Mar 31, 2012
Once Upon a Time in America
Mar 25, 2012
On my iPod: March 24th 2012
Rizzle Kicks - When I Was A Youngster from TobyLoc on Vimeo.
1. Some Nights — Fun.A quarter of the way through 2012 and my favorite albums are, thus far: Fun's Some Nights, The Shin's Port of Morrow, and Kathleen Edwards' Voyageur. Best film: The Grey. Best novel: Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain. If only all criticism were this brief. Leavis was a windbag.
2. Pull of the Eye — Donkeyboy
3. Holland — Cold Specks
4. When I Was A Youngster — Rizzle Kicks
5. No Way Down — the Shins
6. Garden — Miike Snow
7. Silent Song — Daniel Rossen
8. Out Of The Game — Rufus Wainwright
9. Myth — Beach House
10. Into Giants — Patrick Wilson
Mar 24, 2012
They're going to put me in the movies
'In 1968, while meditating with the Maharishi in India, John Lennon was seized by a great idea. The Beatles had been looking for a third film with which to follow up the success of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. How about an adaptation of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? McCartney could play the hero Frodo, Ringo his devoted sidekick Sam, George Harrison would make a great Gandalf and who else for the grasping Gollum but Lennon himself? Hadn’t he already warned against the siren pull of all-powerful rings (“I'll buy you a diamond ring my friend / If it makes you feel all right”) in Can’t Buy Me Love? Accounts differ as to what happened to the project. According to director Peter Jackson, who brought his own version of The Lord of the Rings to the screen in 2001, it was J R R Tolkien who nixed the idea. According to Apple film chief Dennis O’Dell, McCartney and Lennon approached Stanley Kubrick to direct the film, having lunch with the director at EMI studios, where he told them the book was “unfilmable”. The Beatles turned instead to making Magical Mystery Tour, pilfering some left-over cloud footage from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove for a sequence depicting an acid trip.
It’s hard to imagine Buddy Holly or Elvis taking a meeting with Stanley Kubrick to discuss film projects. Pop acts had broken into the movies before, but The Beatles were the first to establish the idea of a multi-platform ‘brand’ which is still the Holy Grail of today’s entertainment industry. The Beatles were good at the movies for the same reason they were good at being Beatles: they were each gifted collaborators, their four-way synergy an echo of the rough, collaborative magic that powers the film business. If anyone was going to get the movies it was going to be the band with two lead singers, three song-writers and a drummer who was also a star.
Of the five films the band made together, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is definitely the jewel in the crown — “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies” in the words of critic Andrew Sarris, and certainly the only rock musical with an Oscar-nominated script. Writer Alun Owen spent a day with the Beatles in Dublin in 1963, when their touring schedule was at its most chaotic, catching perfectly the mix of sarcasm, wordplay and absurdism with which the Beatles twitted their fame: “How did you find America?” “Just turn left at Greenland.” The band would experiment with surrealism throughout their film career, from the Dadaist cut-up of Magical Mystery Tour to the child-like vers libre of Yellow Submarine, but arguably their instincts for the absurd were at their sharpest when recording the day-to-day existence of being a Beatle, Dick Lester’s scuffed black-and-white photography capturing a Beatles-eye view of Beatlesmania which threw the conventions of the rock musical up in the air and made a dash for it — into the future, to MTV, and the faux-documentary aesthetic of reality TV.
Help! (1965) cost twice as much — “like ordering up your holidays” said McCartney of the Bond-like fly-past of exotic locations — but felt out-of kilter with the band’s mood, the title track a howl of anguish from an increasingly out-of-it Lennon: “I was fat and depressed and crying out for help.” Magical Mystery Tour (1967) remains “the only film to have been written, financed, produced and directed by a pop group,” writes Bob Neaverson in The Beatles Movies, and that dearth of collaborators — and, as it turned out, appreciative audiences — tells you all you need to know about the film, a slipshod psychedelic collage which seemed intent on effecting a divorce between the Beatles and their public. Interestingly, it was Yellow Submarine (1968), a project which the group shunned initially as a cash-in for kids, that retapped the Beatles unique blend of innocence and subversion — which restored their ‘brand’. Even though the band were dubbed by actors, the film’s mash-up of Op Art exuberance and fond Edwardiana made the strongest case yet for the Beatles being the missing link in English comedy between The Goons and The Pythons.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus began broadcasting just as the Beatles broke up. Ringo made a brief cameo in a 1972 edition of the show, which Paul McCartney used to stop recording sessions to watch; and it was ex-Python Eric Idle with whom George Harrison teamed to produce Time Bandits, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, the two men’s fond, sparky collaboration captured in the recent Martin Scorsese documentary about Harrison, Living in the Material World.
Not all post-Beatles collaborations were so blessed. Dogs still bark at Ringo Starr’s appearance alongside Harry Nilsson in the 1974 horror spoof Son of Dracula, and they curl up whimpering in the corner when shown VHS copies of 1984’s Give My Regards to Broad Street Paul McCartney’s portrait of the artist as groovy billionaire. The Beatles seem to have been unusually dependent on finding collaborators — Eric Idle, Dick Lester — who reignited something of the old four-way electricity they enjoyed together. There is no sweeter moment in the Beatles oeuvre than the scene in A Hard Day’s Night where the band enjoy a quiet game of Euchre in the baggage car while singing ‘I Should Have Known Better.’ They don’t break into song, in the usual, slightly awkward Let’s-put-the-show-on-here segues of jukebox movies. They just play cards, not even bothering to lip-sync, as if the song were just a daydream. And then, after a few bars, they gently slip into it, the way you slip into a pair of old slippers, or conversation with a friend.'
— my piece about The Beatles on film for Newsweek
Mar 16, 2012
SPRING 2012 SCREENGRAB: Actresses
Mar 15, 2012
The Science of Celebrity Break-ups
"The equation’s variables included the relative fame of the husband and wife, their ages, the length of their courtship, their marital history, and the sex-symbol factor (determined by looking at the woman’s first five Google hits and counting how many show her in skimpy attire, or no attire)... The 2006 equation correctly predicted doom for Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher; Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock; and Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. It also forecast that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett would probably not make it to their 15th anniversary, in December 2012; so far, they’re still married, but gossip columns are rife with reports of a pending split... It turns out that overall fame doesn’t matter as much as the flavor of the fame. It’s tabloid fame that dooms you. Sure, Katie Holmes had about 160 Enquirer hits, but she had more than twice as many NYT hits. A high NYT/ENQ ratio also explains why Chelsea Clinton and Kate Middleton have better chances than the Kardashian sisters... Besides the wife’s tabloid fame, the crucial ones are the spouses’ combined age (younger couples divorce sooner), the length of the courtship (quicker to wed, quicker to split), and the sex-symbol factor (defined formally as the number of Google hits showing the wife “in clothing designed to elicit libidinous intent”).” — New York Times
Mar 13, 2012
INTERVIEW: Werner Herzog
“Do not got too far,” says Werner Herzog on the phone when I ask for directions to his house. “If you end up in Coldwater Canyon you will have gone too far.”
“I have a GPS”
“The GPS will not help you.”
Trust Werner Herzog to make a visit to his home sound as fraught with peril as a Werner Herzog film. The first surprise is that he even has a home. Asked to nominate a point on the map most likely to contain the itinerant German filmmaker, most fans of his films might say something like “halfway up the Amazon, dodging spears.” Or “an Igloo.” In fact, his house is located on a small, steep, winding road off Laurel Canyon, in the wildest and most jungle-like part of the Hollywood Hills, wreathed in foliage, fragrant with honeysuckle, home only to the most reclusive species of rock-star and raccoon. “That figures,” says a friend familiar with his work when I tell them where I am going.
Herzog is often to be found trekking in the trails off Mulholland Drive, where crystal clear creeks snake through the undergrowth, unseen from the road, although his taste for walking everywhere on foot raises eyebrows in downtown Beverley Hills or Bel Air, where you don’t go to the grocery store unless borne aloft by a Humvee. “I have been asked by police. ‘What are you doing?’” he says. “’Just walking.’ They will ask a few questions then drive ahead of me just a few hundred yards I had to pass hem, just to let me know they are watching me.”
He seems to relish the vague air of dispreputability this lends him. The only auteur of world cinema who might conceivably be picked up for vagrancy, he spends little time at home. “I am always somewhere else,” he explains. “I live on the sets of my films.” Indeed, his living room looks more like the living room of an explorer than a film director, filled with artefacts and archeological curios from his shoots. Propped up against the mantlepiece are a set of spears from the long-lost Amondauas tribe of Brazil, documented in his short film, Ten Thousand Years Older. On the coffee table, a book about Ancient Greek hieroglyphs for a lecture he is giving at the New York Public library. Curled up in front of the bookshelves is a long-haired and contented-looking black-and-white cat.
“I never really planned to have a cat but my wife rescued that one from a coyote,” says Herzog casually while fixing me a cup of coffee in the kitchen. “The coyote almost ate him.”
It is traditional among Herzog’s interviewers to note the disconnect between the man and the filmmaking legend — you come expecting cinema’s answer to the wild man of Borneo, who threatened to have actor Klaus Kinski shot and who once hypnotized his entire cast to shoot a movie — and you get a tall, gentle presence, now 69, with soft, pillowy bags beneath eyes which nevertheless retain a kindly sparkle. He one of those soft German accents you might expect to hear on a Viennese psychiatrist. After the Paris premiere of Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey Boy, in which Herzog played a tyrannical, abusive father, his third wife Lena got frantic calls from a Parisien friend of hers, asking “‘is this man really your husband? We are only one flight away, we can give you shelter.’” Herzog, chortles with laughter at the memory. “Which means I was convincing. My wife firmly believes that I am a fluffy husband.”
‘Fluffy’ might be pushing it. Beneath the soothing bedside manner lurks mordancy, and both cloak an unusual bluntness, which he used to great effect while interviewing prisoners on Death Row for his new documentary Into The Abyss. It is no coincidence that he took up smoking again while editing the film which he calls “the most intense of all my films so far.” Meeting with one prisoner, Michael Kelly, a buck-toothed 29-year-old eight days away from being executed for a triple homicide, Herzog wore a suit to the interview, “out of respect” but told him, “It does not necessarily mean that I have to like you.” For a few seconds, Kelly was too stunned to respond.
“I knew the film might be over after 120 seconds,” recalls Herzog, “You have to take that risk. But he really liked it and it turned towards me because he saw I was a straight shooter. Everyone is phony on Death Row — the attorneys, the family, they are always phony — and they see from miles away if someone is talking straight to them.” More than just an indictment of capital punishment, Into the Abyss explores a despoiled Texan landscape of trailer parks, guns and bar-room sociopathy, the interviews warmed by small, unexpected inlets of sympathy from Herzog, and buoyed by his gift for oddball questions. Very few interviewers, it’s safe to say, would think to interrupt a Disneyesque tribute to God’s Creation from a prison chaplain with the question, “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” Still less, move the man to tears.
“I knew I had to break him open,” explains Herzog. “And it does. You see a journalist wouldn’t have that in his or her arsenal. You have to know the heart of men. More than anything I’m trying to look very deep into our human condition, into the deep recesses of our soul. I’m curious about us, about myself, on the other side of this bulletproof glass. This is why quite often I would ask them: how would you conduct your life if you could step back to 1969 or 1977 when your crime spree started, and it’s very fascinating: in all cases its no family values, how they raise their children.”
As the old Nietzsche maxim has it: stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back into you. Into the Abyss could easily be title of any of Herzog’s films, with their air of cracked prophecy and moonstruck divination, their penchant for probing inaccessible landscapes and equally inaccessible souls. Herzog himself is largely absent the urge to examine the pathologies that tug him halfway across the globe. “I don’t really question myself about how or when or why,” he says of his films. “I don’t want to look at myself with too much intensity. There’s no such thing as career planning. It just comes at me. There is noise in the kitchen in the middle of the night, something is stirring and I surprise five burglars and I have to deal with them. Uninvited guests. These are the subjects of my movies, and they are coming at me swinging.”
Nonetheless, it is hard to resist the temptation to trace his comfort levels around levels of danger that would fry the nerves of the average person, back to Herzog’s experience growing up amid the rubble of post-war Germany. The day after Herzog was born in Munich in 1942, an allied bomb destroyed the house next door to the family home; they fled to a remote mountain village in Bavaria, where the young Herzog never saw any films, television, or telephones; to this day, he refuses to carry a cell phone. “We were only forced to be self-reliant very quickly,” he says. “We were forced to invent our own toys and our own games. We had to invent. And of course I was not completely settled in this village in the mountains because my family — my mother and my brother — were refugees. We were in a way outsiders.”
“My earliest memories as a child is my mother wakes me my older brother abruptly and carries us up the slope behind the house and says ‘boys, you have to see this because the city of Rosenheim is burning and Rosenheim is 35 km away but the entire horizon out there was yellow and orange and pulsing. And we knew the world out there was burning. The cities were burning. So growing up you know there was something out there. The biggest of all questions which is still haunting me is this: how is it possible that such a civilized nation as Germany with such great poetry and composers and philosopher and writers and painters, within a very few years turns into sheer barbarism. How is it possible? I still do not have a real answer. I only know the alarm signs out there. It can happen easily and it may happen to others, maybe not as radically as it happened to Germany but my sensory organs are very, very alert.”
Certainly that flight — from ruined city to arborial idyll — prefigures the journey of many of his films, all of them fraught with the suspicion that civilization is a thin mask, easily cracked to reveal the snarl of savagery beneath. They also harbor an unfakeable horse-whisperer sympathy for the marginalized, dispossessed and spiritually orphaned, from young Kaspar Hauser, released into the community after the forced isolation of his childhood in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, to Timothy Treadwell the crackpot environmentalist seeking communion with bears in Grizzly Man, to Dieter Dengler, the German pilot whose remarkable survival story in Vietnam Herzog traces back to his experience growing up as a child in bombed-out Berlin in first Little Dieter Needs to Fly and then again Rescue Dawn. Clearly the story means something to him: he shot it twice. How much Dengler’s story was smuggled autobiography?
“Only partially,” he answers. “We were both very hungry as children and we both grew up fatherless. In his case his father perished in Stalingrad. My father simply did not return from the war, until finally [my parents] divorced. So there was no father around.” Herzog’s abandonment by his father, who left the family when he was still a young child, is by far the most striking trauma of his childhood, although he doesn’t see it that way. “It was anarchy in the best sense of the word,” he wrote in Herzog in Herzog. “There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch.”
Herzog’s Oedipal wound matched Germany’s own. To watch the five films Herzog made with Klaus Kinski — Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972), Woyzeck (1978), Nozferatu The Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Cobra Verde (1987) — is to be driven to the inescapable conclusion, reached by so many Germans of that generation, that the man in charge is out to lunch. His films occupy a fatherless universe of fervid spoliation and energetic chaos, populated by petty tyrants and false prophets, and plagued with the lingering suspicion that not only have the lunatics taken over the asylum, but the even more radical suggestion that we might all be better off that way.
“I qualify as a survivor,” says Herzog of his collaboration with Kinski, caught in all his full-throttle dementia in the 1999 documentary, My Best Fiend. “Neither was he mad or am I mad. I am clinically sane, although sometimes people who were with us believed that I was the dangerous one and he was just the barking dog. Because I was so quiet. That happened on Fitzcarraldo, when Kinski would throw his tantrums, all the native Indians, the warriors hunters — they proposed to kill him and I mean seriously. It isn’t a joke. In their culture, it is all very softly spoken never a loud word, they touch your hand very, very softly they would only whisper, they would huddle and whisper and then fall silent. One of the chiefs said to me, ‘they are not frightened of the madman who was yelling.’ They were frightened of me because I was so silent.”
Post-Kinski, Herzog’s films give the impression of an imagination in recovery, getting its puff back. He shot several operas, but didn’t direct a feature film for a decade, and while he has since returned to the fray — most recently a feverish remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant starring Nicolas Cage — it is with his documentaries, most notably 2005’s Grizzly Man, that he has scored his greatest successes. Herzog’s reputation as the patron saint of the dispossessed has, meanwhile, made him a hero to a younger generation of filmmakers, who sign up for tuition at his Rogue Film School, which shuns the impartation of technical prowess for ephiphanal truths (“Follow your vision. Form secretive Rogue Cells everywhere. At the same time, be not afraid of solitude.) Occasionally, he even gets a call from Hollywood.
“I don’t participate in red carpet events, parties and such, but I somehow have a very pleasant relationship with the industry. They do not need me and I do not need them either, so that makes a very good platform of contact,” says Herzog, clad in a fleece from his recent role in the forthcoming thriller One Shot. Someone despicable? “Of course. That’s what I’m good at. Apparently the production company, and the director Chris McQuarrie and the actor…. what’s his name….. the leading man who did Mission Impossible…. Tom Cruise! Yes Tom Cruise believes I am a very dangerous man.”
“I read it all the time — that I am some sort of maverick filmmaker. No. I am not a maverick. All the rest of Hollywood or the film industry worldwide — these are the mavericks. I am dead centre. Everyone else is eccentric. I occupy the centre, the centre of our time, the centre of our cultural climate, the centre of vision, the centre of storytelling in every single aspect, I know I am dead centre. When you look at the academy awards last night you know that this is rather eccentric. And then you look at me.”
"You may have a point,” I say, not sure whether the gleam of megalomania in what Herzog has just said is genuine, exaggerated for camp effect, or simply the honest truth of the way he sees it.
“Not 'may'. Do Have,” he insists. “ In capital letters. I DO HAVE a point.”
— my interview with Werner Herzog for The Daily Telegraph. Since we're on the topic, my top ten Herzog films are as follows:—
1. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
2. In The Land Of Silence and Darkness
3. Aguirre The Wrath Of God
4. Grizzly Man
7. Little Dieter Needs To Fly
8. My Best Fiend
9. Nosferatu The Vampyre
10. Encounters at the End of the World
Mar 10, 2012
REVIEW: John Carter (dir. Stanton)
"Hollywood is in a tizzy over the early tracking which just came online this morning for Walt Disney Studios‘ John Carter opening March 9th. “Not good. 2 unaided, 53 aware, 27 definitely interested, 3 first choice,” a senior exec at a rival studio emails me. Another writes me, ”It just came out. Women of all ages have flat out rejected the film. The tracking for John Carter is shocking for a film that cost over $250 million. This could be the biggest writeoff of all time.” — Deadline Hollywood
Mar 9, 2012
Close Encounters of the Auteurist Kind
"What’s fascinating about Spielberg’s early shorts (judging both from descriptions of them and from clips that have been posted, appropriately, on YouTube) is that they are utterly derivative of the pop culture that he had been consuming. They’re amazingly precocious genre films, made by someone who, though still a minor, could have walked onto the set of a TV series and done, at least for some shots, a creditable and even an impressive job of duplicating the old hands’ results. He wasn’t spoofing or subverting genre filmmaking; he was expressing the id-free side of what was on his mind: the movies he loved and the kinds of emotions he got from them. It’s the most impersonal sort of personal filmmaking. He was, in effect, America’s oldest young filmmaker." — Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Back in the saddle again: Intelligent Life's new film critic
Mar 8, 2012
The first great pop song of spring
My favorite Norwegian pop group, Donkeyboy, have a new album — Silver Moon — out in a couple of weeks. There will be those who think this sort of thing close to genius and those who those who think it's like chewing someone else's bubblegum. I think it's genius — effervescent and bold and perfectly produced — these guys know pop songs from the inside out. The lyrics are the usual Euro gobbledygook about sideways glances, catching fire, feeling good and being someone, but somehow it's touchingly reminiscent of that time in your early teens when catching someone's eye at the school disco felt as fraught with significance, emotional freight and epiphanal splendor as actual sex. Or as close to sex as you imagined sex to feel like, not knowing for sure since you hadn't actually done it yet. Which is quite a burden of expectation to place on catching someone's eye at the school disco — presumably why being a teenager was so exhausting. But not this song. It's a honey.