Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Perhaps it all comes down to Walton Goggins

Boyd Crowder changes hiI'
I'm not the first person to notice that Walton Goggins is the most palpable link between the most fêted films of the current Oscar season, Lincoln (2012) and Django Unchained.  But maybe Mr. Goggins's progress from unrepentant scoundrel Billy Crash, through the ambiguously wicked Boyd Crowder in Justified through the conflicted Clay Hutchins is itself a microcosm of good and evil in the morally compromised landscape of American history.  (And, incidentally, am I unjustified in suspecting that an actor named Walton Goggins who has a certain unpredictable quality will never play a character named Bob Johnson or Tom Smith?)

As portrayed in Tony Kushner's screenplay, Hutchins is swayed to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment by a promise of employment as a postmaster, given that his re-election prospects were virtually nil.  (A Democrat in post-Civil War Ohio was virtually a non-person.)  There has been a lot of harrumphing written about the horse-trading involved in getting slavery outlawed, as if Doris Goodwin or Tony Kushner had invented corruption in the 19th century, when everyone was obviously more pure and good than they are now.  (Which is why they had slavery and child labor and oppression of women and minorities and no labor or product safety regulation.  'Cause folks used to be good and we didn't need all them pesky laws.)  Much of the pleasure of the film is observing the amount and manner of deals that must be made in order to get mediocre people to do great things, a fact confined neither to history nor to the present moment. It is all very well for great people to lead us, but they are going to have to appeal to the desires of the mediocre.

And Clay Hutchins, at least as portrayed here, is no better than mediocre.  So Mr. Goggins, over the past year of his work, moved from the straightforward sadism (probably rooted in self-hatred) of slavemaster Billy Crash, through the amoral Boyd Crowder, who cares nothing for others, but is uninterested in cruelty for its own sake, to the wavering Clay Hutchins, who is willing to do the right thing if there's something in it for himself as well.  Perhaps this is the most accurate representation of the ways in which a democracy moves toward the moral light, through the historical odyssey of Walton Goggins.

Before I go, a couple of random observations about both theatrical features. 

One of the most admirable aspects of Spielberg's Lincoln is how little it looks like a Spielberg film.  I see him as the master of camera movement and manipulation, and it is amazing how quiet and calm the camera is in Lincoln -- even more than it was in Schindler's List.   Evidently, Spielberg discerned that a text this dense was going to require some stillness so that the audience would absorb the words and not be distracted by shifting images.  It's not static by any means, and the shenanigans of Mr. Bilbo are especially entertaining.  (Despite the uniqueness of that patronimic, I can find no connection between William Bilbo and Theodore Bilbo, the odious white supremacist Senator of the 20th century.)

Does anybody else think this is the darkest Spielberg movie yet?  Not in mood or philosophical outlook, but literally low in footcandles?  Good thing we don't have drive-ins any more.  The film does make it clear what a shabby and ramshackle place the Executive Mansion was and how dark most places were after sunset.  Spielberg has called on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to be quite a chameleon over the course of their work together, and in this film he impersonates Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness.

And one bit of trivia about Django.  This is a measure of exactly how big a movie geek Quentin Tarantino is.  The lettering of the opening titles, is not just old-timey-Western sort of lettering.  It references a specific period of late 50s-early 60s B Westerns released by Columbia.  The specific shade of red, the splintered-log style letters, all shout "late Randolph Scott (mostly, but not always directed by Budd Boetticher)!"  This is the definition of Too Hip (or Too Lame, depending on how you want to see it) For The Room.  It's mostly of interest because the critics have only referenced spaghetti Westerns, but of course Django is no dish of spaghetti.  For one thing, it's way, way too talky for a non-English-language Western (not to mention that the lips are synchronized with the sound, which is not true in Italian and German Westerns).  And the talk is interesting and tasty and probably dominates the visuals, which is odd for a Western.  Which takes us right back to Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher and The Tall T, a Western which, for about two-thirds of its running time takes place in a small circle around a campfire.

So what will it take to get Mr. Tarantino to write for the stage?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

As it happens

Jane Austen for bi-polar characters, letters included.
The most marvelous thing happened at the showing of Silver Linings Playbook (2012) I attended.  As Jennifer Lawrence's character reveals a very painful portion of her backstory, an audience member gasped and let go of a sympathetic "Ohhhh" as if this confidence was a true story being recounted in our own presence.  Even better, we all resisted the temptation to chuckle at this naive expression of sympathy, because we were not far from where that tender woman was.  At this point, still in the first act, all of us in the audience were already so invested in these characters that we had become genuinely worried about them and concerned for their emotional recovery and survival.

That's particularly impressive because at this point in the movie, they're both a pain in the neck.  That's a hallmark of the characters in writer-director David O. Russell's films, a corpus which includes Spanking The Monkey, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster, I ♥ Huckabees and The Fighter.  The films and the characters tend to be smart, acerbic, obsessed and a bit superior.  But there is a wonderful echt-Austen moment in the meeting of Lawrence's and Bradley Cooper's characters, the instant recognition of kindred damaged spirits and the consequent opening of hostilities as a mode of flirting.  Obviously, if you hate yourself, you're going to hate anyone you're attracted to, right?  After all, if your mind is broken, at least it shows you have one.

But where body and mind meet, that's where cinema lives.  So the film really takes off when Cooper and Lawrence dance together (charmingly, like the amateurs they are) to Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing."  Arlene Croce said it in her book about Astaire and Rogers:  When two characters sing together, they're falling in love; when they dance together, they want to have (or they are actually having) sex.  There is an intimate energy to the rehearsal montage (that word!) that is irresistible.

One last note -- the family dynamic is astonishingly similar to that of The Fighter, something I was thinking about in the theater before I remembered that the two films had the same writer-director.  There is the oppressive influence of the parents, the slightly soiled (and disapproved) girlfriend, the weight of brotherly expectation.   When you consider that the one piece is based on a true story and the other on an utterly unrelated novel, the critic feels invited to see autobiographical qualities in those shared elements.  And in both cases, Russell smoothly blends stars and journeyman actors into a seamless ensemble.

It seems Russell was always telling us about broken people -- it's just that he has now shifted his emphasis to the ways in which they fix themselves, and the result is exhilarating.

Enough to make you gasp and say, "Ohhhh..."

Surprises from the pre-classical era

I've only just gotten around to The Phantom Carriage (1921) which has been rediscovered and hailed as an early landmark of Swedish and of silent cinema.  As for the content of Victor Sjöström's remarkable and haunting film, I don't have anything to say beyond the reams that have been written, either about the contemplation of death-in-life, nor about the impeccable in-camera double-exposure effects that seem incomprehensibly impossible before the advent of the optical printer.

But it is always a pleasure to see films made before styles and studio procedures were set into the hard expectations of the market and of genre itself, which is one of the principal rewards of early silent cinema itself.  The filmmakers were still working out the rules, syntactical, stylistic and commercial.  And one of the issues that most concerns the producers and exhibitors is making sure that the actors are clearly visible at all times, so that the audience knows that they're seeing the people they paid to see.  This is no concern of the filmmaker, who is driven primarily by narrative (which is not the same thing as plot or story).

So look at this still, which (unlike many production stills) is an accurate reflection of this scene in the film.  The low and partially obscured light source perfectly sets the hushed, anxious yet warm tone of the scene.  Is there any question that this is a deathbed, albeit not a frightening one?  This is the deathbed of a person who is lived well and wishes to die well.  The light is neither evenly balanced, as Classical Hollywood would demand, nor is it dramatically expressionistic, as in Citizen Kane and its film noir offspring. The effect is oblique, but not in overstated way. The light throughout Phantom Carriage is rarely realistic, yet it often seems that it is, because--although it is NOT expressionistic--it is highly expressive of the inner states of the characters.  A photographer like Julius Jaenzon becomes a true co-author in a work like this, especially in silent film, in which dialogue is not a significant factor.

Students and even devoted film lovers are always resisting silent film, perhaps sensing that it requires closer attention and is therefore, harder work.  But without a stream of chatter, sound effects and music closely synchronized to the image, the viewer is forced to shut up and look.  And when it comes to film, the pictures, there's where the goodies are.

How to do coming of age--female edition

Just one of the many awkward moments in MARGARET.
Two films released in the last couple of years represent object lessons-- positive and negative, respectively -- in the dramatization of the coming of age of a young woman.

Margaret (2011), written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) is not so much a narrative as a core sample, both of the life of its protagonist, Lisa Cohen and of a strata of urban life, and the upper middle class of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in particular.  (Margaret is merely an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkin poem.)  Although there is a strong dramatic core that invokes questions of death and the meaning of life without strain, the film loses interest in such things from time to time, letting the camera wander about the landscape in a seemingly aimless fashion, although what it is doing is placing Lisa in her context.

The coming-of-age aspects Margaret touches on include political passion, pretentious language, conflict with parents, awkward sex with contemporaries, inability to express real affection, inappropriate sexual attraction to adults, resistance of threatened step-parents, the desire to engage in a cause bigger than herself, and a need for self-expression greater than her need to understand others.  But the saving grace of Margaret is the way it sets its story against the tapestry of New York and its battered and brittle inhabitants.  No one listens to anyone else and Jeannie Berlin plays what might be the most impossibly irritating character in the history of film, constantly asking people to explain themselves, and continuing to shout over them as they try to answer her.  Nearly everything she hears is an insult or an affront.  By herself she virtually stands for an entire substrata of New York -- the Umbrage People.

(This is a movie so rich that Matthew Broderick can show up just to read the poem that provides the title of the film, Mark Ruffalo can be dealt with in two short scenes and Alison Janney is on hand solely for the purpose of being hit by a bus.  Seems like hard work to be Ken Lonergan's friend!)

 Cierra Ramirez (left). Remember her. Eva Mendes is in it, too.
Margaret seems more like a time capsule than a coming-of-age, whereas Girl in Progress (2012) seems to have been built from a literature class diagram of the bildungsroman.  The youngster in question even organizes her maturation around a checklist of to-dos.  Dye hair, go emo, lose virginity, learn to drive, yada, yada, yada.  Are you paying attention?  The film is actually announcing exactly how formulaic and robotic it intends to be. Girl in Progress and Margaret have virtually identical de-virginization scenes (they both deliberately pick heartless idiots as partners), but where Girl intends to be smart and funny and incorporates a twist meant to be satiric (she rejects the boy because he expresses tenderness), it falls into the trap of teenagers being a heartless pack of jackals.  Lisa's degradation is small and personal; Anciedad's becomes public in a way unfamiliar to people who live among human beings rather than endlessly recycled movie archetypes.  So sad to see a film toss away an opportunity for insight and character growth in favor of a very unpleasant and tired cliche.

There is life in Girl in Progress, which comes from the powerful dynamic between mother Eva Mendes and the whip-smart Cierra Ramirez.  One of the reasons I want to stay alive for another 20 years is to see this generation of brilliant young actresses -- Ellen Page, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and add Ms. Ramirez to this list.   (I don't include Anna Paquin, star of Margaret to this list, because I suspect that she is so intelligent she may well have retired from acting in 20 years.)  Ramirez is consistently better than her material, real and precise; I am concerned that she has come from and has now returned to television, which relies on a lot of freeze-dried refried acting...I hope she will get away from that as soon as she can.  As soon as she comes of age.