Gilbey on Film: Accidental beauty

We shouldn't think films are ever born fully-formed.

Whenever the filmmaking process is divided into percentages (1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration, that sort of thing), it's surprising that such factors as luck or necessity are excluded altogether from the equation. There's a fantasy, one to which I am highly susceptible, that everything which ends up on screen was always meant to be there. Blame it on auteur theory, or simply a child-like faith in the miracle of movies, but there it is.

Occasions when this has not been the case tend to be filed away as freak exceptions. -- think of the devastating final shots of Roman Polanski's The Ghost and Mike Leigh's Naked, both of which were invented on the hoof after shooting had begun. (In fact, Leigh always adheres to this process, as he explained to Amy Raphael in her excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh: "[T]here's a big difference between the sort of ideas you have before you start shooting a film and what sort of creative process goes on when you've shot 99 per cent of the film, your cinematic juices are flowing and you've got the hang of the film you're making.")

But it was helpful this year on two separate occasions to have myself disabused of the whimsical notion that a film is ever born fully-formed. In these instances, my eyes were opened by two female directors, Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold. (Quite coincidentally, both had just shot their newest movies in the old-fashioned and almost-defunct 4:3 aspect ratio, which produces a square rather than rectangular frame.) Back in March, I met Reichardt to discuss her stark western Meek's Cutoff. One of the most contentious parts of this deliberately intense and slow-moving film was its elliptical ending, which leaves the audience to speculate on what might lie in store for the parched, desperate characters trudging along the Oregon Trail. The enigmatic final shots are so integral to the film's mysteries that I was surprised to learn that a different ending had been planned right up to the day of shooting. Reichardt told me:

The film actually ends a little differently than the script. The sun went down before we got our final shot on the last day, and I came back home without an ending to the movie, which is really devastating. I had to rearrange it in my mind. We didn't have the money to go back out there with all the actors and the animals and the wagons, so it had to become something other than what it was designed to be. I have this little prayer I say, where I tell myself that the lack of means is somehow working in my favour. Often it's true, and it can lead you some place good. In this case, it led me to an ending which was more suited to the film.

You have to be malleable. When I'm making a film, I want the script to be as far along as possible. But then all through scouting locations, the script is constantly changing to fit the places where things will happen. Then the actors come along. Things you've imagined being said in a certain way come out of their mouths sounding completely different, and I don't have a lot of rehearsal time so you have to adjust to that. If you knew how it was all going to be, then it wouldn't be such an interesting process. You read about Hitchcock, and how he said that shooting was boring because you knew everything that was going to happen, but then he wasn't working with our kind of budget or locations. I'm a big planner but it's still important to be open to whatever the day offers you when you're there.

I got an even greater surprise last month when I met Andrea Arnold (whose new version of Wuthering Heights I review in the next issue of the NS). I commended her on a particular moment in her 2006 debut, Red Road, which I consider to be one of the most imaginatively suggestive shots in recent cinema: a CCTV operator trains her camera on a suspicious-looking man who darts suddenly into the long grass on a stretch of waste ground, only for a lean fox to emerge a few seconds later from the other side of the undergrowth, creeping across the deserted road and vanishing into the night. The intimation, of course, is that a metamorphosis of some kind has occurred. I may actually have gasped when I saw that in a cinema for the first time, and I think I gasped again when Arnold revealed to me that the shot was entirely unplanned and fortuitous:

It was an accident; it's not like we had a fox there in the grass, ready to be released! When you're making a film, you often get less than you expect because what you start out with in your heart is such a pure thing, and the obstacles during production can be so immense and brutal. But, every now and then, you get so much more than you could ever have imagined. And the shot with the fox was one of those moments. To see it come out of the grass -- it was such a pure moment. I was delighted! I knew it was going in the film, no matter what. And I'd already written into the script the scene where the characters hear the fox noises later on. If you live in London, as I do, then you hear those awful noises all the time; it's just the strangest sound, like babies being murdered, and I wanted that in the film. The CCTV footage was shot before everything else, and it all just tied in beautifully. When that happens, you're, like, [she raises her eyes heavenwards] 'Thank you!' You feel like you've been given a big present.

And so do we, sitting gobsmacked in the stalls.

"Meek's Cutoff" and "Red Road" are available both on DVD. "Wuthering Heights" is released in cinemas on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era