Transcendent Moments Of Change: Falling In Love With Terrence Malick

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“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother. We, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.”  [The New World]

His films sing the story of our land.  They help us rise from the depths of our pain.  And crystallize the murmurs of our hearts and minds.  He weaves a symphony of inner voices, our own voices, into the music of life itself.   There is not another American filmmaker living today so admired and so reviled based upon his storytelling techniques.  The more you seriously invest in his films, the greater the reward.  The quiet stillness of  a natural landscape with the the mosaic of faces, seemingly brings us closer to a truth.  A truth according to Malick and a burgeoning love for his unique poetry.

Terrence Malick, born 1943 in Ottawa Illinois and a native of Oklahoma and Austin Texas, holds degrees in philosophy and film-making with a thesis that involved a student short film with Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates.  He taught for several years in the subject of philosophy, before turning his interests solely to cinema.  The approach is much like his unfinished thesis on Martin Heidegger, the noted German philosopher.  The metaphysical study of being, or ontology, resides in most, if not all, of Malick’s filmic approach. The nature of being and how principal things are related to each other; namely man and nature for Malick.  His work continually experiments and stretches the medium.  His ambitious executions are sublime and sometimes infuriating, often within the same context for the person viewing.  When one of his films transforms all the elements seamlessly, it is monumentally inspiring.

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“I always thought that being alone was just something that a man had to put up with. It was like I just got used to it.”  [Days Of Heaven]

The painterly sense in images are apparent right from the start in his poetically blazing first features Badlands, from 1973 and Days Of Heaven, from 1978.  Each used first person narration and presented the specter of change for characters, location, dreams, and perspectives.  Badlands concerns the exploits of Kit and Holly on a crime spree fleeing from the murder of her father.  Holly narrates through an apathetic voice, a lost little girl dazzled by the James Dean-like charisma of her partner-in-crime.  The beautiful visuals are in stark contrast to the disturbing behavior and events of these two uncommon lovebirds.  Malick’s treatment of these characters are never cold or distanced, but implores us to listen and be shaken by their dark behavior.  It is a bold first film that put Malick’s name into the forefront of American seventies cinema.  Days Of Heaven paints a poem of the enduring theme of man and nature during the turn of the century America.  On the surface, it is a story of love and murder involving a man, his little sister (who narrates the film), and his girlfriend, but Malick explores the fascination with nature’s fury and beauty and shows its disregard for how man tries to tame or change it.  The languid “magic hour” (evening dusk) shots are spectacular in their small details and in capturing life as it happens.  Days Of Heaven secured Malick as a visionary artist, but an original voice as well.  Both of these films set up unbelievable expectations that would make audiences wait for nearly two decades later, from a self imposed exile from film-making, to make good on that promise.

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“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”  [The Thin Red Line]

In 1998, after rumors and whispers that Malick was indeed making another film, The Thin Red Line was released.  Based upon the James Jones autobiographical novel describing WWII Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line used an ambitious multi character narration in a sweeping epic of men under the duress of war…and with nature, specifically the choking South Pacific jungle.  Nature is cruel, as Colonel Tall describes to Captain Staros, but so is man.  There is cruelty and darkness in all of us.  It is Malick’s brilliance in focusing on the jungle’s indifference to man’s insanity, its eternal connection as in one scene where a corporal mutters how they are all essentially dirt, as he sifts through a handful while crouching in the tall grass during battle.  There are also moments of complete silence, except for the incessant sounds of the jungle, that these men can voice everything within themselves through facial and body movements alone, beautifully captured by John Toll’s camera, that says more than twenty pages of dialogue. War changes men.  It brings out the best and the worst in those men.   It is a mark of a truly great film, that with repeated views, which continues to surprise with new information and touch something deep inside on many levels.  This is a journey into that state of being; into the heart of it all.  It is one of Malick’s very best works in the pantheon of cinematic achievements.

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“I thought it was dream… what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.”  [The New World]

The focus on 17th century America and a land untouched by greed and cruelty seemed a poetically justified choice for Malick’s next film.  The New World expands more on the the multi-character internal narration to a great effect.  Some critics actually coined it the Malick effect (with shots of the sun streaming through the treetops) and has been parodied by some since then.  The story covers a love triangle of sorts with Captain John Smith, John Rolfe, with the mysteriously beautiful princess, known to us as Pocahontas, at the center of it all.  This is a gorgeously photographed (with natural light) film that underscores change that is wonderfully curious and devastatingly tragic.  History has already taught us of the plight of the American Indian and Malick shows the wonder of a lost symbiosis with nature, if one truly listens and respects it.  Respect and reverence for this cathedral of trees and rocks and soil, the Indians look upon this invasion upon their lands with curiosity at first, but then anger when untruths are uncovered.  They know change is inevitable and not necessarily always for the good of their people.  Malick’s inner voices, heard through the several narrations, are actually our own doubts and fears and hopes.  It has grown in stature since its release with its ambitious stream of consciousness storytelling that weaves big themes both personal and worldly.

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 “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”  [Tree Of Life]

Tree Of Life is arguably Terrence Malick’s masterpiece which draws upon all of his obsessions and techniques seamlessly within the narrative of growing up in a small town in Texas.  This is a deeply philosophical film that deals with issues not normally seen in a wide release film.  The existential themes of why we exist and where are we going are front and center.  They lie underneath the proceedings, but are nevertheless key to its strength and power.  The jaw dropping beauty of life is captured in miraculous images that Malick manages (without the help of CGI) to give the audience the logical transition from innocence to corruption.  In the midst of this telling story of youth and change, comes a section in the film that many are critical of, but is actually a statement on where we came from…and more importantly the definition of grace according to Malick.  We are transported to the beginnings of this world (with visual effects by veteran maestro Douglas Trumbull) and the miracle of life created within the shrouded depths of an ancient ocean.  The emphasis of ever changing life takes the path to early dinosaurs where Malick’s act of grace is presented.  A dinosaur injured on a rocky stream bed is approached by a possible predator.  The predator cautiously steps up to the frightened injured reptile and lifts its foot to crush its skull, but something in its eyes catches the attention of the predator and it slowly takes its foot away, thus sparing the creature an ugly demise.  This act alone, whether divine or instinct, makes us pause for what lies in us as the basis for good and evil?  It is a huge risk that turned some audiences off, but upon reflection a very necessary statement to make by Malick.  We, as fellow creatures, are imbued with a sense of right and wrong; which begs the question of where does it come from?  Huge ideas with big statements in a film that wonderfully centers around a possibly autobiographical family of four.  Tree Of Life continues to amaze and project these lofty ideas with each viewing.  It deserves a much bigger audience than the one that intially received it with open arms.

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“Mercy was just a word. I never thought I needed it. Not as much as other people do.” [Song To Song]

Malick continued to explore this stream of consciousness storytelling in his next two films, To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups to a less satisfying degree.  Both films are so free form in structure and editing which now distances us from its central themes Malick is trying to convey.  It is as if Malick were attempting to shoot a Terrence Malick film, as absurd as that sounds.  Not to discount them entirely, each has its merits with stretching film language as an art and exploring relationships to varying degrees.

After Knight Of Cups came and went, Malick released another film right on its heels without little fanfare or advertising that counts as one of his very best efforts entitled Song To Song.  This is one of those films caught under-the-radar which ennobles the notion of how we are all connected in the bigger sense of the word and it is up to us to ignite those flames already burning deep inside each of us.  A change in scenery can bring peace and tranquility, but a change in partners brings a whole slew of questions which are difficult to navigate through peacefully.  Song To Song concerns itself with the music scene in Austin Texas and the ordinary individuals working behind it.  The deceptively simple plot encompasses everything we experience with others in its highs and lows.  It isn’t simply about love relationships, but also the search for ourselves, which is sometimes the greatest journey of them all.  All of Malick’s trademarks are here; the multi-voiced inner voices, the natural lighting cinematography, the beautiful close up images, the jump cut editing…and it all feels like something brand new.  Song To Song has the earmarks of something bigger waiting to be discovered with another view.  There is definitively some major themes going on beneath the surface which may be invisible to the naked eye.  These connections, these changes play a cosmic jigsaw puzzle waiting to be finished to form one big answer about us as humans.  This is a small film that speaks to the mind, as well as the heart.  It is where all the elements certainly pay off and, in time, the potential to be a great film alongside his best work.

We can see ourselves in these stories, some beautiful and some very painful, which connects us together.  Malick asks the big questions, and leaves it up to the viewer to conjure up some of those answers.  It may not always be pleasant to think about these things, but it is important to never forget to question who we are and where are we going.  Change makes us grow.  Change educates us.  Change makes life.

“I film quite a bit of footage, then edit. Changes before your eyes, things you can do and things you can’t. My attitude is always ‘let it keep rolling.'”  [writer/director Terrence Malick]

The Malick Filmography  [all quotes shown above written by Terrence Malick]

Lanton Mills, 1969

Badlands, 1973

Days Of Heaven, 1978

The Thin Red Line, 1998

The New World, 2005

Tree Of Life, 2011

To The Wonder, 2012

Knight Of Cups, 2015

Voyage Of Time, 2016

Song To Song, 2017

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The Cinematic Dilemma Of Stephen King

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” ‘They float,’ it growled, ‘they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–’ “

The words and stories of Stephen King have become a pop culture phenomenon since his first publishing success with Carrie, in 1974.  King’s innate ability for description is uncanny when focusing on the macabre and horrific.  There is detail in his words, but just enough for you to fill in the rest yourself as the reader.  This makes his stories come alive much more so than if he coldly described the monsters inhabiting his novels in minute detail.  Some of his best stories trick you into imagining your own worst nightmares, along with certain painful memories.

Stephen King understands how powerful the tool of imagination is, which therein lies the wasteland of the many failed cinematic attempts on his stories.  It is one thing to imagine some dark horror King describes in a couple sentences.  It is quite another thing to envision it on the screen.  To this day, some of his best novels have yet to see a successful take on film.  It is because of the ignorance of King’s powerful tool of letting the readership imagine the worst.  That is quite a task to summon in a script for a big budget film, where the first thought is to spend all the money to bring King’s horrible monsters to life for all to see.  The misconception is that one can literally translate a novel into a film.  Film is an entirely different medium than a novel, and requires just as much subtlety and imagination on the other end of the spectrum, for with film you are dealing with not only words, but images and sound.  You are in a sense, filling in the gaps those words in the novel skipped over.  The trick is to figure out how to fill in the gap.

Not all of Stephen King’s cinematic endeavors ended in the wasteland.  Brian De Palma’s stylish and scary “Carrie”, from 1976, was the first big hit for King.  In 1980, the cinematic giant Stanley Kubrick took on “The Shining”.  In 1986, audiences were treated to a wonderful adaption of the short story The Body with Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me”.  Even David Cronenberg realized ‘The Dead Zone” with intelligence and care.  Reiner later followed his hit with another King story “Misery”, from 1990.  Some other successes were “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Mist”, and the creepy “Pet Sematary”.  What all of these films have in common, besides the same original writer, is that the filmmakers chose to interpret the novels outside of King’s words, sometimes doing away with whole sections that cannot be translated into film.  Stanley Kubrick was notorious for throwing out most of the original source for “The Shining” (a fact that still rankles King to this day), but produced a film that has grown in stature and greatness over the years.  All other treatments of King’s novels are bland, dry, and sorely lacking in imagination for they tried to literally pull the pages from those sources and plaster them onto the screen, with little or no success.

Which leads us to the recent release of one of Stephen King’s longest novels at 1,138 pages long (his novel The Stand beats it at 1,168 pages in the uncut version), which concerns the evil lurking beneath Derry, Maine in IT.  “IT” has broken box office records at this writing, which is astounding for an R rated horror movie.  The name Stephen King has become such a brand name these days with a seemingly hungry audience waiting to experience again one of his bizarre worlds. “IT” is an ambitious undertaking for it covers a lot of years and a multitude of characters.  There was a mildly successful television venture in 1990 that is only quite memorable for actor Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise, The Clown.  Beyond that, the miniseries was a “by-the-numbers” adaption that never rose to Curry’s demented brilliance.

The 2017 revision of “IT” is ably directed by Andrés Muschietti with a cast of mainly newcomers that shine in their roles.  Tim Curry’s shadow looms across this project, but actor Bill Skarsgård takes it to the extreme and leaves that shadow behind.  His performance is the stuff of nightmares.  Muschietti’s work with the actors is nuanced and has an air of authenticity, especially with the children.  When it comes to the horror action, this is where Muschietti stumbles…but let’s go over the stand outs in this production first.  The production design by Claude Paré perfectly captures the early eighties tinge and feels very realistic.  The images by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung paints with deep shadows and bright light.  The actors, under Muschietti’s direction, are authentic and emotionally right on cue.  There does not seem to be a false moment with any of them.

“IT” is not without its missteps, and they are glaring.  The music, by Benjamin Wallfisch, is overbearing at times that  telegraphs certain scares before they happen.  The film would have been better off with less music.  For any horror film, sound is integral to ratcheting up tension.  “IT’ has the sound design of a gleeful kid ready to make you jump out of your seat at a moment’s notice, regardless whether the story calls for it.  It cheapens the scares that the film works hard to build up to.  Through all of this, it is ultimately the director, Muschietti himself, that is accountable for the lack of tension in this film.  To rely on jump scare tactics is juvenile, when he could have been slowly building up tension within the frame for those payoffs.  The film seems to jump to the next showcase without lingering on the horror that was presented to us moments ago.  To add insult to injury, while the film has an emotional integrity to it (a coming of age story which is key to its success), there is no underlying subtext present to make the viewer return for another look.  It appears to be a wonderful story about kids growing up, that happens to have a lot of sudden loud scares thrown in the mix.  Apart from the beautifully shot beginning sequence of Georgie floating his paper boat in the rain, only to meet Pennywise in the storm drain, the rest of the film looks wonderful, but shockingly empty of real tension.  It is sadly not a film to revisit.

In the end, King will continue to reside on top because of his words, not the films based on his words.  The novels breathe because we, the reader, push the air into its lungs with our imagination.  “IT” is a worthy attempt, and much better than most, which is saying a lot for the multitudes already strewn across the author’s cinematic wasteland.

Stephen King said it himself, and filmmakers attempting to adapt his work should take heed;

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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An Event Sociologique: Truffaut in 1977

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François Truffaut (w/ Bob Balaban back right) on location, 1976

7 March 1978
Beverly Hills

Dear François,

We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.

Jean Renoir
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994]

François Truffaut was pursued by a young Steven Spielberg to accept the role of a French scientist, Claude Lacombe, in his big budget Columbia Pictures venture, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  His response to Spielberg was one of amusement and a statement that the only person he knew how to play…was himself.  It was in 1976 that one of the founders of French New Wave cinema found himself at the forefront of a complex, effects laden production which both fascinated and horrified him.  It was thanks to Spielberg that Truffaut would cement his decision to never accept a directing offer from Hollywood.

The role of Claude Lacombe is of an especially interesting diversion for Truffaut because of its intelligence mingled with child-like wonder.  Lacombe resembles, in some fashion, the inverse of young Antoine Dionel, the troubled boy in director Truffaut’s stunningly moving debut film Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows (a French variation of the term meaning to raise hell).  In that classic film, the young boy Antoine seems older and wiser beyond his years, whereas Truffaut finds himself in 1977 as an older, but child-like man in his pursuit of the truth.  Lacombe does not seem to be jaded by the times, perhaps because of some scientist code of filtering all outside information as possible solutions without prejudice or judgement.  He sees the world through a child’s sense of curiosity and honesty and…with a smile.

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That smile.  Truffaut uses it to such a subtle, but great effect.  It is a knowing smile as he examines an elderly Mexican farmer who was sunburned by a light that sang to him.  It is a gentle smile as Truffaut approaches the main protagonist Roy Neary, played with every-man greatness by Richard Dreyfuss, to ask what he wants.  It is a grateful smile he flashes to the Visitor as they exchange rudimentary hand signals, such a boys would do in a tree-house ritual. He saves his best mischievous smile when he spies from a window the three escaping captives whom he knows have a need and a right to be there just as much as he does.  You cannot help but smile yourself  with Truffaut through all of this.  His presence adds levity and an intelligence to all the fantastical proceedings.  It grants us a peek into that inner child which these celestial visitors seem to bring out.  Lacombe is a scientist you would want to hang out with after work.

The great French director Jean Renior mentions Georges Méliès, in his letter to Truffaut above, which, in a sense,  perfectly highlights that path from the wildly imaginative Méliès films from the silent era to Spielberg’s rumination on contact with extraterrestrials.  Same other-worldly subject matter, but now with a larger budget and bigger special effects.  To witness Truffaut in the midst of this, is to see a man in love with cinema totally and completely.  He may be playing himself, which is charming in itself, but he manages to make us invest emotionally with the scientific aspect, which parallels the Roy Neary emotional investment of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  It makes us want more interaction between these two men; one that is searching for an answer as a man, with the other eternally searching for the truth as a scientist.

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“I saw plenty of differences in degree, but not in kind. I felt the same admiration for Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain as for Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.

I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies both ridiculous and despicable.” 
― François Truffaut, The Films in My Life

These are the words of a true cinephile, a person who truly loves all things cinema regardless of subject matter, format, style, or period.  Truffaut was a film critic first before going behind the camera.  He talked about his ambitions to be a novelist, but found filmmaking to be a higher art form.  The absolute genuineness of his art and his life made Truffaut one of the great enduring figures in cinema.  His presence in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, was for many American audiences the first time one had ever heard of the name François Truffaut.  Steven Spielberg was nervous in asking Truffaut to be in the film because of his huge reputation and stature as one of the founders of such a formidable movement in cinema art.  To the unsuspecting American audiences, he was a French scientist with a very thick accent, who was extremely likable.  Who was this guy, they may have asked?  In the days before the internet, one had to search the library in newspapers, magazines, or books to find out more.  It could be by chance that some revival house or college would be showing one of his films that could be discovered.  Thanks to technology, we have a plethora of information and actual films of Truffaut waiting to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse.

It would be remiss to discount Truffaut’s contribution to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as merely a star cameo.  There is something more in his performance.  It has the substance of reality.  He was playing himself, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera captured something special.  Something much more.  Within those wonderful smiles, he was having fun with the whole process, and that, ladies and gentleman, is a very difficult measure to capture on film.  In a pivotal scene in the film, his character Lacombe pleads with an army major about this psychic connection, when it almost sounds like Truffaut is talking about the cult of the movie going experience;

Lacombe: I believe that for everyone of these anxious, anguished people who have come here this evening, there must be hundreds of others also touched by the implanted vision who never made it this far. It’s simply because they never watched the television. Or perhaps they watched it, but never made the psychic connection.

Walsh: It’s a coincidence. It’s not scientific.

Lacombe: Listen to me, Major Walsh, it is an event sociologique.

 

François Truffaut [February 6, 1932 – October 21, 1984] Writer, Director, Producer, Critic, Actor

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, music by John Williams

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[left to right] Bob Balaban,  François Truffaut, Lance Henriksen, director Steven Spielberg, producer Julia Phillips on location 1976

In Nolan We Trust

“Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighbouring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.”

Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to House of Commons  /  June 4 1940 

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In an unusually cold May of 1940, German forces advanced into France and drove the Allied troops into the wall of the English Channel and trapping them in the port town of Dunkirk.  French, Belgium, and Dutch soldiers, alongside the British, desperately were counting the minutes upon the vast beaches of Dunkirk while waiting on a few ships for safety across the Channel.  With the German forces closing in, Dunkirk was hit with a barrage of fire from land, sea, and air putting close to 400,000 lives in constant danger.  With meager support from French/British ground and air forces, nearly all the men were miraculously safely evacuated utilizing every serviceable ship or civilian boat in the area.  Churchill used this event to rally the British people in their continued fight against the growing German empire.

This is the basis of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s newest venture, Dunkirk.  It is a mesmerizing study of time and pressure.  It is abundantly clear, based upon past projects such as Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and even Insomnia (notice all the one word titles in his catalog, including the newly released Dunkirk), Nolan has always been fascinated with effects of time and its relation to human perceptions and behaviors.  Dunkirk is no exception while it tinkers with land, sea, and air stories with each unfolding section several hours behind the other.  It builds tension within one perception, while giving more information from another view.  We get swept up in the experience of a particular story, only to discover we do not have all of the specific information of that event as we delve into another perception.  No exposition is really given to any of the characters.  We are expected to discover for ourselves who these people are within the different facets of time and dimension.  This is an experience film (much like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), but Nolan brings such a ferocious tension throughout the proceedings that leaves one breathless.  War is not pretty and this film certainly sows the cruelty and ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man.  It also shows the valor and the human instinct to help fellow strangers in need.  There is a toughness to Nolan’s images, but they are never just cosmetic for the sake of aesthetic worthiness.  Dunkirk is filled with arresting camera work that rightly puts the viewer into the fear of these men.  The screaming German Junkers throttling towards their prey on the beaches of Dunkirk are nail bitingly tense.  The running squad being picked off by a snipers places you directly in the line of fire as you scramble for safety.  This is war where the only option is to survive.

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“..the politique des auteurs seems to me to hold and defend an essential critical truth that the cinema is in need of more than the other arts, precisely because an act of true artistic creation is more uncertain and vulnerable in the cinema than elsewhere…”

André Bazin / La Politque des auteurs  /  1957

In Nolan we trust is a moniker coined by fanboys during his Batman days when anticipating his next adult take on the dark knight.  It is actually a statement that fits.  Christopher Nolan is a modern cinema auteur who believes in film language as a visual aesthetic with limitless possibilities.  The name is synonymous with craftsmanship which would make any smart person look forward to a new work of his.  He can rightly be compared to another master auteur, Stanley Kubrick (Nolan is British).  Like Kubrick, Nolan is a perfectionist and oversees every aspect of his films.  No detail is too small and every shot contains information to further the story or idea.  This is what makes both Kubrick and Nolan’s films entirely re-watchable.  Dunkirk resembles a Kubrick film in the slightly detached god-like stance in direction and the sparse dialogue which makes the viewer pay more attention to the images on the screen.  His playfulness of relational time and audience expectations is also very Kubrickian in the cinematic sense.  Nolan adheres to the old school of film-making which is refreshing in this day  of CGI overkill.  His dedication to an artistic vision, within the confines of big budget films, is what makes him stand far apart from his contemporaries who sometimes sell out for the sake of success.  One need look no further than the mind bending epic that is Inception, which goes against all what makes a mainstream big budget film successful.  It is filled with dread and the loss of self control with an ending that is as ambiguous as it gets.

Dunkirk is an unexpected surprise (well, maybe not that big of surprise since we are talking about Christopher Nolan after all) because it paints upon a WWII canvas for the audience in a brand new hard light.  We are simply thrust into the proceedings, while Nolan expects us to figure it out.  It is a rarity with a mainstream film that the audience is expected to be smart.  None of his past films pander to the latest trend, for his films become the latest trend with originality and daring.  He may not hit it out of the ballpark every time (Interstellar and its ending), but this is a film-maker that consistently challenges you and dares to ask the questions no one else in big budget films ask; who are we?  What is truth?  What is really our perceived reality?  Where are we going?

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The microsom of society is in the form of a civilian boat christened Moonstone which exemplifies family, sacrifice, and honor.  War affects everyone, not just the brave men/women in battlefield.  Moonstone suffers tragedy in the face of war, as if the unit were back in London during the nightly blitzkrieg attacks.  There is nothing lofty or sentimental in Nolan’s treatment of the Moonstone participants.  It just is.  When tragedy does strike, the boy and his father honor the dead.  Consequences are accepted and some are haunted forever as a result of it.  These people tried to make a difference…and some succeeded.

In Nolan we do indeed trust.  His eye is on the prize at all times with his usual concerted and secretive efforts.  Dunkirk may be his finest film in which everything is honed to its essential properties.  Cinema started out as a visual medium and Nolan pledges his allegiance with his latest release.  Every image tells a story, such as the soldier at Dunkirk beach throwing off his gear and attempting to swim back home in a suicidal act.  There are many such moments which begs a second or third viewing.  This is the kind of big budget movie making we need with far reaching ideas and the understanding of cinema language.  Christopher Nolan is an auteur for the 21st century.  Let’s hope he continues upon his personal artistic path and continues to give us stories that astound and challenge our way of thinking.

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Our Most Unwelcome Visitor

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Sensuality without love is a sin; love without sensuality is worse than a sin.    /  Jose Bergamin

The oppressive sound of late afternoon cicadas blanket the emerald hued deep south woods whose very branches seem to hang down in some sort of defeat from the summer sun.  A young girl steps into the space, humming a tune while picking mushrooms from the mossy floor.  She takes her time stepping amidst the wooded area and comes upon unexpectedly to find a wounded Union soldier lying against a tree.

This is how writer and director Sofia Coppola’s newly realized take on The Beguiled begins.  Filmed previously by the underappreciated Don Siegel in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, Coppola ramps up the mood with dripping humidity and creeping sensuality that seems to emanate from the surrounding trees right from the very first frame.  Setting the mood  a couple of years into the American Civil War, an all girl’s school in Virginia finds themselves sheltered and cut off from society with only the distant sounds of cannon fire to remind them of the encroaching brutal war surrounding them.  Daily lessons, gardening, and evening prayers take up the bulk of their lives.  Routine for survival during wartime which brings the household into a protective bubble that is in danger of bursting with the appearance of the wounded Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell).  Head mistress, Miss Martha (played with the usual aplomb by Nicole Kidman) eyes the intrusion with suspicion and an undercurrent of buried sexual desire despite her lofty station within the school.

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The rest of the cast includes Kirsten Dunst (a regular of Coppola’s films) as the repressed, but yearning Edwina and Elle Fanning as Alicia, the budding young woman barely containing her sexuality (notice how her blouse is rebelliously unbuttoned halfway in the beginning sequence).  The rest of the young actors Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard are first rate unknown faces which lend an authenticity to the period.  In all of Coppola’s films, the exploration of female sexuality and gender are forefront in her vision.  The Beguiled affords a chance for Coppola to zero in on these specific themes with a dark foreboding melancholy of hidden desires.  Her insistence on focusing the camera longingly on the beautiful forms of costumes, surrounding nature, architecture, and the human body is unmistakably Coppola’s eye (look no further than her excellent Lost In Translation).  For some, this may be a slow, but slowly burning, film that takes too long to reach its pivotal climax of gender wars.  It seems to be Coppola’s intention for this pace to build up the tension slowly so that the audience has the time to appreciate each of the character’s eccentricities, hopes, and somewhat fatal desires that Corporal McBurney unlocks.  Madness does not arrive in quick editing jump cuts or swirling camera moves.  This madness comes out of necessity and slowly evolving logic.  There seems to be no alternative when faced with the Corporal’s rage and hostility towards the women.

There is one presence that seems to be missing in Coppola’s “gender Civil War” period drama; the African-American presence.  This is a Civil War drama located in the South that has no appearance of slaves, working or freed.  The school has none, perhaps as a result of runaways or some other event.  It is never mentioned (to my knowledge) in the film, although the original source novel does contain characters as such.  Does the exclusion of such characters do a disservice to the story?  Or does it focus ever so much more on the subject at hand; gender and sexuality?  All through Coppola’s work, the same themes are of interest to her and The Beguiled is no different.  By excluding the presence of African-Americans in this Civil War themed drama,  Coppola is only using the artist’s intent to tell the story on her terms because this is what interests her the most.  If she were to introduce a racial theme in the midst of already established points, the story would lose its concentrated focus.  Perhaps there is another story to be told that would not only present gender differences, but racial differences within the same gender.  The Beguiled is not that story and therefore confidently renders its intended vision.

The Beguiled is a rich and darkly atmospheric tale which goes beyond conventional stories pervading today’s mulitplex cinemas.  It requires your patience and richly rewards it with questions of morality and female empowerment.  Coppola’s film does not purport to have any answers, but it does make you think of the differences of perception between men and women; the persona (or mask) we tend to wear that is wrenched away when threatened or emboldened with desire.  As Miss Martha quietly tells her girls,  “…it’s seems the enemy… it’s not what we believed.”  The enemy being their most unwelcome guest and all he symbolizes.

Sofia-Coppola

[Writer/Director Sofia Coppola on set, 2016]

Come Back, Philip Kaufman, We Need You More Than Ever!

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“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”      

Milan Kundera / The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

Philip Kaufman is an American writer, producer, and director with credits that span the seventies till his last project back in 2012.  A progressive thinker, Kaufman cannot be boxed into one category.  His films can be overtly political and sexual, with sometimes intermixing the two into interesting themes regarding societal doctrines.  As a writer, he crafted one of the best Westerns Clint Eastwood ever made (Outlaw Josey Wales) and gave Indiana Jones his first (and still best) ever adventure that was tough as nails.  He was the first to earn the much maligned NC-17 rating for a film with adult themes deemed too much for teenagers sneaking into R rated screenings.  Kaufman’s projects are acidly funny, but challenge audiences on serious subjects in an offbeat literary sense.  Some of his best work is based on original novels or sources, but his screenplays inject a European modern wit, a wink and a smile if you will, to the proceedings which leavens the sometimes heavy subject matter.

Kaufman’s voice in cinema is sorely missed in these current turbulent times.  One can only imagine what he would make of the continually scorched political climate, the confusion and chaos of our landscape.  One would hope he will soon plunge a dagger into this soft mess and reveal the vile under layer with amusement and wit in the very near future.  His last film was a project featuring Ernest Hemingway locking literary horns with Martha Gellhorn in 2012.  There have been no new works since.

Filmmakers, such as Philip Kaufman, fly under the radar and need a voice sometimes to spotlight their contribution to cinema.  What better way to argue for Kaufman’s return than to swing that spotlight now onto some of his best films which clearly illustrate his eye for the political, social, and sexual mores of our society.  These are highly intelligent, humorous and challenging films.  They are entirely re-watchable and entertaining in the best way possible; they cater to intelligent audiences.

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In 1983, the film version of a much beloved book, The Right Stuff, was released to theaters with all the Academy Award hyperbole sufficient to deem it as “important”.  What no one realized at the time, was that Philip Kaufman wrote a subversive script that gave rise to the wonder of space travel, but also poked fun at the convoluted political shenanigans that went behind the scenes with the space race with the (then) Soviet Union.  The one line during an exchange between President Lyndon Johnson and several German scientists hard at work on the American side is so much on point with how ludicrous the actual space race could be:

Von Braun: Mr. President, our German scientists are better than their (USSR) German scientists!

The media covering these events certainly did not get any mercy under Kaufman’s direction.  We see the propaganda infused Life Magazine editors, the incessant buzzing sound of bug/pest like reporters surrounding the Mercury Seven astronauts, and the flash bulb intrusions into homes and personal lives of these people.  The media in 1983 did not take kindly to this and blasted Kaufman for this (actually accurate) portrayal on screen.

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The Right Stuff certainly infused the mythological aspects of space travel beginnings in the guise of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (played memorably by playwright Sam Shepard).  It is the very stuff legends are made of in the sequence featuring Yeager on horseback challenging the new test rocket plane designed to break the sound barrier.  The old ways versus the new.  Kaufman continually alludes to how brave these men were, but reminds us the absurd conventions that made it possible to put these lives on the line.  It is a glorious epic that transcends the normal biopic.  It captures an all encompassing view, both intimate and huge, with a pace which is languid and engrossing.  This film failed at the box office because it was marketed as a patriotic emblem, instead of the subversive epic it really was.  The socio-political landscape is detailed beautifully amidst the grandeur of reaching for the stars.  That is a hard balance to maintain, but Kaufman effortlessly achieves it in this fine film.

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In 1988, Kaufman turned his attention to another much beloved novel by Milan Kundera about the roving adventures of a Czech surgeon, along with two very important women in his life, in Prague 1968, right before the Soviet invasion.  The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a marvel of originality.  This time, Kaufman tackles the sexual politics along with the radical politics of a country on the cusp of intellectual and spiritual freedom before the Soviets crushed those dreams underneath the many tanks it rolled into Prague.

This sounds very serious and its themes of political/religious/sexual freedom are indeed very serious.  However, Kaufman’s touch gives the film an airy texture that lifts the film to a place where characters have room to breathe and grow and laugh.  One such example is the wonderful scene where Tomas (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) hints at his jealously of another man dancing with his live-in girlfriend Tereza (a simply glowing Juliette Binoche) and it develops into a free-for-all tickle romp on the floor ending in Tereza proposing marriage to a laughing Tomas.  It is sweetly intimate, as if we are peering into a room and seeing this spontaneous and loving couple enjoying life.  Sexual freedom comes with a price.  Sabina (brilliant performance by Lean Olin) completes the triangle of Tomas and Tereza as an artist who claims to want no ties with anyone–but secretly loves Tomas completely and runs from it.  The sex in this film is gloriously silly, playful, and intensely erotic.  The tension between these characters is so thick, you can sense an electrical bond between these characters.  It is a credit to the actors and to Kaufman’s innate ability to present sex outside of Hollywood’s gauzy pristine standards.  The photo shoot sequence between Tereza and Sabina was worth the price of admission alone.  There is a European flavor to it, but the heat generated between these two characters provided such a fitting tribute that love can still never be easily defined.

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Let us not forget how The Unbearable Lightness Of Being displays a political landscape of Soviet blanketed propaganda that tried to place a good light on their invasion of Czechoslovakia.  People were brutalized, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for protesting such a wrongful show of force.  The film deftly mixes actual documentary images with our characters to give a real grounding on how massively shocking this all was to the world.  The Soviets placed a foot on the throat of democracy and freedom until it choked under the weight of the so called righteous.  We now live in a world that frowns upon the act of protest as a movement.  We are to follow our leader into the abyss if need be.  We blindly take sides against each other and do not listen.  There was a time when you took to the streets because there was no alternative choice remaining at your disposal.  We are faced with those times again and it would be wonderful to see what Kaufman could do with these themes today.

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In 1990, Philip Kaufman brought a dream project of his to life by adapting the lives of writers Henry Miller and Anias Nin with the first NC-17 rated film in cinema history, Henry & June.  Sex is prominently in the forefront with this film as Miller (a surprisingly great Fred Ward) assumes the self exiled status of an artist living in Paris.  He loves his wife, June (a luminously tragic Uma Thurman), and is jealously devoted to her.  Nin (a sexually intelligent performance by Maria de Medeiros) catches his eye, but it is her mind that he craves even more.  Their romance ended up lasting a lifetime through letters, but again, Kaufman presents sex and love in an entirely adult fashion that confused general audiences.  Their definition does not fit the norm of society.  Paris was at the height of freedom to explore and redefine sexuality and art.  American audiences may have been too straight laced to fully appreciate what Kaufman was attempting, thus the box office failure of yet another wonderfully subversive and intelligent film.

Another love triangle was on display in Henry & June which beautifully defies all standard love story conventions.  These are people rich in the experience field willing to put themselves (and their partners in some cases) on the line in order to find something that no one else has found.  Miller and Nin duel mentally throughout the film with literature, life, and love.  They consistently habitually redefine themselves, but fall back onto social conventions such as monogamy and financial success.  It is a rarity to see a Hollywood project take on the fringe elements of art and love with such openess.  It is not surprising it earned an NC-17 rating, but it is not exploitation.  It is adult with adult themes which require an audience with intelligence and open mindedness.  How often can one be challenged on how we were brought up to think about relationships and sex on a level that questions it.  Miller and Nin were free spirits, but haunted by their own inadequacy and limitations placed by society and class structures.  These people may come across as self absorbed, but Kaufman places them in the context of adventurers of a modern world not quite ready for their conquests.

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So, we plead to Philip Kaufman, the missing in action American writer and director…please return to the cinema screen and give us your shaman magic for the modern world.  Redefine for us again what it is to be human with all of our subtleties and frailties and the wonderfully funny behaviors that enrich us.  We don’t care what project you have your eyes on, just put your wonderful words to paper and train the camera with your all seeing eye.  We need it now, more than ever.  Our subversive nature is slowly being throttled by unseen forces.  Please, Philip Kaufman, we need you more than ever.

Rumble Fish and the Ghosts Of Time

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Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

The American writer, Susan Eloise Hinton (better known as S.E. Hinton) gained fame as the teenager author of “The Outsiders” in 1967, a “young adult” novel before there ever was such a genre.  Her gift for language and setting (Tulsa Oklahoma) among the disillusioned and lost youth has since become a regular part of public school curriculum.  The novels Tex, That Was Then This is Now, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish deal with themes which resonated with young readers and continue to influence today.  Francis Ford Coppola, frustrated with his brand name (The Godfather series in particular), embarked on two small personal projects with limited budgets with his “family” of actors and creative team members from past films to reach back to his instinctive creative days.  The resulting work produced The Outsiders in March 1983 in expressive color and Rumble Fish later that October of 1983 in striking black and white.  Both films were photographed by Stephen H. Burum (veteran of many Brian De Palma films such as The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way).

There are tragic echoes, ripples in time, that reverberate and connect most of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a underrated effort which recently received a prestigious Criterion Collection release on disc.  These ripples flow through the two troubled brothers, their alcoholic father, the mother who abandoned them, the veteran street cop watching over one of the brothers, the doomed romance between two young lovers, and the addicted ex-girlfriend.  The disconnects, loneliness, and quiet despair lies underneath the everyday lives of these people.  They are all ghost-like searching the city streets for clues.  This ethereal longing for something greater is a central theme that Coppola brought strongly to the forefront on screen.  Youth has a taste for self destruction while believing themselves indestructible.  This duality is the heart that beats in Rumble Fish.  Floating within the confined wastelands of Tulsa, the yearning to break free trembles beneath the surface at all times.

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Coppola touted Rumble Fish as an art film for teenagers.  It is much more than that for it relies on the unforgiving conceit that youth is not all that it is cracked up to be.  This is perhaps why the film tanked at the box office and never managed to acquire young audiences such as the novel did.  Coppola does not utilize cinema tricks just for the sake of it.  The clock in Rumble Fish continually ticks (you can hear it in Stewart Copeland, founder of the band The Police, and his manic percussive score) that makes the characters march towards some unknown fatal destination.  Many ghost-like scenes invade otherwise standard exchanges between characters such as the father, inebriated as usual,  confused at first whether he really sees both of his sons in his squalid apartment.  The lovers spat on the street is suffused with other-worldly smoke that swallows up the characters.  The knife fight between gangs where we can see striking shadows and mist surrounding a nightmarish decaying stage set for some long ago battle.  Tulsa is seemingly transported to another age and another time, again giving rise to this idea of ghosts floating through this story.

Rumble Fish incorporated many of Francis Ford Coppola’s merry band of regular cast members and some of his own family.  Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, fresh off of The Outsiders with Coppola, were the first cast.  There is Lawrence Fishburne (Mr. Clean from Apocalypse Now), Nicolas Cage (nephew of Coppola), Herb Rice (Roach from Apocalypse Now), Tom Waits (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Sofia Coppola (daughter and filmmaker in her own right), Vincent Spano (whatever happened to him?), the late Christopher Penn, Diana Scarwid (whatever happened to her?), veteran character actor (and personal favorite) William Smith, and even a sly cameo by author S.E. Hinton as a prostitute trying to drum up business with the two brothers.  Coppola brought master production designer Dean Tavoularis (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather trilogy, Zabriskie Point, Ninth Gate) which took actual locations in Tulsa and heightened the surreal uneasy feeling of the film.  Director of photography Stephen H. Burum worked closely with Tavoularis to create the German expressionist landscape of deep shadows and confining spaces that defines this wasteland of youth (they even painted shadows on the sets to deepen the expression on film).  The fact that these very creative filmmakers contributed their time and energy to such a small project is a testament to Coppola’s mettle as one of America’s top modern cinema masters.

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Clocks are ever present in almost every scene either by visual or an auditory sense.  It is counting down the seconds, winding up the tension in Rumble Fish.  Time is like some heavy cloud (such as the time-lapsed clouds in the beginning sequence) that weigh upon Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) and his ghostly idolized older brother, Motorcycle Boy (played to perfection by a young Mickey Rourke).  This longing, referred to earlier, reaches such high levels when these two are on screen together.  Rusty-James tearfully pleads with his brother to just see him.  See him for who he really is.  That inherent need to belong, to feel needed or loved, is such a universal feeling we all share.  With the incessant feeling of time ticking away, the film presents the characters as being short on that time to discover their place in this world before that world chews them up and spits them out.

Time also ticks away on the soundtrack (an incredibly intricate sound design by Richard Beggs) in a variety of inventive ways.  We not only hear clocks ticking, clanging, buzzing, but in water dripping, echoing voices (another ghostly like effect), percussive beats from the Stewart Copeland soundtrack, and an underlying blanket of sound that gives that sense of something different in this world running away with time.  Beggs never seems to overindulge in these effects.  It seems a natural part of the world they have created.  Do yourself a favor and turn up the sound when watching this film to fully appreciate the work that went in to creating this aural landscape.

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The title Rumble Fish refers to Motorcycle Boy’s statement of certain fish in the local pet store that are separated in the fish tank for they would kill each other if in the same space.  His thought of freeing these fish into the river, giving them the space they really needed, would undo that primal need to destroy each other.  Is this what we need for the self destructive behavior for youths in gangs?  Freedom and the responsibility to choose, rather than be like the ghosts of past gang members on the endless cycle of nihilistic violence?  Sometimes it takes a ghost (in this case, the quiet presence of Mickey Rourke) to show the way; break free of the constraints of endless repetition that life sometimes hands us.

This all sounds so bleak on the surface, but there is a beautiful hope.  Coppola provides it little by little as the film progresses for we end up caring, against our better judgement, for these characters and want them to succeed.  These are flawed broken people, but they carry the same needs and desires we all do.  Hope is possible and given in the end which lifts the film up right where it needs to be.

No longer a ghost of time will Rusty-James be, but living in the present upon a path to something better than the world he left behind.  Rumble Fish is a work of art with heart, daring, and the inventiveness of a Coppola that he strives to be outside of the ghost of his mainstream successes.

On the Set of

[Francis Ford Coppla (foreground) with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke on set, Tusla OK 1982]