Monthly Archives: May 2010

Goodbye, Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper has died.

In the coming weeks, and months, I think we’ll begin to learn more about Dennis Hopper’s great range of talent, not just as an actor and director, but also as a photographer and painter. From what I understand, late in his life, Hopper had become something of a serious fine artist. I’ll leave that aspect of his career to those who know more about pictures, and look instead to my favorite piece of Hopper, his scene in True Romance.

Film craft aside, what I love about this scene is how un-Hopper like Dennis Hopper is. All the manic volatility we see in the Hopper of Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now has been shut down, and his signature brand of gesticulation – as wild and menacing as his I’m-going-to-eat-you-now grin – is nowhere to be found.

But they are implied. Because he is Dennis Hopper, and we know what it means to watch Dennis Hopper, the suggestion of sudden implosion is present throughout. It lends a time-bomb feeling to the scene. We wonder, will he or won’t he go off? More succinctly, Will Hopper hopper?

Of course, credit is due to director Tony Scott for using Hopper so cleverly, and for throwing a bit of light on the bulging veins in his forehead as if to say, “Don’t forget, this is where the time bomb lives.” If you find yourself smiling at the brutality, that’s why; we’ve been let in on the inside joke. Even though we know Hopper’s character is going down, because it’s Dennis Hopper we know it’s going to be a fair fight; more than fair, it’s going to be a fun fight.

Part of what makes Hopper such an eerily addictive screen presence is the feeling of childlike joy he imbued into deathly circumstances. In Blue Velvet, for instance, the contrast is terrifying, but here in True Romance, it’s actually touching. Playing a man who knows death is upon him, Hopper, toward the end of the scene, can’t help but show a smile, and not because he has a morbid death wish, but because, above all else, he is a man who loves the ride. Even at his darkest, you could see him on a rollercoaster, throwing his hands up in the air when everyone else was holding on for dear life. That’s the kind of man – and actor – he was. Whether it was up or down, Dennis Hopper just wanted the trip.

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Today’s Word

“Everybody these days is talking about transmedia,” said video game agent Keith Boesky in a recent New York Times article. “Transmedia”! Finally my enemy has a name.

I remember the afternoon I first had a sense of what was to come. It was in film school. One day, from out of nowhere, it was decided that we of USC’s Film Production department were required to take a video game class. The moment I heard the news I remember thinking, “Years from now, I will look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of meaningful content in Hollywood.” It was a flash-forward containing a flashback.

That day, I barged – literally, barged – into the dean’s office. I was shaky, borderline belligerent, and fueled by the righteous fire of someone whose parents were footing the bill.

“This is a mistake,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding with the video games.”

The dean looked up. His still eyes, peering out from behind thick screenwriterly frames, told me it was no use. “It’s the future,” he muttered. “Electronic narrative is the future.”

“Electronic narrative? I came here to learn film. Cinema. Not to analyze Donkey Kong.”

“It’s a good skill to have.” He put down his dog-eared copy of Syd Field. “Another arrow for your quiver.”

“What arrow? What quiver? I want human feelings!”

“It’s another form of story telling. That’s all.”

“Show me a video game that does what Cries and Whispers does, and I’ll take the class. Show me Ingmar Bergman’s Mortal Kombat, in which I can play Liv Ullmann and do battle with a total metaphysical breakdown, and you’ve got yourself a convert.” I was kidding, but I was completely serious.

The next day, I was in a basement with fifteen pale-faced boys who I was certain had never seen a bare tit in their lives. For two hours, we discussed a game called Grand Theft Auto. Then I raised my hand.

“Have any of you ever wept at the end of a video game?” I asked. “I mean really wept. Convulsive sobs.”

They blinked back at me. Then one spoke.

“The end of Final Fantasy IV is really sad.”

I didn’t speak. My professor – in all honesty, a very nice man – tried then to help me see it another way. “You know, of course, that film was originally perceived as a low-culture medium.”

“You can’t compare the evolution of a mammal to the evolution of an amoeba,” I announced. “Film came from D.W. Griffith. You people come from Pong.”

After class that day, I returned to the dean and begged him for clemency. “They’re Pong People,” I pleaded. “And they’re going to kill us.”

The dean hung his head.

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Bigger Than Life

This weekend I had the good fortune to break in the new Criterion Blu-ray of Bigger Than Life with L.A.’s foremost family of cinema, The Goldblatts.

There is so much to discuss about Bigger Than Life that one feels the only way to say it is with a PowerPoint presentation, or at the very least, three or four dioramas, a copy of David Halberstam’s The Fifites, a brief overview of German Expressionism, Sirk, Kazan, Cinemascope, and a handful of Ann Goldblatt’s oatmeal cookies.

At once bravura and almost invisibly subtle, director Nick Ray has fused a startling number of cinematic precepts in Bigger Than Life, drawing connections between genres, styles, and states of mind with such freeform proficiency, it’s easy to forget that an ordinary director would never think to combine them, let alone succeed in doing so. In Johnny Guitar, by contrast, Ray was just as playful, and though I admire his brazen blending, in that picture, he’s overt about it in a way only Godard and his acolytes could truly love (and they do). But in Bigger Than Life, Ray’s mind is just is hot – and it never gives off steam.

Style aside, the movie has guts. To disassemble, with Ray’s level of insight and complexity, the foundation of fifties America – and here’s the best part – in the midst of fifties America, without ever once succumbing to excess, browbeating, or the narrow-minded assurance of a missionary, is a feat of sensitivity on par with his achievement in composition. Unlike Kazan, Ray never makes judgments; unlike Sirk he doesn’t deal in polarities. That’s what makes Bigger Than Life so rewarding. For all its color, it dwells in the grey.

Even today, the film’s moral ambiguity is troubling. As James Mason descends (rather, ascends) into madness, there’s a part of you that’s relieved, even a little excited to see him live. You think, maybe a little suburban nonconformity might not be so bad after all. “Don’t you get tired of the same story, over and over?” Mason asks his TV-glued son. The answer, obviously, is no (this is 1956). But at what point does nonconformity become psychosis? How much disruption is too much? Thanks to Mason’s subtle modulations, we’re always refashioning our answer – all the way to the end of the film. As Bigger Than Life eases, almost superficially, toward its resolution, one gets the sense that familial security may come again. But at what price?

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Riding the Wave

Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, Two in the Wave, about Godard, Truffaut, and everyone’s favorite Vague, opens this week. A.O. Scott wrote something characteristically bland here.

Forgive me, but I have to sin. When Godard and Truffaut behave as themselves, their films tend to slip into excess; Godard goes into solipsistic maximalism, and Truffaut into a kind of flabby melancholy. I know I’m supposed to be wild about Pierrot le fou but it’s just so damn polemical I can’t bring myself to give it the second and third chances everyone tells me I should (at least Brecht, when he got too Brechtian, had Kurt Weill to diffuse the air of importance). Same with all of those later Truffaut love stories. Put on one of the Antoine Doinel movies (after The 400 Blows), and I’ll start to wish I were watching Woody Allen, or if he fulfills his promise, Noah Baumbach.

My blasphemy ends there. While it’s true I never loved Truffaut and never loved Godard, I love Godard when he acts like Truffaut and Truffaut when he acts like Godard. You could see a touch of each of them in Day for Night and Contempt, films as formally rigorous as they are romantic. Personally, I can’t get enough of either.

And while we’re on the subject of The New Wave, I can’t resist shouting out to my two favorite Vague-ers, both of whom, film for film, are more consistent, and I think cleverer, than either Truffaut or Godard. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Agnes Varda and Claude Chabrol.

I haven’t been shy about my longstanding love affair with Claude Chabrol (I gushed here), but I haven’t yet had a platform to practice my fondness for Varda, the filmmaker they call “The Godmother of The French New Wave.”

It comes down to this: in films like Vagabond (her masterpiece) and The Beaches of Agnes, Varda shows herself to be someone who plays with cinema the way Frank Gehry plays with buildings. Godard plays too, but to extend the architectural analogy, he’s more like Frank Lloyd Wright – he doesn’t play well with others. But Agnes does. She takes you by the hand and leads you through the maze. Even when she leads too forcefully, you never regret being in her company, and even when she’s mischievous, you never leave exhausted. The freedoms Truffaut and Godard proposed – freedoms that often shackled them – Varda continues to renew.

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Thinking about Mike Figgis

The work of director Mike Figgis has always been of particular interest to me.

From more traditional films, like his adaptation of The Browning Version, through his looser, more playful experiments in video technology (i.e. Timecode and Hotel), Figgis never seems to have touched the same ground twice. But his films are his throughout.

I could point to any number of patterns. My personal favorite, a quality that continues to pop up in these films again and again, is Figgis’s deep investment in sensuality. I don’t mean sex (though that surely is a part of it), I mean a voluptuousness of sound, color, and cutting – especially cutting – that pervades even his starkest pictures. Figgis rarely needs a dissolve; his pictures seem to dissolve all the time, like thin wafers on a hot tongue. And there is no better example than those of Leaving Las Vegas, the centerpiece film of his career, and arguably one of the defining films of the 90s.

No other indie feature of the era started with so little to go so far, beginning with a budget of a few million dollars and Super 16mm film, and ending at the Oscars. Other pictures started with less, and some went farther, but none spanned the entire range like Leaving Las Vegas. Add to that Figgis’s renaissance-man approach to filmmaking, which transcends the confines of the regular old auteur (more than the film’s writer/director, he scored the film, edited, operated, and invented camera equipment specifically for his cinematic needs), and you have the poster child of successful DIY filmmaking.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be interviewing Figgis for something I plan to write for the 15th Anniversary of Leaving Las Vegas (yes, that was fifteen years ago), and because I know pretty much everyone interested in motion pictures has something to say about the film, I thought I’d throw out the line a little early and see what thoughts were tossed my way.

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What Does Cannes Do?

In the spring, a young cineaste’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Cannes. Or, in the case of certain cineastes, not so lightly.

Does it matter? Does Cannes really do anything anymore, or has it become an airless pageant, one long, beachside photo-op with a few screenings thrown in for old times’ sake?

No: Cannes does matter. As opposed to Sundance, a festival which seems to get more and more insular, self-congratulatory, and (I don’t even know if this phrase will make sense) aesthetically vestigial with every passing year, The Cannes Film Festival has continued to raise the level of film consciousness not just in France, but throughout the world.

Cannes’ partnership with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, along with its commitment to spotlighting documentaries about filmmaking (this year’s subjects include docs about Ingmar Bergman and legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff), is proof of the festival’s seriousness. But Cannes’ greatest gift to the film going world is, I think, in the field of restoration. Every year, after a vigorous cleaning-up (or in the case of certain critical cases, a full-blown rescue), a new crop of classics – some of them fringe, some of them mainstream – gets a Cannes platform. And because a Cannes platform means a world platform, these great works can once again (or maybe even for the first time) be given their due.

This year’s round of restored prints includes Bunuel’s Tristana (presented by Almodovar), Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, as well as The Tin Drum, Psycho, The Kiss of The Spider Woman (too long forgotten), The African Queen (too long remembered), and – this one’s particularly exciting – a restoration of Visconti’s The Leopard, which contains what is easily the most purely beautiful passages of film ever shot. Now they will be more beautiful than ever.

When people talk about movies looking beautiful you’ll often hear them say, “It looked like a painting,” or something to that effect. They mean it as high praise, but often, the painterly, portrait-like compositions they’re referring to are too studied, making the movie feel dead and stilted, more like a museum piece than an actual living, moving piece of life captured on film. Naturally, studied can be beautiful – as in the films of Peter Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman and others – but in The Leopard, especially in the film’s final moments, Luchino Visconti is onto something trickier: portraits that move. Keeping up that painterly framing is no easy task considering that the very nature of the moving image means his compositions must be ever-changing. So how does he do it? How does Visconti keep his world alive without losing his hold on the perfect frame?

Now that the film is restored, we’ll have a clearer answer than ever before.

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Gaslit

Yesterday, upon discovering Iron Man 2 had sucked in $133.6 million over the weekend, I stumbled to a brunch of six Bloody Marys. Only moments later I found myself conversing with George Cukor. Here is a snippet from our nearly four-hour exchange:

GC: Put down that butter knife! Put it –

SW: I’ll do it, I swear!

GC: Put it down!

SW: Try and stop me! Just try – ow! – let go of my neck!

GC: Give me the knife!

SW: [Suddenly crying] George…I just don’t…A hundred and thirty three –

GC: Shhhh…Sit down…

SW: [Crying harder] I just…I don’t…

GC: Sit down, Sammy.

SW: I – okay…

GC: Have another sip.

SW: Thank you.

GC: There, there. That’s a good lad.

SW: I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but somehow I am…every time…every single…I don’t know…

GC: Hey, did I ever tell you the story about Judy on Star is Born?

SW: No. This is my first hallucination.

GC: Ah. Well, toward the end of shooting we had to do a scene when she’s in a state of total depression after her husband’s suicide. Do you remember the scene?

SW: Yes.

GC: Keep drinking. Breathe through your nose.

SW: What –

GC: Drink.

SW: Okay.

GC: While we lined it up Judy just sat there, very preoccupied….Just before the take I said to her very quietly, “You know what this is about. You really know this.” She gave me a look, and I knew she was thinking, “He wants me to dig into myself because I know all about this in my own life.” That was all. We did a take. And she got up and screamed like someone out of control, maniacal and terrifying….She had no concern with what she looked like, she went much further than I’d expected, and I thought it was great…

SW: Did you –

GC: When it was over, I said to Judy, “You really scared the hell out of me.” She was very pleased, and she didn’t realize what an effect she’d made. And then — she was always funny, she had this great humor — she said, “Oh, that’s nothing. Come over to my house any afternoon. I do it every afternoon.”

SW: Wow. Tell me another one.

GC: [Chuckles] Some other time, perhaps.

SW: Please, George?

GC: I’m pretty tired and there are a lot of other filmgoers I have to get to before – put down the knife!

SW: I’m going to do it!

GC: Put it down!

SW: I swear, George! This time I’m serious!

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