Saturday, October 4, 2008

Farewell to an Icon

When Jamie Foxx appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in October of 2004, he recalled his experience shooting Collateral earlier that year. Though Foxx had worked with big name stars like Will Smith and Al Pacino before, working alongside Tom Cruise was no less daunting. While filming a particularly difficult scene, Cruise sensed that Foxx was getting down on himself and took him aside. "Don't worry about getting it right the first time," he said. "If you feel an instinct, follow through on it. If it works, we'll keep it. If not, try again. Just trust yourself and go for it." As soon as he heard those words, Jamie's tension left him and he found what Dustin Hoffman calls the rhythm of the character. Hit by a thunderbolt of inspiration, Foxx got out of his own way and amazed everyone else on the set with the dynamics he brought to every take.

At the end of this breakthrough shooting day, Foxx approached Cruise and thanked him for the advice. Curious, he asked Cruise why he thought to extend him such consideration. Smiling fondly, Cruise replied, "About 20 years ago, Paul Newman told me the same thing while we were making The Color of Money. One day, you're going to work with an actor who needs a little help. When you do, remember to pass it on."

It is a testament to Paul Newman's generosity that the tradition has stuck. Newman died at the age of 83 on September 26th at his home in Westport, Connecticut, after a valiant battle with lung cancer. He leaves a legacy of more than 50 films and paramount contributions to the theater, politics, and charity.

After Navy service in World War II, he studied economics at Kenyon College before switching his academic emphasis to speech. Summer stock performances followed, and after completing drama studies at Yale, he auditioned for and was accepted to the training ground for the finest acting talent of his generation, the Actors Studio. Success on Broadway followed, and it wasn't long before he pointed his career west to Hollywood.

His film debut came with 1954's The Silver Chalice, a poorly received costume drama based on Thomas B. Costain's novel. Ashamed of his performance, Newman would go on to call the film "the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s". (He later took out a full-page ad in The Los Angeles Times apologizing for appearing in the film when it was broadcast on television in 1966.) He quickly established himself as a formidable leading man, however, in Somebody Up There Likes Me, a biopic based on the life of middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano.

In 1958, he earned his first of nine competitive acting Oscar nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Cast opposite a radiant Elizabeth Taylor in a solid production of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Newman brought a brooding intensity, smoldering sexuality, and emotional electricity to his role as the alcoholic former football star Brick Pollitt. Though the screenwriters were forced to tone down some of the controversial elements of Williams' play -- mainly, Brick's homosexuality -- Newman etched a portrayal that stands alongside Brando's best work as Method acting at its finest.

A second Oscar nomination came in 1961 for his fine-tuned work as the scheming pool shark Eddie Felson in The Hustler. On a hot streak, Newman became one of the most in-demand actors of the day, appearing in such hits as Exodus, Paris Blues, and Sweet Bird of Youth. The success continued with his most critically praised performance up to that time in Hud. The story of a callous, womanizing son of a Texas cattle rancher adapted from Larry McMurtry's novel Horseman, Pass By brought him his third Oscar nomination in five years.

Then in 1967, Newman gave what many consider the finest performance of his career in Cool Hand Luke. Portraying a World War II veteran sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang, he solidified his screen persona as the consummate antihero and won a new generation of fans with the classic line of dialogue, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." It was that most inspired class of acting, that which sees the actor completely vanishing within the character. The role would bring him a fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

1968 found Newman venturing behind the camera for the first of five time with Rachel, Rachel. Working from an adaptation of Margaret Laurence's novel -- and with wife Joanne Woodward in the lead role -- Newman lovingly brought the story of a 35-year-old schoolteacher living with her mother to the screen. Critics were unanimous in their praise of Newman's first outing behind the camera. Though he was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with a Golden Globe for Best Director, he fell short of a directing nomination with the Academy but did snag a nod for producing. Woodward was also nominated for Best Actress, but neither won.

After appearing in Hombre, Winning (the film responsible for his love of auto racing), and The Secret of Harry Frigg, Newman found his biggest commercial success -- along with the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and treasured friendship with Robert Redford -- in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. Like Bonnie and Clyde before it, the picture painted a sympathetic portrait of two legendary outlaws as a timely statement against the establishment. Due to the beautiful location photography, the catchy contemporary music, and the unbeatable chemistry between the two leads, the film went on to gross over $100 million worldwide and earned nine Academy Award nominations, four of which resulted in wins. Though Newman was overlooked, his performance as the idealistic Butch Cassidy remains a quintessential entry in his canon.

The 1970s saw Newman on a commercial hot streak with him taking roles in such box office hits as The Towering Inferno, The Drowning Pool (a reprise of his private eye role in Harper), Slap Shot, and The Sting, his second and final collaboration with Redford. The hugely popular story of two con artists caught up in a high-stakes card game in Depression era Chicago won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture of 1973. Though Newman again found himself omitted from the Best Actor shortlist, his status as a major star continued to grow.

After earning a fifth Academy Award nomination for playing a wrongly investigated liquor distributor in Absence of Malice, Newman found the perfect career transitional role in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict. Playing an alcoholic Boston attorney whose best years are behind him, Newman gave what many critics consider the finest performance of his career in a riveting story of personal and professional redemption. Come awards season, he found himself in the running for the Best Actor prize for the sixth time, but lost to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.

Then in 1986, 25 years after he first played Eddie Felson, Newman returned to the screen as the fast-talking pool pro in The Color of Money. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film dovetailed seamlessly with The Hustler, thanks to a streetwise screenplay by Richard Price and the wise casting of Tom Cruise as a rising star on the billiards circuit. Though critical reception to the film was mixed, Newman's performance was singled out as the shining centerpiece of a mediocre production. The Academy agreed, and after receiving a lucky seventh nomination for Best Actor, Paul finally won his overdue trophy. He later admitted that he'd stopped caring about winning an Oscar, comparing the effort to spending years pursuing a beautiful woman. Joking to the press, he quipped, "Finally, she relents and you say, 'I'm terribly sorry. I'm tired.'"

Performances in Fat Man and Little Boy and Blaze (both 1989) followed, as well as a surprisingly out-of-canvas turn as the starchy patriarch in Merchant and Ivory's adaptation of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. Though overshadowed by wife and costar Woodward, he brought a stern restraint to his work that was unlike anything he had ever revealed before. Four years later, he teamed with Robert Benton for Nobody's Fool, a masterfully drawn character study about a man who has made a lifetime of bad decisions. In the leading role of Sully Sullivan, Newman rendered a textbook definition of acting subtlety and earned his ninth Academy Award nomination in the process.

Maintaining a steady work load in his seventies, he turned in solid work in the mediocre vehicles Twilight, Message in a Bottle, and Where the Money Is before snagging a plum supporting role opposite Tom Hanks in 2002's Road to Perdition. As elderly Depression era crime boss John Rooney, Newman blended the fiery passion of his early work with the restraint of age for a consummate final screen appearance. For his efforts, he received his tenth Oscar nomination.

With his last film behind him, Newman brought his career to a dignified close with television work: playing the stage manager in Our Town for Showtime in 2003 and portraying Ed Harris' cantankerous father in Empire Falls for HBO in 2005, winning the Emmy for the latter. The following year, he provided the voice of Doc Hudson in the Disney Pixar animated feature Cars.

When visited from beginning to end, Paul Newman's career resembles a museum of classic paintings. His approach was refined and artful. Though he never made staggering physical transformations like Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull, the way he embodied his characters is unquestionable. When sitting for his 1994 chat with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, Newman said, "For me, acting is like drudging through a river." Like a master in any arena, he never let the effort show.

In spite of his love of acting, Newman made his proudest accomplishment not for celebrity but for charity. In 1982, he launched Newman's Own, a food company that has raised over $250,000,000 for humanitarian causes. The endeavor began when a friend complimented him on his homemade salad dressing being good enough to sell. (As an aside, the best-kept secret of Italian-American households is that Newman's Own spaghetti sauce finds a home in every pantry. Under any other cirumstances, stocking pasta products bearing a non-Italian's name would be a sin, but in the case of an honorary paisan like Paul Newman, an exception must be made. Who can resist that smiling face on the label?) In a 2005 interview with AARP magazine, Newman expressed more pride in his charity work than in his acting. "I hope the [Hole in the Wall Gang] camps last longer than the films."

In his personal life, Newman enjoyed a 50-year marriage to Joanne Woodward. The couple had three daughters, Lissy, Nell, and Clea. He also had two daughters, Stephanie and Susan, from his first marriage to Jackie Witte. His son, Scott, died of a drug overdose in 1978. In keeping with his resilient manner, he converted his grief into giving by starting a drug center in his name.

Paul Newman was much more than an actor. A contributor in every respect, he dedicated his life to being the best in every field he explored. He made his mark and the world is a better place because of it. To honor Newman's wishes, keep his dream alive by making a donation to The Hole in the Wall Gang today.

There is no choice of words, no matter how carefully assembled, that could justly summate the greatness of Paul Newman's career. Instead, here is a moment from the film responsible for what I consider his best performance. This scene gets me every time I watch it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

RIP, Paul Newman


Screen legend Paul Newman has died after fighting a valiant battle with cancer. He was 83 years old. Read the ABC breaking news story here.

Though Newman's passing was expected following reports of his wishes to die at home after grueling rounds of chemotherapy in the hospital, the news still comes as a huge loss to the world of movies. A full tribute blog will follow.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Case Against Ratings

In the world of moviemaking, events that give film scholars an opportunity to editorialize occur nearly every day. When I first started this blog, I knew it would be but a matter of time before something happened in the film industry that gave me probable cause to opine about censorship. Last week, I followed a link to a story on AVClub posted on IMDB that sent my senses reeling. Read the story and decide for yourself as to whether or not it makes sense.

Before I comment on the issue at hand, I wish to disclose my bearing of mind toward freedom of expression. As a fervent First Amendment supporter, I believe that, with few exceptions, neither the government nor private enterprise has any right to suppress freedom of expression. Instances I consider exceptions to this rule include, but are not limited to, child pornography, snuff films, shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, falsely accusing someone of committing a crime, and picketing funerals. Any person responsible for committing these acts deserves punishment on the basis of violating laws that protect individual rights.

That being said, why did the MPAA's handling of the poster for Zack and Miri Make a Porno boost my blood pressure? The same reason I objected to the government's reaction to the Janet Jackson Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. At the time, the major networks ran parental advisory disclaimers when airing the story on the evening news, but gave no such consideration when they showed the latest military combat footage from Iraq. Mere titillation, it seems, is less offensive than actual violence. Now, the MPAA wants us to join them in their objection to a pair of suggestively placed heads on the poster advertising Kevin Smith's upcoming comedy. When the film hits theaters next month, American audiences will have to settle for a different poster showing stick figures while Canadian audiences will see the original poster in theater lobbies. Perhaps it's the MPAA's own petty way of getting back at Kevin Smith following their appeal of the film's original 'NC-17' rating to 'R'. One wonders if the MPAA would have raised any objections to the poster had it showed appendages or splattered blood.

This decision leads me to ask an important question: do we really need movie ratings anymore? More to the point, did we need them to begin with? Social conservatives argue that MPAA decisions reflect a tolerant -- if not permissive -- response to provocative content in comparison to the Will Hays Production Code, but anyone who knows anything about American film history knows that that isn't saying much.

From its inception in 1966, the association has promoted itself as a reliable resource for moviegoers, especially parents. In codifying film ratings to the scale currently in use, the MPAA created a convenient, easy-to-understand system that helps viewers make quick decisions as to the films they want to see. While the idea reflects innovation, the system is not without its drawbacks. A grouping of alphanumeric characters may tell you that a film is offensive (at least to the body who applied the rating), but it doesn't tell you why. True, the rating card may read "rated R for violence, nudity, and sexual situations", but that's as specific as said descriptions get. How much of the film's running time accounts for these offenses? How many scenes feature bare buttocks, drug use, or spurting arteries? An accountable group would make these statistics (not to mention the identities of its members) public, but their actions send a clear message: just trust our judgment; you don't need to know how we work.

The 'NC-17' (formerly 'X') rating represents the group's most disingenuous tactic. This scarlet letter classification is designed, so the movie cops claim, to protect children from the worst of the worst in cinema: pornography. While keeping intense depictions of violent and sexual acts out of children's hands is a good idea, these decisions need to be made by parents and no one else. What, then, is the actual reason for shackling films into this pillory? Why, to cripple the box office potential of films the association wants to see fail, of course. Watch Kimberly Peirce's interview footage in This Film Is Not Yet Rated for a firsthand account of this malicious practice. In Kirby Dick's fascinating documentary, Peirce revealed that Boys Don't Cry initially received an 'NC-17' rating from the MPAA, which was later appealed to an 'R' after a number of sex scenes were trimmed. The group had no qualms with the graphic violence in the film; just the sex. It sounds like someone isn't exactly dealing from the top of the deck. Metaphorically speaking, the MPAA is standing at the jukebox and they expect the industry to dance to the tune. In other words, if directors expect their films to enjoy the benefits of advertising and theatrical release, they have to play by the MPAA's rules. If this isn't an abject bully tactic, I would certainly like to know what is.

The MPAA, like any other censor board, uses the ratings system to impose their morality on the public. If the God-fearing members of the MPAA object to a certain film, you know it must be bad. Wouldn't it be nice if we all reacted to raunchy flicks the way they do? What the MPAA fails to realize is that, while some attitudes are universal, morality is a subjective creature. This is not to say that morality changes from day to day, as the late Tony Snow once said on Real Time with Bill Maher, but that it often varies from person to person. With regard to movies, not everyone shares the same thoughts and feelings on sex, violence, or depictions of these acts in films. One man's poison is another man's popcorn. A fair system would let a film's content speak for itself (more on that later) and then let the public decide whether it succeeds or fails. But obviously, this approach is out of the question.

Does this mean that I enjoy every act I see depicted in films? Absolutely not. Though I consider myself a tolerant viewer, there have been times when I have grown uneasy while watching a film. The masturbation scene in Gus Van Zant's abominable remake of Psycho, the final fifteen seconds of Boogie Nights, and the disgusting Kinky Kelly sequence in Clerks II were all gratuitous. Still, in spite of my displeasure, I support the artist's right to include these scenes in their films, and I would never take action aimed at preventing such films from being released. Rather than organize a boycott, a tactic I have always found ineffective, I would give the films little or no attention. Otherwise, why give a movie you want to see go down in flames free publicity? In the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The strongest criticism I have of the MPAA ratings system is its inconsistency. While growing up, I can recall seeing movies with a 'PG-13' rating that featured at least one character getting shot, bared breasts, and no less than two F-bombs being dropped in the course of two hours. On the other hand, I can recall seeing films that had but one mention of the dreaded F-word get slapped with an 'R' rating. These decisions raise a number of questions: Were the people who rated the 'PG-13' films the same ones who rated the 'R' films? If so, what specifically led to their rulings? Are the qualifiers for ratings (assuming specific ones exist) subject to change? Did the members see the films in their entirety? Or did they just watch the trailer? While we may never know the answers to these questions, one fact with which not even the staunchest of conservative film raters can argue is that some viewers are less tolerant than others and in turn, will be more likely to set their ratings phasers to 'R' or 'NC-17' whenever they see or hear something on screen that causes them discomfort. The MPAA allegedly staffs its body of raters with a diverse sample of adults that represents the population at large. Even if such a feat were possible, how does the association handle a disagreement over a given film? While I'm on the subject, why does the MPAA insist on shrouding the identities and voting records of its members in secrecy? Not even the Supreme Court operates in that fashion, and they're a far more important voting body.

How do we solve this problem, then? I propose an alternative to our current film ratings protocol: a content disclosure system. Using every medium of movie advertising, I would publish a list of statistics in place of a simple letter or alphanumeric combination. (e.g., 75 mentions of the F-word, 3 instances of full frontal female nudity, 25 instances of violent killings, 2 scenes involving drug use) A system like this would help parents make an informed decision as to whether or not they would feel comfortable allowing their children to watch a particular movie, much less watch a movie themselves. One objection some may raise to this proposal would no doubt criticize the amount of time and effort required to examine the statistics. The best response I have to this opposition is a question. When a good parent shops at a supermarket, do they pile food into the cart without a second thought or do they stop to read the nutritional information first? Should advertisers worry about the amount of time they would have to buy for fitting statistics in a trailer, the amount of time needed would be but an extra three to five seconds. Now that I think of it, what's wrong with displaying those statistics in a black bar at the bottom of the screen à la CNN headline crawls while the trailer plays? An announcer's voice or a separate title card could then wrap up the trailer by instructing the audience to visit the MPAA web site for a full list of the film's statistics. Though there is no such thing as pure objectivity, raw data in the form of mathematical or scientific results arrived at via rational processes is the closest we can come to this ideal. After all, numbers -- unlike people -- never lie. A system like this would save parents from having to preview a film for their children, and would reveal potentially objectionable scenes without spoiling key plot points. Once potential viewers have this data on hand, they can apply their own ratings. Anyone opposed to a system like this is too scared and lazy to think independently, and wants everyone else to have that comfort, too.

If the MPAA won't change its ways, it would be nice if they lightened up. But I'm not holding my breath. As long as they're allowed to conduct their business the way they do, it's only a matter of time before those self-appointed morality cops find another stimulus to activate the panic center in their brains and sound the alarm in kind. The true pornographers in this or any society are not those who have sex on camera, but those who think they can tell the populace which works among music, film, radio, television, and literature are acceptable for consumption, and then have the gall to unilaterally censor such material based on their own moral convictions. Contrary to the beliefs held by crusading xenophobes, catching sight of certain images or hearing certain words will not turn a person into a drug dealer, a serial killer, a terrorist, or a pedophile. To paraphrase what Tom Braden once said on CNN's Crossfire, "Each of us has a personal responsibility [to decide what we want to see and listen to], and that's as far as it can go."

Do you agree with the MPAA ratings system? Would you like to see it changed, if not abrogated altogether? Whatever your opinion, please leave your comments. When you do, be assured that, so long as you don't circumvent the law, I will not censor your words.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

'Slumdog Millionaire' Wins Top Prize in Toronto

Slumdog Millionaire, the story of a poor East Indian teen who wins the jackpot on his native country's edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, has won the Cadillac People's Choice Award at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival. The gong was presented yesterday to director Danny Boyle, whose previous films include Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. The Canadian Press has a decent recap here.

The win boosts the likelihood that Millionaire will show up on the Academy's radar. Two previous recipient of TIFF's top prize, Chariots of Fire and American Beauty, went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Eastern Promises, last year's winner, went on to earn Viggo Mortensen an overdue acting nomination.

Slumdog Millionaire opens in limited release on November 28th.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Sonorous Voice Goes Silent


The film and television industries have lost one of their biggest fixtures. Don LaFontaine, the voice actor responsible for more than 5,000 movie trailers, has died at the age of 68. Read the AP story here.

Though he wasn't the first talent to record a trailer for a feature film, LaFontaine qualifies as a pioneer in my book. Before voice actors, movie trailers had a melodramatic aroma about them. This was characterized by wipes between scenes, sappy scores, and giant letters that flew at you from out of nowhere. (e.g., COMING SOON! THE SUSPENSE! THE ADVENTURE! RONALD COLMAN AS YOU'VE NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE!) Those trailers still have a nostalgic charm, but they fail to transport you to another world the way Don's voice could.

That all changed in 1964, when LaFontaine wrote a trailer script for the forgettable western Gunfighters of Casa Grande, originally to be read by a voice actor. The actor failed to show up, leaving LaFontaine to read the spot on his own. It was the first movie trailer he ever voiced and the rest, as the old saying goes, is history.

What made LaFontaine unique was his versatility. Most voice over actors, not unlike most live actors, tend to find one comfort zone and stay within it. With effortless ease, LaFontaine continually tested his own boundaries, providing the ideal vocal milieu for virtually every film genre. Whether speaking in an ominous bass range for a science fiction thriller or growling like a chainsaw for a horror movie, LaFontaine had an unteachable gift of conveying emotion in a matter of seconds.

Equally impressive was his work ethic. When not making appearances at conventions or giving interviews, LaFontaine was standing in front of a microphone, recording as many as 35 spots a day from his home studio. His fax machine was continuously spitting out scripts for him to record until the day he died, no doubt.

Those who knew and worked with LaFontaine recall his affable personality. "I've been there to watch that [talent] grow over the years," fellow voice actor Paul Pape said in an interview. "His ego has not grown."

His amiable side also showed when he argued in favor of more movie trailer voiceover work for women. How refreshing it would be to hear feminine voices introduce upcoming movies. If the smoky sex appeal of Stevie Nicks can pave the way for gold records and Grammys, why not let female voice actors record movie trailers? A woman's touch would be perfect for romantic dramas and comedies, and even animated features.

LaFontaine leaves a legacy that has inspired generations of actors to pursue careers in the voice industry. The world still has talented voice actors to narrate movie trailers, but no one can ever replace that unmistakable voice of God. Don may be gone, but his contribution to the movies will remain with us for as long as the seventh art survives.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reading Between the Frames

One of the great joys of studying movies is making new discoveries. The beauty of the lively seventh art, to paraphrase Gilbert Seldes' affectionate name for it, lies in its clamoring to be analyzed from every conceivable perspective. This is precisely what leads to golden moments of Epiphany experienced when a young film scholar spots a previously unnoticed bank of set pieces -- cutting instruments mounted on the wall of a hardware store -- on his tenth viewing of Psycho. How do directors plant these subtle brushstrokes that penetrate our subconsciousness, only to migrate to our conscious awareness later? Moreover, how can viewers raise their awareness of these seemingly inscrutable touches? Roger Ebert provides an engaging answer to the latter question in his latest blog posting on how to read a movie.

While Ebert's article does not present a comprehensive guide to studying movies, it certainly qualifies as a good starting point. For a more in-depth reference source, I must take a walk down Memory Lane. On the first day of a spring film seminar I took at Pacific Lutheran University ten years ago, I was furnished with a two-page handout entitled "How to 'Read' a Film". In that document, my wise professor pointed out specific patterns for which to listen and watch. What's more, he codified them under a series of subheadings. (e.g., mise-en-scène, costume, lighting, dialogue, camera movements, sound) Unfortunately, I have long since misplaced that invaluable guidepost, an act for which I may never forgive myself. Should I happen to recover it, I will be sure to upload it on a future posting.

The laying down of such rules invariably leads some film students to raise objections. "How am I supposed to enjoy a movie if I keep vigil for all this stuff," some grumblers ask. It's a valid question. The coldest, hardest fact of film criticism is that you can't just sit back and allow yourself to be caught up in the magic of the movie, as any audience member would, if you expect to grow as a film scholar. One must learn to dissociate.

The mere thought of such discipline is enough to make most film fans heartsick. Then again, the first-year film student may ask, "Is it possible to analyze and enjoy a film at the same time?" The answer to this question is yes, but it takes practice. It is a skill that is akin to the one music scholars employ when listening to the patterns of Mendelssohn's melodies and being moved by them at once. Dramatists argue that entertainment is impossible without suspension of disbelief. Even this critic still catches himself being led off track by an engrossing story, a heartbreaking score, or a stunning performance by an actor from time to time. A simple solution to this problem would be to use the first viewing as an opportunity to watch the movie as a regular audience member. Then on subsequent viewings, the cerebral tools can be taken out of the shed, sharpened, and put to use.

This compromise works well for recreational movie fans, but it presents a problem for serious film scholars aspiring to work as film critics. Reason: lack of sufficient time. Pity the poor reviewer who has but one viewing to absorb every drop of a given movie's intellectual and emotional juice before the publishing deadline arrives. To this end, I've often wondered how Leonard Maltin and other critics who rank movies with stars can render such judgments so soon after seeing them. Movies need time to digest. That's why the dormancy period is important. We've all seen movies that tasted great going down, but left a nasty hangover the next morning. (viewer's remorse, if you will) I shudder to think how often reviewers shoot themselves in the foot by writing reviews when caught up in the emotional first impressions of a mediocre film. It goes without saying that periodic reassessment is an important part of criticism. Tastes change as time passes, as do the effects certain films have on audiences.

In cases when time is not of the essence, the film scholar has the DVD in his or her favor. The advent of home video arrived as a dream come true for film buffs. Thirty years ago, graduate film students had to wait weeks to catch redeye showings of Rouben Mamoulian's early works on late-night TV, and then scribble page after labored page of notes for a doctoral dissertation while watching. Today, the creation of a Netflix account eradicates this problem with the click of a mouse. In his article, Ebert speaks of his teaching experience as deeply rewarding. A scaled-down version of this classroom in the dark can be attained by inviting a few friends over to scrutinize The General (the 1927 version starring Buster Keaton, that is) and encouraging anyone in the room to call "stop" whenever a new discovery is made. The best work is done in teams, and sometimes all a great film needs is a fresh pair of eyes to find a hidden treasure. If an ad hoc study group cannot be assembled, Steven Spielberg has sage advice: watch movies with the sound turned all the way down.

Ebert makes insightful observations about camera movements. The only comments I have to add focus on temporal placement. In Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, for example, the camera moves to the left whenever Victor Sjöström's curmudgeonly professor returns to his past, and tracks to the right upon his return to the present.

Similarly, Ebert's thoughts on placing actors and other subjects in the frame are on target. To write an addendum, it bears mentioning that an unwritten rule applies to most two-shots featuring a man and a woman: the lady goes on the left. The age-old rule of ladies first applies to cinema just as much as it does to etiquette. This placement is used when the relationship between the couple is happy. Conversely, the lady almost always appears on the right whenever tension or trouble is at hand. One marked exception to this rule can be found in North by Northwest, where Cary Grant appears on the left side of the frame in the vast majority of the film. This places his face in the top-left -- or northwest -- corner of the shot. (As an aside, astute viewers will notice that characters with strong moral fiber symbolically occupy one side -- usually the right -- of the frame, as a hero adheres to his principles. An exception to this rule comes to us in the form of Toshiro Mifune's morally ambiguous rogue samurai in Yojimbo, who bounces all over the frame from one scene to the next as he plays both sides of a crime-ridden town against one another.)

Here, I resist the writerly temptation to go out on a zippy line. Instead, I invite you to contribute to this article with your own reactions. Which movies among your favorites continue to reveal previously hidden secrets? Do you follow any film study prescripts not covered by myself or Mr. Ebert? If so, please leave a comment below. I would love to read your thoughts.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

RIP, Bernie Mac


The Associated Press reports that famed actor and comedian Bernie Mac died of pneumonia at a Chicago hospital this morning. Mac had been hospitalized with the condition since last week. He was 50.

This sad news arrives on the heels of producer Bernie Brillstein's passing, and comes as a devastating loss to the world of entertainment.

Mac always struck me as a charismatic performer with incredible resilience. I caught my first glimpse of him in 1995, when he hosted a late-night variety show, Midnight Mac, on HBO. As I recall, the taping did not go well, but Mac rolled with the gaffes like a seasoned professional. What I didn't know at the time was that he was already 38, had been active in stand-up comedy for nearly 20 years, and didn't get his first taste of fame until he won the Miller Lite Comedy Search just six years earlier. A late bloomer in a traditionally young business, he didn't stop knocking at the door to success until it opened.

He soon began popping up in movies, beginning with his role as Pastor Clever in Friday. At his best when playing authority figures, Mac possessed an uncanny ability to be both commanding and funny, a combination rarely found in any actor. Watch the scene in Bad Santa where his no-nonsense mall security chief nabs a young shoplifter.

Then in 2001, the Fox network gave him his own vehicle, The Bernie Mac Show. The show was popular among television audiences, lasting five seasons and earning Mac nominations for the Emmy and Golden Globe Award. Perhaps his most poignant moment ever captured on screen was when he received news of his beloved uncle's death in the episode "Sweet Home Chicago". The sadness in his eyes was heartbreaking and his refraining from bursting into tears for fear of looking weak to his family was genuine.

George C. Scott once remarked that he looked for a "joy of performing" quality, among others, when judging actors. The test is fair, and Mac passed it with flying colors. Even if he had never gotten his big break, Mac would still be doing stand-up comedy in his hometown of Chicago today; not out of the blind hope that he might one day be discovered, but because of the joy it brought him.

Though his life was cruelly cut short by illness, Bernie Mac leaves a legacy that deserves respect and appreciation. We must give thanks that he avoided the destructive influence of drugs, projected a wholesome image, and worked tirelessly to uphold it. He was a man of many hats: actor, comedian, father, friend. To this fan, the sum total of his achievements fits one description: inspiration.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ebert Leaves Balcony, Launches Blog

As reported by MSN today, veteran film critic Roger Ebert has left his movie review TV show "At the Movies" and has just launched his own blog via the Chicago Sun-Times. Read his heartfelt posting on his departure here. When Ebert first left the show for health reasons, I suspected that he would not return. Sadly, my prediction has come true, but not for the reason I thought it would.

Ebert's transition from TV to the web marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. Many fans of the program, among whom I count myself, have expressed feelings similar to those experienced upon Johnny Carson's 1992 retirement from "The Tonight Show". The comparison is valid, as regular viewers invited Ebert into their living rooms for over 25 years and are sad to see him go. One of the cold, hard facts of the television industry is that, regardless of the subject or time slot, talk shows can only last so long before they need revitalization. In most cases, the passing of the torch to a younger host coincides with the retirement or firing of the current host. The new talent is then tasked with the Olympian responsibilities of maintaining the current viewership and wooing a new generation of fans. Regarding "At the Movies", the show will go on with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz taking over as hosts.

It is worth noting that, in spite of an extended cancer battle that has cruelly robbed him of his speech, Ebert's output of reviews has been largely undiminished. In fact, his writings have been so prolific in recent months as to put critics of younger age and better health to shame. His resilience in the face of an illness that has nearly claimed his life is nothing short of Spartan and serves as an inspiring example for the rest of us to follow. Judging from the man's work ethic, enthusiasm, and unwavering passion for the art he loves, Ebert's best work is ahead of him.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Film in Perfect Balance: 'Koyaanisqatsi' at 25

The annals of film-centered writing are littered with remembrance articles. Published a certain number of years after a given film's release (ten, 25, and 50 appear to be the usual suspects among such anniversaries), these obligatory bloviations offer fond reminiscences of life in a bygone era, the film's initial box office run, and vapid catch phrases from the film's screenplay that have since permeated our popular culture to become a part of our lexicon. Invariably, these disingenuous recollections are written to boost the sales of said films' special DVD box sets.

In the case of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, a welcome exception to this rule is at hand. Though the film does celebrate its 25th birthday this year, nowhere will a theatrical re-release or commemorative DVD be found. Leave it to the studios' anti-substance marketing machines to heap nostalgic recognition on undeserving films. If the spectrum of film criticism produces no other acknowledgment of Koyaanisqatsi this year, let this missive stand as a salute to one of the most powerful statements on humanity's relationship to planet Earth every captured on celluloid.

As a fair disclosure to my readers, it should here be noted that detailed descriptions of several scenes will follow. Though this disclaimer smacks of a spoiler warning, such words are not appropriate in this case. Koyaanisqatsi is a film of such depth and beauty that even if the most astute film scholar in the world were to intricately dissect its every frame and its every second of sound, the analysis would not come close to spoiling anyone's first viewing. Ten viewings will yield ten separate interpretations, and at least as many new discoveries. In the truest Confucian sense, this picture is worth ten thousand words.

The film opens with a series of nondescript shapes that gradually form the film's title (which roughly translates from Hopi to English as "life out of balance") in a vivid red font. This unveiling, which closely resembles a sunrise, is accompanied by the solemn score of Philip Glass. Soon the image changes to a zoom-out shot of an Indian pictograph depicting a group of dark figures (presumably humans) standing around a taller, lighter-colored figure wearing a crown. A lingering dissolve brings us to a slow-motion close-up of a spacecraft lifting off from its launching pad.

This stark contrast is but the first of many dualities that figure heavily throughout the film. Interior shots cut to exterior shots, the photography intercuts between dance-like slow-motion and frenetic time-lapse, day contrasts with night, and the music features melodies built on ascending and descending arpeggios that alternate between major and minor keys. In this universe, everything moves in cycles, but nothing is above decay.

It is at this moment that the film deviates from every other feature documentary made before it. Usually, the audience hears a familiar voice like Morgan Freeman's delivering the introductory narration after a few minutes. Koyaanisqatsi eschews narration completely, an audacious choice considering the film runs nearly 90 minutes. In fact, the film features no spoken dialogue whatsoever. In trusting the camera and Glass' music to narrate the action, Reggio skillfully weaves the channels of image and sound together to convey more than any spoken voice ever could.

In a sequence that puts any footage ever aired on The Discovery Channel to shame, the next several minutes treat us to a collage of breathtaking natural environments. Pristine canyon landscapes, crashing ocean waves, bubbling volcanos, and spectacular wind-blown clouds roll before us in a majestic presentation of the four elements that make our world as untouched by humans. Like Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony, the music assumes a quality so reverent, it practically jumps out of the soundtrack and proclaims, "Behold!"

Suddenly, the music changes to a dark, ominous tone. A monstrous mining truck slowly approaches the camera before pulling to a stop. Then, a construction worker (the first human seen in the film) enters the frame from the right and approaches the truck. Without warning, a thick cloud of black dust billows upward before engulfing the vehicle completely. Interpreted as a linear timeline, the simple scene portrays the destructive irony of man moving backward instead of forward when chasing technological advancements, only to be swallowed whole by the very machines designed to make life easier.

What follows is a mobile collage that places organisms and manmade structures in the frame simultaneously. Power lines divide a desert landscape in half. Beachgoers bask in the sun with a menacing power plant encroaching in the background. An atomic bomb's mushroom cloud dwarfs a cactus in the foreground. A low-angle shot of a skyscraper reflects passing clouds in its grid-like windows.

The next two-and-a-half minutes are responsible for one of the most stunning unedited shots ever captured in a feature-length film. On an airport runway, a commercial aircraft slowly taxis toward the camera. The heat rising from the asphalt makes the apparition seem otherworldly. Just when the plane comes clearly into view, it makes a sharp right turn out of the frame and is immediately replaced by a second aircraft advancing toward us. The front of the 747 resembles a blank face that stares at us dispassionately, a far cry from the warmth of the human face that Ingmar Bergman once called "the great gift of cinematography".

A cutaway brings our attention to an overhead shot of a busy freeway. For the first time in the film, the frame is completely occupied by manmade structures. The angle and position of the camera splits both directions of traffic evenly down the middle in a composition similar to that of the desert power lines seen earlier in the film. A helicopter shot provides a broader view, with the lanes resembling veins, cars resembling cells, and their drivers appearing similar to mitochondriae. Collectively, these images form a smoothly efficient network serving public functions like systems in a human body.

When rush hour gridlock brings traffic to a near standstill, the scene quickly match cuts to a helicopter shot of cars parked in perfect rows on a lot. The precision of their arrangement merits comparison to a military officer's ribbon racks. One wonders what image could possibly follow it. A junkyard? A demolition derby? The scene of a fatal collision, perhaps? No sooner do these questions cross the mind than does the shot cut to stock footage of Soviet tanks lined up in similar rows. The jarring effect of the edit strikes the viewer with the awe of a skyward-thrown bone changing to an orbiting space satellite. After an incredible shot of an in-flight B-1 Lancer aircraft taken with a cleverly mounted camera, the pace quickens with a montage of explosions that brings back memories of Dr. Strangelove's memorable finale.

When the last detonation occurs, the scene changes to a calm view of New York City at dawn. Shadows of clouds glide across the skyline as the music transitions to a lament played on a cello. Soon we see the dilapidated buildings of the failed Pruitt-Igoe federal housing project in St. Louis. Shattered windows, abandoned playgrounds, broken streetlights, torn curtains whipping in the wind like surrender flags, and unkempt ghetto residents weave an urban tapestry of despair. Several angles of the project's inevitable demolition reveal one of the most destructive cycles of modern life: build, destroy, repeat.

A time-lapse shot of clouds passing overhead transports us to another metropolis. At busy intersections, hordes of stressed pedestrians cross city streets surrounded by billboards advertising fast food, cigarettes, and liquor. How fitting it is to capture an exhausted populace rendered sluggish by the breakneck pace of life in slow-motion. Here we are treated to one of the film's most telling compositions in the form of a neon sign perched high above a city street bearing the words "Grand Illusion".

Day changes to night and the pace quickens. Freeway traffic rushes by at triple-quick speed. Commuters at Grand Central Station flock and scatter in structured chaos. City traffic darts between stoplights in short bursts that serve as an uncomfortably true metaphor for the lockstep daily routines into which we fall. The supersonic rhythm the film assumes during this sequence is enough to double the heart rate.

The alacritous procession continues with images of assembly line workers in factories. Processed foods, clothing, and automobiles race through various stages of production, sometimes with the camera keenly placed on the conveyor belt. Intercut with these preparations are snippets of supermarket shoppers in checkout lines and mall shoppers riding escalators. Some angles on the latter appear virtually identical to hot dogs emerging from production line machinery. This oscillation between the manufacturer and the consumer denotes their codependence, and underscores the ever-shortening replacement cycle by which our economy operates.

Advertising eventually finds (or, more appropriately, forces) its way into the bedlam. A close-up of a television set projects broadcasts that fly past us too quickly to be understood, but just slow enough to be perceived. An ad for Rolaids follows a young Lou Dobbs, Ted Koppel reporting live on ABC precedes a Tylenol commercial, and (in the most audacious pairing) a sermon delivered by Jerry Falwell airs just before the familiar logo for Ban roll-on deodorant graces the screen. It is an exposure of the manipulative nature of visual media that is as revealing as the writings of Vance Packard. The message is clear: don't think, just buy.

Even leisure time goes unspared from the rapid-fire onslaught. A cramped family eats dinner amid the rat race at a mall. A succession of children stand transfixed at video game cabinets, pushing buttons as feverishly as lab rats awaiting food pellets. Disco patrons maneuver uneasily on illuminated dance floors. A culture that promotes stress relief by way of additional stimulation can only end in ruin.

With a series of lingering dissolves between extreme close-ups of microchips, the film begins its gradual, haunting conclusion. The microscopic views of integrated circuits suggest the bird's eye view of city blocks. Not surprisingly, these shots are bookended with satellite views of the latter. As technology advances and hardware engineers devise ways to make large amounts of data travel faster by packing circuits closer together, the life of the machine shortens. Similarly, as the population grows and architects design buildings that hold more residents, property values and productivity may increase -- but then again, so does stress.

The long-term effects of these conditions are then laid bare in a series of slow-motion segments. The hand of an infirm woman reaches for the comforting grasp of a nurse. A homeless man wanders aimlessly among the aftermath of the New York City blackout. Burnt out pedestrians lumber down crowded streets practically unaware of one another. Finally, multiple overlays of the frenzied New York Stock Exchange meld in a disoriented blur. One wonders whether if it is methodical or accidental that a self-centered society like ours routinely produces people who lose their sense of identity.

The film ends with the spectacular liftoff of an unmanned Atlas rocket used in the Mercury space program. Though the sequence consists entirely of footage from NASA archives, the finished product shines with the polish of a big budget feature. Unlike the thrilling launch scenes in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, however, this ascent is accompanied by a gripping sense of doom. From the moment the spacecraft clears the tower, the audience is hit with the dreaded notion that the flight is going to end badly.

In an eerie foreshadowing of the Challenger disaster, the rocket suddenly explodes while still in the troposphere. After probing the ferocious blast, the camera locates a flaming piece of debris and follows it for the next two minutes. Caught in an irreversible downward spiral, the displaced jet fragment spins toward an inevitable crash as a single organ plays an elegiac melody. What began as a promising advent has ended in ruinous destruction. With each turn, the jet's flames wane. Like a dying animal, the fragment seems determined to prolong its life as much as possible. It is arguably the most shattering metaphor for the decline of the human species ever recorded on film.

Instead of showing the jet fragment landing on Earth's surface with a violent crash, Reggio cuts to a closer, slow-motion angle of the image while it is still in the air. The final shot of the film perfectly bookends the beginning with a view of an ancient pictograph. This rendering is starkly different than the depiction seen earlier as this expression features no humanlike figures. Without a single subtitle to translate its meaning, the drawing conveys the universality of art in that the viewer does not need to speak a certain language or belong to a given religion in order to understand its message or be moved by its power.

The relevance of Koyaanisqatsi in today's world speaks to the myriad struggles we face; some old, some new, some seemingly unfixable. While our standard of living has largely improved since the film was first released in 1983, our economy has slipped into disrepair with the food crisis, mortgage meltdown, and astronomical gas prices making headlines. In this and other regards, evidence of conditions improving and worsening can be found in equal proportions. Without question, however, the one discussion the film will raise more than any other at this point in our history is that relating to the environment. Outside of the Iraq War, global warming has been the most (pardon the pun) hotly debated issue in the current presidential election. A viewing of the film will trigger lively debates among voters of different minds on alternative energy.

The film's assets are multitudinous, especially with regard to technical excellence. For these efforts, kudos of the highest order must go to cinematographer and editor Ron Fricke. His balancing of stock footage with material he shot himself blends together with seamless perfection. Those unfamiliar with the film's background would think he filmed the whole project himself.

The other artisan responsible for giving the film its power is Philip Glass. Like the greatest film composers, Glass has the gift of molding music to fit the action on screen as a painter chooses colors and brushstrokes. His melodies awaken images that would appear frightfully dull without his contributions.

Interestingly enough, Reggio originally planned to structure the film around a sequence of images on which he had decided with Fricke. After hearing an early recording of the score, however, Reggio completely recut the movie to fit the rhythm of the music. Prior to that stage, Glass showed reluctance when first approached by Reggio to compose the score, remarking that he "didn't do movie music". After several meetings between the two, Glass finally gave in. Thank the forces of good that the director was so persistent.

The film's greatest strength lies in the approach taken by the director. Though the temptation to preach when directing a documentary can be irresistible, Reggio keeps the impulse in check. He caters to no agenda and he panders to no group. Instead, he simply presents the sounds and images as a philosopher presents an argument and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. Adhering to this work ethic, Godfrey Reggio has achieved the goal that most directors never come close to reaching: he has made a film that speaks to the whole world.

Shortly after he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, John Lennon likened his viewing to a religious experience, remarking that the film should be shown every day in a temple. Those seeking an audiovisual marvel unlike anything they have ever consumed before will feel precisely the same way. Koyaanisqatsi is a title that not only belongs in every household, but deserves inclusion as a bequest in every will. When the next generation inherits this cinematic marvel, its unfaltering resonance will affirm the film's reputation as a work that stands the test of time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Masterpiece Recovered

In what could very well be the film event of the century, a near-complete print of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis has been found in the Museo del Cine museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Read the full story from here.

Cinephiles will note that the original print of Metropolis was long thought lost. Now, the world can happily scratch this important title from that list. If we could recover the early works of Ford, Griffith, and Hitchcock, that would be a lucky pan for gold.

How fortunate we movie lovers are that Lang's classic was found in a museum, where help is close at hand. (I'm still trying to figure out how the original print of The Passion of Joan of Arc wound up in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital prior to its 1985 restoration.) Analogously speaking, one could liken this instance to a missing child being found alive in a hospital. According to reports, the film is badly scratched, but in the hands of well-trained preservationists (I sure hope Martin Scorsese lends his support to this cause), the film will get a gleaming makeover. It would be a bonus if Philip Glass or John Williams could adapt Gottfried Huppertz's original score and subsequently conduct the orchestra of their choice for its re-recording.

If I may sneak a final wish into this post, I hope Criterion buys the distribution rights for the hotly anticipated DVD release. Their dedicated staff of artisans have yet to mistreat a classic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Open Letter to Quentin Tarantino

Dear Mr. Tarantino,

I am writing you to raise a conscientious objection to statements you have recently made in public. The reason I am doing this is not simply for the sake of editorializing, but also for the purpose of refuting the poor advice reflected in your assertions. Be assured that this is not an ad hominem attack planned for the sake of maliciously discrediting you.

Let me begin by stating for the record that I am, for the most part, a great admirer of your work. As I have mentioned to several acquaintances, my virgin viewing of Pulp Fiction on the night of November 26th, 1994, will always be etched in my memory as a movie that ended too soon. How fortunate I felt -- and still feel -- that a young maverick's career was unfolding before my very eyes. Not since Martin Scorsese have I encountered an American film artist whose vision has almost single-handedly shaped an era of movies.

Now that I have said that, it's time to get down to business. According to a news story published by IMDB on May 23rd, you held a Cinema Master Class at the Cannes Film Festival during which you said, "Trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do."

There is plenty to tear apart in your statement, so I'll start with the obvious. Why would you encourage young film artists to avoid film school at all costs? You haven't spent one day on a film school campus, so what gives you the right to speak out against the idea? There are those who would argue that you didn't need film school to make you successful (and, by that rationale, neither did John Ford), but let's be honest: not everyone possesses your skills. Some people look forward to the rewarding experience of spending three or four years at a prestigious institution honing their craft while forming lifelong bonds with trusted mentors.

You shouldn't assume that anyone who follows your example will achieve your results. Why do I say that? For one simple reason: you got lucky. Extremely lucky. Consider this ratio: for every fortunate soul like yourself who writes, produces, directs, and acts their own movie with little or no money and subsequently hits the big time, there are literally thousands of others whose talents go cruelly unnoticed -- and that's assuming that their films make it to distribution. The directors, writers, producers, and cinematographers who made it to the top of the business by starting at film school far outstrip those who hacked it out on their own.

You could have very well suggested combining real world experience with film schools. What's wrong with shooting for the best of both worlds? Spike Lee financed his first feature on a credit card after completing his MFA at NYU. Of course, Kevin Smith simply took enough film school classes to learn the basics before dropping out and making Clerks on cash advances and a credit card. I could go on citing examples ad nauseam, but my point is that there is no absolutely right way to begin a career in directing films, but there certainly are a ton of wrong ways. I won't belabor the peaks and valleys of both approaches, which I'm sure you already know. Advising an audience of hungry young cineastes to forego film school altogether is dangerous. There are excellent undergraduate and graduate programs on the landscape; one just needs to know where they are and how to get accepted to them.

By now, you're probably wondering, "Why the hell should I listen to you? You've never worked in this business. You're just a critic." We critics aren't the only ones who take this position. Some of your fans with whom I've spoke happen to agree with me. You wouldn't want to alienate your fans, would you? Lest you wonder, I do have experience directing films. What's more, my studies of film history and criticism afford me a focused look at the big picture of cinema. Whatever your bearing of mind on the matter, please tell me you don't subscribe to the tiresome, ignorant old myth that those who can't do teach, and a critic is simply a film school reject who couldn't hack it in Hollywood.

Should you hold any master classes in the future, you may want to consider qualifying your anti-film school advice with the following words of wisdom. If you're not going to opt for film school for whatever reason (e.g., lack of sufficient funds, mistrust of academia, an eagerness to just get out there and start making movies), get experience wherever you can. Gravitate toward colleges large and small; schools with busy film and video production departments. Look up local production companies online. Robert Altman started out making industrial films for a Kansas City based company. If you can't find a company that will hire you, team up with a group of friends and create your own LLC. Without sounding pedantic, I'll close this subject by saying that whatever path you choose, you have to decide how many mistakes you want to make, and how quickly you're willing to learn from them.

At that Cannes master class, you went on to speak disdainfully of film composers. You were quoted as saying, "I just don't trust any composer to do it. The idea of paying a guy and showing him your movie at the end -- who the fuck is this guy coming in here and throwing his shit all over my movie. What if I don't like it? And the guy's already been paid!"

Am I to take it that you prefer to used licensed music in the public domain? Sometimes that approach works, but you can't fall back on Dean Martin and The Beach Boys to set the mood for every scene. A young director cannot afford to pay the licensing costs. There are web-based services out there who charge a per-drop fee for every piece of synthesized music they offer. The music is far from four-star quality, but it'll do in a pinch. Practically speaking, no hungry young director can afford to face the business end of a lawsuit in this litigious society. In that case, it is highly advisable for a director to hire a composer. Is it risky? Of course it is. But think of this? What part of creating art isn't? Every time a director hires someone, be it an actor, cinematographer, set designer, composer, or any other staff member, they are taking a great risk for entrusting creative license to said individual. By the way, your anti-composer statement didn't stop you from hiring The RZA to compose themes for both installments of Kill Bill, did it? According to the most current page for Inglorious Bastards on IMDB, you have yet to hire a composer for the film. Whether you hire one or not is your decision entirely, but if I were you, I would think seriously about employing the skills of a gifted musician. Dyed-in-the-wool film fanatics like myself are counting on artists like you to keep the medium of cinema fresh with new scores instead of the same recycled melodies. Think of all the leitmotifs lifted from every piece of classical music from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to The William Tell Overture in countless commercials, parodies, and movie trailers.

If you're going to choose a composer, hire wisely. John Huston once said, "Ninety percent of directing is done in the casting." That principle applies to every single person a director works with when given command of a movie. Any CEO out there will tell you that if you hire well, the vast majority of your problems will be solved before they occur in the first place. Never send an amateur to do a professional's job.

For those young directors who are trying to get their careers off to respectable starts, they would do well by seeking out a starving young composer attending NYU or Julliard on a scholarship. The world of academia is packed with talented Mancinis just waiting to be plucked from obscurity. Not only would said talent be eternally grateful for being discovered, but the world just may be introduced to a unique musical talent that would otherwise be ignored.

As for you, Mr. Tarantino, I suggest that you find a composer with whom you can form a career-long bond. Where would Steven Spielberg be without John Williams? Where would Fellini be without Nino Rota? Would Hitchcock's films have achieved their notoriety without the efforts of Bernard Herrmann? Each composer's rich, recognizable melodies complement the action on screen like a gourmet salad dressing.

If you're worried about your composer potentially misinterpreting your vision of the movie (the Venn diagrams don't always overlap perfectly, do they?), remember what Leonard Rosenman once told Stanley Kubrick while in preparation for Barry Lyndon: "Just describe the scene as you envision it. Then, I'll take what you said and translate it into music." What director wouldn't feel assured that their movie's music was in good hands after hearing a suggestion like that? Not surprisingly, the man who back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Original Song Score.

If only Frank Zappa were still alive. He'd feel your pain...and he'd make damn sure that your score wouldn't come out sounding like garbage. How about hiring Howard Shore to score your next film? Or better yet, pull Dominic Frontiere out of retirement. One listen to his catchy, vibrant score for The Stunt Man confirms his reputation as a songsmith. Then again, if you want to guarantee an Oscar nomination (if not win) for Best Original Score for Bastards, give Ennio Morricone a call. After all, he composed the themes to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns you love so much. Whatever happens, just don't do what William Friedkin did when he rejected Lalo Schifrin's score for The Exorcist. As I'm sure you recall from Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Friedkin hurled a reel-to-reel tape recorder through a window at the recording studio before screaming at Schifrin in a drunken rage, "Cut that fuckin' mariachi music outta my movie!" Schifrin was later replaced by Jack Nietzsche. All kidding aside, don't you want to see at least one of your films included on an AFI reel of clips selected for a live performance honoring film scores down the road?

If hiring a composer is something you are still unwilling to do, just pull a Clint Eastwood or a Charlie Chaplin and score the picture yourself. In fact, you even mentioned that yourself during your class. If the thought of composing a film scores on your own seems daunting, relax. You live in the twenty-first century. My advice is to use Reason, a software program that affords the end user a capability equivalent to operating five Synclaviers at once. It takes a little time to get the hang of it, but it certainly beats drawing sticks and dots on sheet music paper for hours on end.

[As an aside to my readers, it might be of interest to you that the author of this letter once considered a career in music composition, but gave the venture second thoughts upon learning the fact that it usually takes an average of 16 hours to compose a single page of sheet music for an entire orchestra.]

I know you are a busy man, and will not take it personally if you refrain from responding. However, should you find the time to reply, simply leave a comment where prompted to do so. And whatever you do, make sure your message is easier to read than Death Proof was to watch.



Monday, June 30, 2008

In Memory of a Legend


The evening of Thursday, June 7th, 1990 will always have a happy place in my memory. Our house was abuzz with the usual excitement that accompanied an upcoming weekend and end of the school year, but that night in particular was a treat because it was the first time I ever saw George Carlin perform a stand-up comedy special on HBO. What I did not realize was that not only was in for a night full of uproarious laughter, but I was also about to have a new window to the world opened before my eyes. From his opening disclaimer, he made me laugh and he made me think, often simultaneously:

"This is some of the language you will not be hearing tonight. You will not hear me say bottom line, game plan, role model, scenario, or hopefully. I will not relate to you and you will not identify with me. There will be no hands-on, state-of-the-art networking. There will be no support group jargon from the human potential movement. For instance, I will not...SHARE anything with you. And if you're one of these people who needs a little space, please. GO THE FUCK OUTSIDE!"

The mischievous pleasure I derived from hearing him use four-letter words the way he did gave me the kind of thrill a high school kid derives from successfully entering a comedy club with a fake ID. My poor parents cringed at first, but they soon found themselves captivated by comic genius that could tickle the toughest funny bone. Nothing I had seen or heard before Doin' It Again had exposed me to the beauty of language, the amusing absurdity of everyday life, or the hypocrisies of our times so entertainingly. Many would color me superficial for finding inspiration in the low art of comedy, and I could care less. The insight Carlin articulated through his comedy was unparalleled, and my first exposure to it was nothing short of a life-changing moment.

Why publish a post about a comedian on a blog about movies? Before Carlin succumbed to heart failure at the age of 71 on June 22nd, he amassed a respectable filmography to his credit. While I have yet to see his performance as an aging tracker in the 1995 made-for-TV movie The Streets of Laredo (his best acting work, according to a timeline entry on his official web site), my favorite role of his was Eddie Detreville, the loveable gay neighbor in The Prince of Tides. His time on screen was brief, but he made enough of an impression to convince you that he wasn't just another comedian who could ham his way through a caricature in a movie. George took every role as seriously as his most experienced co-stars and he committed himself to continual improvement.

Then there is his impressive canon of stand-up work. From 1977 to 2008, George wrote, produced, and appeared in 14 comedy specials for HBO, an effort yet to be equalled by any other comedian. Some people don't even appear in that many films. This is, by my own admission, an apples to oranges comparison, but in terms of output alone, that's John Belushi's career times two and James Dean's career times five.

Every time he performed, Carlin displayed an arsenal of skills he refined to the point of mastery: exaggerated facial expressions, pitch-perfect accents and dialects, split-second timing, and a photographic memory. I had the privilege of seeing him perform live four times, and his flawless renderings of I'm a Modern Man, his plan for balancing the budget by turning four of our United States into prison farms, his elaborate complaints about soccer moms, bad drivers, and guys named Todd, and his vision of the apocalypse ending with everyone's Uncle Dave returning to Earth from the dead were demonstrations of theatrical talent. A professional actor could very well condense any of his spoken word pieces and use them as audition monologues.

If there is a single word to describe Carlin's life and legacy, it would be "unique". He was a brilliant satirist, a gifted wordsmith, and above all, a free thinker. True to his own rebel nature, he remarked time and again how much he detested groups but cherished individuals. The best people in the world, he once claimed in an interview with Jon Stewart, are the ones with the universe in their eyes. Though I never got the chance to meet him, if I had, I would have told him the words I have on my mind tonight: thank you for treating us to the universe that is your talent.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Shyamalan's Folly

"I forgot where I am," mutters a confused woman seated on a bench in Central Park. After pausing a moment to stare blankly into space, she pulls a hair stick from her neatly styled coiffure and plunges it into her neck. So begins The Happening, the latest offering from M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us such nail-biting shockers as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. The remainder of the film not only induces the viewer to forget where they are, but also gives us plenty of reasons to follow said lady's example.

The story follows Elliott Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a Philadelphia high school science teacher who evacuates the city after learning about a wave of mass suicides sweeps through the Northeast. The cause is at first thought to be a terrorist attack, but this suspicion is soon debunked when no evidence of such can be uncovered. Joining Elliott by train are his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend and colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Soon their train grinds to a halt, leaving the four of them to press on by car. After Julian separates from the group to find his wife, the rest wind up on foot. As each subsequent means of transportation becomes slower (much like the pace) and more primitive than the last, doom draws nearer. Shyamalan had to have patted himself on the back for coming up with that stroke of plotting.

Now comes the all-important question: to spoil or not to spoil? In the interest of civilized conduct, I'll refrain from revealing the not so jaw-dropping twist at the end. I will say, however, that the method by which the threat is alleviated hardly amounts to an exciting conclusion. Instead we get buildup, boredom, more buildup...and no payoff. At least in Signs, a far superior film, the bad guys assumed physical, tangible forms. This motivated the good guys to discover an effective means of defeating the bad guys once and for all. Here, the good guys (and gals) don't win. They just walk away unscathed.

There are films in the suspense category that feature no final battle (much less victory) between good and evil, that still reward the audience nonetheless. Even the elite among film aficionados would be remiss to call The Birds a misfire. While not a perfect film, it has to its advantage the ability to sustain our emotional investment in the characters -- and with it our attention. What's missing in The Happening is good, old suspense. The key to striking terror in the heart of the audience, Hitchcock said, is to portray the ordinary as frightening. A single viewing of the shower scene from Psycho confirms that the Master of Suspense practiced what he preached. Shyamalan's folly lies not in making the ordinary seem frightening, but in the making the ordinary seem...well...ordinary. Any film that purports to be even somewhat scary must instill the fear that danger can strike the characters at any given moment, and without warning. The Happening fails to convey that sense.

Regarding the performances, allow me to paraphrase the closing credits of Frankenstein. If a good cast is worth repeating and a bad cast is worth forgetting, then a good cast in bad roles deserves some credit. John Leguizamo's talents are wasted on a frenetic, one-level character with a pittance of screen time. In spite of his best efforts to find variations, his work comes off as your basic frazzled performance. In the role of Alma, Zooey Deschanel mugs her way through the movie with a facial expression that oscillates in resemblance between a constipated frog and a spoiled brat seconds from crying. Like Leguizamo, she outdoes her best to find a musical range beyond do-re-mi, but to no avail. Perhaps her best takes were left on the cutting room floor in a spiteful act of sabotage. Contrarily, old pro Betty Buckley shines in a brief, creepy role as a mysterious woman who offers food and shelter to the fleeing group.

In the roles of the children, Ashlyn Sanchez, Spencer Breslin, and Robert Bailey, Jr. supply the film with some of its more honest moments. By virtue of the fact that younger performers have less experience to draw from than their adult counterparts, gifted child actors never fail to astonish. Eliciting golden moments from children is arguably Shyamalan's strongest suit. When the kids are more resilient than the adult characters, however, something is dreadfully wrong with the story. It should here be noted that Shyamalan commits the unforgivable sin of subjecting not one, but two children to a needless act of violence.

Ever since his impressive turn in Boogie Nights eleven years ago, Mr. Wahlberg has proven himself a capable leading man on more than one occasion. Like Will Smith and Frank Sinatra, he has made a seamless transition to movies from a career in music. If he plays his cards right, there just might be an Oscar in his future. Having said that, his performance in The Happening is not among his finest. The problem here lies in his inability to play intelligence. He doesn't have that worldly, well-read look about him, like Tom Hanks, Gregory Peck, or Sidney Poitier. Wahlberg is at his best when playing men of action who aren't afraid to meet a challenge -- but not before making a few well-timed wisecracks. Sgt. Dignam may not have been a Rhodes scholar, but at least he was prepared to accomplish his mission in The Departed. Obviously, Shyamalan has failed to realize that casting an actor like Mark Wahlberg as a wimpy science teacher can be just as fatal as casting Clifton Webb as Stanley Kowalski.

What is one to make of M. Night Shyamalan's career at this point? Several critics, among whom I count myself, have voiced the opinion that The Happening represents the continuation of his downward spiral. As I recently wrote in a letter to a friend, I'm not quite ready to dismiss him as a one-trick pony. What Night needs is a hit movie to break him out of his slump and get him back into his creative hot zone.

Here are a few suggestions he can take to improve his movies: 1) He needs to broaden his exposure. If Shyamalan expects to grow as an artist, he must break out of his supernatural comfort zone. While it is admirable that he writes and directs all of his movies as a true auteur would, the man is no Ingmar Bergman. Sometimes an artist needs to paint out of canvas to create his best work. Why couldn't he surprise us with a western? Or a romantic drama? Or a sprawling historical epic? That would be a welcome change of pace. When he ventures into unknown territory, he may very well tap gifts he never knew he had. Case in point: before The Bridges of Madison County was adapted for the screen, no one could have guessed that the star of Dirty Harry would lovingly realize Robert James Waller's novel. 2) Perhaps it's time for Shyamalan to hire a screenwriter. The delegation of this duty will no doubt free him up to focus on character development, visual style, and action sequences. Besides, his ear for good dialogue is getting rusty. 3) If Mr. Shyamalan insists on retaining screenwriting credit, he should seriously consider selling the Philadelphia estate where he writes his scripts. The best writers can testify that right working environment can make all the difference in the world. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of his best novels at his beach house in Acapulco. Eugene O'Neill wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning plays at his stately mansions in California, Connecticut, and Georgia. J.K. Rowling birthed most of the Harry Potter books while riding on a train. Given the right guidance, Night will find the right property where inspiration can strike him.

The Happening takes the unconventional approach for a scary movie, and fails for that very reason. Without seeming formulaic, sometimes movies turn out best when they stick to what works. In omitting suspense, the one ingredient necessary for films of this genre to succeed, M. Night Shyamalan has left us with a dish blander than pancakes without maple syrup. For viewers expecting a traditional, reliable suspense film that pulls you to the edge of your seat, The Happening will bitterly disappoint.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

R.I.P., Sydney Pollack


After logging out of my e-mail account the week before last, my browser redirected to the news headline "Director Sydney Pollack Dead at 73". At once shocked and saddened, my eyes flared wide as I said "no" aloud. The story revealed that he had been fighting cancer for months, a battle of which I was completely unaware. Read Ty Burr's excellent tribute to the man here.

Pollack's work first entered my consciousness when I was five. It was then that his comic gem Tootsie first appeared on our living room television set and became an instant family favorite. Not being in a position to understand or appreciate the subtlety, nuances, and adult themes of the story, I was thoroughly entertained by this winning slice of inspiration all the same.

There is no easy way to summate Sydney Pollack's career as a director. Fans never associated his name with any one category of movies, as Woo is known for action, Ford for westerns, and Hitchcock for suspense. In his 1994 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, he was asked by James Lipton to pinpoint a common thread in his work. He paused a moment before replying, "Everything I've ever directed has been a love story at its core." The rule doesn't apply to every film he directed, but it demonstrates how much ground he could cover with a simple theme. He used the love story nucleus to great effect in the taut political thriller Three Days of the Condor, the downbeat but powerful Depression drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and the sweeping epic Out of Africa, for which he won the Best Director Oscar.

He began his career as an actor after studying under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York from 1952 to 1954. Pollack soon decided that he lacked the looks to be a successful actor and, after receiving encouragement from his friend Burt Lancaster, transitioned to directing in the early 60s. His acting background proved useful in his approach, as he consistently elicited first-rate performances from his actors, 12 of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances under his direction, and two of them (Gig Young and Jessica Lange) won Oscars.

Despite turning his back on acting in his mid-twenties, Sydney never walked away from the craft altogether. As he proved on many occasions, he was a fine actor in his own right. Whenever he acted in his own films, as he did in The Interpreter, Random Hearts, and Tootsie, he played his roles as if he were cast in another director's film. Anyone who has ever directed a movie (or even a stage play) can tell you, that is a task that is not easily accomplished. Too often, when directors tackle vanity projects that place them on both sides of the camera, they shift the focus toward their own presence and away from the theme of the story, and lack the presence of mind to objectively direct their own performances. The Postman stands out in my mind as the most egregious example of this mistake, as Kevin Costner let his ego run wild in cooking up a turkey so abysmal, it nearly ruined his career. The Man Without a Face also suffers from this drawback, but not as badly. Robert De Niro struck the perfect balance with A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd, but I digress. Pollack never lost his place in the pecking order, and that evident self-awareness always came through in his work.

Even when he acted in films directed by others, he kept his ego in check and restricted his creative bailiwick to the role. I've often wondered how difficult it must be for actors turned directors to take a role under someone else's direction. It's a commitment that requires a fair amount of self-restraint, especially when said actor doubts the director's judgment. (Observe: "Now, why the hell did he the put camera over there? That's a lousy angle. What was he thinking when he cast this bozo? He couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag. Good God, this is a long take. Say 'cut' already, you idiot!") Warren Beatty crafted a fine collaboration with Barry Levinson on Bugsy, Sir Richard Attenborough followed suit with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, and Mel Gibson worked well with M. Night Shyamalan on Signs. All three men won Oscars for directing prior to taking on those roles, and yet you never get the sense that any of them interfered with their directors. (I dare not mention how Kevin Costner grossly overstepped his bounds while in production on Rumor Has It...) Pollack deserves to be included in this group, as his performances were always fine-tuned and from the heart. Whether playing an amiable friend or an amoral sleazebag, Sydney never conveyed a single moment that wasn't honest. He was at his best in roles that called for him to be funny, manipulative, and quietly commanding. Watch the subdued, effective scene in Changing Lanes when he advises Ben Affleck's young Turk attorney to spend a year defending a man's life in Texas. The gravity he conveys in that brief, memorable exchange is nothing short of magnetic.

The way he ran a production sets a gold standard for all other directors to follow. Once, while attending a family backyard barbecue, I met a man who had worked as a key grip. When I asked him who his favorite director to work with was, he mentioned Pollack's name without a second's hesitation. After complimenting him on his warm personality and angelic patience, the man recalled how much he admired the no-shouting policy Pollack enforced on set. Making a movie is stressful enough as it is with deadlines that need to be met and divine inspiration that must be tapped on a moment's notice. Any fool who runs around shouting for whatever reason, he believed, only adds confusion to what should be a positive working environment and he was absolutely right. Not surprisingly, he cultivated a reputation as a man with whom everyone wanted to work. No one he directed or acted alongside, from Sidney Poitier to Sean Penn, had anything but praise for him.

It bears mentioning that he got more out of Robert Redford than anyone else who has ever directed him. Both men made their screen acting debuts in 1962's War Hunt, and struck up an instant friendship. The bond lasted longer than two decades, and resulted in a total of seven teamings, just one film short of the De Niro-Scorsese collaboration. Though Redford's acting range is, as David Thomson succinctly stated in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, paper-thin, Pollack cast him in such a diversity of roles that, in retrospect, made him appear versatile. Unlike the De Niro-Scorsese dynamic, Pollack and Redford had a more casual work ethic. They never phoned in their efforts, but they didn't wear one another out, either. As well, most of the movies they made are not classics and they were never meant to be regarded as such; just unpretentious entertainment with a heart and a brain.

In an industry where directors are recognized as auteurs based on their distinctive styles, Sydney Pollack's body of work stands out among thousands because it doesn't. He never concerned himself with flashy camera movements, million-dollar special effects, or groundbreaking digital sound. He didn't care about being deemed the master of the erotic thriller, a visual tone poet, or the king of comedy. If any single label could be applied to his work, only one would fit: genuine. What mattered most with Sydney was the story, and it showed in everything he touched. With more than 40 pictures to his credit, the man has made his mark.

In closing, I leave you with one of the best showcases of Sydney Pollack's talents as an actor and director. Here is one of the funniest scenes from Tootsie.