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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 audience’s 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 isn’t 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 wasn’t very conscious
of this, but I’ve become more conscious as I’ve 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 I’ve 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 doesn’t surprise me that Romain said he’d 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 doesn’t 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 they’d
most like to direct and I said Alain Delon, whom I’d never met. But I’d been interested
in everything he’d 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 didn’t really know Romain’s 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 didn’t realize that there was someone who was actually, on many levels,
a kind of reincarnation of Delon at his peak.


It’s 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 hasn’t been able to escape. Romain, on the contrary, doesn’t
really have a fixed persona, and so he’s able to dive into a character in the
same way that Keitel can abandon himself to a role, and maybe Robert De Niro too.


It’s actually something I’ve 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 — you’re still always watching that brand name.



Exactly.


It’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t want to
commit to it that day, I was going to ask Harvey to do it. He said ‘OK’ and that’s
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, it’s 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?


Sure.



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 somebody’s son,
of creating your own identity. But there’s also a sense in which the film belongs
to certain cinematic territory — the American films of the 1970s — that nourished
my own filmmaking. And I’m 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 isn’t there
for the kind of flourishing there was in the ’70s. We’re now in a corporate culture
where the idea of money and a materialistic notion of life are so widely taken
for granted that you’re considered naive if you don’t 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 that’s 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.



That’s 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 that’s 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 you’re 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 what’s been planned, and that he gets into a kind
of depression from the second or third day of shooting. It’s almost as if he’s
already done the role and is just going through the motions.





It’s known that many American productions look to France and Europe to buy ideas and do remakes. But you’ve now had one of your films remade as a French production. How do you feel about that inversion?



Well, I’m 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 — it’s the only real difference, and it’s an intriguing one.
Most movies exist on a purely conscious level and they can be very enjoyable movies,
but they don’t speak to your unconscious, they don’t stir you, they don’t 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 it’s not about one being better or worse or smarter
or not or the right way or the wrong way. It’s about a fascinating alternative,
just as when you are having a nightmare and you wake up from it, it’s 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 you’re still asleep it becomes something pleasant and hopeful instead of
something dark and ominous. I intended
Fingers to be a nightmare,
but it’s 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 it’s a very difficult movie to redo,
because it isn’t 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.


That’s 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 I’m psychoanalytically
inclined — I was in analysis for three years with a protégée of Freud’s — it’s
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 we’re 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 there’s
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?



It’s 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 didn’t get it, how most of
the critics who wrote about it didn’t 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 don’t understand Fingers.” And I
said, “It’s going to take 20 or 25 years.” I’m very happy for you, Jacques, to
see that people seem to be connecting to your movie now, so you won’t 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 I’d 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
didn’t 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 it’s long overdue. There
was one that [Torino Film Festival co-director] Giulia D’Agnolo organized and
another that John Vanco and Noah Cowan did in Manhattan at The Screening Room,
but they’ve been few and far between. I love Deauville. In fact, they asked me
if there was anyone who I’d like to have introduce me and I said, “If Jacques
Audiard is free, he’d be my first choice.”


[

Pianissimo Forte

James Toback’s 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. It’s 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 Audiard’s 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 Toback’s version and now
called Tom) has traded his doo-wop–blasting stereo for an electronica-issuing
Walkman. Others are more significant, like the substitution of Tom’s relationship
with a Vietnamese piano teacher (the sublime Linh-Dan Pham) for Jimmy’s
ill-advised infatuation with a gold-hearted hooker. (Wisely, no attempt has
been made to substitute anything for Jim Brown’s immortal turn as the honey-voiced
pimp, Dreems.) Yet if Audiard’s film is less relentless and, ultimately,
more hopeful than Toback’s, 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 he’s
wielding a gun or tickling the ivories, his body merits a warning sign —
Danger: High Voltage.

[

—Scott Foundas

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 Laemmle’s
Sunset 5 and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7

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