Friday, November 21, 2008

John Boorman speaks!

It was wonderful to meet filmmaker John Boorman, who accepted the 2008 Excellence Award form the Boston Irish Film Festival this evening, in recognition of his achievements in cinema. Boorman made some brief remarks after the screening of his stunning film The General, and then answered questions from the audience. I had spoken with him briefly earlier, and even got him to sign my two souvenir items: the book John Boorman by film critic and scholar Michel Ciment, and a copy of a shooting script of Excalibur that I bought at least ten years ago in a bookstore in Harvard Square.

I didn't think I'd end up with any chance to do an actual interview, because t was already getting late, so decided to ask about the one film left out of the tribute clips shown: The Exorcist 2: The Heretic. When I mentioned it a couple of people in the audience laughed (rude!) and Boorman at first said "Oh, yes, we left that one out, didn't we?" as if he had not at first noticed it missing from the clips and introductory remarks. He then talked about how he had first been offered the chance to direct the first Exorcist film, but being committed to working n Deliverance made it difficult, and as well, he found the subject matter "quite horrifying: as the father of a number of daughters,I thought this was primarily about the torture of a child." He then said he later read a three-page treatment for The Heretic, based on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, and the central theme was the notion of goodness. He then said doing the film in the way he did ended up being "a terrible mistake" because audiences simply "wanted more of the same" and expected a sequel to be just like the original. He said audiences were "shouting and throwing things at the screen." In spite of this, Boorman said, "It's a good film and certainly it is some of my best work, I think." He then said that so much of what makes for success in film is "hitting the audience at the right time with the right film, it has to be in the zeitgeist of getting it right." He then mentioned that Point Blank did not do wel with American audiences until it was re-released two years after its first premiere, and insisted its success the second time was purely because of timing. "If you're ahead of the audience, you're all right, but if you're ahead of them it doesn't work."

There were some other interesting questions and answers. One man asked why The General was filmed in black and white. Boorman talked of an idea I often discuss in my classes: that the act of watching cinema is like being in a dream state. "Cinema is like dreaming, and we tend to dream in black and white (not me, John! in fact the night after this conversation I had a vivid dream in which I was wearing a rainbow colored gown). If you use black and white you can create a contiguous world that is much more powerful that portraying it in color. But I regret that it's not always possible to make black and white films these days. You can't sell them to television, because TV simply doesn't ant to show newer films that are in black and white,which cuts off your revenues and this makes it very hard selling distributors on the idea. I don't know why this is, it turns people away somehow, perhaps they think it's old or old-fashioned."

(There were more questions from the audience, and answers, including some fascinating comments on film versus video, which I will transcribe in when I have more time later.)

A bit later, when I had a moment to speak again to Mr. Boorman directly, I asked him about color in Excalibur, to which he replied: "We wanted a luminous quality for the entire film, and so we lit everything. Al the forest scenes in particular, we lit with green light, the rocks, the moss on the trees, everything." I asked why green? Was it about nature, or some fairy or magical meaning? He said this was "to underscore the importance and power of nature." A man near us was interested in this subject and brought up other colors (red,etc.) and I mentioned my theory of how each character has a unique color and element palette. I discuss this a bit in my film notes for the Brattle Theatre, where is showing again this Sunday.

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Boorman and hear his commentary. You all can have this same opportunity this evening, when the director will be present at the Harvard Film Archive for the screening of his excellent, controversial film Hell in the Pacific.


Bo said...

Love the film. Interestingly, I think the green light is one of the things which now works least well: it's dated badly.

Peg said...

Yeah, I might agree. The acting style (or maybe the timing of the editing with the dialogue? it's hard to put my finger on it) also seemed to alienate some of my students when I showed it for a class. There's a lack of naturalism at times I suppose. I still love it.