Sunday, March 30, 2014

Once Upon A Time In The Wes

Some films are just so uniquely delightful that discussing them at great length would be disastrous to their charm. Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel is that kind of delightful. It’s like Lubitsch by way of Mack Sennett; it's like Wodehouse on champagne, with a painting called "Boy With Apple" in place of the Empress of Blandings.  Seriously: think visual operetta.

The story is told like it’s one of those Arabian nights tales that contain other stories that contain other stories. (In other words, classic ring composition.) A modern young woman goes to a cemetery to read a book. We see the author writing the book. Then we see the young author living the experience that created the book, which is a story told to him by another man, a story that happened to that man in his youth. And that story (with occasional flashes of the older narrator speaking to the young author) is all about a man called Gustave H (played with stratospheric charm by Ralph Fiennes). Then, at the movie’s close, the levels are reversed: we go from the young author to the old author to the young woman in the cemetery finishing the book, which is the story we’ve just seen.

And reading that you’re probably thinking: “Oh dear—too complicated, too intellectual,” but it’s not, it’s a delicately crafted confection which may appear to be all icing and sweets, but there’s a darkness under the surface, a darkness which is not glossed over but taken in stride, the way darkness is always taken in stride when we remember it happening, even though it tripped us up and made us bleed when it actually happened. The story is a layer-cake of memory. Time has made the past a colorful place where style wins out over barbarity, and kindness and decency can win you the friendship of both criminals and police. Until it doesn’t.

And when I say a colorful place, I’m not kidding. This film is gorgeous to look at. The colors, the composition—the cinematography and the art direction—the integration of animation and reality—all of them are exquisite. And the color wheel here is so specific that I swear to God I spent half the movie grinning like a little kid because all I could think of was this:

So yeah: go see this film. You’ll kvell for two hours, you’ll gasp at least one of the cameos (guaranteed), and you’ll walk out into the cold cruel world with a nice warm glow on the inside and a nice warm smile on the outside.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Question To The Answer

If life’s the answer, then where do I go
   To find the question?  Is it in the world,
That unforgiving carnal rodeo
   Where every lost soul’s either boyed or girled?
I know it’s not in me, because I’ve lied
   Too many times to myself to believe
A word I say—and when I look inside
   Myself, there’s nothing up my mental sleeve.
The only magic is out on the road.
   Maybe out there I’ll drink contentment’s cup
And since the things you seek become your code,
   That’s what I’ll live by when I saddle up
      And ride—ride boldly ride—until I find
      What I can never lose or leave behind.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

Quand ils eurent passé le port,
les fantômes virrent à leur recontre.

Once they had crossed the bridge,
the ghosts came to meet them.

God knows what it is, but there’s something about the Orpheus and Eurydice story that speaks to me. A guy dares hell and death to bring his dead love back to the world of the living, with one condition: he has to take it on faith that she’s there, he can’t look at her once before they see the light of day together or back she goes, she’ll be dead forever. And of course he looks. Personally, I will leave it to my ex-girlfriends to point out that I am fascinated by the story of a man who dares death for love, only to screw it up at the last minute by doing the one thing he’s been told not to do. Creatively, I will point out that I've written three plays and one long story on this theme. Which, artistically, means that I am the perfect target audience for Alain Resnais’ Eurydice movie, Vous N'avez Encore Rien Vu (You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet).

Combining two Anouilh plays (Eurydice and Cher Antoine, ou l'amour rate), the movie stars a who’s who of French actors, all of whom are introduced as themselves in the opening sequence, during which they are informed of the death of a director they know, and asked to come to his chateau for a special memorial service. The service turns out to be a videotape of the director praising their youthful work in a pair of productions of his play about Eurydice, and asking them to pass judgment on a young troupe’s bare bones version of the piece, which plays as a film within the film.

Slowly, the actors watching this film begin to echo the lines, speaking over the characters. Their random seating arrangement becomes purposeful—the two women who’ve played Eurydice are suddenly sitting next to each other (Anne Consigny, from The Returned and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly; and Sabine Azema, who looks like Diane Keaton’s ginger sister), talking back to the film and then the actress who played their mother, and then pairing off with an Orpheus (Consigny with Lambert Wilson and Azema with Pierre Arditi) until, seamlessly, all the older living actors are telling the story along with the film, and the room changes around them to become the story’s setting.

And because this story, this tale of youthful amour fou, is being told by older actors seemingly far removed in years from adolescent passions, it’s incredibly poignant—it’s hopeful and hopeless and beautiful and sad at the same time. I watch it and it feels to me like late Shakespeare, where death gives way to resurrection and wrongs give way to forgiveness and reconciliation. And at the same time I get the sense that these are not actors caught up in a story, but a story which is using everything and everyone it can get its hands on to get itself told.

The acting is excellent all around. The Azema/Arditi couple get more scenes than Consigny/Wilson, including the long, single-take, “I’ve just rescued you from death but I can’t look at you” scene, which (because it’s all one take and performed to perfection) plays like a brilliant piece of theatre. Of the other actors, Mathieu Almaric (the bad guy in Quantum of Solace, Consigny’s brother in A Christmas Tale, and the co-star of the Polanski film of Venus In Fur) plays M. Henri, the Death character, with his usual dark panache. And now and then, when he shows up, the film fractures into split screens or a four-panel grid, so that he ends up playing opposite both Orpheuses at once.


The only problem I have with this movie is the ending. In the last seven minutes, there is death, resurrection, and death, in a sequence which happens so quickly that it’s like getting blindsided by a bike messenger. I’m not familiar with Cher Antoine, so I don’t know if this mimics the end of that particular play; but even if it does, and even though I can see the thematic point of it—this is what real death is like, as opposed to death in literature and plays; real death leaves you with the shock of loss—it still struck me as a misstep. Which, again, is the point, I think. I trust Resnais to know what he was doing. So what I’m forced to say here is that, by feeling disappointed and let down by the last five minutes of the movie, I’m feeling exactly what Resnais intended me to feel, like this is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays as well as one of his romances.

The film played Cannes in 2012, opened at the Quad in New York last June, disappeared after a week, was revived for a week in August by Anthology Film Archives, and is now available on DVD and Netflix.  I recommend it highly.  Just remember that because it speaks to something very particular in me, my judgment is completely skewed in its favor.

Which is, sadly and hilariously, another ex-girlfriend analogy.  ;-)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A girl and her dog

for Laura

The silence conquers all, and echoes like
   A scream, compared to the numb emptiness
That is his absence. No more little tyke.
   No more soul mate. No more happiness.
What he made easy is too hard to bear:
   The simple things; the normal day to day.
He turned the mundane into something rare
   And left her nothing when he went away
But sorrow, deep regret for the undone—
   And memories, as full of pain as love,
Like messages sent by her special one
   To help her cherish every moment of
      A shared life full of miraculous charms
      That ended where it started: in her arms.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lives and Times - Part 2 of 2

When you watch Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and The Invisible Woman, you’re watching three different approaches to the words “Based On A True Story.”

Dallas Buyers Club is set up to reflect both dramatic time, which can be expressed as a unit of action, and real time. The real time is reflected in a clock that starts when Ron Woodroof is given a month to live. The clock pops up now and then throughout the film, and once again at the end, to give us a sense of real time gone by, as opposed to story time gone by. And that story time is actually three stories: one consisting of the facts behind Woodroof’s survival, and two relationship arcs. The first is Woodroof’s journey from disgust to wary friendship with Jared Leto’s Rayon; the second is his battle with Denis O’Hare’s doctor for the soul of Jennifer Garner’s Eve. All three stories have their own clocks; but the thing about people-with-people stories is that unit of action thing—if the action is romance, the clock ends when they get together; if the action is antagonism, the clock ends when one of them beats the other. In Dallas Buyers Club, the Rayon clock ends when Woodroof defends him without a second thought; and the Eve clock ends when she quits rather than work with Denis O’Hare’s doctor. And an audience watching this will get the satisfaction of dramatic closure even while in the middle of a story that sticks to the undramatic facts.

I have no idea if these two relationships are historical, but if either one of them were absent , the film would not be as moving, because what they do is mirror society’s awareness of and compassion for AIDS victims. They also help the move make a solid statement about how bigotry and intolerance is a function of ignorance, how it’s the individuals you know who open your eyes to an injustice that is being done to their group. And the main Woodroof plot also makes a case that a single person can change the system, which is one of the Great Myths Of America.

The next two films are each about a woman who, in her youth, was boxed into a corner from which there was only one escape, an escape which haunts her years later.

Philomena’s story is living proof of Oscar Wilde’s remark that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.  It’s the kind of plot that the Italian playwright Teo Pozzi calls a Malvolio, from the scene in Twelfth Night where Malvolio is gloriously duped by a forged letter and Fabian says: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” As an unwed mother in an Irish Catholic workhouse, Philomena watched her little son taken away by American foster parents; now, years later, as Judi Dench, she wants to find our what happened to him, and she enlists the aid of reporter Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan. And off they go on their quest, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—a Quixote who is blessed with the simplicity of faith, and a Sancho who is cursed with a pair of eyes that see simplicity as evidence of stupidity.

As for what happens next, improbable is an understatement. The less you know about the story of the real Philomena, the more you’ll enjoy the movie—it has all the twists and turns of a detective story married to Pericles. Throughout, the two actors play perfectly against each other. Dench is delightful as the incarnation of innocence, but she’s nobody’s fool; and Coogan, an actor who always looks at the world as a series of unavenged injuries, is perfectly cast as a man who has to bite his tongue as he shepherds a woman who’s cheerful and open, who loves romance novels, and who always says her prayers at night, through what he believes to be the real world. But it doesn’t take long for the audience to wonder who’s shepherding who here, and that’s one of the movie’s constant joys.

A number of issues are raised that could be their own films—a reporter torn between telling his subject’s story and using that subject to tell his own story; the price society makes young girls pay for physical love; the sexual politics of the Reagan administration; a wronged woman who has more faith than the religious bureaucracy which wronged her—but because they’re presented the way they occur in real life, as moments which have equal weight with all the other moments of daily life, it’s left to us, as the audience, to read into them in order to see a deeper meaning. The screenwriters and the director tell the story by consistently passing up every opportunity to Spielberg the audience with a message. Instead, they lead you up to a moment, show you the moment, and move on. The emotional climax is right there, in plain sight, but no special attention is drawn to it, the director doesn’t hold the film’s breath with confrontational close-ups or shocked reaction shots. It happens, and it’s over. A small thing but significant statement from one character, which in turn generates a small but significant gesture from another. Such is life.

Philomena’s past is like the wings of a dove compared to the anchor weight that is Nelly Ternan’s secret in The Invisible Woman, a weight that becomes unbearable when Ternan, now Mrs. George Robinson, stages a student production of the play which marked her first meeting with the man whose mistress she would become: Charles Dickens.

Ternan’s story is told in flashbacks which seamlessly combine Nelly’s first person memories with third-person omniscient scenes which the young Nelly could not possibly have seen or known. And this flashback structure is not just a way to tell the story—it is the story. These are the Nelly memories which Mrs. Robinson (I know, I know) can no longer keep buried. They drive her to make long fierce walks alone on the beach; they distract her from her husband (who has no idea of his wife’s past). And they represent Ternan’s recognition that—whether or not their love was mutual or one-sided or predatory or irresistible—the moment Dickens chose her to be his mistress, all her other choices disappeared. Once that door is opened, there is no way out of the room. Nelly’s mother recognizes this, and tries to make the best bargain she can for her daughter; Dickens’ wife recognizes this, and tries to open Nelly’s eyes to it; and in the end Nelly herself becomes resigned to it, and it feels like a death.

Another movie might have let Dickens off the hook (think of what a self-exonerating mess Woody Allen would make of a story like this) but Abi Morgan (the screenwriter) and Ralph Fiennes (who directs and portrays Dickens) are playing a different game here.  Yes, the camera acts as a substitute for Dickens’ gaze, constantly focusing on Nelly’s neck and shoulders, which are the only outskirts of flesh which a good Victorian girl is allowed to display in public. But it also looks unsparingly on Dickens himself. There’s a lost little boy look that Fiennes gets on his face, one that says, at one and the same time, “Please don’t make this difficult for me,” and “Please make this decision for both of us.” It’s the look of a boy caught cheating who wants someone else to either lie for him or take the blame. It diminishes Dickens as a human being, while making Nelly a larger soul than perhaps even she realizes. And the film is not afraid to point out that the men in this world embrace the idea of free love and open relationships because it lets them have their cake and eat it too, while serving crumbs to their mistresses and leftovers to their wives.

And—believe it or not—Morgan and Fiennes get away with something I’ve rarely seen done this well before. The emotional climax of this movie—the moment when Mrs. Robinson finally tells us what she thinks of Nelly Ternan’s story—is an impassioned defense of Dickens’ original ending to Great Expectations, the one where Pip and Estella do NOT get together at the end. You’d think something that literary would be dry-as-dust boring, but it’s not; it’s fierce and wrenching, it unites the personal and the creative in an outburst that explodes on several levels at once, all of them cathartic. It’s just, wow.

And you realize that the woman who couldn’t be seen was also, it appears, a woman who had to keep silent as well. Such a price to pay for love.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lives And Times - Part 1 of 2

The differences between portraying and dramatizing are many, but the effects of each can, I think, be measured in weight. Portrayals have a lightness, they skim, they create a map; dramas have weight, they dive, they look at a map and say, “These are the points of interest; we will anchor here for a while.” Portrayals never anchor anywhere — they‘re always on the move, busy busy busy, trying to squeeze as much as possible into a single trip. Quantity over quality.

There are currently two plays and four films that exemplify these differences: Kung Fu and All The Way; and Monuments Men, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Invisible Woman. Let's look at the two plays and one of the films first.

Kung Fu is very much a musical with dance breaks taking the place of songs. And because the script feels like connecting tissue rather than actual muscle, you walk out of this production humming the choreography. It’s the story of Bruce Lee before he became Bruce Lee. If it was a film, the final scene would fade into THE BEGINNING instead of THE END. But it's made-for-TV-movie fare at best. The script is thin, with contrived confrontations, a connect-the-dots plot, a female part written to embody the words “long-suffering,” and famous actor cameos which go nowhere. The lead actor imitates Bruce Lee’s choppy English, which makes sense while he’s in America, but when he’s talking to his father in China, you would expect he would change from broken English to fluent English, if only to mark the fact that they’re speaking Chinese to each other.  Alas, there's no such attention to detail.

All The Way does pretty much the same thing—it has a historical main character, a connect-the-dots plot, a female part written to embody the words “long suffering,” and famous cameos—but because there is depth and weight behind every one of those potential drawbacks, and because its confrontations are not contrived but presented as choices with consequences, it’s a limo ride instead of a train wreck. And Bryan Cranston’s LBJ is in the driver’s seat all the way. He’s totally committed to every lie and piece of political chicanery that comes out of his mouth, so much so that you never really know what he actually believes, which is one of the seeds of LBJ’s tragedy. The man who is his only best friend is always his own worst enemy.

Comparing the two main characters as presented in these plays? LBJ is larger than life; Bruce Lee comes off as smaller. On the plus side, that makes Lee feel like one of us (he has father issues; nobody takes him seriously). On the minus side, his responses to these issues aren’t exceptional enough to justify his reputation. So instead of his fame and success feeling earned, they feel pre-ordained, like a dance step that has to happen at the end of a song. Bryan Cranston’s LBJ, on the other hand, earns everything, bending heaven and earth and as many arms as he can get his hands on to pass the Civil Rights Bill and get elected.

Looking at the two of these and comparing how they succeed and fail, you can say that both presume some kind of prior knowledge. We walk in knowing the story, or thinking we know the story, which means it’s the dramatist’s job to make us forget it, or make us believe that the issue is in doubt. The portrayal, on the other hand, tells us nothing that we didn’t already know; it confirms everything from beliefs to prejudices, which are the very things that great drama tests and questions. If a play is a journey from here to there, then there are no land mines in a portrayal, while the careful placement of land mines is the business of drama. If a play is a recipe, then a portrayal is a step-by-step process designed to produce a prearranged result, while drama is two people fighting over who gets to run the kitchen.

Speaking of recipes, The Monuments Men is a perfect dish of soothe, the movie version of comfort TV, where a crack team of movie stars go up against a bunch of Nazi and Stalinist hooligans as part of a caper movie that completely lacks a caper movie’s energy and drive. It hops from scene to scene, with date and location crawls to let us know where and when we are in the chronology of World War II, but the scenes themselves are snapshots instead of photographs.

For instance: there’s a Battle of the Bulge scene where The Men come across a wounded soldier. Now knowing what I know about the Battle of the Bulge—Nazis dressed up as Americans to infiltrate our lines and attack from within—I was expecting that this guy was going to be a Nazi plant, and that the crux of the scene was going to be (a) whether they’d treat him for his injuries or just let him die and (b) the fact that The Men were the ones who discovered the whole Nazi infiltration plot.

None of that happened, of course, because that would have been dramatic and clever, but it did make me think of how much better the movie I was watching would have been if somebody had not stuck so closely to the facts. Imagine a movie where a bunch of sculptors, painters, and art professors actually turn the tide of battle against Germany, because of who they are and what they know. And really, if you’re going to hire a bunch of A-list actors to save art from the Nazis, let them actually save art from the Nazis. Like, y’know, this:

A room filled with stolen artwork.  Evil Nazi MARK STRONG has a gun to French librarienne CATE BLANCHET’s head.  Facing him are GEORGE CLOONEY, BILL MURRAY, BOB BALABAN, MATT DAMON, and JOHN GOODMAN.
                       MARK STRONG
That’s close enough, Captain.  Now tell your men to drop their guns.
                       MATT DAMON
Not gonna happen, Fritz.

                       MARK STRONG
You will drop your guns, or I will shoot the woman you love.

                       CATE BLANCHETT
Go ahead—do it—I don’t care!
                       MARK STRONG
Not you, you French cow.

He throws BLANCHETT to the floor and points his Luger at VERMEER'S “GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING.”

                       MARK STRONG
Drop your guns or I shoot the Vermeer.

There is a tense moment as the Americans look at each other.  Then JOHN GOODMAN spits at STRONG’S feet.

                       JOHN GOODMAN
What Vermeer?

                       MARK STRONG
What do you mean, what Vermeer?

That’s not a Vermeer.

                       MARK STRONG
Of course it’s a Vermeer.

BILL MURRAY and BOB BALABAN exchange a glance.

                       BOB BALABAN
Oh please.  Look at the light source.

                       JOHN GOODMAN
Look at the color palette. 

                       BOB BALABAN
Vermeer never painted that.

                       BILL MURRAY
It’s a prime example of the Faux Delft school that produced three dozen fake Vermeers in the nineteenth century.
Go ahead and shoot her-the bullets in your gun are worth twice as much as she is.


                       MARK STRONG
Then I’ll shoot the Picasso.

                       BOB BALABAN

                       JOHN GOODMAN
That fraud?

                       BOB BALABAN
He doodles on napkins to pay his bar bills.

                       BILL MURRAY
The world would be a happier place with a lot less Picassos.

                       JOHN GOODMAN

                       MARK STRONG
All right.  Then her!

STRONG kicks away the PICASSO to reveal THE MONA LISA.

                       BOB BALABAN
Stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911.

                       JOHN GOODMAN
After which he made six copies.

                       BILL MURRAY
One of which he returned to the Louvre in 1913.

                       BOB BALABAN
The original is still missing.

                       JOHN GOODMAN
The original is in a bar in New York.

                       BOB BALABAN
Oh God-do we have to hear this again?

                       JOHN GOODMAN
I’m telling you, it’s the real thing.

                       BOB BALABAN
You wouldn’t know a real da Vinci if Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on it!

STRONG is watching them argue, unaware that BLANCHETT has crawled near him.  BLANCHETT sweeps her arm against STRONG’s legs, toppling him to the floor.

                       GEORGE CLOONEY
Get him!

The Americans swarm over STRONG.  Huge fist fight.  At the end of it, MATT DAMON is about to smash THE MONA LISA over STRONG’s head.

                       JOHN GOODMAN & BOB BALABAN
No!  No!  No!  No!

                       BILL MURRAY
Here—use the Picasso.

BILL MURRAY hands DAMON the Picasso.  DAMON smashes STRONG over the head with it.

GEORGE CLOONEY steps back, palms out, thumbs touching, like a painter framing his subject.

                      GEORGE CLOONEY
Now that’s a work of art.


Coming up next: Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and The Invisible Woman.