Scorsese, Cassavetes, Mean Streets

Great interview with Martin Scorsese talking about the making of Mean Streets (1973). Scorsese talks interestingly about many things, including the impact of John Cassavetes’ Shadows on Mean Streets; how Cassavetes gave Scorsese work on Minnie and Moskowitz; and advised the younger man to keep his distance from Roger Corman, for whom Scorsese had made Boxcar Bertha, and who wanted Scorsese to work on exploitation flicks (Corman even suggested that Scorsese make Mean Streets with a black cast to cash in on the blaxploitation fad). Richard Romanus who plays Michael in Mean Streets (and also played  Richard LaPenna in The Sopranos, a series indebted to Scorsese but whose gangsters, Scorsese reveals, he doesn’t understand) now lives on Skiathos and has written about relocating from Hollywood to Greece as well as penning a novel set during the Greek civil war.

Werner Herzog and the ecstatic dream world of tragedy

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is a masterpiece and possibly the best film I’ve ever seen at capturing and portraying the essence of Greek tragedy, the madness, terror and ‘ecstatic dream world’ that Nietzsche identifies.

The film is based on a true case of matricide committed in San Diego in the 1970s and concerns the descent into insanity of the killer son; an insanity prompted to an extent by the young man’s participation in a production of Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, in which he plays Orestes, on the run after slaying his mother Clytemnestra. Herbert Golder, a classicist at Boston University, co-wrote with Herzog the superb screenplay, full of demented poetry. Above is a clip from the film, in which the director of The Eumenides is explaining the play to his cast.

The film received a limited cinema release; it was only on for a week or so at one cinema here in London, but I managed to download it as a torrent form Pirate Bay, here.

Cassavetes: I'm almost not crazy

Above is a very funny clip from I’m Almost Not Crazy, the documentary on the making of John Cassavetes’ last film Love Streams (1984). In the clip, which is like a scene from a Cassavetes’ movie, Cassavetes and his cousin and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael passionately argue about the merits of Socrates over a game of backgammon. Below is an interview given by Phedon Papamichael to the Independent Film Quarterly’s Stuart Alson in 2006, in which Papamichael discusses working with Cassavetes.

Phedon Papamichael: My life with John Cassavetes
Being in the film business, sometimes I am asked to serve on the Jury at film festivals. If my schedule permits, I accept the offer


In March 2006, I flew 15 hours from Las Vegas to Cyprus for the their first annual film festival, Cyprus International Film Festival (CIFF). During this business trip I found such a gem. However it was not a film, as I had hoped and expected, but it was a person. Had I not served on the Jury Committee in Cyprus, I would never have met this man.

Phedon Papamichael is 84 years old. He had a film career in Los Angeles working on John Cassavetes’ films.

IFQ: You worked with John Cassavetes for 25 years on his films. What was your job in the film business and how did you get started?

PP: I started doing art design for theatre in France. When I came back to Greece, I met Jules Dassin. He said forget the theatre; let’s make movies. I said that I didn’t know what to do, but he said don’t worry. I did two movies with him, Never on Sunday and Phaedra. Then John Cassavetes came to our home to visit. He was my second cousin. He asked me to come to America to make movies together. I did not go right away, but eventually I did go and we lived together for 25 years and made movies.

IFQ: What was it like working together? 

PP: It was wonderful. I was in charge of art design and costumes. However, whatever movies we made – we made together. We shot and edited them together in the house where we lived. We had two moviolas in the garage.

IFQ: How did you distribute the films?

PP: Many times, we had no money. We would go to theatres and ask them to play the films and they could keep all of the money. Then in the middle of the night, we would go around town and hang posters ourselves. It was all about the art and the work. John Cassavetes was the first independent filmmaker. He did not want money from some moneyman or studio because he did not want them telling him what to do. Everything was done on deferments and everyone worked for free or for points.

IFQ: How did you fund the projects?

PP: John and his wife would do acting jobs and put the money they made into the films. Also if things were tight John would turn to the actors, like Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, and say, ‘Hey you stingy Peter Falk, put 50,000 dollars in to the film so we can finish.’ And they would. It was all about the film, not the money and everyone wanted to work with John. Steven Speilberg was our production assistant. He would go and get coffee and run errands just to learn from John.

IFQ: What were your favorite movies that you made?

PP: I did not have a favorite movie. It was how we made certain movies that made them my favorite. I remember A Woman Under the Influence. We had no money at all. We had no money to feed the crew. We ate at McDonalds. But John said, ‘I don’t care we are going to make this movie.’ It was that type of adventurous independence that I loved. With Faces, it took us four years to finish the film. We would run out of money and John and his wife would take acting jobs and then come back and work on the film some more. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was great fun too.

IFQ: What was the worst thing that happened when you worked with John?

PP: The worst thing that happened was one time we got into a fistfight with each other.

IFQ: What happened?

PP: When we had breakfast together that morning, John told me that he wanted something a certain way on the set and I disagreed. When he came to shoot, he saw that I had not done what he wanted. We got into an argument and I said I was leaving. He shouted, ‘No one walks off my set.’ Of course, the set was actually in our house. I went to leave and we got into a physical fight. I ran away and he tried to chase me but could not catch me. I called later that night after we cooled off. He said to come home. When we saw each other, we kissed and that was the end of that.

IFQ: What happened after John died?

PP: I tried to find someone else with the same love and independence to work with, but I could never find the same happiness. I tried Peter Bogdanovich and others, but it was never the same. 
I stayed in Los Angeles and worked on more films like the The Fabulous Baker Boys. I tried to help new people and give them advice, like Leonardo DiCaprio and others. He had a big party for me last time I went back.

IFQ: Why did you finally leave Los Angeles and return to Greece?

PP: Well, I just could not find anyone to work with who was like John. The last thing I did was with Charlie Sheen, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Nick Cassavetes [John’s son].

 Everyone put in some money and we opened a beautiful production office called Ventura Productions. We planned to make films. We had great offices and receptionists, but everyone just used the place to hang out and party. We did make one film with Gérard Depardieu because he wanted to do a John Cassavetes’ script. 

But that was it, so I came back to Greece where I started my life. I spend time helping new people, when I can and when they will listen. My son [Phedon Papamichael II] and his success give me happiness. [Phedon Papamichael II is a cinematographer whose credits include: Walk the Line, Sideways, Identity, America’s Sweethearts, Patch Adams, and Poison Ivy]. 

IFQ: What advice do you have for new people starting in the film business?

PP: I tell them: If you have talent and you love that talent, then you should go for what you want and do not give up just because things don't go your way sometimes. If you have talent and do not love that talent, then don’t worry about it. I know many people who are talented but do not love their talent.

IFQ: What about stress?

PP: Stress is the worst thing for anyone. Stress can kill a person. You must keep your mind clear and deal with what is in front of you.

Bergman the optimist?

Mozart, Bergman, Castoriadis

Ingmar Bergman’s films are not normally associated with optimism and joyfulness, yet his version (1975) of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is, on one level, a rapturous tribute to love, a fervent affirmation of life, which endorses Mozart’s Enlightenment imbued repudiation of darkness, superstition and tyranny.

On another level, however, the film of The Magic Flute clearly incorporates Bergman’s more recognisable themes – despair, death, suicide, madness, family dysfunction, the absence of meaning in a world devoid of God and hope, and the centrepiece remains the bloodcurdling and exhilarating aria (above video) – The Vengeance of Hell Boils in My Heart – in which the Queen of the Night urges her daughter Pamina, to murder her father, Sarastro, the queen’s estranged husband.

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

A world without the solace of God and hope is the Greek vision of human life too, says Cornelius Castoriadis in his essay The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy.

Hope, in this sense, according to Castoriadis, corresponds to that ‘central human wish and delusion that there be some essential correspondence… between our desires and decisions, on the one hand, and the world, the nature of being, on the other. Hope is the ontological, cosmological, and ethical assumption that the world is not just something out there, but cosmos in the archaic and proper sense, [i.e.] a total order which includes us, our wishes, and our strivings as its organic and central components. The philosophical translation of this assumption is that being is ultimately good. As is well known, the first one who dared to proclaim this philosophical monstrosity was Plato…’ (For more on Castoriadis’ confrontation with Plato see here).

At the core of the Greek imaginary, then, according to Castoriadis, is not being as good but being as chaos, the world rooted not in cosmos but in void and nothingness. The absence of order in the world also, necessarily, permeates human experience and human endeavour, which Castoriadis characterises as ‘the lack of positive correspondence between human intentions and actions, on one hand, and their result and outcome, on the other’.

Humans striving for knowledge and meaning, in a vain effort to unite thoughts, desires, decisions and actions, in which self-awareness proves elusive or catastrophic, resulting in despair and self-destruction, as the chaos we sought to confront, obscure or deny ends up overwhelming us, is more like the Bergman we know and love, the Bergman of Scenes from a Marriage, Hour of the Wolf, From the Life of the Marionettes and so on.

All of which might suggest that the excessive joyfulness and optimism of The Magic Flute is an aberration for Bergman. But this is not the case.

For just as Greek creativity was predicated on an awareness of the latent and not so latent ubiquity of chaos – an awareness producing, at its most accomplished, at its most creative – in the instance of the Athenian polis – not only Athenian tragedy but also Pericles’ Funeral Oration – in which Pericles defines Greek creativity as the creation of human beings and Athenian citizens who can live with and practice beauty and wisdom and love the common good – so in Bergman’s The Magic Flute, creativity, the creative possibilities he offers Tamina and Pamina, remain circumscribed by a world which is chaos.

Certainly, Bergman allows the young, tormented lovers, Princess Pamina and Prince Tamina, to emerge in triumph from the House of Trials, having overcome ‘death and despair’, ready to take their place as guardians of the Temple of Wisdom in preparation to rule, after Sarastro’s abdication, over a kingdom, as Tamina puts it, based on ‘art, wisdom and beauty’; but there is no way Bergman is suggesting that their victory is complete or everlasting.

We know this not only because we have Marianne and Johann in Scenes from a Marriage and Peter and Katarina in From the Life of the Marionettes – who no doubt had moments of joy before their unions and lives disintegrated into brutality and humiliation, before joy gave way to catastrophe – to refer to, but also because in The Magic Flute Bergman is careful to remind us of the ever-present possibility – indeed, the certainty – that in any contest between beauty and wisdom, on the one hand, and strife and chaos, on the other, strife and chaos will always have the upper hand, by having the Queen of the Night, at the end of the film, as she and her followers retreat from a failed attempt to seize control of the Temple of Wisdom, and having declared ‘our power is shattered, our might destroyed’, then smile contemptuously at Sarastro, who returns her mocking glance with one of fear and recognition – recognition that the Queen of the Night is not done yet, that she’ll be returning to the fray shortly, proving that for Bergman, like Castoriadis and the Greeks, the essence of being can never be good, but is always chaos.

Bergman, Philemon and Baucis

Full of astonishment I look back on our lives, on our former reality and think it was all a dream. It was a game. Lord knows what the hell we were doing. This is true reality and it’s unbearable. I talk, answer, think, put on my clothes, sleep and eat. It’s a daily compulsion. A strange, hard surface. But under the surface, I’m crying. I’m crying for myself… because I can no longer be the way I was. What was, can never be again. It’s been destroyed. It’s gone… like a dream.’ (Katarina, From the Life of the Marionettes).

Philemon and Baucis, an old married couple, poor but devoted and therefore content, are the only ones in their town in Phrygia who show hospitality to two bedraggled strangers – who it transpires are Hermes and Zeus. The gods spare the couple as they destroy the town that repudiated them and offer them a wish; they choose to be together forever and that when one of them dies the other should die at the same time. Their wish is granted and when they die they are changed into intertwining trees.

A myth about the sacredness of hospitality, honouring the gods, global hubris, how poverty of circumstance need not lead to poverty of heart, fidelity, love and so on.

The idea of two people who have become inseparable, who have got to know and depend on each other so much that they have almost become one person, is an aspect of the Philemon and Baucis myth that appealed to Ingmar Bergman when he made From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) – except that in Bergman, Peter and Katarina’s inseparability and intertwining have bred hate, humiliation, torture, loneliness, perversion and a fervent desire to kill each other – repressed rage which the smallest detail – ‘a word, a gesture, a tone of voice’ – could release, and is eventually released, leading to shocking violence, to a murder or, as Bergman repeatedly refers to it in the film, to a ‘catastrophe’.

From the Life of the Marionettes – which I saw yesterday – is a dark and brutal film about being trapped – by our childhoods, families, lovers, desires, dreams, society, time and so on – about how, as Peter repeatedly states, ‘there is no way out’ – from the past, present and future; but it is not a depressing film, and this is because the film presents the truth – of our own vulnerabilities, suffering and chaotic existence – and the truth is always uplifting.

* (The above clip is the only one I could find of From the Life of the Marionettes. It is a montage put together by a Youtube user, with music added not belonging to the film. The clip has some female nudity in it, so Americans should be careful before they click play).

Sam Peckinpah's Homeric Westerns

‘Death is overcome when it is made welcome instead of merely being experienced, and when it makes life a perpetual gamble and endows it with exemplary value so that men will praise it as a model of “imperishable glory.” When the hero gives up a long life in favor of an early death, whatever he loses in honors paid to his living person he more than regains a hundredfold with the glory that will suffuse his memory for all time to come. Archaic Greek culture is one in which everyone lives in terms of others, under the eyes and in the esteem of others, where the basis of a personality is confirmed by the extent to which its reputation is known; in such a context, real death lies in amnesia, silence, demeaning obscurity, the absence of fame. By contrast, real existence – for the living or the dead – comes from being recognized, valued, and honored. Above all, it comes from being glorified as the central figure in a song of praise, a story that endlessly tells and retells of a destiny admired by all.’ (Jean-Pierre Vernant: A “Beautiful Death” and the Disfigured Corpse in Homeric Epic).

Legein's discussion of High Noon and tragedy prompted me to watch again one of my favourite Westerns, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid I have this to say:

If there's a more beautiful, poetic and Homeric American film than Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, a more relentless and uncompromising statement in American film of the tragic vision, in which life is brief, brutal and absurd, an American film more obsessed and haunted by mortality, in which death is portrayed as remorseless, beyond mediation or amelioration and from which there is definitely no return and that the only way to cope with death, let alone overcome it, is to embrace it, in which the nature of the kalos thanatos (beautiful death), as reserved for Billy the Kid, is demonstrated, then I haven't seen this film.

The above clip is of Slim Pickens (as Sheriff Baker) dying a Homeric death as Bob Dylan, who has a cameo role in the film as the knife-wielding Alias, sings Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Mama, take this badge off of me, I can't use it anymore. It's gettin' dark, too dark for me to see. I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door. Mama, put my guns in the ground, I can't shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is comin' down. I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

It doesn't get much better than this in American film.

I've made available in Radio Akritas, for anyone interested, Knockin' on Heaven's Door and Billy's Theme, in which Dylan sings of the exploits, virtues and destiny of the eponymous 'hero'. I can’t say I’m a massive Dylan fan, though, curiously, his paternal grandfather and grandmother were (Jews) from Constantinople and Trapezounta respectively.

Sam Fuller in tragedy mode

In Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Johnny Barrett is a brilliant journalist who feigns sexual perversion to get committed to a lunatic asylum where a murder has been committed, which he wants to solve and win the Pulitzer Prize.

Once inside the mental home, Barrett ingratiates himself with the three witnesses to the crime – an operatic uxoricide; a black Klansman; and a genius nuclear physicist who has regressed to childhood to escape the guilt over his catastrophic discoveries – and cracks the case but only at the expense of cracking up himself.

The film begins and ends with the famous quote from Euripides – ‘whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad’ – and Fuller seems well versed in Greek tragedy.

Johnny Barrett is like Oedipus, a man with a brilliant intellect, supremely confident of himself and his mental powers, trying to track down a murderer, to uncover the truth of a horrible crime, only to succumb to insanity and ruin.

Barrett like Oedipus fails to realise the dangers inherent in the obsessive pursuit and acquisition of knowledge; is oblivious to the limits of self-knowledge (know thyself/gnothi seauton does not mean acquire self-mastery but know the limitations of human nature); and aspires to the truth not for its own sake, or for the love of enquiry, but to subdue the truth and satisfy his ego.

Christopher Rocco and Bernard Knox say that, in the figure of Oedipus, Sophocles is satirising Periclean/imperial Athens – Oedipus tyrannos as Athens tyrannos – and warning of the perils for individuals and cities in love with power:

‘Oedipus embodies the splendor and power of Athens: his attempt to assert dominion over nature and his unquenchable drive for human mastery; his forcefulness of purpose, his impatience, decisiveness, and daring, bordering on recklessness; his intoxication with his own accomplishments, his liberation from the constraints of all traditional pieties; his restlessness, innovation, and ingenuity; his designs that are swift alike in conception and execution, all recall the “fierce creative energy, the uncompromising logic, the initiative and daring which brought Athens to the pinnacle of worldly power.”’

Not only do Oedipus’ attributes recall Athens, but they also recall America, and Fuller, too, in Shock Corridor is interested in unveiling America tyrannos and showing us a hubristic society, prone to self-destruction and insanity.

Godard’s Odyssey

Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt), made in 1963, is, among other things, a meditation on Homer’s Odyssey, a celebration of Mediterranean landscape and culture and an exposition of the filmmaker’s love/hate relationship with America.

Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is invited by American film producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the screenplay of The Odyssey because he feels the version being filmed by the director, Fritz Lang – who plays himself – is too intellectual.

The American wants more sex in Lang’s Homer – and not just more sex, but more of everything, without being able to define what he wants more of, he just wants more – and although Paul is reluctant to undermine Lang, the money Jerry offers him for joining the project, which Paul thinks will please his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), overcomes his doubt and guilt.

In fact, Paul becomes so impressed by Jerry’s money and power, so enamoured with the glamour of filmmaking, so anxious not to alienate his benefactor, that he encourages his wife to go along with the advances of the voracious American, virtually offering her to him on a plate, prompting her to lose respect and love for her husband, to feel the ‘contempt’ which constitutes the title of the film.

Paul and Camille’s disintegrating marriage – revealed in an extraordinary 30-minute sequence of fighting, insults and arguing – encourages the writer to accept Jerry’s interpretation of The Odyssey as a tale of a poisoned marriage, of Penelope’s infidelity and Odysseus’ ennui.

For Jerry, Odysseus leaves Ithaca to fight the Trojan war because he is bored with Penelope, and stays away for so long because he can’t stand the prospect of returning to his wife, who far from being faithful and patient is, according to Jerry, resentful of Odysseus for abandoning her and cuckolds him with the suitors.

Lang, the personification of European sophistication and old world charm, always ready with a quote from Holderlin or Dante, hates this interpretation of Odysseus as a ‘modern neurotic’, but is impotent to impose his view on Jerry – the bullying, crude American film producer, who quotes trite aphorisms written on scraps of paper he keeps in his pockets, who expects the world to conform to his desires, and who ‘likes gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.’

When Fritz Lang defends his vision of The Odyssey – ‘it’s a story of man’s fight against the gods’ – and tells Jerry that in his film ‘finally, you get the feel of Greek culture’ – Jerry says: ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my chequebook,’ echoing Gestapo chief Hermann Goering: ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.’

The exchange is an early hint of the anti-Americanism which infamously characterises Godard’s films – though Le Mépris, infused with references to Rancho Notorious, Hatari, Bigger Than Life, Some Came Running, Rio Bravo, Griffith, Chaplin and United Artists, also shows how much Godard’s imagination has been shaped by American film and culture.

In Eloge de l’amour (2000) – in which one of the plot lines involves Spielberg Associates and Incorporated trying to buy the rights to make a French resistance movie – Godard has his protagonist Edgar say: ‘Americans have no real past… They have no memory of their own. Their machines do, but they have none personally. So they buy the past of others.’

But in Détective (1985), Godard shows his abiding love for American film and American culture by dedicating his film to John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood and Edgar G. Ulmer.


Christ Recrucified on film

I finally managed to track down and watch Jules Dassin’s He Who Must Die (Celui qui doit mourir), the American filmmaker’s (1957) version of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Christ Recrucified (aka The Greek Passion), which is about destitute Greek refugees fleeing Turkish persecution only to be refused shelter in a well-off village, which, ironically, is gearing up for its traditional Passion play.

The film’s not bad, a little tedious in places, and is hindered by such a quintessentially Greek story being shot in French, though the performances are mostly excellent – the Francophone actors make quite convincing Greeks and Jean Servais’ depiction of Papa Photis is particularly good and Dostoevskian. In fact, only Melina Mercouri (again playing a prostitute) is insufferable and indeed the film’s occasional descent into Dassin’s typically gushing philhellenism – exemplified by the inappropriate (to Kazantzakis’ vision) renditions, throughout the film, of the Greek National Anthem and patriotic folk songs, including Σαράντα παλικάρια and Πότε Θα Κάνει Ξαστεριά – is no doubt attributable to the influence of (Dassin’s wife) Mercouri’s own melodramatic and whimsical nationalism. All somewhat patronising – especially when you factor in the deployment and purpose of the Greek extras in the film, which is to die and keen and through their suffering become, for the leftist and McCarthy witch hunt exile Dassin, revolutionaries – but the film has its moments, and is as good and as bad as the other two efforts to film Kazantzakis, Michalis Cacoyiannis’ Zorba the Greek and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation.

The above clip is the opening sequence to He Who Must Die. Go here or here to download the entire film as a torrent. The English subtitles are embedded in the film.

Kazantzakis scholar Peter Bien has written a short survey of the three attempts to film Kazantzakis, in which he is critical of Dassin, Cacoyiannis and Scorsese, who, Bien argues, each in their different ways, significantly distort Kazantzakis. Bien’s essay can be accessed here.

Shakespeare, Plutarch, Coriolanus and Alcibiades

The  image is from the BBC production of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus, with Alan Howard playing the eponymous Roman general, an arrogant patrician with a violent temper forced into exile after clashing with the plebeians who suspect the trenchant soldier is plotting to establish a dictatorship and so do away with their rights.

Shakespeare's source for the life of Coriolanus is the Greek writer Plutarch, who in his
Parallel Lives compares the Roman to the Athenian general Alcibiades, another aristocrat who, despite his military prowess, found himself at odds with the citizenry's democratic whims and suffered exile, not once but twice, decisions which proved disastrous for Athens in its conduct of the Peloponnesian War.

Alcibiades' narrative suggests the limits of democracy in the pursuit of national aspirations. The realisation of national aspirations more often than not requires vision, ruthlessness and hardship – qualities which the masses and their leaders are rarely capable of showing and reluctant to advocate. Venizelos, for example, at a moment of national crisis, put his trust in the judgement of the masses and called elections, with fatal consequences, climaxing in the Asia Minor Catastrophe; whereas Alexander the Great – a king – had much greater, though not total, freedom to decide the affairs of state and men's fortunes and in this way spread Hellenism far and wide. Would Alexander have conquered the East if he had been an Athenian constrained by the city's democracy? Certainly not. And would Alcibiades have realised his ambition of attaching the West to the Athenian empire if he had had at his command the latitude of a Macedonian basileus? Maybe.