Friday, April 10, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015)

The title of world's oldest person has changed hands twice this month but amid the coverage of those milestones I missed the passing of the world's oldest film director until I saw a small item on the Milestones page of the newest Time magazine today. To be exact, Oliveira (who died on April 2) had been the world's oldest active director, having released a short subject last November. If his name didn't pop up on Google News despite his record that was probably because he has no truly canonical classic in his filmography. He started out as a documentarian and really came into his own relatively late, in his sixties during the 1970s. As he pushed on, his work gained curiosity value, and curiosity was often rewarded by the quality or at least the ambition on Oliveira's work. I haven't seen very many of his films but was impressed by I'm Going Home (2001) and the death-enamored Strange Case of Angelica (2010), though less so by Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (2009). Even then, I saw proof of a rigorous pictorial intellect, and Oliveira understandably worked in continuity with older literary and cultural traditions, so that his later films have always looked interesting, at least, on their own terms as well as for their testimony to their director's endurance. It's hard to know who to put on Oliveira's throne since the really old timers may put several years between projects. How much time must pass since the most recent feature before you can say a director's no longer active? For that matter, should we distinguish between fiction film makers and documentarians? Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, is still turning interviews filmed decades ago into feature-length films, most recently in 2013; he turns 90 this fall. Restricting ourselves to fiction film, the older of the Taviani brothers will be 86 this year and they have a new film out. Just behind Taviani in age are the always provocative Jean-Luc Godard and the sometimes indiscriminate Clint Eastwood, both of whom released acclaimed features last year. But who can say, other than their doctors, if older folks like Agnes Varda or Andrzej Wajda are really done yet? Oliveira gave them all something to shoot for, both by retaining his capability for so long and by actually having things to say until the end.

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