The final scene in the cinema of life
babelmed - 30/01/2004
In the spring or autumn of 1979, we left together to make a film on Southern Lebanon. The weather was that of mid-season, I remember taking some coats that I didn’t have the chance to wear. For the scenery shots there was spectacular sunshine, although to our eyes the earth seemed as if bathed by rain. For the important funeral scene, that we had waited for three days, the sky was grey, obscured by many clouds, and yet something in the film gave the impression that the funeral procession was less sombre than it should have been, while the tohu-bohu who ought to have ruled over the funeral of a martyr in Southern Lebanon, seemed paradoxically fairly subdued. You could say that the camera held by Hassna Nou’mani had organised and disciplined the hordes of militia soldiers who accompanied the procession. In an interview with a newspaper, Maroun Baghdadi said that he found cinema more beautiful than life, and also more real. These words, spoken by Maroun when not yet at an age of wisdom either in life or in film making experience, were inspired by his fervour for artistic creation, not by intellectual thinking.
At my house, some days before the filming, he asked me to start thinking about a screenplay for a film on the South. For me, the word “screenplay” described a skill of which I knew nothing. You don’t need to write anything, just think what is the most representative of the South in the South”. Then on the landing, before leaving, he explained to me how this genre of screenplay worked and told me that we would talk about it the next day. All this in less than a quarter of an hour. He did everything very quickly, not just for work, but also during the lunches we had together with a third friend at the restaurant Ajami facing the cinema Colisée at Hamra. He gave the impression that he had just arrived from an appointment and he would wolf down his lunch so as not to be late for the next one. For us, his friends, he worked to associate friendship with the obsession that created a certain image of life and work. In the rue Hamra, he always walked with great long strides. At the al-Rassif cafe, coming out of the cinema, he rested on his chair, ready to get up at any moment. In 1993, he confided in me his point of view regarding a scene that I had written for a film fourteen years earlier, concluding that I shouldn’t have left the protagonists sitting down, because that made the viewer sleepy. They should have talked while they were playing ping-pong in the room where I would have had put a table for this use. “How could this have been done?” I replied. What could they have said during a conversation that was one of the most important moments of the film, where the hero leaves behind his previous image, for the person he is talking to as well as for the viewer!”
He thought there was a great difference between French and American cinema, for which he had a marked preference. For him, the first accorded too much importance to words, to the point that an actor who said something important did so too emphatically, whereas in American cinema, an actor could announce the death of his father whilst lacing his shoes. I recalled these words to him while we were talking about the screenplay of his last film, adding “But it’s not necessary to make him tie his laces when he says that his father is dead!”.
The type of friendship that united us did not, at first, seem to be made to last for long. This was because, for me, he came from a different world and he was steering himself towards an even more distant one, or it was more that he knew where he was going, whilst the future was still very confused in my mind and I couldn’t manage to fix either of his images in my head. Just like when he portrayed Bechir Gemayel, the President of the Republic, when he was just thirty years old, thus breaking our perception of the limits of that period. Maroun always outstripped his peers by organising life and by elevating it by a notch. In 1980, he bought and furnished a house that in our eyes was the model of futuristic living. Whilst going round in a GM red sports car, his drive took on the allure of a scene from a film. Some people of his entourage thought that there was something wrong with him jumping so many rungs of the ladder at a time, that is to become, during one season, a brilliant film maker and the darling of Lebanese society, which was already in that period closing in on itself. Maybe he had acquired all these skills from his family, at school or at university but he realised very early on that life should be taken liberally and that each of its aspects supported other ones, breaking once again the limits imposed by the different periods in life. One day, at the premier of his film Love All for the Homeland! he raised his voice against the leaders of the national movement, who making remarks on his film (not prestigious enough) and he left the small screening room in a rage. None of them were angry or protested. A friend, who at the time was at the Central Council of the National Movement told me that they considered him as their model, all those who attached themselves to politics to create a certain way of life and behaviour in which they hadn’t been brought up.
In effect, this friend had fallen on his feet, politics had brought these people much fortune, but had not in turn engendered a minimum amount of style. But Maroun, who had forged himself a personality of multiple aspects and scenes, possessed a place apart from those interested in political and intellectual debate. During a conference organised by the Union of Lebanese Writers, at the beginning of the 80’s, he managed to make his inability to talk about cinema the proof of his ability to make films. One day at Horse Shoe, that at the time was just a cafe, he asked us what we thought of The Exorcist. One of us replied that the film was completely stupid. In fact the film was contrary to what we read and to what we liked to read. On the other hand, Death in Venice by Visconti, in which cinema accompanied reason and justified it, was our favourite film, for us who came from the world of literature, politics and that of ideas. Maroun retorted that he thought that the Exorcist was a marvel of filmmaking “That is cinema, real cinema! Cinema!” he kept on repeating. At first his words seemed astounding, but on reflection, we were obliged to admit that it was him, the film maker, who considered this film as a product of real cinema. A film maker in the middle of non film makers, etc. This word that he kept on chanting was not aimed at convincing us, but led us to ask ourselves questions, it stayed in our memories like a window, behind which it stayed and looked out on one of his days.
He was as quick in his break-ups as he was in his about-turns. In 1983, he made a film on the President of the Republic, Amine Gemayel, he had made another film before on the political leader Kamal Jumblat and another on the young fighters of the Organisation of Communist Labour. A friend related that his relations with the President resembled in some way his relations with the staff of the National Movement, mentioned above. A month before his death, Maroun had talked to me of his dealings with the President regarding the film, they did not at all reflect the deferential attitude that a citizen should adopt towards the President of his country. During the three years that followed he had the impression that the space had shrunk all around him and that Lebanon had become too rigid for the film maker he was, and he therefore left Beirut to live in France. He was quick to observe that France also had became too rigid and he got ready to leave for the United States. In fact, he envisaged making an American film after a Lebanese film – whose filming was about to begin when he died. During his first year in Paris, he trained for a period with the famous director Francis Ford Coppola, the splendour of whose name would have certainly had some glittering affect on his own.
The day he received the Jury Prize at Cannes, I had the impression that he had prepared his arrival in front of the public in a way to heighten the glamour of the ceremony and to multiply the flash of the cameras. The presenter kept on repeating “We are waiting for Maroun Baghdadi any minute now….he is coming in a helicopter…he is over the town…he will be here in a few seconds.” It’s true that cinema does not resemble literature and it does not reside only in films but in all that surrounds them. Light….light…those that are involved in it should also be luminous.
When I met him nearly a month before his death, he really did seem luminous to me and I told him “You are rejuvenated, Maroun!” . As was his habit, he was elegant, a kind of extreme elegance that was fitting to him, that of countenance and of stature. This great stature of a star that seemed to make you seem petty and deformed next to him. He offered me tapes of his last two films: Out of life and The Girl of the Air, in which he had seemed less spectacular than in Small Wars. The images were beautiful, full of colour, fascinating, according to critics, and we argued fiercely about the “soul” of the characters, that is to say what went beyond the events of those concerned.
The work together for the screenplay and the dialogues of his film remained unfinished, it was like putting two brains in the same head. It was the occasion to launch a real collaboration and alliance, and not a challenge, as our friend Elie Adabachi let be understood by suggesting that this exchange resembled more of a ping-pong match. I have to say that the abstracts prepared by Maroun for the film consisted in a series of fast action scenes, something that, for me, destroys the impact of each of these actions and weakens the whole.
Maroun saw life like this, fast, pulsating with action and overflowing with people, like an American thriller. He saw his characters in continual and excessive movement and nothing, for example, forbade him to coldly devise the liquidation of a person or two. He did not wait for the death of someone to become convincing for the executor and he never delayed in the short time lapse that preceded the event. In arranging his deaths and his love scenes, he gave me the impression of a hand arranging long stemmed flowers in a vase.
“Find a way to get rid of the fourth man”, I told him. A second later, he said “He could fall for example from a high storey into an area of water”. He added that it was a stupid way to die. I hit the ball back by replying that the person could fall from a high storey into a tank of water.
“Its a really stupid death”, he told me the day before of his own. I tried to join him at our friend’s house, who told me he hadn’t yet arrived and that he was beginning to worry. Without any reason, without any moment of anxiety before the event, Maroun fell down the stairs at one o’clock in the morning. I heard later two or three different versions of the accident, they all ended with his body bathed in his own blood, lying in an open area at the bottom of seven floors of stairs. It was like the re-run, with differences, of a similar event: “There were many of us, we ran into the street to stop a car, we called out to passers by. We took a wooden chair and we broke it to make a stretcher. In the van that took him to hospital, the feet of Maroun were exceeding out of it. We had got in with him. A car preceded us and another followed. He honked the horn without stopping so that the other cars would let us pass. It could have been a scene from one of his own films. He himself firmly believed that these things happened not only in cinema but also in life.