Friday, April 1, 2011

On Mitchell Haven (Burdeau’s Hellman book interview)

This is the second of two posts on Monte Hellman. The other is a review of the Brad Stevens book. – D. D.


Title: Monte Hellman: Sympathy for the Devil
Author: Emmanuel Burdeau
Publisher: Capricci (2010)
Pages: 192
Price: 13.5 €
*****
“He crept along till he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.” – Thomas Pynchon, Inherent vice

The thing about Monte Hellman is that he is a filmmaker one feels passionate about. One thing that I disliked about my own Stevens-Hellman post is that in my attempt to do justice to the book, I reduced my own writing to a mere presentation of quotes and facts. Hellman is a filmmaker one should uninhibitedly splurge in enthusiasm, which makes the last page of Burdeau’s introduction, with its run-on sentences and emphasis on colorful imagery, so captivating. There is something about breaking the rules and the validation of it within Hellman’s oeuvre that is so appealing. And, not only is it about breaking the rules, it’s about further pushing the boundaries, which might as well be done in slow-motion (it prolongs the moment), and then burn the frame while you’re at it!

The former Cahiers du Cinéma critic Emmanuel Burdeau’s French-language book Monte Hellman: Sympathy for the Devil, and his whole interview series with Capricci, dispels the conventional way of putting together a book, especially through its use of format - though it is a regular book - the deep-purple cover, the odd index and back-cover (which is similar to Truffaut’s book on Hitch), its use of little quotes on the margins, black-pages between chapters, behind-the-scenes pictures, E.E. Cummings’ poem Tulips & Chimneys (1923), part of the Myth of Sisyphus and extracts from Rudy Wurlitzer’s Nog (and Wurlitzer’s thoughts about working with Hellman), Jack Nicholson’s screenplay for Flight to Fury, and parts of the unrealized script In a Dream of Passion; all contribute to a cinephilic gem. And, there is even a picture of Hellman’s fun-looking dog Moxie, who apparently has a cameo in Road to Nowhere, and Hellman’s margarita recipe: 90ml of Tequila 1800 Silver, 30ml of Cointreau, 30ml of Xylitol syrup, and 30ml of lemon & lime juice. If there was ever a pertinent book, this is the one.

“Like all great movies – ha, ha, ha! – It’s all accidental!”

“Everything is casting.”

Two things that are particularly emphasized for Hellman are accidents and casting. Not like accident as in fluke but as in an emphasis on giving the material the room for improvisation and of chance to go for ones own gut instinct. Letting the subject find itself as the films develops instead of imposing a strict guide. And on the use of casting, can you imagine anyone other than the terrific actors playing out those memorable performances?

It's worth contrasting Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks with the Hellman Westerns. Penn is a director that has consistently been integrating a European aesthetic - like the influence of the French New Wave on Bonnie and Clyde - and an existential mood within particularly American folk tales. The Missouri Breaks feels like a golden age Hollywood Western as if Bergman and Tarkovsky dreamt it. But where The Missouri Breaks recedes is that, where in the Hellman Westerns, like Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, the story dealt more with the mythic American Old West while The Missouri Breaks seems more interested in using the Western as a guise to deal with contemporary experiences, like ‘70s gender politics and generational differences. Where in the Hellman films, Nicholson’s toned down performance puts it into a realm of its own, the Penn film’s screenplay and dialogue seems to have been written to accentuate Jack ‘wild-man’ Nicholson and Marlon ‘Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’ Brando. While the dialogue in the Hellman films is sparse and simple, the Penn film is full of over-exposition. Finally, most of the settings for The Missouri Breaks and the casting, including Harry Dean Stanton, seem to be in immediate dept to Hellman.

“I get mad at a lot of things. I am mad at Universal for massacring Two-Lane Blacktop, for example. The only way to get rid of this anger is too laugh it off.”

The films that get the most space within the book are Road to Nowhere and Two-Lane Blacktop, they take up more than half of the book. There is a Q & A with Hellman and Steven Gaydos at Cal Arts in April 2010 after a Road to Nowhere screening, it is quite insightful. Of particular interest is when Hellman discusses the economy of the Canon 5D Mark II Camera (2,500$), whose high resolution made it perfect to film Road to Nowhere. And to hear that the story of Laurie Bird is a partial inspiration for Road to Nowhere.

Hellman elaborates on the title of the American version of Two-Lane Blacktop, “Two-Lane is the highway with two lanes. A small little rural highway, lets say. Blacktop, is asphalt.” There is a something about the simplicity of the answer, the emptiness of its connotations, and the American landscape that it conjures, which instills these very intense feelings of doubt, loneliness, and escape. Hellman dislikes the French translation of Two-Lane Blacktop which is Macadam a deux voies, “A good translation, but a bad title. I would have preferred Plus Vite (Faster).”

Another thing which is of interest about reading the Hellman interviews is hearing his taste in movies. “An unknown film, which nobody knows of except myself.” Hellman raves about Carol Reed’s Outcast of the Islands, which he first saw in the theater. It is now only available on VHS and a bootleg DVD (a poor transfer from the VHS). This VHS cinephila seems pertinent to Hellman as that's the format Quentin Tarantino would have seen his films when he worked at Video Archives and Brad Stevens’ discusses fourth generation dubs of Back Door to Hell. He is a director who was discovered in the post-theatrical run era and before the pre-DVD age. Brad also expands on VHS life spans and image quality at the Dave Kehr forum. And, it is surprising to hear Hellman is an admirer of James Cameron’s Titanic, it reminds him of his own time at sea, though he hates Avatar. Resnais’ Serge Alexandre Stavisky reminds him of his own father. Tsai Ming-liang is also a favorite. The Spirit of the Beehive, of course. While on the Road to Nowhere Facebook page there is a post dedicated to all of the movie references within Road to Nowhere.

The Criterion Collection DVD for Two-Lane Blacktop is described to be a success, both the original and the director’s cut of Stanley’s Girlfriend are not the true final cut (it is a mixture of the two), Hellman has an affinity towards the American photographer Richard Avedon, and Hellman discusses some restaurants, which, for me, re-contextualize all of the scenes in his films where the characters are eating, one their last simple pleasures.

Monte Hellman: Sympathy for the devil is a blessing. Toronto is still waiting for Road to Nowhere to get its theatrical distribution. - David Davidson

Burdeau: “Now that you have a technical process that you like which isn’t expensive, and you film at your house, you can now make a film every year?”

Hellman: “No. My manner remains the same: a movie every twenty-five years!”

3 comments:

girish said...

David, great to discover this blog! Look forward to following it.

David Davidson said...

Thanks Girish!

I am a big fan.

Kris Gilpin said...

Hi, Fellow Hellman lovers!

Years ago I was privileged enough to interview M.H. In his home, here,s the huge, informative interview!:

http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php?/archives/4107-CINEMA-RETRO-PRESENTS-MONTE-HELLMAN-THE-LOST-INTERVIEW.html

Also, please try my free movie crosswords too, with tons of movie trivia in them, I promise they,re fun ;-):

Tinyurl.com/3seq3cc

Enjoy it all! - Kris Gilpin.