Thursday, January 28, 2010
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The first two feature film iterations of Mission Impossible were pointless because they discarded the central premise of the TV series--a team of specialists with complementary skills coming together to pull off an insane mission. In virtually the first sequence of the first feature, they killed off the team. This is like buying the rights to Mr. Ed and then saying, "First thing, the talking horse has got to go." Typical. Because just the concept of Tom Cruise in all his Tom Cruiseness is supposed to be enough.
Actually, if the series had been even cooler than it was, the team would have been different every week. Maybe they should have had, like, 12 agents and a different set of 5 or 6 on each show, and none of them really know each other that well. That would have been really cool. But in any case, in the movies, the entire Impossible Mission Force was a guy. I guess in that universe, the Secret Service would be one dalmatian.
Since those first two MI films were so terrible, I skipped the third, but came back to it when I learned that J.J. Abrams got the Star Trek reboot job by doing such a great reboot on Mission Impossible III (2006). (Incidentally, both shows were created at Desilu--before it was bought out by Paramount--and personally approved by Lucille Ball. I wish she had demanded a guest shot for herself on both of them. Maybe JJ should do an I Love Lucy reboot next. With explosions.)
I suppose any Tom Cruise film is inherently lame at this point, but they did restore the idea of a team, even if in a rather attenuated form. And it is always good to see Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. Which makes me think--when are they going to make an A Team feature? [Update: I am advised by my loyal reader that an A-Team movie is being released June 11, 2010. It will star the powerfully boring Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson, who is best when he is very nice, like in Schindler's List. So this looks like a nice, boring A-Team.]
Alright, alright, I'm avoiding writing about the movie. It was loud and fast and had lots of explosions and was ridiculous and fun and had Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays good guys and bad guys in exactly the same sweaty way. Could they team him up with Paul Giamatti as uber bad guys? And have them both working for Kevin Spacey? Who works for Christopher Walken? That would be a movie.
I mean this movie begins and ends with Tom Cruise having a bomb stuck up his nose. Monty Python shoved a tape recorder up a man's nose back in the late 60s and we thought that was pretty funny. Tom Cruise has a nuclear bomb up his nose. Is there any point in seriously discussing cinema here?
I take back the thing about a Tom Cruise movie being inherently lame. That is not true if Tom Cruise plays an overweight bearded loud obnoxious Jewish talent agent. Now, that's a movie.
The true story of four female performers--three of them well-known stars--entertaining the troops near the front lines for the USO should be terrific entertainment, especially with the stars (Carole Landis, Martha Raye, Kay Francis and little-known dancer Mitzi Mayfair) playing themselves. Between belting out some of those groovy hepcat 40s tunes and dodging the bullets and bazookas, this shoulda been some funfest!
Instead the film treats us to some insipid romances with the blandest leading men they could find. (The romance between Mitzi Mayfair and Dick Haymes looks like the fever dream of a sadistic plastic surgeon specializing in clumsy nose jobs.) This is a movie which makes Martha Raye seem kind of dull. Martha Raye!
Or maybe the subject's cursed. About twenty years ago, Bette Midler made a similarly themed, well-intentioned, but still not very good film called For The Boys about a woman who dedicated much of her career to entertaining the troops. Somebody ought to make a good movie about this subject someday, but the track record isn't very good so far.
Monday, January 25, 2010
My recently developing interest in Clint Eastwood's earlier work, especially as director, led me to The Bridges of Madison County (1995), which I had avoided at the time because of the dreadful reputation of the potboiling bestseller the film was based on. From what I understand, the screenplay by Richard LaGravanese toned down the purple quality of the book, as well as the self-absorption of the male protagonist. Which makes sense, because there is scarcely a more self-effacing actor or director than Clint Eastwood.
The result is a fairly harmless reworking of Brief Encounter and other similar romanticizings of adultery. It's important to maintain perspective and look at this sort of thing as a fantasy that most intelligent adults recognize as a fantasy. Because how could how a powerful passion by held in such precise check as to be maintained throughout one's life without engulfing one's other relationships. I am no expert, but I cannot imagine passion which can idle in low gear for 30 years without disturbing a pre-existing marriage. It is the nature of passion to sweep all else aside; otherwise it's not passion. So this is a titillating but ultimately silly bit of housewife porn rendered in exquisitely pale good taste by Eastwood & Co., which almost makes it more unpalatable.
So what is left? Meryl Streep. Recently, she graduated from Respected Actress in Serious Films to bonafide Movie Star, a status she clinched with back to back hits Julie & Julia and It's Complicated. The former is the perfect example of utter piffle for which a Real Actress is required. You know what I mean--Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow or the Great Meryl.
Funny thing, she is often described as a chameleon who disappears into her roles. I have been watching Meryl act since 1965, which she was a sophomore in high school along with my brother. So while others see all these other identities, I can always see the essential Meryl-ness inside. This is no denigration of her art, which has been more convincing and more artfully concealed as the years go by. (When she was younger I could always see the wheels turning when she acted, all the technique too close to the surface.) She is strangely convincing in Madison County, especially when she stops worrying about maintaining the Italian accent--the character is so improbable anyway--and plays the sweet-and-sour discontent that permits her to drift into a relationship with a somewhat bland stranger. She provides enough color for both actors.
Most unexpected pleasure of this film--the performances of Annie Corley and Victor Slezak as Streep's adult children, who are at first shocked and then led to a re-examination of their lives by reading their late mother's journals of her forbidden romance. Again, a fantasy, but the surprising charm of these actors sell this somewhat distasteful idea. So...well done, I guess.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
But I can sum up it's overall quality by simply saying that it is completely original. The story keeps shifting ground from political allegory to grisly horror to buddy drama to family saga, as though it had no idea it had gone past genrebending to full-on genre mash-up. You can't tell if the filmmakers (a Canadian writer-director working with a New Zealand company shooting in South Africa) were simply going their own way or looking over their shoulders not at just a film or a genre, but practically every film they'd ever seen and loved. With nary a cliche in sight. No wonder it required Peter Jackson to guarantee it in order to be financed--it's just what the suits hate. Complete creativity, complete originality. Without aspiring to be an Important Drama (as Children of Men did), it should not be confined to the sci-fi ghetto. Not important, except in the way that anything really creative and really original and really good is important.
Female (1933) starring Ruth Chatterton as a hard-driving, male-subordinate-chasing auto executive is in circulation on TCM and on DVD because of the kind of racy implications found in Pre-Production Code films such as this. And yes, it's fun for its table-turning aspect as she is startled by the first man who insists on his own dignity and integrity and refuses to jump in bed with her because she is the boss. (Her previous boy toys have all been shipped out of town when she was done with them. And how satisfying that must have been--and still must be--for the female audience!)
But there are reasons to watch and enjoy Female. Chatterton has one of those stuffy theatrical English accents (more forgiveable since she was English) but once you get past that, she is a fun strong heroine, with a nice chemistry with her real-life husband, George Brent. Michael Curtiz with Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy far in his future maintains an even brisker pace than his usual brisk pace.
The real unexpected treat of this film is the quality of its visual design, both in Chatterton's costumes which are novel in that early-30s way without making you say "what-were-they-thinking" as is so common for the era. But the production design is seriously wonderfully crazy--Art Deco gone Expressionistic, with everything in enormous proportion yet looking somehow plausible with its swoops, curves, strong verticals and neo-Aztec decoration. Appropriately, the film ends out in the country, as if it were only when she got away from the dippy proto-fascist architecture that Chatterton's character could think clearly about having a real life. OK, the way the conclusion is stated is sexist as appropriate for its time, but it still seems logical and well prepared, given the protagonist's prior restlessness. A very satisfying sixty minutes.
Friday, January 22, 2010
WUTL is just more honest about it. This is the film in which a producer hired Woody Allen to take a pre-existing Japanese-produced James Bond-type thriller, strip off the soundtrack and lay in a completely new one. The effect is similar to when you and your friends turn the sound off the TV and make up your own dialogue--provided your friends are really smart and funny.
I will not recite the jokes--you can read them elsewhere in the World Wide InterTubes and besides, you should just enjoy the movie on your own. But I am always struck by one of the smartest and most insightful jokes, which is itself both a comment on the nature of English syntax and our understanding of symbolic language. At one point, a villain points to a small diagrammed floor plan of a rival's home and says, "This is Shepherd Wong's house." Hero Phil Moscowitz asks, perplexed, "He lives in that piece of paper?"
There are symbols upon symbols here. Not only has the first speaker elided words when he actually meant, "This is [a map of] Shepherd Wong's house;" but the map itself is an extremely abstract object, being a two-dimensional representation of the house--not even the house as it appears to a viewer, but a representation of an imaginary view of the house, as if the house were being viewed from above with the roof lifted off. Yet we can communicate easily without having to explain all those levels of abstraction.
Which is appropriate for a medium which requires that you take a group of two-dimensional images and electronically recorded sounds, all registered at different times and places, observe them when they have been placed in proximity of each other, and interpret them as events which bear some relationship to reality as we experience it. Which is weird, right?
Thursday, January 21, 2010
I had the pleasure of seeing An American In Paris (1951) with a paying audience last night as part of the Big Screen Classics program at the Cedar Lane Cinema in Teaneck. And I went with three good friends who are film buffs. And it's been about a year since I visited Paris for the first time. Good times.
Naturally, I've seen this movie approximately 16.72 skadjillion times, but it has been a while since I've sat and watched in its entirety, and probably over 30 years since I've sat with an audience watching it. This is what I noticed this time around.
- The thing really plays with an audience. There were children in the audience--real kid type kids, like 7-12 years old. And they loved most of it.
- There was a real effort to use less commonly known Gershwin numbers, such as "By Strauss" and "Tra-La-La." The film is a personal take on Gershwin, not an attempt to please the crowd with the big popular hits. This is a film that includes not only a 17-minute ballet but most of the 3rd movement of Gershwin's Concerto in F. It cannot be accused of pandering.
- The music department pulled out all the stops. There are some very tasty jazz-influenced arrangements for small groups, probably by Skip Martin, while Johnny Green's conducting of the American In Paris ballet is superb. Anyone know who the on-screen saxophonist is in the underground bistro scene?
- Minnelli is a whiz at staging numbers in confined spaces. Yes, I know Gene Kelly and Carol Haney were the choreographers, but Minnelli pulls off the same trick in The Bandwagon. You would expect cinema to lean toward the vast, the grandiose, given its wider potential pallette of spatial effects, compared to the stage. But as Minnelli and, in his own way, Hitchcock, have proved, film does tiny as well (or better) as it does gigantic.
- The plot with Nina Foch is still boring and a little distasteful. Her character feels like a predator.
- Speaking of predators, with Gene Kelly in late youth or early middle age and Leslie Caron, the contrast gets creepier all the time. Maybe I'm extra-sensitive as a high school teacher. Ick.
- "By Strauss" is a better number than I remember. But why is the first all-out musical number in a Parisian film about Viennese music?
- Most amazing sets--the interior of Kelly's garret; the exterior of Kelly's garret--the walls are beautifully grimy--and the quai by the Seine, in which it is impossible to determine where construction ends and the flat painted material begins.
- John Alton, who shot only the ballet in this film, but is best known for his hard-edged black-and-white work in films noir such as T-Men and Raw Deal should have done many more Technicolor musicals. (He never did another, according to the Internet Movie Database, but his entry there doesn't include American In Paris.) His work as a strength and a plasticity that somehow complements the papier-mache artificiality of the genre. And the color is both strong and diffuse at the same time, avoiding the candy-box look of, say, the Fox musicals.
- For all its Hollywood-ness, it's more Parisian than I knew before I saw Paris.
The 1999 Mike Figgis filming of Miss Julie pretends those issues don't exist. Evidently it was based on a prior stage production with a different cast but substantially the same text. The picture above demonstrates the degree to which the piece has been "opened up" -- a small wooded area just outside the country estate's kitchen which is the sole setting of the play. Otherwise it is a fairly unvarnished stage production shot on grainy and dully-lit Super 16 film.
The problem is, other than one of those fake sex scenes you see in dramatic films (where everyone reaches up under their clothes and the man never takes a stitch off), washed-out color and the face of Saffron Burrows (which is admittedly a cinematic event in and of itself), this film offers nothing not already present or at least implicit in the earlier film. Sjoberg has even gone farther, physically representing characters who are only spoken of in the play. Moreover, the Figgis version embraces that horrible English stage convention that lower-class characters can be represented by use of a Scots or Irish accent, while maintaining the original Swedish setting. I know, I'm supposed to hear the Glaswegian accent and know that this fellow is working class, but I can't help wondering why this guy (played by Peter Mullan) wandered away from Sauchiehall Street to get a job as a footman on a Swedish estate.
The film is such a literal rendering that when the footman sends Miss Julie upstairs to get money, we never see her do it. She just goes away and comes back with money. It would have made more sense if this film had been made first and Sjoberg's more cinematic adaptation had followed. As it is, I have no idea why this film was made at all.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Today I was reading a story first published on Sunday (3 days ago, mind you) about the weak auction for the beleagured MGM. On the second page of the story, as published online is a photo of Peter Sellers with the following caption: "Peter Sellers as the Pink Panther, the franchise of which is controlled by MGM." The most uninformed film correspondent should know that Peter Sellers played Inspector Clouseau. Nobody played the Pink Panther, because THE PINK PANTHER IS A GEM, NOT A PERSON!
I know this is not a big point, but it's like the broken-windows philosophy of crime enforcement. If the little stuff gets by, how can you believe anything they say about the big stuff?
I sincerely hope the Times goes out of business and that the world recognizes it has been due to the successful and unstinting effort of Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. to kill off one of America's formerly great institutions.
The reason people are still looking at those gangster movies of the 1930's such as Public Enemy and Little Caesar and Scarface, despite the primitive qualities of the early talkies, is the sheer joy and brio brought to them by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and all those other exciting gangster actors of the era. Yes, of course the cops (or rival gangsters) were going to gun them down in a hail of bullets, but they would go down swinging, or laughing or in some way expressing the excitement of living outside the land of decent, law-abiding people. We could enjoy such a feeling in all its full-throated glory and then go back to our jobs or schoolwork or taking care of our families relishing the frisson of watching unrepentant evil.
But in Public Enemies (2009), not only doesn't crime pay, it doesn't pay off, at least in terms of fun. It's bad enough for us regular people to hate our jobs (I don't, but I have in the past), but this film's John Dillinger, as portrayed by Johnny Depp treats bank robbery as the worst sort of mindless drudgery. I don't know why the poor fellow should have to go through this sort of thing.
Michael Mann is a director of surfaces. When those surfaces are exciting, as in Miami Vice (the television show, not the film) and Thief, the film is exciting. Public Enemies is all gray. No one seems very interested in what they're doing, not Depp, not Christian Bale as the G-Man, not the cinematographer, not the composer. The whole film gives an impression of being dark grey.
You want to see a fun film about Dillinger, check out this B-picture from the 40's (requires Adobe Flash):
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Disney stories push the ideas of wishing and dreaming very hard. "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" Cinderella tells us. As the parent of young children I was always worried by the implicit passivity of that philosophy.
Imagine my delight to see a new Disney princess who has a dream, not based in fantasy, but a solid realizable dream--opening a fine restaurant--a dream that connects her with her family, specifically her father, especially after his wartime death; and who takes palpable steps and undergoes sacrifice and hardship to try and realize that dream. Never mind the color of her skin, progressive as that development may be--her active participation in her dream makes her the 21st Century Disney Princess we need.
Yadda, yadda, yadda. This is a spectacularly entertaining film. Disney's return to cell animation reminds us that 2D characters can be both more exaggerated and more convincing realistic than the squishy (if sometimes hairy) rubbery ball-characters we see in 3D animation. There is one virtuoso slapstick sequence that reduced the little girls behind me to hysterics, while I was in tears.
I was already in tears, not for sadness, but because Randy Newman's music is so much literally toe-tapping fun. A student of mine described the music as "real Disney" and so it is, filled with joy and wonder and imagination and fun. It doesn't hurt to have superb jazz, cajun and zydeco musicians on the soundtrack, including the glorious Terence Blanchard on solo trumpet.
The Disney legacy in animation begins with Steamboat Willie, which is not only the first publicly exhibited animation with synchronized sound, but the first to demonstrate how critical music would be to the creation and joy of animated cartoons. Disney artists (meaning directors, writers, animators, all creative personnel) seem to have recognized how central music is to that story-telling experience. That's not because "it's great for kids." Drama, which is story-telling by a group (rather than an individual) literally grows from dance and singing; from the 'orkestra', the place for dancing, by the 'choros', the people who provide background and comment on the story. Music thus, is never incidental to drama, but is the parent stem; a parent who likes to come and visit, and, as in The Princess and the Frog (2009), bring some good times.
Let's be clear. I'm not unresponsive to the underlying thesis of the film, that the US confrontation with Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism has been bungled and that the war in Iraq was an inept, cruel and destructive sideshow. But the plot DePalma has seized on to illustrate the point seems (loosely based as it is on a real event) to have been cribbed from DePalma's own Casualties of War.
But that is not the real problem of Redacted (after all, Shakespeare stole all his stories), nor is it the fact that at nearly one hour into the film the issue of redacted documents had still not made an appearance. The fundamental atrocity of this film is not the repulsive act at the center of the narrative but DePalma's complete misunderstanding and incompetence in the use of alternate media in storytelling.
By alternate media I mean simulated homevideo, security cameras, simulated interviews and other purported "real" documents. These are uniformly produced with an ineptitude that is stunning. The shots are well-lit, the sound is balanced and clear. The actors take turns like a well-directed evening in the theater. Let's leave aside the fact that the actors are completely amateurish and unconvincing--not one bit of this supposedly "real" footage looks like anything other than a staged conventional commercial film.
So I did what I rarely do--I stopped watching. Now, I will sit through a lot. I made it through the original and the remake of Solaris--talk about a snoozefest! But I couldn't stomach the horrendous quality of the film. Make no mistake--it's not the repellant subject that turned me off this film. On the advice of friends, I sat through Saw. I think Paul Verhoeven is a talented director, though many of his films are disgusting in concept and execution. (He was recently reported to be preparing a film asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of a Roman rapist.) But the double-whammy of bad taste and DePalma's incompetence combined to make this film not worth my time. I'm 54 now and with only 25 or so years left, I can't waste my time with Brian DePalma.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
The first question out of my students' mouths when we finished screening The Birds (1963): "Is there a sequel?" "What would happen in a sequel?" I asked. "What more is there to say?" As I see it, there are two continuing story options: (1) The bird attacks stop. You got no movie; (2) The bird attacks continue with a similar intensity. No movie. (3) The attacks escalate until you've got a silly Godzilla movie, and the audience is not scared, it's laughing its collective head off.
Young people seem to have trouble understanding that once you're done saying something, you stop saying it. I've observed this in conversation, in written assignments, in oral presentations. They seem to believe (with some justification, I fear) that no one is actually giving anything their full attention and that therefore the solution is mindnumbing repetition. They don't believe in or trust anything said only once, like people of some ethnicities who believe that all offers of hospitality must be repeated at least three times, because the first two refusals are not sincere (this is true for some people).
There is a brilliant scene in the musical version of the play Merrily We Roll Along. The songwriter protagonists perform their new song to great praise and admiration at a swanky party. The society guests, none of them performers or artists, demand to hear the song again. The lyricist, wise about these things demurs, saying a performer should know when to get off. The composer, basking in the adoration, prevails, and they launch into the song again. Now, however, everyone has heard it, and they begin little musical interjections on irrelevant topics. Slowly at first, then they build until they completely swallow up the song, which disappears into a fog of musical chitchat.
Still, I should be pleased that even with its antiquated visual effects, The Birds still works its evil magic on a young audience, who reacted just as the master hoped. For my own part, has anyone remarked on how audacious the lack of a score is--in two places in the film in particular. Over the opening titles, which lack even a fanfare for the Universal logo. And at the end, when the future of the human race on earth seems to be all used up, we move without music--just the thrumming and fluttering of the waiting birds--into the "End" card. No credit roll, nothing to offer any comfort before we go out into that waiting bird-infested world.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Michael Caine, who plays a demented and dying low-rent magician has even been around this track before, most notably with Secondhand Lions. But one should never pass up the opportunity to see Michael Caine, who, in a single regretful glance, offers an entire seminar in motion picture acting. It's possible that he is the best that ever's been. Maybe it just helps to have tired, puffy eyes.
In the early days of Technicolor, cinematographers marveled at the quality of color in British films--so much less stark and obvious, more diffused and subtle. Turns out it wasn't the cameramen, it was the fog. Mist is so pervasive in England that the cameras pick it up everywhere. It doesn't look like they had one good day when they shot this film, and it suits the picture straight down to the ground.
The novel element in this piece is that, whereas death hovers in the wings throughout this genre, Is Anybody There? puts it front and center, not because of the old man but because of the boy, who has grown up in a private nursing home and is death-obsessed. Probably no American film could look death so squarely in the eye and without sentiment, but for the quick appearance of a badger toward the end. (This will be clear to anyone who has seen the film.) No weepy Mitch Albom moments here. This is a film for those who would go down giving the Reaper the finger.
As Groucho said, "An amateur thinks it's funny to dress up a guy as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair and push it down a hill. A professional knows it's only funny when it's a real old lady."
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Jason Reitman's films have characters who think they know what they think and are unafraid to tell you, often near the start of the film: Up In The Air (2009) is no exception. George Clooney's Ryan Bingham has a monologue (it is part of a motivational speech) which is going to tell you all about who he is and what he is about. We are breaking Conventional Cinema Rule #37--telling when we should be showing.
But fact is, we like words, especially smart, funny words and there is nothing inherently uncinematic words. The great American masters, Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock (and that IS the official triumvirate these days) all were happy to let their characters talk, even for a long time. Sometimes the talk was the point and sometimes it was beside the point, but it was OK.
But no matter what, pictures trump talk. Except that in Up In The Air, the pictures lie and the talk tells the truth. I usually don't care about spoilers, but let me be a little careful here, as the film is still in the theaters as I write this. Pay more attention to what people say than the happy faces you see, especially in the very charming wedding montage. Don't trust those pictures--they're going for your emotions, and you're going to get hurt. The words--they are the real deal.
I see the DGA has named Reitman this year, and there is no better deserved nomination (although I suspect James Cameron will win every award in sight for Avatar--it looks like so much hard work.) But while they're handing out awards, please let them not forget this film's editor, Dana Glauberman, who cut Mr. Reitman's previous films. There is a cut toward the end of them film from George Clooney's face when he learns a colleague and friend has left, to the sight of that person moving away from us on an airport conveyor and back to Clooney's face which is as stunning as anything I've seen since Eisenstein.
Hey, and isn't it great that Zach Galafianakis is such a big star, he gets top-of-the-film billing for a one-scene cameo?
We've just watched Psycho (1960) in film class, primarily to reflect on how the brilliant underscore by Bernard Herrmann is so critical to the effect of the film.
One thing struck me even more forcibly about the film this time around (I've seen it literally dozens of times). By now, everyone must know that the nominal star, Janet Leigh, is killed one-third of the way through the movie. It is hard to overstate how shocking that was to the 1960 audience; not because of the violence of the movie, but because the removal of the star left the audience without a character with which to identify as it moved through the narrative. This was considered completely indispensable in the classical Hollywood cinema. Now that the protagonist is dead, who is the protagonist?
As we now know, it will become Norman Bates--which is outrageous in and of itself, as Norman becomes both hero and villain. But Hitchcock has knocked away the moral substructure of classical Hollywood, and severed the link between "good" and hero, between "bad" and villain. He attempted this twice before, in The Lodger and in Suspicion but in both cases, the films had to tell the audience "just kidding"--the hero really can't be the killer, especially if he's Cary Grant.
But Norman Bates is hero, villain and victim all rolled into one. And the scene that clinches it begins right after the still I've put at the top of this post. It is the famous clean-up scene. What's remarkable is not just that it's in the film at all; a film from an earlier generation might have shown the beginning of the clean-up followed by a fade-out to the finished job. It's not just that the scene has no underscore, showing that Hitchcock is not worried about the audience being bored. But what does the scene consist of? A man cleaning a bathroom. (I know a lot of wives who consider such an idea worthy only of a fantasy.) That's it. Just a guy cleaning a bathroom. But next time you watch it, note the sheer detail of the scene. We linger on every thing that could give away the murder. We start to mentally urge Norman on: "Don't forget that little corner; be sure and wash the sink; don't forget to look over there..." Our anxiety grows and grows for fear that Norman will leave a telltale trace.
And, as many have remarked before, the telltale clincher is the moment the audience holds its breath when the car pauses in its descent into the swamp. When that descent resumes, you can literally hear a collective exhalation and relaxation. The process is complete, we have accepted a new hero with which to identify, and he is an insane serial killer. None of this would have been possible if Hitchcock hadn't been willing to take the time to delineate the details of the cover-up of the murder in deliberate, unhurried detail.
Speaking of details, I noted that the cinematographer of Psycho has no other major credits. His career existed almost entirely in television, and the success of Psycho did not bump him into the major leagues. In fact, Hitchcock's filmography includes very few well-known or star cinematographers--no John Altons or Gregg Tolands are to be found. Moreover, he does not repeat photographers from film to film. Whereas, he used screenwriters, composers, and most especially editor George Tomasini in film after film, he was completely fickle when it came to photographers. Is it that Hitchcock didn't want to hack the competition, or that his visual ideas were so certain he only wanted an uncreative craftsman to execute those ideas?
Also, for surveillance vehicles they have copied the motorcycle, which is inherently unstable and easily overturned and otherwise disrupted. The only reason anyone invented a two-wheel motorized contraption is that it is fun, not because it is efficient, reliable or safe. It is none of those things, which is what motorcycle fans love about them. These evil computers from the future were clearly built and programmed by idiots. Or just maybe the movies about them are.
A few other things struck me while watching the movie. (In a movie like this, which is in structural terms just a musical in which explosions substitute for big notes and high kicks, you have plenty of time for your own thoughts.) Has the existence of the Jewish Holocaust permanently changed storytelling? Before the Holocaust, could we conceive of a completely implacable, irrational lethal foe which would come after you and kill you for no reason whatsoever except that you are who you are, and which cannot be stopped except by means which threaten the entire world? I would be interested if any sci-fi or fantasy fans could let me know if this story idea predates 1945.
Another thing--did they have to go to Schwarzenegger to get permission to use an image of his face from about 25 years ago to paste it onto an old Terminator? Or did his original contract cover that? (Use of likeness in perpetuity, etc., etc.) If that latter is the case, agents and lawyers are going to have to be a lot more careful about contracts for their actor clients.
Finally, as I was enjoying one of the little encounters in the movie between good guys and bad guys, one which incorporated its own beginning, middle and end, I was thinking about the old canard that what people like in their entertainment is stories. Clearly, this is not true. Let's take professional wrestling. What they LIKE is guys hitting each other with chairs and leaping off the ropes and pretending to get their legs bent the wrong way. But for some reason, they like these things a little BETTER if they're couched in a little story--bad guy wants revenge on good guy for beating him in a previous match, etc. The story isn't what makes it good, but it gives it context in which to enjoy one guy pummeling another.
Similarly in an action film, we like the explosions, gunshots and punches. But we know that a de-contextualized compilation of explosions would get boring. So we want a frame to set these things in. It's not that we enjoy story, per se. It's the flour in the cake. Not yummy, but essential for cake.
Another way to describe it is that story in film is like Russian nesting dolls. There's the great big overarching story--often mythic in scope. Inside that are the particular details of the character. Inside is each of three acts. Inside each act are several scenes, each of which has its own narrative arc. And a scene may have a discrete event within in it--a punch, a kick, a joke, a gag, a kiss, a leap, a high note--which provides a direct visceral pleasure, which is most satisfying to the audience when it's position within the nesting dolls is completely understood and enjoyed.
Friday, January 8, 2010
I don't know if I realized consciously that Jeff Goldblum has been a largely wasted natural resource this last 30 years, but Adam Resurrected (2008) is surely proof of the fact. Much of the film is off-putting, either in bad taste, degrading to its characters or solipsistic (if a film can be said to be self-absorbed). But Goldblum's realization of Adam Stein, the guilty Holocaust victim magician clown is both miraculous, warm and somehow natural.
For good or ill, the clown has found himself in a film by Paul Schrader, a director (and sometime writer) who evidently always wants to tell the audience to go **** itself. If Taxi Driver didn't make that clear to you, Hardcore should have. Happily, he has dropped his neo-classical stylistic trappings and caught up with 21st century filmmaking: hand-held camera, digital media, jump cuts, mismatches, CGI, etc. Given his usual challenging subject matter, in this case, madness and the Holocaust, the style seems appropriate.
The film meanders around, Adam saves a little boy from madness which seems to balance the scale for his own humiliation (and his loss of his family) and he recovers. Well, that sucks. Because a madman-clown who gets better is no fun at all.
I hope more sane people than Paul Schrader have seen this film and will cast Goldblum again as an entertainer. I think he out-Penns Penn Jillette.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Together with the billions of dollars spent on tickets, doubtless billions of barrels of ink or electrons or what-have-you have been spilled on the aesthetics of Avatar (2009). Certainly there is no reason to attend the film to see great acting, groundbreaking themes or surprising storytelling. All of these elements are run-of-the-mill Hollywood quality--good, mind you, but not innovative. There is only one reason to attend the movie, which is to see the quality of the 3D imaging and the extent to which it is an integral part of the narrative scheme.
On the basis of Avatar, I would rate 3D as significant a development in film storytelling as the arrival of color. Not as great a change as sound, which changed nearly all the rules--except that film is still composed of the juxtaposition of images. But the grammar and syntax of those images was drastically amended. Color, on the other hand, simply changed the conventions by which the world is abstracted in film. Color, as we see it on film, is not identical to color in real life. Moreover, the most skilled artists manipulate it, both during and after production, for the greatest expressivity. Lately filmmakers are deliberately limiting the palate, draining the image of color (often electronically) to literally set a tone.
I would argue that 3D accomplishes the same thing for the illusion of depth. The present-day 3D camera still does not perceive the world the way we do. Avatar, in fact, uses fairly shallow depths of field to strengthen the perceived distance between foreground and background objects. In life, we see everything more or less in focus unless we are concentrating on an object within about 18 inches of our eyes. Yet no one, not even the people who object to music in movies because they want to know where the orchestra is, balks at an image like the one on the right because it is "unrealistic." It is simply a convention to which one has become adjusted. Avatar gives the lovely sense of peeking into a shoebox diorama of a strange world. It makes perfect sense for the story being told, this sense of peering or probing into an alien world--a world which can occasionally touch us in the form of falling cinders or blossoms, but in which we are fundamentally an observer. (Some writers say that 3D makes one feel more involved and integrated in the action, but I had the opposite feeling. The action was visceral, yes, but I was keenly aware that it was happening somewhere else.) Moreover, 3D is approximately at the stage of aesthetic development that color was at the time of Gone With The Wind. GWTW has very good and very expressive color, but it is nearly always throwing the color up in your face--most notably the lurid sunset over the twisted tree that closes each half of the film. Avatar feels the need to assert its qualities of depth nearly all the time. It will be interesting to see how this develops when 3D becomes as ho-hum and everyday as color is now. I expect the advent of 3D television will hasten this development. As of this post, Direct TV, Discovery Communications, Sony, Imax and ESPN have announced plans for 3D channels by 2011.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Saturday, January 2, 2010
The difficult family reunion has become such a staple of filmmaking in the last twenty years it may be worthy of consideration as a genre of its own. The American version is generally served up with either melodrama or slapstick or both, plus a heart-warming ending.
Arnuad Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (2008) offers little comfort and joy for the season, other than the exhilaration of seeing an artist at work. The film is most reminiscent of Rachel Getting Married, with a death-haunted family of eccentrics, a tolerant father and chilly mother. But where the Anne Hathaway character made you afraid for what gaffe she would commit, Henri, the analogous substance-abusing screw-up character in Christmas Tale is more likely to inspire laughter, if laced with a bit of pity.
It's dry, like a quality sparkling wine; if you're sick of the sweet stuff, try this next Christmas--but probably after the day itself, as it may be a bit of a buzzkill. In the French manner, use of the medium is limited to mise-en-scene and the incomparable faces of the actors. Not much montage, suspense, irony, etc.; rather like filmed theater. But there's no drama like family. And as with chocolate, I like my comedy bittersweet. Better for your heart, they say.
Friday, January 1, 2010
"I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce." Perhaps the same should be said for Sacha Baron Cohen, whose film Brüno (2009) offers more social criticism than laughter. Unlike Paper Heart, which takes the rules of documentary and cheats on them, Cohen is fair and consistent. His characters are completely fabricated, but he proceeds to engineer real situations and have real people interact in them. His work is almost Candid Camera writ large.
Cohen has said that homophobia is the last acceptable prejudice. The film demonstrates that conclusively, most particularly in the finale in which an audience primed to see violence against gays becomes outraged and violent itself when presented with love and tenderness.
There is not much to be said about the craft or the aesthetics of this film. It is a document of its place and time. The problem today for me is that it didn't make me laugh. Bruno himself is the kind of brainless idiot character of the Adam Sandler-Will Ferrell variety that just falls flat for me. His terminal clueless narcissism is just depressing. It's like laughing at Down Syndrome children. Compounding this is Cohen's sad picture of a world in which parents will agree to liposuction for their small children in exchange for fame; in which charity is merely a tool for the attention-seeking; and in which one's sexual orientation can put one in fear of one's life.
Please forgive me if I find it bold, stunning, admirable, but not funny.
I hope we all accept the premise that art is not reality. Art is a method of ordering reality. Each art, and each art's sub-sets have rules, which we call conventions so that the audience can draw the parallels between the art and actual experience. We make diagonal lines on a flat surface to indicate the perception that things seem to recede in a three dimensional world.
Film developed a grammar and a syntax slowly and painstakingly from 1896 to about 1915. Since then there have been tweaks and changes--the fade, cross-fade and wipe have nearly become extinct--but the essential grammar remains in place. Then there were lesser rules--complete fades meant long passage of time, crossfades were shorter. You could not lie in a flashback. Actions in consecutive shots could be interpreted as being connected as cause and effect.
And documentaries were constructed of unstaged action assembled to tell a narrative or make a point; but inherently they were devoid of the inherented conventions of theater which shadow most of our filmmaking today, from the three-act structure, to exchanges of dialogue with pre-planned rising states of tension. Yes, we've had the mockumentary format, but at least that was nearly entirely fake. Known actors assumed fictional identities. Plot lines are clearly prepared and carried out. Films such as This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind merely ape the casual, unplanned bits of human life that documentaries catch in front of their lenses, but they are unabashedly fictitious.
But Paper Heart (2009) thumbs its nose at the rules and conventions. It mixes genuine documentary with improvised drama/comedy in which the actors use their real names so as to confuse us. In one case the real name of the director is assigned to a character played by an actor, a fact which we are not privy to until the final credits, deliberately deceiving us that this person before our eyes is the credited director. The real documentary bits take the form of charming interviews with real people talking about love, sometimes illustrated by star Charlyne Yi's crude wire-and-paper puppets in crude real-time animation--thus abstracting the bits of actual reality the film does contain. Intermingled with that is a cooked-up phony romance between characters called Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera, played by Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera, respectively.
Frankly, for all its charm, the film lies and cheats up and down six ways from Sunday and my final reaction to the film was simply mistrust, a mistrust I believe I contracted from the film's creators who clearly don't trust the audience enough to tell them what they're doing.
This film's use of Michael Cera establishes that he is no longer a mere actor who can be hired to interpret a role in a script, but a thing, an entity apart from the film you are seeing which survives from project to project, wrapped in its own cluster of meanings and its own history. Pretty amazing for a guy in his early 20's.
Both Fellini's 8-1/2 and the stage musical Nine were kitchen-sink sort of affairs. Everything was tossed in and, to some extent, left to the audience to sort out. Film musicals attempting that approach usually flounder. A strong spine must be found to hold together a naturally disparate and chaotic form. The play of Nine has been ruthlessly pared down to Guido's spiritual crisis. Lovers of the stage musical, which include me, miss some marvelous music.
The original stage production featured no men other than Guido--this was a conceit by the director, Tommy Tune, when he realized that he had an abundance of women auditioning for whom there were no roles. Opting for a lean narrative, both the mistress and the wife in the film are increased in importance relative to the many other women in Guido's life. This has good and bad points. Penelope Cruz is marvelous, but there is too much of her rather dull character. On the other hand, Marion Cotillard is spectacular in an improved role. In a way, it is her through-line as a character that holds the film together rather than Guido's anguish, which is insufficiently varied throughout.
[Although this remark doesn't fit the rest of my analytic framework, I have to say that the reworking of the character of the bombastic producer Liliane, who becomes the costume designer Lily in the film is a fine bit of adaptation. The character makes more sense and she gives Guido a sane woman to talk to. Not to mention the chance for Dame Judi Dench, who was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret on the London stage, to strut her stuff.]
The film adheres to the modern conceit, first announced in Rob Marshall's earlier adaptation of Chicago that audiences cannot accept song as a substitute for speech in everyday situations. Therefore, all song must be placed in either an straight-forward performance context or an interior fantasy, or, as in the Marshall films, as both. It does make the numbers work, but in the case of Nine, it is hard to understand why film director Guido slips into fantasies that look like stage presentations on the same theatrical set. Is it impossible to conceive of a thoroughly cinematic treatment of musical numbers anymore? (This did not seem to trouble Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen and a number of other Golden Age directors.) It is hard to tell if this is compensating for poverty of imagination or poverty of budget--maybe there was no money left after all the movie stars were paid?