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.
March 10, 2019 § Leave a comment
Recently I saw (and voted for in the Independent Spirit Awards) a wonderful Brazilian film called “Socrates.” Directed by Alexandre Moratto, it’s a coming-of-age story set in São Paulo. Startlingly, it was made by a crew of 16-to-20 year-olds from local low-income neighborhoods for a budget of under $20,000.
Because this information appears on the screen before the start of the movie, I kept my expectations low. Yet I found nothing to criticize in “Socrates,” and much to admire. Beautifully shot, directed and acted, it reminded me of two towering classics: “The Four Hundred Blows” and “Bicycle Thieves.” On February 23rd, Moratto deservedly won the ISA’s Someone To Watch award, which at $25,000 exceeds “Socrates”‘s microbudget.
There have always been low-budget films, but in the past they looked it. As “Socrates” proves, that’s no longer the case: excellent visual and sound quality can be achieved for relatively little money. Lower filmmaking costs have opened the doors to new talent, and the variety and excellence of today’s films are the happy result.
January 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.
January 13, 2019 § 1 Comment
Last weekend’s pre-Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium at the American Cinematheque, always an interesting event, was even more revealing than usual, thanks to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s comments about his film “Shoplifters.” Asked by moderator Mike Goodridge about how he created the film’s family from his ensemble of actors, Kore-eda, speaking through an interpreter, said “The first day of the film was the summer sequence….I watched them as they interacted on the beach…I was inspired by this short scene that we took and built the script from there through my imagination.”
That Kore-eda’s beautiful film–about an unrelated group of children and adults on the margins of society who to live as a loving family–could have been made without a pre-written script elicited enthusiastic applause. One certainly couldn’t tell, as “Shoplifters” has structure and coherence. But it also has looseness and spontaneity, particularly in the scenes with children.
It was Alfonso Cuarón, nominated for his own film with children, “Roma,” who drew Kore-eda further into a discussion of his technique. (I had seen the two directors beforehand in the wings speaking avidly, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when Cuarón shifted from nominee to interviewer.) About the scene in which the boy and girl run home through monsoon rains, nearly interrupting an intimate moment between their fictive parents, Kore-eda said that he thought of adults’ scene after filming the children running through the rain. He also revealed the secret of his child actors’ naturalistic performances: never having them read a word of the script. Instead, Kore-eda said, he explains each scene, then gives the children their dialogue, line by line. The result in “Shoplifters” is the gold standard for child actors: performances in which they don’t seem to be acting at all.
December 17, 2018 § Leave a comment
Has any painter been the subject of more films than Vincent Van Gogh? Since “Lust for Life” started things off in 1956, we’ve seen “Vincent and Theo,” (1990), “Van Gogh” (1991) and “Loving Vincent” (2017), as well as various documentaries. On the heels of those films, it might seem that Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate” would have little to add. After all, aren’t the facts of Van Gogh’s final years in Arles and Auvers well known?
Yes and no. All the well-known highs and lows of the previous films are presented. Van Gogh’s incredible productivity in Arles–187 paintings in fifteen months, a rate of 2 1/2 per day–was all the more remarkable given how sick he was, both physically and mentally. We see his relationships with his brother, Theo; his friendship with Gauguin; his poverty; his hospital stints; his severed ear; and later, in Auvers, his death at 37.
What’s new is the inclusion of two recent findings. The first is the theory (put forth in the 2011 biography Van Gogh: A Life that Van Gogh’s shooting was not a suicide but the work, accidental or not, of a local gun-toting teenager. Given the oblique angle of the bullet entry, Van Gogh’s lack of access to firearms and the fact that people who shoot themselves don’t opt for the abdomen, it’s amazing that suicide was the accepted cause of death for over a century, and Schnabel’s film puts a convincing end to it. The second new element is a large collection of drawings Van Gogh supposed did in a blank book given to him by his Arles landlady, Mme. Ginoux. According to the film, the book went undiscovered until 2016, a fantastic development that Schnabel accepts as fact. Nevertheless, the Van Gogh Museum and many scholars think the drawings are fake.
Apart from these biographical additions, “At Eternity’s Gate” sets itself apart by showing Van Gogh’s subjects through his eyes–or at least Schnabel’s. He shows the sunflowers, olive groves, haystacks and limestone cliffs of Arles as Van Gogh saw them, rather than thickly painted abstractions. In the best scene, we see Schnabel’s hand painting Van Gogh’s boots, rapidly transforming a series of jagged lines into a masterpiece. Though Van Gogh was a contemporary of the Impressionists, Schnabel makes clear that he was never one of them. Instead, he seems to have been the world’s first action painter. As Van Gogh puts it, “Maybe I’m a painter for people who haven’t been born yet.”
“At Eternity’s Gate” has its downside. The fact that Willem Dafoe, now 63, is far too old for the role is a problem, as is Schnabel’s annoying use of blurred shots, off-kilter angles, double images and repeated dialog to underscore the painter’s deteriorating mental state. But the scenes of Van Gogh roaming through fields and climbing cliffs in search of subject matter are as beautiful and indelible as the paintings themselves, and reason enough to see the film.
August 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
There’s a wonderful scene in “The Wife” that will probably win Glenn Close an Oscar. As her Nobel Laureate husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) delivers a sappy paean to her role as his literary muse and helpmate, Joan Castleman sits silently while an array of emotions–disbelief, regret, betrayal and rage–pass across her face like fast-moving clouds. It’s a master class in acting that no viewer will ever forget, and a capstone of Close’s distinguished career.
Unfortunately, it occurs in a so-so movie built on a false premise: that Joan, whose literary brilliance is already in evidence during her undergraduate years at Smith in the late 1950’s, must choose between failure as a woman writer and success as her husband’s ghostwriter. After falling in love with Joe, her married English professor, Joan chooses the latter path while working for a New York publisher, whose editors are seen rejecting all manuscripts written by women. Meanwhile Joe, whom she’s supporting (because their adulterous affair has blackballed him from Ivy League teaching jobs, he says–which never happened back then) is more than happy to encourage his wife’s self-defeating attitude. Soon she’s rewriting his turgid, rejected first novel, which is promptly published and becomes a literary best seller. After this coup, Joan continues ghost writing for Joe for the next thirty years, producing a shelf of acclaimed novels under the name of a man who barely reads them. Then he wins the Nobel Prize, and the trouble begins.
I call bullshit, but not on screenwriter of “The Wife,” Jane Anderson, or its director, Björn Runge. The responsible party is Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the novel of the same name and whose premise so far has escaped scrutiny. Critics who are unacquainted with the period could simply search online for American women writers of the 1950’s and find Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Patricia Highsmith and Mary McCarthy, for starters. Or they could look at the Wikipedia page on 20th century American women writers, which has nearly four thousand entries. But apparently no one has bothered, so it falls to me.
In the film, Joan is first glimpsed (in a lovely portrayal by Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s daughter) as a Smith student in 1958. At the time Smith was probably the best possible college for woman writers, with a faculty that included Mary Ellen Chase, one of the most famous English professors and literary critics of her generation. Recently Smith had graduated a literary star: Sylvia Plath, class of ’55, who was a nationally published writer of short stories and poetry at twenty, won a Fulbright and earned a graduate degree at Cambridge. Guess who was back at Smith teaching in 1958? Plath, who no doubt would have taught Joan Castleman if Joan weren’t fictitious. With her slew of prizes, publications and fellowships, Sylvia Plath would have been a much better role model for Joan than Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), the film’s lady writer, who tells Joan that even if she’s published she’ll never be read, so why bother? The fact that Elaine strongly resembles Mary McCarthy, Vassar ’33, makes this assertion even more bizarre, since by the mid-1950’s McCarthy had accomplished all of Joan’s goals: literary success, fame, massive book sales, marriage and family. Far from being lonely and unread, McCarthy recently had spent two years on the New York Times best seller list (with The Group) and would remain a leading literary figure for the rest of her life.
Baffled by this counterfactual history, I did a little research on Meg Wolitzer. It turns out she went to Smith–before transferring to Brown, from which she graduated in 1981. The Wife therefore might be interpreted as a slam against her orignal alma mater. Still, there’s little doubt that Wolitzer was aware of Mary Ellen Chase during her time there, and none that she was well-acquainted with Plath, who arguably is Smith’s most famous alumna. Another striking biographical detail is the literary career of Wolitzer’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer, a novelist who, despite being close to Joan Castleman’s age, has somehow managed to publish a number of books.
It’s a shame that one of the rare films that deals with literature is hollow at its core, but that’s what sinks “The Wife”. The idea that Joan is forced by sexism into thirty years of fraudulent literary servitude is so absurd that even Glenn Close’s bravura performance can’t redeem it. As for Wolitzer, she should be glad that Mary McCarthy, a master of the literary put-down, isn’t alive to deliver the sharp-tongued rebuke her premise deserves.
August 3, 2018 § Leave a comment
It means a lot to me that the only two theatrical releases I saw in July, both excellent, were directed by women: first Deborah Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” and then Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988.” When I arrived in Los Angeles with filmmaking ambitions in 1989, any untried young male had a better chance of directing than the most qualified woman, and screenplays by women were generally rejected because they didn’t appeal to the coveted 14-year-old boy demographic. Thus it’s gratifying to see that women directors are now being given a chance, and even some money, to make their films.
I had no particular expectations of “Nico, 1988,” though I was very interested in its tragic subject. For those unfamiliar with Nico, she began as a teenage model and actress in the late 1950’s but achieved her greatest fame as an Andy Warhol Factory girl in the mid-late 1960’s. During those years, she starred in some of Warhol’s films (notably “Chelsea Girls”) but more importantly reinvented herself as a musician, singing with the Velvet Underground and making important connections in the music world–not only with Lou Reed but Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Two of her early hits, “These Days,” and “The Fairest of the Seasons,” were written for her by the teenage Jackson Browne, and decades later brought Nico a new audience and respect when Wes Anderson used them in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
I was a young child when Nico first appeared on the scene, and can remember the universally low regard she enjoyed as a performer. The general opinion was that Warhol paired her with the Velvet Underground solely for her looks, which happened to be spectacular: long blond hair, huge green eyes, high cheekbones, bee stung lips. Nico’s singing voice–low, droning and German-accented–was compared to a foghorn, which was not a compliment. The only critic I know of who saw beyond her Teutonic pulchritude was Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, who wrote, “She sings in perfect mellow ovals. It sounds like a cello getting up in the morning.” (Nevertheless, he made a point of calling her “half goddess, half icicle.”)
By the opening of “Nico, 1988,” Warhol’s goddess is unrecognizable. Pushing fifty, she’s a longtime heroin addict with a heavier frame, rotting teeth, bad skin and dark hair. Living badly in Manchester and performing in tiny clubs, she’s a has-been. Though the only similarity between the current Nico and the old is her bangs, all she’s ever asked about is her Warhol-Velvet Underground days. Steering interviews toward her current music is as difficult as turning a cargo ship, but she never stops trying. “Call me Christa,” she says at one point, but almost no one ever uses her real name. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad. Nico has continued to write and record music, and her new songs have a power Lou Reed never guessed at. Her performing style has evolved, too: no longer a laconic mannequin, she belts out “Janitor of Lunacy” like the punk rocker she is.
Nico has a manager of sorts, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a club owner who is secretly in love with her. Richard soon takes her on the road with her marginally talented band, cramming everyone into a Land Rover for a European tour of unmatched grottiness. After some dispiriting dates in France and Italy, they go to Prague for what turns out to be an illegal concert. Worse yet, there’s no heroin. Nevertheless, Nico gives an electrifying performance before the police arrive, forcing the entire group to flee for the border. Around this time, Nico is also reunited with her son (by Alain Delon) Ari (Sandor Funtek), who by his mid-twenties has followed his mother into heroin addiction and suicide attempts. Improbably, they both embark on methadone treatment and, when the film ends in the summer of 1988, seem to be recovering.
Nico is wonderfully played by the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, who manages to sound exactly like her when she sings. Unfortunately, Dyrholm looks nothing like Nico apart from her hair, and Nicchiarelli makes no attempt to increase the resemblance. Still, the film is beautiful, its dream-like qualities enhanced by Jonas Mekas’s footage of Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the real Nico. Archival footage is sometimes a distraction, but in “Nico 1988” it slips in effortlessly, before evaporating like the gorgeous memory it is.