Thursday, May 29, 2008

The long and winding road: A conversation with independent film producer Jim Stark

Jim Stark occupies the unlikely position of independent film producer. Originally from Ohio, he’s based in Manhattan, though most of his contacts are in Europe, South America or Asia. He’s helped some of the landmark indie films of the 1980s get made and get seen. Most recently he produced and co-wrote the Charles Bukowski adaptation Factotum, a movie about a guy who accepts and abandons a seemingly endless string of jobs. I spoke with Stark on behalf of Vue Weekly about his own string of jobs, the many roles he’s inhabited in a career of making the sort of movies that, as Stark says, “no one makes for the money.”

Vue Weekly: Your film career begins with Jim Jarmusch’s early features. Did you guys know each other from Ohio?

Jim Stark: No, I was a corporate lawyer in New York and had met his girlfriend Sara Driver, who’s also a filmmaker. She approached me, and I got involved in
Stranger Than Paradise, which starred my 86-year-old grandmother, among other people. She plays Aunt Lotte. Some people think she steals the movie.

VW: Had you been practicing law long?

JS: About four or five years, doing mostly corporate litigation, trademark, contracts, intellectual property stuff. Jim and Sara needed help on this movie and they couldn’t afford to pay anybody. The last person Jim wanted to meet was a corporate lawyer, but we were both from Ohio, both Indians fans. We got along well and worked on the film together for a couple of years, which turned into a surprising success. He made some others I was involved in—
Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth—and then made somewhat bigger films, where I wanted to stay doing what I was doing. I’ve worked with a number of different directors since.

VW: Did you always have aspirations to work in film?

JS: I took film classes as a teenager. I was very interested in European films, much more than American films. I spent a week at USC until I realized that, at that point, there was no use in getting a film degree. So I returned to New York and went to law school.

VW: Once into film, were you happy producing or hoping to be involved more creatively?

JS: I enjoyed being involved in the process of making movies, particularly starting at the beginning. Some I’ve had more creative involvement in, some less. I had a tiny bit of creative involvement in
Stranger and Down By Law, but as time went on Jim insisted that he make all the creative decisions. With other directors, I’ve been more involved in terms of casting, editing or, in a couple of cases, writing. My entrée into this was through being able to organize things and get the money, push the project through to completion, which is often the hardest part.

VW: Cold Fever was your first screenplay. How did that come about?

Mystery Train was invited to the Reykjavík Film Festival. Jim, not being a big Festival guy, didn’t want to go, but I’d always been fascinated by Iceland, so we asked if they’d invite the producer. They would have taken the gaffer, because not so many people come up to Iceland, so off I went. The airport’s about 40 minutes outside Reykjavík, and the landscape is this sort of unbelievable moonscape of lava fields. I’d never seen anything like it. For somebody who does road movies, it was like a billion dollars in free production design. By the time I got into town I really wanted to make a movie there. I’d enjoyed working with Masatoshi Nagase on Mystery Train and somehow these two ideas got entwined in my head: I thought, I’m going to do a movie about a Japanese guy who comes to Iceland and goes on the road! Anyway, I had a good experience collaborating with Fridrik Fridriksson, but that was my only writing experience until I met Bent Hamer, who already had this idea to film Charles Bukowski’s Factotum.

VW: The novel’s quite episodic. Was it an arduous adaptation?

JS: The biggest challenge was to give the film multiple layers. When you read the book, it’s just full of ironic observations; if you take away the descriptions, and just show what’s going on, you don’t get a feeling for this man’s keen intelligence. That’s why we inserted the poetry, which is largely from sources other than

VW: What about updating the novel from the ‘40s to the present?

JS: It’s funny. I had people telling me nobody drinks anymore, it should be about drugs. Well, these people don’t get out much. I remember the last night we were shooting in a rooming house, and as I was sitting on this very decrepit furniture in the hall, these people would come out, use the communal toilet and go back into their tiny rooms, living very much the life Bukowski was describing. When we took a break, somebody came in and stole all our liquor bottles.

VW: The sense of alcoholism and loneliness is addressed quite differently in Factotum than it is in Barfly (the 1987 film written by Bukowski). I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with Hamer being from Norway, where alcoholism is less veiled in the culture.

JS: Probably. I drink very little, but Bent, as you pointed out, comes from a society where drinking’s very much the norm. He was fascinated from the beginning about alcoholism and what it takes to stay there, the work involved.

VW: Did Bukowski’s concerns resonate with you?

JS: I was very admiring of his style. I wasn’t as attracted to the lifestyle, as many fans of his are. Neither Bent nor I were Bukowski fanatics, and I’ve run into a bunch of those since we started with this. We had our own take on it. For me, what was most interesting was this need of Bukowski’s to reject all of the trappings of bourgeois society, not to have a house, not to have a job, not to have a relationship, because all of these things will interfere with and cheapen your art, that to be a real artist means to be an outsider.

Factotum premiered in spring 2005, finally opened in US theatres in autumn 2006, and, as we speak, is still making the rounds. Is it draining to sit through this protracted process of watching a film get distributed?

JS: Well, people think that everything that happens in a movie happens on the set, but that’s not making the movie. It’s the year or two or more before, the script, the casting, pre-production, financing. Then a year of post-production, editing, sound, all the technical work to get a finished print. Then it circulates for a year, year-and-a-half, sometimes more. Canada’s not the last country. I think they’re waiting for
Factotum in Japan. Then there’s licensing, DVD, and later re-licensing ... it goes on forever. But it’s always been this way. It’s just a little harder now. You just have to get out there, try and get people to see it, to be interested in it, because no one’s going to do it for you. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: male virility as phantom presence in Peckinpah's wounded, insane sort of masterwork

The “savage poetry” that Martin Scorsese says he finds in the work of the legendary director Sam Peckinpah is attributed most commonly to more popular genre films like
The Wild Bunch, but the term takes on a deeper, stranger meaning when applied to Peckinpah’s crazy and altogether fascinating 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The film wasn’t well-received in its time, but has come to be regarded as perhaps the director’s most personal and fearlessly conceived project. (Perhaps it now occupies the same place in Peckinpah’s oeuvre that Vertigo does in Alfred Hitchcock’s. The film certainly looms large over Tommy Lee Jones' wonderful recent directorial effort The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.) It’s the sort of work that seems all the stronger and more complex because of its flaws, obsessions, reveries and digressions. And it reveals Peckinpah’s conflicted attitudes toward violence, machismo, power and especially women more nakedly than his other movies. There is at base a sense of the artist attempting, however crudely, to lay his troubled heart bare.

Like previous Peckinpah films,
Alfredo Garcia concerns rape and revenge, blood and money, and takes place in a milieu where women are alternately humanized and humiliated. It takes a quintessential loser—Benny (Warren Oates), an American piano player in a seedy Mexico City bar—and places him in a position which grants him bargaining power and the promise of previously undreamed-of riches, and yet none of his choices ultimately work in his favour. He learns of a bounty placed on the titular Garcia, a notorious womanizer responsible for impregnating the daughter of a powerful, mysterious figure (played by Emilio Fernandez, a filmmaker apparently more insane than Peckinpah), and shortly thereafter finds that Garcia has even seduced Benny’s girl Elita (Isela Vega). Unbeknownst to his pursuers, Garcia has since died in an accident. Benny patches things up with Elita and decides to track down Garcia’s corpse, dismember it, and bring his head to those seeking it personally, so he can collect the reward. But among such hardened criminals, Benny, the diminutive gringo, is far out of his element.

Alfredo Garcia becomes, among other things, one of Peckinpah’s thinly veiled studies of male virility. Benny’s so concerned with conquering his own sense of impotence that he ironically places the woman he loves in grave danger. In scenes that utterly define the tone of the film, once Benny comes into contact with Garcia’s decapitated head, he begins conversing with it, partially out of respect for Garcia’s famed ability to please women (even Benny’s). Yet despite all this, Benny’s love for Elita feels real and often moving. Both are damaged figures invested with great emotional idiosyncrasy by the performers. Oates, one of the great faces in American movies, especially gives a marvelous performance, partly an imitation of Peckinpah himself (though, especially in voice and posture, he reminded me a lot of Tom Waits in his late-’80s incarnation). He’s so uniquely funny, tenderly transparent, weirdly sympathetic, this dust-caked, poor man's knight errant with the receding hairline in his one ugly white suit, the oversized sunglasses that he even wears to bed, and the pitiful tough-guy poses he fumblingly strikes around the heavies.

Life is cheap in
Alfredo Garcia (the sadistic slaughter of an entire grieving family is only one of the film’s horrors), but it is nonetheless abundant, with rural Mexico in all its genuine colour, character and squalour (the selection of beat-to-shit jalopies in this movie is slyly hilarious in itself) filling the background. At times you’re not sure how it all fits together, and the film’s controversial scene in which a potential rape victim sympathizes with her attacker is, to say the very least, deeply unsettling and just maybe not much more than stupid. But Peckinpah was never interested in moral clarity; instead, in Alfredo Garcia, we seem him ruthlessly stripping away every last pretence of honour, order and causality from the action movie genre. Jim Kitses calls it a western, which I'll happily buy, so long as the sunset we ride off into is sapped of any and all sentimentality. 

Monday, May 26, 2008

The protracted, self-conscious assimilation of an established aesthetic in the realization of an extremely interesting merging of history and myth

To draw back the curtain of myth while simultaneously exploiting its allure, mining it for its commentary on what it says about our participation in myth-building: this is something a great western can do beautifully. Westerns have a special ability to be romantic and iconoclastic at once. Sam Peckinpah pulled off this particular feat at least three times, though in doing so, he seems to have helped kill off the genre for nearly everyone trying to follow his example.

Even ardent fans can probably count on their digits the number of great westerns to have appeared on the frontier since those heady 1970s. Maybe that’s why Andrew Dominik’s sophomore feature seems so intent on invoking that period in his grandiose adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford –though it would surely have benefited from a more modest approach. Dominik’s rustling prairies and half-mumbled reveries owe a debt to Terrence Malick that simply can’t be paid through these protracted misadventures into formal fidgeting and half-digested philosophy.

I figure I’m actually the target audience for
The Assassination. A story about a strange kid strangely obsessed with his hero, gradually coming to a place where he eclipses him by consuming him, a story loosely told in painterly Albertan landscapes and enigmatically detailed scenes of stark, awkward violence –I generally gobble this stuff up. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s shot by Roger Deakins and scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (Cave even appears in the film, singing the same tune as that hapless minstrel in Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James, a movie that's pretty much the exact opposite of The Assassination in every way imaginable.) Yet maybe its because the film has so much going for it that it continually annoyed me so. There’s such poetry inherent in the material, such talent involved, that it should have been much better.

The film’s voice-over is risibly redundant, frequently telling us precisely what the actors are doing on screen, albeit in the purple prose of antiquated literature. Every time Dominik ended another self-consciously pretty scene with another fade to black, only to open on another very pretty scene with Vaseline around the edge of the lens and yet more voice-over, I think I actually slapped my head in wonder that someone could work so hard to kill the momentum of a picture.

Pretty too is Brad Pitt as James, a not-too present presence who sort of pops up now and then to look groomed and tormented or bully somebody around. At one point he sadistically beats a little boy and then cries afterwards. More interesting is Casey Affleck’s Ford, who at least is effortlessly convincing as a twerp. There’s a memorable, tremendously creepy moment where Ford lists all of the things he believes he has in common with James. But the film’s most appealing performance is arguably that of Paul Schneider, whose tenure with David Gordon Green has given him the chops to give a genuinely rascally reading of a line like “They say when a woman’s on fire you’re supposed to roll her around on the ground and cover her up with your body!”

There are, to be sure, certain moments and ideas in
The Assassination I won’t forget for some time. The thing is, rather than making me want to go back and see the movie again, almost every one of them make me want to just read Hansen’s book.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Proposition: Hillcoat and Cave renovate the western, conjure devils in the outback, get spooky, poetic, violent as all hell

Set in the 1880s Australian outback, The Proposition shakes the dormant Western genre to life from its opening shoot-out, in which the ear-shattering pings of bullets perforating a tin shack echo amongst hysterical cries and bodies shudder below shafts of scalding sun in fear and maybe some kind of demented ecstasy. This is the colonial nightmare unfiltered, moulded by a loose but lean narrative shape and mined for the sort of savage poetry that allows us to recognize it as being very much about our conflicted human souls.

“I will civilize this place,” proclaims local authority Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) once this chaos subsides, revealing no hint of irony as he viciously pistol-whips whimpering young Mike Burns (Richard Wilson) and offers Mike’s older bother Charlie (Guy Pearce) the ultimatum of journeying into the godforsaken hills to assassinate eldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or else condemn Mike to death: this is the cruel proposition of the title. The Burns clan are Irish outlaws in a lawless land, murderers and rapists the lot, and a smear on the dream of expanding the British Empire into this country otherwise inhabited solely by men regarded by the enlightened invaders as less than animals.

The Proposition is only the third feature in as many decades from director John Hillcoat, and it fits thematically into his small but distinctive body of work, intelligently dealing as it does with how the mechanics of state violence and control shape communities. As for writer Nick Cave, though he contributed to Hillcoat’s 1988 prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, The Proposition marks the proper screenwriting debut of singer-songwriter, and through this fresh collaboration the best in each becomes manifest. The work is both historically and politically sophisticated, and also infused with the Old Testament poetry and fatalistic romanticism that distinguishes Cave as one of the finest, most unapologetically literary lyricists alive (evident not only in Cave’s Joseph Conrad-inspired script but also in the whispery, eerily desolate score supplied by Cave and Bad Seed/Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis).

There is a brutally clear beginning and end to The Proposition, bridged by a stream of evocative middle. With context and complexity of character supplying our sense of penetrating deeper into the film’s heart of darkness, atmosphere equals story here—what’s so memorable are often moments of reverie that linger between bursts of violence, details like the branches twisted into arthritic claws by sun and thirst, flies blanketing the backs of witnesses to an almost bleakly comical, seemingly endless public lashing, or the delicate surfaces of the fine china and English rose garden treasured by Stanley’s wife Martha (Emily Watson), the film’s lone woman and one source of its scattered moments of genuine tenderness.

No one’s left uncompromised yet neither is even the most aberrant character drawn without some trace of humanity, the marvellous cast deserving much credit. Winstone’s Stanley, red face and black eyes pinned down into glistening watermelon seeds, seems hopelessly numbed to human suffering but is consoled by Martha’s pride and the innocence he tries to maintain in her through keeping her isolated from the wretched town he oversees. Huston’s devil crouched in the wilderness seems to have no difficulty reconciling his acts of malice with his love of poetry, nature and the family that drives him literally to tears. And Pearce’s soul-drained searcher, tortured, resurrected, betrayed by his master and abandoned to an even deeper loneliness than is suffered by the others, is the actor at his finest, bringing a ragged humanity to an archetype rendered far more obliquely in the spaghetti westerns of the ’60s.

I can’t think of anything like
The Proposition out there these days—but then I’m not sure anyone ever made movies quite like this. It’s funny—and inspiring—how a dead genre can still bring out the best in some of our best filmmakers, Hillcoat, Jarmusch, Eastwood, et al.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Drugs and movies: getting high, coming down, wigging out, and managing the addiction

Is film the most potent art for relaying drug experiences? Its hypnotic, fluid, unprecedented fusion of sound, image, movement and forced perspective certainly feels aligned to some essence of the stream of consciousness, even to dreaming. But where drugs are concerned, I have to wonder if movies don’t get closer to the heart of the matter when they show restraint in how they use their multiform tools and effects.

Once you begin to survey movies that deal in drugs, it becomes clear that the medium’s generally most forceful when it evokes rather than illustrates. When filmmakers attempt to recreate hallucinations, the results are often malnourished or silly. But there are plenty of movies that approach drug states—of mind, body and soul—in thoughtful, inventive or insightful ways. For some reason most of them are American.

Is drug use a distinctly American movie theme? The numbers would have us think so. And there are certain American faces that keep reappearing in drug movies (or at least doing drugs in regular movies): Dennis Hopper, Max Perlich, Chloë Sevigny, Dean Stockwell, Roy Scheider, Keanu Reeves, Peter Fonda, Johnny Depp, William Hurt. Why these actors? Is it something written on their faces, something suspicious etched in their crooked smiles or glassy eyes? I wonder.

It’s these faces, captured in a moment of transition from relative sobriety to relative inebriation, that prompt my richest memories of delving into cinema’s drug state: Scheider’s Joe Gideon in
All That Jazz (1979) snorting a line to trigger “Showtime,” Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (86) inhaling some unnamed gas before changing into the scariest babbling stoner in the history of movies. Just thinking about these moments gives me a chill and a thrill.

Movies make a pretty good drug in themselves. The duration changes from film to film, but you can always split if you start tripping out. They can take a while to come down from, but generally cause no hangover. They are, however, potentially addictive, and encompass an impressive variety of experiences and perspectives.

Freaking Out

Some guy on acid attacking a pony-tailed Jack Nicholson with power tools in
Psych-Out (68), Rudy Ray Moore flipping out on angel dust at the loopy finale of Avenging Disco Godfather (80), Al Pacino wielding machine guns in Scarface (80), Richard E Grant turning his eyeballs into bulgy little rocks and definitely not staying cool in Withnail & I (87), William Hurt turning into a goddamned goat-eating monkey in Altered States (80): there’s no end to what the movies can tell us about bad trips. Such scenes smear together in my foggy memories of drug movies, but the films as a whole don’t necessarily propose any particular take on the role of drugs in our lives. To do that, it might be best to ease into things, to start with something mellow before digging into the heavy stuff.

Feeling Groovy

If pot is arguably the least harmful of illegal substances, the movies have, over a long period of diminishing hysteria, responded with stories that neither overtly praise nor condemn a pot-smoking lifestyle but rather use it for inspired comedic fodder. In this regard, while it’s not much of a movie overall,
How High (2001) has given us one of the most brilliant pot-based premises, with Redman and Method Man smoking their dead friend’s ashes in order to summon up his ghost, who then materializes to help them to ace their entrance exams for Harvard.

A far more esteemed if equally hazy ballad for blunt-smokers is, of course,
The Big Lebowski (1998). What lazy bliss is conjured up in the tumbling of tumbleweeds, the gliding of bowling balls, and Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” where rock’s most revered wordsmith is never so pleasing as when he just sings “la-la-la-la, la-da-da-da-da-da-da.” No one would mistake Jeff Bridges’ Dude—a guy who lights candles in the bath and splays out in the floor to listen to tapes of old bowling matches—for a go-getter protagonist, yet how much more satisfying that his clumsy apathy actually aids instead of inhibits him in his playing detective.

The Mark Inside

Things get weird fast in drug movies, but they can also prove to resonate as metaphors. In The Addiction (95), the drug is already inside you: it’s blood. Shot in a black and white that seems to saturate the urban grime, Abel Ferrara’s NYC vampire film is a thinly veiled allegory of junkie agony, treating addiction itself like a contagious virus. Everybody in this movie spouts existentialist philosophy: it’s terrifically pretentious, highly body conscious and surprisingly unnerving. Lily Taylor writhes on the floor a long time before pushing the limits of consent in her desperate search for a bloody fix. Christopher Walken, a veteran bloodsucker, shows up to advise her on coming to terms with being undead. He’s in the William S Burroughs role of the wise old junkie —he even cites Naked Lunch.

In fact, the shadow of Burroughs looms over a number of drug films, but none so much as David Cronenberg’s wildly inventive interpretation of Burroughs’s most famous novel.
Naked Lunch (91) hasn’t a single recognizable drug in it, but, drawing upon Burroughs’s biography as liberally as from his fiction, it conveys the most complex and harrowing closed circuit of addiction and eternal return in movies. Peter Weller is trapped is a cycle of sexual repression, schizophrenic disassociation, murder and dependency. The sense of unreality is beautifully heightened by the use of soundstages and the refusal to give any physical object a fixed appearance. And as the eloquently staged, chilling final sequence makes clear, the whole thing’s really about the birth of an artist and the devastating price to be paid for one’s muse.

The Palace of Wisdom

Life after drugs is rarely glamorous.
Drugstore Cowboy (89) gives us a nice primer right in its opening moments: Matt Dillon, resigned to a new life with no woman and no dope, working in a machine shop, his beatific face calmly recalling how he found himself in the back of this ambulance, while Abbie Lincoln sings “For All We Know” in her strange, staggered cadence and Super 8 reminiscences flicker melancholically on screen. The tone is elegant, eccentric and bittersweet.

Is it any surprise that Burroughs eventually turns up here, too? Seeing the man in the flesh gives
Drugstore Cowboy that extra tinge of authority, the slow steady way Burroughs turns in his seat to recognize Dillon, those small but lucid eyes that never seem to change in expression, that insect-like body. Walking with Dillon in the overcast daylight of Portland, Burroughs is an unforgettable presence, and it’s as though Gus Van Sant was suddenly making a documentary.

The Big Picture

Evocatively ungrounded in its floaty animation,
A Scanner Darkly (2006) is inspired by that other great voice of authority on dope in American letters. Paranoid and somewhat dysfunctional, Philip K Dick was very likely schizophrenic, yet his troubled mind was still organized and intelligent enough to work as a virtual conduit for a larger phenomenon of collective psychic malaise. Like Cronenberg did with Burroughs, and like Terry Gilliam did with Hunter S Thompson in the supremely drug-addled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Richard Linklater channeled Dick’s spirit as much as he did the source novel in bringing shape and sharpness to A Scanner Darkly, which proposes to reveal the US as a vast drug-pushing machine, thrusting Keanu Reeve’s narc into a maddening house of mirrors, assigned to spy on himself before the drugs in his system finally reach critical mass.

Where movies can take us with regards to drugs now is ambiguous. The subject has been explored from an impressive variety of angles in the last few decades, yet there are as many drug experiences as there are drug-takers, and those who take drugs, whether for transcendence or escape, don’t seem to be diminishing in number. No doubt there will be new stories to tell, new revelations to share, and with any luck, some of them will still sound good after the high has worn off.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Breach and the delicious duplicity of Chris Cooper

He’s played a hard-ass retired US Colonel and ball-busting father choking with unfulfilled homosexual desires that yield murderous impulses. He’s played a hunter of rare plants, deeply unsavoury, a quintessential outsider, yet the secret lover of Meryl Streep. He’s played a candidate for the Colorado governorship, grammatically challenged, neo-conservative, seemingly modelled after Dubya. He’s got thin lips, fried egg eyes, and can easily embody the pappy who never hits you but wields the threat always. These facts beg the question: who is this Chris Cooper guy, and can we trust him?

Clearly, the answer is no, and that’s precisely why its difficult to imagine Breach working as marvellously as it does without Cooper. He can be anybody in a way that keeps audiences unnerved, thus he’s so damn good as Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent convicted of treason in 2001 for selling US secrets for $1.4 million, an expert on Russian intelligence for 25 years before becoming the biggest traitor in US history.

Our first glimpse has him clutching a rosary in church: an instant acknowledgement of culpability in a movie so loaded with suspicion. Hanssen’s a devoted Catholic who loves playing with the grandkids. He doesn’t like to see woman in pantsuits. “The world doesn’t need another Hilary Clinton,” he sighs. He also seems to have a fondness for porn, especially when his wife’s the star. It’s this little vice that allows the Feds to assign Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe) to spy on Hanssen without knowing the reality of the charges against him, thus becoming close to this conservative but weirdly charismatic man.

This is dream material for director Billy Ray, who explored another real-life double life with equal panache in Shattered Glass, his film about the boy wonder journalist who wrote dozens of fraudulent pieces for The New Republic before getting caught. Ray and co-writers Adam Mazer and William Rotko build suspense with tremendous confidence considering we know how it’s going to end.

Cooper is Ray’s biggest coup, but Laura Linney, as the Fed leading the investigation, is just as good. She’s tough: the way she slides a pager across a table at O’Neil when she could have easily handed it to him; the way she rarely moves a superfluous muscle. Phillipe is doomed to being less impressive in such company, but he keeps his performance clean and convinces, crucially so in the scenes where we see him develop reverence for Hanssen (O’Neil, schooled by Jesuits, had a soft spot for Jesus people). 

Breach opened last year, the same week as Ghost Rider, and it sort of vanished without making much of a dent at the box office. In any case, without a major star at its centre or shit blowing up, it probably never had much of a chance, and it’s a shame. It’s a very satisfying thriller.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In the neighbourhood: John Sayles and Maggie Renzi on Honeydripper, sense of place, and not moving to Canada

John Sayles has made 19 features over the last three decades and he’s made them the hard way, which in most cases is hopefully also the fun way, the way of unexpected inspiration, and of richer rewards. Sayles’ method of filmmaking strips the cloudiness and the confusion away from the term ‘independent.” His films are genuinely built from the ground up. Sometimes they’re sublime, sometimes they don’t entirely work, but they’re always the real thing.

Sayles and his producer Maggie Renzi have already spent months on the road, going from one community to another, promoting Honeydripper, a drama set in Harmony, Alabama in 1950, where, amidst news from Korea and perpetual tensions between the white and black side of the tracks, rhythm and blues is about to plug in and rock and roll about to spill forth, sputtering its first earthly breaths. I spoke with Sayles and Renzi—an inspiring, imminently down-to-earth couple who’ve stuck it out as partners and collaborators for more than 30 years—during their stop in Toronto. Renzi emphasized just how much they were depending on Honeydripper’s success to keep their spirits up and keep them making movies in an increasingly difficult climate.

“It was in 2004, right after Silver City was released and died a miserable death,” Renzi explains. “George Bush was back in for another four years. It was really a terrible low point for both of us and many of our countrymen. And instead of just saying, that’s it, we’re not making any more movies, let’s move to Canada, John said, ‘I have this idea about a guy who runs a club in the South in the 50s, and he does anything he needs to do to save his club, and that means he’s got to move along.’ And I thought, he hasn’t given up. It’s a great thing to make a movie about a middle-aged man moving along when you could be just brought to your knees, which is pretty well where we were.”

The character in question is Tyrone Purvis, whose place of business—the Honeydripper music club of the title—is on its last legs. He’s in debt. He can’t get liquor. The club across the way is draining Tyrone’s clientele with a louder, much cheaper source of entertainment called the jukebox. He’s about to be forcibly taken over by some moneymen and the local, lazy, racist white sheriff isn’t about to help him out. His daughter is sick and his wife is fed up… Sounds like a blues song, doesn’t it?

Tyrone still has a few good musicians at his disposal, including himself on piano, but their sound is rapidly becoming antique. Desperation pushes him to pour whatever funds he can raise into bringing in Guitar Sam, some dude in a flashy suit who plays some kinda amplified guitar. Tyrone’s hubris is his integrity, yet he’s not above trickery and theft to keep going. And there’s some story about his past that no one talks about, one that puts him in a very sinister light. It is among the film’s greatest strengths that Tyrone is played by Danny Glover, who wrangles all of these contradictions into a single living portrait of a no-longer-young man at the crossroads.

“The genesis of the story really comes out of the music,” Sayles explains, “from me growing up in the 50s, listening to top 40 rock and roll radio, which was pretty good, but then slowly finding my way to blues and gospel, which made me work backwards. I realized that rock and roll came from some place. The driving question in this is when did these disparate threads turn into rock and roll and why, which got me to researching the history of the first electric guitar. I started to think what that must have done to the music. Life was getting noisier and faster, so the music was going to change.”

Honeydripper’s other central protagonist is Sonny Blake, a radio repairman in the war who read an article about Les Paul in Popular Electronics and decided to make his own electric guitar. Sonny is riding to rails to nowhere in particular when he finds himself in Harmony and meets Tyrone—and his lovely daughter—just before getting sentenced to picking cotton for the county for doing nothing in the wrong place. As very charming as it often is, Honeydripper is decidedly not a story of great suspense, so I’m not ruining much by telling you that fate will slowly conspire so that young Sonny and his newfangled contraption will eventually ally themselves with Tyrone and his club.

Sayles attempts to wed myth and archetype—ie: the spooky mystical blind guitar-playing oracle played by Keb Mo, or Mary Steenburgen’s pickled belle—to naturalism is at times awkward, and his immersion in the Southern black vernacular makes for some strained, stagey-sounding dialogue (though Glover’s monologue about the first African-American to dare to tinkle on his master’s piano is absolutely riveting). But, besides the performances, and, of course, the music, what keeps Honeydripper compelling is how thoroughly it’s rooted in culture, place and people. As with many of Sayles films, it is the loving attention to detail, the heartfelt investment in ordinary lives being lived against the broader backdrop of history, that distinguishes the work and imbues it with sufficient vivacity.

“In other films,” explains Renzi, “so often there’s no real setting, no real time, no real sense of geography. The history of the place doesn’t figure into the story. Whereas what John does is take you right into that neighbourhood, lets you walk around, and the story grows out of that. Otherwise Honeydripper’s a pretty girl and a guy who plays a guitar—an Elvis movie, basically.” Both Sayles and Renzi have a good chuckle at this. Needless to say, Honeydripper’s all-black—and unanimously gifted—cast also gives it a little something extra you don’t find in Elvis movies.

“It’s been fun touring with this movie,” Renzi says, “seeing how warmly audiences, especially Southern and African-American audiences, have responded to it, and seeing their affection for John’s work in general. The people we’ve shown it to, they all want to tell you about this one movie that was so important to them. Often it’s Matewan, sometimes City of Hope or Eight Men Out. But it does seem like in nearly every case what people respond to are the particulars.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening: the literary movie, its splendour, and its limits

There’s no mistaking Starting Out in the Evening for anything but a very literary-minded film. There is, rather refreshingly, no sense of apology whatsoever for this from its director Andrew Wagner. The film opens and closes with its protagonist, septuagenarian novelist Leonard Schiller (the marvelous Frank Langella), seated with stony concentration before a typewriter, one thick hand closed around the other, patiently waiting for the conditions, at once familiar and mysterious, to arrange themselves in his mind and body, for that crisp moment that allows him to start his daily work. It is a moment recognizable to any writer, but it also plays with surprising clarity on the screen to a general audience. In these visual bookends is the implication that it is only with Leonard’s intake of breath and the pounding of text onto paper that this particular film can begin and end.

Based on the novel by Brian Morton, and adapted by Wagner and his co-scripter Fred Parnes, Starting Out in the Evening is elegiac, frequently elegant, and, by its very literariness, perhaps a bit cloistered in a world apart from most movies. It is a film in which two of the three central characters, all of them New Yorkers, all of them very comfortable, live their lives passionately for books. Indeed, they converse about everything, even their most conflicted feelings, with a certain formality, a declaratory, almost didactic bookishness. You might say they speak like characters in a Woody Allen movie, except they’re not very funny. For all that, they do feel real. They’re feelings feel real. Their stories are very adult. And, despite a few stumbles here and there, the whole thing is not only intellectually stimulating but also quite moving. Yet, sadly, is it any wonder such a film barely made the rounds in today’s climate of movie distribution? Hopefully, Starting Out in the Evening will find a new life on DVD.

Leonard is visited by one Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a young, gifted female student looking for his participation in the development of her doctoral thesis on his work. She petite but strikingly sexy. She has a mane of red hair that frames a round face and large eyes that fix on Leonard like he’s the only person in whatever room. She’s clearly in love of a sort, but also very tough and uncompromising in her attack on his small oeuvre—his first novel changed her life, while the subsequent ones she finds increasingly soft.

Leonard, a long-time widower living in a large but fragile body, is a man whose spent decades carefully nurturing a lifestyle that courts no surprises and is devoted to work. Heather seems set to revive something in him long forgotten, something perhaps connected to some missing vitality in his work. But don’t let the set-up fool you. Both characters go far beyond facile April-December archetypes, things do not wrap up so neatly, there is no wish fulfillment waiting to be enacted, lives are stirred and shifted to be sure, but sweeping changes do not come easy to these people, while betrayal and adoration prove to be close neighbours. Most importantly, Starting Out in the Evening defies the tired notion that art can be reduced by the values of a single age group, a single critical perspective, or of a single era.

There is another woman in Leonard’s life to help thicken the plot. Ariel (Lili Taylor) is Leonard’s daughter, not a literary type but a yoga instructor and once a dancer. She’s pushing 40, wants a baby something fierce, but has serious problems with long-term relationships. After failing at tricking a current boyfriend into unknowing paternity, she goes back to a precarious lover from her past, one disapproved of by Leonard. As terrific and utterly unique an actor as Taylor is, Ariel’s subplot does expose some of the more blatantly artificial mechanics at work in the film, her emotional ups and downs and healing process with her ex are approached rather preciously by Wagner, and they often seem to weigh down Leonard’s story unnecessarily, which is itself more than rich enough for one movie. In short, the breadth of Ariel’s presence in the film does in fact feel like a device more in keeping with a novel than a film.

Starting Out in the Evening works best when most immediate, when words are merely implied or are simply insufficient for even these articulate characters to express themselves, when talking ceases and body language takes over: a brush of fingers on lips, a little wave across a crowded room, a hovering hand over a prone, fully clothed body. In such scenes Langella exhibits a titanic presence, embodying so much while doing so little. Thus it is finally the moments of silent or near-silent connection, as well of those where connections suddenly snap harshly, are the ones that make this film worth watching. They also make Wagner a filmmaker to watch, and make you wonder if Langella, in the “evening” of his acting career, might not just be reaching his heights of grace.

Monday, May 12, 2008

On fiction, formats and forgotten gems: Millipede Press revives The Deadly Percheron, The Tenant

When we talk about vintage pulp fiction, we talk about how it’s presented. We actually refer to it by its published format. There are purists who scoff at the re-packaging of pulp fiction in prestige editions, the idea being that you’re not getting the full experience if you read Rendezvous in Black or The Postman Always Rings Twice or Dark Passage on acid-free paper bound in leather. The argument is simultaneously compelling and degrading. There is indeed something appealing about consuming material deemed lowbrow or excessively sanguine by the elite in the same cheap, disposable paperbacks as their original consumers. But those original paperbacks now sell for luxury prices. Ironically, they are now valuable antiques. Furthermore, if this material is worth revisiting, if it may even be great literature, then why shouldn’t it be reprinted in formats designed to endure? Why let these books perish in the literary ghetto?

I discovered the great hard-boiled pulps I’ve grown to adore in the gaudy but sturdily bound Black Lizard trade paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s—editions that have now also become collector’s items. I still regularly scour used bookstores trying to hunt down some new-to-me title in this noble imprint, only to balk at the price. In the end, all I really care about is being able to actually read these books, to have the opportunity to find forgotten gems and keep the established masterpieces available to all. So I was very happy to recently discover Millipede Press, a publisher out of Lakewood, Colorado, who’ve been resurrecting some superb crime fiction in editions that run the gamut from limited edition deluxe boxed hardcovers to trades that’ll only put you out about $13.

I’d never heard of The Deadly Percheron, not of its author John Franklin Bardin. It was Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the new introduction to Millipede’s reprint, and that got me intrigued. The Deadly Percheron, originally published in 1946, is a masterwork of amnesia fiction, a genre Lethem coined and defined in The Vintage Book of Amnesia, his anthology featuring the likes of Nabokov, Murakami and, of course, Lethem's beloved Philip K. Dick. Lethem wanted to include The Deadly Percheron in the anthology in its entirety, but for obvious reasons this proved impractical. Thanks to Millipede however, it has a new life.

A psychiatrist interviews a new patient who tells him of leprechauns who pay him to perform strange antics. The psychiatrist accompanies the patient to a bar to meet one of his employers, who turns out to be, apparently, nothing more than a fanciful midget. But that very night an actress is murdered and the patient becomes a suspect. The psychiatrist tries to help, but soon finds himself led into the New York subway and knocked unconscious. Next thing he knows he’s in a mental hospital, badly scarred, and taken for a tramp. Months have passed. The man he used to be is reportedly dead, his widow moved away. Gradually the one-time shrink comes to accept his new identity and lives an exceedingly humble life as a soda jerk working the graveyard shift in some Coney Island joint. He’s oddly content. Until his past catches up with him…

The finale is a little too wrapped up, disappointing in the way the finales of a lot of great film noirs are disappointing—but the getting-there is more than worth it. I can recall very few stories where the labyrinth of amnesia is more fraught with strange detours of multiple meaning. The scene in which the hero feels he’s being chased down a dark street: is he being chased by his past self? The rumpled nighthawk with whom this once respectable professional takes up with: is she really just another factor in his transient life or in fact the embodiment of a repressed desire to flee his “real” life? The Deadly Percheron feels less like conventional crime fiction than a precursor to the films of David Lynch.

Roland Topor’s The Tenant, originally published in 1964, a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I first saw Roman Polanski’s wickedly disturbing film version, has also received the Millipede treatment in an edition featuring the author’s enigmatic illustrations, some long out-of-print short stories, and an introduction by Thomas Ligotti. It it’s way, The Tenant is also a sort of amnesia tale, its protagonist gradually losing his sense of identity until it becomes fully fused with that of the suicidal woman who’d previously inhabited his two-room Paris apartment. Written with cool detachment, the narrative trajectory recalls Paul Bowles’ ‘A Distant Episode,’ with the considerable difference that the true culprits behind the protagonist’s psychological breakdown remain entirely ambiguous to the very end.

Our protagonist initially seems exceedingly normal, only slowly revealing Kafkaesque tendencies toward self-appointed guilt and sexual anxiety. The imagery surrounding his sense of being persecuted is uniformly vaginal: the oval bathroom window he watches from his apartment; the single eye visible on the face of the heavily bandaged previous tenant, and her screaming mouth; holes hidden in walls and doors with doors; everywhere cavities await and threaten. Topor’s narrative feels at once inevitable and lined with shock, a chilling exploration of mental corrosion and how we come to terms with what constitutes self. In an inspired choice, Millipede’s edition features a Topor illustration of a figure without a face.

Redbelt: David Mamet flexes his muscles, acknowledges the old masters, kicks pretty good ass

“There is no situation from which you cannot escape,” promises earnest jujitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the instantly engaging opening scene of Redbelt. It’s a promise Terry plans to exemplify to the last, and it simultaneously signifies the ballsy promise of writer/director David Mamet’s tenth feature, a taut, inventive, wildly convoluted little thriller that operates unapologetically by the tried and true rules of old Hollywood, the sort of movie that thinks nothing of spelling out its theme right from the start. In fact, it spells it out over and over. 

The story revolves around genuine, unwavering heroism struggling amidst universal corruption—the setting is Los Angeles, the bad guys are movie people—while the plot continually exploits bald artifice in the name of forward motion and an ever-tightening net. There is from start to finish no lack of panache, or jazzy craftsmanship, or conviction. Though people repeat themselves a hell of a lot, the dialogue bounces and pops and twists out incremental variations—it’s its own kind of martial art, full of bluster and wit so witty you’re not even sure it’s wit. 

At the heart of Redbelt’s crisp, clean functionality is a unity between the ideals of the hero and the filmmakers. Terry is a no-shit guy and, in this case at least, Mamet, greatly aided by cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), directs us a winsomely no-shit movie. Deception, slight-of-hand and conspiracy run rampant, things often strain to make any sense, but every wild reversal is finally earned and every scene plays out with exacting nimbleness. The conditions of the drama are laid out bluntly: Terry’s studio is in dire straits financially. His wife (Alicia Braga), who runs a fabric import business on the side, is getting fed up. The martial arts community knows Terry’s one of the best fighters and desires to lure him out of his non-aggressive, non-competitive stance and get him in the ring where the real money is.

It’s Terry’s good will that slowly gets him into trouble. He helps a drunk actor (Tim Allen) out of a potentially gruesome bar fight. He accepts a lucrative invite to consult on a movie. He tries to build up confidence in a whacked-out, drug-addicted lawyer (Emily Watson). He gives an expensive watch to a cop friend. Every gesture can seem either disastrous or benign, every new character a potential friend or enemy. Nothing, as they say, it what it seems. The pleasure comes in watching things unfold in the very bizarre causality of Mamet’s imagination.

When its mechanics are as respected and continually flexed as they are here, the particular brand of classicism to which Mamet adheres allows for a great deal of playfulness. Redbelt, fronted by the seemingly effortless nobility of Ejiofor’s performance, emerges naturally out of a cycle of fight movies like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (49)—yet the notion of an African-American mastering an Asian fighting discipline and exhibiting an anachronistic code of honour links Redbelt most interestingly to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (99). But the most notable difference between Mamet and Jarmusch’s vision of the world lies in their attitude toward the rewards of honour and the number of shades applied to those who betray honour. For Mamet, in the end, such matters become as black and white as the old movies he clearly worships, and our satisfaction arises from this implicit moral conviction. Put altogether, it may not be as sophisticated, but man, does it ever make for a knock-out finish.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man: welding unsubtle geo-politics to comic book logic feels pretty good

It starts with successive explosions of AC/DC and American-made firepower rocking an Afghan desert and features as its protagonist a wildly successful weapons manufacturer/war profiteer who recognizes his role in arming both first world imperialists and third world terrorists and, damnnit, develops a conscience. There’s something surprisingly comfortable in the imposition of an archipelago of overt—some might say opportunistic—political metaphor over an otherwise deeply conventional comic book super hero movie. Grafting our collective geo-political anxiety onto a story so rife with colour, intrigue and optimism goes down surprisingly easy, especially when lubricated with some rather ingenious casting.

Iron Man is utterly entertaining, and while it relies heavily on the less than plausible naiveté of its lead characters—“How did my weapons ever get in the hands of the bad guys?” our hero wonders—it’s still far more sophisticated than is strictly necessary, smartly incorporating the often cumbersome but apparently obligatory super hero origin story seamlessly into the film’s driving action. Half of the writing team was involved in Children of Men, and actor-turned-director Jon Favreau exhibits a winning playfulness and attention to nuance, but I have serious doubts if all this would have worked half as well without Robert Downey Jr. in the lead. Millionaire arms mogul Tony Stark is arrogant and appallingly oblivious to how the rest of the planet lives and dies, yet Downey imbues him with such charisma, nicely underplayed inner conflict—and, ultimately, moral conviction—that we’re more than ready to believe in his redemption.

Stark survives a near-death experience, is captured by your garden variety Middle Eastern insurgents, escapes by building the coolest suit of armour ever, then returns triumphantly to the US to eat cheeseburgers, get tender with his steady help-meet (Gwyneth Paltrow), and put his eponymous empire on hiatus, much to the displeasure of his cohort Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, back-slapping, bald, bearded and somewhat Ben Kingsleyish), a suspiciously ingratiating guy clearly more concerned with the bottom line. The parallels with real-life figures are writ large: one character stands in for Dick Cheney, another for Colin Powell. Before you know it the entire military-industrial complex is under attack from its prodigal son (who is of course far too heroic to possess a like corollary). All in all, between the fun and fibre, the whole package fits together quite nicely. Even the self-consciously snappy finale—cue the Sabbath—would feel wrong if it weren’t for its pithy message: unlike your average politician, Tony Stark will not lie to the American public.

Then She Found Me: it's never too late to be less bland

Age has arguably been pretty good to Helen Hunt. Founded on her television work, her star persona, whether sculpted by the actress or projected upon her, became most closely associated with safe, cute, likeably bland, Oscar-friendly, middle-brow, JC Penny earnestness, and with providing sturdy support to Hollywood big boys. Just survey the quartet of films she made in 2000, her zenith year—What Women Want, Cast Away, Pay It Forward, Dr T and the Women—was there room in any of these for Hunt to be anything but the patient, kind-hearted love interest to Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey or Richard Gere? It’s a wonder that in every case she still managed to leave an impression, to be above all resilient and genuinely affecting. For those who prefer their movies to with significantly more edge, Hunt became something like a guilty pleasure.

She seemed to have vanished from movies not long after, though the 2004 Oscar Wilde adaptation A Good Woman suggested that Hunt may be most appealing when duplicitous, dangerous, and not at all the girl next door. The movie itself had problems and did no business, but Hunt was suddenly in full bloom, playing a seductress-opportunist who actually managed to out-sex Scarlett Johansson. Hunt vanished again and is only now returning in a starring role, but this time on her own terms. Then She Found Me, adapted from Elinor Lipman’s novel by Hunt with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin, marks Hunt’s directorial debut, and while not a radical departure from her past work, her foray into this increasingly rare genre—the comedy for adults—does finally place her firmly in the spotlight and possesses an unusual maturity and depth.

Hunt plays April, a kindergarten teacher pushing 40, raised an orphan, and so painfully hungry to generate a child from her very own womb that malicious fate seems to bite her right in the ass as punishment. Her adoptive mother dies, her childish husband of less than a year (Matthew Broderick) ditches her, and the pathetic quickie break-up sex results in a very awkwardly timed pregnancy. To boot, her biological mother (Bette Midler) appears out of nowhere, a blowsy, affably obnoxious talk show host eager to suddenly be the mom she never was. There’s also a most precarious love interest (Colin Firth), a deeply neurotic single dad blessed with a wicked temper and lack of tact.

It’s all a bit much for one movie, though Hunt and her colleagues juggle reasonably well. There’s something admirable, if not especially inspired, about how drab it all is, and Hunt is anything but glamorized playing this very dowdy Jewess in shapeless skirts and sensible shoes. There are ill-chosen detours, especially when the characters begin discussing faith, and the odd eccentricity, such as casting Salman Rushdie as an OB-GYN. But Then She Found Me isn’t really meant to be all that tidy or crisp, working best when rigorously exploiting its rawness, exploring messy emotions, difficult choices, disappointments and frustrations, all of which are evoked most effectively in the scenes between Hunt and the equally talented Firth, which are often funny, plausibly crazy and touching.