Thursday, October 07, 2010

NYFF Review: Film Socialisme

Film Socialisme
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Switzerland and France

            During last Wednesday’s public screening of Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, and perhaps final statement, on cinema, I counted about fifty walk outs.These people weren’t walking out because the violence was too graphic, or the characters too misogynistic, or its political statements. They walked because of the form. Since 1968, Mr. Godard, director of Breathless, perhaps the most important film in the second half of the medium’s history, has become increasingly more abstract, fighting against normative traditions of not only Hollywood but also all of cinema. A staunch Marxist, who rarely gives interviews (and skipped the film’s Cannes premiere in 2010, providing an ambiguous statement about the political situation in Greece), Mr. Godard has gone from riding the top of the new wave and landed somewhere in land so far that no one is sure where he is.

            Certainly, one can’t even begin to describe Film Socialisme, which has no narrative to even begin to speak of, and instead is a collection of scenes, footage, sounds, ideas, and themes that are simply clashed onto each other. To add to that difficulty, the film’s characters speak mostly in French (though there is some German, Russian, Yiddish, and Arabic), and the subtitles are not translations, but a few chosen words used to represent the possible meaning, or as Mr. Godard has stated, “Navajo English,” a reference to the poor English spoken by Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns (film critic Glen Kenny pointed out they resemble Twitter hashtags).

            Now it would be easy—quite easy—to have joined those walk outs. The film isn’t fun per say, it’s an academic experience, where one must be constantly interpreting image and sound placement in order to create ideas. So when I sat down (pen and paper ready), I took on Mr. Godard’s challenge, to understand what he was trying to say—about politics, cinema, history, philosophy, you name it. To create my enjoyment, I wrote down a number of observations on what was going on, and then looked over those notes to try and create meaning. Film Socialisme is full of academic references that will go over even the most astute viewers’ heads, and thus a full explanation could only be made by Mr. Godard. So in my own “fuck you” to Film Socialisme (as Mr. Godard has no plans on making anyone actually enjoy watching his films), I present THE interpretation of the film. It’s not the right one, but it’s the only one that matters to me, because Mr. Godard has created this film and wants me to respond. So if I am wrong, he can make another film telling me how I am wrong.

NYFF Review: Meek's Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed By Kelly Reichardt
United States

            The first thing one easily notices when watching the latest film from Wendy & Lucy director Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff, is that she has shot the film in the classic Academy Ratio of 1.34:1, meaning it’s shaped like a box. Some modern films—including Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank—have done this approach, but Ms. Reichardt is also making a Western on the dry, barren landscapes of 1845 Oregon, which are perfect for visual representation. And yet, Meek’s Cutoff is not a Western about the miles of open land—it’s instead claustrophobic, with the options of the characters falling apart, and squeezing in on them. There is a certain fear that pervades the entire film, and it comes from this often devastating visual technique.
            Yet why make a claustrophobic allegorical Western? That’s the problem that Meek’s Cutoff will have on its initial viewings. The astute work of Ms. Reichardt is on display, but the film is difficult to swallow in a way even different from Wendy & Lucy, which was a much more emotional journey, thanks to the performance of Michelle Williams. Ms. Williams is back here, but she’s only part of a group of pioneers, lost along the Oregon trail, none of whom standout, except for a bearded Bruce Greenwood as the titular Meek.
            A series of long, distant shots sets the stage for Meek’s Cutoff, as we see the three families and Meek traveling along barren landscapes with little joy. We see one of the characters carving into a branch a single word that gives you all you need in terms of exposition: “Lost.” With that, we are invested in what these families are about to go through, and whether the titular Meek is attempting to rouse the group to their death. And then things get weird with the appearance of a Native American, which sparks a number of more debates.
            In Meek’s Cutoff, the tension is not the settlers against the terrain, though it certainly have its effects. It’s an essentially psychological drama where small gestures or phrases drastically change power dynamics. The film’s cast is reserved in their emotions, and do so in a truly austere manner. This not only includes Ms. Williams and Mr. Greenwood, by Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, the always-underrated Will Patton, and Rod Rondeaux in the strange, strange performance as the sole Native American.
            Not much happens when compared to the large landscapes, all of which are brutally harsh. The technical aspects of the film are amazing, from the locations (Roger Fairies has received a singular credit for his amazing work), the drab and flavorless clothes of the men and women, and the harsh unflattering cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt. All work together toward Ms. Reichardt’s vision of the West, which feels more like a psychological-heavy realism than a mythic tale.
            However, there is an allegorical approach to Ms. Reichardt’s narrative, and the film is full of symbols, cryptic dialogue, and an ending that will leave many unsatisfied. It left me a little unsatisfied as well, only because one viewing will not be enough to sufficiently understand the world Ms. Reichardt has brought to the screen. The film is difficult, and only those willing to work through the ideas on screen will be rewarded. And yet, it’s a film that really merits the word “original” next to it, because the genre has never been starker, and in a strange way, more beautiful in a haunting way, than presented here. 

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

NYFF Interview: Mike Leigh and Cast (Another Year)

Festival Director Richard Pena, Leslie Manville, Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Georgina Lowe, and Mike Leigh

Since 1988’s High Hopes came to American audiences, the British filmmaker Mike Leigh has been considered one of the most dynamic curiosities in contemporary cinema. Starting with a cast and no script, developing characters’ entries lives before beginning to write one word, and, as this interview shows, condescending to members of the general press, Mr. Leigh makes films that truly touch on the entirety of human emotion, whether in its darkness or exuberance. Another Year, his latest film, finds a bit of both, which stars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a happy married couple that play a surrogate mother and father to the people that enter their homes, most notably the talkative boundless Mary, in a career-turning performance from Leslie Manville. At the NYFF press conference, Mr. Leigh sat down with both his cast and his producer Georgina Lowe to discuss the creation of his film, if also to deride some critics about writing about him.

Leslie, Jim, and Ruth—You’ve all worked with Mike over the years, in leading roles. On Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky, you had people who hadn’t been in lead roles before with Imeldas Staunton and Sally Hawkins. What has changed over the years with the working method?

Leslie Manville: I don’t think it really has changed over the years. I suppose it’s more about the time you had to make a film as opposed to the early days when Mike was making films for the BBC and Channel 4. So there’s more time now. But really the way we work together and collaborate and create the film hasn’t really changed.

Jim Broadbent: Absolutely the basic structure remains very much the same. I’d say the real only change, having done it quite a few times before. The process isn’t as much as a voyage of discovery, as it kind of was in the early days. The actual working has been very consistent.

Ruth Sheen: I think the main thing is that we’re all older.

Broadbent: I’m not older!

Sheen: The process is the same.

Broadbent: I thought you were going to say older and wiser and more depth and life and spirit…As we’re older, the filling in the back story for the characters takes a lot longer. When we were first working with Mike, I was in my 20s, and the characters were in their 20s, so it didn’t take long to fill in the years. But when you get to 60, it can take quite a long time.

What was the germ of the film? Did you start with the relationship between Leslie’s character and Jim and Ruth’s, or was it broader than that?

Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh: The actual germ of the film is impossible, because I can never talk about “a germ” because these films, and this film is no exception, come out of ongoing occupations at times. Apart from anything else, as far as I’m concerned, having made Happy-Go-Lucky which is pretty much about young-ish people, I wanted to start from where we are. It’s about a lot of things, this film, and it’s hard to talk about it in a simple way from that. But it comes from a joy and pain of life I wanted to show. As to the actual mechanical second part of the question, as you know from the film, Mary’s relationship is something that’s happened much later in their history. In fact, the chronology is always logical. We actually started with Tom’s relationship with his brother Ronnie, and the first actor I started working with at all, is Ronnie [David Bradley] because he’s some years older than that. So it was the logic of their lives. Thus Gerry entered their lives quite a bit down the line. While that was all being developed, I was inventing this horrendous life with Mary.

In the film, Tom and Gerry’s home seems like a place of nurturing, very similar to their garden. Was this a theme you wanted to design?

Leigh: It’s not really a question. You’re pretty much defining one of the central things the film is about. It’s about nurturing, it’s about caring, it’s about those who need and those who are able, in various ways, give them what they want. And then there’s a moral dilemma of where you draw the line, where do you protect yourself from all of those. That’s what it’s all about. And of course the relationship between nurturing and people and their relationship with the Earth, with the environment and the planet is implicitly there, in a way their organic people. I had a notion that I wanted to deal with environmentalists but you can’t make a dramatic film about environmentalists. It’d be turgid.
Leslie Manville, Jim Broadbent, and Ruth Sheen

There seems to be a similarity between Mary and Beverly from Abigail’s Party. Could you talk about that relationship?

Leigh: Well I think they are very different kinds of films actually. I don’t think there’s much worth discussing that relationship.

Manville: It’s not certainly something we would think of doing.

Leigh: We’ve never done that before.

Manville: No we haven’t…maybe we should. But it’s certainly something we hadn’t thought of replicating. It’s not the agenda. The agenda is to create a fresh new character obviously and she where she goes. But you saw similarities than that’s your prerogative.

Leigh: I apologize, but I feel a bit of a cul-de-sac question really. I can’t really see the connection, and it’s never occurred to us, and I should give it no more thought.

When did you develop the idea of the seasons to have these four very specific vignettes at these four very specific times?

Leigh: Well it’s integral in the conception of the film really. It’s hard to think of “when” it was. It seems like a logical thing to do really.

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NYFF Review: We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are
Directed by Jorge Michel Grau

            The New York Film Festival often offers films of…a certain type of prestige. Slow films, quiet films, films with subtle characters, or of a certain political ideology, and what not. Thus, with that being said, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are is a refreshing diversion, a comically irrelevant horror film that may have some higher allegorical purpose, but in all honesty, is just damn good fun time (The film won Best Picture at the genre-oriented Fantastic Fest in Austin).
            So what is the frightening element of Mr. Grau’s hypnotic film? It’s hard to tell at first. We see an old man, walking around a shopping mall, almost like a zombie. He coughs up black vomit, and collapses dead, and a team quickly and efficiently removes him and the mess with a quick pace as not to disturb anyone else in the mall. We then transfer back to the man’s family, a poor one made up of a mother, a daughter, and two competitive sons. They are in trouble they tell us. They need to perform the ritual before time runs out, which we can tell by the 100 ticking clocks scattered around their dilapidated home. And when a pair of detectives see the father’s dead body at the morgue, they learn a finger was in his stomach.
            We Are What We Are follows cannibals, but not savage cannibals, but it is really a family tragedy story about the turmoil a family goes through without a patriarch. More than horror, this is a cruel family drama in which each member competes for the power void left in the wake of the father’s death. And Mr. Grau, with a wink to the camera, might shoot it in realist in harsh manner, but at least his score is right out of Hitchcock. The film’s gore is certainly cheesy and got a laugh out of me.
            The film is certainly nowhere near perfect—a side plot following those corrupt detectives is worth more than a few groans—but the sheer trashiness and absurdity of We Are What We Are is easy to have fun with, in a film that is certainly indebted to films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Family comes first for the subjects of We Are What We Are, though more than a little blood gets spilled along the way. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

NYFF Review: Another Year

Another Year
Directed By Mike Leigh
United Kingdom

            Mike Leigh has a way of capturing human emotions and gestures that few other directors ever have the nuance to reach. A certain pause, or a glance, or a pan of the camera, speak volumes in the British directors work. In the shocking opening scene of Naked, we aren’t sure if the woman in the beginning is enjoying her sexual encounter to begin with or it simply turns at some point; Mr. Leigh enjoys those ambiguous lines, and his characters are often not characters as much as they are living, breathing human beings.
            So chuck his latest, Another Year, up to the same category of his other greats, which include Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, and his most recent work, Happy-Go-Lucky. The beautiful thing about Mr. Leigh is that while no film tackles the same ideas on class, gender, or existentialism, they are all presented through a clear and subtle way that no director can match. Part of that is Mr. Leigh’s highly-regarded process, in which he creates the characters entire lives with the actors before ever beginning to write down a script.
            You can definitely see that process all over Another Year, which is basically set over four day or two day long vignettes in four different seasons. All four revolve mainly around the home of the perfectly named Tom and Gerri, played by Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. Tom and Gerri are the perfect couple in their happiness—they garden together, eat together, and seem to have got everything they need in life. Yet while Tom and Gerri provide the atmosphere for the film, a somewhat light-hearted and nurturing environment for whoever stops by their door in the suburbs of London, the real spark of the film is Gerri’s co-worker Mary, played with an electric ferocity by Leslie Manville.
            When Mary first talks about her life to Gerri while sitting at a bar after work, she cannot stop talking about how happy her life is—everything seems to be going for her, if not quite perfectly, to a satisfactory point. The problem is that Mary talks a lot, and uses talk to hide from her truths, even from herself. Thus over the four seasons, we watch Mary go from bad to worse, and Ms. Manville transform herself ever so slowly, bringing almost a completely new woman to each world. Mr. Leigh’s camera shifts onto the human faces for the important reactions—none of it is showy, but all of it is necessary.
            Yet to say Mary, and Ms. Manville’s performance, is the highlight of the film is to obscure the wonders that make up Another Year. Mr. Leigh rarely provides context, or does it very slowly, for each of the four vignettes, and each is filled with new characters that could easily have there own stories. There’s Tom’s old friend Ken, who’s overweight sight is only the first of many issues he hides under. There’s the son Joe, who is quite happy where he is, although without a girlfriend, something Mary at one point feels set on changing. And there’s Ronnie, Tom’s older brother, who simply seems to silently mock the world around him. Mr. Leigh brings these people on not as plot devices, but as ranges of human empathy and emotion.
            If Happy-Go-Lucky was all about how we create our own happiness, Another Year is about how we foster happiness in others. The film could have easily put its perspective from Mary, but the majority of the film is about how Tom and Gerri respond to the accomplishments and suffering of others, and how to best foster those, just like their vegetable plants. Mr. Leigh, is interested in how people judge and be judged, even in a loving environment. And like the seasons, our views of both others and ourselves is always changing, always recurring, and always in need of the nurture of love. 

NYFF Review: The Robber

The Robber
Directed by Benjamin Heisenberg
Germany and Austria

            The pounding noises of base give volume to the close tracking shots in The Robber, as we watch our protagonist Johann Rettenberger, run at his fast pace. In many way, his running becomes a metaphor for the film. Each step is a beat, one foot closer to the end, and the scenery around him is changing, though the character stays the same. And Johann’s life story is certainly worth a cinematic experience, but possibly not in the construction that Benjamin Hiesenberg has constructed.
            Noticed that while I described running in that opening, the film is in fact titled The Robber, which is the other profession that Johann can’t resist. And thus is the premise for the true story that follows The Robber—a man who’s addicted to speed, and addicted to stealing. Mr. Hiesenberg obviously has a great hook for a genre piece, but he also decides to use it as somewhat of a deconstruction of the genre. And in doing so, he parses the elements a little too much, like a similar European film, Anton Corbjin’s The American, to the point where besides the act of watching the character go through the motions, there’s not much to chew on.
            What is certainly great though is Andreas Lust, the Austrian actor who takes on the role of Johann. Mr. Lust is a minimalist actor; his expressions rarely change, nor do his movements. But when they do, certain things build. He brings his energy down often only to explode. And just watching him run is a strange but satisfying delight.
            The film follows Johann after his first stint in jail, which he follows almost immediately by getting back into the business, committing a series of quick bank robberies. What the film attempts to suggests is that Johann is not after the money—he needs the stakes to increase his adrenaline, which is what he’s really after. A doctor tells him early on that high jumps in adrenaline will increase his stamina, and thus a robber is born.
            But besides that, the film is surprisingly clich├ęd, especially with Johann’s relationship with a female parole officer who is also his ex-girlfriend. I kept wishing for Mr. Hiesenberg to take their story is a new route, something ambitious, yet he kept it firmly grounded. Thus whenever Johann is not running miles or speeding out of a bank, the film loses speed. Mr. Hiesenberg is a great stylist, and the escapes in this film are similar to the Jason Bourne films, both the Paul Greengrass kinetic action sequences, as well as the more quiet, tension building ones of Doug Liman (a fifteen minute escape in a dark woods is especially thrilling).
            But as the film slowly trots along to its somewhat predictable ending, there’s not much at stake for The Robber, well, except, how far can you take it.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

NYFF Interview: Charles Ferguson (Inside Job)

Charles Ferguson (Left) and Charles Morris

With two films in three years, Charles Ferguson has emerged as the name in non-fiction political filmmaking. Mr. Fergsuon, who has been a policy advisor, a technology company owner, and now, a documentary filmmaker. His 2007 film, No End in Sight, took on the very complicated issue of the Iraq War, and, without ever launching into muckraking techniques, explained the crucial mistakes that had led to the disaster it was turning out to be. Mr. Ferguson’s new film, Inside Job, takes on another political issue—the 2008 financial crisis, which is explained in stunning detail with a number of amazing interviews that put the entire crisis into a shocking context. After a press screening, Mr. Ferguson sat down along with one of the documentary’s subjects Charlie Morris, the writer of The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers and the Great Credit Card Crash, which predicted the crisis months before it happened, to talk about the making of the film and the future of our current crisis.

One of the things that struck me about the film was the through line that starts in the late 70s and early 80s that goes through Republicans through Democrats, back to Republicans, and now to Democrats. In a way, supposedly when considering how partisan our government is today, it seems in this one area there’s a lot of agreement.

Ferguson: Unfortunately yes. The basic problem is definitely disturbing…I think that the problem is fully and completely bipartisan also makes it much more difficult for people to understand what to do.

What happen to the whistleblowers like Charlie [Morris] and the others, the people who were talking, like Alan Sloan and a few others you point out? How do people look at them now?

Morris: There’s a person in the film, [Raghuram Rajan], at the University of Chicago of all places. He was at the 2005 IMF conference, run by Alan Greenspan. He gave a paper that said you guys are heading for the biggest crash we’ve ever seen, and he laid out chapter and verse on how and when it was going to happen. And people like [Former Harvard President and Former Director of the White House National Economic Council] Larry Summers stood up and called him names, and he was almost booed off the platform. And I think even now he doesn’t get a lot of credit for it. I mean people like us know, but he’s not known for that kind of thing. But when the crisis finally hit, it was such a God-awful mess that no one could point to anyone about any of it.

Clearly when you are making a film like this and you’re interviewing so many people, word has to get around like “Hey there’s this guy Charles Ferguson, made this well regarded film about Iraq, and he’s asking a lot of questions.” Why didn’t people talk—did you do them all on the same day?

Ferguson: I was terrified that would be a problem, and in some cases it was. Some of the people who declined to be interviewed clearly knew what I was doing and didn’t like it. In the case of  [Columbia Business School professors] Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin, we interviewed them three days apart, Hubbard first, and I crossed my fingers for 72 hours that they weren’t going to talk during that period. One thing—this is funny and it’s also not funny—what helped me in this regard, in the case of Hubbard and some others who aren’t even in the film, is that they were so embarrassed and ashamed, and fearful, at the end of their interviews, the last thing they wanted to do was tell everyone what had happened.

In the downfall of Lehman and the downfall of [Henry] Paulson [Former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary from 2006-2009], why didn’t you look at some of the antagonism in why he decided not to save it?

Ferguson: The question of why Lehman was forced into bankruptcy is like one of those questions, “Why did the Bush administration start the Iraq war?” There’s 20 possible explanations, each of them probably has some degree of truth. I would love to be Henry Paulson’s psychiatrist, and unfortunately I’m not. But let me give you the list. One is everyone hated [Lehman CEO] Richard Fuld. I’ve never met him myself; he obviously declined to be interviewed. He just about antagonized everyone on the entire planet, which is his personality—arrogant, abrasive etc. The second is unlike most of the other Wall St firms, the top management of Lehman Brothers with just one exception—a cousin of President Bush—was composed primarily Democrats, who were substantial contributors to the Democratic party. Third, Paulson did care about the moral hazard argument and wanted to make an example of his company. Fourth, which is clearly true, is that he didn’t have the faintest God damn idea of how much Lehman’s bankruptcy would cause. Fifth—there’s a lot—that Lehman had been emerging over the previous decade to a competitor to Goldman Sachs. Finally, there’s also the possibility that there was an ego issue that Paulson got in, in which there was no easy way for him to back down personally when the British said they wanted a guarantee, so it was a testosterone issue. So that’s the list—choose what you like.

Was [New York Senator] Chuck Schumer ever a role in the film, or is not relevant in the discussion?

Ferguson: Schumer is certainly relevant. He has a mixed record. There’s many ways in which he’s been an advocate for the financial services industry, including some ways that are not entirely tasteful. He also a couple times tried to do something good…One time he tried to get mortgage loans back under bankruptcy costs, to get mortgages covered in the result of bankruptcy which they currently are not, as a result of lobbying by the mortgage lending industry. In that, he failed, but he tried.
In regard more generally, there are many things I would have liked to put in the film. I’d like to put more about congressional cases that were blocked by lobbying by the financial services industry. There are so many things I’d have loved to put in the film, and there just wasn’t the time.

Chuck [Morris], was there anything you would have loved to see in the film that you did not?

Morris: Actually, I should say, when I originally talked to Charles about this, I thought this is a film that you just couldn’t make. It’s too complicated, too much stuff, too hard to capture all the conversations and stuff. I think it came out just fantastic. I like the whole thing. I really like that it wasn’t a partisan blow at that party...
Let me just give you some numbers here. The way the commerce department measures national product is something called value added. Over the years, the value added by the financial section has been somewhere between 12% and 14%. The same time, the share of corporate profits by the financial sector has always been higher than their value added, it looks a little too higher. In the 2000s, they were getting 40% of all corporate profits, and you only get that with huge amounts of leverage, with huge amounts of risk. And you saw that happen, it really started at 2002 and stayed at the 38, 39% level, and of course that’s why you see this huge surge of income to the top 1%, and they’re not putting any of it back—it’s just money for them. And the real problem is that they did it again in 2009. In 2008, it went down to 8.5%, but in 2009 it crept back to 30%.
And another thing I should mention is that, and we’ve not begun to deal with this at all, is the no cutbacks in the financial sectors jobs. And we’ve really got to cut all those places down. I realized that the sector has lost more jobs than any other place, but its all been outside of New York City in the smaller banks, regional banks, that are actually doing banking, and the guys at the top have covered themselves, and they haven’t changed at all.

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NYFF Interview: Julie Taymor (The Tempest)

For twenty years, Julie Taymor has been known as one of the great visualizers of iconic material. From her theater work, which includes the musical adaptation of The Lion King, to her film work, which includes the acclaimed film Frieda, Ms. Taymor dabs in a color palette that brings electricity to every scene. A huge fan of Shakespeare (she directed the Anthony Hopkins-led Titus), Ms. Taymor brings another adaptation to the screen, this of the Bard’s final work, The Tempest. The film takes a gender change to begin with—Helen Mirren plays the male role of Prospero (now Prospera)—and uses gigantic visual effects to portray Shakespeare’s language. In her interview after a press screening, Ms. Taymor discuses her approach to some of the issues and themes in The Tempest.

Why The Tempest, after Titus, why did you choose this as your next Shakespeare adaptation?

Actually The Tempest was the first Shakespeare play in 1986 with Theater for a New Audience, and I fell in love with the play then, and I directed it three times. And after Titus, in 2000, I decided if I were to do another Shakespeare it would be The Tempest. It’s one of his greats. I had loved it. I fell in love with it in the theater. I don’t think I’d of like to do a Shakespeare film without trying it in a theater first because the paired down minimalism—what you have to do in a theater—you would have to really do it with the actors first. It lends itself to the cinema. It’s extremely visual, and in fact his most visual play.

Having worked on the play several times, what has subsequent readings revealed to you?

One of my favorite scenes is the one where Prospera, in this version, and Ariel talk about compassion and forgiveness. She say, “What do you think spirit? Shall I forgive him?” And he says, “I would if I were human.” And I just find that compelling, both emotionally, and what Shakespeare is saying that all the joy and run of revenge is ultimately about forgiveness and making your way through that.
It’s very different, and in many ways this [film] is saying some of the same things about the play, but my version in the play was a black sand ground with a white site, so the image of the clowns—the fools—was in the original production, in the silhouette. There are many things that haven’t changed, but once Helen Mirren went into the play, without changing the lines, things changed immensely. Not just because she’s a great actress but also because the dynamics were so different. In my stage version, it was a male Prospero, and a female Ariel, although it was just a floating head. Caliban was with a New Guinea mud man mask, and in the film, I didn’t want to hide Ben Whitshaw’s face or Djimon Hounsou’s face, so that brought a different sensibility to those characters as well.

What was your rehearsal process like for the film, in comparison to the stage?

In the theater, you get all your actors on day one, and you get them for five or six weeks before you go into tech. Helen worked on it for four weeks. We did a reading a year in advance because it was extremely critical to both Helen in myself that this wasn’t a gimmick, that is had validity as a Shakespeare play, and it wasn’t about putting a woman in, because obviously you had to change many of the words, the he’s to she’s, the lords to what, the master to what. It’s very interesting because we kept the word master because the word mistress doesn’t mean the same thing. It’s incredible in the English language about what words change and which don’t. We used to word Mum as opposed to mother, and this process of the reading informed us about where we needed to go...
We rehearsed in London with Russell Brand, Felicity Jones, Reeve Carney, and Helen, those actors for about two weeks on and off. And then in Hawaii, where we shot most of the film, I had what we called the court—David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, and Chris Cooper parts—for not very long, because these actors are very busy. But I did have Djimon, Russell, and Alfred Molina in LA for a hilarious four or five days as well. And we did rehearsals in a bare room where you can really engage with the language and the physicality of it all, before we go to shooting.

In recent years, the character that gets the most scrutiny is Caliban, for obvious reasons. Talk about your conception of that part.

It was very interesting, in my other three production, I had African Americans or Africans play that role. It is a non-white role. If you want to be technical, his father is black and his mother is a blue-eyed hag. He’s just not European in the sense of the world. This play is written in a time in which there were many explorations, many journeys to the New World. He may have been called a monster because he was a Native American, and whatever he was, he was the other. Now, in this version with Djimon, I take Shakespeare at his words, I take him literally. So when he writes, “Thou earth thou speak” or “moon calf,” all these wonderful words to describe, “thou fish thou” I incorporated. He is made of the earth. He is representative of the island because the main theme in this play is nature vs. nurture. And nature, the actual island itself, is Caliban. Is he wrong to have been attracted to Miranda when she comes of age? You watch this conflict in Prospera; she’s a monster at that point for putting Miranda on this island in close proximity with other human beings and its only natural.
It’s about civilization in that sense. So it’s very touchy to put a black man into a slave role, but it felt more honest. It’s not politically correct, whatever that means, but he also has webbed fingers, he’s got a blue eye. He’s got the moon, the two-tone skin that’s he half black, and half white. He’s got this circle—even though that’s not what a moon calf means, I love the idea he looks like a calf, a cow, with these spots. So unlike the theater piece—which I put him in clay as well—he is slightly monstrous in his physical appearance.

How did you conceive of the timing and rhythm for this play for cinema?

Titus was long. It was two hours and forty minutes. And The Tempest is four hours in its full, unedited, unexpurgated version. Now Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be shown in full, and I had already cut it when I did it years ago to an hour and a half version, and this is probably a little less dialogue and a little longer because I wanted to have certain moments of breathers from the language, but there isn’t a lot. Maybe my feeling is that it is Shakespeare and knowing audience attention spans that I didn’t just allow us to go into these visual massive panoramas—although there are a few—because there is a momentum in the play.
It takes place literally between 2pm and 6pm. It’s interesting because the play is very confusing because she says “Three days hence, I’ll free thee” and at other times she says in three hours. So we played with the idea in time. It was a revelation when I went back to that speech in which she says “I have bedimmed the noon-time sun” and I realized that it was a solar eclipse. So I realized that if I have an eclipse when she starts to do the dark magic on the court, we will be able to go into a theatrical, highly stylized world. It’s very hard to shoot in broad daylight all the time, you can’t control it. And we’re in landscapes where you can’t bring in lighting, we were in cliffs with winds and rain. That’s real stuff. But it was wonderful to pull this sense from the script itself and then bring it to the landscape, and then shoot in green screen or blue screen later on for the highly stylized moments.

Why did you choose to have Beth Gibbons sing the song during the end credits?

That speech, the last speech of Shakespeare’s play, was cut from the film. I never shot it with Helen. I thought we didn’t need it, because she had already done a number of monologues, and what is she going to do, turn to the audience? And even if it hadn’t been end credits, I felt very different. In theater, the house lights come up, the actor unmasks himself, and the artifice is revealed. That really doesn’t happen in cinema.
And then we got to the end of the film, when we were editing, and you had the Ben Whitshaw-Ariel song, and the volcanic glass staff shatters, and I thought two things. One, what are we going to do for end credits, because we don’t have any more money, and on the other hand I thought, its not enough, we need that speech. So [composer] Elliot Goldenthal and I discussed taking that speech and tailoring it a little bit, so a few things are edited from it, and Beth came to mind because she felt like Helen. She has an incredible vulnerability and power simultaneously. The song was written with Beth and mind and we were proud that we could show her the film, and she says yes immediately. Some people have told me they thought it was Helen, but I can tell you, Helen doesn’t sing.

I always thought that it was problematic that Prospero destroyed his magic and gave away his book and I know the speech says “What strength I have is now my own” and that’s the usual interpretation, but clearly the evil is still abound. Sebastian isn’t any better than what he was and neither is the brother. I wonder about your thoughts about this?

I love it because Shakespeare was a realist, and he do these silly things where the bad guys are fully punished and the evil is truly gone. He is so cynical about the world and the most beautiful thing about Shakespeare is that he can be passionate, romantic, and cynical at the same time, and one doesn’t give weight to the other. He can have the most beautiful story about first love, first sight. And think about Ferdinand and Miranda—we talked a lot about the chess game, where she says to him, “You should cheat” and it’s like she already knows what’s in store for her. So what is he saying there? He’s already saying that this youth this innocence is already on its way to corruption.
The character of Prospero and Prospera has done everything in service of the daughter. “I do this for thee my daughter thee my loved one.” I think in this version what we feel really strong about is when Prospero gets his robes back, he just becomes the duke again. But in ours, because it’s a corset, and you go from these androgynous free clothes that you wear on an island and be comfortable, back into that severe female corset, she’s not just giving up her magic, she’s giving up her freedom. So “every third thought will be my grave,” that entire speech is so powerful, as she has that corset tied by Ariel, she goes “So…here I am. So.” And she’s ready to act with these guys.
And we always say, Antonio doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything from the circle of fire to the end, and it’s all in Chris Cooper’s face. This is where cinema is so powerful in a way—I love doing things theatrically but I love doing Shakespeare on film because the acting can fill in the blanks with his or her attitude. The whole ending with Caliban is not the play. It’s unspoken. But the fact that in the end of the play, he/she says “Go into my cave” and he says “Oo I’ll be beaten to death” and he retires into the cave. Since 1986, I’ve felt that isn’t satisfying. I do feel that Prospero or Prospera has made a move, and I feel that Ariel is there to open that. Ariel is the spirit. This I didn’t do in the theater, but that moment where he looks at the staff, and she looks into his eyes, and he looks into her eyes, and she does not lift the staff, which is the only way this white woman is going to have power is through this staff of magic, he walks up those steps and doesn’t look back, and you see what that means in her face. Even when she says, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge thee as mine” that acknowledges that this is her thing of darkness, that she has created this thing of darkness.
What happens is that you can direct these plays 100 times, and you can’t believe what happens. Elliot and I sit there in the editing room or with my editor Francois, and every day we are honored to get something more out of the language, and having actors you get it on so many levels. You get it on the surface level but you also get these riches coming form Shakespeare’s mind.

Click below to read the full interview

NYFF Review: Aurora

Directed by Cristi Puiu

             I counted about three moments where the protagonist of Aurora, played by writer-director himself, seems to be staring back at the camera, almost with a menacing smile on his face. As this three hour epic drags on, Mr. Puiu seems to be mocking his audience. Go on, he dares, walk out on me. Of course, like any good film critic who trusts the director of The Death of Mr. Lazerescu, which was one of the harbingers of the Romanian New Wave, we wait, and wait, and wait for not just for something to happen, but to have something to work with, and have a say in.
            However, Mr. Puiu instead mocks us, almost with more contempt that Lars Von Trier at a press conference. Aurora might be hailed by some as the culmination of what Romanian filmmakers have been getting at with their neo-realistic approach that some have described as “slow cinema,” but its actually a step in the wrong direction, where the style has become as pointless as its narrative.
            Its hard not to think of last year’s Romanian New Wave feature, Police, Adjective, which also featured sequences of its protagonist, walking, waiting, reading, eating, and doing nothing of interest for long amounts of time. But we knew the score even before we got into the narrative—our policeman’s job was pointless, a petty crime that amounted to nothing, and we were thus forced to endure the pointlessness of the protagonist.
            Mr. Puiu gives us nothing. After a brief opening scene, which is completely removed from the rest of the narrative, Aurora then follow the trek of 24 hours where Mr. Puiu seems to walk from area to area, with motivation, but not one revealed to us. The film runs just over three daunting hours, and only after the first hour and a half, we see him obtain a shotgun, our first sign that this is not an ordinary day. And while the sequences where that gun is used are shocking, mainly because Mr. Puiu knows how to make violence hit hard without showing anything, the rest of the film is hard to watch because we have no context for any of this.
            Mr. Puiu is constantly framing his camera looking through doors, in which have the frame is only a blank wall, and we only have access to so much. And thus the film is like that too, where only during the last thirty minutes of the film, do we get some clues, none of which even add up to anything. We are left with no motivation nor consequences, only an action without meaning. Some will sure argue about the brilliance of this—an existential crime in which we fill in our own pieces. Yet the whole procedure just feels pointless.
            “Slow Cinema,” and especially that which the Romanian directors have proved so capable of, is a style that is so effective when used in a narrative that captures us as well, most notably in the 2007 Palm D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. In Aurora, Mr. Puiu thinks that the style itself can serve a purpose, and we can be invested in that. It can’t, and it doesn’t invest us. Had Aurora had a stronger point to make by crafting this minimalist narrative, it could have had much to chew on after the film, making the endurance test worth our time. However, the rewards can hardly be described as paltry, and the film can be said only to truly serve Mr. Puiu’s self amusement. 

Friday, October 01, 2010

NYFF Review: The Tempest

The Tempest
Directed by Julie Taymor
United States

            It’s no lie that if anything is true about her, Julie Taymor loves to create a dynamic palette. Known for her films Frida and Titus, as well as her musical version of The Lion King, Ms. Taymor is a director who knows that the best way to amaze people is by flashing visuals that seem to pop off the screen and the stage. Wow them first, and then they’ll think later. Of course, such a style led to her last film, Across the Universe, a hodgepodge of a film that came close to ruining any sort of name The Beatles have.
            Even so, Ms. Taymor’s work seems a little too big for the New York Film Festival, which prides itself on filmmakers who often have none of her computer graphic trickery, and prefer the suggestive use of the camera to create ideas. Which is why, her newest film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s final comedy, The Tempest, is a bit of an overreaching explosion for the festival. The film is big, loud, and slightly abrasive, and while it is sometimes magical, its traded in the heart of the play for a big show.
            At least the key difference between other productions of The Tempest and Ms. Taymor’s version strikes an excellent chord. The sorcerer Prospero has been renamed Prospera, and changed genders to be filled by the shoes Helen Mirren. Ms. Mirren is a charismatic actress, and one who knows how to control the screen. Despite wearing costumes that border on the humorous side, Ms. Mirren commands the screen as great her Prospera controls the poor island she rules over. She is a natural Shakespearean actress, a shame when one considers how few Shakespeare roles are available for her without a change. The film thus opens with Prospera conjuring a grand storm upon the ship of the King of Naples, a position that she has the right to, but lost due to a misogynist group of leaders (the only real use of the gender change). Thus, Prospera shipwrecks the motley crew on her island, and we see their adventures, as we as hers.
            The rest of the cast—a surprisingly small one given the grandiosity of the film (mostly Taymor’s visual work)—fills into a mixed bag, which is where natural Shakespeare actors may have been prepared. Ben Whitshaw, still in John Keats mode from Bright Star, plays the spirit Ariel through a number of CGI tricks, mostly distracting more than insightful. Chris Cooper plays Prospera’s treacherous brother, and a companion to the king, played with no energy by David Stratharin. Djimon Hounsou plays the slave Caliban, and Ms. Taymor makes no attempt to clean the blatant Orientalism displayed by Shakespeare (though the visual costume—a series of paints and earthly crust attached to his body—is quite extraordinary. The surprising best part of Ms. Taymor’s The Tempest comes from its drunken comedic side, with Russell Brand and Alfred Molina as bumbling idiots.
            Yet acting isn’t Ms. Taymor’s problem, it’s her love of visual design. Ms. Taymor is more obsessed with what she can show in cinematic form, that she often literalizes the words of Shakespeare, without considering their thematic meaning. The big visuals and rock score are sometimes cheesy, and unfortunately rarely a new take on the ideas more than a big version of it. As the film drags on—despite its short length—it seems Ms. Taymor is more interested in the next effect than the next idea. When all the characters come together in what should be a big climatic showdown, her Prospera’s daughter exclaims the play’s famous lines, “O brave new world, That has such people in’t,” it takes a minute to even begin to feel palatable considering how thinly sketched Ms. Taymor has made these iconic characters. Ms. Taymor has done stage version of The Tempest, and I would have wished to see what she could do without such visuals to fall back on for her magic. The real magic of Shakespeare after all, is in the construction of the words.