B for Buñuel, Bergman, Bollywood & Berlin

As The Guardian film critic, in the good old days when you could go around the world watching movies provided you didn’t spend much of the paper’s very limited money, I had breakfast with Howard Hawks, lunch with Luis Buñuel, tea with Charlie Chaplin and dinner with Andrei Tarkovsky. Why shouldn’t I brag about that?

But this is B, so I’d better talk about Buñuel, one of the very few directors who made a lot of films which were good at the beginning of his career and even better at the end. Many film-makers make a couple of good films to start with and then, after much praise, consistently disappoint. One I know did the reverse. He made a fine film at the age of 70 after about a dozen you could only call undistinguished. He was the luckier man in my opinion since there’s nothing worse than being considered a has-been by those who have cherished your early work. Buñuel, however, while changing his style between Mexico, Spain and France, never really dropped in quality.

He was, of course, a master. He didn’t much care what we thought of his films provided they did enough at the box-office to allow him to make another one. He had, he told me, one great regret— that he never made a movie for Hollywood. When I told him he was luckier than he thought, he explained that many of his Mexican films were made for producers worse than those of Hollywood and who had no idea at all whether what he made for them was good, bad or indifferent. As long as they gathered some money, of course.

Lunch with him was a curious experience since he didn’t speak much English and his interpreter wasn’t very good. The trouble was that he wasn’t prepared to talk much about his films, rather like Kieslowski. He even claimed, again like the great Polish director, that he had little idea what they were actually about. But he was willing to talk about his actors and his main idea in all his films, which was to be as truthful towards his characters as possible. If he did that successfully, he said, all sorts of themes would emerge naturally.

He was also very funny about some of his contemporaries, saying of Dali that he was a great seducer of women, particularly Americans, but that he rarely had sex with them. In one case, Buñuel claimed, he asked the woman to strip and then placed a fried egg on each of her shoulders before ushering her politely out of his house.

I told him my favourite of his films was Tristana. “Ah, you like Catherine Deneuve” he said. “No”, I said, “I prefer Fernando Rey”. He seemed to like that, and we had the kind of liquid lunch about which you can remember very little. Except, in my case, the pouches under Buñuel’s eyes and the piercing nature of the eyes themselves.

I never met Ingmar Bergman but managed, by accident, to offend him by leaving his films out of my Century of Films book. 100 films were included, each from a different director and I sent them off to the publisher who complained there were only 99. Unfortunately I believed him and wrote another entry. When the book came out I was horrified to see that Bergman’s Wild Strawberries had been lost by the publishers.

Liv Ullmann, once Bergman’s wife, wanted a copy and showed it to Bergman. He was more than a bit upset about being ignored. But it was impossible to tell him what actually happened without it seeming a blatant excuse.

One thing Liv told me was that despite the often soaringly depressive tone of many of his films, Bergman’s sets were the reverse of depressing and often full of laughter. I’m not totally sure I believe her, but wish I could. You don’t see too many Bergman films these days unless you actively seek them out. But every time I do, I realise there was no one quite like him for power of expression and the often brutal truth behind human relationships.

Bollywood is a rather different matter as far as truthful human relationships are concerned. But it should be remembered that, once upon a time, in the thirties and forties particularly, what we now call Bollywood (ie Hindi films made in Mumbai) was populated by some of the best directors India has produced who used first-class, often classical composers and singers in their movies. Watching the best films of someone like Guru Dutt made during that period is a real eye-opener. Even the better Bollywood films now seem festooned with cliches in comparison. No one should sneer at Bollywood which, like Hollywood, makes popular films for those who want to be easily entertained. But it seems its best days, despite superior technical work, are long gone.

The 2014 Berlin Film Festival is upon us, almost certainly in freezing weather and with a programme of so many films that to see even 20 per cent of them would be impossible. Far more than Cannes or Venice, the other two major European festivals. Unfortunately many of them are very moderate indeed but we should remember that A Separation won Berlin and that was only one of the world-class films given awards there in recent years.

I was on the jury there a long time ago, and one of my co-jurors was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He was not best pleased with a number of the competition films and used to fall asleep quite regularly. The jury secretary then was an oldish lady who had been there for years and who wouldn’t have any slacking. “Mr Fassbinder” she said, ” Would you kindly pay attention. It isn’t fair on the film-makers to sleep during their films.” I have to say that Fassbinder, assailed by the old girl, looked suitably remorseful. But he soon closed his eyes again.

When it came to the jury discussions, all hell broke loose when Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably was brought up. Only a few of us liked it and the rest wanted it ignored. The ensuing argument caused Ousmane Sembene, the great African director who was the headmasterly president of the jury, to complain bitterly that he couldn’t possibly chair such a quarrelling lot. Almost immediately, Ellen Burstyn, the formidable American actress, suggested she should take charge.

And so she did, telling us that she would not allow a favourable vote for a film like Bresson’s that was sympathetic to young people contemplating suicide. This was nonsense but I thought it was all up for one of the few intriguing films in what was a fairly moderate competition. So I said that I would have to leave the jury since my reputation as a critic would suffer badly if Bresson got nothing. To my surprise and relief, Fassbinder stood up from his and said: “And if he leaves, I leave! “. Of course it wouldn’t have caused more than a minor furore if I had resigned. But Fassbinder leaving the Berlin jury would have been front page news in every German paper, and probably beyond.

Even Burstyn realised that, which was the reason Bresson’s film won the Grand Jury Prize (the Golden Bear went to an excellent Russian film, which deserved it). And after all that, whenever I saw Fassbinder he gave me a rather Prussian-like salute. He was a strange, ultimately self-destructive gay man who liked to wear tight breeches, which had the alarming effect of emphasising his equipment. He was surely famous enough to find plenty of conquests without any such aid. But what a film-maker! Take a look at his films now and see what we have been missing since his tragically early death. And he was absolutely right about the Bresson, even though it was not one of his greatest films.

Posted in A critic's ABC