“At Eternity’s Gate”: Van Gogh Through a Painter’s Eyes

December 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

Willem Dafoe in “At Eternity’s Gate”

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.

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Remembering Nicolas Roeg, Cinematic Master

November 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

MV5BYWY4MTVhYzMtNzA5Yy00YWRjLTlmNGMtN2I1MzQwNTU3NzNhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_Nicolas Roeg, who died yesterday, was one of those rare directors whose style kept changing as his career progressed. Though none of his films looked like anyone else’s, they also didn’t look like his others. Perhaps for that reason Roeg seemed forever young, so much so that his age–90–came as shock to me.

Roeg was trained in the British studio system, and before becoming a director he was an esteemed cinematographer. (One of his credits is “Lawrence of Arabia,” on which he began as the second unit camera operator and ended as DP.) His first film as a director, “Walkabout” (1971), remains the gold standard for films set in the Australia, a feast of indelible images.  But Roeg was more than a visual artist: in film after film, he explored themes of alienation, loss and expatriation. Often his characters are strangers in foreign lands: the children in “Walkabout,” the space alien in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and the couples in “Don’t Look Now” and “Bad Timing” are all far from home and vulnerable, and some are physically lost. Instead of rescue, they often meet disaster.

Roeg took risks with his casting, raising eyebrows by casting singers in leading roles. Mick Jagger and David Bowie made their acting debuts because of him (in “Performance,” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” respectively), while Art Garfunkel gave his best performance in the underrated “Bad Timing.”  I recommend all his films, but my favorite remains “Don’t Look Now,” a high point not only for its director but its stars, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. In 2011, after visiting Venice for the first time, I wrote about it here:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/dont-look-now-du-mauriers-story-roegs-film-and-venice-then-and-now/

“Blaze”: A Brilliant Biopic That Redefines the Genre

September 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in “Blaze”

If biographical films all seem alike, it’s because they all suffer from the same problem: their famous subjects’ familiarity, which constrains the creativity of writers, directors and actors in equal measure. But because the country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley wasn’t famous during his brief life, “Blaze” escapes that burden. The result is glorious: a captivating exploration of life, love and art that explodes every tired biopic cliché.

Until I saw the movie a week ago I–like most people, I suspect–knew Blaze Foley’s name only because of  his song, “If I Could Only Fly,” as covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda Williams’s song about Foley. Perhaps because of this, Ben Dickey could choose to portray Foley’s spirit instead of merely impersonating him. It’s a beautifully nuanced and relaxed performance, and the fact that it’s Dickey’s first acting role makes it all the more astonishing. Equally impressive is the musician Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, Foley’s best friend. Sexton imbues Van Zandt with the quiet gravity of a man prepared to sacrifice everything for art, and performs his song “Marie” uncannily. The film’s other major character, Sybil Rosen, Foley’s partner during the seventies and the co-writer of the screenplay, is played by the actress Alia Shawkat in a graceful and understated manner that belies a background in comedy.

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Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt

The director Ethan Hawke deserves praise not only for the performances but the fascinating structure of the film, which hops nimbly back and forth in time and tells Foley’s story in different ways and from different perspectives. Instead of the usual you-are-there-watching approach, Hawke recreates the events leading up to the shooting in detail, and then portrays the crime in fragments, including Van Zandt’s recollections and Rosen’s visit to the scene afterwards. When Hawke shoots Foley’s meandering, drunken performances, he allows Dickey to play entire songs while the camera wanders leisurely through the room, following anonymous bar employees as they serve drinks, clean up broken glass and go outside to smoke. Everything is so unforced that the film seems almost plotless, except that it’s not. All the threads of the story lead inexorably to premature death, both depicted and foreshadowed. Foley’s came in 1989 and Van Zandt’s in 1997, of heart failure caused by alcoholism and heroin addiction.

Long before Foley’s life ends, Sybil Rosen leaves him to his alcoholic self-destruction, but “Blaze” is not as sad as you might think. Rosen saves herself and becomes the artist she’s meant to be, while Foley courts death, achieves it, and gains posthumous fame.  As Van Zandt says, “If you wanna to write a song, everyone’s gonna tell you you gotta live that song. But that’s not it: you’re going to have to die–a little.”

Ethan Hawke understands this, and now we do too. “Blaze” is not only the best film I’ve seen about a musician; it might also be the best biopic, and an indelible achievement in filmmaking. Future directors of the genre will have Hawke’s formidable example to live up to, and I look forward to seeing what they take from it.

 

“The Wife”: Glenn Close’s Oscar Bait, Built on Literary Lies

August 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Glenn Close in “The Wife”

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.

[/caption]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.

“Nico, 1988”: A Biopic Worthy of Its Beautiful, Enigmatic Subject

August 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

Trine Dyrholm in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988”
Nico Circa 1988

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.”

Nico Circa 1965

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.

Remembering Jonathan Gold

July 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Today would have been Jonathan Gold’s 58th birthday, which I’m sure he would have celebrated with a fabulous meal at one of the countless restaurants he championed during his years as the food critic for the LA Weekly and the LA Times. His unexpected death from cancer two weeks ago was a shock that Angelenos are still absorbing; whether or not we knew him personally, Gold was a familiar presence in our lives. In luring us to hidden gastronomic gems all over Los Angeles County, he gave us a taste of adventure that was as thrilling as the food.

Having listened faithfully to his “Good Food on the Road” segment on KCRW for years, I wonder who will tell me where to eat—and more importantly, where not to eat—in the future. Whoever it is, I wish him/her good luck in succeeding the first and only food critic to win a Pulitzer. Also, ixnay on using the second person in reviews, which was Gold’s trademark.

Two years ago, he was the subject of a very good documentary, “City of Gold.” I wrote about it (along with “Knight of Cups”), and recommend it highly:

Two Cinematic Tours of Los Angeles: “Knight of Cups” and “City of Gold”

March 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

At the Stahl House in “Knight of Cups”

Downtown Los Angeles in “City of Gold”

Since the early 20th century, Los Angeles has been the city that outsiders have loved to hate, usually based on fleeting touristic impressions. But no matter what the haters say, indignant reactions from the home crowd are few and far between. There are two reasons for this: 1) Angelenos don’t care what outsiders think of Los Angeles. 2) The last thing Angelenos want for people to move here, so all deterrents are welcome.

In L.A.-bashing, as in most matters, context is crucial. When Woody Allen wrote that L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he was a non-driving visitor to Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. How could he know about either local culture or driving? And when David Bowie said, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth,” he was referring to his near-fatal cocaine abuse in Los Angeles. (Never mind that his addiction began years earlier, in London.) Ironically, Bowie spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles over the course of his long career, making movies, collecting awards, appearing on talk shows and recording one of his best albums, “Station to Station,” in Hollywood. Yet he clung to the opinions he formed while high in the back of limos and darkened hotel rooms.

I was thinking about all of this as I watched the new Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups.” The plot, such as it is, concerns Rick (Christian Bale), an improbably attractive screenwriter who meanders around Los Angeles (with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas), his mind veering back and forth in time. Rick covers a lot of miles, yet he never writes a word. In fact, the closest he comes to working is meeting up with his agents, twice at CAA (Century City) and once at (I think) the Warner Bros. back lot (Burbank). But who has time for writing when there are so many women to recall? Apart from Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, most of Rick’s paramours are young models who wear filmy dresses (or less) and extremely high heels. (FYI, Terrence Malick: real L.A. women favor pants and shoes they can walk in.)

Fortunately, the places in the movie are decidedly real. Even the most over-the-top party (hosted by Antonio Banderas, though for me the highlight was the appearance of Joe Lo Truglio) takes place in well-known location: a massive Versailles-like mansion in Beverly Hills. Rick goes downtown (Broadway, the Bonaventure, etc), to the beach (constantly), to LACMA (Mid-Wilshire) and the Huntington Gardens (San Marino). He lives in a well-known industrial-looking apartment (the Gallery Lofts in Marina Del Rey), although I’m pretty sure that no one has seen a naked woman in six-inch heels talking on the phone on the balcony. Among the many visual highs are a twilight photo shoot at the Stahl House (Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22), gorgeous shots of Venice and PCH, and footage of the L.A. River and the tracks at Union Station. In short, it’s a film is by Emanuel Lubeski, with tiny amounts of dialogue and large amounts of voiceover written by Malick.

As the film washed over me, I was surprised at how many of the locations I had visited, not only architectural gems like the Broadway Theaters, the Stahl House and the Annenberg Beach House but a street in Hancock Park three blocks from where I used to live. For outsiders, “Knight of Cups” is a dream-like look at a great swath of Los Angeles–at least the rich, white, show biz side of it. But for those of us who live here, it’s much more: a trippy, deluxe home movie shot by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Coincidentally, I saw “Knight of Cups” on the same weekend as “City of Gold,” the new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Like the Malick film, “City of Gold” provides a beautiful, in-depth tour of Los Angeles, though a less rarefied one–e.g., no naked women in towering designer shoes and many ordinary people, all of whom have jobs. Gold is a native Angeleno whose knowledge of L.A. is profound and inclusive. Intrepid and expert in most of the world’s cuisines, he takes us to a wide variety of notable restaurants, two of which happen to be food trucks. The wonderful street scenes in “City of Gold” show the real Los Angeles: a multi-racial, multi-cultural vibrant megacity. The documentary also contains this truth: Los Angeles is beyond the grasp of those who, in Gold’s words, “come for a couple of weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills, take in what they can get to within ten minutes in their rented car and [then] explain to you what Los Angeles is.”

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Remembering Shinobu Hashimoto, Japan’s Greatest Screenwriter–and the 20th Century’s

July 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa in the 1950’s

Few centenarians’ deaths come as a shock, but last Thursday’s announcement of Shinobu Hashimoto’s passing at 100 marked the end of an era. Hashimoto, whose blazing career with Akira Kurosawa began with “Rashomon” and continued through the decades with such classics as “Ikiru,” “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” and “Dodes’Ka-Den,” was a giant of cinema, and not just in Japan. His screenplays, whether written alone or in collaboration, have resonated throughout the world since 1950, their relevance unfaded by time and trends.

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru”/Courtesy Toho Films

Though deservedly famous for the samurai films that brought fame to Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, his most important leading man, Hashimoto was equally renown for his contemporary films. Poverty, wartime devastation and existential dread were his themes, and he explored them with compassion and an unsparing eye for everyday cruelty. In “Ikiru,” my favorite film of all time (if I had to choose just one), Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, not only finds life’s meaning in his remaining two months but does so in secret because his doctor has withheld his fatal diagnosis, as was the Japanese custom until recently. Watanabe’s only son treats him with disdain and his daughter-in-law regards him as a nuisance; neither will listen as he tries to break the news of his impending death. So Hashimoto, after granting the abstemious Watanabe a brief period of hedonism, sets him on a path to greatness: creating a park from an urban swampland, against almost insurmountable odds.

In “I Live in Fear,” Nakajima, a foundry owner, is so convinced of a coming nuclear war that he decides to move his family to the safe haven of Brazil. His family responds by having him declared incompetent. “Dodes’kad-den,” explores the daily lives of impoverished shantytown residents, including a boy who lives in a fantasy world in which he imagines himself a tram conductor.

Beyond his work with Kurosawa, Hashimoto wrote for other major directors of his time. His screenplays for “Summer Clouds” and “Whistle in My Heart” became two of Mikio Naruse’s best late-period films. “Harakiri,” for Masaki Kobayashi, is considered a masterpiece.

Still, it’s not necessary to have seen any of these films to know Hashimoto’s work well. “Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven;” “Ikiru” spawned “Breaking Bad;” “Hidden Fortress” inspired “Star Wars.” And even the least cinematically inclined are familiar with “Rashomon,” which has entered the English language as a word for conflicting yet true accounts. It’s hard to imagine life without these touchstones, all of which sprang from the pen of Shinobu Hashimoto, who survived World War II and tuberculosis to forge an unparalleled and unforgettable body of work.

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in “Rashomon”

My related articles:
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/the-japanese-masterpiece-at-the-heart-of-breaking-bad-akira-kurosawas-ikiru/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/awakened-by-impending-death-the-transformational-heroes-of-ikiru-and-breaking-bad/