Joris Ivens spent a most of his career making leftist documentaries. This did not please Western governments, and he was on bad terms with most of them, including his home, The Netherlands. By the end of his career, however, he wanted to distance himself from politics and release the philosophy-poetry that burned in his heart (and lungs (he was sick)).
In the early 1980s, he began to think about a film to be called The Roof of the World. During this time, The Netherlands decided they ought to repair their relationship with Mr. Ivens -- who, after all, can spurn a man so wise, so traveled, so old? -- and so awarded him the Golden Calf in 1985. This reconciliation opened doors for Ivens, who discovered that people suddenly respected him (and not just young-ish Paris intellectuals).
(A note: one of those young-ish Paris intellectuals, a lovely Juliet Berto, cast him in a film she directed, Havre (1986). What specific impact this had on Ivens, I do not know; nor do I know much about Juliet Berto aside from what I've gathered by her presence in JLG and Rivette films. This girl is one cineaste I must learn more about, as preliminary research turns up very meager results -- I shall follow this up sometime.)
Respect brought Ivens the financial backing necessary to embark on his project, an idea which had solidified over the years and which was now called The Wind.
A Tale of the Wind -- the title this project ultimately adopted -- follows Ivens around China as he attempts to film the wind. He muses about himself, Chinese culture, and life and death (as an 89 year old), among other such trivialities. It is his final film. The capstone of his career. The summation of his spirit. The Joris Ivens film.
However, I would like to point out a name that is usually forgotten in the discussion:
Marceline Loridan, wife to Joris Ivens (30 years his junior). She survived concentration camps as a Jewish teen. In Paris, she became interested in socialism and film (as people in Paris are wont to do). She participated in that cinéma vérité bedrock, Chronicle of a Summer (1960). She met and married Joris Ivens, who, though critical of these vérité and vague filmmakers, became friendly with some of them. The pair traveled and worked together. Loridan was with Ivens until his end.
For The Wind, Ivens originally planned to use two crews; Ivens's crew would film the wind, while Loridan's crew would film Ivens's crew filming the wind. Complications arose. Ivens was sick and, in a particularly serious incident, required on-the-scene surgery (in China, before transported back to France (from what I read)). Loridan filmed it all. (This is represented in the film -- and I believe this is a recreation -- when Ivens collapses in the desert and is rushed to a hospital.) This resulted in a reshaping of the film; in his biography of Ivens, Schoots writes:
with the expansion of Loridan's directorial role came a shift in the concept of The Wind. According to the plan, Ivens was to be a cineaste in search of the wind and Chinese culture and Loridan's crew would simply observe him at work.Thus the two crews became one. The Wind became Loridan's film.
How strange, then, that her name is forgotten! As much as A Tale of the Wind is about Ivens, it is about Loridan's relationship with Ivens -- her love, respect, and dedication. And yet she is given so little notice; I have uncovered few biographical details about her (here is one bio) (she is not even listed as a director for the film on IMDb (but who takes that site seriously?)). She is a vital contribution to the film, and everybody who approaches A Tale of the Wind ought to keep her in mind.
Anyway, I want to digress into another topic: the Monkey King.
The Monkey King appears throughout the film; he throws banana peels and unplugs microphones and laughs and commits crimes of every sort. Schoots shares a story which intrigued me immediately:
There is a famous story in which the Monkey King sits in the palm of Buddha's [sic] hand boasting about his knowledge and insight. After Buddha asks him to show him how wise he is, the monkey sets out in search of the end of the world and pisses on one of the five pillars he finds there. He returns to Buddha and confidently tells him that he found the end of the world, whereupon Buddha says: 'You pissed on one of my fingers.'Who is this Monkey King? Apparently he is a very influential character in Chinese mythology. He also seems to be a central character in Journey to the West. I found a summary of this Monkey King online which, thanks to its bad English, is disarmingly charming:
The Monkey King was born out of rock, and hence is extremely strong and durable - in fact he is totally invulnerable. He is immortal, having gorged himself on the life-giving peaches of the Jade Emperor's sacred garden. He is also extremely smart - he learned all the magic tricks in the world from a master Taoist, so that he is now able to transform himself into seventy-two different images such as a tree, a bird, a beast of prey or a bug as small as a mosquito so as to sneak into an enemy's belly to fight him inside or out. He can employ clouds as vehicles allowing him to travel 180,000 miles in a single somersault. He uses a Wishing Staff he got from the Dragon Kings of the Oceans as his favorite weapon - it can expand or shrink at its owner's command (he normally stores it in his earlobe). He can turns clumps of his hair into any object he desires. His fiery eyes can see through most illusions. Being made of stone, he is uncomfortable underwater.Wikipedia offers a more informative (if less charming) summary (it seems the Monkey King comes to an unfortunate end -- Buddhahood).
At one point in A Tale of the Wind, Ivens himself appears as the Monkey King. Keeping the legends in mind, one imagines Ivens, carved of stone, somersaulting to the ends of the earth to commit unforgivable acts of mischief. One might examine this as a symbolic (and playful) representation of Ivens's career. But I am not that one; I just thought I should point this amusing symbol out.
Ivens is placed among other symbols as well -- the Moon Fairy, a dragon, the drunken poet, the warrior statues, the wind. Is Ivens saying something about himself? About culture? Is Loridan saying something about Ivens? There is a lot of symbolic information to work through when interpreting this film.
Ivens and Loridan finished the film and showed it around. Although it earned respect, one would not dare to call it a "hit." In an interview, Ivens spoke of his next project, though I don't imagine either Loridan or Ivens believed they would make it. This project: a film about fire, the second film in a series about the elements. A part of me still hopes this will be made.
Ivens and this film are still to be discovered and studied. Lately, Ivens seems to have become more popular. A good sign.