Grave Thoughts

Grave Thoughts

Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Forever visits the dead in Paris, but nobody grieves; James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma pits an evil Russell Crowe against a driven Christian Bale.

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Everybody in Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Forever visits the dead, but nobody grieves. As the characters come and go in the principal setting–Paris’s Père-Lachaise Cemetery–they stroll, relax on benches, scrub the marble or even sing, and the air remains clear and mild for them, as if Honigmann had made time pause at 10 o’clock on a spring morning. In the trees’ shade, a speck of life shines on weathered stone: a ladybug creeping across a graveside sculpture. Views of incised symbols fill the screen, one after another, alongside rows of letters, some formally chiseled, some scrawled by a passing hand: random pages, you’d think, in an illustrated book of consolation.

Which of the dead do the living come to see? Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, the husband of an elderly Spanish woman, Maria Callas, Georges Méliès, Amadeo Modigliani, an Armenian man who designed shoes, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, a forgotten poet of the nineteenth century, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean-Auguste Ingres and, repeatedly, Jim Morrison (though his many admirers never seem to get to him). Sometimes, little more than curiosity has drawn the visitors. “Have you read his books?” asks Honigmann, unseen behind the camera, of a group of French people paying their respects to Proust. The reply comes with a shrug: “It takes a lot of time to read À la recherche.” More often, though, the people Honigmann encounters feel they share something with the dead. They show it by offering gifts: a pen for Proust (so he can go on writing), a lipstick kiss for Oscar Wilde, a flower in Poland’s colors for Chopin. They also talk about this bond, telling Honigmann of their losses.

“Why did you leave Iran?” she asks a lanky middle-aged man whom she’s found by the tomb of the writer Sadegh Hedayat. The man thinks for a moment, then quotes a passage from Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, about going abroad because of weariness with other people. “I was also a bit tired of everything,” the man says of Iran, with a sad grin that tells more. And now that he’s in Paris, how does he make his living? He drives a taxi–“but my real reason for living, what keeps me alive, is singing Persian classical music.” Will he sing something now? No, the man says. It’s not the time or place; but Honigmann waits, with the camera running. No, the man says again, trying not to look at her. His voice isn’t warmed up; but Honigmann still waits, pulling in for a tighter shot. “What would you like me to sing?” he asks at last. Sitting next to Sadegh Hedayat, the taxi driver takes out his notebook, chooses a poem by Hafez and begins to sigh and sob the lines, and his mournful cry continues even after Honigmann has cut from him to a detail of a memorial statue: the face of a shrouded woman, weeping into her hand.

From this small episode, you may begin to understand that the encounters in Forever aren’t random at all, even though they’re as unforced as the rustling of the leaves. So many of the subjects Honigmann chooses, such as Hedayat and the taxi driver, are people who have left home: the elderly widow who fled Madrid during the civil war; the young man from South Korea who found time to read À la recherche (but can’t explain why it means so much to him, unless he says it in Korean); pianist Yoshino Kimura, of Japanese ancestry, who plays Chopin (another expatriate) in memory of her father. Like the taxi driver, these people have come to Père-Lachaise to feel closer to someone, most often a celebrated artist; and yet the monuments in these quiet lanes, like the visitors’ favorite artworks, represent only what’s gone.

“This is the tomb that moves me most of all,” says Bertrand Beyern, a white-haired man who gives tours of Père-Lachaise, as he stands beside the memorial to Elisa Mercoeur. When Mercoeur died at age 26, in 1835, her mother had her poems inscribed on the gravestone. They were to be her immortality. “But now,” Beyern says, “it’s completely faded.” The camera lingers over a pitted surface, haunted by the ghosts of indecipherable letters. “Soon there won’t be much left but a few broken stones.”

Forever is an essay about how people may abide with such loss–seeking it out, savoring it, instead of turning away. If they were artists, perhaps they played with absence, as Georges Méliès did. (Honigmann cannily represents him through one of his trick films, in which he showed himself juggling with his severed head.) If something is continually missing from their lives–the sense of sight, for example–they may make an art out of making do. (Two blind men, visitors to the grave of Simone Signoret, return home with a DVD of Les Diaboliques, which they listen to with chortling, speculative delight.) As for Honigmann herself: Toward the end of Forever, she demonstrates how a filmmaker may do well to cling to the little she’s given, and ignore the vastness that escapes her, by recording one of Kimura’s performances of Chopin. Shooting straight across the top of the piano, Honigmann frames a close-up of Kimura’s face and simply leaves the camera there for the duration of the nocturne. A lesser filmmaker might have cut away to the hands, the expression of a listener, a photograph of the pianist’s father; but Honigmann knows that the information you need, and all the emotion, are present in Kimura’s intent features, which don’t even stay in the frame. They sway in and out–and this corporeal ticking, this swing between here and gone, feels like climax enough.

It’s been a long summer, my movie friends. Diversions, reports, polemics, come-ons and a plentiful supply of time-wasters have filled the theaters. Now, at last, comes a film that was made for love. I’d almost forgotten what I was missing until Honigmann reminded me–but that, of course, is what Forever is all about.

A First Run/Icarus Films release, Forever will be on view in New York at Film Forum, September 12-25.

When the original 3:10 to Yuma was released in 1957, directed by Delmer Daves, reviewers were quick to liken it to High Noon. Both were claustrophobic pictures–the former confined to a town under impending siege, the latter set mostly in a Wild West hotel–and both worked toward a deadline: a showdown on Main Street in High Noon, a meeting with a prison train in 3:10 to Yuma. The tone was moral, the theme was communitarian and the good, true wife was always there to plead with her man.

The new 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold, claims the same Elmore Leonard story as its source; but instead of inviting comparison to High Noon, it’s closer in spirit to a different kind of Western from that period. Here most of the action happens on the trail, where men who have no reason to trust one another must nevertheless traverse dangerous territory together. Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome might be the best example of this starker, more brutal tale, in which community, at best, is a scattering of canvas lean-tos around a brothel, and morality matters very little compared with individual willpower.

The strongest will in Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma belongs to Russell Crowe–just the actor you’d want for a killer who’s most dangerous when he’s quiet, eyes lowered and big, round jaw working thoughtfully. With his thick slab of a torso and squared-off mug, Crowe long ago proved he had the gift of being brutal (witness Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential); but he could convey wit and intelligence as well, though usually in a tormented vein (witness L.A. Confidential again or The Insider or A Beautiful Mind). Now, starring in 3:10 to Yuma as the boss of a gang of stagecoach robbers, Crowe gets to be self-confidently intelligent in his brutality: both the smartest man in any situation and the most ruthless. “You’re not all bad,” a young man says to him at one point, half in admiration, half in hope that he won’t be killed; to which Crowe replies, convincingly, “I am all bad. I’d have to be, to lead a gang of men like that.”

His antagonist, whose will proves almost as strong, is Christian Bale–just the actor you’d want for a good, honest man who’s wounded, half-starved, driven, obsessed and perpetually covered in dirt. You could have seen Bale play such a character in Batman Begins or (with equal conviction but to less effect) in this summer’s Rescue Dawn. In 3:10 to Yuma, Bale gets to exercise his strange talent for power through self-abasement by playing an impoverished rancher who agrees to take Crowe to the prison train: a job that pays $200, as recompense for suicide.

If I were a director, I wouldn’t want to cross either of these guys: the master of the glower and the prince of the sudden, insane grin. Mangold wisely stays out of their way, with the result that 3:10 to Yuma is the least posturing film he’s made. The studiousness, or maybe affectation, that has informed Mangold’s visual style has now been applied to the reproduction of classic Western moviemaking–the hat tipping up to reveal a man’s eyes, the camera tracking bad guys on their quick route through town, the chiaroscuro of a campfire scene, the long, long vista marked by a line of approaching horsemen. Mangold is faithful to these images not just in form but in spirit, making 3:10 to Yuma one of the rare recent American films that deliver what you’d expect from a genre movie: something easy to watch.

The difficulty may be to understand the point of what you’re watching. When the excitement is over, 3:10 to Yuma has proved something we all know to be true: The strong prevail. It has also suggested something that most of us hope: that those who don’t prevail may still be respected for their own kind of strength. If this isn’t exactly a cynical viewpoint, it’s not very comforting, either. Which character would you rather be: the one who gains grandeur with his mounting ruthlessness or the one whose most responsible gesture is an act of surrender? I would prefer to imagine other choices, but there’s just enough truth in the choice shown here to break your heart–a little.

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