May 31, 2007

Wonderful Town

If you are in New York right now and you love the movies, run, don't walk, to Grand Central Station and check out the exhibition "Celluloid Skyline" in Vanderbilt Hall. It is a wonderful exploration of New York in the movies, with very serious information, wonderful stills, amazing establishing shots of New York, ancient films of life in the city and most magnificently, 4 astounding scenic backdrops of New York landscapes, including one of the U.N. commissioned by Alfred Hitchcock and another one of the original Penn station (how could they have torn it down?). If I had money and space to burn, I'd buy them paintings and put them up in my huge mansion. There are also fascinating pictures of the New York that was recreated painstakingly in the Hollywood backlots and a reminder that before anybody moved to Hollywood, movie history started right here in NY.
These are two of the things I love most, New York and the movies, so for me this show was like nirvana. And the fact that it is at the marvel that is Grand Central Station makes it even better. For as you leave the show, you realize you live in the city that is the stuff of movies and it feels fabulous.
The show reiminds us that this is the most cinematic city ever (followed closely by San Francisco). Because of the nature of our landscape and our energy, New York is as much a star in the movies that take place in it, than the actors themselves. And here is a small list of gems where this town shines onscreen:
Sweet Smell of Success
French Connection
Dog Day Afternoon
Taxi Driver
Midnight Cowboy
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Annie Hall
Rosemary's Baby
West Side Story
The Apartment
Panic in Needle Park
...and so many other beauties...

Lars Von Trying

I have been an intermittent fan of enfant terrible Lars Von Trier since Breaking the Waves, still his best movie. I also liked his weepie Dancer in the Dark. I wasn't thrilled with Dogville, although, as in every one of his movies, it had moments of raw, powerful beauty. The other two parts of the trilogy, however, I stayed away from. Dogville was no day in the country and I didn't want to sit through something like that again. It is tough going when some Dane tries to lecture Americans on their sins, as talented as he may be.
So reading the very good reviews of his new comedy The Boss of It All, I went.
I was quite disappointed.
I think Von Trier is far more suited to make grandiose, melodramatic gestures, than comedy.
This film is no better, and in fact, is actually far less grounded in reality than Ricky Gervais' The Office, or even the American version of it. The Boss of It All veers more towards the surreal, and makes no attempt at verisimilitude, even though it supposedly happens in the real world. The premise is hard to believe: the owner of a company invents a boss because he can't bear to be the boss (kind of like the Wizard of Oz; but that was Oz, this is Denmark). However, with the non-existent boss, he rules by proxy and manipulates his employees at will, always blaming the higher up. Then he hires a friend actor to pretend he is the boss because he wants to sell the company and someone has to sign the contracts. As I tell you this, I can almost hear someone typing the American remake with Will Ferrell/Steve Carell. (Hey, it's actually not a bad idea. Maybe I should do it). This is one remake that should be better than the original. Von Trier is too artsy and pretentious to deliver comedy. The humor is brittle and the laughs kind of die up inside. There is such a thing as too much deadpan, and when that happens it feels like the air has been sucked out of the room. The premise is quite promising, but somehow Von Trier tries to do way too many things with it and delivers none. He makes fun of Danish culture, and then he ends up offering a morality tale which then he subverts, as he always does, because he can. But it is a joyless endeavor and feels empty. It also underestimates the audience. When an entire gag is based on a simple misunderstanding and the audience knows one second into the joke what the characters are talking about yet it takes the hero half an hour more to figure it out, either the filmmaker thinks we're stupid or he has no business in comedy.
I am very partial to misanthropy in movies. To wit: Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick. But people like them posit that man is evil, not just stupid. Von Trier condescends to his own characters and that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
For no good reason, he appears as some sort of mischievous Shakespearean sprite at the beginning and the end, telling the audience what they're about to see, and then telling us it is a trifle of no consecuence. Well, then why are we here? To humor your megalomania?
The movie has some fun in it. It must be a hilarious inside joke that the Icelanders think the Danes are horribly sentimental people. It's actually funny to those of us who wouldn't know the difference between the two (sorry Danes and Icelanders, but we don't). And the actors are game, although I wasn't crazy about the actor playing the Boss of it All. The movie seems like a collection of inside jokes, but the thing about inside jokes is they are never funny to those on the outside. I pined for an American comedy of the Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow kind. They may play dumb, but they are joyful and truly mischievous and they make you laugh.

May 30, 2007

The Moment of Truth

The time has come to edit the footage I shot last week. My editor is back from Buenos Aires where I hope he fed himself with great beef and ample quantities of wine, cause he's going to need it.
David Mamet mentions in his book Bambi Vs Godzilla that it is said that you make a movie three times; once when you write it, next when you shoot it and finally when you cut it. I already know this is true from the first two steps. Because as you shoot what you wrote, you may realize it's too wordy or too slow. Mamet advices the neophyte director: pick up the pace. I had the instinct to do just that in a couple of instances, but I'm afraid not enough. One of the things I criticize in other movies is when actors seem to move in slow motion. It just kills the pace of the film. It's very amateurish. But that's what the editor is for, among other things, to chop things up to a reasonable clip.
When you are standing on a set, the takes may look better or worse than when you see the footage. I'm really curious to see whether the takes I thought had nuggets of good in them, actually do.
Film is a multi-craft product. It takes way too many special skills. I was thinking of when I simply write. It is myself v. the page. It is only me and whatever skill I possess as a writer. Movies, on the other hand, depend on the very specific and different skills from a little platoon of people. And everybody better know what they're doing! The beauty of even the most horridly mercenary American films is you can see the astounding level of craftsmanship. But that you can also see in a much more satisfying way in modest, but spectacularly well made French films. You look at the way they are acted, staged, shot, edited, and it is a sheer frisson of joy, they are so well made, and so not vulgarly calling attention to their expense, like our unfortunate American counterparts do.
So I need to learn to do things well in film. There is a lot to learn...

May 28, 2007

Bambi Vs Godzilla

I enjoyed reading David Mamet's ornery pearls of wisdom about the movie business.
He describes the idiocy of focus groups and audience research in the most coherent terms.
What I've always thought, that whoever invented focus groups reserves his or her own circle in Hell and that this circle should include the worst possible punishments, he seconds but in a clearly thought out argument. Basically he says that the audience for audience research, instead of abandoning themselves to the joy of viewing a movie, like any regular moviegoer, become judges and wield some power because they have been asked to opine.
It is a well known fact, established by actual university research, that the only purpose that focus groups serve is for executives to cover their own asses. There is no other reason. Nobody wants to take a risk or live with the responsibility of making decisions: hence the focus group.
I also agree with Mamet that consensus, that terrible, faux-democratic habit of the corporation, is the death of creativity. He says consensus is the foundation of society, but the death of art. It's true.
I was surprised to find that he is a fervent movie lover and has seen many interesting movies that I now would like to check out. And I agree with his absolute hatred of sentimentality. He also gives some good practical advice for writing, cutting and shooting a film. I wish I had read it before I set out...

May 27, 2007

Movie Piracy

So the 3rd installment of Pirates of the Caribbean raked in more than 400 million bucks worldwide. This is not because it is a good film. It is because it opened on 10,000 screens in 104 countries. There are many places in the world where this means this may have been the only real option to watch over the weekend. Plus, the number is for six days, not for the weekend. For weekend gross, actually Spiderman did better.
So what kind of a victory is this, when you open a film in every available movie theater? The victory of a bully. They spend $300 million dollars on a film. They glut every screen with it and the film isn't even good. I haven't seen it, but I know it sucks. The same goes for Spiderman. These things should not be called films anymore. They are amusement rides.

May 25, 2007

Two movies

I rented Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, a truly bad movie. Apparently, 3 days of shooting my own masterpiece were not enough to discourage me from criticizing somebody else's work. I didn't have millions of dollars, like Mr. De Palma did, nor stars, nor Vilmos Szigmond. So I feel entitled to crap all over his film.
Somehow you can tell by the first frame of the film that it is a disaster.
Why is it so bad? Where do I start?
I blame most of the disaster in the casting, particularly that of Josh Hartnett, in the role of the hero policeman. I want to know who decided that this kid, who has the emotional depth of a lamp, is an actor. I have never seen anybody suck so much. He can't act, he can't speak, and on top of everything he delivers a mumbling voiceover narration suitable only for the treatment of acute insomnia. Why, if there are so many young, capable, interesting actors in Hollywood, De Palma chose this klotz, is beyond me, but he ruins the film. He is so bad, that it took me like two hours to realize that he was sexually obsessed with the footage of the Black Dahlia's sex movies. A wall could have expressed that more accurately. The other actors just give up trying to be alive next to him, and none of them, except for Hilary Swank and Mia Kirshner, seem to have a clue of what to do. It is interesting to see otherwise reliable actors, like Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson, totally adrift and acting awfully, no doubt aided by a terribly cliched script.
I don't know the source material, James Ellroy's novel, but I know that the movie is called the Black Dahlia because of a gruesome real-life murder and so what I expect to see is a detective story about the murder, which has never been solved. Instead, we are treated to the boring and irrelevant relationship between two partner cops, the dame in the middle and no Dahlia to speak of for hours. When she finally shows up, played by Mia Kirshner, she is the only thing in the film that doesn't seem to come straight from Mme Tussauds. Then there is Hilary Swank, acting weird as the klotz's perverse love interest. She's supposed to look like the victim, but you can't understand why anybody thinks that Hilary Swank looks like Mia Kirshner. Then there is Fiona Shaw, going berserk in a most disturbing way, as her mother. This has got to be the most acute case of unhinged hamming ever recorded. Puts Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rod Steiger* to shame. Coming from an actress of Shaw's caliber, it's painfully embarrassing.
My guess is that the entire approach of the film is misguided. The interesting thing about this story is the endless rot and corruption beneath the glaring veneer of balmy sunshine and Hollywood glamour. But this looks like an expensive music video, all very reminiscent of glamorous photography but not in touch at all with the messy corruption underneath the tinsel.
A terrible movie. Hack work.
*Two hams I loathe.

I also revisited Rosemary's Baby. And boy, do I wish I had seen it before I shot my film. Polanski is a master of creating tension in very limited spaces (check out Knife in the Water). His doors and windows and gorgeously effective camera moves tell the story better than words. He loves that thing where someone answers the phone in the other room and you just see her back. Very unsettling. He is also a master of sound. There is always a clock ticking, or the muffled sounds coming from that other apartment, or stuff that adds to the menace without screaming for attention. This story of sexual guilt is very similar to the story of sexual panic in his film Repulsion, which I like much better.
I prefer to believe it's all in Mia Farrow's head. That is much more interesting than an actual satanic coven. But this is one of the themes in Polanski's work, God bless him: Hell is the neighbors (check out The Tenant). I love that the most benign elderly people are potential satanists. Delightful. I love the casting of the old Hollywood actors. I'm not crazy about the hamming of Ruth Gordon, but somehow it works for the movie. The acting is stilted and clunky at times, but Mia Farrow, as bad as she is, works really well because of how strange and vulnerable she is. She also created a craze with that haircut, which the movie makes sure to mention about 5 times, credited to Vidal Sassoon.
Rosemary's dream sequence is magnificent. All done without special effects, rather cheesily, but it is psychologically and visually believable. It does feel like a dream. And Polanski knows suggestion is far more powerful than showing you the horror. The movie will creep you out.

May 22, 2007

Close Relations, The Shoot Part II

As you can imagine, yours truly was so exhausted after three nights of filming that I could barely speak in coherent sentences and thus I let a few images tell you a bit about the shoot.
It seems to have gone well, considering it was my first outing into the wonderful world of do-it-yourself cinema. The only horrid thing that happened which is eating up my entrails as I speak is that we had problems downloading all of the digital information into our hard drives, which complicated things considerably after the shoot. I still need to see if everything we shot is safe and downloadable.
In the new world of HD video everything is a digital file. No more rolls of film, no more celluloid, no more tapes, no more film purring through the camera as you shoot (I really miss that sound). This is very practical and saves a lot of money. But as everything that's to do with technology, it is a ghost in the machine kind of thing. It feels much less tactile and in a sense much more fragile than good old film. As long as the material was saved, I will be relieved. If not, I will be armed and dangerous.
I think I surrounded myself with mostly utterly professional, talented people. Starting with my fantastic actors, Dick Latessa and Annie Meisels, who were real pros and extraordinarily talented. It also helped tremendously that they were extremely nice to everybody and seemed to bond instantly. I can't imagine what may happen when actors don't like each other. It must be hell on earth. But these two got along like a house on fire and made all of our lives quite easy.
My DP (director of photography) Manuel Billeter was very thorough and it looks like he did a great job. Of what I could see from some footage, it looks great. He had an amazing crew of three or four, who worked fast, and fabulously. I was particularly impressed with our gaffer, a super talented chick who solved every problem in a second and had great creative ideas.
My producer Susan Leber, did a great job putting the production together. She was unfortunately stuck, among her other responsibilities, to making sure we were fed because we had no catering person, a thankless, boring job.
My friend Marta was my art director/wardrobe/propmaster and she was fantabulous. Marta is so dedicated and thorough and meticulous, she could do this job and excel at it forever, like she excels at other matters of creativity and style. My friend Laura helped me with script. Continuity is the bane of my existence, people. Never again will I make fun of a movie where a character enters a scene with a hat and leaves without it. And neither should you. That stuff is a tedious bitch, because you have to constantly remember where were things before you moved them around. Was the curtain open or closed? Was she wearing the scarf or not. Did she use her left hand? GEEEEEZ. And don't get me started with the eye line business and the crossing the line business. I know for some people this is easy as pie. Not for me. Poor Laura tried heroically to keep me honest in this continuity business, but I just don't have the head for this minutiae. It's the last thing you want to think about when you have to worry about keeping the performances fresh, the camera moves meaningful.
Bea drew magnificent storyboards (which came in really handy) and helped with the boring job of downloading. Our sound guy was an eccentric character from somewhere in Eastern Europe called Andrej, who made strange pronouncements and warbled Beethoven's Fifth incessantly. The sound seems fine so far. I hope it is because we won't know until we edit the monster.
In any case, everybody was fine except for an asshole assistant director who made it his business to be thoroughly disliked by a few people, including myself. He talked a good talk, which is why we hired him, but he was always late and worse, thoroughly disinclined to be respectful or cooperative. He was one of those geniuses who thinks he knows better than anybody else, an arrogant wiseass with no class, no manners and no discernible talent. He kinda knew what his job was, but he didn't do it well. He was incredibly inconsistent. As I said to Laura, his personality got in his way. I hope he is reading this. If you are, Josh, let me put it this way: The name of your job is ASSISTANT Director. That means that you assist the director. You are at the service of the director and you also make sure the director is aware of the realities and constraints of timing and production issues. Your job is not to question the director's or the DP's decisions, or to harass the director when she is taking five minutes to finalize wardrobe after waiting five fucking hours for the set to be ready because you are not doing your fucking job. Neither is it your responsibility to give unsolicited, snide directing lessons. Your job is not that the director has to ask you where are the actors and to tell you where to go fetch them because you don't know. And if you are supposed to show up at 1:30 for a pre-pro meeting, you don't arrive at three and without one word of apology. Truth is we should have fired your ass that very day, but I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt and I will not forgive myself for this one. I should have talked to Susan immediately, who also complained of your rudeness the next day and we should have sent you packing. But we didn't. Lessons learned. I learned other lessons as well. Some of them technical, interesting, some of them painful. All of them useful. At one point I was thinking that directing was wonderful, except you have to deal with people. But in general, most people who converged for my little vanity project were fantastic.
Marta asked me if I didn't feel a bit of post partum depression after it was done. I did not. I was hugely relieved and happy it was over. I think I will feel the baby blues when I edit it and finish it and send it out into the world.

May 21, 2007

Close Relations: The Shoot Part I

Art is so hard, director sips Red Bull. Director doesn't sleep for three nights in a row. Not so much because of the awful, if effective, beverage, but because the shooting days are from 3 pm to 3 am.

The director watches the action. One thing that happens on a set, to judge from photos taken, is that the director constantly sits and watches as other people spin themselves silly trying to make things happen.

The fantastic Dick Latessa and Annie Meisels. My fabulous actors.

May 17, 2007

Countdown to the Shoot

We're less than 24 hours away. In one word:
Having said this, as I told my friend and fabulous production designer Marta, I'm so calm, I'm worried. This atypical (in me) lack of worry troubles me. But it sure feels nice. Either I am in some kind of shock, or I feel that I am prepared. Okay, lack of worry may be overstating it a bit. On the other hand, seems like I'm blessed with a group of very talented people who are working hard to make it all happen, so why indeed should I worry? Really, more than worry, I feel boundless excitement. I feel like I have a pogo stick inside me that's out of control. Squadrons of Mexican jumping beans. However, witnesses claim I seem calm and collected.
Let me tell you, this is one of the wonderful things about not being a spring chicken anymore. Age makes it all feel more grounded. I strongly recommend it.

May 16, 2007

Classics: The Conversation

I saw Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation the other day. Again. What a strange, amazing, paranoid movie. Nobody could make a movie like that in America today. I bet no studio would touch it. It's too unique. Coppola made it in 1974, between the two Godfathers and after Watergate, and it is just right for that era and even more right for ours. It won Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Sound. In those days they gave Oscars to good movies.
It comes in handy to revisit The Conversation nowadays, when we have no more privacy (if you think you still have privacy, you are living in dreamland) and the corporate and government snooping are at an all-time high. The Conversation will chill your blood and make your hair stand on end, but not like you are used to, with cheap thrills. It will deeply disturb you.
The pace is almost glacial (for an American film), but what nerve Coppola had. What imagination. It is a truly original film. It has a tremendous, shocking revelation, and it is about the weirdest milieu ever. Who can forget that sorry ass snoopers party? A convention of surveillance stuff? Wow. WOW.
The infinite implications of this movie make you feel that tip of the iceberg frisson that is particularly delightful for those us who believe the world is a rotten cesspool of slime. Evil is everywhere in this movie and yet it comes from a deep human need to know and control everything and everybody. In a word: fascism (or communism, same thing). That's where we are heading, if we continue allowing the powers that be to intrude upon our lives with complete abandon and impunity.

Gene Hackman is so frozen into a massive lump of paranoia and distrust, he seems like he is about to shatter into shards of glass. The repetitive, loopy, melancholy music by David Shire is perfect, as is the sound editing, by the great Walter Murch. And John Cazale is there, and where there is John Cazale, I always miss him. The saddest man in movies, ever. He left too soon.
Let me say, for the sake of argument that there would be no The Lives of Others if it wasn't for The Conversation. Yet the clarity and lack of sentimentality or manipulativeness of the first movie, makes the other one, as competent as it is, look like a soap opera.

May 15, 2007

Three Days to the Shoot...

...and I'm having the weirdest dreams. I love it!
Yesterday I dreamed I was chewing gum and it got stuck to one of my fillings and I tried to pull it out and I pulled gobs and gobs of chewing gum that felt like concrete and I yanked my molar out and out came also my two front teeth. And I thought, oh great, I can't shoot a movie like this, without my two front teeth. I looked like a homeless junkie.
All of you amateur Freudians, you can go to town on this one. All of a sudden I'm having a very active dreamlife. I had a horrid nightmare that revealed to me part of the theme of my movie, and more interestingly, my deepest fears about making it. All I can say is, the subconscious rules! Too bad it happens while we're sleeping. On the other hand, if it happened in broad daylight, we'd all be living in a Ken Russell movie. And we don't want that, really.

Moviemaking 101

My friend and acting teacher Rob recommended that I read the book "A Film Director Prepares". And I'm glad I did. It tells you the really basic stuff that you think you know, but not quite, and it's been really useful.
Perhaps you already know this, smart readers, but through this process I have been discovering that film indeed works like a language. We get it instinctively, like babies who learn how to speak without knowing the rules, but it has a definite grammar and a set of rules and processes that you can learn and that are super smart and highly intuitive. I know, DOH, but bear with me.
So I love looking at the stuff I kind of know instinctively, and then finding out what it's named and what it really means and what it's good for, what it is supposed to communicate. What blows my mind is that film language and the process of making a film are really very smart and well designed. It's like musical notation or math, a crowning achievement of human thought, as far as I'm concerned.
Who came up with this wonder, of stringing images together to tell a story not in real time? What a beautiful thing.

May 13, 2007

Review of A Movie I Haven't Seen 2

There is a movie out there about a girl who decides to blow herself up in NY city. This movie I will not see. From the reviews it doesn't sound like a masterpiece. But even if they were great reviews, I'd be suspicious.
This for me is a no-brainer: suicide bombers are idiots. They are retards. And I'm in no mood for movies that pretend to "humanize" them. And I'm even in less of a mood for movies that use them as an excuse for manufactured suspense. Maybe I'm a tad oversensitive, and I don't mind in the least if my aggression belies a mortal fear of them. I have nothing to hide. I fear them all right. I agree with Martin Amis that suicide bombers are obscene, if that is the word that comes closest to describing their perverse human aberration, and therefore in my view, movies about them amount to unsavory pornography.
You can tell me suicide bombers are brainwashed, and manipulated and used. You can tell me they are young and impressionable; I can tell you they are morons. And of course the older people who have created the phenomenon, those who cowardly goad them on to their murderous deaths, don't deserve to be called human.

May 12, 2007

My Name in Lights

I'm in a high state of excitement, because by this time next week, I will be on my second day of shooting my modest little film. That is to say, if everything goes as planned. So far, it's been a blast. It's fun to feel excitement and fear and, at the same time, feel strangely calm as well. Okay, not that calm, but also not that fearful either. Modestly intimidated and hugely motivated.
I've tried to prepare as much as I can, but I also don't want to overdo the preparation. I know I'm going to screw up somewhere and that's part of the deal. The trick is to screw up less than reasonably expected. It's fun to be involved in something that you don't know all the answers to (hell, you don't even know many of the questions). I haven't felt like I've learned this much in a long, long time and it feels great. Cause you know what, advertising pays well only because otherwise nobody in their right mind would subject themselves to such enforced, and useless inanity.
But in this little, complicated movie world, I'm in my element, my dears. Let's face it: it ain't no secret I enjoy bossing people around. I'd like to think I do it nicely and politely and collaboratively, but I love to feel people are paying attention to me. Didn't need too many years of therapy to figure that one out. And as long as something worthy comes out of it, why not? It's very bracing.
I have written film reviews for years and I'm very happy to have the tables turned on me. Eat some humble pie.
I wish I could tell you some juicy gossip about this process, but I don't want to compromise anything before we start, because this is a public site, read by the six of you, but one never knows. Besides, there is really not that much to tell yet. I'm looking forward to working with the actors, and I hope that I can communicate to them what I'm looking for. Then I hope they help me and then I hope that what I want comes out on screen.
So wish me luck.