Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

Room 237

March 30, 2013

room2373900x506Everyone who loves movies needs to see Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, if only to roll their eyes at certain points. The documentary is about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining — not the making of the film, but, really, the deconstruction of it. Ascher interviews five theorists who have very different perspectives on The Shining and what Kubrick was trying to say in it. Bill Blakemore thinks the movie is really about the genocide of the American Indians. Geoffrey Cocks opines that it’s really about the Holocaust. Juli Kearns makes much of the supposed minotaur imagery and points out the “impossible” architecture of the haunted Overlook Hotel. Jay Weidner thinks the film was really Kubrick’s acknowledgment that he helped NASA fake the moon landing. John Fell Ryan talks about projecting The Shining running forwards and backwards, an experiment that yields some memorably weird and oddly beautiful images.

The first order of business might be to ask, Why this film? Why not another ghost movie from the same year, like The Changeling? Why not another Stephen King adaptation, like The Dead Zone? Why not another Kubrick film — ah, but there we answer part of the question, because a cursory surf around the web will unearth countless deep-dish analyses or close readings of practically every Kubrick film. His swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, is really Kubrick telling dark truths about the Illuminati, who promptly assassinated him days after he finished it. Well, at least a guy on the internet says so. I think the same guy also says Lady Gaga is an Illuminati tool. He’d probably find Illuminati stuff in The Shining, too.

The thing is, you can find anything you want to see in any movie. Rodney Ascher could as well have found five people who discovered profound meanings in Dude, Where’s My Car? But The Shining is the perfect launching pad for a movie about obsessive film theorists, because Kubrick in general attracts theories like lint, and this film in particular is perhaps his most stubbornly mystifying work. Pauline Kael’s review noted the film’s many “deliberate time dislocations.” Stephen King himself didn’t like or understand the movie, and still doesn’t. Years later, King would show how little he understood what made not only Kubrick’s film but his own book work, and wrote a terribly boring TV adaptation of The Shining, a clip of which we see in Room 237. The majority of the footage here, of course, comes from the Kubrick version, as well as from all his other films.

Some of it I enjoyed; some of it I’d heard (or read) before; some of it made my eyes glaze over and made me want to revisit The Shining. In form, Room 237 is more of a video essay than a documentary; the video essay is, to these eyes, an unfortunate bastard child of the close-reading film review, apparently made by people who don’t like to write, for people who don’t like to read. Copious use of other people’s work is an easy bonus for the video essayist. Room 237 also doesn’t show the five theorists onscreen — we just hear their voices — which tends to emphasize the “text” of what they’re saying instead of offering an Errol Morris-type study of five obsessives fondling Kubrick’s film like the blind men touching the elephant in the ancient fable. It’s a pillar! No, it’s a snake!

Kubrick himself preferred to let his movies speak for themselves, which for some viewers creates a void they rush to fill. Amusingly, Kubrick’s former assistant Leon Vitali, who was there at the time, scoffed at many of the theorists’ claims in a recent New York Times interview. Sometimes a typewriter is just a typewriter, even if it changes color; sometimes a chair that’s there in one shot and gone in a later shot is just a continuity goof. Directors — especially those who started before the advent of home video — are far less concerned with editing gaffes than many would suspect. “That’s the only usable shot, and that’s the shot we’re using” is what most disappearing-chair mysteries boil down to. Directors hope the narrative will move you past the small errors, but of course when a movie is available to watch again and again in your living room, the disappearing chair becomes noticeable.

I’ve seen The Shining more than a few times myself. What do I think it’s about? My take, briefly: it’s another chapter in Kubrick’s epic, decades-long doctoral thesis about the ongoing folly of man. Jack Torrance (man) has always been the caretaker (murderer). King, an active alcoholic when he wrote the book, meant the story to illustrate generational, genetic frailty (Jack’s father was an abusive drunk). Kubrick took that and magnified it into a statement about the timeless rivers of blood (redrum) running through human history. The theories about the Indian genocide and the Holocaust would seem to fit neatly inside mine, but I’m going to do us both a favor and let the moon-landing thing pass in silence.

My Amityville Horror

March 17, 2013

amityville8f-1-webAll most of us can know for sure about what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville is that the Lutz family moved there in December 1975 and left 28 days later. Everything else, over the course of 37 years’ worth of books, movies, and TV re-enactments, has been essentially a matter of what you find believable, or what you prefer to believe. Eric Walter’s low-budget documentary My Amityville Horror sits down with a member of the family, Danny Lutz, who was ten when he moved into the house along with his mother, his stepfather, and his two siblings (both of whom declined to participate in the film). Danny, now a 47-year-old UPS driver, looks older than his age, as though his ordeal in the Amityville house stole his youth and continues to steal his life.

Is he telling the truth, though? Danny Lutz seems like a very angry man, and we are left with several explanations for that. He hated his stepfather George Lutz, a former Marine who “had no parent skills whatsoever.” Danny suggests that George’s interest in the occult made the family a target for whatever was haunting the house. He claims that George had telekinetic powers. Is it possible that Danny and the other children were brainwashed by George into believing in paranormal activity? Or intimidated by George into going along with the story? I wouldn’t want to speculate, but in the film, Danny certainly seems to believe what he’s saying. The thought of not being believed triggers his temper worse than anything else — as when Eric Walter asks if he would take a polygraph test.

My Amityville Horror becomes not so much an “untold story” of the Amityville case as a psychological study of a troubled man. Whatever you believe Danny went through, it’s clear he went through something, something that still eats away at him. We see him talking to a therapist, to a reporter who’d covered the original story, to a psychic investigator who had visited the house. They all seem to take him at his word. Danny seems to feel an intense need to tell his story, though he also says he doesn’t want to — doesn’t want to have to. He just wishes he had a normal childhood, a normal life. If that’s so, he hasn’t really helped his blood pressure by appearing here; those, like me, who couldn’t have picked the grown Danny Lutz out of a line-up before will now recognize him as “the Amityville guy.” (I’m also not sure why he didn’t trade his adoptive name Lutz — his loathed stepfather’s name — for his given name Quaratino, though maybe he wanted to maintain a connection to his mother.)

At certain points I stopped thinking about the Danny I was watching and reflected on another spirit-haunted Danny of the 1970s with a bad-tempered father figure — Danny Torrance, the child hero of Stephen King’s The Shining. Over the years I wondered what kind of man Danny Torrance would grow up to be, and later this year King himself will provide an answer with his sequel, Doctor Sleep. But watching My Amityville Horror, I could imagine that Danny Torrance might turn out something like Danny Lutz, carrying around ghastly memories and bottomless anger issues either learned or genetic or both. Life is messier than fiction, though, and I predict King’s Danny will be more tragically heroic than the other Danny we meet here.

The movie occasionally feels dawdling, despite its abbreviated length. Not much time is spent on Danny’s actual recollections of the horror; we more often hear him talk about how it affected him in the years since. He left home as a teenager, lived homeless in the desert for a while; married, had two kids, divorced. He lugs packages for UPS and in his spare time apparently sits in his garage a lot and plays electric guitar. Eric Walter digs where he can, but he, like almost everyone else, seems intimidated by Danny, who is a big guy who always seems a heartbeat away from punching someone. A documentarian like Nick Broomfield, who’s usually fearless about bluntly asking for the truth (he would’ve gotten Danny on a polygraph), might have provided a more in-depth Rashomon-like account — though he probably wouldn’t have gained access to Danny, whereas Walter, who started an Amityville website at age 17, most likely struck Danny as a more sympathetic ear. That’s ultimately what we take from My Amityville Horror — nothing shockingly new about the case, just sympathy for a man who, even if he didn’t literally flee from demons with his family 37 years ago, certainly appears to be living with some now.

See also: The Amityville Horror (2005)

2016: Obama’s America

September 8, 2012

In 2016: Obama’s America, the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza tells us that America is being run not by Barack Obama II, but by Barack Obama Sr. Our current president barely knew his father, but, D’Souza argues, Obama carries out his absentee dad’s anti-colonial ideals anyway. All of this was found in D’Souza’s 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which followed a Forbes article called “How Obama Thinks.” In response to that article, a writer opined, “Dinesh D’Souza has authored what may possibly be the most ridiculous piece of Obama analysis yet written.” Who wrote that? Michael Moore? Howard Zinn? No, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative. Other conservatives have been scarcely more kind to D’Souza’s blend of conspiracy theory and pop psychology. So it isn’t just liberals who might have trouble swallowing 2016: Obama’s America.

The first reel or so is almost The Dinesh D’Souza Story. D’Souza talks about his upbringing in Mumbai and his escape to the embrace of America. To hear him tell it, D’Souza and Obama are doppelgangers: both were born in 1961, both graduated from Ivy League colleges in 1983, both even got married in 1992. We do not hear, alas, whether D’Souza and his wife attended Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on their first date, as Barack and Michelle reportedly did. In any event, D’Souza feels emboldened by his life’s parallel track to Obama’s, and he feels he is uniquely qualified to outline the ways in which Obama is a shadow radical bent on reducing America’s power on the global stage. He understands Obama, you see.

To make his case, D’Souza bends reality in small, weird ways (a baffling dramatization of a black man entering a bar, leading to two white men walking away, only, it turns out, to return with a birthday cake for their black friend — awww!) and in large, disingenuous ways. He lies about Obama’s stance on Iran; he lies about Obama wanting to give the Falkland Islands back to Argentina; he lies about Obama’s supposed blocking of American oil drilling and support for Brazilian oil drilling; he even lies about the Churchill bust Obama allegedly removed from the Oval Office (it was on loan and was slated to be returned before Obama had any say in it). And the timing of D’Souza’s attempted slam-dunk on Obama’s supposed gutting of NASA in favor of “reaching out to Muslims” is hilarious, given what’s trucking around on the surface of Mars as you read this.

How is it as a movie? I had the same problem with it that I had with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, to which 2016 is clearly intended as an heir apparent: it preaches to the converted. Moore, however, produced convincing documentation regarding the Bush family’s ties with the bin Laden family, and he had a star witness in Lila Lipscomb, the former war supporter whose son died in Iraq. D’Souza has nobody comparable, though he tries to pull a gotcha with Obama’s half-brother George, who seems, inconveniently for D’Souza, rather blasé about the president’s alleged neglect of him. Why hasn’t the richer, more powerful Obama pulled his kin out of Nairobi squalor? Well, because George is an activist and chooses to live as he does.

2016: Obama’s America comes to seem like clownish alarmist speculation (the Middle East will become “the United States of Islam”!) taking place in an echo chamber of talking heads who, like D’Souza himself, have never spent time with Barack Obama. It ends with D’Souza’s boyhood avatar staring out into the audience as D’Souza intones “The future is in your hands.” At the end of all this, I was no more persuaded of Obama’s anti-colonial agenda than I was before. The film moves fast, so that, while we’re saying “Wait a minute,” it’s already on to the next theory, the next guilt-by-association fallacy, the next pearl of pop-psych wisdom. According to the film, Barack Obama is president because the American people wanted to feel good about finally electing a black man, even though he’s half-white and that very half-whiteness made America comfortable with him. But, D’Souza is very sneakily saying, it’s not Obama’s white half you have to worry about. D’Souza, I recall, is the same man who in The Enemy at Home held liberals responsible for 9/11. Christ, even Michael Moore said it was al-Qaeda.


April 21, 2012

It’s weird to see Bob Marley without that iconic thick head of dreadlocks, which he called “my identity.” Near the beginning and end of the epic documentary Marley, we do indeed see a closer-cropped Marley — in his youth, when he was covering American hits like “A Teenager in Love,” and close to death, when chemotherapy had ravaged his identity but not his spirit. The latter is a tragic sight, the former sort of comic. One revelation, for a casual Marley listener like me who hasn’t dipped into the zillion or so biographies written about him, is that Marley didn’t emerge fully-formed. Once upon a time he was Robert Marley, a kid trying to do something with “What’s New Pussycat”; like Richard Pryor, whom he resembled in those pre-dread days, he took a while to find his own voice. Once he did, the serenely ecstatic sound of it moved millions.

Marley is a family-approved documentary (Marley’s oldest son Ziggy is one of the executive producers), co-produced by Bob’s own label Tuff Gong, so if there were any truly troubling aspects of his personality — aside from some anecdotes about his competitive streak, expressed best in his full-tilt foot races against his toddlers — we don’t hear much about them. He comes through when he speaks for himself, most often subtitled for the benefit of Western ears that can’t decipher his light patois. By and large, many other heads do the talking for him. In the end, the songs explain him most eloquently. We hear bits of dozens of them, including the dorm-room standards “Could You Be Loved,” “Stir It Up,” “Jamming,” and “No Woman No Cry.”

If that last song is true, Marley must’ve cried a lot. As the film tells us, he fathered eleven children by seven women; only three were with his official wife Rita, who more or less looked the other way as Bob welcomed a wide variety of lovers, including one-time Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare. (Even a German nurse who treated Marley near the end tells us there was “a spark” between them.) When asked if Marley was charming, one woman looks bemused and answers “D’you know Bob?” Actually, we don’t, not really. When a man who only died 31 years ago inspires biographies numbering in at least double digits, it speaks of a man who was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Marley buys into the view of him as a humble Trenchtown kid who became the voice of the poor and disenfranchised not only in Jamaica but worldwide. (The film reaches a climax of sorts during footage of his 1980 performance at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day.)

A little bit is made of Marley’s mixed ancestry: he was the son of an Afro-Jamaican mother and a white Jamaican father. After visiting the father’s construction offices and being turned away, Marley wrote “Cornerstone” (“The stone that the builder refused/Will always be the head cornerstone”). We get a sense of a much more complex figure than the hagiography of the film is really equipped to deal with: even at two hours and twenty-four minutes, Marley feels like a well-rendered sketch, but still a sketch for all that. It’s smoothly drawn, though (and nice-looking: one of the cinematographers was Christopher Nolan regular Wally Pfister); director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) does manage to suggest the turmoil Marley rose out of and seemed to be a part of despite himself. Pressured to come down on one side or the other during a particularly fraught conflict between the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, Marley demurred, only to be shot in 1978. Soon after, he came out at his scheduled One Love Peace Concert and showed off his scars to the crowd.

“Holy Wound of the Left Arm of my Bob, I adore thee…” Well, the movie doesn’t go quite that far. The more relevant comparison would be to Achilles, though it was Marley’s toe, not heel, that started giving him trouble in 1977, portending the malignant melanoma that would later infest his entire body. This was thought by those close to him to be more of a caucasian disease than a black one, so if you take that all the way, the white man in his very DNA killed him. The movie doesn’t do much with this irony, nor the added irony of Marley’s sojourn to a holistic clinic in Germany, which barely a generation earlier would’ve treated an ailing Jamaican far less gently. Marley recounts a short life that seemed to straddle worlds and eras, and perhaps the definitive portrait will never be filmed or written. Until it is, though, there’s always the music.

Public Speaking

November 22, 2010

One New York City icon gives the floor to another in Public Speaking. We may forget that Martin Scorsese, aside from directing some of America’s first-rank narrative films of the last forty years, has spent almost as much time making documentaries. His latest is a showcase for Fran Lebowitz, a writer most famous these days for not writing. After publishing two well-received collections of humor essays, 1979′s Metropolitan Life and 1981′s Social Studies, Lebowitz fell mostly silent. She still files the occasional article, and in 1994 she wrote a children’s book, but the novel she contracted for years ago has yet to materialize.

In other ways, Lebowitz has been far from silent. She makes her living by giving campus lectures, a vocation that appeals to her more than writing does. Why would colleges pay a woman who hasn’t written much of note in thirty years to speak to students too young to know who she is? Because she’s funny. Always has been and, from the sound of it, always will be. In Public Speaking, Scorsese sits across from Lebowitz at a booth at the Waverly Inn, and Lebowitz talks and talks. If she never wrote another word but instead sat for a filmed interview every year or so, holding forth on society’s latest absurdities, society might not be so absurd — but then what would she have to talk about?

Of course, part of Lebowitz’ lament is that there’s no room for the intellectual in popular culture any more. Scorsese shows us vintage TV clips of, on separate occasions, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal both debating William F. Buckley. Now, I’m not Buckley’s biggest fan, but as a conservative voice he was far more eloquent than, say, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, which is what we get now. And certainly nobody given significant airtime on today’s TV is near the level of a Baldwin or a Vidal — or a Lebowitz (though appreciators of wit like Letterman and Conan will gladly have her on). Lebowitz opines that everything went downhill when all the best and brightest gay artists and audiences fell to AIDS in the ’80s. Now standards have fallen because the tough, demanding audience for tough, demanding work gets smaller every year, and mediocrity is not only rewarded but lionized. Take a look at any week’s New York Times bestseller list and it’s hard to argue Lebowitz’ point.

Lebowitz is a loner who spends a lot of time observing and judging. As if to underscore this, Scorsese films Lebowitz driving her cherished 1979 Checker cab, in footage that echoes an earlier clip from Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver. Lebowitz briefly worked driving a cab herself when she first got to New York; the weird but somehow appealing implication is that the only difference between Lebowitz and Travis Bickle was that she was female, Jewish, gay, and witty. She wrote pithy observations; he stockpiled guns and went on a rampage. Both tried to make sense of what they saw around them, but whereas Travis was sickened by the “scum” on the streets, Lebowitz these days bemoans the Disneyfication of the once-scuzzy Times Square.

In Scorsese’s hands, the film, propelled along by Lebowitz’ voice, becomes a wistful tribute to the New York City of the ’70s — perhaps the only place at the only time in American history that could have embraced artists as disparate as Scorsese and Lebowitz. The culture there, and everywhere else, is too vanilla now to support a Taxi Driver or a Metropolitan Life. But Scorsese is still directing, of course, and Lebowitz is still talking, if not writing, and the film by its very existence offers some solace.

Waiting for “Superman”

November 6, 2010

The “Superman” being awaited is the person who will fix the broken American educational system. Good men and women have tried for decades to fill that role. But then, to the accompaniment of ominous bass strings, emerges the evil Lex Luthor and his kryptonite — teachers’ unions! According to Waiting for “Superman,” the inchoate and divisive documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), children everywhere in America are suffering and dying because bad teachers are being shielded from accountability by such brimstone-stinking cults as the American Federation of Teachers. In all, the film is positively Reaganite in its scorn towards organized labor; it’s disorienting to see a more-or-less liberal film (and filmmaker) casting unions largely run by and peopled by women (about 80% of U.S. teachers are female) as the Devil.

Guggenheim allows that, despite his own respect for the good public-school teachers (his 2001 debut, The First Year, followed five rookie educators), he sends his own kids to private school. He also allows that not everyone can afford that option. Having said that, he wades into the morass of debate about American education and comes up mostly empty. Charter schools, non-unionized and uncrowded, are one good answer, the film says. Waiting for “Superman” (I presume the quotes are at the behest of Warner Brothers, so that this won’t be confused for a film about the Man of Steel) speeds past the information that four out of five charter schools aren’t much better than public schools; it tracks five kids of various ages trying to get into charter schools, and we get to watch their anxiety at the end when they wait to be accepted by lottery, and their pain when they aren’t. (Three of the five don’t make it.)

The way Guggenheim builds up suspense by, in effect, watching the life or death (in the film’s terms) of five kids decided at random is a little sickening. We know very little about the kids; most of them, bashful and wary, don’t open up to the camera, and we spend some time with their various parents or guardians, most of whom grew up in poverty and just want their kids to have it easier than they did. (One kid is actually already saying this about his own, hopefully years-in-the-future kids, as if he had guiltily internalized his mother’s rhetoric.) So this human story, shakily carpentered, is surrounded by much footage of people in the educational system expounding on various talking points. Occasionally we get Michael Moore-style animated segments insulting in their we’ll-spell-it-out-for-you-dummies breeziness.

To get a sense of how haplessly simplistic the film is, look up Dana Goldstein’s piece in the October 11 issue of The Nation, which points out that teachers’ unions have worked closely with former or even current adversaries (like Bill Gates) to get things done for the sake of students, not teachers. Former D.C. public schools system chancellor Michelle Rhee, who resigned a few weeks ago, is held up as a mover and shaker instead of the often destructive and dismissive influence she actually was, while Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is cast as a human roadblock to progress. Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada is fawned over, though the movie doesn’t mention that the HCZ benefits from millions of dollars of private funding.

In truth, the movie hems and haws and then comes up with the missing “Superman”: us. If we’re to get through this crisis, we’re all to band together and buy war bonds, uh, I mean do something — Guggenheim is unclear on what. The real problem, outside the purview of this confused film, is that American education is a broken system inside a larger broken system, and that external factors like poverty, crime, indifferent or toxic parents, and disastrously inadequate funding¹ have more to do with the shameful state of our education than the demands of unions or the tenure of a relative few inept teachers. For those with money, there’s private school. For those with the luck of the draw, there’s charter school. For those whose parents have the time, patience and education, there’s homeschooling. The rest will sink or swim depending on the toughness and innate smarts they bring into the public system — and that goes for the teachers, too. The times call for grimming up, finding a spine, and facing facts, not pointing at one group or another. Guggenheim points. I respond in kind, and will leave to your imagination which finger I use.


¹I can’t quite help pointing out that the citizens of all those other countries that are smoking our asses on the educational front — unlike historically and currently tax-averse Americans — probably don’t mind kicking in a few more bucks, tax-wise, to ensure better schools for their or others’ children. On this point, the silence of Waiting for “Superman” speaks volumes.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

June 11, 2010

Joan Rivers is not a happy woman, from the evidence in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. She is driven — almost demonically driven — insecure, filled with anger. In other words, she’s a comedian.

Comedians are like rock stars in a lot of ways, but particularly in regards to longevity. Some burn out early (Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, Bill Hicks). And some hang in there well into their seventies, eighties, nineties. Joan Rivers turned 75 during the filming of this documentary. As I write this, she is 77. Jerry Lee Lewis is 75. I think Rivers might have more to talk about with Jerry Lee Lewis than with Jerry Lewis, who is 84, and who once infamously said that women aren’t funny. Anyway, why focus on age? Partly because Rivers herself can’t escape it. She hears, as one associate puts it, the ticking of the clock. She has five decades in show business, and she vehemently refuses to slow down or retire. She practically defines herself by how many dates are filled in on her gig schedule.

Rivers holds grudges and holds onto past traumas. She co-wrote and appeared in a play, Fun City, in 1972, and it got poisonous reviews on Broadway and closed in six days. So when she prepares her new stage show, Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress, she opens it in London. If it doesn’t fly there, she will refuse to take it to New York. It gets lukewarm reviews. She kills it. She can’t bear to go through a Fun City experience all over again. Roger Ebert wrote that Rivers “doesn’t know fear.” I think that’s true onstage; I think that’s the only place she doesn’t know fear. Offstage she knows it all too well.

Several times in the documentary, we hear Rivers announcing that she will do anything. Anything. Any demeaning commercial, any flyover hicksville gig. She did not voice the vagina character Vajoana (which looked and sounded like her) on the Comedy Central cartoon Drawn Together, but perhaps only because she wasn’t asked to. “I’ve been a cunt all my life,” she might have said; “I might as well play one.”

Searching for a suspenseful narrative arc after Rivers torpedoes her own play, the film latches onto Rivers’ appearance on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice along with her daughter Melissa. Melissa got “fired” off the show and left amid much acrimony. Incensed, Rivers stayed on and ended up winning the competition. She sees this as a triumph, a life-saver, a way to stay in the game. From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem to have affected her career one way or the other. People will still want her for what she can do, or they won’t. Melissa, in the film, seems to be developing the same scowling mask as her mother. Neither of them seems happy, flitting from gig to gig, Joan badgering Melissa about her smoking and Melissa countering that she’s cut down.

They both, I presume, live in the shadow of Melissa’s father and Joan’s husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who married Joan in 1965 and took his own life twenty-two years later. This came on the heels of the failure of Rivers’ The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, from which she was fired after several months, and which went on without her for about another year. Three months later, Edgar was dead; and the very fact of Rivers doing a talk show on a rival network cost her her relationship with her mentor, Johnny Carson, who never spoke to her again, and who, Rivers insinuates, made it impossible for Rivers to get any work on NBC until Celebrity Apprentice in 2009. Since Carson left The Tonight Show in 1992 and died in 2005, this seems unlikely, but what do I know?

This is a woman who’s taken any number of private and public punches and keeps on going. The portrait here is neither flattering nor unsympathetic. The structure and style reminded me a little of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D List — it feels like an 83-minute pilot for a Joan Rivers reality show, in which Joan, like Kathy, roves around endlessly looking for work, which really amounts to looking for love and reinforcement.

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

June 1, 2010

Number of movies John Cazale appeared in: five. Number of those movies that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture: five. Number of those movies that won: three. Number of Oscar nominations John Cazale earned for his work: zero.

Few people on the street know John Cazale by name. If you show them a photo of him alongside fellow cast members in The Godfather, they know he’s Fredo. Nobody forgets Fredo. There are several clips of Cazale as Fredo in I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, and a couple of those clips made my eyes well up all over again. That amazing scene in Part II:

Fredo: I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!
Michael: That’s the way Pop wanted it.
Fredo: It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!

Not to mention the wordless scene at their mother’s funeral, when Michael shows up, and Fredo looks up, puts out his cigarette, and hugs his kid brother as if he were a lifeline. Jesus Christ, that’s why I love the Godfather movies. Not for Michael, who turns into a cold cod and a prick. Not for Tom Hagen. But for poor, sweet, stupid, stupid Fredo, who wants to be a man of respect like his Pop, but ends up lording it over some rinky-dink nightclub.

John Cazale was born to play roles like that. His strength was in finding the truth in weakness. In this 40-minute documentary, there’s a parade of great actors — those who worked with him, and those who might’ve been old enough to catch his films on cable back in the day — who genuflect before the cracked glory of John Cazale. Pacino. De Niro. Streep. Hackman. Dreyfuss. And the kids: Steve Buscemi. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sam Rockwell. (All of whom have taken a page or two from the Cazale playbook. I’m surprised the director, Richard Shepard, didn’t get Paul Giamatti, who may be the closest thing to Cazale we have today.)

The doc itself is point-and-shoot, talking-heads, nicely chosen clips (with some rare photos and footage — I hope we get more of that footage as extras on the eventual DVD). It’s essentially an extended version of the Oscar-night tributes they sometimes make room for (like this year’s John Hughes toast). Things I didn’t know about John Cazale: his dad was a coal salesman; he met Pacino while they were both struggling young actors working as delivery boys; the “Wyoming” thing in Dog Day Afternoon was his improv; he did everything slowly and meticulously (friend Robyn Goodman tells a good story about him coming over to calibrate her new TV). Things I still don’t know about John Cazale: everything and nothing. Watch him at work and you feel you learn as much as you need to know about him.

I’ll say it: you cannot call yourself a lover of movies until you have seen all five John Cazale film performances. And you don’t even have to love Deer Hunter — lots of people don’t — just watch it for Cazale (and Walken). I was electrified all over again by his shifty, implosive Sal in Dog Day Afternoon; saddened by his gaunt appearance in The Deer Hunter (you feel real warmth between him and De Niro, and the whole “This is this” scene where De Niro refuses Cazale the use of his spare boots feels kind of false because of it¹); intrigued by his hangdog assistant in The Conversation, which I haven’t watched in too many years; annoyed and moved and heartbroken by goddamn Fredo. In Nick Tosches’ epic Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, the writer pegs the supremely indifferent Vegas god Dean Martin as a menefreghista, a man with menefreghismo, the quality of not giving a fuck. Fredo was the opposite of a menefreghista, and so was Cazale.

Cazale acted in five movies and a lot of plays in between. He met and fell madly in love with Meryl Streep, and she him. She and De Niro moved heaven and earth to ensure that Cazale, by then dying of lung cancer and uninsurable, could be in The Deer Hunter and be in close proximity to Streep. Al Pacino testifies that, as much as he holds Streep’s acting in profound regard, when he thinks of her, he thinks of how devotedly she stayed by the side of his dying friend John Cazale right to the end.

What would John Cazale have done if he’d lived past the age of 42? He would be turning 75 this August. Pacino turned 70 in April. De Niro hits 66 in August. Streep crosses the big six-oh in a few weeks, as I write this. Would Cazale have kept up the high quality? (Some — okay, many — would argue Pacino and De Niro haven’t.) He was essentially a character actor, not a star. That was the beauty of him: he was happiest, and brightest, when giving his fellow actors a hand up. He would come in for a scene, rock the fucking house, and disappear again. He appears in a flashback in Godfather III, and he haunts the entire flawed movie: Coppola knew he needed Cazale one more time, to bless the event. The story is about a soul-sick Michael trying to buy his way to respectability, and you don’t have the story without knowing intuitively how Michael felt about Fredo and his role in Fredo’s fate. And you don’t have that without Cazale.

Anyway, I’m thinking Cazale might’ve had a hard time of it in the ’80s, when Hollywood trended away from the kind of movies in which Cazale thrived. The ’80s were about strength and balls and Sly and Top Gun and Axel Foley. Cazale might have gone sideways, though, to appear in films by indie artists like Jarmusch or Lynch or Spike Lee (hell, Richard Edson in Do the Right Thing was completely a young-Cazale role; back in the early ’70s Cazale would’ve played the shit out of Vito opposite circa-Mean Streets De Niro as Pino). Those who grew up worshipping Cazale might’ve put him in their films, the way Steve Buscemi cast Seymour Cassel in his directorial debut Trees Lounge. I can see Tarantino wanting to give Cazale the Tarantino Comeback Role; I can see Coppola working with him again (what is Vincent Gallo in Tetro but a randier, scruffier Cazale?); I can maybe even see him playing Paul Child opposite Streep’s Julia Child in Julie & Julia.

But he died 32 years ago. And we’ll never know.

¹Really, what that scene feels like more than anything is an actors’-workshop exercise. “John, you forgot your boots. Bob, you don’t want him to borrow yours because he’s always forgetting stuff. Make it into a scene.” De Niro’s character comes off like a dick, and you end up siding with Cazale. I have a lot more to say about this problematic but, I think, great film, but I’ll save it for a proper review.

The Race to Save 100 Years (1997)

February 15, 2010

This entry is part of the For the Love of Film blogathon to support the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so here.

“EVERYTHING WE ARE DOING NOW MEANS NOTHING!” This was Martin Scorsese’s calm, cool, collected way of alerting his colleagues in filmmaking that bolder, faster steps needed to be taken in the area of film preservation. We see that memo, and hear Scorsese talk about it, in 1997′s The Race to Save 100 Years, a 57-minute program produced for television by Turner Entertainment. We also learn that Scorsese’s decision to shoot Raging Bull in black and white wasn’t entirely an aesthetic homage to such classic boxing pictures as Body and Soul; he was horrified by the epidemic fading of color movies, and he wanted Raging Bull out of the crosshairs of time. (He also drops an interesting anecdote about Star Wars: it seems George Lucas planned the color scheme of the film around the inevitability that it would fade.)

The cynical way to look at The Race to Save 100 Years is that it’s an hour-long commercial for Ted Turner and his wonderful efforts to keep films like Gone with the Wind from decaying into dust. This is the same Ted Turner, after all, who earned the sobriquet Crayola Ted for his brief dabbling in colorization in the ’80s. “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayolas away from my movie,” Orson Welles reportedly said, since Citizen Kane was now owned by Turner. (As it happened, Welles’ contract with RKO blocked Turner’s Crayolas anyway.) Yeah, so it was a crap idea, but Turner has also been instrumental in film preservation, if only by leading by example. This film, a sort of Preservation 101 for casual viewers who don’t understand that a lot of work and money goes into restoring the classics they enjoy on DVD, gives some hope that everything Scorsese and every other director is doing now means something. (Well, maybe not Uwe Boll.)

Again and again in the program, we hear that long-lost elements of a particular film were found in some Czech Republic archive, or elsewhere overseas. That’s because studios used to whip film prints like mules, playing them in American theaters until they simply fell apart. In other countries, they got much less wear and tear. You never know where films will turn up; the most hilarious example, to me, is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc being discovered in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. And MIA sections of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were recently found in, of all places, Argentina. I think many film geeks harbor the fantasy of perusing some estate sale or looking around in a long-abandoned theater and unearthing London After Midnight or the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons. Of course, once found, there’s no guarantee it would be watchable or even salvageable.

We hear that 85% of all American silent films are considered lost today. Want to see Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle? Sorry, you can’t. How about Emil Jannings’ Oscar-winning performance in The Way of All Flesh? Tough luck, it’s gone. 1913′s The Werewolf, the first werewolf film? A fire claimed it in 1924. I imagine that the advent of television, which convinced studios that old films now had another venue to generate profit, played a big role in the growing realization that movies were worth saving. But the battle isn’t limited to creaky old flickering celluloid. The famous story about Jaws is that Steven Spielberg went back to look at the original master in the ’90s and was shocked by how badly the print had degenerated in only fifteen years.

Today, of course, every new movie from the great to the not-even-close-to-good gets digitally preserved. When this program first aired in 1997, the DVD format had only been around for a few months; movies had previously been “remastered” for videocassette, but DVD created and met a demand for high-quality picture and sound, and putting out a disc whose transfer looked like the flick had been in your grandpa’s attic for fifty years just wasn’t going to cut it. Criterion stepped up in a big way, as did Kino and such purveyors of grindhouse fare as Blue Underground, Synapse, and Dark Sky, making grungy old exploitation pictures look better than they ever had in fleapit 42nd-Street theaters or on drive-in screens.

Every month seems to bring more and more classics given a new polish for DVD and, increasingly, Blu-ray. We may be trending towards on-demand streaming video, but those films still have to look good on the HD televisions everyone will probably have by the end of this decade. Any home-video format needs content to feed it, and eventually people will get tired of what contemporary Hollywood has to offer and look to the past. Preservation will continue to make not only historical and aesthetic sense but financial sense as long as people continue to sit in front of moving, talking images to be told a story.

This Is It

November 1, 2009

I feel a little bad for the stage dancers in This Is It. There they are at the beginning of the film, many of them moved to tears by the very prospect of dancing onstage with their hero, Michael Jackson, for his projected farewell concert in London. Well, they got to rehearse with him, anyway, and their efforts, captured on camera, are recorded for posterity. As the world now knows, Jackson’s This Is It concerts were not to be; he died less than a month before the first show.

One hundred hours of rehearsals were filmed for the concert crew’s own reference and for Jackson’s personal library; the footage was never intended to be seen by the public. We’re to understand that the show’s director (and the film’s credited director), Kenny Ortega, heard from so many fans wanting to see that footage that Ortega decided to put the film together for them. The truth is probably somewhat thornier; the concert promoter AEG Live, which took a $500 million bath from the fifty cancelled dates, has to make its money back somehow. Still, what’s left here is an interesting, if remote, portrait of an entertainment machine with a laser-precise vision of what he wanted.

It’s possible that the only time Michael Jackson was fully in control was when he was onstage, or doing prep work for a show. The rest of his life was mess and scandal and self-disfigurement, but in the lights, at least, he knew something about something. Always gracious, often appending his critiques “with love,” Jackson makes minute adjustments to the sound, the timing, the funkiness. We’ll never know what cocktail of meds he may or may not have been on when this footage was shot, but mentally, in the film, he seems formidable. Physically, he often holds back, saving his voice, he repeatedly says, for the main event. He gladly gives the spotlight (“This is your turn to shine”) to Orianthi Panagaris, a 24-year-old Australian virtuoso guitarist always seen chewing gum. When you’ve played onstage with Steve Vai at age 15, you can probably get away with chewing gum in front of the King of Pop.

For obvious reasons, This Is It suffers from a patchwork style — the editors do a heroic job of stitching it all together into something coherent. The highlight, mid-film, is probably “Thriller” (notch up another movie credit for Vincent Price); we get a peek at what would’ve been an impressive multimedia 3D presentation. This megaproduction in general would likely have been quite a night out, though by necessity short on spontaneity; Jackson’s fans paid to see his act well-worked-out, not rough around the edges. The film shows only the bare bones of what might have been. It’s difficult to assess, on a narrative or even technical level, footage that we weren’t really supposed to see. But people are expected to pay to see it, so that’s where we critics come in.

This Is It shows a man, frail and (unwittingly) close to death, yet still packing iconic power. He doesn’t waste a movement or a word. His entire essence seems mixed into the music (much of which has odd levels of hostility and aggression for someone who talks constantly about peace and love). His fluid mechanical-man moves and his strange late-period martial iconography (as seen in “They Don’t Really Care About Us”) denote a control freak, or, more generously, a perfectionist, and it’s clear to me that the Michael Jackson we see here would not have wanted us to see the Michael Jackson we see here. His estate okayed the film, but his estate has bills to pay, too. As a posthumous document, This Is It offers a veiled, vaseline-lens look behind the curtain. As a cultural event, it’s more than a little creepy and depressing. As with Elvis before him, the vultures will keep picking at this sad man-child’s bones until there’s nothing left.3


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