January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.
What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.
Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.
A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.
October 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
The last movie I saw, Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” was inflated by many into a treatise on our winner-take-all economic system (though not by me). This week “Parasite,” the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, accomplishes that aim, and brilliantly. Unlike “Joker,” “Parasite” not a superhero backstory. It’s not even American. But the Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who co-wrote the script, has made a brilliant, universal black comedy that says everything about the cruelty of class inequality.
It starts with four-member Kim family, long on smarts but short on cash, barely surviving in a dank basement apartment in a poor neighborhood in Seoul. In spite of their work and academic credentials, all the Parks are unemployed until a stroke of luck lands the college-age son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a lucrative job tutoring the high-school age daughter of a rich tech executive named Park (Sun-kyung Lee). Soon Ki-Woo’s sister, Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a talented graphic designer, is teaching art to the Park’s son, in the guise of her brother’s acquaintance. Realizing the pot of gold they’ve discovered in the naive, vacuous Park family, the Kim parents then get themselves hired as the family’s chauffeur and housekeeper, again as unrelated workers.The Kims’ brilliant plan proceeds without a hitch until the discovery of a disturbing secret in the bowels of the lavish modernist Park home. Then, just as quickly as it succeeded, their clever scheme unravels. In the film’s shockingly violent denouement, neither family escapes unharmed or unchanged. What emerges from the catastrophe is a stark truth: economic inequality is a disaster for rich and poor alike.
“Parasite” owes a debt not to incoherent movies like “Joker” but to last year’s Kore-eda film “Shoplifters.” Like the Shibatas, Kore-eda’s family of unrelated but caring grifters, the Kims are economic losers living at the margins of a rich, uncaring society. But unlike the Shibatas, the Kims are ruthless in their pursuit of money and position, and not above using violence to achieve their aims. In “Parasite” the Kims emerge bloodied but scrappy, while their victims the Parks are vanquished. This reversal of fortunes cries out for a sequel, and I hope Bong makes it.
October 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Not wanting to fight the crowds, I skipped the opening weekend of “Joker” in favor of one of last night’s shows at ArcLight Hollywood. While not sold out, the theater was unusually full for a Monday. Despite media and government (!) warnings of danger, my audience was well-behaved throughout, watching attentively and applauding respectfully at the end. If my experience sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it was.
I like dark films, and “Joker” is unrelenting in that regard. Gotham is bleak and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a bleak life in its bleakest parts, spending his days as a clown-for-hire and his nights as his barmy mother’s caretaker. Friendless, poor, mentally unsound and marginalized, Arthur is a punching bag for everyone, from street kids to drunken office bros on the subway. It’s only a matter of time before this sad clown snaps, and when he does he starts killing with gusto.
At that point “Joker” makes perfect sense: as a revenge movie enacted by a bottled-up loner, and the latest installment in a grand cinematic tradition. Better still, it satisfyingly conjures up the glorious films that influenced the director, Todd Phillips, (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver): “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club”, among others. Unfortunately, logic grinds to a halt when Phillips tries to equate Arthur Fleck’s myriad troubles to those of society at large, and his lonely search for a scapegoat to class struggle.
As soon as Arthur discovers revenge, he unleashes a movement of violent, clown-mask wearing malcontents who wreak havoc on Gotham and its elites. What’s missing from this uprising is a goal apart from mayhem. Lacking both leadership and a set of demands, the clown mob is purely nihilistic. And, like Arthur Fleck, its members embrace violence not as a means but an end.
I found a lot to like about “Joker”: Joaquin Phoenix’s electrifying and kinetic performance; the saturated colors of his clothes and the interiors; the dank Bronx locations that simutaneously evoke the past and future of urban life. Todd Phillips, previously best known for his “Hangover” series, never wavers from this gloomy esthetic, and as a result “Joker” seems like a much better film than it is. But the over-the-top violence makes it a snuff film at times, and Arthur’s killing spree makes sympathy impossible. When I left the theater (along with an audience that seemed even politer than before), I knew that one viewing would last me a lifetime. What I did want to watch again were the films “Joker” pays homage too, though I’ve seen them all multiple times. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club” all have a coherence that “Joker” aims for and misses. But for a comic book origin movie, it’s first-rate.
August 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
For someone with zero background in physics, I’ve developed quite an interest in quantum mechanics via the Many-Worlds Theory. Given its frequent appearance in literature and film, how could I not?
The Many-Worlds Theory was invented by the Princeton physicist Hugh Everett III, who published his dissertation in 1957. Like the Bohr model and Schrödinger Equation that preceded it, MWT explains the wave-like properties of protons and electrons, but it diverges in important ways: where Bohr and Schrödinger envisioned duality, Everett saw an infinite branching of outcomes. In Everett’s view, each event creates a split, and therefore a parallel universe, each with its own reality. His hypothesis is supported by physics: just as atoms can be in two places at once, so could everything made up of atoms, including us.
Though Everett’s theory was met with derision by Bohr and others for most of his lifetime (he died in 1982, at 51, having left academia to work in the defense and financial industries), it has gradually gained acceptance among theoretical physicists. Today the Many-Worlds Theory is taught and written about in universities, but its greater significance might be in popular culture. Decades after its controversial beginnings, Everett’s work has become a major theme of novels and films.
I first saw it illustrated in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film, “The Double Life of Veronique.” Two identical women, one French and one Polish, both musicians, sense each other’s existence throughout their lives. Though their paths almost cross in Krakow on a single occasion, when Veronique inadvertently captures Veronika in a photo, they never meet. Nonetheless, as Veronique says, “All my life I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time.”
Anyone who has wondered how life might have turned out on the road not taken has felt the possibily of parallel worlds. In Bruce Wagner’s 1996 novel, I’m Losing You, the agent Donny Ribkin runs into his ex-girlfriend and experiences a Many-Worlds reverie:
It was two years since the breakup, but their life together–for him–continued on a parallel, spectral track. He watched….as shadow-Donny and shadow-Katherine went about their daily couple-life: saw them vacation and marry, go to movies, buy a house….Their love continued to grow the way nails were said to grow on a corpse.
In the 1998 film, “Sliding Doors,” the world is split by the closing of a train door in the London Underground. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s character misses the train home, her life hurtles away from the one she would have lived if she had caught the train. Though two stories proceed with some similarities, they never converge.
Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which I’ve so far seen three times. Its daring counterfactual ending is so fitting and just that it renders the real events of August 8-9, 1969 fantastical, an unreal nightmare. Whether or not he intended to illustrate Everettian physics, Tarantino has perfectly explained the Many-Worlds Theory: a single event sets into motion a series of others, moving reality onto a different track.
It was in the early 2000’s, considerably after I’d seen its depiction in art, that I learned of the existence of the Many-Worlds Theory. My gateway into quantum mechanics wasn’t film but music: specifically, that of the band Eels, whose frontman (and only full-time member) is Mark Oliver Everett, Hugh Everett’s son. The 2007 documentary “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” follows Mark as he talks about his father’s life and work with physicists, both his father’s former colleagues and current faculty members at Princeton, one of whom is visibly moved to meet his mentor’s son.
The Many-Worlds Theory asserts that time is not an arrow but a fork, branching endlessly. . Because of art, it now enjoys widespread acceptance even among people like me, for whom math and physics were baffling, off-putting subjects. I hope that in some parallel universe, Hugh Everett is pleased.
August 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
Note: This post contains plot spoilers
The ending of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which arrives after a long series of historically accurate storylines, is both a bracing exercise in alternate reality and a stroke of genius. Both times I saw the film, audiences were giddy at the depiction of Manson Family murderers meeting their just ends at the hands of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Cliff’s pitbull Brandy. The much-criticized violence with which the fictional heroes dispatch Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel is anything but gratuitous: rather, it is fitting punishment for a horrific crime.
Like Tarantino, I was a child during the 1960’s, too young to participate in the era but old enough to remember the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Tate-LaBianca murders. Though not yet an Angeleno, I visited Los Angeles shortly before the murders and clearly recall their traumatic aftermath. Contrary to Joan Didion’s cynical claim that “no one was surprised,” the shock was palpable and the horror indelible. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Manson Family permanently altered Los Angeles: installers of alarm systems, security gates, walls and fences did a booming business after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and have thrived ever since.
In rewriting reality, Tarantino bestows on the audience that rarest of emotions: catharthis. For those of us whose childhoods were abruptly ended by the Manson Family, the conclusion of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” is nothing short of thrilling. By showing us what might have been, Tarantino lifts us up, assuaging a fifty-year-old wound.
Next time: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and the Many-Worlds Theory
June 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
Long before “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” there was “The Doors.” Twenty-eight years have passed since Oliver Stone’s ambitious biopic was released in theaters, a span of time that caught me by surprise. Because I’ve seen it several times since on DVD, and because Jim Morrison remains a pop culture legend (more on that in a future post), it’s hard for me to think of “The Doors” as an old movie, but apparently it is.
Fortunately, last Thursday’s screening of “The Doors: The Final Cut,” at the Aero gave me the chance to see it again on a big screen in a re-edited and remastered edition. While the structure is essentially the same–Stone eliminated one superflous scene toward the end–higher picture and sound quality have transformed the film.
When I first saw “The Doors,” I found it uneven and at times chaotic; for years, what I remembered most were the beautifully shot, trippy scenes in the Mojave Desert. This time, the film seemed far more cohesive. Particularly effective is the development of “Light My Fire”, which we follow from Robby Krieger’s initial verse to early renditions to the recording session, followed by ever-bigger live performances. I was impressed by the concert scenes, which quickly progress from electrifying club dates to electrifying stadium shows. From Val Kilmer’s searing portrayal of Jim Morrison to the fully-immersed extras in the audience, the concerts are uncontrived and exciting to watch. Part of this has to do with the improved sound and 4K resolution: technology has caught up with, and enhanced, Stone’s grand vision.
In the Q & A after the screening, Stone mentioned that the naked dancers in the concerts took off their clothes on their own accord. “We didn’t tell them to,” he said, adding that the extras also brought their own performance-enhancing drugs. He pointed out that Val Kilmer, whose voice sounds uncannily like Morrison’s, did about 80% of the singing, an amazing feat.
I was hoping to hear Kilmer’s take on his bravura performance, but as he wasn’t feeling well that night it was left to Stone to praise him. I came away from “The Doors: The Final Cut” with greater admiration for Kilmer’s acting and Stone’s direction, as well as a new appreciation for the film. I’m sure that audiences–including those that never saw the original cut–will love it too.
May 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
In the 1990’s, as studios and networks moved productions from Los Angeles to cheaper locations in other states and abroad, I asked an actress friend how she liked shooting in Vancouver. “Everything takes so much longer,” she sighed. “In LA the crews have worked in movies for generations, but there everyone’s new to the job.” She went to explain that a grip or cameraman whose father and grandfather worked on movies, often in the same job, had an inbred knowledge of the craft that a first-generation worker didn’t. Less efficient sets and longer workdays were the latter’s result.
I was reminded of this conversation last Sunday night, while watching the latest installment of Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO. A brilliant, almost entirely action-oriented episode, “ronny/lily” depicts Barry’s attempt to persuade the Tae Kwon Do expert he was blackmailed into killing to flee to Chicago instead. After pretending to agree to his would-be assassin’s scheme, Ronny attacks Barry in an extended fight that ends in Barry snapping his windpipe. Bloodied and reeling from the struggle, Barry is then confronted by Ronnny’s daughter Lily, a martial arts fighter so fierce that she stabs Barry and later takes a chunk out of the cheek of Fuchs (Stephen Root), his business manager. “What are you?” screams Fuchs, as Lily scampers up a tree. The girl then leaps onto a roof where she crouches like a gargoyle, snarling at her terrified victims.
The next day I read Hader’s account in the New York Times of discovering Jessie Giacomezzi, the young actress/stuntperson who plays Lily:
Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator, told me: “Hey, if you ever need a little girl to do stunts, I know this girl Jessie. Her parents are both stunt people, and she’s amazing. I just worked with her on a commercial, and she can do fights, and she’s a gymnast.”
It didn’t surprise me that both of Jessie’s parents did stunt work; in fact, I would have been surprised if they hadn’t. In an industry filled with multi-generational experts, stunt people are most likely to follow their family’s occupation. In doing so, they carry not only their forebearers’ talent and experience but also the history of filmmaking.
The first stuntmen were Silent Era equestrians and high fallers who went on to execute feats with cars, planes and explosives. In time they passed on their skills to their children and grandchildren.The most famous example is the Epper family. Its patriarch, a former Swiss cavalry officer, supplied horses for Silent Era movies and did riding stunts for Gary Cooper and other stars of the 1930s and 40s. His six children, including three girls, grew up to ride, drive, fight and jump in movies, and include the most famous stunt people of their generation. The current crop of Eppers is the fourth generation to work in movies; presumably there will be a fifth. Incredibly, given their numbers–approaching twenty–no Epper has died in the workplace. (Not as lucky were scores of other film workers whose injuries are detailed here: spreadsheets.latimes.com/film-set-accidents/ )
TV and movie production was lured away Los Angeles because Canada and other countries–as well as states like Georgia and North Carolina–offered significant cuts in taxes and labor costs. These savings came a price. Lighting and dressing sets, setting and operating cameras and executing stunts are painstaking, laborious jobs that require expertise and experience. By discounting the importance filmmaking tradition, Hollywood bean counters reaped short term profits at the expense of many, including the very families whose work built the movie industry–and, by extension, Los Angeles.