Category Archives: Watching Watching

Talking to Schickel about Talking to Scorsese

Conversations-with-directors books can go one of two ways: Either the directors want to analyze their work, or they don’t. Those who do either obscure the films with trivial esoterica or — as is the case with Martin Scorsese, in Richard Schickel’s new book, Conversations With Scorsese — illuminate their choices with a pragmatic instinct verging on the intimate, as though they were discussing not shots and lenses but their own biography.

Click here to read my L.A. Weekly interview with Schickel about his interview with Scorsese.

Last Night at The Rome Film Festival

It was like a scene from Modern Times. I was standing on line for the Rome Film Festival’s opening night screening of Last Night, unceremoniously packed in with some of the rowdiest filmgoers I have ever met, when, after about twenty minutes, I realized I was in the middle of an all-out protest. I had no idea over what. For a moment, I tried to negotiate myself out of the mob, but once they started moving toward what I hoped was the cinema, I figured staying with them would keep me from getting lost all over again. And now that I know why they were gathering, I’m glad I joined them, if only for a moment.

Hundreds of writers, directors, actors, and other employees of the Italian culture sector had turned out to protest government funding cuts that have taken, and will continue to take, a serious toll on film industry workers. They broke through the crowd of media and civilians that had lined up – presumably, to get a look at Keira Knightley or Eva Mendes, stars of Last Night – and spread themselves out, most of them sitting, over every square inch of red carpet, chanting and orating all the while.

It was quite a sight. Those of us who had already made it into the auditorium, watched it all on the big screen inside of the theater, which, in slightly uncomfortable contrast, was beginning to fill with the type of well-groomed movie people who probably don’t have to worry as much about their employment. Then again, maybe they do.

After a significant delay, the lights dimmed. Last Night’s stars and filmmakers were paraded in, a few words of introduction were made, the jury was introduced, and the lights dimmed further. The film began.

Joanna and Michael Reed (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington), a young and affluent Manhattan couple, are the sort of loft-living folk we see a lot of in today’s New York movies – in other words, people you want to be, but are glad you aren’t. Things start to fray, at least officially, when Joanna confronts Michael about a crush he may (or may not) be having with Laura (Eva Mendes), a business associate he’s been going out of town with.

What follows is a vaguely familiar riff on the jealousy ronde. We’ve all been there, in movies and in life, and for a good part of Last Night it’s tough to figure out why we’re back. But I was glad we were. Keira Knightley, who seems to grow more intelligent with every movie, takes such fearful pleasure in running into and then going out with Alex (Guillaume Canet), her ex-boyfriend, that watching her try to make up her mind, one forgets, at least temporarily, that there is still another half of the picture waiting in the wings. That half – the will they or wont they dance of Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes – lacks the spark of real attraction, the quiet glinting looks and bashful smiles Knightley and Canet plugged into the moment they appeared together on screen.

But my mind kept going back to the rally on the red carpet. Were they still holding out?

The Dolce Life

The best view of the red carpet, I realized, was from above.

Browsing the bleachers a full hour before even the press arrived for The Rome Film Festival’s world premiere restoration of La Dolce Vita, I decided, finally, on a front row seat next to a shrunken woman of about seventy. Surrounded by blankets and snacks and cigarettes, she looked like she had been waiting all day. “No Scorsese?” she asked as I sat down beside her. (Scorsese was scheduled to introduce the film.) I told her it was still early. He’d be here. Disgusted, she threw up her hands. “No Scorsese, no cinema!” I’m not quite sure I agree, but it’s hard to disagree.

Fifty years after La Dolce Vita’s original release, the film has been restored from its original widescreen negative for the clean up of a lifetime. The premiere, which was itself a thing out of Fellini – from Nino Rota on the loudspeakers to the paparazzi on the floor – saw an avalanche of beautiful stars that all looked liked twins, save for one. Early in the parade, before things got too frenzied, a black car stopped as close to the carpet as it possibly could, a policeman flew to the door, opened it (slowly), reached in, and out came a cane, a foot, and then the rest of Anita Ekberg. The place went nuts.

As the new stars began to appear, with their smiles and waves and tastefully torn clothing, the mighty Ekberg limped wryly toward the press line, accentuating every labored step with a grande sigh. She had a lot of carpet to walk, and watching her fight it, prodding it with her cane and laughing all the while was a thrill even the most immaculately restored La Dolce Vita would not likely upstage. Moreover, Ekberg was the only woman on the red carpet with a purse slung over her shoulder, as if she had just came from lunch. How could you not love that?

I moved inside the theater to watch the rest of the arrivals on the big screen, in close up. There I rediscovered Ekberg’s entire face. Tickled, I found her jack-o-lantern smile, enormous eyes, and high-pointed eyebrows told of a darker, wittier person than I remembered from the movies. But I have a good defense: after the Trevi Fountain scene, all you can do is remember the Trevi Fountain scene.

The camera then drifted away from Anita (what would have Fellini have done with a Steadicam?) to Scorsese, and the entire theater erupted in applause and cheers, and then immediately hushed to hear what he had to say. At that moment someone behind me whispered, “You don’t have to be tall to be big.” In other words, No Scorsese, no cinema.

Once the little giant entered the building, things started to move quickly. There were a few introductions and some clips before Anita Ekberg was brought out on stage (with purse) to remember the filming, which she did with sardonic glee. I’m not sure, but she may have cackled. In fact, Ekberg got so gleeful she didn’t even see the cortege of stagehands that had gathered to signal her time was up. So she went on, gleefully, and as her enthusiasm grew, they moved closer, until finally the cluster was on stage, practically standing beside her. Even then she didn’t see them. So deep was her Fellini trance, they had to literally, almost physically, interrupt her sentence to bring her back to the present. It was glorious.

Then Scorsese. Watching La Dolce Vita, he said, is like the dream sequence – Guido freefalling – that opens 8 ½. “You feel like you’re flying,” he said. “At times it’s frightening or even terrifying. But at the same time it’s liberating.” In other words, no Fellini, no cinema.

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.


Farce Populi

This week, The New York Times ran a piece about the all-African American remake of the all-British farce, Death at a Funeral. Will it work?

Farce, like the human mind, needs repression to survive; it’s the coiled spring before it’s sprung. That’s why the British, and in the golden days of Feydeau, the French, do/did it better than anyone else. There was much to hide; there were appearances to keep up. But in here in America, where expression and individuality are points of national pride, and one film comedy after the next sees the ante upped on vulgarity, containment looks less like a virtue than a sin. We like to get things off our chest. Freud always liked that about us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some highly vulnerable, highly fulfilling comedies, like Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Cassavetes’s Husbands (to name only two), feature the distinctly American quality of earnest, open expression. But one has to wonder, aren’t we ashamed of something? Don’t we have back boudoirs, dark, guilt-ridden consciousnesses that need liberating?

Few contemporary American writers and directors, with the notable exception of David Mamet, have acknowledged the embarrassing reality of American secrecy; that we, like the British, like every culture on earth, are still very much afraid of very much. Mamet’s film State and Main, and his plays November and Romance – the greatest farce American theater has produced in my lifetime – are predicated on political and commercial duplicity, and what could be more patriotic than that? These aren’t the bedroomdoorslammers of Billy Wilder – just what the doctor ordered for fifties America, when the country was fraught with sexual repression –but the modern equivalent, perfect for today’s America, a country enmeshed in perpetual masquerade – Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot – from sea to shining sea.

The original version of Death and a Funeral understood this notion completely. Frank Oz’s film combined the British love of propriety with the staunch formality of mourning – the perfect spring, double coiled – and pulled that bad boy back, back, way back to its breaking point. Oh, the release! The release! But what will happen in the new Chris Rock version, when the British funeral becomes an African-American one?

It’s an exciting idea. Has there been an all-black farce? Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor only dabbled in the form; Trading Places and Silver Streak are straight-ahead comedies with the requisite farcical outbursts, and they are as much about Dan Ackroyd and Gene Wilder as they are about Murphy and Pryor. The new Death at a Funeral is a whole new thing entirely.

What will an all-black farce even look like? How will the African-American brand of mainstream comedy, which relies on sexual forthrightness and a kind of flamboyant grandeur, be expanded to include the precepts of containment? I for one am excited to find out.


Thumbing Down

Continuing to track the critics who continually track the decline of film criticism, I thought I’d say a word or two about A.O. Scott’s ineffectual apologia, “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All,” which appeared in this week’s New York Times.

First, a bit about A.O. Scott. I like him. He backs up his assertions, doesn’t let his taste impair his judgment, and he’s pleasant to read. Yes, in my book, that makes A.O. Scott a fair critic. But I don’t think he’s a forceful one. Years from now, I suspect we’ll look on Scott as we do Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ upper middle-brow status-quo critic of the forties, fifties, and part of the sixties, a man who is remembered less for his voice than his bland, unshakable standards. He was the gold standard of standard criticism.

Now that the whole damn everything about professional film criticism is under siege, Scott has thrown down in favor of (what else?) the critic. He maintains film criticism will be just fine because, as he goes on to explain, criticism is an essential part of the human impulse to debate. He writes,

It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.

Fair enough in theory, but dead wrong in fact. If criticism weren’t a profession, then A.O. Scott would not be paid for the piece I’ve drawn from. And as one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, I think it’s safe to assume he was.

So why diminish his arrangement? Why make a play for the other side? It can only be that Scott is trying to ingratiate himself to the winning team, and to do so, he believes – wrongly, I might add – that he has to deny his own qualifications to leap aboard the blogwagon. For all of his “Everything’s going to be fine” etc., that sounds a lot like surrender to me.

He’s not alone. It has become intensely unfashionable, and even a tad offensive, to assert evidence of one’s own expertise. Long before blogging, when I was in the Liberal Arts racket, students were encouraged to “teach” their teachers in small discussion sections used in adjunct to the main lectures. The underlying idea, that the very notion of “knowledge” (or, to use the term of the day, “hegemony”) was extended to all people, no matter what their background, accomplishments, or IQ, was meant to be a very uplifting thing indeed. All are welcome! All are right! But the fallout is now upon us. A.O. Scott, who I would count among the lecturers, has abdicated to the discussion group. I wish he would go back to the podium.

Because the world of learned criticism is not a democracy. It’s a savage oligarchy.


On Recommending Movies

When someone I don’t know tells me “I have to see it,” I can be almost positive I don’t. The reasoning behind this is simple: If they don’t know me, how can they know what I have to see, let alone what I’ll actually like?

Yet it happens all the time, and not just with me. People go around telling each other that they’re “Going to love it,” when so often what they really mean is, “I loved it.” The impulse to share enthusiasm is a good one, but when it’s misdirected, when the enthusiast confuses his taste with others, an unfelt frisson begins, one that could potentially discredit the recommender and leave the recipient wondering, “How well does x really know me?”

I’m not exaggerating. To recommend a movie is to know the person you’re recommending it to, to know a person is to understand them, and to understand them is, in a small way, to share a bond. Which is why I’m reluctant to go around telling certain people what they have to see. Only true rapport can convey that kind of emotional knowledge, the good gamble that there may be an equation sign between x person and y movie.

On the occasion – not as rare as you might expect – when a close friend recommends a movie I end up truly loving, I do in fact feel something like kinship. I feel the warm hand of understanding on my back, and I think, “Yes, thank you for seeing a part of me.” A part of me I might not even have seen myself.

What often ends up happening is that you learn something about the person who recommended the film to you. “Yes, I can see why x loves y! I would have never thought that he…or that we…” It’s a good feeling.

This is all to say that I can’t go ahead and recommend Deep End, Jerzy Skolimowski’s turbulent film of 1971, but a friend of mine did, and I sure liked it (I’ve posted a short clip above). But how did he know that this perverse, low-budget bit of kitchen-sink (sur)realism, poorly dubbed, and tonally fractured, would even remotely appeal to me, especially when, truth be told, I don’t have much patience for films in which fantasy (maybe) becomes reality?

Honestly, I don’t know my friend knew. That’s what makes recommending films – or books or music or anything – less a prerogative than a talent. To do it well, you have to see something others can’t. You have to see into people. And films. If you can do both, you can make a whole lot of good happen a whole lot of the time.