Cravan vs Cravan (Isaki Lecuesta)

Arthur Cravan, the ‘boxer/poet’, may be a footnote in the annals of the Parisian and New York art scenes of the early twentieth century, but his story is one of the more intriguing – sometimes the best material sinks to the bottom (of the page).

Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, in provincial Switzerland, Cravan ‘made his name’ in Paris as a dandy, a drinker, a critic, and all round provocateur. Inspired, or exalted, by the knowledge he was the nephew of Oscar Wilde, he sought sensation and scandal and turned most things into a fist fight, at which he excelled. His writing, expansive and opinionated, was less regarded than his exploits; his greatest creation, as historian Charles Nicholl puts it, was himself.

Cravan vs Cravan‘, Isaki Lecuesta’s 2002 documentary, participates in this game of self-mythologizing, treating Cravan as a kind of fiction, historical, but elusive, a figment of other people’s desires (so much so, there are moments when you fear it might be a hoax). One of those people is Frank Nicostra, an ex-boxer turned writer, who seems totally absorbed by his ‘identity’ with Cravan, the boxer and poet. Lecuesta builds his film around Nicostra: using him as narrator, interviewer, stand-in, and possibly, a patsy.

“This is the story of a ghost. This is my story,” intones Nicostra over a brooding, nocturnal image of the sea and then we find him standing apart, as if unseen, at an art gallery reception. Frank Nicostra as the ghost of Arthur Cravan eavesdropping on the chattering classes picking over his remains? The idea is contrived, tenuous, but it gives a different spin to the trail of photographs, sites of interest, and testimony from historians and enthusiasts. For what emerges is a portrait of a man (Cravan) with a restless appetite for life, aggressive, voracious, brutal. Full of bravado. Protean and contradictory; elusive, perhaps, but not enigmatic and certainly not a ghost.

Or is Frank Nicostra the ghost, the shadow, pale and admiring, of a man whose way of living inspired Dadaists, Surrealists, and a modernist poet?

The title of the film seems to pit the two men against each other. Outside the ring, it would have been no contest. Nicostra was a European champion, but in the story of Arthur Cravan, he is less than a footnote.

[An ex-boxer turned investigator on the trail of a rogue whose fate increasingly resembles his own: now that’s a nice noirish premise. Angel Heart meets Out of the Past?]

The Arbor, or How to put words in their mouths

Something strange happens as you watch ‘The Arbor‘, Clio Barnard’s docu-drama based on the life and work of playwright, Andrea Dunbar. The actors perform directly to camera; they look at you, they confront you, confide in you; this is disconcerting. But then you remember it is not the actors speaking: their lips are moving, but the voices are not theirs, but recordings of the people whose harrowing story is being told (Dunbar’s daughters, their fathers, foster parents).

It exerts a strange fascination, this disjunction, simultaneously artificial and authentic, acutely aware of both the quality of performance and the reality, if not the reliability, of the testimony.

(Our desire for voice and body to be unified is persistent. Despite being advised of the lip-synching, I continued to identify voice and actor. When ‘Lorraine’ declares that she has grown up pretty, I nodded, with my agreement based on an appreciation of the big eyes and balanced features of the actress as if she were Lorraine.)

The style is an ingenious correlative of verbatim theatre (in which the script is constructed entirely from the text of interviews with ‘real’ people) and sits nicely alongside open-air stagings of Dunbar’s work, whose dialogue seems to have been pulled straight from her own domestic life, raw and authentic and in your face; real words in an actors mouth.

The Arbor‘ is available on DVD.

Submarine (Richard Ayoade)

An awkward, hyper-verbal teen faces a dull, uncomprehending world enlivened only by one seemingly out of reach girl. Will he betray himself in his effort to win her heart? Will he lose her and get her back having learned his lesson? Will you care? In this instance – ‘Submarine’ – the answer may be more ‘yes’ than ‘no’. Or ‘maybe’.

Much has been made of the film’s Nouvelle Vague panache (pastiche). The brisk, unreliable voice-over, the jump cuts, the energy. All good (apart from the appropriation of Godard’s design aesthetic which verges on the superficial – this is film is Truffaut, not Godard. It has an ironic, alkaline heart. Subversive, or political, it ain’t.)

tru(f)

faut

god

ard

But thankfully the success of Richard Ayoade’s debut film is not just a matter of style. A poignant, nuanced study of depression lurks behind the perennial coming-of-age plot, nicely camouflaged by the droll observations and all that romantic super 8 fluff.

Some (script editors) might argue the boy’s sudden concern over his mother’s possible infidelity with their sleazy neighbour pulls the story in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, but that would be missing the point. His possessive attitude to the mother leads to a crisis of identification with his father – at one point, he authors a letter in his name – but this identification also leads to a (slightly) deeper awareness of his father’s – and possibly his own – depressive tendencies. Yes, it’s Oedipal, but this is the engine of the story, the romance merely its output.

Submarine‘ was released on DVD in the UK a few weeks ago (July 29th).

Against Archeology

‘Script development is like an archeological dig.’

The writer, on her knees scraping away in the dust, trying to put things together, but not in the best position to view her work. The view better from above, where the script editor stands. Up there, the writer will be able see what the script editor sees: how the bones should fit together, the way they could be made to articulate; only from up there, can she see what kind of thing it is that she has ‘uncovered’. With this knowledge, the writer can return to the hole in the ground, roll up her sleeves, and start to put things in order.

The guys at the now-defunct Arista were fond of this metaphor, I believe. They liked to talk about the ‘archeology of the story’. They were experts on structure and the identification of types and models and genres. They could paraphrase Aristotle. But I don’t think they got on their hands and knees to dig with you.

Archeology, of course, deals with dead things. Nothing is being created. Nothing expressed. Archeology reconstructs. It ain’t screenwriting.

There is merit in the metaphor, of course, but it’s not exactly revelatory: ‘sometimes it helps to take a step back’. The question, perhaps, is how far back.

Veteran dramaturg, David Wingate, admitted he used to oblige the writer to adopt the script editor’s perspective, but now advocates the reverse: the script editor should enter the writer’s world, (that’s to say, the world in which the film exists).

First, it’s a matter of respect. In the archeology scenario, the writer has been assigned the subordinate role of assistant to the script editor’s ‘professor emeritus’. Now, the script editor/developer/dramaturg may well be an expert in the field of what makes a film work, but a film begins in the imagination of the writer. The script editor has been invited along as a guide to assist in its passage from the imagination to reality as light and sound. The guide needs to be well-informed and the traveller may not know exactly where they want to go, but the guide has joined the traveller on her journey, not vice versa.

(Perhaps this is something that comes with experience, and age, when we are not so eager to impress with our learning and our reputation no longer depends on displays of professional expertise.)

Second, writing, and re-writing, is a creative process. Yet it is widely recognized that analytical modes of thinking are, shall we say, antagonistic to this process. Come too far out and you have trouble getting back in. So the script developer shouldn’t seek to pull the writer out of her work. If anyone is to move, it should be the script developer: going down into the hole, bringing his expertise with him, urging the writer to dig deeper. This is how David Wingate regards his role, I think: to keep the writer writing, digging deeper.

Until they find what it is they’ve been looking for.

~~~

David Wingate has worked as dramaturg across Europe and Scandinavia, with Sources2, and at the Berlinale Talent Campus, amongst others