Archive for October, 2009
On Friday night I had the pleasure of watching a 35mm print of 1969′s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In attendance were William Goldman, the screenwriter, and Robert Crawford, who directed The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which invented the making-of documentary that is now an expected part of every DVD release. At the time, no one had ever thought to film what was happening behind the scenes on a film. George Roy Hill, who directed Butch Cassidy, wanted to know what exactly it was that he did as a director, and he thought it would be helpful to students of film studies (then a burgeoning topic of study) at his alma mater Yale University. (You can watch the entire documentary for free here. Some NSFW language.) Crawford had interesting things to say about the production and its stars, but the highlight of the evening was listening to 78 year-old William Goldman discuss screenwriting and the production of Butch Cassidy in particular.
While there were plenty of revealing elements about the casting of the film (originally Paul Newman wanted to play the Sundance Kid with Jack Lemmon in the Butch Cassidy role; Marlon Brando wanted in; Warren Beatty wanted in; Robert Redford was a virtual unknown at the time), it was Goldman discussing the writing process that was so interesting. He had plenty of advice to give. For starters, don’t be a playwright. (In part because critics are people who have failed at everything else in life and are thus very nasty, a view I thought had died away years ago.) Second, quoting himself in what has become a classic line about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” Why did his script sell for a record $400,000 after a bidding war when two weeks before every studio but one rejected it? Because in Hollywood, everyone is guessing. Nobody knows why (to use his examples) The Hangover was a massive hit and the Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates flopped. But one thing you can be sure of is that the wrong person will be blamed. When Hill was searching for a cinematographer for Butch Cassidy, he chose Conrad L. Hall. But Warner Brothers blamed Hall for Morituri (1965), a flop addled by production problems, problems that Goldman attributed to its notoriously difficult stars, Marlon Brando and Yul Brenner. Hill provided an ultimatum to the studio over Hall, the studio caved, and the result is one of the most luscious soft-focus westerns ever made.
That soft-focus style (over-exposed, back-lit) has gone out of fashion (hastened in part by the shift from film to digital over the last decade, I would speculate), but watching the light play off Newman, Redford, Katherine Ross, and those Utah and Wyoming landscapes off a well-preserved film strip is something staggering to behold. I’m a firm believer in watching a movie in a manner as close to its recording style (digital projection for digital video, film projection for film strips) and this further confirms my commitment to that principle.
Goldman, who also wrote the scripts for The Princess Bride (based on his book), The Stepford Wives (1965), All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Misery, and Absolute Power, is a film legend. But as he expressed, the only two films he was involved with that he thinks worked out okay are Butch Cassidy and The Princess Bride.
He admitted that this is only the second time in the last forty years that he has watched Butch Cassidy, and he said he was pleased by how well it helped up. He attributed that success to the performances of Newman and Redford, the direction of Hill, and the cinematography of Hall, but it doesn’t take Woodward and Bernstein to figure out that the screenwriter gave the film many of its most poignant and influential elements: the Jules and Jim-style interplay of the three leads, the meditations on the death of the Wild West and all that was lost and gained by it, the immensely influential dialogue filled with playful banter and light-hearted irony, the twist on the no-backing-down attitude of John Wayne westerns, and the fully formed male leads that most film historians agree invented the buddy-film genre. Hill may have been devastated that people laughed at his tragedy (to the point of cutting out many of the scenes that got the biggest laughs), but the blend of comedy and tragedy created a tone hardly matched in American film.
Thank you, Mr. Goldman.
I am becoming increasingly bothered about the Rise of the Vampyre.
I have nothing against vampire stories, and all the metaphorical richness that soulless, blood-sucking creatures of the night provide. What’s bothered me recently is the idea of dreamboat manliness that is contained in idealizing male vampires. The most popular recent vampires are male, with devoted female fans. Edward Cullen. That dude from True Blood. Vampire Diaries. About a dozen other cheap knock-offs.
Edward Cullen and his pasty white ilk, when treated as ideals of sexual desire, suggest that the ideal man has the following qualities: distant, cold, pushes you away, feels deeply but can’t express those feelings, prone to bouts of horrific violence (but of course would never harm you). Women, these are not the qualities you should be idealizing. These are the qualities of an abusive boyfriend/husband. When this is the (imaginary) ideal toward which you feel the deepest of longings, the (real) men you choose will be judged on this scale. And frankly, this scale is a little frightening, because it provides excuses for all the wrongs sorts of behavior. Perhaps when movie vampires are in love its true that they won’t hurt the ones they love, but when extremely violent, emotionally stunted real-life men are in love, they still can hurt the ones the love, emotionally and physically.
While there is nothing wrong with having a crush on your dreamiest fictional vampire, and you may be one of the people who can easily separate what makes a man a good partner and what makes an actor a good pin-up, there is still something deeply disturbing about a society in which the character most deeply affected middle school girls and their mothers is a barely restrained, violent monster who promises to never hurt you. (And this is coming from someone on Team Edward.)
The Avett Brothers (brothers Scott and Seth and friend Bob Crawford) take the banjo, guitar, cello, and occasionally piano and drums that belong firmly in the bluegrass tradition of their native North Carolina and take it somewhere completely unexpected. Rather than following the contemporary bluegrass tendencies to play traditional tunes and exhibit superior musicianship through banjo picking and bass plucking, the Avetts play with a punk attitude: screw the classics, screw showiness, and play raw, emotional music. The punk movement was founded on the idea that conveying emotion was far more important than knowing how to play your instruments, and that’s the makes the Avett Brothers so very punk: although very capable and talented mult-instrumentalists, they subsume all aspects of musicianship to the twin forces of singing forcefully and crafting lyrics. Their instruments are played roughly, creating a natural percussion so forceful you hardly notice the lack of drums on most of their songs.
That attitude also makes for a great performance. The audience is drawn in by the clear desire to emote and connect. For a band that isn’t in the mainstream (yet), there are a remarkable number of people singing along at an Avett Brothers concert. On Saturday night in New York City’s Terminal 5, the boys were able to step back and let the audience take over singing on the very first song of the night! I’m not sure I’d seen that immediate a connection before. It sure didn’t hurt that the song was off The Avett Brothers’ best and best loved LP, Emotionalism.
That style of performance has its downside, too. If you are not one of the throngs singing along, but stuck on the edges watching, their is little musicianship happening to engage your attention. (Seeing them at Terminal 5 didn’t help matters with its unusual viewing angles.) And thus arises one of the great concert-going questions: Is it better to be stuck amongst the rabble, claustrophobia setting in, as everyone jostles for positions and drowns out the band, or is it better to be on the edges amongst the beer-swilling loud-talkers? My wife and I had a little of both at Terminal 5. I prefer trading elbow jabs for a chance to experience that communal concert experience, whereas my wife prefers the comfort of breathable air even if that means dealing with people who paid $30 each to stand and talk to their buddies all night.
But the key, of course, is to go. And sing.
The situation-comedy is about as old as television itself. It suffered an agonizing near-death experience in the early 2000s with the rise of the news magazine and the explosion of reality television. Mid-decade critical favorites Arrested Development and 30 Rock have never been commercial hits, and The Office and How I Met Your Mother (the other two highly respected sit-coms of the last few years) haven’t fared all that much better in the ratings.
So what a pleasant surprise 2009 has turned out to be. This year’s critical favorites are Modern Family and Community, and both seem to be getting enough viewers to keep them around for a while. Last spring were the pleasant surprises of Parks and Recreation and Better Off Ted. Reaching back to early 2009, we have Party Down on the Starz! network, which was fairly successful comedically and commercially. Some people found love for Nurse Jackie. Amazingly, even the pilot of Cougar Town wasn’t as terrible as its title suggests.
Why is 2009 the year of the sit-com? I really don’t know, but I think there are a few things that have contributed to all of these successes.
- The ensemble
- Single-camera directing
- Balance of one-liners, sight gags, character humor
- Corporate satire
Each of these shows (I’m excepting Nurse Jackie, which I haven’t seen) chooses to provide, from the outset, at least five or six characters who we can immediately recognize, but get strengthened quickly in the run. Better Off Ted has the fewest at five regular characters, and even the “Lenny and Carl from The Simpsons, only they’re scientists!” pencil sketches become adorably personal through the superior acting of Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett. The smart writers at Community have paired off different characters each week in what has become the most colorful merry-g0-round on NBC’s killer Thursday nights. Parks and Rec took a while to find its sea legs, but this fall it has turned out some of the best 22-minute runs of any show this year by writing to the diverse strengths of its cast. Being able to immediately present an entire family in all its disfunction, as Modern Family does from episode one, or work mates, as Party Down did consistently, from the earliest stages is a pretty remarkable feat, but it has been done repeatedly in 2009.
For all its innovation in story telling, How I Met Your Mother is a very traditional sit-com in its friends-as -family format and three-camera direction. A three-camera show, like Friends, Cheers, or The Cosby Show takes a stage, filmed from only one side, with two additional camera for close-ups. You never see how McLaren’s looks from the doorway, or the Cosby house from the stairwell. A single-camera show, on the other hand, follows its characters through a full 360-degree, three-dimensional world. Each of the new shows uses this format. Some have an even more particular mockumentary style, clearly inspired by the two iterations of The Office. Parks and Recreation even takes some of The Office‘s regular writers and their knowledge of the format. Single-camera directing in general, and the mockumentary format in particular (with its talking head cut-aways), are hallmarks of this year’s crop. This contributes to presenting a more fully realized world, and adds to the feeling that these characters are grounded in real life, even if when a show like Better Off Ted goes for the extreme wackiness of 30 Rock.
Each of these shows is willing to write toward humor that works because the characters work and willing to leave that aside when there’s a really great throwaway gag to be had. This combination of characters that we can track through multiple seasons and gags that have walked right out of a sketch comedy show makes for some great comedy. Some critics fault 30 Rock and The Office for these rapid changes in tone, but I find that makes them more endearing. And that makes for another part of their legacy. Community best exhibits the throwaway gag mixed in with character humor, but each of these sit-coms has it.
The final legacy of 30 Rock and The Office on the current crop of sit-coms is the satirizing of corporate culture. Party Down chronicles the attempts of disenchanted workers to make their work less dull. Better Off Ted, particularly in its fake Veridian Dynamics commercials and the hilarious “Racial Sensitivity” episode, shows top-down corporate stupidity better than any show ever, including 30 Rock‘s continual body blows to NBC/GE/Universal/Sheinhardt Wig(/Comcast?). Parks and Recreation adds local governance to the workplace formula. Modern Family isn’t interested so far in the working world; it takes on the social institution that is the family, but rather than focus on the familiar foibles of family life (a la Everybody Loves Raymond or King of Queens), it treats the family as an unlikely bonding of mutually incompatible personalities – the same philosophy that underlies workplace sit-coms.
It’s heartening to see so many great sit-coms on television right now. For all the serialized glory of Mad Men and challenging nonsense of Lost, that television still has room for making people laugh without a Jaywalking segment is cause for celebrating.
October looks to be a great month for music, probably the best since January of this year. Here’s a preview of what I’m looking forward to listening to this month.
Tuesday, October 6: The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come
John Darnielle, the biggest name in the very small genre of indie lo-fi, structures his annual album around 12 Bible verses, which inform the songs less than they serve as markers for his typically pentetrating lyrics. When he wants, he can let raw emotion scream through better than any death metal band; this makes the album’s highlight Psalm 40:2, where he really cuts loose. Considered by many to be the best lyricist alive, this album is worth a listen (but be warned that his nasally voice will turn some listeners off). Not up to the high standards of The Sunset Tree, but a solid album.
After delving into prog rock with At War with the Mystics (which doubled as a break-up album written about what an awful person Beck is), this album is reportedly a return to the lushness of The Soft Bulletin, which kicked off their late-career revival. Fingers crossed on this one.
Tuesday, October 13: Thao, Know Better Learn Faster
Vietnamese-American pop songstress Thao returns with her third album. Expect a lot of wonderful hits and some annoying misses. Probably best to download specific tracks from this one, but I’ll give the whole thing a listen and decide.
Friday, October 16: The Twilight Saga: New Moon Soundtrack
No one with a Y chromosome is looking forward to this film, but this soundtrack is pretty intriguing. We’re getting previously unreleased tracks from Thom Yorke, Death Cab for Cutie, The Killers, Sea Wolf, and Bon Iver & St. Vincent, among others. So, yea?
Tuesday, October 20: Sufjan Stevens, The BQE
Non-New Yorkers, rejoice! Sufjan’s massive multimedia project which was commissioned by and ran for a weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is now being released as a double CD/DVD collection. (Be warned that buying this album from iTunes or eMusic means you’ll miss out on the DVD.) Sufjan has complained in recent interviews that no one buys albums any more, so he doesn’t see the point in making them. Let’s prove him wrong, and also see the visual interpretations (hula hoops!) he chooses to accompany his ode to the New York thruway.
Spoilers for Glee through 1.6 (October 7)
One of the most strident criticisms of Glee by those who like the show but don’t love it or consider it to be uneven at best is that Terri Schuster, the wife of Glee coach Will Schuster, is so shrewish. She is shrill, conniving, ditzy, and altogether unlikeable. She schemes to keep her husband from wandering by failing to tell him that she is not pregnant as she originally thought. She bullies and manipulates a teenage girl into carrying a baby to term so that she can pass it off as her own. She is the nagging, conniving wife, a role played for maximum shrillness by Jessalyn Gilsig. By making her so unsympathetic, some critics (like Todd VanDerWerff and Alan Sepinwall) have complained that we are not conflicted about the choice that Will must make between his wife Terri and the neurotic but lovable counselor (or as Sue Sylvester, played by the always welcome Jane Lynch, calls her “a mentally ill, ginger pygmy with eyes like a bush baby”). Since we are given no reason to like Terri the wife, we can’t be emotionally invested in Will’s choice between the wife he fell for in high school and the woman he is falling for now. There’s just no competition.
As a general rule, this criticism brings out an important point about characterization (both in writing and in acting). Unless you find something human to associate yourself with a character, that character will always seem like a prop rather than a human being. Good writing requires good characterization, and television – which relies on a weekly commitment over years to the lives of certain characters – requires even greater investment in these people. And this is where Glee is said to fail.
But I think Ryan Murphy and the rest of the Glee writers are doing something more interesting that a mere battle for one character’s heart. Glee deals with one overriding idea: going for what you want. What makes this show interesting is the creators’ desire to explore the consequences of going for what you want, and in particular the social structures that curtail achieving that desire. It might be upsetting the social hierarchy of a high school by making yourself stand out, it might be committing to coach glee club for no money and extra time, it might be trying to make it out of a small town when everything is pulling you back in. Whatever it is, following your passion means sacrificing your pride, your comfort, your sense of self, and most importantly your function in society and facing the consequences of that decision.
So when we look again at Will’s choice, we see that the structuring idea of the show pushes the creators away from dealing with a choice between two women and towards the choice between what one wants (the other woman) and the social structures working against it (a marriage). The more sympathetic the wife becomes in this scenario, the less the choice is between what one wants and the social forces preventing it. Perhaps following out this idea leads to sacrificing something in the way of sympathy for a recurring character and turns off some viewers, but I find that it actually creates a richer viewing experience because it generates another interesting nuance to the question of what social pressures exist to keep one from going after what one wants. Is it always best to go for your dream? Is it always best to make your dreams less ambitious? Glee is about the choices that must be made every day in working toward a life of passionate ambition and the social pressures (external and internalized) that keep us from achieving those amibitions.
And that’s why I’m okay with keeping Will’s wife as a broad, penciled-in caricature. (That, and she says things like “Oh, please, Will, it’s a public school.”)
(And for die-hard Glee fans, you might be interested to know that the cast’s scheduled appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was cancelled because NBC didn’t want to promote another network’s show, leading to yet more bad press for NBC.)
The House Next Door is one of the most thoughtful sites on the web for film junkies, and they’ve reached to new heights with their excellent Pixar Week, which ends tomorrow. Each day has new posts on different aspects of Pixar, generally focusing on thematic analysis of the films.
If you only read one post, I’d recommend “The Studio as Author”, which tracks the theme of individualism and the community throughout the Pixar corpus, while suggesting the possibilities available if we extend auteur theory to include a studio. From there, I would go to The Conversations: Pixar, which examines whether Wall-E is a great film or merely great-for-a-kids’ film. (The Conversations is a monthly column that delves very deeply into a particular film. It’s consistently one of the best places for thoughtful film engagement on the internet.)
Discussion of Jennifer’s Body (no spoilers beyond the trailer), Whip It (extremely mild spoiler), and The Hurt Locker (no spoilers)
The early numbers show that Whip It, the roller derby film directed by Drew Barrymore, bombed with $4.9 million in its opening weekend. Jennifer’s Body opened three weeks ago to a disappointing $6.9 million, and has earned less than $15 million in three weeks. That’s a very low number for a horror film that had received a lot of attention. (Compare to Zombieland, which grossed $25 million in its opening this weekend.) I’m a little surprised by how low both of those receipts were, but I think the Whip It numbers were especially surprising. (The people who have seen it have given it very high marks, so at least one person is hopeful that it will have staying power.)
One thing that stands out about these two films is that they are both written by, directed by, and starring women. Jennifer’s Body was penned by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno); Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s first film as a director; both feature some of the most-talked about young actresses in Hollywood (Ellen Page, Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried). So what happened? Why did so few people go to see this films?
I’m not completely sure why these two films didn’t fare so well, but they both clearly have one thing in common. Not only are women prominently featured on camera and behind the camera, both of these films represent gender reversals of traditionally male genres. Whip It is in large part a traditional sports film in which the hero(ine) must overcome familial obstacles to do what (s)he really loves and take the team to a championship. But this isn’t an all-male basketball or football film in which the female parts are the always-saying-no mother and the always-has-your-back girlfriend, it’s about the bruises-as-power feminism of Drew Barrymore, who has also produced the girl-power Charlie’s Angels films and Never Been Kissed. Jennifer’s Body (which I haven’t seen yet) is supposed to invert the horror genre by positioning the pretty, seemingly defenseless high school girl as the killer, which has a couple predecessors but is still atypical.
It is tempting to say that women will go see “guy films” (sports and horror films), but that guys won’t go see films about women. And perhaps that is the case here. But these two cases don’t seem enough to judge that. (It would be interesting to see the gender breakdown of the audiences for these two films, which might help show who was coming.) What’s sad is that at a time when over 90% of Hollywood films are directed by men, the failure to bring out crowds to these films directed by women can only make it more difficult to see that imbalance corrected. Two of this year’s best reviewed films are directed by women (Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Jane Campion’s Bright Star), but neither of them will shatter any box office records.
But more than just being about larger trends, it’s a shame that people aren’t going to see these films. The Hurt Locker is easily one of the best films of 2009, and it is absolutely thrilling. It’s wonderfully acted, and has more tension and excitement than any film I can remember seeing recently. Whip It isn’t a great film, but it is a good one. It is incredibly likable (an underrated quality) and very well acted. Ellen Page’s performance simply blew me away. I enjoyed her in Juno and Smart People, but I had never before appreciated the subtlety, range, and power she brings to a role that most young screen actors would play for charm and melodrama. You expect the great performances that Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern give, but Barrymore brought something wonderful out of Page, Alia Shawkat, and Kristen Wiig. The film respects its actors, and subsumes all other aspects of filmmaking to draw us into these performances, which are worth it. It’s an incredibly good film, and one worth seeing.