Friday, May 1, 2015

Talking Out of Turn #37: Louis Malle (1985)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was radically starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't bothered to read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was attempting to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the participants. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. When uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a number of years ago, however, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM.
One chapter, titled The Ghosts of Vietnam, featured interviews with a variety of authors (Robert Stone, Brian Fawcett) and filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Robert Altman) who dealt in their work with various aspects of the legacy of the Vietnam War and how it was felt in the Eighties. The American obsession with Latin and South America during the Reagan years seemed to be an ill-advised attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the earlier conflict. In the case of French film director Louis Malle, though, his country had been involved in a colonial war with Vietnam earlier in the Fifties, but it didn't have the impact on the psyche of France as the later conflict in Algeria would. So Malle, whose work was as diversified as it was probing, whether it was film noir (Elevator to the Gallows), dealing with the Second World War (Lacombe Lucien), autobiographical (Au revoir, les enfants) about the family romance (Murmer of the Heart), the romantic crime drama (Atlantic City), documentary (Phantom India), slapstick comedy (Zazie dans le m├ętro) and theatrical (My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street), decided to tackle the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in the 1985 melodrama, Alamo Bay. Alamo Bay is about a Vietnam War veteran (Ed Harris) who clashes with Vietnamese immigrants who begin a fishing trade in his Texas bay hometown. Sadly, the picture lacked the fine detail for dramatic nuance and keen observation in Malle's greatest films, but it did provide an opportunity for me to talk to him about what was compelling about the theme of the story.

kc: In the last few years, you've been making a number of movies in America such as Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre, and more recently, Crackers. What do you find so appealing about American culture?

lm: If you're not born and raised in America, it's very striking. It's a country made up of immigrants from all over the world. For a long time, it was strictly Europeans, but now people are coming from literally every part of the world. So it's interesting to see how America is growing further and further away from the experience of the Mayflower. Given the number of films I've now made here, I'm not even so sure I can be considered a foreigner in America. I'm not just a visiting director. I've been living in America since 1976. When I go back to France, I feel like an American in Paris sometimes (laughs).

film director Louis Malle.

kc: It's curious that you've chosen in your new film Alamo Bay to look at the American experience in Vietnam through its aftermath when your own country had its own Vietnam War.

lm: I don't think the Vietnam experience has been as traumatic for the French as it was for the Americans. We had an experience in Algier - a colonial war - that resembled the American involvement in Vietnam. But that war didn't last very long for the French. We never sent drafted soldiers to Vietnam, only the professional army. A cousin of mine was actually killed in Dien Bien Phu which was the last battle lost by the French in Vietnam. But what I found interesting in talking to those Vietnamese down the coast in Texas was that a lot of them were Catholics from North Vietnam. The very first Vietnamese priest I spoke to talked to me in perfect French. He had actually been raised by French priests. So I saw quite quickly that these folks left North Vietnam because they didn't want to become Communist in 1954. They had settled in Saigon and then twenty years later they had to leave again when the Americans pulled out in 1975. As for my own experience, I'd gone to school all my life with Vietnamese children, plus a lot of the technicians in the French film industry are also Vietnamese. So as a Frenchman, I became very close to the Vietnamese.

kc: Alamo Bay actually takes up a theme you explored earlier in your career with Lacombe Lucien where you delve into the motivations of individuals who get caught up in a political tumult that's out of their control.

lm: Absolutely. I was actually thinking about Lacombe Lucien when I was investigating this project. While the historical circumstances are quite different, the premise was similar. The story is about what happens to people who are perfectly normal citizens until they are exposed to a certain accident in history that changes them. In the case of Alamo Bay, it's about a little isolated town of fishermen who are invaded by people they cannot relate to. They are shocked by cultural differences and they don't speak English. These people not only keep quiet, but they build their boats and compete directly with the local fishermen. You could see that it was inevitable that there would be trouble. But that the violence would be so quick and extreme, where they would burn Vietnamese boats, and showed how explosive the circumstances were.

Amy Madigan and Ed Harris in Alamo Bay.

kc: The country music shared by the Texans who live there seems to celebrate American roots that don't truly exist for the people of that area who feel economically dispossessed. Then you get an exodus of Vietnamese who don't have homes any longer. They've severed the roots to their homeland and now find roots in a place where people feel severed from their country. Is that perhaps why such normally law-abiding citizens suddenly feel threatened and powerless and attack the Vietnamese who they see as invaders?

lm: That's exactly what's happening in America now. I remember that one of the most virulent and anti-Vietnamese fishermen where we were shooting had a Polish name and his father was an immigrant. This guy had even been a fisherman originally in another part of the United States before he came to Texas. So his roots there didn't go very deep. But he was always going on about "we Americans." In a way, the Vietnamese are the perfect immigrants, don't you think? They cannot go back. They have to settle down. All their determination and work ethic will also make them more American than true Americans would be in a few years. But isn't that what's always made the American melting pot work in a way?

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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