Aug 31, 2012
Paul Newman at the Venice Film Festival in 1963, age 38, to promote Hud. Remembers actress Barbara Steele, who'd just appeared in Federico Fellini's 8 ½, "I don't know how, but I ended up hanging out with Paul Newman, who was at the peak of his beauty. He was a Greek god, absolutely stunning. He was every Italian's dream of classical beauty."
Aug 27, 2012
Aug 26, 2012
"The idea of a Tony Scott movie, in fact, was always far preferable to actually watching a Tony Scott movie, an experience roughly comparable to that of having your eyeballs and eardrums mistaken for a percussion set by a passing Mariachi band. Any highlight reel would have to include Scott’s two brushes with Quentin Tarantino, True Romance and Crimson Tide (Tarantino scripted the first and polished the second) and of course Top Gun, Scott’s Wordsworthian Ode to mankind’s eternal need for speed, the joys of being top dog, and the sight of jet-engine tailfins shimmering in the haze of magic hour. “You're a great flier. You fly cowboy style. Reckless, wild, out of formation half the time,” Tom Skerritt informs Tom Cruise’s Maverick. “You buck the system and do everything the hard way.” Many heroes in the Bruckheimer/Simpson mould would like to think of themselves as mavericks, or would be rumored to be mavericks, but Maverick is the only one to come out with it and actually be called Maverick. That was the essence of ‘High Concept’, a fancy name for any idea pithy and punchy enough to survive the “aggressive advocacy and yelling system” that had sprung up at Paramount at the beginning of the 80s — an idea in shoulder pads. It produced movies shorn of needless peripherals, strip-mined for their pockets of triumph, and strung out along a beading of radio-ready pop songs: movies that looked, sounded and played like movie pitches. Top Gun begins in triumph, pauses for a victory lap, racks up a celebration or two, then after a perfunctory set-back, proceeds to full on ego massage and reputation floss. “You're here ‘cause you're the top one per cent,” Skerritt tells Cruise. “You're the elite, the best of the best. We're gonna make you better, because your job is damned important.” Applications for the Navy shot up — although God knows what they told the poor schnooks who turned up looking for Kelly McGillis with their Kenny Loggins records tucked under their arm. Scott’s great subject — and it was a great shame he never saw this — was Hollywood. His style may have been defiantly impersonal, but few bodies of work better speak to the muscular status battles and territorial snit-fits — the bluff, boast and braggadocio that rule Hollywood — than Scott’s. Beverley Hills Cop II may have been a bad movie about a cop, but it was a good movie about bluffing your way into the palm-shaded sanctuaries of West Hollywood. Top Gun may be a bad movie about Navy pilots, but it is a very good movie about the feeling of exultation that floods your system when your move about the navy pilots becomes the number one movie in America." — from my column for The Guardian
Aug 25, 2012
These are my two Oscar favorites for best film, with Pi just edging it. I also fancy Lee for Best director. Best Actor will, I think, be between John Hawkes, Denzel Washington and Daniel-Day Lewis. Best Supporting actor will probably be Leonardo diCaprio. Best supporting actress is Anne Hathaway's. Best Adapted screenplay: Lincoln or Pi. Best original screenplay could be a surprise win for Wes Anderson. Best actress is a puzzle. Quvenzhane Wallis?
Aug 20, 2012
"Another of Anderson’s bad karma masterworks, The Master is a symphony of raw nerves, its crisp 70mm compositions punctuated by bursts of psychic feedback, freak-out, and other assorted Andersonian voodoo. He uses his actors the way Jimi Hendrix used to use his guitar strings. Like his 2007 Oscar-winner, There Will Be Blood, the film is essentially a battle of wills between two men, a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls under the spell of self-proclaimed “scientist and connoisseur” Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a religious cult flourishing in the shadow of the second world war. Adams plays his devoted wife, a Lady Macbeth like amenuensis who’s blue eyes boil with fury at unbelievers. “I do not want to run into her in a dark alleyway,” says Adams. “Give me Charlene from The Fighter any day, we can have a beer, talk about it, we’ll have fun. This woman scares the shit out of me. Excuse my language.” Even for scenes in which Adams was not scheduled to appear, she was instructed to show up, just to make her presence felt. “It was exhaustting,” she says, “But I love the effect, I’m almost blurry.” There’s a lot of the true believer to Adams, with her big, blue eyes, and bushy-tailed manner. That she was once a greeter at The Gap makes perfect sense. Her best performances — the motor-mouthed Ashley in Junebug (2005), the princess in Enchanted (2007) — have mined the comedy and pathos of the pathologically optimistic: sweet Pollyanas hoisting their beliefs aloft a rising tide of reality. If her early work came lit up with the infectious inner glow of the one-time believer, her more recent roles — in Doubt and The Master — have flipped that faith on its back like a beetle." — from my interview with Amy Adams in New York magazine
Aug 18, 2012
Aug 11, 2012
1. Persona2. Blow Up3. Au Hazard Balthazar4. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?5. Masculin, feminin
Things we liked about The Bourne Legacy:—
1. The first hour, but in particular the temporal overlap with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. A wonderful idea, as nifty in its way as the return to the events of Back to the Future in BTTFII.
2. Renner. I've had my doubts about his transition to franchise hero — his quiddity is curiously hard to bottle — but this came closest to keeping his unpredictable pugnacity intact.
3. Weisz in horn-rims — accent good, mannerisms a little British in places, but by far her best outing in an action pic. More beautiful now she's older.
4. The pleasant, and unfamiliar, smartness of Gilroy's script: Aaron Cross felt two moves ahead of those trying to track him, so all the "who could be doing this?" lines really found their target.
5. The (relatively) non-shaky camerawork — still pretty jazzed, but almost classical by comparison with Greengrass.
6. The casting in the mid-ranks: a lot of great faces, unusual accents. Gilroy knows how to fill out the mid-rankers in corporations / bureaucracies.
7. The spree shooter. A horrifying surprise.Things we didn't like so much:—
1. Ed Norton, still too preppy to play a bad guy, even more so with that transfixingly awful haircut-and-highlights. What's the matter with using David Strathairn?
2. The bad guy at the end, looking suspiciously like less like a sleeper agent and more like Our Model in Bangkok. All that build-up and he can't even catch up and lay one fist on Renner. Plus he chooses a car to chase a bike.
3. The shaky-cam chase. Almost home and dry and then a relapse.
4. Renner babbling about getting his fix the moment he has saved Weisz. A jolt of unexpected selfishness for her and the audience.B
Aug 6, 2012
I-am-not-worthy ighbrow-by-numbers circa 1970: The Seventh Seal, Bicycle Thieves, Amarcord. Like James Wolcott, I was pleased with Tarantino's list, in particular His Girl Friday, Jaws, and Dazed & Confused — a wonderful meeting of equals. But Mann really excelled himself with this mixture of technological mould-breakers, old and new:—
"Apocalypse Now" (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)"Battleship Potemkin" (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein)"Citizen Kane" (1941, dir. Orson Welles)"Avatar" (2009, dir. James Cameron)"Dr. Strangelove" (1964, dir. Stanley Kubrick)"Biutiful" (2010, dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)"My Darling Clementine" (1946, dir. John Ford)"The Passion Of Joan Of Arc" (1928, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)"Raging Bull" (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)"The Wild Bunch" (1969, dir. Sam Peckinpah)On there, only Biutiful baffles, but I am impressed by his choice of My Darling Clementine, The Wild Bunch and Avatar. The best thing about his list is that all of the films on it seem engaged in a conversation with Mann's own work. His hero worship is clean, not self-nullifying. Allen crushes mopily on Bergman and his work is much the worse for it. Likewise, Powell and Visconti have been deleterious influences on Scorsese's own career. But Mann's choices leave his own films looking and feeling great. Thief gets a soul-to-soul transplant from The Passion of Joan of Arc. Heat's set pieces have Potemkin's dazzle. Maybe it's because of all of them — Allen, Coppola, Scorsese — Mann is the closest to his filmmaking prime: he's still in the market for genuine inspiration.
Aug 4, 2012
My piece for Slate:—
So Spiderman is a Brit and Batman is Welsh. Woody Allen sends postcards home from Paris, Madrid, London. After collecting hosannahs on the international festival circuit, Wes Anderson recently made his first film set on American soil in ten years; next he shoots a “Euro movie” inspired by his love of Europe; for his last movie, even Scorsese came over all Parisien. James Cameron is looking to shoot Avatars 2 and 3 with Chinese money. Oh the French cleaned up at the Oscars last year.
America is having a moment at the movies — an absent moment, a Scarlet Pimpernel moment, a rain check. It used to be one of the great advantages of being filmmaker working in North America: North America. As a setting and a subject, a material source and myth bank, America was in a class of her own. John Ford made 7 films in Monument Valley over 25 years, so much that the 30,000-acre stretch of the Utah-Arizona border became known as John Ford Country. Hitchcock used to bill studios for his vacations, so certain was he of turning up new locations and first thought of dangling a man from Lincoln’s nose on vacation in 1951, almost a decade before he finally came up with the plot of North By Northwest.
By that time the Western had picked up a nasty cough, and we had all moved to the suburbs to sink in front of our TV sets. The filmmakers staked out claims in the big cities like prospectors in the Calfornian panhandle: Kazan’s waterfront, Scorsese’s Little Italy, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, Michael Mann’s downtown Los Angeles, mapped out as mythically in Heat and Collateral as Ford’s wild country. Who can match that level of imbededness today? Nobody talks of David Fincher’s Colorado, or Spike Jonze’s Maryland. Quentin Tarantino made three movies set in L.A. —his three best, as it happens: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown — then jetted off into the movie-verse to make Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds. Today’s hip young auteurs are not neighbourhood boys. Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman take pot shots at flyover country from the ironist’s Mile High Club. Darren Aronofsky couldn’t wait to get out of Brighton Beach, after his portrayal of the place as the seventh circle of hell in Requiem for a Dream. In truth, he and Fincher still feel holed up in their bedrooms, downloading hardcore, or staring into the abyss like Christopher Walken in Annie Hall: venture up there alone and there is a high chance they will be there a week from now, a polite smile on your face as they show you their dictionary of flesh wounds.
Amongst their generation, maybe only the Coens are out there taking soil samples, dirtying their mud-flaps with Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?), Arkansas in the 1880s (True Grit), Los Angeles in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man),Texas in the 1980s (Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men), and — in their latest — the Greenwich village folk scene of the 1960s (Inside Lewellyn Davis). It’s quite a patchwork quilt they’ve stitched together, reliant for its charm on the brothers’ unique ear for vernacular, their eye for local exotica, and their staunch refusal to feel anywhere at home. They are strangers in a strange land, viewing their homeland through the alienated squint of the outsider — one reason why their work is such a hit overseas.
But the backyard movie — the one made in a filmmaker’s backyard, using every last crumb of personal autobiography, every last neighbourhood character and piece of local apocrypha, the film which says: here I am, this is where I come from, look — that is a dying breed. Lena Dunham made Tiny Furniture and was immediately snapped by HBO, which has largely stepped into the breach. TV is our national chronicler now. Americans used to go to movie theatres to see themselves on screen — in national epics like Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather, Do The Right Thing, even Forrest Gump, Lord help us — but these days, anyone hungry for any view of New York that doesn’t consist of seeing it smashed to smithereens by superheroes, must watch Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire. Nobody’s complaining exactly, but amongst today’s filmmakers, maybe only James Gray has shown any interest in drawing strength from his roots, drawing up loamy goodness from the pebbly subsoil of Brighton Beach in Little Odessa, Two Lovers and We Own The Night. It may even be the reason he is not better known. The Russian immigrant guy? Films with Joaquin Phoenix all the time? Oh that guy.
In France, of course, he is lionized. Gray is currently at work editing his first period melodrama, set in the vaudeville of 1920s New York and starring Marion Cotillard, Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. “The disconnectedness that you’re talking about, part of it is on purpose because the studios want to appeal to a global audience,” he told me when I caught up with him recently. “The foreign box office is more important now. The studios have been purchased by much larger multi nationals, who demand a movie makes a billion dollars. When you make a franchise, when you have to make a four quadrant movie, that appeals to everyone its very difficult to be specific in terms of your setting. The more generic the better for box office. It cuts to the heart of what ails movies.”
We’ve heard this story before, in books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls: how the summer blockbuster de-cored the American film industry like an apple, with the executives spitting out auteurs like pips. In Biskind’s book, the conflict was inter-generational, a tale of Two Americas: straights versus the squares, auteurs versus the suits. But for most of the eighties and nineties, Hollywood still bore a passing resemblance to the industry that had made Stagecoach, Casablanca and The Godfather: an film industry indigenous to North American, making American films for American audiences. That all changed with Jurassic Park in 1993, the first year in which Hollywood’s foreign earnings out-paced it’s domestic ones — a historic tip of the see-saw. Executives’ ears pricked up: the new wild west was overseas. Since then, it’s been a story of rapid, exponential growth: foreign revenues counted for 64% percent of the total in 2009, 66% in 2010, 69% in 2011 — pushed up there by Avatar, tellingly a remake of Dances with Wolves, in space — and now rests at a staggering 70%, an industry-reconfiguring statistic. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Michael Cieply observed:— “Last year Hollywood’s top 20 domestic box office performers included just two movies — “The Help” and “Bridesmaids” — with realistic stories about American life, contemporary or otherwise, according to boxofficemojo.com. The rest took place in a fantasy world, like “Thor,” or abroad, like “The Hangover Part II” and “Fast Five.” In 1992, by contrast, 15 of the 20 best-selling American films were rooted in realistic, if sometimes twisted, American experiences. Those included “Sister Act,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “A League of Their Own,” “Unforgiven” and “Boomerang,” all of which were released from May to August of that year.” In other words: Forget Stage Coach. It’s when Sister Act disappears that we need to be worried.
The ironies here are legion. There were the French in 1993, up in arms about Jurassic Park, with Gerard Depardieu claiming “the movie industry in the United States is like a war machine”, casting Spielberg’s film as a Trojan Horse filled with Hollywood infantrymen, all bearing check books and smiles, eager to infiltrate heads of the little lycée children. Well, it was a Trojan horse, but it wasn’t bearing down on Paris, but Los Angeles. The film industry under threat was not France’s but America’s. Instead of French waving baguettes at Jurassic Park, Americans should this year be protesting foreign audiences for turning BattleShip into a hit. The film was a bomb at the North American box office when it was released earlier this year —a "two-hour infomercial that should do wonders for naval recruiting if not civilian entertainment” said Kenneth Turan of the LA Times — but not overseas it wasn’t, raking in $236 million, which meant Hasbro got stung, but not nearly as much as it needed to get stung in to stop more Battleships coming down the pike. The only ones interested in seeing Americans play the role of jingoistic, militaristic roid-heads, it seems, are non-Americans. The right-wingers turned out to be right, after a fashion: no longer the indigenous film industry of North America, Hollywood is now the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized entertainement.” It’s one reason Oscars have turned into such a mad scramble of late, even fishing overseas for quality crowd-pleasers — The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire — while reserving a spot on the nominations for something flinty and home-spun from the indie-world: two year’s ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks.
This year it is most likely to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes us deep into the swamplands of Lousiana. Together they almost amount to a new genre: the American Exotic, mixing myth and magic realism to trawl the furthermost reaches of the American disaster-zone for wide-eyed urban audiences, the same way they used to trawl the Third World. Even the genre is telling: magic realism used to be the genre of South America, not the North, the way storytellers make sense of the everyday absurdities and violent disparities of the developing world. That the genre has found any purchase on the Northern American continent is a subtle but damning indictment, both of how broken-down America has gotten around its edges, but also of his just how foreign the country now seems, even to Americans. It’s a whole other world out there. Somebody really out to make a movie about it.
My column for The Guardian:—
Everyone’s a critic, as the say — except when national tragedy hits a movie theatre, and they all become Sociology Professors. The recent shooting in Aurora has loosed a spreading oil-slick of opinion as to its causes and conditions. Some want an end to midnight screenings. Others want costumes banned in theatres. Opponents of movie violence have, meanwhile, piled onto the scrum. “The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it's not so terrible,” director Peter Bogdonavich told The Hollywood Reporter. “Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It's almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. It's all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.”
That’s how it always goes with arguments about movie violence. It’s always someone else being desensitized — it’s always “them,” those “others”, or “us” — never the person who wants it toned down. It’s never “me.” I’ve been desensitized. I’ve been numbed. “A million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies,” argued Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, nevertheless failing to find herself, or her readers, among the impressionable. “You can go to a horror movie and be entertained or amused,” she argued. “But there are unstable people among us, and they are less defended against dark cultural messages.”
There are actually three arguments here, posing as one. The first is that movies have gotten more violent; and the more violent they’ve gotten, the more desensitized we’ve grown; thus necessitating more violent violence. This is unarguable. The climax of Bonnie and Clyde, which so riled everyone in 1968, looks kind of tame today, with lots of rolling and writhing of the kind parodied by Jean Luc Godard in Bande à part. Violence is like inflation, or the news, or fish. It doesn’t keep. In ten years time that is exactly how the latest Tarantino will look: yesterday’s violence, yesterday’s news.
The second argument, running alongside the first and occasionally called on to fill in the gaps, is that movie violence desensitizes us to the real thing: all those gunshots onscreen make us less likely to appreciate the gravity of actual bullets. “A hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, particularly children,” pointed out Carl Cannon at RealClearPolitics.
This, too, is unarguable: exposure to violent films leads, in the short term, to more aggressive behavior. In one test, a group of subjects"received either an insulting or neutral evaluation of themselves from their supposed partner and then watched either a prize fight or an exciting but nonaggressive scene. After this, they either had an opportunity to evaluate their partner right away or they had to wait an hour before evaluating him. On scoring the subjects' written statements about the partner it was found that (1) for those given the immediate opportunity to be aggressive, the violent movie increased the strength of the angered subjects' initial attack on their partner over that displayed by the similarly insulted men shown the nonaggressive film; (2) if the angry subjects had to wait an hour before evaluating their partner, there was no difference between the aggressive and nonaggressive movie groups". In other words: after watching a boxing match you are more likely to get you into an argument with your partner, not less.
All that is common sense. You probably already knew as much. There is an intergalactic space-field of difference, however, between “arguing with your partner” and “pointing a a semi-automatic assault rifle at a six-year-old and squeezing the trigger” as Holmes did. The very thought is revolting to most people, so counter to our hard-wiring does it run, so much so that even reading that last sentence probably lit up your amygdala — the part of the brain that deals with emotional response: empathy, remorse, guilt and the like. It’s also the part of the brain that is largely dormant in psychopaths like Columbine shooter Eric Harris. “His brain was never scanned, but it probably would have shown activity unrecognizable as human to most neurologists,” writes Dave Cullen in his remarkable book, Columbine. Nobody yet knows quite what Holmes is — he could turn out to be schizophrenic — but the highest likelihood is that he is same genetic misfire as Harris, a psychopath, identifiable by two major distinguishing characteristics. “The first is a ruthless disregard for others; they will defraud, maim, or kill for the most trivial personal gain. The second is an astonishing gift for disguising the first.”
Their whole personality is a lie, undetectable often to the parents who raised them. “A correlation exists between psychopaths and unstable homes — and violence upbringings seem to turn fledgling psychopaths more vicious. But current data suggests those conditions do not cause the psychopathy; they only make a bad situation worse… Symptoms appear so early, and so often in stable homes with normal siblings, that the condition seems to be inborn.”
To conflate the inhuman lack of affect which afflicts psychopath short-term desensitization felt by a normal person watching violent movies is a mistake: psychopaths cannot be desensitized. There's nothing to desensitize. As Martin Amis observed in the New Yorker in 1994, movies are “unlikely to affect anything but the style” of their atrocities. Harris and Klebold may have geeked out over their “really cool” double-barreled shotguns because it reminded them of the Tarantino-produced Desperado, but in many ways their movie-fandom was one the more normal thing about them — spookily normal, in the same way that their pause for soda in the cafeteria was — but normal nonetheless.
What was abnormal about them is a very hard thing to understand, in part because the condition shreds all human understanding: it’s like trying to empathize with a black hole. At the same time, national tragedies demand answers, so people turn to things they can understand. They blame violent movies, or videogames, or midnight screenings, or lax gun laws, or bullies, or Satan, although only one of those things measured up in the mind of Eric Harris as an antagonist worthy of his time and attention. “Fuck you Brady” he wrote in his journal of the Brady Bill, which put in place a series of background check for anyone purchasing firearms, “thanks to your fucking bill I will probably not get any!” He didn’t want to draw undue attention to himself before he pulled the trigger, although he did write a school paper in which he probed the Brady Bill for loopholes, and found them: it only applied to licensed dealers, he found, not private dealers or gun shows. “The FBI have just shot themselves in the foot,” he concluded.
The bulk of the arsenal they used would end up being purchased at Tanner Gun show. “We… have…. GUNS!” he wrote in his journal. “We fuckin’ got ‘em you sons of bitches!” The only thing illegal about them was their barrel length.
1. Chimes at Midnight2. Repulsion3. Pierrot le fou4. The Battle of Algiers5. Darling6. The Hill7. Doctor Zhivago8. The Ipcress File9. The Cincinnati Kid10. What's New, Pussycat?
Aug 3, 2012
I have been dragging my feet about commenting on the new Sight and Sound poll but here it is, unignorable.
2. “Citizen Kane”
3. “Tokyo Story”
4. “La Regle du jeu”
5. “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”
6. “2001: A Space Odyssey”
7. “The Searchers”
8. “Man with a Movie Camera”
9. “The Passion of Joan of Arc”
10. “8 1/2″Obviously I'm pleased that Hitchcock has supplanted Welles's cold marvel, although there at least three Hitchcock films I would rather they had chosen (Notorious, Rear Window, North by Northwest). Vertigo has always struck me as the Hitchcock film for those who don't really like Hitchcock all that much (it's long, hasn't got much in the way of jokes and the plot doesn't work, when he is known for his economy, wit and storytelling), or at the least wish very much that he had been French. I'm a little bit pleased to see The Godfather knocked out, finding that film's all conquering supremacy — over Chinatown? Badlands? — undeserved. I'm surprised to see Sunrise still holding strong and appalled to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick's worst film, anywhere near the top ten. But then the whole thing strikes me as a list coming from an airless parallel universe populated only by critics (Man With the Movie Camera?) but bearing zero resemblance to the fond, messy space with badly-put-up bookshelves, To Do Lists and ironing occupied by everyone else. No musicals, no comedies, no Chaplin, no Wilder, no Truffaut, no Lynch, no Spielberg, no Malick, nothing besides crummy Kubrick from the last half century of film, for crying out loud.... doh! I can't believe I did this. I engaged. When silent scorn was almost mine.
... as of Labor Day, I will be teaching a recitation class on the Language of Film as part of the Cinema Studies department at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Friends attempting to disguise themselves as students with Nicolas Cage quiffs in order to hear my fresh-minted oratory will be kept after class and made to watch Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev repeatedly. Wives expecting to gain a B.A. in Cinema Studies on the basis that they "get to hear this shit at home" will be awarded a hand-crafted certificate of merit.