Happy New Year! I hope everyone reading here had a great 2010 and I hope 2011 turns out even better. Thanks so much for all the support here and I am going to try my best to keep rocking throughout this new year. I am thrilled to kick-start 2011 with this new Q&A with one of my favorite writers and film historians on the planet, Mr. Daniel Bird. Fans of Andrzej Zulawski will, no doubt, hold Daniel in the same high-esteem I do, due to his tireless and inspired work with the great Polish director. Daniel, who is also a screenwriter and director himself, has worked with many of my favorite filmmakers and I think this Q&A is among the best things I have ever had the great fortune to publish here.
***Just one of the amazing Mondo Vision Zulawski DVDs that Daniel has been actively involved with***
I first discovered Daniel's great writing in the pages of Eyeball and Necronomicon back in the mid-nineties and I have followed his work since. In the past decade Daniel has published a book on the films of Roman Polanski, shot several documentaries and contributed many great DVD supplements for films like The Story of Sin and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, as well as Mondo Vision's Zulawski collections. Daniel also works in the theater, teaches, is a musician and...well...enough of my introduction, lets here from the man himself:
Moon in the Gutter: First up, can you tell us a bit about your background and where you are from?
Daniel Bird: I come from Stoke-on-Trent - an industrial town in the Midlands. It’s often referred to as the Potteries, because it is where the UK pottery industry is or was based. Five, actually six towns, built on earth which was rich in coal and clay. Methodism played a big part in the city - John Wesley used to preach there. It was, and still is, quite an insular city. This is best reflected in the dialect - I remember my grandparents regularly lapsing into a language that was almost completely hermetic. The landscape has changed over the years - it used to be dominated by pit heads, slag heaps and bottle kilns - but now there is not much left. Both my parents were teachers. My father taught physics, while my mother taught religious studies. Although both my parents are from the city, I actually grew up in the surrounding Moorlands.
What were some of the initial films and filmmakers from your youth that originally sparked your passion for the cinema?
Monster Movies. When I was about four or five, I had a paperback photo book called Monsters of the Movies. I remember the pictures and not the films making a deep impression on me. There were pictures of Nosferatu, both the original and the remake, King Kong, 1950s monster movies, Harryhausen’s films, the Godzilla series, as well as stuff like The Thing and Alien. Actually, the still which made the biggest impression on me was the dragon from Fritz Lang’s Siegfried. Back then, Harryhausen’s films were always on TV, and I loved Juran’s Jack the Giant Killer. To be honest, I have never grown tired of monster movies: Eraserhead, Alien, The Thing, and, of course, Possession. Whether it be a legend or a fairytale, a David Attenborough documentary or a feature film - monsters are terrifying, fascinating and grotesque - both real and make believe, or, like most of the time, something in between. The word ‘monster’ comes from ‘monere’, which means ‘warn’ - so monster movies are, in a sense, ‘educational’ films. Quite what they educate is a point of debate. Which, I guess, is what I try to write about.
Since a lot of us are thinking of the already much missed Jean Rollin right now, and since it was your piece on Rollin that first introduced me to your work about fifteen years ago I wanted to ask you about Jean. In your piece, entitled “Jean Rollin: Cinematic Poet” from the excellent Necronomicon Book One, you wrote that, “Rollin’s burgeoning renaissance is far from its zenith” and you were certainly correct in that thinking. Can you tell us a bit about your admiration for Rollin and your thoughts on his work.
For me, Rollin was a naif filmmaker. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. His filmmaking was childlike and naive. But is that a bad thing? Nobody ever gave Paradjanov a hard time over Ashik Kerib. Pirosmani, a Georgian naif painter, exerted a profound influence on Paradjanov’s later style. Similarly, I think the key to appreciating Rollin’s films is a French naif painter, Clovis Trouille. There’s a shot in Requiem pour un vampire, at the end of the scene in that scene in the dungeon, when we see a bat hanging from a girl’s pubis. That’s an overt reference to a painting by Trouille. His paintings are incredibly gaudy, unashamedly kitsch, joyfully blasphemous and quite sexy too. Rollin was often accused of being amateurish. These days, the word ‘amateur’ has got exclusively negative connotations. However, the word amateur comes from ‘love’. And there is a lot of love in Rollin’s films. So I would rather compare Rollin to Trouille than, say, Hammer horror. In fact, I think that’s part of the problem - a lack of appreciation of the contexts from which Rollin emerged.
For example, in 1997, Rollin published a book, Les dialogues sans fin. It is quite difficult to get hold of now, as only a hundred or so copies were printed. In it, Rollin writes about his mother, Denise, and her liaisons with Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Michel Foaroulis-Lagrange. Incidentally, there is a letter from Bataille to Rollin’s mother printed in the French edition of Bataille’s collected works. Bataille, like the surrealists, was also interested in Trouille, and included one or two of his paintings in Les Larmes d’eros. So, Rollin was brought up steeped in the French literary avant-garde. In his autobiography, he includes an unfilmed script co-written by Marguerite Duras. Rollin was also acquainted with Maurice Lemaitre (who plays one of the leads in La Vampire nue), who was, for a long time, associated with the Lettrist movement founded by Isidore Isou, not to mention the Situationists. I think that is very important in making sense of Rollin’s ‘bad’ dialogue, particularly in a film like Les Frissons des vampires. Michel Delahaye, who plays one of the two vampires in that film, is a respected film critic, who at the time was writing for Cahiers du Cinema. Around the same time he also had a small role in Borowczyk’s Blanche too. There are also lots of literary references in Rollin’s films - Fascination is constructed around the central image from a story by the French Symbolist writer Jean Lorrain. One of Rollin’s first published articles was an appreciation of Gaston Leroux, the author of The Phantom of the Opera, which was published in Midi-Minuit Fantastique.
BD, or bande-dessinee, is really important in appreciating Rollin’s films. Before turning to film, Rollin collaborated with Nicolas Devil on Saga de Xam. Philippe Druillet, who is perhaps most famous for Lone Sloane featured in Métal hurlant, designed the posters for Rollin’s first three films, and Philippe Caza, who later made Gandahar with Rene Laloux, designed the poster for Levres de sang. In addition to literary avant-garde circles and BD, Rollin was very much part of late 1960s counterculture. At the beginning of Saga de Xam there is a list of names which are, I think, very indicative of what Rollin was thinking about at the time: beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, Artaud, Barbara Steele, BD heroines like Barbarella and Jodelle, Brian Jones, Claudia Cardinale, Frank Zappa, Judith Malina and Julian Beck of The Living Theatre, Lovecraft, and models like Veroushka and Zazou (among many others). One of the ‘models’ for Devil’s illustrations in Xam was Solange Pradelle, who of course turns up in Le Viol du vampire and, a few years later, in Bruno Gantillon’s Morgane et ses nymphes - perhaps the best film Rollin never made. I think we need to stop thinking about Le Viol du vampire as a Eurotrash sexploitation film, and more as a product of 1968 counterculture.
To be honest, I got to see Le Viol du vampire around the same time as Godard’s Alphaville (which was rereleased in the UK in 1994), and I didn’t see that much difference between what Rollin and Godard were doing. Of course, this is tantamount to blasphemy. However, the sexual content in Rollin’s films is, in his early films at least, quite innocent and naive - in a Woodstock kind of way. Rollin’s friend and collaborator, Jean-Pierre Bouyxou, went onto write a major chronology of the Hippie movement, L'Aventure hippie. And let’s not forget the soundtrack to Le Viol du vampire: Francois Tusques is one of the seminal figures of French free jazz. It’s also worth mentioning Jio Berk, who did the sets and costumes for La Vampire Nue. Berk was part of the Belgian avant-garde scene, which, at the time included Roland Lethem, perhaps most famous for his short La Fée sanguinaire, and Les Souffrances d’un oeuf meurtri, on which Chantal Ackerman also collaborated. Lethem was a regular contributor to Midi-Minuit Fantastique (he was, for example, one of the first, if not the first Western critics to champion Japanese ‘pink movies’, as well as Seijun Suzuki and Koji Wakamatsu as ‘auteur’ filmmakers). My point is this: whatever Rollin was doing, it definitely wasn’t Hammer à la française. I totally agree with Pete Tombs that Rollin could have easily been another Jacques Rivette. But, I have to say, given the choice, I will always opt for the Castel twins over Julie and Celine.
Filmmaking, is, on the whole, a depressingly dishonest business, both on and off the screen. Sometimes it feels like the losers are the honest filmmakers. Rollin, for sure, always struck me as sincere. He never had an agenda or a vested interest, which is, depressingly, why he ended up in a pokey flat in Eastern Paris, vilified by the so-called French intelligentsia. Get him talking about something he was interested in, and his enthusiasm was infectious. They say never meet your heroes, but when I first met him, during a day trip to Paris in the mid nineties, I was not disappointed. Druillet and Caza posters on the walls of his flat and these wonderfully kitsch wooden elephant armchairs with tusks for arm rests. It’s strange: during the last ten or twenty years Bataille has suddenly become respectable, a kind of intellectual postmodernist precursor. In fact, in legitimizing Bataille many academics have transformed him from a bizarre, brilliant and deranged pornographer into a rather dull and boring sociologist. I only hope that Rollin’s films continue to be disreputable. I recently watched the trailer for a film with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and they both seemed to be straining to have fun, like they were emotionally constipated. Whatever you think of Rollin’s films, the fun is infections, particularly in the first three or four films.
That essay on Rollin you wrote was one of the first really serious and analytical pieces I had read on his films and I really admired the stance you took regarding the fact that he was, indeed, a filmmaker in need of serious consideration and respect. Since you so often cover filmmakers who receive more than a little criticism, or are totally ignored, by more mainstream film critics and historians do you sometimes feel resistance to your work?
Howard Barker wrote that he submitted all of his plays to the National Theatre just to be rejected. He did this, he said, to assure himself that he was seeing things clearly. To be honest, I haven’t felt resistance to my work, and even if I did, I wouldn’t care. The real battle, like with everybody else, is keeping bread on the table. Remember, a filmmaker like Borowczyk, and to some extent Zulawski, were/are critical of the Polish cultural establishment. This has repercussions for the funding of retrospectives, the publication of books and the commissioning of documentaries about their work. For example, the Polish Association of Filmmakers chose not to support the Borowczyk retrospective and exhibition in Warsaw in 2008. In fact, the majority of funding for this event came from the Institut francais. Similarly, I have been trying to mount a programme of post-Soviet Belarusian cinema up and running for the last couple of years, but since all of the films that interest me are, in one way or another, are problematic for Lukashenko’s government, I can’t expect to get support from, say, the Belarusian Ministry of Culture. If, on the other hand, I were to programme a selection of films and filmmakers which they approved of, no doubt they would fly out films and filmmakers to the UK and maybe even give me a fee for my troubles. But that’s how it goes. There isn’t much money in what I write about. But hasn’t it always been the case? For every Orson Welles film there are a hundred appearances on The Dick Cavett Show. Without polishing scripts for Howard Hawks, Faulker would have not been able to complete Absalom Absalom! Faulkner dismissed Sanctuary as a ‘potboiler’ written to offset the losses incurred by his ‘literary’ endeavors. But these days, it’s the other way around: you get hacks like Alex Garland aspiring to be scriptwriters. Novels are in danger of being consigned to the same bag as theatre: it’s what you do when you can’t get a gig. Cinema has, and always will be, about glamour, not art. Just look at the recent trend in the UK art scene involving ‘fine artists’ turning to commercial filmmaking. Unfortunately, Sam Taylor Wood is no Borowczyk.
Around the same time as your Rollin piece I came across the excellent interview you and Steven Thrower conducted with Andrzej Zulawski for Eyeball. Once again it was one of the first serious English language pieces I got to read on one of my favorite filmmakers and I know it was just the beginning of a lot of work you have done with Zulawski. Before we delve into that can you talk a bit about your love for Polish Cinema and how you ended up in Poland?
I’m interested in Polish emigre cinema, not Polish cinema per se. Borowczyk, Lenica, Polanski, Skolimowski and Zulawski are or were emigres. While these filmmakers have, during the course of their careers, been widely acknowledged as auteurs of international standing, their emigre status has partially or, in some cases, completely excluded their stories from studies of ‘Polish Cinema’. What I’m trying to do is write a history organized around the principal of the emigre, which addresses the relationship between the work of these filmmakers and Polish culture/history, and the question of how their work has been influenced by and/or assimilated by cultural movements associated with their host country, particularly France and England. One of things I’m trying to overcome is the notion of these filmmakers as ‘exceptional’ cases. Rather, they emerged from particular trans-national cultural/historical contexts (the ‘Polish Experience’ of the Second World War, ‘socrealizm’ or Polish socialist realism, the thaw in cultural activities under Gomulka during the late 1950s, the ‘nouvelle vague’ in French cinema, ‘swinging London’ of the 1960s, the student riots of 1968, both in Warsaw and Paris, the formation of the free-trade union Solidarity, the imposition of Martial Law etc.) and how they were shaped by several institutions (i.e. educational institutions, film units in Poland and production companies in France and England etc).
The cultural significance of the emigre in Polish culture stretches back to the nineteenth century, most notably the ‘great emigration’ precipitated by the Russian suppression of the November uprising in 1830. It was during this period that Poland’s Romantic poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki (whose play Mazepa forms the basis of Blanche) and Zygmunt Krasinski, as well as the composer and pianist Frederyk Chopin (about whom Zulawski made a film) all settled in Paris. However, of particular relevance to this research is the wave of Polish emigres which followed the outbreak of the Second World War, centered around the Paris-based literary journal Kultura, founded by Jerzy Giedroyc: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Marek Hlasko, Adolf Rudnicki, and, above all else, Witold Gombrowicz. If Andrzej Wajda is the ‘father’ of Polish emigre cinema, then Gombrowicz is the ‘holy ghost’. Read Gombrowicz, particularly his first novel, Ferdydurke, his play The Marriage, as well as his diaries, and the perversity, surrealism and egocentricity (all madmen are the centre of their own worlds) of Zulawski, Polanski and Skolimowski makes a lot more sense.
To answer the second part of your question, in 2002 I got a scholarship from the Polish Ministry of Education to do postgraduate research in the Philosophy department of Warsaw University. A year later, I had the scholarship extended and transferred to the Institute of Culture. By 2004, I was feeling very much at home in Warsaw, directing theatre and teaching English. Another year passed, and I moved to Prague to work on Juraj Jakubisko’s Bathory. That lasted for about a year, and then I got an award to write my doctorate at Sheffield University on Eisenstein, Vygotskii and Bakhtin. I try to spend some of the year in Warsaw, but I have been living out of a suitcase for the last couple of years, going to film and theatre festivals, teaching at universities in Sheffield and Salford, doing archival work, giving conference papers, not to mention writing and making my own documentary films.
Warsaw is one of my favourite cities. It’s not a ‘pretty’ city, but an interesting one. I’m currently living in Mariensztat in the Powisle district, in a colonnade reconstructed after the War in the style of the original building that was destroyed. I’m just across the river from the Praga district, which, for me, is the most interesting part of the city. It’s where Polanski shot some of the scenes in The Pianist. About ten years ago it was the rough part of town, but, as is usually the case, now it is considered to be quite chic. Nevertheless, here there is the highest concentration of pre-War buildings in Warsaw, some of which still bare the scars of the Uprising. There are traces of Soviet rule, like stranded socialist realist monuments, and large painted advertisements in Russian for watches and photographic equipment - but I wonder how long they will survive. There used to be a large Vietnamese market in and around the old, Stalin era stadium, which has now been displaced by a new construction for the EUFA 2012 Football Championship. There is even a Vietnamese Buddhist temple - not the first thing you expect to find in Warsaw.
The best thing about Warsaw is that it is really the crossroads of Europe: you’re only a train ride away from Berlin, Prague or Budapest on the one hand, and Kiev, Minsk and Moscow on the other. If Warsaw gets too much - which it never does, because, while the pace of life is a snail’s pace compared to London - you can jump on a train at midnight and wake up in the Tatra Mountains in the South or the Baltic Coast in the North. If you’re interested in theatre, then you’re spoiled for choice, with theatres presided over by three major European directors: Krystian Lupa, Krzystof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna. There’s always something interesting on at the Zacheta gallery, and under Mariusz Trelinski’s artistic direction, the Warsaw Opera is many things but rarely is it boring. While Polish cinema is always in a perpetual state of crisis, Warsaw is a great city for cinephiles, although the number of repertory cinemas is declining, in line with the rest of cities around the world. And don’t get me started on the book shops...
Excellent, now onto your long history with Zulawski. Fans, like myself, of his work are really grateful to you for all the excellent special features you have helped with on The Mondo Vision (Anchor Bay in the case of Possession) DVDS, which have included commentaries, interviews, liner notes and more. Can you tell us a bit about your working relationship with Zulawski and perhaps some of the highlights of working on his catalogue?
I have known Zulawski for about thirteen years now. I think the interviews, or rather the conversations we have had during this period have proved to be interesting - certainly for me, and maybe him too. I also think they have served as a platform for Zulawski to cast light onto the more hermetic aspects of his work, which has helped to make them if not more accessible, then certainly a little more palatable, and not just for Anglophone audiences.
I feel very privileged to have witnessed Zulawski’s last film, La fidélité, coming into being: the writing in London, the filming in Paris and two premieres in Paris and London. I have to say, a decade has past since I watched Zulawski direct La fidélité, and I have not stepped foot onto a more efficient film set since. At the time I had just started my Master’s at Warwick. I made my way to Paris, and stayed at the cheapest place I could find, which, as it turned out, was in the Goutte d’Or district of Northern Paris. This is where Jean Vigo was born and a lot of L’Amour braque was shot. Mesrine, the gangster, was gunned down nearby at Porte de Clignancourt. It’s a really interesting place. Zola set L'Assommoir there, and it’s where Nana comes from too. Today it is Paris’ ‘little Africa’, and it is always worth visiting, particularly the Dejean food market near the Chateau d’Eaux. Each morning I made my way to Neuilly, a Western suburb of Paris. Zulawski arranged for me to take a car with Sophie Marceau to the set. Every day, I walked onto the set to find Zulawski pacing up and down, deep in thought. I must stress that it is very unusual to find the director as the first person on set. Then, Patrick Blossier, the DoP, would turn up and Zulawski would explain how he was going to block the actors and cover the action. Then, the rest of the crew would turn up. Essentially, Zulawski pre-edits the film, usually shooting only what he needs. It was all very precise, but I never got a sense that anything was over planned. I only witnessed one or two occasions when Zulawski raised his voice or shouted, and that was just to push Marceau and Edith Scob up a notch or two during a handful of scenes.
During the last two years I have been adapting Zulawski’s films into English. Zulawski was quite unhappy with the existing English subtitles, and we decided to retranslate them, sometimes from scratch, as was the case with L’Amour braque. This Spring we worked on Na Srebrnym globie, which was a mammoth task, as it is nearly three hours of people yelling quotes at each other. Nevertheless, as was the case with L’Amour braque, the process threw a lot of light on the film, at least for me. It was interesting to see how Zulawski adapted the screenplay, particularly from the first two books of Jerzy Zulawski’s ‘Moon Trilogy’. Also, it was interesting to see how Zulawski had imposed his ‘artistic personality’ onto the project, particularly through his uses of ellipses in the narrative. Zulawski identified passages taken from The Gospel According to Thomas, Meister Eckhart, Buddha, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Also, the language is so overwrought, and bizarrely poetic that it sometimes poses a real problem to translate. Take this monologue from near the end of the film:
‘Love, love, we fuck love. In a few months, your girlishness, beauty and youth has disappeared. You have grown old and your face scares me. Reaching rock bottom drives reality towards self-destruction, as if beyond the last dam there is only deathly slime. Now you're just anyone. You're back on the market stalls. You exist through your love affair. But it's not you who sets the prices of what's on offer. The hand that turns you inside out so cruelly is the hand that dictates the law of the meat market. The murderous paw of a creature that finds pleasure in watching actors getting wasted, lustful like dogs, tails wagging.’
I mean, it is not often that you come across such dialogue in a film. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of the dialogue you are supposed to write for film. Working with Zulawski on dialogue is demanding, often exasperating but always exhilarating. For all the chaos in his films, Zulawski is very disciplined filmmaker. He’s always very prepared and focussed. I have yet to hear him say ‘what are we doing today?’
For potential fans new to his canon what Zulawski films would you recommend to start with?
Trezcia czesc nocy.
One of my favorite aspects of Zulawski’s inspiring career were his astonishing collaborations with Sophie Marceau. I was curious if you could share your thoughts on her as an actress and how she influenced Zulawski’s work?
Zulawski has worked with many great actresses. Romy Schneider, obviously, Adjani… Schneider was in some great films, and worked with some great directors: Bunuel, Visconti, Welles… Her turn in L’Important c’est d’aimer is devastating, but I don’t think anybody was surprised that she was capable of pulling it out of the hat. Similarly, Adjani was already a legend at La Comédie-Française, and had done ‘going mad’ to great affect in Truffaut’s L'histoire d'Adèle H. But her performance in Possession is simply off the scale. To be honest, I don’t think the film would have worked without Sam Neill’s performance, which acts like a counterbalance, not to mention the way Zulawski covers the action - all those muscular cuts between high, low and wide angles. Again, people were shocked, but I don’t think anyone was surprised. However, when L’Amour braque came out, I think Marceau’s performance took a lot of people, certainly in France, by surprise. I mean, it’s such a brave performance from La Boum girl, the sheer gusto with which she cavorts, strips, screams and shouts.
I don’t think you can compare Adjani’s turn in Possession to Marceau’s in L’Amour braque. These are two different films about different things which demand different styles. However, the sheer violence of Marceau’s performance, the broad strokes with which she paints it, not to mention her see-sawing between moments of extreme ferocity and vulnerability marks it out, to my mind, as the pinnacle of her career. There is a difference between Anna in Possession and Marie in L’Amour braque: Anna chooses to be unfaithful, whereas Marie has no choice - she’s forced into prostitution. She’s a furious victim hell bent of self destruction. She’s like a suicide bomber blowing herself up out of despair.
Unlike Schneider and Adjani, Marceau did, of course go onto work with Zulawski on four more films. It’s a pity we never got to see her playing Jeanne d’Arc. I have seen the script - it’s enormous. It partly explains the gap between L’Amour braque and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours. When you look at the latter film, you realise that her performance in L’Amour braque wasn’t a flash in the pan. What’s more, she instinctively ‘gets’ what it is to act in a Zulawski film. Also, by this time Zulawski and Marceau had formed a curious double act, where she brought a kind of mainstream box office cache to rather demanding projects, resulting in a string of films that stubbornly refused to get down from the fence: they’re neither mainstream nor ‘niche’ films - which I think is why they have taken so long to appear in Anglophone markets.
Another favorite director of mine is the late Walerian Borowczyk and I know you have had the chance to work on some of his films as well. Can you talk a bit about Borowczyk and your work on his considerable canon?
I first encountered Borowczyk’s work in 1994, when I got to see a pink 16mm print of Les jeux des anges as part of a touring programme of surrealistic animation which also included films by Svankmajer, Lenica and the Quays. I first spoke to Borowczyk three years later, on my first trip to Poland. I called him in Le Vesinet, where he lived, from a telephone box on Marszalkowska Street. He was quite rude. Nevertheless, I started to track down all of Borowczyk’s films, and, in 2001, I organised a retrospective of his films at the now defunct Lux Centre in London. At first Borowczyk agreed to come, but when he learned about the states of the prints we were screening he declined. The event was underfunded (the Lux was about to be closed down by the Film Council), for some films we were able to screen only battered prints, for others Beta tapes and VHS had to suffice. But, to be honest, this actually added to the feeling that we were all discovering something new, particularly the short films, many of which had not been screened in England before. Michael O’Pray introduced the season, and I chaired a panel with Pete Tombs, the poster designer Andrzej Klimowski and the documentary filmmaker and film critic David Thompson. People literally travelled from all over the world to see these films. A few years later, a little book on Borowczyk appeared in Italy which cited this event as marking Borowczyk’s own renaissance. However, I was just keen to see these films back in circulation.
By this time I had managed to contact and interview many of Borowczyk’s key collaborators: his cameraman Noel Very, his producer Dominique Duverge, his assistant Michael Levy, the composer Bernard Parmegiani - all remarkable people with very interesting lives in their own right - and, to be honest, this is arguably the best thing about such research - meeting people. Andrzej Klimowski invited me to give a presentation on Borowczyk at the Royal College of Art, and I also participated in a flick book workshop run by Lenica when he visited the College in 1999. About six months after the Borowczyk retrospective I was invited to Milan where I gave a somewhat rough and ready presentation about the relationship between Paradjanov and Pasolini. At the time, Grazyna Dlugolecka, who plays the lead in Dzieje Grzechu, was living in Bergamo. She travelled to Milan and I filmed an interview with her about her work with Borowczyk - which I put on the UK DVD of Dzieje Grzechu.
In Poland I met Stanislaw Rozewicz, who effectively produced Dzieje Grzechu. He had known Borowczyk through his brother, the poet Tadeusz Rozewicz, who was friends with Borowczyk when they were students in Krakow during the early 1950s. I gave Rozewicz a postcard I had designed with Jeff Willis at the Royal College of Art to promote some screenings of Borowczyk’s shorts in Hull, where I was working at the time. Rozewicz gave the postcard to Borowczyk, who apparently liked the typography and decided to contact me. It was very strange: I was sitting in a bedsit in Zoliborz, a district in Warsaw. Suddenly the phone rang, I picked it up and there was Borowczyk. I was learning Polish at the time, my French was pretty poor and I was trying desperately to recall what little German I had been taught at school, as that was a language Borowczyk was clearly comfortable speaking. We had a long, halting conversation which did not make much sense to either of us. We tried to meet in Warsaw during the summer, but it didn’t happen. He would call from time to time, and would always insist on relaying messages via my girlfriend at the time. We arranged to meet again in Paris at the end of 2005, but soon after the phone call he got taken to hospital, where he died a few months later.
Two people who worked at the Bradford Media Museum, Bill Lawrence and Adam Pugh, were both keen Borowczyk enthusiasts. Bill had let me programme Borowczyk’s animations at the Bradford Animation Festival in 1998, and Adam, asked me to write the notes for a more complete programme a few years later. At the time of Borowczyk’s death, Adam was director of the Aurora Animation Festival in Norwich - the home of Alan Partridge. I was in Prague working on Bathory. We had a long phone conversation in which Adam planned a tribute to Borowczyk as he was one of the pioneers of working at the interface of fine art and animation. In addition to film screenings, we had panel discussions with the Polish art and film historian, Marcin Gizycki (one of the most interesting film writers in Poland, although he teaches in the US too) and Malgorzata Sady, who has written extensively on the Polish avant-garde, particularly about Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. I also chaired a discussion with Klimowski again, as well as the Quay bothers, and they talked about the cult of Borowczyk that had developed at Saint Martin’s College in London in the early 1970s, of which the photographer John Goto was part of, along with the fine artist Craigie Horsfield.
***Andrzej Kilmowski, The Quays and Daniel Bird***
As part of the discussion, we screened Les jeux des anges from DVD, and I lamented that there were no decent prints of this film, arguably Borowczyk’s masterpiece. Fortunately, in the audience was George Clark, who at the time worked for the Independent Film Council. He was putting together a touring programme of avant-garde short films, entitled ‘Dreams’. A few months after the festival he contacted me about making a new 35mm print of Les jeux des anges, and I put him in touch with Borowczyk’s widow, Ligia. About a year later, I was able to see the new print at a screening at Tate Modern.
Long-time readers here will know that I am positively in love with Borwoczyk’s La Marge. It sadly remains one of his key films, along with Blanche, Lulu and Dr. Jekyll and his Women, that still hasn’t been granted a proper release on disc. I fear that the soundtrack, which consisted of groups like Pink Floyd and 10CC, will make it too costly of a venture to release. I was wondering what your thoughts were on it?
To be honest, when I first saw La Marge, I was disappointed. It just didn’t fit with what I had come to expect from Borowczyk. However, in the years which have passed it has grown on me more than any other Borowczyk film. I think part of the problem is knowing what the film is about. Really, it’s about a guy who gets lost in a fantasy, only to find it crumbling around him. Far from being an ‘erotic’ film, it’s actually a study of grief and suicide. It was produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim, who had produced Bunuel’s Belle de Jour a few years before. In fact, I guess they conceived of the film as a similar exercise in art-house erotica. The de Mandiargues book on which it was based, had been awarded the Prix Goncourt. De Mandiargues had a reputation as both a surrealist and an eroticist, so it must have seen like a match made in heaven.
One of the major differences between the book and the film is that the book is set in the red light district of the Chinese Quarter in Barcelona. Under Franco’s rule, there was no way Borowczyk could shoot on location. So he transferred the action to Rue Saint Denis in Paris, which makes perfect sense. There is one scene shot on Rue Saint Denis in Zulawski’s La fidélité, where Guillame Canet’s character paps the politician waiving goodbye to his whore. La marge is a great time capsule, featuring the old meat market in Les Halles being dug out to make way for the cavernous, labyrinthine shopping centre that sits there today. A scene in Charade was shot there with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and you can see the difference. Also, the modern world is, for Borowczyk, unmitigated hell. If anything, La Marge has more in common with Taxi Driver than Emmanuelle. It’s a very bleak, pessimistic and cynical film. It’s also a very compassionate one too.
You know, La Marge is one of those films that completely undermines the idea of Borowczyk as an ‘erotic’ filmmaker. Remember one of the first scenes in Paris, where the pimp instructs the young girl how to pick up clients? He asks her if she comes easily, to which she replies ‘never’. Then he shows you a scene of girls fighting over rations of soap - hardly puts you in the mood, does it? I think, if La Marge shares anything with any other Borowczyk films, then it is L’Armoire - his contribution to the portmanteau film, Collection Privee. Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, L’Armoire tells the story of a guy who wants to spend the whole night with a girl who works as a prostitute at the Moulin Rouge. He’s suicidally lonely. This, of course, poses a problem for the girl, who, so as not to pass up the money she will earn, locks up her son in a cupboard. Of course, when the child falls asleep and tumbles out of the cupboard, her secret is out! Quite different from Baz Lurhman’s epileptic Moulin Rouge!
My favourite scene in La Marge is when the girls are watching Frehel listening to the gramophone record of ‘Ou Est Il Donc?’ in Pepe le Moko on TV in the bar, when the black dwarf comes in and the gust of wind blows his hat across the room. Only Borowczyk could have shot that scene. The framing is very similar to Gavotte - i.e. around the dwarf at the exclusion of everybody else. It’s worth noting that Pepe le Moko was the first film the Hakim brothers produced and La Marge was to be their last. Frehel’s words in the clip hints at something very true to all of Borowczyk’s films: ‘when I feel down I change eras’. In almost all of his films, Borowczyk ‘changed eras’. In La Marge, however, he stayed in the present, which is perhaps why it feels so ‘down’. This, in turn, is reflected in a change of shooting style.
There are, however, moments when it feels like Borowczyk does change eras in La Marge, particularly the scene in which Joe Dallesandro’s character buys the antique telescope. Also, the bar in which he picks up Sylvia Kristel’s character is almost completely cut off from the outside world. In fact, while the film is almost completely hand held, these scenes are the most typical of Borowczyk’s period films. Some of the costumes are quite anachronistic too, as well as a few of the songs on what Borowczyk called the ‘juke box’ soundtrack.
It’s worth remembering Borowczyk’s short film Diptyque. Literally, it is a short film in two halves. In the first half, Borowczyk’s shows us an old farmer, with his old dog, going about his chores. He shoots this in grainy, hand held black and white. Then, in the second half, he shows us a kittens, flowers and vases - a kind of moving still life, all set to ‘Les pêcheurs de perles’ from Bizet’s Carmen. There’s something similar going on in La Marge. Outside the bar, Borowczyk covers contemporary Paris in an almost documentary style. In this respect, Brief von Paris, a wordless, forty minute portrait of Paris which Borowczyk produced for German Television, serves as a companion piece to La Marge. In fact, it even features a shot of a gigantic poster for La Marge! Borowczyk shot this film on a Russian Krasnogorsk 16mm camera. He used it again in his documentary on Popovic Ljuba, L’Amour monstre des tous les temps.
Noel Very, Borowczyk’s regular camera operator, told me that on the first day of shooting, Borowczyk made it clear that La Marge was going to be shot handheld. It was a big change in Borowczyk’s style, at least for his French films. No more studio work, films were now to be shot on location only. Of course, to explain this you have to turn back to Borowczyk’s previous film, Dzieje Grzechu, which he shot in Poland the previous year. For this film, Borowczyk worked with Zygmunt Samosiuk, a very talented cinematographer who had shot Wajda’s Brzezina, and Kondratiuk’s cult film Hydrozagadka, and would go onto to shoot Szulkin’s Golem and Kawalerowicz’s Austeria. Unfortunately, he died very young in his forties, but he was really one of the greats. In Dzieje Grzechu, Borowczyk has a cameo with Samosiuk as a couple fighting - a symbol of their artistic collaboration, as he would later remember in his book Moje Polskie Lata.
Like Dzieje Grzechu, La Marge is an incredibly compassionate film. You have Joe Dallesandro, who turns in a great, very subtle performance. This guy goes to Paris on business, spends the night with a prostitute, who then finds out that his son has died in an accident and that his wife committed suicide as a result. Instead of going back to grieve, he decides to loose himself in sex. His feelings get confused with love, and then the fantasy starts to crumble - this is brutal stuff! And yet, both Dallesandro’s character as well as Kristel’s are never less than sympathetic. It’s a very honest film. Also, the suicide at the end of the film is not tragic. If anything, you feel that the guy has escaped from hell. It’s like a self administered euthanasia - the ‘little’ deaths dull the pain while the ‘good’ death brings it to a halt. Like Bresson’s Mouchette, or any one of Borowczyk’s films featuring Ligia Branice: Goto, l’ile d’amour, Blanche… Even Dr Jekyll culminates in a kind of double suicide. And yet, even after death, the cycle begins again: Kristel’s character carries on with her job, just as the destroyed objects begin to reconstruct themselves at the end of Renaissance.
I met Kristel in Amsterdam about five or six years ago and she talked about working on La Marge, and how it was the favourite of her films. She also told me how her only regret was that the black stole that she wears in the film was stolen from her!
Another film I greatly admire that you have worked with is the Czech masterpiece Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Can you go into some detail on your involvement with that and do you think we here in the States might ever get a proper release of the film?
Last year I made a documentary on the making of Possession for a German DVD company, Bildstoerung. We were quite happy with the results so when they acquired the German DVD rights, we decided to make a documentary on Valerie. I wanted it to cover three things: first, Vitezlav Nezval and book upon which it was based; the Czech New Wave and, thirdly, the influence the film has had on contemporary musicians. Thanks to a friend in Lausanne, Katerina Chobotova, I was able to interview Jan Klusak. In addition to acting in several key films of the Czech New Wave, like Chytilova’s Daisies and Nemec’s A Report on the Party and the Guests, Klusak is principally known as a composer. He scored several of Jan Svankmajer’s films, most notably Dimensions of Dialogue. By coincidence, a new documentary film on Klusak’s music was being screened at the wonderful Svetazor cinema on Vodickova Street, opposite the Lucerna Passage where I used to work for Jakubisko.
I filmed the interview with Klusak in the Ambassador Hotel on Wenceslas Square. Afterwards we had a meal and we talked about music, Chytilova, Nemec and Svankmajer. To be honest, I had to pinch myself that this was happening - it all seemed slightly surreal. I also managed to film around Nezval’s grave in Vyšehrad cemetery, which is a remarkable place, a bit like a Czech Pere Lachaise. The opening shots of Juraj Herz’s Morgiana are filmed there, by the way. Back in the UK I filmed an interview with DJ Andy Votel, who released Lubos Fiser’s soundtrack on his Finders Keepers label. I also interviewed Jonathan Lyndon Owen, a fantastic young scholar who has wrote his PhD on the Czech New Wave. After a lot of wrangling, I had managed to arrange an interview Trish Keenan from Broadcast, but the volcano eruption put paid to that idea. Nevertheless, Trish went out of the way to film the interview herself.
We edited the documentary in Cologne, and while I tried to interview Jaroslava Schallerova, who plays Valerie, in the end we ended up licensing the interview on the Czech DVD. We also managed to get clips from Murnau’s Nosferatu, which was both a major influence on the book and the film. While there was no way for me to go to Philadelphia, I managed to organise interviews with Joseph Gervasi from Exhumed Films and Diabolik DVD, as well as Greg Weeks from Espers to talk about The Valerie Project. In the end, the decision was made to split up the documentary into two halves, with one focussing on the film, the other on the music. In addition to these two films, I recorded a commentary track with Peter Hames, who is, for my money, the undisputed authority on the Czech New Wave, certainly in the Anglophone world.
We synchronised the Valerie Project music to the film. Finally, Peter, Joseph, Trish, Andy and myself all contributed essays to the booklet. Finally, I think the cover is worth mentioning too - quite remarkable. Also, the master we used, while not HD, is the best one currently available. The only downside is that, for rights issues, we were not allowed to include English subtitles on the feature. All in all, I think we managed to produce a very good edition of Valerie - certainly the best out there at the moment. Unfortunately, I have no idea about any future US editions of the film.
I know you are a screenwriter yourself. What are some of the projects you have, or are currently, working on and can you discuss the differences between working as a creative writer as opposed to more of a journalist?
The first script I ever wrote was for an Italian filmmaker, Michele Salimbeni, who I met on the set of La fidelite. Michele had worked as Dario Argento’s assistant on Maschera di cera. Michele was impressed that I was studying philosophy, and asked me to work with him on a screenplay. He told me he wanted me to write a modern day adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband. I was working as a laboratory technician in secondary school in Hull, paying off my Master’s degree. Nothing ever came of this script, which was called Immortality, but I was incredibly thrilled to be writing it, and enjoyed disappearing to Paris every now and again in futile attempts at raising money with Michele.
Later, Michele invited me to Italy where I adapted Dostoevsky’s Demons for theatre. Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth did the music, and while the performance itself was short lived, Lee’s music was released on CD in France a few years later. It was an exciting time: Michele talked to Sergio Stivaletti about me, and Stivaletti sent me a treatment for a sequel for Maschera di cera 2, which… never happened. Then, Michele, myself, and Daniele Auber formed a theatre group. Daniele was Stivaletti’s assistant, and he later went to London to work at Jim Henson’s workshop, and built a giant ogre for the first Harry Potter film. Then he started doing storyboards and creature design for Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm, which of course, lasted for several years. It was very bizarre working with Michele, as we were both moving in different directions. I was studying philosophy, but what drew me to Michele was his passion for Italian genre cinema. Michele, on the other hand, wanted to do philosophy. In fact, he’s now in Paris about to do his Master’s in philosophy. It’s like that Solima western, Faccia a Faccia, where the academic meets the bandit, and by the end of the film the academic has become a bandit, and the bandit an academic!
In 2003, I wrote an adaptation a theatre performance called Metamorfozy, by the Gardzienice Centre of Theatre Practices, which was based on The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Jakubisko’s wife, Deana was interested in producing it, with Juraj acting as a kind of mentor. However, the director of the theatre group, Staniewski, got cold feet, backed out, and later made a very bad film from his own performance with a good cameraman, Jacek Petrycki, whose best film is probably Bugajski’s Przesluchanie. Around the same time, Jakubisko sent me a treatment for Bathory, or Love Story Bathory which it was known then. Then, about a year later, we met in Prague and he asked me to polish the English of a 240 page shooting script. It was pretty outrageous in it’s original form. Then, about a year after that, I moved to Prague to work on Bathory, doing an assortment of jobs, including dialogue polishing, dialogue coaching (when there were no ‘proper’ coaches in place) and filming the EPK. Basically, I think the Jakubiskos wanted a sympathetic native speaker around. Just before I started work on Bathory I wrote a script called Bloody Handed Fiend of Vengeance, and got a small grant from the Polish Ministry of Culture to film some tests.
Essentially, the script was based on Euripides’ Medea, and I wrote it as a kind of anthropological horror film. It was set in the Wieliczka salt mines, the same place where Zulawski shot parts of Na Srebrnym Globie. But when I moved to Prague, it fell by the wayside. However, when I returned to Poland I managed to get a grant from an arts organisation in Los Angeles, Arden 2, to realise a monodrama based on Medea’s monologue, entitled Monolog. We travelled with the performance to various festivals in Poland, Armenia, Ukraine, Latvia and Sweden between 2006 and 2009. Some of the performances, like those in Armenia and Sweden, featured the tests I shot in Wieliczka.
In 2006 I was privileged to work with Jerzy Skolimowski for a few days polishing a treatment while he was in London acting in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. I was introduced to Skolimowski by Hercules Bellville, who worked with Jeremy Thomas at Recorded Picture Company. Hercules helped me a lot with my research on Polanski, particularly the documentaries, although he was adamant not to be credited with more than a ‘thanks’. Jeremy Thomas’ first film as a producer was, of course, Skolimowski’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ The Shout - one of the best English horror movies from the 1970s.
In addition to being a painter, Skolimowski is also a great raconteur, and his stories about the jazz composer Krzystof Komeda and Andrzej Munk are simply priceless. I haven’t yet seen his new film, Essential Killing, but I think Skolimowski’s Cztery noce z Anna is, along with Xawery Zulawski’s Wojna Polsko Ruska, one of the best Polish films in the last ten, twenty years. As comebacks go they don’t get much better.
To answer the second part of your question, I don’t see that much of a difference. When I write about films, they are more like notes to myself - what makes certain films ‘tick’. It’s kind of like an autopsy - you’re confronted by something which has a profound emotional and intellectual effect on you, and you try to take it a part - isolate the bits, and see how they work as a whole. I then try to supplement those notes with interviews with filmmakers, actors, cameramen, sometimes archival research, not to mention a lot of reading around the subject. Slowly, over the years, something starts to take shape…like the monster in Possession… that’s ‘creative’, isn’t it? I’d like to think some of my writing has some style, that there is also some humour (which may or may not travel), ideas, and, on a few occasions, personal anecdote. When I write original scripts, I tend to apply the same principals - start with an image, and then develop it with ideas and anecdotes. I’m really interested in the idea of film as an emotive way of exploring ideas. Eisenstein called it ‘intellectual cinema’. I’m working very hard to get one of them filmed, but until that happens, talking about it seems a rather pointless exercise.
You wrote an excellent book on Roman Polanski in 2002. I was wondering if we might have some other titles in the future to look forward from you? Also, what are some of your other future activities that you might want to share with us?
I’ve been working on a book on Borowczyk for quite some time. Also, I’m hoping to publish a book on Zulawski to coincide with a retrospective which is being planned for next year in the US. At some point I’d also like to put out a second, expanded edition of my Polanski book, not only bringing it up to date, but incorporating many of the research and interviews I have conducted in the years since it was published.
At the moment I’m writing up my PhD, which is on Eisenstein, the psychologist Vygotskii and the philosopher Bakhtin. I did my first degree in Psychology and my Master’s in Philosophy. About four years ago, I got a scholarship to research the relationship between performance studies, psychology and language in Soviet Russia during the 20s and 30s. People are always asking me why, if I was so interested in film, I studied Psychology and Philosophy. My doctorate is a kind of response to this ‘charge’ - I hope to show that what makes a lot of early cinema, particularly in Russia, is so rich because filmmakers actively engaged in debates with psychology, linguistics and anthropology. One of the last things Vygotskii wrote is that theatre confronted the problem of the ‘thought behind the word’ long before psychology ever did. It’s been a busy four years - traveling to the Russian State Archives in Moscow, Jay Leyda’s Eisenstein collection at MOMA, not to mention giving conference papers in the US, Canada, Hungary, Switzerland. I even went to Minsk, tracing Eisenstein’s affiliation with a Rosicrucian lodge in the early 1920s… now that’s a story! Put simply, researching this project has been exhilarating. It’s certainly changed the way I think about writing and direction.
Daniel, you have such a remarkable and prolific career and you are still just in your early thirties! An advice you would like to offer up for young writers and film historians who might be reading?
I think you have to make a decision: what is most important to you? Making a living writing about films? Or writing about films you care about? Because, unfortunately, the two rarely coincide! I only write about films I care about. Sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don’t. But at the end of the day, you just have to fight for the films you care about.
Thanks again for taking the time to do this and thank you so much for all the work you have done. I’m greatly anticipating your future projects and I will continue searching out your past work that has so far alluded me. Thanks again and all the best to you this holiday season!