“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
~ James Gray
Film Essent Archive for December, 2011
True confession: I am not a fan of this book series and Stieg Larsson’s clunky, overly expositional writing style, and never saw the Swedish adaptations. Honestly, I didn’t care that much about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo until David Fincher was announced to direct the English adaptation. Fincher’s a smart, smart guy, and I don’t see him wanting to spend his time directing an adaptation if he doesn’t see something in the source material worth developing, so his presence at the helm was enough to compel me to see his take on it. There are quite a few spoilers in what’s to follow, as this is really as much an analysis of the misogyny in the film and in Fincher’s take on the title character as it is review of the film itself. I’m not synopsizing the plot much either; I assume, if you haven’t been living under a rock the past couple years, that you know the basic gist of the story already. If you’re somehow completely without knowledge of the general plot, and you want to see this film clean, don’t read this further until you’ve seen it. Forewarned is forearmed.
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Spoiler alert: Mild spoilers contained herein.
Here, I’m once again straying from the critical pack; it must be that kind of year. The response to Albert Nobbs critically is pretty dismal, for what it is. For me the film — a longtime passion project of Glenn Close, who originated the lead role in a 1982 stage adaptation — has its flaws, but still resonated deeply without being manipulative. Close delivers a spot-on portrayal of Albert Nobbs, a woman hiding from her gender in Victorian-era Ireland by living as a man and working as a butler. Enter Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, who holds her own with Glenn Close and then some), another woman living as a man, whose very existence causes Albert to question the belief that his life must always be a solitary one. Here now, is a woman acting as a man, but doing so brashly, freely. Where Albert’s gender-switch has bound him into a life in hiding, Hubert hides right out in the open, having taken a jolly wife and made a home and a life with her.
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Spoiler note: Mild spoilers contained herein.
The Artist is a visually lovely film, but it’s rather a hollow parable, largely because writer/director Michel Hazanavicius fills every empty frame with lovely silver images, but never fills the souls of his characters. Yes, it’s an interesting enough idea, to use black-and-white and the style of a silent-era film to tell the story of the decline of one era and the rise of the next, but I just couldn’t care about any of these people and thus, I never cared much what was going to happen to them. I was watching the clock halfway in, and ready for it to be over by the end of its hour-and-forty-minute running time.
And look, I love black-and-white films. I appreciate very much that we’ve seen some filmmakers this year going back to black-and-white over color, even when it doesn’t quite work, because challenging yourself creatively, making a statement, taking a risk, is part of what artists should do. The question for me whether a choice to film in black-and-white has artistic merit besides the desire to stand out from the pack. Does the choice to use shades of silver rather than the full spectrum of color to tell a story enhance rather than detract from it? If it was shot in color rather than black and white, would the story underneath still be moving and engaging and interesting and original?
You could argue that the use of black-and-white in The Artist is so integral to its method of storytelling, so organic to what it is, that you cannot separate the two. And that may be so, but at the end of the day there still has to be a compelling story as the scaffolding for all that style, there still need to be characters rather than caricatures. While The Artist succeeds stylistically, and the story wrapped around the end of the silent film ear lends credibility to the choice to use black-and-white, at the end of the day what we have is this absolutely gorgeous film that sacrifices depth of character development for broad parable. It wants to be relevant to the current state of the film industry — and of course it is, if for no other reason than history’s tendency to repeat itself – but the characters are too thinly drawn to feel more than paper dolls acting out their parts.
At the end of the day, I just didn’t care enough about either George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) or Peppy Miller ( Bérénice Bejo, who’s married to director Michel Hazanavicius) to feel invested one way or another in what happened to either of them. So George misses the boat on the talkie tsunami that’s about to obliterate his career and render him irrelevant, loses his fancy house (it was modest, really, by today’s megastar standards), ends up in a crappy apartment with only booze and his faithful canine companion for company. But George was kind of a schmoozy, fame-glorying jerk when we first met him, and there’s really not even a satisfying moment of personal revelation out of him that made me care any more about him by the end of the story.
Peppy is very … cute and toothsome and, well, peppy, I guess. Like many enthusiastic young girls who descend on Hollywood with dreams of fame and glory. Why we’re supposed to care particularly whether Peppy makes it or not doesn’t seem to matter because as a character, she exists primarily to serve as both the contrast to George and a symbolic representation of the force that’s driving him out, and simultaneously as the force for good who helps pull him back him. And maybe I’m just feeling uncharacteristically cynical, but the film’s closing, well-danced and charming though it is, just made me think, “Well, he’ll get another few years out of that before the next thing pushes it out, then what?”
John Goodman, broadly playing the stereotypical cigar-chomping producer Al Zimmer, hams it up nicely but doesn’t make us think one way or another about his character’s actions; he’s essentially a prop, just another rich, arrogant, Hollywood white guy, making his bucks by using up other peoples’ lives and then discarding them, and he never does a single thing to counter this perception of stereotype (this isn’t Goodman’s fault, it’s a problem with the script). So when Zimmer and his gang of equally rich and arrogant old white guys unceremoniously oust George after years of hits to make way for the advent of talkies, we just mentally shrug: That’s the way it is, George; just when you think you’ve got your career path all figured out, along comes technology and change to screw everything up for you. Evolve and survive, or cling to the past and perish. As we all must.
I mean, compare The Artist to the crazy genius of Guy Maddin, especially as seen in My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin is best known for his work in black-and-white, but his work goes beyond merely creating silver-toned images; Maddin explores the darkest, dirtiest corners of psychology, pathology and screwed up familial relations. There’s some seriously brilliant, fucked-up stuff going on in Maddin’s work, even all the pieces don’t quite fit, as with this year’s Keyhole. By contrast, The Artist feels so surface: it’s like the difference between looking at a glossy studio portrait of a family versus being a fly in the wall and seeing that family with all their dirty laundry hanging out to air dry. Maddin’s lens may be a twisted, distorted one, but at least it’s always interesting, and his use of shadow, contrast and lighting in black-and-white has a distinctive feel.
The Artist was more problematic for me: a movie where I was very admiring of the production value; of the costume design and hair and makeup choices; of the many exquisitely-lit and framed shots; of a few clever bits that interweave dance seamlessly into story (a scene where George (Jean Dujardin) first “meets” Peppy by dancing on duet with her legs beneath a scrim, and a later scene where Peppy envelops herself in George’s jacket, caressing herself like a lover, are particularly imaginative and well-realized); and even, an adorable Jack Russell Terrier — and yet still, at the end of it, felt hollow and unsatisfied.
Yes, The Artist is very pretty, and it’s certainly likable, and in all likelihood, you’ll see it and fall in love with it. The stars, especially Bejo, are perfectly charming. The Artist is just different enough to stand out from the pack, and it, like its leads, has effortlessly danced its way (at least for the moment) into the collective critical heart. I wish I could get better why this film just didn’t connect with me; when a film is as generally well-liked as this one, it’s hard not to second-guess your own response to the film, but it is what it is. Maybe I should just send The Artist a bunch of flowers and a note saying, “Sorry, kid. It’s not you, it’s me.”
I can’t help but feeling a bit sad and nostalgic over the news this morning that Indiewire’s longtime managing editor, Brian Brooks, is moving to LA to work for Deadline Hollywood. There will be plenty of industry folks buzzing about this news and what it means to Indiewire and to the indie film community, and that’s understandable. But if you’ll indulge me on this Christmas Eve morning, I’d like to just say a few words about Brian Brooks, the man who is my good friend.
From my very earliest days working in this industry, both Brian and Eugene Hernandez, indieWIRE’s then-editor (who’s since moved over to work with Rose Kuo and her team of superstars at Film Society Lincoln Center), took me under their friendly wings and made me a part of the extended iW family. They opened doors, they introduced me to people I needed to know, they encouraged me in my writing; right from the start I shared with both Brian and Eug that rarest of connections, that instant sense of camaraderie and friendship that, if you’re lucky, you’ve found a few times in your own life. It’s a lovely thing, to make connections like these. Over the years, we’ve shared many laughs and drinks and late-night arguments over films, but more importantly, Eug and Brian have been my friends through times good and bad — not just friends who I see at festivals throughout the year, but the kind of friends who stay in touch year-round, through emails and IMs to just check in and say hi. They are the kind of friends who are there for you.
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It’s not nominated for a SAG or Golden Globe, but I can’t stop watching this video.
We’re still stuck at the hospital, Neve is sleeping, and I’m watching this video over and over while listening to some soothing pink noise via my favorite EVER iPhone app, SimplyNoise, which you can also use for free on your laptop. If you’re prone to anxiety disorder and find the gently repetitive sounds of white or pink noise soothing, like I do, you might dig it. And you also might dig this video, which is repetitive and therefore soothing (to me at least) in its own way.
I’m totally using this as part of homeschooling math lessons. Which I GUESS can wait until after the holidays … or at least until we’re out of the hospital. I love the idea of this, teaching foundations of mathematics through simple doodles. Awesome. Check it out.
Via The Bloggess, who wants to invite the math doodler to a dinner party along with Neil Gaiman, Eddie Izzard, Traci Lords, Wil Wheaton, and William Shatner handcuffed to a chimp. She hasn’t invited me to said party, but I would come just to see the math class doodler render a drawing of Shatner and the chimp that utilizes mathematical principles. After which we could watch Shatner duke it out with Patrick Stewart, because I would have to invite him along, too. But I’d only invite Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry if we could put them in dancer cages in miniskirts, tassels, and white go-go boots and make them dance to The Doors all night.
Oh, c’mon. You’d totally pay to see that.
If you’ve never had a child stuck in the hospital for any reason, count yourself very, very blessed. Because a hospital for children, especially around the holidays, is just depressing as hell. You walk down to the Starbucks on the ground floor to get a coffee, or over to the cafeteria for some wretchedly bad hospital food, and everywhere you go you see other parents, walking around looking shell-shocked. Especially at night, when the folks there just for day clinic visits are cleared out, and all the other parents you see are there because they, like you, have a child in the hospital.
This morning , when I went upstairs to take a shower in the parent center, I could hear through the wall in the next bathroom over another mother sobbing heartbreakingly in the shower, perhaps letting out all the emotion she has to keep hidden in front of her child, perhaps because her child’s outlook isn’t great. I don’t know, but I felt her pain. Every parent here looks utterly exhausted, we’re all walking around like zombies, dark circles under eyes, shuffling around, trying to remember what life outside these walls feels like. Nobody here cares about awards season or who got nominated for SAGs or Golden Globes. Time stops here.
Casual conversations here are unlike anything you would have under normal circumstances. Earlier today, I talked with a dad whose daughter celebrated her second birthday just last week here at the hospital; she was diagnosed with Hepatoblastoma several months ago. Tonight, while taking a breather down at Starbucks, I had a conversation with a mom whose four-year-old son desperately needs a heart transplant; she’s wrestling with guilt over praying for her son to get a new heart, because she knows that the answer to their prayers will mean grief for another mother. Parents here make eye contact with each other in the cafeteria, in the hallways, on the elevator, and all anyone can do is nod in solidarity: Yes, we’re here, in a children’s hospital, ten days before Christmas, and our kids are sick or hurting, and it just sucks. That nod of acknowledgment just says all there is to say. What else is there? We are, in this moment, united in a community of parenthood none of us wants to be in.
I’ve had to stay at hospitals with my own kids more than I’d like. A few times with my oldest daughter when she was a pre-teen and teen. Several times with Luka, of course, related to his seizure disorder, but those stays, although they involve some procedures he’s not crazy about, are mostly just endlessly boring and consist of spending a lot of time keeping him amused and diverted, because he’s not feeling sick, and it’s hard to be an active 8-year-old kid confined to a hospital for five or six days with electrodes glued to your head. This stay with Neve having this surgery, though, is just emotionally and physically exhausting.
And even so, I know that in the greater scheme of things (yeah, I lose major “good writer” points for that turn of phrase, but forgive me, will you?), however hard this is, there are other parents here who have it so much worse. Kids in ICU, some of whom will never go home again. Kids right down the hall in the oncology ward, fighting for their lives. I see those parents, especially, taking their sick little ones for walks in wagons loaded up with bags and bottles — liquid nutrition, antibiotics, chemotherapy — tiny kiddos, so frail, so fragile. A little girl, perhaps seven or eight, her hair gone from chemo, who had carefully drawn on new eyebrows with a Sharpie marker. How do those parents get through it? You do what you have to do to be there for your child. You wish you could take their pain on yourself and never see them hurting like this. You fear. You hope. You cry. You pray. I am grateful that we are here temporarily, that my child will heal from this pain in a few months and be okay.
Having your child undergo even minor surgery is nerve-wracking. Having your child go through a major surgery like this, with a long rehabilitation afterwards, is just daunting. They put a nerve block in during the surgery (kind of like an epidural, but more specific to the area operated on), which I was absolutely in favor of, having had one myself two years ago when I had my surgery for that pesky pancreatic tumor. It makes those first couple days after surgery better, and so long as Neve’s not moving, between the nerve block, the morphine, and the oxycodone, she’s more or less okay. Uncomfortable, but tolerable.
Except that somehow in the wee hours, sometime after the pain specialist had finally gotten the nerve block to the right level to control the pain, something happened and it shut off. So this morning she was suddenly in terrible pain and it took quite a while to figure out why. This happened shortly after Neve’s dad had come to take over for a while so I could go work on post for Bunker, so right as we were gearing up and figuring out that I really wanted to reopen the edit to tweak some more before we did the final sound mix, I got a text from Neve’s dad letting me know that her pain was through the roof and they’d figured out the nerve block got shut off, and were giving her pain meds to fix it. Then another text later asking me to call Neve, because she was upset; physical therapy had come to do her first session, and she was in so much pain they couldn’t move her leg enough to get her out of bed, much less get her up on crutches. She was frustrated, and hurting, and she wanted her mommy. And I knew her dad was there, and that he would get her through it, but goshalmighty, mother-guilt is a terrible thing. How could I be off working on my film while my daughter was in the hospital and hurting? Wasn’t I the worst mother ever? Yup, I sure felt like it.
And then my three younger guys wanted to come see their sister, and see me, tonight. And I was so emotionally exhausted I just wanted to lie down for a nap, but more than that I wanted — needed — to see them all and hug them and kiss them and cuddle them and smell their hair. They wanted me to come home, of course. They are fine with their stepdad, Mike, but they want their mommy. All I could do was say, I know, I know. I’m sorry. But I have to be here for your sister right now. And if you ever have to be in the hospital, know that I will be there for you then, as I am for her now. Because that’s what mommies do. But still, the guilt when they cry, when they’re clinging to you in a velcro-hug and don’t want to let you go, cuts you to the core. Yes, more guilt, because when you’re raised Catholic that’s your modus operandi, right? Your go-to emotion for anything that’s wrong with anyone in your life. I want it to be okay for everyone, I want to be there for everyone, and there’s never enough of me to go around, it seems.
On the plus side, by the time I got back here, they had things back under control for Neve, pain-wise. Nerve block cranked up, oxycodone on board. She still can’t get up, but at least she was able to visit with a friend, and she’s up on her laptop now, chatting with more friends, so that’s a big improvement over tears and frustration. So long as she doesn’t move, it’s tolerable. When she has to move, not so much. And then tomorrow, physical therapy will show up, and we will have to try again to get her moving through the pain, and I will have to be brave and encouraging and strong for Neve so she can get through it. And I will, of course. Just as Neve pushed aside her own stress and pain tonight to snuggle with each of her siblings, to listen to Veda tell her all about her day at school, to hug Jaxon and tell him how much she misses him, to cuddle Luka and sing softly to him, “Baby don’t you cry, gonna make a pie …”
That’s my girl.
A little out of pocket the next few days … my daughter Neve had to have some fairly major surgery to fix a problem with her leg. Long story short, her left femur grew twisted and was causing her foot to turn perpendicular to the right, which apparently is not desirable, especially for long-term issues like damage to hip and knee joints. We’d been “watching it” since she was little to see if it would straighten out on its own, like her right leg did, but no such luck. So now that she’s 14 and her growth plates are in, and the left leg was being stubbornly uncooperative, her doctor and the ortho surgeon felt it was time to take care of it. I know such things are routine to orthopedic surgeons, but for a mom, having a doctor explain how he’s going to go in and break your daughter’s femur (er, what?!), untwist it, and put a large stainless steel rod in there and screw it in place … not really my idea of fun times. And 9-18 months from now, we get to come back and do the whole thing over again so they can take the rod back out. Yippee.
Actually, Neve is doing extremely well so far. They put in a nerve block and a morphine drip, so her pain at the moment is under control. When they take that nerve block out, though … well, we’ll see how that goes.
Meanwhile, I brought a stack of the last few awards season screeners I needed to watch to get through my own top ten and the year-end voting for my critics’ groups, and we’re in the last push of post on Bunker this week too, so juggling many balls the next couple days. The SAGs and Globes have been announced, and really, what is there to say about that? For me, a lot of the critics’ group things are more interesting than the Globes especially, and pretty much what David’s had to say about both of those echoes my own thoughts pretty well. Today, I’m taking a break from the hospital to work on post sound for Bunker for a while, then back here to churn through more screeners. Juggling, juggling … and trying not to drop any balls along the way.
If you ever thought the life of a rock star must be something incredibly glamorous, well, it is, and it isn’t. Long before I started collaborating with Ken Stringfellow, I’d enjoyed regularly reading his blog, because he writes so prolifically about his life of mostly being on the road, and working on a never-ending stream of creative projects. Ken has been super busy lately, what with touring and recording and also squeezing in doing the score for my short film, Bunker, and he hadn’t updated his blog in an unusually long while. But he finally got (more or less) caught up with a lengthy tome — very nicely giving a couple shout-outs in there to the work we’ve been doing together on Bunker — that pretty much perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a musician who has to travel a lot for a living, expected to perform at the top of his game night after night after night.
It’s one thing to keep that pace when you’re a young turk in your 20s, taking on the world with all the exuberance of youth, that fire and passion and the ability to party late, get up early, and haul your equipment all over the place, but Ken and I are the same age, and his energy level astounds me. I think I have a pretty high energy level, one that allows me to juggle numerous creative projects and film criticism and occasional travel to fests with raising and homeschooling a pack of kids, but just reading Ken’s journal detailing his last few weeks exhausted me. And yet, he’s youthful and very dapper and charming, and he has the ability to shift his focus between multiple tasks without shortchanging any of them — he’s also the Posies tour manager, which is not unlike being a project manager on a huge, ever-fluctuating project where something or another is bound to go wrong pretty much every day, and having a lot of responsibility for making sure every show goes off well, for both the audience and for the bands backstage. I saw this first-hand a few weeks ago when we were squeezing in work watching the rough cut and tossing around ideas around what we wanted to do, score-wise, into spare moments backstage at the Neptune when the Posies played Seattle, and even more so during our days embedded in getting the Bunker score done, while he also coordinated travel for an upcoming tour of Asia, shot emails back and forth on other projects, kept in regular touch with his wife and daughter, back in Paris, and probably had at least a couple mental threads on the back-burner thinking ahead to the next projects he’d be dealing with when we wrapped the score.
So, yes, there’s glamor, of a sort, and lots of meals in restaurants, good wine, the energy of rocking it out on stage before a packed, enthusiastic audience … and then there’s the driving, and the showing up to venues to find nothing has been set up as it had been promised, and the problems with plane tickets, and the sleeping a few hours in a hotel or a spare bed or couch in someone’s house, and then the getting up and doing it all again the next day. Ken’s blog is a fascinating glimpse into what it’s really like to be a rock star musician — the fun, the not-so-fun, and even the mundane. Check it out.
We locked picture on my short film, Bunker, last week, and I spent most of my waking hours over this past weekend in the studio with my composer, Ken Stringfellow, getting the score done. Although this was Ken’s first time scoring a film, he’s quite an accomplished musician and composer, from his years of working with the Posies, Big Star, REM, The Disciplines, and on his many solo projects, and also from working a great deal on producing and engineering music for other bands. He works regularly in ProTools already, so really, the learning curve he needed to get up wasn’t all that steep, and because I’m already very familiar both with his work and the way he likes to work collaboratively, I wasn’t much worried about it.
We’d already had a brief sit-down a few weeks ago when Ken was in town for a Posies show, so we had an idea already the direction that we wanted to take; all we had to do, then, was take those ideas, fine-tune them, record and mix. Easy enough, right? And for the most part, I have to say, it was pretty smooth sailing. We’re using a song from my brother’s band, Hypatia Lake, over the opening montage, so we had a fair amount of work to do on making the transition from that opening song into the light scoring under the beginning of the next scene. This sounds pretty easy, but it actually required quite a bit of meticulous work on Ken’s part to make it all sound seamless and organic.
We were using an excerpt from a song from Ken’s second solo album, Touched, over the closing scene, but we wanted different music over the closing credits, which meant Ken needed to compose something original that would also flow well with the rest of the music. Much of our second day of work was spent on figuring that out, and he ended up using this funky instrument called a guitaret both in helping to smooth out the transition from the opening song into the score, and again in the closing credits piece. We just kept working it, layering and layering, until we had exactly what we wanted with the closing song. We spent a little time during day two playing around with some ideas for the scoring of the film itself, figuring out where the transitions were that needed bits of music to play up certain emotions and such.
Day three we both felt a little under the gun, because we although we’d planned for a fourth day if we really needed it, we were hoping to get done by Sunday. The direction we’d started taking with the scoring wasn’t quite where either of us wanted to be with it, so we had to figure that out. We talked it over, and decided to try exploring pulling in some of the chords and specific guitar sounds from the opening song and weaving them into the score. To make this happen, though, we needed to be able to match as closely as possible to the guitar sounds from that song. A quick consultation with my brother, Lance, about the technical specs for the recording of that song gave Ken the info he needed to figure that out, and fortunately the studio in which we were working happened to have a Fender Jaguar guitar that was almost exactly the same as the guitar my brother had used when the song was recorded. Talk about luck. We didn’t have exactly the same amp, but we were able to get pretty close, and Ken was able to very quickly figure it all out and get it going.
A few hours later, we were ready for my crack sound guy, Vinny Smith, to sit down with us to fine-tune the mix. Vinny is a composer in addition to being an awesome sound guy, so I wanted his expert ear in helping us smooth out some fades and transitions, as well as making sure our final mix on the music was exactly what he needed to be able to get the post work done. We’d started out the day thinking we’d have to return to the studio after dinner and probably work late to get it all done, but Vinny and Ken worked so smoothly in the collaboration on the mix, that it actually went incredibly quickly. We were even done in time to stop and grab a few bottles of wine to go with our celebratory dinner. And it sounds just great.
The entire post process has been as collaborative as the shoot itself. I’ve learned so much by working side-by-side with my terrific editor, Joe Shapiro, on meticulously tweaking to get the flow just right and as tight as possible (not actually as easy a process as I thought it would be, and pretty mentally exhausting, but we got it done and where we wanted it, on deadline), and then this weekend working on score. This week, I’ll be sitting in on the color grading with our colorist, John Davidson, and then with Vinny as we fine-tune the post sound and then sit down at Bad Animals to finalize the 5.1 mix. Working with professionals of the level I’ve been privileged to have on this crew has been an amazing experience, kind of a very condescended film school where you’re actually working hand-in-hand with people who really know what they’re doing and are at the top of their game. The whole process is simultaneously draining and exhilarating, challenging and incredibly fulfilling.
At the end of a long weekend, I think Ken and I were both happy with how the score work came out, and that we both felt great about how we worked together. Which is a good thing, because we have other projects on which we plan to work in the future, so figuring out how we’d collaborate on this one was part of a bigger process as well. We’ll be completely done with the film by the end of this week, and then shipping it off to the first fests on our list, with fingers crossed that others like our little film as well as we do. I’ll keep you posted on how all that goes.
“Sometimes it gives me the feeling that justifies my ‘unsuccess’. Je tiens le livre! I think the world of cinema needs people like me. We are millions, I am not the only one. They work whether they have success or not, they work on the matter of cinema, trying to understand.”
– Agnès Varda, from an interview in Sight & Sound
Agnès Varda has been one of my favorite filmmakers since the early beginnings of my own foray into seriously studying film as an art form, when I first stumbled upon Vagabond and Cleo 5 to 7. If you want to be a filmmaker yourself, regardless of what you consider your preferred genre, Varda is one of the filmmakers whose work you should absolutely make it a point to study. And if you’re already a fan of Varda’s work, you know why I say this. Much as I adore her most recent film, Beaches of Agnès, my two favorites of her body of work are The Gleaners and I (2000) and Daguerréotypes (1975).
And if you’re lucky enough to live in New York, you, oh fortunate one, will have the opportunity beginning on Monday, December 12 to see Daguerréotypes on a big screen, as it opens a run at the Maysles Cinema in its US theatrical debut. Daguerréotypes is required viewing for any Varda fan (really, for any serious student of cinema), and the opportunity to see it in a theater with an audience of other cinephiles should not be missed. Honestly, if I hadn’t just made a trip to NYC last month, I would seriously consider a weekend trip out there for the sole reason of attending a screening. That’s how much I love this film.
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We Need to Talk About Kevin is an eviscerating examination of nature versus nurture, an indictment of motherhood, maternal guilt, and the responsibility society places squarely on the shoulders of women for the outcome of our offspring. Director Lynne Ramsay, who adapted the script off the Lionel Shriver novel with Rory Kinnear, connects the viewer to the discombobulated state of mind of the film’s protagonist, Eva (Tilda Swinton, as good as she’s ever been here), by shuttling the audience back-and-forth between the present, where Eva is dealing relentlessly with the aftermath of her teenage son committing a horrendous act of violence; the distant past, before marriage and motherhood, when feminist, intellectual, Eva was a free-spirited world traveler; and the more recent past that encapsulates her life imprisoned in motherhood and her disconnection from her strange, almost other-worldly son.
And Kevin is a odd boy, from his beginnings as a baby who won’t stop crying, to the stony, baleful glare that is his hallmark from toddler-hood. Eva has no maternal connection to her child, but is it because there’s something wrong with her, or with him? She stares at her bloated, pregnant belly not with awe and wonder, but with fear and something approaching loathing, a palpable contradiction to what we women are trained from childhood to expect when we’re expecting. There is no spiritual glow, no aura of the radiant Madonna, enveloping Eva; only a sullen, barely contained anger and resentment that we later see mirrored in her son. Is Eva merely resentful of the lifestyle changes motherhood brings upon her? Suffering from a particularly wrenching and damaging form of post-partum depression? Just not wired with the necessary tools of empathy and self-sacrifice to give fully of herself to her son? Was Kevin by nature a bad seed, born wired to be a sociopath, or did his nurturing, or lack thereof, evolve a normal boy into a monster?
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Indiewire has an interview up with David Fincher about his response to the New Yorker‘s David Denby casting aside embargoes to run his review early. For me, the most pertinent quote in the piece is at the end:
And at the end of the day, Fincher sees this whole issue as a sad reflection on the state of film criticism as whole these days. “…when you agree to go see something early and you give your word – as silly as that may sound in the information age and the movie business – there is a certain expectation. It’s unfortunate that the film critic business has become driven by scoops.”
Exactly. This whole thing, to begin with, came out of an misguided decision that neither Fincher nor the studio really wanted, to show The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo early to the NYFCC for awards consideration. A decision that was driven, in part, by the NYFCC’s foolhardy decision to rush their awards announcements to be FIRST! FIRST! FIRST! Fincher’s point is spot-on here, folks. Yes, if you are in the business of breaking news pertinent to the film industry, you want to be FIRST! to have TOLDJA! — although even the whole driving-traffic-via-scoops business I think is questionable at best, and leads to breaking stories that are factually incorrect or misguided at worst.
But critics should absolutely not be driven by any perceived need to be first to get a review out, ever. Yes, you need to be timely in writing and not post a review weeks after the film’s opened, but beyond that why does it matter if your review goes up 28 minutes after that person’s? This has become endemic at film festivals, particularly Toronto and Sundance, where you’ll see critics frantically banging out their thoughts on a film minutes after seeing it, or Tweeting 140 character reviews on Twitter as they’re walking out of the theater. It’s gotten to the point that it borders on the ridiculous. Yes, I write my ass off at festivals, but I also try to allow myself a little bit of time to process, too. I’m first! I’m first! I’m … goshalmighty, folks. Who really cares?
How do you make a broken, reprehensible character sympathetic? If you’re Diablo Cody, you don’t … not exactly. Cody penned the script for Jason Reitman’s new film, Young Adult, which stars Charlize Theron (who seems to be making quite a career for herself plunging headfirst into the kind of challenging ground many actresses fear to tread) as Mavis Gary, the once-popular beauty of her small-town Minnesota high school, currently a recently divorced, hard-drinking ghost writer of a once-popular young adult series that’s on the verge of being discontinued. As the story kicks off, Mavis, now living in Minneapolis, gets an email announcing the birth of a baby from her old flame and high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson); the birth notice sets Mavis off on a misguided mission to return back to her long-shunned hometown and rescue Buddy from the hellishly boring life she imagines he’s living, tethered to a wife and child she’s convinced he couldn’t possibly want.
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By now you’ve no doubt heard all the brouhaha over the New Yorker‘s David Denby deciding to break embargo on David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by running his (positive) review eight days ahead of the embargo date he agreed to when he attended the screening. And as I’ve seen from the comments on The Hot Blog and a lot of other sites covering this story, many folks who do not work in the industry (and even some who do) do not seem to get why this is a big deal. It all seems very inside baseball, but hey — MCN is an industry website, so if you don’t want a little inside baseball, why are you here? So let’s break down why Denby breaking embargo actually is a big deal in our world. Because it’s really a pretty simple matter that’s being cluttered up by a lot of superfluous chatter unrelated to the actual issue at hand.
If you work as a critic, you are allowed — not entitled, allowed — to see movies earlier than the general public, for free, to allow you time in which to write your review. This is a courtesy afforded to press by the studio, at the studio’s expense (because it costs money to run a screening). It also benefits the studio to allow press to see a film early so reviews can be published, although if reviews are terrible and the film isn’t a “critic proof” thing like the Fast and Furious franchise, or Transformers, or what have you, it could potentially hurt it.
When you are invited to attend a press screening (or a promo screening to which you’ve been invited as press), you generally get an email from the studio/PR folks that outlines for you the conditions under which the screening is offered to you — specifically, they generally specify the “hold review” date — the date on which you are allowed to run your review of said film — along with an admonition that the screening is for “reviewing press,” meaning if you aren’t assigned to/actually planning to review a film, you aren’t supposed to attend the free screening. Denby attended an early screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the NYFCC (held super-early to accommodate that group deciding they had to be FIRST! this year with their awards), and that screening had an embargo attached to it. Denby doesn’t dispute this, he openly acknowledges in the email exchange between him and Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin that he is aware he’s violating the embargo by running his review early, but hopes no one will mind, since after all, his review is positive. And he writes for the New Yorker, which needs to run the review ahead of embargo to accommodate their printing schedule. Rudin, for his part, openly acknowledges that he’s pissed. And he has every right to be.
The only thing actually relevant here is this: Denby attended a screening that had an embargo attached. By attending that screening, he implicitly accepted the terms under which it was offered: to hold review until the date specified by the embargo. Period. Everything else — Denby’s protestations that the New Yorker has this big Christmas double issue to run, and he really really really didn’t want to write about We Bought a Zoo, and he really really really liked Dragon Tattoo, none of that matters. Whether David Denby is a Very Important Person or not — even if he was the single most important film critic in the entire history of film criticism, writing for the single most important print publication in the entire history of print publications — is completely irrelevant, too. And yes, whether anyone in the industry thinks Scott Rudin is a stand-up guy or a reprehensible asshole is also completely irrelevant.
So why does this matter? It matters because studios and producers invest many millions of dollars in both getting a film made, and marketing it such that the general public will buy tickets to see it, thus giving them a return on investment that allows them to make the next film, and the next film, and the next. Which, in addition to giving the general public movies to see every weekend, also happens to keep a lot of people who work in the film industry employed and able to pay their bills. Reviews running a week or two ahead of the film’s actual release date to the public DO hurt the film, even if they’re positive, because by the time the film opens, that positive review is old news, and the public’s short attention span has moved on to the next interesting thing. For a film like Dragon Tattoo, which is directed by David Fincher and highly anticipated, this may or may not impact the bottom line, but whether it does or not is also not germane to a discussion of whether Denby has a right to violate the agreement under which he was allowed early access to see this film. He does not have that right without the consent of the studio, no matter how important a critic he is. The studio owns the film, they have the right to determine who sees it, when, and under what conditions. End of line.
Now, we can certainly have an argument about whether or not embargoes are stupid, but that’s a completely separate discussion from the issue. Not only is Scott Rudin in the right in saying he’s going to ban Denby from future screenings of his films, it behooves him to actually DO so, because if he does not stick to his guns on this, he’s effectively telling Every. Single. Film Blogger. that the studio does not take its embargoes seriously, and then it’s just a free-for-all race to be FIRST! to get your review up after a press screening, agreements and embargoes be damned. If you’re going to have a rule that says, “You violate our embargo, we’ll kick your critic ass off our press list and deny you future early access,” that rule has to apply to everyone equally, regardless of the perceived or actual importance of individuals. It’s certainly within a studio’s right as the owner of a film to choose to grant some publications the right to run early reviews (although I could argue against that as well), but that isn’t the case here. Denby was not granted such permission. He didn’t even ask for permission, he just notified the studio that he and his editors had made a decision to just blatantly violate an agreement.
Really, what is there to argue about here? Pretty black and white, yes?
Every week, when I go around to the various sites from which we pull the numbers for Box Office Hell, my second stop is Box Office Prophets. And every week, when I go to that site, I see in the left-hand box on their homepage a little box labled “This is So Last Week,” their pop-culture quiz. Now, the words “pop culture” can evoke a lot of different things, right? Yet every single week (or at least, every single week since I started really paying attention to this) the picture in that box features a scantily clad, usually buxom woman, with an emphasis on boobs and cleavage.
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