"Making film is making music"

Director Frangois Girard on the art of making art.

By Michael Sragow
July 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Sweeping is the word for "The Red Violin." It swept both sets of
Canadian film awards (winning eight of
Canada's Oscars, the Genies, and nine of Quebec's Jutras), sent cheering audiences to their feet at festivals in Asia, Europe
and South and North America (it was voted second audience favorite at
Seattle), and rose to No. 12 at the U.S. box office last week while
playing at a mere 252 theaters. The movie itself hurtles across five
countries and four centuries. In five or six languages and as many dramatic
modes, it chronicles the odyssey of the sweetest-sounding set of strings in
the world.

Reviewers have either embraced the picture's audiovisual seductions or
berated the extravagance (or "vulgarity") of its showmanship.
I'm on the side
of the seduced. When critics complain of the gaudiness of having one of the
unifying characters be a 17th century Tarot card reader and the other an
obsessed latter-day art dick, they deny the fun of the romantic tradition,
which derives not merely from virtuosity and lushness, but also from pagan
alchemy and pantheism and unbridled longing. The same criticisms aimed at
"The Red Violin" have been leveled at its near-namesake, "The Red Shoes," for
more than 50 years -- which hasn't kept the prima ballerina of dance critics,
Arlene Croce, from saying, "There really is no other ballet film."

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As Frangois Girard showed during a recent stop in San Francisco, he's a
persuasive advocate of cinema as "the seventh art that draws on all the
others." A Quebec native who speaks fluent, French-accented English, Girard
said, "Between my feature films I always go into different experimental
projects that are connected with the other arts, and these feed into my
feature film work." Culturally savvy and inventive movie director/writer
teams -- like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in "The Red Shoes" and
Girard and Don McKellar in "The Red Violin" -- have always been
intent on bringing older arts to wider audiences while prodding viewers to
respond in novel ways, educated prejudice be damned. In 1993, Girard and
McKellar collaborated on a smaller-scale milestone called "Thirty-Two Short
Films About Glenn Gould" -- a movie that, like "Citizen Kane," caught an
enigmatic character in a prismatic laser.

"The Red Violin" is more lavish and engulfing -- an epic with a violin
as hero. Just as "The Red Shoes" combined wizardly ballet excerpts with
intertwining stories about fateful toe shoes and a demonic impresario, "The
Red Violin" makes unparalleled use of an original score for violin and
orchestra to vivify the tale of a fateful fiddle and the archetypal figures
who fall under its spell. (John Corigliano composed the music; Joshua Bell
plays it with supreme passion.) In the 1600s, a Cremona master brings the red
violin to opulent, supernal life. In 1792, an Austrian boy prodigy and French
music teacher take it to the Viennese court, with disastrous results. In
1893, a traveling troupe of gypsies introduce it to an English
composer/violinist, who uses it as a libidinous muse. And in 1965, Chinese
music lovers protect it from the anti-Western ravages of the Cultural
Revolution. But not until the late 1990s does an instrument appraiser,
Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), uncover the staggering secrets of its
sublime look and tone -- right before a scheduled auction in Montreal.

All the while, Girard cuts rhythmically from the individual episodes to
the Tarot card-reader's predictions and Morritz's efforts to grasp the
reasons for the violin's perfection. The result justifies Girard's belief
that "making a film is making music, and painting and also writing -- it's
all those things together."

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You like to collaborate with Don McKellar on screenplays that zigzag
and double back on themselves. Are you the Quentin Tarantino of high art?

This is the first time anyone has made connection between me and
Tarantino, but I think that he has real skill at structural writing -- in
fact, he's brilliant that way. Both of us like to expose the structure of a
film to the audience. It invites the audience to contribute to films
creatively, imaginatively. It's in the act of viewing that a film is really
finished; it finds its final form in the minds of the people who are watching
it.

I find it silly to try to pretend to the audience that everything in a movie
is all one continuous flow. The audience is very smart, and has seen a couple
of thousand films and I don't know how many hours of television. So
everybody's a film expert, everybody's an editing expert, everybody knows
what it means to add sound and music to scenes and connect fragments. To deny
that awareness on the part of the audience is to cut yourself off from huge
opportunities. The films that deny those possibilities drive me crazy -- I
hate those films.

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At the same time, the point is not to start by saying, "We're going to make a
composite film that's fragmented and bizarrely put together." We start by
saying, "We're going to tell the life of a violin." Then we realize the
structural implications. The first is that we will have to deal with a number
of owners, because nobody ever survived the life of a violin. So we wind up
having five characters. And then we realize that we have to work for unity.
Obviously the main thing this film has to achieve is to give life to a piece
of wood; the next thing is making all its parts seem like one film.

So you realize you need a narrator, and you decide you have to have two
narrators: one from the past, the reader of the Tarot cards, and one from the
future, Charles Morritz, who is examining the instrument
for an auction. The idea of auctioning off the violin came quite early in the
process, as a gathering point where all the stories would meet and come
together -- along with the idea of repeating the auction over and over again,
to establish the multiple heroes. You have a number of people bidding for it,
and they all want it for different reasons: some for greed, some to study its
scientific characteristics, and others as a piece of their heritage. Charles
Morritz is the one who connects with the deeper truth and beauty of the
instrument, when he discovers the secret of how it was made. Of course, the
film is talking about us -- how we look at things and what are the values
we bring to things. In that way, the violin has a mirror effect.

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All these choices come as answers to problems -- they're part of an organic
system, they're not made because you think they are going to look good. You
say you're going to tell the life of a violin, and for the next five years
you are enslaved to that idea. When you plant a seed in the ground, you don't
just sit back and watch it grow and have its DNA code unfold before your eyes
-- you have to provide time and whatever else it needs for the meaning of that
DNA code to emerge. I don't like the notion of the artist creating things out
of the air. I think artists are facilitating ideas that have their own codes.
When people ask me "Why did you go to China?" the real answer is "I went to
China because the violin was there." The making of "The Red Violin" could
easily be compared to a documentary process, where you have the feeling that
this violin existed and you are just finding where it was.

Even though you talk of having a structure that announces itself to the
audience -- and employ the scientific metaphor of the DNA code -- the end
result is anything but dry or detached. Aren't you actually using what in the
theater we would call "distancing effects" to bring the audience closer?

I think if you want to get really close to something, at some point you
have to step away a little; if you are always close, the closeness loses its
meaning. "The Red Violin" eventually builds a view of history. To me, that
was necessary for the most important connection -- the emotional connection
-- to happen.

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In both "Glenn Gould" and this film, don't you also rely on traditional
techniques of building up identification with the characters and generating
suspense?

After I made "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," I had tremendous
fun traveling around to film schools, where the students would always assume
that this was an unusual film, done in an unusual form and style. I would
demonstrate that it was the most conventional movie, done in three acts with
turning points, according to a linear chronology. I thought of it as a game
we were playing to unbalance the audience, to have them think we were doing
something unconventional and then have that impression drop away. Gould was a
very rich, very good subject. I was fascinated by the mystery around his work
and life, and that fascination only grew. And I believe that the film
protects that mystery -- I hope, nourishes that mystery -- more than
explaining it. I didn't want it to be explicative or reductive. If it works,
it's as a further resonance of who he was and what he did.

"Glenn Gould" was supposedly a "biopic," based on facts and the reality of
somebody who lived, but there is no such thing -- it was an interpretation,
there were a number of things I made up or invented. "The Red Violin" is the
opposite: you assume that the whole thing is fictitious, but it's not. It
draws on characters who existed, and on history -- the French Revolution in
the background there, the Cultural Revolution in the background here. I think
you need to have a global view of the violin's story -- to see how it
connects or doesn't connect with the big picture, or to see how it is located
within the big picture.

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Still, it seems to me that what finally unifies "The Red Violin" is an
almost mystical belief -- not just in the art of the violin, but in its soul.

Today, someone reminded me of a Tibetan story of a woman searching for her
sister, and calling for her with her drum, and realizing that the drum is
made of her sister's skin. This is a beautiful story -- it's about a soul
traveling between individuals. And that is what happens in "The Red Violin."

I have never done the things some of my characters do, like spit on bones. I
don't necessarily share or have to share their beliefs. But I think the
bottom line of the film is that it's about the traces we leave in the world
after we leave. In a way, there is a notion of afterlife in that, but it's
taken from a zero-degree angle, when we look at what's left of a person's
life after he or she is gone. This notion of an afterlife is basic to the
film. In Asia, people definitely take it further, and see a reincarnation
theme in it. I am happy for them to see it that way. But I am not saying this
is a film that depicts reincarnation -- this is what they're saying. If you
listen to Beethoven on your car radio, you know he is dead, but here is this
expression of his soul remaining.


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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