Friday, September 25, 2009

Goodnight, Moon

Autobiography time: in my High School days, I dabbled in acting. I enjoyed it, and think I was reasonably good at it, considering I was an amateur in every sense of the word. My High School did two plays a year; in the Fall, a 'straight' play, and in the Spring a musical. My stage debut was a female version of The Odd Couple the fall of my Sophomore year, with all the genders of the characters being switched (transsexual Odd Couple may have been more accurate), so the bit roles of two British sisters were changed to two Hispanic brothers (I know, me in that role isn't a stretch of the imagination at all). I ran amuck with the role --- what else could one do with a part so patently ridiculous, that I so clearly didn't fit? I knew no one would buy me as a 'real' Hispanic, or even a cartoon Hispanic ala Al Pacino in Scarface, so I had fun with the role. My second play, also my Sophomore year, was a production of the musical The Pajama Game. Most of the cast didn't like the play because of how dated it was, but I loved the anachronistic quality of it all --- doing the play was almost stepping into a time machine. Plus, the film version is one of Stanley Donen's best musicals (Godard called it the 'first socialist operetta' in his review of it). The Pajama Game is the kind of good, cheap fun that Broadway was known for before it became a bourgeois Disneyland; catchy numbers, memorable dances (the original had choreography by Bob Fosse), and light-hearted comedy and romance. I played the nasty capitalist head of the Pajama factory that refused to give the workers a 7 and a half cent raise, prompting a labor strike. It's probably the best play I was in during High School.

Rolling around to Fall of my Junior year, I was one of the handful of reasonably talented males left auditioning for shows. I was thrilled to have nabbed my first lead in a play, Moon Over Buffalo --- until I actually read the script, that is. My God, it was awful --- a farce without the comedy. The first act is full of one-liners that fall flat more often than not, and the second act is pretty generic farce material; slamming doors, people screaming, mistaken identity, and so on. My theater director was a big Neil Simon fan, and this play, by Ken Ludwig (Lend me a Tenor, Crazy for You) was poor man's Neil Simon; smug, elitist, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The play, in Ludwig's words, is about "A couple --- a theatrical couple --- in the early 1950s. They're sort of the second-rate Luntz's of the American stage who, after learning that Frank Capra is coming to their play to maybe cast them in his new movie, goes crazy with their own greed and ambition"; that's not quite the synopsis I would have given, but hey, it's his play.

So, due to the fact that I had performed in Moon Over Buffalo, D.A. Pennebaker's film Moon Over Broadway has always been on my radar. Pennebaker is one of the great documentarians on the planet; he uses brilliant fly-on-the-wall camerawork to give us a kind of insider's look at his subjects (which range from legendary musicians, political campaigns, and Broadway shows) , and the way he forges narrative from documentary footage is fascinating --- he creates complete dramatic arks in his films, but the difference of course is that in his films they're carved out of real life. I've never seen Pennebaker use interviews in his documentaries; rather he uses documentary footage to tell a complete story, without interviewees explaining the significance of the events to us. Also, the way he gets his subjects comfortable with having a camera following them around constantly is remarkable; it allows us an all-access, insider's look at the events he captures. And Pennebaker has been given intimate access to some of the more noteworthy events and figures of the 20th Century --- from Bob Dylan to David Bowie to Bill Clinton's campaign staff.

Here, he and his wife and partner Chris Hegedus turn their perceptive eye on the backstage escapades of a Broadway show, from casting announcements to opening night. While it is specifically about the production of Moon Over Buffalo, I'm sure the backstage goings-on --- the trash talking, the drama, the politics, the fact that anything that can go wrong does go wrong --- isn't exactly unique to the production of Moon Over Buffalo. This play was noteworthy, though, for being Carol Burnett's highly-touted return to Broadway after a 30 year excursion with television and movies, which was probably the hook for Pennebaker and Hegedus. I don't think either of them could have guessed that the playwright, Ken Ludwig, would ultimately steal the show. You can think of him almost as a Salieri-type, forever confined to banality while living in the shadow of people more talented than he, and resenting it deeply.

The problems begin early on at a table reading. The play's stars, Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco, request that they be allowed to improvise, and the director Tom Moore and Ken Ludwig both shoot down that notion. This sequence is remarkable, because the two of them sum up my problems with the play perfectly --- the comedic rhythm of the play is simply off. The word selection is awkward, the punch line's have no punch to them; the jokes simply do not work. "Don't you not want our experience, our sense of comedy?", Phillip Bosco asks the director, not in a Primadonna manner but in a completely straightforward, reasonable tone. "I am not taking about improvisation, I'm talking about the actors' input in the creative process. If you consider that improvisaiton, I'll just do what is written and not contribute anything at all." The director and writer foolishly opt for that, suffocating the actors' comedic instincts because they take the mediocre text as a kind of gospel (the director of the play honest to God calls Ludwig a "modern day Faydeau"). Ludwig, behind Burnett's back, insults Burnett's background in television --- as though this mere TV actress is beneath his mighty play (and as though all the Broadway work she did before her television show somehow doesn't count). "This is the pact you make with the devil in the modern theater: you need a star to sell tickets", he whines after a preview of the play in Boston "it'll never be the play I wrote", he continues, as though that's such a tragedy.

In spite of his somewhat prickly nature, it's difficult not to feel bad for Ludwig. This is a man who, day by day, feels his work slipping away from him. He's forced to constantly re-write his play to appease his producers, and still his jokes fall-flat. He dismisses himself from a cast and crew meeting in one scene to "go home and write", "Are you writing a new play?", Carol Burnett quips, "Apparently" is his reply. In one sequence, the producers discuss "the joke problem" and note that Ludwig has had this sort of issue before, to the point that he actually had to hire an outside joke writer. Then, to add insult to injury, it's revealed that this joke writer is a dentist from Long Island! One particularly uncomfortable sequence shows him going around the theater the night of the premiere, meekishly introducing himself to the celebrities in attendance, trying desperately to appear calm, cool, and collected and falling short of the mark. He knows his ass is on the line with a 2 million dollar Broadway production that, in spite of its star power, hinges on the success or failure of his script. "Everyone else will rebound and go on to other things if the play fails," one crew member remarks "but Ken's life is really on the line".

Most of the issues he seems to be having throughout the film arise from the fact that he deeply resents being upstaged by anyone. This is hammered home during one of the play's previews when the winch that controls the curtain breaks, stranding Carol Burnett on the stage (I've been in a similar situation, though not because of a broken winch --- because the person controlling the curtain queues wasn't paying attention). Burnett, being the cool-headed professional she is, does all anyone can do in that situation --- she has fun with the audience. She knows they all paid to see her anyway, so she answers their questions and tells jokes until the winch is fixed and the play can continue. Let's just say that Burnett, doing shtick completely off the cuff, gets more laughs --- genuine, uproarious laughs --- than anything in the play. The lack of audience response is part of what prompts Ludwig to further re-write the play, causing more frustration amongst the actors and leading to greater discord between he and the cast.

But, at the end of the day, the play was a success; perhaps not a smash hit, but it was one of very few non-musicals to finish its season on Broadway that year. It received mixed reviews from critics ("The bad reviews aren't good, but they're not mean-bad", a crew member remarks), but virtually no one faulted Bosco or Burnett --- simply the play itself. "Burnett and Bosco are impeccable performers, and do their best with this stuff... Act two is a little like beating a dead horse, the jokes are worn out before we ever get to them. Surprisingly enough, Act one is much better, holding as it were the promise of things never to come." Granted, this is slightly mean spirited criticism, but surely this is the result of the director and playwright stifling the actors' comedic instincts and forcing them to do material that they knew in their hearts simply did not work. It's worth noting, however, that the film ends with a long list of revival productions of Moon Over Buffalo, performed all over the country and all over the world; after all is said and done, Ken Ludwig is the only one still making money from the play. He who laughs last laughs longest.

Yours truly at the age of 16, chewing the scenery in the aforementioned High School production of Moon Over Buffalo.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visions of Life: Mission to Mars

This piece is being cross-published at Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder as part of The Brian De Palma Blogathon. The blogathon runs from September 7-16.

One of the most inexplicably hated movies of this past decade, Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars is not only "not that bad", it might even be great. The film presently rests with a score of 34 on Metacritic (which translates to "generally unfavorable reviews", to those who don't speak the language), and a confounding, outrageous, wholly unjustifiable 24% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, much of this hatred arises from the fact that the movie was marketed one way (a space adventure from the man who made Mission: Impossible just a few years earlier), while actually being a thoughtful, humanist, post-modern take on science fiction lore. And I feel it's the film's unique encapsulation of the science-fiction genre on film that may have jarred some at first; it has the grand, cosmic mystery of Kubrick, the humanistic benevolence of Spielberg, and the spirit of science fiction pulp and B-movies. Tim Robbins' character Woody Blake wears a Flash Gordon rocketship around his neck, and like the Robbins character, Mission to Mars keeps the adventurous spirit of b-movies close to its heart; but it's more than a celebration of trash, it's a transcending of it. So many action spectacles are given a free pass in spite of more often than not being nothing more than B-movies with high production values, but Mission to Mars understands the child-like sense of wonder these films would tap in to --- De Palma has never been an artist who denied cinema's more base pleasures --- but De Palma does much more here than dress-up empty material with CGI.

The movie begins with one of De Palma's patented long takes (complete with some Buckwheat Zydeco on the soundtrack), but it's so much more than showing off technique --- he introduces us to all the film's principle characters here, the two teams of astronauts that will be the first human beings to set foot on Mars. They each consist of three men, one woman ("same handicap", one character quips at the beginning of the film, but women being equal to men is one of the key elements of Mission to Mars), and this is fitting, as gender dynamics have always been a key element of De Palma's work --- and in Mission to Mars, gender dynamics define space exploration, as husband and wife couples are chosen to give support and strength to one another during the long duration of the voyage. It's at this point that the movie introduces us to Jim McConell (Gary Sinise); an astronaut who, along with his wife, was slated to be on the first manned mission to Mars. However, it is revealed that Sinise's wife got sick and passed away, and he had to unfortunately give up his and his wife's life-long dream of going to Mars in order to be at his side while she died (apparently, playing characters who almost-but-not-quite go to space is Sinise's specialty). For a movie that so many reviewers wrote off as 'poorly written', the dramatic elements of Mission to Mars are poignant and extremely well played by the film's performers. Yes, it's a film that wears it's heart on its sleeve --- but is that really such a bad thing? It's one of the most earnest movies of the decade, so enamored with its central concept and characters that I personally find it difficult not to love it as well.

Mission to Mars, with its large-scale subject and budget, also gives De Palma great material with which to flex his directorial muscle; the incredible special effects and set design make it one of the few movies, outside of 2001, that have actually taken me to space. There is one sequence in a spaceship where the characters dance to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away", and the camera is as weightless as the characters. Even if you don't like the movie I defy you (seriously) to tell me that this sequence, at once romantic and bittersweet (romantic in that it shows how in love the Robbins character is with his wife, bittersweet in that it highlights the loss felt by the Sinise character), doesn't at least bring a smile to your face. The sequence that shows the Mars Rover exploring the Mars Terrain (one that recalls R2-D2's arrival on Tattoine from Star Wars), with Ennio Morricone's soothing, beautiful music on the soundtrack, uncannily recreates the surface of Mars in gorgeous widescreen. Brian De Palma has always been a film maker who operated within the Hollywood system, all the while subverting it within his films, and it speaks to what an idiosyncratic artist he is that he managed to bring his unique moral stamp to a large-scale Hollywood spectacle.

The film strips away the usual xenophobia of space action/adventure movies by portraying aliens as benevolent givers of life, as opposed to relegating them to a generic monster role; "Life reaches out for life" is the film's simple, eloquent, and profound mantra --- and it's the exact notion that so many film's on this subject fail to grasp. It's so easy for films to give us empty spectacle that offer nothing in terms of ideas or subtext, but for a film to challenge our ideas about life, the universe, and everything (to borrow from Douglas Adams) is a rare thing that deserves praise. Of course, this is Brian De Palma we're talking about, so these ideas come from within the firm boundaries of genre; but the subtext is still there, and it's still powerful. Mission to Mars expands on popular folk-lore by making the so-called "Stone Face of Mars" (something that allegedly 'proved' there was life on Mars that was proved to be an optical illusion right around the time of the film's release) a central plot point; one character says "In all our myths, in every human culture, Mars has always held a special attraction. I mean, what if that means something?" Mission to Mars assumes that the fact that Mars has tapped into the popular imagination in the manner it has does mean something, and so expands on that pop-mythology by making Martians the creators of life on Earth; it is revealed at the end of the movie (set inside the 'Stone Face') that upon the destruction of Mars by an asteroid that Martians 'seeded' life on Earth. An inspired CGI sequence gives a brief history of Earth, with the first single celled organisms evolving into fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then humans --- this causes Sinise to realize that we are one with not only one another, but with the Martians as well "We're them, they're us" is the film's ultimate realization --- all life coming full circle and being intimately related to one another. Then Gary Sinsise's Jim McConnell, like Richard Drefyfuss' Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is given a choice between remaining with his human compatriots or hopping in the Martian spaceship into the great unknown, and Sinise makes the decision to go on the quest of eternal enlightenment; the decision many of us would probably like to make, if we weren't too scared of what we might find.

Mission to Mars is, ultimately, a supremely good-natured, highly entertaining adventure film --- but one that understands the essence of science ficition, which is ideas about existence and humanity. De Palma gives us all this in the guise of a Hollywood action movie (one released by Disney with a PG rating, no less), but when you take De Palma's career as a whole and realize that he's always been as much defined by popular modalities of storytelling as by his own, highly idiosyncratic style, Mission to Mars feels less like an anomaly and more like a flawless distillation of themes he had previously tackled; at once paying homage to genre and expanding on it. The cosmic perspective of Mission to Mars would pave the way for his next film, Femme Fatale, which instilled his preferred genre (the thriller) with similar cosmological and existential queries presented in Mission to Mars. It has marked the beginning of a bold new phase of De Palma's career, one that would challenge the popular notions about the kind of director he is ('plagiarist', 'stylist', and so on) and enrich his art with bold, dazzlingly self-assured technique.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

2, 3, Kick, Turn, Turn, Turn, Kick, Turn

I may lose some street cred (net-cred?) for this sentiment, but I love memes. Really, I do. Especially the last few months, writing here has been stressful. I know it comes easy to some, but writing is generally a struggle for me; a worthy and rewarding one, but a struggle nonetheless. I tried to step up my game this summer in giving this site substantive content that would generate good discussion, and I feel that, for the most part, I succeeded. I certainly generated good discussion (and a hearty thanks to all those who have helped in that department), but I still feel that my writing doesn't quite reflect my personality in the way I would like. It reflects my ideas about movies and personal sensibility, but I'm still not completely satisfied with the tone. That's why I enjoy Greg Ferrara, Bill R., and Glenn Kenny so; they manage to be eloquent, perceptive, and humorous all at once. And their love of movies shines through in everything they do.

So a meme gives me a chance to both wax poetic about movies, and lighten up the mood around here. This one comes courtesy of the wonderful Marilyn Ferdinand from Ferdy on Films. It states that the participants pick their 15 favorite film dancers; but, I must be quite honest, I'm not so sure I could pick 10, let alone 15. Admittedly, this just proves Marilyn initial point, that dancers aren't given enough credit for their craft, but she has kindly allowed me to break the rules a bit, so I'm going to pick my favorite dance sequences in film. And I think this is interesting because this opens the doors to non-musicals as well.

As with all memes, any other day and I may have picked completely different set. Here are ten dance sequences that have always stuck with me (when the information is available, I'll list the choreographer as well):

Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951)
Choreography by Nick Castle

There are actually two sequences from Royal Wedding that I was considering, ironic because outside of two exemplary dance sequences with Astaire, the movie really is quite lousy (one of Donen's lesser musicals, for sure). Both speak to what an incredible dancer Astaire was, as well as how innovative and imaginative he was with dance sequences. One involves Astaire dancing with a coat-rack and Astaire, with his incredible grace, makes the inanimate coat-rack feel like a living, breathing partner. The other, more memorable sequence, involves Astaire dancing alone in a room, and he starts dancing on the walls and ceiling, defying gravity. It's a breathtaking, incredibly innovative sequence; as was typical of Astaire's dance sequences, this is all done in one unbroken take, and this makes the sequence all the more phenomenal. They used a rotating set to capture this incredible illusion, and it's a technique that was borrowed for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Fly.

Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Choreography by Gene Kelly

In the case of Singin' in the Rain, it's tempting to be obvious. Of course, the titular dance sequence is among the most memorable sequences in all of film, dance or otherwise. But a musical number in the film that impresses me every bit as much is the "Make 'Em Laugh" number with Donald O'Connor doing a kind of slapstick tap dance, and O'Connor is really given a chance to show his stuff in this solo dance sequence. Throughout the film, he manages to keep up with the incredible athleticism of Gene Kelly, proving to be his equal in that respect. Too bad he decided to do Francis the Talking Mule pictures for most of his career, because he shows an incredible amount of talent throughout Singin' in the Rain.

James Cagney & Bob Hope in The Seven Little Foys (1955)
Choreography by Nick Castle

13 years after James Cagney won an Academy Award for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he reprised the role in the film about Cohan's 'rival', Eddie Foy (it's worth noting that Eddie Foy Jr. played his father in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but here he is played by Bob Hope). I could have picked a number of sequences from Yankee Doodle Dandy, but I actually prefer this cameo appearance in The Seven Little Foys; it's an extremely energetic, inventively choreographed sequence. Again, the movie isn't exactly great (or good, even), but this sequence is a real treasure, in no small part because Cagney, over a decade after he first played the role, (and a few years older than Bob Hope) completely upstages the film's star (though I've always found Hope somewhat insufferable). But watch the sequence closely, and you'll see Cagney is far lighter on his feet than Hope is.

Ann Reinking & Erzsebet Foldi in All that Jazz (1979)
Choreography by Bob Fosse

My favorite of all of Fosse's memorably choreographed sequences (both in films he and others directed), because in addition to being a spectacular dance sequence (set to Peter Allen's "Everything Old is New Again") in its own right, showcasing the talents of the beautiful Ann Reinking and the 12 year old Erszebet Foldi, it's also an extremely dramatically affecting one as well. As Joe Gideon watches his girlfriend and daughter put on a show for him to cheer him up after the poor reception of his latest film (paralleling Fosse's own experience with making Lenny), you see in his eyes that he recognizes that this is the closest thing he'll ever have to a real family. And, considering how intensely personal this film was to Fosse, that revelation is damn near heartbreaking.

Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing (1989)

This might seem like an unusual pick, but I love the way this title sequence combines a music video aesthetic with the film's uniquely counter-cultural, broadly comic sensibility. Set to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", Rosie Perez does a dance that I can only describe as "interpretive boxing"; imagery that is simultaneously rhythmic, aggressive, and empowering. It gets me excited for the movie to follow it in a way that few other title sequences do.

John Travolta & Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction (1994)

There are many memorable dance sequences involving Travolta (he has an entire movie dedicated to these abilities), but I'd have to go with this one because it's cheeky, almost self-conscious about the fact that John Travolta simply must dance in movies he appears in. He's dragged into a dance contest, unwillingly, by Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace. She not only exerts her power of him by reminding him that it is he who must do what she says (she is the boss' wife, after all), but she challenges his ego by saying that she not only wants to dance, but she wants to win. Well, dance he does, and win they do, and Tarantino wonderfully uses this sequence to illustrate the powerful sexual connection these two characters feel towards each other, complete with some Chuck Berry on the soundtrack.

Woody Allen & Goldie Hawn in Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Choreography by Graciela Daniela

A wonderful sequence that caps a wonderful film, Woody Allen uses special effects for one of the few times in his career to create an enchanting, otherworldly dance sequence set to "I'm Through With Love". As Allen and Hawn dance on the Parisian riverside, Hawn literally defies gravity as she spins and leaps through the air. Magical.

Tim Robbins & Connie Nielsen in Mission to Mars (2000)
Choreography by Adam Shankman

Adam Shankman is the credited choreographer on Mission to Mars, but surely Brian De Palma deserves as much credit for choreography as Shankman, because his camera is as much a dancer as his characters in this sequence, set to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away". De Palma's camera here floats weightlessly as he captures this intimate zero-gravity dance.

The Company (2004)

I'm cheating a bit here: I found it impossible to choose one image from Robert Altman's penultimate film The Company, let alone one dance sequence, all of which are extremely visually striking and memorable in their own right. Altman, using high definition cameras (his only use of the format), beautifully captures the art of dancing as the kinetic combination of theater, painting, and athleticism that it is, all the while giving an intimate behind the scenes portrait of the members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. It's a wonderful film that pays much respect to the art of dancing, and those who dedicate their life to that craft.

CGI Penguins in Happy Feet (2006)
Choreography by Kelley Abbey

For a movie that goes to such painstaking lengths to portray accurate, organic dancing (through a brilliant use of motion capture technology), Happy Feet bizarrely doesn't actually credit the live-action company of dancers that brought life to the film's animated penguins (though I remember reading a New York Times article that discussed the dancer whose movements were used to render the main character Mumbles, Savior Glover). As with The Company, I'm not choosing a specific dance sequence here, as any time Mumbles or any of the other penguins dance, I'm positively enchanted.

So, those are my ten. This is the part where you're supposed to tag people to do it, but everytime I tag someone, no one does it. So I'm tagging everyone. And don't be like "Oh, I'm not gonna do it and he'll never know." I will know. Trust me.