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On the other side of the zoom, Sam Mendes (Reading, 1965) is exactly how one imagines an outstanding student of both Oxford and Cambridge; as experienced in the London theatre as in the Hollywood studios; capable of directing James Bond as well as Kate Winslet. Lying on a sofa, friendly, distracted and with a thick scarf around his neck, Sam Mendes is the living image of Sam Mendes. His latest film, Empire of Light, is also him. And it is like probably no movie before. He recounts his childhood in a decade of conservatism and racist conflicts, tells the mental illness of his mother (played by a monumental Olivia Colman) and, in his own way, takes stock of what the cinema, that of the 80s, did for him and for so many like him. Roger Deakins' hypnotic photography does the rest.
Olivia Colman in a moment of 'The Empire of Light'.« Cinema is an illusion of life", is heard in his film... In reality, the phrase is almost scientific, not poetic. It refers to that defect in the optic nerve that we humans have that makes us add the sensation of movement to what is nothing more than one photograph after another. That mistake makes us enter a new world, the world of illusion and the magic of cinema. The funny thing is that much of the best things in life are the result of a mistake. There is a fine and very beautiful irony in it. That's pretty poetic... We experience life itself as something continuous, we relate it as if it made sense, and, in truth, it is nothing more than a long string of disconnected things and many of them quite absurd. Everything is the result of a construction, of an artifice, even the things that we consider more natural and simple. You and I are talking as if we are alone and, actually, here around me there is a hubbub of wires and cameras. So, to go back to the beginning, life is only an illusion of life itself. That's it. And cinema, which is supposed to do nothing more than portray life as it is, is nothing more than, in effect, a complex artifice, an illusion of life ... Do you feel that the cinema that you reflect in your film of huge theaters is dead forever? Cinema, in terms of storytelling and camera use, is not in danger at all. On the contrary, never in history has so much cinema been made as now. If someone had told me when I started that with the passage of time I would be able to make a movie with the camera of a mobile phone and that I was going to see the movie I wanted at the time I wanted, my head would have exploded. It wasn't even contemplated as a possibility then. Pessimism about cinema is a thing of nostalgic and old. So, what I don't think will ever come back is the movie theater as a space of discovery full of different proposals. The films that are currently being released in large theaters respond to a certain type of cinema. They are not the same, but almost. They are big, noisy, exciting. But maybe they are nothing more. Lack of diversity of voices. I am convinced that almost all my films would go right now to a platform directly without going through any theater. Starting with American beauty. I do not know very well what should be done nor do I have a philosophy about how this change we are experiencing will affect us, but it is clear that television and even the telephone screen have been imposed. His film stops in the 80s, those of his childhood and youth. It is both a candid and very harsh image of them. Do you miss them or is the film nothing more than an artifact to forget them? I'm not a particularly nostalgic person. I'm not going to give anyone the murga with my happy years and all that. But I do miss, in line with what we mentioned, the very meaning of going to the cinema of that time. Going to the movies entailed the adoption of a commitment. You had to go to a place, book the afternoon, sit in the dark with a lot of people you didn't know at all... The feeling was that of going through a door to another world. And watching a movie was something so special that it stayed with you all your life. I remember not only the movie I saw when I was 15, but how I saw it, who I watched it with, and the conversations I had afterwards after watching them. Now, it's the other way around., that whole universe is in our pocket. Now, you watch a movie and you don't remember it the following week. Before, going to the movies was a substantial and paramount activity. Now watching a movie is what you do while you make a coffee or check the mail, it is something that is in the background. Well, it will turn out that he is a nostalgic person. Maybe. The screening of a film is a beautiful thing. Those soft edges, those evanescent silhouettes... Light behaves differently in a celluloid projector. There is a flicker that keeps the image alive. That does not happen with the digital projection of now. I definitely miss all that. And the variety of films back then. However, and compared to the great revolution of the 70s, the 80s gave way to a much more conventional cinema... I don't quite agree with that idea. Yes, it was the decade of the blockbuster, Indiana or The Recruit Benjamin or The Nutty Professor perhaps. But it was also when The Elephant Man, All that Jazz, Raging Bull were released... All of them are experimental films, in black and white, with auteur proposals. However, I am not saying that these were the good ones, I say that you went to the cinema and you found the two kinds of proposals treated the same in the same neighborhood cinema. Commercial successes coexisted with the most exclusive cinema. All this, in truth, is what I miss about the 80s, which on the other hand was a very conservative, hard, racist and dirty time. Anyway, I'm old, what are we going to do to him? That is clear. On the other hand, the film has a lot of homage to his mother... Yes, it's autobiographical, but not so much. The important thing is how to reach the viewer without begging for their love and without giving pity. I didn't want to introduce a childish figure. I simply wanted to recover that time, when you are 16, 17 or 18 years old, in which everything affects you to stay with you for a lifetime. My mother suffered from mental illness and that stays forever. But Olivia (Colman) is not my mother, she just retains parts of her. The backdrop to Empire of Light is the social unrest in Thatcherism and racist conflicts... It is curious because at the same time that this aggression against blacks was lived, rarely before was black culture so present. I remember bands like The Selecter or The Specials, don ska groups that marked my youth. And I also remember how, for the first time, black actors like Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy achieved stardom at the popular level. It was when everyone alive Do What You Must, by Spike Lee. That is, much of the racism that was experienced was the reaction to real change underway. Something similar happens now if you stop to observe the extreme right around the world. Every time there is a breakthrough... This film is a consequence of the pandemic, he wrote it during the confinement, and not so long ago he directed the play The Lehman Trilogy about the financial crisis of 2008. Did we learn anything from the two global crises? That which is said to come out of suffering stronger is a lie. We came out weaker. Just that. We are neither better nor stronger nor have we changed at all. How do you think James Bond will evolve? He asks him about his films with agent 007 and Daniel's retirement Craig.No I know. I won't say I'm not worried, but it's no longer my thing. Let's say I keep aa very similar relationship with all the films I've done. And, despite what it may seem, Skyfall is as personal a job as any other in my career. It was like reuniting with the 12-year-old boy inside me. On the other hand, I'm a big football fan, an Arsenal fan, and I felt that the pressure of directing a Bond film was quite similar to coaching a great Premier team. I enjoyed that a lot, really.
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