June 25, 2015 § 1 Comment
In this summer’s “Spy,” McCarthy outshines Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney and Jason Statham, among others in the large cast. Like Megan in “Bridesmaids” and Mullins in “The Heat,” “Spy”‘s Susan Cooper is an unglamorous woman in a man’s world, underestimated and often ridiculed at work. Two of her weapons against her doubters and enemies are competence and brute strength. Although a meekly desk-bound CIA analyst in the beginning, Cooper is soon revealed to be an expert marksman and martial artist, capable of mowing down multiple adversaries. But it’s the third weapon–her hilarious, rapid-fire insults–that proves the most powerful:
It’s worth noting that the three movies discussed here have different writers: Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo for “Bridesmaids,” Katie Dippold for “The Heat” and Paul Feig for “Spy.” Clearly all four were writing with McCarthy in mind, yet her characters’ power and sensibilities aren’t fully on the page, however offbeat the dialogue. Feig, who directed all three films, encourages improvisation, and co-stars like Jude Law have spoken of McCarthy’s sharp wit and fast delivery. So in “Bridesmaids” we see McCarthy’s character Megan, an NSA operative, on a flight to Las Vegas, flirting outrageously with a supposed Air Marshall as she blocks his path with her leg: “You feel that steam heat coming? That’s from my undercarriage.” Later, she puts her bombast to good use by snapping Annie (Kristin Wiig) out of her depression. Megan wrestles and bites Annie–“Fight for your shitty life!” and then delivers this unforgettable pep talk:
They called me a freak–do you think I let that break me?….No, I did not….I pulled myself up, I studied really hard….and now I work for the government. I have the highest possible security clearance….I know where all the nukes are and I know the codes….I have six houses. I bought an eighteen wheeler a couple of months ago, just because I could….You’re your problem, Annie, and you’re also your solution.
Comic actresses have traditionally been of two types: physical (Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett) or cerebral (Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers and everyone else who began in standup). But McCarthy is both: a fearless physical comedian and a whip-smart talker. It’s not surprising that her characters have traditionally male jobs–cop, intelligence officer–where their assertiveness and sharp minds are put to good use. What’s surprising is there is now a Melissa McCarthy archtype in movies, a presumed loser who is in fact a superwoman.
June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Soon afterwards, I got a job reading scripts on a freelance basis at CAA. Except for those that were already produced (submitted by writers seeking representation), all of them were bad. Emboldened by my dismal competition, I submitted a script of my own and quickly got a pass. This may have been because it had a female protagonist and two males relegated to supporting status, unlike any script I had read. Who, besides a lot of women, would want to see a movie like that? Apparently no one who could greenlight a film. I continued to write scripts and short stories with female leads and male supporting characters. None of them sold, though they got kiss-of-death comments like “quirky” and “charming,” which is code for “we hate stories about women.” Some of these comments came from women, none of whom were in a position to greenlight a film.
I turned to documentaries in large part because I wanted to direct. In an industry where the least qualified male was more likely to be hired as a feature director than the best qualified woman, documentaries seemed to offer a separate path to the same goal, or so I thought. As it turned out, I had to vie for the respect of my cameramen–whom I was paying, since I was also the producer. I also had trouble with male crew members, who preferred to take their orders from a man. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my struggles: now there’s a whole website devoted to the subject of women directors and others working in non-traditional film jobs. http://shitpeoplesaytowomendirectors.tumblr.com/ask I recommend it highly, particularly to anyone who thinks this sort of behavior went out with the “Mad Men” era.
Fortunately, there have been a few bright spots during the past 25 years. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, and two more–Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola–were nominated. (This brings the total number of women nominated for Best Director to a whopping four. The first was Lina Wertmuller in 1976; she remained the only female nominee until 1993.) A lot of women directors have found steady work in television, which in the Netflix era is no small thing. But the fact remains that male directors of independent films are frequently catapulted up to the majors, sometimes with only a single credit to their names, while far more experienced women directors are not. It’s also common for women directors to hit a dead-end after making a splash with their first film, finding themselves without prospects for financing or work. This is seldom the case for male directors.
The justification for this exclusion used to be “movies directed by/starring women don’t make money.” Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in summer blockbusters, which were the undisputed domain of male stars, directors and writers. It was accepted that female stars, however adored, couldn’t “open” a summer movie. Jodie Foster defied expectations with “The Panic Room,” which grossed $100 million domestically. But even Julia Roberts needed a horde of male co-stars (in “Oceans Eleven” and “Oceans Twelve”) to achieve popcorn movie status.
That’s why this summer is notable. On May 15, “Pitch Perfect 2,” with its female director and cast, surprised everyone by trouncing the presumed box office favorite, “Mad Max: Fury Road. Though “Mad Max” has gone on to be more profitable worldwide because of its huge foreign receipts, the domestic totals (as of June 8) remain significantly higher for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Then this past weekend, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” demolished the bro-loaded “Entourage,” out-earning it almost 3 to 1.* (If “Entourage” hadn’t opened two days earlier, the difference would have been even greater.) “Spy,” which got great reviews, is absolutely hilarious. It’s also thrilling, not least because it has shattered the glass ceiling of summer movies.
Next: The Importance of Melissa McCarthy
*Domestic receipts for opening weekend were: “Spy” $29,085,719; “Entourage” $10,283,250. Courtesy Box Office Mojo
May 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
What a pleasant surprise to find that David Ryu beat the supposedly unbeatable Carolyn Ramsay, and by a wide enough margin (1,600 votes) that the election was decided quickly. This morning the LA Times published an interesting map of the voter turnout http://graphics.latimes.com/la-cd4-results-map/ that shows why Ryu won: beyond his Koreatown stronghold, he won handily in Sherman Oaks and the eastern Hollywood Hills (where Beachwood Canyon is located). He also did well in Hollywood and sections of Hancock Park.
Carolyn Ramsay won Los Feliz (including the large blue swath that appears to be Griffith Park, in which two people constituted 100% of the vote), West Hollywood and the western Hollywood Hills, as well as her stronghold, the Windsor Square section of Hancock Park. I lived in Windsor Square for sixteen years and can’t recall a previous election in which the district didn’t choose the winner, which makes last night’s result all the more remarkable.
It’s a new day for all of us in CD4, but before we say farewell to the era of Tom LaBonge, I’d like to tell a story. A few months ago, one of my neighbors described the crowds of tourists walking alongside cars on the northern part of Beachwood Drive, which is narrow and has no sidewalks. When she said she was afraid someone would die, LaBonge responded, “People die all the time.” So do political ambitions, as yesterday’s election proves.
May 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
But there’s more to Tom LaBonge’s shenanigans than Hollywoodland’s travails. Recently it came to light that he diverted $1.6 million in funds for street and sidewalk repairs and community services into salaries for his ever-growing staff. He also spent lavishly on an Elvis Presley birthday party. You can read more about it here: http://www.losfelizledger.com/article/labonge-questioned-over-misuse-of-funds/
Outsiders will find it incredible that the frontrunner in tomorrow’s election is none other than Carolyn Ramsay, the former chief of staff for LaBonge who presided over most of the transfers of money. She is also his hand-picked successor. Happily, we have an alternative: David Ryu, a Community Health Director who is untainted by scandal and refreshingly–unlike the rest of the City Council–has promised not to take developers’ money. He is our best chance for positive change, which is why I am endorsing him today.
Polls are open from 7am to 8pm. For more information, please call (888) 873-1000.
May 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
Perhaps my assertion that Cinema Verite is dead is premature, but its major American practitioners, though notably hardy and prolific, range in age from 62 (Chris Hegedus) to 90 (D.A. Pennbaker). Frederick Wiseman (85) has an output that would be impressive for a filmmaker of any age: forty-one documentaries, including four in the past five years. His latest film “National Gallery” explores the art and inner workings of one of Great Britain’s–and the world’s–greatest art museums. Wiseman, who was allowed full access to the museum’s staff and behind-the-scenes events, spent three months filming at the National Gallery, amassing 170 hours of footage. Like Maysles, Wiseman avoids projecting his own point of view on his films, and uses no visual tricks or musical score. What emerges is as objective as any film can be. (I haven’t seen “National Gallery” but plan to–as soon as I can carve out the necessary three hours. Needless to say, leisurely pacing is one of the features–and for many, drawbacks–of the genre.)
Differences between the new documentaries and the old were very much on my mind when I saw the new Noah Baumbach movie, “While We’re Young” a few weeks ago. It concerns Josh, a struggling documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller, playing a slightly less dysfunctional version of the character he played in “Greenberg”) who, with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strikes up a friendship with young, free-spirited couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). But there’s also an old-school documentarian in the film: a Maysles-like character named Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who happens to be Josh’s father-in-law. Though he was once Breitbart’s protege, Josh has been mired for ten years in a documentary so sprawling and incoherent that not even he can explain what it’s about. When Breitbart finally watches the six-hour rough cut, his perfectly reasonable suggestions about shaping the film only enrage the already hostile Josh. Meanwhile, Josh gets a much-needed shot in the arm by helping the ambitious young Jamie to make a small, compelling documentary about a young war veteran. Jamie, raised on the films of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, has none of Josh’s problems with theme or length–or with manipulating the truth. It all comes to a head when Josh discovers that Jamie has faked the premise of his documentary, having appropriated his wife’s connection to the war veteran as his own. In a further Greenberg-like move, Josh publicly confronts Jamie at a Lincoln Center tribute to Breitbart, making a huge, embarrassing scene. Ironically Breitbart, the pure Direct Cinema practitioner, sides with Jamie, whose film is at least entertaining. It also gets into Sundance.
Last week I saw “Iris,” Albert Maysles’ last documentary, whose release he didn’t live to see. It’s a wonderful coda to a long an illustrious career that–despite its octogenarian director and its nonagenarian subject–feels like the work of a young director. It certainly helps that Iris Apfel, a fashion icon who began her career in the 1940s, has a youthful spirit, not only in her amazing wardrobe but her instant rapport with everyone she meets, regardless of age or background. Still, I doubt the film would have been as lighthearted and fun in another filmmaker’s hands. Albert Maysles, who can be glimpsed, camera in hand, and heard asking questions, shot off and on for four years, but at no point does the effort show. An inveterate charmer, he not only captures Iris’s bon mots (“This was when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” Iris says, showing him her wedding album) but her delightful effect on others, from Lohmann’s shoppers to her husband Carl, who celebrates his 100th birthday in the film. For me, the greatest moment in “Iris” comes at the very end, as Iris talks while moving about her objet-filled apartment. Instead of moving in on her face (as Jarecki would), or cutting to an archival photo (as Gibney would), Maysles’s camera alights on Carl Apfel’s smiling face as he gazes at his wife. Although they’ve been married 67 years, Carl still regards her adoringly, as if he can’t believe his good luck. It’s a small moment that says everything about the Apfels–and a lot about the director, too. A flashier and less observant filmmaker than Albert Maysles would have dismissed it, or missed it altogether.
April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment
Andrew Jarecki’s six-part series on the real estate heir and possible serial killer Robert Durst was a huge hit on HBO last month, and with good reason. It’s a meticulously researched, gripping, stranger-than-fiction story that builds suspense as it progresses. Structured like a thriller, “The Jinx” manages to be both long and exciting–no small feat for a documentary. Informationally dense documentaries usually seem longer than feature films of the same length, making audiences lose interest over time. But not “The Jinx,” whose best ratings were for its final episode.
Despite its success, however, “The Jinx” has certain problems in its style and structure. The latter will be discussed at length later. As for the former, the many re-enactments, though artfully filmed, borrow heavily from “CSI,” blurring the line between feature and documentary filmmaking. Take the opening credit sequence: a noir-ish montage of water, women, cars, falling bodies, palm trees and skylines, it evokes the Bond films visually and, like them, boasts a theme song. Because Jarecki and his producer/DP Marc Smerling previously made a feature about Durst and the unsolved disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, viewers can be forgiven for wondering whether “The Jinx” is a documentary at all.
It is, but one with unusual beginnings. It was initiated not the filmmakers but by its subject Robert Durst, who sought them out in response to their feature about him, “All Good Things.” Durst’s aim was to tell his side of the story, which he thought the feature film did not. Through interviews, “Jinx” painstakingly recounts Durst’s life story, which includes at least two murders and two disappearances in which he was the prime suspect. But it also properly presents other points of view, not only through interviews, archival footage and stills but the aforementioned re-enactments.
The documentary’s structure is complicated, jumping back and forth over the decades. Episode 1 describes the October, 2001 murder of Morris Black, Durst’s neighbor when he was hiding out in Galveston, Texas. It also introduces Durst and Jarecki and the launch of the documentary project. Episode 2 involves Durst’s initial interview, his early life–including the suicide of his mother when he was seven–his marriage to Kathie, and her disappearance in 1982. Episode 3 tells the story of Susan Berman, a Los Angeles-based writer and close friend of Robert Durst’s who was his spokeswoman after Kathie’s disappearance. The daughter of a Las Vegas gangster, Berman had fallen on hard times when she was murdered in her Benedict Canyon home on Christmas Eve, 2000. Though Durst was seen in Northern California that week, he denied being in LA and was not charged. Episode 4 recounts Morris Black’s murder, for which Durst was tried and acquitted (by reason of self-defense), despite the fact that he admitted to cutting up Black’s body and dumping it in Galveston Bay. Episode 5, “Family Values,” contains Robert Durst’s fateful walk by the Durst offices in Times Square and a revealing interview with his nephew, Evan Kreeger, who deplores his family’s dissembling and expresses sympathy for the McCormack family. It culminates with Jarecki’s encounter with Douglas Durst, Robert’s younger brother and scion of the family, who stonewalled not only the filmmakers but prosecutors and police who investigated Kathie Durst’s disappearance. Episode 6 shows the long-delayed second interview with Robert Durst and the series’ stunning coda: his muttered apparent confession, “I killed them all, of course,” in the bathroom after the end of the interview. In a further truth-is-stranger-than-fiction event, Durst was arrested for the murder of Susan Berman on March 14th, the day before the episode aired, having fled to New Orleans with cash, guns and disguises.
Episode 6 is both great television and a documentary rule-breaker. The hot mike that produced Durst’s mutterings, which Jarecki said was left on accidentally when he went to the bathroom, is contentious; having conducted many interviews, I recall exactly none where a mike was inadvertently left on after the subject was finished. It’s clear that Jarecki was well aware of his subject’s tendency to think aloud: in Episode 4, during a break from the first interview, Durst repeats, “I did not knowingly, purposely lie.” That time, Durst’s lawyer cautioned him that the mike was on, but no one from Durst’s camp was present during the second interview.
Beyond Jarecki’s defense that the mike was left on accidentally, he claimed in the New York Times after the series aired that the confession wasn’t even discovered for a couple of years after the interview:
I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014 [more than two years later].
As a documentary filmmaker who has edited (with my editor, Kate Johnson) many things, let me say that there has never been an instance where something didn’t get logged within a few days. The idea that the sequence was somehow overlooked for two years is simply incredible, particularly in light of the fact that there were only two interviews with Robert Durst, and that they formed the linchpin of the project.
During Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling dispense with their observational role, becoming full-fledged actors in the Durst drama. The process actually begins in the previous chapter, when Jarecki buys a ticket to a charity dinner expressly to confront the evasive Douglas Durst, but the final episode finds him in full detective mode. He conceals in a safe deposit box the most damning piece of evidence against Durst to date–a letter addressed to Susan Berman in Durst’s hand that exactly matches the so-called cadaver note, which was sent anonymously to the Beverly Hills police by Berman’s murderer. At that point, Jarecki and Smerling decide not to inform the police about Durst’s note and apparently do not, according to a NYT interview, until “early 2013.”
Throughout Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling manipulate the timeline, showing events out of sequence. Although no dates are given, Durst’s second interview appears to happen soon after, and in direct response to, his August 2013 arrest for violating a restraining order filed by Douglas Durst. In fact, the second interview took place in April, 2012, sixteen months earlier. Why does this matter? Because it’s much more dramatic for Jarecki to say that Durst is finally coming in for interview #2 because of the arrest rather than simply because he agreed to sit for two interviews. No dates are given for any of the times when Robert Durst appears on Jarecki’s camera, but the sequence of events appears to be:
1. First interview
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (much later)
3. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order
4. Second interview (soon after)
In fact, the true sequence of events is:
1. First interview 12/2010
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (soon afterward)
3. Second interview 4/2012
4. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order 8/2013
Durst’s arrest in New Orleans on March 14 for Susan Berman’s murder came only a day before the airing of Episode 6, at which point the line between filmmaking and real-time news events disappeared completely. “The Jinx” became a rare instance of must-see TV in a highly fragmented market, yet questions about the timeline surfaced immediately. The fact the change of sequence troubled viewers and critics alike proves that many people still expect documentaries to reflect reality, even if reality comes at the expense of drama.
Next time: The Death of Cinema Verite.
April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:
1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.
Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.
While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).
Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.
Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”
Next time: “The Jinx.”