Archive for November, 2010

Rambling about Thanksgiving dinner

November 27th, 2010 No comments

Every other year my in-laws are in town for Thanksgiving and we go to Jim Brown’s house in the Glendale hills for dinner.  He’s the uncle to my brother-in-law. And no, it’s not the Jim Brown you’re thinking of; this Jim Brown didn’t play football and it’s not the casual name for the legendary singer (obviously).  This is “Our Man In Hollywood” Jim Brown, the retired Hollywood reporter for the Today Show.

His home is a nice ranch style home with a million dollar view of Glendale and in the distance, springing magnificently out of endless strip mall sprawl, are the high-rises of LA.  Looking directly west off his back porch is the best sunset in the greater Los Angeles area, see the picture below.But the most interesting thing here isn’t the view and it isn’t the house. It’s the man inside and his brilliant library of Hollywood books and biographies, most of them signed. I stood in awe in his library, looking at a wall of books.  I didn’t know they were signed when I started thumbing through them but when I opened the Hitchcock Truffaut book, the epic book-length conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, I was surprised to see a large swooping autograph from Hitchcock complete with a simple sketch of the iconic Hitchcock silhouette. Then, tucked into the lower corner was a small note to Jim scribbled and signed by Truffaut in handwriting that is barely legible.  Amazing. And that wasn’t all.  The other prize gem in the collection was an autobiography of Orson Welles, again signed. But this one came with a story.

Jim was thrilled to interview Orson Welles, who was very open and congenial during the interview.  He agreed to sign the book and wanted to do a quick drawing of himself on the first page. The sketch was rough, but Jim liked it, and continued the interview.  As the interview came to an end Welles asked for the book back. Jim was reluctant to give him the book, he asked why. Welles wasn’t pleased with the drawing and wanted to have time to finish it, promised that he would send the book back to Jim if Jim would leave an address.  Jim left the book and the address assuming he’d never see the book again.  Over a month later the book arrived, with this odd drawing of Welles, done with in pen and then painted with what looked like water-colors – and it’s not the young Welles that we all remember. This the bearded, rotund Welles from F For Fake and the drawing is perfect.

During dinner Jim was tending to all the food.  He was very quiet, didn’t talk to many of the guests and at the table he sat at the head with his wife and didn’t participate in much of the conversation.  He gets around slowly now, looking uninterested in much of what is being said and just concentrated on make sure we all had enough food and wine. When I got up to hit the bathroom I passed again through the library and spotted a book written by an old professor of mine, Paul Seydor.  It was “Peckinpah: The Western Films.” I returned to the table and mentioned to Jim that Seydor was a professor of mine and Jim lit up.  He didn’t much care for Peckinpah, calling him “crazy ol’ Sam,” but this began a film conversation that went on long enough I’m sure it eventually bored everyone else at the table.  Jim went from quietly eating his dinner to telling tales about flying to England to meet with David Lean, having long-winded conversations with Roger Corman and how memorable Sam Fuller’s voice was in person.

Jim is the sober version of Mank. Hearing his stories reminded me of sitting in Tom Mankiewicz’s class. The only difference being that Mank loved the seedy stories of the underbelly of Hollywood while Jim liked the nostalgic, prettier stories of Hollywood. It’s the difference between a film directed by Frank Capra or some Sam Fuller noir picture.

But something else dawned on me during my dinner with Jim; my true knowledge of American films before the 70’s is lacking when compared to Jim’s.  I knew more about the European filmmakers than he did, and that’s when I became a little upset with my film education. Why had I spent so much time learning and watching the films from the French New Wave and from the film school brats of the 70’s and not the films that inspired them? In the Cahiers du Cinema conversation between the notebook’s founders they exalt the American directors for their work as they deride the directors and writers of their own country.

So, for “Our Man In Hollywood” Jim Brown I’m going to dedicate some time to revisit the American filmmakers of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I haven’t seen the Lubitsch musicals or his To Be Or Not To Be with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny – nor have I seen the Golddigger musicals, but I will now.  I’m going to explore the noirs and westerns that Jim told me I cannot go another day without seeing and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Cheers to a wonderful Thanksgiving…

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A Note on Cassavetes, Bier and Crazy Women

November 25th, 2010 No comments

It’s Thanksgiving, lets ramble about the movies I’m watching.

Over the weekend/days off leading up to Thanksgiving I watched the movies from Netflix that have been sitting on my TV for about two weeks.  It felt ironic that I watched them just after watching Black Swan because there was a clear connection between them that I will explain now.

First up, A Woman Under the Influence, written and directed by John Cassavetes. What’s the connection, you might wonder, between a cinema verite style drama and a modern sleek thriller like Black Swan? Simply put, it’s the common theme that women are freakin’ crazy.  Nina was stressed out of her mind over just being the prima ballerina? She was acting like she was the first person to ever have the lead in a large production.  The histrionic response leads every rational person to the conclusion, she was freakin’ crazy! And two days after I saw Nina loose her mind, I watched Gena Rowlands loose hers.

If you’ve seen A Woman Under the Influence you know that from the very beginning Mabel is unstable.  Her descent isn’t a far one, but the level of performance from Rowlands is one of the most impressive in modern film.  She would have made an amazing Lady MacBeth.  The scene when Nick is having the doctor come take Mabel is heart-wrenching, beautiful and so real that it people believed it was completely improvised (which Rowlands denies in the special feature interview, claiming you could never improvise that scene and Cassavetes scripted the entire thing).

Unfortunately for the kids in the film, they are screwed whether or not Mabel goes to the mad-house because their father seems equally unstable.  He looses his temper easily, yelling at friends on a trip to the beach, yelling at them for asking about his wife and going from a man trying to convince she needs help to holding her violently telling her that he loves her and would lay down on train tracks for her. Oh, and then slaps her around in front of the kids. The oddly upbeating ending gives the impression that this is somehow just the norm, the new model for an American family. Heart breaking, really.  Falk gives a great performance. Cassavetes was always more concerned with performance over everything else, even judicious editing. This movie could have benefited by having several scene cut short that didn’t help advance the story or exemplify the strong moments of acting.

But move that right into After The Wedding, another drama full of great performances.  Good Friend Taylor has been trying to get me to warm up to Susane Bier for years, and I’ve never really cared for her work.  Brothers? Eh. Things We Lost in the Fire? Contrived drama that is somehow supposed to mean something if we go into a tighter closeup.  For whatever reason Bier thinks that a blank stare in a wide shot is dull but the same stare in an extreme closeup is somehow a good performance.  I don’t care to see an entire scene shot from lower lip to eyebrow.  And just because a movie is full of teary-eyed closeups and silent stares doesn’t mean it’s good. But in the case of After The Wedding, I finally started really enjoying Bier’s work.

Mads Mikkelsen solely carried this picture. If you haven’t seen him in Flame and Citron you need to see that film immediately, it was one of the best from last year. For After the Wedding, Mikkelsen’s performance, character and situation were all captivating.  He plays a man that has dedicated his life to an orphanage in India, coming back to Denmark to simply raise more funds by appealing to the charitable side of a stingy billionaire. But, when he is invited to the wedding for the billionaire’s daughter, his entire life is changed. It’s easily Bier’s best film and the connection to the previous two I watched is this;  Cassavetes has this wonderful mastery of the verite style of filmmaking that must have had a direct influence on the Dogme95 movement in Denmark.  I imagine Von Trier and Vinterberg sitting around drooling over Cassavetes’ Criterion box-set. And Bier cut from the Dogme95 cloth shows her Cassavetes influence in her work.

Check out After The Wedding, very good film.  Rent A Woman Under the Influence only for Rowlands’ performance in the ‘doctor in the living room’ scene.

Currently on this Thanksgiving Day I’m watching Peter Yates’ Bullit with my 5 month old daughter.  We both agree that Yates needed to pay more attention to performance and Jacqueline Bisset was unbelievably gorgeous. Check her out in Day For Night as well.

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Notes on ‘Black Swan’

November 22nd, 2010 No comments

I had plans this Saturday, plans to be productive.  I made a list, because Tony Robbins says if you’re going to be successful you should make lists.  But that list was quickly thrown out when a friend called with an extra ticket to an advanced screening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film Black Swan.

At these industry screenings there are no trailers, no quizzes and advertisements on the screen; it’s just the crowd and the curtain until showtime.  The curtain pulls back and the trumpeting announcement of Fox blares.  Without all the pre-show noise this moment ends up achieving exactly what it should; it sends a quick chill down your back. You feel like this isn’t just another piece of media projected on a screen, this is a show under a Proscenium with all the players ready to give you a unique performance.

We open on a dark stage, a single spotlight bathing our ballerina in a white circle. This is the first moment we hear Clint Mansell’s emotional and powerful score.  If you’re not familiar with Mansell, then you’re not familiar with Aronofsky either. Mansell composed the haunting score for Requiem for a Dream as well as each of Aronofsky’s other films.  The success of those films rested heavily on Mansell’s orchestra and that is certainly the case for Black Swan.

The music lifts our dancer (the enchanting Natalie Portman); she glides around the stage, being tempted by a dark figure dancing around her. He circles her like a predatory bird, morphing into a grotesque black-feathered beast that pulls her violently around the stage.  It’s a dance of madness, a nightmare Lynchian in scope serving as an overture that instills a sense of foreboding of what we can expect as this white swan struggles with the pressure of receiving the prince’s favor.

Obsession is a very common theme for Aronofsky. Whether the obsession is with numbers (Pi), drugs (Requiem for a Dream), immortality and love (The Fountain), or celebrity and glory (The Wrestler), his films chronicle the detrimental, destructive effects of allowing yourself to be consumed entirely by one desire. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Black Swan continues the exploration of self-destructive obsession.  Nina (Portman) is a ballerina in an acclaimed dance company led by the Machiavellian creative director Thomas – pronounced toh-mah with adequate pretension. Nina’s desire to please Thomas is incidental, simply resulting from her endless pursuit for perfection.  Nina practices all day, then returns at night to her over-bearing mother (Barbara Hershey) as they settle into their nightly routine.  No, not routine. This is something more. This is ritualistic. She prepares her swollen, bruised and bleeding feet, she prepares her shoes and the ribbons, she prepares her body with methodical stretching. The dedication to ritual is again something Aronofsky loves to explore. Think of the process of liquefying the heroine, or the pre-match ritual of the Ram.

As Nina pursues perfection she quickly falls into the lead in Swan Lake.  With the former lead, Beth (Winona Ryder), retiring the heavy crown is passed on.  Thomas (brilliantly played by Vincent Cassell) struggles to get Nina to dance with passion. He tells her that she plays the White Swan beautifully, but in order to dance the Black Swan she needs to get out of her head and dance unfettered by her thoughts, letting the dance simply ‘take her over.’  He entices her to find the side of herself that can be the Black Swan, even encouraging her to masturbate and just give in to temptations.

This begins her spiral into a nightmare reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion.There is a slow build as Nina embarks on a sexual exploration that has been delayed by years of sexual repression.  She starts to deviate from her ritual in order to find this side of herself that Thomas wants to see. And as she continues this journey she, and the audience, starts to question reality. She can feel, even see, the Black Swan bursting forth from under her skin.

The narrator, or more accurately the POV, becomes unreliable.  Nina’s point of view becomes so unreliable I still don’t know what happened exactly. Some of the events could have just been figments of her imagination, not unlike some of the events in Repulsion, but in the end I wish I knew what to believe regarding some of the characters, especially Lily. In fact, Nina’s delusions even distort how she sees her own reflection as Aronofsky delves heavily into a mirror motif.

Everything builds to a true metamorphosis of character which is handled with tremendous skill by Portman.  This is the performance that will define her career. Vincent Cassell is perfect as the creative director, and I would say it’s his best since La Haine if it weren’t for his brilliant work in Mesrine just last year. In the end, the performances were great all around. The atmosphere for the screening was perfect. It was a smart, thrilling picture.  So why didn’t I love it like it feels I should?

First, I was too aware of the camera.  Like in The Wrestler we have long hand-held following shots, but this is a different story. The Wrestler felt like we needed that rough filming, that observational feel, but Black Swan is a new story and I felt called for a new style.  I know Aronofsky abhors the steadi-cam but using a more fluid motion for the long tracking shots would have complimented the perfection and grace of the ballerina, at least until her life became chaotic.

Second, it felt like Aronofsky was too intellectual with this film. That’s why there is so much to write about. You could write essays on his use of mirrors, on the ritual, on the sexual repression, self-mutilation or the transformation you undergo as you strive for perfection, but that’s not why most people go see movies. Yes, he’s a very smart guy. Yes, he knows how to direct a good film.  But I can’t help feeling that he is lost in his own ritual as he directs, creating films that are almost entirely cerebral and not visceral. His best film is still Requiem and it’s because there he had true passion. He was experimenting and attacked his first big release with a rookie’s recklessness.  It’s like Thomas tells Nina, you have to get out of your head. You need to let the emotion take over and only then can you reach perfection because then you will find the ability to surprise yourself and the audience.  I was hoping for something surprising with Black Swan. It’s still a very good film; it’s still worth seeing in the theater because that’s the only way to experience what should be an Oscar winning score, but if the reins would have been loosened this film could have been so much more.

Below are several of the movie posters, which I thought were fantastic.

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A Note on The Holy Mountain

November 20th, 2010 No comments

today’s posting written by a friend on the fringe, Eric Rowe

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is a bizarre, surreal satirical exploration of a man’s quest for his inner truth.  On that note, this is not a film for everyone.  That needs repeating; this is not a film for everyone.  This is the type of film that would shock most casual viewers by its grotesque, yet beautiful visuals and overall unconventional story telling.

The Holy Mountain is one of my favorite films because of the challenge it poses to its viewers to think critically, not only about the film but also about their own personal spirituality, society, and religion.  The film follows a Christ-like figure that wanders through a bizarre, perverse land where he encounters a mystical enlightened guide, whom sends him on a spiritual pilgrimage.  The film is stuffed full of beautiful, however perverse, imagery as the viewer follows this Christ-like figure through his pilgrimage.  The most common response to the film is that it attacks organized religion, though this is most likely an effort of average moviegoers to dismiss the film and avoid deeper reflection. Upon closer examination one can see that Jodorowsky was trying to illuminate precisely how primitive our understanding of the world can be. As the theorist Abraham Maslow suggested in A Theory of Human Motivation, self-actualization is the highest stage of human physiological development. This film illustrates the journey to this end.

At first glance, the film appears to be a simple hero’s journey, a man seeking truth in a maniac world, but it also must be interpreted as a reflection on both Jodorowsky’s and the audiences’ lives.  The Christ-like figure must face the numerous temptations of this world. Along this journey Jodorowsky stresses the importance of making one’s own decisions and the consequences that ensue.  In an early scene the protagonist walks through Mexico City to observe all of the city’s grotesque distractions that astonish the eye and confuse the mind.  It is a bizarre festival of whores, soldiers, and liars. After taking it all in, the figure then meets priests who befriend him and proceed to mass-produce a mold of him under the promise of enlightenment.  They have created a product that is promised to bring clarity, belying their true intention to market it to society, in effect emulating the everyday promises of new technologies. It’s a concept that has been used throughout history. The figure, disgusted by this greed, flees on a journey to find his personal truth.  In this way Jodorowsky suggests that man sees the world as chaos. He further suggests that each person must arrive at his or her own conclusions, finding their own personal truth without being alienated by a society whose intentions may be deceptive.

The final act of the film is the most linear in that this is when the actual journey towards enlightenment takes place. Our protagonist has faced many challenges on the path to enlightenment: distractions, debauchery, and confronting personal fears.  After all the trials and tribulations the figure, and those who have joined him along the way, complete their journey to the top of a mountain.  Again this is reminiscent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the ultimate twist is revealed and the alchemist breaks the fourth wall as if to tell the audience, “What did you expect?  This is just a movie!”

In the end, Jodorowsky does not provide any obvious answers, implying that viewers must find their own meanings and identify their own self-actualization. Jodorowsky makes his final statement about spirituality and beliefs perfectly with this ending, asking each of us to find our own truth because life is a series of experiences that no one can fully understand or can possibly interpret in the same way.  The film suggests that society at times can frighten, tempt, and distract, and if one cannot accept these, then they will not experience the pinnacle of true living. Thus, we all must experience life for ourselves, finding truth and meaning in its events as they pertain to our selves. For the film The Holy Mountain, as in life, one must find his own meaning and develop his own interpretations. This was mine.

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Notes on The Color of Paradise

November 7th, 2010 No comments

A lazy Saturday – I finished watching  True Grit, went to Costco with the wife and daughter then returned to watch The Color of Paradise, a beautiful Iranian film from filmmaker Majid Majidi.  The DVD came from Netflix months ago, renting on the recommendation of my friend Adnan. But with a new baby I rarely have time to sit down and give foreign films their due attention. Luckily Boston was kind enough to take an afternoon nap long enough for me to enjoy this poetic and deeply affecting film.

The film quickly introduces us to Mohammad, our amiable child protagonist.  We first see him at school where he excels at his learning, he has an open and friendly relationship with his teacher and gets along with his fellow students.  He appears to be a healthy, normal student except we find him at a special school for the blind.  Here he fits in with the other blind students and is rather comfortable. But this is the final day of school and everyone waits for their families to pick them up to go home for the 3 month summer break.  The other students are picked up, they are met by happy, hurried parents. Mohammad waits. The final classmate fades from the scene, and Mohammad still waits.

The film focuses on the people and creatures in the world in need of compassion and assistance.  While waiting for his neglectful father, Mohammad can hear the desperate chirp from a bird in distress.  He feels his way through the woods, searching for the struggling animal. He even scares off a hungry calico in order to rescue the bird.  This blind child’s benevolence is not easily discouraged.  He struggles to climb a tree, feeling each individual branch in search of the nest. It’s a show of pure determination and compassion. It’s the sort of compassion his father is completely incapable of showing.

From the moment we meet Mohammad’s father he is looking for a way to relinquish his responsibilities as a father to everyone else. To quote my wife, “his dad’s a dick.”  Well said wife. Hossein Mahjoub plays Father’s emotional dilemma with a solemn intensity that makes you despise the character. He isn’t a man for whom you feel sympathy. You might pity him, as his mother in the film does.  And, if you are the rare audience member that can feel sympathetic toward his situation, that feeling will quickly escape you during the scene between Mohammad and the blind carpenter.

As the Blind Carpenter is teaching Mohammad how to identify certain types of wood by their density he feels Mohammad’s tears.  The young actor launches into a brief monologue about having no love in his life. He expresses he understands that people are always trying to run from him, nobody wants to care for him and its all because he is blind.  Maybe if he could see, he tells his mentor, he could earn the love of his family, but being blind is not his fault. He continues to say that he walks through the world with his hands stretched out hoping he can touch God one day, and asking him why life is as it is.  It’s a beautiful scene and the monologue is captured in one medium close-up meaning all the emotion came from this young actor (Mohsen Ramezani), not from the camera, not from the editing and not from any sort of swelling orchestral score.

As we see Mohammad flopping around in life, looking for a loving hand to reach out to him, we are also shown another animal in distress. Mohammad’s grandma set out to bring Mohammad back home when she comes across a fish flopping in shallow water. In a frail state she strains herself to bend over, picking up the fish and gently placing him in deeper water.  She’s the only character that accepts her role in Mohammad’s life and the only other character that helps an animal in distress. She’s connected to Mohammad through a shared compassion for the world around them.

As Father and Mohammad walk through the woods we are shown a quick shot of a turtle struggling between two rocks.  It’s a silent struggle, so Mohammad cannot hear the turtle although you can be assured that he would have helped. Father didn’t see the turtle and that is just as important as if he saw it and passed it by.  He is too self-involved, consumed with self-pity to be aware of others that may need a helping hand.  And this leads into the final climatic scene.  I will spare you the details as to not spoil it, but Father is faced with the decision whether he wants to save Mohammad’s life or if he’d be better off with Mohammad dying. It’s a powerful climax and ends with one single frame that inspires hope.  This final frame is the sort of optimism we were hoping we’d see through out this depressing story.

This ending is something I find common in films from this region, and I’m in love with the use of one final image that changes our entire mood.  I can tell this film has inspired my friend Adnan as you get the some final sense of hope in his short films, Maggie’s Heart and Heal.  It also reminds me of the final moment in A Moment of Innocence, by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. If you haven’t seen A Moment of Innocence, put it in your Netflix queue now! In fact, add The Color of Paradise and add Turtles Can Fly, a film by a Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi.

These are filmmakers from what has been called the Iranian New Wave. They’re from a  country that the US Government at one time put in “The Axis of Evil.”  Yes, Iran did at one time ban A Moment of Innocence, but if their films are any indication of the spirit of the people then ‘evil’ is a horrible, all-encapsulating term to use.  Their films exemplify the beauty found in a child-like innocence and blind optimism.

(sorry this note is about 10 years late)

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