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.