Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's film of Bruce Wagner's Hollywood satire-nightmare turns ludicrous situations into operatic tragedy.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
An interview with Cary Elwes about "The Princess Bride."
A report from the 61st Annual Sydney Film Festival, including The Rover, Life Itself, Ruin, and many more.
Recent releases on Blu-ray, including Cat People, Death Wish, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and more.
Thirty years after the release of "This is Spinal Tap", Ali Arikan looks back at this mocku-rocku-mentary.
After spending years in the long comedy shadow of regular collaborator and scene-stealer Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant steps into the awkward spotlight of HBO's new comedy "Hello Ladies."
UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.
Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.
Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)
Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.
It's a wrap for the 2010 Muriel Awards, but although the winners have been announced, there's still plenty of great stuff to read about the many winners and runners-up. ('Cause, as we all know, there's so much more to life than "winning.") I was pleased to be asked to write the mini-essay about "The Social Network" because, no, I'm not done with it. (Coming soon: a piece about the Winkelvii at the Henley Gregatta section -- which came in 11th among Muriel voters for the year's Best Cinematic Moment.)
You might recall that last summer I compared the editorial, directorial and storytelling challenges of a modest character-based comedy ("The Kids Are All Right") to a large-scale science-fiction spectacular based on the concept of shifting between various levels of reality/unreality -- whether in actual time and space or in consciousness and imagination. (The latter came in at No. 13 in the Muriels balloting; the former in a tie for No. 22.) My point was that, as far as narrative filmmaking is concerned, there isn't much difference. To illustrate a similar comparison this time, I've used a one-minute segment out of "The Social Network" (Multiple levels of storytelling in The Social Network). You might like one picture better than the other for any number of reasons, but I find their similarities more illuminating than their differences:
Richard Schickel wrote a book review of Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. Except that, rather than review the book, he chose to review Robert Altman's capacity for drinking and dope-smoking:
It appears that from the beginning of his career until almost its end (when illness slowed him), Robert Altman never passed an entirely sober day in his life. When he was not drinking heavily, he was smoking dope -- often doing both simultaneously. When he screened dailies on location, he insisted the cast and crew gather to view them in a party atmosphere, with the merriment rolling on into the night.
Shocking, isn't it?
If those screwball lovers Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner ever hooked up and had sex, they'd do it the way Brüno and his "pygmy" paramour do in "Brüno": with ACME slingshots, projectiles, champagne bottles and a customized Rube Goldberg device that appears to have been built with materials from Home Depot by George Clooney's character in "Burn After Reading." The matinee audience with whom I saw "Brüno," Sacha Baron Cohen's partially improvised Üniversal Pictures remake of RW Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (with a happy ending!), howled at the grossness, the perversity, the preposterousness of it -- the same way audiences laughed and groaned at the explicitly cartoony perv-sex in John Waters movies of the 1970s. "Brüno" is rather tame compared to "Pink Flamingoes" or "Female Trouble" -- in part because it's 2009 and not 1974, and the experience of "shock value" has changed considerably. Truth is, it's hard to be too terribly shocked by anything in the bland, artificial cocoon of the mall-tiplex, no matter what's playing.
Inevitably, in all comedy, the joke comes down to: What is the joke? I've had a grand old time reading bewildered critics -- amused, disgusted, even shocked -- try to puzzle out what Borat and Brüno (the characters and the movies) are really saying. The most entertaining explanations are by writers who don't necessarily know they're bewildered, or how much they're revealing about their own prejudices when they claim the movie is revealing the prejudices of the "real folks" on screen. (Hint: Even more so than in "Borat," the butt of the joke is the title character, not the "real people" with whom he interacts. Tricking people is not exactly the same as making fun of them -- and most of those who get punk'd react about the way you'd expect them to.)
One of the things film critics do for a living is to pay close attention to how people behave, and how that behavior is presented through visual media. This applies not only to actors playing characters, but to people who play themselves, in fictional or nonfictional settings, on and off the screen. It should come as no surprise to learn that some of our best movie critics have backgrounds in psychology.
When Bill Clinton said, "I did not have sex with that woman," it now seems impossible to believe that he fooled anyone at that particular moment. But if any movie critic misread Clinton's voice and body language, that critic should have been impeached. As opaque as the clumsy verbal gymnastics of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin may often be, behind the contortions it's hard to avoid seeing the painful truth, which is simply that they don't know what their own words mean, and even when they know what they've been told to say they don't know how to communicate it. As actors, they're thoroughly unconvincing: You can see the wheels turning inside their heads -- only the gears aren't even engaged. There's a lot of whirring and spinning, but nothing happens. That can be excruciating to watch, but it's also the stuff of modern comedy. Christopher Guest, Ricky Gervais, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert and the whole Judd Apatow crew come to mind.
Patrick Goldstein, writing in the Los Angeles Times, argues that film critics like Roger Ebert, sophisticated in their knowledge of media presentation and human behavior, make more insightful political pundits than the usual beltway-bubble spin-docs employed by television, radio, print and online outlets. In a piece called "From film critic to political pundit," Goldstein writes:
To me, film critics, like TV and theater critics, are especially well equipped to analyze today's politics, which is why Frank Rich made such a seamless transition from theater to media and political commentator. In fact, in some ways film critics are probably better equipped to assess the political theater of today's presidential campaigns, since our campaigns are -- as has surely been obvious for some time -- far more about theater and image creation than politics.
The phrase above was the name I gave to the arts section I edited at the University of Washington Daily. I thought (and still think) it was funny, while it also satirizes the central conceit of writing about culture, whether it's "high culture" or "popular culture." (If I made a Venn diagram of those categories they would significantly overlap.) I still have a rubber stamp that says, "This is not art." I got it about 30 years ago. Sometimes I like to get it out and stamp it on things because I think it is absolutely hilarious -- both as a comment on art and a comment on criticism. I laugh and laugh, even if it's only on the inside.
Godard is a contemptuous artist, too. Forget "Le Mepris." Ever see "Weekend"?
We heard a lot in 2006, as we do every year, about nasty filmmakers who were said to have viewed their characters (and, hence, their audiences) with contempt, or who "made fun of" them, or treated them with condescension, or who just don't seem to like them very much. Across time, such charges have been leveled at Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Christopher Guest, the Coen Bros., Todd Solondz, Sacha Baron Cohen, and many other artists -- especially those whose work has tended toward the comic or caricaturish. And then there's all of film noir to consider, a whole kind of moviemaking that does not view the human animal with kindness or affection.
In answer to specific allegations of of alleged contempt (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum's characterization of Altman's attitude toward Lady Pearl in "Nashville"), I have tried to explain why I think such charges are false, or at least misguided. It seems to me, in these cases, that the contempt being expressed is more likely to be that of the critic for the director or film (or reader) than that of the director for the character or the audience (unless we're talking about a movie by, say, Alan Parker). But it's impossible (and futile) to argue with a blanket statement like: "The Coens mock everybody. They're laughing at the audience!" -- meaning, of course: "They're laughing at me!" (please read in the voice of Piper Laurie in "Carrie"). My response is: 1) that's a rather vague aspersion; 2) if you got the joke you wouldn't feel like you were being laughed at; and, 3) yeah, it's true. Many forms of comedy -- satire, parody, etc. -- contain an element of mockery. Even contempt.
So, I'm here to speak up for contempt! (How very contrarian of me!)
The rich, powerful and pretentious are obvious (and ripe) targets for humor and derision. Their problem is that they're just people, with flaws like everybody else, only magnified (and made more irritating and dangerous) by their position in society. They deserve to be knocked down a few notches. But you don't have to be rich, powerful or pretentious to be a hypocrite, or a boor, or a twit, or an oaf, or a cretin. You don't have to possess great wealth or celebrity or influence to be smug, stupid, petty, ignorant, pathetic, tasteless, crass, callous, crude, or just downright annoying -- and, thus, worthy of comic derision. Such people really exist! I've seen them with my own eyes! What's more, I've been them!
"Hey, look at those assholes over there. Ordinary f----in' people. I hate 'em." -- Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), "Repo Man" (1984)
"Hell is other people." -- Jean-Paul Sartre, "No Exit" (1944)
I sometimes wonder if those who worry about expressions of contempt for characters (particularly "ordinary people") in movies have ever had jobs in which they had to deal with the general public. Or have ever attended some kind of party or social function at which they have met some people they would rather not have met. Is this not part of the human experience? Don't most people have some pretty awful qualities? Why should an artist be expected concentrate on their benign or "sympathetic" traits -- or to come up with some kind of artificially "fair and balanced" view of them? Some people's most interesting characteristic is that they are idiots. Or worse. Did you like "Seinfeld"? Those characters were despicable in every way. Some people thought that was why they were funny.
Is misanthropy not the most universal and understandable of all sins? For all our achievements and evolutionary refinements, we are a pretty damnable species. And, as the only one capable of (and perhaps unwittingly committed to) destroying all life on our own planet, we are also the richest, most powerful and pretentious. Don't we deserve to have a laugh at ourselves -- or, at least, at those idiots right over there?
P.S. I am reminded of the words of Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, as sung by the incomparable Mavis Staples (and, yes, I'm going through one of my periodic obsessive Stax phases, so get used to it):
Keep talkin' 'bout the president won't stop air pollution Put your hand over your mouth when you cough, that'll help the solution
Mavis means you. And she's singing in the context of a Christian family gospel/soul group. Good gosh a'mighty, now -- even the Staple Singers aren't afraid to make the average person the butt of an occasional, rather contemptuous, joke. Amen to that.
Here is Borat ridiculing people who are not in on the joke so that you can feel socially superior, according to Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks.
British crank Christopher Hitchens has been writing about Borat's Kazakhstan for years, only he calls it "Iraq." Still, it's an imaginary place in Hitchens' brain, like Kazakhstan in Borat's or Nicole Kidman in David Thomson's.
I do not read Hitchens much at all anymore because he's stuck in 2002 and can't get out. But Hitchens has a perspective on "Borat" that's worth mentioning. First, he quotes a dim-witted passage from a review in "London's leftist weekly," the New Statesman, in which the writer professes that "it's shocking to witness the tacit acceptance with which Borat's ghoulish requests are greeted. Trying to find the ideal car for mowing down gypsies, or seeking the best gun for killing Jews, he encounters only compliance among America's salespeople."
To which Hitchens replies: Oh, come on. Among the "cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he's out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it's "Americana" that is "crass"). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of s__t upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn't give much for his chances....
Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for p___y magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won't sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is "compliance"? I have to say, I didn't like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. I'll stop there for now. Hitchens' point is that "Borat" is something of a comedy of manners, and that what many are seeing as "shocking compliance" is simply politeness and an aversion to confrontation (particularly when there's a camera staring at you). On this isolated point, I think Hitchens is generally correct and the heinous, America-hating leftist is generally wrong. But I wonder if Hitchens (or the other guy) can see that one accurate observation does not make all others invalid. Hitchens' mistake -- a fallacy he indulges endlessly in his writing -- is in thinking the one thing he deigns to mention is all that's going on.
The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted itself to comedy this weekend -- and you know how funny the New York Times Magazine can be. Actually, there's a very good article by A.O. Scott on the art of the pratfall in which he explains why some of the greatest modern comedy (from "Little Miss Sunshine" to "Borat") is of the well-executed physical variety. (Not to be confused with what Chris Farley used to call, with an undertone of dismay, "Fat Guy Falls Down" -- a desperate stunt that may elicit knee-jerk laughs, even if it's not inherently funny.)
As part of its comedic survey, the Times Mag asked some 22 comedians, well-known and not-, to name five of their favorite "Desert Island Comedies" on DVD. I don't like any of the lists much (while agreeing wholeheartedly with a few individual choices) -- but I salute David Cross (somebody I've long thought is really funny) for the humor inherent in choosing "Homer and Eddie" and "Rent."
To paraphrase an old David Steinberg routine: There are those who say... (that's the end of my paraphrase) that to analyze comedy is anti-comedic. I could not disagree more strongly. I say if you don't understand why you're laughing, when you're laughing, then you don't appreciate the comedy and you may as well not be laughing at all, since any old reaction is probably comparably appropriate for you. You could be crying or sneezing and it's probably the same thing. But let's put that aside for the moment and concentrate on some lists of very personal, very funny movies.
I suppose I could choose the great movies that have made me laugh the most -- the first that come to mind, such as: a Keaton ("Sherlock, Jr." or "Steamboat Bill, Jr."), a Fields ("It's A Gift" or "The Bank Dick"), a Marx Bros. ("Animal Crackers" or "Duck Soup"), a Sturges ("The Lady Eve" or "Miracle of Morgan's Creek"), and, let's say, a classic comedy (preferably starring Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur, and written and/or directed by Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder or Mitchell Leisen, like "Trouble in Paradise" or "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) or "Bringing Up Baby" or "His Girl Friday" or "The Major and the Minor" or "Some Like It Hot" or "Easy Living" or "Ball of Fire"...). But those are all 50-75 years old, and I haven't even mentioned my modern-era favorites, like Luis Bunuel ("The Exterrminating Angel," "Simon of the Desert," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom of Liberty"), Monty Python ("Life of Brian" -- greatest comedy of the last half-century), Christopher Guest & ensemble ("Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show") or the Coen Bros. ("Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski"). So, I thought I'd just offer up a few relatively obscure, underappreciated or, at least, off-the-beaten-path comedies that I think are hysterically funny and invite you contribute some of your own:
"I Was Born, But..." (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932) I know it's an acknowledged masterpiece by one of the greatest directors in movie history, but how many of you have actually seen it? Two boys, big belly laughs. Some of this material was re-worked in "Ohayo" ("Good Morning") in 1959.
"The President's Analyst" (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967) I love this movie -- the perfect paranoid Cold War 1960s espionage satire companion to "Dr. Strangelove" and James Bond, with James Coburn in the title role. Who is writer/directorTheodore J. Ficker, anyway? Well, according to IMDb, he directed episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E., "The Andy Griffith Show," "I Dream of Jeannie," "Night Gallery" and "Barney Miller."
"Taking Off" (Milos Forman, 1971) You couldn't find a better time capsule for 1971 -- which Forman has captured with his characteristically uncanny ease and naturalness. Buck Henry "stars" as a father whose daughter has run away to some sort of "hippie" musical audition -- probably in the Village. The whole thing feels spontaneous and improvised -- but it was written by Forman, Jean-Claude Carrierer ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom of Liberty," "Birth"), John Guare ("Atlantic City," "Six Degrees of Separation") and Jon Klein. One of the late, great Vincent Schiavelli's finest moments: teaching a group of uptight, wealthy parents with missing kids how to smoke pot. Early cameos by Kathy Bates, Carly Simon and Jessica Harper, among others. (Long unavailable, this recently showed up on the Sundance Channel, which I hope means it will soon be released on DVD.)
"How to Get Ahead in Advertising"(Bruce Robinson, 1989) Robinson's equally brilliant and demented "Withnail & I" is the official masterpiece (and object of obsessive cult veneration in the UK), but this is Richard E. Grant's finest hour. He's a London advertising executive so sick with self-loathing that he grows a foul-mouthed boil on his neck. How's that for a premise?
Coldblooded" (Wallace Wolodarsky, 1995) In some ways, this is a precursor to "Dexter." Jason Priestly is magnificently deadpan as an empty young man who is recruited to become a hit man -- and turns out to be mighty good at it. Co-starring Peter Riegert, Robert Loggia (getting ready for "Lost Highway"), and Jay Kogen -- who, along with writer/director Wolodarsky, wrote some of the classic early episodes of "The Simpsons."
"Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy" (Kelly Makin, 1996) Critics were mostly bewildered or repulsed, but this movie gets funnier every time I see it (and I've seen it at least a dozen times). It plays GREAT on the video screen -- better, I think, than any of the TV shows. A drug company speeds a new anti-depressant to the market, only to find that the insanely popular Gleemonex has a troublesome side effect: It puts people into comas of happiness. Each of the "Kids" has at least a handful of indescribably (but not inexplicably) funny moments. Including: "Cat on my head! Cat on my head!"; "I'm an elephant rider!"; "Tasty"; "How pleasing!"; and "Just... a guy." Should be seen alongside the great documentary, "The Corporation."
I cheated. That's six. But, OK, I've left out hundreds of great titles. Your turn. And the more obscure/underappreciated the better, please.
P.S. Anybody else remember the rest of the sentence from that David Steinberg bit?
The cast of the Oscar-favorite film, "Home for Purim."
"For Your Consideration" -- Christopher Guest is blessed with the finest comedic stock company since the heyday of Preston Sturges. Guest, Catherine O'Hara (Goddess of Funny), Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Paul Dooley, Jim Piddock, Larry Miller... I get a thrill just seeing them share screen space in various combinations (and this time they've added Ricky Gervais and Sandra Oh to the mix). Every few years when they get together (the last time they were together was "A Mighty Wind" in 2003), it's like seeing old friends for whom you will always harbor a deep and abiding affection. Here's hoping they keep reuniting for many movies to come.
In "FYC," the subject isn't so much the movie industry (Guest already made the best American dissection of the contemporary film business back in 1989 with "The Big Picture") as the awards and publicity industry. We join a film in production -- a kind of kosher Tennessee Williams melodrama about a Jewish family in the South during the war, called "Home for Purim." Somebody on the web (or the "World Wide Internet" as the typically clueless HollyLuddites call it) claims the lead actress (played by O'Hara), an '80s sitcom star who's been virtually forgotten by the public and the industry, may be giving an "Oscar-worthy" performance, and a rumor is born that (as in "The Big Picture") takes on a life of its own.
M. Nightmare Shyamalan: "Sometimes Night would close his eyes and see little oval black and white head shots of Nina Jacobson and Oren Aviv and Dick Cook floating around in his head, unwanted houseguests that would not leave. The Disney people had gotten deep inside his head, interfering with the good work the voices were supposed to do — and it would be hell to get them out." Image from a seminal Shyamalan influence: the trailer for William Castle's "The Tingler."
Critics may argue about how much talent M. Night Shyamalan has as a filmmaker. But in The Village called Hollywood (and the offices of advertising agencies hired by American Express), he's still seen as a marketable brand name. That's why some profess to be shocked, shocked that the endlessly self-promoting Shyamalan has such nasty things to say about Disney, his former studio home, in a new book, "The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale." According to The Guardian: The all-out critique of Disney has astonished industry insiders in Hollywood, where arguments between directors and studios are commonplace but rarely aired in public. Not so for Shyamalan's industrial-sized fallout with Disney. Early drafts of the book circulating in Hollywood are leaving many stunned at how strongly the director has turned on his old studio.
Ebert's Best Film Lists1967 - present
The regulars at the Toronto Film Festival are a humbling lot. They take a week off work, arm themselves with backpacks, schedules and bottles of mineral water, and hit as many as six screenings a day. Toronto is said to have the highest per-capita film attendance in the world; maybe that's just all these same people, attending every single movie in town.