If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
Richard Widmark, straight shooter.
You may have heard some version of this story about Richard Widmark, who died last week at age 93. I was there, at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 when it happened, in the Sheridan Opera House for the tributes to Andrei Tarkovsky and Widmark. Emotions were heightened, perhaps, not only by the thin mountain atmosphere, but but by a terrifying Cold War showdown between Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan's USA (I don't know which scared me more at the time) over the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which we didn't learn about until we got to Telluride. Things were chilly up there.
The emotions associated with my memories are indelible, even if their precision has faded. But the gist of what Richard Widmark said that weekend, and the eloquence with which he said it, will always stay with me. Shortly after Widmark's death, I contacted Gary Meyer, director of the Telluride Film Festival (whom I'd known as co-founder of Landmark Theatres), to see if Widmark's tribute speech was transcribed anywhere, because I would love to reprint it. Those were relatively early days for the Telluride festival (which began in 1974 and seemed much more remote than it is now) and Gary couldn't find any record of the speech, which I remember Widmark reading from notes he produced from his jacket pocket. But he did find some 1983 press coverage, from which I have pieced together the following "story."
(Thank you again, Gary!)
First, Telluride, Tarkovsky and 1983 must set the scene for Widmark's entrance:
The Russian Tarkovsky ("Andrei Rublev," "Solaris" (1972), "Stalker") and Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi ("Camouflage," "The Constant Factor," "The Balance") had driven to Telluride through Monument Valley -- which provided the source of an idea, and a stunning image, that Zanussi would use in his next masterpiece, "A Year of the Quiet Sun" (winner of the Golden Lion at the 1984 Venice Film Festival). The multi-lingual Zanussi -- mentor to Krzysztof Kieslowski ("The Double Life of Veronique," the "Three Colors" trilogy) who would later become more much more famous -- seemed to be translating for everyone that year, including Tarkovsky.
Joan Juliet Buck, Vanity Fair, December, 1983:
For the past ten years the extremely small (population 1,100 Colorado town of Telluride has been dedicated to the proposition that there is more to films than glamour. The festival is high-minded and obscure. European directors know about it because many of them have been honored here before they were heard of in the rest of America. It is familiar to the American avant-garde: abstract filmmaker Stan Brakhage and documentary filmmaker Les Blank are recurrent visitors with the status of mascots. [...]
Inside the Sheridan Opera House
Sheila Benson, The Los Angeles Times, September, 1983:
The Korean jetliner incident had just occurred, throwing everything into a peculiar bas relief. There was the town's remoteness, a dot on the map surrounded by the towering San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado, and there was at the same time the presence of an extremely international community: film makers from Poland, the Soviet Union, West Germany, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Mexico, Hungary, France, Italy and Sweden.
It gave the town a second dimension, one in which international politics were never absent. And at the gilt and velvet Sheridan Opera House, films were passionately championed, denounced, booed and walked-out upon. It seemed that everyone with a deeply held artistic or political point of view managed to air it, frequently from the Opera House stage.
The result was the scrappiest, most polarized festival since they mounted a tribute to Leni Riefenstahl 10 years ago -- and the most extraordinary.
Buck, Vanity Fair:
Tarkovsky was talking in Italian about his drive through the Southwest: "Monument Valley: It's not American. It's another world, not the material one. It wasn't put there so westerns could be shot, but as a place to meditate. The Indians were right to pray there and look for God."
The Festival crowd was hungry... for meaning -- itchy for big answers to the big questions. [...]
That night was the tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky. The Sheridan Opera House was full, little pink lights aglow on its balconies. Zanussi and Tarkovsky stood in front of the stage curtain, which depicts a Swiss-Venetian fantasy with swans. Tarkovsky's speech, translated by Zanussi, sounded like a call to throw the money changers out of the bank.
Widmark, Stewart (Telluride tributee the previous year), Ford: "Two Rode Together."
Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News, September 11, 1983:
"The birth of cinema was sinful and took place in the marketplace," said Tarkovsky, whose films have won no popularity contests in the Soviet Union. "Cinema was born to earn money. No other discipline of art was born for this purpose. Up until now, whoever made films must face the fact of this birth.
"Cinema is not an entertainment; it is a high poetical discipline of art. As Goethe said, 'It is equally difficult to read a good book as to write a good book....' If I ever make a film that would please everybody, I would feel I had done something wrong. My intuition tells me that the audience is in a very critical moment now, that they are willing to find in cinema something different -- not an entertainment but something deeper and more substantial."
William K. Everson, Daily Variety:
There is no question that in some ways Tarkovsky is entitled to be ranked as a contemporary Eisenstein, but alas, the man was somewhat less impressive than his films.
In a very pretentious address, he underlined old artistic cliches. The cinema, he said, was not and should not be an entertainment, only an art. He went on to say that his new film ["Nostalghia"] did not contain a single frame of "entertainment," but was purely art, and anybody who just wanted to be entertained should leave.
Benson, LA Times:
"For years the spectator demanded from us films that entertained. Now that spectator is bored and abandons theaters" [said Tarkovsky]. "... I am not like a $100 bill which pleases everybody. But just the experience of such a festival as this brings hope to my life.... My intuition tells me that masses of spectators are at a critical moment now, willing to find something far deeper and more substantial that will refer to their lives.
"You may say that I'm an idealist. I am an optimist and this festival supports my great hope."
The audience, much impressed by his work, and to a degree sympathetic to him as a person (his personal and public problems in Russia are well known and ongoing) applauded and there were no signs of dissent at his comments, but it was more a matter of politeness -- and of assuming that possibly his zeal did not translate well.
Buck, Vanity Fair:
"Nostalghia" is a slow film. A Russian writer in Italy yearns for home and dreams of his dacha, refuses the advances of a beautiful Italian interpreter, while Italians bathe in the steamy waters that fill what looks like a cloister garden, a madman sets himself on fire astride Marcus Aurelius's statue in the Campidoglio while more mad people look on, and the writer at last attempts to cross the captive water holding a lit candle, and dies. The image of the dacha returns, and is ringed at the end by the walls of a ruined church.
People lied a lot about this one.
However, there were balancing repercussions the next day, the kind of non-passive response that has always made Telluride lively.
Richard Widmark, at his tribute, seemed relatively restrained. He is a shy and self-effacing person, an facing a large crowd obviously made him uncomfortable. But after the expected pleasantries, he suddenly turned passionate...
Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News:
Widmark's long career began in 1947 with "Kiss of Death," in which he played Tommy Udo, a sadist who pushed a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. And giggled. [Widmark received an Oscar nomination for the role.] After an especially entertaining selection of clips, Widmark took to the stage, where he thanked the festival -- the first he had ever attended -- and read from a prepared statement.
"Before I go," said Widmark, I'd like to say a word in defense of entertainment. Film is a medium in which there is room for everyone. But we should never forget that it's a medium that had its beginnings in simpler times...."
Without specifically referring to Tarkovsky, he pointed out that there as room for art and entertainment -- and that Griffith, Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin were all "entertainers." The applause was deafening, and clearly Widmark was saying what most would only say privately.
[I also recall him mentioning Orson Welles and John Ford -- with whom he had worked twice, though maybe my memory is just chiming in from a distance. Widmark's tribute film was Jules Dassin's "Night and the City."]
A place where people look for God.
Benson, LA Times:
To at least one audience member, Tarkovsky's words demanded an answer. The next night, Widmark waded into the fray like the John Ford stalwart he played in "Two Rode Together," which the audience had seen only minutes ago [in career clips]. Calling film a medium with room for every kind of expression, and listing a dozen or more of its great actors and directors, "entertainers all," Widmark said that each person was entitled to his own opinion, "but in the real world, let us not denigrate entertainment. Pretentiousness and pomposity are not art."
Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News:
The next morning I spotted Widmark at a restaurant and asked him why he felt he needed to defend entertainment, which isn't exactly under seige anyway. Why had he made such an impassioned plea? Widmark replied with a single word.
Buck, Vanity Fair:
... Richard Widmark, interviewed at his own tribute, said: "Tarkovsky. He's a phony. He stinks."
* * * *
The ironies of the occasion(s) still thrill and fascinate me. They began with the spectacle of Zanussi, in my opinion a more profound artist than Tarkovsky could dream of being, acting as a humble translator. Zanussi would reveal a spiritual and distinctly American vision of Monument Valley in "A Year of the Quiet Sun." I don't know if Tarkovsky (who died in 1986) ever saw Zanussi's film, or if he would have understood it if he had.
Tarkovsky was clearly giving a crowd-pleasing performance, doing a "Mad Russian" routine for the American film festival audience that was perhaps a variation on Oscar Wilde's more effete schtick when he visited -- and entertained -- Colorado and the American West in 1882. (At least he didn't go full-cretin on us and start pounding his shoe on the stage, Khrushchev-style.) I agree with him that his movie was not remotely entertaining -- at least no more so than Ridley Scott's "American Gangster," from which I am taking a break to write this because I find it so incredibly tedious.
As Everson wrote, it is easy to sympathize with showman Tarkovsky's passion on the stage, even if you don't see it in a film like "Nostalghia." Widmark was just as impassioned, only classier (even when saying, "He stinks," in private), because his vision of cinema was both broader and deeper than Tarkovsky's. (And let me add that Zanussi could make anyone sound more eloquent than they already were. Widmark didn't even have the benefit of Zanussi's translation skills!) Entertainment does not preclude art. For that matter, neither do pretentiousness and pomposity, and there's no question Tarkovky unashamedly aspired to both. Meanwhile, strangely, it was Tarkovsky, not Widmark, who was promoting the idea that "masses of spectators" should drive or determine what could be explored in cinema -- asserting his own false correlation between artistry and popular acceptance. (Who would believe it possible that any film could "please everyone"? Only someone who believed that was the definition of "entertainment.")
Still, I wouldn't trade the poetry and artistry of all Tarkovsky's work for that one long shot of Widmark and James Stewart on the bank of the river in "Two Rode Together." What's more, I would never think that I had to.
At Telluride, Tarkovsky was a tourist. His provincialism and condescension were palpable. Nobody is surprised by arrogance in film directors, but he knew nothing about the westerns he was pontificating against. Besides, you don't come through Monument Valley to Telluride to assert your artistic superiority to the likes of John Ford -- especially when you know there's a man who worked with Ford right there. Widmark saw that the town -- and the world, and the cinema -- was big enough for both of them. Tarkovsky, if we take him at his word, could not. (I don't think this was due to his conditioning under Soviet-style "communism," but goes back to something more ancient and fundamental -- plain old aesthetic messianism.)
Today I like to think that Widmark's Telluride speech could stand as his epitaph, and that he, too, ranks among those film artists, entertainers all.
* * * *
* * * *
Tarkovsky post-script: While some of us were nervously joking (heh-heh) that perhaps remote little Telluride was not such a bad place to be on this weekend of what felt like nuclear brinksmanship, Lynne Littman's "Testament" premiered. As if to underscore the political tension and paranoia of the moment, it featured Jane Alexander as a small-town survivor in the fallout (literally) of a massive missile attack on the US. The characters' willingness to go gently into that good nightmare rang false to me. So, I appreciated Tarkovsky's comment at a panel discussion (reported by Buck): "I congratulate the author to be able to imagine what a nuclear war is. I am envious when I see such a naive and unrebellious vision of atomic war, amazed at how out of such tragic material you may make such a limited, mild fairy tale."
Then he returned to the polemical Christian mysticism that typifies him and his work: "Human spirit, soul, are immortal. If I were of a different opinion I wouldn't be able to survive ten minutes because my life would be senseless. If happiness and senselessness are identical, I don't want happiness -- who told you you were born to be happy?" [That last inquiry is among the key questions of our time, but the premise that "happiness = senselessness" is as absurd as Littman's film. It's also a characteristic Tarkovsky false dilemma. What he was really saying, perhaps, was that, for him, "senselessness = negation" -- with the perhaps unconscious corollary that, for him, "meaning = self." Which is pretty much what you'd expect a messianic artist to believe with all his might.]
"Humanity is falling into war. We want to be saved and yet ask others for our salvation. If somebody is ready to sacrifice, it will be his self-realization and he will never suffer. I make films in order to share. Sharing the substance. I hope to be a medium between the universal spirit and human beings. But I won't make a step in your direction to make your perception of my work any easier."
Tarkovsky defected to Western Europe the next year. His final film, "The Sacrifice," premiered at Telluride in 1987, the year after his death. It was a nightmare of nuclear holocaust, and a promise to his son. I mean no disrespect when I say I found it both moving and entertaining.
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