Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Avatardation of Hollywood

First, the good news.

A thousand hours ago, before Avatar won its Golden Globes, when the picture was only a hit-to-be, people had already begun to speak in wild, sweeping terms about the revolutionary effect it was destined to have on the future of Hollywood film making. In those early weeks, we all reveled in the thrilling swell of communal enthusiasm that seemed to come from everywhere. Avatar was necessary viewing.

At first, I was one of the heretics. I didn’t want to see what looked like an action adventure starring the Las Vegas contingent of Blue Man Group. But that was then.

I see now that Avatar represents the next step in a tradition of immersion cinema that began all the way back in 1903, with Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery. It’s a famous story: some who saw the movie when it first screened in cramped Nickelodeons, were so overcome by the now-famous shot of the outlaw pointing his gun directly into the camera, that they ran screaming from the theater. Despite their rationality, they believed. They were there.

Now a similar phenomenon is in effect. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, Avatar is the closest we have ever come to leaving the planet. Pandora’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear to explain to us the blooming patterns of this flora or that fauna.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Here comes the “However.”

However magnificent, however deserving of all the accolades that have come (and will continue to come) its way, I can’t help but see the ascension of Avatar as a poignant reminder of how far populist American film has drifted from our reality. As children of the modern age, we know there are all kinds of reality, but the one I’m talking about is the kitchen sink reality, the quotidian reality.

You woke up this morning. You made coffee. You showered. You worried about your job, and about the events of last night. Did you offend him? Did you not reach for the check fast enough? You wonder about the events up ahead. Do I really want to see her tonight? Or would I enjoy a burger on my own? This is your life. It may be dull, but when it’s turned into great cinema, it can be revelatory; Avatar, regardless of its merits, will never be. There is no CGI equivalent for gravitas.

To be fair, there is room enough for both escapist and naturalist cinemas to coexist. But I fear they won’t. With Avatar‘s Golden Globe and likely Oscar wins, whatever shred of verisimilitude was left in mainstream American movies will likely be lost.

I don’t mean to suggest there was ever a time when the Hollywood machine produced a great realism in the manner of the post-war Italians. In fact, far from it: if there is anything about Hollywood that we have loved, perhaps above all else, in the hundred years since its inception, it’s the air of fantasy that has alighted upon its greatest pictures and people. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood are in their own way Avatars — projections, that is, of our ideal selves — but as human Avatars, they addressed our human reality in direct, not allegorical terms. With an eye on style and a hand on behavior, they told the story of our lives and dreams, addressing how we live or want to live with keen analytical and behavioral insight. These actors, their directors, and the writers who gave them their material, used the world to show the world.

These Golden Globes have proven that the Na’vi and the Meryls can coexist peacefully in Hollywood, just as The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did in 1939, seventy years ago. But now that Cameron has come and changed everything, I’ve begun to worry less about the extinction of the Na’vi and more about the extinction of us.

Dear Whit

Dear Whit,

You made three movies, beginning with Metropolitan, twenty years ago. Then you made Barcelona, which was about as good a follow up as we could have asked for. Then you made The Last Days of Disco, which wasn’t. But we didn’t care.

In those days, before Wes Anderson, we, the young and smart and frisky, thought you were going to take us out of the hands of Woody Allen and into the next phase of urban-literate moviegoing. We counted on you.

Now you’ve disappeared. You’ve gone Salinger. You wrote a novel, you escaped to France. You’ve directed commercials, written screenplays (one about a war in China, right?). But why? What happened to movies?

Was it the bad reviews? If so, don’t worry about that; it happens to everyone. Was it the times? Did you feel, as we made our way into the 2000s, that your brand of nostalgia was getting stale? Well, if that was the case, let me assure you, with the current eighties revival, you’d be more prescient than ever. Or did you just get tired of movies? I can understand that. It’s a tough road, I know. Maybe the hardest. But if you need a guy to hold the boom, call me. I’m here.

We’re all here.

Come back, Whit. You can do it. Just pick up a camera (it needn’t be film), find a few tipsy party girls, and throw Chris Eigeman at them. Don’t even worry about the East Side Apartment. I know people. I’ll make the calls. All you have to do is show up.

Love,

Sam

P.S. Hurry. The Avatars are gaining.

Shelley

As a kid, going to the movies with some highly versed, critically attuned picture people, I noticed there was one revered acting word that kept cropping up, one that they would inevitably link to work they admired. The word was “courageous.” The best performances, they said, were turned out by “courageous actors.”

At first, I didn’t get it. For years, really, I struggled to understand what could make an actor “courageous.” Outside of putting him or her self in a place of physical danger, when applied to a performer, the term didn’t make sense to me. Was it a figure of speech? A short cut or piece of inside lingo?

And then finally I felt it. I can’t remember if it was Lolita or Next Stop, Greenwich Village or Blume in Love or A Place in the Sun or A Patch of Blue, but watching Shelley Winters – who I always admired but never quite knew why – I suddenly understood. Not intellectually, but on the gut level. What I saw was an actress throwing herself body and soul into emotional largesse, unafraid to play at a level of intense vulnerability.

Sometimes Shelley was so despairing that it scared me. And I don’t mean to say that her characters simply suffered – any good actor could simply suffer – Shelley managed to add to that suffering hidden, often contradictory aspects of her characters’ personalities. But while another less gifted actor might let all the colors muddy the palette, Shelley wrangled her conflicting streams of passion like a conductor leading a hundred-piece orchestra. The feelings she evinced were not the safe, well-trod emotions that words could put fences around. Rather, they always seemed fresh and specific and utterly independent of timeworn acting clichés. Upon closer inspection, I began to understand further, intellectually this time. Shelley was scouting new ground. Sometimes it didn’t work, but she always took the risk. She took the risk because she was brave. She was a courageous actress.

But she wasn’t operatic. Her largesse wasn’t about size; it was about reality. Because of Shelley’s conflicting streams, she could create characters that looked so ridiculous, and at the same time, so credible. Despite their theatricality, they’re never broad. Her Charlotte Haze in Lolita is a perfect example. In the clip I’ve chosen (which doesn’t really get going until four minutes in), notice how Shelley plays it just a little too big, like a whining young girl, and then, surprisingly, instantly interrupts our feeling of incredulity with an expression of yearning, or humanizing gesture of kindness. The conflict produces a rich character, full of dynamic oppositions – and Kubrick knew it. He let the camera hold on her in a tight, unyielding close up, without music, and gave her little by way of ambient sound. Shelley’s alone out there. But Kubrick knew she could handle it. She could handle anything.

Shelley Winters, one of my favorite actors, died four years ago yesterday, at the age of 85.

The American Critic

Last night, The New York Film Critics Circle presented Andrew Sarris with their lifetime achievement award for his contribution to film criticism.

If Sarris were to read what I’m about to write, he’d probably chastise me for my excess of enthusiasm (unlike Kael, Sarris was the most sober of critics), and my liberal use of superlatives (unlike John Simon, Sarris never made ostentatious proclamations), but in this case I’m sure there’s no other way to express the tremendous, even overwhelming value of Sarris’ work on those of us who try to think seriously about the movies.

Andrew Sarris is the greatest living film critic. Not only is he the most insightful, the most historically versed, and the strongest writer around, Sarris is singlehandedly responsible for positing the dominant ideology behind American film criticism as it is practiced today. Whether you know it or not, without Sarris – as strange as this sounds – we wouldn’t think of films in terms of directors and writers. We’d think of them as stories performed by glamorous people. And in this case, the “we” applies as much to casual viewers as it does to scholars. Since delivering The Auteur Theory to America – in short, the notion that films, like books, do have authors with unique voices and visions – his book, The American Cinema, has done more than any other to bring this massive, perplexing, frustrating, joyful medium down to size. It’s to interested moviegoers what the OED is to linguists.

When I get up in the morning, I make a cup of coffee, look at my email, and open The American Cinema to a random page and read. Others stretch or do yoga, but to get the day going, I review chance passages of Sarris just to make sure the cinematic thermometer in my mind is properly calibrated. Of course, there’s always more work to be done, always more films to see and reconsider, and never enough to say about The Shop Around the Corner, which is why these morning sessions are rarely easygoing. With The American Cinema in hand, I imagine Sarris sitting atop one of those tall chairs that preside over tennis courts. As I hit the ball over the net and run around to the other side to return it to myself, Sarris is yelling at me to go faster, and hit sharper; he’s urging me not to give up on John Ford, and not to be unduly generous to Billy Wilder. And sometimes his wife, the great critic Molly Haskell, appears beside him, reminding the both of us not to forget things like historical context, the continually changing tide of culture that shapes pictures like oceans shape rocks. That’s when I really start to sweat. Molly reminds me that pictures aren’t made in a vacuum – that even Orson Welles, the most careful and controlling of directors, was subject to his zeitgeist. Surely, that needles Sarris (though he’s heard it many times), and he has to step down from his tall chair to have a few words with Molly in the corner. Lucky for me, their conference gives me time to catch my breath, which I so deeply need because it’s only 9:00 and I haven’t had my coffee. I’ve only read this, by Sarris:

The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how. The what is some aspect of reality rendered mechanically by the camera. The how is what the French critics designate somewhat mystically as mise-en-scene. Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the how against the what. The whole point of meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.

Thank you, Andrew (and Molly) for keeping the phonies in their place and making the great ones even better.

After You’ve Gone

Sophie Tucker was born on this day in 1884.

One Sunday, about a year or so ago, I found myself at a favorite old mansion in the foothills beneath Laurel Canyon. If you live in L.A. you might know the place; it’s that big, white neo-classical thing, just north of the Laugh Factory and a few steps from Hollywood Boulevard.

As long as I’ve known it, the house has been overtaken by ivy. In the courtyard out front, what were once trees had turned to brown skeletons. But far from making the house seem uninviting, the Miss Havishamness of it only made the place more compelling, powerful even. Most of the other properties in the area were coiffed to within an inch of their lives, so what, I wondered, was going on in here, in a house so close to the raucous throb of the Sunset Strip, to keep the owners from tending to their mansion?

I’d been driving by for years before I actually got to go inside. Thanks to a chance encounter with a local Hollywood paper, I found out the owner – a former child star of silent westerns – had died, and the family was selling off everything in the house.

By the time I got there, most of the stuff had been picked over. There were a few candelabra and some china tsotchkes, but other than that the house was empty. Empty and large. There was a living room the size of a one-bedroom apartment and a dinning room massive enough to hold most of the remaining for-sale coffee tables, presumably collected from other rooms in the house. A carpeted curling staircase presiding over the first floor was roped off with a sign that said “Off Limits.” But I wasn’t about to let that stop me.

When no one was looking, I leapt upstairs and in a matter of moments found myself in the master bedroom, but it wasn’t a bedroom – there was no bed, no dresser, and not a single window – it was actually more of a master bedroom-sized sauna. The entire space, from floor to ceiling, was covered in wood. There were benches along the walls. I was standing in a wooden box.

In the corner was another box. Opening it, I discovered a row of books, all biographies of movie stars. One of them was Sophie Tucker’s memoir, Some of These Days. It was blue and dusty, and looked like it would crumble if I so much as breathed on it, so I reached out carefully, gingerly, opened it to find, to my amazement, Sophie had signed it. To Milton Stuck, Love Sophie Tucker 7/3/60.

I bought the book for three dollars and left.

Just this morning, thinking about Sophie on her 126th birthday, I found myself skimming through the book. I’ll never forget the last show at the Palace in New York, she wrote in its final pages. It was ghastly. Everyone knew the theater was to be closed down, and a landmark in show business would be gone. That feeling got into the acts. The whole place, and even the performers, stank of decay. I seemed to smell it. It challenged me. I went out on that stage determined to keep my mind on the future – not on the past. I was determined to give the audience the idea: why brood over yesterday? We have tomorrow. As I sang I could feel the atmosphere change. The gloom began to life, the spirit which had formerly filled the Palace and which made it famous among the vaudeville houses in the world came back. That’s what an entertainer can do. That’s the power he has; and which he can use when he knows how to use it.

Could Wes Anderson Actually Win an Oscar?

As the Oscar-speaking world delves deeper into the Avatar/Hurt Locker debate – which has to be one of the more exciting awards dramas in recent memory – I’ve begun to wonder, with the ballot deadline fast approaching, if any of the Academy’s 5,777 voting members has begun to think seriously about talking animals.

I bring this up because this year, with Up, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all in the running for Best Animated Feature, it’s beginning to look like we might have something of a photo-finish on our hands.

If the race has been less compelling in the past, it’s because Pixar, the Freed Unit of cartoons, has dominated so clearly, and indeed so beautifully, that no one could dream of getting close to them. Of the six Pixar features released since 2001 – the first year Animated Features were given their own Oscar category – each one of them was nominated, and among the nominees, four took home the Academy Award. (Did I say Freed Unit? Make that Edith Head.)

This time, though, things are different. For one, the competition is stronger. Unlike most of Pixar’s competitors in years past, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox have the advantage of being user-friendly, basically mainstream releases with a great deal of critical support behind them. To Academy voters itching to look beyond Pixar – and they’re out there – these facts alone could spell the beginning of the end for Up.

Should that be the case, the question then becomes which way will they go? Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox?

I liked Coraline, but I sure hope it’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Unfortunately, there appear to be roadblocks ahead. We can only wonder what the name Wes Anderson means to the Academy’s 5,777, mostly senior, voting members. It has been almost ten years since he received a Best Screenplay nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums, and in the interim, his popular appeal has only begun to fray. Whatever one’s reaction to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, they were too mannered to register on the Academy’s taste radar, and caused many voters to wonder if Anderson could ever renew the promise of his first more approachable features. Oscar, after all, loves classical with a twist; films like Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, which take a well-worn formula and subvert it, slightly, tend to win the day. And yet, no matter how conservative its voting record, or traditional its predilections, the sensibility of nearly six thousand people can’t be reduced to a single epithet.

Into this tenuous atmosphere comes Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it’s a wonderful movie, Anderson’s best since Rushmore. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that stop motion was the ideal venue for a director so attuned (sometimes distractingly so), to the strange dollhouse quality that all people, being strange people, come to adopt. Far from hindering him, it seems the painstaking one-frame-at-time technique – slow, expensive, deliberate – might have forced Anderson out of his world of decadence, and ushered him toward a more economical, barebones approach to story. At least that’s what I hope, because as a one-time fan frustrated by his recent work, I’d love to see Wes Anderson repeat the kind of discipline he has recovered here, in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps then that old promise – the promise of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore – will be fulfilled.

This is What a Film Critic Does

Manohla on The Hurt Locker.