2020: A Year Like No Other For Women Directors (And Women Producers and Screenwriters, Too)
April 6, 2021 § Leave a comment
When Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2009, breaking into what was arguably the world’s most formidable men’s club, most people assumed that more women directors would follow. But eleven years later, only one—Greta Gerwig, for “Lady Bird”–had been nominated, and she didn’t win. In the two years that followed, the Best Director nominee list reverted to what it had been almost every year since the Academy began handing out Oscars in 1929: five men, almost all white.
Then came 2020, a year of surprising quality and diversity in film. While two women have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar—Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,”—the bigger story is the exponential increase in films directed by women, both here and abroad. One has only to look at the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards—a better indicator of trends than the hidebound Oscars—to see the difference. Four out of five of the Best Director Spirit Award nominees are women: Zhao and Fennell, as well Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”) and Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”). It’s safe to assume that Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”) never imagined being the lone male nominee in any Best Director award category, but there he is.
This sea change in opportunity for women directors began because more women became producers, as both the Academy and Independent Spirit Awards attest. Of the six Oscar Best Picture nominees this year, four have women producers; of the five Spirit Awards Best Feature nominees, three do.
Women screenwriters have also made gains in a male-dominated profession: for the Oscars, two out of five nominees in both the Original and Adapted Screenplay categories are women. For the Spirit Awards, three out of five nominees for Best Screenplay are women, while one of five for Best First Screenplay is. Then there’s the John Cassavetes Award for the Best Feature made for under $500,000, which is given to writers, directors and producers. This year’s nominees include two women writer-directors, one woman screenwriter, and three women producers.
For me, the breadth of the films directed by women is most heartening. With the exception of Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” which not only had an almost entirely male cast but was a war movie, women directors have been nominated for films about women. Given the lack of female stories and protagonists in movies that’s a good thing, but it’s also important to see women directing films about men, the way men have always directed films about women. Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” and Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me,” two compelling films about male friendship, are a giant step forward. They’re also two of my favorite movies in a stellar year.
Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”: Japan’s Superb Entry for the Academy Award
March 10, 2021 § Leave a comment
This review contains plot spoilers
At the outset “True Mothers” seems almost a cliché: a happy couple with an adopted child get an unexpected jolt when his desperate birth mother suddenly appears. Fortunately, nothing is as it appears in Naomi Kawase’s masterful film, and the great pleasure of watching is its uncertainty. What begins as the story of a mother, father and five-year-old son keeps shifting, beginning with a red herring and ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.
In between, we see flashbacks of Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara’s struggle with infertility (male, for a change) and their decision to adopt via an agency called Baby Baton, which they discover via a documentary. Impressed by the dedication of its founder, Shizue (Miyoko Asada), the Kuriharas apply, are accepted, and travel to the agency’s island headquarters to pick up their infant son. They also elect to meet his birth mother, a fourteen-year-old named Hikari (Aju Makita), who gives them a letter to read to the baby, called Asato .
Five years later Hikari telephones to demand the child’s return or, alternatively, hush money for not revealing the child’s adoption to his school. The Kuriharas call her bluff. According to Baby Baton’s rules, they have told Asato, his school and the neighbors that he is adopted, an important factor in a country with a long tradition of adopting the children of relatives, friends and colleagues, but little history of adopting the children of strangers. Meeting Hikari in person, the Kuriharas initially doubt her identity, since she barely resembles the middle schooler they briefly.
The film then shifts from Tokyo to Nara, and in flashback becomes Hikari’s story. At fourteen she falls in love with a schoolmate and conceives before the onset of menarche. (Here again there’s a surprise: the boy is kind, also in love, and heartbroken by the events.) By the time Hikari knows she’s pregnant it’s too late for an abortion and—having also seen the documentary–she elects adoption via Baby Baton.
Again and again “True Mothers” defies stereotypes and expectations. The island is tranquil and beautiful, Shizue is kind and motherly, and the other girls—young bar hostesses and sex workers impregnated by customers—are friendly. Hikari’s real troubles start when she returns home to Nara, where her narcissistic mother is concerned only for the family’s reputation and her daughter’s high school entry exams. Devoid of comfort and love, Hikari flees back to the island, discovers Asato’s adoption papers and makes her way to Tokyo. A school dropout and runaway, she ekes out a living near the high-rise apartment where her son is growing up. (Even here there’s a surprise: an employer who not only provides a place for her to live but looks out for her safety and well-being in a perilous time.)
Naomi Kawase, who directed and co-wrote the script with Izumi Takahashi and Mizuki Tsujimura based on Tsujimura’s novel, is the first Japanese woman director to reach the Oscars, an overdue honor for someone who won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Now, nearly thirty years into her filmmaking career, Kawase will direct the official film of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She’s a worthy successor to the great Kon Ichikawa, whose “Tokyo Olympiad” has been the gold standard for sports films since its release in 1965.
New Year, New Forum
January 21, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twelve years have passed since I began writing Under the Hollywood Sign. Conceived to promote my documentary of the same name and to further explore Hollywood history, UTHS soon grew to include my previous documentaries, magazine work and interviews. It also spawned two collections of essays. As time went on, my focus shifted to other people’s films, books and TV shows. I also wrote visual art, architecture and Japan, where I grew up, and its rich popular culture. All of this has been a labor of love, and hundreds of posts and pages later it’s time for me to try something new.
Beginning today, I’ll be writing on Substack. In addition to regular posts, subscribers will have access to my other writing–longer non-fiction and fiction–as well new projects, literary and cinematic. Subscriptions are $5 per month, and the link is below. I look forward to seeing you there.
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Give the Gift of Documentaries: Under The Hollywood Sign’s December Two-For-One Sale
December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price, and to give them as holiday gifts. From now until January 1, 2021, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
Looking Back With Insight: Oliver Stone’s Masterful Autobiography
December 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
The first time I encountered Oliver Stone–close to twenty years ago, at a restaurant in the Valley–he was so loud and obnoxious that he drowned out the conversation I was having with my lunch partner. ‘Ugh,’ I thought, ‘What an asshole.’ But age has calmed him considerably, and when I heard him speak at a screening of “The Doors” last year he was thoughtful and incisive.
Because I knew little about how Stone transformed himself from Yale dropout and Vietnam War vet to A-list screenwriter and director, I decided to listen to the new memoir Chasing The Light, which covers his first 40 years. It’s excellent, possibly surpassing the high bar set by John Huston for a director’s autobiography (An Open Book, 1980), and filled with insights about writing, directing and the changing nature of the movie business.
For me, the most impressive sections concern his mismatched, complicated and neglectful parents, who met in Paris at the end of World War II, quickly married and returned to New York, where Oliver, their only child, was born in 1946. His repressed, Depression-scarred Jewish father and much younger, flamboyant French Catholic mother had a marriage marked by infidelities and incompatibility that deeply hurt their son. So did their bitter divorce when he was fifteen, yet Stone tells their story with understanding and compassion.
The other highlight of Chasing The Light is Stone’s account of directing, back-to-back, his first two films: “Salvador” and “Platoon”, both of which had harrowing, financially precarious location shoots. Those who don’t make films will find the stories riveting; those who do will be triggered as well as fascinated. In short, it’s a great read, though I recommend Stone’s audio version for the full effect. Happily, a second installment seems to be in the works, and I’m especially looking forward to his account of making “The Doors”.
The Strange Intimacy of Zoom Q & A’s
September 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
For as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve been going to screenings with Q & A’s afterwards. Though the films varied in quality and genre, there was a stultifying sameness to their aftermath: an interviewer and the director, sometimes joined by the lead actors, talking onstage in canvas folding chairs. The questions were rote, the answers rarely memorable, and the audience questions frequently inane.
Since the pandemic closed theaters, post-screening Q & As have changed, for better and worse. No longer inhibited by live audiences and stage lighting, interviewees seem at more at ease, and thus more likely to provide interesting answers to their interviewers’ questions. For the audience, seeing directors in their home offices, shelves of books and memorabilia in the background, is a far more intimate experience than seeing them onstage.
Still, Zoom Q & A’s are a mixed bag, as two recent programs at the American Cinematheque illustrate. An interview with Charlie Kaufman on his new feature “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, might have been illuminating if not for the interviewer, writer/director Tony Gilroy, who made it mostly about himself. After several minutes of Gilroy saying how excited he was to be interviewing Kaufman and how amazing it was that they hadn’t met earlier, given their mutual friends and professional connections, and then interrupting Kaufman when he tried to talk, I gave up. While bad interviewers weren’t unheard of at the Egyptian, I usually stayed for the Q & A’s, not only because they were live but because there were enough distractions—my companions, the rest of the audience, the huge gilded scarab on the ceiling—to engage me.
I fared better with Werner Herzog’s Q & A about his new documentary, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin”. Herzog, who has been preaching the gospel of low-budget indie filmmaking for decades (his Rogue Film School, which meets periodically in Los Angeles and other cities, has become an institution), has often talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker. But this time, surrounded by books and binders in his office, his story seemed more vivid than in previous iterations, and more moving. About the arduous job he took during high school, Herzog said:
I worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory, and I financed my own films….At that time it was expensive because you had to buy 35 millimeter raw stock celluloid and…develop it in a laboratory and cameras were big and clumsy and expensive….Today even with your cell phone, you can shoot a feature film that you can show in theaters….Never complain. Roll up your sleeves and you can make a one-and-a-half-hour documentary for under $5,000. And you can make a narrative feature film with actors for under $30,000. Just go out and earn it and start shooting.
“Coup 53”: Taghi Amirani’s Documentary Masterpiece
August 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
It’s rare that a documentary reminds me how much I loved making documentaries, but Taghi Amirani’s “Coup 53” did just that. A ten-year project gleaned from tons of archival material, numerous eyewitness interviews and 532 hours of footage, the film details the MI6 and CIA-led coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Plotting the story as tightly as a thriller, Amirani and his editor Walter Murch follow Britain and America’s lust for Iranian oil to its tragic culmination: a violent overthrow that changed the course of Iran’s history. As Amirani said in a live interview afterwards, “Everything is rooted in ’53.”
Mossadegh’s nationalization of the joint British/Iranian oil production facility in 1951 was Iran’s response to years of capital theft by the British. Expelled from the Abadan plant, British Petroleum engineers sabotaged the equipment, rendering it inoperable. After Mossadegh took Iran’s case to the World Court and won, Britain attempted a coup in 1951. Lacking U.S. support–Truman had rejected it–the coup failed miserably. But in 1953 Truman was gone, and Eisenhower agreed to a second coup that succeeded. Mossadegh was ousted, spent three years in prison and the rest of his life under house arrest. The Shah returned from exile, and his repressive regime lasted until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
What initially drew me to the film was the participation of Walter Murch, best known for picture and sound editing on Coppola’s films, and Ralph Fiennes. Initially I assumed Feinnes was a producer, but he plays a thrilling onscreen role as the late Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 agent who planned both coups. Darbyshire, who was interviewed for the 1985 Channel 4 series “End of Empire,” never appeared on camera, and his revealing interview was cut from the final program. (To this day, Britain has never admitted its role in the coup. The United States has, and a statement by the CIA in 2017 expressed regret for its participation.) Amirani initially received a heavily redacted transcription of Darbyshire’s interview; later, he was given the unexpurgated version. The latter is what Feinnes performs uncannily, according to Darbyshire’s widow.
The on-camera presence of Feinnes, Murch, and Amirani adds complexity to an already fascinating film. Beyond the interviews, old and new, and archival pictures and footage, there is animation for scenes that where film or photographs don’t exist. All these elements add up to a mesmerizing, tragic and finely crafted documentary that deserves a wide audience.
In the interview afterwards by the journalist Jon Snow, Amirani talked about the fact that “distributors didn’t touch this film, just like funders didn’t.” Raising money privately added years to the project, but the “Coup 53” was finally finished, and it’s a triumph. To see it online, go to http://www.coup53.com.
“The Truth”: Kore-eda’s French Film
July 17, 2020 § Leave a comment
“The Truth” (La Vérité) is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first movie made outside Japan, and except for a couple of Japanese visual touches (e.g., a lingering shot of leaves falling from a tree) it’s a genuine French film, and a lot more French than many recent films from France. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne, a haughty, extremely Deneuve-like movie star; Juliette Binoche as Lumir, her embittered screenwriter daughter; and Ethan Hawke as Lumir’s easygoing TV actor husband, Hank. The movie begins with the arrival of Lumir, Hank and their young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) at Fabienne’s country house outside Paris. The reason for this uneasy trans-Atlantic reunion: the imminent publication of the Fabienne’s memoir, The Truth.
Family get-togethers are to Kore-eda what Westerns were to John Ford, and as in “Still Walking” parent-child wounds and misunderstandings propel the plot. Fabienne has been famous for so long that she treats everyone, including her current husband, as a robot whose only function is to smooth her way through life. A monster of narcissism, Fabienne defends her high-handed behavior as not only permissible but necessary. “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend and a good actress,” she declares to Lumir, as no one could possibly succeed in all three roles. “You may not forgive me, but the public does.” (Given her imperiousness, it’s hard to believe Fabienne can fathom what her public thinks, but this statement goes unchallenged.)
As for the memoir, we immediately learn that its title is risibly ironic. Far from telling the truth, Fabienne has concocted a liar’s fantasy in which she was a devoted, hands-on mother and actress who got her most famous part on merit. In fact, she was a mostly absent mother who stole the role from her best friend, Sarah, by sleeping with the director. Though Sarah, a mother figure to Lumir, killed herself after that coup, Fabienne never mentions her in the book. Also absent from The Truth is Fabienne’s longtime, long suffering manager, Luc. Lumir’s father, Pierre, fares even worse: though he unexpectedly turns up at Fabienne’s house and stays for dinner, according to the memoir he’s dead.
At the same time, Fabienne is acting in a sci-fi film called “Memories of My Mother” whose star, a young actress called Manon (Manon Clavel) bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Sarah. Manon’s character, struck by a fatal disease, goes into space to avoid dying, and consequently never ages. Every seven years, she returns to earth to visit her daughter, who ages normally and is played by progressively older actresses, including Fabienne. Beyond the strangeness of playing the child of a much younger woman, Fabienne is alternately threatened by and admiring of Manon, and treats her in similarly extreme ways.
Despite the film-within-a-film structure and its recollection of “All About Eve” and “Day For Night,” “The Truth” is essentially a mother-daughter grudge match, the kind that transcends culture and nationality. Generational family conflict is a familiar theme around the world, and Kore-eda’s script makes the most of it. He also makes the most of Deneuve, who seems to relish playing a deeply unflattering version of herself. “The Truth” is replete with echoes of her life, including a dress like one she wore in “Belle Du Jour.” An even more uncomfortable reference is Sarah, whose acting talent and shocking death recall Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died tragically at 25. Perhaps for that reason Kore-eda gives Deneuve all the best lines, including, “Nowadays anybody can be an actor,” and “What matters most is personality, presence.” Sometimes it’s not even dialogue: when someone adds Brigitte Bardot to Fabienne’s litany of great French actresses whose names share the same first letter, she merely widens her eyes, shrugs and grunts.
While “The Truth” isn’t a great movie, its cast and director make it worthwhile. Particularly good is Ethan Hawke, who plays another of his charming Americans abroad with skill and grace. Hank is well aware of his flaws and shortcomings, yet he remains a good husband, father and—despite Fabienne’s attempts to insult and undermine him—son-in-law. Though he could easily have made the situation worse, Hank gracefully brings mother and daughter to an understanding. And as in “Boyhood” and “Juliet, Naked,” he’s wonderful with kids, adept at entertaining not just his on-screen daughter but an entire children’s table. The rapport between Hawke and Grenier is amazing to watch: while most child actors give purposeful, one-dimensional performances, Grenier’s is full of fleeting looks and gestures, and so natural that their father-daughter relationship looks real. Credit also goes to Kore-eda, whose skill at directing children made “Shoplifters” and “Nobody Knows” the masterpieces they are. In “The Truth” he works the same magic but in a foreign language, through an interpreter.
The Tokugawa Period Origins of Tokyo’s Nightlife, and Why They Matter in “Midnight Diner”
July 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
Although Netflix’s “Midnight Diner” tells universal stories of love, life, death and reversals of fortune, its setting–a tiny back alley eatery in the nightlife district of Shinjuku–is not only very Japanese but traditional to Tokyo. Both the restaurant and its customers have deep roots in the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), specifically the Genroku Period (1688-1703). This brief era marked the flowering of urban culture in the new capital of Edo, the hallmarks of which–restaurants, bars, and all manner of nightlife, licit and illicit–still thrive in Tokyo today.
Although Westerners date the origins of restaurants (those independent of inns) to post-revolutionary France, when chefs were suddenly freed from the kitchens of the aristocracy, in Japan restaurants began more than one hundred and seventy years earlier, after the Tokugawa Shogunate instituted the sytem of alternate attendance (sankin kotai) to prevent its feudal lords (daimyo) from overthrowing it. Because after 1615 daimyo were required to divide their time between their fiefs and Edo, leaving their wives and children in the capital as hostages, a vast economic system grew up to support not only their travels but their substantial, non-productive retinues in the capital. Not only restaurants but all kinds of commerce, including shipping, banking, department stores, theaters, fine arts and crafts, have their roots in Tokugawa Period Edo, which by 1700 was one of the largest cities in the world. As the merchant class grew and prospered, its money and desires created something new and original: nightlife.
Those familiar with the woodblock prints and paintings known as ukiyoe–the “Floating World”–have seen the denizens of Edo’s vibrant nighttime culture: the geisha (literally, “arts practitioners”), kabuki actors, singers, dancers, storytellers, wrestlers, merchants, prostitutes, masterless samurai and revelers who flocked to the entertainment district of Yoshiwara. All of these chonin (townspeople) were inhabitants of what the great Japan scholar G.B. Sansom calls “the world of fugitive pleasures.”
That world lives today in mizushobai, “the water trade”, the wonderful Japanese term that denotes all the nightlife businesses, from bars and restaurants to theaters and nightclubs, as well as the sex trade. In contemporary Tokyo, mizushobai is centered in the Kabuki-cho section of Shinjuku, where “Midnight Diner” is located. Viewers will notice that apart from the annoying Ochazuke Sisters, three loud and embittered single “office ladies” who inexplicably show up for dinner in the wee hours, almost none of the regulars have daytime jobs. They include a bar owner (the cross-dressing ex-actor Kosuzu), gangsters (Ryu and Gen), a stripper (Marilyn) and a jolly retiree (Chu) who is Marilyn’s biggest fan. Other customers include singers, actors, sex workers, local police and criminals, both petty and non-petty. All are served without judgement by Master, whose house rules are simple: no fighting, no arrests, and–for customers who order off the menu–the supplying of any ingredients he doesn’t have on hand.
There’s a memorable Christmas Eve* scene in this one of this season’s episodes, when the regulars, most in festive dress, sit glumly at the counter. “Here we are, a bunch of social misfits with nowhere else to go,” says one of the men, at which point he is pelted with chopsticks hurled by Marilyn and one of the Ochazuke sisters. As heirs to the great Tokyo nightlife tradition, all of them know better: their restaurant is a gem, not a consolation prize. Underscoring that point is a large crate of crab legs brought by the younger of the yakuza, Gen, to make up for trouble he caused earlier. Master grills the crab, everyone chows down, and the Genroku tradition of urban pleasure lives on.
The cultural origins of Tokyo might explain the failure of the Korean and Chinese adaptations of “Midnight Diner”. Although China and Korea have their own urban cultures they didn’t originate four hundred years ago, and lifelong night owls are a more recent phenomenon. In contrast, Shinjuku is home to a substantial population that barely sees the light of day. Like Master, who can be seen enjoying a solitary pre-work cigarette on his balcony as darkness falls, their world is nocturnal–and deeply historical.
*In Japan, Christmas Eve is celebrated the way New Year’s Eve is in western countries, with parties and without religion
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