Gilbey on Film: In praise of Fred Schepisi (again)

The Australian director's latest film has a dream cast.

Regular readers of this blog will not need reminding that I am apt to sing the praises of the great Australian director Fred Schepisi at a moment’s notice. As well as containing two out-and-out masterpieces (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Six Degrees of Separation), his CV is characterised by its eclecticism, incorporating everything from star vehicles (such as Roxanne, Steve Martin’s comic spin on Cyrano de Bergerac) to surprising genre work-outs (the western Barbarosa, the Cold War thriller The Russia House).

If you need convincing that he can coax out and shape unpredictable work from established actors, take a look at Meryl Streep in her two films for Schepisi, Plenty and A Cry in the Dark, or at the ensemble cast (Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone, David Hemmings) in Last Orders. Or - let’s cut straight to the reason I’m banging on about him again - his most recent film, an adaptation of Patrick White’s 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm, about a dying woman exerting a last few drops of precious control and tyranny over her two adult children.

The movie opened in Australia last year, and in the US last month, but has yet to be released here. Happily, there is a screening at London’s Hackney Picturehouse this Sunday as part of FilmFest Australia. The cast is a dream. As Elizabeth Hunter, the imperious, be-wigged matriarch, Charlotte Rampling delivers what must be her tartest performance, and that’s saying something. I wonder how she prepared to play this delicious gorgon, who spends most of the film ruling the world from her soon-to-be-deathbed. Perhaps she marinated herself in a bath of vinegar and spite for several days, or simply watched some of her own back catalogue.

There can’t be many other performers who could convincingly intimidate Geoffrey Rush, who plays Elizabeth’s pompous but wounded son, the self-regarding thespian Basil, or Judy Davis, as her vulnerable daughter Dorothy. (It’s nice to see Davis getting a rare break from the abrasive parts that have been her stock-in-trade since she turned bitterness and sarcasm into a bloodsport in Husbands and Wives.)

Basil and Dorothy turn up at their mother’s house to pick over what’s coming to them once she dies, only she’s not quite ready to go yet. From the moment Elizabeth explains witheringly why she never wanted to see Basil perform (“If you weren’t any good, it would have broken my heart”), you know the power struggles will be more spectacular and explosive than any action movie. Schepisi, who is 73 years old, takes to the material with his customary mix of elegance and energy; his regular cinematographer Ian Baker creates some stately compositions which add an ironic edge to the characters’ petty bitching and bickering, while the pointed score by Paul Grabowksky hints, never too heavily, at the chance that this family’s ancient wounds might heal.

"The Eye of the Storm" is at Hackney Picturehouse on Sunday. A release date has yet to be announced.

Australian director Fred Schepisi, October 2011 (Photograph: Getty Images)

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