Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Southerner Looks to the North: Part Three

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Green [right] in an undated photograph

A Chat with David Gordon Green: On the Production (click here for part two)

I'm inspired less by specific movies and books than
I am by sitting on a porch listening to somebody.

-- Green to the New York Times (2004)

*****

Was Snow Angels [the novel] autobiographical in any way?

I assume it is, to some degree. More of it, I think, was just his [Stewart
O'Nan's] curiosity and investigation of headlines-district headlines-and
then he tried to humanize them, and I'm sure he brought a lot of an autobiographical perspective, especially within the younger character.

Do you mean that there was an incident like that when he was growing up?

Just things he was affected by at various points in his life, and then I tried
to do the same thing. When I was in the fifth grade, a girl in my town went
missing for two years, and she was around my age, and I remember there
was this real surreal quality about the whole thing where you kind of felt
like you knew her, because her face was on flyers all over the place.

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Halifax in the snow
Was she found?
Yeah...some bones.
*****
It sounds like Undertow was a really arduous shoot, in terms of
the location, the bugs
[hordes of chiggers], etc. I'm wondering if
this was an easier shoot? It was a totally different environment.

No, it was not easier. It was, like, 30 below zero,
we're shooting all night, and hoping for snow.
And you're probably not used to that weather.
No. The other thing about Undertow is that the whole crew-the entire crew-
were all my best friends. There weren't strangers on that movie, and this movie...
it was ultimately a positive experience, but I had to learn to communicate with a lot of strangers, a lot of people who were doing a job. It's weird when you have people who are getting paid to hang out with you-and get paid more when it goes into overtime, so they slow it down and don't work very hard. And they think that's good.
It's just a weird psychology when people...you know, it's a legitimate industry,
rather than it's your buddies and you've got a few bucks and you want to make something great and have a crazy time. So it was difficult in that way, because I
had to communicate rather than have people read my mind. But it was certainly rewarding, and there is a good crew base up in Halifax. I brought my DP [director
of photography] and production designer and sound mixer and the major tech-
nical contributors to my other movies, but then we had to hire a lot of locals.
undertow2.jpg
Devon Alan & Jamie Bell, Undertow
Were you filming at the same time-and I know this wasn't in Hali-
fax, but it was in Canada-as The Assassination of Jesse James
?
[A movie filmed in Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg.]
This was right after that.
I was wondering, because there were all these big movies filmed in North-
eastern Canada that came out in the past year. That also reminded me of you,
because Paul Schneider is in it and because it has, to me-some people don't
see this-but it has this
[Terrence] Malick look to the cinematography.
[Schneider, an NCSA classmate, appears in George Washington and
All the Real Girls. Malick has produced two of Green's films.]
People don't see that in Jesse James? Drunk people!
I know! That's what I was thinking, but I was talking to a friend, who's steep-
ed in film history, and he said the cinematography reminds him of some more obscure name. I can't remember who it was, but it might've been someone more...Expressionist. Like that opening scene, where it's all blurred out on the sides-which I don't associate with Terrence Malick-but the rest of the film: how could anyone not see that? And in a good way. I thought it was a gorgeous film.

[The Assassination was shot by Roger Deakins of No Country for Old Men fame.]
It's a pretty movie. I was on the set for a bit. The director's a friend of mine.
You're friends with Andrew Dominick?
I premiered my first movie in Australia when he premiered his first movie.
[2000's Chopper with a stand-up comedian named...Eric Bana.]
That's awesome. I can't believe he took so long between his two films.
He's a perfectionist. It took so long to edit his damned second movie.
And it's a long movie. It also has Zooey Deschanel in it. I hadn't
thought about that, but it has other actors with whom you've worked.

A lot of folks, like Pat Healey, the mechanic from Undertow...
And he's in Great World of Sound. I also caught him in an episode of The
Shield
. Now that I know who he is, I've been keeping an eye out for him.

He's been in a bunch of stuff. Yeah, a lot of incestuous relationships.
Like Sam Shepard.
[From Malick's Days of Heaven.]
And Sam Rockwell.
Next: On the cast
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Casey Affleck and Rockwell in The Assassination of Jesse James
Snow Angels is currently playing at the Harvard Exit Theatre.
Images from Geek Literature (Stephen Cawood), The New York
Times
, No Budget Film School, and Yahoo! Movies.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Southerner Looks to the North: Part Two

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Michael Angarano as Arthur Parkinson

A Chat with David Gordon Green: On the Adaptation (click here for part one)

I was in the band the fall my father left, in the second row of trombones, in the middle because I was a freshman. Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school we practiced in the music room, but on Fridays Mr. Chervenick led us outside in our down jackets and tas-
seled Steeler hats and shitkicker boots and across the footbridge that spanned the in-
terstate to the middle school soccer field, where, like the football team itself, we ran square-outs and curls and a maneuver Mr. Chervenick called an oblique, with which, for
the finale of every halftime show, we described-all 122 of us-a whirling funnel approx-
imating our school's nickname, the Golden Tornadoes. We never got it quite right, though every Friday Mr. Chervenick tried to inspire us, scampering across the frost-slicked grass
in his chocolate leather coat and kid gloves and cordovans to heard us into formation un-
til-in utter disgust-instead of steering a wayward oboe back on course he would simply arrest him or her by the shoulders so the entire block of winds had to stop, and then the brass and the drums, and we would have to start all over again.
-- Opening paragraph from Snow Angels (Copyright Picador)


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The original novel
Another thing from the press notes, that people can interpret in interesting
ways, is that Sam Rockwell compares you to Glenn. He phrases it really carefully.

What does he say? Does he say, 'He's crazy as hell'?
He doesn't. What he says is very flattering, but someone who knows more about Glenn [an alcoholic at the end of his rope] than about your career might read it in the wrong way. He says you're really passionate, ferocious, smart, instinctual, but he's saying, 'So is this character.' Do you agree you're like Glenn in those ways?
I'm like Glenn in a lot of ways; I just didn't know what he was letting people in about.
He meant it in a good way, but if you've seen
the movie and you know what Glenn does...

All the characters are enough of me where I find the movie very private, and
I'm thrilled to be able to exploit my own passion and dialogue and stories
and to be able to use the generosity of actors that have brought a lot, and
to try to blur the lines, so that [it's] some weird amalgamation of Stewart
O'Nan's original novel, characters that have been brought authenticity by the
actors, and some of my strange little twists and turns of life along the way.
It's interesting that you mention improv, because I know you've used that
in your other films, but you haven't done an adaptation before. From what I
understand, Stewart's made promotional appearances on behalf of the film.

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Tom Noonan as Mr. Chervenick
Yeah, I met him last week. He's really cool.
What did he think about the improvized or altered parts?
[Green changed the structure of the narrative, but preserved primary events.]
He's fine. It's all very true to the characters he created, and ultimately, you
know, the book takes place in the '70s and there are some characters taken
out and combined and all the typical adaptation-bastardizations of a novel,
but he seems happy with it, so it's a real seal of approval for me. I tried to
bring enough of myself to the role so that I could be invested in it, but I want-
ed to make sure it was still obviously inspired and instigated by his great book.
That reminds me of James Ellroy. I met him years ago, and
he's known for being a no-bullshit kind of guy, and one of the
first adaptations of his novels was Cop with James Woods.

I saw that.
When I asked, 'What did you think of it?,' he said, 'It was awful, a
piece of shit,' but at the time he was promoting L.A. Confidential, which
I could tell he really liked, and we talked about what was changed
[from
his novel]. He seemed happy about it, and I think he was being sincere.
That's good that his first experience was bad, so that he could kind
of expect the worst, and then be happily surprised. I know Stewart
O'Nan is good friends with Stephen King, so Stephen probably said,
'It's hit or miss. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.'
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Angarano, Beckinsale, and Green at the LA premiere
Next: On the production
Snow Angels is currently playing at the Harvard Exit Theatre. Images from
Warner Independent Pictures, The New York Times, and Fantastic Fiction

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Southerner Looks to the North: A Chat With David Gordon Green

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Raised in Texas and educated in North Carolina, Snow Angels marks writer/direc-
tor David Gordon Green's first Northern production. Shot in snow-covered Halifax,
the action takes place in an unidentified New England town (author Stewart O'Nan's rural Pennsylvania). The movie marks other firsts. To start, filmmaker Jesse Peretz (who adapted Ian McEwan's First Love, Last Rites for the silver screen) initially hired him to adapt O'Nan's 1994 novel, making the movie Green's first literary adapta-
tion and work-for-hire project. When a conflict took Peretz out of the picture, Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow) stepped in as he'd gotten so im-
mersed in the material he could no longer imagine handing it over to anyone else.

I spoke with Green while he was in town in support of his fourth feature. What fol-
lows are some excerpts from our conversation-and it's definitely more of a conver-
sation
than a formal interview. I quickly discovered that the slight Texan loves to shoot the shit, but he's less enthusiastic about answering specific questions. At the film's blogsite, Green notes that "self-promotion" is "a pretty tough aspect of the job. Every ten minutes you've got a new person to talk to, a new set of questions, or an old set of questions that you want to put a spin on so you don't just end up re-
peating yourself over and over again." He isn't the first director I've encountered who prefers to talk about work other than his own. I did my bit to keep things on track, but we went down a few meandering paths, and I found it best to go with the flow...

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You might find this of interest. It has nothing to do with your films,
but it does actually have something to do with you. When Aaron Katz
was in town
[with Quiet City], I thought about you...
I know Aaron. Did you like his movie?
I did, very much.
It's a good movie.
I thought about you, because you went to the same school
[The North Carolina School of the Arts], and I think he men-
tioned that you've worked with some of the same people
.
His DP on Quiet City. And his cinematographer dropped out of college to
work for free as a PA on All the Real Girls, which is my second movie, and
then, based on that, he heard about our school, went there, and met Aaron.
Interesting. He now kind of has, on a smaller scale, the same set-up as you,
in that he's working with a lot of the people with whom he went to school.

It's a good school. We went to a pretty cool place.
He had nothing but nice things to say about it.
Those people are taking over the world now. Did you
see [Craig Zobel's] Great World of Sound last year?
[Green produced Great World of Sound and fellow alum Jeff Nichols's Shotgun Stories.]
I did, and I was going to ask you about that, because I just watched Under-
tow
, which is the only one of your films I hadn't seen, and I noticed Craig
Zobel. I knew he worked on the film, but I didn't know he was in the film.

Oh yeah. [smiles] And our line producer plays his bride.
She looked familiar, too. I recognized her from the "making of" featurette.
So, until
[your film] Snow Angels, I hadn't heard about the novel. My under-
standing is that Jesse Peretz came to you with the idea for an adaptation.
In the press notes, you talk about really getting into it while you were work-
ing. Was there something in particular that really resonated for you?

I think it's the idea that it's an arena, an ensemble of characters, with intertwining love stories offering various perspectives, and the more you write that kind of thing, the more you personalize it-or at least [that's] me. So then the more I started personalizing it, the more invested I became in these characters-the more I really liked these characters, laughed with these characters, sympathized with these char-
acters-the more I started reflecting myself within these characters, then I got into
it, kind of self"ndulgently. I don't really know how to write things I'm not self"n-
dulgent about. I haven't mastered the art of keeping a character at arm's length.
Maybe that's good.
Well, it's good for my head, it's not good for my wallet.
Next: On the adaptation
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Snow Angels is currently playing at the Harvard Exit Theatre. The Harvard Exit is located at 807 E. Roy on Capitol Hill (206-781-5755). For more information about the film, please see the official website (from whence the above stills originate).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Lovely Ladies and Risky Relationships

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"It was fun to be platinum. I think we forget, because so many
photographs are in black and white, that women were very ris-
que and, at the time, it was very usual to be that blonde."
-- Rachel McAdams on her look in Married Life

*****

Sometimes I write about films way in advance. In the case of Ira Sachs's Married Life, I posted something in January as that's when the Seattle press screening took place. Also, I wanted to compare and contrast Sachs's period piece with Bela Tarr's Prefab People, which was playing around the same time. Click here for the full review.

kate%20beckinsale.jpg

Coming soon: An interview with writer/director David Gordon Green, whose Snow
Angels
opens today at the Harvard Exit, and Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno's Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait, which opens at the Northwest Film Forum on 4/4. McAdams image from Canmag, Kate Beckinsale (Snow Angels) from Allocine.com.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sincerity and Violence, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation

LA CHINOISE / La Chinoise, ou Plut/Yent /*
la Chinoise: Un Film en Train de se Faire
(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967, 90 mins.)


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Mao's ideas can help me...in any case, you need sincerity and violence.
-- Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud)

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

La Chinoise doesn't concern the Chinese-not directly, at any rate-but rather communism, revolution, and youthful na/Ovete. Jean-Pierre Leaud's Guillaume,
a Brechtian actor, and his student friends have slogans for every occasion, from
"A minority with the right ideas is not a minority" to the oft-quoted "It is neces-
sary to confront vague ideas with clear images." Every few minutes, they paint
new ones on the walls or scribble them on the blackboards that populate their borrowed flat (Godard's glowing red and blue intertitles also read like slogans).

The dialogue extends the theme when the revolutionaries offer conversational gambits like, "We must be different from our parents" and "Reactionaries are
paper tigers." All the while, unidentified cameramen, such as Raoul Coutard,
capture their every move. Guillaume's flatmates include part-time prostitute
Yvonne (actor/director Juliet Berto from Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go
Boating
and Out 1), Yvonne's engineer boyfriend, Henri (Andy Warhol look-alike
Michel Semeniako), and Guillaume's girlfriend, Veronique (Godard's second
wife, Anne Wiazemsky, best known for Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar).

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It's hard to tell if this was Godard's intention, but except for Guillaume, they come across as brain-washed zombies during the first two "movements." It's not that
politics-particularly revolutionary politics-are dull, it's that people who talk about
nothing but politics are dull. The slogans and literary quotations are interesting,
but these collegiates rarely speak their own words. They're mouthpieces for others.
Fortunately, that changes once philosopher/activist Francis Jeanson enters the
scene. His train-set conversation with Veronique during the third movement al-
lows her to speak for herself-and to defend her deadly intentions. The eeriest
part about this sequence is that her justifications for wanting to, um, blow shit
up echo the unrepentant ramblings of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
But even at their most schematic-and La Chinoise is a distinct step in that
direction-Godard's films are always worth seeing (and the key word here is
seeing). His color-coded collage-like approach, in which classical music ming-
les with comic book art, still looks fresh-and feels even more radical than
the politics at hand. And many discerning observers hold it in high regard.
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As The New York Times' Renata Adler enthuses, "[It's] Godard's best film by
far since Breathless." This viewer, for one, would disagree (see below), but
Village Voice scribe J. Hoberman's claim that "Godard appeared remarkably
prescient" can't be denied, since the picture predicts the French and American
student riots of the following year. (While Godard proclaims Pierrot le Fou "an
attempt at film," La Chinoise's subtitle translates as "a film in the making.")
Significantly, Hoberman adds, "it's a movie that jettisons narrative suspense
for something both more spontaneous and more detached." And yet Coutard
shoots more close-ups than in most other works described as "detached" or "re-
mote." The innate humanity of Godard's actors-Berto's shy smiles and Wiaz-
emsky's gauzy gestures-undercuts the director's impulse towards abstraction.
One way or the other, 2008 has been a great year for the Swiss curmudgeon.
This long-lost entry arrives in the wake of the Criterion Collection's two-disc edi-
tions of Breathless and Pierrot le Fou, and serves as a taster for the re-re-release
of 1963's Contempt, which plays New York's Film Forum for the next two weeks.
While the characters in La Chinoise rave about Nicholas Ray, the film they occupy lacks the emotional complexity that makes Ray's movies sing. With Contempt, God-
ard proves he can break hearts, too. That said, only La Chinoise features Claude Channes's Marxist-Leninist pop manifesto "Mao Mao." Everybody now: "Vietnam burns / and me I spurn Mao Mao / Johnson giggles / and me I wiggle Mao Mao..."
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La Chinoise, in a new 35mm print, continues at the Northwest Film Forum
through Thurs., 3/20. Show times at 7 and 9pm. (Then on 5/13, it finally
debuts in the US on DVD.) The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Cap-
itol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or
call 206-329-2629. Images from DVD Times and The Village Voice.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I Started a Joke

FUNNY GAMES [U.S.]
(Michael Haneke, US, 2007, 107 mins.)

I started a joke, which started the whole world
crying, but I didn't see that the joke was on me.

--The Bee Gees, "I Started a Joke" (1967)


What a disgrace, just a complete piece of shit!
--Jacques Rivette on the original film


***** ***** ***** ***** *****

In either incarnation, Funny Games is a profoundly unpleasant experience. Originally released by Austrian helmer Michael Haneke in 1997, the film was always meant as a comment on America's insatiable desire for on-screen violence, whether through movies, television, or video games. Now Haneke has transferred his story to its spiritual home, the United States.

Even the Long Island setting in this shot-for-shot remake appears identical. The most significant difference, then, is the cast. Though some will surely describe the central duo as American, they aren't. Or that isn't their country of origin, since the Australian Naomi Watts (who calls New York home) and British Tim Roth (ditto for Los Angeles) play the beleaguered couple in the new iteration. Both are nearly as good as Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others). If the Keane-eyed boy, Devon Gearhart (who made his debut in last year's Canvas), is less effective, his role is also less critical.



That leaves the home invaders. Or torturers. Or audience surrogates. Haneke never defines exactly what these malicious young men represent. This time around, they're played by Michael Pitt (Paul) and Brady Corbet (Peter), who was last seen in Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (and gives a similar performance, though what seems endearing there becomes cringe-inducing here).

Their acting is fine, although Frank Giering and Arno Frisch (Haneke's Benny's Video) were better, not least because they look less alike; Pitt and Corbet are fair-haired, moon-faced fellows, even if the former is rangier.

Like its forerunner, the movie opens with a drive to the countryside. Despite the serene setting, Haneke signals his sadistic intentions by shooting the scene from a God's-eye view, i.e. an aerial tracking shot (shades of The Shining). Consequently, the pleasant voices of the vacationers register before they do. Then DP Darius Khondji moves into their SUV and onto their hands before revealing their beaming faces.

Though the film eschews a traditional soundtrack, it begins and ends with music. First, some relaxing Handel and Mozart, then a jarring segue into the shrieking strains of John Zorn's Naked City. The ending returns to Zorn and the frame-filling title: FUNNY GAMES in bright gold letters. Quentin Tarantino uses a similar typeface for Kill Bill: Vols. I and II, and yet Haneke describes his fourth feature as "an anti-Tarantino film." In both cases, Jean-Luc Godard's distinctive approach to typography comes to mind.

Pitt: nothing but a dreamer

After they settle in, Ann fixes dinner, while George and George Jr. prepare the boat for sailing. Meanwhile, their dog barks and barks.

Peter, who claims to be staying next door, arrives to borrow some eggs. From the start, it's clear something is off about this kid. He's polite, but in an obsequious manner. Ann is disturbed that he was able to enter their gated property; he explains there's a hole in the fence that the neighbor brought to his attention.

After Peter breaks the eggs and knocks her cellphone in the sink, Paul catches up with his friend and asks to test out one of George's golf clubs. Shortly afterwards, the dog stops barking.

Ann humors the twosome until she can't take it anymore, and asks them to leave. They refuse. George and son return. The former repeats his wife's request. Paul responds by whacking him with the club. Hard. And the games begin.

From then on, "Tom and Jerry," as they call themselves, control the shots. They're the hunters to the family's prey--except their rules are as inscrutable as their motives. And just when it seems there's method to their madness, they switch games.

Clearly, they aren't after money. If anything, they appear to be just as well heeled as their captives. And yet, with the exception of their white golfing gloves, they arrive empty-handed.

A knife first materializes while Ann is working in the kitchen. Later, Georgie gets hold of a rifle. Along with the club, these are the means by which the duo maintains order, suggesting the Farbers brought this catastrophe upon themselves. Further, the men refuse to enter the house, during their initial visit, until Ann invites them in. It begs the question: If she didn't agree, would they have left, like good little vampires?

Corbet and veteran Tarantino actor Roth

Along the way, Paul shares asides, like "We have to entertain our audience--show 'em what we've got." His appeals to the camera signal that viewers are meant to side with him rather than his victims, who are denied the opportunity to break the fourth wall. The hijinks of "Beavis and Butt-head," their other pet names, implicate all who observe them.

Towards the end, after Peter is injured, Paul picks up a remote control, hits rewind, and undoes the damage. His mastery of the situation is complete; he can even reverse time.

Life doesn't work that way, of course, but Funny Games isn't meant to echo reality. Most of the developments that transpire are "plausible," to borrow Paul's word, even if he and Peter aren't intended to resemble actual human beings, and Haneke doesn't burden any of his characters with a back story. The context is that which appears on screen. The past doesn't exist, only a present that threatens to repeat itself indefinitely.

Frisch, Giering, and the late, great Mühe

Plenty of other movies about media violence offer more thrills than Funny Games, notably David Cronenberg's visceral Videodrome (1983), but there lies the rub. If a picture about violence is too "entertaining," Haneke seems to suggest, then it just perpetuates the cycle, feeding the need for more and more violent product, regardless as to whether that "product" offers a critique of its own content or not.

And yet Haneke's project is no less problematic. Like Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2006), it's a violent film about violence. Similarly, most movies about sexual exploitation tend to be exploitative themselves. To his credit, Haneke pulls off a more compelling home invasion scenario in Cache (2005), except that film is more concerned with guilt and paranoia, and it does feature one particularly shocking shooting.

Funny Games, on the other hand, is so unremittingly violent--even if the most
graphic scenes occur off-screen--that it becomes numbing, but that's clearly in-
tentional. At the very least, Haneke deserves praise for the purity of his vision.

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in Cache / Hidden.

For those familiar with the Austrian original, there's little point in revisiting this material except as an exercise in compare and contrast. (Though Mühe bests Roth, the character serves the same powerless purpose in both entries.)

Unlike George Sluizer's Hollywood remake of The Vanishing (1988), Haneke hasn't slapped an all-American happy face on his grim tale, and it's unlikely he would've invested the time if he didn't have complete control--thus establishing a neat link between the director and his invaders.

That said, the new movie hits the States in the wake of Saw, Hostel, and their sequels and knock-offs. Does the popularity of such torture-fests render Haneke's provocation more relevant than ever--or more redundant? Further, did it help to influence them?

As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has observed, "[1997's] Funny Games...has itself become a cult movie among horror fans in English-speaking countries." Will the US version inspire further cheap imitations? In other words: Is Michael Haneke and his post-modern morality tale part of the problem or part of the solution? Or, to paraphrase the Brothers Gibb: Is the joke on him or us? And who started the damn thing in the first place?

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** **** *****

'Til I finally died, which started the whole world
living, oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me.




Funny Games opens in Seattle on 3/14 at the Metro Cinemas. The
Metro is located at 4500 9th Avenue NE. For more information, please
call 206-781-5755. Images from Cinematical, OutNow, and Reverse Shot.