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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Promised Land

PROMISED LAND (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Gus Van Sant, 2012

Matt Damon, who’s become a kind of classic American leftist movie star– a Hank Fonda of the new millennium — has gotten trashed  by some right-wingers (and some moderates and left-wingers as well) for his new film Promised Land. But I think it’s pretty good — a Capraesque tale about a big natural gas corporation trying to get drilling rights to the gas deposits in a Pennsylvania farming town that’s fallen on hard times. Damon, who’s one of our best actors and doesn’t always get the credit he deserves (because, these days, he gets slammed for his politics), plays Steve Bennett, a small town Iowa guy who thinks he understands and relates to these small town Heartland people, and has  a Messianic sense about his job.

Steve, a genuinely nice guy, believes he’s saving the populace from the current economic downturn, rescuing them from the shocks and disappointments  he endured himself.  And, like most small town guys who made it big and later go back to the heartland, he’s just a little full of himself. When he arrives in (the fictitious) McKinley, with his more cynical working partner Sue Thomson (Frances McDormand), he’s not quite prepared for what he meets (though we are): a general store manager who sees right through him; an active, vocal populace; a retired teacher named Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who knows all the facts and figures and the bad side of gas drilling or “fracking“; a wised-up sexy schoolmarm, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt);  and a slick, one-step-ahead environmentalist named Dustin Noble, who beats his time everywhere, including with Alice. Dustin, who may have been named after Dustin Hoffman, is played by John Krasinski, who also co-wrote the script with Damon, from a story by novelist Dave Eggers (the author of the ironically, nudgingly titled “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius“).

In other words, Promised Land is a realistic left-wing social drama about something that might actually happen in the real, everyday world —  instead of, say, about a maniac running from house to house, slashing people to bits, or monsters from hell rising up from the ground and chasing everybody to city hall, or an invasion of extraterrestrials or gangsters on the run staging sensational orgies and bloodbaths. Not that I have anything against movies like that, if they’re done well (and they occasionally are), but I don’t think Damon (or Krasinski) should get points off (or on) simply because they try to make movies that send us messages about issues they care about, or try to create real people, or face real problems, or real horrors. There are things that don’t work in Promised Land, but we’d be better off if there were more movies like it. And I wish there were.

The director Damon chose after deciding not to do it himself, was Gus Van Sant, and that was a wise choice. Van Sant has directed Damon twice before in Damon scripted movis — in Good Will Hunting, the  Oscar-winning realist message drama about social class and intelligence, with Ben Affleck,  and in the wild, weird, arty, long-take  lost-in-the-desert fable Gerry, with Ben’s brother Casey. It’s obvious that Van Sant and Damon click artistically (just as Damon and the Afflecks do).

Visually, Van Sant gets the small town atmosphere, the look and feel and the rhythms of these people, with both naturalism and poetry — and I say that as someone who hails from the Heartland myself, a small town Wisconsin guy. Van Sant, from that hip city Portland, Oregon, gives Promised Land a humanistic style and feel, and though the characters are in some sense, obviously and even preachily conceived, the story works right up to the end, which unfortunately depends on a surprise twist that isn’t adequately set up and, in some ways, doesn‘t make sense.

Damon’s acting though, and his sheer personality, carries a lot of the movie. Like the left-wing Fonda, and like Fonda’s life-long right-wing friend Jimmy Stewart, Damon is an all-American guy with personality and a brain, and a kind of unspoiled boyish quality that beguiles many audiences. That quality shines through Promised Land, a pop-political ballad of a movie about what’s best (and sometimes worst) is us. Enjoy the movie, and Damon, for their best. It may not be a heart-breaking work of staggering genius, but it’s good, solid, admirable. It’s heartland stuff.

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You worked as second AD on Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried,  about a clown entertaining Jewish children in a WW II concentration camp. 
Yes, and I never saw the film. I was just the second assistant and it was an incredible fairytale for me, to work with Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis, along with Louis de Funes—who, by the way, had a very similar career to Jerry Lewis. He was a huge comic in France, but never, ever until now, 20 years after his death, recognized as a great actor. But they both made me laugh as a child. Jerry Lewis did everything: he did stand-up. He could act. He could sing and dance. He’s a photographer. He’s a director. And his films, when you look at them, are extremely daring and inventive. So he was someone that I wanted to emulate, in a way. The cinematographer of the film, Edmond Richard, who had shot a film I worked on directed by Rene Clement, called Hope to Die, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Aldo Ray and Robert Ryan. It was like I had been invited to the court of Queen Elizabeth. It felt like a real achievement. I tried to work as hard as possible, and be very speedy. Like the weather, you don’t wait for somebody to ask. The moment the director says “I would like to have a…” you know what needs and get it for him. The greatest moment on that set for me was, one day Jerry Lewis got really upset with his crew, and went off on them, saying “You’re all too lazy. You don’t work hard enough. There’s only one guy who understands!” And he pointed to me. I only worked on the film for 15 days, at the circus in Paris. I never heard a thing about it after. I knew it was bogged down in lawsuits after it was finished, but it was an important moment in my professional life. I worked with a lot of amazing people before I directed my first film. I was an assistant director for twelve years. It was a great training ground, watching those masters work. I have many great memories. I started making films very late, you know.”
~ Jean-Jacques Beineix

“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh