Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Youth of Chopin: Walter Reade, Sunday, January 10, 2009

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.


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Aleksander is my second favorite Ford. Becker's an apt comparison, in that the genius of both directors is equally hard to explain.

Have you seen Eighth Day of the Week?

Michał Oleszczyk said...

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the film, and your comment is incisive as usual. I don't know all the films Ford made, but of these I saw, I value most THE FIVE BOYS FROM BARSKA STREET, for which he was awarded the best director award at Cannes. In it, he shows amazing skill in following many storylines at once, and yet he's able to momentarily abandon any of them just to introduce a visually striking interlude (usually using long tracking shots not unlike these by Max Ophuls: there's less splurging in Ford's set designs, though).

Jesús Cortés said...

I don´t see that comparison with Jacques Becker. I didn´t find "The youth of Chopin" light and fluid. If you mention Becker, the string must get to Renoir, Vigo and even Chaplin. Aleksandr Ford (this feature) guides you to Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

Dan Sallitt said...

Glad there's some interest in A. Ford out there. Ignitiy: this is the only film of his I've seen.

Jesús: I understand what you're saying. That was part of the purpose of my remark about "coolly observed friezes" (not the best phrase I've ever turned): I wanted to suggest that Ford has a tendency to abstract some images, give them a timeless quality. This could be related to Eisenstein's influence.

Still, I don't think that Ford is all that heavy - for instance, look at the way Chopin's love interest darts in and out of the film unpredictably; or the speed of that dance party - nor Becker particularly dedicated to lightness and fluidity. I said that they were both strong on observation, but I can take that a step further: they're both ready and willing to abandon pleasure-giving storytelling conventions to enhance the observations. For instance, the biggest reason that the Paganini concert reminded me of Becker is probably that Ford let the sound of the violin echo in the room at the beginning of the scene, instead of making it sound nice for the audience. By sacrificing direct pleasure, Ford greatly enhances the feeling of people sitting in a big room, trying to process an important experience. Likewise, the wild dance sequence feels as if it's full of details that most people leave out, but most people leave them out for a reason: too dense a weave of observational detail gets in the way of an array of conventions that are designed to give the audience the feeling of participation in the event.

Jesús Cortés said...

Dan, I love Eisenstein and I appreciate A. Ford, my only remark was referred to that particular comparison.
The way he "abandoned pleasure-giving storytelling conventions to enhance the observations" as you said is not particularly (or precisely) an asset, rather a tendency in many eastern filmmakers, that like to multiply the mise en scene in order to make many scenes "something more".
When I mentioned lightness and fluidity I was talking about that ability to be "significative" with the minimun of elements, even nuissance material.