Category Archives: Kvetches

Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

I Got a Kick out of You

Nothing makes a critic seem more out of touch with his era than playing the “they don’t make em like they used to” card, but I happen to think, in the case of the Hollywood romantic comedy, a critic who doesn’t play the card is out of touch with his art form.

I played the card (once more with feeling) in a recent issue of Elle magazine.

The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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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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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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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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The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Manohla is on her game this morning. Her review of The Back-Up Plan is a sad reminder that romantic comedy continues to scrape up against the dank, dark bottom of the Hollywood barrel.

For any number of reasons, the genre that was once typified by It Happened One Night and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, has fallen farther than any other. With the possible exception of the Hollywood musical, which has a very good excuse for its dissolution (end of studios, end of resources), the decline of the romantic comedy is undoubtedly the most grievous lesion on the lumbering zombie that has become popular American film.

Blindfold yourself, spin around twice, and land a finger anywhere on Manohla’s review and you’ll find a reason why. Go ahead, try it. I did:

“The Back-Up Plan” is innocuous and unmemorable, and pretty much looks like a lot of sitcoms do. It will scale down well on your television, a medium that was made for close-ups of characters sharing and caring.

Right. A large part of the problem is that romantic comedies all look the same. Action films, epic dramas, science fiction adventures – these films are practically all look, and as such, jump whole hog into visual style, varying their aesthetic from prequel to sequel and back to prequel at the rate of a fourth grader trading baseball cards, and almost to a shameful degree, as if it were a cover for their lack of original content. Then there’s the romantic comedy. They all look the same. Bright, evenly distributed light, easy-going medium shots, and no sudden movements. But this is not cinema – this is the anesthetic aesthetic of the convalescent hospital. “Don’t worry, Grandpa! You won’t feel a thing!”

It seems silly to speak of aesthetics when discussing the genre responsible for films like The Bounty Hunter and 27 Dresses. I can already hear cries of “They’re just meant to be entertaining,” as if the doctrines of comedy and thoughtlessness were intended to go hand in hand. But I can remember a time – a time before I was born – when style was entertainment; when Annie Hall was funny not just because of its “entertainment” value, but because Woody Allen found a visual correlate for the searching, elastic mind of Alvy Singer; when a film like A Shot in the Dark, which never aimed higher than gut-level, could be as committed to boffo laffs as it was to widescreen framing; when The Apartment, which has more laughs than a whole season of romantic comedies, allowed its bitterness to come through black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph LaShelle.

True, these are masterpieces, but the same could be said for all sorts of other, lesser films made before Hollywood gave up on its once favorite genre. The only reason I don’t mention them here is because they don’t make the point as forcefully. But I assure you, they make the point. Watching Soapdish again the other night, I saw it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered it, but I didn’t mind. With its vigorous camera moves and robust palette, the film had the feeling of a low-calorie Almodovar movie, and in my book of damn good efforts, that wins it a hearty handshake and a slap on the back.

But Soapdish was released twenty years ago. What am I going to see tonight?

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