Movie City Indie
Robin Williams in POPEYE: “I Yam What I Yam” (2’28″); A Complete Standup Performance (1″29’40″); His First Appearance On Johnny Carson (1’40″)
And from Baron von Munchausen…
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With his untitled, longitudinal narrative that became Boyhood, Richard Linklater had the ambition to trace the smaller gestures of childhood that become etched memories, with a soulful-eyed, pout-lipped little casting find named Ellar Coltrane at the center of the narrative for the twelve years to come. His character, Mason, would grow from the age of 6 or so to 18, from 2002 to September 2013, from pouty little boy to willowy, pillow-lipped man.
His parents, Olive and Mason, Sr., would be played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who had already participated in Before Sunrise, one of Linklater’s many films that observe the unity of a single day in limited or contained locations. In short, it would be a story that encompasses lifetimes. The characters—the actors—transforming the way we do, unreflective, in the eyes of our families, our friends.
Mason, Sr. remains vagabond dad, a well-meaning Peter Pan who sometimes seems to hold on only by his cheekbones, while Olive goes through inferior men who are never the father that free-spirited Mason manages to be just by being himself. The marvel, as you’d expect, is observing the course of time quietly furrowing the faces of the adults, and the deepening of their fine performances through the years-long shoot, as well as the transformation before our eyes, in semi-documentary but dreamy fashion, the faces and bodies of Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, who plays his older sister, Samantha.
Boyhood is perfectly imperfect, and surely not the last compelling use of feature filmmaking as the ideal form to encapsulate duration and unities of location to come from the 53-year-old writer-director. Linklater and I talked in Chicago a couple days before Boyhood opened.
RAY PRIDE: I’ve had a few good experiences with seeing your films on a big screen in front of a big crowd.
RICHARD LINKLATER: Me too! You kind of remember those first ones, especially.
RP: What was your first film—
RL: —at Sundance? Oh, Slacker. It was, what’s the downtown one, the main one? The little one, the old theater. The Egyptian. Kinda late the second day of the festival. And it got kind of a muted response. Desert Storm had just started, people were in a war mood, it was kind of edgy and some of the humor of the movie… I had played it around, I had played it at other festivals and it always got this laugh. And I realized, oh there was something different. But it caught on, it started slowly but then by the end of the festival, it had really picked up.
RP: For Boyhood, did you actually walk up to people and ask them, “What are you doing for the next twelve years?”
RL: [laughs] I asked… I asked Patricia on the phone. I talked to Ethan about it. That was the deal. Even people coming in for, say, to play the part of Mason Jr., the parents, that was the description of the character, over twelve years we’re gonna shoot, so anyone auditioning, they knew it. It wasn’t a sleight-of-hand thing.
RP: You can’t sign anyone to a contract that long, unless you’re a Scientologist.
RL: Yeah, I know. A billion years!
RP: Fortunately, you finally finished in under a billion years.
RL: Yeah, I know. It felt like it!
RP: There are all these notions about time and duration in your movies, but it always feels like the films articulate them in a way, in a form that conversation can’t.
RL: And yet they are conversational. So, therein lies the challenge, to kind of put words out there that tell your story, and communicate what you want to communicate, but it’s not necessarily how people talk all the time. But to make it feel real. That’s the hard part.
RP: That illusion, with Slacker, Dazed, the Before films taking place in a single day, it still feels naturalistic and yet it’s utterly constructed.
RL: Yeah. You can’t… People, when they want to go, oh yeah, it’s all improvised, and I’m all like… Nothing’s improvised! Show me one movie that’s improvi—I don’t understand the notion, it’s just this lazy idea that it’s easy, or something. It’s like mathematical, I think, even. It’s that kind of precision you’re actually going for. You can’t put it any other way. A lot of rehearsal, a lot of workshopping time. A lot of script, script.
RP: You can’t just make another Before the year after the last one.
RL: Those are so hard. The last one was the hardest ever.
RP: Before Sunset and Before Midnight, I would’ve felt certain affinities toward both in any case, but they also each landed at the right moment in my own life. Touchstones of behavior, settling and not settling. The tense dynamic between the two of them in Before Midnight, especially the long take in the hotel room toward the end of the movie, it’s not fancy blocking, it’s performance that’s, well, not metronomic, but mathematical, like you say.
RL: Yeah. Boyhood‘s much more different. It covers a lot of time, it has a lot of scenes. But the Before movies are not that many scenes per movie, but they’re played out. Boyhood has like 143 different scenes. That’s a lot. So there’s a lot of shorter… it’s just a different kind of method of storytelling. But, y’know, I wanted it to be accepted in the same kind of way by the viewer as some kind of reality. If I can not betray that feeling, y’know, that you’re watching something real, then I think the viewer has a chance to feel something there.
RP: It’s a testimony to how fluid it is that I never realized there were so many scenes.
RL: It’s not as many scenes as we all have in twelve years of… it felt appropriate for this story it’s trying to tell and the structure of it.
RP: You edited each year?
RL: Yeah. Edited every year like it was a final film, just attached it everything that came before it.
RP: “Whew! Here’s another eight minutes!”
RL: More like fifteen. Every year was running a little longer than I would have thought of initially but I’ve never done a film that wanted to be itself more than this film. It just had its own… it was talking to me all these years. I would just watch it over and over as it was in the process of becoming, and just feel my way through it. Do I need to move that scene up? We need to go to this level with the relationships. It was just a sculpture of some kind.
RP: There’s a poem by Jorge Luis Borges quoted at the top of the press kit, “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river.” But there’s another poem that’s a favorite of mine, by a fellow Kentuckian, Robert Penn Warren, called “Audubon: a vision.” Do you know it?
RL: Robert Penn Warren I know, not the poem.
RP: It’s a 32-page poem cycle, but it ends with this:
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
RL: [laughs] That’s wonderful. But you must not tell me its name, it will be a story of time. What is the mystery, “you must not tell me,” why is that?
RP: “Don’t show me the trick, don’t explain, let me find the mystery, just delight me.”
RL: Yeah, yeah.
RP: It’s an effect also at the end Rilke’s “An Archaic Torso of Apollo,” where the Olympian voice of the poem turns and simply states, “You must change your life.” Out of nowhere!
RL: “You must change your life.” That’s pretty cool.
RP: I’ve known the Warren poem since I was 15, as a boy, in Kentucky. But then to see something align, something you’ve loved, all of a sudden—
RL: Yeah, like some new articulation of that.
RP: Are there any interesting interpretations you’ve gotten of Boyhood that are out of left field? In interviews I’ve read, interviewers are rehearsing a lot of the same notions.
RL: Well, it’s always personal. I got a text from a friend who like, God, Ethan’s life is hell at the end, that new family, kid, ugh! Someone who was really put off by that. But I look at them, and go, oh, they’re one of those people that never wants kids. It just looks like hell on earth, the ultimate compromise of something. But, y’know, it’s easy to judge [laughs] how miserable you would be if you were in someone else’s life. We all make do with our own somehow.
RP: I’ve read concern over abusive stepfathers and the drinking.
RL: Are they that abusive? I mean, the first guy clearly has a drinking problem but he never strikes them with his hand. He never, y’know, he pushes his own kid around a little bit. The second guy never hits him, he’s just– Y’know, maybe the kid’s just being a dick. The thing is, it’s his point of view. Those guys might be okay guys. I mean, hell, the mom was with them. At some point, it just goes bad, obviously, and they’re not there forever, but maybe the kid would just remember the worst of it. That point of view is like, hey, you’re in my space and I resent you as an authority figure. I didn’t pick you, my mom did, fuck you. That’s common, that’s a pretty fraught relation, the stepparent. It’s like, who are you, you’re in my space.
RP: The awareness of making a period piece in present tense: That concept washed over me pretty quickly on my first viewing.
RL: We started with tube TVs, the iMacs. It was so interesting to do that, the phenomenon of a period film, thinking, what will be different here, twelve years on. The only thing we could ever bet on was the technology. You could know that computer’s changing, that phone’s not going to be here long. These games aren’t going to be, they’re going to change. So that was the one constant. I was more amazed how little the outer culture changed, outside of technology. It looked more the same than different that I think it would have at other points in our history. If you go through a decade, you get some pretty cultural-shifty… If you started in ’59 and went to ’71—
RP: That particular era has already been shorthanded to death through films using the same stock footage over and over in montages, such as Cronkite taking off his glasses and putting them back on when he announces JFK’s death—
RP: Is this how you’re representing the past, thirty seconds–
RL: —of the same bits, John-John saluting his dad. These touchstone things, it’s kind of like the greatest hits you hear on the radio, what was great in the moment has just been ground into dust. It means almost nothing anymore, there’s no emotion attached to it. I was definitely trying to avoid those kinds of moments. I mean, things you would remember, the film is a memory, remember, a war was going on, remember, there was a presidential election or a “Harry Potter” book release, just don’t… not the big stuff of a life, that falls off into banality. Or just boring, y’know, like graduations. Graduation? Yeah, I remember it. It was boring. We did al those things and it’s just not compelling.
RP: Are they too universal? What’s the boundary here?
RL: I dunno. Just the utter… yeah, for me, personally, as an observer, in those big moments I always felt like an extra in my own life, like more of an observer. Like the way memory works, and the way you recall your life, I was more interested in the things you wouldn’t’ve predicted. Why am I still thinking about that? Why is that retained, that weekend? That conversation, that encounter, why is that still here and so much other stuff that was put out to be a big deal, it’s still there, but so what?
RP: There’s a syndrome I’m forgetting the name of, where certain kids experience that distanciation you’re describing, they panic, freeze, can’t function because they’re seeing themselves in the moment and not acting.
RL: That’s youth in a nutshell: A lot of times, you just don’t know you’re having a moment, until you’ve thought about it, years later. I made a joke the other day, someone was talking about the moments. I said, it’s hard for young people to be aware of a moment. You’ve been cultured and you’re being molded to be something. It’s accepted you’re not a real person yet, that you’re, you’re this kind of work-in-progress person and everyone is in your face, trying to manipulate and influence. When you’re having those moments… I remember being abstractly lost in the future and the past, y’know. It’s hard to be in the moment, especially as a kid. When you’re being groomed for the future.
RP: Well, thanks for taking the twelve years.
RL: [laughs] It’s weird, to have that kind of time, then we have approximately one minute-and-twenty seconds per year to talk about it.
The list of cities, theaters and opening dates for Boyhood is here.
Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, and his first in nearly a decade, Under The Skin, reduces Walter Faber’s 300-page-plus 2000 novel to a quintessence: how would an alien see our world if it were to walk among us, if it were to hijack a human form and harvest us by exploiting elemental desire?
The form the unnamed creature assumes is Scarlett Johansson’s, and in the production and post-production of the movie, plot and narrative peeled away in favor of sound and image, and the alien’s encounters on the real-life streets and nearby beaches of Glasgow, Scotland. It’s maximal minimalism, of the manner of heightened sensation you’d expect from the maker of Sexy Beast and Birth. In a way, the character is the ultimate consumer, shopping for men among the faces on the street, who will be literally taken by desire?
“Oh, yeah?” Glazer says, smiling slightly when I offer that interpretation. Then she is, too, as she begins to take pity on her prey. “Yeah, there is something interesting about the fact that for someone to live, someone else has to die.”
Glazer worked with several writers in a long process. The 49-year-old writer-director says that the way to complete the film didn’t come, however, until most of that draft was scrapped in favor of putting Johansson in a guerilla situation, driving a van with multiple tiny cameras in the cab, and a crew in the back, around the gray northern city, approaching strangers in hope a connection would spark, and then the nonprofessionals could become part of the film.
RAY PRIDE: All this time you spent searching for the right approach, it’s akin to the lore of Michelangelo looking at a piece of marble and saying, I only have to carve away the part that isn’t David.
JONATHAN GLAZER: Yeah, it’s a big block of marble. The example you have just given is very beautiful, actually. The film, the process of making this film, was quite sculptural. It was about starting with a feeling, an image… Well, not an image but a feeling, a very clear feeling, and then trying to reveal that. Trying to articulate that. And until you feel like you’ve articulated it, you keep going, you know? And then you walk away at the end, when you feel you have got some way to putting that feeling up on a screen. And it looks very different to how you may have imagined it. And the form is, you know, it has its own thing, and the feeling is what you set out to and try and articulate.
RP: And then?
JG: And then you are finished.
RP: The process of writing and preparing that I’ve read about sounds arduous, starting with reading the novel then supposedly not reading it again, writing a script, writing another script. I’ve seen the 2008 script, but I stopped reading after the opening introduction.
JG: Did you?
RP: Such dense poetic description. This draft opens with “A vast black surface runs back in infinite blackness.”
JG: [Laughs.] Right!
RP: Are there times you walked away? What motivates you and gives you the willingness to keep burrowing away? Many crap screenplays are written quickly, you’re told if you take more than 12 weeks to write your first draft you’re wasting your time. You need to move onto the next thing.
JG: Well, those things, the twelve-week thing, I mean, how can there be any truth to that? It might be true to the person that wrote it. But each of us are different, we have our own approach and have our own methods. Neither one is more correct than the other. It’s the paring away. It took a long period of time to find, to articulate it, to find it. Be aware, the methodology and narrative are the same thing. To get to that point, where it all became very clear. It’s like where the film has eyes and ears kinds of thing? The film is the body somehow. We spent a long time writing it, and the script ended up being fifty-odd pages long and it was mostly description. Like reading a novel, a short version, a short novel. That’s still writing. That’s writing. You are writing with images.
RP: With movies, you’re getting to dream someone else’s dream. Not every filmmaker or reviewer is attentive to that. It’s a visual medium and the aural qualities and behavior all combine into this plastic object that is also this experience.
JG: Yes. I like for a film to be quite transporting. I’ve always been drawn to, or got the most from, films that take me away from my reality. And I travel when I’m watching a film that is told that way. So yeah, those kinds of films always connected with me. And they also explore the medium. And it’s a remarkable medium. It’s often, you know, ignored really. It’s often sort of filmed theater. The power of the medium is there to be investigated. That’s what keeps me hooked for such a long period of time, the knowledge that starting, the spark of the story was enough to go on that journey.
RP: And, ideally, the audience isn’t aware of anything but the experience. All this backstory is fascinating and has encouragement to certain people, and identification for other people. Talking about the density of his process, Mike Leigh has something he called a “crap koan” about his controlled improvisation. He said, “A piece of string is as long as a piece of string.” In terms of process and duration, this is the thing.
JG: Fair enough. You are right. You are not looking at what you are doing, you are just in it. It becomes your laboratory.
RP: There is something so human, futile and jarring, when your alien discovers what I presume is human female genitalia. That was sort of a top-level pulse-pounder for me. It’s sort of like she has a reverse angle on the painting Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.”
JG: I don’t know the painting…
[I show him the painting on an iPad; link NSFW.]
JG: Oh yeah!
RP: Your shot, it’s a silhouette of a woman wanting to look in a mirror. But to me it’s this whole idea of the shock she, we get.
RP: It’s a kind of death of innocence.
JG: Is that the painting?
RP: No, it’s “The Origin of the World,” which is a cheeky title. It discovers its female form, but also its fall, it won’t know human love, it becomes weak because of human compassion. It’s tantalizing.
JG: You’re right, I think so. Brilliant painting title, it’s unflinching… Some other people have responded to that image that you have that she was looking at female genitalia, and others have looked at the fact that she has no female genitalia, that there is nothing there.
RP: Because the gentleman that is bumping into her and she discovers “you’re knocking but you can’t come in.”
JG: Right, right.
RP: Whatever she sees, or the lack thereof. I am human, I am not human, it could be either one, but you don’t show it. You just pointed it out.
JG: That was sort of the driving interest with this film. The journey of it was that sort of idea, the paradox of body and soul and an account of the existential unease. This idea of her, being a literal conduit for what it is to be human. It’s just a fascinating character to explore. It’s unending. I never run out of interest for it. We never stop talking about it, or trying to turn over the ideas until they all felt balanced. It is important to me to pick something I know I will be interested in for as long as it takes. You know making a film is quite a big undertaking. And if I’m going do it, I have to feel that I am certain how fertile it is. It will need to grip me as long as it takes.
RP: Well, yeah, if you understand it straightaway, the result is going to be easy, banal, surface.
JG: Yeah, but sometimes the clearer something is, the more mysterious it is, actually. So it can be… there are films I love that are made by filmmakers that made… Fassbinder for example, made God knows how many? Fifty films, fifty-five films?
RP: Forty-four, I think.
JG: Forty-four films. I’ve seen as many as I can manage to get my hands on but, probably most of them.
RP: And the surfaces are unyielding, they are beautiful and sculpted—
JG: And you watch them like pages of a diary, really. Those films are there because that is how he felt. He was on planet earth, and this was his experience of being on planet Earth. I wish the way I thought meant I could just roll films out back-to-back like that. I don’t seem to be able to do that.
RP: I just got the Criterion box set of five of Fassbinder’s first seven films. I want to just sit down on some rainy-day Saturday and gorge.
JG: Oh yeah, people talk about a box set of “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad,” my box sets are more things like Fassbinder, and I will watch them back-to-back. It is absolutely extraordinary.
RP: I’ve seen Berlin Alexanderplatz a few times. The threading of the score throughout—
JG: Peer Raben is his music guy, right?
RP: Like the piano in Berlin Alexanderplatz, there is this one refrain that goes for like twenty-seven minutes. And it’s only a handful of notes.
JG: “Biberkopf’s Theme,” isn’t it? Beautiful.
RP: Mica Levi’s score gives Under The Skin an otherworldly pulse, but almost in the sense that it feels like anxiety is comfort to the alien, or an alien form of comfort. It’s not a traditional score, there’s like a bed of sounds that recur.
JG: There were three themes in the music that we ended up with. Lots of music and melodies. Mica would just keep writing and writing and it would begin to make sense thematically and they would stick to the film. In the end, she went on her own process and journey, just as we did. She was on the film for about ten months. The three things that she wrote were the alien music, which was this kind of hive, this force, this consciousness. Then there’s the capture riff, this beautiful melody where she brings the men into the house and then it really twisted, erotic, a strip club sort of thing, and it has a perfume. We talked about it like her perfume, and then the third piece was more to do with her sense of the human impulse. The burgeoning consciousness with feelings. Which you hear in the scene where she is delusionally falling into the idea of being able to lie and kiss and make love. And the music is sort of manufactured, it’s fake in its synthesized-ness. It’s sort of her.
RP: Looking and seeing and surveillance are so threaded into the film. We are looking at individual lads in Glasgow who glimpse her, and this beautiful woman, what does she see? The distance between seeing and being seen? Which of course is a simple metaphor of how to watch movies. Yet the film doesn’t insist on that, or hide it.
JG: The eye is the first image we see in the film. Construction of the eye. And the eye is always a way of saying “we are going to be, this film is going to be about looking.” You know? It’s an interloper in a human eye isn’t it? It’s the Trojan horse. It’s a very dispassionate viewpoint. She’s like the sea, really. She’s cosmic, she’s just dispassionate. There is no empathy, no individuation, no nothing. That’s the thing she wears. What is that phrase? “The suit wears the man, or the man wears the suit”? In the end, she is a man that wears the suit rather then the other way around. It’s a sense of what she sees in that mirror. And what she sees, she begins to believe is her own identity and is trying to take ownership.
RP: And you have a close-up of the iris and intricacy of the colors. It looks like coral, it looks like the sea, it looks like a beehive. It looks like cancer. She’s the virus.
JG: She kind of is. When she first walks into that shopping center at the beginning and she wanders off and out of our view it feels like injecting a virus into a body. Yeah, then she is taken over by it! I also think the ending is interesting, because to me the ending is quite happy. I think it’s a happy ending. [Laughs.] The very ending, you know, the snow.
RP: The camera is looking directly up, and the snow blots its vision, you mean? The point of view occluded by the snow that cleans and forgives and hides everything?
JG: And also her being somehow here now. She can exist in death somehow. She’s the definition of a kind of paradox and she can’t be what she was, she can’t be what she wants to be. In death, there is something very peaceful and something about her that remains present somehow in death. She’s become part of the world.
RP: The film opens on black, ends on white, with a life in between.
JG: That’s right. Exactly.
[Transcription services by Julie Gavlak.]