Jacques et Jim
|Illustrations By Max Kornell|
One might propose an infinite number of generalizations about film directors, but only one would resist exception: All directors are convinced that they are through malice or negligence or a combination of the two profoundly underappreciated, insufficiently worshipped and unforgivably ignored. No praise is adequate and no criticism is just. This principle applies even to directors who, in fact, have been massively over-rewarded, but who still brood over the one prize or honor that has eluded them. When I say no exceptions, I include, of course, myself. (Although, in fairness to myself, in my case it happens to be true.) My righteous indignation has been rife from the start. Fingers, the first film I wrote and directed, with Harvey Keitel in the lead and a supporting cast of Jim Brown, Michael Gazzo and Tisa Farrow, was miserably distributed, and despite some great reviews, the movie never apeared on the mass audiences radar. And while it eventually played in every country, it remained a movie viewers would have to seek out and discover on their own. Fingers did over the years and across continents lure enough converts to qualify as a buried treasure and a cult classic, but the French critic Michel Ciment aptly described its torchbearers as We happy few.
So when Jacques Audiard (A Self-Made Hero, Read My Lips), whom I regard as the most important filmmaker of his generation in France, approached me with the idea of remaking Fingers as a contemporary film set in Paris, I was as taken aback as I was excited. Inevitably, in the process, Fingers would penetrate international consciousness not with a whimper but a bang. I then spent an exuberant evening with Audiard and his astonishingly talented star, Romain Duris, in New York during the Tribeca Film Festival, where The Beat That My Heart Skipped (the English-language title of the remake) received its North American premiere. My next encounter with Jacques, by international conference call, took place last week and follows below.
JAMES TOBACK: When I met Romain Duris recently, I asked him what
role he wanted to play next and he said, A woman. It was an interesting answer
because both in Fingers and in The Beat That My Heart
Skipped, I feel that the [lead] actor shows for want of a better word his
feminine side. The surface of the role would suggest there isnt a feminine side
but, in fact, I think this is the key to the character in both movies.
JACQUES AUDIARD:At first in my own work I wasnt very conscious of this, but Ive become more conscious as Ive continued making films that I like actors who are very masculine, very virile and yet who are able to express an aspect of femininity. When I look at the actors Ive worked with, Mathieu Kassovitz had that quality, Vincent Cassel had a little bit less of it and Romain has a lot of it. I think this is part of what constitutes a great male actor that he can own his feminine side and be able to express it. This is perhaps more common in Anglo-Saxon actors. The Latin and French actors seem to have a harder time letting go of their virility. Harvey Keitel, of course, had that quality and you feel it in the film It doesnt surprise me that Romain said hed like to play a woman in his next film, and I think he will, in a sense, in the film that my wife is directing. That doesnt mean playing a transvestite, but to incarnate feminine qualities.
[The film magazines] Positif and Projections did
a combined issue several years ago where they asked directors which actor theyd
most like to direct and I said Alain Delon, whom Id never met. But Id been interested
in everything hed ever done including his bad movies, of which there are many
precisely for this reason. There was always this very tough, would-be-gangster
façade and, at the same time, a very lithe, feminine quality to him. I thought
of him when I saw Romain in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and
I was quite thrilled because I didnt really know Romains work at all. When you
proposed the idea of remaking Fingers, I knew what a terrific director
you were and there was no question that you would come up with an interesting
film. But I thought: Where are you going to find an actor with the nuances and
complexity of Harvey Keitel? Alain Delon, at that age, would have been great.
But I didnt realize that there was someone who was actually, on many levels,
a kind of reincarnation of Delon at his peak.
Its interesting that you mention Delon, because he does have that balance between virility and femininity. Yet Delon, very early in his career, created a certain persona and that persona has persisted since then and, in a way, has been something he hasnt been able to escape. Romain, on the contrary, doesnt really have a fixed persona, and so hes able to dive into a character in the same way that Keitel can abandon himself to a role, and maybe Robert De Niro too.
Its actually something Ive always referred to as the John Wayne syndrome, where an actor like Delon or Wayne or Frank Sinatra becomes a brand name at a very early stage in his career, and even when he plays character roles as Bruce Willis sometimes does youre still always watching that brand name.
Its interesting that you mention De Niro, whom I was friendly with long before I met Keitel. In fact, De Niro had wanted to play the lead in The Gambler the movie I wrote that Karel Reisz directed. He had come up to my class at City College and learned the role inside-out. He would have been great. And the only divergence I had with Karel Reisz, whom I loved, was that when he met De Niro, he simply didnt get him and refused to use him. I always felt bad about it and I offered Fingers to De Niro. He spent 3 or 4 weeks on-the-fence about it. I was sure it was going to work out, but when, each week, he kept saying that he needed another week to think about it, I finally thought it might not be right, because I believe these things should either click or not click. Then I happened to meet Harvey Keitel in the Polo Lounge and I told De Niro that if he didnt want to commit to it that day, I was going to ask Harvey to do it. He said OK and thats how Harvey came to do the role. But De Niro does have that [feminine] side to him also, and as both he and Keitel have gotten older, its gotten harder for them to show it. Brando had it too, actually: He was always trying to escape being Marlon Brando, and I think one of the ways he found of doing it was to become distortingly fat and enormously effeminate in the roles he was playing.
James, is it okay if I ask you a question?
When I approached the idea of remaking Fingers, there was a literal sense in which it appealed to me the themes of inheritance, of being somebodys son, of creating your own identity. But theres also a sense in which the film belongs to certain cinematic territory the American films of the 1970s that nourished my own filmmaking. And Im wondering if today, in the American independent cinema, there is territory that has the same qualities as those films of the 70s that energy, that independence of spirit and also that view of society? Could there be a new form of filmmaking in America a New Wave or a New New Wave? Is that still possible today?
I dont think so. I think that the independent movement today is a glorified audition to be co-opted by corporate benediction. It really started with Paramount and my dear, late friend Don Simpson this idea that the poster is the movie, the concept is the movie. That thinking has had and I say this with due respect to Don, whom I loved a devastating effect. It created a world in which every movie must be viewed in terms of how it will be marketed and what the distribution concept will be. Because the money is so huge and because its so difficult to exist below the radar screen cinematically, you can get a movie made. But to get it distributed and to get any attention is extremely hard the seduction, the idea of directing a $100 million movie, is too strong for most young filmmakers to resist. I dont think the power of conglomerate corporate distribution stops movies of originality from being made altogether, but what it does is stop careers of real originality from being noticed and developed. The climate isnt there for the kind of flourishing there was in the 70s. Were now in a corporate culture where the idea of money and a materialistic notion of life are so widely taken for granted that youre considered naive if you dont genuflect beneath it. Whereas, in the 70s it was the reverse. It was the idea of subverting those values that, if you had any self-respect, you took for granted. That was your price of admission.
Something else thats very striking about that era pretty much from 1970 to 1980 is the sense of innocence that was in the directors work. Which is to say that these directors were learning how to make films as they were making films, and there was something extraordinary about the progression of their work as you watched it. I have the feeling that when young filmmakers are starting to make films today, they already know everything about the world of the image, and that lack of innocence is troubling.
Thats a fascinating and awakening idea for me to hear. When I was making When Will I Be Loved (2004), I thought about how absurdly disconnected my methodology is from the methodology thats accepted now, where all of the problems and all of the solutions are anticipated in advance. For me, the thing is to go in with a good idea of what youre going to do but with an open-ended notion that anything is possible, and to be alive to changing and shifting. The excitement, not only for me but for the actors, is vastly greater when they know that they are able to try anything that they want to try. Not just improvisation which suggests a variant of a text but invention. There was a moment in Two Girls and a Guy (1997) where Robert Downey Jr. did something absolutely astonishing in front of a mirror and it came entirely he said this himself from knowing how happy I would be if he did something that shocked both of us. He also told me how discouraged he is early on in a shoot when he realizes that a director just wants him to do whats been planned, and that he gets into a kind of depression from the second or third day of shooting. Its almost as if hes already done the role and is just going through the motions.
Its known that many American productions look to France and Europe to buy ideas and do remakes. But youve now had one of your films remade as a French production. How do you feel about that inversion?
Well, Im an inverted personality to begin with, so I see it as flattering and a real honor. I would, however, like to say one thing about the difference between the two versions its the only real difference, and its an intriguing one. Most movies exist on a purely conscious level and they can be very enjoyable movies, but they dont speak to your unconscious, they dont stir you, they dont make you want to remake them 27 years later. The ones that do are dreams or nightmares in their essence. To me, Fingers has always been a nightmare, whereas I feel that The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a nightmare that becomes a dream. And its not about one being better or worse or smarter or not or the right way or the wrong way. Its about a fascinating alternative, just as when you are having a nightmare and you wake up from it, its a valid and interesting way to have been unconscious but no more or less so than when you are having a nightmare and you purge it of its nightmarish qualities, and though youre still asleep it becomes something pleasant and hopeful instead of something dark and ominous. I intended Fingers to be a nightmare, but its very interesting to see your beautiful and elegant movie turn at the end into a dream.
Had anyone before me approached you about doing a remake?
No, and I was surprised when you did. I think its a very difficult movie to redo, because it isnt a movie whose virtues exist primarily in its narrative. The movies that tend to be remade are ones where the appeal is on the surface.
And yet the central idea is very powerful, of this gangster who is caught between these two worlds.
Thats certainly what drove me to do it in the first place. And when you talked to me initially and you spoke of it in those terms and also about the father-son relationship, which you said interested you in particular, I knew you were on a track that was going to be quite fascinating. Because Im psychoanalytically inclined I was in analysis for three years with a protégée of Freuds its almost impossible for me not to have an analytical take on everyone and everything, including myself and my own work. But I try not to let it take complete control, so that the movie can exist on some level of mystery. Ironically, halfway through the shooting of Fingers, the cameraman, Mike Chapman, said to me, Do you realize that were making an Oedipal film? And of course, I had realized it on some level, but never consciously, until he said that. The interesting thing in your film is that, unlike in Fingers, the mother is dead, and yet theres still this triangle, though now the mother exists as a kind of ghostly presence whose influence as is often the case is stronger from the grave than it would have been were she alive.
Does the American public remember Fingers today?
Its quite astonishing. I would say that at least three or four people a week stop me to talk about Fingers. And Harvey Keitel gets similar reactions. It also seems to have had a big influence on a lot of directors: Abel Ferrara, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson have all been generous in their acknowledgment. And when Premiere magazine asked Brett Ratner, who made Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2, to pick his three favorite movies of all time on DVD, he picked Jaws, The Godfather and Fingers. Needless to say which one of the three is anomalous. The movie has had an odd and powerful effect on a lot of people over the years, even though, numerically speaking, not many people have seen it.
When it came out, Harvey and I both complained bitterly about how no money was
being spent to distribute the movie, how most people didnt get it, how most of
the critics who wrote about it didnt know what they were talking about. And Harvey
said to me, Jimmy, how can people go for those movies and he proceeded to
name four or five popular movies but they dont understand Fingers. And I
said, Its going to take 20 or 25 years. Im very happy for you, Jacques, to
see that people seem to be connecting to your movie now, so you wont have to
wait 25 years As Ogden Nash wote, Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.
When Fingers opened in Paris, it had a very limited distribution, but those people who did see it became fanatical about it.
I felt that. I was in Paris shortly after it opened. I remember that Jean Domarch wrote a beautiful essay about it called Le Cinéma Selon Baudelaire. When the American Film Institute asked Truffaut to pick his favorite films, Fingers was one of them. And there were a number of people in France who got it in a way that very few people got it in America. In fact, I remember thinking that if Id made the movie in French, I would have been much better off in America.
I remember that Positif published a long article about you written by Michel Ciment.
Michel was one of the critics who got it right away. And Pierre Rissient as well. And that meant a lot to me, because other than the Australian critic Adrian Martin, David Thomson, Roger Ebert and, in a half-assed way, Pauline Kael, most people didnt get it. Ebert, who was also ecstatic from the beginning, found the movie playing in an exploitation theater in Chicago on a double bill with a movie called Drum starring Ken Norton, and on the marquee it said: Ken Norton is Drum. Jim Brown is Fingers. Which gives you an idea of how the movie was distributed at the time. Even then, in the 70s when you could make any kind of movie that you wanted it was very tough to pull off, at least with a large audience, a movie where the last image is the protagonist naked, staring into the void, with no sense of a future. People tend not to wish to be reminded that dread, madness and death are their fate.
You were a little strong there at the end! By the way, is the rumor I heard that you are going to be given a tribute at the Deauville Film Festival this year true?
It is. And I would say with grotesque immodesty that its long overdue. There was one that [Torino Film Festival co-director] Giulia DAgnolo organized and another that John Vanco and Noah Cowan did in Manhattan at The Screening Room, but theyve been few and far between. I love Deauville. In fact, they asked me if there was anyone who Id like to have introduce me and I said, If Jacques Audiard is free, hed be my first choice.
James Tobacks Fingers (1978) is one of the great debuts in American movies, imagining that the enforcer son of a smalltime loan shark might also be a gifted concert pianist, then working through that Freudian/Dostoyevskian dilemma with the kind of agonized precision that could earn a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. Its a private, shadowy movie, as raw as an open wound and erupting with terrifying expressions of emasculated rage not ideal fodder for a remake. But French director Jacques Audiard has done just that, and the result is a vigorous reminder that, in filmmaking as in musicianship, an inspired interpretation can make something familiar appear altogether new. Some of the variations in Audiards The Beat That My Heart Skipped are merely cosmetic the setting has been transposed from New York City to Paris, and the protagonist (called Jimmy in Tobacks version and now called Tom) has traded his doo-wopblasting stereo for an electronica-issuing Walkman. Others are more significant, like the substitution of Toms relationship with a Vietnamese piano teacher (the sublime Linh-Dan Pham) for Jimmys ill-advised infatuation with a gold-hearted hooker. (Wisely, no attempt has been made to substitute anything for Jim Browns immortal turn as the honey-voiced pimp, Dreems.) Yet if Audiards film is less relentless and, ultimately, more hopeful than Tobacks, it is no less compelling a study of the attempt to harmonize seemingly dissonant forces tenderness and brutality, classicism and modernity, France and Vietnam. In the role originated by Harvey Keitel, the young actor Romain Duris has an astonishing wiry intensity; whether hes wielding a gun or tickling the ivories, his body merits a warning sign Danger: High Voltage.
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED | Directed by JACQUES AUDIARD | Written
by AUDIARD and TONINO BENAQUISTA, based on the 1978 film Fingers by James
Toback | Produced by PASCAL CAUCHETEUX | Released by Wellspring | At Laemmles
Sunset 5 and Laemmles Playhouse 7
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