowski preferred ONE take; Binoche had to push for two. His initial excuse was to simplify the editing process with less options, but Binoche pointed out that Kieślowski made most of his films in Cold War Poland and tight resources in that environment would have influenced his work ethic.

When shooting for Blue began, Kieślowski apparently rehearsed each scene as many as five times before turning on the camera for a final take; towards the end of the film, Binoche convinced Kieślowski to flip the ratio around. (Binoche joked that whenever an unsatisfactory take fell short of a standard met in rehearsal, she would needle Kieślowski that they would’ve avoided the problem had they filmed their later rehearsals as actual takes.)

She also talked briefly about Michael Haneke (who saw right through her in Code Unknown but to her surprise couldn’t seem to read her in Caché), about Abbas Kiarostami (who offered to develop one of her ideas, a proposal she hasn’t quite accepted yet) and the creative freedom Hou Hsiao-Hsien gave her in The Flight of the Red Balloon (which apparently was improvised all the way through, with complete freedom given to the actors and the cinematographer). She clearly enjoyed working with all of them.

Her most striking comments involved the filmmaking process in Hollywood. For starters, she didn’t want to differentiate between American filmmakers and others because each individual director was different for personal reasons, not just cultural. Having said that, she echoed the same sentiment I’ve heard from many veteran actors – that filmmaking had become more and more of a technical craft, to the point where it’s dissolving the relationship between directors and actors. Twice she mentioned “TV controllers,” and initially, I thought she was referring to video assists. The second time, she sketched out more details, of directors spending more time in a separate room, lined with monitors, while consulting with script assistants. Paul Newman used to lament this trend; it made it easy for an actor to feel lost right before a scene, as if they were abandoned by the director. This set-up was unusual to Binoche twenty years ago, and she compared it to Kieślowski’s presence on Blue, where he, like most of her directors then, would stake his place next to the camera. (Kieślowski also trusted his cameraman to follow through on their plans, enough that he rarely monitored his work.) The same with Hirokazu Koreeda – in a recent conversation with Binoche, he agreed with her sentiments and revealed that he never directs his films that way, preferring to stay next to the camera as well.

Technology was supposed to make filmmaking easier, to make it more accessible so that it can truly become an art form the way Godard once defined it (something as affordable as paint and brushes rather than an endeavor for the wealthy). In Hollywood, the tools seem to be taking over, inflating costs and dictating the methods of the filmmaker instead of the other way around.

When Binoche talked about her experience making a Hollywood film, she wasn’t trying to be critical, but she described a process that felt stifling creatively. She detailed a slow and bloated procedure weighed down by the demands of rote coverage (shooting a standard laundry list of shots as if they were following an instruction manual). This was in stark contrast to Kieślowski, who knew exactly what he wanted and filmed only those shots before moving on to the next scene. With the larger production, “making” a film was more like making a product.

To be fair, she did mention that Haneke’s methods were equally elaborate as well (I might have misheard, but it sounds like he uses some sort of sophisticated modeling to plan out his films). But I came away believing that filmmaking had become too dependent on its technological trappings, that it was time to shed them.