Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

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I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

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And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

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This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Mad Max: Furiosa’s Movie (a review)

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If you are looking to have your mind blown away by astounding visuals and amazing stunt work, blinding sandstorm apocalypses and psychotic banshees, mind-searing explosions and grotesque examples of human depravity, then you should really see Mad Max: Fury Road.

If you’re more interested in carefully constructed characters trying to make sense of a world gone mad, learning to cooperate even with their most hated enemies if only to survive and in the process, learning more about themselves as humans, then go watch Lord of the Flies (YouTube), because Mad Max: Fury Road has none of that.

I liked the movie. I liked it a lot. But I never engaged in the movie.

Throughout my time watching it, it remained a movie that stimulated my retinas and ear drums, but never reached my brain or my heart or my gut.

(NOTE: Some spoilers may follow.)

To summarize the plot:

Tanker truck driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent on a mission to go from the Citadel, a collection of humans controlled by the self-described demi-god Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to deliver fuel and mother’s milk (you have to see it to believe it) to Gastown, presumably another citadel situated across the desert.

As she heads off with her armed escort—this is post-apocalyptic, gang-ravaged Australia, after all—Furiosa veers off the road, taking everyone into the desert. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she has stowaways aboard; Joe’s five prized breeder women whom he is using to build his master race (think Sister Wives meets TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting). Furiosa is taking the women to security in the mystical Green Place.

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Learning that this has happened and that his fertility harem is gone, Joe calls out his troops and signals Gastown to do same, and a two-pronged pursuit across the desert is on.

Further complicating matters for Furiosa is her need to fight off the marauding gangs that litter the desert-scape between the towns and who want to steal her precious fuel.

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

That gets you started on the story. Much more and we’re in spoiler territory…although, there are few revelations in this film that could get spoiled.

The one thing you may have noticed about my plot summary is the absence of Max (Tom Hardy), the title character of this film and the three originals of the series. That’s because, for about half of the movie, Max is just along for the ride (in some cases, quite literally).

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Without question, after an initial misunderstanding, Max helps Furiosa in her journey—that is what Max does in these movies—but this is Furiosa’s journey and thus, her movie.

One of the challenges I have with the story and in retrospect, possibly one of the reasons the film never engaged my heart or gut, is I don’t ever recall learning why Furiosa is helping the women escape. From the outset, she seems to have a position of prestige within the Citadel, even if it is Hell incarnate. And while we do later get a sense of her long-term desire to leave, I still don’t recall the reason why she would jeopardize her escape by taking the women.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Although Joe is obviously angry at the betrayal, the fuel for his pursuit is the reclamation of his harem. Furiosa made her life more difficult by taking them, which would be fine if I understood why. People make outwardly rash decisions all the time in film—else there would be no film industry—but they always have an internal rationale for the decision that the audience can appreciate. That did not exist here.

Likewise, I didn’t understand why these women were so important to Joe. Yes, they were the most attractive of the fetid bunch that we see onscreen, but I am confident that they could have been replaced more easily than the fuel that was used in their reclamation. Even if it was just ego, show me that.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

I’m not expecting nuance in these characters—that would probably get you killed in this environment—but I would like to understand more about the rationales inside their heads.

The other thing that kept me from engaging was—to borrow a metaphor from This is Spinal Tap—that writer/director George Miller turned the dial to 11 the moment the chase started and largely left it there throughout the movie.

There is no denying that this provided a rush, much like being strapped to the nose of a bullet train, but after a handful of minutes like that, it just becomes normal. Rather than slowly escalate through the film and let me see that the next threat was more gruesome than the last, it was just one long chase scene with the same ever-present threat.

Sure, there were moments of quiet and introspection—if nothing else to provide exposition for where we are and what we’re doing—but the transitions there were like cranking the dial from 11 to 1 and then cranking it back up to 11.

This is largely why I say there is nothing to really spoil in discussing this story…there was nothing that really shocked the audience or caught them off guard. The cinematic experience was beautifully choreographed, but someone forgot to pull up the footmarks from the floor, so the audience was always aware if the next scene was going to be a tango, a waltz or the cha-cha.

But hey, this is an action film, and if it provided one thing, it was ACTION (all caps because that’s how much action it provided).

Like the man in the old Maxell Tapes advertising, you will be blown away by this experience. But when the lights go up, you will straighten your clothes, brush your hair and find yourself completely unaffected by this movie. Just a couple of hours at an amusement park.

Oh, and as for Max, all you really need to know is: yeah, he’s still messed up about his family (see Mad Max Movie #1), but he’s largely a good guy.

500

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So I have hit the milestone blog post: 500.

For some of you, who have followed me from the earliest days, you are no doubt thinking: “500? Really? Seems like 5,000.” For those of you relatively new to the wonder that is my blog, please note closely the previous statement.

I dithered over what to write for my 500th post, and have decided I’m going to talk about you…well, some of you.

I “follow” quite a few blogs…I read many fewer…and I seek out even fewer. I’m sorry for those I don’t visit more regularly…hours in a day and all that. It’s some of that last group, I want to highlight here…those glorious few who make me stop whenever I see they’ve posted something new.

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Filippa Levemarks Blog

The paintings that this woman creates and the themes she explores by mixing media and mixing subject-matter blow me away. Rare is the image that doesn’t elicit some emotion in me. Hers is a style I have seen nowhere else and is worth exploring.

 

Jack Flacco

To read Jack’s blog is to have no clear idea as to who Jack is, and I mean that as a compliment. Jack takes on any subject it seems, but always in a thought-provoking and welcoming way that makes you want to contribute with a comment. His latest topics have been: monotasking, Veronica Mars, infectious pandemic readiness and phone addiction.

 

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Bare Knuckle Writer

As the title suggests, Steph Snow is a no-holds-barred writer who likes to talk (or rant) about writing. With generous dollops of humour, she discusses the creative fortunes and practices that torture her soul on a seemingly daily basis. Misery truly does like company.

 

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Readful Things Blog/Julian Froment’s Blog

I list these two blogs together because they are both discussions of the written word—e.g., reviews of books and authors, discussions of book marketing—and because the bloggers (Ionia Martin & Julian Froment) are beautifully connected at the soul (I don’t ask questions about any other forms of connections). Amazing people whose love for words is only surmounted by their love for each other.

 

Schelley Cassidy Photography

As a photo-hobbiest, I deeply appreciate the craft and skills that other photographers bring to the world. In this case, however, Schelley and I seem to share a greater fascination for the minute rather than the panoramic, as suggested by her regular feature “What is it?” where you only see an aspect of an object and are left guessing as to what that object is.

 

Ron Scubadiver’s Wild Life

If I couldn’t have my life, I would want Ron’s. A world traveller and freelance journalist, Ron is an amazing photographer, capturing incredible aspects of life in the many places he has visited. I particular enjoy his collections of people photos, often taken at a festival or gathering, which are incredibly natural and inviting.

 

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Ned’s Blog

Ned Hickson is not right in the head. And that’s what I love about him. A journalist in the Pacific Northwest and volunteer firefighter (or latex-coat fetishist…can’t really tell), Ned brings an irreverent sense of humour to everything he writes, earning him several accolades including his own NSA file. Ned also has a book to his credit, which I believe he has to return to the library next Tuesday.

 

Curnblog

More a collective than a personal blog, Curnblog offers amazing insights into all things film, whether examining an individual film or genre from angles such as sociology, creativity or cinematography. Predominantly the work of James Curnow, the blog is like having your own little film school where you can access new and unusual topics on a weekly basis without the pressure of essays, theses or exams.

 

There are so many other blogs to which I would like to direct you, but I am happy that you made it this far down the page. Perhaps for my 1000th blog post!

My gratitude for your patience and enduring interest.

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I don’t hate movies!

This may sound like an unimportant statement, but as a newly minted screenwriter, I was starting to worry that I seemed to dislike every movie I watched in theatres or via Netflix.

Now, I must admit that I have spent much of my life as a hypercritical asshole, a picker of nits most egregious, so it perhaps came as no surprise that a movie had to be pretty solid to impress me…but when you go through dozens of movies and find all of them meh, you start to worry. Or at least, I did.

You see, I slowly began to doubt my own understanding of what makes for a good film, or more importantly to me, a good story. And as someone who has decided to be a professional storyteller that is a worrisome doubt to have.

Movies that I have found lacking despite their acclaim

Movies that I have found lacking despite their acclaim

The recent fare that I had heard wonderful reviews of or that had won awards:

  • Blue Jasmine – good performance by Cate Blanchett in a completely forgettable movie
  • The East – incredibly slow melodrama in which none of the characters was note-worthy and a moral dilemma on which the screenwriter and director refuse to take a position
  • Life of Pi – hated the book, bored by the movie…would have been more likeable as a Disney flick
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona – boring people with no ties to the real world (like a need for money) screwing
  • Noah – missed opportunity to explore the more interesting character of Tubal-Cain
  • Dom Hemingway – a wonderful portrait of the eponymous character, a terribly flawed story (my thoughts)
  • Enemy – 2014 Cdn Screen Award as Best Picture, thief of 90 minutes of my life (my thoughts)

I have many colleagues who will defend some or all of these movies to the hilt and yet I found each of them somewhere between seriously flawed and downright insulting.

Clearly, I was the problem. In my zeal to craft my own stories, I had become myopic on what a good story is, what good characters are.

And then I watched The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.

Wow. I was blown away, not just by the subject matter, but by the story itself, the unique perspective and the richly drawn characters.

Sure, there were one or two small moments where I tilted my head askew, but they did not linger. Nor did they snowball in my consciousness as they were few and far between.

Movies that have renewed my faith in storytelling

Movies that have renewed my faith in storytelling

Last night, I watched The Reader.

Not as blown away, but still enthralled. Rich characters, slow revelations, palpable conflict both within and without.

I don’t hate movies.

I have no time for movies that fail…and more importantly, I aspire to and am inspired by movies that succeed.

Doubts remain, but thankfully, they have diminished.