Friday, January 28, 2011

Furious improvisation

Improvisation was once a rehearsal tool for actors and directors developing a production of a play. It was never intended to be seen by the audience, being designed to help actors discover aspects of their characters not directly addressed by the script of the play.

It only became a production mode in the US in the late 1950s when, at the same time, the Compass Players and its successors in Chicago and John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke and other filmmakers in New York started assembling scenes improvised by actors based on an agreed-upon storyline into full-length works. These two strands produced some of the most influential actors of the 1960s. From Chicago came Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Ed Asner, Jane Alexander and Alan Arkin. From New York came Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands. The Chicago group emphasized variety and the inconsistent, surprising aspects of human nature. Where Chicago went wide, New York went deep, drilling down to the hidden springs of feeling, especially those of loss and pain.

But whereas Compass was intended to be a full-spectrum theater group, presenting classics of world theater and full-length improvisations on contemporary issues, its successor, Second City packaged improvisation as a comedy brand, focusing wholly on short sketches with broad types, running jokes and blackout punchlines. The end became the means, and the basis of not only Saturday Night Live and SCTV, but all the films that sprung from those sources. (The 80s sketch group boom, such as UCB and The State, which are fundamentally writer-driven cooperatives probably trace their ancestry to Monty Python.)

Currently the biggest sub-brand of the Second City brand is the Will Ferrell film, specifically, the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell movie, which also traces its lineage from Blazing Saddles and the other Mel Brooks burlesques. Mel Brooks was the first to bring the sketch mentality to bigtime Hollywood films, by which character consistency, plot development, thematic integrity and good taste are all tossed overboard for the sake of a gag, any gag so long as it gets a laugh. So what if it contradicts other scenes in the movie, so what if it short-circuits the progress of the story. If people will laugh at men farting when they eat beans, who needs a story or characters?

(This scene has always driven me crazy. Why do people find it funny? Back in 1973 there was some humor in breaking a taboo and assaulting the Western genre, which was semi-sacred. Now we've scene routines with the Queen or Grace Kelly farting, so the fart taboo is pretty much exhausted. AndB there's nothing inherently incongruous about farting. Some foods produce more gas in the G.I. tract and press for more and faster relief. Other than puncturing someone's dignity, farting is as hilarious as any other body function. The unrelieved NEED to fart is still funny, the fart itself just a natural event.)

But the Mel Brooks burlesques were written down, with fixed scripts. I'm sure a certain amount of staging and business were worked up on the set, but there was no tradition of wholesale improvisation for that generation of comics, even though they first began work in impromptu resort camp shows. Not until Christopher Guest began his series of films improvised around a scenario that full-on improv made it into the movies.

What the SNL and Ferrell-McKay group brought to movies was called improvisation, but it is really riffing, a time-honored practice of comics who converge on a subject or a situation and come up with alternate set-ups and punchlines. There is even a well-known improv game, often called "Ding" in which a moderator hits a bell and the improviser must substitute a new line for the line he or she just said. At its best, it promotes spontaneity and openness. Abused, as it often is, it turns an actor into a joke machine.

Will Ferrell is a talented performer. He is far more effective than, say Jim Carrey, in what might be called "serious comedy" such as Stranger Than Fiction or Melinda or Melinda. But his "friends" like Mr. McKay keep pushing him into shallow waters and forcing him to stay there. The man is capable of a Dr. Strangelove or a Network, and he is in danger of turning into Eddie Murphy. The day you see him show up in a fat suit will be his expiration date.

That said, The Other Guys represents a considerable improvement over the mild-chuckle inducing Talladega Nights (Although - can we declare a moratorium on overweight middle-aged guys in tighty whities? Yecch) and the abominable Step Brothers. Having Mark Wahlberg aboard helps, as he is neither an improviser nor especially silly. In fact the film adheres to its story so closely that it doesn't give Steve Coogan a chance to be funny, which falls in the category of a waste of a precious resource. And the story turns out to be an extremely plodding police procedural, even though it is decorated with silly ideas, like Will Ferrell being sexually irresistible. Soon it even forgets to make fun of the super-violent buddy super-cop movies that is the essential premise of the movie and finally it has no target and the wispiest sketches of characters. It is neither an actual movie nor an effective comment on a movie. Oh, it's a reasonable time-passer, but I can't imagine anyone hauling this out in 30 years to show their kids what a great comedy is.

The Duplass Brothers make far more productive and organic use of improvisation, born out of extreme humility. (This may be the humility borne of great arrogance, but it's humility nonetheless.) Simply put, they have literally NO pride of authorship when it comes to dialogue. They work out character, situations, scenes, structure, but do not consider themselves as good at creating dialogue as actors on their feet can be. So they write dialogue, but they tell their actors not to bother following it to closely. Instead, dialogue develops and evolves out of rehearsal and repetition, like jazz players working off the "I Got Rhythm" changes. You still have to play the chords, or you will be in discord with the other players, but you're free to work out your own melody. And in the rehearsal process -- and even during shooting -- the Duplasses are unafraid to completely invert the intention or the action of the scene if they feel what they initially created doesn't work. This makes financiers and distributors nervous, but it is a very effective method of storytelling and if everyone is prepared for it, very successful.

Cyrus (2010) demonstrates emphatically that this system does not rely on amateur or semi-amateur actors like Mark Duplass or Greta Gerwig to work. Instead, professionals like John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei lend a crispness, clarity and sense of purpose to the film and enhance the energy and drive. They know how to get to the point of a scene, and even with variations and decorations, keep that purpose solidly in mind. I found the film so effective that the ugly greasy slug often identified as Jonah Hill was not too nauseating, except insofar as his character was meant to be. (Although the American people need to put their foot down. Mr. Hill must not take his pants off in the movies anymore AT ALL. He has abused the privilege. Do any of you know a Congressperson or Senator who can do something about this?)

It's questionable whether this script could be pulled off at all with anything less than top-level actors. Not that there's a weakness in the script, but I can't see an amateur walking that fine line between psychopathy and comedy that Jonah Hill is called upon to do here. Or that anyone with such a lumpy face and bad hair could be as plausible leading man as the sweet and funny John C. Reilly. Or that any non-pro actress could simulate loving devotion with something like Jonah Hill. Believe me, that takes real acting.

The camerawork is still rudimentary. The film features Catherine Keener, queen if indie movies, so you know that it's still a little movie, even if a studio is involved. The story still moves in fits and starts, static for a long time, then shifting into overdrive. But whereas a writer can sit and think that a girl could endear herself to a man by starting to dance to the inane pop tune which he is trying to compel the whole party to dance to, it takes a Marisa Tomei to know how to do that, to be light and funny and spirited and yet terribly seductive. And the people who nominate people for awards are going to have to stop overlooking John C. Reilly. His gallery of characters is as fecund and diverse as Paul Giamatti or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, yet he is always taken for granted by the nominators, though not be filmmakers who know how extraordinary his range is. Is there another actor alive who could be equally at home in Magnolia and Walk Hard?

In a project like this, improv becomes a tool for actor-writer-director collaboration and for a greater naturalness in performance. (I hate those super-written lines that become staples of movie trailers, often announcing the theme. Much as I admire The King's Speech, the line, "I have a voice" is one of the worst motivated and baldly obvious lines in it, clearly emanating from the omniscient author and not the character, yet the line is plastered all over the commercials and trailers, incidentally demolishing the effect of the scene it's in when audiences come to see the movie.) Instead of gladiatorial combat, as in the world of Adam McKay and Judd Apatow, improv is put to its original purpose, arriving at the truth lurking just below the words of scripts. A kind of meta-writing. If Cyrus is an example of the Duplasses "selling out" and working in the studio system, I hope they do a lot more of it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Homer on the range

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Coen Brothers' version of True Grit (2010) is that the film is utterly classical, completely un-ironic and un-modern, and that it has grossed well over $100 million domestically at this writing, and will probably reach $150 million theatrically before it stops being tracked, which suggests that it will do at least $200 million overseas, where filmgoers are less averse to Westerns.

And this is a Western. Not a comment on a Western or a parody of Western or a deconstruction of a Western. It is the really and truly thing in a way not seen since perhaps the early 1970s. The last breakout hit Western was Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which, in typical Eastwood fashion, was out to explode the myths of the West. Well, it evidently did its job, because the bloody entrails of the American Western film have been lying around for a decade and a half now waiting for someone to at least give them a respectful burial. (Robert Duval and Kevin Costner kept trying without much effect).

So how surprising to find the Coens stripped of their absurdism, their slapstick, even their short lenses and shock cuts, rendering a film that would cause Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher to weep in recognition. No, True Grit doesn't advance the Western, but it restores it to the place of honor in American culture that it deserves.

Because the creators of the Western are our Homers and Virgils. It is as foolish to expect historical precision from John Ford as it would be to expect it from The Iliad. These narratives are after bigger game -- the central truths of human existence, once we have taken away the trappings of society, family, culture, and set Man out alone in the landscape.

The central idea of this version of True Grit is found in one of the few passages not taken from Charles Portis's novel, an exchange in which Rooster, LeBoeuf and Mattie are discussing the distinction between malum prohibitum and malum in se (a dialogue exchange reportedly written for and cut from The Big Lebowski). Can you get more elemental than this, a consideration of the nature and classification of evil? And Mattie and Rooster are bonus in se. Sure, Rooster has done some prohibitum, but like the bad-goodmen in Westerns going back to William S. Hart, through John Wayne's Ringo Kid and Shane.

And in case you think I'm pasting this mythic framework onto the movie that isn't there 'cause I'm so kind of pointy-headed academic, consider this: in order to catch the villain, the bête noire, the McGuffin of the piece, it is necessary to pass out of known territory ACROSS A RIVER in the company of a one-eyed man, a cyclops, to land that is unknown. There she meets a half-man, half-animal (the doctor in the bearskin) and a dead man flying through the air (the man hung high). In capturing Tom Chaney, it is important to recapture a talisman of her father -- his gold pieces, as it is to bring the villain to justice. And the moment Mattie performs her one act of evil -- taking vengeance and killing a man, she immediately FALLS INTO A PIT. And in the pet THERE ARE SNAKES. And the snake BITES HER. And Rooster carries out of the wilderness (riding a rather magic beast Little Blackie, who must die to save Mattie) into civilization and safety and is thereafter NEVER SEEN AGAIN (by us filmgoers). And from the snakebite, Mattie loses an arm, an instrumentality of that evil. Nonetheless, her final quest is, like Antigone, to bury the body of the warrior, Rooster, who by carrying her and saving her life has become a spiritual father or brother.

The Coens have visited this territory before, explicitly with O Brother Where Art Thou? and There Will Be Blood, which has a number of mythic echoes. But True Grit wears its mythic duds lightly. Not only are there few Coen-type flourishes (admittedly the mad old doctor is one), but the photography, acting and dialogue are extremely restrained. Roger Deakins as cinematographer and chief operator indulges in no hand-held and minimal traveling shots; the camera is on sticks most of the time, as it would be for Ford or Hawks. The color tampering is minimal (especially compared to most films these days) and the only visible effect is a rather fantastic starry sky over Rooster as he bears Maddie towards civilization. The language is ornate, yes, but not to elicit laughter, but to remind us that this is a different time and place, before irony, sarcasm and indeed self-consciousness of any kind, and even an old drunk like Rooster can understand and uphold honor. Hence the lack of contractions, the use of Biblical language and Latin quotes.

A word about the John Wayne vs. Jeff Bridges thing. I must first admit a prejudice. I like the early, shy John Wayne, the John Wayne of They Were Expendable, Fort Apache and A Lady Takes A Chance, a great romcom the Duke shared with Jean Arthur. Even as late as The Quiet Man, he has that "aw-shucks" quality that is extremely endearing. I don't care for the swaggering bellowing Duke. But there's no doubt that Wayne dominated the first version of True Grit and gave a performance of great power and persuasion. But, for me, that's the problem. True Grit is supposed to be Mattie's story. It didn't help that the 1969 film has the execrable Kim Darby as Mattie, an actress who is to acting what nails on a blackboard is to teaching. Letting True Grit become the Rooster Cogburn Show is akin to the way Marlon Brando (inadvertently) distorted A Streetcar Named Desire, which is clearly Blanche's story, except when the actor playing Stanley obliterates everything else around.

True, Jeff Bridges is not the kind of overwhelming actor that the John Wayne of 1969 was. (Although let's see what he's like when he's 70.) But I would argue that it is not lack of talent, but a desire to keep Mattie in the forefront that explains Bridges's restraint in the role. As it is, the film is nicely balances Mattie as the apex of a triangle between the garrulous LaBeouf and the bibulous Cogburn. (At times I was put in mind of Cat Ballou, with another young woman of the West hiring a man to help her avenge her father's death. If True Grit hadn't been published three years after the release of Cat Ballou, I would suspect the latter of being a side-door parody, what my grandparents called a "spoof.")

I am very happy that True Grit is probably the first Western that millions of Americans will have seen in a movie theater. I hope it whets their appetite for this rich and complex genre, which easily contains and sustains our abiding myths, not just of the American experiment, but of the human experience.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Persistence of vision (and families)

For regular filmgoers, award season is like the best film festival in the world. This time of year it's possible to move from one excellent film to another over the course of a week or so, and yet I suspect you will not read another piece this month that compares The King's Speech (2010) with The Fighter (2010).

The superficial resemblances are easy - both are Little Movies That Could, extremely low-budget projects that attracted top-level talent due to the excellence of their respective scripts and the dedication and integrity of the producers. Both are based on actual events. Both deal with overcoming of physical challenges - stammering and getting beaten in the hand, respectively. Both confront problems with communication - in one case literal, and the other interfamilial communication breaking down.

But at a deeper level, both are films about overcoming the limited expectations and horizons that families can place upon an individual, especially the second son. Bertie was never expected to be king, and was specifically trained for the task, though it turns out his sense of duty and honor -- the most important attributes of a modern constitutional monarch, were more developed that his older brother David's. And Dickie Eklund was supposed to be the Pride of Lowell, not his younger half-brother Mickey Ward. Both succeed through hard work and persistence that their seniors are incapable of.

Not all second sons are literally second. Although chronologically younger, Jeb Bush was spiritually the first son of his family, the promising one, marked for success; George was the disappointment, the screw-up, the one for whom the bar was lowered. The second President Bush's story was about overcoming those family expectations, which may be one reason he is such a sympathetic person for so many Americans. Clearly, it's a story with a lot of power, as the reception for each of these films demonstrates admirably.

Both films are also about teachers who break through with their students not just by dint of skill and tenacity, but through transformative love. Many times -- too many times -- it is a teacher rather than a parent who can see through the shell a child builds around himself to see the real person inside and the real potential locked in that shell. There is no great teaching without love, and that may be the greatest lesson we take from these films.

A couple of specific observations about each. Much has been made of the fact that at one time the screenplay of The King's Speech took the form of a play. It is not clear how serious the writer was about having the story produced in that form (there was one public reading), but the real aim seems to have been to focus the storytelling on the two principal characters and the confined setting in which much of Bertie's transformation takes place. Conventional thinking suggests that this is uncinematic storytelling -- two people locked in a room. Hitchcock of all people proved that a limited group of people in a confined setting is exactly the sort of pressure cooker situation that makes for great film. He boasted to Truffaut that he could make a film in a phone booth (which, I suspect the reason the film Phone Booth was written and produced, despite its then-anachronistic situation -- just to answer Hitchcock's dare).

But in order to pull this off, director Tom Hooper takes a page from Sidney Lumet's book (specifically with regard to Twelve Angry Men) and rarely uses the same set-up or the same lens in any two scenes set in Logue's office. In addition, Eve Stewart and Netty Chapman have made the space, supposedly barren and dilapidated, fascinating and complex to look at, especially the wall which displays multiple layers of paint and wallpaper, with the result being a rich mosaic that one might pay a lot of money to have created from scratch. Hooper uses a variety of short lenses to emphasize the confinement and the strange distortions of life in the royal bubble, most obviously in a scene in which Logue first encounters members of the court and we see them loom in a bulging way reminiscent of a FedEx commercial of the 1980s. Conversely, as Bertie and Lionel stroll through the fog into what will become a rift between them, the lens is very long, minimizing the distance between the royal and the commoner who follows a step or two behind him.

I was not surprised by the humor and wit of the film, nor the skill of Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter. What was utterly surprising was the intensity of emotion I felt during those coaching scenes. At the risk of cliche, I felt myself present in the room, and I ached for Bertie to succeed and to triumph. I will be interested to see the film again to see how that effect was achieved for me, whether it be the agonizing set-up in the first scene, the callousness of Bertie's father and brother, the generous love of Bertie's wife or the rooting interest developed for Logue -- or, most likely, the confluence of those forces. This is not to slight the great presence of charisma of Colin Firth, who we treat as one of those good Reliable English Actors, but is in fact a movie star of the order of Peter O'Toole or Richard Burton, without the alcohol, wives and bad taste. Which is not to say he's not sexy -- he's my wife's favorite, and given that she's married to me, the sexiness bar standard is very high. (Kidding, folks.)

The Fighter makes a fascinating contrast technically for all its narrative and spiritual common ground. Where The King's Speech looks and feels carefully designed, its camera moves smooth and graceful as its production design, The Fighter seems to have been caught on the fly just as the HBO documentary about Dickie's crack addiction which dominates the first third of the film has been. (I thought at first that the documentary frame was going to be a guiding narrative device for the entire film, but it is dropped before it wears out its usefulness.) This is clearly a choice, as director David O. Russell's films (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) have previously favored more deliberately created imagery.

There is a critical pitfall in such filmmaking, as it invites the viewer to devalue the acting, as it seems to have been part of the reality being captured by the camera. So it was heartening to see Christian Bale and especially Melissa Leo recognized for their work in the form of nominations and awards. Bale's work is the kind of total transformation we expect of his kind of master character actor, to the point that it is hard to remember what his "real" persona is like. But Melissa Leo rose to prominence in roles that were extravagantly deglamorized, most notably her hard-bitten veteran detective on Homicide. Her Alice wishes to be glamorous, to be put together, almost as if to spread a patina over a seamy existence and an exploitative relationship with her own, beloved son. Hopefully this will open new doors for an underrated artist.

Finally, The Fighter constitutes a new entry in the small, but growing sub-genre of films based in Eastern Massachusetts. Many of these are associated with Matt Damon or the Affleck brothers, but this one is not (although Matt Damon was once pencilled in for the Bale role). Two of them, Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone are based on the work of the superb novelist Dennis Lehane. It might make sense to examine these films as a coherent sub-genre about a corner of America from which the parade has gone by, perhaps forever, leaving broken dreams and despair, from which the occasional triumph, as in The Fighter, gleams all the brighter.