Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

Remembering Leonard Cohen

November 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen, in concert. France, 1970 (Photo by P. Ullman/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Leonard Cohen, in concert. France, 1970 (Photo by P. Ullman/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

News of Leonard Cohen’s death on the heels of the Presidential election was a bruise upon a blow. He had been much on my mind lately, as I’d just listened to an audio interview he did at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles on the release of his new album “You Want It Darker,” and read David Remnick’s recent profile of him in the New Yorker. Although he was 82 and frail, Cohen was on a late career roll. It didn’t seem as if the new album would be his last.

Like a lot of people, I discovered Leonard Cohen though Judy Collins’ covers of his songs “Suzanne,” “The Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy.” Later I came to prefer his own versions of those songs and others, finding nuance that the singers who covered them lacked. I don’t know why I never saw him in concert, but I did encounter him on one of his recent tours, walking toward me through a Bay Area hotel lobby in a dapper suit and fedora. His handsome guitarist caught my eye first, and by the time I registered Cohen’s surprising appearance he had almost passed by. Though we were all staying at the hotel I saw only the guitarist again, to my regret.

Earlier this year I wrote about a screening of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” that commemorated the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who died on New Year’s Day. One of the things I liked most about the film was its score: three perfect songs by Leonard Cohen, sung by him. Despite all the articles and obituaries that have been printed this week, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” remains my favorite tribute to Cohen’s work. Here’s a link to the post, which includes a clip from the film: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/revisiting-mccabe-and-mrs-miller-robert-altman-and-vilmos-zsigmonds-western-masterpiece/

Radical Solutions For Loneliness in Two German Films: “Wild” and “Aloys”

October 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Lilith Stangenberg in "Wild"

Lilith Stangenberg in “Wild”

Georg Friedrich in "Aloys"

Georg Friedrich in “Aloys”

Though there may be some bad German films I’ve never seen one, which is remarkable given the number I’ve watched over the last thirty years. This past week’s German Currents brought to Los Angeles eight recent features and a documentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose huge oeuvre (forty-four films in the eighteen frenetic years before his death, in 1982, at thirty-seven) was my gateway into modern German cinema.

Unfortunately I could attend only the last night’s films. Both were excellent and shared a theme: social isolation in contemporary life.

In “Wild,” by writer/director Nicolette Krebitz, a solitary young IT worker named Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is galvanized by the discovery of a large wolf in the park near her sterile apartment building. Soon she’s reading up on wolf hunting and constructing a perimeter of flags to trap the animal, which she tranquilizes, drags back to her apartment and, improbably, tames. As the wolf becomes domesticated, Ania becomes more feral, with dramatic consequences for everyone and everything around her. Stangenberg’s performance is astonishing, as is the wolf’s (apparently two animals played the role), and the ending is unforgettable.

Aloys (Georg Friedrich), the lonely protagonist of writer/director Tobias Nölle’s eponymous film, is a private detective whose misanthropy and profession have cut him off from normal human interaction. Filming and taping are Aloys’s means of expression as well as tools of his trade, and he pursues them constantly. At the start of the film, Aloys’s father and business partner has just died, leaving him completely companionless. After drinking himself into a stupor on a bus, the bereaved detective awakes to find his camera and latest videotapes gone. Soon he gets a call for ransom, which involves “telephone walking” with a mysterious woman. Through a conversational game, Aloys is gradually drawn out of his isolation and into a relationship with the thief, who turns out to be his suicidal neighbor.

Though neither “Aloys” nor “Wild” has U.S. theatrical distribution at this point, it’s likely that they will be available online in the near future. I recommend both films highly.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here

September 13, 2016 § 3 Comments

1443 N. Hayworth Avenue/Hope Anderson Productions

1443 N. Hayworth Avenue/Hope Anderson Productions

Several years ago I met a man who lived at the bizarrely named Chateau Alto Nido, an old apartment building on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood. Though the Alto Nido (“High Nest” in Spanish, presumably because Le Haut Nid was too hard to pronounce) has seen better days, its fame is undiminished: it’s where the doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis lived in “Sunset Boulevard.” Its sign and Spanish Colonial enormity are immortalized in the film’s establishing shots.

When I visited the Alto Nido, hummingbirds were flying in and out of the windows, the only charming touch in a dwelling that seemed to be both an abandoned DIY renovation and the lair of a mid-level hoarder. The place was on the Franklin side and thus not Gillis’s Ivar side apartment; still, I enjoyed its proximity to hallowed cinematic ground. That is, until the man said, “Guess who died here?–the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, but he was serious.

“Yeah, right here,” he insisted, pointing to an alcove.

I knew this couldn’t be true: if F. Scott Fitzgerald had keeled over at the Alto Nido, someone would have written about it, and no one had. Also, I was pretty sure the location was off the Sunset Strip. As far as the Alto Nido man’s delusions were concerned, this turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I got out fast.

The following year I met a normal-seeming man who lived in an old building on Hayworth Avenue in West Hollywood. Much to my relief, his apartment showed no signs of chaos or hoarding; in fact, it was clean and neat. My first visit went well until he said, “You want to see where F. Scott Fitzgerald died?”

Please don’t say “in my apartment,” I thought fervently.

He pointed to a building up the street. “It’s that one.”

And people say Los Angeles isn’t literary.

He was right about the location, of course. He’d even read Fitzgerald, though not much as I had. But that’s beside the point, which is: what are the chances of my meeting two completely different men in consecutive years whose hook was Fitzgerald’s death spot?

Both men are long gone from my life, mercifully, but I still wonder about it.

Related Post:https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/f-scott-fitzgerald-lived-and-wrote-here/

F. Scott Fitzgerald Lived (and Wrote) Here

September 9, 2016 § 3 Comments

The F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, MN/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

The F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, MN/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

While visiting the Twin Cities for a wedding over Labor Day weekend, I squeezed in some sightseeing. One of my destinations was the F. Scott Fitzgerald house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, a street notable for its grand Victorian houses and large lots. Though Summit is St. Paul’s Millionaire’s Row, the houses on it include apartment buildings, at least one former boarding house, and row houses, including Fitzgerald’s. Always keenly aware of money and social standing, he referred to his family’s house as “a house below the average on a street above the average,” though it is attractive and substantial. Rented by Fitzgerald’s parents while he was at Princeton, it was the home Fitzgerald returned to after leaving college for the Army and a stint in advertising in New York City. In 1919, he wrote This Side of Paradise, his first novel, in his bedroom, taking cigarette breaks on the balcony because he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors. When This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication, Fitzgerald ran up and down Summit Avenue, spreading the good news to drivers of passing cars.

img_4797Today the Fitzgerald House is on the National Register of Historic Places. (It’s also for sale: $625,000 for 4 bedrooms, 2 baths and 2 half-baths.) As I gazed at it, I was struck by the contrast between the place where Fitzgerald’s career began and the nondescript West Hollywood apartment house where it ended only two decades later. Between those residences were a great many other Fitzgerald residences, including the estate on Long Island where he wroteThe Great Gatsby, apartments in Paris and Rome, a villa in the South of France, and a grand hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, near the sanitorium where his wife Zelda was institutionalized.

As he moved from house to house, Fitzgerald’s career soared and foundered. At the start the Depression in 1929, Fitzgerald’s short story rate at the Saturday Evening Post was $4,000–$40,000 in today’s dollars. He spent as fast as he earned, however, and by 1937 he was laboring in Hollywood as an unsuccessful, albeit highly paid, screenwriter. In 1940, while writing his comeback novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald was felled by his third heart attack in the ground floor apartment of the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his last companion. He was only forty-four but had lived in more houses than most centenarians.

Next time: F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here

Sources: Matthew J. Bruccoli: “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald,” 1994.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald Walking Tour of St. Paul, MN” http://wcaudle.com/fscotwlk.htm

The Joy of Watching Movies Alone

August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

222px-Interno_di_un_sala_da_cinema
Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”

There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.

Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.

Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.

Just Don’t Do It: Penalties Kick In For Hollywood Sign Trespassers

July 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

People who climb to the Hollywood Sign are fully aware they are trespassing: there are Do Not Enter Signs on the way up, as well as a gate. The Sign itself is equipped with sensors and loudspeakers, and police helicopters are deployed at the first sign of a breach. Even those who are at the Sign legally (as I have been on two occasions while filming) will be warned off before their time is up.

However much of a tourist attraction it is, the Hollywood Sign is also a high-security area, and has been for decades. After the September 11th attacks it was designated (along with City Hall, LAX and the Pacific Design Center) a high-risk target for terrorism. Yet in the years since, the consequences for trespassers have been all but nonexistent: climbers to the Sign usually haven’t been arrested, let alone fined, despite the fact that criminal penalties have long been in place.

Probably because former Councilmember Tom LaBonge, a notorious cheerleader for unruly Hollywood Sign tourism, is no longer around to influence law enforcement, things seem to be changing. After a particularly egregious trespasser climbed one of the letters of the Sign in May, he was arrested, jailed overnight and charged with trespass. At the end of June, he pled guilty and was sentenced to the maximum penalties under current law:

One year’s probation
Twenty days of Caltrans labor
$1,000.00 fine, with penalties of up to five times that amount
Restitution to the LAPD and Rec and Parks
A Stay-Away-from-the-Sign Order

The fact that the trespasser was a professional prankster with a large YouTube following might have influenced the judge’s decision in this case. However, Sarah Dusseault, Chief of Staff for Councilmember David Ryu, confirms that Ryu’s office is working with the City Attorney on stiffer penalties for future scofflaws.