30 November 2006

Pynchon vida!

"The Book of the Masked" [was] filled with encrypted field-notes and occult scientific passages of a dangerousness one could at least appreciate, though more perhaps for what it promised than for what it presented in such impenetrable code, its sketch of a mindscape whose layers emerged one on another as from a mist, a distant country of painful complexity, an all but unmappable flow of letters and numbers that passed into and out of the guise of the other, not to mention images, from faint and spidery sketches to a full spectrum of inks and pastels... visions of the unsuspected, breaches in the Creation where something else had had a chance to be luminously glimpsed. Ways in which God chose to hide within the light of day, not a full list, for the list was probably endless, but chance encounters with details of God's unseen world." ["Against the Day," by Thomas Pynchon.] AND: Mr. Pynchon's own press release for the stoop-stopper in question: "Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after the First World War, Against the Day moves from the labour troubles in Colorado, to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, to Venice and Vienna, to the Balkans and Central Asia, to Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tungska event, to Mexico during the revolution, Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all. With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred. The sizeable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi and Groucho Marx. As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it is their lives that pursue them. Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it's not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction. Let the reader decide; let the reader beware.
Good luck."

29 November 2006

One long movie: on Altman, Wenders, Tarr and duration

"I'VE BEEN MAKING ONE LONG MOVIE" is one of the nice lines Robert Altman had in his quiver to keep from telling journalistic outsiders about just what it was that he did as a filmmaker.

Altman worked variations on the form of the musical, sometimes hiding it, sometimes celebrating it. He claimed to hate genre, which is why he employed it and also why he would worm his way through the clichés of a given genre in movies like The Long Goodbye (the always-moral figure of the P.I. turns amoral; a blowzy 1940s-style theme is repeated ad infinitum down to supermarket Muzak and doorbells), or McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the maverick Western entrepreneur is demonstrated as a mumbling mess-up, scored to dour, fateful songs by Leonard Cohen like "Susannah"). Nashville, of course, was one of the outright musicals, but one also where maudlin impulses are shown to anticipate maudlin sentiments in second-rate songs. But there is also the eccentric Popeye, scored by Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson and the underrated Kansas City, about the jazz of the era in which Altman grew up in that small Midwestern city.

He had a film in pre-production, scheduled to shoot in February. (It was a fictional version of the documentary Hands on a Hardbody.) At the age of 81, insurers required a back-up director, which Paul Thomas Anderson served as on what turned out to be Altman's final musical and final picture, A Prairie Home Companion. (Anderson, of course, starts loud and music only gets LOUDER; a dialectical effect in Altman's work becomes a dial-it-up effect in Anderson's.) Like Andrei Tarkovsky while making The Sacrifice, Altman knew he had the cancer that would kill him last Monday while he was making and publicizing Prairie Home Companion, a meditation on the passing of form and tradition and of mortality that includes the line, "An old man's death is never a tragedy."

Tragedy is in smaller gestures, and the densely organized yet gesturally rich Satantango, Bela Tarr's seven-and-a-half hour 1994 Hungarian epic has been scheduled for ages for American release, and has been pushed back again. While Tarr's schema for that picture is, as the title indicates, built in an intricate fashion around the form of the tango, other movies, such as his Werckmeister Harmonies (on Facets Video), elongate ideas of time and representation through duration, and camera movement, and music. Werckmeister opens with an extended traveling shot, an incredibly orchestrated dance of figures and camera, in a small-town hard-drinking old man's bar, that while influenced by Tarr's Hungarian predecessors like Miklos Jansco, attempts to describe the creation of the world through the dance of the camera. Altman's slow, steady zoom-in/slow, steady zoom-out alternation is formally different, yet draws on parallel inspiration.

How can the tempo of experience be expressed in the tempo of film? Each director finds their own way, but it seems wrong to resist the pull of music, which, like other forms of sound, works directly in the mind rather than requiring interpretation the way images do. Thanksgiving weekend, I wound up seeing Wim Wenders' director's cut of his 1991 Until the End of the World—four hours and thirty-eight minutes, without an intermission, thank you-along with an appearance by Wenders afterwards. Wenders, at 63, with long, shaggy gray hair, eyes framed by bold round specs, looking more and more like a lost Ramone, spent ten patient days at a complete retrospective at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Greece, answering questions from very young audiences that can only be described as "thronging" and "worshipful." The director's cut of Until is daffy and logy, and best experienced, like its many characters jumping around the globe, with a tad of jet lag. A friend who was supposed to see the film with me arrived in time for the Q&A. "Do you feel more like a complete and finished person now?"

In it complete and finished form-actually a cut that Wenders and editor Przygodda had set to one side before "massacring" it to two-and-a-half hours demanded Warners and other distributors, delivering only a lesser quality drawn-from-positive diversion-wouldn't you guess, Until is a musical, a science fiction road movie trilogy of stories about an ecological disaster. (It won't be released in the U.S.; Wenders says Warners won't pay their share of the substantial costs of making the cut.) The characters converge in the Australian outback, all in search of a machine that will allow the world to see its dreams. The tempo slows. The metaphors tumble out. But in the extended cut, Wenders and his collaborators allow the characters to each discover a musical instrument, from drums to didgeridoo, not only expressive of their personalities, but also a convergence of sounds, hopes, dreams that lead to several loopy, percussive jam sessions.

Same for Altman's swan song. A Prairie Home Companion is as blunt as a stick or a rap to the knuckles about its harmonizing: the characters are performing one final show in a form that has been an anachronism for decades, watched over by a detective who's fallen head first out a bad film noir pastiche and a blonde angel of death, embodied by Virginia Madsen. Songs are sung. Stories are told. Time glides past painlessly. An old man's death is never a tragedy, but it is a story, a reverie, the end of one long movie, and also a song.

[Wenders' official website is www.wim-wenders.com; Until the End of the World's director's cut can be ordered here; published in a different version in Newcity, 30 November 2006.]

28 November 2006

Children afraid of the night

FRIENDS HABITUALLY CALL THIS SMOKY PLACE THE ALL-PURPOSE, but not only because it's like high school or everyone who's remotely likeable is as cute and opaque as Molly Ringwald's Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club. Strangers say this club's standoffish, but it's not really a club, it's regional and seasonal and elective affinities, it's repetition and proximity, habit and hope, a cushion nearby on hardwood times. (It is a Local, redoubt of misplaced destinies.)

Each square inch is ashed with molecular history, subatomic particulars, this home-away-from-homeliness. Themes, variations: How many Beckys have sat in Booth One? A Tom flirting like mad with no expectation beyond being heard? And legs furled, calves bared in chilly night, what is this especial Amy specifically onto? (Did she really date Hans?) Are any of the words in air this moment approaching language or is everything the gentle of gesture, the dance of reflection? This is like long-form serial TV, only with potential for touching.

As Woody Allen said Balzac said, "There goes another novel," and perhaps another short story by way of tall tale, or judicious indiscretion, there goes another MySpace pre-stalk aimed toward Your Place, or a complication requiring tetracycline. There are only two poles in this binary joint: you are old enough to be here or you are too old to be here.

So many ways to circumnavigate around “the furniture of home,” in Auden’s lovely poem, "September 1, 1939." "Faces along the bar cling to their average day: the lights must never go out, the music must always play… [T]his fort assume[s] the furniture of home; lest we should see where we are… Children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good."

Over the years I may well have spent too much goddam time here, and it’s not like my living room at home is a dump or a wreck or this place has more than a veneer of purity, no paragon of spotlessness. Not wholly a dive, a dive of the mind, where you imagine imagining something honest and instinctual and modestly raw. It is ritual. It is church. When you are small, who dreams a church of booze? (This is not post-Soviet Russia.)

There is truth amid clatter and clutter and blear of eye and purse of mouth and sudden wink, sultry glance. It's all true, but none of it is real. A place made for watching, knowing not what watching is thinking. The shadow of life. Do you cast it or get enveloped in its warming swallow of murk? Very pretty and errantly stylish boys and girls and women and men who have not grown into the custom of their compounded years, a procession of the cute-iful and the damaged. Face of pug, haunch of Diana; dipsies and doodles, heartbreaks and canoodles, partaking of drink or tippling deeply into alcoholism, familiars who grow more so with repetition and proximity, repetition and proximity, in one more Chicago corner bar, when it’s only the end of a long night's day.

The night's bite is just below freezing; I circle a familiar pathway like old dog in sooth of hearth and home: one more unstructured to-and-fro, come-and-go, at the All-Purpose. J. texts an ETA. This pint of PBR is cold. A song ends. Talk is muted; silence, almost. The bartender’s hearing is going. The song starts loud, stays there, moody, broody, a glacial smirk: "Why do you come here? And why do you hang around? Why do you come here when you know it makes things hard for me?" Ah, the Smiths. "Oh, so many illustrations; Oh, but I'm so very sickened, Oh, I am so sickened now." I look around. There’s smiles and sing-along. I’ll sleep, content. It was a good day, good day. [Originally appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity, November 22, 2006.

The Death of Old Media: Part #274 (On being a man)

PRESIDENT BUSH GETS A HALF-BILLION DOLLAR MEMORIAL from unnamed donors (aka a presidential library), and the best sinecure that the TribuneCo can offer gray eminence Charles M. Madigan is the occasional Op-Ed peramble and under the nom de blague Charlie Madigan, the sporadic "Rambling Gleaner" blog? Tuesday's paper is graced with Mr. Madigan's pre-yellowed thumbsucker-cum-jawdropper "Tips on being a man." "A friend asked me what to tell a teenager about how to be a man. This is a very hard question," Madigan begins, before mangling his generational indicators by cool-checking his iPod, then marveling that the Beach Boys' "When I Grow Up (to be a man)" soon "surfaced." "That was one fine tune with great lyrics," he opines finely of the 1964 song. "Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?" Of course you will. That is one of life's biggest discoveries... It's why I still have a Lionel train... The question should probably be, "How should I be an adult?" But I think I am trapped in a sexist universe that is still boy-girl defined. I still believe that men and women are different, certainly physically and maybe emotionally too." Sociological prowess established, Madigan moves from feats of ledgerdemain to higher prestidigitation: "Late one night, a set of guidelines emerged... [T]hey reflect the way I want to be in my life, an ideal, if I could only get there." Let the gumming being! "1. Don't be afraid. Life is full of heartbreak and delight. We were born to survive... 2. In the dance of life, women also get to lead... 3. Only you can say who you are... 4. Take grief only from people who love you... 6. It's better to be sorry than to have regrets... 7. You can cry and be as sad as you need to be... 9. Look into the eyes of the people you are talking with... Pretty easy stuff until you start thinking about the points... [W]ho is actually harmed when a man fights tears? Let it go. You wouldn't fight an impulse to laugh so, really, what's the difference? ... For those who wish to respond, I warn you that No. 4, suggested by a priest in a conversation with one of my college-bound sons, is just my most favorite of all." Ah, I suppose anything that keeps Kathleen Parker off the page in the Windy City is a fine placeholder. [Also posted at Sharkforum.]

Newt Gingrich: free speech only for politicians like me

Perennial presidential candidate, serial adulterer, Congressional has-been, old media favorite and all-round dangerous gasbag tells an audience in New Hampshire that the terrorists have won. Seeing the potential for detonations worse than non-bulk sales of his hardcover polemics, the Union Leader reports, "Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich yesterday said the country will be forced to reexamine freedom of speech to meet the threat of terrorism. Gingrich, speaking at a Manchester [First Amendment] awards banquet, said a "different set of rules" may be needed to reduce terrorists' ability to use the Internet and free speech to recruit and get out their message. "We need to get ahead of the curve before we actually lose a city, which I think could happen in the next decade," said Gingrich, failing to mention that the US has already lost a city, popularly known as New Orleans, and which the leaders of his party still are in denial about their responsibility for the apocalypse-level tragedy taking place. Ominously, the anti-American politician "said he will not decide whether he is running for President until September 2007."

24 November 2006

"Cookie's Fortune": Robert Altman interview

Originally uploaded by porziacolonna.
Cookie's Fortune, a deep South-set gem with a tender, melancholic heart, is a sweet treat from often-caustic veteran director Robert Altman. At 74, Altman limps from recent knee surgery, but his acerbic perspective on the film industry hasn't mellowed.

Here's the plot behind its portrait of regional culture, in the form of overlapping blood and color-blind friendships in tiny Holly Springs, Mississippi: the magnificent Patricia Neal is Cookie Orcutt, a curmudgeonly yet tender-hearted widow whose life, after the death of her husband, Buck, has been kept together by Willis (Charles S. Dutton). Cookie's relatives include greedy niece Camille (a gleefully batty Glenn Close), rehearsing an Easter pageant based on Oscar Wilde's "Salome," and her sister, seemingly simple-minded Cora (Julianne Moore). Altman can't help but provide that pair with the same yellow Pinto driven by the birdbrains of his 3 Women, yet Anne Rapp's deadpan, oft dead-on script is filled with sly permutations on audience expectation. (Other actors on hand who are seldom given the chance to be this good include Liv Tyler and Chris O'Donnell as two lusty young lovers and Ned Beatty, a sheriff who knows Willis can't be a criminal. Why? "Because... I fish with him.")

Rapp, a longtime script supervisor who studied writing with Barry Hannah, met Altman, a racetrack buddy of her ex-husband, and started writing scripts with him. Rapp's script is smart enough to suggest, but never to declaim, a half-dozen levels of contemporary reference and satire, enriching Altman's customary great skills with performers and milieu. I've seen it twice in two months, and it gets better the more I reflect. Altman's back on top of his game.

Altman has great hopes for Cookie's Fortune. But of his previous, The Gingerbread Man, Altman says, "Well, it's criminal, their treatment of that film. Those guys have all been fired, Polygram is moving over with the company that's doing this, and they have promised me that if this film is successful, they'll give me a small re-release of The Gingerbread Man. There was a vindictive order from the guy who was running that, he was so pissed off with me, he literally told them, 'I want that movie killed.' We have evidence, we're still talking to lawyers, but it's almost impossible to win a lawsuit. You can't prove what a film could have done. They were just pissed off because it didn't test the way they wanted it to with the teenagers, y'know, in those malls."

Is there a lesson there? "It's like a kid, you walk down the street, at a certain corner, some bully would come out and beat the shit out of you! But you kept going by. I'm very proud of the picture. It was exactly what we set out to do. The lead was a flawed character and they wanted a hero."

The year 2000 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Nashville, another film he hasn't let go of. "My office is desperately trying to get the film re-released, but nobody can find out who owns it. These titles [of ownership] change; ABC made it also we think Disney owns it and Disney's not much interested in anything except business." A pause. "It's one of those films where everything worked. I love that film."

Altman sees his career as continuous, rather than a series of comebacks. "I've had journalists say, and I don't mean you, I mean the genre..." He offers a sly smile above his gray goatee, "'God, how bad was it those six years you couldn't work?' Well, I've never had a time when I didn't have a film that was of my own choosing. But they're not all Nashville, The Player or M*A*S*H. I've done thirty some-odd films, and you tend to love your least successful children most."

Of the 1970s, oft-mentioned as a golden era, Altman's quick to pounce on one subject: "Well, it was a golden time. There was a lot more creativity allowed. But now, if you see anything original, you won't see it [out there for] very long. It's time turtling on. These kids... they don't understand anything else. There's so much saturation. There's not a policeman today who didn't learn his behavior from watching films or television. We all imitate each other."

Does he ever think he's imitating himself? "It now occurs to me they're all chapters of the same book. My fingerprints are all over them. Whatever I do, I can't not do it."

But of the warm sense of community in Cookie's Fortune that seems ultimately hopeful about race relations, Altman only raises an eyebrow about implications outside of the story, out in the contemporary world of racial strife and ethnic cleansing. "I don't think racism will resolve until everybody's beige, y'know." [Originally published in Spokane's Inlander, 22 April 1999.]

23 November 2006

Wim Wenders, Franz Lustig

Wim Wenders and Franz Lustig, his younger cinematographer on Land of Plenty and Don't Come Knocking, conduct an impromptu discussion on digital moviemaking (LOP) versus traditional styles (DCK).


Running concurrently with the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival is a tribute at the Cinema Museum to Kryzstof Kieslowski: directly behind the image of the late filmmaker, a bold, crooked tree seems to rise from his head.

Blonde, Bond

21 November 2006


A view of the pier complex on Thermaikos Bay that hosts much of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Money worldwide


Arrivals at Makedonia International Airport (SKG), Thessaloniki, Greece.

18 November 2006

After interviewing Nick Cassavetes

And also Tom Tykwer... before CHILDREN OF MEN...

14 November 2006

13 November 2006

"With Blood Still Warm on the Ground": The Decemberists

Shooting against green screen in a studio with no superimposed effects? Not quite Jonathan Demme's video for New Order's "The Perfect Kiss," shot by Henri Alekan and Agnes Godard pulling focus, but not bad, not bad at all. The song is "O Valencia!"; voice, Colin Meloy, the director, Cat Solen, whose earlier work includes videos for Bright Eyes' "At The Bottom of Everything" and "Bowl of Oranges."

12 November 2006

Before Children: Todd Field on In the Bedroom (2001)

IN THE EARLIEST MOMENTS OF In the Bedroom, [2001] Todd Field's first feature as a director, he and cinematographer Antonio Calvache suggest a paradise of ordinariness. Two lovers come into focus amid rills of green grass. The postcard-romantic fuzziness gives way to a glimpse of simple happiness. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is lanky-haired, tatter-jeaned, lazy-grinning at his good fortune. He is lost in this sunny moment on this Maine hillside with the barelegged, summer-skirted Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei). You see them together and you do not think, he is barely out of his teens, she is in her late twenties or early thirties. You think: here they are in their now. The moment is as wispy as dandelion fluff, transfixing in its tenderness. We will learn that she is a single mother, working in a convenience store, eager to avoid her sometimes-violent ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother). Richard will be stuck in their small coastal town forever. He resents Frank for all he has ahead of him: his youth, prospects as a potential architect, college, Natalie. Happiness. Why can't we all know Natalie's smile at the younger, kinder, brighter star shining in front of her? Frank's parents have their qualms, but the summer has only begun. School will separate the pair, and passion will fade. A Special Jury Prize for acting was awarded at Sundance to Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as Frank's seemingly content, taciturn mother and father. They heal wounds, he as a local doctor, she as a high- school chorus leader. The two actors excel at what can only be called eloquent silence: instants that allow you to read their emotional history without going through motions that are merely illustrative.

Of course, things change. This is a drama, and good, proper drama demonstrates to us the particulars of life's hard choices, ones that we hope we can confront effectively, or certainly more effectively than our seconds on screen. Let their actions ask questions to which we have no ready answers. Nothing will ever be the same again may have been the freshly minted cliché after September 11, yet shouldn't most of us wake each morning with that thought in mind? Nature's way is never to be the same. History, conflict, our family, our friends, our lovers, our bodies, our lives. Of course, our reception of any given movie changes in relation to where and when we see it. In the Bedroom (co-written with Robert Festinger) is more relevant now than earlier in 2001, as it questions the rash act, the steadfast moment, the act of retribution that can change the course of your life in a single deadly instant.

Based on a short story by Andre Dubus, primarily in the film's concluding act, In the Bedroom manages to be several things, including thriller, melodrama and most affectingly, a masterful, mournful family portrait that diligently confronts ideas about loss and grieving. In the Bedroom's measured pace, stylistic rigor and aching performances mark the 37-year-old Field, who has co-written or directed several shorts before, as a talent to watch. Additional viewings of the film make the subject of a career almost beside the point: This is a film to watch.

Best known as an actor in films such as Ruby in Paradise or Walking and Talking, rather than as a still photographer or as an American Film Institute graduate, Field often demurs when asked to cite his influences, hoping that his fervently spoken, articulate passion will not mark him as some sort of film geek. Whether speaking of the weeks spent working with Stanley Kubrick on the role of mysterious pianist Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut or how Kieslowski's Decalogue not only changed his idea of what film could be, but what his life must be, Field is both student and teacher. This interview focuses on the insights he offers into the emotional content of "In the Bedroom." All of his discursive knowledge of photography and film history is brought to bear on one of the most shattering, most human stories you will see all year. A coil of cigarette smoke, an irksome bandage, a reaction to a sudden shout. There are 136 minutes of such carefully selected images and performances. Field has a command of telling imagery and composition, which he will discuss after modest prodding, but those are discoveries for the eye to make. This interview contains spoiler warnings: the film's shifts reward the unknowing.

PRIDE: What were the dangers in making a film with this kind of stylistic austerity?

FIELD: I was afraid that it would turn into a movie of the week. That was my biggest fear. So I wanted to be able to explore something that interested me for a couple of reasons, in a way that I tried to make clear, immediately, to the people who were financing the film. I knew they'd probably say, "Why are you spending so much time here, why are you doing five set-ups on this scene? Come on, get on with it." I knew the film would either be effective on some level or it would be a horrible disaster. There was no in-between. It was either going to work on some level or it was going to be really flat and awful.

PRIDE: Just a little pressure for the first-time feature director.

FIELD: Yeah, but you need to have something like that. It's a performance piece. There's an inherent amount of tension you build by not cutting and by trying to let actors work. I as a viewer, at least, tend to invest more in a story the less manipulated I feel, the more I feel that I'm either sitting or standing in a room. When I was at the American Film Institute, I had this very strong set of rules that I never would discuss with anyone, but really specific rules. One was that the camera was either standing, sitting or walking. You should never be aware of the camera unless you are heightening something for a very, very good reason.

PRIDE: There's a scene, however, where two of the most reserved, the most emotionally taciturn characters, played by Wilkinson and Spacek, have a blow-out. It's powerful, and the camera is thrashing all over the place.

FIELD: Yeah. Well, you've got about 45 minutes of absolute rock-hard stillness where the camera does not move at all. For a number of reasons, I needed the camera to be free. I suppose I could have done it with a Steadicam or something but I'm not crazy about that. It was just handheld, the whole thing. I'd worked with my operator before, many times. I wanted there to be a sense of freedom. We blocked that scene out over the course of a very long time, Sissy and Tom and I alone in the house. Then we did it again for the crew. But I wanted to leave them open to chance in terms of their movements. Practically speaking, also, it is a very small space. I mean, that is a practical house, a real kitchen, and that kitchen is intensely small. If you lock a camera down, the only way to give them room to move would be on something like an 18mm lens, which, unfortunately, gives some aberrations in the corner and the potential for distortion. It's also not a very pretty lens to have on when you're doing some emotional... there's too much affect in that lens. The camera had to be free. It wasn't a choice to make it jittery. The operator had to hold it for a very long time. I tried to shore up a lot of time, as much time as possible, on a ridiculously short schedule, for that sequence. And we did it many, many, many, many times. There's only so long you can hold a full camera package on your shoulder, you get total fatigue. But that scene is the beginning of the next movement of the plot [so we had to get it right.] Then we'd got back onto a regular dolly. And my operator is about five feet tall, he'd just about had it! A lot of it just had to do with a human being as opposed to a tripod.

PRIDE: Did you learn this from working on sets or from watching films?

FIELD: The directors that I always really admire, some of them are really underappreciated. My theory on it was because they always did their job so well. They never called attention, "Hey Mom, I'm directing, look at this type of crane shot." They were always more interested in the fact they were telling a story about human beings and they would do everything they could do to stay out of the way of that. Like Alan Pakula, Victor Nunez, and a lot of foreign directors. I'll just sound like a clichéd film student if I name their names. It wasn't about that for them, it was about telling stories. Which is not to say they weren't competent in terms of their craft, but any 12-year-old kid can draw a very elaborate storyboard sequence from comic books, and almost anyone can go out and execute it and move the camera simply to move the camera and be very entertaining and hold your interest. There's no trick in that. But if you really want to jump off a cliff, and that's the only reason to make films, there should be no net. And you move the camera around, it's a big net. It's why it makes executives a lot more comfortable when they see dailies, "Oh good, he's moving the camera, okay, all right. Okay, well, a moving shot cuts into another moving shot, oh yeah, we'll be fine, we'll make a montage." But when you don't do any of that, you're naked. It's either going to work or it's not going to work, and if you fail, god! You fail. You fail so badly. But if it works, it's magic. And you hope nobody sees it, you hope it helps pull them in, especially for a drama, especially for a performance piece that's going to live and die by how these people inhabit these characters. It's a performance piece or it's really nothing. This isn't a director's piece.

PRIDE: Why these actors?

FIELD: I came to them pretty late. I thought of people that I knew in these roles. They're all based on, for the most, people I know very well, my neighbors or family. I never thought of actors until we started to cast. Then it became really clear that someone had to be really truly amazing to play Ruth, but I also wanted someone known. The financiers didn't make me do that, they actually let me cast anyone I want, and when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Which is pretty amazing. But I really wanted Sissy. I never thought she would do it. But I sent her the script and two days later she called me, and we kept talking and talking and she signed on. She was the first person to sign on.

PRIDE: Why her?

FIELD: She has a certain gravity to her as an actress and she really has this ability to convince herself and disappear. She's done so many different roles. I would never say, "Oh that's a Sissy Spacek role." She has always surprised me. I grew up watching her and I've always been fascinated with her, and with her as a human being. She checked out of Hollywood and decided to raise her family. She's an intensely strong woman, and that's who this character really is in her own way. And you can't take your eyes off of her! Every performance I've ever seen from her, it's ten balls in the air. There's always something in between. This character could have very easily become a one-dimensional character without someone who could do that.

PRIDE: Just about every actor in the film has a moment of intense stillness. They hold things in reserve. They don't speak. We see, as it were, the wheels turning. Are you interested in those moments of in-between-ness?

FIELD: I suppose so. And probably from years of being a film actor. Generally, film acting--that's an oxymoron, actually--most of the time you're frustrated because for whatever reason, most of that stuff is what ends up on the floor. And that sort of moment is what we're really trained to do as actors. It's not the other thing. There's very few filmmakers who I've worked with who are interested in that, and when I've worked with them, it's been so exciting because they understand that the interesting things in life are always the in-between stuff, the things we aren't saying to each other. It's always the subtitles of our life, you know, it's never really what we say. Words are really something to be gotten past. They can serve a dual purpose; they can be going against what you're trying to do. But quiet is something—for some reason people who make movies are afraid. In music nobody seems to be afraid of that. If you go to see an orchestra, a night of Beethoven or something... I went to the Hollywood Bowl for the first time about a month ago with my wife and there's this 45-piece orchestra and you know it's coming, you're just like, "Come on, get there, get there, get there," and they're holding back and it's just pianissimo the whole time. There’s something about it, so intensely exciting. So much more exciting than when they finally, RRRRAWRRR! It's when they're holding back and you can feel it bubbling under. But, you know, if you're trying to do that in a film, you have to have people who are a 45-piece orchestra. That have so much going on, they can fill that silence. Even though it appears very simple, like they're doing nothing, they're so much going on inside of them, you don't have a flat line. It would be death to let a lot of actors do nothing... or be still.

PRIDE: But then in your film, you have a scene between Marisa and Tom, she's working at the convenience store, he wants any sort of excuse to make some sort of connection with her after the horrible thing that happens. The scene is just them hesitating around each other, and when he leaves the store, you hold on her and it's the most remarkable passage of acting.

FIELD: There's nothing really that he can say and there's nothing really she can say other than there's some desire to acknowledge what they've both been through. You can't say anything. That's the thing about grief. You can't say anything about it. Words are so inadequate.

PRIDE: There are a lot of cross-purpose, interrupted conversations as well.

FIELD: Yeah. And also just because... I've, I lost someone, I've been through a very long period of grief with my wife's family, she lost her brother. Just stories that people tell! I mean, often when you go through an experience and you lose someone, you end up comforting the other person that's coming to you more than yourself. [If you are grieving,] you will never get comforted, because it's much more comforting for you to say, "No, no, it's okay, it's all right," because what can they possibly say to you? You're not going to get over something like that.

PRIDE: Grief isn't something you can talk about, because you don't know what it is. You're experiencing it before you know what it is. Your characters are doing things, and they don't know why.

FIELD: Right. The points of your compass are completely off. You haven't... There's nothing, it's completely natural in one way, but it's a completely unnatural state of existence. You look at ancient cultures and they have all kinds of rituals to get through grief. Which is very practical. You know, we do dancing, we'll take this leap, then we'll have an hallucinogenic experience, we'll go up to the mountain and we'll sweat it out, whatever. They understood that intrinsically, you have to take some sort of action to push it through, where you're not going to get over it, but you're going to cross through this threshold because until you do, it can be so unbelievably strange and you can't do anything. You're frozen in your grief. The weird thing is that when finally a door opens in grief, it can be at the most unbelievable moment, for no reason you can really grab onto. There was a screening in late August and this woman came up to me in a hotel lobby. She grabbed me, and she said, "I saw the film and I wanted to talk to you." I said, "Okay." She said, "I had a couple of questions about these two things, they were minor points." I said, "What do you think? And she said, "Well, I think this." I told her I'd agree with that. The second, the same thing. I could tell she really didn't want to talk about that. Then she started crying. Really crying. And I held her. And I said, "What's wrong? And she said, "My mother was murdered two months ago and I can't talk to anyone. I saw the film, and I understand, I feel so angry. But I don't want to talk to anyone! I said, "I just made a film. I have no answers. Nobody has any answers. This is just something you're going to have to bear yourself, and it's going to be really hard." It struck me. I felt so helpless. That's what people feel in grief. Both parties feel so helpless. You're not the person who's grieving if you're a loved one or a stranger or a friend or whoever. There's *nothing* you can do. And if you're the person who's grieving? There's nothing you can do. It's such a strange thing. There's no formula for grieving.

PRIDE: This is a hard film to talk about without giving things away, and it would be great for people to see it cold. Still, some people are going to be identifying the actions that the characters rashly take, like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice dismissing the film as being "granolaDeath Wish," taking the father's actions as vigilantism.

FIELD: Well, it's not… I don't think... It's not the answer. I probably shouldn't explain this. It's so not the answer. The generation being portrayed is a generation removed from the generation I was thinking of. Which is really my parents' generation. They never talked. They never had a fight like in the film in their entire marriage. Were they to say those things to each other, they' wouldn't recover. In my generation, we can make up, make love, go have dinner, we might do that three times a year and that's a healthy relationship. But for their generation, with the things they say to each other about their shortcomings, that's the most violent scene in the film. That fight. That's the violence, the fight between those two characters, because of who they are. When she says to him, "He kept smiling," and he says, "Maybe it felt like he did," the viewers know that he didn't. Something happens. Some conversation we weren't privy to. I don't believe that man would ever have taken that action. The two of them become a third character out of that discussion and that's how the action was taken. And clearly, oh God help them, that is the worst possible thing they could do. It's over! It's personally over for him and it's over between the two of them. They're dead! They've effectively murdered themselves! There is no satisfaction in that act. There is none. He's violated nature and removed himself from it forever. If they could have just talked, 45 minutes earlier, maybe they could have figured something out. It's such a gross case of overcompensation for crossing a boundary in a marriage. It's horrible. It's terrible.

PRIDE: So why go to sorrow if they could have spoken?

FIELD: Because, honestly, that's what's in the short story. Although in the short story, where it works effectively, there is a sense of satisfaction for them in the end. But that would have been arch, and I didn't believe that's who these characters are. The name of the short story is "Killings," and I always took that to mean that there are three killings, the son, the ex-husband, then there's themselves. That's really what it is. For them to reconcile and to be okay again, it goes back to my M.O.W. comment, it would have been great for everything to be hunky-dory again, but that wouldn't have been right, either. Something had to happen. Even if it was something tragic and foolish. [Originally published in a slightly different form in Cinema Scope 9, Winter 2001.]

10 November 2006

The lean days of determination: a portfolio

A photo portfolio based on a passage from John Fante's "Ask the Dust" is here. "The lean days of determination. That was the word for it: determination: Arturo Bandini in front of his typewriter two full days in succession, determined to succeed; but it didn't work, the longest siege of hard and fast determination in his life and not one line done, only two words written over and over across the page, up and down, the same words: palm tree, palm tree, palm tree, a battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air. The palm tree won after two fighting days, and I crawled out of the window and sat at the foot of the tree. Time passes, a moment or two, and I slept, little brown ants carousing in the hair on my legs."

08 November 2006

Remember, remember, the 7th of November

In Chicago, it's 65 degrees and the sun shines bright against blue, cloudless sky and in the cafe, surging Philip Glass has been playing very loud for almost an hour. Every customer is smiling, and people walking down the street have a spring in their step.

07 November 2006

04 November 2006

03 November 2006