What the Oscars broadcast this year didn’t seem to realize is this: The movies are our national religion. We want to worship those who make them, and those who are in them, as gods. We want to regard the Oscars as a yearly sacrament and bow our heads before it. Yes, we also want those moments of fun when everything goes wrong, and we want the moments when, to our shocked disbelief, a host’s brilliant snark makes us go “Oh no, you din’t!,” but we want them in the context of a show that knows how seriously, deep down, we take the movies. The movies, the good ones and the bad ones, and the glamor attendant to the movies, are the house wherein our culture’s soul resides.
This year—and it wasn’t just the fault of hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway, gosh-gee-willikers-out-of-place and lacking in decorum as they were—the Oscars seemed to treat the movies as “just the thing we actors and other folks do for a living,” not the national religion the movies are. The whole thing had the feel of a televised trade show. It was as if everyone involved believed that we, the audience, want the movies demystified for us, made real, made ordinary, minimized, stripped bare, made “relatable,” brought down to our level, exposed as operated by a man behind the curtain. No, it’s the opposite. We want the mystery; we want to believe in the Wizard. Stars are called stars for a reason–because they reside in the heavens. Having thrown back the curtain this year, the Oscars may or may not be able to close it again and make us believe. Perhaps the root disease is that Hollywood no longer believes in itself. Banksy was banned from the Oscars this year, but the Oscars spray-painted graffiti all over itself without him.
Two years ago, after seeing Burn After Reading, I identified the one trait that every single Coen Bros. had in common. Romantic comedy or grim film noir, suspense thriller or picaresque romp, screwball epic or journey into depression, every single Coen Bros. movie—all fourteen of them, you pick, I don’t care which one–shared one element:
They all involved characters who thought they were smarter than they were, and suffered for it.
Some of these characters were smart, only not quite as smart as they thought they were, and suffered for it.
Others of these characters were stupid, and fancied themselves smart, and suffered for it.
In True Grit, all the central characters prove just exactly as smart as they need to be, and in some cases smarter than we figured them for. Nobody (with the exception of a minor character in an early scene) does himself in or gets into deep doo-doo for the hubristic sin of overestimating his intelligence.
In all fourteen of the previous movies written and directed by the Coen Bros.—again, I defy you to find an exception—that hubristic sin plagued central (or, in the case of No Country for Old Men, important secondary) characters and drove the plot. The persistence of that element in their oeuvre, whether in stories they created or were attracted to adapting, reflected a strong misanthropic streak in the two brothers.
Many of those movies were wonderful, as misanthropy can be. But True Grit is wonderful in a whole new way for the Coen Bros. It shows that they are capable of admiration for and generosity of spirit toward the human animal, and more important, it succeeds in taking the audience on a journey into these feelings, too. It looks like a new chapter in the growth of these great and still relatively young (53 and 56) filmmakers.
In fact, the movie is essentially a remake of last year’s Clooney film Up in the Air. Both films feature a protagonist who is a traveling assassin for hire. (In Up in the Air, the assassinations are metaphorical, since Clooney plays a corporate ax man, but that’s a minor difference. Whether he’s delivering a bullet to the brain or a severance package combined with outplacement counseling, the effect is the same.) In both films, he’s a man without a soul who comes to realize the price he’s paid for the piece of him that’s missing. In both films, the suspense revolves around whether he’ll find that missing piece of himself before it’s too late.
Up in the Air was a comedy. The American is a quiet, brooding, melancholy, contemplative tragedy. Both movies are among the best films to come out in their respective years.
Watching Inception, I began to realize what director Christopher Nolan was up to. On a narrative level the movie is about a character who can enter the subconscious dream state of another in order to determine its direction; he goes in there with a team who, in sharing the mission, share in the manipulation of the subject’s dream. Isn’t that exactly what movies do? For two hours in the dark we enter a dream state with the other members of the audience, a dream state we have collectively, willingly allowed the moviemaker to direct (in all senses of the word) for us.
This dawned on me when I realized that Inception’s action set pieces—while unquestionably cool and going beyond what we’ve seen in movies before—are basically not different at their core from what we have seen in other action and disaster films, and even musicals. (One of the set pieces is an homage to, and was filmed in much the same way as, Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceiling in Royal Wedding.) That is to say, they are different, but not qualitatively different; and the realization to which that leads you inescapably is that every action movie, indeed practically every movie, contains sequences that simply never will happen and could not happen in our daily lives, yet which we experience as real for the duration of the movie. Only dreams are comparable. In fact, the state in which a movie puts the mind may be indistinguishable, psychologically and physiologically, from the unconscious dream state. It’s said that Hollywood is a dream factory, but usually when we hear this we think of “dream” in terms of “hopes and fantasies”; we don’t realize the statement is literally true. Even the most prosaic romantic comedy contains moments that cannot happen, yet which feel as real to us while they are happening as dreams do–they are events the likes of which the audience will experience nowhere else but the dreams it dreams in the middle of the night.
I think Nolan wants us to become conscious of this. He wants his action sequences to echo, in their slightly crazier way, action sequences we’ve seen in other movies, because he wants us to wake up to the fact that when we saw those movies we were dreaming then, too. None of us will ever dangle from a helicopter over an erupting volcano, nor will we ever know anyone else who has, nor will we ever know anyone else who knows anyone else who has, yet while we’re in the action movie, we give our tacit assent to the reality of the scene with a silent “yeah, that could happen.” The Leonardo DiCaprio character in Inception, who enters and shapes other people’s dreams, is a proxy for Nolan, and for every movie director; and the members of DiCaprio’s SWAT-like crew who go into the dreams with him are proxies for the writers, actors, cameramen, editors, composers and all the other artists who expand and compress time for us at will, and direct us to places we will never go except in dreams, and the dreams we agree to call movies.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer has done it again—made an invaluable addition to our behind-the-scenes knowledge of important movies, as he did with books like Memo from David O. Selznick, Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck, Inside Warner Bros., Behind the Scenes, and others. (And as he has done in many a DVD commentary and LP/CD booklet.)
The difference is that this time he has done it with a book that is destined to fly below the radar even of the most dedicated film buffs, who would glom onto it if only they knew of it.
Shoot the Rehearsal!: Behind the Scenes with Assistant Director Reggie Callow is based on interviews Behlmer conducted in the early seventies. Callow was the A.D. on 74 films starting in 1930, and they included some of the most important ones in film history: Hell’s Angels, Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, Julius Caesar, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Sound of Music, just to scratch the surface. Assistant directors are uncelebrated; generally, only others in the business know their names. But they are party to or witness to nearly every decision that gets made on a film (they work out the logistics of a shoot and wrangle the cast and crew moment-to-moment to make sure the director’s bidding gets done), and sometimes they may take over the director’s function for parts of a film. In terms of the “name value” they possess that can help sell a book, a fair estimate might be nil. But in terms of the stories they have to share, they can be a treasure trove.
You have to know the right questions to ask, of course, and with his incomparable grounding in the history of classic film, Behlmer was the ideal interviewer. Callow lived about fifteen minutes away from him, and after an introduction by a mutual acquaintance brought them together, Behlmer would pop over and get Callow talking. For this book, Behlmer has edited the transcripts of those conversations into a compelling read from start to finish. You may think you’ll be tempted to skip around the book, looking for the “good parts” about the films, directors and stars that happen to be your favorites, but the book is so well-constructed that starting on page one and reading it in order is a compelling experience. If only Callow had worked on 150 films instead of a mere 74, the book would be twice as long and still a page-turner.
Leonard Maltin, on his Movie Crazy blog, has written an informative, enthusiastic, and thoroughly deserved appreciation of the book.
Now for a bit of bad news followed by a bit of better news. The book is expensive. The publisher, Scarecrow Press, envisions that the primary customers of the book will be libraries (they are not entirely wrong, as posterity will value this work), and has priced it at $50. However…Amazon is selling it for 28% off, or $36. That is still pricey for a 168-page paperback, but if you are into movie history, you will discover that the book brings you pleasure and learning worth multiples of that.
Toy Story 3 is the best movie ever made.
As you might expect of a good documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work connects you with its subject on a human level, exposes her vulnerabilities, gives you insight into what drives her. But it also does something that may be even more important than that. It makes you laugh your ass off.
A realization begins to take hold as we follow Rivers through a year of her life, and see archival material of television appearances going back to her beginnings: Joan Rivers is one of the great wits of our time. Dorothy Parker wrote poems, stories and criticism for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and delivered bon mots to Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott at the Algonquin Round Table, while Joan Rivers works on nightclub stages and television talk shows; Dorothy Parker was constrained (in her work at least) to be more lady-like while Joan Rivers lives in a time that requires her to be more frankly ribald; but they have more in common than separates them. In the film there’s a clip from a television appearance with Johnny Carson in which Joan, by way of unacknowledged homage, updates Parker’s famous “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” in a way that’s every bit as true, as epigrammatic, and as concentratedly witty. I won’t spoil the line for you (one of this film’s great pleasures is rediscovering Rivers’ ability to craft observations that have the power to level you in an economical eleven or twelve words), but suffice it to say that Carson is so surprised by it that he has to jerk back and turn away from Rivers and the audience so as not to lose control of himself.
Barnard-educated, this smart Jewish girl (Parker, incidentally, was half-Jewish, and more covertly) has been delighting our minds for almost fifty years now. Some of the laughs in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work come from lines that Joan delivers in the public appearances the film documents, but many are from remarks she tosses off as we follow her through her days. (She’s always working, even when she’s not. One of the inspiring messages of the film is that “always working” is as good a prescription for happiness as any of us is likely to find.) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work has the potential to cause a general re-appreciation of Joan Rivers, an awareness that she is not just a comic but a wit who is the rightful heir to Parker in her mining of the territory of loneliness, possessed of a comparable talent and deserving of the same respect from the culture. I suspect that Rivers knows this and that it’s one reason she agreed to let the filmmakers in her life. The bottom line is that as emotionally connected to Joan Rivers as this documentary made me feel (and it did), I laughed out loud during it more than at any comedy I’ve seen at the movies in the last five years. I was not alone.