Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Fugitive Kindness of Strangers

I had another look at The Fugitive Kind last night.

The film, which features Brando, Joanne Woodward, and Anna Magnani, and a script by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts, was a premeditated Method-movie made to order. Producers Martin Jurow and Richard Shepherd even went so far as to hire a large part of Elia Kazan’s crew from On the Waterfront, and to lead the charge into hyperrealism, the young director Sidney Lumet. He wasn’t Kazan, but he was New York and he was hot, and that was good enough United Artists.

“How interesting,” I thought. “I’m watching the Method transform from a movement into a franchise.” It may have been ten years after Streetcar, but as a good friend of mine once said, Hollywood is a slow whore.

But before I could get cynical, I thought, “Well, why not?” If one guy makes a product that works, the next guy is going to want to take a crack at it too. That’s America and – surprise, surprise – that’s the American picture business. Why should Tennessee Williams be exempt? Geniuses get hungry too.

It’s useful to watch The Fugitive Kind with this in mind. Knowing that the popularity of the Method played a fundamental part in the conception of the film helps to explain its excesses, which, if you go for them (as I did), you might consider a kind of High-Method. The yelling and sweating and expressionistic camera tricks read to me like a late-in-the-day revision, Method II: Strasberg’s Revenge. If you don’t go for it (as contemporary audiences didn’t), The Fugitive Kind just points you back to Kazan: in case you forgot, the picture says, don’t try this at home.

The only one in the picture who resists the emotional opulence is, shockingly, Brando himself. In fact, his style is so uncharacteristically subdued, it gives one the impression that it emerged in counterpoint to the work he was observing around him, almost as if he waited at a busy intersection, watching as his production ran off into traffic, before he decided to follow behind them, quite coolly, and at a measured pace. The result is Brando’s most low-key performance (until The Godfather), a salve to the hot lesions, and a reminder of how good he truly was, even when the knobs were turned down.

Franchises have been a part of Hollywood since its inception. But it’s harrowing to think yesterday’s cash cow sprung from a major advancement in the art of acting, a milestone. Today, Variety reports news from the production offices of 21 Jump Street.

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Americans Have Feelings Too

A friend just sent me a link to this video, a tribute to filmmaker Paul Mazursky. “Well,” I thought, “it’s about time.”

Paul Mazursky’s nearly twenty films as writer/director stand alongside those of Woody Allen as American film’s most sustained comic expression of the 1970s and 1980s. Though unlike Woody, whose milieu is predominately intellectual, Mazursky’s people are so raw, and so baffled by their own emotional tumult, their sincerity comes across as forcefully as their ridiculousness. This makes films like An Unmarried Woman and Blume in Love very difficult to classify, but all the more relevant; in that place between funny and feeling, there is an inner world, uncharted by contemporary Hollywood, where the joke is vital, yes, but never at the expense of character truths, of the hearts and minds in play. If laughter is always warm in Mazursky, it’s because it comes from this place of empathy, and not – as is the case with today’s comedies – from distance. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Mazursky brings you into a love relationship with his people.” We are not better than Mazursky’s people because we are Mazursky’s people.

Way back, in one of the American cinema’s most formidable decade, Richard Corliss had a sense of what would come. “Paul Mazursky,” he wrote, “is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations….Mazursky has created a  body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.” And Andrew Sarris, on the occasion of Lincoln Center’s 2007 eleven-film tribute, wrote, “Mr. Mazursky is a testament to the sheer depth of American mainstream movies way back (it now seems) in the days when directors – and Mr. Mazursky in particular – knew how to be funny and adult at the same time.” “The great thing about Paul’s movies,” Mel Brooks said, “is that they never seem to be made up. They seem to spring from life.” It’s true. It’s very, very true.

Luis Buñuel: A Personal History

The filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born in Spain on February 22, 1900, one hundred and ten years ago this week.

If they’re aggressive about it, most contemporary American filmgoers don’t get to Buñuel until their college years. By then, they’ve probably had their first run-ins with Fellini and Bergman (definitely 8 ½, maybe Persona), and have very likely sampled the early Godard, if they’re that way inclined (I wasn’t). There are variations of course (I saw Fanny and Alexander and worked backwards), but any way you get them, these are the filmmakers who picked us up from the prom, drove us up to Make Out Point, and took our Hollywood virginity.

Then, a year or so later, Buñuel creeps in there. And I do mean creeps. Maybe it was some clove-smoking girl in college, maybe it was rakish professor of World Cinema, or maybe it was the greasy guy at the video store. In either case, there comes a point when the young cinephile exhausts the Italians and the French (and Bergman), and uncovers the strange and often wonderful world of Luis Buñuel. It happens to everyone. Just as babies start to walk, children learn to speak, and grownups find their favorite drink. (Buñuel’s, but the way, was a martini. He wrote, “To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of a martini…Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative powers of the Holy Ghost pierced the virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window – leaving it unbroken.”)

I’ve digressed, but that’s how Buñuel would want it. He’d also want you to imagine me – a scholarly type, and published, soon to be twice published – with my pants down as I write this, or, like the famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, sitting contemplatively on a gleaming white toilet, imagining myself in bed with a cold, cold, legless woman who is actually the English Prime Minster, a man, but played by a woman.

An all-around anarchist, Buñuel wants to explode everything – literal and figurative – including government buildings, traditional narrative forms, sexual mores, and Jesus Christ. As a college student beginning to understand the joys of explodability, Buñuel was just what the medcin ordered, and in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Obscure Object of Desire, (perennial favorite) Belle du Jour, and (my favorite) The Exterminating Angel, all aspects of civilized life were fair target. Cut to: “Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, leaving only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.”

But just as I fell for Buñuel, I crept away from him. And I do mean crept. Buñuel’s refined esoteric sensibility (not to mention his undeniable talent) will keep his films in fashion as long as people are making movies – a terrific thing, and quite deserved – but it makes it difficult to admit – at least publicly – that in the days since college, he and I have had a tiny falling out.

Over time, I saw the mechanism behind his satire begin to creak. I saw the jabs coming, and they were the same jabs he’d been jabbing his whole life. (Part of the problem, I think, was that he was so good so early in his career – Un Chien Andalou was 1929 – that it didn’t leave him too far to go.) Buñuel, who seemed the most grown-up filmmaker – the only filmmaker ever to truly intimidate Hitchcock – seemed to me, around the time I left college, a case of arrested development. Like Hitch, he was, in the end, shackled by his perversities. He never blew them up.

Shutter Island Paradise

I’m not surprised Shutter Island has put people off. It’s bombastic, loud, prone to hysteria, and engaged with the sort of horror hokum we want to think Martin Scorsese – our most popular highbrow filmmaker – is too good for. To be frank, some scenes clank. Others are embarrassingly operatic, and a few too many moments stumble into kitsch (“He’s in here. I can feel it.“), but the gestalt is insidiously addictive.

Attribute it to Scorsese’s deft handling of noir-like flashbacks and horror-type fantasies, which he fuses to induce that place of semi-consciousness between vivid recall and total insanity. It is a state of mind perfectly suited to America of the mid-fifties – not coincidentally the time-setting for Shutter Island – when post-war trauma, McCarthyism, and the pressure to keep it all together were making a paranoid mess of those the nation once counted amongst its sane.

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With material such as this, it’s no wonder Scorsese isn’t shy about going all out. Maybe Michael Haneke would have played it closer to the vest, but when was the last time the director of films as visceral as Raging Bull and Goodfellas traded in whip-pans and splattered blood for a feathery touch? (Even The Age of Innocence is exploding with cinematic guts.) More than that, when was the last time insanity was ever depicted as polite?

Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin anything. From the word “asylum,” we should have a pretty good sense of what’s at stake for our main character. And anyway, the surprises – and there are many – have less to do with twists and turns in the plot than watching Scorsese re-explore one of his favorite subjects – this time with new eyes. Here, in the realm of noir and horror, genres that lend themselves to surreal breaks from objectivity, he can indulge his flamboyance to the nth degree, continuing to build, quite logically, on a sequence of madness that started way back with Taxi Driver, and expanded to include Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Aviator (with side trips to After Hours and The King of Comedy along the way).

Scorsese’s invocation of madness in Shutter Island is as satisfying as anything he’s filmed in twenty years. The Departed was a good time too, and so was Casino, but neither did much to grow the director beyond the walls of his comfort zone. Shutter Island, on the other hand, pushes our conception of Scorsese to the brink. It tests him, and he comes out the cleverer for it, proving that he has what it takes to navigate through the film’s several timeframes and planes of consciousness both the old fashioned way – with a system of symbols triggering the narrative from one association to the next – just as he and his editor, the amazing Thelma Schoonmacher, shuffle us through a trick deck of visual sleights of hand. Like something out of Vertigo, disorienting shifts between points of view – shots that begin (it seems) from one perspective and end up (it seems) from another – evoke the kind of psychological rupture lesser directors would fob off with cosmetic gimmicks, nutty angles, and (God help us) the standard hand-held effect (scary!).

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But there’s more. In the midst of the fancy-footwork, the director proves, once again, that he knows where his characters’ hearts lie. Like all good films noirs, Shutter Island must eventually confront that moment of original sin, when, way back in the past, things started going wrong. When it comes time to show it, in keeping with everything else about Shutter Island, he isn’t afraid to pump up the volume. Scorsese knows there’s no trauma without trauma. Fearlessly, he conveys the wound with a seriousness that belies what many, myself included, consider the limitations of the thriller.

And in the midst of all this, Shutter Island happens to be one hell of a fun ride. If you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy listening to the Coney Island clicks and creaks of the old rollercoaster as your wooden car makes its fateful way up.

Let Me Count the Ways

Thanks to A.O. Scott for giving me an excuse to write a little something about Meryl Streep. (As if I needed an excuse. As if anyone did.)

In the piece published yesterday, Scott takes a loving look at Meryl across the ages, and comes up with a few choice observations – many of them fresh to Streepiana – that I’ll let you discover on your own. In the meantime, I thought I’d take the opportunity to say a few words about one of Meryl’s less visible performances.

Watching Prime, you can’t help but get the feeling Meryl is doing someone a favor. From the over-earnestness of the love scenes, to the crude, TV-movie predictability of its construction, there’s very little about the movie that actually works. But let’s put that aside for now.

In the middle of the maelstrom, guess who manages to turn out a very funny, very real performance? No surprise there – Meryl’s been turning out very funny, very real performances since she first leapt headfirst into comedy with She-Devil in 1989 (even when she’s hilariously unreal, like in Death Becomes Her, she’s still working in the tiniest units of acting – millimeters where others use feet). But if you clocked it laugh-to-laugh, in Prime, Meryl’s may be at her funniest.

If there is anything to say in Prime’s favor, it’s that it hands her a juicy challenge. As Upper West Side shrink, Dr. Lisa Metzger, Meryl is constantly in the position of having to lie to her patients, of having to keep her true feelings to herself. What this means is that Meryl, to pull it off, must play two opposing parts at once. Lisa Metzger must lie convincingly to her patient – a feat of acting from the character’s point of view – while simultaneously revealing (to the audience) her private response – a feat of acting from Meryl’s point of view. She must act, and she must act against her acting. Watching her negotiate the contrast can be hysterical.

And it is a perfectly calibrated contrast. If Meryl plays Metzger as too good of a liar, she’ll come off as cruel. If she plays her as an inadequate liar, Metzger will lose her credibility as professional therapist (either that, or it will make her clients seem like idiots). So Meryl must hit the nail on the head. Too far in one direction, and the character will be misrepresented.

So that’s quite a task, but of course, Meryl takes it further. Remember: she must also find ways to disclose Metzger’s inner thoughts in the midst of the charade. How does an actress do that? How does she speak to us in a language her patient, who she is deceiving, can’t understand?

She does it with split-second timing, which allows us, who understand her predicament, to fill in the unspoken dialogue. She does it by partnering with props – a glass of water, the beads on her necklace – in surprising ways that belie whatever she’s saying. In short, Meryl evinces counterpoint from almost everything around her. Whether it’s a choice inflection, a too-hard laugh, or too-short smile, her sources seem inexhaustible, and, in accordance with the reality of her character, always tuned to the right volume. That’s funny and real.

That’s Meryl.

Against the Drift

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but I’ve been noticing a trend in wide shots lately, and it’s not doing anyone any good.

For the past several years, and maybe even before, certain sub-middle directors have got it in their heads to drift the camera when dialogue scenes get too talky. You know what I’m talking about: that slow, often barely perceptible circumferential glide around the speakers that sometimes lasts for an entire scene without a single cut. Not a full 360, mind you; just a gentle, endless side-to-side. I’m thinking of The Blind Side, The Last Station, and The Young Victoria. But there are others.

What’s behind this? Very likely a feeling to do something. Or the erroneous logic that verbal movies need movement to keep from seeming theatrical. But like adding salt to a bland tasting meal, the drifting wide shot only makes the blandness more obvious. Look out for it at al fresco dining scenes, in the midst of highbrow pillow talk, and during a scene of reading or orating.

That’s not to say that the drifting/wide is a lose-lose. When it’s done right, like, say, in the movies of Bertolucci, it can express a vertiginous sensuality as intoxicating as anything in Vertigo. Look at something like The Last Emperor, or even The Dreamers (or even Besieged). Somewhere between a Steadicam and a crane on a dolly, Bertolucci’s camera seems to move as freely and as softly as smoke wisping from a cigarette. Whether it’s gliding forward, up, or – quite majestically – forward and up, at their best, these shots are well suited to Bertolucci’s worlds of excessive, often sordid ecstasy. In The Dreamers, for instance, a slight dutch to the shot gives the action – no matter how inviting – an air of not-quite-right, like a drop of poison in the perfume.

Needless to say, you won’t find anything like that in The Young Victoria. Instead, you’ll get the most innocuous kind of drift: the aimless, meandering, purposeless putter that illuminates not the story, character, or the finer shades of theme, but the lethargic mind behind the viewfinder.

On Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

Trying to come to terms with Sandra Bullock’s likely Oscar win, I cleared aside a fat portion of yesterday to have a look, once and for all, at The Blind Side.

Right off the bat, I should say that Bullock clearly understands her part. Though light comedy is her forte, she resists every impulse to needle her way through Leigh Anne Tuohy’s rich, suburban existence, and shows instead a kind of Mary Poppins-ish stiff upper lip, spouting ready-made aphorisms with a cheeky Memphis twang. Her gait is brisk, her delivery clipped, and her face – tighter than ever – tells of a compulsive personality driven by down-to-the-follicle precision. She steps to the edge of camp and turns back:  Tuohy is the sort of lady-who-lunches Truman Capote would have loved, and after a few drinks, the sort Tennessee Williams would have sent shrieking into the night. (Close your eyes and you could see, in another version of The Blind Side, Lee Anne sitting on a porch swathed in moonlight, her negligee torn to shreds.) But Bullock, to her credit, doesn’t go there.

Unfortunately, her director, John Lee Hancock, doesn’t help her any. Without much by way of emotional variation, or choice pieces of business to help refine her characterization, Bullock is left alone to draw from a limited reserve. She comes out okay in the end, but with added attention from Hancock, her Leigh Anne might have trounced the limitations of the material (“You can do it, Mike!”) and perhaps even become her best performance to date, which is still Speed.

Hancock should have had another look at Speed. It might have clued him into a few of Bullock’s strengths, like, for instance, how good she can be when she doesn’t have to mind her manners. You want Sandra Bullock to let her hair down – that’s why all of her romantic heroines either start out prude, or overworked and prude. But when she stays tight, as credible as that tight may be, some of her trademark capriciousness is lost. The Blind Side‘s many “meaningful” speeches only make it harder on her.

Still, she’ll probably win. The Academy, after all, loves a converted comedian (“Look how serious she is! Now that’s acting!”) But a converted tragedian is something else entirely. Just look at Meryl. If only she made The Devil Wears Prada before Sophie’s Choice.