Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

garretbrown-2aFor our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a little breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


My Sundance 2017

February 2, 2017

sundance-2017-700x435We finally saw the results of a genuine Rocky Mountain winter storm this year in Park City. Good for skiing, I suppose, but bad for getting around to see movies. The plowed drifts were high and the walkways were icy, but we didn’t even get the worst of it. That happened the week before, while most of the Hollywood suits were still in town. I hear navigating the hilly Main Street was a special challenge. They even lost power during one screening for “Sundance Circle” VIPs.

Indoors, I noticed almost immediately that the latest shiny plaything for screenwriters and directors seems to be social media. Packing a cell phone, even texting, is no longer sufficient shorthand for “contemporary story,” but using something like Instagram or Tinder still is. (Swipe-and-like is also the easiest kind of digital interaction to depict in a movie, simple and visual.) In the first film I saw, social media actually drove the plot, then they kept peeking out again and again. Everybody was sizing up potential hotties, even at a police station in Cairo. A trend? Impossible to tell when you see only a fraction of the flicks on tap. This year I caught eighteen:

elizabetholsenaudryplazaingridgoeswest-1200x520INGRID GOES WEST*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) A pathologically insecure young woman befriends an “influencer” online, becomes obsessed, and moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her idol. The idea of social-media stalking does feel relatively fresh, and Aubrey Plaza strikes just the right tone of desperate neediness to make us sympathize even as we squirm over her escalating dependency. She worms her way into Elizabeth Olsen’s glamorous life by kidnapping her dog and grandly returning it, but there’s my main problem. The audience is uncomfortably waiting for the other shoe to drop — we knew Plaza was bad news from the opening scene — while the film continues to play too much for fun and giggles. We can’t really settle back for Act II because we know this won’t end well, and it sort of doesn’t. But only sort of. Still, that is one subtle piece of work from the leading lady. Picked up by Neon.

Stars On The Set Of 'Sidney Hall' In NYCSIDNEY HALL**** (World Premiere) Propulsive study of a tortured artist, beginning when he’s eighteen years old and jumping to his 24- and 30-year-old future selves in a screenplay that never shows its cards until it must. The title character is a talented writer in high school whose English teacher shows a partial manuscript to a publishing pal. His first novel is finished and released and he becomes a pheenom, striding self-consciously through New York publishing circles in his twenties with a little of Jay McInerney or David Foster Wallace in his subtle swagger. Six years later he is a scraggly, hirsute hobo who has gone — or maybe fallen — off the grid. We learn only gradually how these changes were wrought in non-sequential scenes, with a tick-tock sense in the background as the senior iteration of the now-reclusive Sidney Hall is pursued by an anonymous badge-flashing investigator. Magnificent performance by Logan Lerman in what are essentially three distinct roles, adjusting his carriage and cadence so naturally between them, despite a fake-o final mop and beard that betrays the indie budget. Elle Fanning shows us a similar transformation as Sidney’s squeeze. Tremendously satisfying in nearly every respect, through filmmakers still have a tough time plausibly portraying a book publisher.

newness-sundanceNEWNESS** (World Premiere) Again with the social media. Two millennials, online-hookup-app addicts, connect and are so good together that they set up house. But that adventurous streak is still there, and for a while they try to combine domesticity with independent wild-oat-sowing. What could possibly go wrong? She (a luscious Laia Costa) is more into “newness” than he (a soulful Nicholas Hoult), and thereby hangs Ben York Jones’s fairly flimsy tale, earnestly realized by Drake Doremus. The images are beautiful but feel itchily voyeuristic. It’s as if some middle-aged guy has just discovered that those young’uns, strangers, are actually tapping their phones to tap each other, as libertine as the hepcats in those ludicrous Sixties “psychedelic” movies. It’s hard to work up much empathy since this truly is another world foreign to me, and, I submit, to most others, including, I’ll wager, the lead actors.

la-et-mn-sundance-la-times-feature-20170117L.A. TIMES*** A smart, amusing trifle, a comedy of manners among a loose orbit of thirtysomething Angelenos. Michelle Morgan wrote, directed and stars (“I have a cameo,” she coyly said in her introduction) as a blithe hypercritical non-romantic. Hilariously featuring awkward prostitution, awkward near-incest, an awkward VERTIGO riff, and so much more awkwardness that Woody Allen reverberates throughout, along with Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. In fact, that’s the key: if you think much younger people kvetching like the Woodman sounds like fun, then you’ll be right.

the-hero-sam-elliottTHE HERO**** A welcome vehicle for Sam Elliott, who plays it close to the vest as an aging actor known for Westerns, particularly one iconic role in a movie with this same title. His personal life is a jumble, he lives on voiceover work, he indolently drinks whiskey and smokes pot all day, and as the film opens he receives a diagnosis of cancer. While scoring from his dealer and friend — he’d rather buy weed the old-fashioned way than go to a marijuana dispensary — he bumps into an alluring younger customer with a sly smile, and we’re off. Director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch clearly love Elliott, whose signature persona infuses the movie (at a lifetime achievement award ceremony, a smitten woman says she loves his mustache. He nuzzles her with the billowing thing and replies, “And it loves you too.”). Laura Prepon is wonderful as his May-December love interest, and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, shines as his ex. The great thing about this movie is that it’s not bogged down with angst. No magic wand can fix everything, but you can come to terms with most anything. Bought by the Orchard.

mudbound-movie-4MUDBOUND*** (World Premiere) Life in the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta in the Forties, as Jim Crow reigns and World War II pulses in the background. A white farming family and the black clan which survives by working for them each send a son to war while they struggle to tend barren, flood-prone land. Upon returning, the GIs face the same repressive society they left — but in Europe, the black man has gotten used to entering and exiting by the front door and drinking from any fountain he chooses. Born of mutual respect and wartime scars, their interracial friendship offends the locals, led by the white family’s crass, mega-bigoted patriarch. It’s nice to see the Army’s forced camaraderie depicted on screen; it was the first chink in the Deep South’s culture of institutionalized racism and it directly led to the civil rights movement. Except for Pappy McAllan, played with malevolent relish by Jonathan Banks, the white family is portrayed in shades of grey, as much victims of the system as perpetrators. In contrast, the black family, led by the fabulous Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson, is depicted as unremittingly noble: the narrative dice are thus loaded, so this movie isn’t as profound as it thinks it is. But the Louisiana-for-Mississippi setting is beautiful, Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke do solid work as the McAllans, and there’s a great performance by none other than Mary J. Blige as the Jackson mom. If ever this music thing should fail her, she has a fine acting career ahead. Bought by Netflix.

crownheightsCROWN HEIGHTS**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) The searing true story of Colin Warner, who was convicted of a 1980 murder he didn’t commit, and of his best friend Carl King, who devoted years of his life to proving Colin’s innocence. As if a wrongful conviction wasn’t bad enough, Colin also had the misfortune to be caught in the middle of the Reagan-era get-tough-on-crime wave, and he resolutely refused to take any plea-bargain or early parole deals which required him to confess to something he didn’t do. The amount of time he unjustly served in prison will horrify you. Lakeith Stanfield kills it as Colin and writer-director Matt Ruskin does a great job of keeping us behind bars with only a few glimpses of the outside world, mostly Carl’s increasingly quixotic campaign which his own family begins to doubt. After our screening, Ruskin brought out the real Colin, whose lilt and cadence made us even more appreciative of Stanfield’s interpretation. Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, and turned it into something amazing. Picked up by Amazon Studios.

golden-exitsGOLDEN EXITS** Talky, tiresome few months spent with self-absorbed Brooklynites whose routines are disrupted by the arrival of a stunning Aussie student (Emily Browning) whose cheekbones arrive in the room before she does. Everyone is trying their best, but the 94-minute running time feels twice as long.

fun-mom-dinner_0FUN MOM DINNER**** (World Premiere) A kinetic, furniture-smashing romp: BRIDESMAIDS, but with moms. (Judd Apatow is again responsible.) A mom’s night out for four women escalates into a picaresque odyssey. The energy is high, the humor is low — jokes and biological matter both fly — but there’s a sweetness throughout as the quartet, some of whom hate each other at the top, bonds in the most eccentric ways possible. Great ensemble work by the Apatowian posse (Paul Rudd’s wife wrote it), but the headliner is Bridget Everett, who steals every shot she’s in, much like Melissa McCarthy can. This is not a great film. It doesn’t even want to be a great film. It only wants to make you laugh, and in the realm of cheerful anarchy — a love letter to mothers with some naughty bits too — it’s a scream. FUN MOM DINNER probably has the greatest commercial potential of any movie I saw this year. Bought by Netflix.

walking-out-movie-sundance-film-festival-2017-800x360WALKING OUT*** A tale of survival in snowy Montana, as a teenager joins his estranged father for a hunting trip that turns into a life-and-death struggle in a split second. The majestic Big Sky winter is gorgeous but forbidding; expansive helicopter and drone shots both sell the isolation and make the film look bigger. I’d imagine the only way a shoot could have been more difficult would be to set it on the open sea, but the weather is tamed, and we really feel the cold, hunger and thirst. Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins as father and son nearly carry the entire picture, but there are nice flashbacks to a grizzled Bill Pullman as Bomer’s dad, and it was wonderful to see Lily Gladstone in a cameo near the heart-tugging end. Superb, absolutely convincing animal effects.

jessica-williams-film-the-incredible-jessica-james-to-close-sundance-2017-715x405-1THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Jim Strouse used Jessica Williams in 2015’s PEOPLE PLACES THINGS, and just knew he had to write a whole movie for her. A former correspondent for THE DAILY SHOW, Williams combines wide-eyed ebullience with cheerful snark to, sorry, light up the screen. She’s going to be a star. Here she’s a New York playwright who’s getting over a breakup when she meets shaggy but lovable Chris O’Dowd, in similar straits himself. At first they use each other for support, but the relationship might become serious if Jessica can fend off her mooning ex-boyfriend. There are no real villains here, and the story is rather predictable: it’s the details and the laugh lines that make it work, along with the force of the leading lady’s personality. Though it’s really nothing special, this movie will be remembered as Jessica Williams’s breakout. Picked up by Netflix.

the-big-sick-movieTHE BIG SICK***** (World Premiere) My favorite movie this year. It’s based on the real-life experiences of Pakistan-born comic Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the nerdy coder in the SILICON VALLEY house), who falls in love with a cute grad student, Emily (Zoe Kazan), at a Chicago gig. So far, so good — except that Kumail’s parents follow Pakistani tradition, meaning his will be an arranged marriage (his mom makes sure female prospects “happen to drop by” during family dinners). He even keeps his romance a secret because his folks would never accept a white girl, and it breaks her heart when she finds out. Then, still furious at Kumail, Emily contracts a serious illness, his family disowns him, and his life begins to unravel. This wonderful film deftly walks the line between comedy and pathos: it’s never insensitive or maudlin. The stand-up comics in Kumail’s world, especially the Greek chorus of Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham — supportive but itching to leave Chicago for New York — are really funny (unlike Laura Prepon’s bit in THE HERO), and so is Kurt Braunohler as Kumail’s roommate, a comic who’s not funny. Emily’s parents, expertly played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, rush to her side from North Carolina, hopping mad at Kumail for hurting her. Hunter’s clash with a heckler at Kumail’s show is an instant classic. You might be tempted to dismiss this multifaceted premise as too convoluted, but Kumail and the real Emily co-wrote the script: it’s based on their true story. A fine job by all concerned, well-made and satisfying. A big revelation is that Kumail Nanjiani can act, and this may even put him on the map alongside Jessica Williams. Picked up by Amazon.

an-inconvenient-sequel-truth-to-powerAN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER**** (World Premiere, Festival Day One) Why do a follow-up to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH? Because global climate change hasn’t rested in the ensuing ten years. There’s plenty of news — not all of it is even bad. That famous slide show, which is now presented all over the world by Gore and an army of volunteers, has gotten ever more sophisticated and persuasive: some inconvenient truths will make you fearful, others will make you cheer. This film follows Gore as he travels the world to try and keep public attention focused on the existential crisis of our age. It doesn’t shy away from the bouts of despair that all climate activists occasionally feel; sometimes it seems that shortsighted deniers hold all the money and levers of power. But Gore, who calls himself a “recovered politician,” has made urging action on climate change his life’s work. People who took potshots against the original TRUTH, accusing Gore of exaggeration and fantasy, are refuted with video tape of “impossible” flooding, a rapidly melting ice shelf, and “hundred-year” meteorological events which now occur with frightening regularity. Some people believe we live in a post-truth age. But to his immense credit, Al Gore isn’t having any of it. Opens wide on July 28.

discoveryTHE DISCOVERY** (World Premiere) There’s a great premise here: a scientist (Robert Redford) has discovered empirical proof of an afterlife, or an “alternate plane of existence,” as he calls it. In the two years since then, the world has been awash in suicides as people discard their bodies to “get there.” Nice idea, but it’s exhausted in the first five minutes. What we’re left with is lots of desultory talk as estranged son Jason Segel travels to Redford’s compound to try and convince him to tell the world he’s wrong and stop the carnage. (One character muses that murder can’t be far behind, since you’d only be sending your victim to a better place.) The exteriors are dull and gray. The interiors have that yellow-green tint that says “filthy hospital.” Now Redford is claiming to be able to record the passage visually, so everybody undergoes an impenetrable experiment, including Segal and Redford. Rooney Mara is around looking blond and creepy. A surprise reveal at the end comes out of the blue and might explain some of the technique, but it’s too little too late. This film combines the pace of SOLARIS with the yakety jargon of PRIMER. Before it’s over, you may understand why “getting there” became so popular.

The Nile Hilton Incident - Still 1THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT*** (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) As a Cairo police detective investigates the 2011 hotel murder of a popular singer, he begins to realize that the case winds upward through the highest strata of wealth and power. This isn’t exactly a whodunit, since the audience knows perfectly well who. It’s more of a police procedural, but the Egyptian system is rife with bribes and other corruption, and our central character (Fares Fares) is certainly part of it. What he learns is that you can be so rich that you’re essentially immune, like a diplomat. This movie takes us through Cairo’s underbelly; here we’d call it a noir. Everybody smokes, all the time.

dina_still_sundance_-_publicity_-__h_2017DINA*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) An intimate look inside the unusual romance of two people who are both on the autism spectrum. Dina Buno and Scott Levin met at a Philadelphia social group for neurologically diverse adults, founded by the late father of one of the filmmakers; Dina has been a family friend for 48 years. We see them plan for their wedding, attend night-before parties, interact with their parents, spend a day at the beach, and approach the issue of sex, which Dina expects and which seems to unnerve Scott. Dina has endured travails which would break most people: she lost her first husband to cancer and survived a brutal knife attack from a deranged later boyfriend, yet she’s still gregarious and optimistic about her new relationship. The access is remarkable, probably because Dina feels comfortable around co-director Dan Sickles. Some people may be offended by what they view as exploitation; are Dina and Scott even capable of giving informed consent? What struck me again and again, though, was how easy it was to look past their obvious disabilities and recognize issues common to many other earnest relationships. The bottom line is that Dina and Scott are good people, and it was nice being able to spend time with them.

i-dont-feel-at-home-in-this-world-anymoreI DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is the kind of person who hates it when you leave dropped groceries in the aisle or bring too many items to the express register. If these little things tick her off, imagine her rage on finding her home burgled and her laptop stolen. She determines to track down the thieves along with her weirdo, martial-arts-obsessed neighbor (Elijah Wood), but the trail leads to a group of hardened criminals and the amateur A-team is suddenly way out of their league. This movie takes a right turn once they fall deeper into the rabbit hole, and leads to some brutal violence. Writer-director Macon Blair owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who can stage sudden setpieces that are gruesome yet provoke surprised laughter, such as the shooting of Steve Buscemi in FARGO. A home invasion sequence here leaves blood everywhere but it doesn’t take long to do it. What’s left is Ruth’s preternatural focus, which after a while becomes amusing in itself. A nice first feature, but obviously not for everyone. If you aren’t into the filmmakers named above, you should probably stay away. But if you are, this is one wild ride. Streaming on Netflix.

roxanne_roxanne_-_still_1_-_h_2017ROXANNE ROXANNE*** (Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance: Chanté Adams) The fictionalized story of “Roxanne Shante,” the real 14-year-old rapper from Queensbridge who in the mid-Eighties was the best battle emcee in New York, just as mike-dropping duels were about to take off. I had the same feeling I did when I watched 8 MILE years ago: Eminem seemed like a credible actor, but I couldn’t understand a damn word he rapped. This is Chanté Adams’s movie: she spends most of it in braces, sporting that closed-lip smile that embarrassed teenagers use. Then she matures on camera, and when she returns to the hood with teeth gleaming, you can hardly believe it’s the same actress. This movie was not made for me, but I enjoyed Adams’s performance, which I guess was the whole idea behind its special jury award. Picked up by Neon.

WISH I’D SEEN: BRIGSBY BEAR, A GHOST STORY, MARJORIE PRIME, THE POLKA KING, RESERVOIR DOGS (a 25th anniversary screening with QT present), WIND RIVER, XX, THE YELLOW BIRDS

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Previous Sundance Reports

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An I For An Eye

December 21, 2016

ultra-high-definition-4k-wallpapersI’m having the video equivalent of what serious audiophiles must have gone through when digital recording appeared in the Eighties. I can barely believe I used the term “video,” but that’s the age we live in. Sometimes it’s all too digital.

We bought each other a holiday gift this year, a new tv to replace the ten-plus-year-old one. Back in vinyl days, all you had to worry about on your stereo was whether the left channel was connected to the left speaker: you uncrated and assembled in half an hour and thought you were MacGyver. But today’s gear is so complicated that rather than bang our heads in frustration, we just call in “Agents” from the Geek Squad — Best Buy is literally across the street from us, maybe 100 paces away. First we got a consultation visit. All our stuff still worked, but we were wondering if we weren’t missing out on some tech developments over the last decade, and on a few components we were. (Not everything new is necessarily good. We were actually warned against buying a set that could play 3-D; evidently that’s the Google Glass of home video just now.)

When we installed our old tv a decade ago, the big new thing was high definition in broadcast, Blu-Ray in physical media. Most major network shows had only recently gone hi-def for a quantum leap in picture clarity: video-taped chat shows appeared to be coming through a window and DPed film series like LOST were crisp and sharp, stone cold gorgeous. People my age can remember when they first had access to a color tv set: you’d uncritically watch anything just because it was in color. Same deal here. Hi-def was the bee’s knees.

Now they’ve ramped it up to “Ultra” HD, “4K” encoding. By coincidence we’ve caught this wave earlier in the cycle. The networks aren’t there yet, but Netflix is already streaming in 4K, and no big home video release arrives without an “Ultra HD” version (continuing to represent the leading edge, all Criterion releases are 4K transfers now). So, let’s give the new tube a spin!

The resolution is indeed immaculate: you can see pores on the anchorman’s face, a tiny drop of hot-light sweat from a talk-show guest that would have been undetectable before. For live or taped material it’s as if you were sitting in the control room with the director. Amazing. Then I put in a Blu-Ray of a film and the strangest thing happened: all of a sudden, I didn’t like the effect any more.

To my surprise, even images captured on celluloid and realized using an emulsion looked like studio-bound video tape. On old black-and-white pictures the effect can be refreshing, making them appear to be immaculately preserved. But everything else was somehow cheapened, as if we were screening videocam dailies rather than the full cinematic monty. Expensive visual effects looked awful, traveling mattes shimmering, CGI performers out of match with their real-world counterparts. Everything was this way. THE GODFATHER. THE WIZARD OF OZ. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S frickin DREAMS! Films I knew by heart looked as if their production budgets had been cut in half. Yes, resolution was indeed off the scale, but the bald, flat end result was plug ugly to me.

I had a week with the system before my Geek Squad agent returned to install a small piece of audio gear, and by then I was ready for some help. At first I had a little trouble explaining what was wrong, but then he said, “You mean everything looks like a soap opera.” Exactly! “That really annoys some people.” Count me in! “Easy fix.” Evidently it has something to do with how movement is depicted on the screen, a feature you can toggle. He did, and now the ultra-sharp image wasn’t quite as ultra-sharp as before, but a movie looked like a movie again. (I’ve noticed that an object which isn’t moving at all, like a framed photograph on a desk, can look a tad sharper than the rest of the scene.)

My reaction was interesting because it goes against the grain. My eyeballs have become desensitized enough that I actually prefer digital images. I first noticed it at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when P. T. Anderson made a big deal out of the fact that we were going to screen his new movie INHERENT VICE by actually running film through a projector. Goosebumps! Then the thing rolled and my heart sank, because the very imprecision that makes film film now read as murkiness, deterioration of focus, mere proximity to the image I really wanted. The same sequence repeated this year with James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z. Note that I’m not commenting here on the artistic quality of the work, only the physicality of the visual image as seen through my eyes. Celluloid projected at 24 frames per second can only approach perfection. Digital projection ensures focus, balance, and no deterioration whatsoever. (Also no reel-change dots: some people think that’s weird.)

I’m not saying digital is necessarily better. But it is what I’ve become accustomed to, what I expect. Hard-core stereo freaks had to clap their ears closed at compact discs when they first appeared, and even I could imagine a clipped, mechanical aspect to early full-digital recordings like TRICYCLE by Flim & the BB’s or Dire Straits’ BROTHERS IN ARMS. And why not? It’s the difference between the physical back-and-forth vibration of a record needle and the ja-or-nein precision of a stored byte, the way a string player creates vibrato versus the way a bunch of electronic cables are routed. But thirty-plus years later, digital audio sounds normal to me. It’s what I’ve become accustomed to. What I expect.

Filmmakers who still shoot on film are a dying breed. Anderson, Gray, Spielberg, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow — you can almost call the roll in your head. Even the Coens have thrown in the towel. Digital is just faster and cheaper (the current trendiness of handheld doesn’t hurt), making it the medium of choice for young DPs, and in a generation or two it’ll be hard to put together a “slow” celluloid crew at all. TV and indie crews tear through many times the script pages of a lumbering big-time feature, but do you have any tech complaints about, say, GAME OF THRONES?

Digital still looks great when projected, not at all like the “soap opera” on my badass monitor. I cannot recognize a digital shoot just by looking at it. Again and again I’ve been surprised by end credits or festival Q&As when it’s revealed. (Some productions even brag: it’s no longer uncommon to see “Captured in…” rather than “Filmed in…”) Vinyl-record devotees still maintain their purity, and someday film snobs will rage, rage against the dying of the light. But face it: we’ll still call them “films,” just as we still call them “albums,” which they haven’t been since the days of the 78rpm single. Things change — which I believe is also a comprehensively stated history of the universe.


My NYFF 2016

October 17, 2016

unknownThe evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.

For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a precious festival slot. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?

Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:

manchester-seaMANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that the story seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.

toni-erdmann-19-rcm0x1920uTONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.

paterson-credit-mary-cybulski-cannes-film-festivalPATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropCERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.

arton4596JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.

thumb_1892_media_image_1144x724PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.

20th-century-women20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.

thumb_1896_media_image_1144x724SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.

ob_ce416f_le-fils-de-joseph-8-eugene-green-amalrSON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.

elle-cannesELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.

lost-city-of-z-charlie-hunnam-and-tom-hollandTHE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.

WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)

Other NYFF Reports

2015   2014


The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

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10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation-creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

img_14609/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.


Quelle Horreur!

August 18, 2016

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On May 24, 1976, nine French experts sat down at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris to taste a flight of wines that included some of the most revered products of their own vineyards along with new, little-known bottles from little-regarded California. What happened in that room changed the world of wine forever. JUDGMENT OF PARIS is the last word on this earthshaking event and its profound ramifications, written by a knowledgeable eyewitness. It’s one of the best wine books I’ve ever read.

The shocking effect of the “Judgment of Paris,” as the event has come to be known, struck like a lightning bolt. It could hardly have been anticipated: such tastings happen all the time. The organizers, wine retailer Steven Spurrier and his colleague Patricia Gallagher, simply put together an amusing way to acknowledge the American bicentennial — and “the role France had played in that historic endeavor” — by introducing French super-palates to some of the interesting wines coming from the New World, both reds and whites. For comparison, Spurrier told the judges, he had also selected some French wines crafted in a similar style. Like many tastings, this one would be conducted “blind,” meaning the judges would not learn the wines’ identities until after they had rated them.

The Paris tasting was a watershed event for two reasons. First, the highest-rated wines, both red and white, were — spoiler alert, though this is not a book of suspense — from California! Second, a correspondent for Time magazine was present, and he sent the news to the world in the following week’s issue. Nobody is better qualified to write about this event, because despite Spurrier and Gallagher’s best efforts, only a single journalist could be roused to attend: our author, George M. Taber. Even Mr. Taber remembers idly brushing off the invitation in his mind: “it seemed almost absurd to compare the best French wines with California unknowns.” But when he saw a judge swirl, sniff and sip from one glass and pronounce, “Ah, back to France!” he double-checked the list in his hand with Gallagher. It was really a Napa Valley Chardonnay! Later, another judge dismissed another white wine: “That is definitely California. It has no nose.” Mr. Taber again had to make sure that the list he held was correct, for this was a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of the best-regarded white Burgundies on earth. He realized, “Spurrier’s Paris tasting might just be an interesting story after all.”

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don't know.

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don’t know.

This book is wonderful not so much for its account of the event itself — the blow-by-blow description is only twelve pages long — but for helping us laymen understand what came before and after. While it’s perversely thrilling to watch pompous, patronizing worthies brought low (the EXPERTS SPEAK effect), this is really an uplifting, human-sized story featuring the Napa pioneers Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, who was portrayed by Bill Pullman in the underrated film inspired by the white-wine competition, BOTTLE SHOCK. We get to know these quirky, obsessed guys and watch how they manage to craft wines superb enough to stand up to the best France had to offer.

After introducing Spurrier and his little Parisian wine shop, Mr. Taber draws the bigger picture, beginning with a concise history of the wine industry in both France and California (which was awash in everyday wine before Prohibition). It’s hard to imagine this some forty eventful years later, but keep in mind that at the time of the Paris tasting, France ruled the wine world to the exclusion of most others. Fine wine, as opposed to jug or table wine, was considered to be exclusively European: if not French, perhaps Italian or Spanish. That’s where premier wine was made, and nowhere else. To most aficionados, California wine was nothing more exciting than a giant jug of Gallo “Hearty Burgundy.” But out of sight of Old World wine devotees, things were rapidly changing.

The terroir — climate, soil, slope, everything that gives a place its identity — of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the most prized viticultural regions in France, has been producing distinctive wine for centuries. Generations of winemakers — often literal generations as progeny take over the longstanding family business — have learned over time how to exploit their land, coax out the most useful grapes, and deal with the vicissitudes of weather that make each vintage unique. California winemakers couldn’t count on the wisdom that comes with long experience; they had to improvise. But they did have some advantages. Without being tied to rigid tradition, they felt free to experiment with new techniques and technologies. And their growing season of warm days and cool nights, with relatively predictable rainfall, was far less volatile: the range of quality between good harvests and poor ones was thinner than that of their French counterparts. What they were doing was under the radar, which is why the idea of a world-class wine from California was “almost absurd” in 1976. But the visionaries had known for years that this place — the Napa Valley and Sonoma County — seemed just perfect for making fine wine. Now they had to learn how to use it.

A great winemaker is a combination of farmer, chemist, artist and salesman: a practical dreamer. Sometimes it takes more than one person to nail down all these qualities. Mr. Taber repeats the probably apocryphal but famous exchange between Modesto’s Gallo brothers: Ernest is reputed to have said, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make,” to which brother Julio responded, “I’ll make all the wine you can sell.” The runup to the tasting shows the many roads traveled by its American principals, who were devoted to quality, not quantity. Warren Winiarski discovered the conviviality of everyday wine while spending a graduate-school year in Naples. Mike Grgich was a Croatian who grew up in a casual-wine culture. And Jim Barrett had his first taste in law school but graduated to finer wines after his real-estate law practice in Los Angeles flourished. However it happened, each man became enthralled with the idea of producing wine, each inspired by the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But they needed each other to put together the total package.

They also needed practical experience, and Mr. Taber details the winding paths that led Winiarski to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Barrett to revive Chateau Montelena (Grgich was its chief winemaker), makers of the red and white wines which won the Judgment of Paris. Stints at various established wineries, and the breakthroughs generously shared by other obsessives like Robert Mondavi — a natural-born marketer who became the face of Napa wine — allowed them to collapse the European centuries into years. Although Mr. Taber pays the most attention to the two victors, with precise reporting on the making of both individual winning vintages, he also goes into detail on each of the other wines presented at the Judgment. Six California Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted alongside four Bordeaux reds, and six California Chardonnays with four white Burgundies. At last Mr. Taber arrives at the main event, as the unlabeled, pre-decanted bottles are brought in while the judges chat merrily.

When Barrett and Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was announced as the highest scoring white, the reaction of the judges “ranged from shock to horror.” As the reds were poured, Spurrier felt they would not let that happen again. They knew the French reds forward and backward. But, incredibly, Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won as well. It was incontestable: fine California wines could now rival the finest in the world.

WinePouring_1-CREDIT_Bella_Spurrier_Paris-1976Actually, it was contestable, and the French judges’ grapes immediately turned sour. Mr. Taber’s report appeared in the June 7, 1976 issue of Time in the “Modern Living” section, a one-column note following a story on a new theme park in Atlanta. But the buried notice seized the wine world instantly, and the French started walking back the results. Mr. Taber summarizes their main objections and even concedes one, that the tasting was mathematically stacked against France by presenting more American wines. But Spurrier hadn’t been thinking of the event as a contest; in fact, he was certain the French wines would score highest. He was simply trying to showcase some interesting bottles from the New World.

Speaking of the New World, ask most winelovers about the significance of the Paris tasting of 1976 and they’ll say it put California wines on the map and forced serious oenophiles to take them seriously. But as Mr. Taber shows, that wasn’t the largest consequence. Winemakers all over the world realized that if they found the right spot, used the right methods and brought the right passion and taste to bear, they could also produce world-class wine. The Judgment of Paris demystified Europe in general and France in particular. It led to the globalization of fine wine. In the book’s longest chapter, Mr. Taber takes a globe-spanning tour three decades later to a few great wineries outside France and Napa/Sonoma. The world’s best Sauvignon Blanc comes from New Zealand. Its best Syrah is made in Australia (in “Strine” it’s “Shiraz”). There’s a fabulous single-vineyard Chardonnay produced in South Africa (now the rest of the world can actually buy it in good conscience), and a real Burgundian is making dazzling Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And so on and on, for these pioneers represent many hundreds more. In wine terms, the “New World” now indicates everywhere but Europe.

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The finest French wines — if one can afford them — can still be mind-blowing, and the great chateaux are a deserved source of national pride. But France’s share of the worldwide wine trade has inexorably slipped in the years since the Judgment while newcomers like Australia and Chile have been on fire: they’re unafraid to target a specific promising market. For example, Yellow Tail is fairly-priced everyday wine specially crafted for the American palate and marketed under a brand name that’s easy to remember; it’s hugely popular, and it comes from Down Under. France’s — and now Napa’s — competition is everywhere these days. Mass marketers like Yellow Tail aside, there has never been a better time to enjoy respectable wine at an affordable price.

My hardcover copy of this book was published in 2005, and I just now got around to it (so many books, so little time…). Click on the jacket art up top, or the book title in the first paragraph, and you’ll link to a revised and updated paperback reprint, about a year later. The further passage of time hasn’t really changed Mr. Taber’s conclusions. The wine industry, like so many others, continues to consolidate. But the Internet and the inevitable dissolution of remaining laws preventing interstate shipping (it’s up to each individual state legislature) are enabling smaller wineries to reach far-off customers without the permission, or the fees, of middleman distributors. Mr. Taber writes clearly and vividly, and assumes you don’t know a thing about wine. By the time you’re finished, he’s given you an excellent idea of how “bottled poetry” is created, and a front-row seat at the thunderous event that changed everything.


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