Saturday, January 9, 2010
Polish director Aleksander Ford is one of those names who pop up in film history books, but rarely appear on American screens to take the test of time. His 1952 The Youth of Chopin, which screens once more on Sunday, January 10 at 3 pm in the Walter Reade's brief celebration of Chopin's bicentenary, has everything going against it: not only the unrewarding conventions of the biopic, but also an apparent governmental mandate to cast Chopin as a people's revolutionary. And it's a knockout anyway, a film that only gradually reveals how unorthodox and experimental it is. The project's central problems are confronted by writer-director Ford with unusual intelligence and formal transparency. The historical narrative is not so much blended with great-man mythology as juxtaposed with it, with self-aware cuts and tracking shots shifting Chopin and the class struggle from foreground to background and back again. Even more strikingly, Ford embraces the episodic aspect of biography, and the film often takes the form of a series of dazzling, disconnected set-pieces, with supporting characters bearing much emotional weight, then vanishing like comets. In some ways, Ford calls to mind the great French director Jacques Becker, in that his visual skill and sensitivity to ambiance is in the service of sharp but unbiased social observation. I could easily have been persuaded that Becker was responsible for the beautiful scene where Chopin attends a Paganini concert, or for an orgiastic party scene in which a political assassination is counterpointed with frenzied dancers ripping off their shoes. Still, Ford is somewhat more inclined to symbolism than Becker, more likely to turn the flow of reality into coolly observed friezes. I've never seen anything else by Ford, but it's hard to believe that a director who is at once so analytical and so instinctive could not have made many other worthwhile films.