Monthly Archives: June 2010

Micmacs is The New Film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

I remember the day I saw The City of Lost Children, the first of Jeunet’s films to really breakthrough into US art houses.

I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure now it was one of those outbursts of total imagination, like Caligari and Metropolis and Brazil, films whose singularity is without precedent or successor. In trying to describe it, one inevitably sells it short, but if we’re going to try to understand how far Jean-Pierre Jeunet has fallen in the years since The City of Lost Children, it’s important to try to put a finger on what he once was.

The achievement, as always, is twofold; one happened in front of the camera and the other behind it. First, with co-director Marc Caro, Jeunet created the world of The City of Lost Children. Simply, they gave us a mise-en-scene that expressed the sound and complicated logic of their new world. Vivid sets, costumes, and a company of actors matched only by the faces in Daumier, gave us just about everything we would need to experience total immersion. Then came the camera, the second achievement. Having set the stage, Jeunet and Caro bent it into the kind of expressionistic nightmare Jacques Tati might have had after a night of reading The Brothers Grimm, drunk on absinthe. Their taffy-like camera could go anywhere and do anything. It was elastic. It flew. It moved like a flea, it moved like a crane.

I remember the day – days after seeing The City of Lost Children – when I discovered that Jeunet and Caro had made another film, Delicatessen, which I must have been to young to have caught on its first run in 1991. I rented it, and had the same eureka – perhaps a double eureka – compounded by the new knowledge of Jeunet and Caro I brought to the viewing. To this day, I’m still not sure which film is better. Like a good fairy tale, The City of Lost Children packs an emotional punch; but Delicatessen, in its wit and caricature, is as clever about human strangeness as Bunuel’s drollest films. I could watch them forever and – as Joni Mitchell says – still be on my feet.

Then Jenuet got hot, took a job directing Alien Resurrection (the fourth, and worst, of the Alien franchise), retreated for several years of wound-licking, and returned with Amelie in 2001. There isn’t really much to say about that. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I remember it felt like the product of a diluted sensibility. What it had was an excess of charm (almost cloying) and a colorful, Rube Goldberg approach to narrative. Okay, fine. If people loved it, it was probably because they didn’t know about the great work that had preceded it. Those of us who were already fans of Jeunet and Caro expected more from the circus.

After Amelie, Jeunet continued on without Caro (they split after Alien Resurrection) and lost yet another shade of darkness. A Very Long Engagement was a failed attempt to get into David Lean mode; you could feel Jeunet desperately wanting to go global and it came off as insincere. Once again, Audrey Tautou was set up to be the next Audrey Hepburn, but I think we can all see now she was really nothing more than a human pastry. Yum, but where’s the beef?

Now we have Micmacs, Jeunet’s limpest yet. I saw it with a friend, also a fan, and we left the theater with our heads down. “Gilliam, Burton, and now Jeunet,” my friend sighed. I sighed too.

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The Incredibles

Everybody is in love with Toy Story 3. I haven’t seen it yet. (Nor have I seen Shrek 4, the Joan Rivers documentary.)

People and critics alike are going wild. A.O. raved, New York Magazine ran a piece called “Just How Much Will Toy Story 3 Make You Cry?” and The Wrap asked (and answered) “Has Anyone Come Close to Pixar’s 11-Peat?

The picture’s critical and commercial success is a bittersweet reminder that, no matter how bleak it may get (and boy, does it get bleak), Hollywood still works. Sweet because it’s nice to be in love; bitter because love is hard. For it is written, “Falling in love again / Never wanted to / What am I to do? / I can’t help it.”

It’s been a while since I loved this way, since I met a filmmaker, or in this case, studio, that I really felt I could settle down with. Remember Miramax? Remember Canal Plus (the old Canal Plus)? And remember, long, long before that, when Uncle Louis B. Mayer gave us The Freed Unit? That was the best Christmas ever – and it went on for twenty Technicolor years.

We love to talk about auteurs in terms of people, of single creative individuals who shape a film’s sensibility, but Pixar (and Freed and Weinstein and others) are just as worthy of the label. Commanding whole armies of brilliant artists, from writers to costumers to composers to actors, these generals of showbiz – formerly the kings of Hollywood – are now a dying breed. Corporate film is the new auteur, and though it may take many forms (like The Thing in The Thing) its mutations are perverse emulations, like when you go to Vons and buy “Cola” instead of “Coca Cola.” For it is written, “It is for all time or simply a lark? / Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park? / Is it a fancy, not worth thinking of? / Or is it at long last love?”

So keep up the good work over there. You may be our last hope.

P.S. I’m not sure cinema gets better than those first, silent minutes of Wall-E.

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Show Me the Way to Go Home

Jaws celebrates its 35th anniversary this week.

There are all sorts of things worth remembering about Jaws; its fabulously rocky production history, its massive impact on the business of selling movies and the culture at large, and its composition, which is really about as good as it gets, a paragon of the “nothing is wasted” school of efficient storytelling. Take any sequence, go through it shot by shot, and you’ll see a Jenga tower of suspense on film. Removing a single block would likely topple the whole thing.

But for all of that, Jaws has something more, something we don’t often talk about when we talk about scary movies – it cares deeply about its people. Take another look: this is a movie about community. Not just Amity Island, but smaller bands of friends and families, which run through the picture like a vast chain of interlocking arteries. There are the Brodys (Roy Scheider’s family); The Kinters (boy Alex was last seen on the inflatable yellow raft); the intrepid team of Brody, Quint, and Hooper (Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss); and most tantalizingly, the off-screen, long-dead members of the USS Indianapolis, whose story is related in chilling detail by Quint himself.

The film goes to great lengths to ensure that we really feel close to these people. It wants us to understand them as individuals and also as members of groups bound together by – a funny word when talking about Jaws – love. Take another look. The reason the shark is so dangerous, and indeed frightening, is that, unlike regular old monsters that just kill, Jaws tears people apart – in all senses of the term.

This is unquestionably Spielberg’s achievement. Casting the right actors and giving them the right moments is the job of any director, but it are only directors of Spielberg’s sensitivity – a funny word when talking about Spielberg – who think to find those moments where no one else would look. E.T., for instance, is full of such moments; it’s what gives the film its inner illumination, the sense that all of the unreal really is real. Credit is due to everyone on a great film, but in the case of Jaws, it was the captain who ensured that the whole thing, moment to moment, was reduced to its common denominator: feelings of fear and loss. And everyone, no matter what sea they swim in, can understand that.

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Who Was the Real Holly Golightly?

People want to know.

When Vladimir Nabokov published “Lolita,” readers assumed, wrongly, that he himself was Humbert Humbert, and that somewhere out there, a real Lolita -– or Lolitas -– was wandering around New England enchanting older nymphetophiles all the way to their graves or beds, whatever came first. Years earlier, when Thomas Mann published “Death in Venice,” people wondered at who the real Tadzio was (there’s even a small book on the subject: “The Real Tadzio” by Gilbert Adair), just as they wondered, and still wonder, which of Philip Roth’s hot-blooded intellectuals are the closest to Roth himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same was true of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Truman Capote’s story of Manhattan’s most freewheeling, fun-loving, semi-depressive call girl.

As long as there has been fiction, there has been the presumption that certain types of writers -– those working with incendiary, vaguely autobiographical material -– are only capable of romans à clef. Authors may deny it, some even adamantly, and yet their readers insist. But why? Are the priggish out for a scapegoat? Someone to pay for the titillation they refuse to call “imagination”? Or maybe it’s more innocent, and these readers are simply fans looking for another way to engage with the material they love.

When “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was published in the late-’50s, people wanted Capote to cough up names. His whole life long, Truman was forced, privately and in the press, to account for Holly Golightly. Who was she really? “The main reason I wrote about Holly,” the author said in a Playboy interview, “outside of the fact that I liked her so much, was that she was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear.” That’s one answer.

Somewhat problematically, Capote’s cast of real-life characters changed from year to year. Was Holly really the dancer Joan McCracken, who was at one time married to Jack Dunphy, Capote’s longtime lover? It’s true that she, like Holly, met the news of her brother’s death with a fabulous, violent tantrum. Was there meaning in that? And of course there was also the young and lovely Carol Grace, who Capote met soon after her divorce from William Saroyan. And what about Gloria Vanderbilt? She was young and lovely too, and lived in a brownstone like Holly’s, and often entertained houseguest Russell Hurd, a charming gay man with, as she wrote, “the looks of Charlton Heston and the wit of Noel Coward.” That’s Holly and our narrator, is it not?

To read more, please visit the Wall Street Journal’s blog, Speakeasy.

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You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Well, I saw it.

For a long time it was hard to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because the latest Woody Allen movie was so bad. That was ten years ago. Now it’s even harder to care about the latest Woody Allen movie because, more than ever, it seems Woody himself doesn’t care. His 21st century life philosophy, the idea that nothing really matters in our world of arbitrary cause and effect, has more than simply turned his fans into detractors; it has damaged – I think permanently – his relationship to his material. On the occasion of Match Point, critics saw this narrowing of mind as a productive change of course, a new point of view they mistook for a mature turn in a tired body of work. But they were wrong. A close look at any of his films since Match Point and it’s easy to see Woody’s nihilism is no more revelatory than a shrug.

His new movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opens with a narrator’s voice over. Borrowing from Shakespeare’s famous bit about sound and fury and signifying nothing, the speaker asserts – with an air of committed apathy – that the story coming our way is empty and purposeless. Not foolish, mind you, or even frivolous fun; merely naught. A zero.

So why tell it at all?

There’s no answer. Only 98 useless minutes of sitcom situations and banal chatter made excruciating by Woody’s flagrant, almost show-offy disavowal of meaning. Worse, discrediting the very notion of significance in his film, he actually reveals himself to be contemptuous of his audience. According to his logic of sound and fury, those who came to the cinema for a substantial experience in fiction film, would rather dull their acuity with fantasy than live in “enlightened” chaos. Where life is a series of aimless fragments, none of which add up to anything of value, organizing them into narrative form is downright pointless, like building a sculpture of garbage. So what should we do with ourselves when the total of our lives is less than the sum of its parts? (Incidentally, this is the big question in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. And no one is the wiser for asking it: loonies who seek comfort in fortune-tellers are made to look like idiots, and those who know better come off as mean.)

What happened to the Woody Allen who hadn’t made up his mind, who was still unsure about what really matters? From Take the Money and Run to Deconstructing Harry, there never really was much hope for the human race, but there were always hard-won glimmers of goodness, juicy bits of life’s pulp to be scooped out of the tumult. Perhaps that’s why Woody has moved his pictures out of New York. Because in New York, where his camera would be forced into contact with the skyline he once loved, Woody would either have to fall in love all over again or grieve for what he loves no longer. Shooting his film in London allows him to do what he did in Whatever Works – run away from all of it.

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Stardust Memories

The very moment I was invited to see the new Woody Allen movie, I felt that unsettled feeling one invariably feels meeting an old lover for a drink. Really, it’s a feeling I’ve felt before seeing every Woody Allen movie since Small Time Crooks, when things started going south, a full decade ago. You know what I’m talking about.

Me: Hi! Wow!

Her: Hi.

Me: How are you? You look –

Her: Fine. I’m doing…I’m…[trails off]…yeah.

Me: Well, you know, that’s great.

Her: Not really, but…yeah. Anyway.

Me: Okay. [Drinks quickly] God, you know, we used to be something! Remember?

Her: Are we really going to talk about that?

Me: No. I mean, we don’t have to.

Silence.

Me: But it’s true. Remember?

She stirs her drink.

Me: Come on, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose! You were incredible! We were incredible! I mean the two of us together. Right? Because even when you were like Everyone Says I Love You and everyone was disappointed, I was right behind you, saying, “No, no. It’s fine. Really, this is what’s happening, you’re wonderful, and I’ll be there even when you’re…” [Off her look] What’s wrong?

She shakes her head.

Me: What’s wrong?

Her: I don’t want to talk about –

Me: No, no, no…tell me. You can tell me.

Her: You’re bullying me. I’m someone else now.

Me: Bullying? What?

Her: Keep your voice down.

Me: I’m just trying to have a conver-

Her [blurting]: It’s just that every time I see you we talk about the same things! Diane Weist, Robert Greenhut…

Me: Those were great times, our times! Remember Mighty Aphrodite, even then–

Her: I remember! I remember!

Me: And that night at the Angelika? Manhattan Murder Mystery? Even when you weren’t all dressed up, you were adorable…

Her: You see, that’s your problem. You’re stuck in then. You always were. Even when we met all you wanted was Annie Hall and Manhattan. You you you you. Gordon Willis and Santo Loquasto and you you you! But what about me, the new me?

Me: I wanted the new you.

Her: I gave you Deconstructing Harry and you were blasé.

Me: I’ve changed.

Her: No you haven’t. Match Point and Vicky Cristina

Me [incredulous laughter]: I can’t believe you’re doing this.

Her: Doing what?

Me: You’re not really bringing those up, are you?

Her: Why the hell shouldn’t I?

Me: Oh come on. Those things weren’t any good. They just weren’t as bad.

She slaps me.

Me: What am I supposed to say? “You really returned to form”? No way, honey. No way. You got lazy. You let me down. You let all of us down. And all of your “I have to see the Knicks” bullshit, what’s that about?

Her: I love the Knicks.

Me: Okay. Fine. Wrap at 5:00. I don’t care. Wrap at 4:00 if you want to. But tell me this: how can you call it a day and not get a single good take in there?

Her: I don’t have to take this from you.

Me: You say you love masters but really what you mean is “I don’t want to do another set up.”

Her: I’m leaving.

Me: There were shots in Cassandra’s Dream that were out of focus!

Her: I’m leaving now.

She gets up.

Me: Okay, take it easy, take it easy. Sit down, alright? Okay, I’m the guy that loves Radio Days, remember?

Her [calming down]: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m getting older. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t even know if I like it anymore, but I do it. I keep doing it. So if you don’t like all of them, well, I’m sorry. I really am. I wish you would. But I’m not Bergman.

Me: There you go with that again. You always say that.

Her: Well it’s true.

Me: No it is not. You’re just as good as he is, just as smart, just as meaningful, just as –

Her: No….

He takes her hand.

Me [gently]: God damn it, would you listen to me?

She’s quiet.

Me: Just listen to me. I’m going to say one thing and then I swear I’ll stop, okay?

She nods.

Me: Okay.

He takes a breath.

Me: Husbands and Wives.

She says nothing.

Me: That’s Bergman quality. Remember? Judy Davis and –

Her: I remember everything.

She smiles sadly.

Me: When we were good, we were good, huh?

Her: There was no one better.

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Safe Sex

I woke up this morning happy to discover the lovely Mary Kaye Schilling had written a lovely riff on 5th Avenue, 5 AM in this week’s New York Magazine. Here’s the top of it:

On the morning the film began shooting—a chilly dawn, October 2, 1960—Audrey Hepburn was seated in a cab. She had big doubts about this role, right down to the Danish in a paper bag sitting beside her. She hated Danishes and had asked her director, Blake Edwards, if she could switch to an ice-cream cone; he said no, pointing out that it was breakfast, after all. When “Action!” was called, the taxi drove up Fifth Avenue and stopped on the corner of 57th Street. Hepburn—wearing sunglasses and a black Givenchy gown—stepped out of the car and paused on the curb to gaze up at Tiffany’s. In that moment, the actress, in the guise of Holly Golightly, created an indelible cinematic moment—and a new future for women. “No Holly, no Carrie Bradshaw, no Sex and the City,” says Sam Wasson, whose new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m. (June 22), is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A fascination with fascination is one way of describing Wasson’s interest in a film that not only captures the sedate elegance of a New York long gone, but that continues to entrance as a love story, a style manifesto, and a way to live. “It’s crossed generations in ways Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other cliché classics haven’t,” says Wasson, who unearths such juicy tidbits as the near-cutting of the indelible theme song “Moon River,” the utter dickishness of co-star George Peppard, who played the love interest, and the protest over Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man. Wasson wanted to know the reason for its cultural longevity, and once he started asking, the inevitable answer was Audrey Hepburn. But something about the idolatry bugged him. “Hepburn has become a near-saintly figure, untouchable. That didn’t sit well with me. I thought there was a human being there who needed to be looked at.”

For the rest, please check out New York Magazine.

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