Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cheri, and the Curious Case of Stephen Frears

Following Stephen Frears' career has not been much fun for me for the last twenty years or so, but I feel as if I owe that much to the director of One Fine Day (1979), Bloody Kids (1979), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Song of Experience (1986). For a few years back then, I considered Frears one of the world's greatest filmmakers.

If there was a shift in Frears' sensibility after the success of Laundrette and his graduation from British TV to international theatrical releases, it's not that easy to detect. He always considered himself an interpretive artist, subordinate to the writer's vision. Around the time of Afternoon Off (1979) or One Fine Day, he began to enjoy master shots, started moving his camera more deliberately, and seemed struck by a new awareness of the space around people. Technique is merely the handmaiden of artistic sensibility, of course, and the fact that Frears' films no longer look the same is not an indictment. But, in his best films, Frears' technique took him to an interesting, contemplative place. He intuitively grasped that his camera style lent itself to a demonstration of the psychological inaccessibility of characters, and found angles on his scripts that allowed him to emphasize the unknowable aspects of people.

This directorial attitude pretty much evaporated upon contact with the world of theatrical distribution and international acclaim. In retrospect, I suppose that Frears never wanted to brandish such an attitude, and remained true to his conception of the director's role. But there's a practical problem with a director subordinating himself or herself to the writer. A script is a solid thing that can be passed around, an object that every producer and investor can and does scrutinize and try to modify. By committing himself to an interpretive role in an industrial context, Frears risks becoming the servant of a larger, more commercial agenda. And that's exactly what the trajectory of Frears' career suggests to me. It's not as if his recent films lack judgment or taste, but he's no longer negotiating a settlement between what a comfort-loving audience wants and what the filmmakers choose to give. The inscrutability and visual recessiveness that gave such power to his late-television period would not necessarily poison the commercial prospects of the films that Frears now supervises. But someone would need to make the decision not to take the safest possible route.

Cheri, Frears' new movie of Christopher Hampton's adaptation of two Colette stories, offers the audience a number of genre pleasures: lavish d├ęcor and costumes, the pleasure of bitchiness as a recreational sport, a self-confident grande-dame protagonist who strikes poses and gets a lot of conspicuously witty dialogue. While I was watching the film, I mostly registered Frears' cooperative attitude toward these tropes. The project certainly has points of interest, most notably the elusive character of Cheri, quite well played by Rupert Friend: unaware of what he wants or even feels, and yet possessing an assertion and vigor that is wholly ineffective in the absence of self-knowledge. In fact, Cheri is exactly the kind of randomly bouncing pachinko ball that Frears might have enjoyed setting free in the shifting visual field of his earlier style. If Cheri feels relatively shallow, it's because the filmmakers want the audience to receive familiar genre pleasures, not because the material doesn't contain depths. The raptures of love are dilated upon with large acting and music cues; likewise the self-aggrandizing sorrow of renunciation. The ambiguity of response and the irresolution that lies between these poles, the only emotional terrain in the film that might really repay exploration, could only be probed at the risk of throwing the audience off its comfort.


dm494 said...

Dan, you have the advantage on me of having seen much more of Frears's early TV work, of which I know only LAUNDRETTE, SAIGON: YEAR OF THE CAT, and the two WALTER films. I understand what you mean by Frears's conviction that people are unknowable, which is quite evident in SAIGON and WALTER AND JUNE. All the same, since ONE FINE DAY and AFTERNOON OFF are among your top Frears films, I wonder if it's not Alan Bennett, who wrote them, rather than Frears, who should be credited with the qualities in them which you're responding to.

This brings me to your argument about screenplays, which I have some reservations about. Taken generally, it's a perfectly true observation: screenplays are endlessly interfered with by producers whose interests are not likely to be other than commercial. My question is whether this sort of script interference has plagued Frears much in his "international" period. For one thing, Frears is known for the peculiarity of insisting on having his writers on set with him so that they can do rewrites as need arises. These rewrites, which are said to have been quite extensive on some of the films, could not be subjected to the commodifying scrutiny which initial drafts of a screenplay normally receive within the American system. Then there are considerations such as the fact that Christopher Hampton's published shooting script for DANGEROUS LIAISONS very closely resembles the text of his play. This again suggests that commercial interference at the level of the script before shooting may not be all that big a factor in the increasing safeness of Frears's work.

I wish you'd elaborate on Frears's style. On the evidence of CHERI, he has not given up his predilection for master shots--or for the brisk tempo of the 80s films beginning with THE HIT, which is also present early on, in GUMSHOE. The WALTER films involve a use of the steadicam that faintly recalls Alan Clarke, and THE HIT has a very odd sense of composition. I'm not sure what to make of these features, except that the steadicam work is one of the techniques responsible for the cool temperature and mounting, gentle sadness of WALTER AND JUNE.

Dan Sallitt said...

Good post, dm494. I think it's a good idea to be pragmatic about attributing value to the writer or to the director: there are interesting, almost mystical ways in which those two functions can bleed over into each other. And I do like a number of Bennett projects, such as A Private Function and The Madness of King George, with less celebrated directors. Still, Frears did bring the same contemplative tone to various projects by other writers. And, as much as I like the earlier Bennett-Frears collaboration Sunset Across the Bay (1975), I don't think that Frears was at that point willing to assert himself via rhythm or emphasis in the way that he would a few years later.

I don't mean to suggest that direct interference from producers has derailed Frears' art. There are a large number of adventurous or cockeyed projects in his post-1986 filmography. I wanted to float the idea that, once one defines oneself as an interpretive artist, subordinate to someone else's dominant contribution, one is at a disadvantage in resisting other dominant figures in the web of personality vectors that comprise a commercial production. And that a script, as good as it may be, is the gateway to other shadowy industry beings. Certainly as this point I often feel that Frears is looking out for interests that are at odds with my own.

Maybe I'll wait a bit before going further into Frears' style: it's nice to do that sort of analysis off of a recent viewing. But here's a thought experiment that comes to mind. There's a great moment in The Hit where a panicky Terence Stamp flees his captors, but inadvertently holes himself up on a rooftop where he can only wait for recapture. One of the undercurrents here is the pull between mystery and revelation: Stamp had been so serene about the prospect of execution that his more understandable flight impulse takes us by surprise. Then there's the way that the open space of the rooftop explodes onto the screen after a chase through confined spaces; and the odd contradiction between Stamp's hopeless, trapped situation and the sudden access of calm (the editing slows down), sunlight and visual expanse. The moment is pointedly anti-expressionist, and yet is a narrative stopping point of some prominence.

My first thought is that this kind of paradoxical effect would have no place in Cheri. My second, revisionist thought is that Cheri isn't a completely unsophisticated film, and that maybe it could contain a bit of unusual filmmaking like this in some nook or cranny - but that it would never put such a mysterious scene in a prominent place, that it would be sure to save its peak moments for safer and more familiar effects.

dm494 said...

Thanks for your detailed reply, Dan. I didn't mean to suggest that CHERI is more challenging than it seems. Only I wanted to make clear that its conventionality shouldn't be blamed on a lack of contextualizing wide shots--the film has plenty of those.

I wish I could remember the passage in THE HIT which you bring up; I do recall, vividly, the weirdness of Stamp's knocking down his bookcases to block his abductors just before. I guess the question to ask is whether Frears's contrapuntal manner of presenting Stamp's plight is an exceptionally sensitive rendering of ideas already present in Peter Prince's script, or whether it goes beyond interpretation and introduces entirely new meanings or at least significant extensions of those found in the screenplay.

Dan Sallitt said...

dm494 - I think that, even in the most powerful cases, direction generally builds from the script. Direction that creates meaning independent of the script isn't unheard of, but I think of that as an unusual occurrence. The texture of a realized movie is sufficiently different from writing that a director can be considered a creator without asserting dominance in the realms of story or theme.

Peter said...

I haven't seen Cheri, but a British film I did like is Ken Loach's Looking for Eric.