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.
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.
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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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”.
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.
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.
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
During my first week of lockdown, when I was still getting adjusted to being home all the time, my thoughts seized on “Room,” a movie so claustrophobic that I never want to watch it again. Mercifully, I soon started thinking of Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” which approximates the isolation and angst of our present moment better than any film that has come since. As others have noted, images of a masked, desperately ill Julianne Moore—so strange and otherworldly when “Safe” came out—appear almost normal in the midst of Covid19.
At the beginning of “Safe”, Moore’s character, Carol White, a 1980’s suburban housewife as bland as her name, circles through life like a goldfish in a bowl. Unhappily married but too passive to do anything about it, Carol is forced to change her existence when struck by a mysterious environmental illness. After conventional medicine fails her, she flees to a desert community where similarly afflicted people live under the rule of a cult-like leader. In the end, Carol is utterly alone in her suffering—and yet it’s clear she always was.
Four weeks into my Safer At Home life, the films I recall are all about other times and places. Before Covid19 brought the world to a halt, 2020 was going to mark my return to overseas travel, something I haven’t been able to do since being sidelined by surgery in 2017 and a recovery that lasted two years. After that financial constraints put far-flung destinations beyond my reach until this spring, when I planned to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. When that trip became impossible I set my sights on Scotland this summer, but that too seems unlikely.
Marooned in my living room, I find myself thinking about movies in which travel is a major theme. Two of my favorites, “The Sheltering Sky” and “The English Patient,” are set in the same place and decade: North Africa in the 1940’s. Far from home, the expatriate characters of both movies regard the desert as an exotic refuge and adopted country. In “The Sheltering Sky,” the bohemian Kit and Port flee the dissatisfactions of post-WWII America for a culture whose dangers they fail to grasp. In “The English Patient”, an aristocratic Hungarian cartographer’s wartime affair with the wife of a British intelligence officer leads all three to separate, tragic fates.
Despite the attractiveness and complexity of these characters, the real star of both films is the Sahara. Vast, beautiful and unforgiving, the desert is beloved, fetishized and misunderstood by its foreign visitors, regardless of their origins or intentions. As Michael Ondaatje writes in the novel on which “The English Patient” is based:
The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscapes.
February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
January 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Early January brings one of my favorite film events of the year: the Foreign Directors’ Symposium at the American Cinematheque, where the Golden Globes nominees talk, often illuminatingly, about their films and those of their fellow directors. Before the panel, there’s a reception where I like to to catch up with friends and meet a director or two. (Or, as last year, to complain about subtitles https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/ )
At this year’s reception I was waiting for a friend to arrive when Antonio Banderas sat down across from me with his lunch. This was a surprise not only because I had expected only Pedro Almodóvar to show up, but because it was our second encounter. The first was at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where “Desperado” launched him and Salma Hayek into international stardom.
Film festivals are a blur of screenings, meetings, press conferences, lunches, dinners and very little sleep, and none more than Cannes. Compounded by jet lag and sleep deprivation, the days and nights soon merge into one giant day and night, with predictable results. One minute you’re watching a movie; the next you’re standing on the beach with a glass of rosé in your hand, having already forgotten the walk from the Palais. And it’s only 11:30am. After lunch, two more screenings, cocktails, a premiere and dinner, things get really trippy.
Though I’ve forgotten most of the movies I watched and the people I met that year at Cannes, I remember the “Desperado” party vividly. It was a seated dinner near the Palais, and my table included the director Robert Rodriguez and his wife and Salma Hayek. After dinner everyone mingled, and that’s when I found myself standing next to Antonio Banderas. I knew him from the five Almodóvar films he’d made at that point, and was about to introduce myself when I noticed Melanie Griffith giving me an icy stare from across the room. From some Spaniards at the Festival I’d heard they were newly together, so I hesitated, unwilling to risk her ire. Then the speeches began, and the moment was lost.
They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but here we were at close range again, a quarter century later. Though I never would have approached Antonio, I decided it was time to speak up. “I met you 25 years ago at a party in Cannes,” I said. He lit up. “Oh no, did I say something bad?” “No, of course not!” I said in horror, unable to imagine him saying anything untoward, and told him how I had almost introduced myself at the “Desperado” party. Instantly we were chatting like old friends: about how quickly time had passed; “Pain and Glory”; his fateful heart attack two years ago; his having just seen Salma; his new theater, Teatro Soho, in his hometown, Málaga; and his new Spanish language production of “A Chorus Line,” bound for New York this spring. While we were talking, he got word on his phone that he had won that National Film Critics Circle Award. “Is that good?” he asked me. “It’s great; now you’re going to win everything, I said enthusiastically.
I was wrong about the Golden Globes, as it turns out, but the Globes are an unreliable predictor of the award for which he was later nominated, the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a prize Antonio richly deserves to win: his performance in “Pain and Glory” is peerless, both a career triumph and a sign of great work to come. Some of that work will be on the stage, where he was discovered by Almodóvar at the age of 21. “Leaving the theater for movies was like leaving a beautiful woman,” he charmingly told me, adding that his favorite American acting experience was on Broadway in “Nine”. Now, with his Teatro Soho and his arts school, Teatro Jóvenes Artistas Antonio Banderas, the stage is again his home. So is Spain, but the world is his oyster.