Monthly Archives: December 2009

There’s Nothing Like Tile for the Tango

It’s a compulsion.

When I get within sniffing distance of Sunset Boulevard, this strange thing happens; I’m overcome with a kind of cinematic Tourette’s Syndrome. The connection to the movie may not be logical to anyone else in the vicinity, but that doesn’t stop me from bursting out, sometimes in the middle of a sane conversation, to share some chance thought or anecdote about the making of the movie I can’t ever seem to get enough of.

All this talk about New Years Eve plans tonight and it happened again. Last night, I was out with Goldblatt and Fleischer at some party by the Pacific Design Center, and though I made it seem like I was interested in the conversations at hand, what I really wanted to talk about was my favorite New Years Eve scene in the movies. I braced myself for a good while nodding and yessing and being good – and then came the point when I actually couldn’t contain it any longer. I burst open with the force of ten minutes worth of repressed Billy Wilder stories, regained consciousness ten minutes later to a circle of slackjawed faces, and promptly changed the subject to Invictus.

Well, now it’s blogtime.

One of the joys of re-watching Sunset Boulevard is hunting for the little real-life pieces of Hollywood history Wilder and co-writers Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the picture, leading the viewer back home to the silents. Sometimes the references are overt (Gloria Swanson, a silent legend, plays Norma Desmond, a silent legend), but the really juicy – and I daresay touching ones – are more coded.

The pivotal New Years Eve scene, in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) discovers that Norma really actually does love him, contains its fair share of breadcrumbs, but my favorite is the one about Valentino.

“You know,” Norma says to Joe, “this floor used to be wood, but I had it changed. Valentino said there’s nothing like tile for the tango.” How clever, Billy. In real life, Swanson and Valentino made a film together, Beyond the Rocks in 1922, and in it they danced a tango.

But it gets cleverer. To shoot the tango, cinematographer John Seitz used a device called a Dance Dolly, which amounted to a sort of moveable platform on wheels. Nothing special there. But when you learn that Seitz first introduced the technique to shoot Valentino dancing the tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you might be more than a little impressed.

Okay, one more thing. It doesn’t have to do with Hollywood per se, but this scene always makes me think of young Billy Wilder’s Weimar days, when he made his living quite literally haunting nightclubs as a dance gigolo, charging old ladies ten cents a turn. But did Billy, like Joe Gillis, ever provide them with more than just terpsichore? Wilder says no, but who can be sure? “I was not the best dancer,” he said, “but I had the best dialogue with the ladies I was dancing with.”

Happy 1951.

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Bravo, Sergio!

If (and when) aliens come to earth and want to know what cinema is, don’t think twice. Show them Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and if they’re still unclear, tell them to go back to Pandora and think about it.

Every year, Congress selects 25 films on the basis of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance, and inducts them into the U.S. Film Registry where they can be preserved, protected, and defended from the elements. This year, I’m happy to report that, along with several other notable pictures (including The Muppet Movie), Once Upon a Time in the West has been inducted into the U.S. Film Registry for safekeeping.

The decision is hardly a controversial one. As far as I know, humans and aliens alike all seem to agree that Leone’s film remains the definitive spaghetti western, and on that basis alone, induction could be considered mandatory. But years later, Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just the best of its kind. It may be the best of any kind.

Everything that a person can do in cinema, Leone does in Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a veritable dictionary of film technique. Not sure what a good crane shot looks like? Check out Claudia Cardinale’s entrance into town (and while you’re at it, spend a few bars with Ennio Morricone). Not sure how to contrast close-up and wide-shots? Look at the first scene of the film (above); you’ll get a real sense of characters and their landscape, of intimacy and scope. Not sure how to create tension? Consider one of the film’s many shoot-outs, and observe how Leone makes you wait without wasting your time.

Truly, Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that should come with an index. If that’s not the definition of a classic, what is?

Nancy

Esprit d’escalier.

Literally, it means “sprit of the stairs.” Figuratively, it’s what you should have said when you had the chance. But now that you’re on the stairs, on your way out, it’s too late.

I met Nancy Meyers at a dinner party off Via de la Paz. It was around Christmas time a year ago and we were all standing around the buffet making jokes about Gran Torino. It was sometime around my second drink that Nancy arrived. She was late, but she was so charming about it, so recklessly flummoxed, it was instantly forgotten. She claimed it was something having to do with the kids, and I believed her. Just one look at her big, black sunglasses, cashmere sweater set, and chunky leather purse, and anyone versed in the unspoken semiology of Brentwood would know: this person was a mom, and a cute one too.

We spoke only briefly that night. But, had that night been last night instead of last year, and had I been given the chance (and two more drinks), our conversation might have been completely different.

“Nancy?”

“Yes!”

“Congratulations on the weekend. They say it was the best ever.”

“Oh, well, thank you, sweetie.”

“Some stiff competition and you did good, I think, right?”

“We did alright. A few more blue people and we would have done better.”

“Maybe. But you had Meryl.”

“Still, we should have made her blue. Or at least 3D.”

“She could have handled it.” I drink. “God damn her. She can do anything.”

“Yes, well – ”

I drink again.

“Sweetie, I want to get to that prosciutto before it disappears.”

“Okay, but before you do, I just wanted to say, I think you’re very courageous, going out there and making personal movies about… ” I hesitate. “I mean, romantic movies about women…of a certain – ”

“Older women.”

“Older women. Yes, that’s just the – just the term I was looking for. When there’s AvatarAlvin and the Chipmunks, and Sherlock Holmes, I just wanted to say, I really appreciate it. I know a lot of people do.”

“Wow, well, thank you, that’s – ”

“Having said that, I would appreciate it even more if you made stronger decisions with the camera, cut out a good half-hour, hold off on the Williams-Sonoma kitchens, and not light the thing like it was a tampon commercial, but I really don’t want to split hairs here. You did the impossible, you made a personal movie in Hollywood, and that’s just fantastic.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Now let’s get some prosciutto.”

“I’d rather go alone.”

“Of course, of course. Merry Christmas.”

“Yes. Merry Christmas.” She starts to go.

“I loved Father of the Bride by the way.”

“Thanks, I’m going now.”

“Okay. Great.”

What’s the Matter? Don’t You Like Musical Comedy?

No, of course you don’t.

At least not if you’re a serious person. Sure, it’s okay to dabble in it from time to time, to see a Broadway show when you’re in New York, or, if it happens to be on T.V., watch one of those old MGM musicals just to say you’ve seen it. But would you ever say you liked it? Would you ever say you loved it? Well, no. Not publicly you wouldn’t.

Don’t worry, I get your logic. All those clambakes and hayrides, they seem so ridiculous. Especially when life is full of so many problems. When people lose their money, get sick, go crazy, get divorced, and die, what’s there to get plucky about? And they do die every day, some horribly, and not in the Technicolor fields of Brigadoon, but all alone in fluorescent-lit hospitals with warm Jello dribbling out of their mouths. Some don’t even make it to hospitals.

And then there’s surrey with a fringe. Where’s the reality in that?

Thanks to All That Jazzwhich turned thirty this month, we can have our Jello and eat it too. Easily the last word (to date) on the American movie musical, Bob Fosse’s autobiographical, metaphysical, meta-musical slip into showbiz semi-consciousness addresses non-believers head-on, taking everything we once thought impossible to sing and dance about, and turning it into song. Not that Fosse was the first to marry the great white way and the wild blue yonder (think of “Dancing in the Dark” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”), but he most certainly was the best.

What else would you expect from the man who, from the time he was a kid, lived his whole life either on a stage or within shuffling distance from one?

Fosse’s life, without a doubt, was a cabaret. But watching the film, we might wonder, where does that leave us? What does All That Jazzhave to do with those of us who spend our time, so to speak, in the audience? Well, to quote Fosse’s surrogate, Joe Gideon, “sometimes I don’t know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.”

Happy birthday, All That Jazz.

Avatar (2009)

Wait, let’s go back.

Way back.

People don’t yet go to movie theaters, they go to Nickelodeons, chamber-sized screening rooms, where, for the price of a nickel, they can watch a variety of short subject films, ranging from vaudeville-inspired comedy sketches to documentary scenes of real-life (or “actualities” as they’re called). The shorts are shot simply, with as few takes as possible, from as few angles as possible, and the camera doesn’t move – it’s too heavy.

Then, in 1903, comes The Great Train Robbery. With this film, predating The Birth of a Nation by twelve years, director Edwin S. Porter introduces the world to the concept of film editing. Now, thanks to the advent of the cut, Porter can enhance both the narrative complexity of his movies (cross-cutting, for instance, allowed for temporal continuity between multiple storylines), as well as deepen the audience’s emotional response (through, say, a reaction shot). Suddenly, audiences aren’t merely outside of the action, they seem to be in the very midst of it.

One shot in particular, in which one of the bad guys fires his gun directly into the camera, caused a stir unprecedented in the history of motion pictures. Legend has it that audiences were so terrified by what they were seeing, that they shot up from their folding chairs and fled screaming from the theaters.

Of course, they weren’t in any kind of danger. They were in a small, boxy theater, surrounded by about a hundred other people. But somehow they believed it. Somehow, these presumably rational citizens forgot their rationality, and responded to what was happening on screen as if it were happening in reality.

Flash forward sixty years. During an early showing of Psycho in 1961, a healthy, middle-aged man, is so frightened by what he sees, he actually manages to upstage the shower scene by keeling over into the aisle, and going into cardiac arrest.

A year later, theater managers are getting complaints from ticket buyers that their cinemas are too hot. Will someone please open a window? How could they be expected to sit so uncomfortably through three and half hours of Peter O’Toole?

In 1997, like every other person, I went to see the Star Warsrerelease. In the middle of some sky battle, with spaceships zooming around overhead, the very attractive girl I took as my date, ducked. (We spoke once or twice on the phone after that.)

Well, now there’s Avatar, it’s 2009, and I’m certain we’ve been initiated into the next phase of believing the unbelievable. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, it will be the closest we’ve ever come to visiting another world. In the future, virtual reality technology will certainly outclass the technology at hand, but until then, James Cameron’s latest super-movie, will be the last word in illusion immersion.

Just take a look around you. Cameron’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear at any moment to explain to us, the believing audience, about the blooming patterns of this or that flora or fauna. (If the Avatar Encyclopedia hasn’t already been written, surely someone is hard at work, writing it right now.)

That said, when you see the picture, do yourself the favor of trying not to think too hard about it. In story, Cameron has situated us somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Blue Man Group, and if you’ve seen over six films in your life, chances are you’ll see the turns, as I did, coming miles away. It’s videogame logic; the characters are not individuals so much as targets, and the scenes aren’t so much dramatic as they are levels 1 though 10, and finally, the boss. But try not to think about it.

Try not to think about, as I did, the sad, almost poignant irony that, for all of the hundreds of millions of dollars Cameron spent on technology, trying to make Avatar the most dazzling cinematic experience possible, not three dollars of it was spent on the latte that might have helped him stay up just a little bit later to work on the rewrite.

Goodbye, Bob Willoughby (1927-2009)

Bob Willoughby, the man considered by many to be the greatest set photographer of all time, died Friday at his home in Vence, France. He was 82.

It’s difficult not to love Willoughby’s work. He shot the most beautiful people, his pictures are graphically bold and often full of action, and they give us regular people privileged access into the private, behind the scenes moments of our favorite movies. But what am I saying? That’s what all set photographers do.

What makes Willoughby’s work stand up taller than the rest, is that it contains a true, open-eyed love for the process of making movies. One look at any of his pictures, and you’ll see he saw the stars, directors, and technicians, the way we want to see them, with curiosity, the enthusiasm of true fans, and, unlike the classical Hollywood portraits of Hurrell, only the slightest touch of idealism.

Today, we like to see movie people cut down to size. And why shouldn’t we? Many of them are just too rich and too happy (or so they seem) for us to want to let them stay that way.  But Willoughby’s work forsakes that impulse, and reminds us of all that was wonderful – and indeed still may be wonderful – about the picture industry. And the way Willoughby saw it, it was truly an industry – of stunning people out there doing stunning work.

I’m happy to say I had the good fortune to speak with Willoughby over the last year. Our communication began when I contacted him out of the blue to see if I could get the rights to a photo of his which I wanted to use for the cover of my book about Blake Edwards. Though he owed me no favors, he wanted to give it to me for a very, very low price. He didn’t have to; I was willing to pay pull price (for this shot, attached below, you would have too), but he insisted.

And when I told him I was working on a book about his muse, Audrey Hepburn, he assured me that everything they ever said about her was true. She was the loveliest person in pictures, perhaps the loveliest person he had ever met. The way he said it, with such tender reverence, it was impossible not to believe him.

So here’s to Bob Willoughby, who loved making movies. The proof is in the pictures.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966)

Blake Edwards and Natalie Wood, The Great Race (1965)

Judy Garland and George Cukor, A Star is Born (1954)


Dustin Hoffman and script supervisor Meta Rebner, The Graduate (1967)

The White Ribbon (2009)

Be warned. Michael Haneke wants to hurt you.

At his best, the director does his damage with the light, graceful touch of a seasoned psychopath, the kind that kills and kills and never gets caught. In The Piano Teacher (2002), for instance, easily his best movie, Haneke barely seems to lift a finger. But he doesn’t need to; the white hot hurt gushes from Isabelle Huppert’s every clench. In Cache (2005), his scalpel carves blood from even the most innocuous objects and situations. For the duration of the movie, a found VHS tape, containing nothing more alarming than continuous footage of a single house, becomes the most sinister object imaginable. In these films, Haneke at his best, the evil is always there, but you’ll never see it coming.

At his worst, Haneke resembles Lars von Trier at his worst. Taken together, they can be the Bonnie and Clyde of world cinema, except not nearly as pretty as Warren and Faye and of course a lot less fun. Accent on a lot less fun.

With Quentin Tarantino out there, sometimes it’s easy to forget that killing people is really a mean business, and not just for the dead. Surviving, it turns out, is rather painful too, and, as Haneke portrays it in The White Ribbon, unendingly so. Parents are cruel to children and children are cruel to birds and onward down the list like a kind of gruesome Rube Goldberg machine of mean Germans. Is it any surprise then that the children of these people will become Nazis?

No. But that’s the point. As they layer, the bucolic crimes and criminals that make up The White Ribbon gain in political significance, until Haneke (at his best), without uttering a single pedantic word, is able to offer up a way of comprehending the incomprehensible tragedies that lay ahead. It’s what makes the film so fascinating. But is anyone surprised?

From shot one, we know we’re going down hard. After shot one hundred and one, we still know it. So why should it take so long to get there? By the time I started asking myself this question, I knew I was in von Trier country, and then I had that vision of Haneke and von Trier as Warren and Faye and that was the end of that.