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31.12.08

Year in Review: Anthony Minghella

The first part of the 1-2 punch that knocked out our film blogger, Todd Babcock, was the loss of director Anthony Minghella, which happened one day before the death of Paul Scofield. Todd offers the following look back at what Minghella meant to him.


Anthony Minghella (1954-2008)
Anthony Minghella passed away on March 18, 2008, at the age of 54. The cause was a complication post-surgery from an operation on his neck. The loss was sudden, without warning, and left this particular actor reeling in dismay. Minghella is primarily known as the adapter and director of the celebrated film The English Patient, which swept the Oscars in 1996. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the film’s sweeping romanticism and scope, the result of an eye for both intimacy and majestic beauty, became such a phenomenon that it immediately spawned a movement of backlash. Soon, what was dubbed going into production as “an unfilmable novel” had become the textbook example of a “typical Academy Awards movie.” So much so that Seinfeld dedicated an entire show to hating The English Patient.

Minghella did not come out of nowhere as is so often the case with overnight successes. Born on the Isle of Wight to Italian immigrant parents he said early on that he felt like a constant outsider. Feeling neither British nor Italian, Minghella mused that being from Wight only deepened such convictions. Early on he developed a strong desire to communicate through music and, in particular, jazz. He often spoke and wrote about stumbling into writing by way of music. In school, he was asked to write accompaniment for some stage productions. He wasn’t exactly sure how to do such a thing, but as he ventured further and further into the congress of music and narrative he made a discovery. He was fascinated by the relationship of the story in words and the story told in song. The synchronicity and dissonance fascinated him. Soon enough, he was writing what he refers to as “bridges” in the music, gaps between songs, and he found himself writing plays.

Minghella’s jazz influence is an ongoing one for those who follow his films. Most boldly in his third film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, another adaptation of a difficult novel. Minghella implanted into Patricia Highsmith’s doppelganger an appetite for jazz records in order to connect with his hero and nemesis Dick Greenleaf (played to perfection by Jude Law, never better). Nowhere is Minghella smiling with more delight on film than when he depicts the low-lit, smoky club Vesuvio where Tu Vuo' Fa L'Americano explodes to unite the club and its characters into the heady mix of music, drink and sexual longing.

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Minghella on Minghella
What is so consistent in the numerous testimonials from those throughout the industry and beyond was the absolute admiration not just for his movies but for the man himself. In the same sense that losing Scorsese would mean losing more than just another filmmaker, the loss of Minghella is a loss of vision. Judging by his collaborative books with now-legendary editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) in The Conversations, his essays, plays and commentary tracks, we have lost one of the few artists in film trying not to change its dialog with simple tricks but by deepening it and asking of it and himself more probing philosophical questions. Those around him spoke to his endearing kindness, patience and unburdened intelligence. Yet, more than all he was devoted and loving of his family. An expression of Minghella’s that found its way into Patient was that he suffered from “Uxuriousness, the excessive love of one’s wife.” The anomaly of all these qualities in an industry that celebrates the contrary is, perhaps, self-evident.

During The English Patient I turned in the theater to a friend and whispered, “I don’t know why, but I think this one of the best films I’ve ever seen in my life.” I can embarrassingly admit to carrying the script with me on my own feature that year, with its picture on my journal, and waking to the beautiful, haunting music of its soundtrack, Szerelam, every morning. To quote David Denby at the time, “I am somewhat obsessed with The English Patient."

“The heart is an organ of fire. I like that. I believe that.” Those words of Michael Ondantje, transcribed by Minghella and spoken by one his muses, Juliette Binoche, reveal what Minghella felt was unashamed emotion. Emotion, he felt, Americans find “unhip” and yet are ardently desperate for it. What makes him so remarkable is how uncheap and earned that emotion was and how it was never easy.

I spent so much time with Minghella’s words and even friends that the loss felt personal though I had never had my dream of working with the man come to fruition. I will never be able to forget the final, elegiac shot of Almásy’s plane in Patient. Drifting aloft over endless, undefinable dunes as Gabriel Yared’s haunting score escorts it into infinity. The man with the "iron hand in a velvet glove," as Ralph Fiennes once described him, has left behind a world that he made a little more beautiful than when he entered it.

1 comment:

Berquist said...

This is a wonderful tribute to a truly visionary writer and filmmaker. (I'd just like to point out that The Talented Mr Ripley was Mr Minghella's fourth film, rather than the third, although it was of course the third that he both wrote and directed.) His death was one of the saddest events of 2008, and one hopes that such appreciation of his works will continue to grow.