How to Fix a Drug Scandal
Rarely have I been more frustrated by a documentary production’s formal choices and how they interfere with the engaging content of the story they’re trying…
Or: This IS my beautiful life! How did I get here?
The deaths of Andrew Sarris and Bill Sweeney on the same day last week got me to ruminating about my own life with movies and what drew me to them so strongly from an early age. Yes, there's that innate childhood desire to escape into new worlds (see "Moonrise Kingdom), and to create them, too (I started writing stories and shooting live-action and animated movies with my dad's wind-up 8mm Kodak Brownie before I was in my teens). But I think I've always known, too, that movies are like dreams, less about escapism or distraction than about getting closer to an understanding of the relationship between your inner self and the world. Tom Noonan said: "I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." To me, the best movies have always been more real than real. Life, John Lennon sang, is what happens while you're making other plans; art gets to the core of what it means to be alive.
I've had many life-and-death (and near-death) experiences in waking life that were no more vividly real, memorable, ecstatic, traumatic, or profoundly and indelibly affecting* than certain (sometimes recurring) dreams or, oh, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Sherlock Jr.," "Sansho Dayu," "Chinatown," "Nashville," "Kings of the Road," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Searchers," "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Vertigo," "Un Chien Andalou," "No Country for Old Men" -- and those are just a few of the titles that popped into my head as I was typing this sentence. (And yet it's still such a young medium -- only a little more than a century old.) There are familiar places that exist only in my dreams, that I remember from dream to dream, and I revisit them often. Movies are those kinds of places, too.
(or, Who put the mise in the mise en scène?)
UPDATE: Here's a new, more color-accurate frame grab -- an unmodified screen capture from the new-ish Blu-ray set of the "Alien Anthology."
Look at the frame-grab above from Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979). I'm not making any high claims for it as a masterpiece of composition, or saying that it has great meaning in the context of the movie, or that it expresses anything typical/archetypal about Scott's style or values (aesthetic, moral). But it sure is a pleasure to take in. You've got the interplay between the right, left and center, the foreground and the background, each in its own space, but visually interrelated. The camera is in the operating room with Dallas and Ash, who are looking at their comatose patient, Kane, whose feet are at left, in a quarantine chamber (because he has a xenomorph hugging his face). In the background, through the window, is the rest of the Nostromo crew, anxiously waiting for news. That's right -- the entire (human) cast of the movie in one shot.
We can hear what the crew is saying as well as what Dallas and Ash are saying (exactly what they're saying is not terribly important, just their worry and uncertainty), though it's not clear if they can all hear one another. The drama is expressed visually: Kane is immobilized, isolated, beyond reach; Dallas and Ash are the intermediaries between his living death (in quarantine) and life, as represented by the rest of the crew, but they don't know what to do; the crew is on the outside looking in, twice removed from Kane who was, until just a short time ago, one of them.
Tilt-shift photography was made for Wes Anderson, even if he doesn't actually use it. His pictures often look like they were filmed that way, because they are exquisite miniatures. Keith Uhlich and any number of others have referred to his "shoebox-diorama" aesthetic. There's a hand-crafted feeling to his movies (too bad George Harrison already used the name "Handmade Films"), from the props and set design to the images themselves, a sense "Moonrise Kingdom" underscores with the use of Super 16mm film stock and a softly aged, yellowed visual texture.
The picture begins in what appears to be a toy house with tiny people living inside -- reminiscent of the cutaway ship set in "The Live Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (or Jerry Lewis's famous construction for "Ladies' Man"). The site is New Penzance Island, 1965 -- somewhere, I would imagine, on a fantasy border between New England and France,* probably across the water from Tativille on the mainland. The postal address (clearly marked on the mailbox) is "Summer's End." The movie is obsessed with charts and maps and measurements and procedures and codes -- all those things that (supposedly, at least) help you figure out where you've been, where you are, where you need to go, and what you need to do to get there.
And, the narrator (Bob Balaban, looking like a grey-bearded bespectacled elf in a bright red coat, black and white mittens and a green stocking cap) tells us, looking us right in the eye, it is indeed early September, just three days before a famously ferocious and well-documented tempest, according to the U.S. Department of Inclement Weather, which keeps track of those sorts of things. I would estimate that 98 percent of the time (I wish I had a graph), Anderson's camera is situated on a tripod or a dolly, moves only at right angles, and always with clockwork smoothness. (There's a Keatonesque boat that sets sail with a similar comically pure, precise and idealized motion that I can only describe as deadpan. It's miraculously urgent and serene at the same time.) The dolly-mounted camera can move left or right, up or down, forward or back, except when it pivots (from 180 degrees to 360 degrees) from a fixed point. The compositions, as you know from "Rushmore," "The Royal Tennenbaums" and so on, are generally balanced, stable and symmetrical, as if viewed through a proscenium. Lots of straight lines and 90-degree angles; few diagonals, except as parallel lines that appear to converge in perspective.
"All of us will always owe him everything." -- Glenn Kenny on Andrew Sarris, quoting Jean-Luc Godard on Orson Welles
Andrew Sarris, "who loved movies" (as Roger Ebert described him), was long considered the "dean of American film critics." Reading the accounts and appreciations of him today, I was surprised to see how many people perpetuated the myth that Sarris and Pauline Kael were like the print era's Siskel & Ebert who, instead of facing off with each other over new movies on TV week after week, carried on a robust public debate about auteurism and film theory for decades. That didn't happen. And that mischaracterization does a disservice to Sarris, to Kael and to Siskel & Ebert, all of whom were taking their own distinctive and original approaches to movie reviewing and criticism. I think what's most important on the occasion of Sarris's passing is to acknowledge that his substantial critical legacy cannot be defined in terms of anything Pauline Kael wrote about him and the politique des auteurs in 1963 -- and certainly not in the way his and the Cahiers du Cinema critics' views were misrepresented in Kael's famous snipe, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris."
Let's get this straight: Sarris, who had spent some time in France and acquainted himself with the Cahiers du Cinema critics (Andre Bazin, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, et al.), published an essay in Film Culture called "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" (download .pdf here). In it he set out to explain the French notion of what he called "auteurism" for an American audience.*
"Through my films I'm eventually trying to one day tell the truth. I don't know if I'm ever going to get there, but I'm slowly letting pieces of myself out there and then maybe by the time I'm 85, I'll look back and say, 'All right, that about sums it up.'" -- Adam Sandler, interview clip used in the 2012 Oscar broadcast
What if those schlocky Adam Sandler movies that you either think are funny or you don't really aren't just schlocky Adam Sandler movies that you either think are funny or you don't? What if they don't have much to do with movies at all, but are more like leveraged derivative instruments (I don't actually know what those are) or synthetic collateralized debt obligation (CDO) transactions, devised by accountants to provide maximum returns with minimum effort -- that promise investors profits for next-to-nothing? Ultra-low-budget production values and minor league actors, writers and directors (except for Sandler himself, who gets $25 million-plus up-front plus a heavy chunk of the gross), subsidized by egregious product placements, make for maximum risk minimalization.
As a moviegoer and a critic, all I care about is what's on the screen -- or isn't. But there's so little on the screen in Adam Sandler movies, that I confess I'm bewildered at what some claim to see in them. So, if you're curious about, say, how the production cost of the average Adam Sandler comedy jumped from about $30 million to about $80 million overnight... well, just keep reading.
The so-called " flop" of "That's My Boy" this past weekend (Sandler's second after "Jack and Jill" -- almost a trend!) has been greeted with schadenfreude in some quarters, but it disregards the likelihood that financial arrangements have long been in place that ensure a Sandler movie has to really, seriously tank before it winds up actually losing money.* Who knows -- there may be the equivalent of credit default swaps that protect Sony and Happy Madison from disappointing returns. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are investment devices that allow the backing companies to actually make money by placing wagers predicting the underperformance of a given movie, just to hedge their bets. Everybody wins, right?
The visceral impact that Ridley Scott's "Alien" had in 1979 can never quite be recaptured, partly because so many movies have adapted elements of its premise, design and effects over the last three decades -- from John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing" (1982) to David Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly" (1986) to "Species" (1998) and "Splice" (2009). No movie had ever looked like this. And it still works tremendously -- but let me tell you, in 1979 a major studio science-fiction/horror film that hinted darkly of interspecies rape and impregnation was unspeakably disturbing. (It got under my skin and has stayed there. We have a symbiotic relationship, this burrowing movie parasite and I. We nourish each other. I don't think Ridley Scott has even come close to birthing as subversive and compelling a creation since.)
The thing is, the filmmakers actually took out the grisly details involving just what that H.R. Giger " xenomorph" did to and with human bodies (the sequels got more graphic), but in some ways that made the horror all the more unsettling. You knew, but you didn't know. It wasn't explicitly articulated. Dallas (Tom Skerrit) just disappears from the movie. The deleted "cocoon" scene (with the haunting moan, "Kill me...") appeared later on a LaserDisc version of the film, and then was incorporated into the 2003 theatrical re-release for the first time. The deleted footage:
"It's the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race, memory." -- Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), "Citizen Kane" (1941)
Nearly every scene in "The Phantom," the Season 5 finale of "Mad Men," conjures a ghost from the show's past. "Mad Men," like many great series from "Hill Street Blues" to "SCTV" to "The Sopranos," has always been exceptionally good at this (see "The Long Walk"), setting images, gestures and emotions reverberating off one another across episodes and seasons. The series has a memory, and the curse of memory is a primary theme of "The Phantom," which is why the episode is composed as it is. As Nancy Sinatra sings in that final song:
You only live twice, or so it seems, One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
(Spoilers from here on out.)
That's a James Bond theme song, from "You Only Live Twice" (1967) -- and it's the second Bond theme we hear in the episode, after Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass bite into Burt Bacharach's theme from the James Bond parody "Casino Royale" (1967) at the weekday matinée where Don (the suave, masculine Bond of New York advertising) runs into Peggy. (The Beatles, who have figured prominently in Seasons 4 and 5, released "Help!" in 1965 and it was in part a 007 parody, too -- especially the John Barry-like orchestral music written by George Martin.) Echoes and repetitions are everywhere.
From Taylor Mali on "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" in 2002:
In case you hadn't noticed, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you're talking about? Or believe strongly in what you're, like, saying? Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences? Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?
Please join me and fellow "Mad Men" video essayists Serena Bramble, Kevin B. Lee and Deborah Lipp over at IndieWire's Press Play blog for a fascinating (if I say so myself) Audiovisualcy roundtable about the show and why it's such a natural for video-based exploration. I can't think of another series that offers a fully formed, cinematically sophisticated movie every episode, week after week. A taste of some of the things we get into:
Kevin: (on my video, " The Long Walk"): As one clip cuts to another, I feel a conversation beginning to emerge between them, which you are orchestrating. I start to feel like I am watching the show through another set of eyes. To do this without any explicit commentary, text, elaborate editing or effects, is remarkable.
In fact, I think it's because of this non-invasive approach that the viewer can have a special experience. It gives the viewer room to piece together the connections you are making without being told what they are. It's like playing a puzzle with one's eyes - a quality that distinguishes Mad Men from most other shows in that it leaves a lot of subtexts for the viewer to piece together on their own. Your video compresses and intensifies that experience.
The other night I had dinner with some longtime film critic friends (mmmmmm, homemade Rogan Gosht!) and we got to talking (and laughing) about the dumb things you overhear people say in movie theaters -- whether at critics' screenings or multiplexes. The funniest kind are those intended to convey some kind of filmmaking savvy or insight but that actually reveal ignorance by saying nothing at all. It's inexcusable when critics use these buzzwords, and it's just as embarrassing when affected "laypersons" ("civilians"? "Regular Joes"?) use it, even as inane small-talk. [Clarification: It's not just empty-headed, it's the very definition of pretentious.]
In the 1970s and 1980s you always heard people compliment "the beautiful cinematography," but not so much anymore. (I don't know if this had anything to do with David Watkin's magnificent 1986 Oscar speech for "Out of Africa," but I'd like to think so.) It was the kind of thing someone could substitute for not saying anything at all: "Well, I noticed something about the movie: some of the pictures were pretty!"
Now it's "well-shot," which means absolutely nothing -- or, rather, could mean absolutely anything -- except, maybe, "not well-shot." It's almost the same as clichéd small talk about the weather: "Nice day," "Hot enough for you?," "It's not the heat it's the humidity"... Actually, no, those things have more meaning than "well-shot." Anyway, it's one of those things lazy critics habitually throw into the final paragraph of their reviews, which Richard T. Jameson (of Straight Shooting and other venues) has summarized as: "There was also photography and music." A local semi-reviewer recently invoked the phrase with regard to the shaky-cam work in "The Hunger Games." He didn't like the movie... "but it was well-shot." Which means... what? The focus-puller was doing his job? What, exactly, was "well" about the way it was shot?