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SFIFF53 Day Four, Part One: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Murch's Three Fathers

by Meredith Brody
April 30, 2010 5:46 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Meredith Brody continues her reports from the San Francisco Film Festival:

Standing in line for the first movie of the day, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a bonbon I’m giving myself as a treat, I chat with the charming woman in front of me, a well-dressed San Franciscan and self-confessed film junkie who’s giving me tips on the lineup based on films she saw at Sundance. Within a very few minutes we discover that we have several friends in common, one of whom, apparently, has just gotten engaged! I resolve to email her congratulations as soon as I get home.

“Standing in line” this year is not as onerous as it sounds, because my press pass has been upgraded to let me stand in the short line inside with people who’ve paid a lot for the privilege – instead of outside the Kabuki, with the single ticket holders. Call me naïve, but in previous years, writing occasionally about the festival, I was flummoxed and confused by the press policy of handing out a limited number of tickets to the press exactly an hour before the film started – which made it awkward and often impossible to segue easily from one movie to another. You’d rush over to the press desk after a movie ended to find all the tickets for the next film already dispersed. You could borrow DVD screeners, but that seemed to vitiate the whole point of a film festival.

Big surprise: of course, just as at Toronto and Berlin and every other festival I’ve attended, there are tiers of accessibility. (I know a couple of critics who were having an affair who broke up after Cannes because he had a better press pass than she did and refused to wait around and sit with her in the poorer seats.) For this year, I’m a member of the group known as Press A (subtle!), a scarlet letter – well, in actuality, it’s black – I’m OK with wearing.

The clothes (of course) and sets for Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky are predictably divine, and the actors – especially Anna Mougalis, as Coco, and Elena Morozova, as Catherine Stravinsky, the cheated-upon wife – eat up their roles. Mads Mikkelsen, who programmer Sean Uyehara billboarded as intense, seems a little adrift as Stravinsky, more acted-upon than acting. I wonder just how tall Stravinsky was: 5’3”, it turns out the strapping Mikkelsen is 6 feet even, as it happens. Of course, both Stravinsky (as a friend says, “beyond a toad”) and Chanel were also considerably less attractive than the actors incarnating them. I bet Katharine Hepburn was a lot cuter than Clara Wieck Schumann, too, as well as looking nothing like Chanel, who she played in the onstage musical. Actors in biopics tend to be more attractive than the people they’re playing – it’s their job.

I haven’t seen anything else directed by Coco & Igor’s Dutch-born Jan Kounen, whose eclectic filmography includes documentaries, crime dramas, comedies, and something described as a “psychedelic Western.” I wonder what the originally-announced Billy Friedkin version of the script, starring Marina “Lady Chatterley” Hands, would have looked like. I’m pleased that, after waiting through the end credits of Coco & Igor, there’s a little gift for the audience – a mysterious shot that seems to reverse the position of two of Chanel’s lovers, Stravinsky and Boy Capel (for more of his story, see Coco Before Chanel, starring the adorable Audrey Tatou, with – predictably – excellent costumes and sets). Kounen likes to do this, it seems – his earlier 99 Francs and Blueberry both feature a surprise after the end credits (thanks, imdb.com!)

The woman waiting ahead of me in line for the State of Cinema address by editor-visionary Walter Murch is upset that none of the festival’s awards this year are being given to women, something I admit I hadn’t noticed. (Tear up my feminist credentials.) I mention that the State of Cinema address had been given by women in the past – Tilda Swinton, among others. “But they didn’t give her an award,” she says. I realize that I’m talking to Lynn Hershman Leeson, who has in point of fact worked with Tilda Swinton more than once, which she tactfully doesn’t point out. We do, however, remember we’ve met at parties given by Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu, when he lived in the same venerable Nob Hill apartment building that she does, in a flat that he has since sold to John Waters. And happily she does not smack me when I cheerfully say “Well, maybe women are just no damn good!”

Murch, editor and/or sound designer of (among others) The Rain People, American Graffiti, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II, The English Patient, and The Talented Mr. Ripley (and author of a book about editing, In the Blink of an Eye), says that new technology is like introducing a new species into the old ecology. We don’t know what effect both will have on the other. We also greet a new technology by complaining about what’s missing – in the iPad’s case, there’s no camera, no USB port – before we explore what it does have. Ironically, he has a teensy bit of trouble starting his projections from his Mac laptop. But when he does, we’re greeted with a beautifully apposite quote from Maxim Gorky in 1896, after seeing his first movie, a Lumiere Bros. film:

“If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without colour, without sound. Every thing there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.”

Yikes! And I thought I was a print queen. Murch says that Gorky wasn’t astounded that there were pictures that were moving – he wanted sound and color, propelling the invention of same. (Gorky’s essay, “On a Visit to the Kingdom of Shadows,” goes on to predict, Murch says, pornographic films and horror/violent films. Tracking down Gorky’s essay later online reveals that he suggested future film titles included “As She Undresses,” or “Madam at Her Bath,” and mentioned the idea of “impaling a fashionable parasite upon a a picket fence, as is the ways of the Turks, photograph him, then show it.”)

Edison, it seems, resisted the idea of group exhibition, preferring that his Kinetoscope showed a few seconds of film to a sole viewer at a time, who plunked in coins for the privilege. He intended to provide sound, too, using a wax-cylinder recording device. Murch shows the brief 1894-5 film featuring a violinist playing as two men dance together (later cited as the “first homosexual film” in the documentary The Celluloid Closet). Amazingly, it was Murch who succeeded in syncing up the sound, digitally, more than a hundred years later, from a rediscovered broken wax cylinder that contained three minutes of music and chatter. “Sex and violins [violence]!,” Murch cracked, “and the microphone is visible in the shot.”

Murch asked “What if cinema had been invented a hundred years earlier – 1789 rather than 1889?,” “a new species introduced into the cultural ecosystem?” He shows examples of missed opportunities from the past: an Aztec wheeled toy from 1450 A.D., but they didn’t make the leap to inventing carts with wheels – there were plenty of slaves to drag stones around. Another invention that stayed a toy was a Greek steam engine from 100 B.C. Leon Scott invented a recording device called the photoautograph in Paris in 1857 that visualized soundwaves – but there was no way to play them back. (Digitizing one of his graphic papers of peaks and valleys that survives from 1860 yields an enchanting, scratchy rendition of “Au clair de la lune” that Murch likes to think was warbled by Scott’s 9-year-old daughter.) Edison, who quite probably knew of Scott’s invention, substituted tinfoil for Scott’s paper and was off to the races. Why didn’t the Egyptians invent the zoetrope before William George Horner in 1834?

Murch paid homage to what he calls the Three Fathers of Cinema: Beethoven, who unlike the architectural music of Haydn and others before him celebrated the chaos of nature with unruly dynamics (“He puts doves and crocodiles together in the same cage,” wrote a contemporary critic; Flaubert, whose realism and minute descriptions (“I wrote four pages today and nothing happened!”)infused the everyday with poetry; and Edison, the chemo-mechanical engineer whose inventions enabled other artists to fuse dynamism with realism in the movies. (See the video here.)

During the Q & A, a question about the importance of women in the editing field, citing the recently-deceased Dede Allen, led Murch to say that he was inspired by her cutting of The Hustler to be a film editor himself (“it revealed to me the power of colliding images”), and that she mentored many other editors. It also led to Murch’s single most quotable, and possibly inflammatory, line of the afternoon: “All editors are feminine – in the sense that we’re cooking what the guys brought back from the hunt. We put up with their tantrums and console them.”.

A question about where Murch thought we were headed – after all, the lecture’s overall title was the State of Cinema – brought to the screen a graph labeled “repeatable” and “unique” along its top, and “communal” and “private” down its side, resulting in four boxes: cinema is communal and repeatable, theater is unique and communal, video is private and repeatable, dreams are private and unique. (Nowadays, with inhome theaters “that can run rings around local multiplexes,” he admitted there’s a blurring between cinema and video. But, Murch said, there’s an added virtue in sociability – gesturing at his large, rapt crowd.) In the middle of the graph he added a circle, encompassing the communal, private, repeatable, and unique, labeled “game.” In the future, it seems, a thousand people might gather in this theater and play a game against a thousand other people somewhere else, which might be archived for future showings. I’d be happy with one of those state-of-the-art home theaters.

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