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

“Fury” and futility – a review

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Rarely am I stumped by a movie. Usually, I like the film, it is okay or it is bad.

But every now and again, a movie makes me work at an opinion. David Ayer’s Fury is one of those films, the 2014 film being released this week on Netflix.

Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña, Fury tells the story of an American tank crew in the last year of World War II, pushing deep into Germany but heavily outgunned by German Tiger tanks.

And there is my challenge with this film. I have now explained the entire movie to you, because there is no real point to the plot.

It is seriously as though a camera crew showed up on a battle site one day and followed a tank crew for a few days as it wound its way through various other battles into the belly of the Nazi beast.

Thus, I cannot really tell if this movie is an amazingly stunning metaphor for the futility of war—there is no glory here—or if it was just a badly penned film.

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Ideals clash with reality

To be fair to Ayer, who not only wrote, but also directed and produced this film, there is a human interest side to this story as the war-weary, battle-hardened tank crew is joined by doe-eyed recruit Norman  Ellison (Logan Lerman) who just days earlier was a typist for the military bureaucracy.

Thus, as the tank—the titular Fury—lurches from battle to battle, we witness the corruption of a pure heart by atrocities committed not only by the enemy, but by his fellow soldiers. And we see the toll this corruption takes on the boy’s tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who personally starts that downhill process.

But again, to what purpose?

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War taints even the most peaceful moments

Almost all war films seem to be based on men fighting toward a higher purpose, whether it is a battle that turns the tide of the war—e.g., Sands of Iwo Jima; Tora, Tora, Tora—or a moment of humanity amidst chaos—e.g., Saving Private Ryan—or men fighting for sanity within that chaos—e.g., Good Morning, Vietnam; Catch 22; Apocalypse, Now.

For me, Fury had no such pretense.

Yes, the Americans are the “good” guys and the Germans were the “bad” guys, but neither side in this film was any nobler than its counterpart. Within the confines of this movie, this was carnage and hatred purely for the sake of same.

As to the film itself; all of the actors did an admirable job, wearing the carnage of war on their faces and in their souls. Brad Pitt at his harshest expressed an internal dignity if not nobility. Shia LaBeouf was restrained. And Michael Peña really didn’t have much to do.

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Truthfully, this film might have been stronger as a silent movie, as it was the facial expressions and battle scenes that told this story. The dialogue offered little to the visceral impact of this film (emotions are drained pretty early).

Beautifully shot, this is a grisly film and not for the faint of heart or stomach. Bullets and bombs don’t just pierce a body; they rip it wide open. The fallen remain fallen, to be ground into the mud by jeep tires and tank treads.

For all of these reasons—and it was a slow burn for me—I am coming down on the side of Fury being the embodiment of the ultimate futility and barbarism of war.

In this movie, even if you saved the person of Private Ryan or Ellison, the soul is long gone.

Remember

A good choice for Remembrance Day, highlighting purposeless sacrifice

Wolf of Wall Street a never-ending bore (review)

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Layer the stylings of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas over Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and you have Scorsese’s 2013 treatise about greed in America, The Wolf of Wall Street. Unfortunately, where this should have been a wonderful blending of two great films, it was instead the mutated step-child.

Briefly, the movie follows the adventures of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort as he rises from the ashes of Wall Street to lie and cheat his way to fame and fortune from the then despised penny stocks market. Through a haze of booze, drugs and female flesh and relying on balls the size of the tri-state area, he pulls a fleet of nobodies into the middle of the financial maelstrom, becoming everything for which Wall Street is despised. Throw in a little money laundering and he, of course, becomes the target of an FBI and SEC investigation that ultimately brings him down.

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If, from the synopsis, you don’t immediately see the influences of Wall Street and GoodFellas, you’re not really trying or you need to go back and watch them again.

I wish I could say it was just the 3-hour running time that interfered with my enjoyment of the film, but GoodFellas was 148 minutes and Wall Street was 126 minutes. Rather, I think the problem was that it felt like the movie was 6 hours long. Time seemed to drag out as though I was getting a contact high from all the Quaaludes the characters were consuming, but without the peaceful overtones.

I appreciate it was based on the life of Jordan Belfort, so perhaps the screenwriter Terrence Winter felt he had to be careful tiptoeing around the contents of Belfort’s book of the same title. But for the love of God, there was no place that Winter felt he could simply skip ahead?

When Leo DiCaprio would narrate the scenes, in some cases turning directly to the camera to do so, my mind immediately jumped to Ray Liotta in GoodFellas. Never more so than when he would try to explain how Wall Street functioned, almost mimicking Liotta’s explanation of the mob, down to the vocal cadence. The two examples below show both men introducing the troops.

And when DiCaprio would try to rally the troops, he became a bombastic Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), enthusiastically letting people know that greed was good…or in his case, that there was no nobility in poverty. Hell, in his narrative voice-over, he even mentions Gordon Gecko in an obvious homage that simply highlights how pale an imitator this movie is.

So I am left asking what exactly does The Wolf of Wall Street offer that the other two films didn’t.

Wealth, opulence, greed, excess? Been there, done that.

Booze, sex, drugs, violence? Watched that, saw it.

Illicit business, FBI investigations, wire taps? Old hat, nothing new.

Hubris, hedonism, idolatry? Biblical, but done and doner.

It made almost $400 million worldwide and was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning none), so people liked it.

For comparison, Wall Street earned $44 million globally in 1987 and won Douglas the Best Actor Oscar, while GoodFellas managed $47 million in the US in 1990 and won Joe Pesci the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (of six nominations).

DiCaprio has charm…and so did Liotta and Douglas.

Interestingly, I didn’t feel this one had the cinematographic snap of Scorsese’s earlier works…it didn’t feel like the camera was dancing with the actors as it did in GoodFellas.

Maybe it was simply a matter of timing. Wolf showed up just as the United States was truly starting to recover economically from the banking scandals and burst real estate bubbles, and in an almost self-abusive way, Wolf reminds Americans (and the rest of the world) of a time when money was cheap and easy. It’s definitely not a morality play, for no one is seen to suffer for their excesses.

It is the American dream seen through a tumbler of Scotch. The manifest destiny of anyone willing to gamble with the weaknesses of others. A sign that nothing has changed. That nothing ever changes.

Wall Street was a warning. GoodFellas was the rise and fall of Man. The Wolf of Wall Street is a love letter to unbridled greed.

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Selling out versus selling

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Over the last few years, I have met a lot of artists of various stripes, and almost to a person, one of the major fears each has is the belief that to become a success and to make a living with their Art, they will have to dilute that art. They’ll have to sell out. Some simply fear it in quaking silence, while others fend it off with flecks of foam like some rabid dog chained in a backyard of their own making. To each, their own.

You have a vision for your Art and you must respect that. It is because you are doing your Art that your Art is different from anyone else’s. By the same token, if you do hope to make enough money to keep at it, you must be able to express your Art in some commercial way.

Admittedly, with technologies such as self-publishing (formerly known as vanity publishing) and phones that offer better cinematography than anything Cecile B could have dreamt of, you can go it alone as no one before you could. You can make all of your dreams come true, but the question is, will those dreams come true? Will anyone beyond your mom, your partner and a few close friends bother with your Art once discovered?

I’m not saying to make a living you have to sell out. Don’t despoil your craft in the name of crass commercialism. If you’re truly an artist rather than a hack, it wouldn’t serve your purposes and you’d come to loathe the thing you once loved.

No, I’m talking about finding a line of compromise between your vision and the market’s.

As this is particularly close to my heart right now, let’s say that you’re writing a screenplay. First, congratulations. There may be thousands of screenplays out there, but I am confident there are billions of unfinished scripts and half-thought ideas.

Having completed your screenplay, however, is only the first step. Now you’ve got to share your creation with dozens of other people, each of whom will want to put his or her stamp on the work.

Story editors, readers, producers, directors, actors, financiers, market researchers. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these people has to buy into what you’re selling before your movie will get made.

Sure, if your film is small with a very modest (miniscule) budget, all of these titles may be handled by 3 to 6 people, but even then, you’ll likely run into issues with distribution.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. History is replete with artists who decided to go it alone. But the unwritten backdrop of that history is swamped with the myriad films sitting idle on bookshelves or hard drives, or competing with cavorting kittens and bad karaoke on YouTube or Vimeo.

If you want to share your Art—and I’m betting that you do—then you want outside thought, you want feedback, you want people to contribute.

Don’t look at barriers, but rather seize opportunities to engage. These people are your first audience. Respect them. Use them. Understand them. Do this and you’ll be well on your way to realizing your vision in their world.

 

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I refuse to let anyone sell out.)