Sunday, July 26, 2009


Francis Ford Coppola is entering what may be the richest phase of his career, though you wouldn't know it from the tepid reception of his two latest movies. The director made a startling comeback in 2007 with the quixotic, transcendent Youth Without Youth; the material, about a man who ages backwards after being struck by lightning, was a brilliant metaphor for an aged film maker who was rejuvenated by new movie making tools. Digital technology has Coppola's creative juices flowing, and in two features he has proven himself to be the most innovative independent film maker in America; and this comes after many years of, to quote Coppola himself, being "in bondage" due to debts (though, even in his so-called 'bondage' phase, he managed to get Dracula made). Now he is making films his way, by his rules, and this is to his benefit as an artist and our benefit as an audience. His latest film, the intensely moving Tetro, proves that the invention and expression of his previous feature wasn't a fluke, although Tetro is a very different movie from the highly formal Youth Without Youth. Which isn't to say that formal invention isn't present in Tetro, it's just implemented in a very different way; as opposed to the visuals suggesting the meta-physical, they evoke the meta-personal. It's a world where the past--- full of dark secrets, tragedies, and betrayals--- feels more immediate than the emotionally distant present.

Coppola has said that Tetro is "drawn from real emotions related to my experiences and life---though not in any way autobiographical", and this is a key distinction; the narrative is clearly shaped from his background in a family of artists, but the links between his life and the lives of his characters are more figurative than literal. The movie begins with Bennie, the audiences' surrogate, arriving in Buenos Aires to track down his long lost older half-brother, Angelo Tetrochini --- though he's now known simply as Tetro (a sullen Vincent Gallo). They are half-brothers, the sons of a renowned Composer, which explains why Angelo dropped the family name: in an effort to forge his own identity outside of the shadow of his famous family (the same reason Nicholas Cage dropped the 'Coppola', undoubtedly). While this would seem to set the stage for another of Coppola's boldly operatic familial sagas, Tetro takes a more intimate approach than we would normally expect from Coppola; like a stripped-down, more textured version of The Godfather films.

When Bennie reaches Angelo/Tetro's apartment , he is greeted by his girlfriend, a kind Argentinian woman who is delighted to see him--- a far warmer reception than he receives from the brother he hasn't seen for over a decade, who keeps himself locked away in his bedroom. Tetro would be, I suppose, the embodiment of the 'tortured' artist: troubled, moody, and a little on the crazy side (he met his girlfriend while she was working at his asylum). Once an aspiring (and promising) writer, he is now confined to writing stories that he never finishes, in a code that only he can understand. Angelo wears his families' dark history on his sleeve, and Bennie spends the entirety of the film trying to learn the truth about exactly what it is that drove his family apart; the film plays it almost as a mystery, with Bennie in the detective role. Though Angelo, with his desire to keep the past buried, does everything he can from stopping Bennie from learning the truth about his family; and therefore keeps Bennie from learning his own identity. While it is understandable that the past may be too painful to discuss, not knowing the truth is far more painful. A lesser director would have idolized Angelo's bohemian brooding, for being dour is a sure-fire sign that one is an artist, but Coppola sees through it. He understands that the familial wounds are the ones that cut the deepest, and Tetro aligns our sympathies with Bennie by giving us as much information to start with about the Tetrochini family as he has, which is to say none at all.

When details about the past do finally come through, they are fleeting. The portion of the film set in the present day is shot in 2:35:1 black and white widescreen, and Coppola uses this canvas to lend a simultaneous feeling of intimacy and detachment to the present. During flashback sequences that flesh out the familial back story, the aspect ratio suddenly switches to 1:85:1, and from black and white to color. This is as unique an approach to flashbacks as I've ever seen in a movie; the stately elegance of the black and white portions, with static compositions and a fixed camera, is brilliantly contrasted with the immediacy of the full-color handheld work in the flashback portions. Angelo is a character who lives in the past, however much he may wish to bury it, which explains why the past feels more alive and vibrant than the dispassionate present. Though the switch in aspect ratio, with half the cinema screen being taken up by blackness, makes us feel like we've stepped out of the world the rest of the movie takes place in and into a coffin.

Critics expecting more of the same from Coppola don't understand why his digital phase is as rich, if not richer, than his storied 70s period. When Youth Without Youth was released in 2007, the reception was abysmal--- ranging from callous indifference to maddening frustration--- but Coppola reminded those of us who are moved by images what cinema is: stories, emotions, and ideas expressed visually. Coppola was always thought of of as an artist who used visual broad strokes to express his operatic themes; the cinematic canvas feels almost too small to contain his ideas, and in Youth Without Youth he pushed his visual expression to the absolute limits. Tetro, though undoubtedly more conventional a movie than Youth Without Youth, is no less a testament to Coppola's ability to express emotions visually. Mihai Malaimare's stunning, intimate black and white cinematography fleshes out the cold, detached present--- which isn't to say Tetro is oppressively gloomy in any way. Rather, Coppola is illustrating the way family defines who we are as people, for better or worse. In his last two features, Coppola has moved effortlessly from the cosmic to the micro-cosmic; in Youth Without Youth he managed to personify the mystery of life and death in a man (Tim Roth's Dominic), in Tetro he embodies men in a cosmic fashion. He may be making smaller films, but the scope of the work is no less vast.

Perhaps it's because I identified with elements of Bennie's life that Tetro struck such a deep personal chord. Like Bennie, I have a half-brother almost two decades older than I am and, also like Bennie, I have a father who is considerably older than I am (46 years, to be exact). While my family's history isn't ripe with the betrayals and tragedy like the Tetrochini's (though we, like all families, certainly have our moments), Coppola paints such a deep portrait of the Tetrochini's family dynamics that I still related to the characters (like Ebert says "the more specific, the more universal"). Perhaps part of the film's power is relating to the masculine dynamics of the two brothers, and the way they live in their father's shadow. I fully empathized with Bennie's plight over the course of the movie; being born so long after my older brother, and to a different mother, I felt left out of the family to an extent--- a day late and a dollar short. Like being the new kid at school, you feel left out of the present because you simply weren't around in the past.

So Bennie's frustration arises from his lack of understanding of his own family; family is the essence of our identity, and Bennie has been living his life in a sort of existential purgatory--- he barely knows his father, never knew his mother, and hasn't seen his brother in years. Angelo up and left abruptly when Bennie was but a child, leaving behind only a letter that promised Bennie that Angelo would one day come back for him. Bennie carries this letter with him throughout the movie, the one keepsake he has from his family. Angelo is more comfortable relating to the world through his writing, and this is why the letter has been such an important memento for Bennie; he knows that Angelo is more honest expressing himself through writing than he is verbally. When Angelo refuses to discuss the past with Bennie (his one rule for the duration of Bennie's visit is "no questions"), Bennie decides to dig up Angelo's unfinished writing to illuminate details about his families' troubled history. Coming from a family of artists, Coppola knows how life is channeled into art, and Angelo's writing reveals more about his life than he could ever express in words--- both because he is unwilling and unable. The one problem is that Angelo's operatic familial opus--- the kind Coppola might have made if the success of The Godfather hadn't taken his career in a different direction--- is without an ending, so Bennie takes it upon himself to finish his brother's play. When Angelo discovers this, this sends him into a rage ("You're worse than a thief, you're a plagiarist", Angelo tells him), not because he values the writing itself, but because of the wounds that the play re-opens.

With Tetro, Coppola has made his deepest rumination on the subject of family, a subject that has long been the heart and soul of his work. What separates Tetro from his earlier dealings with the subject is how intensely personal it all feels; Coppola said of the film when it debuted at Cannes that "Nothing like this happened, and everything is true" (Coppola apparently likes dropping abstractions on the generally clueless Cannes crowd). While Coppola may not be giving us the facts of his life, he is telling us the emotional truth about his family, and this is perhaps more 'honest' than if Coppola had made a movie that is straight-up autobiographical. Tetro is ultimately about the powerful link that exists between life and art, brothers and fathers, existence and death, light and dark. The light illuminates us and blinds us, it inspires us and it damns us; and in plunging the depths of his soul, Coppola has made a profound statement about the tenuous relationship between unbearable darkness and blinding light, how painful it can be not knowing the truth, and then the pain of discovering it. Somewhere in between those two polarities lies family.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Strained Seriousnes

After Andrew Sarris was 'fired' from his New York Observer position, many of my most favored blogs told me I absolutely had to get a copy of his The American Cinema, if I hadn't already read it. As long as I've been reading criticism on a week-to-week basis (though I do this less and less now that I'm reviewing new releases myself), Sarris had always been a personal touchstone--- especially with his reviews appearing alongside Rex 'Sexy Rexy' Reed's (does any other paper in America have a sharper contrast in the quality of its critics?). His review of A.I., in particular, stands as a favorite of mine--- not just because I agree with him on the film, but because he responded to the ideas and emotions that the work presented in an incredibly sensitive way, far moreso than many critics did at the time of its release. If you look at Sarris' Rotten Tomatoes page, you'll see the man hardly ever gives a negative review--- he always gives movies the benefit of a doubt, he always engages with the work on its own terms instead of on his terms, and I've never once seen the man pretend that his word was the final one. I won't deny that his critical benevolence is something I constantly aspire to, though never achieve (as a friend once said of me, "the lad is not one to form an opinion lightly" or, as another friend says, "you're out of your fucking mind").

So naturally, upon hearing that I wouldn't have his criticism to enjoy on a weekly basis, I hurriedly purchased my copy of the canonized The American Cinema. Of course, he was only fired from his staff position, not from the paper all together, although he hasn't published a review since the announcement. Reading The American Cinema, I am sorry to say that I am disappointed--- it's really quite weak as an academic approach to the first forty years of the sound era, and it's even weaker as criticism (and Sarris constantly goes back and forth on what he means for the book to be). Although he says in the beginning of the book that he doesn't want his view of the canon of American films to be the 'final word' on the matter, his prose suggests otherwise.

The chapters of the book are his method of establishing his canon. The first chapter, called "Pantheon Directors", represents "directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world". It includes whom he consider to be the fourteen greatest film makers to have worked in America (or the English language, he is unclear about his criteria)--- they are, in chronological order: Charles Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef Von Sternberg, and Orson Welles (whom he considered at the time to be "the youngest indisputably great American director"). I don't really object to any of the names on his list--- though I've always found Lubitsch's detachment from his characters to counter the humor in his films--- what I object to is the way he organizes film makers in the following chapters. The next chapter is called "The Far Side of Paradise", which represents "directors who fall short of the Pantheon either because of a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems"; notice the way The Pantheon is capitalized, suggesting an almost mythic stature of his most prized auteurs.

The first chapter, along with the essay that opens the book "Towards a Theory of Film History", is undoubtedly excellent--- filled with passion and ideas. But after the first chapter is where the book starts shooting itself in the foot, ideologically. Surely the careers of film makers such as Vincente Minnelli, Frank Borzage, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Preston Sturges, or King Vidor suffers from no more or less "fragmentation of personal vision" or "disruptive career problems" than the ineffable and mighty Pantheon--- and while I certainly don't think he means to, dividing film makers rung by rung in the manner he does can be kind of trivializing. He never really expounds on exactly why or how Minnelli's or Ray's career is more "fragmented" than Ford or Welles (the latter of whose career is notoriously, albeit gloriously fragmented). Surely if one is going to postulate that the aforementioned film makers aren't quite up to the quality of The Pantheon, then one could spend more than a page and a half of sweeping generalizations and vague connectives to prove this point, but Sarris is so busy establishing his canon that he doesn't have any time to actually develop his arguments (it's a relatively short book considering the vastness of its subject-- 393 pages, and almost a third of the book is the index). There is generally one essay length piece in the chapters after The Pantheon, but some are as short as a paragraph or two--- surely it wouldn't have killed Sarris to explain why so many directors fall short of his Pantheon criteria. Too busy coming up with cutesy titles for his chapters, perhaps?

What I think escapes Sarris is that his idol-worshiping concept of The Pantheon is more dubious than enlightening. He skirts around the issue that sometimes great directors make bad films, and sometimes bad directors make a good one. Saying that a small handful of film makers qualify as the Crème de la Crème, especially with a plethora of great films and film makers produced in the American system, trivializes the film makers who, for inexplicable (and unexplained) reasons don't qualify for The Pantheon. He says of Nicholas Ray (in an overall strongly favorable piece): "It must be remembered that They Live By Night, The Lusty Men, Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life are socially conscious films by any standards, and that Knock on Any Door is particularly bad social consciousness on the Kramer-Cayatte level. His form is not that impeccable, and his content has generally involved social issues" All statements of truth, but when his criteria for induction into the Pantheocal Society is "directors who have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world", surely the exclusion of Ray, among others, sticks out considerably. Yes, Knock On Any Door is painfully overbearing, but if social consciousness is one's artistic calling, surely bad social consciousness is better than no social consciousness at all. He says in the John Ford piece that "Ford's failures tend to be objective rather than subjective in that he tends to be faithful to his own feelings at the expense of his material." Why is this quality a virtue in Ford's case and a weakness in Ray's?

I feel things only get more presumptuous from there. After this first chapter about The Pantheon, which is admittedly exciting critical analysis that feels both personal and objective, Sarris seems to feel that as he goes further and further down the directorial rungs of his cinematic ladder, the less he actually needs to elaborate on his arguments; which is odd, because the less the arguments are developed the more broad and shaky the claims become. In the chapter "Less Than Meets the Eye" (this category is for "directors with reputations in excess of inspirations", whatever that means), Sarris writes of Carol Reed that "The decline of Carol Reed since Outcast of the Islands is too obvious to be elaborated". Really, now, it's too obvious to be elaborated on? Which is genuinely funny, because it strikes me as being a bold enough statement (however true) to merit an elaboration. He follows up on his promise and proceeds to not elaborate on why Reed's career has declined. Poor Carol, forever confined to the sub-Pantheon--- it's so implicit that it's not even worth Sarris' time. Things get all the more confounding in that same chapter, when he writes of David Lean that "The sheer logistics of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai can not support the luxury of a directorial point of view." Does this not run counter the auteur theory that he was America's most vocal proponent of? Lean's epic films--- arguably the most idiosyncratic epic films of all time that thoughtfully and poignantly consider manhood, nationalism, and empathy--- are too large-scale to be the works of an artist and yet The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Faust, Metropolis, The General, The Searchers, Land of the Pharaohs, North by Northwest, and Rio Bravo (to name a few films from The Pantheon directors) are not?

An apex of hilarity is reached when Sarris arrives at the chapter called "Strained Seriousness". These ne'er-do-wells are "talented but uneven directors with the mortal sin of pretentiousness"--- the mortal sin of pretentiousness. The irony of that statement is self-evident, even judged apart from the context of the rest of the book. Who does Sarris think he's fooling? This declaration is coming from the man who has quoted himself ad nauseum throughout the text, and who uses these self-quotations to prove his own arguments! While we're talking about the mortal sin of pretentiousness, lumping in the careers of Jules Dassin and Stanley Kubrick with the man who made The Sound of Music would have to qualify.

I just find it difficult to believe that the Sarris I've been reading all these years is responsible for this book. It's full of the kind of generalizations and know-it-all authoritarianism that I have never once seen in his New York Observer reviews, and in fact that is what I found refreshing about his tone. In The American Cinema he avoids fleshing out his opinions by taking on an authoritative, scholarly tone. What is most upsetting about the book is how sharply the book declines after an exemplary opening chapter. The essays in "The Pantheon" are, on the whole, much longer than the pieces in the rest of the book; he fleshes out his views and puts the film makers in a unique context. I found the writing a little on the dry side but highly informative nonetheless. Though once I hit the next chapter, "The Far Side of Paradise", I knew something was up. After that, it becomes clear that Sarris is going to write film makers off more and more brazenly, all in the name of building up his Pantheon. I know he's gone back and changed his opinion on certain films and film makers (according to Johanthan Rosenbuam he revised his opinion on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he describes in the book as "... a science-fiction project so devoid of life and feeling as to render a computer called Hal the most sympathetic character in the humbled scenario", after a little 'herbal stimulation'), and this is perhaps more admirable than anything; no one is right all the time (no, not even me), and to acknowledge that is the sign of an adult thinker and an open-minded person. Unfortunately, in 278 pages of The American Cinema, he counters that noble image.

Should I bother reading more Sarris if I didn't care for this one? Are his other books better than this?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dark Magic

Has any franchise in movie history been more plagued with inconsistency than the Harry Potter films? Not inconsistency in the narrative or even thematic sense, but an inconsistency of vision. In spite of the fact that the series represents the apex of modern-day production values, you can't take the series as a whole; rather, it must be looked at in terms of the individual parts. Chris Columbus cheapened Spielberg's aesthetic in the first two pictures, misrepresenting Rowling's allegory about adolescence as a cheap Cinderella knock-off. The franchise reached poetic heights for the first time with Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban, but the moments of wonder in that film felt isolated from the whole. Cuaron didn't merge his aesthetic sense with the content of his story as effectively as he could have, but it was a noble effort nonetheless. Then, Mike Newell plunged into the depths with The Goblet of Fire--- an incomprehensible, oppressively glum train-wreck of a movie. Leading into the previous film, The Order of the Phoenix, the franchise had what can only be called a rocky history (a symptom of its status as a cash-in).

But with The Order of the Phoenix, director David Yates found the perfect frequency to pitch the series at. He managed to do justice to the stories' darker subtext, while at the same time not allowing the more sullen elements to bog down the ultimate point of the series: magic. Yates also has an extremely refined compositional sense; his frames have a staggering amount of depth to them, and he uses the width of his widescreen frame effectively. Unlike Chris Columbus or Mike Newell, Yates actually knows how to stage things for the camera and, unlike Cuaron, he knows how to use his aesthetic sense in service of his story and characters, instead of in addition to them. So, going into The Half-Blood Prince, I had high hopes that Yates would continue simultaneously doing justice to Rowling's original text, while at the same time bringing some much needed originality and consistency to the series.

Unfortunately, the inherent weaknesses of the source material drags down the otherwise exemplary Half-Blood Prince; the story doesn't unfold so much as wobble, occasionally spasmodically, to the finish line. There are stretches of this two and a half hour picture that are excruciatingly, laboriously dull--- and that the movie treats the teeny-bopping melodrama of Potter & Co. in an almost mythic manner only adds to the frustration. One really should master the art of basic story-telling mechanics before treading into such deep subtextual waters, but Half-Blood Prince presents itself in such a grandiose manner that the actual story fails to grab as much as the presentation of it does. The series has always worked best when it tells a story simply and effectively, and drops the highfalutin pretensions.

Still, credit must be given to the film makers for making an even reasonably comprehensible film out of Rowling's story, which is flat-out stupid. The twists and turns, the melodramatic arks, the hammy romance subplots, and the character-developmental broad strokes are all just contrived in this installment. The flimsiness of the source material can be forgiven, though, because the film makers behind the Harry Potter franchise actually care about what they're putting up on the screen--- rare for any film, let alone one aimed at children (which would explain why Mike Newell, who couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag, wasn't asked back). Save for a few moments of incomprehensibility (a disorienting and clumsy chase through a wheat field being the worst offender), there is a visual elegance to the Potter pictures, especially the last two, that is virtually unseen in modern day blockbusters.

While David Yates may not have brought the series into its own with this latest installment, he's certainly the man who has most effectively streamlined the movies to reflect a personal vision, while at the same time remaining pure to the source material. He's certainly established an effective template for the final movie(s), which admittedly is part of the problem with Half-Blood Prince--- as with the first movie in the series, we simply feel like we're viewing the foundation for a more complete, satisfying affair. So much of Half-Blood Prince is hackneyed exposition, it's unfortunate the movie couldn't be more stripped down to function as its own entity. The groundwork is certainly there for the Potter-to-end-all-Potters, and I look forward to seeing how Yates brings this always enjoyable, if frustratingly inconsistent series of films to a close. The ball is, as they say, in his court.

Friday, July 10, 2009

An Artist Trapped in a Hack's Body

This is my contribution to
The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles.

The notion of a man being trapped is what drives Tim Burton's Ed Wood, the best movie the director has ever made. Watching the film makes it clear that Burton has a personal investment in the story--- he identifies with the director in unique, unexpected ways, and that's what makes Ed Wood a great film. It would have been so easy for Burton to make a mean-spirited biopic that relishes in the director's weaknesses--- after all, Ed Wood's reputation precedes him; he's commonly referred to as "the worst director of all time", he was a transvestite, he was an alcoholic, and his career is defined by his relationship with Bela Lugosi, who was a has-been at that point. But Burton goes the other way with his portrait of the director--- it's one of the most sympathetic, warm, loving portraits I've ever seen in a biographical film. Which isn't to say that Burton's film falls into the trap of idol worship--- rather, the warmth emanates from Burton's identification with the director.

It's because Burton empathizes with the director's plight that he was able to make a movie like Ed Wood. Burton understands Wood's love of cinema, and he's struck by the comic-tragic ironies of the man who made Plan 9 From Outer Space being inspired by Citizen Kane, of all things. Johnny Depp's Ed Wood, king of the B-movies, lives in the shadow of Orson Welles; there are many scenes in Wood and his girlfriend's (Sarah Jessica Parker) apartment where the poster for Citizen Kane literally eclipses the man, and he keeps comparing his own progress to that of Orson Welles'. This element highlights the way cinematic history has treated Wood; as a freak, an anomaly, a side-show in the main attraction of high-art. So many over the years have condescended towards Ed Wood, and it's this notion that Burton spends the entirety of the film rejecting. It's because Burton sees elements of himself in Wood that he is able to portray the man so warmly and affectionately--- the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi (an uncanny Martin Landau) mirrors his own with horror icon Vincent Price, and Burton's sensibility undoubtedly has a rooting in the B-Science Fiction horror that was Wood's specialty, only with a comically expressionistic overtone.

Again, it's the idea of a man trapped that Burton seems to most strongly identify with. Burton, having experienced hardships in the Hollywood system with the two Batman movies, understands the way the drive to express yourself artistically is made into a commodity. When Wood is getting interviewed for his first chance at a directing job, a schlocky B-Movie called I Changed My Sex (later to become Glen or Glenda), the producer tells him "Ed, you seem like a nice kid, but look around you...I don't hire directors with burning desires to tell their stories. I make movies like Chained Girls. I need someone with experience who can shoot a film in four days that'll make me a profit. I'm sorry. That's all that matters". Ed knows that he, above everyone else, is qualified to make this movie, because he sees himself in the main character. But just because Wood has that "burning desire" to tell the story doesn't mean he has a talent or the experience to do so--- and this is where the element of being trapped comes into the picture. Ed, in spite of his dreams of being a film maker of Wellesian proportion, simply doesn't have the chops. As Burton sees him, Ed Wood is trapped in his fate as the 'worst director of all time'.

When the movie introduces us to Ed Wood, it is opening night of his play The Casual Company in Los Angeles. It's pouring, which is a theatrical superstition for bringing good luck to a production, but naturally not in Wood's case: it's press night, but there isn't any press. As the typically corny play unfolds in the run-down theatre, Wood emphatically mouths the lines backstage--- in a way, this early scene sums up Wood's fate. He has the enthusiasm, the drive, the passion--- but he is unable to bring the all the elements together successfully, partially because of lack of resources, but mostly because of a lack of discernible talent. And his play, a drama about World War II, is full of the cornball social pretense that would permeate Wood's career. The vision and enthusiasm are there, it's the other elements that are lacking.

The scene immediately following shows the cast out celebrating, and Wood opens a local newspaper to read the first of the many critical trashings of his career. His loyal group of friends huddle around him as he reads the evisceration--- and while we don't get to hear the entirety of the piece, we get a clear enough understanding of the extent of the pan by the players' reactions. "Do I really have a face like a horse?", his girlfriend asks, "What does 'ostentatious' mean?", another of his friends ask. While such a slaying would surely be enough to discourage even the strongest of egos, Ed stays focused on the positive. "You just can't concentrate on the negative. He's got some nice things to say... See, 'The soldiers costumes are very realistic,' that's positive!" He is, right of course, that it could have been far worse--- there are some reviews where they don't even mention the costumes. Burton understands the kick-you-when-you're-down methodology of show business, and here he shows the extent of its cruelty. Another later scene illustrates this, which shows a Hollywood Producer viewing Wood's first opus, Glen or Glenda, and, astounded by its sheer awfulness, is convinced that it's a practical joke. When Wood calls the studio later to ask if they were in business, the Producer tells him that Glen or Glenda is the worst film he ever saw, to which Wood's reply is "Well, my next one will be better!". Though, knowing what we know of Wood's reputation, his can-do enthusiasm is borderline depressing.

Johnny Depp gives what may be the best performance of his career as the energetic, optimistic Ed Wood. Depp has said that his Wood was a combination of "the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, the enthusiasm of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, and Casey Kasem", though the performance is never pitched as caricature. Rather, Depp uses the quirks in his performance to expose Wood's humanity, and in one of the movie's most affecting sequences he asks his girlfriend "Honey, what if I'm wrong? What if I just don't have it?" Anyone who has tried to express themselves through art understands the fear of not having that great intangible thing called talent--- and with this admission Burton makes the relatively diminutive career of Ed Wood something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what an exuberant, joyous self-fulfilling prophecy it is! The sequence near the end when Wood makes his 'masterpiece', Plan 9 From Outer Space, is simultaneously hilarious and bittersweet--- the movie treats Wood's infamous film as though it was Da Vinci painting The Sistine Chapel, or Mozart penning Requiem. "This is the one,", Wood says of his most famous film, "I know I'll be remembered for this film". He was right in more ways than he could have imagined. Yes, Wood may have carved out a legacy as the 'worst director' in the history of the medium of film--- but Burton is suggesting with Ed Wood that an infamous legacy is better than no legacy at all. Tim Burton's Ed Wood stands as a unique tribute to one of film history's strangest and most idiosyncratic figures. No one did bad like Ed Wood, and Burton understands why, perhaps more than he would like.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Mann's World: Public Enemies

Michael Mann strips a classic American genre to its bare elements with Public Enemies, another fascinating use of digital technology from the director after 2006's underrated Miami Vice--- one of the first feature length movies to harness digital as a separate medium with its own unique capabilities. Public Enemies represents a more streamlined, though no less dynamic, use of digital-video and its potential to be an extension of 35mm, as opposed to a cheap replacement for it. The technique lends an incredibly intimate and immediate feel to the proceedings--- a feel that is being mistaken for 'realism.' It would be better, perhaps, to think of the technique as an embodiment of the titular public enemies' mode of living--- hard and fast. "We don't have time to think about tomorrow, we're having too much fun today," Johnny Depp's John Dillinger says early on in the film, and the urgency that the digital movie-making tools provide compliment and contrast with what on the surface seems to be a traditional cat and mouse gangster picture.

A spectacular opening sequence illustrates immediately the unique perspective toward the era that Mann will convey. An early establishing shot shows the exterior of a prison that houses John Dillinger, and the prison walls stretch beyond the edge of the frame, and seemingly into eternity. The sense of scope that Mann brings to his compositions is breathtaking in more than a few instances, and when you contrast this with the stripped-down, elemental feel of much of the rest of the picture, there is something particularly striking about the expansive depth of his frames. Public Enemies' unique epic/intimate dichotomy is typified in the prison-break that begins the movie: Mann gives us exteriors that establish the prison, and then he brings us almost disconcertingly close to the action with incredible, fly-on-the-wall handheld work. As the cops and robbers engage in battle, the sounds of gunshots and empty shells hitting the ground resonates powerfully--- this is not a movie that relishes in the violence propagated on screen. Punches sting, knives cut, and bullets penetrate the flesh in a visceral, gripping manner; a lesser movie would have embraced this kind of violence while at the same time moralizing about a sinful lifestyle. Mann's film does not fall into either of these traps.

Credit must be given to Mann and Depp for stripping away the usual glorifying elements that one would usually associate with this genre while, at the same time, avoiding Hays Code style sermonizing. It would have been so easy for Depp, a naturally charismatic actor, to instill John Dillinger with charm. A scene toward the end where Dillinger sees David O. Selznick and W.S. Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable, typifies the way Public Enemies rejects Old Hollywood romanticism for a more objective, cosmic take on gangsterism. The clashing aesthetics between James Wong-Howe's stunning black and white cinematography in Manhattan Melodrama and Dante Spinotti's high-contrast photography in Public Enemies is, in many ways, the essence of the movie. In the gangster pictures from Hollywood's Golden Age, the films would romanticize their subjects--- especially in the Depression, the movies were an escape for the masses, and people enjoyed living the life of a gangster vicariously through the movies. At the same time, however, the movies had to fulfill a "responsibility to the public", and thus the main characters always got their comeuppance after the movie had relished in their immorality. Whether they were arrested, killed by the police, or killed by rival gangs, none of the screen's hoods got off scott-free, and therein lies their great contradiction: relishing in screen violence while at the same time railing against it. During the controversy surrounding the final scene of the last episode of The Sopranos, series creator David Chase illuminated this inherent hypocrisy: "The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people's alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted 'justice.' They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly."

As Chase's quote above notes, we see ourselves on the screen, and Dillinger sees himself in Clark Gable's charismatic gangster. What's unique about this scene set in Chicago's Biograph theatre (where the real John Dillinger spent his final hours) is that Mann hones in on Dillinger's subjective impression of the film he's watching. Myrna Loy's character in Manhattan Melodrama reminds him of his girlfriend, Billi Frechette (an enrapturing Marillion Cotillard), and Depp conveys Dillinger's longing for his lover powerfully and wordlessly. An extremely telling smile comes over Dillinger's face when Gable's character in the film says "It's best to die how you lived--- all of a sudden", this sequence beautifully articulates the way we identify with art, while at the same time deconstructing the camera's inherent iconographic gaze (much like the scene in My Life to Live when Anna Karina's character watches The Passion of Joan of Arc). The use of digital film making tools embodies Clark Gable's "all of a sudden" philosophy, as Public Enemies is a movie that, like Dillinger himself, always lives in the moment.

This sense of immediacy suits the movie's period elements particularly well. The digital actually allows Mann to focus on details that would perhaps seem irrelevant in a typical period drama--- the speedometer on an antique car, the logo on Zenith radios, the text imprinting the barrel of a Tommy gun. So, while the digital lends a decidedly modernist feel to Public Enemies, at the same time it fleshes out the details in a more unique way, and the Depression-era feel more alive in this movie than it usually does in period pieces. Michael Mann has taken an era that feels distant to movie-goers and brought it to life in the most organic way imaginable; the period details never call attention to themselves, and that actually gives them more power than movie's that do call attention to their art direction. The way the movie handles the past is one of the things that makes it among the most singular movies released by a major studio in recent times.

It's such a unique work in an overcrowded genre that when the traditional plot-elements of a cat and mouse gangster picture come into play, they feel especially banal. We would assume that, at this point in motion picture history, it would be something of a given that law-enforcement authorities would pursue our main characters; but Public Enemies, as so many movies of this kind before it, feels the need to weigh down the heart and soul of the story with a contrived police procedural. Scenes that would be considered characteristic of the genre feel particularly out of place when put along side the intoxicating, pulsating imagery in the Dillinger narrative. The FBI jargon, endless bureaucratic corridors, men in suits, and mundane details of the investigation led by Melvin Purvis (a stern but engaging Christian Bale) bring an element of familiarity to this otherwise idiosyncratic picture. These sequences (along with a money laundering subplot) bog down the audience and disrupt the momentum that the movie has going for the sake of semantics. It's these overly-familiar elements that ultimately hold Pubic Enemies back from being one of the best movies of its kind.

So, while Public Enemies may not be a 'great' movie (and really, who cares about such superlatives?), it is a fresh, bold, and exciting one. It may have some dull stretches, but the film's inventive sequences (of which there are many) make it a more than worthwhile effort. Michael Mann has taken an old genre and given it a face-lift, and in a deeper sense than simply the aesthetic--- the film takes a unique, non-judgmental stance on its main characters. He strips away cinema's romantic gaze, while at the same time providing lush, intoxicating imagery. In terms of Hollywood film makers working with digital technology, Michael Mann is without equal--- and Public Enemies, like Miami Vice before it, shows that Mann will be on the forefront in pushing the medium forward.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Curb Your Humanism

An eerie, deafening silence (save for the occasional sigh) permeated the theater in which I saw Woody Allen's latest, the odious Whatever Works. I don't think a single of Woody's famously 'witty' lines earned so much as a smirk for any of the patrons--- rather, we were all in awe of Allen's shockingly narcissistic misanthropy. Woody Allen, who was at one time unquestionably one of America's truly great film makers, has grown out of touch with the city and its people that he once portrayed so lovingly. There was a time when he could view New York and New Yorkers from outside the isolated prism of The Five Boroughs, but his newer work reflects the inclusive, effete snobbery that he once so pointedly and piercingly ridiculed earlier in his career. Not a 'comeback' (has any director alive had more 'comebacks'?) so much as a half-hearted return to what he's told he does best, Whatever Works is the nasty B-side to Woody Allen's great love songs to New York (think Woody Allen's Gran Torino and you're halfway there).

There is arguably no film maker alive who has done more to contribute to New York's rich filmic history than Woody Allen. He has captured the city's unique, breathtaking beauty and majesty, all the while wryly observing the unique social climate that separates New York from all the world's other big cities. With that in mind, the way New York is treated in Whatever Works is a travesty--- as a nameless, nondescript metropolis. In his stronger works, New York was a character unto itself, but Woody Allen has clearly lost the passion that he once had for New York; perhaps he doesn't like what the city has become, or maybe he's more interested in his fancy-schmancy European locales. Either way, the spark simply isn't there anymore.

The fundamental problem of Whatever Works is highlighted by Allen's choice of leading-man (or stand-in), Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David. At its best, Allen's self-absorption reached poetic heights when he would play characters like Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), Isaac Davis (Manhattan), Gabe Roth (Husbands and Wives), or Harry Block (Deconstructing Harry)--- all characters self-involved to the nth degree. But Allen would inflect these characters with certain mannerisms that would endear them, because he would reveal their ultimate humanity through these quirks. It was the little touches in his performance that would expose his characters as insecure and lonely underneath the mask of vast cultural knowledge and inspired witticisms, and this element is what gave his earlier works their dramatic weight (and by 'early' I mean beyond the 80s and into the 90s). He is very rarely given his dues as an actor; but look at the raw humanity exposed in the closing moments of Manhattan, surely an homage to the end of City Lights, and in many ways the emotional equal of Chaplin's famous final closing shot. Or his transformation from narcissistic, vindictive asshole to empathetic, illuminated artist over the course of Deconstructing Harry, or the poignancy with which love and loss is reflected on over final lines of Annie Hall. I don't want to go on too terribly long a polemic in favor of Allen's performances, but the point is that even while he's presenting what seems to be the same character on the surface, he subtly, though effectively differentiates his core themes.

It is Allen himself that is the unifying feature of most of his strongest works, in the same way the presence of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd unified their films. As he's gotten older, he's used actors to stand-in for himself, though still playing variants on the same core 'Woody' character--- Jason Biggs, Will Ferrell, and now Larry David (he actually pre-emptively satirized this in Deconstructing Harry, which had Tobey Maguire, Robin Williams, Stanley Tucci and Richard Benjamin playing Woody type characters in the titular characters' short stories). On paper, Larry David sounds like the perfect outlet for Woody Allen's endearing pseudo-diatribes. On screen, however, David is frustratingly one-note and hammy (and this is coming from someone who loves Curb Your Enthusiasm), and I never felt like the David's Boris Yellnikoff was really fleshed out in any meaningful way beyond shallow broad strokes; when the movie begins he's an angry, self-involved misanthrope and when the movie ends he's a marginally less angry, though still hugely self-involved misanthrope. David's awkwardness in the role is highlighted immediately in an opening scene that I can only describe as painful--- the movie begins with Boris and a few 'friends' of his (it's hard to imagine a character so unlikable gaining and maintaining friendship, but I digress) sitting around while he expounds on the worthlessness of humanity, his superiority, and his belief in amorality and self-indulgence (whatever works!). David, in typical Woody Allen fashion, breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience--- only Allen uses this opportunity to insult the audience; Allen, via Boris, informs us that we've 'wasted our money' to buy 'some moron in Hollywood another swimming pool' and that if we're "one of those idiots who needs a happy ending" that we'd "better leave now". I don't have a latent desire for a happy ending, and I certainly don't think I'm an idiot, but looking back on it I wish I'd taken Allen's advice.

In interviews, Allen has been forthright about his contempt for young people ("The films that are made for young people are not wonderful films, they are not thoughtful. They are these blockbusters with special effects. The comedies are dumb, full of toilet jokes, not sophisticated at all. And these are the things the young people embrace. I do not idolize the young."), and one need only look at the disdainful portrait of young people in 2004's Melinda and Melinda for proof of this outlook. He takes this contemptuous attitude to an extreme in Whatever Works, manifested in Evan Rachel Wood's character, Melodie St. Ann Celestine; a Mississippi girl who ran away from home looking for love and excitement in the Big Apple (and this makes one wonder if Allen has ever been to the south). She winds up in an alley near Boris' apartment in the beginning of the film, asking for something to eat. After being reticent to allow her inside--- after all, she is but a submental inchworm cracker (his words)--- Boris eventually recants and gives her food, and eventually even allows her to stay with him while she gets her feet on the ground (because he "has a heart as big as the outdoors" he tells us, and it's hard to tell if he's joking or not).

Since she's one of those dreaded young people, Allen knows that she is incapable of an original thought--- and, if she stumbles upon a unique insight every once in a while, it certainly isn't a very interesting or deep one. As the movie presses on and their relationship develops, Melodie drops the bombshell that she has developed a "little crush" on Boris (Allen shirks off any morality element with respect to the May/December romance by making her the aggressor), because she has mistaken his misanthropic platitudes for wisdom and insight (those stupid kids can't even tell the difference, Allen is telling us). No, she's not interested in the male-bimbos she meets around the city of New York--- you know the ones I mean, the ones with no real drive, personality, opinions, or goals--- the ones with names like Perry Singleton (ho, ho) who drag you to band concerts with names like Anal Sphincter, and force you to hob-knob with his equally vacuous friends. I suppose that, in contrast to this, Boris' pessimistic elitism is more desirable, but then a lobotomy is preferable to both of those potentialities (thank God she meets an Englander who sweeps her off her feet, and this is the only character that Allen gives any dignity to whatsoever).

But there is never anything remotely believable about the way the relationship between Melodie and Boris develops over the course of the movie. In Manhattan, the relationship between Woody Allen's 42 year old Isaac Davis and Mariel Hemingway's 17 year old Tracy is believable because Hemingway's character is already an 'adult' in every sense of the word, while the other so-called 'adult' characters in the film are actually quite childish. Conversely, in Whatever Works, the 21 year-old Melodie might as well be 13--- she doesn't need a grown-man because she is still a child emotionally, and Boris' cranky old man schtick doesn't seem at all compatible with the sweet, bubbly nature of Melodie.

Allen's disdainful perspective toward the south is more clearly illuminated when Melodie's parents come into the picture. Allen uses these characters as a gateway towards attacking what he seems to view as the southern Christian theocracy--- all bible thumping, sexually repressed gun nuts just waiting to come to the big city so they can shed their 'traditional' skin and become the promiscuous amoral sluts they were always were on the inside. Allen isn't suggesting that one should simply be who they are--- he's saying that one way of life is qualitatively better than the other. His titular slogan and philosophy, endorsed by Larry David's Boris Yellnikoff, is one of amorality and apathy--- fuck a sheep, cheat on your wife, marry this person while you're sleeping with someone else, whatever--- there's no God, no consequences, nothing... and that's what Allen's so-called 'statement' ultimately amounts to. Like Deconstructing Harry without the deconstruction, Whatever Works embraces Boris' hateful world-view instead of transcending it.

Woody Allen will always be one of the greats, but his later work reflects his apathy toward audiences--- the overriding impression I got from Whatever Works was that the man simply doesn't care anymore. This is the time for Allen to grow as an artist--- a film maker's later years are often among their richest, but Allen is content to remain stagnant; I don't want to see him making the same movie he was making 30 years ago, I want to know how a man in his 70s, whose fear of death is legendary, feels about getting older and dying. But Allen is content to pander to his inclusive fan base and half-heartedly tell the same story has been telling most of his career, only there was a time when he told this kind of story effectively. Instead of expanding upon the themes that defined him as one of America's most idiosyncratic auteurs, Allen has indulged his worst assumptions about humanity, and Whatever Works is the unfortunate result.