Sunday, November 8, 2015

What the camera likes

Reality saves the fiction film
It was without intention that this blog moves from Good Kill to The Good Lie (2014), but here is another issue-based film in which deflection and dissembling may be the key to survival.

In the one and only film course I ever took, the instructor had us read large portions of Siegfied Kracauer's Theory of Film.  Kracauer was not a working film critic, but a philosopher and sometime historian.  He conceived an idea that because film recorded the reflection of light taking place in front of its lens, that a natural photo-chemical process place took place during the process of film-making, that the medium was drawn towards true events -- sports, dancing, even porngraphy.  Because cinema was most cinematic when it heeded the dictates of the real world.

I'm not sure how digital filmmaking affects this theory.  The electrons don't care much about how the 1s and 0s arrange themselves -- they are agnostic about content, and it seems to me that artificial manipulation is not a lesser method of arranging electrons than exposing a photo-sensor to light, other than permitting a bit more of chance in the latter.  But that does not seem to me to be "better" only different.

Nonetheless, there is still something about Kracauer's idea that still tickles our brain, no matter how the images got there.  We are curious about the integrity of what we are seeing and audiences at Q&As want to know if a stunt was really done, if the star did it, did those animals really do that thing, did those children really say that or was that written for them?  We can't help asking, "is it real?"

Coupled with that phenomenon is the fact that there are stories in which the stakes are so high, the importance of truth and precision is so great, that it is almost insulting to build fictional narrative on such a sensitive base.  Such might be the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Screenwriter Margaret Nagle did, as one would expect, exhaustive research on this difficult complex structure.  But then she did the unexpected -- she did not base her story on a true story. Nor did she get some brilliant actors to portray the Lost Boys.

Nagle made up a composite story and she cast actors who were 15 years too old for the roles.  They were too old because they were some of the real Lost Boys of 2000.  They are the film's entire raison d'etre and your reason to see the film.  Yes, it has some canny storytelling and good performances from Reese Witherspoon (in a supporting role she clearly took in order to assist with the financing of the film) and the rest of the American company, but the reason the film works at all is the simple and real presence of Arnold Oceang, Emmanuel Jal, and in this clip, Ger Duany, to bring the breath of real life to what could have been a mere "liberals feeling good about doing good" exercise.

There is a lot more that could be said about the film, but what fascinated me was the indissoluble lump of documentary truth in the middle of what is otherwise a "lies like truth" story.  These three and the other Sudanese Lost Children appearing truly save the film from itself.  From them, the film takes a sense of quiet decency instead of the passionate sermons one might expect, given the subject matter.

Me and Earl And The Dying Girl (2015) would seem to have no documentary impulse whatsoever. At its surface it seems like a Cody Diablo script written for Wes Anderson to direct.  It starts with both feet firmly planted in the Land of Twee.  It happens that I like Twee, especially when we are talking about self-conscious young people, who tend to label and categorize the components of their lives as a way of handling the inherent ambivalence and confusion of it all.

The 2.40 ratio used to show the distance and awkwardness of this relationship.
And although the artifices are dialed down as the story becomes more serious and the relationship between the two principal characters becomes more real, it still is at heart a "made-up" story.  Nonetheless, reality helps anchor this movie and makes it work more profoundly than it would otherwise.  No, not the "reality" of facing down death at a young age, nor of realizing that as a teenager, you are often more mature than the adults around you (Connie Britton, Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon all do excellent if mannered turns as the neurotic adults in the story).  No, it is the "reality" of actors really performing together in a real space and in real time, without the benefit of camerawork and editing.

It comes about two-thirds of the way through the film -- deep enough into their relationship for geeky Greg to feel free to scold Rachel for starting to give in to death.  The camera is set in a low corner with what looks like between a 10 and 20mm lens, as in the picture above.  Rachel is large in the foreground, still, listening.  Greg is farther from the camera, small, impotent, almost squeaking out his protest against Rachel's gathering indifference to the fate she is headed toward.  She neither dismisses him nor agrees with him, but her quiet ratchets up his frustration.  The scene must run six or seven minutes without a cut, a testament to the writing, to the confidence of the direction and to the skill of these very young actors to pull off this sequence which is on the one hand theatrical in concept and on the other, documentary in effect, due to its eschewing all but a few of the tools in the kit of the narrative filmmaker.  The result has an ascetic quality in a movie which begins in a rather antic mode.

I seem to find myself in a death-ridden mode in my films this week.  There is an odd resonance to events in my own life, but let us leave that aside.  The Farewell Party (2015) is packed with the kind of eccentric yet everyday old people that leaves one surprised the film comes from Israel and not the BBC. The story is simple to the point of being rudimentary, and in structure, it takes a turn to the left, another turn to the left, a turn to the right and home again, home again, jiggety jig. You know, your typical assisted-suicide comedy. Astute filmgoers will have no trouble staying ahead of its slim narrative.
For now the folks of THE FAREWELL PARTY are full of life.

But Farewell Party is not really about death or even about life.  It is about that awful moment that most couples put off and put off until they can't -- the recognition that no matter how close they are, no matter how much two people become one thing, there will be a cruel and merciless parting. That is probably the reason those of us without religious faith still hope for some sphere of existence beyond this one -- the wish for a reunion, somewhere, sometime.

Yes, love outlives death, but still exacts its price, and we must honor its power by making sure we have a good leave-taking.  Of the three suicides in the film, the first is devoutly-wished by the spouse who sees her partner's suffering.  The second is by an old woman who has no partner and no one to answer to but herself.  The third is not suffering pain, and to the eye looks healthy; but she is already leaving the earth by stages and decides she'd rather do it at once.

What makes a film which is paradoxically light-hearted in the face of these terrible questions so powerful is the real presence of these no-longer-young actors.  Sure, they probably have years to go before these questions come up, but not as many as you and I have.  And the simple quiet good sense of these characters makes everything less silly yet more entertaining. Would that we would all go on from this place in such good company as the cast of The Farewell Party.  Without old people, this movie would be offensive.  Would them, a story about the best way to die counts as a good time.

I forgot to mention there are some big walloping belly-laughs in this movie.  Don't be afraid to show it to Grandma and Grandpa.  It will probably bother them less than you.

In the end, whatever you think you can do for the dying, it is inadequate.  And that is OK.  You might as well have a good laugh when you're forced to sit in Death's front parlor.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Remote controlled

How would warriors of the past done with their CO riding them all day?
Andrew Niccol (creator of the airless Gattaca) is a bloodless sort of filmmaker, which makes him either the best or the worst person to guide Good Kill (2015), a movie about the toll the drone war puts on the people conducting it.

How to explain? Well, for example, there's that damned Peter Coyote, our modern-day Alexander Scourby, an actor who sounds so inhumanly good he is instantly unbelievable. You know Peter Coyote, he's the guy you that makes you think "I thought Henry Fonda was dead" when you hear his voice-over work.  He was even featured on-camera as the announcer at the Oscars.  As a former counter-cultural figure, he once was an avatar of authentic independence and quirkiness.  Now he is the simulacrum of those American qualities.

In Good Kill the voice of Peter Coyote is employed with implicit satirical intent as the voice of the CIA, telling military personnel who to blow up and when, regardless of the violation of military rules of engagement.  But Coyote does not sound like a Man Who Knows.  His authenticity has been sanded off.  He sounds like what he his, an experienced actor who has recorded his lines very well. Given this is about an artificial remote-control war, perhaps that is the intent.  But the result is that all the scenes in which his character, code-named "Langley" (some code), appears are slack, lacking tension, suspense or really any interest after his first appearance.

You can't critique slickness and artificiality unless you have something to compare it to, and Good Kill lacks any actual human behavior to form a critical baseline.  Ethan Hawke is an impossible Boy Scout.  Bruce Greenwood plays the same gruff and lovable CO that we've seen in the movies since Ward Bond's heyday.  January Jones plays an empty-headed blonde wife.  Zoe Kravitz is a Latina soldier, so she is disciplined, yet spicy.

Doesn't anybody write second drafts anymore?

The idea for this film was so good, that it's a shame that this placeholder film had to be first.  To its credit, it tries to be fair.  It is not an extreme liberal anti-war diatribe.  Even the unreflective aggressive military types are given time and space to be right.  Bruce Greenwood's character points out toward the end that if we walk away from this war, the enemy won't.

But Good Kill is constantly cheating.  [Spoiler Alert]  Defying orders, Ethan Hawke takes aim at a terrorist fighter not on the target list, but whom he has seen raping a virtuous mother.  At the last moment, the woman steps into the kill zone and Hawke believes he has killed rapist and victim at once.  That is a smart story idea about going out on your own without support, without preparing, without a rationale, just operating on emotion, and the terrible toll rash action can have, even if acting for the best reasons.  But then the film does the old Disney switch (they've been doing this since The Jungle Book) and hurray!  the woman is not dead, but just knocked down by the impact of the blast, and Hawke was right all the time.

Well, that (a) settles nothing morally; (b) is super-phony and (c) smug.  A hat trick of bad storytelling.

In similar fashion, Hawke has to agonize for perhaps minutes about losing his airhead civilian wife but attracting the romantic interest of the smart female officer who sits next to him all day.  Introduce problem -- solve it conveniently within minutes.

I'm no fan of Syd Field, but are we going to complete ignore his observations?

Maybe the best thing we can do if we want to contemplate the danger of remote-control war is not to make a new movie, but just take another look at Dr. Strangelove.  [Confession -- when in doubt I always watch Dr. Strangelove.]

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Slow, maybe; Kiwi certainly, but completely bad-ass

The scarecrow's resemblance to the Reaper is no accident.
Slow West (2015) is a stunningly sensitive bad-ass nuanced balls-out Western that looks like a John Ford picture, if Utah were in Colorado and Colorado was in New Zealand.  Over the last decade, Westerns have been forced into the false choice between repetition of standard tropes for an undemanding audience (usually of cable TV subscribers) and European-style deconstructionist elegies both for an historical moment that may never have really existed and for an era of filmmaking when art could comfortably hide behind genre formulas, undetected by the mainstream press, and happily taking care of itself without anyone getting wise.

It seems only Quentin Tarantino can make a Western for the theatrical market without being accused of Art, which is ironic, given that Tarantino's Django is one of his usual post-modern collages of other people's work, decipherable only in a world of manufactured objects and without reference to real people, real history or the real world at all.  If that's not arty, I don't know what is.

Slow West may be a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner (how many Westerns have ever come out of Sundance?), but it has a story simple enough for a Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film, a similar running time and Michael Fassbender in a part Scott would have been comfortable man, the bad man who has decided to do something good for a change and a little bit of money (which of course turns out not to matter).  A Scottish boy pays an ex-bounty hunter to guide him West to claim his love, whose father has taken her with him a-pioneering.  That's it -- just a lot of hard country to pass through, and, as you will expect if you know Westerns, a destination far different than the one anticipated.

I think this clip demonstrates the tantalizing balance between heavy consequences and light reaction that guides the film.

Sure, Jay almost died a gruesome death and got an arrow through his hand, but Silas's reaction is "Nice catch."  And the slapstick payoff would have made Buster Keaton proud.

Certainly an American fan is going to miss familiar markers -- Bronson Canyon locations, oft-used character actors, dialogue tropes (I don't think one person says the word "reckon" in this film), but otherwise it is absolutely completely satisfying as a piece of Western entertainment, fusing the Ford-Hawks vision of the individual in the landscape with the long, slow buildup to terrible violence of a Leone film.  The two styles live very well side-by-side, with a surprising and terrible conclusion, that is satisfying, right and largely unanticipated.  The final encounter between Jay and his beloved, (Caren Pistorius) results in two acts of brutality that are beautifully and poetically balanced.

And, as evidenced by the clip, the film has a wonderfully black sense of humor -- the finale (which seems to have been directed by a morbid Harold Lloyd) gives new life to the phrase "rubbing salt into the wound."

Not many films today give such balance to word, picture, character and story as does writer John McLean here; although he does seem to favor picture.  I commend to you a stunning sequence with a farmhouse under siege, the villains hiding in the tall grass you see at the picture at the top of this post.  Given that the occupants in the house have barely any ability to fight back, it probably is not necessary that each gunman pop up, fire a shot and then disappear like a lethal brand of Whack-A-Mole.  But it makes for a lethal yet funny sequence, the illogic of which one forgives for the sake of the visual poetry.

And, oh yeah, there's three Congolese guys singing in French in the middle of the prairie.  For no good reason.  Gotta love that.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stage directors portrayed on film

Birdman's theater scenes were shot in the legendary St. James Theater
This year's Academy Award Best Picture is the story of an actor-turned-playwright and stage director.  One Facebook acquaintance's reaction was, not in these words, "if I want to see a stage director in a movie, I prefer Warner Baxter."  This set me off thinking about the character of the stage director on film, and once I dipped my toe tentatively into that particular rabbit hole, I realized how deep it was.  Which suggests that the stage director has some deep resonance in our culture, deeper than film directors, who are statistically rarer.

Perhaps that is because more of us have experienced stage directors.  We did plays in school or in community groups.  If we were in a student film, the direction was probably minimal (fledgling directors have too many technical issues to work through to have much brain space available to direct the actors).  Stage directors have little to do except worry about the performances.  (Yes, they can amusingly scream at the costume designers, but that really is a side show next to berating the actors.)

Movies have reflected that experience and our collective ideas about the people who direct plays and musicals.  And despite a wild diversity in these portraits, they have two things in common.  (1)  They are brilliant; and (2) They are complete a**holes.

This is not an exhaustive list, it does not include documentaries, and we start with talkies, because it is hard for a theater director to make his personality felt without the use of his voice (Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin can sit down now).

Warner Baxter in 42nd Street    It is hard to see what Baxter actually accomplishes with his direction.  Someone else does the choreography (the improbable but very diverting Frank McHugh), not to mention the writers, who are shadowy figures in the orchestra seats (as they should be).  Baxter's direction seems to be limited to regularly scheduled temper tantrums, demanding everything be done louder and faster.  Nowadays this childish behavior would motivate no one, but Baxter manages to produce a hit that winds up killing him.  (No tears.)

He does, however, get to deliver all the best speeches in the movie.

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century  This portrait is ground zero for the concept of "director as Svengali" the man who creates stars by his own sheer force of will, with or without talent from the actress.  In fact, Svengali and Trilby are referenced by name in this film, which is based on a play which no one produces anymore except in its musical comedy adaptation On The Twentieth Century.  Although he had recently enjoyed a major turn in Grand Hotel, Barrymore was well on his way to becoming a parody of himself and director Howard Hawks encouraged him over the brink.  Oscar Jaffee is clearly a madman, dreaming up lavish tasteless spectacles sprinkled with late-Victorian literary respectability.  How Lily Garland became a respected actress amid such overinflated hogwash is hard to understand, but the film works because Lily is at least as crazy as Oscar.  (And although Lombard had been in movies for over a decade, this is the picture that sent her off into the pantheon.)  Here the director is not the leader of a vast horde, but a Pygmalion sculpting his one perfect Galatea.

What makes the whole thing palatable is the positive passion these two characters have for destroying each other as an expression of love.  And to his credit, Oscar is absolutely dedicated to the work and his expectation that everyone should themselves to a frazzle is based on his own willingness to do the same.

Chico Marx in Room Service  Bet you didn't remember this one.  It really shouldn't count, because it is an accident of circumstances.  RKO bought a play for the Marx Brothers to do on screen, a play that wasn't written for them and a play that didn't really fit their personae, except for the endless busy-ness and prevarication of the established Groucho character.  Reaching for something for Chico to do, screenwriter Morrie Ryskind found the director, named Harry Binion, the typical a**hole genius director type given to taking his clothes off in moments of inspiration, inspiration that results in a vision of the Theater of the Future..."I can see it... no audience....just scenery and critics."

That sort of passion was inappropriate for Chico, renamed Binelli, and again, his directorial contribution was probably limited to eating walnuts and pinching the girls in the cast.  The only thing we know for sure is that play "makes a great-a rehearsal.  I still think it's a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal."  Thereafter Chico is required to help Groucho put his scams over and rehearsing the play seems to be forgotten.  This is the stage director portrayal that breaks the mold.  Clearly any idiot can do the job, and Groucho has found just the idiot.

Gary Merrill in All About Eve may not be a genius, and if he's an a**hole, he's the kind of a**hole you drift into an affair with.  We'll start with the name -- Hugh Marlowe.  That's the name of a stiff from the get-go.  He's not about inspiration.  He's all about sweat and effort and utterly dismissive of glamour, as we see from this colloquy.

I try to avoid extra-textual analysis, but it is necessary to point out that Bette Davis met Merrill on this picture, they married and stayed married for quite a few years, producing some children and several more joint appearances.  So perhaps Marlowe's realism rubbed off on his portrayer.

Jack Buchanan in The Bandwagon is a hybrid, though.  All at once, he is humble practical man of the theater, Welles-ian visionary and razzle-dazzle performer.  The part was conceived as a mild rib of actor-director Jose Ferrer, who once had three shows he had directed running concurrently on Broadway, appearing in one of them himself (The Shrike).

Once the effete Clifton Webb turned them down (evidently he was still trying to live down his song-and-dance origins), they turned to English stage performer Jack Buchanan, who had the charisma to make everything believable, but had to force the ego-ridden and tyrannical qualities of the character.  Stumped to find a way to show the director trying to handle his recalcitrant stage star (Fred Astaire), writers Comden and Green gave him an imitation of Vincente Minelli (director of the film we're watching).  Buchanan pulls director Astaire aside, blithers some incoherent nonsense at him that sounds like a pep talk and then flings him back into the scene, more confused than ever, but completely energized.

Ultimately, Buchanan's vision fails, but Comden and Green play fair.  It's not merely a matter of Buchanan's director being pretentious; it's that his pretension is misplaced.  It's the wrong approach for the very light material turned out by the characters Comden and Green based on themselves (and they were indeed very lightweight writers).  Buchanan gets to prove he is a good sport and he and Astaire meet on their mutual territory of tail-coated suavity.

Jose Ferrer in Enter Laughing  got to respond to his kidding in The Bandwagon with his own prissy-genius portrayal as a Depression-era down-at-the-heels shyster (another Marlowe!) who makes money charging apprentices to rehearse for his never-to-open bilgewater productions.

It's not clear from the film (directed by Carl Reiner from his own novel and the play Joseph Stein made out of it -- which explains Rob Reiner's appearance in this clip) whether Marlowe had talent at some point, but by now he has clearly drunk it away and is marking time until he takes his final bow.

Christopher Hewitt as Roger DeBris in The Producers, on the other hand, may be at the very height, or perhaps the very nadir of his feeble talents -- the difference is almost imperceptible.  Whereas Chico is an idiot in Room Service, Roger is a useful idiot in The Producers.  And yet, and yet, I can't help feeling that the hiring of Roger DeBris (and of L.S.D. to play Hitler) is a textbook example of placing a hat on a hat.  Clearly Franz Liebkind's demented vision of a lovable singing and dancing Hitler was quite repellant enough to guarantee certain disaster, without the overlay of incompetent cliche that Roger plasters over the show (not to mention LSD's drugged-out departure from the agenda completely).  Perhaps the audience is meant to see that a faithful production of Springtime For Hitler could not be topped for flop-abbility, but Max Bialystock is a greedy and desperate man and his desperation seeks the companionship of the Prince of Flopsweat, Roger DeBris, who obviously cannot bear to leave a terrible idea untouched, but must highlight and decorate it to a "T."

Before rehearsals begin Roger promises that this show will not be just the same, "turn turn kick turn," but that is, of course, exactly what he delivers because it is all he knows.

Roy Scheider in All That Jazz has a lot more on his mind than kick-turn because he is playing a version of theatrical choreographer and innovator Bob Fosse, not coincidentally, the creator of the film we are seeing.  Here the genius a**hole paradigm is turned inward in one of the most remorseless self-indictments any artist has ever created, and certainly the one with the most singing and dancing.  The onscreen Fosse gets to pay for his crimes against humanity by elaborately dying on screen, but not before he is lashed himself (and everyone else around him) into a lather trying to re-arrange the same old sparkle-dazzle into new shapes and forms of expression (see Cabaret and Chicago to experience Fosse's meta-showbiz).

Despite Fosse's apparent self-loathing, in the audition sequence above (which is so well staged and edited that, for me, it obviates the need for a film version of A Chorus Line), Scheider's character is quite sensitive and decent, showing real respect and sympathy for his auditionees, even the most incompetent.

But Fosse earns his a**hole credentials, not in relation to the other characters in the film, but in his utterly indulgent and narcissistic celebration of his own death.  I suppose he was actually hoping that the audience will shout "get on with it!" because this is the longest, slowest death since Victorian melodrama, even with the dancing girls.

Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman is almost a-hat-on-a-hat, because he is only a genius-a**hole in his own mind.  Which is what makes him so lovable.  True, he is not actually creative, talented, or, indeed even competent, but neither is he the martinet he believes himself to be, but rather a petulant child, taking us back to those Warner-Baxter-stomping-his-feet days.  On top of these qualities, Guests's Corky St. Clair is unicorn-and-double-rainbow-delusional, but in a way that his uninformed cast finds inspirational.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York is probably a genius, but has veered into solipsistic incoherence, allowing a replication of his own life to become larger and larger drilling down farther and farther into an endless series of Russian doll-type scenes, so packed with meaning that meaning has been exploded.  His creation has literally turned into a city with no audience.  This film is the definition of a work disappearing up its own wazoo, but in this case quite deliberately.

It is fitting to let Orson Welles in Orson Welles and Me have the last word.  Welles is the great exemplar, the theatrical genius who was also a cinematic genius.  Perhaps if he had taken up landscape architecture, he would have been a genius at that.  This neglected film tells the story of Welles' first Mercury Theater production, the modern dress Julius Caesar whose visual echoes can be seen not only in theater to this day but in Citizen Kane and from there throughout all of film noir.  Christian McKay as Welles portrays all of his facets -- charmer, martinent, brilliant stager, manipulator, publicity hound, artist, interpreter of poetry and leader of men -- to virtual perfection.

Portraying artists in the arts is tricky, because you're going to have to deal with the art.  Either you keep it completely out of sight and risk being dodgy, or you put it on display and risk the art itself not justifying the acclaim that your fictional artist receives.  McKay's Welles is as fine a representation of a performing artist on film as has ever been.  Here, he displays the charm and decisiveness that made him easy to become his follower.

This little clip hardly conveys all the charms of this film, which is very true to the experience of making theater, and I urge you to seek it out.  Sadly, Welles himself never made an entire film about the theater.  On the other hand, given his penchant for expressionism and symbolism, maybe ALL of his films are really about theater.

I haven't yet seen Polanski's Venus In Fur -- I am very much looking forward to seeing just how big a fool Polanski is willing to make himself as the besotted would-be Svengali.

So why does this trope appear so frequently?  Is this a way for a film director revealing himself in disguise?  Acting out a fantasy of control over actors?  (Ridiculous, because film directors ultimately have much more control than stage directors.)  Distancing oneself from the embarrassing revelation inherent in being any creative artist?  In any event, this character is as likely to disappear from the screen as he is from real life.

But so far, he is still only male.  A gender shift may have to be the next important development...