The Master of the "Freeze Frame"
February 2008

by Cristina Comencini

I don't know if Douglas Kirkland has ever thought of becoming a director, but all his images contain the rich, contradictory synthesis of the stills from a successful film. If he had become a director instead of a great photographer, he would have told stories of men and women on the run from reality, reckless lovers considered mad by the world around them, exalted in their attempt to make sense of the events in life which nobody around them can understand. The perfect stills in his book, Freeze Frame, in my opinion, make up his film. It does not matter that the story refers you back to other famous films; all directors quote the colleagues they love and Douglas uses them to narrate his film. The camera (let's call it that) focuses on the central characters – isolated, laughing, tired, concentrated, in thought, arm in arm, in a trance, but always detached and far from the universe surrounding them, the universe to which they seem not to belong. A world which looks at them with indifference, as though they were misfits desperately searching for a connection, for an impossible story.

A man, lost on an abandoned ship, is thinking; he's alone. He has got to go somewhere, but nobody can help him to reach his destination. Two lovers kiss each other one last time in front of an abandoned train, without a guard, without passengers… A train which will never leave. They cling to each other as they kiss, full of passion even if nobody is forcing them to leave each other. Why? A weary woman leans on an old cowboy amongst indifferent people. Nobody takes any notice; all they want is a little intimacy and rest. An actor with a fanatical stare shakes a statuette, behind his back rows of books, stories which he will never take part in.

Douglas is also an excellent comedy director. Look, for example, at the two women struggling with breasts that won't stay up. They both hate it, but they live through its visibility, the seamstress and the singer linked to the same chain. And the chain between the painter and the model: couldn't you paint on canvas like everybody else? The two women in clothes resembling flowers; one of them is laughing about it, but look at the other, bored and serious behind her back: what is there to laugh about in this torture? Whilst the man on his knees is sorting out this exaggerated dress. Every picture contains a contradiction – between different human beings, between the person and the space in which they find themselves, between opposite states of mind. Pupils paying attention as the French teacher explains his art – we know he is French because he is wearing a beret; the directors are brilliant at characterizing their characters immediately. Are they all paying attention? No, there is one to one side looking at the group skeptically. The teacher has his back to him and he gets distracted by thinking how boring both the lessons and the students kneeling before the teachers are. A woman with her shoes in her hands stands before the ocean, laughing. She's happy; she has just been nominated for the Oscars. Behind her, a girl is having a swim: the Oscars come and go, the sea remains. Remove the girl behind the illusion of the woman and the photograph becomes dull - anybody can do it! In the same way, try and cut out the two small men at the back of the ballroom watching a lesson, thinking, when are these three going to finish?

Douglas knows the great secret of narrating cinema: parallel planes. He knows that the image must be concise and intense – it must contain lots of information at once because in cinema (and in photography) there is little time to tell the story and there is a lot to be said. Few close-ups are used, only when it is necessary, like that of the preacher standing before a Rolls-Royce, which has nothing to do with anything, singing: what am I doing here?

What a marvelous cast Douglas had! Lucky him! But he never conceded anything to the star system: the seamstress who alters the dress of the star is just as important as Liza Minnelli and Bob De Niro… the director Scorsese a little less. When all is said and done a director simply needs to be a good chef, like Coppola, or somebody who just does not think too much, like James Ivory does (the producer looks at him very worried!)… or someone who does not fall in love with the actress, like De Sica used to do (or perhaps it is Mastroianni who is falling in love here) - or that does not try to be a woman, like Chaplin under the skeptical gaze of Sophia Loren - or does not try to dance, like Baz Luhrmann. Look at the man on the right thinking, and the two arranging Nicole Kidman's halo. Could the director still be telling his story, thinking, dancing and not noticing anything or anybody around him?

Directors are mad. They work hard, striving to give form to absurd stories, such as those three in the water with the lifebelt, grief-stricken, looking like someone who knows that he is about to die even if the water is shallow; it's not cold and bathers all around them swim unaware. Impossible stories, such as those narrated by Kirkland, are the only ones that truly interest us, those which make life sane and marvelous. It would otherwise be incomprehensible.

Men and women together can do more than technique, especially if the person looking at them is somebody like Douglas – take, for example, the aviator with his girlfriend on his shoulders, already flying whilst the airplane beside them remains motionless on the ground. It would need fuel, a pilot; it has not got enough imagination… Armed with the force of his imagination, the director can fly and make you fly, like Herb Ross as he teaches Baryshnikov how to lift a dancer in the air.

Female bodies are among his most beloved views. What is more simple or erotic than Jeanne Moreau in white briefs on the water's edge? Like a siren she laughs, waiting for the right wave to take her back to the ocean depths from which she was born. "The Birth of Venus" or "Et Dieu Crée la Femme" [And God Created Woman]."

But nothing is left to chance in cinema; everything must be precisely prepared beforehand for it to seem natural: the legs of the actress in costume are covered with foundation so that they are flawless (even the legs of Natalie Wood); arranging diamonds on the dancer's nipple is the work of a master jeweler (luckily for the woman she knows transcendental meditation!).

And then, last of all, the thing which truly sets the great aside, is that they don't take anything too seriously; they exchange roles, they turn actors like Peter Sellers into photographers, or a Benedictine monk by the name of Sean Connery into a director.

The pleasure, the spectacular must always be there. Cinema does not want too much thought. Douglas abandons himself to his instincts…. He takes risks, he searches. He is not interested in beauty for its own sake; he wants life to stop still – this is why he is one of the greatest "freeze frame" directors of our time, precarious and unstable, like cinema.

© Cristina Comencini

Cristina Comencini is an Italian film director, screenplay writer and novelist. Born in Rome in 1956, she was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2005 for her movie, "La Bestia nel Cuore" ["Don't Tell" in the U.S.], based on one of her novels.