20 December 2001


James Mangold goes from “Girl” to women

A contemporary romance-Manhattan lifestyle satire-duke-out-of-water time-travel comedy from the director of “Heavy” and “Girl, Interrupted”? Now who would want to see that? Actually, lots of folks looking for a sweet romantic comedy over the Christmas holiday, and I’d like to think they won’t be disappointed by "Kate and Leopold."

There’s a welter of plot and characters, which is part of “Kate and Leopold”’s substantial charm. Meg Ryan plays a 40ish career woman, a test marketer whose life is starting to seem less than meaningful. She’s just broken up with Stuart (Liev Schreiber), her upstairs neighbor, after four years, and as Kate describes him to her assistant, “Baby, you are one percent of one percent, I went with a visionary for four years, and I had to pay the rent.” Stuart’s crackpot scheme is to travel back in time and discover the ways of an older island, and without undue fuss, he does, witnessing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge 150 years ago, but gaining the attention of a disaffected English duke who’s due for marriage (Hugh Jackman, dashing, yes, but also genuinely funny), who winds up traveling back to the twenty-first century with him. Conflict with work? Ideals? How about the perfect man to make the word “lifestyle” leave your vocabulary?

Ryan’s perplexity and intensity charm, as well as her delicious petulance. She’s no longer the kewpie doll. Mangold and his collaborators have knit a modest yet knowing portrait of the contemporary career woman at work and at home. (We’ll over look a few moments of bumptious slapstick.) Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography has a pleasing edge, an almost hand-tinted look. This New York looks loved-in. The script’s brisk plotting and delineation of a close-knit community suggest the English 1950s Ealing comedies that Mangold knows so well, having studied under Alexander Mackendrick, who was one of the key practitioners of that dry but lasting work. Stuart calls the plot’s conundrums “a beautiful 4-D pretzel of kismetic inevitability”; I’ll just say it’s a minor, but distinct joy.

New York is filled with dreams and delusions, and Mangold does a fine job of maneuvering his characters through their intimate spaces. “Kate and Leopold” is at least partly an attempt to stand apart from today’s Hollywood comedy styles. Mangold discusses some of his inspirations in the conversation from early December, 2001 that follows. Certain changes were made after this interview, and are noted where relevant. In 2002, Mangold will be working on a thriller in the spring, followed by a fall shoot for his authorized biography of Johnny Cash.

Pride: You've got Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" slot since that film wasn't done in time. When were you scheduled for release originally?

Mangold: We were a Valentine's day release, originally.

Pride: It's a small picture, but I was happy to discover how sweet and smart it was.

Mangold: That's what we wanted. That makes me happy to hear.

Pride: It feels like it's someone's New York, a living, breathing place that just happens to have these comic follies in the foreground. The small pointed, satirical elements don't seem like warmed-over Nora Ephron or Woody Allen, it feels like someone else's lived-in New York.

Mangold: We were really focused on that. We wanted a feeling of New York but we also wanted a feeling of fantasy. I was just trying to connect with the tone of these great romances of the fifties. Fantastically comedic ones and straightahead ones. My favorites, I love "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I love Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment." These are movies that I adore. And I feel they have a real character of New York but they also have a storybook character.

Pride: The great thing about those movies is that everyone has inventive memories of them. They're not necessarily what you or I would see seeing them for the first time now.

Mangold: Yeah, but you should see "Breakfast at Tiffany's" again. It's great. Except for Mickey Rooney as the Asian guy.

Pride: When people talk about it, they're talking about their "Breakfast at Tiffany's." It's like how two people would talk about their New York--we're each talking about something different, but the same romantic ideal.

Mangold: Right. But it's also the sense, I think unlike a lot of romantic comedies made today, there's a sense of real drama in these movies as well as comedy. The characters have someplace to go. They're not written from a kind of market-tested point of likability from the get-go. I think one of the things Meg was really interested in in this role and I was really interested, was that the sex roles are reversed and for once, she's playing the less adorable of the two leads. She was playing an edgier careerist who had lost her sense of romance and how to breathe and how to live and love and was just in this race. Which is more often the male roles in these movies. And Hugh Jackman was the figure of glamour in this picture.

Pride: Something else terrific about her performance is this sense of earnestness rather than confusion or anger. It isn't explicit in the film, but her performance says, "Where's the pretty picture I thought I was working toward?"

Mangold: Right. Or, "What is this? There's no there there. What happened?"

Pride: The Brooklyn Bridge, seeing that edifice under construction in Leopold's time is a lovely way to begin the film It’s a monument that still stands, on its own, inside everyone’s history but also existing outside of it.

Mangold: Well, I very interested in pointing out not only the things that are different from then and now, but the things that have stayed the same. One of the magic qualities of [the conceit of] time travel to me is that if you go back to the same island 150 years earlier, what are the landmarks that stay the same as well as the things that have changed? The things that make is seem like you're still in the same place although so much has evolved. New York is a town that really makes you think about history.

Pride: Strangely, "Kate and Leopold" fits into a familiar Miramax genre--romantic comedies where time and fate may keep lovers apart, rather than societal restraints. This year alone, there's been "Amelie" and "Serendipity."

Mangold: This movie was in development with Miramax seven years ago. I came on about three years ago and soon as I finished "Girl," I did a draft of this. The genre of fate and destiny movies never... Maybe Harvey [Weinstein] could talk about that.

Pride: For you, what have been the essential changes from the time of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge to today?

Mangold: Well, It thought, one of the biggest things, and it's why there's the [movie preview] test screening stuff in the movie... [a scene which has mostly been cut from the release version] I wrote Meg as a market tester in general because one of the things that's really changed... I'm not a historian, but speaking from kind of a sense of zeitgeist, or of an fairytale sense of what past and present mean to us, I believe that back in the day, in Leopold's day, people meant what they said and said what they meant. They stood for things. They didn't put their finger to the wind to figure out what they feel. I think one of the greatest cultural changes now is that we're such an incredibly connected society, interconnected with people, that the President gives a speech, and you turn to a friend and say, "What did you think?" And your friend will say, "Well, I think it went over well." It's like, "What about the content?" Not about how it went over. [It's amazing] the amount of time that regular rank-and-file Americans spend talking about the box office of movies or what record is number one or whether Michael Jackson's new record is doing as well as his last one, when in fact they haven't even listened to it. Our dialogue becomes almost content-less. People like to talk about what's selling as opposed to what's inside of things. And in a big way, I think that's the numbness I was trying to create for Meg's character, this sense that she is part of this culture of marketeering. Of selling but not ever even being in touch with what you're selling.

Pride: One of the lines that fits into that, a line of Leopold's where he says, "You speak less French than possibly even I do." Leopold is speaking out of turn about himself, blunt about himself, which is a double-edge about speaking directly.

Mangold: Someone like J.J. [Kate's quietly supercilious boss at the research firm] is completely baffling for Leopold--or not--he may remind him of his Uncle Miller [who insists back in the nineteenth century that he is old enough to find a rich woman to marry and settle down]. The fact is that the kind of indirectness [is unknown to Leopold]. One thing that was very clear about Leopold is that he says what he means and means what he says. And that's a very attractive thing. In a man or a woman. That it's hard to do what you think it today's world and not be thought of as an idiot.

Pride: There's the old Mark Twain line, "it's better to be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

Mangold: Right. And I think it's something more and more we've gotten away from.

Pride: Knowing your background, including studying with Alexander Mackendrick, twenty minutes into the movie, I was thinking, oh, Ealing comedy.

Mangold: Oh I love those films. "Ladykillers,' "Man in the White Suit."

Pride: I was just re-reading your appreciation of Mackendrick in your afterword to the script of "Sweet Smell of Success" and thought, too, of his portrait of 1950s New York in that picture. In "Kate and Leopold," there's a real sense of how the neighbors in your picture interact, in the hallways, on the fire escape, watching the neighbors and the street below. Just like in Ealing. Was this kind of thing in the draft when you came to it?

Mangold: What it was about, I mean it was very different. The thing that's constant is that it's about a Duke from the past coming forward. In Stephen's draft, Meg was a time travel scientist. So, Liev's character didn't exist, Breckin's Bradley [Kate's goofy younger brother] didn't exist. The whole world of her corporate... She was the scientist. When I think of Ealing comedies, I think of a closer-knit sense of community. The scope of the movie is about a very specific bunch of characters. I don't know how to explain it. There's a folksiness or an earnestness to those films. I think it's something we've gotten away from in the calculated nature of how Hollywood movies, specifically romantic comedies, are made. Y'know, slap two stars in, throw on the pop songs for the montages and go. I think you're dead right. I mean, what ties all these things together, whether I'm referencing Wilder or you're bringing up Ealing, those films, it's a day and age when comedies had more of an earnestness about them. There was more of a sense of meaning coming from the comedy. It wasn't just, y'know, expanded SNL sketches over two hours. That there was some kind of belief that the form... Sometimes going for a laugh isn't the smartest thing. Sometimes going for a different feeling is better. We've almost now turned comedies into something where they have to keep us rolling in the aisles for two hours but you kind of can feel empty after two hours. What else did I experience besides laughing at all this toilet humor? And the bottom line is that I think there are some great films that were made twenty or thirty years ago or more, but you laugh but you also feel and think. Again, the Ealing Comedies, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Capra, I mean, there's a ton of them. There was a time when it was one of the things that we, the Hollywood machine, the American film industry knew how to make better than anything.

Pride: You have a lot of moments where characters are shown letting things sink in, kind of a sweet version of a "burn." It's nice that every character has a moment here they're allowed to be pleased. It gives a different tempo to it all, taking these in-between moments without hurtling to the next plot point.

Mangold: Absolutely. It's letting things breathe. As much as this film is being sold on the chivalry angle, and I think it's real, that's what makes Leopold so appealing, the movie itself has a kind of kindness to it. It has a kind of graciousness to it that to some may seem a little antiquated, and to others, I hope, may seem very welcome. It's a courteous film. I think it's not reserved or stiff, but there's a kind of earnestness.

Pride: You present Meg as the NRG-type research hack who could easily become the soulless Faye Dunaway in "Network," but within the next scene, in the taxi, she becomes a real--

Mangold: I think that's true. She's clearly at war with herself, a romantic who's buying into... Look, these are questions I have to wrestle with. A lot of this crap, testing and science and... A lot of it's very smart. None of it's untrue. It's just, is it robbing it of something, like our own instinct? In the sense of what she has to do at the end of the film, would any of this knowledge she's developing help her make the most critical choice she had to, about how to spend her life or who to spend it with. The truth is, there's no amount of testing or knowledge or forethought that helps you make decisions like that. Some primeval decisions in life have to be made on gut.

Pride: Speaking of such a thing, was there ever a point here you ever dealt with on screen the fact that Liev's character had slept with his forebear? He's been making jokes in interviews. [This plot point has been removed entirely from the version that will be released on Christmas Day.]

Mangold: Right. No, we dealt with it only to the degree of laughing about it. I just thought it was kind of fun.

Pride: It's a very odd thing. In "Back to the Future," that's a major, Oedipal plot point [which no longer occurs in the film].

Mangold: Well, because they're over five generations apart, it certainly didn't quality and anything resembling incest. And also since it's technically impossible to sleep with your great-great-great-great grandmother. it's an impossible incest, but who knows? Certainly, once Meg's gone back to the past, her relationship with Liev lies in the future, so nothing she does in the past affects what she does in the future.

Pride: It's nice, too, that certain things don't become cumbersome, that issue, and also when Leopold has to return to the past, it occurs off screen, we don't have to see yet another CGI leap through time.

Mangold: Who needs any more spiraling CG effects and star gates and swirling voids of time? We felt like dealing with it like an old movie. Just do it and get out. What was also interesting to me about Liev's character, Stuart, and Meg's character and Hugh's character were related, it wasn't like Hugh was just superman. It was like Liev, the fact that he comes from the same stock, it says how men today are a product of their time, not their breeding. It isn't just, oh aren't English boys nice. Even an English boy today is a different kind of creature, those times produced a certain kind of man and woman. You or me raised in those times would be very different people.

Pride: We don't how intense Stuart and Kate's relationship was, but it's also nice that he's not just the bad, failed old boyfriend. Despite her saying, "Baby, you are one percent of once percent, and went with a visionary for four years, and I had to pay the rent," he still helps her to improve her lot and improves himself in the process. He's gracious toward his ex-slash-friend.

Mangold: I think his character really grows during the movie. I don't' think he's so generous in the beginning, but I think by the end of the picture, he's... I mean, Hugh is like Mary Poppins in a way, everyone in his wake grows. even kind of, you look at J.J., the boss, by the end of the picture, he seems more clear and sure-footed and less smarmy. The whole... That idea, that somehow everyone in the wake of Leopold's movement, cutting through this water, kind of just becomes more evolved, gets better, finds themselves a little more, we were really conscious of. And I know Liev was concerned with giving himself... He didn't just want to be the manic bad scientist, he wanted to have some place to go.

Pride: And also the ex-boyfriend, dare we say, "dick" character we see all the time.

Mangold: Right. And find an interesting way to turn that up. Not only is he the ex-boyfriend, but he facilitates them getting together.

Pride: The atmosphere is very charming, everyone lives and works in desirable spaces, but it isn't suffocating like some pictures, say, "The Royal Tenenbaums." It's not distracting, but it looks like a smart, lived-in world.

Mangold: Oh, we were very conscious of the dressing of her place. And Liev's. We pulled everything, my god, Kathy and I, Kathy Konrad, the producer, my wife also, and I walked those apartments. We took them apart and put them back together. We had so much shooting to do there. We were really concerned that you felt an inner romantic in Meg, that the place was pretty, but lived-in. Mark Friedberg, the production designer, he did an very interesting thing. Which he was very, he has this theory that one of the things you go wrong with when you build sets is you tend to build, you tend to decide what period the building was built, a room that looks like a, y'know, a room in a structure built in 1920 or whatever. He said that the real truth is that most buildings were built in 1920, then renovated in the fifties, and then someone did work in the seventies. So he always tries to think about the sets that way. I mean, not that you'd give it this much attention, but I think it gives it a real feeling of realism. Mark designed it like it was a pre-war building that had been retrofitted with plumbing and then cut up into other rooms. There was a way his logic allowed him to cut this place up in a way that feels real.

Pride: They're jam-packed with stuff the way a confined New York apartment would be, and they're not outsized like an apartment on television, one of the sets on "Friends."

Mangold: I've lived in New York City and know what's possible for people to afford and it gets downright silly. Also, I like, because things are opened up by playing scenes from above [in Stuart's apartment] and below [in Kate's apartment] and the fire escape, I always felt like we had one very big apartment with all these different rooms as opposed to two separate rooms. I felt like there were all these choices where action could play.

Pride: Here's an authentic New York detail: You see Meg barefoot a couple of times and the soles of her feet are dirty. Most women I know in New York are unselfconscious that way... padding around, taking up the grime.

Mangold: I mean, I don't know about... I don't know what that is, but that is New York.

Pride: It's being comfortable with the everyday sooty character of the place.

Mangold: None of us, Meg included, had any problem with trying to make things real. Making a fantasy film doesn't mean you have to make everything ludicrously clean or buffed-up or like a Doris Day movie. I think Meg is very conscious of [things] feeling lived in, being conscious of where she puts her coat and where she'd throw down her keys and when she'd kick off her shoes and when she'd be barefoot. I think she just made herself at home in that apartment.

Pride: A lot of directors go for gloss nowadays, as if the characters were living in a commercial. Obviously, Stuart Dryburgh's an outstanding cameraman, but how'd you arrive at this look? Things are a little grainy, but there's a nice marzipan edge to the colors.

Mangold: We wanted almost a three-strip Technicolor feeling. We wanted a 1950s look to the movie. I don't know what else to say about it, but that's what we were going for. I loved the way this picture looked, even in dailies I was in love with how the movie was looking.

Pride: I'm not responding to it just as novelty, but the look does set the picture apart. And it's nice that CGI time is being spent on the Brooklyn Bridge under construction instead of just more whooshy time-travel vortex effects, as you were saying.

Mangold: I'm very allergic to that commercial feeling. I feel like it's almost anesthetizing, like we've almost learned how to turn off commercials in our brains, and when movies look like them, I feel like we're not engaging them. I can think of a lot of major movies in the last year that are incredibly proficient technically but almost to the point of having no power. They become almost unfeeling. they're like an overproduced record. I know it more from music, I mean, I love Bruce Springsteen, and the less produced [he is] the better. Sometimes I don't want Bob Dylan with an orchestra backing him. The word "polished" has just come to mean "more" in Hollywood. It's like more isn't always more. Sometimes just allowing actors the space and a beautiful shot to perform in is the best "more" you could have.

Pride: You've always described the approach to your first feature, "Heavy," as an attempt to recapture the gestural weight of silent movies, of allowing eyelines and reactions to carry much of the emotional import. Here, you're allowing a lot of instants of revelation, realization or goofy joy instead of hitting the next plot point right away.

Mangold: We're so used to those plot points, I feel bored with them. It almost seems that the only thing that makes it all interesting anymore is what the actors and the director do with these moments, how we riff on them instead of just dwelling on the, "Bomm-bomm-bom! He's sleeping with her! Bomm-bomm-bom! The weapon's in the drawer! Will the bomb get defused before the clock runs out?" It gets silly. These plot points have been well-known since Shakespeare, and what makes things work is the quality of the writing and the quality of the acting, the quality of the direction. When they work, it's not so much making big choices, as just making living choices, human choices.

Pride: When I hear someone say, the stories have all been told, I always want to say something like, yeah, but they haven't been made with Meg Ryan's face at the age of 40.

Mangold: It hasn't been told. And you know what else, they have all been told before. The act of going to the movies is not always an act of reinventing everything. for me, on this picture, I was trying my hand at something I had seen and loved. I wasn't presupposing I could reinvent the romantic comedy. I was just hoping to make a good one that I would like to watch. I miss seeing movies like this. I miss seeing movies like "The Apartment," or "Tootsie," for that matter, movies where you had real good actors committing to outrageous circumstances, a kind of sure-footed sense of storytelling. As long as it says something, and something you might not have heard this way before, that's enough for me.

Pride: There's an intelligent modesty to that approach, instead of, "By God, I'll change it all!" Instead, you're investing yourself in stuff that you love.

Mangold: You can't do that with every movie. I mean, you can, not that I've done it with any. I think sometimes as filmmakers we can get too aware of our political power. You can become a hack, where you're just out to make money, which is not what I'm about, or else you can become someone who's out to redefine the medium with every picture. I don't think either one is useful in your head. Some of the greatest filmmakers, whether Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock, were great storytellers first. They didn't sit down every day and figure how they were going to turn everything on its head. They actually just set out to make great movies and the stuff they did, it was who they are and the way their minds worked that their movies unlike what you'd seen before.

Pride: Stanley Kubrick was saying, this is what's in my head and I have to get it out.

Mangold: Right. He was making the movies in him. It's us, it's the audience, that realizes they're challenging our notions. For him, they were his notions.

Pride: You'd think he couldn't have done it any other way if he had tried.

Mangold: I don't think he could have. that's the beauty of it. Sometimes we're too aware. Wanting to formally reinvent something for the sake of reinventing it is not good. I think you have to have a good reason. You have to know why you're turning something on its head.

Pride: "To thine own publicity be true."

Mangold: No, I love ambitious directors succeeding or failing in any way. It's a lot more intriguing to me than people who are just putting out more Big Macs. But I do think that we tend to anoint people awfully fast. I think that's the press looking for new filmmaking heroes. The danger is that every year we find the new Fellini, and then in three years, I don't know where they are anymore. Why don't we calm down and let somebody finish more than three movies? Before we anoint them to the level of someone who's made thirty-six films.

Pride: The classic directors often had a whole life behind them at 35 or 40 before they began making movies.

Mangold: That's rare enough nowadays, too.

Pride: At festivals, there's a lot of hullabaloo about the new guys, but there are a lot of good third and fourth films, if directors get a chance to make that many.

Mangold: They're considered a failure at that point, that's what's really wrong. They took too long to get there. it's the age of the phenom. [The press] wants the guy who's Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens. They want the guy who gets to the mound, throws, strikes, he's a phenom. But that's not how it works. John Ford made a jillion movies. Alfred Hitchcock made 36 movies before he was Alfred Hitchcock. Anyway, I'm happily on the long road. I always figure the turtle might win the race.

26 November 2001

indieWIRE Insider: Can't go on, must go on

indieWIRE INSIDER: The Show Must Go On; The "New Normalcy" with Soderbergh, Sales & Sundance
by Ray Pride

"Can't go on, must go on."

(indieWIRE/11.26.01) -- The thought is Beckett's, but it's also the inevitable thought of anyone whose life ping-pongs from paycheck to paycheck or project to project. In the months after September 11, newspapers and television reports have been awash with tears of sorrow, and tales of despondency and paralysis. But life, commerce and art endure. Welcome to the "new normalcy," where the business of show business continues due to trust and perseverance.

Scan the trades: Here's Steven Soderbergh, the Duracell rabbit of healthy attitude, dropping off the print of Ocean's 11 on his way to shooting his Miramax quickie with Julia Roberts, Full Frontal while planning his big-budget remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 science fiction head-scratcher Solaris. Add to that the fact Soderbergh's Solaris may be the first feature made under a deal proposed to USA Films, in which he and other indie-minded filmmakers like David Fincher, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze, and Sam Mendes own the negatives of their work. Why can't we all be like Steve?

Or like Bingham Ray, the stealth fighter of film distributors, whose gig at October Films was bolstered by close ties with many directors and producers. After a few quiet weeks as the head of United Artists, Ray announced his first smash-and-grab, yanking North American rights to Mike Leigh's latest, untitled Cannes-destined film away from presumptive distrib Universal Focus.

And super-indie Miramax can still turn on a dime. When their highest-budgeted film to date, Martin Scorsese's would-be awards trawler Gangs of New York was either unpolished or "inappropriate" to market in December, the company quickly placed their faith in James Mangold's time-travel romance Kate and Leopold for the studio's multi-thousand screen Christmas slot. Harvey's got an answer for everything.

"Consolidation" was a watchword of money types when the dot.com dream turned nightmarish, but simple cooperation, and trust in talent, seems to constitute the new normalcy. Resourceful, dexterous Cowboy Pictures recently teamed with Lions Gate for the latter company's release of InDigEnt Films' second feature, Campbell Scott's sci-fi psychodrama Final. Shooting Gallery veteran Eamonn Bowles formed Magnolia Pictures, and presumably plans to revisit the critical success of the Gallery's arthouse film series. And October Films cofounder John Schmidt has partnered with seasoned producer Edward R. Pressman to form ContentFilm, with backing from European venture funds as well as Frank Biondi's WaterView Advisors. The aim is 10 to 15 projects a year, with an eye to finding fresh avenues of distribution, as well. An even larger deal on the horizon is former Polygram Films topper Michael Kuhn's plan for a distribution company that would challenge the stranglehold of American majors overseas.

And an auspicious European alliance has put their trust in sales company Celluloid Dreams. Snapped up by a consortium of Europe's highest profile independent distributors, Celluloid Dreams is a familiar name on the festival circuit, representing some of the best international filmmakers working today (Bruno Dumont, Francois Ozon, Abbas Kiarostami, Laurent Cantet). As Celluloid head Hengameh Panahi has said of the acquisition, it's "a community of taste," sharing the goal of cutting costs and buying the rights to the best arthouse titles to build a formidable catalog.

Plus, come hell or high hopes, Christmas is upon us, with the studios marching out their best Oscar bets. Lightweight schedules suddenly strive for "art," with mega-decamillion dollar features shooting for the heft that usually only indies offer, such as Michael Mann's Ali."(What could be more timely than the story of a heroic Muslim draft resister?) Yet creaking would-be Oscar contenders like Life as a House quickly crumbles, and screens that aren't plastered with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings get the mid-budget indie-alikes such as the Jim Carrey-goes-Capra The Majestic, Robert Altman's Renoir-meets-Agatha Christie ensemble Gosford Park or Wes Anderson's Gotham family fantasia The Royal Tenenbaums.

And does anyone else sense Sundance on the horizon? All year, filmmakers have been quietly, studiously pushing toward the annual festival deadline. Despite being burned on more than an occasion or three, veteran Park City attendees still trust that it remains possible to be astonished in the dark. What will reveal itself as this year's In the Bedroom or Donnie Darko? With the Olympics shoving the fest into the first weeks of 2002, we'll know even sooner.

Life goes on. Stories continue to be told. Deals will be made. Otherwise who would settle for residual checks?

[indieWIRE, 26 November 2001]

19 September 2001

Best of Chicago 2001

Best Sunrise
September 12
Not that many of us might have witnessed it, but it came, and now another, and now another. Its beauty is apparent and lasting, even unseen.

Best Movie inspired by Bucktown Graffiti
Ghost World
Chicago-born-and-bred comics artist Dan Clowes was jack-legging through an alley off a side street just east and north of Damen and Division, and an enigmatic pairing of paint-scrawled words stuck in his mind. Terry Zwigoff's film of his 1998 "Ghost World" graphic novel, is both specific and elusive. Shot in Los Angeles and inhabited by semi-familiar actors, its world still suggests some of the odd bleak residue of Chicago's sidestreets and alleyways.

Best Foreign Language or Speciality Video Store
So many upstarts, so little capital. Storefronts like Blastoff Video and Big Brother, however well-intentioned, did not weather the vagaries of cash flow and customer attention spans. The not-for-profit Facets, however, continues to serve the community and nation as both a mail-order and drop-in video mecca. Where the likes of Blockbuster continue to contract their orders of speciality, foreign language and just darn good movies, Facets remains a library of esthetic congress.

Best thing about Wacker Drive construction
Orderly progress
The old joke goes, Chicago has three seasons: summer, fall, winter, road construction. How do you say, "City in A Persistent Construction Zone" in Latin? Yet the months and years of shoring up the subterranean enigmas of Lower Wacker Drive and the ring road that shunts traffic around the Loop have gone cleanly so far, with reassuring, discernible evidence that the pillars and contours of our downtown will remain solid for generations.

Best Place for Homeless to Sleep
Meigs Field
If fears persist about the proximity of this lovely commuter airfield on the Lake being a danger to downtown on the scale of Reagan National to Washington, D.C., its use as a verdant stayover for the misfortunate would not be amiss: Shelter in a Garden, anyone?

Best place to get a picture of yourself showing how you'd look if a state trooper pulls you over middle of the night and shines a fat flashlight in your face
Secretary of State's office
After a particularly nasty shock when renewing a drivers' license, several of us opened our wallets and purses to compare what we at first thought was our electroshocked inner weasels. Then we realized: the horrifically unflattering portraits of ourselves we carry around are not to shame us, or humble us, but in fact, to show the police on the job the wide-eyed weirdness we all react to, stopped in the middle of the night, perhaps guilty only of feeling guilty. The State of Illinois' current portrait cameras, whether designed or not, are an X-ray machine that consistently manifests each sitters' childlike anxiety.

Best Chicago Social opening line
Oh, take your pick
Oh, the riches of embarrassment. Reading the Onion each week is too much the repetitive giggle; some of wait for the month flash of Chicago Social, aka "CS: Chicago Social Modern Luxury." In almost patentable palaver, aped by its sibling slab, Angeleno, Chicago Social is lousy with leads that go hundreds of square feet beyond the demands of satire. Even when locally established writers drop in to write about art or theater, the writer has the same blasé loopiness, somehow matching the Social Study section, a wealth of black-and-white society photos, capturing the not-dazzling dizzied by a sudden flash. From the September 2001 issue alone, we have: "Stop wandering aimlessly through Bucktown, doling out cover charge upon cover charge only to wish you'd gone someplace else."" Where's that exclamation point, dammit! That's all that's missing to polish this gem. Or: "Chicago is indeed a city of neighborhoods." Indeed! Or: "Marwen may not be a name that trips lightly off the tongues of Chicago's art cognoscenti, but it should." It should! But let us not neglect the publisher's letter in September, a hit of wha-ha helium all its own: "We can't say we'd blame you for thinking that in 2001--a year indelibly etched into the collective zeitgeist as representative of all things futuristic, courtesy of Stanley Kubrick--people would be prowling the urban streetscape in blinding-white jumpsuits or synthetic, silvery fabrics bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mylar." Indeed!

Best columnist
Richard Roeper
Pour out your heart, or at least your prose, in a three or four day a week column, eventually a voice is made, and whether it comes from deep inside or was manufactured from the outside, it holds its own truth. Those who thrive, like Mike Royko, speak only for themselves, but also, somehow for their peers and only their generation, channeling fears and faults without uncertainty. Among contemporary Chicago columnists, a combination of cheap shots and cheaper concerns make Richard Roeper (the columnist, not the televised movie expert) the logical stepchild of the now-calcified, so-predictable Johnny Deadline, the Tribune's very own Bob Greene. Think of it: a column to write about anything that takes you or shakes you, several mornings a week, and an audience waiting to agree or disagree with the little head postage-stamped atop the column. Let's take Roeper's September 11 column (filed before other events took place). Model-turned-actress Estella Warren videotaped herself, confessing her fears on a commercial flight that appeared to be going down in June. "I find it amusing that the woman who co-starred in 'Driven' would be worried about appearing on an embarrassing videotape, but there you have it." What would Roeper do when a jet was going down? "I'd scream, cry and pray, probably in that order," but he'd leave the tape turned off. "There are some things better left unsaid, and some secrets that should be destined for a non-stop flight to the next life." Or, the next column. On Wednesday, in a nod to the still-living Greene, the column had changed forever. "You could not get a cheeseburger at the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's" was the third thing on Roeper's literary mind. But he later confesses to taking notes in church, stopping, praying. "Hundreds of thousands of us will tell these personal little tangential stories... partially it is human nature to say, 'This is how this thing affected ME...'" The caps and the solipsism resound: the voice and the column ring clear.

Best Cross-Street Turf War
Roger Ebert and Blair Kamin
On September 14, the Sun-Times' Roger Ebert penned a dreamy consideration of what might be the proper fate of the plot of land on which the World Trade Center stood. While there are billionaire developers holding a ninety-nine-year-lease on that tragic locale, Ebert dreamt: "If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it, for it is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world. Let it be a green field, with trees and flowers. Let there be paths that wind through the shade... Let this open space among the towers marks the emptiness in our hearts... Give it no name.. Let students takes a corner of the field and plant a crop there.. Do not build again on this place. No building can stand there... Just the comfort of the earth we share, to remind us that we share it." The prose alone announces its gentle dream. On September 17, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin would have none of it. After properly identifying the Towers' "banal and boring" form, Kamin takes "the movie critic Roger Ebert" to task. "one can understand how people would adopt such viewpoints in the passion of the moment. But none of these ideas stand up to scrutiny. Downtown Manhattan... is almost sure to remain the world's financial capital... Setting aside a huge plot of land solely for a memorial would permanently disrupt the flow of commerce.... Though he surely means no harm, Ebert's suggestion of a cornfield is the logical--and ludicrous--extension of this idea." Back to your beat, movie man, the American way will win, towers will rise once more to the sky, and a modest proposal, an impracticable, if lyrical dream, that does not kowtow to commerce will be mocked, without humor or vision, in the pages of the oh-so-conglomerated Trib.

Best Late Night Movie House
Music Box
Sleepy, but alert. Filled with snacks, but not suffering stinky smells. The first two sensations to insure a proper post-midnight public movie experience. The dreamy baby clouds scudding overhead in the main auditorium at the Music Box complement the sweet dreams on screen and to come, but it's good ventilation and a lack of residual beer or food stench that allows the Music Box to snatch another diadem for its moviegoer crown.
Music Box, 3944 N. Southport

Best Sushi Deluxe
Mirai Sushi
So much raw fish, so little heat. Now that every restaurant in perpetual search of a trend has exhausted the notion of tuna tartare, the range of sushi, both high-and-low, suggests the genunine possibility of the onset of fish fatigue. Yet in terms of innovation and exploration of tradition, as well as value for price, Mirai Sushi never fails to impress. If there's a bad piece of fish in the sea, they must have thrown it back. Try the Kani nigiri, king crab marinated in a spicy sauce, cool and pungent in a single fresh bite.
Mirai Sushi, 2020 W. Division, (773) 862-8500

Best Chicago Chick Dick Flick
Plaster Caster
Premiering in the spring with follow-up screenings at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, Jessica Villines' portrait of longterm rock-'n'-roll phallophile Cynthia Plaster Caster makes up in uniqueness for what it lacks in comprehensiveness, capturing Cynthia's love of manhood since her days as a mere teen groupie.

Best Thai that's not cheap
Arun's Restuarant
In the early 1980s, before the explosion of Starbucks, the urban landscape was transformed by a surge of Thai restaurants in disused storefronts. Instead of the MSG and cornstarch-laced inauthentic Ameri-chinese food that made for cheap takeout, the likes of pad thai became well-known staples of refrigerator-door menus. But, like most cuisines, attention, love and know-how can transform peanuts into gold. As with Arun's Restaurant, in which chef Arun Sampanthavivat and family have created a modest, intimate enclave for some of the freshest, beautiful, memorable plates of savories in the city. Chefs from around the world make the trip to the Albany Park neighborhood, with such luminaries as Wolfgang Puck happily singing Arun's praises. A degustation dinner is your best bet for the solid wallop your pocket's going to take for this delight; Arun selects the dishes, you choose the adjectives.
Arun's Restauarnt, 4156 N. Kedzie, (773) 539-1909

11 September 2001

Northern composure

Forsaking fiction in a world of mad fact

Pure joy, pure bliss: I saw a movie called "Amelie" on Monday night that seemed to have made my movie year.

Little tears sting my eyes throughout. I join friends from New York at a party for a film set in Los Angeles. We talk about what we have seen. I think of questions to ask the director of "Amelie" today.

I sleep on it. I wake a little after 10 on Tuesday to the words of my roommate at the Toronto International Film Festival. I'm supposed to interview David Lynch in a couple of hours, talk about the psycho-mayhem of "Mulholland Drive," a movie of glittering absurdity.

But CNN is on in the living room. My colleague, Steve, and I watch the footage from New York. We're kibitzing in a void, not really listening to each other, just commenting and theorizing so gravity does not pin us to the ground. Toronto local lines work, I can get on-line. Cell phone, forget about it. I have to assume my friends are fine. None of them live or work near the World Trade Center.

Steve and I watch the footage, ash-covered emergency vehicles slaloming between pedestrians, spilled into the street, faces mostly blank, some bloodied, all urgently getting away: from danger, from cameras, from mad fact.

The philosopher George Steiner has a new book out. He continues his argument of many years that language is no longer possible, and has not been in the time that has spun out since the Holocaust. I can't follow all his reasoning. But fiction I am concerned about today. Yesterday, audiences were shaken by Tim Blake Nelson's Holocaust narrative, "The Grey Zone." I decided to wait. I wanted joy, not gloom. Distraction, craft, the diversion of art: not the diversion of tragedy to fiction.

I blow off two morning screenings. The best movies at this year's Toronto festival have been about happiness, the search for truth, the search for simple beauty. Jill Sprecher's fine "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" is one of the best of that bunch. But all conversations today will be about One Thing that does not involve Love or Happiness or things that we want to see in capital letters, such as America Under Siege.

Will David Lynch still want to talk? Will the director of "Amelie," Jean-Pierre Jeunet, still want to discuss the notion of on screen happiness and bliss later this afternoon?

On-line for only seconds, my AOL Buddy List lights up with names: New Yorkers who are safe, for now, in their own homes, describing the din of voices and vehicles outside, the idea there is nowhere to go. A journalist I know was on her way to get passerby reactions after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. She forgot her police pass. She went back home. The second airliner hit. She is staring at the TV, ready to collect "local color." But stays on line. But stays indoors. "I'm fucked up," she says, the deadpan of typed words as ashen as the faces on CNN.

Others ask me to pass messages along to friends at the Festival. Mike saw the first explosion from his kitchen window across the river. Andrew is okay. Tell Scott's friends the Bowery still stands.

Canadian television goes to their own commentators. "We go now to a sociology professor from Grimsby."

Grim. Grimm's fairytales: they're just stories that go bump in the night. But who wants to go into the dark today? Movies, movie archetypes, they all seem unworthy at the moment. I don't want to find myself at a great movie, I won't be able to concentrate. I don't want to fall into a crap movie like the Steve Martin dud, "Novocaine," because life is just too short. Even the Bosnian war black comedy, "No Man's Land" is inappropriate. I want to watch the images on the tube, like I did during the L.A. riots. However shabby the analysis, however unclear the activity, however shaky the camera, this urban topography, the New York I know and love, is familiar. The fear on the faces is not. The Terror Porn replays. The airliner pierces the second tower again, again. Can narrative contain chaos? A little girl is the only one who remembers to cry. Her mother wipes ash from her small ruby cheeks with bottled water.

"I'm as close as I can get without being shooed away," someone says on a cell phone to the Canadian equivalent of CNN.

It's all too true to be good. The American CNN commentators invoke Tom Clancy. They wonder where the president is. Pulp fiction is their touchstone. Steve and I mention names like George Romero, watching the shots of the streets of Manhattan where no one walks, only runs, only gallops. We start to compare the events to other apocalyptic fictions, but stop suddenly, a silent compact: let's talk about family, friends, what will become of civil liberties in the United States.

I may be in Canada a long time. I wonder what country I'll be returning to.

[Newcity, 11 September 2001; appeared in a slightly different version in indieWIRE Daily, 14 September 2001.]

01 June 2001

Baz Luhrmann's delirious kitsch: Moulin Rouge

BAZ LUHRMANN WANTS TO ASTONISH. He says he wants to "reinvent musical cinema," and in his first two movies, Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, he took his first tentative steps, making a frenetic scratch-mix of music from many eras and of history with all the prankish savvy of contemporary theater and opera directors.

Contemporary American movies are usually slaves to naturalism, but with his third film, Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann is only a slave to the rhythm. Making a movie that is choking with extravagance and detail and a love of "love," with quotation marks and without, Lurhmann is working in a form akin to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia: impatient, operatic too-muchness. He designs and directs and music-produces not as though he'd never be allowed to make a movie again, but as if no movie would ever be made again.

While the story is a mass hallucination of the half-remembered tropes of the turn-of-the-century Parisian bohemian epoch, the music draws from dozens of sources with improvident alacrity. Luhrmann's show-within-the-show is an India-set stage show that mimics the wild fantasias of multi-hour Indian Bollywood musical epics, and the feast is for the eyes as well as the ears. But the ditty-simple libretto simply sets us in Montmartre 1899, where "a bohemian storm is brewing." Courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman, icy, then champagne-giggly) finds her future and that of the Moulin Rouge nightclub have been staked by lascivious impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent, bellowingly merry) on her accomodation of a dweeby Duke (Richard Roxburgh). Young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), new to the quartier, falls in with Toulouse Lautrec (John LeGuizamo, playing him as the truth-telling soul of the scene), who leads a bohemian band of artists who are impressed only with "truth, beauty, freedom and love." Lautrec pushes Christian and Satine into each others' arms in a screwball comedy turn of mistaken identity; Satine believes Christian is the duke. Cue the recurring refrain: "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return."

An absinthe-drenched reimagining of pop opera and the American musical comedy, each and every scene is a full-throated shouting down of any notion of understatement. Luhrmann is fixed on attaining the authentic through the inauthentic. How do we get to genuine feeling when we've been told how to feel so many times in movies and songs? Contemporary American movies are feats of naturalism, but with Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann & Co. are interested in feats of levitation. They're willing to tempt the notion: Can you die of too much beauty? If anything will sell the movie to the world at large, it's the dense, generous, post-modern soundtrack, delineating the recombinant DNA of a century of pop music: the "can can" heard in Moulin Rouge is courtesy of Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim) who sings, "Because you can-can-can!" over a track in his now-familiar rave-cum-frat-party fashion.

The movie unfurls on vast, lavish sets filled with color and action, augmented with swooping, physically impossible, computer-effects-enhanced shots of the end-of-the-century capital by day and night. The duke agrees to finance a show, which mirrors the love intrigues in the "real" world; it's designed and told in the excessive, brilliantly colored style of Bollywood as well. But you don't have to know that background for the movie's look and insurgent soundtrack to knock your socks off. Everything is iconic: the characters exist only in our visual rapture (or lack thereof) in watching them maneuver around their feelings through song. Most effective is how Lurhmann and Co. weave their soundtrack from dozens of sources, with the actors singing their own roles (Kidman's is lovely but thin; McGregor's is pretty damn terrific). The best example might be a love duet between Satine and Christian, when they are in full swoon over one another, which starts with bits of Phil Collins' "One More Night," segues into U2's "Pride: In the Name of Love," veers into "Don't Leave Me This Way," Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs," "Up Where We Belong," and then David Bowie and Brian Eno's soaring dirge to teenage love, "Heroes." The ace in the hole? The medley then moves to the climactic soar of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" and Elton John's "Your Song." Sounds either dizzying or dumb, but in fact, it soars above jokiness into some kind of sensation that finds emotional authenticity in the most synthetic parts of our shared pop consciousness.

The "we" that Luhrmann compulsively alludes to in conversation is less royal than communal, encompassing several key Bazmark, Inq. collaborators, including production and costume designer Catherine Martin ("CM"), to whom he is married, and Craig Pearce, his co-writer. Feline and impatient, Lurhmann is a cat who is self-consciously hep. With a shoulder-length fall of nicotine-gray hair, the 38-year-old impresario loves "a bit of a chat." Lurhmann is one of the fastest talkers I've ever encountered, and is willing to let his thoughts tumble over each other in his clipped, sometimes nasal speech, as this slightly edited transcript demonstrates. (Plot turns are discussed below, but the same information is provided in the opening narration.) These conversations took place at the Raffles L'ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills on May 13 and 14, 2001, a few days after the Cannes 2001 opening night debut of Moulin Rouge.

Pride: The refrain from "Heroes" in the big production number is bugging me right now.

Lurhmann: [pleased] Is it?

Pride: That and the da-DAH-da-DAH of the "Because you can-can-can" refrain.

Lurhmann: I think the fun thing about it is taking a [song] you've lived with it many, many years. The device in that duet is that it's all pop, and we're dealing with it in a very classical form [the musical comedy duet]. So you're suddenly going, y'know, I mean, maybe my personal taste, I would love to have heard Beck do a remix of it or something, in terms of what I like on my turntable. But because it's emotional storytelling, it does stick, you know what I mean? Like opera. It just gets a bit of a working out.

Pride: That song's meant something to me since I was 19, and I'm bringing the backstory of the lyrics to the scene, of Bowie in a hotel room watching a pair of teenage lovers on either side of barbed wire between East and West Berlin, unable to touch: that would put them at risk of being shot as they made contact.

Lurhmann: Yeah.

Pride: And you have it so exuberant, soaring, when Satine and Christian light up toward each other in the medley.

Lurhmann: It's inherent. I think what you pick up there proves to me that when a piece of art is true, it transcends time and geography. Let's take your point on "Heroes." Like whether you knew that story or not, that idea is embodied in that, it's a hero's song, it's about a boy and girl saying, "Look, just for one day..." It's got incredible hope yet sadness in it. Then when suddenly, it's interpreted in a scene that has the same notion embodied in it, it amplifies that. Same with say the tango piece, right? I only set it because I think that which is true, whatever anybody else says, it defies time and geography, y'know.

Pride: There's a Flaubert quotation I ran across the other day that seems to suit our give-and-take about process: "Talent is long patience and originality an effort of will and intense observation."

Lurhmann: Boy, has he been around recently in my gig? I don't know if I'm very talented, but I do know that creativity is only those things you've listed. There is this perception, I think, that y'know, someone who makes something goes up to a mountain and imagines it and you mystify the process. ninety percent of it is simply—y'know, ten percent is having a notion. It's one thing to have an idea and another thing to make it actually happen. The rest of it is those things you mentioned before that.

Pride: I admire at least the simplistic description of your communal process, a kind of magpie distillation of all these influences, you want to make diamonds. It's like a rare, modest idea that a "vision" can work this way, that it doesn't burst fully-formed from one ego.

Lurhmann: It can't. And I don't think, unless you are a painter and it is a relationship between you and the canvas, then the moment you step outside that frame and you involve one other person, while one—my job is to know where we are going to. How we get there is totally a collaboration. It's totally in the hands of many. And then even, I think the destination never actually changes, it can't change, one—you move the destination, a whole lot of your circus folk get freaked out, "What, we're not in the circus anymore?" I mean that in a really genuine sense. I mean, to me, it's no big deal, it's like I've been doing that for all my life.

Pride: It's the only process you've known.

Lurhmann: That's right. I've only ever known that process. From working with my brothers as a kid to what I'm doing now, it doesn't make any... When I get down to, say, doing a record, and I'm only down to two people... I mean, I can go out on my own, write text and whatever. I feel it is always better, the bottom line is I can enjoy it more, right, it's a richer better experience to work with people? I think that's probably what I can contribute, is that I help others to give forth.

Pride: I was talking to CM yesterday about the idea of "raising the temperature of the room," the idea that the challenges people who respect and know each other can throw each other that make the work smarter and richer and better.

Lurhmann: Totally. That's what we do, is argue. [laughs] But in a really, in a right way. What I mean by that is that's it's not personal, it's just dut-dut-a-dutta-dut and it's fun. Maybe we have a sickness [that] we're addicted to arguing, but we are addicted to it.

Pride: I was going through these recurring phrases, from the first time I talked to you for Romeo & Juliet, to all these other interviews here in my big book of Baz—

Lurhmann: [laughs] Right—

Pride: From Romeo & Julie and from the pre-release interviews for this, the most common set of words is "I believe in love." I was wondering how, for you, Moulin Rouge culminates your three films about the killing and thrilling aspects of love.

Lurhmann: Well, that's a good one, that's a good one. [Lurhmann stands, to illustrate the idea while pacing, folding his jacket over a chair.] Because if Strictly Ballroom is like the pure white light that's triumphantly perfect at the end, y'know, they live happily ever — well, they get together. It has the resonance of, y'know, love triumphs over oppression, right? We all know that—boy and girl, young, we will not be artistically oppressed, let's fight side by side, we fall in love, we triumph. But what happens after that? What's the sequel? One doesn't deal with that in a kind of David and Goliath myth, y'know. We don't see go and see Scott and Fran move on, move out to the suburbs, open a dance school and argue and he has an affair. Don't want to deal with that. That's the purity of that myth. Romeo & Juliet is love in conflict with society. Which is, y'know, the young couple, it's tragic, it's purely the other way. This is purely positive, this is purely negative. We completely lose that. It's more about what happens to the adult world instead of what happens to them. This one is about—actually, both of those, in a sense, in that Christian—Satine discovers before she dies, love. She is "like a virgin, touched for the very first time."

Pride: Touched by love for the very first time.

Lurhmann: First time. Because [as a courtesan, Satine] is born to a world of prostitution. And if you know someone born to the world of prostitution, they can be very, very, it's you don't ask them, "Why are you a prostitute?" The answer is too simple. It's like, there's that, then there's eating. So she's never been able to be emotionally involved. She discovers that just before she dies. Christian has this absolute ideal that love will conquer all things. He discovers, actually, that it won't, that he can't control things. That jealousy makes him do a dumb thing and he almost loses her. But right at the very end, y'know, the curtain rings down, their love triumphs at the end of Strictly Ballroom, doesn't it really? Y'know, curtain comes down. But suddenly, what they both realize is something bigger than even love—and that's death. That they can't control. Love can't solve all things. [It's a different myth. For instance, the characters] can't be [like the characters] at the end of Strictly Ballroom going, "Well, our love will sustain us." Because at some point, something will happen. What you do is bring in a black rider and you go—zhuuuuuuuuuuup—death. Y'know? Death steals away Satine and the part. Now, just before they part, what they have discovered is the point of the film. For Satine, it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. And for Christian, one hopes, although he has lost this kind of naive, idealistic perception of love, y'know, pure, absolute, unswerving? He is scared, but he goes on, changed. He doesn't give up on it altogether. See, I basically believe that your relationship to love evolves. I don't only believe it, I've experienced it. I've been Mr. Young-I-Will-Never-You-Will-Never-We-Will-Always. We've all done that.

Pride: Get older and do that, the youthful tack can be ridiculous, delirious, but you can remember it to find the necessary level now—

Lurhmann: That's right. That's right. The other thing is, you get to the point, hanging with someone for the rest of your life? Hm. And then you realize that actually there's another kind of love, y'know. It's... I suppose the bottom line is this, this is an easy answer, or a short one anyway. There's got to be something good about growing old. You've gotta get something in replace of all the apparent magnificence of youth that disappears as the years go by, the diamonds of youth and beauty, youthfulness, that disappears as you move through life. And what that is [that replaces it] is a kind of spirituality, a bigger spiritual power.

Pride: It's also the role someone finds themselves playing toward love as you grow older. A woman I know who's just turned 30 finally decided to have someone live with her. Now she's horrified, constantly irritated. I said, "I guess you don't want to be the old couple sitting around." Actually, she does, but with the wrong person, it's turning her manic.

Lurhmann: That's right. You've hit the magic number, 30. This is a generalization, but you turn 30, and that little bit of thing called youth, which you're not aware of when you're young, [it's going]. As Orson Welles said [does jokey Welles voice], "I know what it's like to be young, but you don't know what it's like to be old." It's quite true. You don't realize when you're under 30, what a get-out-of-jail-free card you've got. Y'know? Then slam, down comes the cage at 30. And it is about you're ready to deal with it. There's a reason why "Hamlet" is set at that age, why Romeo is one characteristic, absolutism. Hamlet is the complete opposite, he can't make up his mind about anything. And why Macbeth, having gone through that arc, is now engorged with power, and why Lear is really a silly old man in a sense. They all have the kind of primary fault of their age.

Pride: Speaking of Shakespeare, that brings up an interesting trend among some of the more interesting filmmakers working today, after they've made a few films: the willingness to be simple and direct. Audiences don't seem to have a problem accepting things being direct once they're in the seats, but sadly, with recent work from filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai, von Trier, Wayne Wang, there doesn't seem to be a critical vocabulary to discuss simple emotionality. That's going to be a problem with the way Moulin Rouge gets described as well. Simplicity and directness are sometimes taken for sentimentality or simple-mindedness.

Lurhmann: Look, it's really simple. I've made this kind of work all my life. I don't need to justify it. Y'know, hey. I spent the first fifteen years of my working creative life doing Brecht and Artaud, materials that were so complex my mother couldn't understand what they were. So having sat beside Peter Brook, working on the "Mahabarata," one of the great epics of the Indian theater, or y'know, working with Sir Peter Hall on "Watt." I'm learning the Elizabethan sound or investigations in Shakespeare over a two-year period. One understands it when you're doing the Shakespeare and Moliere. Exactly the same critical response was leveled at them. Because what they're dealing with is audiences from children to the Queen of England. What they had to find was a simplicity, right, in story structure, but a resonance and complexity in the layering. It's staggeringly naive for anyone, really, it is kind of naive not to understand the difference between those things, between... But on the other hand, one's got to be really, really committed to the journey, the journey of making the art to be received by the audience. It's not a demographic I'm chasing, it's a psychographic. Or you withdraw and hide in the kind of "let's hold up signs and symbols that tell a lot of critical folk that they can feel comfortable." I don't want to get negative about it, because you get drawn into it. Because for everyone like that, there is someone who is able to articulate in a really intelligent way, Y'know, what the material and the work is. That doesn't mean they have to get it or not get it. I would prefer if someone just said, "Look. I like Westerns." As opposed to, this is really direct-emotional, it's kind of all— Imagine saying in one breath, which one guy said, and I thought was just sort of naive, "Oh my god, wall-to-wall production design and a simple story!" In the same breath as saying, "It's a musical." It seems crazy, like, could anyone really be that naive?

Pride: So would a label like "delirious kitsch" be a problem? I'd say, "Why not? there's room."

Lurhmann: Well, what are we talking about here? Tastefulness? Because what is kitsch? Like, if I said to you, classical Greek art, statues the wall of the Acropolis. We think of that as being profoundly tasteful, but it was painted in disco colors in the time of the Greeks. I mean, all of those statues had rouge and pink faces and brightly colored clothes on.

Pride: Color was expensive. Only the rich could afford to be gaudy. Only they had perfume and finery.

Lurhmann: That's right. It's a funny thing about kitsch. Because, by the way, I do embrace that notion—

Pride: I like the word, but it gets used pro forma to suggest that immediately we're all supposed to recognize it as a pejorative, a culturally received constant.

Lurhmann: Well, if you're going to make a reference to a screwball comedy, [why] you can't make it look like an MGM musical? It's not a fruitless dialogue, it's an interesting one. But unfortunately, the thing is that whenever I've ever had someone on the mat about this, they kind of disappear into zero. One has never—I have never been able to find anyone who engaged in an argument on it—and as I've said, we like to argue—who's really been able to last more than five seconds. They just haven't been able to present an argument. And often, they've gone into—one guy, I remember, in Spain, went into a mumbling thing about "Well, y'know, I just know it's wrong." And I said, well, I made a film where there was an all-powerful federation, the president going, "There's only one way to cha-cha-cha, mate, and you're breaking the rule book." When you put rules, so-called invisible rules, next to art, you know someone's insecure about something.

Pride: I'm trying to get more at how things are described and received than about your reaction to criticism—but movies do start conversations. Even people who reacted badly to being taken to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there would be a conversation. They were engaged. They weren't only dismissive, the arguments began from there. And sometimes we don't want to admit we're swept away by a movie, so this kind of complaint is a way of resisting that engagement.

Lurhmann: It's an [important] thing you're pinpointing. Really, to go at something that by its very nature is meant to, it demands of you that you participate in the cinema—"audience participation cinema," that's what I call it—it says to an audience, "hey, whoa-whoa, wake up, wake up, you've gotta be involved or forget it, get out, y'know? If you're not gonna get on the bus, you won't get anything at the end." It's not a state that people who go in to do critique are necessarily ready [for]. It's not a criticism of the critique people—[laughs] but in all honesty, aren't you inherently—I've been in that situation, you're inherently going to make a sort of assessment about something, you're inherently in a position of, "Don't manipulate me. I'm not here to be manipulated, I'm here to make up my own opinion." Whereas, we say in the first five minutes of the movie, we are going to manipulate you, and we yell it loud and clear. We show on our sleeves, we go, "Manipulation is coming! Are you in or are you out? Because if you're not ready to be manipulated, there's no point. Y'know, ask for your money back."

Pride: It's bold even from frame one—the big red curtain even before the Fox logo, and then the tiny conductor leading the orchestra as the curtains part and we see the logo.

Lurhmann: And from moment one you're being, I hope, let in on the deal.

Pride: You have to bring something of yourself to observing any art. And sometimes we reveal more about ourselves through what we react against than what we claim to love.

Lurhmann: I've only got one concern. I don't want to win the war—I've lived all my creative life making films that have this 50-50—fifty percent who defend it and fifty percent who, it's not enough for them to say, "I like Westerns," they feel very vigilant that they must attack it like it's some hideous disease that's going to destroy cinema. And my only concern is not that war. It's that in the crossfire, the people that need Strictly Ballroom, or who need Romeo & Juliet, or who need this film—and I'm not saying like we're there to save the world, but there are audiences that need those mechanisms to feel. They need a kind of reversal on naturalism with theatricality to be touched and feel. [I don't want] them to get caught in the crossfire. The rewriting of the history on Romeo & Juliet is quite staggering when you think that we opened in the States, it was really only after it won six Academy Awards in Britain, against Titanic and Full Monty, that the critical history was being reassessed.

Pride: When I was doing research, I found Salon's review from when Romeo & Juliet was released that calls it "garish junk" and goes on to say, "It takes a special kind of idiot to screw up Romeo & Juliet, but then Baz Lurhmann isn't your garden variety idiot." Wow, she had a bug.

Lurhmann: The great thing about that is, it is so staggeringly—honestly, some of them, you get a little more pricked by, but really, that, I don't, it's just so staggeringly humiliating for that person, because here is a work, retrospectively, it's now the major study at Oxford University in terms of contemporary Shakespeare. A very famous critic [from the U.S.] came to me and apologized for his review of Romeo & Juliet. There was a dialogue in the room. That was kind of quite something. In his film class, he had screened it and there was a different view of it. The bottom line is this. If you live by the critique game, you die by the critique game. If Shakespeare had chosen to fight that battle, his work would not be what it is toddy. That is the truth.

Pride: Maybe it's naturalism that's the unnatural state.

Lurhmann: Look, for what it's worth, after a four-year investigation and after doing this all my life, really, just show me a musical where you've had naturalism in the plot structure. There is a reason why we reference very directly Emile Zola's "Nana" and "Lady of the Camellias" and "La Boheme." So that they are recognizable, well-worn story structures. You don't expect people to go, "A-ha! A beat out of 'Nana.'" I expect them to recognize a story about a middle-class boy meeting a prostitute who's dying of consumption and that's going to be a tragic story. Shorthanding [gives us] the poetic resonance that's valuable, y'know. That's what's really important.

Pride: There's the bromide that clichés persist for a reason.

Lurhmann: Well, cliché and myth are basically a picture of our condition, and allows truth.

Pride: So let's say the "Elephant Medley," the recombinant batch of songs that includes Bowie's "Heroes," where you're attempting to scale the heights of musical duets, let's say that encouraged me to make a musical short on digital video. Obviously, I'd have fewer production values. But how simple can it get, how simple do the elements of story have to be in a case like yours or mine? Let's say the couple are writing a song; it's her inspiration, he tries to turn it into his.

Luhrmann: It's the scene. It's a scene, it's a dance, a forward and a backward movement, it's a dance through music. But if you turn it into... Look, for what it's worth, after a four-year investigation and after doing this all my life, really, just show me a musical where you've had naturalism in the plot structure. There is a reason why we reference very directly Emile Zola's "Nana" and "Lady of the Camelias" and "La Boheme." So that they are recognizable, well-worn story structures. You don't expect people to go, "A-ha! A beat out of 'Nana.'" I expect them to recognize a story about a middle-class boy meeting a prostitute who's dying from consumption and that's going to be a tragic story. Y'know? Shorthanding [gives us] the poetic resonance that's valuable, y'know. That's what's really important.

Pride: Let's talk about something even more obvious. You like to re-purpose popular song.

Luhrmann: [speeding through a standard reply] Specific to this project, really, in terms of trying to create a musical language that works now... It's quite an old idea. There are two parts to it. One, using contemporary music... When Judy Garland sings "Clang-clang-clang went the trolley" in Meet Me In St. Louis, that film is set in 1900, she is singing 1943 music off the radio. The device of that is to help the audience get inside character and story, to understand a different time and place through your own music. The second thing is, it's a basic rule of musicals, that the audience have a relationship with the music, pre-existing. You've heard it in Broadway musicals, "White Christmas" is in two or three films. Both of these things combined for us to say, look, let's try and tell story through songs we all have some kind of relationship with. It's really more a technical thing than, "Must we use contemporary music?"

Pride: Were the rights issues tough?

Luhrmann: I had to meet with publishing companies. They think, "My God, this is a new way to use [catalog] music, this could be good!" Some of these people who wrote music are friends of mine, like Bono, y'know? He's a good pal. People like Bowie and and Elton, I just had to meet with them and go through what I was doing and they all loved the idea. "My song being used in a musical? That would be good." Because these people would be writing musicals if we were in the forties now. So they were very, very positive.

Pride: Any you couldn't get?

Luhrmann: Yes. Cat Stevens' "Father and Son." It was sad, because it was a great scene. At the beginning of the film, [Christian's] dad would go, [growling the lyrics]"It's not time to make a change, just relaxxxx..."

Pride: Did you approach him?

Luhrmann: No. In fact, he's almost impossible to meet with. We dialogued with his brother and, look, I respect why he rejected it, because on religious grounds, [Christian and Satine] are not married, it's really simple. Anyone who didn't want to be in the film, I completely understood that, but he was the only one.

Pride: Rodgers and Hammerstein let you have a lot of play with "The Sound of Music."

Luhrmann: They were fantastic. In fact, they have historically, they've got this really groovy, swinging board. And they have to decide everything. they're really, like, "Yeah! How can we get this music into a more interesting and modern way?" In an early script, there was a scene, a moment where Toulouse [Luhrmann adopts the characters' thick-tongued lisp], "Lotth of healthy Bohemian outdoorth thex! Rolling in the thnow!" He was describing the show [to the Duke] and Rodgers and Hammerstein's board wrote back, we really like this idea, we're going to give you permission, and we particularly like the "lots of Bohemian outdoor sex" line. Which, unfortunately, I had to cut... So, y'know.

Pride: In a way, Moulin Rouge is one long, unrelenting set-piece. Artifice unrelenting. So what about Toulouse's line, when he spits out at the Duke, the financier of "Spectacular Spectacular," "I am against your stupid Dogma!"

Luhrmann: Yeahhhh... That came up in Cannes. An army of people come up and said, "We got your wink about Dogma." But in truth, really, we didn't. Lars and all those guys, Y'know, we're all distant cousins. We've watched each others' work for a long time and I have my own Dogma. We've [Bazmark] have always had our own Dogma. And the "stupid dogma" line, the only truth of that is, they're bohemians, they've got a philosophy, which is what Dogma is and what Lars' thing is, is just a philosophy, Y'know. Loosely used, perhaps. But the Duke says, "I don't care about dogma or philosophy, I want it to end my way." And y'know, really, that's the important part of it.

Pride: Your Dogma is your line about Red Curtain Cinema.

Luhrmann: [speeding up again] Red Curtain Cinema, yes, it is audience participation cinema. It is a cinema that demands of the audience that they participate. It is theatricalized cinema. It is meant to be a very common story that you know how it's going to end when it begins. It utilizes devices to wake you up, music, iambic pentameter, whatever. You're involved. That's the philosophy.

Pride: But you're not espousing it for anyone else.

Luhrmann: No, no. And I don't think the Dogma guys are that serious about it. I mean, I know those guys. they're not that serious about it on that level, they're not saying, "All films should be...." It's kind of like a club with a set of thinking. I don't know all of them, and I am sure there are people coming along who would be like, "I must be a zealot." My view would be, you have story, you have a notion to convey it, you invent a cinematic language for it. This is the last Red Curtain one I'm doing. The next piece may have a completely different cinematic language. When you get into, "there's only one way to cha-cha-cha," you're in trouble. People start telling you there's a rulebook about art, you've got a problem. You must have your own way of telling. You know David Hockney, the painter? He's quite a great fan of our operas, and when he talks about painting, he talks about, "It's my way of seeing." I think we have to find our way of telling. I like to think this is our way of doing it.

Pride: What killed the musical?

Luhrmann: I mean, like action is king, right? All these genres, there was a time when musicals were king, and when sword-and-sandal was king. It was a big reaction against artifice, quite interestingly, what we are doing, I think is a kind of reaction against super-naturalism. The last really big musicals, notwithstanding Grease and Saturday Night Fever, you get back to Sound of Music, maybe Cabaret... I mean Sound of Music, you still have Julie Andrews running to the top of the hill, singing; Cabaret, it's Greek chorus, none of the numbers advance the story and there are bad Nazis in them. What that is about, we hit a period, the 1970s, extreme reality, Mean Streets, y'know, reality cinema. It was about destroying the artifice of their parents. I mean, Martin Scorsese's parents were into musicals. the circle just goes round. Stories don't change, just how you tell them.

[Expresso, Lisboa, June 2001]

01 March 2001

Rainstorms of Words

Robert Frost once made the observation that the act of writing is like drawing a bath in the cozy bathroom upstairs; talking about writing is like opening the spigot in the backyard and letting it gutter away.

Letter writing is another thing altogether, a writer's custom that has escaped too many writers today, except perhaps in terse, glib spits of e-mail. There's a lovely gift of language and love on every page of "The Element of Lavishness," a collection of a forty-year correspondence between New Yorker magazine editor and short story writer William Maxwell and British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. Their mutual admiration never becomes fulsome, but it has a hothouse quality, an articulate fruitfulness, that every writer should covet and will likely never know.

Maxwell edited more than 100 of Warner's short stories at the New Yorker, and she said that she wrote many of them merely to amuse "Dear William." They met only three times in their long lives--Maxwell raised a family, Warner had her companion and many cats--yet their letters brim and sparkle with adoration. The collection's title springs from this observation by Maxwell: "The personal correspondence of writers feeds on leftover energy. There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter's surviving is fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence--of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere that it please the writer to have it go."

It is an extravagance without specific expectation, satisfying merely by providing rainstorms of words to one's removed correspondent. Some of the letters deal with editorial matters, but most have been chosen to display how they each nourished distant gardens. (They both are excellent chroniclers of weather as well.) There is a magnificent passage where Maxwell describes the 1965 New York blackout, "Both strange and lovely." "The morning after... I felt the strongest urge to sit down and write you all about it and then I remembered how you had had years of such darkness during the war, and was ashamed of my own excitement." Fortunately, he wrote instead. His voice is remarkable and assured throughout, but his deft letter on the falling of night over Manhattan is one of the best. Who knows how much thought, who knows how many drafts? (I think he must have done it in a single typewritten spree.) A sentence: "And suddenly it happened. It was rapid but not instantaneous. It was exactly like the closing of an eyelid." Precise, simple, an unexpected image that is telling and true. Prose as lyric.

After one year's Christmas with his small girls, Maxwell writes, "This morning the living room is filled with half played-with toys. You remember the look of something half-played with?... For the nine thousandth time, I wish we lived near one another, for the propagation and sharing of pleasures, in this life."

The epistolary muse offers its own bond. As Warner wrote of pleasure to Maxwell, "Never mislay a pleasure. I might die in the night, so I will write to William now." She also admires the love he displays for his family. "You write so beautifully about your daughters and I would like to think you would write more than in letters. It should be recorded at the time, for when a girl child reaches puberty, she gives herself a shake and all that kitten-fluff and kitten airs are gone, gone! Mine is a ruthless sex." Childhood is a constant in their correspondence. Upon meeting a friend of Warner's, Maxwell writes, "Laurie Lee turned up, as you prophesied, and I was enchanted with him. I felt that we had played together as children."

But for pleasure in words and in encouraging the words of another writer, let us read a cable Maxwell sent upon receiving a story of hers, as her editor and first reader. "I PERSONALLY THINK YOU HAVE HAD THE MOST BEAUTIFUL LIFE ANYBODY EVER HAD." How many months of long toil can be brightened by such a generous, cognizant gesture? (Bunches.) Of Virginia Woolf's diaries, Warner wrote, "The entrancing thing of the book [is] its picture of a writer experiencing writing. When you read how she craved for flattery and commendation you will understand how gratefully I lick up yours."

Editor Michael Steinman does well to take this extract as an epigraph for this tender book: "If you had not loved to please, you would never, I think, have evolved that prose style that has given me an unbroken line of pleasure extending back for thirty years. When I was looking for the first time through 'The Osaka Woodcuts,' [my daughter's] godfather said, 'How did you get your love of Oriental art?' and I said rapturously, 'I got it second hand,' without thinking, but surely that is how all pleasure is got--from the rubbing off of somebody else's pleasure in something. From eye to eye and skin to skin. A cousin of love-making."

The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell 1938-1978
Edited by Michael Steinman
Counterpoint, 356 pages, $27.50

[Newcity, 1 March 2001]

22 February 2001

Knowing Dick--Plaster Caster, the documentary

The man who tends Cynthia Plaster Caster's mouth has the keenest insight into her art.

While Cynthia concedes that her lifelong "oral fixation" has a lot to do with her three-decade journey from groupie to honored "life cast" artist, her "accidental art form" has taken the shape of capturing-in casted form-the most masculine feature of rock musicians, including most notoriously, Jimi Hendrix. While Jessica Villines' keen, sidelong portrait of Cynthia is chockfull of diverse interviews with the likes of artist Ed Paschke and Camille Paglia defending Cynthia's pursuits, her dentist, Dr. Michael Feinberg, shares the keenest insight. Artists have fixated on features of the human form throughout history; Rodin liked hands, Cynthia Plaster Caster admires rocker's cocks.

As Plaster Caster premieres February 22 in a Chicago Underground Film Festival-sponsored showing, with its first of no doubt many festival screenings on March 8 as part of the New York Underground Film Festival, I sat down with Cynthia and Jessica this week to gauge their mood before the premiere.

A year's shooting elongated into two, with Jessica investing her own money and time to accumulate more than 200 hours of footage, working with producer and director of photography Jeff Economy, additional DP Ken Heinemann and producer and editor Brian Johnson. Both Cynthia and Jessica are pleased, as the two years of shooting offered a range of crises and mini-crises in Cynthia's life, leading up to the first gallery showing of "my sweet babies" at New York's Thread Waxing Space last summer. "Some of the best stuff we shot was at the end of the filming," Jessica says, including an interview with fellow rock-lover Pamela Des Barres and a priceless conversation with Eric Burdon. "All the major castings [in the film] took place in the last six months" as well. On their return to New York with the finished feature, Jessica has high hopes of getting meetings for a cable deal with HBO or Cinemax.

Part of Cynthia's charm, captured in Jessica's 102 minutes, is her genial deadpan, where statements like "I took classes in fistfucking" are as matter-of-fact as "Pass the sugar." Of one scene that will be among the film's more notorious, Cynthia's process of casting is shown with Demolition Doll Rods guitarist Dan Kroha, Cynthia says, "I had to stimulate him"--a job usually taken up by a "plater"--"I didn't know him, we did it partly in front of a camera, and that was cause of concern for a while."

Jessica adds, "We were shooting from across the room, and yeah, I was praying they would both forget we were there. It seemed to go pretty well."

Cynthia thinks for a moment and adds, "it's always pretty weird, having sex with a stranger." The interview process over the two years was simpler. Cynthia says she simply had to think, "I'm having a conversation with Jessica and Jeff today with a mike strapped to my butt. Sitting down and learning to not notice the bulge on my butt, that was the only problem."

As in the film, Cynthia's memories sometimes differ from the interviewees. I asked how they had met, how the film project had begun. "You remember it differently," Cynthia says. "My friend asked Jessica if she would give me a ride home from a show, and she very kindly did."

"I didn't have a car, then, so it was impossible," Jessica shrugs. What she remembers is that Cynthia had, in her amusing parlance, "popped the question" to Jessica's then-boyfriend, Duane Denison from the Jesus Lizard. "He didn't want to do it, I wanted him to do it," Jessica says, "but as a consequence of that, we would say hi to each other more often at parties and so on. We went to dinner and talked about it, and then we did the movie."

While rock stars and their penises have a certain built-in fascination, the greatest accomplishment of Plaster Caster is how it captures the daily life of someone practicing a singular art form. Cynthia, who has been working on-and-off on her autobiography for several years, says, "Oh, I wanted a documentary to be done on myself. The time is right. My life has come to a turning point. All these interesting weird things have been happening. My life is more interesting than I am, I think. It's gotten damn colorful recently. Two of the craziest years of my life, I'm glad she was around with a camera."

What has she gotten from it? "There's some self-discovery there, discovering things about myself I have to improve upon." She deadpans, of the material, used for dental molds but also for her castings, "I'm learning to mix alginates better."

Jessica says she was fascinated by how someone so apparently shy could get up the nerve to ask the near-seventy subjects of her collection to pose for her. (An opening scene captures Cynthia in her blushing glory, stammering as she tries to offer her tribute to Five Style guitarist Bill Dolan with camera crew in tow.) "I don't think I'm so much shy than retiring," Cynthia differs.

"Yeah," Jessica counters, "but you were scared pretty much all the way until we were editing that the film would have some kind of sensationalistic bullshit, some kind of ambush on somebody. I think once you saw the rough cut you were feeling better."

"I wasn't calling every day," Cynthia agrees. "But there was some footage, there was a certain person who I didn't think was that big a part of my life, who gratefully is not going to be in my fucking film. My... ex-thing..."

Jessica says, "I felt the movie was more about the artist. It's about demystifying the process, the creation. I especially think [this film] says something about the way a lot of men view female artists, 'Why isn't this woman married if she's in her fifties?' Why can't she be an independent strong woman who doesn't rely on a man. You're very independent. That's one of the things I admire about Cynthia."

Cynthia turns to Jessica, nodding toward the floor. "I love those pants, by the way. I told you that, didn't I?"

While Jessica has worked as a copywriter and written screenplays, I wondered how she had the confidence and perseverance to proceed with the film. How'd you have the balls?

"The tits," Cynthia offers. "The tits, exactly," Jessica says. "I understand story and structure. I just knew I could do it." She pauses. "Really, the main thing, it was my own money. I was in debt so much, well, let's bet the farm. Just shoot everything and hope the top half a percent makes a good film."

One thing that comes through loud and clear is that Cynthia wants to be the pursuer, for her own reason: it's less sexual than a tribute to someone's artistry. "I simply don't feature someone offering their penis to me. It tends to be someone whose penis I don't feel worthy of being captured. Those are always the type."

"That's what put you off about Gene Simmons," Jessica observes.

"You read my mind. I believe that Gene"--who tried repeatedly to get himself invited to the party -- "was giving me a gentle hint. You can't commission me to do it, you can't pay me to do it, you can't ask me. I'll ask."

Jessica says, "It's not a performance like a trained seal. Someone on the radio wanted her to cast him on the air. They just don't get it; it's not a shtick or a gag. A person into rock history should know about it being your taste and your vision."

"They should. Maybe they just gloss over that section of what they were reading," Cynthia says.

"As a woman, I see her work as very important," Jessica says. Some men see her work as "a competition, rather than artistic."

"I can kind of see those dicks through the pants," Cynthia laughs. "I sense smallness."

"I thought you said shyness, shyness is what you sense."

"Maybe. I haven't always had the opportunity to find out if I'm right or not!" She reflects, "it was all accidental art. Doing it to get laid [thirty years ago], coming around all the way to this. I ironically didn't get laid that much in the process, only lately. Very strange."

[Newcity, 22 February 2001]

18 January 2001

Taking the film school out of the box: The Criterion Collection


Theatrical exhibition of movies, movies on DVDs, "They're all just buckets." What matters to the 36-year-old president of the Criterion Collection are great movies. Collectors of their near-100 special edition DVDs may not know how much time and effort go into producing them, but the multi-supplemented discs bespeak a rare passion.

Criterion, privately held, had its origins in the glory days of theatrical distribution of arthouse movies, through the renowned Janus Collection, which still holds the rights to many movies, including The Seven Samurai, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Ingmar Bergman's 1950s and 1960s classics. Becker and his partner, Jonathan Turrell, are carrying on the tradition established by their fathers. The Janus logo, a two-faced coin, reminds Becker that the movies matter, and not the buckets. "When I look at the Janus-head coin looking at once to the past and the future, that represents the mission that we're on; at once to look toward our film heritage, and to the future, where we have to be constantly and aware of and focused on not only future audiences, but future technology, so that we can keep these films in front of audiences."

In a nondescript brick building in Manhattan's Midtown between an Irish tavern and a sushi storefront, a handful of technicians and producers are making daily incremental progress on DVDs to come. It takes weeks, even months of work, and Criterion has several films that have been announced as "coming soon" for years. If transfers or restoration work isn't up to their high standards, it remains a work in progress, rather than being rushed on the market to quickly recoup costs. "That can mean tens and tens of thousands of fixes over the course of a feature film," Becker says. "It takes weeks and weeks, but it's worthwhile. It doesn't replace restoring the film elements themselves."

Restoration on video masters is a simpler and less expensive prospect than making a movie with a damaged negative watchable on screen. With movies such as Rear Window, it can run into the millions. Yet Becker is interested in the big screen as well as your small one. "Wherever possible, Criterion and Janus together are distributing films today. If the idea is to present every film as the filmmaker would want it seen, that means in the ideal circumstance, it's in a dark room with a lot of strangers," he says.

With DVDs getting the Sexiest Thing Alive treatment on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and with the number of DVD players in use soaring to more than fifteen million, DVDs are the best friend to the big studios' bottom line. But rather than serving as one more stop on the ancillary pipeline, DVDs are Criterion's product. Their high standards ensure a profitable niche market.

Yet their expertise requires further expertise to wind up in the racks at the local Tower or Virgin Megastore. Criterion has an unusually close partnership with Chicago company Home Vision Entertainment, also a privately held family enterprise. Criterion's partners in their conspiracy of taste are located on an equally nondescript street in the Ravenswood neighborhood, in view of a billboard promoting loans en su barrio. Home Vision provides distribution for Criterion, including sales, advertising and marketing, as well as maintaining their own 200-plus performing arts titles and a library that includes a treasure trove of early Kurosawa titles. Founded in 1986, Home Vision was one of the first companies to recognize the potential for cultural, performing arts and documentary material. (Their own DVD line will begin this year with several Merchant Ivory films and BBC documentaries.)

Equally important, Home Vision founder Charles Benton, whose Public Media, Inc. was founded thirty-three years ago, has also recognized shifts in distribution "buckets." Past successes include 16mm feature distribution and television syndication. But the company has occasionally misfired, such as with the laserdisc market, which never took off. Home Vision, headed by president and CEO Adrianne Furniss (and Benton's daughter), remains small and passionate about their work. Carrying on family traditions, the collaboration of the two companies creates that old-fashioned ideal, "synergy."

Laserdiscs were a costly diversion for both Criterion and Home Vision. But unlike many of the now-defunct companies whose film libraries Home Vision draws from, decisions can be made quickly and efficiently. Benton laughs at the idea that they're buying back libraries that were taken from them, from the new owners. "But the films stay on! We're still after those good films. Our failures, as well as our successes, and thank God, the successes have outlasted the failures. People are afraid to fail and won't try new things." "Obviously, within a narrow enough scope it's not going to put you under," Furniss adds, laughing.

Benton remains enthusiastic about Home Vision's mission: "Buying good films that sell, that's our philosophy. We don't want bad films that sell, and we don't want good films that don't sell. That's the fundamental. We don't want to be a mass market business, but boy, is it a good niche market."

Larger companies reward you for being conservative. "If you have passion," Furniss continues, "like Peter Becker's immense passion for classic film, you don't compromise. Charles is an art collector himself and has had a passion for art... If enough of your passion lines up with the passion of others, you have a market. We learned an astounding fact last year: more people go to museums than amusement parks in this country. We've had titles that sell two-hundred units, and others that sell 50,000. Vermeer, he's great, but that's my 200-selling [title]. He doesn't have the paintings in American museums, it isn't like Georgia O'Keefe or Robert Mapplethorpe. But when you have a group of artists who have, I hate to say it this way, but there is a calendar art potential where it crosses over into the mainstream and mega-exhibits come around. But if they collect those titles, we hope they'll cross over to our collection of 200 art titles [that sell well]."

Similarly, Steve Riforgiato, Home Vision's vice president of sales and marketing, believes that with the burgeoning popularity of the DVD format, Criterion's eclecticism will interest collectors in movies they would not have seen otherwise. Armageddon might get someone to buy Hard Boiled, or even [the Japanese ghost story] Kwaidan. Like the others, he disdains film snobbery. Although a large part of Home Vision's catalog consists of arts documentaries, such as a just-released BBC feature on the painter Jackson Pollock. "It's good to be very serious about what you do, but I think being snobby would be the death of any company. You have to just laugh and have a good time with guilty pleasures. A real movie fan has a pretty wide range of tastes. You can't discount kitsch. The Blob is fun. Is it great? Probably not. Is it fun? Sure. You should be able to get a good giggle out of the supplemental material on that disc."

Criterion mingles high and low in its collection. "One thing that does set our work apart is that every Criterion release has a person who is really living with it for a long time," Becker says. "The producer of a Criterion disc will spend a minimum of three months of their life. You feel very strongly the weight of the heritage of that film resting on your shoulders. Because we are a small company and we are all genuine film nuts, and believe in them as art and a form of entertainment." Antonioni's L'Avventura is an upcoming title, and of the disk producer, Becker says, "'The look on her face when she found two essays in our file that were obviously typed up by Antonioni with his handwritten notes on the side! There's an incredible sense of discovery and excitement that comes from having a personal connection with a filmmaker. It's not that we're the only ones able to take this care, but we do take the care. It's not always the most profitable way to handle each and every film, but that's only one of several considerations. You don't work here unless you care about film."

The care goes beyond the shiny discs with the cool extras. "We're trying to do more theatrical releasing as well. In the end, fairly modest theatrical releases give people in a 100 or 150 cities the opportunity to see Gimme Shelter on screen. That's a case where we were able to do some really good work at the film level. As it turns out, all the work we did on the film level is irrelevant to the quality of the video transfer, because we went from the 16mm camera positive for the transfer. We were even a generation closer for the transfer. The video should look even better than the prints did. We try to leave a film in better condition than we found it."

"We're a company that's more driven by mission than media," Becker says, returning to the "buckets" theme. Most of today's transfers are done in high-definition video with an eye to the next technological wave and waves to come. "We'll use any medium that seems to stand a reasonable chance of gaining acceptance with the highest available quality of reproduction. We did release a couple of films on CD-ROM, which was a good move. It gave us a lot of experience with interface before anyone was thinking of interfaces on DVDs. In the end, the content matters, the film comes first. We try not only to come up with a curated collection, but a curated edition."

While studios seem to have a checklist of what you'll get for your $29.95, Criterion doesn't have hard and fast rules. "We spend a lot of time talking about appropriateness. Buñuel [whose Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie lacks a commentary] is not the first or only case where we have been reticent about commentaries. It's like when we were preparing the [three-film Jean] Cocteau boxed set, we were all reading a lot of what he had written. These essays were circulating among the staff, and it's always like that, everyone learning a lot about Cocteau, about Hitchcock, whoever's work is in front of us. We got a distinct sense from these essays that explanation was antithetical to Cocteau's ideal of beauty. So we decided that no one was going to talk about Cocteau's work but Cocteau. We searched for what he said about his work. On a much more reticent front, when we did Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir said, no commentary. He said, This is a film about the unexplained and the unexplainable. that's the whole point! As soon as I try to make sense of it, it's the one thing that could ruin the movie! That was good enough for us. We didn't even put a note on the packaging. I think people respect that."

[Originally published in a different form in Newcity, 18 January 2001.]