January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.
What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.
Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.
A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.
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.
July 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
For years I watched several movies a week in theaters and more at home; hundreds per year. These days I rarely set foot in theaters, and the last film I saw in one was a documentary. As for features, what little isn’t of the superhero/action variety is usually unsatisfying, and often forgotten by the time I get home.
Further complicating matters are the increasingly compelling original series on streaming services. Nothing I’ve seen in this year has interested me as much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown,” so why make the trip to ArcLight? Fortunately, some relief has arrived via Deborah Graynik’s new film, “Leave No Trace.” Will, a war veteran with PTSD (Ben Foster) hides from civilization in the woods outside Portland with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Father and daughter live harmoniously in primitive conditions until their inevitable discovery by park rangers. Though their re-entry into society yields mixed results, there are no villains or platitudes in “Leave No Trace,” and no violence. Social workers are sensitive and kind, as are Will and Tom’s new neighbors, but Will’s problems have no easy solutions.
Foster and McKenzie are brilliant actors, though it pains me that American characters in this quintessentially American movie are played by an Australian and a New Zealander. Aside from that, I can find no fault with “Leave No Trace.” The film is visually beautiful, as would be expected from its Pacific Northwest setting, but more crucially it captures the passage of time as only film can do. For anyone who longs for movies about humans rather than superheroes, this one’s for you.
September 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s hard not to be puzzled by recent director changes in the “Star Wars” series. The latest to be fired is Colin Trevorrow, who was supposed to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX.” He follows Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired during production on the untitled Han Solo film (and replaced by Ron Howard), and Josh Trank, who was either supposed to direct the Han Solo movie or the Luke Skywalker one–no one seems to know for sure. Then there’s Gareth Edwards, who received directorial credit for “Rogue One” but was relieved during production by its screenwriters, Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Because Weitz and Gilroy did extensive reshoots and fixed the third act, they are widely credited with the success “Rogue One.”
Producer Kathleen Kennedy’s formula for directors seems to be: find them at Sundance, give them a bigger picture and then move them up at warp speed to “Star Wars.” Hence Trevorrow, whose successful indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” led him to direct “Jurassic World.” The critical and box office failure of his latest, “The Book of Henry,” sealed his fate on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” but shouldn’t have been his modest resume? Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s animated hit “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” led them to “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie,” but none of the three predicted a successful transition to the world’s biggest franchise. Josh Trank’s indie hit “Chronicle” gave him the director spot on “Fantastic Four,”–again, not an obvious pathway to “Star Wars” glory.
As every knows, there has never been an experienced woman director of a “Star Wars” film, much less one with as little directing experience as these men. Women with critically successful first films tend to spend years trying to finance their second, not juggling action film offers from major studios as their male peers do. Often they wind up directing TV shows–hardly the purgatory it used to be, but not the same as having their name on the poster of the big summer movie. I can think of three excellent women directors with long resumes off the top of my head–Kathryn Bigelow, Mimi Leder and Ava DuVernay. All have successful action and effects films to their credit, but were they even considered for “Star Wars”? It’s easy to say they wouldn’t want the oversight that comes with the job, but I wonder if any of them were asked.
As it happens, Ava DuVernay–fresh off her Oscar nomination for “13”–is already directing the forthcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” for Disney, which owns “Star Wars.” She is the favorite candidate of many fans for “Star Wars: Episode IX” and a likely choice. Let’s hope Kathleen Kennedy thinks so too.
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.
June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Soon afterwards, I got a job reading scripts on a freelance basis at CAA. Except for those that were already produced (submitted by writers seeking representation), all of them were bad. Emboldened by my dismal competition, I submitted a script of my own and quickly got a pass. This may have been because it had a female protagonist and two males relegated to supporting status, unlike any script I had read. Who, besides a lot of women, would want to see a movie like that? Apparently no one who could greenlight a film. I continued to write scripts and short stories with female leads and male supporting characters. None of them sold, though they got kiss-of-death comments like “quirky” and “charming,” which is code for “we hate stories about women.” Some of these comments came from women, none of whom were in a position to greenlight a film.
I turned to documentaries in large part because I wanted to direct. In an industry where the least qualified male was more likely to be hired as a feature director than the best qualified woman, documentaries seemed to offer a separate path to the same goal, or so I thought. As it turned out, I had to vie for the respect of my cameramen–whom I was paying, since I was also the producer. I also had trouble with male crew members, who preferred to take their orders from a man. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my struggles: now there’s a whole website devoted to the subject of women directors and others working in non-traditional film jobs. http://shitpeoplesaytowomendirectors.tumblr.com/ask I recommend it highly, particularly to anyone who thinks this sort of behavior went out with the “Mad Men” era.
Fortunately, there have been a few bright spots during the past 25 years. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, and two more–Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola–were nominated. (This brings the total number of women nominated for Best Director to a whopping four. The first was Lina Wertmuller in 1976; she remained the only female nominee until 1993.) A lot of women directors have found steady work in television, which in the Netflix era is no small thing. But the fact remains that male directors of independent films are frequently catapulted up to the majors, sometimes with only a single credit to their names, while far more experienced women directors are not. It’s also common for women directors to hit a dead-end after making a splash with their first film, finding themselves without prospects for financing or work. This is seldom the case for male directors.
The justification for this exclusion used to be “movies directed by/starring women don’t make money.” Nowhere was this attitude more prevalent than in summer blockbusters, which were the undisputed domain of male stars, directors and writers. It was accepted that female stars, however adored, couldn’t “open” a summer movie. Jodie Foster defied expectations with “The Panic Room,” which grossed $100 million domestically. But even Julia Roberts needed a horde of male co-stars (in “Oceans Eleven” and “Oceans Twelve”) to achieve popcorn movie status.
That’s why this summer is notable. On May 15, “Pitch Perfect 2,” with its female director and cast, surprised everyone by trouncing the presumed box office favorite, “Mad Max: Fury Road. Though “Mad Max” has gone on to be more profitable worldwide because of its huge foreign receipts, the domestic totals (as of June 8) remain significantly higher for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Then this past weekend, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” demolished the bro-loaded “Entourage,” out-earning it almost 3 to 1.* (If “Entourage” hadn’t opened two days earlier, the difference would have been even greater.) “Spy,” which got great reviews, is absolutely hilarious. It’s also thrilling, not least because it has shattered the glass ceiling of summer movies.
Next: The Importance of Melissa McCarthy
*Domestic receipts for opening weekend were: “Spy” $29,085,719; “Entourage” $10,283,250. Courtesy Box Office Mojo