Before Rec 2, before Rec, before Cloverfield, there was Christopher Isherwood. “I am a camera,” he wrote in Goodbye to Berlin (the book that later became Cabaret), “the shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking ... ” Today cinema is becoming berserk with point-of-view lenses. It loves them. They are a new toy.
There is a marvellous moment in Christopher Smith’s Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, his grimly compassionate chronicle of alcohol-cursed lives in his West Yorkshire home town, when a friend leaving for rehab embraces the director. Since Smith holds the camera (throughout the film), the hug is presented as a face and pair of arms clumsily, poignantly making a lunge at the lens. The face disappears to the camera’s immediate right while the arms flail, envelopingly, like tentacles out of Cloverfield.
The cinema has been attempting first-person effects for decades. There was one famous example of point-of-view lensing, through an entire movie, in actor-director Robert Montgomery’s Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947). Montgomery, playing Philip Marlowe, only appeared on screen when looking in a mirror. Orson Welles, earlier and no less intriguingly, planned to film Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – story of another Marlowe – in the same style. But he was deflected into a project called Citizen Kane.
Today we have come of age technologically. Subjectivity is becoming almost a breeze. I now long to see all the great first-person novels, from Tristram Shandy to Moby Dick to Midnight’s Children, done with the lens as protagonist. “I, camera” will be the new cry of a new genre. A cry which, it poetically happens, is an anagram of “America”. Funny how the semiological study of movies always brings us back to the movies’ homeland and heartland.
She’s back. I love her. I love the way she acts. I love the way she doesn’t act, which is her form of acting. I mean Isabelle Huppert. France’s greatest screen actress, last week in Villa Amalia, appears this week in Claire Denis’s White Material, quietly devouring the screen as a white African farmer facing dispossession.
Chère Isabelle. Do you remember the time we met for lunch – a “lunch with the FT” – at the National Theatre café? Was it 14 years ago? The theatre critics had been unkind, saying your accent as Mary was incomprehensible, made worse by gabbling. Paah! When I saw you on stage, I understood every word. You had intelligence, fire, passion, and beneath them, that fantastic Huppert inner quietude.
When I asked why you had chosen acting as a career, your answer summed up your mystery and magic.
“Why choose to be an actress? Just to be silent. It may be contradictory, because playing a character means delivering words. But they are someone else’s words. To me acting has a lot to do with a kind of secrecy. The more you say about someone else, in their words, the less you can allow yourself to say about yourself. So it’s a paradox. Between expressing yourself and not expressing yourself ...
“I don’t have this noble idea of being an actor, or think of it as something artistic. You shape your role as you would shape a loaf of bread.”
Material girl. All is in the substance. No spirit? Yes, definitely. Definitely that too. But it comes, Huppert insists, through the director’s intervening craft. He, or in Claire Denis’s case she, brings the art, the vision, the sense of a special realm.
“One of the reasons I make films is to be in someone else’s universe. Someone else’s very personal universe. That’s what cinema has to be about. When it is not that any more, when it is not a personal vision, it is dead.” Attagirl. The cinephile’s perfect credo. Bury my heart with those words engraved on it.
He’s back. I don’t love him. How could one after the famous anti-Jewish outburst? And all the Catholic fundamentalist claptrap? But I am mesmerised by Mel Gibson’s career, as one might be by a series of accidents in a garage. What will it be this time as we open the big metal door after the latest commotion? An explosion? A suicide attempt? Or a gonzo masterpiece, achieved in swirls of passion and madness like a Jackson Pollock painting?
Gibson has announced he will next do – yes, really – a Viking movie in the Viking vernacular. After The Passion of the Christ (Aramaic) and Apocalypto (Mayan), comes a long-ship epic in Old Norse. Leonardo DiCaprio will star. “There’s never been a good Viking film that I’ve seen,” says Mel. “The real problem is making those guys sympathetic. They were monsters.” Sounds like a perfect match between director and project. Also probably, like Apocalypto, perfectly unmissable.
A Graham Greene short story inspired the dapper, lethally enjoyable wartime drama Went the Day Well? (1942), reissued next week. Catch it if you can. Greene also wrote The Third Man (1949), of course, a British masterpiece.
Yet I wonder. Was any Greene contribution to cinema greater than his work as a critic? His reviews in the 1930s for The Spectator and Night and Day (anthologised in the book The Pleasure Dome) are brilliant: tart, witty, penetrative, prophetic. He identified early the underrated or out-of-favour directors who would become immortal (from Lang to Capra). He derided the briefly fashionable directors who would fall off their plinths. The only time I met Pauline Kael, my idol among recent critics, she confessed that Greene was one of her idols.
He committed one classic, fondly cherished howler, however, which gives hope to all his fallible brethren. Greene begins his review of Marked Woman, a 1937 gangster film, with: “‘It’s feudal,’ a character remarks.” He goes on to marvel at the word’s use in a Hollywood movie and to praise the “creative imagination (in) this picture of the feudal hell.”
But of course, no one says “feudal” in the film. The word is “futile,” pronounced as Americans with a Runyonesque accent will pronounce it. Fyootle.
Never mind. We all make bloopers. And when not writing reviews, Greene was writing a fiction he modestly hoped to lay before a publisher. It was called The Power and the Glory.
Nigel Andrews is the FT’s film critic