Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm Going Home

The back and front images adorning the 2003 Image Entertainment DVD release of Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home form a familiar effort to sell expansive cinema in reductive, normative terms. On the front we see an older man, laughing, accompanied by a young boy that we presume to be his grandson, while on the back we see them joyously playing with remote-controlled cars together. The image of them playing with the cars is one of the most important in the movie, but the whole DVD package exudes a cornball heartwarmth that's hardly an exact representation of the contents inside. It's not necessarily a completely inappropriate or dishonest image, as the distance between generations is one of the film's themes, but the young boy only appears a handful of times and the relationship between he and his grandfather is largely incidental, at least in narrative terms. The film centers squarely on the experience of aging theater and cinema actor Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) after the death of his family in a car accident, a situation that allows de Oliveira to investigate one of his central themes (at least in his late work): the intersection of and clash between tradition and modernity.

I'm not an expert on Manoel de Oliveira's films. The simple facts of his biography convince me he's led an extraordinary life: a director of several dozen films, he was also a stock car driver in the 1930s, and at the age of 100 years old he's currently, and apparently indefatigably, mounting another feature. My own impression is that he must be considered some kind of living institution, bridging the eras of silent, early sound, and contemporary cinema as no other living filmmaker does. Beyond this, a more expansive and authoritative overview of his work can be found in Randal Johnson's 2007 book about the director, and perhaps the best place to start is an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum that appeared in Film Comment last year (it's available online). I've only seen six of the Portuguese director's forty-nine films, and all of those come from the 1990s and beyond. I'm Going Home, released in the U.S. in 2002, is my favorite of what I've seen, and the one that piqued my interest in de Oliveira in the first place. I went back to see it twice during its one-week run in Denver, intrigued in particular by the ending of the film, in which the young boy actually does become an important factor (for reasons, of course, the DVD packaging doesn't clue us into).

We first meet Valence on the stage, performing Ionesco's Exit the King. Like the play, Oliveira's lengthy and ruminative opening sequence is focused on exits and transitions, shifting back and forth from views of Valence's performance, the audience, and the backstage arrival of several men in business suits who will inform the actor, after the performance, of the death of his family in a car crash. Oliveira doesn't register this loss in melodramatic terms: most of the emotional resonance in the tragic news is felt on the faces of Valence's co-actors (including the lead actress, played by Catherine Deneuve, an Oliveira regular, at least in the late films, but seen only here in the opening sequence), the first sign in the movie of the respect others have for Valence. We don't even see Valence's face again in the sequence; our last glimpse of Piccoli's character is from behind, as he grabs his coat and rushes out the door, on his way to the hospital.

Oliveira is mostly interested in the aftershocks of this tragedy, and much of the rest of the film centers on Valence's quietly dignified attempts to pick up the pieces. Regardless of what the DVD cover art tells us, emotionally, we feel this effort only in part through his relationship with his grandson: more important are Valence's attempts to continue what he considers valuable work as an actor, steadfastly refusing his agent's overtures to star in more commercial television work. There's a broad-brushed conservatism that might be detected in Oliveira's worldview here, as the crass, opportunistic world of agents and star directors (including one played impishly by John Malkovich, in a role that reminds me of the same willingness for self-satire that he exuded in Being John Malkovich but in a far different register) is opposed to Valence's stolid traditionalism and refusal to sully his resume with hack work. But the real interest in these scenes is Piccoli himself. "I'm a man of the theater and the cinema," he tells his agent in one scene, and that single moment contains the kind of embodiment of cultural history and knowledge that Godard probably thought he was getting in casting Piccoli in the similarly backward-looking video 2 X 50 Years of French Cinema (1995). But Oliveira accomplishes in sparse, concrete details what Godard mitigates through heavy dollops of abstruseness: Piccoli's refusal, for example, to meet the loving glance of a co-star with romantic intentions straight in the eye, knowing she's part of the gambit to convince him to do television work (the one moment in the film that convinces me his dedication to acting is in some way profoundly related to the memory of and loyalty to his dead wife, although no other narrative information exists to corroborate this impression); the quiet tension between Valence and Malkovich's director, who wants to cast Valence in his pretentious project chiefly because of his availability; and Piccoli's insistence that he spend several hours thinking through the script before he accepts the part, clearly displeasing to both Malkovich and the agent, who have only time and money on their minds.

There are apparent thematic similarities between the Ionesco play (which I haven't read) that opens the film and Oliveira's story of the aging actor. But subsequent viewings of this film have convinced me that Oliveira doesn't buy into the Shakespearean axiom that all the world's a stage - at least not in the modern world. I'm Going Home is in part a story about a dead art, and a theater actor's struggle to continue to find a stage where none exists. Early in the film, Valence is established as a well-known figure, signing autographs for two young women. But Oliveira shoots the sequence through a shop window (through which Valence had been previously looking at a painting, engaged in silent reverie), making our view of the aging actor and his young acolytes slightly opaque, and muffling the sound. The use of windows and internal frames are, throughout the movie, a means to suggest a separation between Valence and the stage of the world: his fame seems mostly residual, the achievement of past successes. In the final sequence in the film we see him roaming the streets of Paris, muttering lines from the Malkovich film whose set he has just abandoned (an adaptation of Joyce's Ulysees, regarded by Oliveira with the appropriate absurdity) while passersby stare at him with puzzlement. This actor's stage is in the past.

Ultimately, Oliveira's film is mostly satisfied with quietly evocative moments. The need for daily routine is as important to Valence's effort to continue living as is acting, and in a series of clever scenes we see Valence return daily to a cafe, sitting in the same seat, a routine that is varied only when his arrival to his customary table is slightly delayed one day because of his purchase of a present for his grandson. (Comically, in each of these scenes Oliveira shows us how another man always comes to take Valence's seat after he finishes his coffee, a routine that is disturbed on the one day the actor arrives a few minutes late). Oliveira also registers small moments of joy: Valence's delight in a new pair of elegant shoes, for example, embodying both his love for the refined things in life and his understated dignity. (That these shoes are subsequently stolen in a mugging is perhaps the broadest, and least effective, statement of Oliveira's theme of tradition's clash with modernity). Oliveira's generosity of vision, however, is especially confirmed in the final shot, which focuses not on Valence but on his grandson, who watches his grandfather retire to his bedroom after an exhausting and unfulfilling day. With this image, perhaps Oliveira is wondering what the younger generations will do with his - and Piccoli's - legacy. (The poor DVD distribution of Oliveira's work suggests a pessimistic answer). But it's not over: Oliveira continues to make movies. Unlike Valence, he's not home yet.

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