It's been months since i've posted. Blame it on lassitude, or ennui, or writer's block. In the last few months, there were a number of major events which forestalled any comment.
The New York Film Festival came and went, this was the first year since it started that i did not attend in any capacity. Since then, i've been playing catch-up on the films that were in the festival that have gone into release. I have been told that this was a singularly depressing festival, the culmination of which was the news of Chantal Akerman's death just before the screening of her last film, "No Home Movie". She wasn't just a filmmaker of genius, but a friend and an occasional neighbor (during the 1980s, when she was in NYC, she often stayed with Annette Michelson or at the Dia Art Foundation's Earth Room).
There have been many deaths to report, often the occasion of reminiscences with friends. At the end of 1969, when i was introduced to the staff of the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art, Charles Silver had just started working there, in charge of the Film Study Center. He retired in December of 2015, but he didn't have a chance to enjoy his retirement, as he died in January of 2016. And his death really shook me, because he was someone who was a friend for over 45 years! He devoted his life to MoMA's Department of Film, and that devotion manifested itself in the multitude of scholars and film enthusiasts (many of whom would become filmmakers) he helped over the decades.
Last week, i went to the press screenings of three out of the four films in Manoel De Oliveira's "frustrated love" tetraology: "Benilde, or The Virgin Mother" (1974), "Past and Present" (1972) and "Doomed Love" (1979); the final screening, which was on Friday, February 12, was of "Francisca" (1984); my attendance was thwarted by the MTA, once again there were substantial delays on the subways, making what should have been an hour long ride (i gave myself an additional half an hour, to be on the safe side) into one which would have taken more than two hours. (I'll try to catch "Francisca" when it's showing during its public screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
What surprised me about "Benilde" and "Past and Present" is that i didn't remember the films per se, but individual shots have been embedded in my memory. The opening and closing of "Benilde" in which the camera moves from or to a stage set to the scene; the final shot of "Past and Present", a slightly angled overhead shot in which the (unhappily) married couple arrives at the end of the wedding ceremony, only to wander aimlessly in the aisle: the minute these scenes came on, i knew i'd seen them before!
When Manoel De Oliveiera's death was announced, it was another occasion for sadness. "Doomed Love" was shown as part of New Directors/New Films in 1980; that was when i got to meet Manoel De Oliveira and his wife. They came in for the screenings, and were put up in the Warwick Hotel (on Avenue of the Americas, a block away from The Museum of Modern Art). As low man on the totem poll of the Department of Film staff, it was my task to meet the De Oliveiras every morning (around 10:30 AM) to give them their daily stipend, and whatever information they had requested. That included maps, tickets, etc. They didn't speak English, and i didn't speak Portuguese, but we communicated in French (fluent on their part, rusty and fractured on mine). What impressed me was their enthusiasm; he was 72 or 73 years old, she was in her mid-60s, but they were so excited. They'd never been to New York City before, and it was part of the adventure that began with the filming of "Doomed Love".
The public screening of "Doomed Love" took place on Saturday evening; the screening stareted at 6 PM, and Adrienne Mancia made the introduction. Then we all went to dinner. I don't remember which restaurant, but it was some place near MoMA; the dinner party consisted of Adrienne, Stephen Soba, the De Oliveiras, and me. Since "Doomed Love" is a movie of over four hours long, we were able to have a leisurely dinner of some three hours. I mentioned their enthusiasm; the conversation during the dinner (again, in variations of French) touched on many subjects. I remember the discussion of the making of "Doomed Love", how Manoel De Oliveira had retired and decided to make "Doomed Love", but since he couldn't find financing, he decided to shoot it in 16 millimeter, with the sets and costumes all done with the help of his family (Madame De Oliveira described how their sons had built and painted the sets). It was a labor of love, not just for Monsieur De Oliveira, but the whole family - they were doing it because he was retired and in his 70s, and they wanted him to realize his lifelong ambition to make this movie. (He had long been a fan of the novel, and envisioned a film of it in the 1930s.)
Their enthusiasm extended to travel: because of "Doomed Love", they had been invited to many international festivals, and they were excited at the opportunity to see parts of the world they'd never been to before: Asia (they were invited to the Tokyo Film Festival), South America, New York City. And then Monsieur De Oliveira mentioned that, when they returned home, he wanted to film his "testament", because he didn't know how much longer he would have, but he felt it was time. (That film would be "Memories and Confessions", another film which played at this year's New York Film Festival.) Who knew that Manoel De Oliveira would have 35 more productive years?
One thing about the De Oliveiras was their generosity towards other filmmakers. They had been excited to meet the younger filmmakers represented in New Directors/New Films, and they had seen some of the films recommended by Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia. And they were great fans of Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini; i remember how they discussed "Salo" and Madame De Oliveira talked about the mixture of elegance and shock, and Monsieur De Oliveira talked about the artist's responsibility to be transgressive, that the artist had to have the strength to go beyond the usual restraints. (I know this impressed Stephen Soba and me: we were in our 20s, and here were these seniors extolling the virtues of transgression!)
The Belgian performance artist Jan Fabre once did a performance called (i think) "This Is The Theater That You Have Always Dreamed About"; in "Masculin Feminin", Jean-Luc Godard has the line about "the movie we secretly wanted to make, and, more secretly, wanted to live." "Doomed Love" was one of those movies which, when i saw it, i felt that this represented what i envisioned cinema to be. (In fact, in 1980, i saw the movie three times: the first time, a print was sent to MoMA so that Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia could watch it, and i watched it with them; then, the film was screened again in the little screening room of the Film Study Center, this time for Joanne Koch and Wendy Keys from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and i watched it again; then i watched it again during the second public screening.)
So i have the fondest memories of the De Oliveiras, and i was delighted that he defied all odds, and embarked on the most productive part of his artistic career after the age of 70. I hoped he would go on forever.