Friday, August 17, 2012

Clowns in my coffee, clowns in my coffee

Kevin explains it's all part of a cosmic pattern and it is.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012) is part of the subcategory of Shaggy Dog Stories in which everything takes place on one magical day after which Nothing Is The Same.  Such conceits carry a high component of whimsy (and as Groucho said when told he was full of whimsy, "Can you tell from over there?") but that is somewhat familiar country for the Duplass brothers, as is stories about battling brothers in different places in their lives and the struggle for meaning and purpose.

But Jeff pulls off a neat trick which I can only analogize to Hitchcock's feat of switching audience sympathy from Norma Crane to Norman Bates in Psycho.  As the film starts, one gets the impression of a nascent stoner comedy, with Jason Segal, as Jeff,  trotting out his pathetic man-child yet again.  But he is not so pathetic as he is poetic.  He is part of the half of the human race which thinks everything makes sense cosmically and in the long run and that everything eventually connects.  I just have to point out that this is a natural bias for an author, who has the power to make his or her universe do just that thing, connect, make sense and explain itself.  I would advise authors subject to that trap to spend some time doing group improvisation, let go of the need for control and see what it does for their writing.

In the book of interviews Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock discusses his troubles with the part of the audience he calls the "plausibles."  He dismisses criticism about coincidence, asserting that life is full of coincidences, but rejects convenience, by which the creator makes things too easy on himself and gets the snake to swallow its own tail.  I can't accuse the Duplass Brothers of making things easy for Jeff, but they do permit some self-satisfaction on the basis of a single selfless and, indeed, heroic act which does not do a thing to address the serious problems in Jeff's life, and which in fact, he seems to use to justify his continued aimless existence.  Nonetheless, warm fuzzies all around.

And speaking of coincidence, a man was fished out of his car the very day in the very city I saw this film.  As that provided no benefit to me, I guess Hitchcock was right.  Coincidental, but not convenient.

It is interesting to see the way artists like Les Freres Duplass can enter the mainstream partly because the type of actors they need to execute their ideas, actors like Jason Segal, Jonah Hill, Ed Helms and John C. Reilly are available and bankable (at least for Duplass-level budgets).  A nice case of artistic temperament meeting the zeitgeist.

Speaking of the zeitgeist, can we put to bed, the term "mumblecore."  All it means is a low-budget film which is dialogue based.  That defines at least 80% of low-budget films, because the cheapest thing in the world to shoot (and safest) is people talking to each other.  Untrained actors often don't have the most distinct diction, just like actual humans.  And maybe if film writers stop using the term mumblecore, the Duplasses will no longer feel obligated to fool around with the zoom on the camera constantly.  In at least one case in the film, the zoom felt like a "meta" comment on what was happening, like Jimmy Finlayson swinging his head around in a big vaudeville doubletake in a Laurel and Hardy movie.  This zooming doesn't make the film feel natural, it feels just the opposite, constantly saying to the viewer, "Don't get involved, don't get attached.  This is just a movie, it's all fake."

I direct plays with novice actors and I have to teach them that one of the most unnatural-feeling postures on stage, standing straight with your arms at your side looks the most natural on stage, far better than folding one's arms or clasping hands.  Try it.  Try standing with your arms hanging straight down and doing nothing.  Feels weird, right?  Doesn't look weird.  So in film, it seems artificial to take a camera, pick an angle and plonk the camera down on a tripod and leave it alone.  Almost theatrical, setting a frame around the actors and events.  But on screen, it looks natural, just as cutting between opposite angles looks natural.  Perhaps we've grown accustomed to these conventions, or they are inherently natural, but they pass by our eyes without objection or comment.  Shooting hand-held, whipping the camera around to catch the action and fiddling with the zoom and focus ARE natural, but LOOk unnatural.  So, Duplasses, your next movie, however low the budget, get a tripod.  People will start treating you like grown-ups.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Who is this movie for?

Like it or be indifferent to it (it's hard to hate something so deliberately dopey), the stage musical Rock of Ages knew exactly what it intended and who it was intended for.  It was Mamma Mia for the hair rock crowd, with a borrowed and indifferent plot linking a bunch of familiar hits perfectly suited for singing along, awash in middle-aged nostalgia.  The young people in the story served as surrogates for the audience, who was young 25 and 30 years ago, and the older characters were figures of fun.

The film of Rock of Ages (2012) does not seem to have such certainty.  Whereas people could attach themselves to the abstract surrogates of the young lovers in the stage version, film is always more specific, and the young people are no longer substitutes for the audience, but other, recognizable actors.  (Julianne Hough, specifically is now a veteran of Burlesque and Footloose and better get a job in a non-musical before she becomes unemployable).  We see, in full-color close-up, how young and fresh-faced these kids and they are no longer us.  Now we are the oldsters -- we are burnout Alec Baldwin or trying-to-reclaim-lost-glory Tom Cruise.  Both give superb performances, and both remind us, through their own appearances and our shared history with them, that we are old.  And nobody pays $12 to be reminded that they are older than they ever meant to be.

The other interesting question about the film (and there aren't many) is its narrative conventions.  Traditionally, music in musicals, as derived from the stage took part in the theatrical convention that snogs were heightened speech and that they were experienced by both the singer and the hearer as a heightened experience, but not necessarily as a song.  Song was a conventionalized special type of speech, akin to a character in verse drama launching into a long poetic flight.  The other characters may have felt the thoughts and emotions of the person speaking or singing, but they did not think "Hey- that was a good song" or "Hey - that was a purty poem."  Musicals took place in a parallel universe, or more accurately through a special musical prism which refracted high emotion in the form of music.

One day that convention started to make people uncomfortable.  Who is to say why conventions go in and out of style.  Film is riddled with them, but only some of them are apparent to most viewers.  They are acutely aware of, for instance, narrative cliche, but they refuse to notice that film is made out of bits and pieces of moving images which could not have been captured sequentially in continuous time and do not resemble the way we experience the real world in any way.  (This is excluding long boring art films shot with stationary cameras.)  One set of conventions infuriates people, and others are completely invisible to them.

A-ny-way, people started to think it was funny when film characters began to break into song, presumably because the space they occupy, both in the actual world and in the apparent film world, seemed more "real" to them than the more explicitly symbolic theater.  "People don't really do that."  (Presumably they do engage in high-volume gun battles in the street which have no casualties except for the Bad Guys -- I mean, nobody complains that action films are unrealistic, whereas they are just as stylized as any musical.)  So, since 1972 when Bob Fosse adapted the Broadway show Cabaret in such a way that all the music was what film professors call "diagetic", meaning that the songs are taking place in the world which the characters occupy in the rest of the film, musicals have adopted one of two pretexts for a musical number: (a) that people are performing right here and now in a conventional performance context and that the people present can hear them and are enjoying ; and (b) that the musical number is a sort of fantasy which is only being experienced by the person imagining this musical number.

Some films and shows have it both ways.  Chicago had them both ways at once, in which the events of the character's "real" life were re-imagined by her as performance numbers.  Thus, the songs could be strikingly specific to the story situation, more so than a real performance number would be, and their unreality could be shrugged off as being part of the performance context.

The television show Glee apparently alternates among the conventions.  Mostly, we see the eager children bursting to perform their heartfelt songs which are so coincidentally related to the story situation.   Often the realistic performance context (kids in school clothes in a schoolroom) gives way to an elaborately costumed and staged performance (not to mention processed, compressed and AutoTuned to a fare-the-well).  Since it would be ridiculous to imagine such complex performances being prepared on a weekly basis by high school kids in suburban Ohio, one must presume that the schmancy versions of these songs constitute the children's fantasy of what their number feels like, just the way Snoopy imagines that he really is a World War I flying ace or the way I imagine it's important to maintain this blog.

The other principal use of song in Glee is as inner monologue, as a reflection of a character's inner state.  Traditional theater musicals do this as well, in songs "in one", meaning all the way downstage, with the performer relating directly to the audience.  Dramatically speaking, a play need never define or decide whether this singing is "really" happening.  When Billy Bigelow imagines life with his son -- or his daughter -- in the Soliloquy from Carousel (Hammerstein borrowed the term straight from classical theater), it all takes place in a half-world in which a character sings out loud and strangers seated in front of him hear him and respond and react.  And he is allowed to acknowledge their presence.

Film has no such luxury.  When it does attempt to acknowledge the audience it comes over "theater-y" and stiff.  Buster Keaton was right to rap his knuckles on the glass of the camera lens.  There is a permanent barrier between actor and audience in film, and not just of the lens, but of place and time.  We live in two different "now"s and never the twain shall meet.  So film usually emulates Olivier's Hamlet, beginning the sung monologue with a close-up on the face which is thinking these thoughts.  From time to time the lips may move in synchronization with the music, but they may stop doing so.  Performance energy, which is central to the stage musical, is unnecessary and irrelevant on film.  That energy is provided by camera movement, dynamic staging and editing, rather than the performer's sweat and tears.

Rock of Ages plays it both ways, and the audience's easy acceptance of these two different and perhaps even contradictory conventions of song in narrative may mean that we are finally relaxed about musicals and can accept their artificial interludes in the same way as a kung fu fight, a car chase and other such entertainment elements in the types of films which are put together like fruitcakes; an often undigestible cake which can be tolerated for the periodic bits of candied fruit which are the cake's "raisin d'etre." (Pun intended, so don't e-mail me about misspelling.)

On the other hand, given Rock of Ages's difficulty in finding its audience, perhaps its reception in the theater, positive though it was, is not a significant indicator of anything.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What is left unsaid

It is fascinating to see film writers go after what they consider implausible in the couples-counseling-comedy Hope Springs (2012), a procedure they would never consider undertaking for, say, the latest installment of the Batman franchise.  That is because they think that movies obey different rules according to genre, but the fact is that all narrative adheres to the rules of narrative, and genre merely denotes the existence of conventions, merely a framework of expectations between audience and filmmakers, not a genuine difference in the rules of storytelling.  So it is not necessary to debate the real-world plausibility of this kind of film, but merely examine its consistency according to the rules it sets up for itself.  But because Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones do not dress up in black rubber suits and ride in a jet-powered automobile, the critics seem to expect Hope Springs to be some sort of documentary, rather than an entertainment.  

What is remarkable about a film driven by its script and acting is what it accomplishes by non-verbal means, and by that I don't mean merely the panoply of grunts and shrugs that make up Tommy Lee Jones's performance.  Most especially there is the mise en scene, from the careful calibration of familiar middle-class locales--the home with too-large simulated antique furniture, the spare EconoLodge room, the fussy but delightful New Englande Inne, the spruced-up shabbiness of a New England town undergoing a mini-boom.  There is the extremely careful costume design by theater great Ann Roth, particularly for Meryl Streep's Kay, who nervously vacillates between revealing herself as a woman and trying to cover herself and disappear into the woodwork.  (How interesting that Roth emphasizes Streep's weak point as a film actor--her too-small eyes, by giving her heavy-rimmed glasses to hide behind, so as to better bring off the reveal when those glasses come off and we get a gander at Meryl's baby blues.  And additional kudos to Ms. Streep's hair stylist, who offers similar character hints.)  And I would guess that Tommy Lee Jones's wardrobe was bought entirely at Sears and/or Kohl's, while Steve Carell has been outfitted at L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, as would be appropriate for a casual professional in Northern New England.

But the greater challenge is the sequence of scenes in Carell's office which are the principal expositional device.  Although there must be at least six or seven of those scenes in the same locale, never once is it lit in the same way, altering not only the pattern of light and shadow but the color temperature, which lends variety to the costumes and even the actors' skin tones.  It would be interesting and instructive to lay screen grabs of all of the office scenes next to each other to see what cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, with the collaboration of production designer Stuart Wurtzel, has done to reinforce and illuminate the narrative thrust of each of those very different scenes.  They range from a warm and sunny red-to-yellow range after the couple has had a rapprochement to a virtual film noir Venetian blind-shadowed look when they are closest to crisis.  And I wonder how much of the audience even noticed.

The most frequent criticism of the film is that its resolution seems unmotivated or unexplained.  I think what people are feeling but not saying is that the resolution is not verbal, not logical and rationalized.  It is the product of non-verbal, nay pre-verbal passion, the very basis of all such relationships.  Such things are not easy to dramatize, and perhaps this one was not well prepared, but it doesn't change the fact that for this viewer, who has lived and been married about the same time as these characters, the ending made perfect sense to me.  Essentially, Jones's character says to himself, "the hell with what I've been fronting all these years, it's better to just be happy.  Never complain, never explain."

The final vows on the beach are utterly charming--I urge you to stay through the whole film.  But I can't think of a beach in Maine that looks anything like the one in film, not surprising since it was shot in Connecticut.  And after all, what would "Hope Springs" be doing in Coast Maine?  Natural springs virtually never occur that near the shoreline of the ocean.  This is a landscape of the heart.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Shakespeare without poetry

No sense in being coy about it:  I would place Ralph Fienne's adaptation of Coriolanus (2012) among the top four or five Shakespeare films which are real movie-movies, not recordings of stage productions and which require no preparation and no excuses.  (If you want to know, Welles's Othello and the Ian MacKellan Richard III are among the others Oh, and by the way, that guy Shakespeare has 869 credits in imdb as I write this.) When I sat down to watch the film, intimidated by never having read the play, I turned on the titles.  Unnecessary.  Completely unnecessary.  My guess is that Fiennes ruthlessly pruned whatever poetic flights the play has in favor of utter and complete clarity, which he achieved.

As I look through the reviews and discussion of the film, I can't claim to have observed anything much that other writers haven't.  Perhaps it was because taking in this story of power, politics and betrayal for the first time was rather overwhelming.  It will certainly re-pay re-viewing.

Obviously, choosing cinematographer Barry Ackroyd of Hurt Locker fame was central to the conceit, which places the story in a vaguely Eastern European war zone.  Fiennes also did something so many stage-experienced directors fail to do, which is cast visually distinctive actors in the supporting roles so as to help the viewer keep track of who's who.  There was some criticism of the use of cable news talking heads, but to me they are a perfect analogy to the play's choral characters.

But the film's raison d'etre is the performance of Vanessa Redgrave, playing an exemplar of that strange species, the mother of a Roman General.  I would argue that this is her best work on film.  She conveys a steely strength which is not so much cruel as it is heedless of ordinary considerations of human relationships, because the Roman noble household is all about power, the getting and maintenance thereof.  If Coriolanus doesn't make it into the time capsules on its own merits, it will surely be represented as a landmark in Redgrave's great career.

And, hey, what a year Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help), has had!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sunday in the Park with Wolfgang

No, not that Wolfgang.  It's the name of a wine-seller, who along with several other non-professionals spent the weekends of Summer 1929 to make a film about the delights and ambiguities of everyday life and romance in a major city (Berlin).  People on Sunday (1930) is almost an unintentional classic, intended merely to earn its makers a foothold in the high-powered German film industry, which would soon become unavailable to them as Jews. 

There are many places to learn about the interesting history of the making of this film, not the least the package of goodies to be found in the Criterion release of the film and at this page.  I don't intend to go into that, nor the way People on Sunday anticipates Italian neo-realism, which is also rehearsed and rehashed in many places.  No, to me, the remarkable thing about the film is that it stills works.  It is not a stuffy museum piece, nor a mere time capsule of the Weimar Republic.  It can, against the odds, still speak to an audience.  The question is why.

Here's an excerpt, after the central foursome have been swimming and are now lazing in the afternoon summer sun.  Swimming costumes aside, they seem completely contemporary and modern.

Oddly, one of the aspects of the film which makes it most archaic rescues it from being as dated as it might be, specifically, the decision to shoot a silent film after that form had virtually died in the cinema.  But the film's silence interlocks perfectly with the other key decision, to use non-actors in the leading roles. As we know from far too much reality television, most people are pretty bad at acting, even as themselves.  There needs to be a simulation of the lack of self-consciousness and ease before the camera that makes the events being enacted convincing as real events taking place in the real world.  Delivery of dialogue requires real acting experience and training to carry off as being "real."  Liberated from having to memorize and deliver a writer's lines, the non-actors are free to simply "be," to just exist.

Second, the story is so natural as to be virtually off-handed.  There is no melodrama and no artificial "writer's humor" to be delivered.  What little story there is concerns possible pairings and re-pairings among the foursome.  Momentary jealousies, imagined slights and palpable delights.  This may be the most "neo-realistic" aspect of the film, its eschewing the conventions of theatrical drama, which dominated mainstream commercial film right through the 1950s.

Third, Eugen Schufftan's photography stays close to its subjects, dispenses with glamour and reveals the true, tousled and freckled beauty of these people.  It looks like snapshots of your friends, or at least of your grandparent's or great-grandparent's friends, who, despite your notions to the contrary, were also real people.  By ignoring fashion, it frees the film from the ravages of time.

I have to admit, that as a student of Brecht, Weill, Piscator and that crowd, it is wonderful to see the streets and byways of Weimar Berlin in its twilight moments.  One can sense how the city was a magnet for the young and the creative of that day.

Happily, you don't have to take my word for the virtues of this film.  You can view at using this link, or view it below via YouTube until it (probably) gets taken down.  Enjoy a summer Sunday in the city, preserved forever via hard work, indirection and accident.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why didn't HAYWIRE make Gina Carrano a star?

Fassbender on his back, but this isn't from Shame.
Steven Soderbergh is probably the most prolific major feature director working today, which has its good and bad points.  Because he is very talented, many of the films he makes will  be very good, or at least will repay the viewer's time.  But because he makes so many films, some of them will have to be sub-par.  And because Soderbergh is willing to experiment, when he swings and misses, he misses hard.

So on the one hand, you have Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, King of the Hill and Ocean's Eleven.  But you also have Full Frontal, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble, Solaris and Ocean's Twelve.  And then there's the interesting middle- range films, including The Good German, Che, The Informant! and Contagion -- all films worth seeing, but not going to be in anyone's pantheon.

I suppose Haywire (2011) belongs in that middle class.  It is not without merit, but it clearly doesn't succeed on its own terms, which were to make Gina Carrano, a very successful mixed martial artist, into a movie star.  It was not a feckless task.  Carrano is exciting to watch in a fight, with real flair and personality.  Soderbergh engaged his Limey collaborator, Lem Dobbs to come up with a snappy hard-boiled spy script.  He got actor pals Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum (now starring in Soderbergh's Magic Mike) to agree to be beaten up by a girl on screen.  And Michael Douglas agreed to drop in the way he seems to do these days.  I don't know what else he's got going on, but ol' Mikey's acting appearances all seem to be drive-bys these days.  (Antonio Banderas turns out to be the bad guy, but the film ends just before Gina gets to beat him up.)

So why is Haywire a misfire?  A few possible reasons, plus one essential reason which makes enumerating the others unnecessary.

First, the stakes involved are neither big enough or small enough.  Today in 2012, after almost a century of spies in the movies, there are really only two ways to go with spy stories.  One must threaten the entire existence of the world, a la Bond, or you go the way of LeCarre or a film like The Matador and center it around the existential crisis of the spy.  But Haywire merely documents a routine surveillance and security assignment, coupled with the familiar story of the spy who is framed and must clear himself (see the Bourne films).  So the story itself is unlikely to engage us.

Second, the fights, which are to a film like this what songs and dances are to a musical are not shot or edited well (although they seem to be well staged).  Somebody has to tell Mr. Soderbergh that the experiment is over, that he need not continue to be his own cinematographer, and that he needs to be recommence engaging more talented photographers than himself and thus benefit from their expertise, experience and taste.  He is not a bad cinematographer, but he is not inspired, and some inspiration would be useful here.  Several different tactics are attempted -- long, single take fights, quick, cutty fights, fights shot objectively, fights shot first-person, but none of them are well assisted by the shooting and cutting, and one can't help wish that a Jackie Chan or other expert had been brought in to give the action the impact it should have had.

Third, having robbed Ms. Carrano of her strong suit, that is, her ability to make an impression through her fighting skills, Mr. Soderbergh failed to give her the support she needed to achieve the projection of personality necessary to be a movie star.  Stars come in all varieties, from the most loveable to the creepiest, but the one thing they all have is the ability to virtually emerge through the motion picture screen itself.  When they are doing nothing but listening, they still draw attention and focus and we always feel their characters in their scene.  When Ms. Carrano is not talking or walking or fighting or doing something or other, she virtually disappears.  She is very attractive, but somehow she never suggests that a man would change the course of his life to be with her.

It's hard to describe an absence, but we all know that stars have something in the eye, or just behind the eye.  Some kind of light that regular mortals, like Gina Carrano, simply don't have.  I wish her well, and expect her to be prominent and successful in her own sphere, but Haywire suggests that film is not the place for her.