Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 7:17 pm 
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(Otar Iosseliani, the Whistling Blackbird/Otar Iosseliani, le merle siffleur)

"I should learn to cut more"

This little documentary by an open accolyte celebrates the quirky filmmaker Otar Iosseliani and was made when he was shooting his latest, Gardens in Autumn (included in the NYFF 2006 and SFIFF 2007) The Georgia-born Iosselioani, who's now seventy-two, came to Paris 25 years ago and started making films there after being banned at home.

Iosseliani's first feature, November (1966) won him the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. His 1972 Pastorale disappeared in the Soviet archives and was held back from distribution. When Pastorale was a hit at the Berlin festival in 1982, he emigrated to France. He's won prizes in Berlin and Venice five times since. He's made about eighteen features.

In this documentary, Iosseliani comes on reciting Pushkin, and, perpetually, smoking cigarettes. He discusses the film and there are segments of earlier ones. The essence of Iosseliani is a certain joie-de-vivre, and there are always shots of lovely feasts and people living well. The house may be a shambles but there will be a good bottle of wine. There are also elaborate scenes with movement of people but no dialogue. Gardens in Autumn is about a man who is a civil servant, loses his job, and then has another life. It's like playing hookey. This is Iosseliani's spirit. Perhaps what people most remember of Gardens in Autumn is seeing Michel Piccoli in drag with a prim gray wig, dancing and knitting. His film is unruly, it goes on too long, yet we see here that he makes dozens of beautiful sketches (rather like classic 1960's European cartoon drawings) and plans scenes down to the second. It's just that he doesn't like to cut, or to watch a film after it's been cut. And there are elements that he prefers not to plan.

Iosseliani's wall is covered with the French equivalent of post-its, strips of paper printed up with phrases for things he'd like to get on film: "a complete idiot who's a wonderful violinist," "to die young due to stupidity," "a bender" ("that one I can do!" he comments), "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." "A burglar ceremoniously received." And so on.

He argues gently with his producer, Martine Martignac, who is frequently exasperated. He wants more time for preproduction. She says the money isn't available for that. But he gets Russian money too! And dollars. But Mme Martignac is omnipresent: she's his worst nightmare, and he's hers. If you insist on seeing Gardens in Autumn, you can guess why. Some of the production is pretty elaborate, and the sets are many, and the scenes go on, and on, and on, and on. "The film will be long, that's all. But we'll see," Iosseliani says to her, when they're in the middle of the shoot. "Maybe that's not bad. Or maybe it's very bad. One doesn't know." (Or one does.)

He smokes. And when he's not smoking he whistles. And he drinks. Vodka after vodka. The film is a bit lean on the "making of" aspects till half way through, consisting more of personal reminiscences, discussions with staff and production people, and some clips of earlier films showing the Iosseliani style as well as of Gardens in Autumn . But when the "making of" begins, it's fun too, as usual. There are some extremely droll set-ups of scenes, particularly one in which a couple of men are to be arguing in a coffin shop over the same coffin, for their own burial. "This will be very funny," Iosseliani says: and it is, at least the idea of it is. You get to see Iosseliani in a heavy downpour throwing food at some wild boars to make them stay in the frame. "I'm really wet to the skin. I'm so wet it's got to where I'm enjoying it. It's a long time since I've had this much fun," the director volunteers, smiling.

And then there's Narda Blanchot. She is a priceless old lady like the late Margaret Rutherford, with the same bony energy and the same long jaw. He wants to use her, but she can't drive any more. Only we do see her whipping around in a bright shiny Alfa, top down, getting a light for her cigarette from a cop and then whipping off again. She can't walk. Hence Michel Piccoli in a gray wig, to take her place. "You know, the old ladies today, they're not what they used to be," Iosseliani says. . .But Michel Piccoli nonetheless agrees that if Iosseliani find s suitable real old lady by shooting time, he'll drop out. Luckily that didn't happen.

There are films that are better to talk about than to watch: Gardens in Autumn is such a film. See this; avoid the film itself. This is charming. Iosseliani is a delightful old cove. But don't try to produce one of his films. And in this case, don't try to watch it. (Some of his earlier ones have gained him a cult following. And you can't deny it: there are some drops of the blood of Jean Renoir in his veins. But lately, he's grown cantankerous.)

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

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