Remembering Kate Johnson, Visual Artist, Teacher and Editor of All My Films
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.
Harvey Weinstein, Bully For All Seasons
October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
Just kidding! The news of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual abuse reached far beyond New York and Los Angeles. It spread like molten lava, and each new day brought another fiery stream of damning evidence against him. The list of women who have been assaulted in one way or another is enormous and stretches back decades. Was I surprised? Only at the way it happened, with an exposé in the New York Times unleashing an explosion of accounts from actresses, models, employees–in short, any woman who came within Weinstein’s thuggish reach.
I’ve only encountered Harvey Weinstein once, in a crowded screening room at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. I was sitting next to a young man whose name I no longer remember; as I recall, he worked in acquisitions for one of the studios. When Harvey Weinstein sat down in the next row with his entourage, he turned to me and loudly said something like, “Hope, have you ever seen such an ugly man in your life? I mean, look at him” “Shh,” I muttered, “He can hear you.” At that point, Weinstein turned and glared menacingly at the man. Though that might have been his usual expression, I was terrified he would start a fight. Fortunately the lights dimmed, and Weinstein turned his head toward the screen. I never saw the either man after that festival, though I’ve often wondered what prompted the comment–and my involvement.
That year at Cannes, Weinstein bought scores of films, far more than he could release in the next couple of years. The rumor was that he bought many simply to spite other distributors, which only added to his growing list of enemies. Though I never heard anything about sexual abuses, the fact that Weinstein was already a feared and loathed bully made the allegations easy to believe. He was so powerful that he could make or break careers, which is why he got away with so much.
In the years since, I’ve often wondered why certain actresses, all promising and successful in their early and mid-twenties, seemed to work very little in what should have been their prime. It made no sense to me that Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan had careers that stalled; now it does.
Next time: Encounters with A-List Hollywood Creeps
Women Transformed in Two Japanese Films, One Old, One New
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.
“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.
“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.
“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.
Radical Solutions For Loneliness in Two German Films: “Wild” and “Aloys”
October 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
Unfortunately I could attend only the last night’s films. Both were excellent and shared a theme: social isolation in contemporary life.
In “Wild,” by writer/director Nicolette Krebitz, a solitary young IT worker named Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is galvanized by the discovery of a large wolf in the park near her sterile apartment building. Soon she’s reading up on wolf hunting and constructing a perimeter of flags to trap the animal, which she tranquilizes, drags back to her apartment and, improbably, tames. As the wolf becomes domesticated, Ania becomes more feral, with dramatic consequences for everyone and everything around her. Stangenberg’s performance is astonishing, as is the wolf’s (apparently two animals played the role), and the ending is unforgettable.
Aloys (Georg Friedrich), the lonely protagonist of writer/director Tobias Nölle’s eponymous film, is a private detective whose misanthropy and profession have cut him off from normal human interaction. Filming and taping are Aloys’s means of expression as well as tools of his trade, and he pursues them constantly. At the start of the film, Aloys’s father and business partner has just died, leaving him completely companionless. After drinking himself into a stupor on a bus, the bereaved detective awakes to find his camera and latest videotapes gone. Soon he gets a call for ransom, which involves “telephone walking” with a mysterious woman. Through a conversational game, Aloys is gradually drawn out of his isolation and into a relationship with the thief, who turns out to be his suicidal neighbor.
Though neither “Aloys” nor “Wild” has U.S. theatrical distribution at this point, it’s likely that they will be available online in the near future. I recommend both films highly.
He Directs, She Directs: Two Films From the LA Film Festival
July 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
None of this was particularly on my mind when I got tickets to two films, one written and directed by a man and the other written and directed by a woman, at the recent LA Film Festival. But because they were like night and day in quality, I couldn’t help wondering how the two directors would fare in their next projects.
I’m not going to name the male-directed film, but it got a big, well-publicized screening at the festival, complete with a director Q & A, and featured some interesting actors. Also on the plus side, it was shot on film and boasted a number of long shots, which are increasingly rare now that everything is made with television in mind. Unfortunately, neither the director nor the DP really knew how to use film–or cameras, for that matter. The advantages of film weren’t evident on the screen, and there was some whipsawing, nauseating camerawork. There was also a glaring misuse of split-screen. As anyone who has ever seen a Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie knows, a split screen is called for when the characters are talking on the phone to each other or doing parallel activities in different locations. But here the director split the screen for two versions of the same shot: one taken from a great distance and one from relatively close by. It was baffling, and it didn’t work. Then there was the sound, which my viewing companion, a distributor, called terrible.
On to the script. There were long Tarantino-esque speeches without the wit, and bursts of David Lynch-ian mystery and violence without the inventiveness. Oddest of all was the lack of clothing on almost all the actresses, and not just the ones working in strip clubs. One woman not only answered the door to a total stranger while bottomless but proceeded to have a long, half-naked conversation with him. Afterwards I overheard a young woman in the ladies’ room sum up the moviegoing experience: “None of those girls had any pants on!”
Fortunately the second film couldn’t have been more different, both in its scope and execution. First-time director Emily Ting made a self-assured debut with “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” a love story reminiscent of “Before Midnight.” The story concerns two chance meetings between Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese-American visitor to Hong Kong, and Josh (Bryan Greenberg), an American banker and longtime Hong Kong resident. During their first meeting, Josh escorts Ruby, who is lost, to her destination. The two strike up a flirtation as they walk and talk, but nothing comes of it because Josh has a serious girlfriend. The second chance meeting takes place a year later, when the two meet on the Star Ferry. Ruby, now living in Hong Kong, is engaged to be married, while Josh has quit his banking job to be a writer, a career change that has strained his relationship with his girlfriend.
Beyond the pitch-perfect script and the charm of the two leads, I was impressed by the technical aspects of the film, which was shot entirely at night in busy public places in Central and Kowloon. Because I was born in Hong Kong and have visited many times since, I know how challenging it was to shoot and record sound amid the omnipresent crowds. (Strangely, most Hong Kong movies and TV shows feature eerily empty public spaces, cleared of people and probably shot at dawn, to create an aspirational and unreal atmosphere.) Despite the many obstacles, everything was done beautifully, lit by neon and recorded by lavaliere mics. As for the script, Richard Linklater has nothing on Emily Ting. “It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong” has some distribution in place, and I hope it gets the audience it deserves.
In comparing these two films, I’m not saying that men make big movies and women make small ones–Richard Linklater and Kathryn Bigelow, among other directors, prove that’s not the case. But I believe that if a woman director had made a movie with as many mistakes as the first one, it wouldn’t have been accepted by a major film festival, let alone been given a splashy premiere.
Meet the Director: Yesterday’s Foreign Film Symposium at the American Cinematheque
January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Because my days are mostly spent sitting in front of a computer, playing Words With Friends, going to the gym and running errands, I sometimes think Los Angeles is wasted on me, since all those things could be done as well (and in the case of errands, more easily) elsewhere. Then I remember what keeps me here: films. It’s not just the variety and number of movies that come out each week; it’s the fact that many of them will never run anywhere else in the United States but here and New York. Sure, most will eventually turn up on DVD or online, but by then they’ll be competing with a flood of new releases, both theatrical and online. With greater numbers of films released each year, keeping up is nearly impossible.
But in Los Angeles I can see a great new film from Poland or Estonia as soon as it arrives, and on a big screen. It’s something that I’ve never taken for granted, any more than I take for granted the state-of-the-art sound systems and screens at ArcLight Hollywood, my neighborhood theater. In other cities, even ones that pride themselves on their cultural offerings, the situation is quite different: the Bay Area, where I used to live, gets big studio releases one or two weeks later than Los Angeles, the same as most cities across the country, while independent and foreign ones films open even later, if at all.
There are other perks to being here, too. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “Force Majeure,” Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Film.
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/force-majeure-everything-wild-isnt-and-more/ Yesterday, at the American Cinematheque’s pre-symposium reception for the Golden Globe nominees, I was able to introduce myself to Ruben Ostlund, the director, and tell him how much I loved his film. Although he was gracious, it probably meant nothing to him. But to me it was a vivid reminder of why, twenty-five years after moving to Los Angeles, I’m still here.
The Journey Is Greater Than The Destination
September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.
But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.
“Salinger” Rejiggered: Less Music and Re-enactments, More Dirt on Girlfriends
September 29, 2013 § 2 Comments
Confidential to Shane and Harvey: the time to make changes is after the festivals, not during the commercial run. This only makes you look desperate.
“Salinger”: Not the Worst Movie I’ve Ever Seen in My Life
September 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
Reading and hearing the reviews of Shane Salerno’s misbegotten documentary “Salinger” has been more of a revelation than anything contained in the film. It’s not often you hear critics retching in print, but they do over “Salinger,” and it’s amazing to see. Here’s a roundup of reactions:
A.O. Scott, The New York Times: “…less a work of cinema than a byproduct of its own publicity campaign.”
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “…make sure you bring a barf bag when you watch this doc’s tacky re-enactments, hear its cheeseball score and endure literary posturings so florid they’d embarrass Baz Luhrmann of The Great Gatsby.”
Dana Stevens, Slate: “[Th mystery of J.D. Salinger] is certainly hardy enough to withstand the voyeuristic onslaught of this self-aggrandizing, lurid documentary, which leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders….”
Julia Turner, Slate Culture Gabfest: “The single worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Turner’s remark was particularly striking, not because I think she’s exaggerating but because she obviously hasn’t been to enough film festivals. Festivals specialize in assaultive movies, and it’s not unheard of for viewers to faint or vomit during screenings. More commonly they walk out. Fortunately, the Palais des Festivals, the main theater of the Cannes Film Festival, offers an effective revenge on badly received films and their directors. Whenever someone leaves early, the unusually tight springs on the seat make a loud pop. A mass exodus sounds like gunfire.
I’ve walked out of a lot of bad films at festivals, but the Worst Movie I’ve Ever Seen in My Life is one I saw in a studio screening room in the late 90s. To protect the hapless director, I won’t mention its name but the film was shot on an island and involved a crime of some kind. (I’m foggy on the plot not because it was a long time ago, but because I didn’t understand it at the time.) As I recall, there was a lot of driving and an exploding car on a bridge. After the explosion the film abruptly stopped–not because it was over, but because the producers had run out of money and couldn’t afford an ending. I wanted to laugh but the director was sitting an arm’s length away, still hoping that the necessary funds would be forthcoming. They weren’t, and the film was never released. I don’t know what happened to the director, who had mortgaged his house to finance the project, but last I heard some of the footage was sold for stock.
Compared with this, “Salinger” is not half bad, though it certainly doesn’t deserve its high-octane release. It occurs to me that if the documentary makes money, Salerno might be encouraged to make another feverish literary tell-all, in which case Thomas Pynchon should lawyer up immediately.
The Importance of Julie Delpy
May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Flash forward to last January, when Delpy, now a director as well as an actress, appeared at a Q &A at the Aero in conjunction with a screening of two of her films (“Two Days in New York,” and “Two Days in Paris.”) Having never seen her live, I was struck by how different she was from most actresses I’ve encountered. Part of it was physical: unlike the size-0-with-breast-implants standard type, she was a normal sized woman, complete with hips and a few extra pounds. She also hadn’t made any special effort to dress or make up for the appearance, coming onstage in jeans and a sweater, like most of the audience. But more striking than her appearance was her attitude, which though engaging was utterly free of ingratiation. She was, in a word, herself: funny, opinionated, idiosyncratic and completely lacking in Hollywood pretense. I’ve met a variety of actors over the years, and (with the notable exception of Henry Winkler, surely the nicest and most unpretentious famous man in town), they radiate an odd self-consciousness, as if they’re perpetually watching themselves instead of simply being. That night, Delpy was not only comfortable simply being but–as she told stories about being fired by every agency in town and turned down by Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party for not being a big enough star–clearly unconcerned about others’ perceptions of her.
While there are a few actresses who seem indifferent to public adoration–Jennifer Jason Leigh and Debra Winger come to mind–Julie Delpy is another sort. She’s not aloof or implosive or defiant; she’s simply free of whatever impulse makes most other actresses mold themselves to industry specifications. In the Times Magazine article, she says:
In movies, you mostly see people who make an effort….Am I going to spend two hours at the gym? I can’t do it; it’s excruciatingly boring. I feel like I’m losing time.
In the time she hasn’t lost, Delpy has written and directed five films. Her new movie is one she co-wrote as well as acts in: “Before Midnight,” the third installment of the romantic series she’s made with Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater. Upcoming are two French movies she’ll direct, and two American projects. Yet despite being based in Los Angeles, she still can’t get financing here; instead, she cobbles the money from French companies and various investors, in true indie style. Perhaps if she were more of a player–or male–she’d get studio financing. But then she wouldn’t be herself, which makes the matter moot.
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