Friday, 26 October 2007
Many of those who meet Austrian
filmmaker Michael Haneke in person are surprised at how jolly and gracious he
is given the cold-blooded brutality and perversity of his films. Myself, I was
surprised to see how much he resembled Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize winning Phoenix classical music
critic and a jolly and gracious fellow himself. So impressed was I by this
resemblance that I suggested that Lloyd
interview Haneke when he was in town (Lloyd’s interview with Jerry Seinfeld
will appear as the “Backtalk” in the 11/2 Phoenix).
Or maybe have Haneke interview Lloyd. This was dismissed as yet another of my
too often repeated jokes.
At any rate, I ended up
interviewing Haneke myself (through an interpreter, a highly competent woman
who works at the U.N. and didn’t respond to my references to Sidney Pollack’s
“The Interpreter” or its star Nicole Kidman), even though Haneke seemed to
speak English pretty well with a slight accent (then again, it could have been
Lloyd having one on me). He (Haneke, not Lloyd, was in town as part of the ongoing retrospective of his films at the
Harvard Film Archive and
the Museum of Fine Arts and
in particular was promoting his shot-for-shot remake of his own “Funny Games,” starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt. It's screening
here in a sneak preview but not opening theatrically until February (a situaton
he seems very unhappy with). Here’s how things started out.
PK: It must be gratifying to come
to the United States and be
celebrated at the Museum
of Modern Art and here at
MH: Yes, it is always a pleasure to have
recognition. It’s not my first retrospective, but my first on in America.
PK: It’s the heart of the beast,
isn’t it, America?
MH: (laughs) Yes.
Peter- But it was less gratifying
working with the Hollywood studio system on
your new movie?
MH: It was of course no problem
at all working with the actors. But as far as the team was concerned, and the blown up apparatus on to you, that was less pleasant to work with. You know,
for each job you have five people. If I want a glass of water, I tell the
assistant, the assistant tells it to the procure man, and they in turn tell
someone else, and it takes ten minutes to get a glass of water. I hate that.
PK: Is it like a union thing?
MH: Yeah. That was not so
PK: And in dealing with the
actual producers, and the people who finance the movie and distribute it?
MH: They are pretty much thinking that they are it,
you know? They are pretty arrogant. They ask what I want to be done and turn
around and do whatever they want. However in shooting, I had a contract that no
one can interfere, and they were forced to let me do whatever I wanted.
PK: When I heard that you were
remaking the film shot by shot, first I thought of George Sluizer’s “The
Vanishing,” who made his very successful
European movie into a Hollywood movie and it
wasn’t so successful. I also thought of Gus Van Sant’s remake of “Psycho,” which didn’t do so
well, either. With those prior examples, weren’t you a little daunted doing
MH: Yeah, I mean you’re always a bit worried. Gus
Van Sant was a little bit different because it was a study. He didn’t do his
own film as a remake -- he made someone else’s film. For me the first “Funny
Games,” the one in Europe, was meant for
consumers of violence, and it was a slap in the face for these people. … So
when I had the possibility to do it in English, I took the opportunity. And now
the film has arrived at the audience that it was meant to be at. It was meant
for the United States
to begin with, because “Funny Games” has
an English title. There was a house in the German version that no house in Austria is like
that. It was a set. And, you know, we tried to imitate a classic American
colonial house, you know, with the center staircase. And so there was a reason
for doing the remake, so when I was offered to make the remake I said sure, I’d
love to do it, but only if Naomi Watts is going to play the lead role.
PK: Did she approach you, or did
you just see her in a movie and say…
MH: No, I approached Naomi.
PK: What was it about her performance or what drew
you to her as an actor?
MH: “Mulholland Drive”and
“21 Grams.”She was really great in both,
PK: “21 Grams” is 50
grams short of your “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.”
MH: It was successful, no? I know
that the director likes my films. He wrote a very enthusiastic review of “Code
Unknown” in some US
PK: It’s similar to “21 Grams” and “Babel” --
the multiple narrative.
MH: Yes, these films have similar
PK: There’s no multi-narrative really in "Funny Games."
MH: I mean I did a few films that did this but, you know, I’m not forced to do every
film the same way of course.
PK: “72 Fragments” is kind of like Kieslowski’s “Three
Color Trilogy” without a happy
MH: “The Trilogy” is three dramas, three stories.
They come together in a disaster.
PK: But they’re saved. I guess that’s
the difference right there, one of them anyway. It seems like you are drawn to
a particular actor, like Daniel Auteuil, you wrote the role in “Cache”
him. Do actors provide your inspiration for making movies these days?
MH: I mean it’s not THE inspiration, no. But if I
like an actor or an actress then obviously I’m very intrigued to get to know
them, and it’s very gratifying then to get to work together. In Juliette
Binoche’s case, she approached me. She had seen some of my films, some of my
television films, so she called me and asked me whether we could do something
PK: And they all asked to do more
movies with you. Maybe Naomi Watts can do a sequel to this movie!
MH: We can do one of these multiple end things
where the viewer has the ability to manipulate which end he’d like.
PK It could be a video game
MH: Yes (Laughing).
PK: This is how you make money
these days. So it’s a shot by shot remake but there are some differences. What
are the differences?
MH: Well the difference is obviously the actors.
The actors have a different charismatic, different way of portraying things,
and that obviously results in differences. And I did try and really succeed in
reflecting all the shots one to one. I mean there are even shots that I
wouldn’t have done in such a way nowadays, had I done the film from scratch.
But because I decided to do an exact replica in terms of shots, I left them in.
PK: So you’ve become a better
filmmaker since you repeated the same?
MH: If it’s better? I don’t know. It’s a different
PK: It’s also different because 10 years have
passed and there are different connotations and historical contexts.
MH: In some ways I feel that the film has become
more up to date because violence in the media, if anything, has increased, and the
senseless consumption of it. I mean, you had to do nothing different, you had
to change nothing, and it became more apropos. And the social level I am
describing there, they are the same all over the world. I mean whether they are
in Austria or in the United States, they are “bo-bo-” maybe you know
that expression describing the bourgeoisie in France. A well educated,
cultivated, and still saturated blasé bourgeoisie. In other words the people
from which I come.
PK: But it’s not the group of people who go to see
movies like "Saw IV" or "Hostel" or something like that.
MH: The young people? Or the “bo-bos?”
PK: [agenda in mind, obviously
not paying attention] I was thinking of the scene with the kid with the
pillowcase over his head- Abu Ghraib crossed my mind.
MH: Yeah, you know, it was
actually the poster of the first “Funny Games,” and it was way before Abu Ghraib,
but the associations of course have multiplied.
PK: So do you think “Funny Games” inspired Abu
MH: (Laughs) No. You don’t need
to inspire these kinds of things. Yesterday, actually, at the master class
[taught for students at the Harvard Film Archive], I mentioned a story that
illustrates that you don’t need to tell people how to commit violence. When the
first film came out -- well it had not come out yet, it was finished, but it
had not come out. Nobody had seen it yet. There was an article in “Der Spiegel,” a German magazine, and it had talked about a case that happened in
where two young men got white gloves [part of the m.o. in “Funny Games”], very
polite, the whole thing, and tortured a family -- one person to death.
PK: So when the movie came out
they probably started blaming you for it.
MH: It’s interesting to see the parallels because
the two young men that did that, in reality, were two well educated people. One
was a student of chemistry, and when he was put in jail he actually then wrote
a very intelligent essay. He quoted Nietzche and everything and the worthlessness
of life. The victims deserved to die, he argued, because there is no point to existence.
PK: That Nietzsche -- he's got a lot to answer for. Do you remember the Virginia Tech killings,
where a student killed 20 or 30 other students? They were saying that it was
inspired by this Korean movie because there was a shot of the killer with a
hammer and there was the same shot in the Korean movie. He made a video of his
like, manifesto, and it’s the same shot as the movie. But he never saw the
movie, he never played video games. He just spent his time in his room doing
nothing. He never had any connection to videos. So it’s like as soon as
something like this happens, they look for something in the film culture or
MH: It’s a clever method of the lawyer’s too. It’s
the famous litigation of “Natural Born Killers.”
PK: Right. But you also seem to
suggest in your films, and in Benny’s video, and that whole “glaciation” trilogy
that there is an alienation effect that images and video and the whole culture
seem to have. Some people start losing their connection with reality.
MH: Now our understanding of reality is really
based on television nowadays, and that’s of course very dangerous because the
images are not the reality. So I always in my films try to nourish some
distrust in taking this reality for granted.
PK: Do you own a TV?
NEXT: What Michael Haneke watches
Wednesday, 24 October 2007
As I was
pondering what to go as to the many Halloween parties I haven’t been invited to,
it occurred to me -- this is how we can save the democratic system. Instead
of another one of those boring, repetetive and frankly embarassing “debates,” why
not have the candidates dress up as their favorite movie monster and let the
voters pick the scariest? I have some suggestionsto start them
wisdom says go with The Weekly World News’s Bat Boy. But the WWW has folded --
not a good sign. I’d advise a more traditional image -- Max Schreck’s
Just don't forget the sunblock
Witch? The Bride of Frankenstein? How common and obvious. Leave those for such
populists as John Edwards and Joe Biden. Take on those who have been making fun
of your unsettling titter by dressing up as Conrad Veidt’s The Man Who Laughs.
3. John McCain
Face up to
those who question your stability. Don’t wait for the full moon to turn into
Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man
cadaverous face, unctuous eastern charm, shape-shifting style: Bela Lugosi’s Count
Lowly in the
polls, ignored and held in contempt, still, he craves the Ring of Power: Gollum.
6. Fred Thompson
Impersonate that terrifying former Republican president: Fred Thompson as Ulysses S. Grant in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."
Wednesday, 10 October 2007
At this point
I began to suspect that maybe these dropped calls were not entirely accidental.
Maybe he was getting defensive or even angry. Judging from his response when I
finally called back, the comparison to “In the Mood for Love” seemed to touch a
nerve. However, when I got into more sensitive areas, like whether the hard
core sex in the film might drive first time actress Wei Tang into the loony
bin, as was the case with Maria Schneider in “Last Tango in Paris,” there were
no more disruptions (the static was still pretty bad and, let’s face it, the
guy’s English isn’t as fluent as his filmmaking). So here’s the remainder of
the interview, which proceeded without further interruption, supplemented
though with editorial insertions.
PK: We were
talking about “In the Mood for Love” and repressed sexuality. Did that movie
play into your mind at all when you were casting?
AL: No, not
at all. Actually, I tried everything to avoid it.
PK: You did?
AL: Yeah. The
one scene where she seduces him into the apartment — the way they walk, it
reminds him [Leung] of that movie. He was very upset because he wanted it to be
different. I knew the movie was going to be different, so I wasn’t really
paying much attention to being in those shoes. But that was the second scene he
shot, so when I saw that reaction I knew I had work even harder to get away
from that movie, just to get him to function.
PK: Did you
try to get away from other movies that are similar? You know, like “Last Tango in Paris” or “In the Realm
of the Senses.”
AL: Those are
great movies. But sexually, I think “Last Tango in Paris” is nowhere near what
we do, even though I’m a great admirer of “Last Tango in Paris.” “In the Realm
of the Senses” -- there are some similarities. Sexually, there are some
similarities: [in both]they exhaust each
other. But the movie is very different.
set in the same period.
AL: Yes, they
are of the same period. Other than the sexual part, though, I don’t see a lot
of the similarities.
mentioned “Notorious” and “Dishonored” as inspirations in another interview.
AL: Yeah, not so much me, but for Eileen
Chang [when she wrote]this story, which is kind of written like a movie. She
uses intercutting and such technique. “Notorious” -- I think the plot is very
similar, except the end. At the end of German movie there is honor. I think “Casablanca”
might have something to do with this and might have played in Shanghai at that
time [when the story takes place]. They have a similar kind of mood. For me, I
check out quite a bit of old film noir for references. I really like the
romantic mood they put in towards the end — one of sophistication that I very
much admire, the unpredictability which has sort of been lost over the years.
But there are no movies that I directly wanted to influence this movie.
PK: You have
a couple of snippets from “Intermezzo” and “Penny Serenade,” but they seem to
be totally different movies from the one you’re making..
AL: Right, at
one point I tried to use “Suspicion,” which was the biggest hit in Shanghai
that year. At one point I put a poster in, but finally I decided not to use it,
because it was too on the nose for female anxiety. Usually, the way I’ll pick a
reference is through the music because a movie should try to avoid too much on
the nose. But somehow reference is how movies function that we try to see. For
her, Ingrid Bergman is definitely an
actress to aspire to. After all, she’s an actress always trying to pick up
attitudes and ways of behavior.
PK: Are you
in the movie? There’s an early scene where I though I might have seen you.
AL: No, no.
Not at all.
PK: I thought
it might have been a Hitchcock moment.
AL: No, I
really just wanted to identify with the girl. So I kind of just shot the stage
[in a way recalling] how I felt when I first stood on stage.
discussed that this film is more about acting and the theater than it is about
love and sex and war.
AL: Yes, and
in some ways, movies as well. [a bad connection here: audible are fragments
sounding like “It’s kind of an existential question” and “The reality is sort
of the opposite of truth” and “who’s the real thing?”] Pretending can be more
truthful. So that’s kind of the exercise.
similar to “Brokeback Mountain” in that they’re playing a role that’s supposed
to be their real lives but they’re true selves are completely different.
what you wish for and what you pretend in your fantasies. There’s more truth to
Oscar, I guess, makes a lot of things possible for you. I was surprised,
however, that after the success of “Brokeback,” there weren’t more films made
with gay themes. Were you surprised by that?
AL: Yeah, I
was. I don’t have an explanation. Maybe they’re waiting for a good script. I
don’t really check with the studios. Can you tell why?
off-the-cuff long-winded bullshit] Let’s not get too off topic, though. In some
of the other films, like Last Tango, where young actresses are included in a
very graphic sexual relationship, they’ve had problems afterwards. I know Maria
Schneider ended up in a mental institution a few years later. I spoke to Kerry Fox [for “Intimacy”] and she had problems. Do you fear the
same fate will befall the young actress in your movie?
AL: Oh gosh,
I hope not. I try everything to protect the actors—and not just the sexual
scenes, but a whole career thing. Before she was nothing and now she’s getting
so much attention. I try every step of the way to protect her and educate
her—make sure she’s going on the right path. I helped her find her next
project. I do the best I can. I have not sent any young actor in my career to a
mental institution. Even though she has many sex scenes, I do my best to make
sure she’s comfortable and walking in the right path. Take care of her as much
as I can. So far, there has been praise for her performance. She
believes in each role like a child. That’s the beauty.
Friday, 05 October 2007
interviewed Ang Lee about his new film “Lust, Caution,” an adaptation of a
short story by the revered Chinese auther Eileen Chang He was on a cell phone,
riding or maybe even driving through New
York while talking to me. This is an arrangement I
don’t recommend. The reception was frequently garbled — maybe on both ends,
because Lee’s answers were sometimes — and every ten minutes or so cut off. I’d
ask a long, carefully thought out question and there would be silence. I’d
repeat the question, differently phrased, worried that Lee might have been
offended or perhaps killed in a traffic accident. Then I realized we were
disconnected and I’d call back and he’d resume answering the previous question.
It was a little like being in one of those Cingular/AT&T dropped call
At any rate I was able to glean some
worthwhile material about the movie and it’s many controversies, which includes
not only its rambunctuously graphic sex scenes between Tony Leung as a vicious
Chinese collaborator during WWII and newcomer Wei Tang as an undercover spy,
but also because it presents the Chinese experience in this period in a not
altogether flattering light. Not a big deal here, maybe, but an issue in Taiwan and Hong Kong
where Lee had just premiered the film.
PK: Are you
in Hong Kong, because the last I heard you were in Hong
Kong when the movie was premiered there
AL: I was in Hong Kong, Taiwan
and I just flew back. I’m in New York
PK: How did
things go in Taiwan--they
AL: Oh yeah. I was so moved I was in
PK: Would say
it was one of the best receptions you got for any of your movies there?
AL: It was the most [successful?] movie
I’ve ever had. I was sitting there with the audience and I could feel that it [inaudible
except for “fat” “in the heart” and “punch me in the guts”]. It’s a tough movie
for them, but I could feel the energy. They didn’t come out with their heads
down; they were very emotional. It was as very emotional experience.
PK: So, it
deals with a past that most people probably don’t speak about.
AL: Yeah, the past. The way we live
through them, the way I was raised. They lose it in the public eye of fear, but
there will always be a solution at the end. It’s a pretty tough movie, but I
really think people embraced it. I couldn’t get a ticket to get in the first
PK: I read
that in Hong Kong you said that you thought it
was a film that American audiences wouldn’t appreciate—that it was more like a
[Long pause. A dropped call. Redialed]
AL: …yeah, it was a very emotional
experience for me. Most people couldn’t find words for it. Even critics are
pretty quiet—relatively quiet. It seems like they need a second viewing, or
something, to figure out what they think. I think it hit pretty hard.
PK: In Hong Kong, you said you didn’t expect American audiences
AL: Yes, it’s a level 3 [ a censorship
designation?]. Usually, it’s equivalent to porno film. But people are really
going to see it, whether the reaction [can be?] is pretty tremendous.
PK: Are you
somewhat regretting it had so much explicit sex, because it seems the whole
conversation surrounding the film, at least here in the United States, is about
the sex scenes. Do you think that’s kind of not the right focus for the film?
AL: I don’t mind if the focus on those
three scenes, I think it’s a shame because I think the whole movie is pretty
sexy, probably because of those three scenes. I do as much [something like “reduction”]
as possible both ways, but when I dive into those sex scenes it was pretty
dramatic driven. That’s how I could convince myself and my actors to go through
PK: Would you
describe those scenes as pornographic, because I saw in one interview that you
said you don’t shoot pornography all the time, so that sort of implies--
AL: Yeah, it’s very hard. I think it’s
not hard for some people. But for me and, at least, for Tony, it’s pretty hard.
That’s just how it
goes. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just hard for us.
actress who was in it—this was her first movie.
AL: Her first movie, yes. She seems to
be pretty natural when you put her in the zone. She’ll do anything as long as
she’s in the part, she’ll do anything. She’s almost like a child actor. It’s
really nice in how much she devoted to the character and the believability. The
difficult part is that I had to couch her in the different skills.
PK: So, you
designed all the rather ornate and complex sexual positions?
AL: Yes, pretty much, I did.
PK: Did you
get that from a book?
AL: Yeah, I’m pretty guilty of that; I
had to try all those positions. For a thematic purpose—
phone rings; long pause; disconnected; called again]
AL: … I was guilty of designing those
shots. The only way I could pull it off was to be dramatic and ornate. They
were designed for a thematic purpose; therefore, it’s easy for actors to do
anyone injured in some of those positions? It seems as though some of them
required some athleticism.
AL: …for dramatic needs, it’s easier for
actors to express their feelings. Like who you’re blocking a scene, even it’s
about balancing a scene. Secondly--visually, to stimulate the audience. To veer
them towards what I want them to think about the scene. Pretty much pure
dramatic cinematic pieces rather than sexual fantasy.
PK: But a
little bit of that probably went into it, right?
AL: Well, yeah. That’s something I would
probably deny, but probably some [sounds like
“houses”]. Because it worked for me, so it must be part of my fantasy.
But I just think that way—what do I need to tell a story. I actually shot those
scenes relatively early in the shooting schedule. I wanted to see how they
landed before I could crop the second half of the movie.
PK: So you
used that as a dramatic--
AL: Anchor, yeah. It’s an abstract
feeling. About how you feel solid in your heart than with the heart that you
make the movie, something like that. It’s a strange process that I had never
asks you, but you usually shake off the question, as to whether they actually
AL: Yeah, I can’t answer that question.
Either way, it’s kind of awkward. I can tell they’re great actors—their very
devoted to the movie, their roles and their situation, their dramatic
PK: How about
that scene where he shoves her head against the wall? Does she actually get her
head banged against the wall?
AL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Certainly. But
it’s padded wall. You can feel the bounce, the collision.
PK: It’s kind
of a parallel to the interrogations that the guy does that happen off screen.
AL: Yeah, that’s the only scene where
you see what he does—and the frustration and the repression.
talks about the sex scenes. I found much more graphic and disturbing the one
killing scene in the movie.
AL: Oh yes. That scene is what I call
the “mitzvah” scene. They had the girl lose her virginity and somehow they also
have to lose innocence. It’s a ritual kind of sceneis how I see it, so that’s the direction I
decided to go to. It’s about disillusion, about growth—it’s about the war
though I never really show the war. This is the other side of the
war, the darker side of the war. I felt I had to introduce it and to get into
the second half.
PK: That wasn’t in the book.
AL: Yeah, it’s not there. That passage
of three years between Hong Kong and Shanghai
there is almost nothing. We’re making a film here. She didn’t put much into the
characters much, either. I had to develop them.
PK: In this
movie, and also in your previous movie, unlike other adaptations you’ve done,
you’ve gone from—instead of a long or longish novel and cutting it down—you’ve
taken a short story and
AL: Only the last two movies, since Brokeback Mountain.
PK: Is that
just a coincidence?
AL: I think so. But, again, who’s to
say? You know, I have a lot of choices, why did I choose to make two short
stories in a row? I think it’s because you have more space. With a novel,
usually, you feel obliged, especially if it’s a famous writer, to tell the
story and put everything that’s in the book and you don’t have much time to do
your own thing.
Leung, when I was watching it, it occurred to me that he’s almost playing the
same role here as he did in In the Mood
for Love, except there’s graphic sex and World War II. Did you have that
film in mind at all when you were making this one?
dropped. I call back and get Lee’s voicemail].
VOICEMAIL VOICE: Please leave your message…
Tuesday, 02 October 2007
ago I made the mistake of playing pundit when “Time” magazine asked me for my opinion on Ridley Scott’s “Thelma
and Louise.” “Ten years from now,” I intoned, “it will be seen as a turning point.”
So much for prophecy. And they never asked my opinion about anything ever
So I was
encouraged a couple of weeks ago when
Judith Warner in her “New York Times” blog “Domestic Disturbances”
took a look
back at the movie. Warner feels that the tale of two women who revolt against
violent macho oppression by blowing up 18-wheelers with handguns and [spoiler]
driving off the edge of the Grand Canyon embodied an age of female terror and
“feminist victimization” which, thank goodness, is all in the past. She
“It’s easy to
forget now how vital and urgent the new focus on date rape and sexual
harassment seemed, for a brief moment, back then. And yet it was, truly,
transformative; the world of “Thelma and Louise,” I think it’s fair now to say,
is not the one that we inhabit psychologically or physically today. Rape itself
is down – its incidence having dropped 75 percent since the early 1990s,
according to the Department of Justice. These are profound and meaningful
changes, and we should celebrate them — and revel in ‘Thelma and Louise’’s passage into history.”
say, Warner took a lot of heat in her comments column for her rosy assessment. And
if I could put in my two cents 16 years after my previous pontification, regardless of whether the rape rate has declined or not, the
domestic violence that initially sent T & L off on their anti-patriarchal
crime spree doesn’t seem to have waned muchsince 1991. Every other night on the
news there seems to be a story about some boyfriend/husband murdering their
girlfriend/spouse. Hasn’t anybody else noticed this epidemic? Isn’t it just another,
more widespread and lethal form of terrorism?
suspect this renewed interest in “T & L” springs in part from the recently
released “The Brave One” (which, I confess, I have not seen yet), in which
Jodie Foster goes all Charles Bronson on gangbangers after they attack her and kill
her fiancé (In real life these days she
would more likely have
been the one killed — by the fiancé).
Be that as it
may, the film has been compared to Abel Ferrara’s superb rape-revenge thriller
“Ms. 45" (1981). Clint Eastwood’s unheralded
masterpiece “Sudden Impact” (1983) also
comes to mind. Rather than reinforcing rightwing law and order
values (before it entered Ronald Reagan’s lexicon, “Make my day” was the film’s
catch phrase), the film dismantles them.
Callahan, the cop dedicated to serving out justice to evil doers, whose worst foes, more so than the perps themselves, are the namby pamby do-gooders and
bureaucrats who insist on constitutional rights and proper procedure, finds out
that one of the evil doers he’s pursuing
is acting on the same principles as he is.
A rape victim (played by Eastwood's then girlfriend Sondra Locke) is astounded when the pack of
lowlifes who assaulted her and her sister get
off the hook through some legal shenanigans. Seeking her own justice, she hunts each one down
and gives them a “.38 caliber vasectomy” (even the bull dyke lesbian). How can Harry turn in her in when she is
essentially doing the same thing he’s been doing? How can he NOT turn her in
and remain true to his belief in justice/revenge? The contradiction breaks down the
whole vigilante thriller. It’s Clint Eastwood’s Hamlet.
Friday, 21 September 2007
I find it
kind of serendipitous that the release of “The Assassination of Jesse James by
the Coward Robert Ford” takes place in the midst of the growing controversy
about the Jena Six. As you probably know, several thousand people have marched
in that small Louisiana
town protesting the draconian punishments meted out to African-American high
school students goaded by racial harassment (including a noose hung from a
tree) into assaulting a white classmate. Two guys drove by the demonstration in a
pickup, also subtly sporting a pair of nooses. They were arrested, and one
apparently is a member of the KKK. Adding to the growing sense of deja vu to
the Jim Crow era evoked these events are other recent, disturbing incidents such
as this and this.
So what does
all this have to do with Jesses James? The noble rebellious soul persecuted by rotten politicians and capitalist nabobs into resorting to a life of crime?
The Wild West Robin Hood betrayed by a quisling he trusted? Such is the Jesse
Jame promoted by a long tradition of Westerns ranging from “Jesse James Under
the Black Flag” (1921) to “American Outlaw” (2001).
Punch “Jesse James” into the IMDB and you’ll come up with over 200 titles in
which he’s played by actors including Audie Murphy, Robert Duvall, Colin
Farrell, George Reeves and Jesse James, Jr. He’s a Hollywood
icon on a par with John Wayne.
But if T.J.
Stiles fine book “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” is to be believed, the Western outlaw hero of the silver screen was in real
life a racist thug who started out as a bushwacker, a Confederate guerilla
murdering abolitionists, Unionists and African-Americans during the Civil War
and after. He and opportunistic politicians and newspapermen would transform
his image from that of a ruthless thief and killer into a romantic symbol of
the late, great Confedracy. It was part of a successful campaign to undo the
gains of Reconstruction and restore white supremacy to Missouri and the South. In short, he was a
terrorist for a racist, pro-slavery,
Don’t get me
wrong. We don’t look to movies for history lessons, not yet, anyway. And some
of those films were classics, like Fritz
Lang’s 1940 “The Return of Frank James” (though it’s more about Jesse’s older brother), Sam Fuller’s 1949 “I Shot Jesse
James” (though this was more about the
conflicted Bob Ford) and Philip Kaufman’s 1972 revisionist Western “The Great
Northfield, Minnesota Raid” (though this
portrays James, accurately one imagines, as a scumbag).
But “Birth of
a Nation” is a great film, too, and I doubt if many people are still
comfortable with its portrayal of the KKK as heroic crusaders saving the white
south from Yankee carpetbaggers and
black degenerates lusting after white
“The Assassination of Jesse James” might also turn out to be a classic — I haven’t seen it yet and
I’m looking forward to doing so. A quick glance at some of the reviews suggests
the film is about legend and myth and celebrity (with James a kind of John
Lennon and Ford a stalking Mark David Chapman?). All well and good, but since this
is the kind of legend that promotes racism and strife and nooses tied to trees
and pickup trucks, isn’t it time that Hollywood reconsidered the legend and
printed the truth?
Tuesday, 18 September 2007
As the media gratefully takes a pass on Iraq, the election or anything else
of depressing substance for the golden opportunity for endless inanity presented by the new OJ case, the
success of the upcoming spate of War on Terror related movies seems in doubt. After all, don’t people go to the movies to escape the troubles of
the world rather than be confronted with them? And when the news itself
doesn’t even want to think of all that bad stuff, what chance does “In The
Valley of Elah” (which I think is a crock, but that’s not my point) have
against, say, “Good Luck Chuck?”
indeed, some pundits and critics have already buried the trend before the first films have barely been released.
Carr in “The New York Times:” “Are audiences ready for the steady stream of
movies and documentaries that bring a faraway war very close? … historically,
audiences enter the theater in pursuit of counter-programming as an antidote to
isTodd McCarthy, lead critic for “Variety."
After catching Brian De Palma's "Redacted," Nick Broomfield's
"Battle for Haditha,” Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone"
at the Toronto film festival, he concludes, “I think I know exactly where
they're coming from and that I'm not going to learn anything new from them… Just
the war sucks, Bush sucks, America is down the tubes.Does anyone in Hollywood think anything different than this? According
to polls, more than 60% of Americans also agree.” The anti-war films, he adds,
are an inverted instance of the gung-ho war movies of seven decades ago: “Just
as, during World War II, Hollywood pictures had a unified aim, to rally viewers
around the war effort and present an image of the Allies prevailing, today they
are also identical in nature, except in the opposite direction.”
those war movies do pretty well commercially? And if they hadn’t be sure the
ever-bottom-line-minded studios would have stopped making them. Then maybe films
reflecting an anti-war mood might draw an audience also. According to
the IMDB, the preliminary box office reports on “Elah” look pretty good.
(“a solid $150,000 in nine
theaters, averaging $17,000 per theater.” )
they’re getting from the news is fluff and from the administration spin and
lies, maybe the 60+% of the people who think the war might be a bad idea
will show up for films that offer them an escape from make-believe and back into reality.
Sunday, 16 September 2007
the Cronenberg interview, a few notes on synchronicity, Soviet motorcycles,
nepotism, Martin Amis and some gratuitous references to Russian literature.
PK: Have you
had that happen before in other films, where the theme or some other elements
of the film suddenly became reflected in real life.
there something with “Crash” that was going on then.
well, “Crash” — and then even “Dead Ringers.” Suddenly, there was all this
twins stuff happening and there were five twins movies that came out. It was
very bizarre. And with “Naked Lunch”there
was suddenly all these writers writing and having characters from their books
come to life. Yeah, it’s strange sometimes. It’s as though you’ve tapped into
the zeitgeist somehow and it tends to reflect back on you.
PK: Is that
motorcycle in the movie yours?
DC: No, but
it was certainly my motorcycling knowledge that got it to be a Ural. Originally
he had written it as a Royal Enfield and I thought that for her father, who was
Russian, he should have a Russian motorcycle and I knew about Urals. Sure
enough, they still make them. You can buy a new one in England; in fact, that was a new
one that we aged down to look vintage because we wanted it to start all the
time. But no, that wasn’t my bike, but it is exactly what I wrote the line for
Nikolai to say, “[Here Cronenberg recites in a Russian accent Nikolai’s line
from the movie describing the motorcycle that, like in the movie, I found
almost a character in the movie. It’s the only technological item, really.
DC: Yeah, but
you certainly see it’s lovingly photographed.
PK: Do you
DC: I don’t
collect them, but I still ride them. I favor Italian bikes, I have Ducatis.
PK: You also
race cars, too.
DC: Well, I
did. I haven’t done that for quite a while. But I have raced them in the past.
PK: All of
your films tend to have a dissection of the family unit--and also, you’re
family is part of your unit making the movies.
DC: That’s true.
PK: Have you
ever thought about what this means?
[laughs] Well, I mean, nepotism is great. It’s wonderful to have your family
involved with you. Certainly movie business is not the only business where this
occurs. It’s sort of natural that your family lives your business with you and
that some of your kids or relatives are going to get into it just by osmosis.
There was a time when there was no film business in Canada. When I started, it wasn’t
like in L.A.
where your friend’s father was in the business if yours wasn’t. But there was
nobody around because there was no film industry, so it’s kind of sweet that
it’s changed in Canada
now. Of course, family drama is one of the dramatic cores--you can’t really get
too far away from it, I think.
PK: This is
your second largest budget yet?
DC: Yeah, this is the second bigges budget. “A
History of Violence” was 32 million and this was about 27 or 26 million.
PK: Having so
much money invested, did you get a little bit of interference from people who
put the money up?
DC: No, Focus
[the studio] were great. And it wasn’t only Focus, but BBC films, of course. It
was very intelligent support and collaboration and the one thing you want to be
able to say, weirdly enough, is “If it’s bad, it’s my fault,” because nobody made
you make it bad. I have to take the full brunt of it. Well, if you don’t like
it, it’s my fault. That’s actually the best compliment I can give to my
PK: So, next
movies: “London Fields,” “Painkillers,” none
of these came about.
DC: No, you have
to be careful of imdb.
PK: Well, you
told me a couple of years ago that that “London Fields” credits was a possibility.
I had Martin Amis visit the set of “Eastern Promises” with his wife, but for
various reasons, at the moment, that’s sort of in limbo. So I actually don’t
know what I’m going to do next.
PK: Do you
like that feeling better than knowing what you’re going to do next?
DC: Each one
has kind of a thrill factor, so I’m okay with either one.
PK: Did I
hear the name Vladmir Nabokov come up as the person who was providing the drugs
DC: It was
Valerie Nabakov. He was initially called Valerie and I thought we should give
him a last name so, yes, I did give him the Nabokov name.
PK: I think
Nabokov would’ve been happy with that.
DC: I also
gave Nikolai his last name, which was Luzhin. It’s only mentioned once when the
cop comes looking to find him in the hospital, “Nikolai Luzhin, please,” he
says and that’s an allusion to his novel
“The Luzhin Defence.”
PK: Yeah, and
that was made into a movie too, with John Turturro.
DC: Yeah, I
think they just called it “The Defence.”
Dostoevsky references, even though I guess both of you have read “The
well, we read the version called “The Demons.” I phoned Viggo and said, maybe
you should be reading this new translation of “The Possessed” which is called “The
Demons” and he said, “I’ve just finished it.”
PK: Yeah, it
was my favorite Dostoevsky book. I wanted to be Stavrogin when I grew up, but
it didn’t work out that way.
That’s a good thing.
PK: I hope
your film gets another fifteen minute standing ovation [as did “A History of
Violence” when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005].
thank you very much.
Promises” won the audience award at the festival].
Friday, 14 September 2007
studio films in a row, is Cronenberg selling out? It’s not the kind of question
you want to ask even when he’s three hundred miles away on the phone. Note
above how I failed to follow up on asking him whether his films have influenced the trend of the “Saws” and “Hostels” (chances
are, however, that his answer would be “no.”). So
after tapdancing around the sell-out question (even if so, or because of that,
they are two of his best movies, we move on to other topics. Is this a gangster
movie? IS Martin Scorsese right and Cronenberg is going to Hell? Is the film
more Western than Eastern? And is he worried Putin might be oputting polonium
in his tea?
PK: You were
writing your own scripts up until “eXistenZ?”
DC: Yeah, it
waxes and wanes. It depends. I’ve done adaptations of plays, of novels, I’ve
written original scripts, and then I’ve worked with other people’s scripts.
I’ve sort of done all these levels. It’s difficult to say, I’m going to take
two years off and write an original screenplay, knowing, that at the end of
that, you might not like your own screenplay, or you might like it but not be
able to get it financed. So you’ll notice a lot of directors who started off
writing their own screenplays — even Coppola and Brian de Palma for example are
in that category — and then as their careers gained some momentum, they stopped
writing scripts. It’s not that they’re not using their screenwriting as they’re
working with writers and so on, and certainly I do the same. But to stop the
momentum for the length of time it takes to write an original script, it’s kind
of hard. It’s difficult.
PK: And also
to get it financed. I spoke to you for your last film, “A History of Violence,”
and you said after “Spider” you
didn’t really want to make another independent movie because of the headaches
in financing. Is that still the case?
DC: Well, I
wouldn’t say never, but I’m sure I said that I couldn’t do that again, the next
time. Because basically, every movie, you seem to seem to start from scratch
with financing, as though you’re inventing the movie business from scratch each
time you do it, if you’re doing independent film. Because money always comes
from different and strange places, and you’re really very much at the winds of
global economy: you know, suddenly, the Noia market in Germany goes belly up,
and that’s where you financed your last film, but now you can’t because it
doesn’t exist anymore. You know, that kind of thing. And “Spider” was unique
even beyond that, because we all decided to make the movie knowing that we
weren’t going to get paid for it. That’s unusual, even on an independent film.
So you work for two years and you make no money. It doesn’t matter who you are;
PK: And you
still haven’t made any money on that?
DC: I’ve made
a little money, because it actually on DVD started to make a profit.
PK: So you
started out in horror films, and now you’re — and this is sort of a simplistic
way of looking at it — now you’re going into the gangster genre.
DC: That is
simplistic. [Laughs] Well I certainly started in the horror genre and then went
in and out of it, many times. Also I guess the sci-fi genre; it depends what
you’re definitions are. And then I did movies like “M. Butterfly” and
that aren’t really any genre. So I don’t really think in those terms, I must
say. For me the question of genre is really a marketing question. It’s not a
creative one, because when you start to make a movie, the genre thing
disappears. You’re left with the same problems: how do you cast it? What
locations do you get? What costumes? What lens are you going to use? How are
you going to light it? All of those things don’t have anything to do with genre.
You have to solve those problems--or at least, they’re not always problems,
they’re creative decisions that can be quite exciting rather than just
problem-solving. But at that point you’re just making the movie, and the genre
PK: But there’s
also a tradition of iconography in other films and other filmmakers…
true, but I think the trick is to try to ignore them. Without being
disingenuous, if you really feel the weight of one hundred years of noir on
your back, you’re going go paralyze yourself. If you think about not just “The
Godfather” but Fritz Lang’s “M” and “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse,” and you
know, you name it, you’ll go crazy. You won’t be able to make one decision
because you won’t know whether you want to connect with that one or disconnect
that one, or follow this convention or try to subvert that convention but not
that one. So once again, I think you’re left…you feel it, you know those things
are there, and you certainly know a cliché when you hear it, one that’s really
clunky. But other than that--and this is my approach, I’m not saying that it’s
anybody else’s--I try very hard to pretend that no one’s ever made a movie like
this before. Without, of course, I’m not claiming complete originality for one
frame, but you have to, in a way, act as though you are.
PK: Your own
DC: More my
own movies than anyone else’s. I don’t really think in terms of thematic
connections or even visual ones. I know that making those two or three thousand
decisions a day that I will make while making the movie that are unique to me,
there will be enough of me in the movie. I don’t really have to worry about
putting my snap on it or anything else. I try very hard not to think about
people’s expectations based on other movies that I’m making, because this one
is not those, you know?
PK: I read a
quote from Martin Scorsese, who said that after reading interviews with you, it
was clear that you didn’t understand your own movies.
DC: Yes, he
said that after he’d seen about the first three movies I’d made. But you know,
Marty’s a good Catholic, and he’s an Italian, and he’s an American. All of
those things, I am not. He has his own … I think that my movies, my early ones
in particular, really freaked him out and made him fear for his soul, frankly, which
pleased me to no end. But I am an atheist you see, and I don’t believe in the
soul, not, not in…
PK: Do you
think he’s trying to convert you to the church, and you’re trying…?
DC: Well, I
think his interpretation tends that way, and of course for me, everybody’s reaction to your
movie involves a collaboration. They have a subjective reaction to the movie
that takes their whole life into consideration. And I have no way of
controlling that, nor would I want to, and I can’t anticipate it either. And
so, it makes for some very interesting responses and interpretations, which are
completely legit. I mean, the movie is not an objective thing. You want it to
be organic and to involve an audience. Even people’s perception of a movie shifts
with time. People catch up with it ten years later, their life has changed, and
the way they perceived it ten years ago, suddenly they see it in a completely
PK: Do you
watch your old movies and come up with different interpretations?
DC: No, I
don’t. In fact, I find it very difficult when I’m asked to do commentary on an
old movie for a DVD, because I don’t really want to do it, but I have done it.
And I find it very strange.
PK: Do you
find it enlightening?
wouldn’t call it enlightening.
Scorsese called you on treading on his
DC: He really
liked “A History of Violence.” We haven’t talked in detail though, but he sent
a note about “Spider” as well. We keep in touch. But I would be very interested
to know in detail what he thought of last two movies, and I really don’t know.
But he’s really not territorial in that way; he’s a very generous guy, really
PK: He seems
to be. So it’s called “Eastern Promises.” I would think it would be called “Western
Promises,” because it’s about this girl who gets lured to the West.
believe me, we went through all of that.
PK: So it’s
not just me.
promises made about the West. The promise was made in the East. You know, there
are many ways to look at it. In fact, in England, eastern tends to mean Russia,
whereas in North America, eastern tends to mean Asia, like Japan or China.
more insular. Eastern tends to mean, like, Massachusetts.
DC: Well, I’m
glad you said that. Absolutely, the east coast. So there were some questions
about how confusing or well understood it might be. But finally, we couldn’t
come up with anything we liked better. It’s kind of a soft title. When I first
read the script, the first thing I thought was--wow, this sounds like some
romance, set in China or Japan.
it’s kind of a romance.
PK: Were you
aware that the female protagonist is a midwife and the male protagonist is referred to as an undertaker.
they’ve got everything covered, don’t they?
PK: Yeah, and
the first two scenes are bloody scenes of birth and death.
yes, as he says, birth and death go together sometime.
PK: I saw a
film recently called Trade, and tat also touches into this really horrible kind of
reality, the sex trade.
DC: Yeah, we
did a certain amount of research. There was a miniseries in England called “Sex
Traffic” and we looked at that and we read some things.
Of course, it’s not really the main subject of the movie whereas it was the
focus of those other dramas and semi-documentaries. It is pretty horrifying and
it’s still happening.
said that the biggest fan of this movie might be Vladmir Putin.
Well, you don’t want to give away the ending, but I thought that he would be
very pleased that… [omitted to avoid
PK: Did you
get a call from someone saying unless you want polonium in your tea you'd better… [omitted, ditto]?
that was happening down the street from us, I don’t know if you’ve heard about
PK: So, you
DC: When we
started, the Russian mob in London
was a fairly obscure subject and by the time we finished it basically front
page news all the time. It was literally half a block away from where Viggo,
Vincent Cassel and I were staying. It was a building owned by Berezovsky, the
we walked by that every day and one day there were cops in hazmat suits and a
forensic van and sure enough they were finding traces of polonium in there because Litvenenko had been there. It
suddenly came close to home, but it was half-way through the shoot when it
started to happen.
PK: Did it
make you feel a little nervous?
DC: Not really,
but it was a little creepy that the sushi place we used to go to eat at was
suddenly closed and had cops standing outside.
PK: Did you
go there after they reopened?
Surprisingly, they haven’t reopened. They keep saying they’re renovating. When
we left, months later, it still hadn’t opened.
Wednesday, 12 September 2007
Terror can be good for you, or so might argue David Cronenberg.
He should know, having made some of the most terrifying films of the last
thirty years or so, such as “Shivers/They Came From Within” (1975), “Rabid” (1977) , “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983), "The Fly"(1986),
"eXistenZ" (1999). He’s moonlighted lately
in the gangster genre with his last two films, "A History of Violence "(2005) and
"Eastern Promises," in the gangster genre (though Cronenberg has said the former
is more of a Western). But these too are unsparing as they force the audience
to stare at the cold blade of personal extinction.
I talked with him on the phone last week while he was in Toronto for the world
premiere of Eastern Promises at the Film Festival. Here’s some of our
PK: I guess the most squirm-inducing scene is the infamous
DC: Well, I don’t know.
PK: I’ve seen it with an audience, and oddly that scene seems to
disturb women more than men. I’m not sure why.
DC: That scene?
DC: Well, I guess it is like that shower scene in “Psycho.”
You’re naked, you’re wet, and there are guys with knives who don’t like you.
You can’t be more vulnerable than that, I suppose.
PK: But the other scenes of violence, I mean, there are only
three or four real nasty moments, and they’re all with edged weapons too — there’s
no gunfire or anything. But the first moment, the first scene of that type, I
said, “I’ve seen this somewhere before.” And I realized, we had shown at our
website the killing of Daniel Pearl, and you must have seen that…
DC: Well, I haven’t seen that particular video, but I have seen
some--one, it was a guy named Berg. And it was definitely in my mind when I did
that scene. There is now snuff on the web for anybody to see anytime, and this
is a pretty new development. And it’s obviously very disturbing and I
definitely had that in mine when I was doing those scenes.
PK: It’s harder to shock people now.
DC: Well, see, I don’t think that’s true. And you were saying,
“people were squirming.” I think they’re more sensitized, because I think it’s
come much closer to home; I mean, it’s come into your home on your computer. In
the old days, it was all stuff that happened far away, and you heard about it,
or maybe you saw a gruesome photograph, but usually not. And now, you can look
at it at three in the morning if you want, in your house. And it’s American
citizens often, in countries that seem to be unfathomable in some ways, the
mentality that’s involved. And you have people doing these things thinking that
they’re committing holy, sacred acts, and to you it’s like a heinous, hideous
atrocity. And where do those cultures come together? So I actually think people
are more sensitive to violence onscreen now, not less.
PK: But then you have the phenomenon of films like “Saw” and “Hostel”
that people, at least up to a little while ago, have been going to, to sort of
indulge in that kind of sadistic…
DC: Well I wonder — and I haven’t seen them, so I can’t get too
specific — I wonder if that’s not a reaction to that. That you want to confront
what scares you in a controlled environment, which is a movie theater.
Certainly, that’s always been an aspect of horror films. Why do people want to
be scared? Well, there is a need to confront things that scare you, but you
want to walk away from it. Even just scenes of violence on the street, for
example: people read about it all the time and they worry about it, and they
wonder what it would be like and how they would react, if they were in a
situation where a couple of guys came up to them at night on the street and so
on and so on. And the way of exercising that — exercising and exorcising that —
is to see a movie in which there are scenes like that. And you get a chance to
experience it at a distance in a safe way. I think the main reason, really,
that people go to see a movie is to live another life for a moment — not
necessarily a life that you’d want to be your own, but that you’re curious
about. So you become, say, Nikolai this mobster. I mean, to me that’s why I
showed that bath scene, not in a Bourne-movie kind of impressionistic,
quick-cutting way where you don’t really see what’s going on, but where you saw
everything that was going on. Because if you’re going to be Nikolai for the
time of this movie, following this character, or in fact inhabiting him, or as
we used to say identifying with him, I want you to have his experiences. So I
feel like I would be cheating my audience to do it off camera or out the window
or some other way.
PK: So is Viggo Mortensen [star of both “A History of Violence”
and “Eastern Promises”] turning into your alter ego?
DC: Well, we are very close buddies. I have to say we’ve become
quite close friends since working on “A History of Violence.” We do hit it off
rather well. But when you’re making a movie, in a way, you are all of your
actors. Not just the lead ones but all of them, in a way. And I think the
better directors feel that, and the actors appreciate that; they want you to be
them while they’re acting.
PK: So he’s not quite the John Wayne to your John Ford yet.
DC: Well, we’d have to make a few more movies I think. I would
love to — I mean, I’d love if he could be in all my movies, frankly.
PK: He also is kind of your chief researcher. He did a lot of
research on this movie.
DC: Well, he turns out to do that, yeah. He’s incredible that
way, and he does it in such a kind of off-handed, not, there’s no imposition,
he just goes and does it. And it’s there for you to use it if you want or not;
he has no ego involved in it. It’s really lovely research. And the thing is, he
always brings back such great stuff that everybody wants to use it — not just
me as a director but my production designer and the screenwriter as well.
Viggo’s input was very important to shaping this script as we were doing
PK: Was he the first one into the tattoos, or were you already
going in that direction?
DC: Well, they were alluded to in the first draft, but an actor,
his instrument is his body. And so any actor is obsessed with what he puts on
his body or his hair or his shoes, his feet. And normal people think that this
is vanity, but they don’t understand that that is what an actor acts with, is
his body. So anything that’s on it, clothes that cover it, is of great interest
to him. So naturally, an actor who is going to be tattooed for a movie starts
to think about, well, what tattoos? Why? And where? And where do they come
from, and what do they mean? It didn’t take long for Viggo to find these books,
called “Russian Criminal Tattoos”, that were fantastic. They outlined the
history of the subculture of tattooing in Russian prisons. And he also found a
documentary made by a friend of his, Alix Lambert, called “The Mark of Cain,” which
was a fantastic documentary shot in Russian prisons, with the prisoners talking
about their tattoos and what they mean. Really fantastic, and it puts you in
such a different world, such a strange and different but well-formed world,
because this subculture has been developing since the czarist days in Russia.
It predates the Soviets by a long time, and continued through the Soviet era
and continues now.
PK: It kind of fits into one of your themes, the intersection
between technology, the media and human flesh.
DC: It does, but as I say, ironically enough, I was working on
the movie, had agreed to do it before tattooing had that sort of central place
in the movie. So it’s kind of interesting how those things just come together.
It was really not preordained, because as I say, the fact that Nikolai’s
character was tattooed was certainly in the script, but it didn’t get much more
detail than that.
Next: mob rule, Martin
Scorsese, birth, death and money.
What's happening behind the scenes in movies.
(c) Matt Bors
|October, 2007 (5)
|September, 2007 (7)
|August, 2007 (8)
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