Friday, December 29, 2006

FILM Little Children


Voiceover narration is a powerful tool when it’s used in filmmaking. Usually the voice is that of the lead character (as in The Pursuit of Happyness) looking back at some difficult point in his life from a more comfortable place. Even Sunset Boulevard can be interpreted this way despite the fact that the main character is narrating from the grave, because life after death can be seen as being more comfortable than his struggles in and around Hollywood (it’s a stretch, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true).

Much more rare is the “omniscient” narrator, the voice of God (aka the author). This is when some respectable voice tells the audience bits of information that the characters either don’t know or aren’t telling the other characters. In one sense, it violates the “show, don’t tell” dictum that’s taught in all screenwriting books (along with “don’t rely on narration”), but rules are meant to be broken and what it really does is mimic storytelling devices found in short stories, giving a more literary tone to the piece.

The secret to effective voiceover narration is the realization that, just because the narrator isn’t seen onscreen, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a character in the story.


In Little Children, the (uncredited) character of the narrator is played by Will Lyman, an actor who is the voice of Frontline and many other PBS documentaries. He’s a great choice, recognizable on a subconscious level and full of trustworthy gravitas. In Little Children, his is the voice of the author, the one who knows everything about everything that is happening in this wealthy suburban town.

If it’s the flaws of characters that make them interesting, the flaw of the narrator is that he is fixated on people who are living unhappy, unfulfilled lives. He (and by extension the author) must be profoundly unhappy with his own life if he is drawn only to those who are leading lives of quiet, and sometimes not-so-quiet, desperation. It’s telling that one of the most sympathetic characters in the film is that of Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), the pedophile who can’t control his impulses as much as he’d like to. You can’t tell me that there aren’t any happy people in this town, but those who profess to be happy are treated by disdain by this narrator. I’m speaking of the other housewives, who through this filter are shown as caricatures of suburban bliss, full of longing for what they can’t have and a happiness with being part of the status quo.

Only a self-hating narrator like this one would idolize the adulterous relationship between Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson). She’s given a pass because her husband has become addicted to porn, and he’s given a pass because his wife (who comes from money and makes documentaries for PBS) supports him every time he fails the Bar Exam. Their illicit affair is described as a means to “live life” while everybody else is dead inside.

The other big theme in the movie, aside from doing whatever it takes to “feel alive,” is nostalgia. The reason everybody is unhappy is because they’re stuck in the past. The theme is most explicit with Ronald the pedophile, who lives with his mother in a house full of clocks and Hummel figurines for whom time never progresses. Brad also lives in the past, stuck watching high schoolers on skateboards instead of studying for the Bar, and who was a high school sports hero before becoming an academic failure. Sarah apparently longs for the days when she wasn’t tied down with family.

Of course, like most self-righteous and egocentric characters, the narrator doesn’t see his own flaws. He feels he’s describing life as it is. But if that were really the case, then Little Children would be little more than a simple dis of suburban living, similar to those stories of cheating housewives that popped up in fiction back in the ’50s, during the first expansive growth of the suburbs. And Little Children is more than that, isn’t it?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

FILM Dreamgirls / The Pursuit of Happyness


Caught a double feature the other night that expresses two very different takes on the American Dream™. One is about displaying your inner talent and having that lead you to your place in the world, and the other is about working hard to make your own place in the world.

Dreamgirls starts out at a talent competition where a trio of singers are auditioning for Detroit fame and good fortune. All we know is what we see, as the movie doesn’t have time for backstories. Brassy lead singer (Jennifer Hudson) plays by her own rules, and her two back-up singers (Beyoncé Knowles and another lady) play by the rules others have set. Just as the three of them get a gig playing back-up to Eddie Murphy’s Johnny Thunder, so too do all the performers play back-up to the fictionalized history of Motown-inspired Rainbow Records. This would have made sense if the music was half as good as the Motown hits that inspired it, but I digress…

The reason this movie works so well for Hudson, who is a knockout, is because it mirrors her own story. Consequently, hers is a storyline that seems more personal than the rest. Off-screen, she is famous for getting ejected too soon from TV’s American Idol, while in the movie she’s let go from the Supremes-inspired girl-group The Dreamettes because she’s too talented and not good looking enough. Her position as the lead is usurped by Beyoncé, who rises to the top because she is pretty and has a nondescript voice. And maybe that’s true too.

No matter what the girls do, though, the movie just keeps skipping along through the decades, and pretty soon Beyoncé is a Diana Ross-sized disco queen while Hudson raises a child in obscurity before being rediscovered. Not even the men can slow the march of time, though Eddie Murphy has some fun moments in his James Brown-inspired character and Danny Glover is charming as a promoter with integrity. Jamie Foxx, however, is thinner than Beyoncé’s voice is supposed to be.

Meanwhile, The Pursuit of Happyness is a period piece that sticks to just one period in time, the early-’80s. Though it takes some liberties, it too is based on a true story, and a bit more solidly than Dreamgirls.

You know even before you enter the theater how the story is going to turn out. You know Chris Gardner is going to come out ahead. The whole thing works because the movie knows this as well, and tips its hand right away with a little bit of voiceover from Will Smith, as Gardner, narrating the chapter headings of each stage of his life. Another benefit of knowing the ending of the story is that the filmmakers don’t need to shy away from letting their protagonist make mistakes. And he does. Heck, he even points them out in his narration.

Thandie Newton gets the thankless job of portraying his wife, fed up with his home businesses while working double shifts to help their family get by. By the time the movie begins she has already shut down, as if she already knows we’re going to side with her husband. And we do, because we know how it’s going to end. When he applies for and gets an unpaid internship at Dean Witter, she finally decides to leave, and when she offers to take their kid with her we think that it would be a great help for his ambitions. But he doesn’t want to give up his son, and so he must work extra hard to pay for daycare (for a while, at least), sell out of his home business on weekends, all the while studying to become a stockbroker.

In life it’s easy to sit back and complain about how tough things are. Either you have a recognized talent and try to control how other people exploit you, like the girls in Dreamgirls, or you work hard to make people recognize your talents and make the breaks for yourself, like Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness. The first can be fun to watch, as disposable as television. It’s the second part of this double feature that is actually inspiring.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

FILM Children of Men

I liked this movie. Quite a bit, actually.

When I first saw the trailers, I must admit that I didn’t want to see Children of Men. It looked like it was going to be a simplistic movie dystopia about a world that finally gets its first pregnant lady in 18 years, but with a chase thriller written in. I was worried that it would fetishize children to the point of nausea. At the same time, I was amused by the ad that promoted Alfonso Cuarón as the director of Y tu mama también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as if those movies were similar from a very surface Hollywood point of view -- a point of view that doesn’t include themes of the budding sexuality of youth.

Then the reviews came out, and it started showing up on certain respected top-10 lists, and I suspected that the movie was deeper and more interesting than the trailer led me to believe. Combine that with the promise of a miracle birth at the end, and it became my must-see movie for Christmas Day.


Children of Men opens in the year 2027. It’s been 18 years since the last pregnant woman has successfully given birth. No explanation is given for the drop in birth rates. I couldn’t help but think of it as a new version of Biblical flood, but instead of rising water the planet’s population was being wiped out through attrition because no more babies are being born.

As it turns out, it isn’t really a Christian film (nor is it an anti-Christian film), though in our culture those are the easiest allegories to jump to. Looking to Wikipedia (and who doesn’t these days?), I see that eschatology is the branch of theology that studies end-times mythology in all the great religions, from Buddhism to Hinduism to Christianity to Zoroastrianism. Heck, even my Viking gods believed their world would be destroyed and a whole new generation would come after it. The movie is bigger than just one religion.

Without the crutch of Christian allegory in his adaptation, Cuarón had to work a little harder to realize the world of his film. He succeeds thanks in no small part to his protagonist Theo (Clive Owen), a world-weary former idealist who thinks he’s given up hope. He reminded me of Humphrey Bogart or one of the hard-boiled, alcoholic heroes of the ’40s, but with a more modern acting style that requires him to emote a little more. Theo gets drawn into a plot to escort a pregnant refugee first to a radical group called “the Fishes” (another Christian allegory? Stop me now!) and then to a boat that will take her to “The Human Project,” a utopia created by scientists and scholars that is so secretive it may not even really exist.

Politically, the movie references the cultural xenophobia of developed nations through Britain’s anti-immigration policies. Refugees are locked up in cages until they are transferred to camps that indulge in torture methods similar to those in Guantanamo. Also, in these end times, a wide variety of religious groups, anti-religious groups, political groups and other militant organizations have popped up. Some of them are for refugees’ rights, others think that moral (or amoral) living will start the birthing process again. The world is a mess.

It all could have gotten heavy-handed if it wasn’t for the character of Theo. Clive Owen does a magnificent job in making an essentially anti-social character likable. In a world without hope, he’s just getting by. He takes the random bits of violence and constantly streaming news feeds for granted. And as an actor, he lets the desire to connect with others show through his cracking façade, along with a long-buried need to believe in something bigger. He seems to be living in that world, surprised by nothing, and because of that he makes the film that much more palpable.

Then Theo goes to visit his dad? mentor?, played by Michael Caine. If Owen is the soul of the film, woken to hope by being given a mission that is bigger than him, Caine is the heart. Taking care of his wife, a photojournalist who is catatonic due to wartime torture, he earns money by selling pot to the immigration officials based nearby. He is hilarious, and bypasses the pitfalls of a character who could have been there just to give the audience a little backstory by laughing world events off with a puff of his special blend “strawberry cough” marijuana.

Before seeing the movie, I was reading a debate about whether Cuarón’s use of long takes was distracting, effective, or just a filmmaker showing off. If I didn’t read about ’em before seeing the movie, I’m not sure I would have noticed the long takes. You see, instead of being part of smooth crane shots and elaborate choreography, like in Touch of Evil or I Am Cuba, they are buried in shaky handheld scenery. Also, there’s no doubt that Cuarón was able to use the best of multiple takes and seamlessly join them with the new technology, so the intellectual thrill of a long take doesn’t mean as much anymore… but still. There were only two scenes where I noticed the length of the take: One during the battle where he jumps on and off that bus and blood gets on the lens, and the other during the birth where the baby looks a little CG to me. For me, it was the blood and the baby that nearly took me out of the movie, and not the length of the shots.

I haven’t seen Soderbergh’s The Good German yet, I’ve only read the reviews (which totally makes this an unfair comparison), but something tells me that Children of Men better captures the spirit of a ’40s wartime film despite its social sci-fi trappings. And for that I thank Mr. Clive Owen.

Friday, December 22, 2006

FILMMAKING That's a Wrap

After six days of shooting, we finished production on "Alistair MacLean: Y'did Nefesh." Despite the one big weather snafu at the beginning, everything went according to schedule. Looking back, I don't think I would have done much different. We had a great crew, morale never flagged even on the two moderately stressful days (the company move to the set with power, and the long day when we shot the dinner sequence). I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the sequences cut together. Editing is the next big step. More when we start that endeavor...

Thursday, December 21, 2006


Today is our last day of shooting. We've gotten everything we've needed and are caught up to our schedule. I need to dash out to go to set, so I'll be brief. Today we shoot Alistair in front of the Rabbis.

Yesterday we shot out the living room, which went rather smoothly despite the fact that our 1st AD needed to go to work (glamorous short film shoots don't replace living wage work, unfortunately). We also got the last of the kitchen stuff, which included a close-up of the gefilte fish (aka that which causes Alistair to spill the soup) and a close=up of the soup spill itself, from a low angle. We did the soup spill by having a low angle up to the stove, and a large bucket sort of thing surrounded by a wall of garbage bags, while the camera was in a plastic bag that had a filter attachment taped into it so the camera could see. We were ready to do it several times. We got it on the first full take. And it looks awesome.

More after we finish...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


We're about to start our fifth day of shooting and I realize that even though we were unlucky with Mother Nature knocking out our power on the first day, we've been very lucky in terms of weather for the shoot so far. The reason I say that is because it hasn't rained all week... until today.

Luckily we were able to shoot the exterior of Alistair's walk to Dassie's house yesterday under our soft grey cloud cover. Today we finish his entrance to Dassie's house and his first lesson. Long story short, the rain won't affect us.

After the afternoon sequence yesterday, we shifted to set up for the dinner sequence which takes place at night. Twelve people were seated around the table, including four kids, and a shabbose dinner was cooked and brought to set. While lighting was underway, we started the long, difficult process of gathering the props, setting the table, and bringing in the dinner. It's strange to be on a film where the camera department is consistently ready to shoot before the props and set dressing are. Then again, we're working with a volunteer crew, I don't think we have an Art Director (we did have a Set Dresser) on set to answer "art department" questions, and we've passed props notes to a few different people. Most importantly, we're getting everything we need.

Yesterday was a long day. We wrapped around 1:45 in the morning (though the kids were done before midnight). Today will be much shorter. We're scheduled to shoot all afternoon starting at noon, and should wrap between six and seven. Tomorrow is the last day of shooting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Yes, it is a little confusing that I'm writing these posts before the titular day of shooting rather than after, but I've got a system going and I'm not going to change it. I'm writing this before we start our 4th day of shooting, and most of the post deals with Day 3. Deal with it.

I've been super happy with the teamwork between my 1st AD Przemek Pardyak and my DP Ryan Purcell. Having gone through the script and the room maps of the locations, combined with what I remembered of the blocking (thank God we rehearsed on location), we were able to create a shot list that was both useful and fairly accurate. Best yet, they've helped us remember to get shots that may have fallen by the wayside.

Yesterday (Day 3) went by smoothly. Once again I'm really enjoying the performances, and am glad that we rehearsed as much as we did. We would have finished early, too, except we spent a long time waiting for a pot of soup to boil over.

Let me explain: One of the last shots in the kitchen has Alistair using a "milk" utensil on the "meat" dinner. Dassie sees this and needs to kosher the utensils that have been sullied, and she does this by tossing them out the window into the boiling cauldron of water (that we shot on the first, power-free day). Then Alistair turns and sees that the matzah ball soup is boiling over and helps save the day.

What we learned is that the "watched pot never boils" rule includes a pot that has a camera looking at it even when people weren't. My buddy Matt was in charge of this special effect, and had it all worked out... in theory. After the large pot of water finally hit a boil, it still wouldn't boil over. He added starch in the form of pasta, but it still wouldn't go. Finally he got the suggestion to throw some baking soda into it. Perfect! Throw a lot in and you get a volcanic eruption. Two hours after setting up for the boiling soup shots, we got 'em.

Today will be a crazy day. We're starting later, getting Alistair's walk-up to Dassie's house, for which we need daylight. Then we move into the final dinner scene, where Alistair finds out whether he'll be accepted into "the tribe" or not. We hope to start shooting that at 6 pm and finish by 1 am or 2 am. We shall see. We need to finish as early as possible because tomorrow we need to shoot the last of the daylight scenes at this location, and because we're going late tonight we need to start later tomorrow, and the sun sets well before 5 pm. Yikes.

Anyway, more later...

Monday, December 18, 2006


There was power at the location! Not only that, but those who had fallen trees in their neighborhood had already done their chainsaw thing and chopped 'em up, so that neighborhood sound wasn't really an issue (outside of the planes that were determined to fly over).

Yesterday went smoothly. It started slow because the hair and makeup for our lead actress took an hour longer than expected. I don't want to diminish that, because the character is Dassie Goldblatt and she is running the cultural boot camp for boys who want to be Jews, so she needs to have a certain look (which we eventually achieved). This morning things should go quicker for hair and makeup, but even so we gave them an earlier call than the rest of the crew so that they can be done by the time we want to start shooting.

I've been quite pleased with the performances. I know it's dangerous to blog during production, when the cast and crew may log on and read this stuff and it may alter attitudes and performances, but oh well. I'm so glad that we rehearsed ahead of time, because there were some performance alterations that we already had a shorthand for and were able to fix on the fly. We got some funny stuff, which is good because this is a comedy. I'm already looking forward to seeing some of these scenes cut together.

We've got a busy day today, with the "soup spill gag" and subsequent clean-up. Off to set...

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Yesterday we got to the location... and there was no power. It was the first day of shooting, and the first test on how flexible we could be. And it was almost all interiors, which meant we would need lights for almost all of it.

There were a couple of shots we could get, though. One was Alistair's walk up to the house, but that scene continues on inside so that wouldn't really save us much time down the line. We did have another shot that we weren't sure where to put in the schedule. In the script, Alistair uses the milchisha (milk) silverware on the fleashicka (meat) meal preparations (you mustn’t mix them, I've learned), and Dassie koshers the utensils by throwing it out the window into a boiling pot. We decided to get the boiling pot shot.

After that, well... we had another location that we could move to, but that meant calling our actress who wasn't scheduled to perform that day. She is an observant Jew and it was Shabbose, but she said she could help us out if we were desperate because of the power situation. She told us we could call her after 11am, but we needed decisions before that. We decided on the company move hoping that she would be able to join us, or else we would have had to move right back.

Turns out she's also quite the partier. Not only was she super hungover, but she had injured her ankle at the end of the night. Luckily in her first scene she was sitting down and didn't need to move much. By the time we got to the scene where she had to walk in, she had healed enough to mask the limp. Maybe the added concentration she needed to overcome her hangover ended up helping her performance, or maybe not. We got two good scenes on a day where we had to scramble. Nice.

Now it's back to the first location. Hopefully the power has returned. One of the workers told us they were shooting to get it back up last night, but who knows...

Saturday, December 16, 2006


The weather in and around Seattle has been crazy lately. I guess that all started with a more warm and beautiful summer than expected (the upside to global warming?), but the winter is making up for that. Just a week and a half ago we had a generous coating of snow (a rare occurance, not counting the accumulation) in time to host a Monday Night Football game, and two nights ago we had a massive windstorm that played havoc with large parts of the Pacific Northwest.

As you may or may not know from an earlier post, I am directing a short film called "Alistair MacLean: Y'did Nefesh", about a booksmart boy who needs find his "Jewish soul" before he can complete his conversion to Judaism and marry the girl of his dreams, so he enrolls in a "cultural boot camp."

Rehearsals have been going very well, and I'm about to head to set. The only thing is, yesterday when we were loading in we discovered that the location has no power. In fact, the whole neighborhood has no power. I wasn't going to worry about it yesterday until I realized just how many neighborhoods don't have power. The location borders on a really rich area of Seattle (Broadmore), so I'm hoping those rich people do what they do best and get served by society first. For once, that would benefit independent filmmaking.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

FILM Surviving the Labs

For the last four years I’ve gone to the Sundance Film Festival, and whenever there was a film that was too saccharine, too coming-of-age, or trying too hard to be both personal and commercial at the same time, I would wonder how it got into the fest. As the credits rolled (if I got that far), I would inevitably see the “Made in cooperation with the Sundance Labs” logo pass by.

I once talked with a guy who had a job projecting films at the Sundance Institute, and for a handful of years he would see each new batch of filmmakers come through the Labs, and would see how the development process would make every film seem like every other coming-of-age film. Everybody meant well and people loved participating in the process, but even the most interesting young filmmakers would end up writing and making that very same Sundance movie as everybody else. Crap. Or maybe the bad ones were the only ones that were able to raise money to go into production.

Things have begun to change. At least, that’s what it seems like. It’s as though they’ve given up on making the next The Brothers McMullan or anything commercial. In a sense, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know was the first break-out success for the Labs. July, a successful and moderately commercial performance artist, created a vaguely edgy story that took a cheerful look at the budding sexuality of children. Hardly a commercial concept, but successful nonetheless.

Does that indicate a signal change in the focus of the Labs? Hard to say, but I do hold out hope for one of the new batch of folks invited to the labs. I met Braden King in Chicago before he self-distributed his evocative, black-and-white documentary film Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks its Back, which he toured with a live score by the Boxhead Ensemble. I saw it when it played at the Little Theatre several years ago, and was duly impressed with its moody and assured filmmaking.

King was just chosen to work on Here for the Labs, which is described as such: “Real and imaginary landscapes merge as a solitary satellite mapping engineer charts the Armenian countryside with an expatriate art photographer revisiting her homeland.” That sounds both interesting and uncommercial. I can’t wait to see it...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

BLOG Launch!

Spletz-O-Rama started just a couple of weeks ago, and since then I've been filling it with content. Now I'm ready to share it with the world!

Along with sending the link to everybody in my address book, I'm encouraging my friends at The Stranger's SLOG to link to it. The timing is good for that, too, because I write about being in the audience for The Colbert Report last week (see below), and Dan Savage is going to be on the show tonight.

Most of the posts are about movies, some are about TV, one is about opera (really), and I promise to write more about robots, hobos and Vikings in future posts.

Welcome to my Blog,

Monday, December 11, 2006

TV The Colbert Report LIVE!

Look to an earlier post to see how I got here, but on Wednesday (12/6/06) my best gal Heidi and I went to a taping of The Colbert Report in New York City. The studio itself is on 54th Street between 10th and 11th, around the corner from the studio for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I’ve been to tapings of TV shows before, including The Late Show with David Letterman and Comedy Central’s The Night of Too Many Stars, but this one was different and, I daresay, better. Part of that may be because The Colbert Report is my favorite show on TV, but I think even more may be because the show is still young and fresh and vital and the people who work there seem excited to be doing so.


The show recommends that you show up around 4:00 to be let in at 6:00 for the 7:00 taping. Heidi had checked the blogs and found out that if you want to be first in line you have to go earlier than that, and since this was the reason for our trip, we HAD to be first in line. We showed up around 2:15. Mission accomplished. It took about 15 or 20 minutes before the next people showed up, and another 15 minutes before the next. The eight of us waited alone until sometime after 3:30, when the line started its natural growth. While we were sitting around, I headed off to DeWitt Clinton Park to use their bathroom, and on my way back I swung by the Daily Show building and saw Jason Jones doing a “walk and talk” outside. Back in line, I saw that the VIP line had started.

At 6:00 we were let into the waiting room, sort of a dank place full of IKEA chairs and two single-occupancy bathrooms. The ticket to the show also said not to bring cameras, but we had cameras and no place to put them. I was a little worried going through the metal detector and bag check, but we threw the camera into Heidi’s purse and got through no problem. As requested, we didn’t take pictures while inside. Other blogs say that if they catch you taking pictures they just come up to you and delete them. On our way in, we got tickets that said what number in line we were: #1 and #2.


So then they let the VIPs in. Does that mean they get the prime seats? As it turns out, no. We learned that our waiting paid off. They say the studio only fits about 100 people, split between two sets of bleachers. The VIPs were sitting in the back rows of the first set of bleachers, and we sat down at the absolute best seats in the house: front row, in front of the desk, with a great view of the interview set. I guess this is the point where I'm supposed to say the set is smaller than it looks on TV, but it was about the size that I expected.

The warm-up comedian came out and he wasn’t bad. He found out I was first in line and let me get up and touch the desk. Which I did, right above the embedded monitor. Kind of a geeky thrill, but a thrill nonetheless. The warm-up guy became fixated on my Christmas sweater, which he liked, and also this guy in the audience who looked like a male model (not me), who he hated out of jealousy and spite.

Then Colbert bounded out to greet the audience, running across the front row slapping high-fives to everyone and taking questions before he got into character. I don’t remember any of the questions, but I do remember his responses were sharp and quick. I didn’t ask a question because I already had my chance when I interviewed him for Strangers With Candy on the wonderful film blog GreenCine Daily.

Before returning to his desk to start the show, he encouraged us to give him more of that false enthusiasm and clapping. We did, and he turned to me and compared our audience to an audience at a Nazi rally, as though he is fascinated by and maybe even fears he will be consumed by the right wing persona he plays on TV.


Most audiences for The Colbert Report don’t get to see “the throw” that happens at the end of The Daily Show, where Stewart asks Colbert what’s coming up on his show. Because The Daily Show was running late, we were lucky. When the satellite connected, we could see Stewart, but the audio wasn’t working. Colbert was testing it by saying things like, “You totally sucked up to John Kerry,” and other insults. Finally the audio connected and Colbert admitted to saying unkind things about him.

The banter between Stewart and Colbert was really funny, and felt as though it could have been a scripted bit. Then they went into the scripted bit, where Colbert grabbed a stopwatch and timed himself saying the 50 states… as a way to test the stopwatch (it always takes him 22.3 seconds, and this stopwatch was .1 second off). We didn’t notice at the time, but he kicked himself after the bit for getting through almost all of it before flubbing ‘Wisconsin.’ Stewart didn’t notice either, or else he would have made fun of him for it, I’m sure.

Then the show started.

Funny stuff, as Carson used to say. When heading over to explain the difference to the interview set (they’ve added the life-sized Nativity scene for the holidays, with a space reserved for Baby Jesus and an offer to bumb Deepak Chopra if Baby Jesus wants to be in the show), Colbert flubbed the name of one of the three wise men. They stopped tape, found a cut point, then picked it up again. He flubbed a line again after the Tek Jansen cartoon, so we did that one again, too.

Who was the guest? When we heard that it was the President of New York University we weren’t all that excited. But it turned into a spirited debate about the dangers of “truthiness,” with the NYU President warning about discounting facts in favor of just going from your gut. Colbert disagreed about it being dangerous. Needless to say, Colbert won (because he felt he won).

Another interesting thing about seeing the show live is hearing the music that plays during the commercials. As he meets with his head writers, the music changes from his theme song to alternarock like Green Day and Pearl Jam, played at loud volume, presumably to keep himself pumped up and to keep the energy up.

Watching the show on the Jet Blue flight home, it was cool to see my Christmas sweater visible in the front row on the aisle. Proof positive that I do, indeed, show up on TV.

EGO The Year My Voice Broke

This from the AP:

MILAN, Italy - Tenor Roberto Alagna marched off the stage at La Scala when the audience booed him during the second performance of Franco Zeffirelli's "Aida." He was replaced seconds later by his understudy, who rushed on wearing jeans.

"I do not deserve this kind of reception," Alagna told La Repubblica newspaper after his early exit from Saturday night's performance.

"What else could I do?" Alagna said in an interview Monday with Italy's Tg5 news. "Did I have to stay there ... until my voice broke?"

And this from ME:

According to Wikipedia (the "truthiest" source of information), Alagna was a busker turned self-taught opera singer who became an international opera celebrity in the 90s. And he's a diva in every sense of the word. I'm not sure why this sort of behavior fascinates me so. I think it's tied into my love of unreliable narrators, and there is nothing more unreliable than somebody narrating their own story (see also Blogs). Outbursts of ego like this show the cracks in the persona. M. Night Shyamalan exhibits some of the same tendencies. And so does Jerry Lewis when he gets serious. And it's always fascinating.

Friday, December 8, 2006

FILM Conflict Money

The initial reaction of diamond sellers to the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond was that it may hurt diamond sales in the Christmas season. But that was before they figured out how to spin the publicity that the movie was to generate. Even though "conflict diamonds" make up less than 1% of the market, diamond retailers have begun advertising "conflict-free diamonds," and I'll bet they charge more for them. Once again, the luxury markets have found a way to exploit the problems in Africa. Brilliantly.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

TV/LIFE New York City

Inside this post is an example of how cool my girlfriend is. On Tuesday she had arranged for us to pick up a friend from the airport. "No, wear that jacket," she told me, pointing to my heavier coat. I was tired from last night's Northwest Film Forum holiday party, so I didn't question. Plus, the car was probably pretty chilly.

We pull off toward the cell phone waiting lot, but then continue to the Jet Motel, which is the place we generally park when leaving town for short trips. Finally I question what's going on, and that's when she hands me the card informing me that we were going to New York City on a red-eye to catch a taping of The Colbert Report. It's an early Christmas present. I was in shock.

We flew to New York with no luggage, kicked around for the afternoon before becoming the first ones in line for the show. I'll talk about the taping in another post. Afterward we went and saw the tree at Rockefeller Plaza before heading down to see old friend "Cousin Michael" at Cafe Habana, a delicious SoHo Cuban joint down at Prince and Elizabeth with great Cuban sandwiches and even more delicious corn (it's the cheese they put on it, which is sort of like a Mexican feta). Then we hooked up with more friends for drinks and ended up at Baracuda in Chelsea, where we caught a very entertaining lip-synching drag queen before heading back to the room she booked for the night.

Anyway, Heidi (my girl) totally went all out, and she thought of everything, down to rescheduling the appointments I thought I had. She is the loveliest, coolest, most awesome and thoughtful girlfriend in the world, and I am lucky to be by her side.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

FILM Sátantángó

Lots of people know Béla Tarr because Gus Van Sant name-checked him when he made Gerry a few years back. Others think of him with Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky as one of the masters of the very long take.

The 7.5 hour, black and white Béla Tarr movie Sátantángó just played the Northwest Film Forum here in Seattle last weekend. I was only able to see half of the movie (just about four hours), due to a prior engagement that evening. That was a damn shame, but I figured half was better than none. I’ll probably watch it start-to-finish on DVD one of these days.

When people talk about this film, they always talk about its length and not its narrative. It’s easier, really, because the story is delivered even more slowly than the shots themselves. At first I thought it was about a group of folks gathering to split some ill-gotten money. It reminded me of a Western set in some frontier where ranchers are more common than cityfolk. In each chapter there is infighting, backbiting, sleeping around or greed, sometimes all of the above, and these genre elements spice up the movie, energizing even those long shots of people walking in the rainy, muddy, Hungarian countryside.

But in those first four hours, I never really did know how everybody was connected. I did get a little sleepy during the drunken doctor segment, and may have missed something crucial. On reading some reviews after, I discovered the folks are splitting the proceeds from the sale of their collective farm or something. And I did like the parallel storytelling, where every so often we would see a scene from a different character’s point of view, which is something that Van Sant did very well in Elephant.

Of course, Sátantángó is not just about plot. The opening shot could be a metaphor for the whole film (we are all animals in a herd following our basest instincts, perhaps?), where the static camera captures cows exiting a barn, with a slight pan left to capture the stud humping one. Then as the cows start walking off-camera left (something like four minutes into the shot) and the camera pans to watch them. THAT’S when the super-long dolly shot begins, all part of something like a 10-minute take.

I know it may not sound interesting to action movie fans, content-wise, but the quality of the black-and-white photography reminded me older films in a very nice way, and it's hard to imaging the cows being better choreographed, which begs the question of whether it was God or Béla Tarr directing them.

Some people get tired of Tarr’s miserablism, and I can understand that. Nothing seems destined to work out and it looks like everybody will end up unhappy. But because I looked at it as genre fiction rather than a reflection of Hungarian society and moods (and the end of Communism, as some have said), the ugly-on-the-inside characters didn’t bother me so much.

I actually found Sátantángó as stimulating as a good Hollywood action film, albeit at a different pace. Instead of impossible actions cut together to look real, there were impossible-looking shots that shifted halfway through thanks to a surprise (to me) dolly move that would change the look and the feel of the film. If that makes sense.

One of the last bits I saw before I had to leave was the semi-tangential story of the little girl and the cat which totally reminded me of Bresson's Mouchette, complete with Eastern European animal cruelty. That little girl turned in an amazing, occassionally hard to watch, and ultimately moving performance.

Heck, maybe the movie is uneven, but it’s still worth seeing. I'm totally looking forward to watching the whole damn thing, straight through, whether it's on DVD or at another rare theatrical screening.

FILM The Queen / Marie Antoinette

Let Them Eat Popcorn!

The art houses have turned themselves over to not just one but two movies about European monarchies. Stephen Frears’ The Queen and Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette both look behind the royal curtain into the everyday lives of women of extraordinary privilege. Though the Queens in question are very different in attitude, they make the same mistake in not trying to understand the subjects they rule and, in so doing, nearly destroy the monarchies that they were supposed to nurture.

Of the two, The Queen is more accessible and, some would say, more successful. Helen Mirren plays England’s Queen Elizabeth II, reigning over a country that has given political power to its parliament but maintains its monarchy out of a sense of pride and perhaps nostalgia. If the shift to irrelevance has been gradual over her 50+ years as the Queen of England, the perception came to a head after the death of Princess Diana, “the People’s Princess.”

In a role that could have come across as cold and would have run counter to the movie’s eventual message, Mirren gives a stunning performance of the type that normally wins an Oscar nomination. She somehow manages to show the human side of a woman who believes her public persona should reflect a strict adherence to the pomp and circumstance of her position. Meanwhile, a young Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has become Prime Minister by playing off of his ability to speak to the populace, a lesson the Queen should learn but doesn’t want to. When she finally starts to notice the people taking an active dislike to her refusal to mourn Princess Diana (who was already out of the royal family and therefore irrelevant), she begrudgingly starts to take the advice of the popular Prime Minister in listening to and acknowledging the grief of her subjects. It not only saves the monarchy, but shows personal growth too.

Meanwhile, over in 18th Century France, Marie Antoinette follows the story of an Austrian Archduchess who is married off to the future King of France at age 14, soon to become Queen. Directed by Sophia Coppola, heir apparent to the Coppola filmmaking kingdom (unless brother Roman finally makes a follow-up to his underrated CQ), the movie has little interest in politics or history. Instead, Ms. Coppola has crafted a coming-of-age story about an upper-class woman who lives in a prison of societal boundaries and etiquette rules, without the confines of monetary limits. Some have suspected that the movie is autobiographical, about her desire to break out of the indulgent laziness of her gilded cage, just like Lost in Translation reflected her dissatisfaction in her marriage to director Spike Jonze and prophesized their divorce, but through all the period detail it’s hard to find an objective parallel between this movie and her life.

I have to admit, however, it is incredibly difficult to identify with the plight of the young Marie Antoinette, considering how arranged marriages have gone out of style and how foreign the customs of the French royals seem to us now. But if you consider moving from the Austrian court to the French court as a move from one high school to another, then the spirit of the movie makes more sense, at least in the first half or so. At first it seems like the movie is going to be about how the young Queen adapts to and overcomes the strange rituals of Versailles, which gives her a definite underdog vibe. But as she settles into being Queen and starts to take the rituals and privileges for granted, that underdog aspect falls away and it becomes harder and harder to identify with her, or even care at all about her.

Just as Marie Antoinette never really considered the plight of her subjects until they showed up as a mob to capture and behead her, so too does it seem like Ms. Coppola never considered her audience and instead indulged in the creation of whatever images and pseudo-autobiographical situations that she could think of, audience be damned. She ended up capturing lovely and engrossing visuals, but with a pace that is slow and observant, which of course led to a mob of critics to call for her own cinematical beheading. In The Queen, Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth sees the error in ignoring public opinion and changes her attitude, leading to a happy ending, the survival of the monarchy, and nearly universal positive reviews. In Marie Antoinette, Kirsten Dunst’s Queen of France never apologizes for her actions or appetites, and ends up with her head on the chopping block, and this divided critics into love-it or hate-it camps.

The Queen is a very good movie, solid and satisfying and well worth seeing. On the other hand, Marie Antoinette may not be as good for you, as it is lighter and full of sweet visuals with little more than spongy substance underneath. Here’s the kicker. Though I think The Queen is a better movie, what with that British struggle against repression, Marie Antoinette is the movie I crave to see a second time.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

TV Downsizing The Office

It's nice that the NBC version of the British series The Office has left those "I refuse to believe that an American version of a cult show I love" in the dust. I mean, people complained when Steptoe and Son was being imported, but Sanford and Son left that show in the dust too.

Like my friend Bruce has mentioned (not here, but in conversation), as an American it's nice to understand the references. When the workers talk about rap stars and American TV and cultural celebrities, to me and my American ears it's much more clear than the original show's references to soccer stars and washed up stars from British sitcoms that never made it here.

Anyway, when Jim went to the other branch office and suddenly there were a whole bunch more cast members, I was curious and skeptical. Sure, the new office was more like a "real" office than the heightened reality of the office we've gotten used to, but could that carry a comedy? We didn't have time to find out before the two offices merged into the Scranton branch. I became even more skeptical. Would this really happen, even in the world of the sitcom, where the (mostly) unseen corporate office is smart about their buisiness decisions? And why haven't any of the new people been added to the opening credits?

Last Thursday, when yet another member of the "real" office quit because of Michael's inane and rambling managerial style, I realized that the corporate office (within the show) is smart verging on brilliant.

Instead of firing people and paying severance, they merged them into the Scranton branch to cause the employees to quit on their own accord. Luckily for us, those who survive this initiation will be the least normal, most myopic, best characters. Welcome, Andy!

And may the best characters join the original cast in the opening credits.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

FILMMAKING Alistair MacLean

About a month ago, maybe more, my buddy Matt Levinthal asked me if I wanted to direct a short film. Two friends of his, Meredith Binder and Ian Stone, had written and were producing a script that they were going to star in but didn't also want to direct. Their first director had to pull out for medical reasons, and I was the next obvious choice. After all, it's a Jewish conversion comedy and I grew up Lutheran in the WASPy Chicago suburbs.

The movie is called "Alistair MacLean: Y'did Nefesh," and no, it's not about the Scottish author who wrote The Guns of Navarone. It's about a booksmart guy who needs to find his y'did nefesh, his "Jewish soul." We've been rehearsing, we've been fine-tuning the script, and we've been filling out the crew. The movie starts shooting mid-December and I'll keep you updated.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

FILM re:Volver

Caught the new Pedro Almodóvar movie this last weekend. Enjoyed it. Some people know how to photograph Penelope Cruz right, and Pedro is one of them.

What struck me in watching Volver (loose translation: To Return) is that Almodóvar may be the most gentle and is probably the best Hitchcock acolyte working today. M. Night Shamyalan has gotten a lot of attention for his cameos and cinematic quoting of the old master, but Almodóvar does a much better job in one very important area: Music.

The only time Shyamalan got the music right was in the opening credits of Signs, where the text combined with a Bernard Herrmann-styled theme to create suspense where there previously was none (I think it was Signs, but maybe it was Unbreakable). Almodóvar gets the Hitchcockian music right throughout Volver. When Cruz finds the dead body and decides not to go to the authorities, the music kicks in to both root her on and warn us that she’s doing something wrong and may get caught at any moment. And then the doorbell rings. She answers the door with blood on her neck (not her own). She blames the blood on “female trouble,” which pulls the movie back into Almodóvar’s other notable genre, which is the female-oriented Sirkian melodrama (for lack of a better term).

That brings up my one criticism of the film. Those two genres don’t really fit together very well here. It’s great to see his women bonding and dealing with the returning mother (one "return"). It is also fun to see how the crime (and the history of the crimes that preceded the crime) also come back (the other "returns"). But they are very different movies. They’re both good movies, however, so I’ll cut him some slack.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Introductions and Influential Movies

I was sort of dreading this first post. There's an internal pressure to sum things up, to "set the tone" for the whole blog, to get it right. Screw that. But I will play one of those introductory games that you get every now and again on blogs.

The game? "What movie changed everything in how you looked at films?"

For me that would be PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. I suppose I should credit the Medved brothers for making me aware of it in their GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS book, but whatever the reason, my friend Brian White taped it when it played late night on Channel 9 in Chicago. And we watched it. Sure, it was "bad" compared to empty polish of most commercial releases -- this was, after all, the '80s, when producers and packaged films ruled the roost, and everybody wanted to make their films "in the style of Spielberg" -- but there was something so surreal and watchable about this Edward D. Wood, Jr. masterpiece. We started by laughing at the movie, but after repeated viewings I started to suspect we were laughing with it.

We loved it, starting with the way Criswell bends time in his framing monologue, moving from "Future events such as these" to asking "Who's to say these things didn't take place?" (Forgive me for paraphrasing.) I remember questioning the bad day-for-night utilized in the stock footage driving sequences when they traveled to and from the cemetery, counting the days that passed if it wasn't really supposed to be night.

Along with the wonderfully twisted exposition, I think it was spotting the shadows of the tombstones on the studio's wall that was nothing short of a revelation. Here we could see that this was a set, that the actors were just playing along, that this was a created and obviously fictional reality. This is when I first saw how deconstructing a film could make it richer. We watched that movie dozens of times on crappy VHS, fast-forwarding over commercials. Each time the movie got richer.

People like to say PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE is an accidental masterpiece. I like to think of it as an intentional masterpiece. Even if every bit of evidence points to Ed Wood being just as bumbling and driven as Johnny Depp played him in Tim Burton's endearing ED WOOD, I like to imagine Wood had complete control. I mean, can you imagine anybody making that movie on purpose? That, to me, would be a complete genius.

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