Friday, April 03, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira

I must pre-empt today's music post to note the passing of Manoel de Oliveira. Oliveira has been one of the more reliably interesting directors on the international art scene for some time now - in the past 25 years or so, he has maintained a fairly steady output of work, almost a film a year, all generally playful art films, though in a number of different styles and tones. Big melodramas, precise character studies and chamber pieces, bits of surrealism - long films, short films - it has been a remarkable run of films. Before that, in te 70s and 80s, he made a smaller number of films, but some of them are stunning masterpieces - Doomed Love or Francisca - long, challenging adaptations of 19th century literature, done in a strange, almost unique style: beautiful, artificial, sometimes static and abstract as Straub and Huillet, but with the sweeping emotions of the grand novels they adapt, and surreal traces throughout - they are beautiful, strange and subtly very funny, and they tend to make other adaptations of 19th century literature seem drab in comparison. I've been taking a class in Russian culture, seeing lots of adaptations of great Russian lit or biographies of great Russians - The Idiot; Onegin; Tchaikovsky - they tend to be a bit disappointing. They try to find the artistic power of the novels, along with their emotional weight - so work in lots of arty flourishes, dream sequences and dutch angles and symbolisms - but none of it quite comes off. More or less handsome ad more or less well performed, but more or less routine... I have thought, more than once, how much these films needed to be made by someone like Manoel de Oliveira. No - more than that. I have thought, more than once while watching these films, how much I wish Oliveira had made a big Dostoevsky or Tolstoy adaptation. Not that he needed to - his work was plenty rich as it is, and makes me want to read Portuguese literature - but Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Pushkin could have used an Oliveira adaptation.

I will miss him; miss the anticipation of new films, the effort of finding them sometimes, and the pleasure of seeing them on the screen when they do get shown. And I will miss knowing he is alive. As great as he is as a filmmaker, his own life and career might be even more astonishing. To think that the bulk of his career happened after the 1960s - after he turned 60 - and that he put together a strong 45 year career after turning 60 - it is astonishing. He began as a filmmaker in 1931, almost ruined his career in the 40s after making the fantastic Aniki Bobo - he ran afoul of the dictator Salazar, and could not make films at all until the end of the 50s and 60s, and only really got going in the 70s... And then was able to build and sustain a 45-50 year career, the career he might have had in the 30s and 40s with some luck and justice - it is as happy an ending as I can think of.

I've mentioned before that he is 5 years younger than Ozu - to think that the bulk of his careen started after Ozu's death, and has gone on to now - is astonishing. I will miss him.

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