As I sit here this afternoon, listening to the blissfully rough-hewn sounds of The Raincoats' debut album, I find myself musing on the pros and cons of flawed beauty and formalized perfection.
When The Raincoats' album was first released in late 1979, I can remember playing it with great enthusiasm for a friend and telling him that it was my "desert island" record of the moment. He couldn't understand what I saw (or heard) in it, and I told him, "But it sounds like it was made by real women!" It was my friend's contrary view that, as long as you were going to listen to women making music, you might as well be listening to Barbra Streisand. But it was my view that Barbra Streisand wouldn't remind me of real women on my desert island. If any monument is to be built to womankind, let's give them the honor of addressing who they are when they're sweating, when they're without makeup, when they're nagging, when they're "on the rag," and not whatever fantasy of womankind best conforms to the idealized coordinates of men. To which argument I can now add that The Raincoats still sound real and contemporary to me, while Barbra Streisand's music sounds to my ears either dated or not quite of this earth.
I am intrigued by my own inconsistency in favoring performers like The Raincoats while, over the past several nights, I have felt equal admiration for the interviews and audio commentaries that Annette Insdorf provided for the Miramax DVDs of Krzysztof Kieslowski's THREE COLORS TRILOGY (BLUE/WHITE/RED). Her contributions to these discs are models of precision, polish and perfection, rather the opposite of the aesthetic ideals embodied by The Raincoats.
An aside: Speaking of raincoats, in one of the serendipities I'm so fond of noting (as Kieslowski also would, I believe), I first saw the THREE COLORS TRILOGY at a local repertory theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon. As the three movies conjured their collective spell, I was always aware of the thunderstorm taking place outside the theater. When the last of the three movies ended in a fateful storm, I exited the auditorium into the rain and felt like... well, Steven Killian, the unseen seventh survivor of RED's climactic disaster at sea, as though I had crossed a proscenium into Kieslowski's world. It was the most magical day I had spent at the movies since I was taken by surprise by Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at the age of twelve, and it was gratifying to find out that I could still fall in love with a cinematic experience at my age, and in such a different yet still violent way. But back to my main thesis...
Dr. Insdorf, who teaches film at Columbia University, first came to my attention when she hosted a retrospective of films by François Truffaut on BRAVO many years ago. To be perfectly honest -- and I am truly being only critical of myself when I say this -- there was something about her personal presentation that put me off at first; she seemed a bit too polished, too confident, too glamorous. She reminded me of those not-quite-real women who write self-help books and pitch them with consummate skill on TV talk shows and infomercials. I regarded her with the initial skepticism and jealousy that those of us with unhappy childhoods and informal educations instinctively feel for those luckier than we, who have met their full potential by virtue of having been well-loved, well-groomed, and well-schooled. (When I say this, I have no doubt that she also worked very hard, but the envious don't readily take such things into account.) Yet over a series of broadcasts, I found myself interested and enlightened enough by the things she had to say about Truffaut's work to buy François Truffaut, her book on the subject, which turned out to be very fine indeed. Not only perceptive but faithful to the spirit of the films themselves.
It was interesting and educational for me to catch up with her all these years later and find a more silvery but no less sleek Dr. Insdorf speaking with such eloquence and feline grace about Kieslowski. As someone now familiar with the invisible pressures and challenges of recording DVD audio commentaries, I can only look on with astonishment and admiration to see how clearly and impeccably Dr. Insdorf is able to express herself in this arena on her chosen subjects. She has the gift of extemporizing in perfectly formed, final draft sentences, and does so in a voice that is at once warm, caressing and crystalline. She can seque perfectly from English to French, referring to characters with the French pronunciations of their names in the context of an English lecture, without seeming in the least affected. I suppose it's possible that she might come across more stuffily if she were speaking about less generous directors, but she has chosen to specialize in the most open-hearted of filmmakers and this generosity shines through in her eagerness to share with us her unique way of looking at their work.
Dr. Insdorf's commentaries for BLUE, WHITE and RED are a fascinating hybrid of play-by-play and straightforward annotation; in essence, she describes the films for us as we watch, moment by moment and shot by shot. But instead of merely telling us what is going on in the narrative (as so many unskilled commentators do, including some important filmmakers like William Friedkin), she guides our eye to the invisible threads so skillfully woven throughout by the director, his actors, the scenarists, the directors of photography, and other creative principals. To listen to these commentaries is really akin to the gift of sight. I love these films and know them very well, but Dr. Insdorf's open eyes and friendly voice consistently guided me to new facets and layers of discovery. I was so pleased by her performance that it was all the more irritating when she made an occasional error of perception, such as repeatedly referring to Michel's borrowed coat (the red object on Valentine's bed in RED) as a blanket, or when she failed to comment on certain grace notes I've found in these films myself, such as Valentine's oblique comment "It's happening again" when she hangs up with her increasingly jealous boyfriend. (Not only does this off-hand remark underscore that Valentine's goodness has had trouble thriving in closed romantic relationships, leading to serial jealousies, but the line reflects the very nature of the film's structure, which is based on repetition.) Of course, had Dr. Insdorf succeeded in mentioning all these things, and getting everything right, I would probably be even more unhappy because I would be left with nothing to see and think for myself.
Last night, I continued my Kieslowski retrospective by viewing Kino on Video's excellent disc of BLIND CHANCE (1981), an early metaphysical work later ripped-off by the banal English film SLIDING DOORS. There is no audio commentary on this disc, but Dr. Insdorf does contribute a 10-minute lecture on the film, which she improvises at her desk in nearly faultless French -- for which she apologizes.
I should also mention that Annette Insdorf is the author of a book about Kieslowski, called Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. I promptly placed an order at Amazon.com, but I made the mistake or ordering the hardcover -- not realizing at the time that the later trade paper edition added a new closing chapter about Kieslowski's influence on world cinema in the wake of his 1996 death at the age of 52. Oh well, Christmas is coming... right?
You can be sure that Dr. Insdorf is coming with me (and The Raincoats) to my desert island, in the form of her DVD commentaries and lectures -- if only because I'll need someone to run the place.