Question: What filmmaker died at age 29
after making only one feature film - and did not even live to
see it edited and released properly - only to become one of the
world’s most influential directors?
Answer: French director Jean Vigo, whose lone feature is the all-time classic, 1934’s "L’Atalante." BAMcinematek will display Vigo’s enduring influence in its new series, "After Vigo," which not only presents "L’Atalante" and the director’s equally important featurette, "Zero for Conduct" (1933), but also several films by directors who, for generations after Vigo’s death, have been stimulated by his effortless melding of gritty realism and flights of surrealist fancy: Elia Kazan, Francois Truffaut, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ken Loach and Lindsay Anderson, for starters.
During a career cut tragically short by an untimely fatal illness, Vigo created some of the screen’s most memorable images: even his short films, 1929’s "A propos de Nice" (a tribute to the French resort city he adored) and 1930’s "Tatis" (a documentary about the famous French swimming champion Jean Tatis), contain many moments of poetic beauty. Unfortunately, those shorts will not be seen as part of this retrospective, which also marks the centenary of Vigo’s birth in April 1905.
But nothing Vigo had done prepared anyone for his next film, the astonishing, 40-minute "Zero for Conduct" (showing July 11, along with "The Columbia Revolt," a 1968 newsreel collection of the student takeover of Columbia University). "Zero" fashioned a still-spellbinding look at the boys of a rundown boarding school and their eventual revolt against their teachers. The movie is shot through with an almost punkish anarchy, but Vigo also presents very sympathetic and honest portraits of the students, and the result is a film that remains a potent, even ageless symbol of anti-authoritarianism some seven decades after its making.
But it’s 1934’s "L’Atalante" that forever made Vigo’s reputation as one of cinema’s true giants. A simple story of a newly married couple who honeymoon on the groom’s river barge, "L’Atalante" is transformed into an almost unconscious evocation of the simultaneous bliss and severe difficulties of intense relationships.
Featuring an all-time great performance by Michel Simon as the old barge-hand whose presence provokes a difficult test of wills between the married couple, "L’Atalante" could be faulted for lacking true cohesion in its narrative, but that’s mostly due to the fact Vigo died before finishing the editing; over the years, many versions of the film have been cobbled together, probably none of them achieving close to what Vigo envisioned.
But so much of "L’Atalante" is so strikingly imaginative and ultra-romantic - like the gorgeous nocturnal shot of the bride in her white gown slowly walking on the barge as it quietly glides through the water - that viewers are willingly transported by this truly magical journey.
Of the many directors following Vigo who were transfixed by his singular visionary style, Elia Kazan decided to start from the top by starting to work with Vigo’s brilliant cinematographer, Boris Kaufman. Kaufman won an Oscar for shooting Kazan’s 1954 Best Picture, "On the Waterfront," then returned to photograph "Baby Doll" (1956) and "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).
"Splendor" (showing July 6) was their first collaboration in color, and also marked the debut of a young actor named Warren Beatty.
Two films obviously influenced by "Zero for Conduct" were Truffaut’s debut film, 1959’s darkly autobiographical "The 400 Blows" (showing July 14), which starred the young and amazingly precocious actor Jean-Pierre Leaud; and Anderson’s 1968 "If " (showing July 12), with a pre-"Clockwork Orange" Malcolm McDowell in the role of the prime instigator in a rebellion in an all-boys school.
Ken Loach, who has since become one of the most authentic depictors of working-class strife and social underdogs, directed "Kes" (showing July 28) in 1969 - the story of a young boy who creates his own reality by caring for a wild kestrel, "Kes" is as indelible a portrait of alienated youth as "The 400 Blows" or "Zero for Conduct."
Other films in "After Vigo" also show the direct or indirect influence of the master. Leos Carax’s 1991 "Lovers on the Bridge" (July 26) unashamedly alludes to "L’Atalante," while Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary "High School" (showing July 18), whether consciously or not, draws parallels to Vigo’s school-set "Conduct."
In its naïve idealism and intense political undertones, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1964 "Before the Revolution" (showing July 7) could be seen as a distant cousin to Vigo’s oeuvre. "Another Girl, Another Planet," the 1992 low-budgeter by American indie Michael Almereyda (showing July 25), seems to have been included solely because the director took his name from Vigo’s father, Miguel Almereyda.
Finally, there’s "A Propos de Nice, la Suite" (showing July 19), a 1995 omnibus tribute to Vigo’s short about the French city, with episodes by such disparate admirers as Catherine Breillat, Raoul Ruiz, Costa-Gavras, Claire Denis, Raymond Depardon, Abbas Kiarostami and Pavel Lungin.
The "After Vigo" film series runs July 5-28 at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are $7-$10. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or log on to the Web site at www.bam.org.