Film Scouts Diaries

2004 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Diary 4

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic, July 8 -- Nostalgia. Putting today's life on suspension, flash-forwarding into the past. That's what tributes are for.

Born in Prague, based wherever the work took him, i.e. nearly everywhere in the world, Miroslav Ondricek is one of the greatest cinematographers alive. It was only fitting for the 39th Karlovy Vary international film festival to honor him on opening night. The film artist, ''a painter with images'', not only evoked the director he is most associated with, Milos Forman, he also paid tribute to Jan Nemec and Ivan Passer, the veteran Czech directors and cinematographers who ''taught him everything''. A montage of the films he worked on gave ample room of course to Milos Forman, from Audition to Amadeus through Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, but also showed -- and that came as a surprise to most of the audience - clips from British director Lindsey Anderson's early films: his short White Bus, and his features, If... and O Lucky Man -- none of which has lost any of its energy. The only thing one can regret is that only Milos Forman's Hair was shown on a well-attended gala night during the Festival.

One also wishes the festival had shown more of Sergio Leone's work than the director's cut of Once Upon a Time in America. However, watching this nearly four-hour version of the Italian director's masterpiece makes you understand all the more what some consider as missing from Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Be that as it may, any videotheque that doesn't have both can only be considered as incomplete.

Day for Night is a valentine to the world of cinema and filmmaking. The film was made in 1973 by François Truffaut, who died 20 years ago. Actress Jacqueline Bisset, more beautiful than ever, reminisced during her press conference: ''Truffaut was one of the directors whose work I knew the best, but I never thought I would be invited to be in one of his films. This world was too far away, too magical for me... When he contacted me, he said ''Please bring your movie star wardrobe.'' I didn't have a movie star wardrobe! I hardly had a wardrobe at all! I was living like a hippie, at the beach, and had no wardrobe at all! I bought three outfits. I had never spent so much money in my life!'' Bisset also told of a time in the ''swinging London of the 60s'' when she switched from modeling to acting and made her debut in a little film called The Knack by an unknown Brit named Richard Lester, along with other burgeoning actresses named Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling. ''There was something uncannily youthful in those films,'' said one of the directors in competition. ''Wouldn't it be wonderful to try and recapture the energy of those days?''

Gena Rowlands is one hell of an actress. We all know that. But perhaps more than any living actress in the world (and that includes Jackie Brown's Pam Greer), she knows how to walk. Let the camera just follow her as she walks on screen, and you immediately have a whole character, complete with heavy secrets and a tormented past. Nothing is more purely cinematographic than her running down a staircase dragging a kid in John Cassavetes's Gloria. ''You have no idea how long it took to get that dress right,'' she once told a reporter, modestly giving all the credit to the French designer who had made the dress.

Nice try, Ms Rowlands, but we don't buy it. The films that she made with her late husband John Cassavetes - including Opening Night, Minnie and Moskowitz and Woman Under the Influence, all shown here - redefine the notion of ''independent'' filmmaking and are still unlike anything you have ever seen. ''That is because he was first and foremost an actor,'' said co-star Ben Gazzara during a press conference, ''and always believed the actors made the movie, not the director, not the cinematographer. Things changed as we went along. He even wondered, at some point during the shooting of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, whether we should eventually kill that bookie. 'Of course, we should! For God's sake, the film is called KILLING of a Chinese Bookie, remember?''

''There were never any marks on the floor that the actor had to hit,'' recalled Al Ruban, Cassavetes' former producer (and the president of this year's jury). ''He just wanted the camera to follow the actors, and if they were out of focus for a second, so be it. The main thing to keep was the truth of the moment.''

How did the two men meet? "I was working in a parking lot," Ruban replied. ''We started chatting, he hired me on the spot for a film he was about to make called Shadows. And I never looked back.''

Director Alexandra ('Xan') Cassavetes also turns to the past. For her first feature-length documentary, the daughter of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands focuses on the Z Channel, one of the first pay cable TV stations that started broadcasting in Los Angeles in 1974. The ''magnificent obsession'' of a man named Jeffrey Harvey, the Z Channel combined the classics with the independents, the international with Hollywood - well, a certain type of Hollywood films. Before HBO was even born, the Z Channel stubbornly showed retrospectives and directors' cuts of such gems as Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. Following the rise and fall of the Z Channel (which ended in tragic circumstances in 1989), using testimonies from famous filmmakers (Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven) as well as well-known actors (James Woods crediting the Z Channel for his Salvador Best-Actor nomination, Jacqueline Bisset talking of Philippe de Broca's Le Magnifique - see how it all ties up?), Xan Cassavetes is bringing back a important chapter of America's cultural history. If one were to define The Z Channel: a Magnificent Obsession with one word, that word would be ''sharp''. Can't wait till the lady tackles fiction.

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