Director Jonathan Nossiter. PHOTO: MIGUEL VILLALOBOS.
This is not a film about wine,” Jonathan Nossiter proclaims at the head of our discussion about his latest feature, Mondovino, a provocative and unexpectedly humorous documentary about the globalization of economies and palates set within, yes, the wine industry.
Indeed, Nossiter’s statement may seem a bit perverse to readers who have heard about the film’s response in Paris (its critique provoked an uproar from the wine establishment) or from those who know of Nossiter’s background as not only an award-winning filmmaker (his feature Sunday won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1997) but also as a successful sommelier at Balthazar in New York. But after a viewing of Mondovino, Nossiter’s quip makes sense simply by virtue of what’s not in his film. There are no colorful shots of smiling workers stomping on grapes or magic-hour tableaux of fields of ripening vines. In fact you’ll learn very little about how wine is actually made, and when the boisterous, near maniacal wine consultant Michel Rolland, who dominates the first act of the movie as surely he does his cowed and very wealthy vintner clients, shouts out for the 10th time his mantra “You need to micro-oxygenate!” you may feel as confused as they do.
No matter. With its whip pans, Dogme-style video aesthetics and smiling and modest on-camera guide (Nossiter himself, whose polite interest in all of his subjects coaxes from them a number of priceless lines), Mondovino quickly reveals itself to be an engaged and witty portrait of the human face of globalization. Cutting from Bordeaux to Argentina, New York to Tuscany, Nossiter introduces us to the wine world’s reigning tastemaker, critic Robert Parker, and his farting bulldogs; the somewhat sinister Mondavi clan of California; an Italian wine oligarch who praises Mussolini; and an Argentine peasant producer unaware of his own ripples on the international wine world. Through it all, Nossiter wonders why so much wine produced today, be it an expensive Italian bottle or a cheap California one, tastes so similar. (By asking the question, he identifies himself as something of a “terroirist,” one who holds to the traditional viewpoint that a wine’s identity is defined by its relation to the earth from which its vines grow.) The answer points to an issue of much greater relevance.
Ultimately, Mondovino serves as a witty and effective treatise on the complex, crushing and ultimately very human relationship between economic globalization and those who fight to produce something — a film, a bottle of wine — that has its own unique character in an increasingly homogenous world.
I caught up with Nossiter, who has lived the past few years in Paris, in his New York apartment just prior to his departure for Brazil, where he plans to make his next movie.
|Jonathan Nossiter filming Mondovino.
FILMMAKER: So why do you say Mondovino is not a film about wine?
JONATHAN NOSSITER: It is not only not a film about wine, and it’s not even intended for people who care about wine. From the beginning, I was interested in making a film about the soap opera of globalization. I would have loved to do a film about the world of pharmaceuticals and the effects of pharmaceuticals across the world, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have gotten access [to the right people] — it would be a film shot entirely from the outside, and you’d never understand the human dimension. Wine, however, is not a question of life and death. It is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, in economic and political terms. [Because of that,] I thought that I could probably very gently and quietly create a portrait of globalization in human terms by racing around the world [and making this movie]. The wine world is like a soap opera. It’s like Dallas. You have family conflicts, dynasties, the rich and the poor and all these generational struggles. I was interested in holding a mirror up to this world — sort of a drunken mirror. I thought [making a movie in the wine world] would be a sympathetic way of looking at complicated and tough things. And maybe I’d have some fun making it. You know, the last film that I did, Signs & Wonders, was done in situations of tremendous stress, anxiety and difficulty. This film was done in a state of delight, pleasure, joy and nearly daily drunkenness. It’s a comedy, a comedy with hopefully serious things entwined, but definitely a comedy, and it was baptized in pleasure.
FILMMAKER: The film is funny, but as I was watching it, it felt to me almost like an international espionage or detective movie. There was sort of a Mission Impossible vibe to the way it was cut and shot. I began to view it as a mystery thriller, but then I thought, What’s the MacGuffin? And then of course the MacGuffin turns out to be the answers to these questions about globalization.
NOSSITER: That’s the best thing that anyone has said about the film. And exactly, that’s the joy of making a documentary. Almost every film at some level wants to be a thriller, because I think it’s the natural way that films tell their stories. [In making Mondovino,] I felt like I was a private eye investigating a series of crimes, but I didn’t know what the crimes were. And I’m still not sure what they are. One of my favorite films is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves. I asked Penn once what he felt the MacGuffin was in Night Moves, and he said that he realized as the filming went on that the real MacGuffin, what Gene Hackman was really investigating, were the conundrums of his own personality. [His psyche] was the MacGuffin of the film. I felt like the Gene Hackman character in that film. I was investigating wine, but it wasn’t really wine that was interesting. What was interesting was, what does this illiterate Argentinean peasant near the Bolivian border who names his black dog Luther King have in common with his neighbors down the road who tell me that Perón, Mussolini and Hitler were the best things that happen to Western civilization? And then, follow that thread back to Bordeaux, where a wine consultant is hooked up with an Italian aristocrat [winemaker] in the west of Tuscany, and then follow that lead and ask, How did he get to be so successful? Well, it’s because this American journalist who lives on the other side of Tuscany has given him really high scores [in Wine Spectator]. And suddenly I felt like I was doing Mission Impossible!
FILMMAKER: But aside from the soap opera aspect of the wine world, what about the subject of wine lent itself specifically to this discussion of globalization?
FILMMAKER: As someone who is not only a filmmaker but also a wine person, a sommelier, where are you in the movie in terms of your own personal philosophy or ideology of wine?
NOSSITER: I love wine dearly. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things that a human being can do in relation to nature. Not just growing the vine itself, but the fact that [winemaking is part of a] historical continuum, whether you are breaking that continuum or following it, or what most people do, which is to combine the two. That’s also what artists are supposed to do. To create something new as an artist, you have to know what came before you. Same thing is true of wine, whatever your terroir is, even if it’s a little recently discovered terroir in Mendocino or an ancient one in Burgundy. If you don’t have an ethical relationship to the past, I don’t think you can be radical and innovative. And I don’t care whether you are a dentist, filmmaker, journalist or a sommelier — you cannot be unaware today of the increasing infantilization of taste, the uniformization of taste because of increasing monopolies and oligopolies of production and distribution. You can’t have not have noticed how Orwellian, how Huxleyan, things are becoming. In the wine world there’s a tremendous standardization and uniformization of taste, from Australia to Chile to France to the U.S., across the globe and at every price level, from a $5 wine to a $500 wine. The classic fraud of our time, which is what Wal-Mart wants us to believe, is that, hey, you’ve got lots of choice at a lower price. Well, you’ve got a lot of different labels on these bottles, but man, the taste sure is the fucking same. Bordeaux has always been the market leader in terms of prestige and snobbery, but I can’t tell you how many sommeliers and wine people in New York in the ’90s stopped buying Bordeaux. They’d say, “Prices are going through the roof, and every day [these wines are tasting] more and more like the Cabernets from California and Chile.” But it’s not the fault of the Bordelaise — the Bordelaise are expressive of a general trend.
FILMMAKER: When do you see this trend as having begun?
NOSSITER: I think we forget that the floodgates were opened by Reagan. Actually, you know, Mondovino could be a film about filmmaking as much as it is about winemaking. You can see a transformation in both the wine business and the film business with the arrival of Reagan. It’s not by accident that Hollywood went from the golden era of the ’70s to the comparative catastrophe of the ’80s and ’90s to what we have today. The same thing happened in the wine business in the States. We went from very distinctively American wines in the ’70s — rough, ready, Steve McQueen–like. Uncontrolled, a little crazy, filled with a kind of energy and vitality that was distinctively American, and made by people of all stripes. But the Reagan culture brought us the infantilization of taste. Reagan allowed us to believe that stupid is good and simplified is better. And he also gave the royal blessing to the unfettered pursuit of money as the great existential goal of our lives. Suddenly wine became not just a symbol of the slow growing of friendship, love and culture. It suddenly became a symbol of power, snobbery and prestige. Huge corporations and fabulously wealthy people bought up vineyards to stick their names on the labels the way Renaissance princes used to buy up Michelangelos.
FILMMAKER: Let’s talk about the making of the film. A lot of it is single camera.
NOSSITER: It’s all single camera.
FILMMAKER: Your camera roams constantly, whip-pans, changes the frame in the middle of an interview, or rack-focuses from the interview subject to a worker toiling in the fields behind him. Why did you decide to make a documentary, especially one with a lot of interview footage, in this style?
NOSSITER: A couple of weeks ago I went to the movie theater in Paris where the film opened. I met the projectionist coming out, and she said, “You know, I’ve seen your film four or five times now. The first time I saw it, I wasn’t sure I liked the way it was shot. The camera’s always moving, and I wondered why. The second or third time I realized that the camera was responding the way a person thinks.” I loved that. In retrospect, it seems that’s actually quite close to what I can understand about what I was doing.
NOSSITER: The Sony PD-150. I knew that there’d be a certain roughness technically by not having a film crew with me. I shot with a friend who is a Uruguayan filmmaker, Juan Pittaluga and a Caribbean photographer friend, Stephanie Pommez. So it was either the three of us or just two of us. Sometimes it was just me on my own. We didn’t show up as a crew; we showed up as friends, curious people, and in a sense the camera was the third or fourth friend with us. So sure, there were moments when it would have been great to have a very steady frame, but had I done that by having a crew with me [and shooting more formally], I would have lost the human spark. Quite often I was shooting with the camera on my hip, using the screen to frame but without losing eye contact [with the subject]. This is something that I’ve learned from working with actors, like Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgård: eye contact is absolutely critical. David Suchet in Sunday told me that the biggest mistake that a director makes is to spend the whole damn time watching the video monitor. He said, “As an actor, I need to be alive in front of the camera. If I feel that you’re absolutely with me, Jonathan, I will give you absolutely everything I have. If you’re dicking around, trying to make the frame absolutely perfect, you’re going to lose me.”
FILMMAKER: You don’t fall back on a lot of the cheap, very obvious cutaway shots.
NOSSITER: Never. There’s not a single cutaway in the film. There’s no reaction shot after the fact. Everything is done within the intensity of the moment, which means that there are technical compromises. One technical compromise I don’t like that is not intentional is the number of zooms. [The PD-150] is a tremendous camera, but they haven’t figured out yet how to deal with focus. We constantly had to zoom in to the eyeball, and unfortunately some of those zooms stay in the film. I know that some people thought that it was some deliberate aesthetic tic, but it was simply a question of needing to check focus because the camera isn’t good enough yet to hold focus in a consistent way.
FILMMAKER: As a largely fiction filmmaker venturing into the world of documentary, were there doc filmmakers you looked to for inspiration?
NOSSITER: No, I was more into fiction films — they’re more of a reference to me. I mean, I think in attitude, Mondovino is probably diametrically opposed to someone like Michael Moore.
FILMMAKER: Why do you say that?
NOSSITER: Because I think that he’s an expression of the culture of marketing, and I don’t think that he’s a critic. I think that there’s a fundamental contempt in his films for almost everyone in front of the camera. I think they’re being manipulated in the way that Tarantino and Spielberg manipulate. To me, he’s an expression of the culture that he is ostensibly criticizing. There is no dialogue possible as a spectator with his films. They’re monologues. One thing that was absolutely essential to me as a filmmaker was to respect everyone I filmed, which I know I did. Even when there were people who hold absolutely opposing ideas, I never felt that they were contemptuous of me or I was contemptuous of them. Mondovino is a militant film, a polemical film, and it’s a very subjective film — there’s no pretense whatsoever to objectivity. But I say this as the son of a journalist, a foreign correspondent who I think had very high ethical standards: I have betrayed no one. I never misrepresented what the film is. There’s no hidden camera, there’s no voiceover in the film, there’s no altering of context.
FILMMAKER: For a film that deals with complex issues, whether they are economic, cultural or oenological, you haven’t chosen the easiest approach for the viewer in the way you present information. The viewer is essentially thrown into this somewhat confusing world and must work at figuring it out.
NOSSITER: I think that if there’s an appetite now for documentaries, it’s precisely because people want to be more active as viewers. They’re fed up with films, Hollywood and independent, in which the situations constructed are so artificial that even the best actor and the best director can’t pry out the feeling that you are watching human beings who have something at stake. I think we are all aware that we are getting force-fed lies through television and increasingly through the conventional print media. We are victims of a terrible marketing fascism, the crypto-fascism of our time. It took me several years to cut the film in such a way as to leave the spectator as active as possible in his or her response to the material. I’ve had people from all ideological, political and socioeconomic walks of life offer me radically opposed interpretations of how they read the film.
FILMMAKER: And you’re happy about that?
NOSSITER: I am delighted. I have no message. I’m interested in provoking.
FILMMAKER: You can talk about wine as a refraction of politics and globalization, but on a certain very basic level, there’s a question of taste, which is, what do people like to drink? And there is that moment in the film where I actually thought, Well, I don’t know all of these wines. Maybe I’d like Michel Rolland’s wines better?
NOSSITER: You might.
FILMMAKER: It’s a joke in the film that he’s constantly telling vintners to “micro-oxygenate.” But you never actually explain the process, and I thought at one point, Who is to say that it doesn’t make the wine taste better?
NOSSITER: Here’s something very simple, and I almost stuck it on the end credits, which is, whatever you think about each person as a character is exactly what you’ll think about their wines. If you respond well to Michel Rolland, you’ll like his wines. If you respond well to Hubert de Montille, you’ll like his wine. If you like them both, you’ll like both their wines.
FILMMAKER: I thought Rolland was kind of creepy. There’s that guy in the film who says, “Well, you can’t not like [Rolland]. He’s always laughing.” And I thought, My God, this guy is driving me nuts!
NOSSITER: [laughs] Well, he’s definitely out for blood now. What’s funny is that I don’t think that many of [the people interviewed in the film] have seen themselves in a global context before — even those people who are the globalizers. I think part of the shock of the film to some of the people in it is that they have only seen themselves in their own little cultural contexts, and now it’s quite jarring for them to see how they fit in the larger one.