Julie Taymor and Jeffrey Eugenides join Le Conversazioni

The director and author discuss their favourite films with Antonio Monda.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Julie Taymor, Antonio Monda, Jeffrey Eugenides in a backstage Le Conversazioni: Films of My Life discussion.
Julie Taymor, Antonio Monda, Jeffrey Eugenides in a backstage Le Conversazioni: Films of My Life discussion. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The 2013 Le Conversazioni literary festival celebrating the relationship between art, architecture, literature and film concluded at the Morgan Library & Museum on Thursday, November 7 in New York. Artistic director of Le Conversazioni Antonio Monda discussed with Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides - whose novel was adapted into Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999) starring Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, James Woods, and Kathleen Turner - films that influenced their lives and work. Clips from each of Taymor and Eugenides' chosen movies were shown, plus one from the moderator at the end.

The Films of My Life chosen by Eugenides were Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), Frank Perry's The Swimmer (1968), Alexander Payne's Sideways (2004), and Robert Altman's Nashville (1975).

Antonio Monda introduces Le Conversazioni Films of My Life
Antonio Monda introduces Le Conversazioni Films of My Life Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Taymor's were all black and white - Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Mikhail Kalatozov's Soy Cuba (1964), John Ford's The Informer (1935), and Federico Fellini's Nights Of Cabiria (1957).

Since Julie Taymor picked Nights Of Cabiria, Antonio Monda, who normally opts for an Italian film to round out the evening, selected a childhood favorite of his, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970).

Here are some of the reflections they offered about their choices and Jean-Luc Godard is a filmmaker they agree upon.

Rashomon

Julie Taymor: That whole idea, first of all, to tell a story from these different points of view, and have no truth was an amazing concept to me.

Antonio Monda: You know that Kurosawa when he cast Toshiro Mifune, he told him, "You should look like a lion." I was thinking of you!

JT: It's what I call an ideograph. It comes from the Japanese idea of a brush painting where you tell the whole story with a brushstroke. Often with masks you try to catch the main character in a mask.

Taymor calls Kurosawa her favorite director ever since she studied mime in Paris.

JT: He has done very naturalistic films and highly stylised films. This one is an incredible combination because nature is very very natural in it, the light in the trees - there is no artificial light.

Monda points out that Kurosawa was considered "too western" in Japan.

[The opposite was the case for Yasuhiro Ozu, who was considered too Japanese for Western audiences]. Jeffrey Eugenides, not familiar with the film will now refer to Mifune as "the lionman".

Walkabout

David Gulpilil, Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg provide an eye-opening (not eye-covering) moment at the waterhole.
David Gulpilil, Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg provide an eye-opening (not eye-covering) moment at the waterhole.
The clips show how strongly Nicolas Roeg's version of Hansel and Gretel still resonates. A father shoots at his own children in the desert, who at first believe that this must be a joke. So does the audience, and so did a pre-teenage Eugenides.

Jeffrey Eugenides: My mother took me to see Walkabout when I was 12 years old. And we were watching it. At the beginning the father takes [the children] out for a picnic … and leaves them in the outback. And they [brother and sister] have to survive, track through the outback. [They meet an] Aborigine on his walkabout who teaches them how to survive. There's a wonderful section after he saves them by the watering hole and they go skinny dipping in the waterhole for about five minutes. Most important to me is that because it was so eden-tically presented, that my mother didn't cover my eyes while I watched Jenny Agutter swim naked.

He pointed out how many movies he watched with his mother's hands covering his eyes. Besides this personal victory over his mother, Eugenides sees Walkabout very much as a film of the Seventies - The girl goes back to civilisation "and is quite unhappy about it. I was being told about natural foods and anti-pollution."

Monda informs the audience that the film was based on a novel by James Vance Marshall: The script was only 14 pages. Most of the film was improvised... I think it is by far his best film.

Soy Cuba

Julie Taymor, Antonio Monda, Jeffrey Eugenides share the films of their lives
Julie Taymor, Antonio Monda, Jeffrey Eugenides share the films of their lives Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
JT: It was obviously anti-capitalistic. But they had to shut it down because it made capitalism so attractive. It backfired. The sensibility of the whole thing is very Russian. These are no-edit shots - extraordinary planning and choreography. As a director it's just one of the most extraordinary feats. The way the music changes when he goes under water, there's no cut. A lot of it was shot in infrared.

Monda talks about the rediscovery of the film when Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola endorsed it. Monda calls it a propaganda film and mentions the conversation backstage about Leni Riefenstahl.

AM: Her talent is indisputable. She is one of the greatest talents. Can you talk about this?

JT: I don't think it was her ideas. She did her job. She was really about the art of making it. For Olympia (1938) [Riefenstahl asked], 'Can I put the camera underground?' She invented all these extraordinary ways to shoot a movie. So I think she put her blinders on. I don't think she did it because she had propaganda in her. I think she saw this opportunity, she was an opportunist and she made a pact like Faust. She made a deal with the devil to get the opportunity to shoot something outrageous and impressive as Triumph of the Will (1935).

AM: The talent wins over propaganda?

JT: If you haven't seen Soy Cuba, you should see it because it is a piece of poetry.

The Swimmer

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer, which was one of his favourites.
Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer, which was one of his favourites.
Burt Lancaster's character goes home from swimming pool to swimming pool throughout the Valley and encounters his whole life on the way. It was one of Lancaster's favourite movies.

JE: Did you see that John Cheever [who wrote the story] is in that clip? One of the people shaking hands. Late Cheever's writing is somewhere between realism and dream. The realism is so scrupulously rendered that it could seem arbitrary. This film has a very strange quality. Once you've given in to the film's strangeness, all that acting seems purposeful.

AM: Are you a fan of John Cheever?

JE: I am a fan of John Cheever, especially of that story and I'm a big Burt Lancaster fan. I think it's one of the best adaptations of a fictional work that I have seen. I think it's possibly easier to do a short story and make it into a movie than to subtract a novel's worth of material.

AM: What do you think about adaptations? Do you think the director should be faithful to the original source or not?

JE: I think if you choose to adapt a novel, there's something about the novel that you liked that you should preserve. You don't want to betray your experience of the novel, but you have to betray the structure of the novel in order to make a good film.

JT to the host: You asked me, was I betraying Shakespeare when I had Helen Mirren play Prospero [In 2010's The Tempest]. I said, not at all, because when we did that adaptation all the things that were in Prospero are still in the character of Prospero. It's one of the roles in Shakespeare where it works equally well. We were definitely trying to be faithful to Shakespeare.

AM: What are great adaptations?

JE: I certainly think The Ice Storm [directed by Ang Lee in 1997 based on the novel by Rick Moody] is a good adaptation of a novel. They changed the structure a bit. What Maisie Knew is one of the best films I've seen in a long time. What the filmmakers did was take Henry James' story and put it in contemporary times. That works perfectly and the point of view is Maisie's, the child's, point of view. David Siegel [one of the co-directors with Scott McGehee of What Maisie Knew] is here. Congratulation David!

The Informer

JT: You asked about films that were influential not just about favourite films. The simplicity, I've never seen anything like it. He used a German expressionism cinematographer [Joseph H August] and the use of lighting and composition. Again, how is it composed? The stillness and the music is very operatic.

The paper following the character down the street in John Ford's drama about the Irish War of Independence reminded her of the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty [Sam Mendes, 1999]. "To me this is how cinema tells stories," she added.

Julie Taymor and Jeffrey Eugenides are in agreement on Jean-Luc Godard and Nicole Kidman looks surprised.
Julie Taymor and Jeffrey Eugenides are in agreement on Jean-Luc Godard and Nicole Kidman looks surprised. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
At this point in Le Conversazioni, Antonio Monda traditionally asks his guests the half-time question:

AM: I want to ask you both to name me a classic that you cannot stand.

JE: I'm always embarrassed, I didn't like Godard movies at all. I have friends who like all his movies. I don't like them at all. Choose any one, Breathless (1960), whatever you want.

JT: I agree. I don't like Godard.

Sideways

JE: It's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Paul Giammati is amazing. That eye movement is quite like the Aborigine in Walkabout. It's beautifully written, the way they talk about wine. It's actually funny and it's actually romantic. The extent of bravery of going onto that house [to retrieve a wallet] is significant.

The discussion moves away from Alexander Payne and into the question - why do comedies so rarely win awards? Why are they never taken seriously? Eugenides says that sometimes he reads someone who has no sense of humour: "People say that Thomas Mann is funny," which triggers the response from Monda: "I never heard that!"

JT: I love this film you just showed, but I remember it was one of the ugliest films I've ever seen. How can you make the Wine Country so ugly?

Nights Of Cabiria

Giulietta Masina: 'You are just dying for her and yet she has that little clown tear'
Giulietta Masina: 'You are just dying for her and yet she has that little clown tear'
The clip shows Giulietta Masina's heartbreaking walk at the end of the film - her permanent tear. The scene shown was chosen by Monda, because Taymor couldn't make up her mind.

JT: You are just dying for her and yet she has that little clown tear… I think Kurosawa and Fellini are my favourites. Of all the Fellini films this is my favourite. She [Masina] is Chaplin.

AM: Fellini called Chaplin, "My Adam".

Nashville

JE: You don't know what happens in each of these stories. They're just left and you don't know what happens to Jeff Goldblum and in the rest of their lives. Through all 24 of the storylines, you follow them and end up with a portrait of Nashville and America. Watching it before this screening tonight I was amazed how well it held up. When it came out, for me, I came from the mid-west, Nashville, the whole southernness of it, was a kind of curiosity for me… Today when you watch this film it seems much more central to American history than it did to me when I was watching it.

Little Big Man

Liitle Big Man is a childhood favorite of Antonio Monda: 'Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't'
Liitle Big Man is a childhood favorite of Antonio Monda: 'Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Monda explains his pick "to pay homage to my childhood. I saw this film when I was very very young. It changed my life." It is the ending of Little Big Man, and the great Indian Chief pronounces the immortal lines that fit so well under so many circumstances, not just to make rain: "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't."

Earlier this year Marina Abramovic and Daniel Libeskind were in Conversazioni with Monda. On May 8, 2014, the new season will kick off with Isabella Rossellini and Salman Rushdie and the films of their lives.

Isabella Rossellini and Salman Rushdie will join Le Conversazioni about their favourites on May 8, 2014
Isabella Rossellini and Salman Rushdie will join Le Conversazioni about their favourites on May 8, 2014 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

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