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Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #530)

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. He is also the author of the forthcoming The Splendid Things We Planned, to be published in March. Both books, along with every Charles Jackson volume ever published, were read and consulted for this comprehensive conversation. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Author: Blake Bailey

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In Farther & Wilder, Blake Bailey mentioned an extraordinary radio program called The Author Meets the Critics, in which authors confronted their critics live on radio. After a diligent search, I was able to locate 46 episodes of this program and I’ve collected them at the Internet Archive, where they can be downloaded for your enjoyment.]

Subjects Discussed: Jackson’s need for money, how The Lost Weekend‘s success freaked him out, Jackson’s self-perception as a misfit, becoming an unintentional spokesman for dipsomania, Jackson’s block after The Lost Weekend, Seconal addiction, Jackson’s hospitalization, Mary McCarthy’s fictionalized version of Jackson, McCarthy’s unfinished manuscript The Lost Week, John P. Marquand, vacations in Truro, the friendship between McCarthy and Jackson, why one shouldn’t read all of Charles Jackson, Jackson vs. Cheever and Yates, the perversity of reading A Second-Hand Life, prosaic sexual affairs in Jackson’s later work, Jackson’s obsession with Shakespeare busts, Adam Kirsch’s review of Farther & Wilder, average writers who long to be geniuses, literary failures, the origins of Farther & Wilder, Calvin Kentfield, Nathan Asch, Flannery Lewis, Jackson’s death by overdose at the Chelsea, undiscovered papers at Dartmouth, the impossible-to-find TV adaptation of Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens” directed by Nicholas Ray and written by Jackson, Jackson’s involvement with radio and television, the nineteen years when Jackson didn’t publish a novel, William Inge, how television affected Jackson’s storytelling abilities, comparisons between “The Outlander” and The Fall of Valor, the way that Jackson wrote about writers, the stories that Jackson wrote sober, Jackson’s writing difficulties when stoned on Seconal, how Jackson’s fiction explored writing ego, Jackson being ahead of postmodernism with “The Sunnier Side,” what literary biography can do, The Author Meets the Critics (in which Jackson appeared three times), Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” when literary critics had the power to destroy a career, James Agee’s A Death to the Family, the mid-20th century war on midcult, why Jonathan Yardley is a terrible critic, Yardley’s negative review of Norman Rush’s Mating, John P. Marquand’s overlooked novels (The Late George Apley, Sincerely, Willis Wayde, and So Little Time), Roger Straus financing Jackson’s life, Philip Wylie, Wylie’s futile attempts to respond to The Fall of Valor‘s terrible qualities, when critics used to give talented writers a fair pass for sophomore slumps, Daniel Mendelsohn’s attempted takedown of Mad Men, Rhoda Jackson’s tolerance for her husband’s behavior, how the Jacksons managed their money, the many literary people who got their start at Fortune Magazine, Ron Sproat, Rhoda’s acceptance of Charlie’s sexuality, Jackson coming out of the closet, the weirdly limited way in which Jackson’s fictional wives were portrayed, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max angling for motive about David Foster Wallace, the importance to double source details and relate it to a writer’s career, Mary Karr’s response to D.T. Max on Twitter, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, Bailey’s work on the Roth biography, how to ensure that people don’t come at you with pitchforks on Twitter while working on a literary biography, Karen Green’s Bough Down, DFW’s saintlike image, Infinite Jest, DFW’s nonfiction, literary biographers addressing issues of posterity, the DFW death porn industry, J.D. Salinger’s legacy held hostage by commercial interests, the collaboration between Roth and Bailey, Bailey’s access to Roth’s papers (sealed through 2050), coaxing Claire Bloom to talk, Philip Roth’s retirement, Bailey’s forthcoming memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, similarities and differences between memoir and literary biography, how hard you need to be on yourself when writing about yourself, Blake Bailey’s appearance diminishing somewhat in the second half of The Splendid Things We Planned, and writing about family.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I basically surprised you by pointing to the fact that I think you and I may be among the few people in America who have actually read all of Charles Jackson’s work.

Bailey: Living people. You know, Ed, probably the only two. His own daughters, who are alive and well, they have not read the oeuvre of Charles Jackson.

Correspondent: Wow.

Bailey: No. It’s you and me.

Correspondent: That’s it? Wow. So let’s talk. Charles Jackson, best known as the author of The Lost Weekend. Let’s get into what he did. I mean, he was adamantly determined in his early days to write what he knew, as you outline in your biography of him. Don Birnam, the protagonist of The Lost Weekend, many of Jackson’s short stories, and also the hero of this unfinished multivolume book project, What Happened? — this is basically Jackson’s life. This is what Jackson drew heavily on for his fiction. But then you have Jackson’s later fiction — The Outer Edges, A Second-Hand Life, and “The Outlander,” which I’m happy to argue with you about. These are adamantly determined to suggest deviance or behavioral aberration in common everyday fallacies, often out of step with the cultural mores of the time. And then, of course, you have “The Sunnier Side,” this story in which Charles Jackson himself appears and is commenting upon various people in Newark. So just to get started here — and that’s a lot to talk about — why do you think Jackson was so terrified of his own life in fiction? And so willing to castigate himself? Why did he need to pit his real and his fictional selves against each other and against society?

Bailey: Well, it’s interesting. You mention Newark. And I want to clarify for your listeners that is not Newark, New Jersey — the hometown of my current subject, Philip Roth. That is Newark, New York in the township of Arcadia. Up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It was a little town of about six thousand souls where Charles Jackson led a very tortured childhood and idyllic childhood. It was a little of both. Beautiful region. And people are kind to you in a sort of condescending way there. Charlie and his brother Fred, known always throughout his adult life as Boom, were the town sissies.

Correspondent: There’s also a beefcake shot of Boom in the book as well.

Bailey: A gorgeous beefcake shot of Boom taken by the famous gay photographer George Platt Lynes. There are photos by Man Ray of Boom at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Anyway, Charlie kind of deplored the way that people gossiped maliciously in small towns such as Newark and yet put a good face on things. And when the worst catastrophes happened — for example, Charlie was molested by the choirmaster of his church; a man named Herbert Quance, who appears in Charlie’s first published story, “Palm Sunday,” which was a pioneering work. It appeared in Partisan Review in 1939 and nobody was writing about pedophilia. And it’s quite frank in its treatment of that. It’s a terrific story. And it caused as much of a ripple at Partisan Review as Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. So he was molested at age 14. The year before, his 16-year-old sister Thelma and 4-year-old brother Richard were killed by a train. And the egregious phony kindness with which he was treated — and meanwhile people knew about this pedophiliac choirmaster, but nice people didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You didn’t talk about touching little boys and what not. So he was tolerated, even though they knew that their own children were in danger of being molested. So long story short: Charlie regarded this as a deplorable state of affairs and he thinks that human beings should face up to their vagaries. And so that’s what he chose to write about. The vagaries in himself, which were considerable, and in humankind very much at large.

Correspondent: But, with “The Sunnier Side,” he’s there to castigate these three real-life women in Newark, which is also quite interesting. And that also is sort of a You Can’t Go Home Again/Thomas Wolfe type of thing too. But at the same time, with The Outer Edges, this book is utterly bizarre. Especially the guilt of the dog. That whole incident. This protagonist. He runs over a dog. And then he’s comparing himself to this true sociopath. So there’s this weird impulse going along in Jackson’s fiction as well. On one hand, he wants to go ahead and out the truth. On the other hand, he wants to hold everybody, including himself, accountable for every conceivable moral failing — even putting it up there and comparing it with a rapist and so forth. He’s a really bizarre guy.

Bailey: Okay. Let me explain The Outer Edges. It is based on the Edward Haight murders. Edward Haight, when he was sixteen years old, gave a lift to two kids — two girls, 11 and 9. Not only did he rape them, he tied them up, put them in the street, ran over them repeatedly. I mean, it was horrific. And Charlie was deeply disturbed by that. Now Charlie was disturbed by the viciousness of Edward Haight. Because Charlie was a married father of two girls and a homosexual. These days, people don’t understand the opprobrium in middle-class, mid-century America. Especially gay men, who presumed to get married and lead a normal life and were still seeing men on the side, as Charlie certainly was. So he did feel this kind of horrifying kinship with this child murderer Edward Haight. So how to acceptably portray that in fiction? He comes up with a Charlie-like character who, like him, is married to a long suffering woman and he’s a doting father, as Charlie was. And he feels a kinship with the murder in the book because he’s having an affair. Heterosexual with this tootsie. And because he inadvertently runs over a dog, now that, of course, is the fatal flaw with The Outer Edges. It doesn’t work and everyone told Charlie it doesn’t work.

Correspondent: But also there’s that weird phone call heard through the gas station restroom, which makes absolutely no sense. Like this is the reason why the wife decides to leave. Because she’s speculating upon a phone call. Just as he’s actually more concerned about driving over the dog than this particular affair. He just has a really bizarre moral compass.

Bailey: Yeah. Well, but I don’t want to dismiss The Outer Edges out of hand. Because certainly Charlie wrote worse books than The Outer Edges.

Correspondent: [looking at the stack of Jackson books on the table] He looks at A Second-Hand Life. (laughs)

Bailey: Oh my god. Let’s save that. What does work in The Outer Edges is the portrayal of the murderer himself, which really captures this whole Hannah Arendt notion of the banality of evil in a way that I think is sort of pioneering and very effective. And it’s a very episodic book. The French, Bovary-esque woman whose stuck in the boring marriage and tries for her maids not to see her having nothing to do. All that was very astute. I mean, again, no less than — I’m blanking on his name, which is terrible. A great British novelist. Sort of out of favor now. Anyway, he reviewed the book in The Listener and said, “Charlie Jackson is the man to write the Great American Novel of suburban ennui.” And if he wasn’t such a complete pill freak, he might have pulled it off.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Okay, so he’s an alcoholic. And he uses this to write The Lost Weekend. Then he becomes this big AA spokesperson. But he’s also this go-to guy for Spencer Tracy, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker. He chronicles this problem — alcoholism — and, as you say, at the time this had not been pursued to this depth in fiction. And then this is interesting. He pitches his Uncle Mr. Kinbar to Roger Straus and he writes, “This book has everything. Humor, pathos, real social comment.” There’s the story idea that Jackson conveys to Sandy with the wife as “a shock absorber between him and the world around him.” Given Jackson’s keen interest in Thomas Mann, I’m wondering why he felt the need to mimic or outperform his better. I mean, the Fitzgerald passage in The Lost Weekend, where he just speaks glowingly about Fitzgerald, you would think that Jackson could have figured out that one of Fitzgerald’s fatal flaws was trying to actually reproduce Gatsby. So why was he just not self-aware enough to realize that masterpieces just kind of happen by accident?

Bailey: Well, I think that Charlie had a taste for fine things, which was very much like Scott Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald had a very big nut. He liked to live lavishly and that meant writing trashy stories for the Saturday Evening Post and not writing great novels. So there it is. Charlie, his great surrogate parents in Newark was the Bloomer family in town. And he wrote a story, Charlie did, called “Tenting Tonight.” In the midst of this dreary provincial place, here are people with real tastes, who have culture, who have this opulent house. And this is something that Charlie aspires to. And then later, this man, this gay bachelor, this Wall Street lawyer with a fabulous fortune whose father was Edith Wharton’s best friend, Bronson Winthrop, takes Charlie and his brother Boom under his wing and really gives them a taste for fine things. You know, they both had tuberculosis. Bronson Winthrop sent them to these luxury sanitoria in Davos, Switzerland. So Charlie said, “I want to live like that.” And he managed miraculously — we’re condensing a lot, but he went through this period of horrific alcoholism where he miraculously got sober. He wrote The Lost Weekend, which was not only regarded critically as a masterpiece. That’s the very word that The New York Times used.

Correspondent: I’d call it a masterpiece.

Bailey: I would too. I think that Don Birnam is still the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature. And he goes to Hollywood and suddenly he’s this alcoholism guru, which you pointed out. People like Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Parker and Benchley and so on. And, you know, he wants to keep living like that. He wants to still have the celebrity friends. He wants Judy Garland to remain his pal. And he buys this ridiculous federal mansion in New Hampshire and finds that he can’t keep it up without writing dreck. And pretty soon, he falls into the same trap that poor Fitzgerald did, which was writing terrible short stories for the slicks.

Correspondent: Was it Hollywood that forced him to have this yardstick to measure himself by? Or was it the success of The Lost Weekend? Because that sold like crazy. Like Franzen style at the time.

Bailey: It did sell like Franzen style. But what happened was — he goes to Hollywood. Everything’s going Charlie’s way. He’s the most popular man in town. He was very endearing and very charming. Everyone invited him. He never had to dine alone in Hollywood. All the stars loved him, especially all the alcoholic stars. Which was every one of them. What was the question again?

Correspondent: I’m trying to get from you why he felt the need to be this great social novelist and I gave you a hint with the Thomas Mann thing.

Bailey: Right. Charlie had a terrible need to be loved. And he adored the work of Thomas Mann. And Mann — they had sort of an Eckermann/Goethe-like relationship. Mann met him in Hollywood. And they became correspondents and friends who saw each other maybe three times. It wasn’t misguided for Charlie to aspire to write great books. He’d written one. And to his credit, he terminated his contract at MGM. He didn’t want to stay in Hollywood and be this hack. He wanted to write The Fall of Valor, which was the first mainstream novel about homosexuality in American fiction. 1946. Two years ahead of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. The problem was it wasn’t that great of a novel. Now if you want to talk about what the real reason that Charlie’s fiction never equaled The Lost Weekend, we can do that.

Correspondent: Well, sure. Feel free. We’re getting into some really high-end reading geek things.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, 40a, and bedenney.)

The Bat Segundo Show #530: Blake Bailey II (Download MP3)

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Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (The Bat Segundo Show #518)

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell are the co-authors of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, a book which documents the making of The Room. Bissell previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449 and The Bat Segundo Show #450.

Authors: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

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Subjects Discussed: Ideal Hollywood standing positions to check smartphones, being addicted to technology, how Sestero and Bissell collaborated, Tommy Wiseau’s vernacular, how the Wiseau philosophy is applicable to real life, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s unanticipated influence on The Room, Wiseau’s thoughts on Fight Club, why Sestero put up with Tommy Wiseau for so long, Robin Williams vs. Tommy Wiseau, Patch Adams, a melodramatic video that Wiseau photographed and sent to an insurance company, the blind and reckless Hollywood producer attitude, Brad Pitt, the unspeakable display of Tommy Wiseau’s ass, Wiseau’s philosophy on shooting sex scenes, Bon Jovi’s reluctance to collaborate with Wiseau, getting music for The Room, composers hired by Tommy Wiseau, shooting The Room simultaneously in 35mm and HD, Wiseau’s curious innovations, Citizen Kane, being the first person to build a private bathroom on set, Hitchcock’s aversion to shooting on location, The Birds, Wiseau’s cinematic influences, “Cinema Crudité,” Wiseau’s Berlin Wall of personal involvement, occupying a territory (and a life) that is half invention and half real, Wiseau’s mysterious past in Europe, incidents from The Room pulled from real life, the Bay to Breakers race, Wiseau’s efforts to cash out-of-state checks, The Room as Wiseau’s secret autobiography, Wiseau’s fixation on James Dean, Giant, actors who dye their hair, A Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando, whether Sestero’s involvement in The Room made any dents in his acting career, the challenges of conveying incomprehensible dialogue, the advantages of knowing people named Tom, penetrating into the great mystery of Mark’s disappearing beard in The Room, being nicknamed “Babyface” in acting class, being photographed being shaven, the film set as a surveillance state, crew members on The Room who worked simultaneously on Terminator 3, Wiseau’s fixation on youth, The Room as a parallel identity for Wiseau, parallels between The Room and Grand Theft Auto, The Room video game, and Bissell’s open letter to Niko Bellic.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m curious about how you guys both wrote this book. There are large chunks of dialogue between Greg and Tommy Wiseau. And it’s often so specific that I can’t imagine how you could get it that specific after several years had passed. So I’m wondering. I have to assume much of it is invented. Tom, you happened to share Tommy’s name. Did you two talk to each other in a dark room? You with the Wiseau accent? How did this come about? The dialogue in this book? To flesh out the big important story behind The Room.

Bissell: Well, Greg and I recorded all these chapters. We have like thirty hours of tape.

Correspondent: Oh!

Bissell: And Greg is an actor. Greg has a very good memory. And I would ask him to dig back into his memory. And he would do these conversations as clearly as he could remember them. And he knows Tommy so well that he could get those Tommytastic little grammatical flubs. I did very little of the dialogue. It kind of came out of Greg as he remembered the tenor of his conversations. That’s how it was recorded. And that’s how we transcribed it.

Correspondent: Was there any severe trauma, Greg, in this sense memory?

Sestero: Yeah. Actually, that’s off to a very good start. I do have a very good memory for better or for worse.

Bissell: And you’ve taken a lot of notes over the years.

Sestero: Yeah. And with Tommy, he’s so unique that you don’t really forget. As you can tell with the movie. People quote it all the time. You don’t really forget the way he speaks. There’s a very signature way of saying things. And it was such an unforgettable experience that I just remembered almost everything. And it came to me very quickly. I told stories about my experience to many people. So they were very vivid. Very clear in my memory. And the dialogue — I read excerpts of it to Tommy. Chapter Four. “Tommy’s Planet.” And he was shocked. He’s like, “My God! That’s exactly what happened. You remembered exactly what I say. Good job.”

Bissell: (laughs) You have to say it like he would say it.

Sestero: (in Wiseau voice) “My God! Good job!”

Correspondent: So he was consulted for all of the dialogue in this. I mean, he is a control freak, from what I gather.

Sestero: Yeah. I went over a lot of things with him about his past. And I traveled with him and I had gone to the places that I spoke about in the book. And he was very clear on stuff that he was comfortable with me putting in. His background, his retail career in San Francisco. But I knew he wouldn’t want me to talk about certain things. And I left that up to him. And I cut those things out. And the dialogue. Yeah. That’s the way he speaks. Basically verbatim. Especially when I traveled with him when I was writing the book on tour. And I was interviewing him. And it reconnected me with the way he talked. So a lot of that dialogue is straight out of how it happened.

Bissell: You also note that in the film, the film is a constant recycling of the same six or seven pieces of language. And when I’ve interviewed Tommy, he says those things. He wrote them. He says them. They kick around in his head. And so one of the real pleasures was, as Greg was remembering back and recreating these conversations, I would notice that those phrases would slip in. And I was like, the great thing I like about it is that a real avid Room fan will be reading these pre-Room scenes. And then suddenly boom! There’s a phrase from the movie. You’re like, “Oh my god!” Like when he asks Greg about how to get into SAG, he’s like, “Well like now that you are expert, how do you get into the SAG?” And then in the film, he’s like, “It seems to me that you are the expert, Mark!”

Sestero: Yeah. You can’t invent stuff with Tommy. He’s just this character that exists. So to do him justice, you need to quote him verbatim. And that was my goal with it. Is to be as exact as possible.

Correspondent: Has the Wiseau vernacular helped you in the course of your adult life? Has it allowed you to, I suppose, be more forthcoming in certain ways? When talking with family or friends or therapists?

Sestero: Yeah. It definitely has.

Correspondent: Do you have any examples you can offer? I mean, if you go to sleep at night, do you sometimes hear that Balkan voice lulling you?

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Encouraging certain nocturnal dreams and associated emissions?

Sestero: Definitely nocturnal. I do have many laughs about what Tommy would say in this moment. And I’ll even think like him sometimes.

Correspondent: Think like him?

Sestero: Yeah. Like what would he say? There’s one thing I really find. He’s always going. He’s always grabbing things and bringing things places. And I’d just be standing there and watching him. He’d be like, “My god, do something! Don’t be Statue of Liberty!” And so I’ve noticed myself carrying posters and getting really busy during this time. When somebody’s standing there. “Will you help me?” And I’ll think, I say, “Could you help me?” But Tommy would be like, “My god! Do something!” So it’s funny. I’ve understood him a lot more in the last few years what he says. But the way he communicates is so funny that it just makes him the character that he is.

Correspondent: One thing I didn’t know until I read this book was that The Talented Mr. Ripley was a huge influence on The Room, which I had no idea about and which makes complete sense in hindsight.

Bissell: It’s the source text.

Correspondent: The source text. Tommy and Greg. Tom and Dickie. And as you point out, it gave you the flu when you watched it the first time, without Tommy, for about two weeks.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: This was fascinating to me. I’m wondering if you have actually gone back to the original source, Patricia Highsmith, and tried to mine those novels for deeper insights about Tommy or your own life or how you became friends with him and all that.

Sestero: Yeah. I actually started reading — I’ve read the entire Ripley series. Yeah, they’re very similar characters in ways. The difference is, I think, that Tommy, deep down, he’s a genuine person. He’s charismatic. While Tom Ripley has a dark streak. He’s just not comfortable with himself. So there are fine lines of the way they operated. But it’s amazing.

Bissell: It’s the longing.

Sestero: Yeah. And it’s the core. When Tommy watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, what it did to him, how it really got a rise out of him like no other movie that I’d seen when I’d watched it. Like we watched Fight Club and he’s like, “My god! This is so boring.”

Correspondent: (laughs) He was bored by Fight Club?

Sestero: Yeah, I know, right? He was like, “I do better acting in class.”

Correspondent: Wow. Even with Meat Loaf and the cool editing?

Sestero: Fight Club‘s one of my favorite movies. But The Talented Mr. Ripley is — it has that element. He lit up. And that’s what he wanted to make.

Bissell: When Greg revealed that to me, and I didn’t know that until it actually came out in our interviews, I was like, “Stop the fucking tape.” And we actually stopped the tape. And we sat there and we talked through all of the correspondences. You and I just started bringing up things from the movie.

Sestero: It all started to happen!

Bissell: It all started making sense. Oh my god!

Sestero: Peter. There’s a character named Peter in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon. It’s all his fault. Mark Damon. The all-American guy.

Bissell: And we both read Strangers on a Train when we were working on this book. That’s the reason we talked about that book a lot. So there’s a weird Highsmithian quality.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: Except there have been no murders thankfully.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Unless you did a criss-cross thing.

Bissell: Well, there was that one vagrant you and I hunted for sport.

Correspondent: Greg, it seems to me that with this Los Angeles apartment, the repeat playback of Tommy’s audition tape, the phone calls when you worked as a salesman at Armani Exchange, that you were either remarkably patient with Tommy or, well, you enjoyed being walked over. And I was really curious about this. I mean, even accounting for the whimsical follies of being a young man, what do you think kept you coming back to Tommy Wiseau? I mean, what was it? Was he just extraordinarily charismatic? Or did you just overlook some of these qualities?

Sestero: Yeah, I think youth obviously comes into play. But there’s just something about Tommy that was different. And I felt like an outcast with my family. And Tommy made me feel like I belonged to something. And I couldn’t really let go of the fact of the L.A. experience that I had when I first got there, the excitement of it and thinking that really I would have never had that. And even if that’s all it was, I never would have had that. And it was really because of him. So that bond really became strong. And it was really difficult. I mean, obviously, I thought about saying, “My god, I’ve got to just get out of this.” But anytime I tried to flee or tell Tommy what I thought or got emotional, and said those things, he would always retreat and come back and be like he didn’t mean to make me feel that way. So it was tough to leave somebody, especially in the book when he disappeared. When I saw him outside that acting class, just standing away from everybody, I felt for him. Because I felt the same way in a lot of ways. Except that I fit in more. But I understood what he was going through. So it’s hard to let someone float off into despair, knowing that you can make a difference. I always felt at the end of the day that I’d rather make a difference, to make someone feel better, than be self-aggrandizing. I guess this is all about being selfless than being selfish. I mean, obviously, I look crazy when you are able to look at the experience from the outside and see all these problems. It’s easy to just leave. But sometimes when you’re in it, you want to do what’s right hopefully and help that person.

Correspondent: Well, he probably gave you more approval than Robin Williams did on Patch Adams. Who knew that Tommy would have more solicitude than Robin Williams? Who I thought would exude that kind of thing being a wild and crazy guy from San Francisco.

Sestero: Yeah. Tommy’s a force and he challenged me to say, “Don’t be a chicken. Go for what you want to accomplish.” And I just never really forgot that.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to ask about the mysterious $6 million that financed The Room. There are allusions to a string of shops. The TSW Corporation so intrigued me that I actually did a business search at the California Secretary of State, finding nothing in relation to this.

Sestero: Really? (laughs)

Correspondent: I didn’t. So I’m wondering, Tom, what investigative acumen did you bring to this project? To really track down the Wiseau mystique? The unknown trail that people have been thinking about and conjuring up all sorts of theories about over these many years.

Bissell: Everything I know is in the book. And at a certain point, I have no idea how he amassed this fortune. I don’t think you really know either.

Sestero: I know he works around the clock. I know he had retail shops. I’d been there. I know he has those things. I know he owns a lot of real estate.

Bissell: He owns real estate.

Sestero: And that’s as far as it goes. I did research and interview people, but really I wanted him to tell his story and let the readers decide what was there.

Correspondent: Is there any way to get that video he sent to the insurance company? Because the way it was described was rather extraordinary.

Sestero: It was extraordinary.

Bissell: I’ve seen it.

Sestero: When Tom watched it…

Bissell: It’s incredible.

Sestero: …his reaction was that he put his hand up and he was just like, “Oh my god.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Sestero: What have I gotten myself into?

Correspondent: Basically, just to tell our listeners, he had all this classical music over it apparently and also he recruited people to say good things about Tommy. So that he could get the insurance money. (laughs)

Bissell: And there are these really mournful shots of these burned blue jeans, scorched.

Correspondent: Blue jeans? Really? (laughs)

Sestero: They actually didn’t even look that bad.

Correspondent: (laughs) The insurance company went for this?

Bissell: I don’t know.

Sestero: I don’t know.

Bissell: All we have is the tape.

Sestero: He’s a relentless retail guy. In fact, right now, he’s even designing an underwear line and a jeans line.

Correspondent: Is he really?

Sestero: He’s going all out.

Correspondent: Are you going to be one of his models?

Sestero: No. I’ll delegate that to somebody else.

Correspondent: Tom, do you need some additional income?

Bissell: I don’t think the world needs to see that.

Sestero: (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay.

Bissell: But I will say the line that I’m happiest with in this book is: “In discussing Tommy’s background, the simplest answer is the right answer. But with Tommy, there doesn’t seem to be a simplest answer.” That’s the astounding thing about him.

Sestero: Yeah. You think you know something. And then there’s just a trail of mystery that you’re lead down. And after knowing him for fifteen years, there’s still a lot left to know.

Correspondent: But if you think about it, the creative financing that he brought to The Room is really no different than the creative financing that is behind most Hollywood projects.

Sestero: That’s true.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering if, for some reason, he inhabited that same kind of blind reckless instinct that we usually associate with Hollywood producers who hope someone else can cook the books. And really that’s why he was able to get The Room made. Just because that’s the way it is in L.A.

Bissell: It seems like he read a how to make a movie book, but skipped every other paragraph. Because some things he obviously did right. One of his quotes is “How they do so in Hollywood. We no different from big studio.” So he clearly believed he was doing things according to studio procedures.

Correspondent: He was following some of the guidelines.

Sestero: Yeah. His interpretation for The Room was that he was doing it like the big sharks. The billboard, the equipment, the green screen. He thought that’s how a high-end Hollywood production does their movie.

Correspondent: One of the most frightening elements of The Room, which I really must talk to you gentlemen about just to clarify this, is Tommy Wiseau’s ass. It is there. It reportedly scared the editor’s wife. It is covered during the love scenes and yet we have this one Brad Pitt-like moment when he’s out of bed. And as the book puts it, “I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable naked around people who resented him.” But this still doesn’t explain something, which I had hoped to get from the book. Maybe you guys can answer. Which was the relentless soundtrack of groans and thrusting that are over all of these love scenes. They’re relentlessly noisy. And I’m wondering if there’s something about Tommy Wiseau’s relationship with his ass contributed to the kind of noise factor in these particular scenes, to say nothing of the fact that eleven minutes of the film is composed of love scenes and all that.

Bissell: (to Sestero) You had to record those groan tracks.

Correspondent: You were actually the groaner?!?

Bissell: You can hear Greg in one of the groan scenes going “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”

Sestero: Yeah, I had to sit in a video booth and do those while watching it. And I just thought, “My god. This is just painful.” And I thought, okay, let’s make it easy. Again, I didn’t think anyone would see it. So I did that. And it came out terrible. But Tommy did the same thing. I think with Tommy, he’s proud of his rear end. And that’s great. But he was trying to create a leading man moment for himself and felt good about it and he believed. He has to show his ass in this movie or it will not sell. So that’s what made him decide. He was laying on the ground inside Birns & Saywer, wondering if he should do it. And he’s like, “You know what? I have to.”

Correspondent: And it was not even a closed set. That’s what’s even more fascinating about that.

Bissell: He opened the set.

Correspondent: He opened the set. Wow. But that’s the other thing! Could he just not remember his groans? Much as he could not remember his lines?

Sestero: Well, with the groans, I think sometimes they do do those little things in post to fill them in. But his groans went really too far. Which I think make those scenes even more fun.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh yeah? There’s groan outtakes.

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: How long is that first sex scene? It’s three and a half minutes.

Sestero: So long.

Correspondent: I know.

Sestero: It was actually even longer in the rough cut. It was like a music video. It just kept going on and on.

Correspondent: But he had to find something. A song that would last just as long.

Sestero: Exactly.

Correspondent: He couldn’t find a seven minute song that would work.

Sestero: He actually wanted to have one of Bon Jovi’s songs.

Bissell: “Always.”

Sestero: “Always.” To be there. And I don’t think Bon Jovi went for it.

(Loops for this program provided by oryan55, cork27, EOS, camzee, and supertex.)

The Bat Segundo Show #518: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (Download MP3)

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Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Wait in line for a few hours, saunter into a dark and expansive theater where you’ll be standing anywhere from five to forty-five minutes to take a seat (all depending upon how polite or mercenary you are), and settle onto one of the couches (partitioned in sets of three) once a stranger has had enough. But be careful with the way you spend your time. Because once you leave the area, whether for snack or bathroom break, there’s no coming back unless you stand in the snaking queue again.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock may favor the determined, but it’s something of a rigged game. Supply and demand is carefully calibrated by making the seats precious real estate. It’s a perfect laboratory for behavioral economist Dan Ariely to conduct new experiments. Yet the clips of people standing on train platforms or waiting in sordid rooms may strengthen your resolve to stay on your feet. Still, after a few hours, the impulse to slump into the next free seat only increases.

Inside the room, the projected images are recognizable and faintly exotic, liberated from cinematic sources both pop and obscure, and ineluctably locked into the very minute you are experiencing. At 3:00 PM, Woody Allen shows up for his appointment with Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and the joke about Sorvino’s prostitute telling Allen that she has “a great sense of humor” after showing him a clock with two fornicating pigs gets a new context. Little changes with Harold Lloyd’s famous clock-hanging moment, but when Peter Parker is fired for delivering a pizza late in Spider-Man 2, his fate at the hands of spoiled materialists is crueler because we are more aware of the temporal qualities.

Then there are the cinematic moments in which one was never especially aware of the time in the original context, even when clocks were heavily involved. Cathryn Harrison throws an old woman’s alarm clock collection out the window in Louis Malle’s Black Moon, but did the actual time ever really matter? Patrick McGoohan secures the electropass watch to escape the Village in “Arrival,” but without the roaring white balloon or Number Two to taunt him, he could very well be confused with a disgruntled bureaucrat. Jack Nicholson’s droll wooing of Ann-Margaret as he sings “Go to the Mirror” in Ken Russell’s Tommy becomes less about seduction and more about a doctor using time as sparingly as possible. When we see Nicholson again in a clip from About Schmidt, waiting for the last moments of 5:00 PM to tick away on his last day in a drab and lonely office, I couldn’t help but wonder if his fixation on time caused him to lose Ann-Margaret.

I had feared that The Clock would be a Wagnerian bauble: a novelty requiring only time and fortitude to embrace its contextual charms. But I discovered that Marclay’s massive opus tinkered not only with my passion for cinema, but upon my temporal prejudices. I experienced an undeniable joy for kitsch upon witnessing a preposterous fight scene from MacGyver and realized that my reverence for a certain period of 1980s cinema was more bountiful than expected. Yet I felt somewhat saddened when the film denied me clips of people fleeing the workplace after 5PM. I have always felt that there was something romantic about people liberated from their daily capitalist commitments to live out the true joys of their lives, but I didn’t feel The Clock properly acknowledged it. We do, however, see a moribund commuting moment on a packed subway. And I did notice that Marclay included a sad quotidian moment from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing. So clearly the assumptive fault is mine.

The Clock isn’t just about exposing our our enslavement to time. There is an inescapable physical component to this endurance test. If you are with friends, you may end up leapfrogging from couch to couch, slowly traveling back to your dear companions initially stranded in the IKEA archipelago. Because you are among an artistically sensitive crowd, you may find yourself throwing your dark coat over your head with a theatrical whoosh (as I did) to stub out the searing light from your phone as you text your coordinates to the people you came with, hoping that they will find you later. I witnessed some couples squeezing closer together, and I could suss out the degree to which friends wanted to be together by the way they raced to seating that had just opened up. But when a clip from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom played, stretching my mild voyeurism onto the discomfiting canvas of Carl Boehm’s hungry and sociopathic eyes, I become consumed by tremendous guilt in watching other people. If cinema was a communal experience, why should I have to be punished for it? Was there something pornographic in being curious about others? Or was The Clock something of an impetuous tot stomping its feet for attention?

I did feel that The Clock was very much a pleasant narcotic that was difficult for me to resist, yet these social concerns recalled Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a sidescrolling video game art project which confronts the manner in which you parcel out your life and pits individual ambition against love and communion. After nearly five hours inside Marclay’s fish tank, I was confident that I could spend at least four more, despite the fact that I had not slept much. But my companions had maxed out and I did not wish to abandon them.

We went to dinner. I had no desire to look at the time.

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Michael Apted (The Bat Segundo Show Special)

This 30 minute radio special serves as a transitional episode between The Bat Segundo Show, which aired its final episode last November, and Follow Your Ears, a new thematic radio program that will be premiering this month. It features an interview with Michael Apted, director of the Up movies. His latest installment, 56 Up, is now playing in select theaters in the United States.

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Guest: Michael Apted

Subjects Discussed: How intimate documentary competes with YouTube and viral video, the creative solidity of a long-standing broadcast guarantee, the Five Guys Burgers review, whether the Up films an appeal to a younger generation, the heightened political nature of 56 Up, why Cameron’s austerity measures affected Apted’s subjects more than Thatcher, pressing Tony on his possibly racist suggestions, avoiding predictability, conflict as the stuff of drama, how Apted’s subjects collaborate beyond being in front of the camera, how Apted is a part of the Up subjects’ lives, self-editing, behaving yourself in front of subjects, efforts to include Peter and Charles, Apted’s anger towards Charles, Charles’s lawsuit against Apted, being transparent with documentary subjects, why the Up subjects didn’t have a choice, persuading the subjects to appear in each new installment, the Up subjects’ sense of ownership, Neil confronting Apted about the filmmaker not knowing anything about his personal life, whether snapshots are fair representations of people, knowing that every grimace or every emotion on camera is going to be dissected by audiences, the ubiquity of the camera (and smartphones) in everyday culture, trust, taking risks, the degree to which people lie, the skill of interviewing, doing a disservice in not being open, why Apted credits himself as researcher, carrying on the legacy of 7 Up, fact checking and corroboration, the difficulties Apted had with 49 Up, passion vs. obligation, and the textures of lives.

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EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So there is a big question I wanted to ask you — and, regrettably, I did not talk with you for 49 Up, but during that particular time, we were in a stage where YouTube and viral videos were mere striplings compared to what they are now.

Apted: Right.

Correspondent: And this has led me to ask you, especially with these Up films, how a movie that deals with how humans evolve over nearly six decades of their lives — does a filmmaker like you compete with something like that? Or reality television? Of which interestingly, Peter, one of your subjects, seems to be using some of the moves normally one would associate with reality television for you, of all people. So what do you do to adapt? Or do you not really change up the setup you’ve had going now for several films here?

Apted: No. You see, I think I’ve got one huge advantage over everybody. I am at least thirty years ahead of the game.

Correspondent: Aha.

Apted: No one’s got what I’ve got. You know, and, uh, I think that’s what’s unique about it. That’s why of all the work I’ve ever done, this is to me the most precious. Because it is entirely original. And people have only copied it. No one has really come anywhere near to equaling it in longevity, nor do I think will they ever. Because as much as you talk about modern media, modern media is nothing as unpredictable, on marshy ground, can sink and dive and whatever at the drop of a hat. There’s about seven mixed metaphors in there. But the solidity which was in the broadcast world when we started, which guaranteed it at least into, say, 35 Up without any question about “Should we do this? Can we raise the money to do this in particular version of it?” has given me a running start. And I don’t think that anybody will ever catch me up. So I look at these newcomers with sort of a blase way and say, “Off you go.”

Correspondent: But aren’t you concerned with — for example, there’s — I’ll give you one example. There’s a viral video going around. It’s amusing enough. It’s a guy who is reviewing Five Guys Burgers in the back of his car. And he goes, “DAYM!” And this gets remixed over and over. And then weeks later, we see that he’s now a fixture on Jimmy Fallon.* And then he’ll be forgotten. And whatever natural exuberance he had is almost stifled instantly. And so, yes, I grew up on the Up movies. I watched them throughout my life. And it’s always a pleasure to go back every seven years. And it’s sort of like going to church, except on a seven year schedule. But simultaneously, I mean, doesn’t this bother you? I mean, how can you woo, for example, a younger generation of viewers when presently it’s really all about reducing human behavior to novelties, to something that’s kind of an ephemeral indulgence as opposed to really exploring the depths of someone?

Apted: (laughs) That was a bit of a mouthful. I don’t know. I suppose you’re right. I’ve never lost the audience. I always thought I’d give the series up if the viewing figures dropped away. And they don’t seem to have done. So whether young people are attracted to this, I don’t know. It’s almost staple stuff in teaching, you know, all sorts of sociology and whatever. You know, I don’t believe everything just disappears with the bathwater. I think people do have a sense of the past and a sense of history, especially when they cease to be teenyboppers and then become people with children and people with mortgages and all this kind of stuff. And this is the drama — this is, I call it, the heroism of everyday life of this series And I think everybody responds to that at some point. I mean, maybe nobody between the age of 11 and 25 will want to watch this. But there will come a time when they’ll discover it later on. And because it’s in a sense, without boasting, so rich because it covers so much of people’s lives, which no one else has ever covered, you know, I’m optimistic that it will stay around. So I don’t feel threatened by it. I know what you mean. About how can I attract a young audience, competing with Youtube. I mean, this is all over YouTube from the minute I practically finished editing it. So anyway, it’s a good question. But I’m not worried about it.

56 Up

Correspondent: So this seems to me a far more political installment of the series than previous ones. I mean, we have Jackie, who is on disability, and she excoriates [Prime Minister David[ Cameron at one point. You have Lynn, who we see after she has lost her job as a school librarian. There seems to be a great concern, at least on your part or on the camera’s part, on capturing the consequences of various austerity programs. And I’m wondering why the film tended to shift this way. I mean, these were going on under Thatcher. These were going on under a variety of…

Apted: You’re missing the point. The point is that how does it affect their lives. I’ve never been interested in any of the series of objectified politics. Politics only appears in issues when it affects their lives. Now certainly Thatcher was doing all sorts of bloodthirsty work. But these people were very young then. And it didn’t affect them. These people are now 56 years old. Their pensions are going out the window. Their salaries are going out of the window. The future of their children and their grandchildren is going out of the window. So that’s why it’s in this film. I don’t ask them political questions. They talk about it. Because I gave up asking politics in 42 Up when I foolishly asked them about Princess Diana, who had just been killed, and I threw it out, threw it away, because I was asking them their opinions on something that weren’t organic to their life. I’m not interested in their political opinions. I’m interested in how politics determine their life. And in this generation of people living in the United Kingdom, which is going through a worse time than here and will go through an even worse time and you’ll go through an even worse time, it’s of profound importance to people’s lives. And so my films — this generation from 56 — reflect the personal effect of this political kind of fallout that’s going on. But this is the first time this has ever really happened in the series. Because I haven’t found that politics has so interested or determined or, you know, concentrated itself in people’s lives as it is now.

Correspondent: Politics is only a concern for the Up series when it is personal.

Apted: Yes. Because the politics of the film are their lives. They are the political statement of the film. They’re not objective opinions. I’m not interested in opinions. I’m interested in the organic manifestation of politics in people’s lives.

Correspondent: I’m glad you brought up the Diana moments in 42 Up, which…

Apted: I thought I cut them out. Are they still around?

Correspondent: I’d heard about this. But you do leave the moment with Tony here where he’s very defensive in relation to certain racist connotations of immigration. So in a situation like that, that’s kind of a political..

Apted: Yes. But again, it’s organic. It’s about the culture he grew up in. It’s about the society that he feels has been degraded. Where he grew up, his roots have been degraded by immigration. And, you know, I called him out on it basically. And, you know, it was a pretty scary moment for him and for me. Should I ask the question? I thought, “Sod it. I will ask the question.” I think it’s the question everybody was asking. Is he racist? Or was he not? Does he have a fair point? Maybe he does. He has a right to express it. He was. People were turfed out of their habitats by a great invasion of people from other countries and whatever. And maybe he has a point. So with him, you know, the whole idea of racial integration is very, very crucial. Because it did transform the whole community that he grew up in.

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Correspondent: How do you decide what questions to ask of the subjects? Is it largely intuitive?

Apted: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, clearly, you’re still getting into trouble after all these years.

Apted: It is intuitive. And it’s…it’s…I wish I could think of an amusing way to express it, but basically I assiduously do not prepare for it. I do not go back into the old films. I do not say, “Oh my god! They’ve said this in 49. What are they going to think about it in 56?” Because I’ve noticed over the generations that the films change tone. They’re not the same films. And I thought the only way to preserve that is to make each episode as fresh as I can. To sit down like we are now and talk and not know which way the conversation’s going to go and what you’re going to ask me, what I’m going to answer you. I’ve no idea. And that kind of spontaneity, I think, is kind of crucial. Because it’s not predictable. Once this series becomes predictable, then I think I’m sort of dead in the water. There’s an element of predictability built into it — i.e., the whole idea that from the minute you’re born, you know what kind of actions you have. But given that, and that’s become kind of less important — again as the series has gone on. Because English society, the society of Great Britain, has changed a lot. Social mores are much more flexible. Education’s much more flexible and all this. These people came into life at a certain period in time in the English class system, seem to be very, very strong. And there’s still a class system. But it’s changed. It’s become more Americanized. It’s more to do with money than it is where you were born and whatever. So I’ve forgotten what the question I’m answering is about.

Correspondent: No, no. I was very curious about forgetting the previous films.

Apted: Ah yes!

Correspondent: I mean, there’s this aspect too. Do you carry enough of a reliable familiarity with the material? Or do you find that the relationships, both positive and fractious, are enough to steer you into the next installment?

Apted: No, it’s both. I mean, I have a huge amount of information in the back of my brain. I mean, I know what the great iconic moments are. What each character, what’s been there, kind of a few key moments. And I know that without having to think about it. But, you know, the provocative fractious stuff that I have with them, I think that’s what gives it life. And that — you can only approach that by having a genuine conversation and surprising each other.

Correspondent: Because conflict is the stuff of drama, it should be the secret ingredient of your relationship with your subjects for the Up movies.

Apted: Yeah. It is. And, you know, there’s lots of ground for conflict. There’s an overwhelming sense of trust, which is why they’re all in it pretty much and how it continues. But on the other hand, there’s also conflict. There’s a residual anger from them, I think. Because they were — they were press ganged into it. They didn’t make a decision at seven to do this. They didn’t make a decision at 14 to do this. And then when they became adults, suddenly they were in the middle of this rollercoaster and sort of stuck with it. So there’s still an anger, I think, which I still find with them about that. But generally I think that’s been kind of now overtaken with a sort of a sense of a trust. And the trust they have in me is that if they’ve got something to say, I’ll let them say it. And I’ll answer it if I can. Or acknowledge it if they’re right and I’m wrong.

Correspondent: But Nick in this movie, he says, “This is not a picture of me. It’s a picture of somebody.”

Apted: Yeah.

Correspondent: He complains that he doesn’t have any control over how he is actually being presented. Suzy says, “Well, I don’t think this is presented as a well-rounded picture of me.” So it’s very interesting that your subjects seem to complain or, at least, I noticed their complaints more this time than I did in previous ones, although you have had skirmishes with them in the past. I mean, what do you do to placate them? I mean, do you allow them to see elements of the film or how it’s actually taking place? And, of course, Charles, he threatened to sue you. And he’s….there’s no trace of him in this movie. I was sort of surprised.

Apted: And do you know what his job is?

Correspondent: He’s a TV producer. I know.

Apted: Documentary filmmaker.

Correspondent: Yeah. But does that recuse him from…

Apted: No. Of course not. It makes it unforgivable. If you live by the sword, you have to die by the sword. But you’ve asked me about a thousand questions in the last twenty seconds and I’m trying to figure out — I mean, what you missed out is the point that Nick is making. He’s saying, “No, this isn’t a proper representation of me. But it is a representation of somebody.” I.e., it isn’t the details of him. But it’s some iconic representation of what he stands for and who he is. Which is what all these things can be. Of course. How can I put people’s lives into eighteen minutes? Or whatever, however long I give them? Of course it’s my judgment. It’s my taste to decide what goes in. That’s true of any film ever made. Whether it’s a documentary. The only film that doesn’t qualify is Andy Warhol pointing at the Empire State Building for 24 hours without changing the film. Everything is a cultural or judgmental decision and I make those and, if I”m wrong, I’m wrong. But all I can say is they’re all still here. They haven’t been so offended by it that they’ve gone away and dumped me, as it were.

The Bat Segundo Show Special (“#498″): Michael Apted (Download MP3)

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* — Note: The broadcast erroneously referred to “Jimmy Kimmel” rather than “Jimmy Fallon.” The transcript reflects the facts, but we apologize for the on-air error.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Imagine a pop-up book mating with a crisp high-def image. Throw in occasional jerky motion resembling undercranked Mack Sennett moments when actors move too much, overly defined planes along the Z axis suggesting a View-Master brightened by the heat of a thousand suns, noses and ears sometimes revealed to be pellucidly prosthetic, and overhead shots of landscapes looking more like a cut scene crunched through an overclocked Nvidia card five years from now. To my eyes, this was what 48 frames per second looked like on a fifty-foot screen. I had heard reports that one was “supposed to get used to this” after a period lasting somewhere between five and twenty minutes. Unlike other 3D films, I did not get a headache. On the flip side, I couldn’t believe in the aesthetic.

But then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is “fantasy” — not the thoughtful form from the adept hands of Michael Moorcock or Mervyn Peake or Kelly Link, but the inoffensive offerings from J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a fantasy which opts to swim in the shallow end of the pool. The covenant is that, if the fantasy short-changes on human scope and capitulates to escapism, then the fantasy must inspire new awe and fresh wonder.

We come into The Hobbit familiar with the Shire’s round doors and verdant pleasures from years before. We have seen Middle Earth’s eco-porn greens and Rivendell’s gables and gazebos. So why exactly should we return to the theater and hand over our hard-earned shekels if it’s more of the same? Are we here for nostalgic purposes? Do filmmaker and audience alike prefer stagnation? I didn’t mind being there and back again, but the too clean 48fps technology had the strange effect of cheapening my middling affinity for Middle Earth. Like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has returned to the beginning, motivated by technological tinkering and the considerable dollars he will collect from feverish and unquestioning fanboys rather than any real need to spin a good yarn. At least there is nothing here as terrible as Jar Jar Binks.

For long stretches, this first film in Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy failed to seduce. This is largely because its source material only has enough material for two films. By my calculation, it takes Jackson 168 minutes to dramatize about 82 pages of material, which seems needlessly profligate. The Hobbit is many things, but it is neither Ulysses nor Gravity’s Rainbow. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see an extended version and supplements on DVD ensuring that nobody leaves the house for the next ten years.

The film opens with a lengthy flashback distressingly close to the confusing monologue which opened David Lynch’s ill-received Dune adaptation. But why? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a straightforward first sentence requiring no additional mythology. But Jackson and his writers (which include Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to helm this movie) feel compelled to throw in any stray flashbacks that they can to pad out this movie. I don’t wish to diminish the need for dwarf kingdoms, but there’s nothing in the film’s first hour even as remotely alluring as the Nazgûl, which provided The Fellowship of the Ring with an immediate threat to jump-start the narrative and set our heroes on an adventurous path.

Without something as big as Mordor threatening to engulf Middle Earth driving the story, Jackson’s métier as a Wagnerian filmmaker is undone by a cinematic experience that feels more like a game on rails, especially during a climactic goblin chase scene with a constantly moving godlike camera, but a paucity of closeups or medium shots. It also doesn’t help that Martin Freeman, cast as the younger Bilbo Baggins, really should have been hired ten years earlier. Having grown from the young and neurotic comic archetype into a more subdued and interesting middle-aged actor (best exemplified by his portrayal of Watson in Steven Moffatt’s Sherlock), Freeman is curiously unpersuasive in this film when he complains about wanting to be back home among his books and fellow hobbits. Ian McKellen is okay as Gandalf, but one longs for the gravelly gravitas he displayed so eminently in the last trilogy. However, I very much enjoyed Ken Stott’s fresh and feisty portrayal of Balin. But I do have a weak spot for any character with a massive bushy beard.

This lack of focus causes the first half to feel like a tenuous string of loosely connected sequences: dwarves show up at Bilbo Baggins’s hobbit hole, on Dori, on Nori, on Gloin, on Oin, on Blitzen, orcs, wargs, is Bilbo up for the journey, knowing look from Gandalf, walking, walking, orcs, hidden swords, is Bilbo up for the journey, complaints from Thorin, elves, orcs, knowing look from Gandalf, mention of arcane Middle Earth reference to appease fanboys, orcs, orcs, is Bilbo up for the journey.

You get the idea. But when the mountain trolls show up halfway into the movie, An Unexpected Journey starts to become fun for those, like me, who were fatigued by the bloodless and cutesy bullshit calculated to make this Fun for the Whole Family™. These trolls are lumbering, mumbling, ass-scratching giants who hock loogies into pots loaded with the carcasses of dwarves and elves. In other words, they’re a nice throwback to the visceral films Jackson made early in his career before going Hollywood, serving as a reminder that Jackson is at his best when he lets his inner six-year-old come out. Casting Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown is also a brilliant move, for McCoy taps both his Roadshow days and the dark command he brought to his brown-coated Doctor Who incarnation to enliven the eccentric wizard who plows through terrain with a rabbit sleigh. It is also hard to go wrong with good ol’ Gollum, arguably the most enthralling CGI villain of the past fifteen years, during the highly compelling game of riddles sequence. Why hasn’t anybody created a Ball-Arnaz inspired sitcom called I Love Precious?

But An Unexpected Journey is felled by its zestless commitment to the well-trodden path. Make no mistake: this is not Pan’s Labyrinth, Labyrinth, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, Princess Mononoke or The Princess Bride. Did we really need subtitles when the orcs don’t say anything especially interesting? Do we really need narrative digressions when the meat on the bones is so sparse? There are a few inspired ideas, such as the aforementioned trolls and a goblin stenographer traversing along a pulley cable on a chair. But if you spend years of your life working on a fantasy trilogy, shouldn’t it contain more imagination? Shouldn’t you wait as long as it takes to read the secret moon runes embedded in the map?

skyfall

Review: Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond film series has experienced growing pains during its five decades: the awkward political correctness in the Pierce Brosnan era (Tomorrow Never Dies‘s “Filthy habit!”), Sean Connery’s dubious high-priced return to Diamonds Are Forever for a very silly moon buggy chase scene, the preposterous gadgets in Die Another Day, and the failure to figure out what to do with Timothy Dalton. Quantum of Solace, with its return to convention and its ridiculous title, threatened to attenuate the good will established by the series reboot, Casino Royale.

But I’m pleased to report that Skyfall is a sharp, thrilling, classy, and rich-looking installment announcing a confident trajectory for the Daniel Craig iteration of James Bond. While it’s somewhat alarming to see Craig transform from the new double circle on the block to aging agent in six mere years, he remains an enjoyably chilly and crisp Bond, preferring to unleash his quiet fury when his car is destroyed rather than when the people around him die. He’s good enough to ask about agents who have been killed, but this is more of a functional than a empathic query. He’s willing to rip shards of depleted uranium from his chest to ID a sniper. When given little more than a radio transmitter and a pistol responding to his thumbprint from Q or the family hunting rifle for a final showdown, he’ll make do with the Spartan setup. He’s the James Bond for the “too big to fail” age. If he wasn’t busy strangling henchmen with his legs in icy water, he’d have a bustling career as a corporate efficiency expert.

You could say that Craig’s Bond is the closest to Richard Stark’s Parker. Like Parker, Craig’s Bond is focused and economical, even when he’s holding onto the bottom of an elevator to pursue a sniper. Yet Bond’s commitment to professionalism extends beyond money. He isn’t against vacation. But his duty to his country, perhaps anchored by his reliance on pills and alcohol, hinders him from becoming a full-fledged sociopath. “Orphans make the best recruits,” says M to Bond. And the price for being a double agent is extirpating your need for family. It’s a distinction that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, playing the baddie here), fails to understand, which may be one of the reasons Silva insists on calling M “Mommy.”

We’re informed early on that not everybody can make it out in the field. But while a lesser action film would drop this idea after the handsome actors deliver the details to advance the story, Skyfall actually follows up on this idea throughout its fast-moving two and a half hours. Aside from the many literal missed shots informing the narrative, Skyfall is smart enough to show us M’s poor pistol marksmanship when away from the office. We also see an injured Bond lose his aim after a serious injury (with Silva taking advantage of this later on an island in a very gripping William Tell moment).

Here is a Bond entry in which the best people don’t always make the best decisions on the job. But in Skyfall, there’s the suggestion that real world know-how is no match against technology. It isn’t just the service door that refuses to open in the Underground when there’s an oncoming train. The creative team here understands that Bond has always been steeped in an old world approach. By pitting MI6 against a vengeful hacker who would throw an Ugandan election just for kicks, the human intelligence — the way Bond has worked and seduced a room — that has always buttressed the series is given an intriguing trial. But if being a double agent is “a young man’s game,” there’s surprising adaptability for the old dogs in need of a shave. As Bond tells a man who attempts to seduce him, “What makes you think this is my first time?”

We even get to see M reciting Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during a public inquiry. Beyond this unexpected literary reading (not without precedent, given Simon Raven’s contributions to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), there’s also an unexpected cameo from an obnoxious CNN anchor. The priapic qualities of the old world may gave us James Bond, but it also saddles us with Wolf Blitzer.

I suspect these sly nuances — which have much to do with John Logan working with the established Neal Purvis and Robert Wade screenwriting team this time around — may cause Skyfall to hold up slightly better than Casino Royale‘s darker edge and Guantanamo Bay-inspired torture scene. While it’s tempting to compare the three Daniel Craig films with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Skyfall allows us more room to settle in. It’s possible that the delay in production caused Skyfall‘s creative team to tighten what they had. Because the exciting opening train chase, Silva’s indelible parable of the two rats, and the new Q trying to hide his sneaky work from Gareth Mallory are the types of moments that emerge from artful and well-considered entertainment.

It was also a brilliant move to get Roger Deakins on board as cinematographer. His ambers and umbers give this film the glow of fifty year scotch. There’s one especially coruscating scene in a Shanghai high rise, where Bond dukes it out with a sniper against the dazzling backdrop of endless glass and projected lights from the outside rolling slowly into the dark.

While Adele’s theme song is marvelous, Thomas Newman’s pulsating score is a major disappointment. Newman’s music here seems more at home in a forgettable action movie playing on HBO at three in the morning. I don’t know if John Barry can ever be replaced, but if the Bond films are going to step it up with installments like Casino Royale and Skyfall, then the Broccoli-Wilson team needs a composer to match.

At times, Skyfall is a little too reliant upon Silva’s theatrics, which threaten to overshadow the film’s mild efforts to deepen the relationship between Bond and M. This may be because Silva is one of the best Bond villains in years. When Silva tells Bond about what he did to get where he is today (with director Sam Mendes wise enough to hold this performance in a long take), Bardem instantly commands your attention. But the film flags a bit just before his first appearance, even after it has gone to the trouble to destroy a pivotal base in a gas explosion. We all know that the James Bond films tend to require the bad guys to inform us of their vile plans in person.

But these are pedantic beefs. I enjoyed Skyfall a great deal. I even found myself blurting out “Awesome!” during a particularly sinister exchange between Bond and Silva. And if that is the measure of whether you should see this movie, Skyfall more than lives up.

SHERMANSMOON

Ross McElwee (The Bat Segundo Show)

Ross McElwee is most recently the director of Photographic Memory.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stepping away from the memories.

Guest: Ross McElwee

Subjects Discussed: Walker Percy’s “certification,” Heidegger’s Alltäglichkeit, whether social media and YouTube can capture the essential quality of “everydayness,” patterns and layers of meaning discovered through the act of filming one’s life for decades, whether or not people have the patience to sit through a two and a half hour movie these days, how McElwee’s cinematic voice has altered with Photographic Memory, the use of Ken Burns-like music for a photographic montage, why McElwee decided to look backwards instead of tackling the present, problems in passing on the McElwee legacy, Adrian McElweee plugged into technology at the expense of conversation, patriarchal dissing, the imprecision of father-son parallels, the godfathers of the cinéma vérité movement, recreating the moon shot from Sherman’s March, the pernicious influence of the YouTube confessional, Time Indefinite as the obverse of Photographic Memory, filming a tumor for 72 seconds, why Marilyn Levine was not included in Photographic Memory, whether removing a family member from a film offers the truth about a dynamic, divorce, preserving privacy while remaining transparent, meeting Josh Kornbluth in Six O’Clock News, McElwee making “fiction films,” the middle ground between fiction and truth, Tolstoy’s maxim about novels not revealing everything, Andy Warhol’s Empire, why Charleen Swansea hasn’t appeared in McElwee’s recent films, a rare McElwee complaint about irrelevance, compartmentalizing the home environment and France, an adamant yet insignificant moment about a dish which caused Our Correspondent to question its significance, the future of documentary filmmaking and reality TV, Catfish, whether the marvel of the everyday will be informed by seducing the audience over questions of truth, the hidden rat at the motel in Bright Leaves, marveling over quotidian details, Steve Im in Six O’Clock News, conversation vs. dramatic evening news elements, when it’s easier to have conversations with strangers, the virtues of sitting still in one place, apocalyptic elements in McElwee’s films, being informed by lingering anxieties about the end, the harmful effects of smoking, confronting your own mortality, how Adrian’s presentation has transformed in McElwee’s films, fishing, the world divide between those who have kids and those who don’t, periods in life when kids are delightful, whether most people remember the last names of all their lovers and roommates, McElwee’s early attempts to write fiction, being inspired by limitations, how libertine digital shooting has impacted documentaries, and the dangers of not being selective enough when making am ovie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m sorry I didn’t wear my Opus shirt. I couldn’t find one. I don’t think they even make them anymore. I was expecting you to come in and film me or something.

McElwee: Well, that can be arranged. I’ve got a little camera right here. (picking up iPhone)

Correspondent: Oh, I see. Well, I’ve got mine right here. (picking up Galaxy) So I know you wrote an essay on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, which is very interesting. Because I’ve seen your films and they really make me think of what Percy said about “certification” in The Moviegoer, which of course is taken from Martin Heidegger’s notion of Alltäglichkeit, “everydayness” in Being and Time. This idea where we go about our lives, we’re always sort of reflecting on what the meaning of this is. And he said that it was essential. So I’m wondering. How can the video medium, which you have actually gravitated to for the first time with this film, and social media in our present landscape take into account this notion of everydayness? I mean, this film almost seems to be an argument for and against it. So what of this?

McElwee: That’s a question? That’s an essay! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, we do essay questions and answers here. It’s sort of similar to your films, I think. (laughs)

McElwee: It is. It actually perfectly complements my whole way of making films. Because it’s a very complex thing that you’re asking of me. And to me, filming the everyday, filming little moments from everyday life, is totally essential to understanding what life as a whole is about. I think it’s somehow not recording of any specific moment of life that leads to a richer understanding or a deeper presentation of the meaning of that particular life. But it’s the accretion of all of these things and the overlapping, the patterns, the resonances of daily moments filmed that resonate with things you’ve already seen before. And I find as I get older, as I film my friends and my family, that I see patterns and layers of meaning that would not have been there if I had just filmed them one time. So I think it’s partially that curiosity about the moment of being in the present. And that’s very, very important to my filmmaking. And yet now there’s also a kind of layering that seems to be happening de facto, which is because I’ve been filming for a long time. I’m led to putting together combinations of shots and scenes and moments that span decades. And I have the luxury of doing that now. Because I’m getting older. One of the few benefits of getting older.

Correspondent: The films have gotten shorter, however. Interestingly.

McElwee: Yeah, that’s partially because people don’t have the patience to sit through two and a half hour films anymore.

Correspondent: I do.

McElwee: Well, you’re not the typical viewer.

Correspondent: Well, the interesting thing, aside from the fact that this is shot on video, is that there are a number of surprises about this film, aesthetically speaking, where it just does not seem like a Ross McElwee film. We have, of course, the photos with the music. And I was like, “Am I watching a Ken Burns movie or am I watching a McElwee movie?”

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Or even the fact that you gravitate more towards the past instead of the present.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: You know, if you are altering your voice to fit the needs of what is required today, is it truly a genuine McElwee movie?

McElwee: No. Well, I’m not altering the voice because of marketing. There’s no way that I’m doing that. But I think it really is a matter of becoming older. I know, for me, for having kids or at least a son who’s a different generation, I’m starting to wonder, “What is this tension that I feel with my son? And why does this seem so extreme?” And that led me to go back to my own past. And I think in doing so, I did fine. I wasn’t shooting film back then and I don’t have images, moving images, to call upon, to represent what was happening at that point in my life. But I do have still photographs. And so, yes, there’s still photographs in my film and it is the first time I’ve used them this extensively. You’re absolutely right about that. And it’s the first time I’ve used stretches of music the way that I have in this film. Music has been in all my films. It’s diegetic. It comes out of the filming itself and the filming environment.

Correspondent: But the music comes before the voice. Whereas in previous films, the voice has ushered in the music.

McElwee: Yes, that’s true. Although I do….yes, you’re right. You’re right. That’s a different way of using music. But I think I felt that these were raw materials that I had available, which represented what my life was like at that time. Therefore, I had to draw on them. And it did make a different kind of film. Of course, the other large difference was that I’m much older now. And so there’s much more to look back on. So that way does become more “historical.”

Correspondent: Much more to look back on? What about looking forward? I mean, literally. I was shocked watching this movie. Because I was expecting the cross-country quest of some kind. But, no, it really is going backwards towards events that are half a lifetime ago. I mean, why should they define who you are in the present? They certainly haven’t in other films that you’ve made.

McElwee: No. And I think it may be a one time departure. But I feel that I have now earned the right to make whatever film I wanted to make and that was the film I wanted to make. And I think it’s mainly because of what I say in the beginning of the film. It’s that I’m a little stymied by my relationship to my son. And I’m confused by the directions he’s going in. And those directions are somewhat representative of his entire generation. But I’m also smart enough to realize that my father had the same questions about me. I didn’t go to medical school. That’s so puzzling. “Why would you not want to do something that would guarantee you a comfortable and fulfilling life?” No, I wanted to become a filmmaker. What is that all about? He must have really wondered about those things.

Correspondent: But the difference between you and your father, and Adrian and you, is that we have this image you have throughout your films of your father showing how to suture up something and your brother going ahead and participating. You’ve used that repeatedly.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: In this, it’s almost like you’re the hired cameraman for Adrian’s movies.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: It’s not necessarily like the passing of a legacy that Adrian rejects, although Adrian also adopts the filmmaking guise. So is there really a parallel here?

McElwee: Not a precise parallel. But there’s some irony too in there. I become Adrian’s camerman at the end of the film and I think that’s meant to be somewhat humorous. People understand that. I’m doing documentaries and determined to do fiction. Not only that, but I become his cinematographer. So, yeah, it’s clearly a departure for me to go in some of the directions I’ve gone in too. But I think it’s very healthy. Why not try something you haven’t tried before? And I’ve done it. Whether I’ll do something similar again remains to be seen.

Correspondent: Going back to adjusting to recent developments of the last five or six years — smartphones, social media, and so forth — one of our first images of Adrian. He is plugged into his laptop, quite literally. He has the laptop in front of him. He has the headphones. He has this massive cafe drink with a bright blue straw. And you’re trying to say, “I need your full attention.” And he refuses this. And this to my mind — because I saw your film twice. The first time, I was horrified by this. The second time, I actually came to sympathize with Adrian a little bit more.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: But I initially thought, “My God, he’s a spoiled brat. Here he is. The great Ross McElwee is being dissed by his own son!”

McElwee: But that’s his job as a son. Is to diss his dad.

Correspondent: Yeah, but diss in that sort of way? I mean, not have a meaningful conversation with you? Because it seems that you clearly establish, especially when you drag out all of your old notebooks and all of your old photos, there’s meticulous ideas that you set down in your youth and he’s frivolously typing away on his computer.

McElwee: Well, see, my father through I was frivolously scribbling away in my notebooks. It’s like so judgmental of fathers to be that way about their sons.

Correspondent: Or viewers to be that way about patriarchal relationships.

McElwee: Exactly. And the other thing that you can say is, “Well, yeah, he’s busy texting and listening to some conversation at the same time. He’s multitasking and he doesn’t even hear me when I ask the question or acknowledge that he’s heard me.” But what am I doing? I’ve got a digital camera on my shoulder. Who am I to criticize him for being wrapped up in his technology when I’m also wrapped up in my technology?

Correspondent: Well, you weren’t in the camera shot. But I’m pretty sure you weren’t holding a beverage. I’m pretty certain.

McElwee: That’s true.

Correspondent: He had more distractions than you going on.

McElwee: Or he’s just more ambidextrous than I am.

Correspondent: (laughs) Ambidextrous. But I mean, you say that it’s pretty much the same thing. But I would argue, given all the additional impediments from Adrian, that it’s not. That your quest into France was a quest for the usual frivolities of falling into weird relationships. I mean, you have the image of your son next to his girlfriend and there are two laptops there. I mean, that’s a fundamental difference that disrupts the parallel. So what of this? Is there? Can you actually adopt a parallel between your own life and Adrian’s?

McElwee: No, of course. It’s never precisely the same from generation to generation. We all know that. And I think the things that you point out visually were stunning to me when I actually saw them through the viewfinder. The two laptops opened at right angles to each other at a cafe table.

Correspondent: You didn’t notice when you were filming? It’s sort of like the rat in the motel [from Bright Leaves].

McElwee: Well, I did notice when I was filming. Because I thought, “Ah! This is the image I’m looking for.” I didn’t tell them to do that. But from the minute I saw this, I said, “I’m going to film this. Because it just seems so appropriate.” But I think it’s unfair to be too critical of Adrian and his generation for being so wrapped up in this technology. Because it’s available. And I was shooting 16mm film because it was suddenly available in a portable sense. You could put these cameras on your shoulder and go into the world for the first time. That was the whole cinéma vérité revolution. You know, my dad didn’t understand any of that. He thought it was crazy. In fact, at the very beginning, so did most funding agencies. Public television. Arts agencies. Nobody got it. That this was going to be something significant. That you could take technology into the world and interact with it on its own terms. As opposed to bringing people into the studio and interviewing them. Or recreating things the way Flaherty did. Directing it as if it were a fiction film. Using people from real life. And, in fact, it took a while for people to understand the possibilities of cinéma vérité. This was before I began making films. Those guys. [Richard] Lecock and [Albert and David] Maysles and [D.A.] Penebaker. They had to fight to get their kinds of filmmaking seen and shown and produced. So there’s always a learning curve for the rest of them.

Correspondent: And I dig all those guys. But the one commonality throughout all that early cinéma vérité is that there is a concern for capturing the human as opposed to cutting reality up into a stylistic mélange that gets in the way of really grasping with life. I mean, you try to recreate that famous moon shot from Sherman’s March in this film, but we see that we have all these buildings and your monologue is there. But the moon is more insignificant on video and it’s populated by all these buildings and so forth.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Clearly you’re aware that this is either fading or this is in competition with the YouTube confessional/YouTube star movement. And so forth. I mean, where do you fit in? Is there a place for you, do you think?

McElwee: In this? Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not really trying to tailor my films for any particular generation or any particular venue. I didn’t know where this film was going to end up. It was commissioned by French television. But aside from that, I had no idea where it would end up. And even that was an obscure presentation and platform. It was a late night experimental television series. And I was very happy to accept their commission and make this film. But I didn’t know what kind of film it would be. And I didn’t feel like I could tailor it to suit any particular category or any particular audience. And so there’s a way in which perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot by not really thinking more about where these films are destined and is there a way I can make them more accessible to the younger generation who will then download it from their computers. I just…I can’t think like that. For whatever reason, I’m just driven to make a film because I want to make it on my own terms.

The Bat Segundo Show #491: Ross McElwee (Download MP3)

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livingmar

Liv Ullmann (The Bat Segundo Show)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Liv Ullmann is the subject of Liv and Ingmar, which is now playing the New York Film Festival. She has also appeared in many legendary movies.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether his persona is predicated upon cries and whispers.

Guest: Liv Ullmann

Subjects Discussed: Maintaining patience while living with an eccentric genius, living in other people’s dreams, how women’s expectations have changed over the last fifty years, the spate of op-ed pieces about film culture being dead, the distinctions between storytelling and lies, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, pride in belonging to the storytellers, Scenes from a Marriage, telling your story in a documentary vs. drawing upon deep emotions as an actor, pretense vs. reality, what it really means to be a filmmaker, finding meaning in people who are difficult, getting negativity out through performance, not giving up, old people who grow bitter (and avoiding this), when the life in people’s eyes fades around forty, staying alive, Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of coming to the world with sealed orders, when shaking hands can be the most important gesture in your life, why Ingmar Bergman got such emotional performances from Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s bitterness over Liv not participating in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s efforts to restrict cast members from partying, efforts to control other people, what Liv and Ingmar did to relax, being an introvert, Changing, keeping the quest alive for the “lost kingdom of childhood,” and being disturbed by people who lie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Tolstoy once suggested that time and patience were the greatest of all warriors. And in watching this film [Liv and Ingmar], the great astonishment I had was how you maintained such grace and such patience with Ingmar throughout this entire run. I mean, here was a guy who locked the doors, who locked you and other cast members up, who built the wall around his house, who did all sorts of things. Didn’t let you see family and friends. Basically boarded you up. And I have to ask just from a basic standpoint, how do you maintain such patience with a figure like that? Is his genius enough to forgive his eccentricities? Were you just in a state where at that young age you were in awe of this man who was so intense and romantic? Just to start off here. I was really curious. I mean, that takes a lot of fortitude.

Ullmann: Well, you know, when you describe it, it sounds more dramatic than it really was. Because he built this house for us. And I think he had a dream that we would be there, painfully connected and really by ourselves. And that is a dream you can have when you are middle-aged, which he was. Because the world had been tiring for him. And I was so much in love that I didn’t question it. And it’s many, many, many years ago when women more easily took to that role. And I don’t think I questioned it so much as I sometimes felt, “I don’t think I could consider living like this for always.” Because I longed for things which were outside of this island. And it’s more when I look back at it, I think, “So that was the Liv I was then. And the Liv that I’m now wouldn’t let that happen.” But mostly it was an incredible time. It was five years of my life living on that island that I would never, never be without.

Correspondent: But you do say in the film, “I was trapped in another person’s fantasy.”

Ullmann: No, I didn’t say I was trapped. I said, “I think I’m living someone else’s dream.”

Correspondent: Living. Got it.

Ullmann: And why I corrected you on that is — one thing is to be trapped. Because that can hurt if you have your tale in there.

Correspondent: Sorry for the paraphrase.

Ullmann: But to live in someone else’s dream, that can be beautiful. And for long time, a dream can seem beautiful. But it’s not your dream. And if you are to live, you have to be in your own reality and/or in your own dream.

Correspondent: But surely even before all this, you had your own dreams. You had perhaps some kind of autonomy that was in bloom. When did you know that you had this independent imagination?

Ullmann: Well, maybe my dream was to live in someone else’s dream. For many women, that is a dream. At that time.

Correspondent: At that time.

Ullmann: Absolutely. But even today, I know women still are dreaming about man coming riding on the white horse. But we are talking now about fifty years ago. Or forty-five years ago. Women at that time, we had different expectations — or we thought we had — than women today. And sometimes I feel that women at that time maybe had a more realistic look at life than women today. I’m very happy.

Correspondent: More realistic? How so?

Ullmann: I think we said yes to moral life. We weren’t into Facebook and Twitters and computers. We didn’t look down at our hand all the time. We looked more at other people’s faces and things that were happening around us.

Correspondent: That actually leads me to ask you. If you have an age defined by smartphones and social media, the very intimate cinema that you made with Ingmar and that you have made on your own — I mean, what chance is there today for that to grow? To have an audience? There’s been a lot of op-ed columns in light of the New York Film Festival, in which people are arguing “Well, why aren’t there more films for adults?” or “Is film culture dead?” What are your thoughts on this? I mean, is it still very much alive? Or is this becoming a more exclusive audience? And what do you do as a filmmaker and as an actor to counter the limiting short attention spans?

Ullmann: I hope it is not dead. Because still, to sit in a dark movie house is one of the few places now that people can be and share laughter and dreams and incredible talent. Like you go and watch a ballet or opera or concert. But it’s less and less of that. Which is very sad. And we are more looking at TV and looking at lies from politicians and so. Or the computers and so. Life is more and more distorted from really who we are as human beings. And we’re living in a world of violence, of strong violence and terror. And so we really need culture. And we really need the art, the creation of people’s thoughts and who they are to remind us about who we are and why we are. And it’s harder and harder to find that out with the help of other people. And if we do it alone right now, we do it through machines, not through other people.

Correspondent: How do the lies of a narrative — because, of course, all narratives are essentially wonderful houses of lies that we open the door to — how does that differ from the lies that we have to endure in our culture? How can that offer us…

Ullmann: A storyteller is never a liar. Because, you know, it’s storytelling. And horrible storytelling — you know, it’s storytelling. And you take out from that the experience you really need, the shock you really need. You know, I’m in the middle now of reading a book. Very strange title. I cannot wait till…

Correspondent: What’s the name of the book?

Ullmann: The Pee…?

Correspondent: No worries if you cant.

Ullmann: It’s on my bed.

[At this point, the very kind publicist sprinted to the other room to grab the book.]

Ullmann: And I cannot wait til this afternoon when it is over and I will go back to that. Because it’s a lie. Because it’s a novel. But I’m getting so many thoughts about the time there was and time that is coming. And it has this strange title of….The [Guernsey] Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Correspondent: Oh yeah, yeah! I’ve heard about this. I haven’t read it.

Ullmann: It’s giving me so much joy and I have so few pages left! Now storytelling is lie. But that is real lies. But to stand on TV and say, “This is the truth.” Because that’s what they do! They don’t say, “No. Here comes a story.”

Correspondent: They say, “This is true.”

Ullmann: This is the truth.

Correspondent: If you are lying and you say that it’s the truth, it’s worse than if you’re lying, but it’s a story. So you accept it. It’s about believing.

Ullmann: And you don’t say it’s a lie!

Correspondent: Yes.

Ullmann: You say it’s a story. And I belong to the storytellers. And I’m proud to belong to the storytellers. And I feel we are losing them. Because it’s looked upon as some luxury and people want them to be quick and different and cartoonish. We’ll be lost world when it comes to who we are with our soul. What the soul is all about.

Correspondent: So you see some of the more cartoonish advancements in cinema, some of the more stylistic advancements, as very harmful for it? Is that what you would say?

Ullmann: I think, well, so many of it is harmful. And we have seen it. Because it doesn’t aspire to peace and connection and humanity.

Correspondent: Empathy.

Ullmann: It aspires to violence and to how many people can I kill within a minute. And it looks brave and strangely adventurous.

Correspondent: Yeah. I have to ask. I mean, you have put yourself emotionally on the line as an actor for all of these films. What’s it like to bare your soul for a documentary like this? Speaking of the difference between reality vs. narrative. And it’s also interesting. Because you’ve also been fortunate. In, for example, movies like Scenes from a Marriage, there is a middle ground where it actually takes on a documentary-like feel for a chunk of it. So what’s the difference as an actor? And how does this make you feel to tell your story on camera? Is that harder than inhabiting a character? What are the emotional differences here?

Ullmann: I don’t find it hard to talk about feelings and what I care about in life. And when I did this movie, I said yes only to do two days of interviews. And I don’t find that hard. It’s easier for me to be truthful than to make myself interesting. And it’s not hard at all. I find to pretend is harder. To lie is harder. Because then I’ll forget what I said in the other minute. I like to be truthful. I like to meet people who are truthful. I like when we connect that way, also because that’s the way where I find myself. I’m not different from other people. Other people have the same feelings that I have. And I think we miss that. That we are true to each other.

Correspondent: So when you pretend, it’s not rooted in anything solid for you. It’s not a memory that lasts more than, say, remembering what it was like to walk around with Ingmar and talk with each other. That that’s more of a meaningful memory and therefore that’s easier. Whereas if you’re tapping into the deep visceral guts of something, that’s something that you inhabit but that you don’t remember because that’s just the way it works for you? I’m just curious about this distinction.

Ullmann: Well, there’s a lot of things that I don’t remember. Oh maybe it was like this? And I will tell it. And that’s more storytelling. But there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I see, for example, this movie, there are things that had to do with me that I had forgotten and suddenly I see it. And I know that is the truth. And even stories that I have told about us. When I see it in a movie, a film that has been taken from other movies, I’ll say, “Oh, the reality was different.” And I welcome that. I think that is great. That my memories have now given color to things But when I see the real truth, I found it much more interesting. And for me to see this movie and to see certain things in this movie that I had forgotten, I like it. And thus the movie is a kind of gift to me.

The Bat Segundo Show #489: Liv Ullmann (Download MP3)

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Andrea Arnold (The Bat Segundo Show)

Andrea Arnold is the co-writer and director of Wuthering Heights, which opens on October 5 in select theaters.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creator is Heathcliff.

Guest: Andrea Arnold

Subjects Discussed: Characters defined by how they observe things, working with moths, Yorkshire insect wranglers, how to get animals to behave on camera, improvisational and Method-acting sheep, Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, audiences who believe that Arnold killed real sheep, film disclaimers about no animals harmed during the course of production, talking with farmers to get historical details right, how imagination informs more effectively than the facts, avoiding plastic walls for old sets, working with production designer Helen Scott, being upset when something isn’t real, the virtues of filming in a remote place, staying in a local village, getting used to a temporary life without phones, elevation as a geographical identifier as Arnold’s films, putting a camera in a place where a human can exist, Arnold’s dislike of the dolly and the Steadicam, why there weren’t as many wide shots in Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Anderson’s if…, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s very sturdy hands, working without jibs and gimbals, the visual authenticity of natural human movement, Robbie Ryan running down four or five flights backwards with a camera, giving a very lovely grip named Sam something to do, reading Emily Bronte when very young, the decision to add the line “Fuck you, all you cunts” in Wuthering Heights, respect for Emily Bronte, working with non-actors, being too faithful to a literary classic, finding new takes on Heathcliff, why most literary adaptations play it safe, and literary reverence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So there’s one really intriguing quality about your films that I have observed. Your characters are often defined by how they observe things. Of course, the obvious explicit example is Red Room, because we have closed circuit cameras in there. But we do see that in Wuthering Heights quite a bit. Often through slats. Often through little cracks. And I’m wondering. Why are you so interested in this idea of defining characters by how they look at things? Is this a way to offer a vicarious experience to the viewer? Do you feel that looking at things or what people decide to see is of greater import or greater revelation than, say, how they perform and how they act?

Arnold: Well, I don’t know the answer to that question really. Because I think when I’m writing, I don’t really think that lucidly about what I’m writing and how I’m writing it. But now that you’ve just said that to me, I realize actually what you just said is true. But actually if you’d ask me to define how I do things, I would never have said that I’m doing that. But now that you’ve just told me, I realize you’re right. And I think that I write quite instinctively. And for some reason I seem to be doing that. I’m always picking. I’ve only ever done one film where I told it from two people’s point of views, where I switch from one person to another. Most of the films I’ve done so far have been telling it from one person’s point of view. And for some reason, that feels like the right thing to do for me. It’s like I feel able to get into one person’s head. I find it more difficult to get into lots of people’s heads. Though maybe, just because I’m telling the stories from that person’s point of view and I’m going along with them and thinking about how they’re thinking and I’m trying to get inside their head, I think that may be why looking at the world from their point of view, I’m trying to get inside their head and work out how they’re feeling. Does that make sense?

Correspondent: It makes sense. It makes me ask at what point do you decide, “Oh, the camera must see what they’re seeing.” It seems to me that this would be a fairly late process in the planning. Is that safe to say? I mean, when do you think about this? Do you think about this during the act of writing the script or anything?

Arnold: I think I do think about it when I’m writing. Because I’m thinking constantly about what they’re looking at and what they’re doing and what they’re feeling. And I think that a lot of what ends up in the film is things that I’ve put on the page. I mean, even in Wuthering Heights, people say to me, “Was that in the script?” And actually no. Although sometimes, with the moths, they were in the script. The moths are in the script. The beetles aren’t in the script, but the moths are.

Correspondent: What do you do to get an insect wrangler, by the way? (laughs) I was curious about that. How do you find the moth expert among the moors and all that?

Arnold: Those moths, actually, were proper Yorkshire moths.

Correspondent: Oh they were?

Arnold: They were proper. The moths may be quite actually. Because we got moths from a man who dealt in Yorkshire moths. A Yorkshire moth expert, I guess.

Correspondent: A specialist. (laughs) There are moth specialists. I did not know.

Arnold: Yeah, there are.

Correspondent: How do you get a moth to behave on camera? I mean, you know they say the thing about children and animals.

Arnold: Moths don’t take directions. No, they don’t. You have to let them be themselves. But he gave us these moths which were in little capsules. And when we let them out, some of them died and it actually made me cry.

Correspondent: Oh.

Arnold: I guess they do die. I mean, moths don’t last very longer than butterflies, do they?

Correspondent: Don’t we all, right?

Arnold: (laughs) Yes.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting that you would feel such sympathy for the moths when this film also depicts a lot of sheep and a lot of rabbits — simulated, I would suspect. I don’t think this was a Buñuel Land Without Bread situation on your part. But I mean, there is quite a lot of animal violence. And I’m wondering what you also did to get that looking as real as it did and why you felt compelled to include this as a representative rough element of this great frontier of the 19th century.

Arnold: Well, I guess it was dealing with animals and having animals on the farm living and dying would be part of life. And it’s part of our life now. Only it’s a hidden part of our lives. In fact, it’s a far worse thing now in life. Because it’s all behind doors and we all pretend it doesn’t happen. And animals are factory farmed in far worse ways. They’re not roaming free and then getting slaughtered at the end of their lives. They’re living in sheds and having pretty closed out lives. So it happens all the time now and then. And I just wanted to represent that accurately. I mean, we have managed to obviously do a good job. Because I get people saying — I think at Sundance, someone said to me — somebody came after and said, “Oh, I feel so sorry for that sheep, you know.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “You killed the sheep.” And I said, “No, we didn’t kill the sheep.”

Correspondent: And he’s no doubt saying this after having a lamb chop dinner, right? (laughs)

Arnold: Well, exactly. But of course we didn’t kill the sheep. And in actual fact, I was so worried about that sheep when we did that scene. I was more worried about that sheep than anyone. I mean, we had a vet there and we had a farmer there who owned the sheep. But that sheep, I have to tell you, was the most amazing sheep.

Correspondent: Oh yeah? What made it amazing?

Arnold: He was so amazing, that sheep. Because he was so calm. He wasn’t frightened. And he did this thing. In the film, you’ll see he’s trembling. It looks like you’ve done something really bad to him. He just started doing that. It was like he knew that he needed to look. I really don’t know.

Correspondent: Really? Unrehearsed?

Arnold: Unrehearsed.

Correspondent: Improvisational sheep! Wow!

Arnold: And it trotted off. And I kept saying to the farmer, “Are you sure the sheep’s alright?” He said, “The sheep’s fine.” And actually he went off, trotted back to the herd no problem. That sheep was amazing.

Correspondent: No ague or anything?

Arnold: No what?

Correspondent: No ague or anything?

Arnold: No what?

Correspondent: No tremors or anything like that? No dizziness?

Arnold: Nope. No, no, no. It seemed completely fine.

Correspondent: Wow. There are Method acting sheep.

Arnold: Honestly, that sheep. We couldn’t have picked a better sheep. Even when we were carrying it, it was just so calm. It didn’t seem frightened. It seemed completely fine. But of course we didn’t harm the sheep. In fact, I was very very concerned about the sheep and made sure he was completely fine. But, no, we didn’t harm anything. I mean, we make it look bad. But of course no. And I’m a vegetarian and animal complete.

Correspondent: Well, we talked about moths dying. Is there anything equivalent to the SPCA* in the British Isles that you’d have to get the endorsement from?

Arnold: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: I didn’t see any endorsement on the film or anything like that.

Arnold: Well, we had animal handlers there all the time.

Correspondent: Okay. You don’t need to have the designated stamp on the credits like we do here.

Arnold: We have the thing. “No animals were harmed.” I mean, that’s what you have to have. And you have to have people who are there who endorse that and who sign something to say that. So we had all that. We had everything that you’re supposed to have.

Correspondent: So you wanted to include these animals dying on film — simulated, of course — in the name of historical accuracy. I’m wondering what research you did to know how people lived during that time. I know that there were depilatory restrictions in place. I’m curious. What did you do to know that this is actually true? Or was this largely instinctive? Was this largely trusting your gut? Was this largely saying, “Okay, well, if we don’t have television, radios, and smartphones, and we’re just living on a farm, we’re just going to live like this”?

Arnold: Well, partly imagining what it would be like to live on the farm. Partly I spoke to farmers. I talked with some of the farmers up in Yorkshire about how things would have been. And they had a lot of people up in that area who had been up there for generations, and had actually a lot of information. So I went down to a place where people dealt with animals and spoke to a lot of farmers down there. I talked to people. So I did partly talk to people. Part imagination, partly what they were telling me. For example, the way they put their foot on the sheep and stuff like that. That was all told to me, the way they did that. You know, I researched all those things. About how they would handle the sheep and stuff like that. How they would carry it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that imagining what a situation is like is going to carry more truth on cinema than, say, sticking with the hard facts or the hard details? Or going by the letter of what the Yorkshire farmers tell you?

Arnold: I mean, I think I’m somebody who, if I hear something and I believe it to be the truth and they’ve told me something truthful, I will try to hold on to that as best I can. And I incorporate that into what I’m doing. So if they’ve told me something and I’ve heard it a couple of times from the right kind of people, then I think I would do my utmost to make sure that I represent that as accurately as they’ve told me. I think I’m somebody who does actually care about those things. I mean, when I’m talking about using my imagination, I’m talking about using my imagination more to do with the emotion or to do with the way that people are interacting with each other. I’m not looking to deal with practical facts. If I hear something, it’s done a certain way. Also I have a designer I work with and she’s very like that too. And even the house which we restored. Because it was quite run down.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Arnold: We restored it using all the traditional methods. And so all the people that worked on the house used old skills in order to restore it. We didn’t put plastic up that looks like thatchery. We put proper thatch up. We restored the walls to the paths they would have used. We used the right kind of wood.

Correspondent: The stone wall on the outside. Was that touched up? Or built by the cast perhaps?

Arnold: Those stone walls were mostly there. The dry stone walls, that’s all over Yorkshire. So all the people working on the house before we started filming there, they were all using old skills which they all really, really enjoyed.

* — Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to the SPCA when he clearly meant the American Humane Association, which has been adding disclaimers about animals to movies since 1940.

The Bat Segundo Show #488: Andrea Arnold (Download MP3)

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Review: Looper (2012)

We live in a time in which overreaching types chirp about illusory import in tentpole pictures, as if these massive movies with overcompensating budgets are akin to down-on-their-luck paraplegics seeking strangers in the streets to buy them hot meals. Slate‘s Dana Stevens tells us that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents “war-on-terror allegories.” Mark Ruffalo explains to the Wall Street Journal that The Avengers, which is little more than a very pleasant popcorn movie, is a complex take on American life. While I’ve never shied away from expressing enthusiasm for genre or well-crafted mass entertainment, there is nevertheless a clear distinction between what Jon Favreau and what Alejandro Jodorowsky are trying to commit to film.

Yet Rian Johnson’s Looper won me over, despite a frustratingly paradoxical finale that contradicts two hours of story logic. Here is a film that isn’t just interested in entertaining, although I must confess that I was thrilled by one late scene in which Bruce Willis blew away a considerable number of baddies. (When it comes to satisfying on-screen violence, I’m just as redblooded as the next guy.) Much as the underrated Daybreakers took care in establishing a consequential world (complete with homeless vampires holding cardboard signs which read STARVING NEED BLOOD), Looper is smart enough to understand that a good time travel movie is all about the peripheral deets. The Back to the Future trilogy remains a repeat viewing draw because we wonder if Doc Brown ever really said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” (He doesn’t, despite the characters crediting him as the source.) Then there are complicated films like Shane Carruth’s excellent Primer, which contains so many interpretive possibilities that one can easily get lost in its low-budget, high-concept Chinese box.

Looper contains a narrative we’ll eventually figure out. We learn that Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper” who kills time travelers with a blunderbuss a mere instant after they appear out of nowhere upon a blue trap. These fidgety executions establish an inconsequential tone, which allows us to ponder why Joe’s in this line of work. Isn’t Arby’s still hiring? Surely, given the film’s barely touched steak and eggs specials, there’s a need for crappy roast beef sandwiches in the year 2044. But the career is lucrative, although paper currency is nowhere to be found. (Has the dollar collapsed?) Joe’s saving up his silver bars for a post-killing life. He’s learning French. He keeps time to an old watch. He cannot let these time travelers escape. We learn that in thirty years someone will kill him. All part of the job.

This is a somewhat silly setup. If you think about it, a looper has to accept on faith that the future is fixed (we understand that time travel is forbidden because of a dangerous criminal syndicate, but, if it’s so problematic, why doesn’t anyone track down the guy who developed it?). A looper has to accept that the people who run the operation (this includes a grizzly gray-bearded Jeff Daniels) can be trusted. This is probably why Johnson has made Joseph somewhat dissolute. He wastes his hours with the inventive aesthetic of drugs he can plop into his eye with an eye dropper. That’s certainly less messy than panics in Needle Park.

I’m giving Johnson a hard time, but he does manage to get performances from his cast. Bruce Willis, with a strangely satisfying fixed hairline this time around, juggles intensity and contrition as “Old Joe,” the guy that Joseph Gordon-Levitt grows up to be (despite the two actors sharing quite different ears). I’m not the greatest Emily Blunt fan, but I’ll take her firing bullets into the cornfields. There’s an incredible kid with fierce eyes named Pierce Gagnon who will probably go places, assuming that he doesn’t end up as some former child star shooting up in a seedy motel during his early adult years. Even Garrett Dillahunt, the quirky and misunderstood character actor who was the goofy T-888 in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, shows up endearingly befuddled. I don’t feel any particular need to describe the plot. Let others do that. It’s basically a showdown between Joe and Old Joe, with some twists coming late in the film. We get telekinesis and a number of impressive jet cycles. Geeky shorthand for the ADD crowd.

What impressed me about Looper was the way it depicts a future where today’s everyday conveniences are missing. Some unknown upheaval has gone down between 2012 and 2044. The world here is a barely civilized place waiting to be overrun by desperate crooks. Touchpad technology is hidden behind secret panels. Smartphones have transformed into barely functioning squares, largely used by the loopers, and nobody whips these out while walking the streets. We see tents and homeless encampments on the outskirts of cities, with the word “vagrant” taking on a sinister tone. The unemployed have clearly expanded to include a larger and more invisible class of humanity, and I liked how the film made the daring choice of following those who were well off, further suggesting that one had to become terribly amoral to have a nice house. There are makeshift solar panels haphazardly affixed to cars (and at least one farmhouse) without any clear standard. And when you consider the black tubing leading to where a truck’s gas tank used to be, you figure that there was some last-ditch effort to respond to a fossil fuel crisis. The loopers get the flashy sports cars. The jet cycles go to the authorities. The losers don’t even get a set of steak knives.

And yet somehow it’s possible to keep a diner operating in the middle of nowhere. It’s still possible to maintain a farm with helpful insecticide-sprinkling robots. There are still upscale nightclubs kept alive by the looper class. I liked that the film offered no reasons for any of this, even as it resolved the main plot like some half-baked episode of Time Trax. It doesn’t really matter what time we live in. Looper makes its own case for human connection and sacrifice, but it also suggests that the larger world is more fixed and unstoppable than we realize. Shouldn’t we get down to the business of living rather than seeing what fits the given mood?

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NYFF: Charlie is My Darling

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

They wrote new songs while holed up in motel rooms and flirted with women behind glass as they tried to eat dinner. When young girls were asked why they were drawn to the thin devilish man with the big lips, they could only reply, “I just like him.”

The Altamont Free Concert, with its rough Hells Angels security detail and the grim fate of Meredith Hunter, was only four years away, but Charlie is My Darling, which follows the Rolling Stones on a three day rush through Ireland in crisp and freshly restored black and white, proves that the raw sexual power the band held before a crowd was already well established. In one of the film’s genuinely thrilling moments, we see young people jump on stage, instantly transforming guitar cables into umbilical cords through a simple act of adolescent mischief. Drummer Charlie Watts tries to keep a steady beat as a kid leans very close to his right, eluding capture.

Charlie is My Darling might almost serve as an instructional film on how to be a screaming teenage girl in 1965, but the dark underbelly is revealed when we see girls with fractured legs carried away on stretchers.

Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night poked fun at a blockbuster band’s nonstop sprint from the fans, but this doc has a grittier feel. Part of this is human attitude. The band is well aware that it is responding to a long tradition of pop songs where romantic lyrics describe idealistic moments that have no real bearing to what people are actually doing. The band shows no reticence in remarking on this. Yet the film establishes its own humor, such as the Stones offering commentary over a clip of Mick Jagger schmoozing with important people and band members sneaking up behind kids on light afternoons.

It also features the Stones becoming increasingly drunker, singing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley tunes during a long night around a piano with the alcoholic accoutrements slid across the top. In more sober off-stage moments, we see them play the Beatles’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Always keep track of the competition.

“You have to be very egotistical,” says Jagger when he is asked by a reporter about what it’s like to hold a crowd in such awe. Charlie is My Darling is a vibrant ride inside the Stones’s touring world, but it’s not as brave as Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues, with its heroin-injecting groupies and its coke-snorting tips from Keith Richards. The shaggy and vivacious and cocky Brian Jones offers an early glimpse of the more explicit dissolution to come with some revealing statements about marriage. Godard would depict him on the outs in Sympathy for the Devil. He would be dead in a swimming pool not long after that.

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NYFF: The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

His name came from a tough tumble down Baltimore stairs. They called him “Chicken” because that was the way he walked: wobbly and hunchbacked and sometimes a little alone around the schoolyard. They shortened the name to “Chick” because the single syllable rolled faster off the tongue. But Chick Webb had the grit to hawk newspapers and saved up enough dough for a drum kit. They figured he might build up his upper body strength if they kept him hammering young and long and hard on the drums.

They could not know he would become a big draw at a very big venue: the legendary Savoy Ballroom, immortalized in music with an indelible stomp, the rare place where blacks and whites hopped together on the same hard floor. They could not know how he would woo and shape Ella Fitzgerald’s talent shortly after her fateful appearance at the Apollo. They could not know how Chick would rehearse new arrangements from new composers, the band fueled by mescal and Mary Jane, into the sunrise. They could not know that if you hung around the Savoy long enough, you would have Chick’s respect. Because sticking around was how Chick had made it this far and this good. They could not know he would lead the first black band to host a national radio show. They could not know he would be dead only four months after his 34th birthday. Or maybe it was his 30th? Why not print the legend?

The biggest surprise about Jeff Kaufman’s documentary, The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America, is how Chick Webb’s mesmerizing life is diminished by the clumsy collection of stray biographical tidbits (Chick liked motorcycles, Chick was a snappy dresser, Chick had a German Shepherd), which don’t quite coalesce into a true narrative trajectory until the film stretches itself across a more expansive canvas. The film serves up many prominent voices (Bill Cosby as Webb, Janet Jackson as Fitzgerald, Jeff Goldbum as Artie Shaw, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and so forth) as profound movers and shakers in the 1920s and 1930s swing scene. But when we know Chick argued with Jelly Roll Morton, why do we need the former Jello pitchman? This minor dissonance also hinders the film from fully portraying or explicating Chick’s innovative drumming (“He sounded very different from any of the other drummers,” says one subject, to which one must ask, “Care to elaborate?”).

Chick Webb was so legendary that the Harlem streets were congested with more than 10,000 people on the day he died. Gene Krupa said that Webb was the only other drummer who “cut” him. In light of these vital details, it’s surprising that Kaufman races too fast over such details as Chick’s loyalty to his longtime guitarist John Truehart, the only member of Chick’s band who kept with him all the way through, and is sometimes too willing to buy into the Webb myth. (For example, Charles Linton told biographer Stuart Nicholson that Webb only said that he adopted Ella Fitzgerald “for the press people,” yet Kaufman is quite willing to go on with the mythos of Webb as Fitzgerald’s legal guardian.)

When many of the charming survivors (especially the ebullient choreographer Frankie Manning, captured here in his final years and in remarkable shape) are happy to spill Kaufman the story, why have other people get in the way? The Savoy King has greater success with dodgy-looking visual aids (such as the Indiana Jones-like map depicting Chick’s relentless touring schedule across the States in 1937) than the high-profile vocal cast.

But when the film shows the Savoy’s impact on American culture, displaying its contours with a computer simulation of the Savoy’s interior, it becomes a more meaningful exploration of the swing scene. The film obviously worked on some level with me, because I am playing Ella Fitzgerald as I write these words and I have a great desire right now to time travel back to the fateful evening of May 11, 1937, when Chick Webb and Benny Goodman duked it out in a battle of the bands at the Savoy. When the film reminds us that there were clubs in which a racist rope separated the dance floor down the middle and when it tells us that, in other clubs, blacks had to pay the same admission as whites to watch an act from the balcony (and weren’t allowed to dance) and when we recall that even the much vaunted Cotton Club would not admit African Americans, the Savoy’s pioneering efforts, taken with what others remember of Chick’s great generosity and energy, feel like a forgotten historical chapter that can’t be reread often enough.

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Julie Delpy (The Bat Segundo Show)

Julie Delpy is most recently the writer, director, and star of 2 Days in New York.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a castle that doesn’t require too much physical exertion.

Guest: Julie Delpy

Subjects Discussed: Patriarchs who key cars, countesses who murder women for their virgin blood, aberrant and eccentric behavior in Delpy’s films, the advantages of flawed characters, The King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin, domestic carapaces for odd people, mental institutions, emotionless people, arguing with people you live with, comic tension, loud family arguments in quiet cafes, characters who accuse others of raping children, anger issues, struggles to get quirky independent films made, why Chris Rock was cast, 2 Days vs. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, German film financing, David Hasselhoff, Chris Rock in a straightlaced role, how romantic comedy becomes more alive when women are uncontrollable, leveling the gender playing field in narrative by offering complex women, romantic projection, thematic resonances between 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, toothbrushes that are confused with sex toys, how blue jeans woo men, how French people take their temperature, Delpy’s obsession with finding the right toothbrush sound, Stanley Kubrick, being a hands on filmmaker, color correction, the humor contained within The Countess, how to position an actor to stand appropriately on a throne of heads, Belvedere Castle, Merchant Ivory films, creating a fairy tale narrative, how boys like “feminine” aspects of fairy tales, the scarcity of women directors, how gender has affected Delpy’s reputation, being taken more seriously, the business aspects of cinema, nerds and cinema without emotion, why Hollywood is avoiding emotional directors, cold businessmen, Delpy’s indomitable work ethic, Delpy finishing The Countess while her mother was dying, and the financial repercussions of cinema.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What of the interesting resonances between the two films [2 Days in New York and 2 Days in Paris]? The two that struck me: the thermometer becomes the toothbrush in New York. You have the thermometer joke. And then now it’s the toothbrush joke where…

Delpy: Toothbrush. Oh yeah. Like objects being put in the wrong spot. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. Or blue jeans being used to woo a man. In the first film, we have mom ironing the blue jeans.

Delpy: The blue jeans.

Correspondent: In the second film, we have the blue jeans offer on air.

Delpy: The blue jeans are where?

Correspondent: The blue jeans, when Mingus is on the air. There’s that woman who offers them.

Delpy: Oh, the jeans! I see. That’s funny.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. I’m guessing these were accidental. But I’m wondering if there were any conscious efforts on your part to mimic the resonances from the first film. To see if they would play a little differently in New York. Or older.

Delpy: Well, that’s something. For example, I think it’s something to do with — like I’ve always been amused that Americans — I mean, in France, if you take your temperature, everyone puts it in their butt. Just…I have to tell you. Just like if you’re a toddler. You just put it there.

Correspondent: It is a French thing.

Delpy: And I’ve always been having American boyfriends find this repulsive. That French people are perverts.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: Because we take our temperature in the butt. So we are perverts because of that. I always thought that was a funny idea. I mean, the thing about the toothbrush, I have the idea that, actually, they might have done really nothing with that toothbrush and that it’s all in his mind. That they might have used the toothbrush.

Correspondent: While they were having…

Delpy: Or it’s an object that wasn’t a toothbrush. But he’s convinced that they’re perverts using his toothbrush for sex toys. But I actually believe personally…

Correspondent: The toothbrush is your Pulp Fiction suitcase.

Delpy: (laughs) It is to me.

Correspondent: It could be used for naughty purposes. It could be used for rather eccentric purposes. They could be brushing their teeth as they’re doing it. We don’t know.

Delpy: Yeah. Who knows? They might have been brushing their teeth while doing it. But he’s convinced. Or they might have used another object that sounds like that toothbrush. But he’s convinced it’s his toothbrush. It’s this projection of this idea that, you know, once you have this idea that someone is perverted, you can imagine everything. And I like to use that. That is a kind of playful thing.

Correspondent: I don’t know. The sound sounded pretty similar to my ears. I’m wondering. Did you work with the sound guy to have it close?

Delpy: Actually, that was one of the hardest things to do. To find the right sound. And the banging on the wall. So it didn’t sound too trashy. To always find the right limit between really too crass and not too cute either.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering how you researched toothbrush sounds vs. dildo sounds. That would be a very interesting project for a sound man.

Delpy: I didn’t turn on dildos. I only turned on toothbrushes.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: I kept it to a toothbrush. But actually I did spend a lot of time listening to many different sounds of toothbrushes. And some toothbrushes, I just didn’t like the sound. So I kind of drove everyone crazy. I’m very…when I get into post-production, with all the mixing and the sound and all that stuff, I get really super duper duper duper…kind of precise on what I want. And that toothbrush, I drove everyone nuts over.

Correspondent: Well, like, how so? How precise can you get? Is there any sort of limit that you will reach before people are driven nuts or something? How anal are you here?

Delpy: No. I will work until I get what I want. I’m not like crazy, like going like a power trip. Like it’s too show that I have the power.

Correspondent: No Kubrick, 172 takes…(laughs)

Delpy: Even though they call me Stanley all the time. (laughs)

Correspondent: And not just because you grew a beard.

Delpy: Yeah, it’s because of my beard. Not because of my talent. I’ll tell you that. Because I get a little bit obsessed. Sometimes in details and stuff like that. But then when I have what I want, I’m fine. Then I’m done. Boom. And then I never talk about it again.

Correspondent: Well, like, how many takes did you do? Just to deflate the Stanley rumors here.

Delpy: Well, I ended up recording the toothbrush myself. Because I didn’t like any of the sounds. So I ended up taking a mike and going to record my toothbrush and the toothbrush I wanted to use in the film.

Correspondent: Are you hands on like that for cinematography? Or for other matters?

Delpy: Cinematography, no. Because I am not a very good — I don’t have the best visual ideas, you know? I’m not hands on cinematography. I’m very hands on sound. Music. Sound effects. Everything that has to do with sound, I’m very good. You know, I’m very obsessed also when we do the period of color correction. I get very — if I don’t get what I want, I will not stop.

Correspondent: What about placement of actors?

Delpy: Which is normal. I think it’s normal. I mean, if you’re a filmmaker, you want to get — it’s so much work to write. It’s so much work to shoot. And then you edit for three months and you work like a maniac. And then you end up in post-production. And you don’t want to suddenly have skin tones that are wrong. I mean, you can very quickly — now there’s such a scale of things you can do. It’s so large. You can go from a skin that looks sort of creamy to a skin that looks all greenish. I mean, you can do so much that you have to be really careful in color correction nowadays.

Correspondent: What about positioning an actor? Like, I think of the image in The Countess of the guy standing on top of the heads. I mean, how particular are you on something like that?

Delpy: Oh that, I’m very particular.

Correspondent: The angle of the head. Is the head just right at that particular angle? I’m just trying to get a sense of how precise you are really with these things.

Delpy: Yeah. I get very precise in scenes like that. Because, to me, I wanted it to look like a painting. Like a lot of 17th century painting I’ve looked at, based for this film. Like a lot and lot of Nordic painters. So I was really inspired by that. And I wanted it to look like that. Like something almost ridiculous, but kind of funny. I mean, the film, The Countess is not devoid of humor. I see the film as something a little bit funny at times. So it’s meant to be that way. Like even the craziness of wanting to stay young forever. I mean, she’s obviously such a pathetic character. Which makes me laugh. She makes me laugh actually. And so anyway, even this guy is kind of crazy. I mean, he’s sitting on a throne of beheaded Turks. So it’s kind of funny. If you’re dark. (laughs)

Correspondent: I thought a lot of it was funny, personally. But I’m a sick human being. But Belvedere Castle…

Delpy: But it’s meant to be funny.

Correspondent: Yes. Belvedere Castle, I wanted to ask you about this. You shot the end of 2 Days in New York at Belvedere Castle. And what happened with me when I saw the film — and this may be a terribly wonkish and pedantic question, but I feel the need to ask it nonetheless. I immediately thought, “Oh! The Bostonians. Merchant Ivory.” And the reason that I thought about that was because in 2 Days in Paris, you have this early moment where the American tourists come in and they have the red Da Vinci Code, which is almost serving as the red Baedeker tour guides that you see in A Room with a View. And so…

Delpy: Oh my god. That’s complicated.

Correspondent: And they are tourists, much in that mode, going through a city. And, of course, they come from Venice by train. So I think to myself, “Oh, there was maybe a Merchant Ivory nod there.” But I’m wondering, based off of these two things, whether emulating that sort of Merchant Ivory look and subverting it with wild behavior or astonishing developments was ever an interest of yours. And also: why you choose Belevedere Castle?

Delpy: Well, you know, I didn’t really think at all of Merchant Ivory. You looked into it like…oh my god. That’s pretty..

Correspondent: This is a problem of mine. I apologize. (laughs)

Delpy: That’s really cool. That’s really cool to read so much into something. No, I basically picked the Belvedere Castle because I wanted something high that made sense, that it was dangerous but not Empire State Building dangerous. Because Empire State Building — anyway, you can’t jump off the Empire State Building. Because it’s all blocked out. So it had to be realistic. And the Belvedere Castle is quite dangerous. Actually, if you jump, you can kill yourself. But I wanted it to be almost like a fairy tale. The film is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s told to a child really. Because it’s told with these puppets. So I wanted this end to be in a castle. Like a fairy tale. And the princess, which is me, is saved by the prince, which is Chris Rock. But obviously the film is so not a fairy tale in its tone and everything. But I wanted it to be like a fairy tale. It ends in a castle like a fairy tale.

The Bat Segundo Show #475: Julie Delpy (Download MP3)

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amazingspiderman

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, a completely unnecessary reboot of a perfectly wonderful Sam Raimi movie that was released only ten years before, expects us to believe in remarkably unpersuasive and tepid lies.

It is a movie that expects us to believe that one can walk into a 100-story skyscraper situated in Columbus Circle run by an apparent multinational corporation, catch a look at one of the badges behind the desk, and assume one of the names. (Only an hour before the screening, my photo had been taken for a temporary badge so that I could participate in a twenty minute meeting in a building that had fewer stories than Oscorp, which I much preferred as a sprawling industrial complex in the Raimi movies.) It is a movie that expects us to believe that an impostor can enter a top secret facility standing thirty feet away from the door leading in and observe a scientist, who just happens to be there, tracing a pattern-sensitive code into the panel with his hand (no thumbprint or retinal scan or surveillance cameras?).

It is a movie that expects us to believe that a hero, unable to use his considerable strength just after being bitten by a spider, will be curiously inconsistent in how he destroys things. Peter Parker clicks on a mouse without incident, but the keys rip off the keyboard as he types. He destroys the bathroom sink, but his skateboard is remarkably preserved. It is a movie that expects us to believe that a kid possessing reflexes beyond the pale would not be recruited by a sports coach (Studio Executive to Producers: “We can’t do that because of the wrestling element in Raimi’s first movie. That bastard! Why did he bolt on us?” Producers: “Because he wanted more time to develop the script!?”) and would not be examined by scientists or specialists for his off-the-charts ability. The movie simply assumes that a preternatural ability to warp a goal post with a football (is that even physically possible with cowhide?) is par for the course among high school teens. (“We’re very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter’s roots,” said Amy Pascal in a statement when Sony put the kibosh on Spider-Man 4. Apparently, “creative possibilities” involve a remarkably unprofessional failure to work out story logic.)

It is a movie that expects us to believe that an especially carnivorous rat (mutated, of course) running around a scientific facility would not be noticed by the many attentive professional minds employed by Oscorp. It is a movie that expects us to believe that the television cameras closely following an injured Spider-Man crawling up a building with some difficulty would not also roll as Spider-Man rips his mask off (in fact, Parker reveals his identity more times than one would think during this film; presumably, superheroes have become so commonplace in the Marvel universe that one need not bother with sub rosa). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a teenager can spend long hours fighting crime and collecting bruises and not be grounded or sternly disciplined by his guardian, who also does not follow Parker when he takes up a large and vertiginous stack of food up to his room (including frozen macaroni and cheese, which is not especially edible unless you nuke it). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a seasoned cop would not notice the numerous bruises upon his daughter’s date and would neither remark upon said contusions, much less the fact that this date has seemingly materialized out of nowhere into his daughter’s room and not shown up in a suit (as agreed upon in advance by the Stacy family).

I put forth the modest proposition that a movie containing this much paralogia should be rejected by a mass audience. It is one thing to accept a webslinger sailing through the Manhattan skyline on threads that couldn’t possibly be tensile enough to hold a 160 pound man. One must, after all, suspend some disbelief for a film of this type. But we are not dummies. And it is the job of the Hollywood professional to make us believe in the impossible for a few hours.

It is also the responsibility of the professional to give the protagonist an interesting antagonist: ideally, someone who shares similar qualities and who is just as dimensional as the hero. What have screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargeant, and Steve Kloves given us? The Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors), who was capable of telepathic communication with other reptiles and was nuanced enough to help Spidey a few times in the comics, is a dull and plodding villain barking ho-hum soliloquies into his video camera and booming loud and not especially inventive three-word threats to Peter Parker. In this cinematic manifestation, he is such an underwritten and bland character that director Marc Webb, who seems to have carved out the inventive eye he brought to the marvelous (500) Days of Summer for the money men, constantly has his camera fixated upon Connors’s missing arm even after we have a pretty good idea that the experiments at Oscorp will cause it to grow back. I became so distracted by this that I was able to figure out where Rhys Ifans’s pre-CGI arm was with little effort. But as we have already established, Webb and his army of hacks aren’t especially interested in believable magic tricks.

* * *

“Don’t break promises you can’t keep,” says an English teacher at Midtown Science High School to Peter Parker, as he stumbles late into a classroom near the end of a broken cinematic promise. “Yeah,” Parker replies, “but those are the best ones.”

Actually, the best promises were fulfilled by Sam Raimi. Even Spider-Man 3, which had its share of problems, was free enough for Raimi to stage that gloriously cheesy scene in the jazz club. There isn’t a single scene in Webb’s hacktacular reimagining that comes close. Raimi understood that Spider-Man was the most endearing of Marvel’s superheroes: the bullied geek finding integrity through his superpowers. While Andrew Garfield is a handsome enough lead man, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would be beaten by schoolkids in a previous life. He’s too jittery and bewildered and spastic in his delivery to tend to a friendly neighborhood. It doesn’t help that he has a vague Jersey dialect which flits in and out, out of character for a guy ostensibly from Queens. But then the New York in this movie is some bizarre hodgepodge of the seedy Abraham Beame days (people apparently drink beer on the Q line and it’s too dangerous for a fit older woman to walk twelve blocks to a subway station at night) and something vaguely approximating a period that could be now or could be the 1980s (how else to account for the Rubik’s Cube that Uncle Ben picks up in Peter Parker’s room or the curious lack of texting among teens even as they are using smartphones?). While I accept that a comic book movie is going to stylize a city however it wants (Raimi was audacious enough to include an elevated line running through Manhattan), should it not be rooted in true imagination rather than careless what-the-hell incoherence? (On this point, the movie seems curiously self-aware of its fallacies. Not only does The Amazing Spider-Man lack the guts to utter the famous line “With great power comes great responsibility,” but an Einstein poster appears in Parker’s bedroom with the immortal quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If ever there was a filmmaker who misunderstood Einstein, it’s director Marc Webb.)

That slipshod quality extends to Peter Parker, who inexplicably clings to an analog camera in an age when nearly every aspiring photographer his age is likely to be using digital. Hilariously, Parker’s camera has PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER in embossed tape on the back, which conveniently allows a villain to find him not long after he tries snapping a few secret photos. (By comparison, notice how our first introduction of Raimi’s Peter Parker as photographer involves Parker asking permission at a museum just before he snaps a spider for the “school paper,” only for a bully to push Parker and mess up his shot. In a matter of five seconds, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp established that (1) Parker is polite and destined to work for a paper to expand his scientific and journalistic interests and (2) he is also doomed to face bullies who will mess his vocation up, whether as crime fighter or photographer.)

And how can you have a Spider-Man movie without J. Jonah Jameson? Then again, after J.K. Simmons, why would you dare to cast another actor in the part? Jameson’s disapproval of Spidey is passed off to Captain George Stacey (played by Denis Leary, who seems to have turned into a poor man’s David Caruso, just as he was once a poor man’s Bill Hicks). But here’s why Jameson is so important. Peter Parker was able to work at the Daily Bugle trying to impress Jameson with his photos, while simultaneously facing Jameson’s smear campaign against Spidey. In light of the fact that he has no father figure, Jameson almost serves as an intriguing surrogate. Webb’s film has Captain Stacey insisting that Spidey is a menace, ordering the cops on his side. But we don’t believe it — in large part because Captain Stacey also views Parker as a kid with “psychiatric problems.” Yet it’s clear that Spidey is working on the side of good. However, we can believe that a media mogul would want to manipulate public opinion for his own selfish ends. Sure enough, Webb and his writers lack the deft hand to see Captain Stacey’s resentment through to the end.

I haven’t even brought up the Gwen Stacy story — in large part because Stacy, who was such a central figure in the comic books (memo to Mr. Webb: not especially wise of you to feature a prominent NYC bridge in your Spider-Man movie because it spells out how risk-averse and how out of your league you really are), is little more than a head-bobbing, limb-shuffling, one-dimensional, big-eyed love interest for Parker. In Raimi’s version, Mary Jane lived a few houses down from Parker. There were hints that a troubled family lived inside. Raimi even had the courage to have Parker mutter his feelings for Mary Jane while walking behind her: an uncommonly sincere moment that made us relate to Parker’s wistfulness in human terms. What does Webb offer us? Gwen Stacy’s photo on Parker’s computer.

I suppose I’m dwelling upon the many human elements that went awry because the comic book story here is boring and unsatisfying. While this movie is not as bad as any comic book movie with “green” in the title, I did not feel a single second of awe or excitement during The Amazing Spider Man‘s 136 interminable minutes. Once again, there was no real justification for the 3D: not even the ridiculous Spidey POV shots that Webb desperately introduces as a personal stylistic flourish. There also needs to be a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos.

We have seen origin story after origin story, and, after two Hulks (2003 and 2008), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it’s all becoming wearisome. At least with The Avengers, the spandex ass kicking began fairly early and there was decent acting and a few good lines and a rousing Alan Silvestri score and an endearing Hulk. But the comic book movie has become a drag. Nobody says “fuck” or fucks or drinks or does drugs or gets into serious trouble. Nobody really lives. Imagine how truly amazing these movies would be if somebody took a human chance.

sarahpolleydirect

Sarah Polley (The Bat Segundo Show)

Sarah Polley appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #464. She is most recently the writer and director of Take This Waltz. The film opens in select theaters on June 29, 2012.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the chicken cookbook or the adulterous egg came first.

Guest: Sarah Polley

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Away from Her and Take This Waltz, the need for daily sweeping romance, whether film can offer corrective responses to romantic fallacies, a culture becoming increasingly uncomfortable with emptiness, holding onto transgressive moments in cinematic narrative until the last possible minute, designing a house that correctly reflects the socioeconomic status of characters, gentrification and other developments in Toronto, Kubrick’s complaints about Woody Allen, the line between the real and the fantastical in Take This Waltz, 360 degree shots, circular motifs, writing scenes out of order, why Polley’s male characters react to very emotional developments with total calmness, Polley’s father, subconscious artistic choices rooted in childhood, anger and maturity, cinematic histrionics, Polley’s views on marriage, relationships depicted by young filmmakers, living with flawed human beings, why Polley isn’t doing so much acting these days, becoming braver, avoiding the same tricks, numerous visual metaphors in Take This Waltz, “Video Killed the Radio Star” as adulterous metaphor, words as betrayal, using heavyweight dramatic and comic actors, and Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There is a line that Fiona says in the car in Away from Her. “I think people are too demanding. People want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” So Take This Waltz almost carries on with the extension of this idea, of the need for daily sweeping romance. But this film, it’s almost the complete opposite of a movie like Brief Encounter, where you suggest in this case that Margot’s adulterous desires are selfish and childish. The “I wuv you” at the very end of the movie. So I’m wondering. Do you see your two films as writer and director as corrective responses to this notion of romance? And how do you feel independent cinema is doing in depicting this more pernicious side of adulterous desires? Just to start out here.

Polley: Wow. That was amazing! I do feel like Away from Her and Take This Waltz are companion pieces to a certain extent. Even though they’re completely different films. I do think they are talking about the same thing in very different ways. I think that the line that Fiona says — “People want to be in love every single day. What a liability. People are too demanding.” — I do actually feel that. I feel like we have unrealistic expectations of our relationships. That they’re going to fulfill us at every moment and, if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them and we better go out and solve that. But I think that that’s a cultural thing and that we have that notion in almost every aspect of our lives. I think that we’re a culture that’s incredibly uncomfortable with emptiness, with feeling like life has a gap, with feeling like things aren’t perfect. And so we feel that if there’s something missing, that automatically means that there’s something wrong and we need to go out and fix it and we just need to make the right move in our lives and everything will somehow feel complete. And I think we constantly get shocked and blindsided by the fact that — I think that feeling of something new and missing and that emptiness does kind of follow us around a little bit. Or at least for periods of time. So, yeah, it’s funny that you brought up that line. Because I never really thought of the connection between that line and Take This Waltz. But I do actually think that Take This Waltz is an extension of that a little bit. And at the same time, I think I probably started writing the script a lot more judgmentally of the main character Margot than I ended up. I ended up feeling at the end of making the film that I empathized with all three characters. And that there were no heroes or villains.

Correspondent: Interesting.

Polley: While some of her choices seem immature or childish or self-involved, I think that enough people are connecting to her as a character and feeling quite defensive of her that it’s making me see her a lot more sympathetically as well.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that in both movies you keep that transgressive moment — and I don’t want to spoil either film — to the last possible minute. I think it’s in the last ten minutes of the first film and, in this, it’s perhaps the last twenty, twenty-five. And I’m wondering about sustaining that need to transgress from this seemingly stable relationship. Of some years too, by the way. It’s interesting that both marriages — the first is 44 years, the second is four or five years. So I’m wondering. Are you more interested in that period before one transgresses? Within this way of looking at these long-term relationships?

Polley: I think it’s the most cinematic part of a relationship like that. It’s before something actually happens. I think, in a way, all the deliciousness of that kind of relationship happens before anything happens. Also, it was important to me in this film that Margot not be someone who takes this lightly. Like she is somebody who deeply loves her husband. She is extremely tempted and brought to life by this other person. But she’s not someone who’s easily going to betray her husband or leave her husband. It’s really difficult for her. And, in fact, that makes that other situation even more tempting and even more alive.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about the house, which intrigued me in a number of ways. First of all, we see the kitchen obsession that was in the first one repeats in this one, which I thought was actually quite interesting. But there is this interesting notion of Margot almost seeking the real space while also seeking the fantastical space. Because you see this moment where they’re both watching TV in this cramped office, which as a freelancer I can totally relate to. In fact, the way we watch TV at our house is actually quite similar to that. But you also then see the scale of where she goes open up over the course of the film. It starts with the pool. And then later on, we have the loft. And I’m wondering. Because their space is not exactly — I buy certain rooms. Yes, that’s exactly how a struggling freelance writer, or even a successful freelance writer, would probably have that kind of space. But on the other hand, well, that kitchen is rather large even if you are a moderately successful cookbook author. So I’m curious about how you designed this space with this tension between the real and the phantasmagorical, or the fantastical in mind.

Polley: So this is an interesting question. So Downtown Toronto, up until about ten or fifteen years ago in the area where these characters live.

Correspondent: Kensington Market, right? It’s sort of there.

Polley: Sort of Little Portugal, Italy. Ten years ago, when Margot and Lou would have bought that house, when it was still primarily a community of families. Generations of families would have actually been affordable with a considerable amount of debt to two fairly bohemian people. I have friends who bought houses then with absolutely no money, with a loan, and didn’t do renovations for years and years and years. And it fell apart for a little bit. But that would realistically be a house they could have bought. There’s no way those two characters could buy that house now. If the film was taking place ten years from now, there’s no way you would believe it.

Correspondent: Comparable to Brooklyn actually.

Polley: And the truth is they probably, realistically at this point in two years’ time, would have figured out the value of their house and sold it and made a lot of money. (laughs) But I think culturally it’s a weird thing in Toronto. Where there have been traditionally these downtown neighborhoods right in the urban core with pretty lovely, maybe rundown Victorian/Edwardian houses that were fairly affordable. That’s changed and it’s changing and that’s really sad. Because it means the demographics of who lives downtown is really changing as well.

Correspondent: So you have given this some thought. (laughs)

Polley: I have given it some thought. Because it is something that I noticed doesn’t quite translate. Like in every other country, people are like, “Those people could never afford that house.” And I want to go, “Yeah. Right now. But what was amazing ten years ago in Toronto was people like them could.”

Correspondent: It’s like Kubrick sneering at Woody Allen, saying, “There’s no way these people could live in these spacious apartments in New York.” Or a similar thing.

Polley: Exactly. Then it does get fantastical. To be fair, I feel that when we go to where they live in the end in this, in this giant loft space, then I think we do take it into the realm of fantasy a little bit. Although I feel like the way we designed that was as though it was like an abandoned loft on top of a building. Which again, I think those spaces were much more readily available ten years ago than they are now.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask. The ending — and it’s hard to discuss without giving it away, so I’m going to do my best. But that notion of the fantastical that enters into it. When I watched this, I thought to myself, because I was so — God, you tested my morals. I was like, “Don’t do it!” I’m not going to say what happens. But when she is in that loft. And thanks for the equal opportunity, in terms of what happened.

Polley: (laughs)

Correspondent: I appreciated that little touch. But I thought that the movie had immediately transformed into a fantasy. And then it goes back into the real. And I’m wondering if at any point during the devising of this story if you actually did think that it was going to more of this whimsy into the fantasy. Or were you forced to combat certain feelings, the impulse to turn it into a fantasy at any point?

Polley: No. But I did want that sequence you’re talking about, where it’s…

Correspondent: Yes, the circular…

Polley: It’s a 360 degree shot that shows the progression of a sexual relationship in one shot. And there is something fantastical about that. And I didn’t shy away from that. There’s something contrived about it. There’s something strange and fantastical about it. And it is to show the passing of time in one long shot. And that was one of the first images I ever had for the film. So in a way, it’s out of place in the film. It all of a sudden breaks with the tone and the reality of the film. But I felt somehow that I could get away with it. And people disagree on that. Some people think I did get away with it. And some people didn’t.

Correspondent: I appreciated being tested.

darkshadows

Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton is little more than a soulless businessman who makes movies as cutting-edge as crucible steel. His films haven’t been fun or worthwhile in quite some time, an especially astonishing accomplishment considering the eye-popping work that came before. He’s been lurching around like a creatively bankrupt whore for at least sixteen years and his chief skill seems to be taking very fun films from decades past (Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, et al.) and adulterating them into tepid remakes which rival Sátántangó in sheer soporificity. Tim Burton is not a man who dazzles, but he is very keen on taking your money and boring you to tears.

With his latest disaster, Dark Shadows, Burton has once again butchered an engaging antecedent. He has hired Seth Grahame-Smith, an in-it-for-the-money mashup charlatan who wasn’t even alive when the first Dark Shadows series aired, to write a porous screenplay built upon gags so bad that even a Marmaduke fan is likely to go postal.

Instead of establishing Barnabas Collins’s striking qualities as a tormented vampire, Burton and Grahame-Smith cheapen him by having Barnabas react to cultural developments (“They tried stoning me. It did not work,” replies Barnabas when someone asks if he is stoned: no one in the theater laughed), having Dr. Julia Hoffman (played here as a clueless chain-smoking drunk by Helena Bonham Carter) go down on Barnabas because Burton and Grahame-Smith couldn’t ken the character (played by Burton’s real-life wife!) in any other way*, and having Barnabas quote from The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” (which actually came out in 1973, one year after the movie’s setting) and Erich Segal’s Love Story in an effort to relate to hippies.

This is Dark Shadows‘s idea of character development, and it extends to the acting. A distressingly plastic Michelle Pfeiffer, unable to express anything with her face, resorts to eye blinking in her role as the Collins matriarch (and cannot compare to the classy Joan Bennett from the original). For some inexplicable reason, Burton has directed nearly every woman to talk with a gravely two-packs-a-day timbre. And this became so distracting that I had to do a double take to make sure that Eva Green (who plays Angelique, the witch who ensnares Barnabas) wasn’t Helena Bonham Carter. Bella Heathcote tries her best (and is an excellent Kathryn Leigh Scott mimic) as Victoria Winters, the woman who looks like Barnabas’s lost love, Josette du Pres. But with such a middling script (and a really awkward backstory about being institutionalized as a child reflecting the desperation of artistic cretins sandwiching Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters into one character), Heathcote’s talents fizzle before they are allowed to catch fire. As for Johnny Depp, he’s in full paycheck role somnambulism here, offering little more than a not particularly precise Liverpudlian dialect and spastic presence. It is now clear that Johnny Depp, who was once one of our more interesting and daring actors, can no longer be trusted to put his name to anything even remotely daring. (His next film is The Lone Ranger.)

And I put forth to any self-respecting moviegoer that when a character is forced to exclaim “You’re way too weird!” to another in a movie, as one does to Barnabas, this is probably happening because the writer and the director are incapable of establishing the weirdness through action.

The Jonathan Frid and Ben Cross incarnations of Barnabas Collins didn’t require external prodding from others to establish their on-screen gravitas. Producer Dan Curtis, faced with a miniscule budget for his daily soap opera, relied on two dependable qualities that have escaped Burton’s feeble attentions: (1) go-for-broke writing and (2) theatrical acting. So he had his writers scavenge ideas and narrative angles from Poe, Lovecraft, Wilde, Stoker, Shelley, and countless other classics to create what was surely one of the most ambitious and quirky daytime shows ever produced on television, including everything from vampires to werewolves to gripping court trials to a wealthy family to parallel universes to immortal figures to Gothic intrigue. It proved so strangely addictive — almost the American answer to old school Doctor Who‘s endearing combination of wobbly sets and high concept — that I ended up renting the first 52 volumes on VHS at a Sacramento video store around 1990, managing to hook a number of friends and family members into my surprise find, and was crushed when I learned that there was no 53rd volume. (Later, I discovered that the Sci-Fi Channel was broadcasting Dark Shadows every morning, and I waited patiently for the series to catch up to where I had left off.)

So if you’re going to compress a series this complicated and this distinct into a two hour movie, you need dedication and finesse, especially if you hope to attract a new audience.

But Burton and Grahame-Smith are so laughably amateurish that Barnabas walks around town in open daylight with little more than a hat and an umbrella to protect him. (Indeed, after the fifteenth time I noticed some stream of sunlight that should have killed Barnabas, I stopped counting.) And unlike the Frid or Cross exemplars, who both used their innate charisma to persuade, Barnabas relies mostly on his hypnotic powers to coax others to do his bidding. As the wonderful bar scene from Near Dark demonstrated, a vampire is only as badass as his actions. Tim Burton’s Barnabas comes from a soft, privileged, and unlived place.

In addition, the movie is needlessly aggressive in its use of obvious music cues — The Carpenters’s “Top of the World,” The Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything,” many others — to telegraph its hackneyed moments. One almost expects Casey Kasem to show up. Instead, we get Alice Cooper performing at Collinwood, the Collins family manse that was so enticingly mysterious in its two television incarnations. For Burton, Collinwood is merely a place where you stash your badminton and macramé supplies in the secret rooms.

If turning a secret room into storage space for a Veblenian haul is Burton’s idea of imagination, then it’s clear that this rabid bore should be taken to the woodshed. The man contributes nothing of value to the American cultural landscape. He may look like Ichabod Crane, but he lost his head for fun a long, long time ago.

* — To give you a sense of how Burton and Grahame-Smith have diminished Dr. Julia Hoffman, here’s an extremely abbreviated character history from the original series. She was the head of a sanitarium, pretended to be a historian to infiltrate her way into the Collins family, and discovered Barnabas to be a vampire through her own initiative. Barnabas and Julia developed an interesting relationship that was built on trust, hypnosis, blackmail, and near murder. Should such an intriguing character really be little more than a drunk?

crulic

New Directors/New Films: Crulic: The Path to Beyond (2011)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

His name was Claudiu Crulic. He was a 33-year-old Romanian who, as a younger man, abandoned his loose educational plans and involved himself in the family business of selling sundries in various European nations. Or he was a mysterious drifter harassed by the authorities for minor indiscretions. Or he was living it up in vaguely dissolute, vaguely familial terms in Krakow. It really all depends — as Anca Damian’s animated film Crulic: The Path to Beyond makes clear in its enticing murkiness — on how you look at the situation, on the facts you decide to appropriate for your own subjective purposes, whether as filmgoer or fellow human being. Is that ringing telephone a cardboard reconstruction? Or is it merely a collection of hastily sketched lines? We can hear the cinematic fizzle of the overhead florescent lights, yet why can’t we see them? We are told that a man has lost 30 kilograms in weight before death, yet the air that surrounds his story is often weightless.

Damian’s film cannot commit itself to any one animation technique: cutout, hand-sketched, and the kitchen sink are all vigorously pursued in an effort to unpack Crulic’s story, which is by no means airtight, entirely authentic, or even completely tellable. Crulic’s voice and imagery have been reappropriated, with another actor reading what I must presume to be reinvented words to convey one possible truth about a terrible tale in which facts may be fickle. This raises ethical questions over whether Damian the filmmaker is as reckless with the truth as the Polish authorities were with Crulic’s life. Perhaps the only way to hit at Crulic’s truth is through such smudging.

There is one thing most people will agree on. Claudiu Crulic did not have to die at such a needlessly young age in a Polish prison. On July 11th, 2007, a judge of the high court had his wallet stolen, with two ATM transactions on his card totaling 500 Euros following not long after. Crulic, the apparent suspect who may or may not have been in Krakow at the time, was recognized in a photograph by the judge, detained, and placed into a prison to await trial in the months to come. Curlic decided that he could no longer wait and initiated a hunger strike, stating this in a letter to the Romanian Consulate. Damian’s film implies that the Consul strung Crulic along. This may very well be true. The judge and the Court and the lawyers and the doctors and the prison officials all have blood on their hands for allowing Crulic to die, for not intervening in time, and for throwing out evidence which might have exonerated Crulic (Crulic on a bus to Italy during the time in which the Judge was robbed). If the Crulic situation weren’t so tragic, it would certainly be comic or Kafkesque. But another important question that the film never quite answers is why Crulic would choose such a dramatic and life-threatening protest option over a more practical one. An inhumane hardliner could point to the heroes and rebs who have done hard time for worse offenses.

We are told many times along the way that “it was at this point” that Crulic’s life might have been saved or the cruel bureaucratic process might have grinded to a halt. But do we really know this for certain? This film carries the illusion of veracity with a narrator who steps into the vocal track to give us more than contours. And some kernel of another truth is implied during the end credits with various television clips. But while I was seduced by the film’s imagery and ideas — the frozen cutout representation of Crulic flung about from cell to cell as he is shifted in disorientation by the guards, the idea that one life might contain a finite number of photos — I felt vaguely bothered by the film’s tendency to dictate rather than to suggest. I cannot in good conscience call this a documentary. But as one dramatic representation of a story that was largely ignored in the States, this path to beyond leaves one considering the path less traveled and fuels a new desire to travel both. It is a sad indication of the Polish justice system’s inadequacies that a more complete excursion is probably not possible.

osimple

New Directors/New Films: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Vol 01 — Slightly Eccentric Lede Intended to Mimic the Film’s Structure, Offering a Knowing Nod or a Tedious Longueur Depending Upon What You Prefer

You’re not supposed to begin an essay with a digression, but since the film I’m about to write about is a deceptive concatenation of digressions, it somehow seems appropriate to break the unspoken rule.

Vol 02 — Impertinent Observations Reflecting the Essayist’s Eccentric Mind

Upon seeing “ambivalence” misspelled on-screen during An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the wordsmith in me wondered if this may have been deliberate. After all, filmmaker Terence Nance does have the woman of his real-life and cinematic affections read what appears to be a lengthy (though modified — but I am trusting my memory and I am not Googling it, so I could be wrong) passage from Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. And Nance’s film is fascinatingly verbal, with words displayed and heard at nearly every point: filling in every stray gap (thanks in large part to Reg E. Cathey’s smooth narration, which intersperses at times with Nance’s — the effect works, the competitive voices suggesting some internal dialogue between a boy and a man, but I wondered at times if the actor from The Wire had to stick to a mere 80% of the film’s narration, rather than the full order, in order to fit his great velvet-voiced services into the low budget), complicating and reviving and reforming and mimicking a long-dead relationship that is also the very subject of this film. So why would Nance misspell the very word that may signal his true and present feelings about what he’s documenting?

It was at this point — perhaps an hour into the movie — that my mind suggested that Oversimplification could be a clever reply to The Americanization of Emily. In the 1964 film (written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on a William Bradford Huie novel; I won’t mention the director because it runs the risk of another 500 words I don’t really want to write right now), Emily is both attracted and repelled by a soldier’s lifestyle. She’s lost many of the men she’s loved during the war and she doesn’t want to see this new guy she’s fallen for, Madison, die either. And then it appears that Madison is dead — the first man to make it on Omaha Beach. And Emily is crushed. But Madison is not dead. He’s living it up as a hero, which is something of an understatement. Because he was actually a coward. Emily says that he should accept his role.

Vol 03 — Oh, Get to the Film Already!

Now let’s take a look at Nance’s film. We are informed that Nance is a young twentysomething who has had a family upbringing without injury or incident (described as “the Cosby effect”). He works twelve hour days, but most of his money appears to be going into his rent and his Metrocard. He has to construct his own bed, relying on Japanese joinery, carrying slabs on the subway, and not getting the bed right because he is not the greatest carpenter and he has used pine instead of sturdier wood. It can be argued that this is a lifestyle: certainly many of today’s artists soldier on in an American climate increasingly hostile to art. And Nance’s choice of inferior wood may indeed suggests that he is beguilingly clueless in some sense. This was the big tip-off for me, in any case, that Nance’s heavily verbal, multitiered film was just as much of an imperfect bed that he would have to lay in for some years.

So Nance meets Namik. The details are imprecise, even as there is the illusion of precision contained within the film’s ongoing narration and structure. (At one point, we are helpfully informed that one section of the film is “up to date as of 2006.”) They sleep together, but they don’t necessarily make love. The nature of the relationship is imprecise, as befitting two confused but amicable young people in some kind of love or lust. It is imprecise even as Nance offers a timeline of events late into the film. We learn that another man has asked Namik to be in an exclusive relationship, which means the end of her involvement with Nance.

Or so we think. Because Nance, crushed by this, decides to dwell on the relationship anyway — even after it is over. He somehow persuades Namik to respond to a letter that he sent her long after the fact and records her response on camera. What starts off as a young man’s friendly and humble self-examination becomes a little creepy for a time. I mean, can you imagine asking some person you slept with several years ago to respond to something on camera for a project that reflects your own personal truth? Especially after both of you have moved on? That Namik does all this without filing for a restraining order speaks to Nance’s strange charm. Or maybe it’s the key ingredient for this film’s weirdly appealing conceptual thrust. In an age of increasing documentation of the self, are we meant to carry on chronicling the very emotions that might be harmful towards us or others? Especially when we’re ushered to shift our Facebook profiles onto a timeline and relive our worst moments? Nance seems game for endless self-examination. He didn’t come off as a narcissist to me, although, given the walkouts I observed, I know his willingness to push into his own seemingly common complexities won’t be for everyone.

Vol 04 — An Attempt to Find a Conclusion

Like Nance, I seem to have drifted in the immediate emotional residue and haven’t even consulted the many notes I took. Many of them are indecipherable. But I’m sure that many of them are readable and profound. I have opted for memory instead. Yet in considering my feelings (which are genuinely positive) for Nance’s film, it’s interesting that I haven’t mentioned the animation. And this isn’t fair. Because there is one past fling which Nance chronicles quite well through animation, where all parties are naked and Nance’s stature waxes and wanes as the giant woman he is describing transforms into a ripe tomato as she gets it on with another lover and Nance begins to comprehend the great pain of trying to stay platonic with a woman you still have feelings for.

This film is Nance’s truth, and nothing but Nance’s truth. Even as Nance includes a trailer for Naink’s possible cinematic response, and even as Nance includes a hazy video clip from a Q&A session just after an early version of the film played a theater, this is still Nance’s truth. It’s worth pointing out that Oversimplification emerged from the bones of an earlier short film called How Would You Feel?. That both films are, in turn, evolved from Nance’s real-life experience leads one to wonder where the original emotional kernel can be found, or whether it’s even worth pursuing.

Nance hasn’t so much oversimplified Namik’s beauty, as he has complicated it into a distorted view that no longer bears any resemblance to the original lived moment. And while another older person (especially one with several failed marriages) might find this annoying or horrifying, I found this oddly enthralling. Nance confesses that he doesn’t really possess the emotional memory of his moments with Namik, and that her motion in the clips edited on his laptop somehow actuated these false highlights. Does technology debilitate the romance or the inherent truth of our memories? Probably. And I think, given the defiant iPhone-centric manner in which he ends his movie, Nance does too. Yet here is a man who, not long after showing a version of his film to Namik, puts the microphone in her face and presses her on how she feels, curling it around her (while sitting behind her) like an arm. I’ll be hard-pressed to find a better epitomization of 21st century life (especially among those who document it) in any film I see this year.

Is this thing on?

raidredemption

New Directors/New Films: The Raid: Redemption (2011)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

It’s difficult not to take grand glee in an action movie with an aesthetic partially inspired by Eddie Adams’s famous photo of Nguyen Van Lem getting his head blown off. In Gareth Evans’s beautifully brutal new film, The Raid: Redemption, angry heads pop into frame and are pistoled, knifed, and punctured against crumbling chrome walls with rhythmic panache. I spent much of the movie chortling over the audacity.

Last year, I argued that the main difference between a great low-class action movie (Shoot ‘Em Up) and unpardonable trash (Kick-Ass) is that the former invites the reader to make sense of the madness on screen, while the latter wishes to dictate how the audience should react (generally with some knowing musical cue where the irony is ham-handed).

I am pleased to report that The Raid falls into the first category and is very entertaining indeed. For all of The Raid‘s over-the-top violence (there is one amazing scene in which a single man battles a machete gang with near balletic dexterity), Evans — a Welshman now operating in Indonesia — isn’t afraid to bedazzle with his camera. A crane shot lowers from above as twenty elite cops methodically leave a truck with their weapons. But Evans doesn’t stop there. He continues the shot on Steadicam.

Here is a movie where characters chop through the floor with an axe, jump to the level below them, and the camera follows — whether through CGI or a bona-fide stuntman, I know not. And if, for some reason, you can’t appreciate that, consider how Mikhail Kalatozov’s camera in I Am Cuba scaled walls and followed a flag across a crowded street. If cinema can transport us into places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, why should we withhold our praise when an action movie does the same thing?

I haven’t even discussed the way in which Evans uses slow motion. There is a stunning shot early in the film where one of the tenants shouts up a stairwell that the police have arrived. And while this shot continues in slothful time, we see a flying bullet puncture through the wall behind him.

Evans is also committed to barbarous triplets. If you’re a bad guy in The Raid, you won’t just get a gunshot to the head. You’ll get three. If you’re getting pounded against the wall, then the man who is kicking your ass will do his best to make sure you get smashed in three separate places on your way down to death on the floor. The quiet math rock part of me appreciated all this. Death does indeed happen in threes.

And while some of the hallway fights get a little repetitive near the end, exposing the ridiculous and threadbare plot (which turns out to be a knockoff of A Better Tomorrow: two brothers, one a cop and the other a criminal), Evans is very good about keeping the action and the locations varied up enough for us not to notice. He has stuntmen clamber up walls and even has his characters hide inside them. One gets the sense that Evans has truly considered every nook and cranny of his location. And every strike of the knife.

It also helps that the movie contains some unusual dialogue. When the villain was informed at an early point that at least thirty of his tenants who paid rent were now spread across the walls, I knew that I was in capable hands. If I happened to be a violent maniac and property owner, I’d certainly want my underlings to inform me about any recent change in revenue. “Squeezing a trigger?” asks one man to another. “That’s like ordering takeout.” This half-assed philosophical stance gives two men an excuse to get into a protracted martial arts fight.

The line may also anticipate the cult audience this film is likely to attract. For The Raid isn’t ephemeral takeout. It’s the hip new dive you want to tell your friends about before everybody else discovers it.

aholland

The Bat Segundo Show: Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #433. She is most recently the director of In Darkness, which has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and opens in limited release on Febraury 10, 2012.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fumbling in the dark for the Zippo.

Guest: Agnieszka Holland

Subjects Discussed: Creating cinematic environments, how to design a sewer system for a Holocaust movie, the sewer as metaphor, the difficulty of locating the right sewer, Polish sewers, technical limitations on location, managing 60 to 70 people in a tight location, the differences between canalization sewers and sanitation sewers, finding sewer experts, Montreal, Phantasm, Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, The Third Man, cinematographic efforts to avoid the beauty of the sewers, darkness as a false beauty, avoiding candles, directing actors in real darkness, making a movie which containing numerous languages, linguistic training and actors, ovepreparing actors, the Balak Polish dialect, working with Ed Harris, importing Method acting ideas into the Polish acting community, Jennifer Jason Leigh, finding the right actors, Polish theatrical training, Holocaust fatigue, developing behavioral quirks to overcome tropes, the Downfall meme, Olivier Olivier, Holland’s experience with identity emerging as a theme in her films, Zelig, being identified as the “literary culture” director during the 1990s, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden as Holland’s favorite book as a kid, being faithful to Henry James, Washington Square vs. The Heiress, and efforts to determine why David Simon paired Holland up with Richard Price-penned scripts on The Wire.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This actually came up in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with the Australian novelist Elliot Perlman. We were talking about the notion of Holocaust fatigue and how some books or films that deal with the Holocaust have to now face this dilemma. I was looking at some of the reviews and some of the write-ups of this film and I noticed, for example, that A.O. Scott suggested that “the Holocaust movie has become a genre in its own right.” And in Tablet, you have Daphne Merkin suggesting that “the audience for Holocaust films is even smaller than the audience for Ukranian imports.” But on the other hand, I think one of the things I appreciated about this film, and also Europa Europa, is that you have characters who are committing adultery, who are shooting up, who are masturbating, and as a result you have behavioral quirks that almost defy these labels. So what do you do, when you’re making a Holocaust narrative of any kind, to get away from these tropes? Does it really come down to these behavioral quirks or what?

Holland: Well, you know, I think that the Holocaust is such an important event in the human history, the border point of the humanity, that I don’t think it will disappear as a subject. Even for the next generation. I think what happens really — it was too many of pretty superficial and not very good treatments of this period and of this subject, which change it to some kind of the moralistic sentimental kitsch and I think really — yeah, this kind of treatment, people have enough. It means, in the first, it was educationally important and work up some kind of knowledge and curiosity. But after, it became some kind of cliche. For me, it’s important that it’s not like, that you cannot label this as the Holocaust. It is not really Holocaust film or it’s not the film of the Polish/Jewish relationship. It’s a film about the human condition and the particular circumstances. And what you know of the human nature is able to give, to deliver the best and the worst. And that is the universal question which you can also translate to another sensitivity and another times. I think personally that the only thing which is important: if it’s artistically successful and if it’s honest. Humanly speaking and psychologically speaking and historically speaking. If it’s dishonest or bad, it’s bad. If it’s really powerful and goes straight to the heart of the people, you know, yes. I think that we, of course, had the ambition to shot into the heart of the people and the brain comes later, you know? And if after it wakes up the reflection, what it was, how it was possible, when was my nation in that, how I will act in those circumstances, that is a bonus.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I agree with you. But on the other hand, you as a filmmaker are competing with, for example, the Downfall meme on the Internet. Where they take that scene and put different subtitles with Hitler. “Hitler has learned this.” As a result, any serious consideration of the Holocaust now has to compete with these caricatures. Although, oddly enough, I guess you were sort of ahead of the trend with the Hitler who’s in Europa Europa.

Holland: Right.

Correspondent: But how do you deal with this? Does it really come down to creating subcultures? Behavioral quirks along these lines that defy all tropes?

Holland: Well, you know, it’s where we are today. And anyway, you know, the Internet. And you think of the artifacts and the pieces of art on the Internet and the cut-and-glue, you know, kind. It exists. You cannot do anything about it. And of course, you can answer the question, “How long the regular dramatic narrative will survive?” And if it will change to something different. Some kind of interactive games or something like that. I don’t know. By now, it still exists and you still can touch a pretty amazing amount of people with that.

Correspondent: I was always curious. I’ve been wanting to ask you this. Why are you so interested in frauds and swindlers and those who have secret identities or who are pretending to be somebody else? I mean, even in this film, you’ve got con men. There’s the pretense with the cash. Olivier Olivier — is the boy real or not? Things like that. Is this, I suppose, the result of growing up in pre-Solidarity Poland? This natural curiosity? Or is it just good for narrative?

Holland: Probably. Probably. In Polish Jewish family also, where, you know, I had to change those hearts depending upon who I am talking to. So in some way, part is my own experience. And being woman in a man’s world. And in general, I think that the people are wearing the masks all the time. So that is like the basic human problem. Who we are really in the depth of our identity and what we pretend if that real identity really exists or is just the function of the circumstances. If it’s something like the true, true, you know, true myself — someplace — and the rest is just some kind of the appearances, the true myself doesn’t exist. Everything is appearances. The question is asked in Europa Europa in a very vivid way. Because the guy had been like the Zelig — changing identities, depending.

Correspondent: And very flute-based as well.

Holland: Right. And in Europa Europa, it was paradoxical. It was that his identity was his circumcised penis. If he wasn’t circumcised, probably he will become someone else totally. And that he had to remember.

Correspondent: No greater physicality than that. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #433: Agnieszka Holland (Download MP3)

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corman

The Bat Segundo Show: Roger Corman

Roger Corman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #416. In addition to directing some of the most memorable and entertaining drive-in movies of the 20th century (among many other accomplishments), he is most recently the subject of a new documentary called Corman’s World, which is now playing film festivals and is set for release on December 16.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Not of this earth.

Guest: Roger Corman

Subjects Discussed: Corman’s infamous cost-cutting measures, unusual marriage proposals, bloated corporations, Occupy Wall Street, comparisons between Zuccotti Park and 1960s protests, keeping tabs on pop culture, not giving stars and directors a few bucks to stay around, Easy Rider, the philosophy behind the Corman university, picking people on instinct and the qualities that Corman looks for in a potential talent, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, directors who move up the ladder, The Intruder, why Corman didn’t make explicit socially conscious films after 1962, financing pictures with your own money, the financial risks of being ahead of the curve, looking for subtext in the nurses movies, the sanctimony of Stanley Kramer, Peter Biskind’s “one for me, one for them” idea, simultaneous exploitation and empowerment, the minimum amount of intelligence that an exploitation film has to contain, throwing calculated failures into a production slate, distributing Bergman and Fellini through New World, why Corman believes it was impossible to produce and distribute independent art house movies in the United States in the 1960s and the 1970s, the importance of film subsidies, why Corman gave up directing, Von Richthofen and Brown, the allure of Galway Bay, getting bored while attempting to take time off, the beginnings of New World, the many breasts in Corman’s films, Annabelle Gurwitch’s “Getting in Touch with Your Inner Bimbo,” targeted incidental nudity opportunities, enforcing nudity clauses in contracts, questioning why actresses can’t be sexy without taking their tops off, Rosario Dawson, the undervalued nature of contemporary films, and Corman’s thoughts on how future filmmakers can be successful.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have to get into your eccentric temperament right from the get-go. There is a moment in this documentary where your wife Julie confesses that you proposed to her. And she said yes. Then you disappeared for a week into the Philippines. And she tried to get in touch with you and finally did get in touch with you and asked, “Well, is the marriage still on?” And you said, “Oh yes, of course.” Your justification was, well, you didn’t want to pay the expense of long-distance telephone. I told this story to my partner and I thought it was amusing. But she was absolutely horrified by this. And this leads me to ask if the notorious reputation you have for aggressive cost-cutting, perhaps one of the finest cost-cutters in the history of cinema — well, how much does this lead into your personal life? And your private life? I mean, surely, when you’re talking about sweethearts and fiancées, you can afford to spend at least a buck or something. I mean, come on!

Corman: Well, that story is possibly true. But the fact of the matter is I’d been in the jungle. At that time, there were no phones. So that was the real reason for the call.

Correspondent: That was the real reason. But this does raise an interesting question. I mean, under what circumstances will you, in fact, pay the regrettable cost of maintaining a relationship like this? Whether it be professional or private.

Corman: Well, I would have to divide that into two answers. Privately, and particularly with my wife and children, I’m much more liberal in spending than I’d ever been on films. On films, I really watch every penny.

Correspondent: Yes. But are there any circumstances you’ve regretted? Either spending extra money or not spending the dollar? Or not spending the dime so to speak?

Corman: I don’t think I regret any overspending. I think, once or twice, I should have let pictures go a little longer and spent a little bit more. These were pictures that were coming in on budget and on schedule. I might have added a couple of extra days to the shooting schedule. But I felt this was a fifteen day schedule. This is the thirteenth day. I have to make a decision. We’re going to shoot it in fifteen days. In retrospect, had I gone to sixteen or seventeen, the additional quality — for lack of a better word — might have been greater than the expenditure.

Correspondent: Well, what’s the cost-benefit analysis for this quality to spending ratio that you’ve devised over the years? Is it largely instinctual? Is it largely looking aggressively at the books? What of this?

Corman: It’s a combination of all of the above, plus just the calculation. I’m always looking for the greatest quality. I’ve done pictures — The Little Shop of Horrors — in two and a half days. I did that with very little money. But I did the best possible job I could do with the amount of money. So I’m looking for the highest possible quality. But since I back my pictures with my own money, which is something you’re never supposed to do, I have to be certain — well, I shouldn’t say certain. I have to have a reasonable guess that I’m going to come out of this one okay.

Correspondent: Do you think that such brutal, Spartan-like tendencies might be applied to, oh say, balancing the federal budget? Or perhaps creating a more efficient Department of Defense? Do you have any ideas on this?

Corman: Well, I believe that it isn’t just the federal government. I believe large corporations or the Department of Defense, which of course is part of the federal budget — I think there’s a certain inherent waste in any large organization, whether it’s public or private. I think they all could be streamlined or — let me put it this way, I think they all should be streamlined. But I question whether it can be done. Because the bureaucracies are in place. And it’s very, very difficult to move.

Correspondent: It’s difficult, I suppose, not just in motion pictures, but for everybody right now. Do you have any thoughts on the present Occupy Wall Street movement that’s been going on in this city while you’ve been here?

Corman: Weirdly enough, I was at the Occupy Wall Street meeting — or sit-in. Whatever you want to call it.

Correspondent: You went to Zuccotti Park?

Corman: Yeah. Just about an hour ago.

Correspondent: Really?

Corman: I donated a little money and they had a couple of pictures taken of me there. Which they said they wanted to use in some way. And I told them I was totally in support of what they’re doing.

Correspondent: I’m surprised you weren’t down there with a movie camera getting master shots for a later production based on Zuccotti Park or something like this. There should be an Occupy Wall Street movie. Is there some possible narrative? Some bucks in this?

Corman: Well, it’s the kind of thing I did before in the 1960s, with the various protest meetings and anti-Vietnam demonstrations. I was there with cameras. And we did use the footage. And this one at the moment isn’t quite that big. If it grows, however, that will be a different thing.

Correspondent: Well, did you see it at Times Square on Saturday? It was actually 15,000 people. And it was pretty aggressive with the cops arresting people. 88 people that day too.

Corman: We came in on Saturday.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Corman: And actually I saw opposite ends of New York. I came in, went straight to the opera, went straight from the opera to Comic Con to sign autographs. So I figured if I went from New York to the opera to Comic Con, I saw various aspects of New York.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask you about how you collect your ideas or how you maintain your attentions as to what’s going on in contemporary society. It seems to me that going down to Zuccotti Park, you’re still very much interested in finding out what the present concerns are. I mean, how often do you do this now in your daily life? Just to keep tabs. How do you know, for example, that Hell’s Angels or LSD or Zuccotti Park might be a salable idea?

Corman: These are just aspects of pop culture that come to the surface. And I’ve been involved in all the previous ones. Or most of them, one way or another. And the Occupy Wall Street movement is new. And I went just to see what it was like. And it was strange. There’s a real similarity to the 1960s here. And I don’t know if the young people of today know that what they’re doing, the signs they have, the music they had playing, the discussions — it brought me right back to 1968.

Correspondent: Do you see any differences by chance?

Corman: I saw very little differences. I did notice this. The police were not antagonistic. They were standing there. But I didn’t see any of them make any harmful moves. Where in the ’60s, I did see police make harmful moves. Maybe they’ve learned something over the years.

The Bat Segundo Show #416: Roger Corman (Download MP3)

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sarahpalinyoubetcha

The Bat Segundo Show: Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #413. He is most recently the co-director of Sarah Palin: You Betcha.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he has gone rogue or rouge.

Guest: Nick Broomfield

Subjects Discussed: Being attracted to conservative politicians with big hair, Christopher Hitchens’s sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, contending with publicists and press agents, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue, Levi Johnston and Tank Jones, filming Daryl Gates accepting an interview fee on camera, the ethics of paying interview subjects, Broomfield’s amateurist aesthetic, the faux professionalism of film crews, Broomfield filming himself on the phone, Broomfield’s tendency to gravitate towards ad hominem, whether the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming President is a serious question, John Bitney, Steve Schmidt, campaign management of Palin, Broomfield doing less documentaries, the Kickstarter campaign for Sarah Palin: You Betcha, flipping between documentaries and narratives, wearing red flannel in Wasilla, JC McCavitt, the influence of Palin and the evangelical right in Wasilla, whether or not Wasilla reflects America, whether Broomfield is motivated by vengeance or retaliation, the chewing gum photo montage, balancing the visual details and the facts, collaborating with Joan Churchill, why Broomfield put himself in front of the camera after Lily Tomlin, claims of Lily Tomlin’s insecurity, the difficulty of filming Tomlin, why the construction of a documentary creates a more inclusive one, the dangers of moral labels, why people should trust Nick Broomfield, moral paralysis, subjective truth borne from a personal quest, embarrassing public questioning, Broomfield’s view of restraint as a weakness, hedge funds, getting investors to sign on for a Broomfield movie, working with non-actors, and the ever-shifting Broomfield paradigm.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Going back to Margaret Thatcher [Tracking Down Maggie], it seems to me that you have an especial interest in conservative politicians with very interesting hair-dos. What’s up with this particular commonality? I sense also a formalistic commonality as well with the chase for Maggie and the chase for Sarah here. What of this?

Broomfield: Well, in fact, I never thought of the similarity of the hair-dos. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s quite extraordinary.

Correspondent: Are you a man who likes big hair? You’re a Clintonian man?

Broomfield: I’m actually not a particularly big hair man. But when I was doing the Margaret Thatcher film, one of the people I interviewed was Christopher Hitchens.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: Who had a lot of almost sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, which I hasten to add I never shared. But I noticed that a lot of people also have the same feelings about Sarah Palin.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: And, again, I’ve never succumbed to those kinds of thoughts with her. But I think that both women captured the imagination of a large part of the population. Probably also because they were women and they had a determination and a charm that was unexpected and was refreshing in its own way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Not attracted to Sarah sexually. But I also think to Fetishes and also to Heidi Fleiss; Hollywood Madam.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: It seems that there is also some sexual quality sometimes to some of your subjects. Especially women. Why do you think this is?

Broomfield: Well, I mean, I think as any full-blooded male once interested — I would apply it more to films like, yeah, Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss. I did a film, Chicken Ranch, in a legalized brothel in Nevada. Even someone like Aileen Wuornos was very interesting along those lines. Sexual lines. It’s funny. Just last week, I saw Fred Wiseman in Toronto. He’s just made a film. The Crazy Horse. A strip club. And before that, he did the ballet film. And I said, “Fred, do I get the sense of some kind of Fräulein in your work.” And he said, “I’d like to see what you’re doing when you’re 81 years old.”

Correspondent: Errol Morris’s Tabloid as well. While we’re on the subject.

Broomfield: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah, there you go.

Broomfield: What’s he just done?

Correspondent: He did Tabloid on the sex scandal. 1970s. So there we go.

Broomfield: There we go.

Correspondent: All you documentary filmmakers are turning into dirty old men.

Broomfield: Exactly. Exactly. Just give me a few more years and I’ll be completely there.

Correspondent: To get on a serious subject, since you had experienced difficulties in both Tracking Down Maggie and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam when dealing with press agents and publicists, you had to know going into this one that you were probably not going to get a sitdown interview with Sarah Palin.

Broomfield: Well, I think that I always had the belief that I would get one probably. And it was only after we’d been there for about ten weeks — just before Christmas — that I really realized with that final phone call with Chuck Heath, the father, that I wasn’t going to get one. I don’t know that one would necessarily learn something devastatingly original with a sitdown interview with her. Because she’s done many interviews and nothing very revealing has come out. Generally, she’s revealing by omission. Which is: she doesn’t know something or she mispronounces a word or she is factually inaccurate or she gets things all confused. So she’s very revealing. Generally about lack of knowledge. She’s very unrevealing generally about herself and her upbringing and even her beliefs. I think she’s very guarded. For somebody who studied media at university, she is completely distrusting of the media and has more control probably over what she says and does than anybody. I mean, the only interview she does is with FOX Television, who she’s employed by. And obviously Facebook and Twitter. But I did think that as we were resident in Wasilla that maybe we would get a down moment with her that would at least be revealing of her — thank you (to barista) — of her family and her friends and the way she saw life around her or as part of the evangelical community. Which is really what Wasilla is.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting because Joe McGinniss also has a book called The Rogue. And he managed to get more childhood friends to talk — anonymously in that book — and you had to go all the way to way to Alexandria to find someone who would talk with you. I’m curious…

Broomfield: Well, my sources were not talking anonymously. They were talking on camera. And I can back up all my various claims in the film. Whereas I think one of the problems in quoting undisclosed sources is that you cannot back up your claims. And you obviously can’t do that in a film.

Correspondent: I was curious. While we’re on the subject of interviews, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam has the famous moment where you’re showing Daryl Gates accept the cash.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: In this, you have one moment where you’re talking to Levi Johnston’s manager, Tank Jones, and you’re negotiating trying to interview him for $500. And I’m curious about this. Is this kind of thing ethical? I mean, why would it be ethical? And I’m wondering, when you do in fact pay someone for an interview, do you feel an obligation to feature that on screen? Has this always been the case for you? Have you paid other people?

Broomfield: What I think was interesting is that people like Levi Johnston basically live off — I introduce that segment in the film, saying that there’s an industry that’s grown up around Sarah Palin and people live from that industry. So that was an illustration of Levi Johnston basically — I mean, I think they were asking $20,000. So I think my derisory offer of $500 was more of a joke than anything else. But I think it’s very relevant to point out that there is a great deal of money in tabloid journalism and that people are paid to make contributions. I mean, I didn’t pay anyone in this film. But there have been other films, which you quite rightly pointed out. Like, for example, the Heidi Fleiss film, everybody expected to be paid.

Correspondent: Everybody in Heidi Fleiss pretty much got paid? Ms. Sellers and the like?

Broomfield: They all expected to be paid. I don’t know if they all got paid. But yes. And I think I make a big point of that in the film. I comment on how much money various people wanted. Like DarylGates. I think he wanted $2,000. $1,500 to take part.

Correspondent: But when you introduce money into the equation, doesn’t this affect what you’re going to be getting from your documentary subjects?

Broomfield: Well, I’m making a film about what is. And we live in a world that’s very commercial and a world that has to do with money. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re reporting on that world. So if everyone wants money in that world, you report on that fact. And of course, that makes a difference. Yes.

Correspondent: What about this amateurist aesthetic that is often in your films? I think of the tape running out in Biggie and Tupac.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And in this [Sarah Palin: You Betcha], your efforts to try and cross an iced lake or to try and negotiate ice in numerous ways. Or the hat trick in, of course, The Leader[, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife]. And all that.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: There’s a certain…

Broomfield: You’ve certainly done your homework here.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about why this exists. Are these deliberate moves on your part to either win over your subjects or win over the audience with a more amateurist approach that’s calculated? Or are these just mess ups on your part?

Broomfield: Well, I would argue that there’s sort of a faux professional approach with a lot of film crews. You know, when they climb back in the car and drive on to the next location, I’m sure they’re a whole lot of fun. And they crack a whole lot of jokes that are not in the film. But when they get the cameras out, they get the clipboards out, and they became these serious professionals. Which I think is a load of bullshit. I think it’s much better to reveal what it’s really like to be doing that film or what you really think or what the humor is, you know? Rather than having this — you know. I remember when I was working for television. I was working with a presenter. And the presenter was actually a very funny guy. And I remember we were making a film in a monastery. And he would get into all these arguments with the monks about whether God existed or how many angels he could get on a pin and all those classic debates. And he would always lose the arguments. Because the monks and the abbot and so on, that’s all they did. And they studied all the books. And they were really up on their theology and logic. And when I showed the film to the TV company, they were horrified. Because they said a professional reporter does not lose his way. Does not stumble over words. Doesn’t turn to the camera and say, “I’m stuck.” But of course, they do. And I think by including those kinds of things, you make a much more accurate portrait than if you leave them out. I think there’s a sort of faux professionalism that we’re surrounded by that is completely inaccurate.

Correspondent: But doesn’t your persona, your schtick, sometimes get in the way of the very subjects that you’re photographing. I mean, every time you make a telephone call in your movies, you’re always in a car.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why you feel the need to film that as well. It’s almost as if you’re counting on the subject to say no.

Broomfield: Well, what…wha…I mean, I don’t really understand the point. I don’t know whether you’re saying that the phone calls are irrelevant or the fact that I’m in a car is irrelevant.

Correspondent: I’m trying to point out that you’re really trying to show yourself more than anything else.

The Bat Segundo Show #413: Nick Broomfield (Download MP3)

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moneyball

Another Review of Moneyball

This is the second of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The first, featuring two fictitious sportscasters, can be read here.

I came to Moneyball not having read Michael Lewis’s book. There wasn’t really a good reason. Because I do read source material for a film whenever possible. Why? Because I like to play comparison games in my head. And because if the film doesn’t match up to the book, then I can figure out why. Or if it does measure up (and then some), I can analyze the differences.

Oddly, I didn’t do so when I saw The Social Network, which Moneyball is clearly trying to ape: from the Sorkin dialogue that managed to survive a zillion rewrites and doctoring to the shots of 21st century retro computing (2001 in Moneyball, 2004ish in TSN) to the meetings where old people need to be convinced of something new and foreign (in TSN‘s case, when the fictional Zuckerberg is being deposed by lawyers or telling the Harvard people why he doesn’t give a fuck about them but does about Facebook; in Moneyball, when beatific Brad Pitt as Billy Beane drops his masks and tells a room full of Fathers Know Best scouts they don’t know what they are doing.) Maybe Moneyball needed full-blown Sorkin, but I don’t think his script could have saved the movie, which was pretty much unsaveable from the get-go.

Here’s why: it opens with footage (real? doctored? who cares?) of the Oakland Athletics’s 2001 wild card playoffs, a strike against my childhood self who cried out for her 1994 Expos, their bound-for-playoff run aborted by the strike that killed the game and ushered in three rounds of post-season. There’s Jason Giambi before we knew he took steroids. There’s Roger Clemens before we knew he took steroids, perjured himself, and generally revealed himself to be a colossal douchebag of the highest order. And I’m distracted, thinking of the Mitchell Report, Itamar Moses’s amazing play about the late 1980s A’s, Canseco introducing McGwire to the magical elixir of what these drugs can do. And oh yeah, the A’s lose, Schott won’t give Beane any money, and everybody’s fucked until the Fat Kid Math Whiz comes along to save the day and make Beane look good with his Sabermetric-based statistical analysis of underappreciated players.

Moneyball did pick up. I admit, when the movie turned to the streak, the grinding gears caused me to get caught up in the manufactured excitement. I mean, truth sometimes does trump fiction, and Hatteberg’s homer really was something else. But we’re only a couple of clicks away from finding out that Jonah Hill’s character is pure fiction (the truth, in the form of Paul DePodesta, Beane’s real-life assistant GM, got edited out because it wasn’t convenient, so DePodesta refused to have his name included), Beane was only following in predecessor Sandy Alderson’s footsteps, and going the quant route only works for the scrappers if the big guns haven’t figured it out. Also, I was kind of hoping for a cameo by some Theo Epstein stand-in, aka the man who ended up with Beane’s promised GM job at the Boston Red Sox. In fact, why hasn’t Ben Mezrich written about him yet?

Anyway, Beane is still with Oakland, though possibly not for long, as this New York Times Magazine piece reveals. He still hasn’t won a playoff. And that’s great, but is this a movie? It’s not that the lack of a Hollywood ending galls. Because it doesn’t. It’s that the lack of a Hollywood ending reinforces the fact that there wasn’t much of a Hollywood beginning or a middle. In other words, I want my damn 1994 Expos. Now there’s a team that might have changed the game further, and their shot wasn’t just ruined then, it was taken away forever.

moneyball

Review: Moneyball

This is the first of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The second, which gets into the baseball nitty-gritty, can be read here.

— Now up to bat. Kenneth Turan, suckered in by the story, believing that the Mickey Mantle epigraph celebrates profuuuuuuuuuuuuuundity but really is more of a marketing gimmick that fools you into believing that It is Important.

— Well, Jack, I’m not sure you’re being fair towards Turan. Every time he gets on the plate, his eyes just widen at middlebrow pitches.

— But, Phil, did you see the way Turan immediately fell for the hook about this being “a famously troubled production.” And that crack about Pitt “who must have had a sense of how good a role this was for him.” Did he just cut and paste the press notes?

— I wouldn’t know, Jack. The movie started late and Sony was confiscating everybody’s cell phones as if they were criminal thugs.

— Sounds like you’re a bit bitter.

— Well, yeah. But I had also seen a rather amazing film that day called Le Havre. And, well, Moneyball paled by comparison. Have you seen it, Jack?

— No, Phil. I don’t do subtitles.

— Your loss, Jack.

— You know, now that you mention it, I’m not sure how much Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win for Capote has to do with his role in the movie.

— “Letter-perfect,” Turan wrote before the last pitch.

— Looks like the copyediting umpire is throwing signals.

— I still don’t think Turan stands for anything.

— You’re right about that. Four balls, two strikes. Looks like they’re going to walk Turan. And there he is! Throwing the bat, doing his little strut.

— Is he actually trying to job?

— I guess so. He’s got a jolly little roll in his belly. It looks like he’s been eating hot meals, Phil.

— Middlebrow critics often do. Now heading for the plate: Manohla Dargis, whipping out that Tennyson in the lede.

— You know, that’s a very impressive move.

— Baseball is poetry!

— But a hungry heart? And why the hyperlink? Didn’t the New York Times figger its readers would recognize “Ulysses” by the two words alone?

— They probably think sports fans are dumb or something.

— “Liquid physical grace and bright eyes of a predator.” That’s some serious description, but is it poetry?

— You can’t talk about Brad Pitt without considering how he looks soooooooooooooo much like Redford.

— You mean they’re grooming him to take over when Redford croaks?

— Could be.

— Who’s on Sundance?

— What’s at Telluride?

— I don’t know is at Toronto.

— That’s right. You know, like Turan, she’s really paying attention to the titles that are flashing on the screen.

— You mean the numbers?

— I mean the numbers. Did you really think this movie was exuberant?

— Well, after a while, I got bored.

— Why’s that?

— It seems condescending to reduce the complexities of baseball down to two distinct visions.

— Strike for Dargis.

— Yeah, she’s not hitting well this season.

— Cut her some slack. There’s the New York Film Festival too.

— Sure. But two distinct visions. Here’s a movie that suggests it’s either all about hard statistics or all about the love of the game. And, really, was the Michael Lewis book that cut and dry?

— No. Strike!

— Well with Turan on first and the home team down a few runs…

— Can I just stay that I love the way Manohla goes to the trouble of saying that Billy has a great face. After that whole business of “liquid physical grace.”

— Do you think she wants to fuck Brad Pitt?

— Hey, who doesn’t? But does Brad Pitt’s handsomeness have anything to do with the movie?

— Not really.

— Can they really put it up there with The Social Network?

— Same producer. Sorkin wrote some of it.

— You see, that’s just it. The script seems to be a bastard hybrid of Steven Zallian’s heartfelt stuff.

— Brad Pitt’s kid? That song she sings?

— That silly song she sings. And Sorkin’s robust moralizing. It just doesn’t feel right. It should have been either one or the other.

— Oh, come on, have some sympathy for the Hollywood machine.

— It’s difficult. I can’t. These movies can be so much smarter.

— Dargis swings. And…….misses.

— First out for the home team.

— And to think that Sony handpicked the right critics for this. Do you think this stands a chance of winning Best Picture?

— One word. Crash.

— And who doesn’t like baseball?

— There’s that book from Chad Harbach.

— You’re not one of those readers, are you?

— No. Not really.

— Good. We’re supposed to keep the skepticism at a minimum.

— Why is that?

— Well, it’s good form! Because they might not invite us to additional screenings.

— One more thing about Manohla. I loved the way she tried to read significance in the American flags, trying to find a symbol.

— They are a symbol. We do that for every game.

— No, a September 11th symbol. Isn’t that a bit reaching?

— Well, what do you expect from Manohla? Now batting: Richard Corliss!

— He’s swinging wild.

— Well, he’s dealing with a funny pitcher.

— Not funny. Statistically proven to gain the approval of critics too calcified to rock the boat.

— I love how Corliss praised “the star’s administrative strategies.”

— It’s a paean to Big Business!

— “A solid, bustling social comedy at the 130-IQ level?” Were you laughing much?

— No. I mean, I liked Jonah Hill.

— He’s funny.

— Jonah Hill is funny. But in this he’s actually quite good in a dramatic role.

— So does the presence of Jonah Hill turn this into a “bustling social comedy?”

— Not really.

— You gotta give Corliss this. Love the way he commends Bennett Miller for including scenes of Billy driving at night.

— Cutaways.

— Smashing things up.

— A lot of movies have that.

— Working out in the team gym.

— Come on, when you’ve got Pitt’s muscles?

— But do you think he’s overpraising the movie for these shots? I mean, there was a time when all movies had these shots.

— Maybe that’s why he’s so excited.

— 130-IQ level? What does he mean by that?

— It means this film is just short of genius.

— Is Bull Durham or Major League at the 130-IQ level?

— They don’t have number crunching.

— But you’re still rooting for the success of the team? I mean, by Corliss’s standards…

The Bad News Bears is at the 130-IQ level.

— The original or the Linklater remake?

— Let’s not talk about the remake.

— “The central pairing, though, has championship stuff.”

— How so?

— Because it gives Corliss an excuse to make another Social Network comparison.

— Beane and Brand are the Winklevoss twins?

— Hey, if you stare really hard, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are kinda identical.

— Do you think “a walk is as good as a hit” is debatable?

— I don’t know. We just announce it.

— He’s out!

— What’s Corliss’s batting average these days?

— Don’t ask.

— Do we have a team?

— We do. And they’ll do anything the manager says.

lehavre

NYFF: Le Havre

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

The one modest issue I’ve had with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s more recent films (specifically, the ones he didn’t make with his former partner Marc Caro) is his revisionist aesthetic. Amélie is a well-crafted and moving portrayal of the world’s joys, but it comes at the expense of Jeunet’s team of eager geeks digitally erasing the Métro graffiti and anything remotely insalubrious. Micmacs is a great-looking celebration of misfits, but Jeunet required additional digital cleanup of Paris to meet the film’s ideological promise. Consider Elastic Girl, who performed much of her contortions without trickery, but required computers for her more physics-defying acts. You could argue that Jeunet was making a formalist argument that idealistic hopes come at a cost. If you want to maintain your sunny view of the human race, you’re going to have stop looking at the ugliness, perhaps erasing it from your life. Whether Jeunet will step up this moral argument for truly devastating effect in a future film is anyone’s guess.

But Aki Kaurismäki’s very charming Le Havre approaches this idea in the reverse, tinkering with the idea that our fantasies are more rooted in our heart, existing before we can sculpt them into visual submission. The film uses 20th century aesthetics and values to get at the 21st century French problem of immigration. It is populated by several graying humanists (many working-class), whose collective efforts to help a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) make it to London before the immigration authorities deport him, cause them to put aside their grievances with a shoeshiner for the greater good. Is this not a fantasy? Kaurismäki certainly suggests that it may be. His style, unlike Jeunet’s, feels more like an analog reconstruction from the guts of reality and other films, rather than one whitewashed by digital effects. When a couple talks out their past problems for a “trendy charity concert,” Kaurismäki raises a Sirkian spotlight as they reunite. The lush orchestral cue that follows sounds like something that might have accompanied Rock Hudson’s gentle gardener looking with longing towards Jane Wyman. Yet somehow this moment doesn’t feel kitschy, because Kaurismäki is careful to measure out his stylistic influences (Bresson, Melville, and more) without stifling the evolving life of his characters.

If humor is the true wisdom which unravels how we interact with each other, then it’s contained amply in Kaurismäki’s protagonist Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a one-time Bohemian who gave up his artistic ambitions to become a shoeshiner. Our early moments with Marcel -– accompanied by his fellow scrubber Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) –- see his gaze hitting the ground seeking fresh feet, acerbically remarking on an unexpected death, and contending with the cries of shoe store managers who tell him to get lost when he sets up shop outside, hoping to bag some foot traffic. It becomes clear that Marcel dearly loves his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), who is suffering from some unknown ailment. Most of his hard-won money is confiscated not long after he walks through the front door. You might almost say that the Marx house is also a fantasy. Even accounting for French social programs, what struggling shoeshiner could afford this marvelous place? The house contains plentiful 20th century appliances, smooth hunter green walls, a welcoming picket fence, and a friendly dog.

But if this is a homespun fantasy, the fantasy also includes the tradeoffs of life. Arletty has to stay in the hospital, begging the doctor not to fess the affliction to her husband (the doctor asks if this means he’s a politician), and Marcel devotes his attentions to helping Idrissa. This becomes a purely altruistic concern: Marcel mines from his hard-earned savings and even visits one of Idrissa’s relatives in Calais. Yet the hysteria surrounding the missing boy is almost phantasmagorical (a newspaper headline shouts that the immigrants may be part of al-Qaeda), leading one to wonder where the reality ends and the fantasy begins. We see the boy always wearing a sweater featuring red diamonds, mimicking the recently adopted Red Crystal adopted by the Red Cross, and we begin to wonder the extent to which this story represents wish fulfillment. Caring for others is certainly part of being a humanist, a duty that any good soul cannot escape. Why then does Kaurismäki portray so many unseen Frenchmen (a prefect, a man who rats out Marcel by phone) so committed to doing the opposite? Are there darker wishes competing with the more noble ones? Undoubtedly.

Many of the colorful side characters suggest that it’s not so much the distinction between reality and fantasy that matters so much as paying attention to others. This is a film where we get to overhear two burly regulars at the cafe discuss the proper way to make scallops. There’s Inspector Monet – a beak-nosed man with a minatory moustache and the kind of sideburns and hat that don’t belong on a man with such a fleshy head – talking about the downside of being a cop, namely that people are likely to hate you for doing your job even when they need you. (I can’t possibly give away what Monet eventually does, but Kaurismäki is a sharp enough director to play against my distinctions.)

Initiative may also be the secret ingredient. There’s one great moment where Marcel shows up at a refugee center and boldly announces that he is the only albino in the clan. He claims to be a journalist and a lawyer, and further remarks that he has recorded the entire conversation.

Yet if Le Havre suggests that pretense may cause one to overlook the scummier qualities of other human beings, it manages to transcend these sprightly concerns and the cinematic homages because of its happy ending, which imputes that the occasional need for a blinkered fantasy carries possible dangers. But Kaurismäki isn’t condescending about this dilemma. In not pursuing the vivacious caricatures favored by Jeunet, Kaurismäki may have discovered greater wisdom in sticking with the more subtle, the more noble, the more human: the very real reasons why good souls stay alive.

youarenoti

NYFF: You Are Not I (1981)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In a 1965 interview with Ira Cohen, Bowles revealed that his short story “You Are Not I” came from a dream state: “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking.” Sara Driver’s You Are Not I is a spellbinding example of how a scrappy filmmaker can transform words into something that is different from the source yet equally distinct. Unlike Julia Loktev’s weak attempt to play coy (and ultimately hollow and obvious) with Tom Bissell, Driver fully engages with the dream and makes it her own. A commonplace Jesus portrait hanging above a chair isn’t so much a kitsch signifier as it is a marker of one possible faith that might fill in the traumatic gaps. The “She’s dead” uttered within Bowles’s story becomes a hypnotic mantra. The indelible imagery of stones being dropped into the open mouths of the dead transmutes into a surreal effort to express grief.

There are several pleasant and unexpected ties to a Lower East Side culture from decades before. Jim Jarmusch serves as co-writer and cinematographer. Luc Sante, wearing watch cap and glasses, acts as a man who drives the car. Phil Kline offers a synth-sculpted soundtrack. There’s Tom DiCillo on assistant camera. And given the film’s commitment to slow trancelike walking (understandable, given the main character’s recent escape from a mental hospital and her confrontation with the dead), one gets the sense that the young Driver (and Jarmusch) was feeding on a steady diet of German Expressionism. I was quite fond of the especially still manner in which Fletcher sits in a chair, speculating on what others might be saying about her, and the long and lumbering manner in which the actors walk across the room. Because of these qualities, the film, in Driver’s hands, feels more like something from Jane Bowles rather than Paul. When the young woman enters the house (one of those boxy, square-screened hulks in New Jersey), she claims that the layout has been switched around and that this construction must have been committed at great expense. That we have not seen the “original” house is quite helpful. Because we’re then left second-guessing whether what we are seeing is real. I must confess that I found myself suspicious of the cigarette smoke pervading the living room near film’s end for arty effect.

Equally interesting is the way that this 48 minute black-and-white film was rescued from the dead. Driver had unknowingly shipped a print of her film to Bowles in Tangier. The negative was destroyed, courtesy of a leak in a New Jersey warehouse. And as Driver’s remaining digital copy was eaten away by the ravages of degradable tape, with the signal reduced to nothing, Driver had concluded that the film was dead. Until librarian Francis Poole traveled to Tangier to collect Bowles’s papers for the University of Delaware, not knowing that the film he carried in his hands was indeed an adaptation of Bowles’s story. Poole got in touch with Driver. And the film is now thankfully enjoying a second life at the New York Film Festival. (A more elaborate version of this story can be heard on the press conference audio below, which includes both Driver and Poole discussing the film.)

NYFF 2011: You Are Not I Press Conference (Download MP3)

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theloneliestplanet

NYFF: The Loneliest Planet

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Narratives which involve affluent English-speaking types venturing into foreign terrain in order to find themseleves are only as good as Paul Bowles’s inevitable yardstick. The Sheltering Sky is, despite my qualms, arguably the definitive novel on the subject. One senses that writer-director Julia Loktev, in naming her film The Loneliest Planet, is aware of this inevitable comparative point. It is worth observing that her cinematographer Inti Briones is fond of pointing the camera down — that is, when he has actual light to work with. Loktev has also given her couple two pairs of green pants — the better to camouflage their spindly legs into the surrounding territory.

Loktev does have the benefit of a Tom Bissell story (“Expensive Trips Nowhere,” contained in God Lives in St. Petersburg) as her source material. But in seeking her own spin, Loktev demonstrates a diffidence when it comes to character motivation. This is somewhat troubling, given the way finances and togetherness (or the lack thereof) are vital parts of Bissell’s story. The film is, however, concerned superficially with the Georgian terrain. And that’s just as it should be for a film trying to mine deep into, well, whatever happens to exist before the camera, which serves as the primary creative motivation here.

Other reviewers — including one from Variety — have called these characters “hipsters.” But I suspect these writers, looking for any noun in the air in their desperate efforts to summarize a lightweight, largely unconsidered, and fairly unrevealing film, haven’t experienced the tangible terrors that I have. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) may be quite thin and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) may be bearded (Alex even promises to shave the beard off later: this is not a pledge you get very often in Williamsburg). But these two aren’t any more or less obnoxious than most Americans. Nor are they especially vegan or passive. As someone who has a great deal of hostility for a certain type of extreme layabout, I can report that I did not want to kill Nica or Alex at any point during this movie. On the other hand, I didn’t especially care about what happened to them.

But Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), the guide who proves to have more than Georgia on his mind, did interest me — even as Loktev was more concerned with capturing her characters as specks traversing vast vistas (complete with the music cues turning on and off with the cuts to these long takes). He seems to put up with more than he should, including having to sing “Meow meow meow” in response to an especially superficial song.

I should probably point out that the film’s early moments (along with many other night scenes involving a flashlight) demonstrate a partial commitment to the hidden and the cluelessly jaunty: a flapping blanket hiding domestic tranquility, the happy couple hanging off a bus’s rail like monkeys, Nica licking Alex’s cheek as they take a snapshot against a mountain. But that’s about as close as the film gets to Bowles’s tourist vs. traveler distinction.* The film isn’t especially interested in explanations, but it is ballsy enough to elide subtitles. Which means that the audience is as much of a tourist as this couple. This serves as a great advantage when three locals show up and point a rifle at Alex’s head, especially since his first impulse is to hide behind Nica (only to try rescinding this gaffe by squeezing in front of Nica and standing before the rifle). You’d think that such a lousy move would cause strife. Or at least some wilderness equivalent to sleeping in the couch. But it’s never mentioned again.

This incident, along with several minor moments that follow (mostly involving this trio trudging through terrain, all as lonely as their backpacks), suggests that this union has trouble in paradise. When Nica offers Dato a kiss on the cheek, shortly after he has confessed that he has not been with a woman in five years, Dato takes swift advantage, his tongue speaking a gestural language associated with that country presently banning street prayer and his finger clambering inside a joyful jackpot. Be careful what you wish for.

Like the man with the gun, this near adulterous episode isn’t brought up again. And I suspect this has something to do with Loktev’s misunderstanding of Bissell’s story. During the press conference (audio of which can be listened to below), it was revealed that an early version of the script was only 45 pages and that Loktov loathed writing. To add insult to injury, none of the assembled trio on stage –- Loktev, Furstenberg, and the somewhat smug Richard Peña -– were especially interested in mentioning Bissell’s name. Furstenburg referred to the film as “Julia’s story.”

I was forced to ask Loktev a question (which you can hear around the 17 minute mark). Notice how Peña undermines the issue by not mentioning Bissell’s name.

Correspondent: There was mention earlier of a 45 minute script. And you mentioned earlier, Julia, that you detest writing. I’m wondering why you didn’t reach out to any other writer — like, say, Tom Bissell? Did you make any efforts to work with him?

Peña: The question is whether or not, since you say you don’t like writing, whether you ever thought about working with a writer, perhaps the author of the short story or someone else.

Loktev: No. I mean, for me, it was a matter of taking what I was interested in from the short story and writing from there. I said a little bit in jest that I don’t like writing in the sense that I don’t aspire to be a novelist. But, for me, the script — actually, I think it was about 30 pages. But, you know, the lines were all in there. The funny thing is that the lines were all in the script more or less. They just weren’t indented. This is the thing that people kind of — I find it very strange. People always say, “You don’t have a script that was the same with Day Night Day Night.” And I’m like, “It’s only because the lines are in the middle of the paragraph. And they’re not indented like they are in the normal scripts.” And when so much of the film takes place in silence, some of those things are very precisely described in what I write. Like I will describe the movement of a hand. And it’s that precisely outlined, you know. I didn’t want more dialogue than that.

In considering this transformation from “Tom Bissell” to “the author of the short story” to “taking what I was interested in,” I was led by chance into a pleasant email volley with Tom Bissell. Bissell assured me that Loktev was very up front about modifying much of the story. He reported that his interactions with Loktev were friendly and professional, very much in the “go ahead and run with it” mode. But the question that’s still nagging at me is whether or not Loktev’s film transforms the material sufficiently enough to warrant the praise. Because what I saw on Monday morning was a fairly ho-hum narrative devoid of the human context that’s there in Bissell’s story. And if I have to play favorites, then I’d rather go with the artist who knows what he’s writing rather than the one who’s about as committed to the human condition as, well, a ditzy hipster who doesn’t have the guts to put herself on the line.

* “[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” — The Sheltering Sky

NYFF 2011: The Loneliest Planet Press Conference (Download MP3)

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mudandsoldiers

NYFF: Mud and Soldiers (1939)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

After a shell from a grenade launcher lands squarely on the roof of an enemy-held farmhouse, two close-ups show soldiers grinning in satisfaction. In general, however, the emotions of the soldiers are repressed. They seem struck dumb by the incomprehensible grandeur of the war and the machinelike organization of which they are a part. — Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen

This is the statement of a reaching critic. There were many critics reaching (the honest ones were yawning) during a Friday afternoon screening of Mud and Soldiers — a 1939 film depicting the Second Sino-Japanese War that is playing the New York Film Festival as part of a Nikkatsu celebration. I saw many trying to cogitate in the vestibule, waiting to “form” their opinions shortly after others opened their mouths. Many were exhausted. They had just gone through vicarious war.

So let me be the first to fire a forthright salvo: Mud and Soldiers, despite Mr. High’s interpretation, isn’t as good as Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front or The Hurt Locker or Saving Private Whitey. It does indeed feature soldiers doing their duty, not reacting much to all the billowing smoke that they have caused through rampant bursts of artillery. One curious quality about Mud and Soldiers is the way that it avoids explicit bloodshed. A soldier gets shot in the thigh, but we do not see the actual act. As someone who lusts for this type of cinematic act, I was a little disappointed. Soldiers fire upon enemies, but we see very few of them. Presumably, because this was made in 1939, there was a shortage on extras and squibs. There was surely no shortage on propaganda. The film does, after all, rely on newsreel footage.

There is a banal and repetitive quality to the soldiers’s banter. And this pabulum stretches into the soldiers’s actions. Director Tomotaka Tasaka is certainly committed to showing how mind-numbingly dull war can be. And yet this 21st century viewer longed for something more. Why exactly?

Well, it could have something to do with the fact that approximately 72% of this film involves marching. There is marching through mud. There is marching through dirt. There is marching across bridges and battlefields. There are overhead shots in which we see legs marching. There are shots of soldiers marching from very far away. There are some moments in which we see ten men march and other moments in which we see a hundred men march, leaving one to await the possibility of a thousand men marching. (Sadly, this does not occur. But so desperate were my fantasies that I held out my hopes.) There are shots as long as one minute that feature men marching. Three are shots as quick as five seconds that might be identified as a marching cutaway.

The film even contains compelling dialogue in which two soldiers discuss their marching progress:

— I fell in the creek again.
— How far will we march?
— I don’t know. Until we get there.

While there’s a good argument somewhere about how much soldiers march in war, and art’s duty to reflect this reality, marching alone does not necessarily make for a compelling narrative — especially when the sound effects guy is using the same CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP for all filmed marching and director Tomotaka Tasaka hasn’t thought to actually synch up his men’s feet to the CLOMPing.

Now I am a fairly devoted long distance walker (I walked the eight miles back to Brooklyn after seeing this movie, although I should report that I decided upon this in advance of the screening), but Mud and Soldiers bored the hell out of me. In fact, Mud and Soldiers is probably one of the most tedious war movies I have had the misfortune to sit through. It is difficult to fathom a defense of this film, but I am informed that the film — based on Hino Ashihei’s bestseller — made a great impact on the Japanese public, as films devoted to marching and a mechanical lack of emotion made under a state governed by belligerent admirals are known to do. I am also informed that Tasaka was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing and continued to direct many features over the next two decades. I certainly hope that these post-Hiroshima films do not contain nearly as much marching.

intimidation

NYFF: Intimidation (1960)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Many film buffs rightly point to Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (based on Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom -– an 87th Precinct police procedure novel) as proof positive that 20th century Japanese cinema had the nuts and bolts to make the mystery genre its own. If High and Low can be likened to Double Indemnity, then Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation -– a brisk and highly enjoyable 65 minute film about botched blackmail playing as part of a Nikkatsu celebration at the New York Film Festival -– suggests a scrappy film noir bankrolled by RKO.

Despite their differences in budget and running time (which could very well be directly proportional), both films carry striking similarities. They both involve upwardly mobile executives, on the cusp of influencing corporate direction through somewhat idiosyncratic cunning, who are forced to contend with a criminal scheme introduced by an apparent outsider. Yet in their own distinct ways, both High and Low and Intimidation have interesting points to make about reputation. Kurosawa offered a timid chauffeur staring at the big man’s shoes, suggesting that all inside the circle are at the behest of outside forces. For Kurahara, corruption and deceit are contained within the system, with the police entering into the narrative after all the pros have failed: not unlike the diffident manner that the United States has responded to avaricious bankers in recent years. Kurahara introduces a seemingly meek clerk named Nakaike (Akira Nishimura, who, with his sad look and timorous eyes, may be Japan’s answer to the great character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.) who has been under a bank manager’s (Takita, played by Nobuo Kaneko) spell for years thanks to a few ruthless setbacks. Nakaike long-hoped for something close to an equal footing, especially since he had a shot at being where Takita is now. But, of course, it isn’t just bitter memories. In one heartbreaking scene, Takita humiliates Nakaike over “security training” that has gone awry. That this self-serving moment comes after Kurahara has asked us to sympathize with Takita is something of a surprise. But the unanticipated ace up Nakaike’s sleeve is so viscerally rewarding that I cannot possibly reveal it!

Intimidation begins with a suitably mysterious image: a man with a gun, a fedora, and a cigarette in his mouth opening the service entrance door of a bank and asking for the sub-manager. Takita, the sub-manager in question, is too busy partying it up with the branch manager, geisha girls, and asking subordinates such as Nakaike to dance on command. He’s about to land a promotion. But Takita does get the message when he meets with the blackmailer, who has evidence that he authorized several illegal loans. Takita is asked to cough up three million yen the day after tomorrow. The blackmailer suggests that he rob his own bank. Because nobody would expect “the lighthouse to shine on itself” and this is the kind of move that you wouldn’t expect in a detective story (okay, not really; but give the filmmakers some credit for momentum!), Takita agrees to the deal.

What makes Intimidation engaging is the way that it uses class trappings to buttress the robbery. Why indeed would a sub-manager rob his own bank? We get the sense that it isn’t necessarily the blackmailer’s pressure, but the sub-manager’s quiet arrogance that gets him to rob the bank, wearing a sketchy disguise and donning a cigarette lighter in the form of a gun. But, of course, he screws up the robbery from the outset, cracking his sunglasses not long before putting on his feeble costume. Takita is so flagrant in his plans (getting the clerk on night duty drunk the night before) that we begin to wonder why nobody else can see his moves. (Hilariously, the branch manager even confesses, “I don’t understand much about this business.” In light of Reed Hastings’s recent disastrous moves with Netflix, I couldn’t help but ponder contemporary parallels days after seeing this movie.) But Intimidation also proves surprisingly smart in this capacity, knowing very well that there are climbers embedded within the bank and that those who are spurned hardly depart with ease.

While Intimidation appears to have been made somewhat on the cheap (the bank’s brick walls look quite fake), this flimsy décor somehow works to the film’s advantage, almost as if Takita’s position is just as tenuous. This may have something to do with the crackerjack story, the film’s fixation on camera dollies over zooms, and Kurahara’s understated direction, which is especially good on the acting front. After all, if we can’t believe in a bank manager’s integrity, we wouldn’t be so drawn into the story. Perhaps there are some common verisimilitudinous qualities about art and business that help sustain the illusion.

womanwithredhair

NYFF: Woman with Red Hair (1979)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In considering the trashy pink film Woman with Red Hair, I must first ruminate upon the film’s commitment to verisimilitude, as well as its intricate moral framework. A young woman casually loses her virginity during a gang rape, becomes pregnant, and uses this as leverage to snag one of the two strapping young attackers – an unnamed jerk who often wears a blue headband – as her husband. This magnificent pillar to manhood has an equally upstanding companion with Kozo (Renji Ishibasi), who enjoys smiling smugly for the camera when not sexually humiliating the titular woman with red hair (Junko Miyashita), whose ass is often deliberately positioned to undulate before the audience. It is a tribute to this film’s hypnotic hypocrisy that, as Kozo forces the woman with the red hair to take his cock into her mouth, an oppressive black rectangle appears on the right side of the frame, with Miyashita’s legs flailing behind it. Despite this film’s firm commitment to debasing women (one charming ditty that the two men croon contains the lyric “She’ll say no when she means yes”), in 1979, it lacks the authority to show pussy.

We are informed that the young married couple living downstairs are junkies, but our only indication of their drug use is through their screechy wails (compared later in the film to a pig), leaving one to wonder if they are in a permanent state of withdrawal or if they represent some more enlightened viewer having to contend with this plodding movie, selected as part of a Nikkatsu celebration for the 49th New York Film Festival. In the middle of wanton carnality, our ruddy-maned heroine casually asks, “Ever try heroin?” While the two strapping young creeps talk to their boss about their special driving skills and discuss whether or not they need licenses, a young woman stands outside in the rain, a testament to their chivalry. She enters the room not long after, only to be slapped repeatedly. The woman with red hair alludes to having two young children, yet like the track marks and heroin supply downstairs, they remain unseen. In another episode, a somewhat older woman remembers a “foam dance,” which involves lathering yourself up with soap and gyrating upon a inflatable mattress next to a tub. Just wait for your husband (or really, given this film’s outlook, any man) to arrive and he’ll start schtupping you.

My favorite part of Woman with Red Hair was when Kozo, letting his pummeled paramour fuck another man, walks out into the pouring rain and starts jerking off in an alley. Why? Well, you see, he’s so turned on by the prospect of another man banging the woman he’s with that he just can’t wait to shoot his load. Alas, Kozo is interrupted in his perfervid pumping by a man (presumably, the pink film’s idea of comic relief) who asks him for some spare yen so that he can fuel his alcoholism. And because his request is understandably denied under the circumstances, he somehow accompanies Kozo to another apartment, where Kozo drinks and fucks another woman and the alcoholic remains plastered beneath him.

Welcome to the wacky worldview of filmmaker Tatsumi Kumashiro, who also gave us 1988’s Love Bites Back (but do the “victims” deserve it?), 1986’s Women Who Do Not Divorce (does that mean the women who do divorce shouldn’t be bothered with?), and two films in 1973 with “wet” in the title. Woman with Red Hair was one of the more acclaimed films of the Roman Porno line commissioned by Nikkatsu. In 1971, the revered Japanese studio faced bankruptcy and had switched from action movies and blockbusters to softcore films in a desperate effort to remain financially viable. (To give you a sense of how drastic this decision was, imagine if Paramount or Warner Brothers decided to start making softcore movies instead of Hollywood blockbusters.)

But Woman with Red Hair, despite ample justification by Japanese film buffs, is hardly In the Realm of the Senses. Most of its long stretches are dreadfully banal. Conversation about getting a new gas heater and the price of eggs at the local supermarket sounds like blue-collar authenticity, until you realize that it doesn’t actually articulate anything about the characters or their culture. So you’re left to rue upon why so many people are interested in red penises (and why one man in this film is fond of muddying his member with red lipstick). When the closing credits rolled, I was stunned to learn that Woman with Red Hair was based on a novel by Japanese intellectual Kenji Nakagami. And while there’s a definite working-class thrust to the film (workers become violent and sexual when they are not permitted work), I didn’t feel that the film presented any sexual subversiveness on the level with Lina Wurtmuller or early Almodovar. Once you confront the atavistic imagery, you’re left with a fairly pedestrian and toothless flick that no amount of metaphorical rain can flush into a meaningful realm.