Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Zoo By Any Other Name

“Zoo” is a gorgeously photographed meditation on nature and desire, owing a great compositional debt to Errol Morris. It is also a smoke-and-mirror sleight-of-hand, existing in protective shadows like its zoophile protagonists. The film is as beautifully euphemistic as the melodic-sounding word itself – zoophilia – conjuring up not “horse-fuckers” but merely misunderstood men. (Much like NAMBLA members, who aren’t creepy pedophiles, but harmless “man-boy lovers”.) With enough manipulative window dressing, the horror of nonconsensual sex can be obscured.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud director Robinson Devor and writer Charles Mudede for their bravery in attempting to explore the side of a man’s death the media ignored in favor of a quick joke. But in their trying to present the side of the “zoos,” I couldn’t help but think of the political comedian Bill Maher’s appraisal of the evolution versus “intelligent design” debate – you don’t have to air both sides if one of those sides is bullshit. The homosexual community rightly bans NAMBLA from marching in gay pride parades because giving boy-fuckers a voice automatically bestows legitimacy. Like zoos, NAMBLA members display horrific audacity in refusing to take responsibility for unconscionable desires, in attempting to re-categorize a mental illness as simply a benign and unfair societal judgment. It’s a Catch-22. Devor and Mudede in letting the zoophiles speak have also allowed them to alchemize their pathology into a lifestyle choice.

Much has been made of Rush Limbaugh’s infamous sound bite on bestiality. (Of course it was consensual! How could it not have been?) I guess Rush also thinks an eight-year-old boy coerced into having an erection would be consenting. (He’s hard! How could he not want to fuck the babysitter?) If only the filmmakers likewise would have exposed this illogical line of reasoning. So let’s at least be honest. Subjectivity is an inevitable result of directorial vision. Like a Riefenstahl film is an elegant masterpiece about murderers seen through the lens of Germany, “Zoo” is a lushly poetic look at abuse told through the eyes of rapists.

007 as XXX

“Casino Royale” is the best gay porn of the year, not least because its lead actor passes for a high-end escort. If not for the RADA training, Daniel Craig certainly would have been in the blue. Like all actors he’s a shameless exhibitionist, only most actors have a love/hate relationship with the spotlight. They love the attention of the audience and loathe being (emotionally) naked in front of one. Not Daniel Craig. He, like Dame Helen Mirren (another alt-universe porn star) seems to thrive on the risk inherent in baring one’s body and soul. (And if there’s any doubt that Daniel Craig’s proudly gay-for-pay, check out his rough trade chops in “Infamous” and “Love Is the Devil” – the DVD cover art alone screaming “rent me!”)

But pound for beefy pound, “Casino Royale” itself should have swept the GAYVN Awards. Cue theme music.

Exhibit A:

Daniel Craig’s James Bond spends the entire film trailing – i.e., “cruising” – villains, the homoeroticism especially apparent with the hot baddie at the airport who checks out buff Bond in the kiosk mirror while seductively trying on shades.

Exhibit B:

The S&M scene between Bond and his nemesis, Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, is a ten on the hard-on scale. Stripped naked and tied to a chair, his sculpted and well-oiled muscles glistening in the shadowed lighting, Craig’s 007 is taunted by Mikkelsen’s bullwhip-wielding, sadistic daddy in head-to-toe black. The scene even begins with Le Chiffre approvingly commenting on how well Bond has taken care of his body. Amen.

Exhibit C:

The females in the film are not Bond girls at all – in the sense that Bond girls are bombshells. The merely attractive women are not bodacious head turners like Ursula Andress, and the lead actress exudes nothing that even remotely could be construed as sex appeal. Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is a polite British girl-next-door, not a Penelope-Cruz-like hot tamale. It is Daniel Craig who is both Bond and bunny. When 007 emerges from the ocean water like a “Sports Illustrated” cover chick, the camera lingers on his ripped torso, the requisite Bond girl he notices on the beach a mere afterthought.

(Though if the advertising for Showtime’s “The Tudors” lives up to its hype, Mr. Craig may face some "stiff" competition from fellow Brit Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry the Eighth. Stay tuned. Heads are gonna roll.)

The Bridge (A Documentary by Eric Steel)

There is something deeply unsettling in bearing witness to the last long,
Drawn out seconds of a person’s life,
Especially set against the backdrop of the majestic beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge,
Which allows for the most spectacularly gorgeous endings to often ugly, troubled lives.
No wonder it’s the number one suicide destination in the world.

Eight Random Raves

Fellini, Kubrick, Kusturica and Gilliam all rolled into Alfonso Cuaron! The most harrowing escape scenes in "Children of Men" are also the simplest – Clive Owen's Theo not getting the car started, unable to squeeze through a half open door. This is the stuff of universal nightmares, not science fiction, a display of the same humanity Cuaron brought to "Y Tu Mama Tambien”. It’s just a shame the directors representing the new, Mexican revolution in film (Cuaron, del Toro, Gonzalez Innaritu) differ from their Italian Neorealist and French New Wave counterparts in one key way. Rossellini and Truffault never felt the global pressure to create their masterpieces in any language other than their own native tongue. However remarkable Clive Owen’s ability to carry “Children of Men” squarely on his strong shoulders, several Latin actors could have easily done the same (and without the added distraction of a miscast Julianne Moore). Penelope Cruz once gave an interview in which she expressed the inevitably of her working with Javier Bardem. After seeing Cuaron’s epic vision, I couldn’t help but think the perfect vehicle had passed them by.

The indie flick “Hustle and Flow” about a Memphis pimp striving to become a rapper took me by surprise with what it lacks – condescension to its main characters. The director, bestowing nothing but respect upon the “daddy and his ho’s,” presents them as street savvy businesspeople, not as helpless victims without a choice (much like another wonderful indie film “Maria Full of Grace” in which the eponymous heroine becomes a drug mule of her own free will). “Hustle and Flow” is subversive if for no other reason than its PG-13 rating. To make a film about a pimp and his hookers without sex and with very little violence is to make one hell of a radical statement – and to render a truer portrayal than what Hollywood puts onscreen.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is perhaps the closest the director has come to his masterpiece, a philosophical mind trip in the guise of a road trip. Like James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Bill Murray plays a man who is more a ghost as he wanders through “what could have been,” through lives that might have been his. A reflection of us all, his character Don Johnston will always be curiously aware (if not actively searching), wondering about the “unknown son,” what the other path would have been like. (And speaking of what could have been, the movie version of "Fast Food Nation" suffers deeply from the didactic Richard Linklater at its helm. This film needs an Alex Cox brush stroke, a hyper-real "Repo Man" take. A less polemical, more philosophical Jim Jarmusch or Wim Wenders could have provided that missing artistry.)

“The Proposition” is a nice little gem of a film – the bloodiest movie I’ve ever seen without a single scene of gratuitous violence. That screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat have a long artistic history together is obvious. The script and the directing are completely seamless (a rare feat when the scriptwriter isn’t also the director). Watching “The Proposition” unfold was like listening to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play, all elements melding in perfect harmony. Nick’s vocals fusing to Blixa’s guitar chords is no different than Nick’s dialogue playing through the mouths of Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson and the rest of the brilliant ensemble cast. And Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack proved effective precisely because of its subtlety, not a word of Cave’s dark crooning to be heard until the closing credits appeared.

“Police Beat” is a fantastic, multilayered debut – an existential journey deserving of the cult following garnered by the less accomplished “Donnie Darko”. It is a “Repo Man” for the 21st Century – a study of one man’s mental disintegration in the midst of a thankless job, with a perfectly executed assimilation twist.

The Dardenne brothers’ “L’Enfant” is a dynamic sociological study in the form of a fiction film. The visual metaphors, the long shots of the protagonist pushing an empty baby stroller, an empty motor scooter, carrying his unconscious girlfriend, carrying a half-drowned boy – trying desperately to rid himself of burdens only to keep acquiring new ones. The stillness of his environment, waiting in long lines, desperate for something when nothing ever happens, contrasts wonderfully with the leading man’s restlessness. The character is running a thousand miles a minute in his head, is always moving, dashing towards danger, dodging it, so we experience his life as one long suspense thriller. I can’t think of another film that portrays the hustler mentality so perfectly.

I'm a sucker for smart showmanship, a la Hitchcock. The Nolan brothers are the kings of the unreliable protagonist. "The Prestige" should have received an Academy Award nomination for such intricate editing, performed with the precision of a surgeon with a knife. Their films are defined as much – if not more – by what’s not shown onscreen than what is.

As for the smartest script of all the 2006 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, well that would belong to Deepa Mehta's "Water". It’s tight, ingenious in its structure. The film draws you in, lulls you with its cute, “Whale Rider” feel-good, “little girl against the misogynistic culture” premise. Almost insidiously, from moment to moment, you start to have an awakening – a parallel enlightenment to the one from the Dark Ages that the new rebel Gandhi is preaching. You realize there is a bigger story here. The characters transform into the larger picture of India’s struggle for independence – against Britain yes, but more importantly, against itself. It is a cultural history lesson in the guise of entertainment.

By the time you reach the film’s spectacular ending, which unfolds with the unstoppable motion of Gandhi’s physical and metaphorical train, you’re shocked by the realization that all the characters, all the storylines you’ve been focused on, were mere red herrings. As slowly and quietly as a passive revolution the true protagonist, the character whose journey represents India’s own – from dark to light – emerges. At its core “Water” contains a technically breathtaking piece of writing.

An Open Letter to Martin Scorsese

Dear Marty,

Yes, I am quite aware that "The Departed" took home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Goodfellas, but I can still be disappointed with your many missteps. Starting with a script (what else?) that simply was not tight enough to be up to Oscar. Exhibit A: Vera Farmiga. (And yes I know your relationship to female characters is spotty at best, but this one was nonexistent. I can’t even remember Farmiga’s character’s name. Did she have a name?) Swallowed up like a ghost in the Marty machine. Perhaps a few sex scenes would have helped. On second thought, lots of sex scenes. In fact, why not cut all Farmiga’s lines and show her getting down and dirty with Damon and DiCaprio (well, not at the same time – O.K., why the hell not?) Every time Farmiga appears onscreen, the brisk action-oriented pace comes to a dialogue-heavy standstill, clogging up the Marty machine. Extraneous scenes that don’t further the story, don’t develop the characters. What happened to “show not tell”?

And since you asked, yes I also had some problems with other thespians. DiCaprio appears fairly lost, wandering around the set in his skull, while Nicholson showboats his way through several scenes (yes, I know that’s what Jack does best). But when Nicholson’s character Frank Costello exploded in anger at his disrespectful girlfriend, I’d had enough. It was like the loudest instrument in the orchestra hitting a cringe-inducing sour note. Where the hell did that come from? I thought. It was like Nicholson couldn’t hold back anymore, chomping at the bit to break through soft and sinister Frank and chew up some scenery.

But of course I don’t blame Jack for his out-of-character tirades. I blame you, Marty. You’re supposed to know better. A great director who hires only the best and then lets them loose to do their job without interference is commendable. It works ninety percent of the time. But the ten percent when the actors need to be given some direction, need to be reeled in, you’re not there for them. It’s like you’re too distracted by the rest of the machine, controlling for every f-stop and sound effect and ignoring the human heartbeats. Did you not notice that Ray Winstone couldn’t nail the Boston accent? And so what! Let the Brit be Irish instead! Where’s the flexibility?

Something is very, very wrong when the best thing about a Martin Scorsese film is Matt Damon. Did I really just type that? Matt Damon? Yes, Marty. Your movies are physical wonders in need of physical movers like De Niro, not cerebral thinkers like DiCaprio. Damon is your new De Niro. He’s a guy with leading man looks who is much better suited to character parts, to villains, attacking these roles like a hungry wolf. Like a young Bob or Al – or Jack. Matt Damon got gypped. If anyone deserved to go up against Forest Whitaker for that Best Actor nod it was Matt. And Clive Owen in "Children of Men".

Which reminds me. Dear Alfonso Cuaron...

Meditations On A Poet

Wong Kar-Wai would have made a great silent film director, his brilliant use of music more suited to live orchestral accompaniment than mere soundtrack. Many portions of "2046" are shot MOS since any dialogue would have been rendered redundant to his visual feast. Wong uses words only when necessary, lending them a higher importance for their rarity, each phrase a pearl in his oyster of images. Knowing when not to use words is the mark of a true poet.

In the tradition of Terence Malick, Wong Kar-Wai spends less time making films than in making them count. He packs so many elements into each movie that they overflow the frame, each work saturated beyond the breaking point into art. His lead actors Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi have flawless chemistry, Leung actually proving more the muse than Zhang. Leung’s shy, delighted, charming smile that anticipates the question “Are you waiting for me?” is so effortlessly natural, cementing Leung’s reputation as one of the most believable actors working today. He’s an old-time star like Clark Gable, able to invest the line “I used to have a happy ending in me but I let it slip away” with heartbreaking nonchalance. You can feel how much the actors adore working together, that the emotion is true. They know every twitch of Mr. Chow and Ms. Ling, how they are experts in using politeness as a form of cruelty, stabbing one another with niceties. The actors are so invested in one another that the audience is left with no other choice than to also be.

The best art serves as a flashlight into the viewer’s own soul. We see ourselves reflected in the character of Mr. Chow who in turn sees his own reflection in the character of Su Li Zhen. Relationships are just one endless funhouse mirror in Wong’s world as well as ours. The director’s a throwback to the thinkers of the French New Wave who meditated on big ideas rather than self. (Big ideas would always boil back down to self anyway and it’s lazy directors choosing to take this navel-gazing shortcut that’s destroying the art film!)

The sequences of "2046" are short movies in their own right – adding up to a breathtaking, mesmerizing masterpiece. The themes of emotion sneaking up on you, not knowing how you feel until it’s too late, secure Wong Kar-Wai’s universality. People go to the futuristic "2046" to retrieve lost memories but never come back, stuck in a past they willingly sought. “Maybe one day you’ll escape your past. If you do, look for me,” Mr. Chow tells Li Gong’s Su Li Zhen. I hope Wong Kar-Wai never escapes "2046" if it’s birthing such modern-day classics as this.

The Not-So-Notorious Mary Harron

The director Mary Harron has a terrific knack for choosing the most interesting, sexy subjects and just draining the life out of them. Watching her films “I Shot Andy Warhol” and now “The Notorious Bettie Page,” I often find myself thinking “the book would have been better” – except there’s never any book. It’s the same feeling I get watching a Catherine Breillat film. Having brainy, intellectually astute women at a flick’s helm is a grand idea in theory, but often all this thinking gets in the way of an entertaining story. (In fairness to Harron, Catherine Breillat is probably the only woman on the planet who can neuter an internationally famous porn star with her philosophizing. Note: someone needs to cast Rocco Siffredi and “Bettie Page’s” Gretchen Mol together in a romantic comedy as compensation for their fruitless efforts.) I don’t care to see a director’s thought processes on the screen – “If we cut out all sex scenes we can make Bettie the ultimate virgin/whore!” – any more than I wish to see an actor perform a Method exercise in front of the camera. (Note to writer/actress Guinivere Turner: only other actors find Stanislavsky interesting.)

The only thing “indie” about Mary Harron is her attraction to marginalized artists on the fringes of society. Her filmmaking itself is as predictable as any Hollywood hack’s. Did she really need to begin “Bettie Page” with a scene in which the teenage Bettie’s father flashes a “come hither” look and asks to see poor Bettie alone – wink, wink? Very Lifetime network. Not surprisingly, the main problem with Harron’s take on Bettie Page starts with the script. The eponymous character is so underwritten that often-unclothed Mol has nothing to work with. Harron has literally left the poor actress bare-ass naked inside and out! In an effort to make Bettie the wholesome girl -next-door, Harron renders her as much a bland, two-dimensional caricature as any of Hugh Hefner’s interchangeable centerfolds. Besides, I don’t buy that this debate team member, high school salutatorian would be as naïve a starlet as the young Marilyn Monroe. I would hazard to guess it was Page’s lack of naïvete – her utter, painful awareness – that caused the existential crisis (does Jesus disapprove of ball gags and latex boots?) that led her to fall into the arms of the church. Perversely, the actress Gretchen Mol is ever the more engaging because Bettie Page is not. It’s always fascinating to see an actress struggle so hard, grasp at the slightest detail that could transform her character into a living, breathing human being.

Which brings me to perhaps the oddest thing about “The Notorious Bettie Page” – that the lives of the secondary characters prove much more intriguing than that of the central pin-up queen. I’m talking about Irving and Paula Klaw – the godparents of fetish photography – who were taken down by the government at the same time Hugh Hefner avoided punishment for his new publication “Playboy”. The Klaws distaste for nude photos, as if birthday suits were more immoral than corsets and whips, and nude photographer Bunny Yeager’s mutual distrust of the Klaws and their deviant pics. (Which reminded me of the ridiculous sex industry rivalries – doms looking down on escorts and vice-versa – as if Jesus approves of strap-ons but not blowjobs!) The look on Lily Taylor’s face as her Paula Klaw burns the pornographic “evidence” is heart-wrenching. Paula Klaw’s fetish photography was her life’s work and the government like an American Gestapo forced her to destroy her own art. Bettie Page’s life paled in comparison to this drama that swirled all around her. Now if only Mary Harron could stop analyzing the drama long enough to start seeing it.

Polanski's Law

FADE IN: to the fairy tale familiarity of Dickens, the soothing open spaces, the sparse script. Slow shift to London, dialogue becomes denser with the claustrophobia of the city – but it’s too late, our defenses are already down – before we’re even aware of the prick of the needle Polanski has shot the poison beneath our skin. "Oliver Twist" is surely the most disturbing movie of the year, eschewing histrionic Hollywood violence for bloodspots on the wall, the sickening smush of a head being bashed in. To borrow from the Cronenberg competition, “History of Violence” indeed!

Polanski’s latest artwork is riveting, his actors infusing Dickens’ colorful characters with richness, never resorting to a hint of cliché. Jamie Foreman’s Bill Sykes and Leanne Rowe’s Nancy are in a movie of their own. (Foreman as Sykes is walking violence, a younger Ray Winstone.) Polanski continues to be a master director who never forgot his acting roots, with a respect for the craft that’s not condescending. Polanski lets the actors live and breathe inside their characters without smothering them to death with fancy camera angles and fake words.

As in "Repulsion", another movie of innocence lost, Polanski conjures up an atmosphere of violence – the threat of destruction looming large over everything from script to set design. This is what marks him a master (mediocre filmmakers eschew all-consuming atmosphere for easy bloodletting) and renders the MPAA ratings system a joke. If any film deserves an R it’s this one! What Polanski doesn’t show, his inference, is more horrific than what he chooses to put onscreen. Children, though, have vivid imaginations, desensitized to videogame violence, so when they see the ten-year-old Oliver Twist, their peer, enduring his brutal life, their identification with the hero is total and complete.

Polanski, of course, would disagree. I don’t know whether to be more disturbed by his claim he’s finally gotten rave reviews from his kids – or by pondering which of Papa Roman’s films they’re comparing it to. (I guess the beating of a ten-year-old sure beats seeing daddy in drag in "The Tenant".) Perhaps it’s his European sensibility, a childhood lost to the Holocaust, but here in America, Peter Pan is still considered sacred ground. In choosing this material Polanski is tackling one of the few taboos left in film – violence against children, innocence itself. (Lars Von Trier must be jealous – two hours of nonstop brutality directed at a ten-year-old!) We’re used to seeing mobsters getting whacked Tarantino-style. We’re indifferent. However, we still can be shocked by mob violence aimed at an angelic little boy.

FADE OUT: Polanski has tread on the sanctity of youth. Murphy’s Law is not supposed to apply to kids.

Preacher Man

Watching Henry Rollins’ heavily hyped new show on the Independent Film Channel last season, I couldn’t help but cringe as the middle-aged punk rocker, absurdly deferential and so clearly out of his league, interviewed the director Werner Herzog. I realized Rollins’ problem is that in his thirst for knowledge he devours facts that he is unable to digest, only spew them back up like after a bad drinking binge. He's an intellectual poseur, a geek wanna-be, and what's so ironic and disturbing is that he's going against one of the founding tenets of punk rock – just be yourself. Longing to be part of an intelligentsia far out of his reach, Rollins ignores his own talents – is unaware of his own limitations. (It's as delusional as me thinking that if I read enough books about black holes I can ditch the writing and hang out with Stephen Hawking instead!)

The quintessential moment came during a segment showing Rollins typing a tongue-in-cheek letter to ultraconservative pundit Ann Coulter, who undoubtedly wouldn’t know Rollins from a roach spray salesman (or did she, in fact, meet him when the singer achieved what was likely the highlight of his life, appearing on her friend Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect”? I could picture Ann and Bill in a prizefighting debate while Rollins looked on like an eager puppy begging to jump in, oblivious to the truth, that no matter how hard he worked he’d never have the skills to turn pro). Yet what bothered me most were his smart-ass suggestions to her, that the Bush cheerleader become his “domestic concubine” who would just “shut the fuck up” and worship him. Hot and bothered me most. With every “shut the fuck up” typed by fingers connected to those brawny tattooed arms I imagined dropping further and further to my knees in adoring submission until I would finally take that punk rock cock in my mouth. So in a sense my sexual frustration watching the beefcake Rollins mirrored his own frustration with himself. I would fuck him in a heartbeat, I thought, if he would only just “shut the fuck up.”

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

Tim Burton perfectly captures and encapsulates in a two-hour film the euphoria I felt at ten, riding Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World. The attraction is long gone now, just like my childhood, replaced with bigger and bolder amusements to please the modern-day Mike Teevee and Veruca Salt. In fact technology aside, spiritually at least, "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" was shot some time between the seventies and eighties as if the director himself had been locked away from innovation like his protagonist. (Johnny Depp takes his Willy Wonka role as seriously as he had Hunter S. Thompson, painting a portrait of a disturbed and emotionally-arrested man living without human contact for decades.) From the It’s A Small World rip-off greeting the factory’s guests, to Mike Teevee’s transformation at the hands of a "2001: A Space Odyssey" homage, to the Oompa Loompas masquerading in a Van Halen video, to Violet and her mother’s terry cloth sweatsuits, to Danny Elfman’s return to his roots with an Oingo Boingo inspired score – audience members of Tim Burton’s age are taken on a Space Mountain ride through our collective kid-to-teen years when cheesy artifice was part of the appeal, not something to be digitally enhanced. This movie is a love letter to those adults who can still recall sitting in front of our television sets, awaiting the launch of MTV like the first rocket to the moon, the last pre-technology generation to exist without the Internet. We are all Tim Burton/ Willy Wonka, watching our fragile childhoods reduced to melted plastic like the faux Small World, holding onto our live squirrels – while trying to embrace the possibility of digitized Oompa Loompas.

The Great Pretender

I’m embarrassed to admit that the first Holocaust film to deeply affect me was “Schindler’s List” – yet I take comfort in the fact that I’m certainly not alone. As a twenty-three-year old Jew when Spielberg’s epic was released, I was moved to tears by its profundity. Or so I thought. It took Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”, released nearly a decade later, to make me realize I’d merely been manipulated by a beautifully executed, perfectly crafted con job.

Leaving the theater after seeing Polanski’s masterpiece, I was overcome with anger at my earlier naivete. But why? I’d had no regrets being taken in by “E.T.”. Perhaps because Spielberg had presented “E.T.” as pure fiction whereas “Schindler’s List” had been based on actual events. I’d been a willing accomplice watching the little alien phone home, secure in the knowledge I was bawling my eyes out at a wonderfully moving fantasy, not over a so-called “truth.” Coming to terms with the fact that “Schindler’s List” was just as much a Hollywood confection, a smoke and mirrors act, as “E.T.” was a bitter pill to swallow.

Not that I’m angry with Spielberg for having tricked me. After all, Steven Spielberg is the great pretender, a pop artist along the lines of Andy Warhol, able to feed the masses and maybe sprinkle in some bites of history here and there. I forget this sometimes. It was only after indulging in a Roman Polanski, six-course meal that I realized how empty “Schindler’s List” really is.

“The Pianist” is moderated like the main character’s beloved concertos. Unlike “Schindler’s List” which plays in a one-note grandiose, Polanski’s film begins with much activity, the hustle and bustle of barely pre-war Warsaw then gradually narrows its focus, becoming sparser as lives are destroyed and buildings burned until only death and destruction surround the lone Szpilman. It’s as if instead of going “over” “Schindler’s List” Polanski decided to go “under.” In contrast to the requisite mass hysteria and mayhem of a Spielberg epic, “The Pianist” is basically a quiet film full of gorgeously shot, haunting images of the ruins of a once cosmopolitan city. Polanski knows the horror inherent in silence, something Spielberg could never begin to comprehend.

As other critics have already pointed out, perhaps the greatest difference between the two pictures lies in the notion of heroes. Spielberg, true to form, chooses the real-life hero Oskar Schindler as the basis of his story, whereas Polanski completely eschews nobility and courage, following the tale of an every-man who survived only by great luck. Not only is “Schindler’s List” shot in black-and-white, it’s told in black-and-white, with good Jews and bad Nazis, the modern day version of a John Ford western. Polanski’s film is much more nuanced with nasty Jews and a heart-of-gold Nazi – a realistic picture of (ghetto) life.

The Holocaust is great material for a thriller and Polanski, a master at suspense, knows this. It’s not surprising he turned down “Schindler’s List” when Spielberg first offered it to him. The showmanship and predictably of a mainstream Hollywood drama cannot possibly shine light on any deeper truths. Spielberg took the easy way out, choosing to shoot scenes that afford an emotional guarantee – close ups of children shaking in fear, a little girl gleefully shouting “Goodbye, Jews!” and pandemonium erupting when the Jews are finally sent like cattle to their death cars. “The Pianist” takes the opposite tactic. The film’s overall feel is one of confused calmness – which makes much more sense since the Warsaw Jews really weren’t sure exactly what was happening! Hysteria and fear are nearly nonexistent in “The Pianist”. Disbelief is the main emotion. This is where Hitchcock’s theory of suspense fits in perfectly. Place that bomb under the table and let it tick away while two people converse unaware beside it. Polanski’s film is more powerful for letting us, the audience, do the “shaking in fear.” We know the horror of the Holocaust and are forced to watch in helpless frustration because the characters on the screen cannot see the bomb before their eyes.

As noted, another obvious difference between the two movies is Spielberg’s use of black-and-white cinematography versus Polanski’s choice of color – notable because shooting black-and-white dates a film, places it historically in a bygone era, while color brings a story to the here and now. I think Polanski’s choice was a crucial one – and correct for reliving the Holocaust on the screen. In black-and-white Spielberg’s film allows us, the audience, to keep a safe distance from the atrocity – it happened “then” – whereas Polanski’s film forces us to face the fact that something so awful as genocide continues up to this very day. The use of color familiarizes, reminds us that “it can’t happen here” doesn’t exist. (In light of the events of September 11th, Polanski’s choice was a timely one as well.)

While “Schindler’s List” favors risk-free shots of lots of cute kids in hiding, “The Pianist” is bold enough to show the seamier side of ghetto life, where an old woman can be robbed of her only meal by an equally elderly man. When her pot of stew falls to the street in the struggle, and the old man begins to lap it up like a dog while the woman beats him in despair, what’s missing in “Schindler’s List” becomes crystal clear. Spielberg, king of Hollywood, never shies away from superficial violence, but he’s afraid to go as deep as Polanski does, all the way down to the rock bottom where humiliation lies. Polanski knows that humiliation is far more painful to watch than violence, more powerfully subversive. It is more disturbing to witness the Nazis in “The Pianist” forcing Jews to dance in the street like puppets than to watch the SS of “Schindler’s List” gunning down extras.

In fact, Spielberg’s violence feels almost falsely gratuitous, his killing done in black-and-white and always from a cozy, long or medium shot distance. Polanski, in contrast, is forever in the audience’s face with his close-ups of murder in color. There’s a pureness, an emotional honesty, to “The Pianist” that is missing in “Schindler’s List”. Spielberg’s film is filled with inorganic scenes – of random violence, of people hiding, Jews running naked in circles for “health exams,” children being loaded onto cars, their mothers chasing madly after them. All these scenes are mere distractions from the tale of Oskar Schindler, increasing the film’s running time without furthering the hero’s story. The images feel forced, as if Spielberg only included them because this is what one shows in a Holocaust movie. Polanski, on the other hand, refuses to give in to such expectations. “The Pianist” never strays from Szpilman’s point of view, only showing the degradation and violence as it relates to the protagonist. In this way Polanski is able to personalize his film. No longer is it “Oh, how sad for the Jews!” but “Oh, how sad for Szpilman!” – thus we as the audience are prevented from taking refuge in the abstract.

While Spielberg allows his characters to question what is happening to them Polanski hasn’t the patience for such philosophizing. As a Holocaust survivor himself he knows that when one is faced with unimaginable horror “why” is useless. You accept and concentrate on survival. This isn’t to say that “The Pianist” is all doom and gloom. Whereas Spielberg’s movie relies for its lighthearted moments on such cute set-ups as a blustery Schindler refusing to save a young woman’s parents then turning around and doing it anyway, a blustery Schindler saving a one-armed man and a blustery Schindler saving a boy, Polanski, true-to-form, is more practical. When Szpilman, wearing a coat given to him by a kind-hearted SS officer, is mistaken for a Nazi and shot at by liberating forces he pleads that he is Polish. “Why are you wearing that coat?” a soldier wonders. “I am cold,” is his no-nonsense reply.

“The Pianist” is shot like a documentary disguised as fiction, with the truth of the Holocaust experience wrapped inside the fantasy of a suspense thriller. “Schindler’s List” is its opposite – a fiction masquerading as documentary with its inclusion of footage that serves no other purpose than that of a history lesson. (The final scene of the real Schindler workers at the hero’s grave simply reinforces this false notion of “documentary.”) Pure Hollywood puffery like the scene in which female laborers are sent to what they think are their deaths only to be showered in water instead of gas, exemplifies the fantasy inside the “truth.” As the women’s cries reach a fevered pitch Spielberg cuts to a close-up of a lone silent worker too terrified to scream. Not only is it interesting to note how little screaming occurs in “The Pianist”, Polanski also offers his own brilliant counterpoint to Spielberg’s scene. When a lone woman can’t stop her hysterics Szpilman’s sister matter-of-factly states that she is “getting on my nerves.” (I couldn’t help but wonder if Polanski thought the same about Spielberg’s Schindler with his cheesy “I could have done more” breakdown at the end of the epic.)

Which brings me to my final point. In “The Pianist”, this lack of screaming and hysteria we’ve come to associate with traumatic situations is twofold. Firstly, in a realistic sense, “losing it” would have most assuredly resulted in a quick death. (In the rare instances Polanski does show mayhem it is in the presence of the less-threatening Jewish police, never the Nazis.) In one of the most dramatic scenes of “The Pianist”, an old man is tossed off a balcony, wheelchair and all, by the Nazis as his family looks on in absolute silence. When Szpilman’s mother (not a member of the poor guy’s family!), who is watching from a window across the street breaks the stillness with her terrified cry, she is immediately quieted by her family – much like Polanski mutes his own film, letting the audience scream inside for his characters. By doing so he forces us to face the deeper degradation that occurs when people are not even allowed to react to the horror around them in a human way.

In “Schindler’s List” a man is spared because of the Nazi Goeth’s inadequacy. The SS officer can’t get any of his guns to work and the scene turns into a comic, almost slapstick moment of pure Hollywood illusion. In “The Pianist” a man is spared when a Nazi stops to reload – until his mere second of hope is dashed with one raw, brutal bullet to the skull. Steven Spielberg the dreamer desperately wants to rewrite history. Roman Polanski the realist knows it’s more important to just aim and shoot.

Elegy For Eldritch

The night of March 6th, 2006 I went to The Sisters of Mercy concert at Webster Hall in NYC. I hadn’t seen the band in nearly fifteen years, back when I was a young goth chick who worshipped at the altar of lead singer Andrew Eldritch. The show was unbelievably awful, a sort of “name that tune” beneath heavy distortion and smoke machines (“Holy shit! Did they just play ‘Anaconda’?”), with the only-man-that-mattered Eldritch crooning lyrics like faking orgasms, mouthing words that meant the world to him twenty years ago but resonated now like mindless feedback to a man nearing fifty.

For over two decades Andrew Eldritch has been a big fish in a small pond, forever yearning to move beyond the goth scene (see “touring with Public Enemy”). His playful irony has always hinged on a nasty bitterness, manifesting ultimately in a condescension and disdain for his fans unparalleled by any other musical artist I can think of. (It’s hard to imagine Nick Cave – a Renaissance man restlessly testing his talents – living off Birthday Party songs and mutilating “The Mercy Seat” live in a blatant “Fuck you!” to his followers.) The reflexive cheering for two encores at the end of Eldritch’s phoned-in set seemed more a reflection of the sadomasochistic relationship between the singer and his slavish fans than an expression of their adulation. (I couldn’t help but think a round of raucous booing might have earned the audience just enough respect in Eldritch’s eyes to merit the soul-bearing brilliance of a song like “Nine While Nine”.)

If an exit poll had been conducted, a general consensus would have emerged regarding the absolute atrociousness of the concert, though one club kid, all eyeliner and black lipstick, hit the nail on the head when she said with a shrug, “Yeah, but you don’t come for the show.” Duh! Reunion tours are a way for the audience to reconnect with its past, with the community that “raised” you. It really wasn’t about The Sisters of Mercy and no one recognizing “On The Wire” until the chorus. It was about leafing through memories like old photo books. Viewing a moment in time from a lifetime away. Resurrecting the past to make it sound relevant and new was an exercise in futility, akin to remaking “Temple of Love” over and over again.

Unfortunately, Andrew Eldritch learned long ago how to exploit “for fun and profit” this universal need for a touchstone, knew that The Sisters of Mercy and likeminded bands were the glue binding a community bigger than they. Yet despite all this, I’m still grateful to The Sisters who filled my youth with odes to unrequited love and transcendental one-night-stands. Eldritch’s lyrics in fact shaped my own writing – and also the heart of this idealistic rebel who gleefully screamed the words to “First and Last and Always” over those screeching guitars.

Edited version at:,wissot,72573,22.html

Some Thoughts on the Secret Wachowski

Larry Wachowski left his wife for his mistress – so common in Hollywood it’s practically a rite of passage for ladder-climbing stars. But the fact that he’s a cross-dresser who left his wife for his Mistress – now that’s scandalous! The situation calls to mind the predicament of gays half a century ago, when coming out was seen as something lurid. It took only a handful of brave gay men and women “just saying no” to the closet to start a revolution. If Wachowski simply would be honest about who he is (along with fellow transvestite Eddie Izzard who ditched the dresses upon embarking on a “serious” acting career), there would be no “news” – and perhaps someday acceptance for the alternative lifestylers and gender benders who contribute every bit as much to their artistic communities as their fellow straights and gays.

Brokeback Munich

To say "Brokeback Mountain" is a “gay cowboy movie” is akin to calling “Romeo and Juliet” a play about two feuding Italian families. In either case you wouldn’t be wrong, but to reduce the two stories to such superficial plot summaries misses the essence of both – the universal theme of societal constructions (be they ideas about class, race or sexuality) serving to keep true love apart. Ang Lee’s disguised “Romeo and Juliet,” set in the west and involving two men, is merely the latest take on a timeless subject. It is a classic western that feels so right in its elimination of the extraneous girl at the center of the requisite triangle, the undeveloped female character put there for no other reason than to keep the other two points from collapsing into (the arms of) each other. Blessed with a tight script and phenomenal acting, Ang Lee rightly steps aside, letting the film perform its own alchemy, leaving no smudges of auteur fingerprints to distract like a dirty lens. Heath Ledger lives up to his hype, imbuing his complex role with a gravity that’s worthy of the young Brando.

A man with a lightweight soul, Steven Spielberg is also a lazy, manipulative showman who creates films for the simpleminded. With his latest “Munich” he takes the predictable, easy way out from scene to scene, force-feeding the audience emotion like overpriced popcorn. I left the theater feeling just as nutritionally deprived. The setup in which the protagonist has a flashback to the Munich murders (though he was never there in the first place – huh?) while fucking his wife boiled my blood with its film-school student pretension (behold how deep I can be!). A master filmmaker like Roman Polanski at least would have had the guts to blow up the little girl who’d gotten in the way of her father’s assassination – test audiences be damned! Steven Spielberg couldn’t even muster the gumption to cut (co-writer) Tony Kushner’s overlong script, so in love was he with the possibility of putting more of his superficial auteur smudges on the screen.

Dirty Harry is Shooting Blanks

A gang of hoods with guns drawn chases after an escaped chicken that would be dinner. Within the first minute the director has set up his entire film, the tone a mixture of extreme viciousness and absurd humor, the theme of the “normalcy” of violence (these guys think nothing of pulling a pistol on a bird!) The chicken as metaphor for the photographer hero, both innocents caught up in a cycle of brutality beyond control. The director strips the film bare – no unnecessary dialogue or shots – diluted to its very essence. Dirty Harry is nowhere to be found.

No, this is the brilliant Brazilian flick “City of God” directed by Fernando Meirelles, and it was released on video around the same time as Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster “Mystic River” – a bloated piece of filmmaking if ever there was one. Though the films share little in common except arising from novel adaptations concerning childhood friends taking different paths, watching the two in the same week served to highlight something I’d long suspected. Dirty Harry can’t shoot straight.

In a nutshell, the problems with “Mystic River” start where all bad filmmaking begins – at the script. Even the Oscar-caliber performances from the eager cast can’t save a film that reads like a daytime soap. Kevin Bacon’s character with the estranged wife who calls him at the most inopportune times, yet doesn’t say a word. Eastwood allows only the wife’s mute lips to appear in the frame. The point of this mystery is anyone’s guess. I was waiting for the woman to be revealed as the killer of the Sean Penn character’s daughter, my brain desperately trying to piece into the movie this extraneous character that turned out to be not a murderess, but added baggage to weigh down a “heavyweight” film. But then my focus was really supposed to be on Tim Robbins’ character as killer and in the end we find out yes, he’s a murderer, but not of his friend’s daughter. The guy’s really a “redeemer” who happened to dispense with a creepy pedophile on the same night the teenage party girl was killed. Only in Hollywood would an ending this squeaky clean occur – and only in Hollywood would Clint Eastwood be hailed as a great director because of (in spite of) it.

Perhaps Fernando could invite Clint to vacation down in Brazil sometime. A housing project in the slums of Rio could be just what Harry needs to dirty up a bit.

A Flower in Half Bloom

“The Constant Gardener” was an incredible disappointment, a flower in half bloom. I wish the dated script would have been up to the beautiful filmmaking and acting. It should have been shot as a Cold War period piece – since Le Carre seems as out of touch with modern day realities as the Bush administration. At least Karl Rove knows that governments don’t kill whistleblowers anymore – they smear their reputations. (Former ambassador Joe Wilson’s CIA wife Valerie Plame was outed, not annihilated!) It would have been more plausible for Rachel Weisz’s character Tessa to have stayed alive and had to defend the awfulness of her past (real or government invented) to Ralph Fiennes’ Justin Quayle. Fortunately, Fiennes’ finesse as an actor is astonishing. From the very beginning when Justin’s a passive player (doing nothing because he can’t help everyone) to the end when he “becomes” the active Tessa (trying to save a single child because he can) we are completely convinced that he believes in both opposing viewpoints at each distinct moment in time. Fiennes so seamlessly inhabits his character, understands his awakening, as to rise above the mediocre script.

Which brings to mind another African set movie, “Hotel Rwanda” that for all its predictability and clichés, works because its story isn’t genocide but the callous response by outside nations to the crisis. (Similarly, Hurricane Katrina’s “story” isn’t the storm itself but government indifference.) The big misstep of “The Constant Gardener” is that its theme is irrelevant. Government and corporations exploiting the poor is not a story – it’s a fact of life. As the credits rolled I was left feeling the same way I’d felt years ago watching Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game”, when the “shocking” moment of a character being discovered as transgendered merely left me baffled as to why the leading man didn’t see what was apparent all along! Similarly, “The Constant Gardener” expects us to identify with the characters being horrified that a pharmaceutical company would use Africans as guinea pigs, yet instead I wondered why this was such a surprise to them in the first place (Tuskagee Trials anyone?) Storylines hinge on the audience identifying with the leads – how “shocked,” how “horrified” they are – thus we are able to become part of their lives, to walk for two hours in their shoes. If we think they are merely naïve it distances us. We go to the movies to be entertained and enlightened, not to tend an ignorant garden.

Lessons I Learned at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival

I read somewhere that the director of “Transamerica” judged transgendered people to be more highly evolved than most non-gender benders. I thought of this while watching “The Power of Nightmares”, a documentary detailing the dysfunctional relationship between neo-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists. It hit me that neither destructive movement would exist in a transgendered world – and that this had little to do with gender benders being more “highly evolved.” If those of us between the sexes are more “highly evolved” it is simply out of necessity. We are forced to live in the gray all the time – so we have no fear of it. We know there are no absolutes, have to be comfortable with that fact if we are to live inside our own skins.

Leaders of ideological movements, however, are driven by fear – of the unknown, of the gray. Mad men like Tim McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski are unknowns, loose cannons, embodiments of the chaos, which is also an integral part of the world. “Al Qaeda” as a concept is comforting to those steadfast, black-and-white neo-conservatives. A known entity that can be defined can be controlled. Or so it would seem. No matter that the random, uncontrollable Travis Bickles of the world – David Berkowitz and Colin Ferguson in real life New York – are more of an everyday threat than Osama bin Laden, head of a criminal organization America needed to invent in order to prosecute the moneyman under U.S. law for the Nairobi and Kenya bombings. Just one thing I learned from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Rumsfeld and Richard Perle still battling a Soviet threat that was itself a myth. Seeing those two onscreen in “The Power of Nightmares” was like watching old boxers who would rather risk brain damage in the ring than retire from the fight. It was embarrassing and pathetic – and I realized that these are the people who are driven to lead.

But then I was reminded of another lesson learned – from the basketball documentary “Through The Fire” – the antidote to “Hoop Dreams”. Sebastian Telfair, the 5’10” point guard for the Portland Trailblazers, made it to the NBA due to his immense physical talent and a caring family that included two older brothers/father figures who supported him emotionally, prepared him mentally and loved him unconditionally. In the film one of the brothers suggests Sebastian’s happiness is integral to his being, not dependent on a million dollar sneaker contract. If all young men in the projects from Coney Island to the Casbah were like him, I realized, those madmen driven to lead would have no followers.

Life Is A Cabaret

“Chicago” is a thoroughly competent film. It’s a work-horse. It achieves all it set out to do. In a perfect Holly-world every film would be this good. But also in a perfect Holly-world, it would be only those films that went beyond mere competence that would merit thirteen Academy Award nominations.

Rob Marshall, to put it mildly, is no visionary. His idea of innovation is to steal Bob Fosse’s style shot by shot, call it homage and hope for the best. Luckily, Fosse’s editing perfectly synchronized to the moves of the dancers, who perfectly match their flawless steps to the exhilarating Ebb and Kander score, would look amazing even if Ed Wood directed. But a movie is more than the sum of its songs. Bob Fosse knew this, which is why his own film version of “Cabaret”, shot over three decades ago, feels less dated than this more recent Academy darling.

“Chicago” plays like a movie about a movie about two murderesses striving for fame in the Roaring Twenties, whereas “Cabaret” is simply a “bizarre love triangle” set in Weimar Republic-era Berlin. Renee Zellweger is capable as corrupt Chicago’s good bad girl Roxie Hart. Catherine Zeta-Jones is an able enough criminal Velma Kelly. The same goes for Richard Gere as crooked lawyer Billy Flynn, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah – they’re all so fucking competent! But Liza Minnelli did not win her Academy Award for rising to her role in “Cabaret”. She won it for reaching higher – for giving us a three-dimensional Sally Bowles, a precursor to today’s Courtney Love – so fake she’s real. In contrast, we get a thoroughly charming Roxie Hart in the form of Renee Zellweger, who plays the character so real she’s fake. Though we watch her kill onscreen we get no sense from the actress that she’s a murderess. She’s a one-dimensional cutie pie, a spoiled, dreaming bad seed. In Minnelli’s ferocious performance, we glimpse in her wild eyes and anxious body language the screwed-up childhood she must have had, that which fuels her to sing and dance or die. Zellweger’s Roxie is a fun but empty slate, her mild drive to be a star disingenuous. In real life Liza Minnelli had the demons of Judy Garland to escape, while Renee Zellweger has admitted in interviews that she pretty much fell into acting. It shows in both performances.

In Fosse’s “Cabaret”, the script and the songs are thread together seamlessly, enhancing one another. A natural flow occurs, and we never get the sense that the performers prize the musical numbers over the spoken words. On the contrary, the acting scenes in “Chicago” feel forced. It’s like the actors are just killing time before their next chance to sing and dance which, of course, is why they signed on to do Marshall’s movie in the first place. Overall the cast has a blast returning to their stage and musical roots, reliving those innocent high school productions when a green light was simply something on a driver's test. As a result the script becomes a mere afterthought, a boring but necessary way to string the wonderful musical numbers together.

“Chicago” is not a story. It’s a statement on the power of publicity, the media’s ability to turn life and death into fortune and fame. “Cabaret” easily could have been a treatise on the rise of fascism, but instead is a story about love, finding oneself then honoring that discovery. It’s been said that the difference between Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams is that the former wrote about big ideas and the latter about particular situations and characters – and that this is why Miller’s plays often don’t hold up onscreen. I would argue the same about “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. Richard Gere plays every sleazy lawyer in the history of Hollywood, while Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies in “Cabaret” is so eccentric he’s specific. Renee Zellweger’s front page, generic, girl-next-door smile can’t hold a torch to the unspoken desperation in Liza Minnelli’s singing eyes. Media manipulation and a disregard for human life are very timely issues, but will that be enough for “Chicago” to stay fresh for another thirty years? “Cabaret” has stood the test of time because as Shakespeare proved, being true to oneself never goes out of style.

The Pledge – The Director’s Cut

As someone who would choose total creative control on a ten-minute short over helming a thirty million dollar epic with Jerry Bruckheimer breathing down my neck, I have always been a rabid proponent of the notion that the director should have final cut. Always, always, always! A movie is like a director’s baby, I say – and losing final cut is akin to being pregnant for nine months only to have the child yanked from the womb and surreptitiously handed over to those with more cash to care for it, if less love. So I empathize with Sean Penn. I understand how important “The Pledge” must be to him. And it pains me to say that even the most well intentioned parents are not qualified to care for their kids.

What if the parent is a teenage mom? What if she thinks she’s perfectly qualified to care for a newborn with lots of love and a little welfare? And what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if someone with a bunch of cash stepped in to help her out, helped her to raise that expensive bundle of joy? Wouldn’t the sacrifice of control in exchange for a better life for the child be worth it? Wouldn’t it be purely selfish not to accept?

Well, Sean Penn, you’re being selfish – and “The Pledge” has suffered for it. But it’s not just your “baby.” That’s the problem. Everyone involved has suffered because someone from the outside – someone not so blinded by subjective love – didn’t step in and say, “Hey, I know you think it’s working, Sean, but, well, it’s not. If you’d just let Jim over here set you straight we can make this mediocre mess into something great. You owe it to your talent. Hell, you’ve got Nicholson here doing his best work since “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”! You agree with me? Great! Jarmusch, let’s get to work!” Jim Jarmusch directing “The Pledge”. Now that would be something to pay ten and a half bucks for. Or even Atom Egoyan. Let David Lynch handle the scenes in which hundreds of turkeys bear witness to a parent’s worst nightmare, where the cattle-herd wander into the hero’s car chase. Just imagine the possibilities! Sam Raimi’s “The Gift” has a trailer almost identical to the one for “The Pledge”. I hear the movie is a near disaster. Maybe Sean and Sam could have swapped films.

When Sean Penn has the track record of Jarmusch or Egoyan or Lynch or Raimi, that’s when he’ll deserve to have final cut. Just because you’re able to conceive doesn’t make you a qualified parent. This is where Sean Penn has deluded himself. Sean Penn is a great actor – one who could easily go head to head with Nicholson or Redgrave or Mirren, the legends performing in his film. The problem is that it’s the greatest actors who make the worst directors. Didn’t he see “The Two Jakes”?

It’s a mystery to me why Penn doesn’t just shoot a couple shorts with no-names in order to learn his newly chosen craft. If he’s serious about filmmaking, he’d better know that acting and directing are akin to speaking English and speaking French. Yes, they’re both languages, but I personally wouldn’t fly over to Paris and just assume that I could speak French because I’ve mastered the English language. This is what Penn is attempting to do. Actors are internal people. They have to be. It’s all about focusing on the inside, paying attention to instinct and trusting that the instrument – the self – after years of fine-tuning will play naturally. This is the exact opposite of filmmaking! Directors have to be external people. They have to focus on the big picture and all that is not going on inside them. Their instruments are the lighting, the camerawork, the set design and the actors. Sean Penn has incredible instincts as an actor, but this does not translate into directing. And the biggest problem is, if you screw up as an actor, then you’ve only really hurt yourself. Good actors can work around bad actors (and, indeed, often use them to make themselves look better). No one can work around a bad director, though. A bad director takes even the best actors down with him.

I guess this is why it was so excruciating for me to sit through “The Pledge”. All these amazing actors gave flawless performances with a teenage mother at the helm. Patricia Clarkson comes to mind. When her character started to plead with the Nicholson character to swear his sole salvation on the cross that was built by her murdered daughter’s hands, I thought only in Hollywood do people with murdered children speak like that! What kept me from laughing was Clarkson’s face, full of anguish and pain so real I knew she must have been going through her own Strasbergian hell right then and there. Ditto for Vanessa Redgrave and her cliché-ridden monologue about tour guide angels swooping down to escort recently deceased children. By the end of the monologue I had stopped listening, so mesmerized was I by Redgrave’s performance. She could have been reading the craft service menu for the day and I would have wholeheartedly agreed with Nicholson’s character’s response of “Beautiful.” How dare Sean Penn waste such enormous talent!

The only thing that kept me from leaving the theatre – besides the acting – was curiosity about the ending. Basically, Penn attempted to make an art film out of a pretty standard fare Hollywood script. For me, it was this constant tightrope-walking game of which way the film was finally going to go that kept me intrigued. I guess now’s the point where I tell all of you who don’t want the ending revealed to skip the rest of my review.

So you’ve been warned. Though it may be hard to believe, I sincerely wanted Penn to redeem himself with a spectacular art film ending. I wanted him to negate all the superficiality that came before. And he could have done it. I had the perfect ending in my head. I was willing to forgive all his past moviemaking sins if only he’d do this one thing for me. And which way did he go? Hollywood or “indie”? You’re reading this review, aren’t you?

Penn did the worst thing imaginable. He tried to pass off a Hollywood ending as something Resnais or Bunuel might approve of. He let his DP do a Terence Malick camera dance to the music of “don’t let the audience think too much about what they don’t want to think about.” I’ve heard Penn say in interviews that people have problems with the ending because it’s not definite – since he doesn’t let you know if the child murderer was actually the man killed in the car crash for certain. Well, I could care less about definite endings – only good ones. And for me, a good ending would have been if Toby, the Indian character played by future legend Benicio del Toro, and the man everyone but Nicholson’s character thought was guilty in the first place, had been linked to the killings through DNA. Why do I say this? Because this would have rendered the entire film a wild goose chase. Nicholson’s character would have spent two hours searching for a killer who had already been caught, and subsequently committed suicide, twenty minutes into the movie. Now that would really piss off an audience. But there would be an incredibly valid reason for doing it. Unlike “The Usual Suspects” which used the device of “it was all made up in someone’s head” as a slick parlor trick that told us nothing new about the characters, using a child murderer as a Maguffin would bring a very deep meaning to the film. No longer would “The Pledge” be just another catch-a-killer thriller. The movie wouldn’t even be about the race to catch a child murderer anymore! It would be most definitively about mid-life crisis and the lengths one man will go to keep from facing his own mortality. Powerful stuff for sure – especially since the majority of theater goers will find themselves facing the prospect of retirement and empty time, but virtually none will ever have their child murdered. But Penn didn’t want a clear ending. Saying the child murderer was killed in a car crash would have been too Hollywood. Saying the entire two hours had been about one man running around in circles would have “cheated” the audience. Well, one of the jobs of a director is making clear choices. That’s why they get final cut.

Review originally published with the "Reel Roundtable"

Requiem For A Dream (The Second Half)

“And the Academy Award for Best Half of a Movie goes to “Requiem For a Dream” – the second half.” If only the Oscars bestowed such recognition, Darren Aronofsky would surely claim the prize. How else to celebrate a film that begins as an artsy Nine Inch Nails video and ends as an artistic work of genius? Not to say that Aronofsky changes his time-warped camerawork and cocaine-cutting editing style from start to finish (he’s nothing if not consistent). In fact, this is precisely where the problem lies.

“Requiem For A Dream”, in the tradition of the hallucinogenic cinematography of “Trainspotting” and the fast-forward editing of the Ray Liotta character’s breakdown scene in “Goodfellas”, is a film that attempts to shoot from inside a junkie’s head. Though I consider “Requiem For A Dream” far superior to “Trainspotting” in artistic vision, and the last half of the film close on the heels of Scorsese’s Mafia masterpiece in terms of sheer intensity, it just doesn’t work as well as those movies. And the difference rests in the mark of the auteur. When one thinks of the word “auteur,” the word “consistency” soon follows. Darren Aronofsky is definitely an auteur. Both “Pi” and “Requiem For A Dream” have a distinct style and feel that makes them each “A Darren Aronofsky Film.” His pacing is consistently fast. He tells tales from his characters’ often-unreliable viewpoints. Martin Scorsese, however, is a far more seasoned auteur. The contrast between the kid and the veteran can best be summed up in Scorsese’s ability to know when to be inconsistent. There comes a time in every filmmaker’s life when the auteur style that the audience associates with the director just doesn’t lend itself to the script. “Raging Bull” and “The Age of Innocence” both undoubtedly bear the Martin Scorsese signature, yet they are shot in completely different ways. Like a painter who uses every color to create a work completely unique, Scorsese uses a wide variety of camera techniques and editing styles to shape his vision. Aronofsky, however, like in his debut film “Pi”, seems always to be working in black-and-white (or, more accurately, fast and warped).

The main problem with “Requiem For A Dream” is twofold. Firstly, chop-chop editing and unusual cinematography that calls attention to itself only work when something important, deep and meaningful is happening in the script. This is definitely the case in the last half of the film – and the reason Aronofsky’s style fits flawlessly with the script. From the time the Jared Leto and Marlan Wayans characters leave for Florida until the final shot, all the characters descend rapidly into their own drug-induced hell. Aronofsky’s style serves to highlight the out-of-control freefall these characters are experiencing. My favorite shot of the film involves Jennifer Connolly’s character, curled up on a couch at the end, cuddling her dope bag like a teddy bear, the camera overhead pulling back to cuddle the character in the sanctity of the frame. The scene works because it is a poignant moment in the story.

Unfortunately, this same style when used at the beginning of the film (before the characters have actually gone off the deep end) makes “Requiem For A Dream” resemble nothing more than a cheesy, music video. Why? Because Aronofsky’s jerky, stop-and-go pacing is used pointlessly. Not too damn much is going on in the first half of the movie when you think about it. We’re getting to know the different characters, what’s driving them to drugs, how they interact with one another. The script is slow – and Aronofsky’s style becomes at odds with the story. Instead of letting us just spend a quiet moment with a character, we get hit with frequent montages of dollar bills, dope and an eye. This is just a long, artsy way of saying “character is getting high now.” Couldn’t we just watch the Jared Leto character shoot up real quick and use the extra time to let Ellen Burstyn’s face tell the story? The characters get high throughout the movie. Getting high is not a “big moment.” The montage sequences (scored to the best theme song I’ve heard in years) are as beautiful – and as meaningless – as a David Fincher video. Artsy becomes artistic if the choice is made to signal an important moment in the script. Otherwise, artsy is just another word for pretentious.

The second problem with “Requiem For A Dream” is, quite simply (Bill Burroughs aside), that junkies and their viewpoints are pretty boring. The makers of “Trainspotting” knew this all too well – which is why they chose to use the hallucinatory scenes sparingly. “Trainspotting” works because it saves those “junkie moments,” sprinkles them across the film so that they become more potent. Aronofsky, by contrast, seems to want the audience to overdose on his style before the film is half over. Instead, the audience begins to build up a tolerance, requiring a greater and greater fix. The last half of the film, while brilliant, would have been even more shocking and disturbing if the first half were shot less erratically. Yes, junkies are erratic, but even unpredictability becomes tedious, monotonous and predictable after ninety minutes. If Scorsese had shot all of Ray Liotta’s scenes in a manic way I doubt “Goodfellas” would have been the same revered film that it is. A master like Scorsese knows that every downward spiral has its own pacing, its own speed. He knows how to use the infinite shades of gray.

Review originally published with the "Reel Roundtable"