Tuesday, March 18, 2008

a brilliant, patient Englishman

In collecting beautiful souls, the company of heaven got richer today: one of the loveliest voices in contemporary cinema has passed out of this world. Anthony Minghella, writer, director and cultural advocate has died in London. He was 54.

He was that rare thing: a successful visionary who managed to hold true to his own identity while developing and enhancing personal style. His gifts as a writer, his intelligent and generous sensibility toward actors, and his carefully considered innovative filmmaking style were never expressed at the cost of who he was. Abundant and humorous, his infectious smile massaged the egos of actors and crews alike while his toughest discipline was reserved for himself. A highly evolved writer, he whittled text to its bravest and most efficient form. I have often been in awe of it.

He was an enormously articulate man. To this day when I have taught screenplay adaptation, I have quoted Anthony Minghella's one-liner, "adaptation is all about compression and reinvention". His own talents for these tools were well evident in the screenplay for The English Patient, in which a formidably complex book was boiled down to its most poetic essence, scene by scene. In published form, his scripts read like a plate of cinematic amuses-geules. Each scene uses brushstroke lines to exquisitely delineate character and action. His scene action writing was a beauty to behold. He was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter with his own stories, but he was arguably the finest writer working at adaptations. He knew how to plunge into the heart of a book and pull out a radiating jewel.

In 2001 I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Minghella about his "Beckett on Film" short Play. In a day long stint of some dozen media interviews, he gave me half an hour. I remember the liveliness of his expressions, the dance of his smiling eyes as he showed interest in the fact that I was a teacher as well as a writer. Instead of the usual question/answer format, I had the feeling of a real conversation with someone incredibly interesting who just really wanted to sit and talk about Beckett. (Unfortunately, that interview for cyberfilmschool.com is no longer available online or I would link to it. I will try to find the html page on my old computer and paste it in.)

On a separate occasion, I met him again, and had the chance to talk to him about the deep impact on me of a particular scene in The English Patient. I referred to the moment in a Tuscany chapel, in which Hana, the character played by Juliette Binoche, is swung up on a rope with a torch in order that she might view close up the frescoes of Piero Della Francesco. I told Minghella that day that I had put a still from this scene on my writing desk because it reminded me of everything I write for: spirituality; beauty; and the sense of transcendence that comes when art works. He thanked me for telling him that and wished me well with my writing. His warmth, even briefly encountered, was incredibly uplifting.

There is an eerie synchronicity for me in this loss: I last felt a cinematic death this keenly twelve years ago, when I heard of the sudden death by heart attack of the Polish master filmmaker, Krysztof Kieslowski. He, too, died in the middle of a career in full bloom and he too was 54. At the time of his death, he left three unfinished screenplays, loose adaptations with writing partner Kryzstof Piesiewicz of Dante's Divine Comedy. The first of these to get produced posthumously was Heaven. It was produced because of the tenacity and commitment brought to it by Executive Producer... Anthony Minghella.

Minghella and Kieslowski are miles apart in cinematic style but they shared the great capacity to imagine story through the heart, to play out the everyday complexity of life through nuance of character. They also shared a leading lady: Juliette Binoche, who is featured in Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue went on to Minghella's The English Patient and Breaking and Entering. Minghella worked with the same actors often, creating a kind of cinematic ensemble. Among them are Binoche, Jude Law, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

There is a scene in Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply in which Alan Rickman (as the husband of a woman so grief-stricken by his death that he one day returns), makes his wife recite a poem by Pablo Neruda. Minghella spoke openly about his 'uxorious love' for his own wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa. In imagining her grief tonight, the line from that Neruda poem comes quickly back: "if you have died, it will rain on my soul all night and all day".

It will be raining on the soul of the film industry tonight, tomorrow and onward for a long time to come.
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