Archive for Stanley Kubrick

L.A. Film Critics Reveal Appalling Vapidity. Again.

Posted in Art, Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Los Angeles, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2013 by halmasonberg

Pravity-Gravity
This is truly appalling. It seems each and every year, film critics lose all perspective on films and filmmaking. If anyone out there believes GRAVITY to be a well-written film that reveals anything beyond the most one-dimensional and least introspective narrative created for the sole purpose of offering an audience what is essentially an overlong roller-coaster ride, then you’ve probably spent far too much time watching bad film after bad film for something like GRAVITY to even be considered for an award outside of special effects.

And maybe that’s exactly what’s happened. Critics have to see SO many films — most of them not particularly daring or good — that when they sit down to watch something that even moderately engages them, they jump out of their seat with unabashed excitement and toss awards at it. And maybe the same is true for the average audience member who doesn’t even know films made outside of the Hollywood system exist.

But that excuse doesn’t keep these annual abominations from being any less embarrassing. Anyone who has followed my posts for any length of time knows that I get my knickers all in a knot come this time of year since it is as traditional as Thanksgiving and Christmas that awards and accolades be given to at least one film that simply has little-to-nothing of value to offer. At least by my personal standards. Which I realize are not necessarily anyone else’s standards. But I’m exhausted standing by and watching daring, introspective and genuinely creative films take a backseat to movies that barely scratch the surface of the human experience, no less minimize it to a series of predictable plot points and sanitized stereotypes.

GRAVITY, while quite possibly being a great thrill ride (I, to be honest, got bored after a time), offers nothing else to a movie-goer who desires an experience that extends beyond the closing credits. Now don’t misunderstand, I definitely believe there is value in escapist cinema. Not every film need challenge us to the very core of our beings… But when we award a film Best Picture Of The Year, what exactly are we saying? Are we honoring the craft of filmmaking, of storytelling, of cinema? Or are we just saying, “Yeah, that was fun.”? Because GRAVITY’s technical achievements hide an overwhelming lack of story or character. One friend wittily commented that he recommended taking Dramamine before seeing GRAVITY just for the dialogue alone! So clearly I’m not the first or only person to point out the wretchedness of this film’s script. And yet the Los Angeles Film Critics Association bestow their highest honor on this poorly written thrill ride and effects extravaganza.

And speaking of effects, I still think the effects in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY capture a sense of outer (and inner) space more poignantly and effectively than GRAVITY managed with all its 21st century technology. There is not a single image or sequence in Cuarón’s vision and choice of compositions that hold so much as an ounce of the insight and (yes, I’m gonna say it) gravity that a single frame of Kubrick’s opus did. And that film was made 45 years ago! Yes, I know, I’ve been told we’re not supposed to compare a fun film like GRAVITY to a masterpiece like 2001, but then I must return to my original inquiry and ask what, then, are we celebrating here exactly? George Clooney playing a dashing rogue in space? I often enjoy Clooney as an actor. He’s charming and likable and smart. But in GRAVITY, he is a constant reminder that we are nowhere near outer space; we have our feet firmly grounded in a soundstage with a PR machine inches away and at the ready. There’s not a single moment when the actor, director or writers allowed this character to be even subtly human. They all seem to be far more interested in his star-power and charm than they are in the situation this character finds himself in.

Now I could go on and on about why I believe GRAVITY is a poor film whose effects and 3D experience loosely veil its vast emptiness, but the film itself doesn’t actually deserve any more time than I’ve already given it. But it’s critics and audiences who have allowed themselves to believe they are getting something rich, something wonderful, that I take vehement issue with.

Sadly, film critics these days (of the “professional” variety) are largely made up of folks from other areas of a newspaper or magazine that have been moved over to the Film Section and found themselves suddenly being asked to present themselves as film critics. There are so few out there writing who have any real knowledge of cinema or the language and history of film. They are often no more than a collection of people who maybe like movies, but they are NOT in a position to be intelligently critical of film. And in pretending to be, they diminish the artform itself by publicly celebrating its most mediocre entries en masse. And that, to put it in the simplest terms possible, makes me sad.

After writing this post, I went back to the theaters to see GRAVITY in 3D as I had only seen it in 2D at the time of this writing. If you would like to read my thoughts comparing the two experiences of the film, please go here: GRAVITY: 2D vs 3D

Desires & Lessons: Articulating A Filmmaking Experience

Posted in Art, Blu-Ray, CLEAN, DVD, Film, THE PLAGUE, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by halmasonberg

plaguefilmstripburnBack in 2009, I was interviewed by illustrious writer and chef (yes, that’s correct, he’s also a masterful culinary expert) Herbert M. Brindl for Rogue Cinema. I’ve been interviewed a fair amount over the years in all kinds of publications — from print to the internet — regarding my somewhat harrowing and sadly-all-too-common experiences as the writer/director of my first feature film. Some of those interviews I’m quite proud of, others I can’t help feeling I could have articulated better. This particular interview, however, I always felt pretty darn good about.

I stumbled across a copy of it the other day and found myself enjoying re-reading it from this new vantage point almost four years later. My film had been taken away from me in 2006 and this interview came at a time, unlike many of the interviews to come before it, where I had a few years to process what I had experienced and what that experience had become, what it meant, and what I was starting to take away as the lessons inherent in such milestone events. Much of what I said then still holds true now, though there are, of course, even more lessons that have emerged and areas that felt a bit grey at the time that have manifested into a somewhat more coherent form today. Time and reflection, mixed with new experiences, will thankfully do that.

Here is that interview, unedited, as it unfolded:

Director, Writer Hal Masonberg Rogue Interview. First published June 01, 2009:

hm1HMB: Mr. Masonberg, tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and what was the reason you decided to go into filmmaking?

HM: I grew up in New Jersey. I left when I was 16 and never looked back. I’ve moved around a lot since then. As for filmmaking, I’ve always been passionate about film. From as early on as I can remember. Even before I knew what directing was, I knew I wanted to be the guy who was telling the story up on the screen. For a lot of people, I think film works as an escape from daily life. And it certainly is that for me at times, no doubt about it, but even when I was a kid, I loved going to films that forced me –no allowed me, to think. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 60′s and 70′s so the “mainstream” films at that time were pretty incredible! Especially compared to what we have now. We didn’t know at the time that we were in a golden age of cinema, but it turns out we were! That period in my life still infuses my approach to storytelling today. That and classic films, which I watched incessantly growing up and continue to do so today. I guess I’m just a good old-fashioned film geek.

HMB: What are the movies you grew up with?

HM: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was the film that captured me and changed my life forever. I saw it in its initial release and then again in its first reissue. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, talking about it… I was also a big Charlie Chaplin fan as a kid. They showed MODERN TIMES at a local movie theater for a number of weeks and I went several times each weekend. I was also an avid reader so I would buy the paperback of the latest film, and the “making-of” book if there was one. Regardless of whether or not I’d seen the movie yet, and I’d consume them all. I just loved everything about film.

HMB: I know you spent some time in Sweden. What was the reason behind your move there?

HM: Initially it was an invitation from friends. I looked into studying film there and found that I could. So I jumped on the opportunity. I was already a big fan of Bergman films, but I also knew there was a ton of other fantastic filmmakers in Scandinavia that I didn’t have access to. So I went there, learned Swedish and had a blast. And yeah, that experience still influences my own approach to filmmaking. I’d probably fit in much better there as a filmmaker than I do here in L.A.!

HMB: Any European filmmakers you admire and what do you see as the differences between US and European filmmakers/films for you?

HM: Well, this is a big question. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not a huge fan of American films produced at the studios. For the most part, they’re fairly empty, despite the big budgets and the technical expertise. I’ve worked in the Hollywood film industry now for over 18 years and my personal experience has been that it’s almost impossible to make a film at a studio that actually reflects the vision of the writers and directors. So many people working in Hollywood are there because they love business, not film. But they have little-to-no understanding of the business they’re in! If you ran a tailor shop, I’d expect you to know something about tailoring. If you owned a restaurant, I’d expect you to know something about food and appetites and ambience. It’s the same with the film business. Only at the studio level, so many of the people working there don’t have a love of cinema. Nor do they have a very deep understanding of the artistry behind it. There’s an attitude that’s rampant in Hollywood that there’s only one way to do things. And any variation from that is wrong. There’s also an assumption that the audience is not as savvy as the executives making the big decisions. And that’s a scary thing because my experience has been that a lot of film execs are not all that savvy!

In my personal experience–and the experiences of many of my friends and colleagues–there seems to be a lack of respect for filmmakers at the studio level. And by that I mean the writers and directors. On my film, THE PLAGUE, we were told by the VP of acquisitions at Sony that they owned the film now and saw no reason for the writers and director to be involved. Now you have to understand, no one at Sony had ever met nor spoken with either myself or my writing partner Teal Minton. The film was sold to them by Armada Pictures, who let our contracts run out, and then took what we had shot and re-cut it into something completely unrecognizable. And then Clive Barker (whose producers were largely responsible for re-cutting the film and keeping both Teal and I out of the editing room) had the gall to say in an interview that the film we made wasn’t the film we had written or pitched. Nothing could be further from the truth. But Clive was almost entirely absent from the development and production of this film. Even his own producers were fond of commenting on how clueless he was as to what was going on with THE PLAGUE. They were constantly telling us things behind his back to prepare us for the fact that Clive was out of the loop. God knows what they told him when they kicked us off the film. I read in an interview with Clive sometime later that he claimed I had gotten in my car and drove away from the editing room before the picture was locked. And that’s very likely what his own people told him. Meanwhile, they were telling us that Clive no longer wanted us on this film and that they were re-cutting it into what producer Jorge Saralegui called a “killer kid film.” Of course that was the exact term we all used to describe what the film was NOT. Jorge’s choice of words was no accident and was accompanied by “get the hell out of here you fucking piece of shit! This is MY film now, not yours!”

Now in the almost 3 years I worked with Jorge, this kind of behavior wasn’t uncommon. I glimpsed it early on in small ways, but once we got on set I felt like I had to do a lot of damage control with some crew members who ended up on the receiving end of what I saw as intense verbal abuse and public humiliation. But again, Hollywood seems to be a place where people can act like this and still continue to work. Jorge’s not unique here. For me, I find people work better if you treat them like the human beings that they are. I know I’ll bend over backwards to help someone who appreciates what I do and knows how to express it.

The good thing here, of course, is that I now know exactly the kind of producers I DON’T want to have on any of my other films. Between Jorge and the Armada producers, I have a pretty good idea of what the tell-tale signs are of the kind of people that simply have no place on the set of any film I’m directing. The process of making a film should be thrilling. Damn hard work, crazy long hours and extremely stressful at times, but thrilling nonetheless. The last thing I need is for someone to be vomiting up their dysfunction all over the very same crew I’m depending on to get this film in the can on time and under budget. Not to mention whether or not they have what it takes to see the film through post-production without sacrificing the integrity and artistry of the project itself.

Which brings me back to your question… (laughs). I haven’t worked abroad, but I have friends who do. And it seems to me that there is a slightly different attitude toward writers and directors there. The types of films that can be successful in Europe are often more daring than what we produce here. But that said, even our worst films do business there so it’s not like everyone’s an intellectual looking for “art” films. I recently attended a British/American filmmaking conference as my next project is set largely in England. I asked the panel of actors whether they felt there was a difference between the final integrity of the films they made here in the States versus the films they made in England. All of them agreed that the integrity and vision of the film and the filmmakers was more respected in England. BUT… they also said that there often wasn’t enough money to shoot what was needed and those films suffered as a result. Here in the States, we have more money which allows you to get the takes you need. Unless you were working on THE PLAGUE! (laughs again). So I think you have to find the right balance. There are pitfalls to both.

As for contemporary European directors I admire, Krystof Kieslowski was one of my favorite contemporary directors. I think THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and BLEU are two of the best films I’ve ever seen. And THE DECALOGUE. I wish he was still with us and making films. That was a great loss. I also love Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Though not European, I think he’s really pushing the edge of films that work on a primal level. They’re “felt” before they’re understood. I also admire Julio Medem. And Isabel Coixet. I think she’s just terrific. And I love that Pedro Almodovar refuses to heed the sirens call of Hollywood. And why should he? He has everything he needs to make the films he wants right there in Spain.

HMB: Mr. Masonberg, before we get to your petition and the problems that surround “The Plague”, tell us about your version of the film which you wrote and directed. What inspired you to write a story about kids and violence in society?

HM: My writing partner Teal and I missed seeing smart horror films. It was as simple as that. Our favorite horror films were all clearly reflections of fears that existed in society at the time they were made. And those social fears still managed to resonate no matter how many years later they were viewed. Somewhere in the eighties, horror in America became a genre geared toward teenagers and concentrated more on graphic violence and gore effects than on story, character or, in my opinion, anything truly horrifying or terrifying. I stopped going to horror films for what seemed like ages. So, Teal and I decided that we wanted to make a film that harkened back to those films we loved and were so effected by, and at the same time make the themes a reflection of our time and some of the fears we face today. Kids and violence in society and how we act and react out of fear seemed incredibly timely for us. And while writing and shopping the script, the massacre at Columbine happened and other school shootings, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… All the themes we were exploring were coming to a head right before our eyes. And I still think the Writers and Director’s Cut of THE PLAGUE is as timely today as ever. Maybe even more so. But the producers’ cut is devoid of those themes. It is, in essence, just another teenage horror flick. It’s exactly what we DIDN’T want to make!

HMB: What are three Horror movies that left you thinking, asking questions and looking inward?

HM: There are many, but the ones that come to mind are DON’T LOOK NOW, THE INNOCENTS, THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY’S BABY, Lon Chaney’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS… It doesn’t take much to look into these films and the periods in which they were made to see what social fears they were addressing. But the best thing is that they still scare the piss out of you today. When Jorge was informing me that he was cutting down the characters and turning THE PLAGUE into a killer-kid film, he used THE EXORCIST as his reasoning. He claimed that THE EXORCIST was about a girl possessed by a demon. He proclaimed that the title of the film we were making was THE PLAGUE, not THE TOM RUSSELL STORY –Tom Russell being the main character in the film played by James Van Der Beek. But I couldn’t disagree more. And this is where I get back to my earlier point about many producers working in the film business not understanding the very business they’re working in. THE EXORCIST is not about a girl possessed by a demon. It’s about two priests and a mother. We never spend a single solitary second alone with the little girl played by Linda Blair. Our entire experience of that girl is through the eyes of others. The first 40 minutes of that film is dedicated to Father Karras, Father Merrin and, most especially, Chris MacNeil, the girl’s mother played by Ellen Burstyn. It’s their story! This film is about a question of faith and a mother no longer recognizing her own daughter and feeling helpless. How many parents must suddenly find themselves thinking, “That’s not my child. I didn’t teach him or her how to talk like that, act like that.” This girl is cursing, acting out sexually, lashing out at her family… Hello? If it was just a film about a girl possessed by a demon, it wouldn’t have been any better than the dozen or so EXORCIST knockoffs that followed it! No, what happens to that little girl is frightening, but it hits home because we’re witnessing it through the eyes of a mother. Now THAT’S terrifying! Take out those characters and all you have are spinning heads and pea soup. Which is pretty much what I think of the producers’ cut of THE PLAGUE. Spinning heads and pea soup.

HMB: How much was the budget for “The Plague”?

HM: I was told three and a half million. Though I don’t know if all of it ended up on the screen. Some questions have been raised about that.

HMB: What was it like to work with Dee Wallace and some of the other actors?

HM: Dee was a champion. I’d work with Dee again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m counting on it. The producers seemed to have absolutely no appreciation for what she gave to this film and that is witnessed by the fact that most of her astonishing performance was left on the cutting room floor in the producers’ cut. Dee is not only a team player, she’s an incredible human being and an amazing actress. Most of the other actors were a joy to work with as well. John Connolly as the Sheriff. Here’s an actor who I think is just fantastic and very underused. I was honored to have him in THE PLAGUE. Bradley Sawatzky, a local Winnipeg hire who played Deputy Nathan Burgandy… An amazing actor and the sweetest human being you’ll ever meet. Brad Hunt who honored the film, myself, and the role of Sam from before we started shooting till the moment we wrapped… Josh Close, Brittany Scobie… There were so many incredible people on this film, both in front of and behind the camera. I was truly blessed in more ways than not. I only wish the film itself reflected their commitment and passion. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to me to get the proper cut released. No one who worked on this film got what they wanted at the end of the day except the people who only cared about putting a paycheck in their pockets. And I know a few people on this production who are still fighting to get all of that!

hm2HMB: What happened during post production that caused you to be thrown off of this project? Was Clive Barker responsible for that? Also, when did you sense that you were losing control of your film?

HM: Well,I addressed some of this above, but I’ll add a little more here. One of Clive Barker’s producers, Anthony DiBlasi, confided in me that if Scott Shooman, the VP of acquisitions at Sony, got what he wanted, then the film would never resemble what we set out to make. This was once we got back to L.A. to start post and Anthony and some of the other producers had their first meeting with Shooman. Anthony wasn’t happy. In fact, he seemed pretty scared and distraught. About a week later, I put in a call to Clive to let him know how the cutting was going. It was my understanding that Clive had final say over the cut since his name was gonna be above the title, although at that time we all thought it was going to be Clive Barker Presents THE PLAGUE, not CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. I think that one may have even taken Clive by surprise! Anyhow, I told Clive that I had cut the first 40 minutes together and was really happy. He wanted to see what I had done and I was eager to hear his thoughts. He asked if I thought I would need to do any reshoots and I told him I was hoping not to as I had been discovering some truly great workarounds to the footage we didn’t get (our shooting schedule had been reduced from a supposed 28 days to a mere 20 at the last minute). We had a great chat and we hung up and I returned to the editing room. Next thing I know, my manager calls telling me he just got off the phone with Jorge Saralegui who was screaming that I had “gone behind his back” by calling Clive. All I could think about was how often these guys kept saying that Clive didn’t know what was happening with THE PLAGUE; that it was a waste of time talking to him. What I didn’t see coming was that they would actually become frantic at the mere thought of me calling him. What were they worried I would say? Clive never managed to come to set while we were shooting THE PLAGUE and so I hadn’t talked to him for several months. So far as I was concerned, it was about time I checked in. But something else was going on here. Something beyond my understanding of the relationship between Clive and his producers. I called Jorge. He admitted that he might have overreacted, but he was already in full defensive mode and remained cold and distant.

Next thing I knew, Anthony called me to tell me Clive no longer wanted to see what I had been working on, but would instead wait till I was finished editing. So I asked Anthony to be in the editing room with me from that point on to represent Clive’s interests. It was important to me that they were happy with the film as well. Anthony was very supportive and loved the cut that we had put together. It was still rough, but Anthony had told me repeatedly that I shouldn’t try and complete the cut in the six weeks allotted  After the six weeks, then the producers get to step in and make any changes they want. But the plan was to continue working together. As it should be. When we finished the first rough cut, Anthony was thrilled. He really felt like the movie was coming together. I asked him if he thought Clive would like it and his response was “I don’t know what I’d do if he didn’t!”  Turns out Clive didn’t. And now I know exactly what Anthony would do in that situation. I was told Clive wanted me off the project. I tried to contact him, but my calls went unanswered. It was like walking head-first into the Twilight Zone. Friends disappeared into the shadows, everyone became cold and distant. Suddenly, all the collaboration, shared vision and hard work was tossed headlong out the window. Jorge claimed they were turning the film into a Killer Kid flick, which is what they claimed Sony wanted it to be, and my participation in the process came to a screeching halt. I knew there was more to the story than I was being told, but what that was I still couldn’t say. It’s my suspicion that there were people putting words in Clive’s mouth that may never have actually come from there. But I don’t know.

One of the major themes in THE PLAGUE was how we react out of fear and the damage it can cause both internally and externally. It seemed ironic and, perhaps, grotesquely fitting that fear appeared to be a major driving force behind-the-scenes as well.

HMB: This sounds like it’s more a Studio standard method than an exception, what happened to you with the “Plague”. After that, were you in contact with other directors that had the same experience as you, meaning no final cut and and being excluded from the editing process?

HM: Yeah, other directors poured out of the woodwork once I went public. You hear about this happening all the time, directors having films taken away from them. But I think it’s more rare when it’s a low-budget film. Though I could be wrong. Sadly, many of the directors I came in contact with chose to stay quiet about it. I think that’s the norm. Lord knows my lawyer and agent at the time both strongly advised that I just “walk away”. So I did. But not from the film. I walked away from them. They didn’t seem to get that it was the film itself that was most important to me. Not my career or how this film was gonna “help me.” It’s funny, you know, after I was removed I had a ton of people say to me repeatedly, “Yeah, but at least you got to make a film!” And I’d say, “No. I didn’t.” They didn’t seem to get that having my name on a film, any film, was not what was important to me. So far as I’m concerned, I’ll never be done making this film until it’s out there as it was meant to be seen. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t move forward and keep making other films, I’m already in the process of putting together the next one, but THE PLAGUE is also something I’ll keep working on until it’s finished and available to the public. And by that I don’t mean to suggest that the experience of making THE PLAGUE wasn’t successful, because personally I have gotten so much out of the experience. What happened on THE PLAGUE defines how I will approach any film I make from this day forward, my attitudes toward artistic expression and the things that are most important to me. Including listening more closely to and trusting my gut. But the film itself, as a film, isn’t finished. Not until people can see it as we made it.

HMB: How did you handle this disappointing experience emotionally, and how did you overcome it?:

HM: I had several friends hold me down and keep me from tossing myself out a window! Truthfully, it was the most painful experience of my adult life. Which I realize is really hard for some people to understand. To lose something I had invested so much into… To be betrayed by people I had put my trust in… Filmmakers talk about their films being like their babies. And it’s true. I know for some people it’s hard to imagine a film being that important. But I had fought on and off for eight years to get this film made. I had been dreaming and struggling to do this from as early on as I could remember. And this was a story that was important for me to tell. And to know my name was going to be on a film that in no way reflected who I was and, in fact, was adding to the deluge of horrible, mindless horror films flooding the shelves of every corner video store… It took a long time for me to even start to recover. But part of the recovery process was not allowing myself to be a victim. I gathered the dailies that I’d kept on DVD and started putting the film together as it was intended to be. It was a fantastic experience in every way. Liberating and creative, exciting… It reminded me of exactly why I wanted to make films in the first place. Something that’s easy to forget working in this town. I remember reading about Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film SYDNEY, which was taken away from him, re-cut and re-titled HARD EIGHT. I believe in the article I read that Anderson climbed into bed and didn’t get out for six months. Exaggeration or not, I understood the feeling. Same with Stephen Gaghan who claimed in an article that his experience with his first directorial feature ABANDON was more painful than the death of his father! A pretty extreme sentence. But again, I got it. Here was the Academy Award winning writer of TRAFFIC, and he was ready to pack his bags and leave Hollywood forever. Instead, he made SYRIANA which broke all of the “rules” he had been taught by the studios on how you write and make a good film. He threw formula right out the window and made a truly extraordinary film. One he might not have made if his experience on ABANDON had gone differently. You never know where that silver lining is until much later. And that’s my attitude with THE PLAGUE. I’m only now just starting to see all the great things that have come and are yet to come out of this extremely painful experience.

HMB: Is it true that you are still owed $70,000 in director’s fees by Sony?

HM: I deferred $70,000 of my salary. Sony now claims CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE lost upwards of a million dollars and therefore no money is owed to me. So I’m back at the old day job earning some survival money while I put the next film together. But it does strike me as odd that the folks at Sony put together a cut of THE PLAGUE, marketed it to Clive Barker fans, released it straight to video, and then lost money. I mean, my understanding was that Sony owned the film now and knew what to do with it. It seems to me someone tried to sell a film to Clive Barker fans that was never intended to be for Clive Barker fans, though they certainly tried to pass if off as such by re-cutting the living hell out of it, adding stock footage and recording tons of new dialogue. The irony here is that never seems to work and no one ever seems to learn. And the very people that the film was originally intended for would NEVER have rented or gone out to see a film with Clive Barker’s name above the title. That’s a very small, particular audience. And I’m not saying anything derogatory about that audience. It just wasn’t the target audience for THE PLAGUE. And I’m talking either cut! But it seems the studio had a marketing plan that was more important than whether or not the film we had made fit into that particular strategy. So some brilliant person made the same mistake made by a thousand people before him and tried to change the film to fit the mold. But you know, when someone keeps trying to wedge the square peg into the triangle hole… You either pump ‘em full of medication or you simply take the peg away from them and give it to someone who knows where the square hole is.

HMB: The producers cut is called “CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE”, was Clive Barker actually involved in the film?

HM: I met Clive maybe 5 times. And three of those times were no more than 30 seconds apiece. The story wasn’t based on any of his work, he wasn’t involved with the writing or development, he never visited the set and I never saw him in post. The script existed for 5 years before anyone at Clive’s company even read it. Yet the film’s titled CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE. Does anyone else find that a tad misleading? Clive gave me two pieces of advice: The first was that there should be a big scare every seven minutes. Every seven minutes! This was the day before I left to head up to Canada to shoot the film. First, one has to wonder if Clive had read the script cause there certainly weren’t scares written in every seven pages! What was he suggesting here? Second, is anyone else sick and tired of these ludicrous “rules” on how to make a film? It’s like taking one of those silly connect-the-dots children’s puzzles and using it as a sample of great sketch artistry.

The second piece of advice was that I should pick one or two scenes that were most important to me and put all my creative energy into those. The rest of the film I should shoot like a TV movie. Now I’m sure that was probably the best advice he could give on how to shoot a film like this in 20 days, but it sadly had nothing to do with how I want to make films and why I was making this one. It was more or less the antithesis of my approach to anything I care about. But I think if you watch the films Clive’s directed, you may realize that, if nothing else, he at least takes his own advice.

HMB: Mr. Masonberg don’t you think it was ironic that later on, Mr. Barker himself had to deal with miseries of his own because a distributor (Lionsgate) was screwing him on one of his movie (Midnight Meat Train). Not re-cutting it, but messing with its theatrical release?

HM: I did find that ironic, yes. Especially as he was asking fans to gather together and write Lionsgate in protest. I wrote a blog titled CLIVE BARKER’S KARMA? That said, I do hate to see anyone have their film messed with. Anyone. I know that film was important to Clive. But from what Jorge Saralegui had told me while we were shooting THE PLAGUE, he already felt like they had lost control of that film and had been pushed out by Lionsgate even back then. It was a bit of a sore subject already and they hadn’t even started shooting yet.

HMB: Mr. Masonberg what happened as you delivered your film to the editing room? Is it true that “henchman’s” forced you out of the building?

HM: Well, there were no henchman. Only Clive’s producers Jorge Saralegui, Anthony DiBlasi and Joe Daly. Anthony and Joe sat quietly with their heads down while Jorge, beet red and screaming at the top of his lungs, called me a fucking piece of shit, threw my editing notes on the floor and claimed THE PLAGUE was no longer my film but his. When I confronted him with the fact that he had done the same thing to John Woo on BROKEN ARROW and to Jean Pierre Jeunet on ALIEN 4, his response was, “That’s right, I did! And now I’m doing it to you!” What I was referring to was a set of stories that Jorge would tell ad nauseum on set claiming that John Woo didn’t know how to direct an action scene and was “shaking in his boots the whole time,”  and how Jean Pierre Jeunet didn’t have a clue where to put a camera, etc., etc. Jorge seemed to be not only putting these filmmakers down for the very talents they were most renowned for, but seemed to also be suggesting that he had saved those films by taking them away from those directors in post. There were other directors he’d worked with that he didn’t speak highly of, but these were the two I chose to reference in that moment. Specifically as he was so fond of repeating those stories with what seemed to me like rather misplaced pride.

HMB: Why did you choose Oscar nominee Bill Butler as you cinematographer?

HM: I knew Bill’s work on JAWS, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, FRAILTY, so many, many others, but most specifically THE CONVERSATION which is one of my all time favorite films. I knew Bill would understand that I was not looking to make a film with lots of wild camera moves and quick cutting. This film was to have a slow build and allow the actors to move within the frame. I knew he would understand my compositions and bring a world of wisdom and knowledge to the table. Bill’s the best. And his lighting technique is beautiful and subtle. I’m not fond of the harsh lighting of many of today’s films. There’s a “slick” look that is just not appealing to me. Unfortunately, Bill was not allowed to color-time his work on this film so the producers’ cut looks nothing like we had intended it to. The colors are all wrong, but worse, it’s too damn bright! We chose to shoot the film brighter than intended for maximum detail, it’s why we picked the film stock we did. So we exposed the film with the intention of then bringing it down several stops to create those rich, deep blacks. And this stock would allow for that. We were also promised a digital intermediate. That was included in the budget. It never happened. Bill was not invited to complete his work on this film. It’s really a major insult to the man and his work. Last time I spoke to Bill, he still wanted to know if we would ever get the chance to color-time the film correctly. I still fully expect to pick up that phone one day soon and let him know it’s time to finally make this film look the way it was shot to look! But for the moment, that decision lies in Sony’s hands.

HMB: Your next move in the “Plague” story reminds me of a biblical fight, “David vs. Goliath”. You started a petition and the Spreading the Plague website to get your own cut of the film released. When did you decide to fight back? And where you concerned that you could get “Blacklisted”?

HM: Ahhh, the age-old Hollywood blacklist… I think it was what my lawyer and agent feared. But I was never really concerned about that . My attitude was and still is that I have no interest in working with anyone who would “blacklist” me for fighting to get the proper cut of my film released. Like I said before, my career is not as important to me as the film I’m making. Which isn’t to say I don’t want the film to be successful. I do. And in fact I believe my cut of the film would have been very profitable were it released as intended and marketed properly. And it’s my intention to prove that, even with the bad taste the other cut has left in the mouths of most of the folks who have seen it, if the online reviews are any indication. The thing is, so many folks are running around trying to be successful in Hollywood, but they don’t seem to see that they’re running scared. You don’t need anyone’s permission to make a film. Especially these days. The studios no longer wield that threat. You want to make a film… Make a film! Hell, I used some of the top filmmaking software on my Macintosh in my living room to complete my cut of THE PLAGUE. Sure, if I want to make a $200 million film, I’m probably gonna need a studio behind me. But I don’t need $200 million. My personal definition of success seems to be very different from the definition of the people who were telling me my career would be over if I finished my cut of the film.

HMB: After you started your petition and your website spreadingtheplague.com, did you get any response from Sony or Clive Barker?

HM: Nothing. Clive’s people called my manager to ask “What the fuck?”, but that was all I ever heard about. It wasn’t until a bunch of fans started an email campaign to Sony to ask for a release of the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT that Scott Shooman, who had never met nor spoken with me before, called my manager to find out what was happening. When I heard he called, I picked up the phone in the hope of starting a dialogue. He called me back a few days later and seemed rather irate that people who had nothing to do with THE PLAGUE were receiving hundreds of emails. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted Sony to release the proper cut of the film. He told me straight up that would never happen as Sony had already lost money on the project. I reminded him that he was largely responsible for the cut that lost money, not me. So I said that if Sony wasn’t interested in releasing the proper cut, then I wanted the rights to distribute the WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT myself or take it to another distribution company. I was fine with them continuing to make money on their cut. I just wanted mine out there as well. I even proposed a split-rights deal in which they wouldn’t have to put a single penny into the film, but would get a significant percentage of whatever profits it made. As I saw it, this was a chance for them to recoup some of that lost money AND satisfy the fans AND get me off their back. No go. “We don’t do that.” What Scott Shooman offered instead was that Sony would be willing to sell me the distribution rights to all things PLAGUE for $1 million. I searched my pants pockets, pulled out a couple of quarters and told him I didn’t have enough. So the campaign continues.

hm3HMB: What’s important for you when you attach yourself to a project and what have you learned about your experience with “The Plague”?

HM: John Cassavetes once said something to the effect that you should pick the five most important reasons why you want to make a film. Now those will be the first five things they’ll try and take away from you in Hollywood. I’ve learned that I should never give up anything that I don’t think I could live without. If the film itself is what is most important to me, then I don’t hand the film over to anyone who doesn’t care about it as much as I do.

HMB: One of your upcoming directing projects is the indie feature “CLEAN”. What can you tell us about it?

HM: When my old agent saw what happened to me on THE PLAGUE, she stated that maybe next time I should try and make something more commercial. I had to laugh. THE PLAGUE is probably the most commercial film I have in me! CLEAN is, for lack of a better term, a psychological thriller about identity. And I say for lack of a better term because nothing I write seems to fit snugly into any one genre. Even THE PLAGUE is more a drama with horror elements than what a horror film is thought of by today’s definition of the term. CLEAN is fairly challenging in that it follows four interconnected characters all spiraling downward as they frantically search for some meaning to the question, “Who the hell am I and can I trust my own memories?” The stories move back and forth in time and out of sequence. I think it will be very successful on the indie circuit. It leaves a lot up for interpretation. Which is something I love. I found when films don’t do what people expect them to or want them to, they tend to think the film is flawed. Some even get angry. I have a feeling CLEAN will elicit that response from some. But others will gravitate toward it and hopefully be blown away. The last two people who read it had two very different reactions: One claimed that it left him numb. The other said she starting weeping as soon as she was finished reading even though she wasn’t sure exactly why. And I love that! I love that two people sitting next to one another in a theater could potentially have two completely different reactions to the same film. I remember when I went to see Terence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD. The friend I was with felt like the film had missed all the emotional beats. It left him cold. Meanwhile, I was sitting in my seat crying like a little schoolgirl. I thought the film was almost entirely emotional. Like the most effective poetry. I was blown away.

HMB: What do you like and don’t like about the business?

HM: That I haven’t already mentioned?

HMB: Some advice for newcomers in the directing and writing world?

HM: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. Especially if they’re trying to tell you what you CAN’T do. And decide what’s most important to you and why you’re doing it. And know that there are good people working in the film industry. They’re just surrounded by some of the most dysfunctional people you’ll ever meet! And ask yourself honestly if the people you’re working with want the same things you do. It’s not a crime to want different things. It just might mean you shouldn’t be working together. And try and move beyond your ego. It’s not good for collaboration or for creativity.

HMB: What’s next for Hal Masonberg?

HM: Well, getting CLEAN made is top priority. Then another film I’ve been writing set in Cornwall, England. A really beautiful story. Also looking at putting together a web series so that I can start working with all the amazing actors and other talented people I know out here. There are only so many roles and jobs on a film. There’s too much unused talent in my little circle. I can’t just sit by and not create something designed specifically for them. And how great to work with people you love and admire. What could be more satisfying than that?

HMB: Please choose 5 film people out of the film business (dead or alive), you want to have at your dinner Table.

HM: Ugh… I hate these questions… And can’t resist them… Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Michael Powell, Carole Lombard, Krystof Kielowski. All gone now.

HMB: Any people that came along in your life you wish to give a special thanks to and credit in this interview?

HM: You, for one! This interview wouldn’t be taking place if you hadn’t been interested! And to every damn person who has been putting up with my endless PLAGUE campaign!

HMB: Thank you so much for the interview Mr. Masonberg, and all the best for 2009 for getting your cut of “The Plague” released on DVD!

HM: Thank you.

Kubrick’s Letter, Vitali’s Memory & BARRY LYNDON’s Perfection

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2011 by halmasonberg

Ever since Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON found its way to Blu-ray disc in what has to be the best this film has ever looked since its initial projection in 35mm, there has been wild debate as to the proper aspect ratio of LYNDON as per Kubrick’s intent. It appears that this debate is endless and with Kubrick no longer with us, even his own scribblings seem to contradict his words and therefore leave us to trust or guess.

Some insist the film was designed and preferred by Kubrick in the 1.66:1 ratio. However, many theaters, particularly here in the states, were simply not equipped for screening 1.66:1. The one thing everyone seems to be able to agree on is that Kubrick did NOT want the film to be projected at the standard American flat ratio of 1.85:1. There are many, including Kubrick’s long-time friend and personal assistant, Leon Vitali (who starred in BARRY LYNDON), who insist Kubrick’s preferred ratio for the film was 1.77:1.

A letter has surfaced that Kubrick apparently sent to projectionists that would suggest 1.66:1 as the preferred ratio. However, Vitali still swears it is not. And I have to say, in Vitali’s defense, the Blu-ray (framed at 1.78:1) looks perfect. It is not cramped or loose. It “feels” just right. Here’s what film restorer and archivist Robert Harris had to say regarding the whole affair:

“There has been discussion that Barry Lyndon was composed for projection at 1.66:1, and this is an interesting thought.  The problem, even in 1975, would have been that few cinemas were equipped to project that aspect ratio unless specially set up.  In a very general sense, much of the world was running spherical at 1.75:1, while here in the colonies we were running at 1.85:1.  1.66:1 was a specific setup for revival theatres equipped with the necessary aperture plates, optics and maskings.

“My feeling has always been that I would be thrilled if Barry Lyndon were to be released on Blu-ray at the HD native aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and the incorrect technical information on the reverse of the packaging aside, that is precisely what has occurred.”

For your perusal, here is Kubrick’s letter to projectionists (click to enlarge) as sent to critic Glenn Kenny by screenwriter/critic Jay Cocks who wrote:

“I knew Stanley pretty well for a while, but at the time of the Time Barry Lyndon cover I was in LA beginning preliminary work on Gangs of New York. So I had no hand in the Time  cover, but still managed to let Stanley know how great I thought the movie was. He replied with his usual gracious, funny note and enclosed this letter, because he thought I’d be interested. Bet you will be too.”

Despite the statement made in this letter, Vitali has his own take on the master’s intentions as he shares in this long-but-detailed letter to the quite often annoying critic Jeffrey Wells on his Hollywood Elsewhere site:

Leon Vitali

“Thanks for this. Hopefully (though I’m sure, probably not) I can explain fully the situation as to the origin of the confusion. I can also tell you what Stanley explained to me and under what circumstances. I will try to make everything as clear as possible so excuse what may seem like a perfunctory layout in my response.

“(1) When we were shooting Barry Lyndon, Stanley saw that I was not only working hard as an actor, but saw that I was interestedin the technical process too. He invited me to be on the set even when I wasn’t called as an actor for shooting. An ‘invite’ was not a common occurrence from this particular filmmaker.

“(2) He told me how he was inspired for some set-ups by pictures painted or drawn during the 18th century, particularly Hogarth‘s work. 

“(3) He also explained to me that even though I probably wouldn’t be aware of how to frame a picture, he said he thought that as an actor, I would only be interested in being in the picture, never mind how they were ‘framed’.

“(4) He introduced me into the world of aspect ratios and what they meant; not only that but how important they were to him as a part, not everything but an important part nonetheless, of how they help in an overall impression of what appeared in the screen.

“(6) He took me into his caravan and showed me how aspect ratios were worked out and, Stanley being Stanley, gave me a potted history of various developments in the history of picture making to illustrate his view.

“(7) I asked him what aspect ratio he was shooting Barry Lyndon in and he told me that he was shooting it in 1:1.77 and on my asking why told me that if I looked at a lot of Hogarth’s pictures, they had a ‘sort of boxy look‘ about them.” 

“For my continued part of this story, skip forward to 1977.

“(8) I was living in Stockholm and still in touch with Stanley.

“(9) Barry Lyndon was about to be released there along with other parts of Europe a year late because of a producers’ strike regarding profit-sharing in their projects.

“(10) He asked me to go to the cinema there where the film was opening to check the print and because I knew little about everything involved in what a ‘perfect print’ should look like, Stanley told me to write everything down that I thought MIGHT look wrong to me.

“(11) I did, and one of the problems I reported was that the top of the wide shots of ‘Castle Hackton’ — the portrayed ancestral home of Lady Lyndon — were cut off, some not so much but some seriously.

“(12) Stanley said to me ‘That means they’re not thinking of screening it at 1.77 — you know what I’m talking about, Leon?’.

“(13) He also said it had been a problem almost everywhere the picture had been shown.

“(14) I went back to the theatre after having spoken to the very obliging people at Warners and we tried to see what could be done. They even had the screen taken down and then re-hung along with re-racking the picture from the projector in an attempt to rectify the problem.

“(15) In the end, Stanley sent his editor, Ray Lovejoy, over to view the print and deal with the problem; Stanley only telling me that in the end, Ray had changed out some reels and on going back on the opening night, I saw that whatever he’d done had worked.

“(16) Skip forward again to when I was a permanent assistant to Stanley and I was dealing with the labs.

“(17) Whenever we were dealing with Barry Lyndon and I was projecting it for him, the first question out of his mouth was ‘Did you put the 1.77 aperture plate in, Leon?’ Like much else we did, it became a bit of a mantra.

“(18) Whatever work we were doing with Barry Lyndon, he always, always talked of it’s correct aperture as being 1:1.77. He never mentioned any other aperture to me ever when we worked with the title and that includes all other formats.

“(19) With all due respect to the doubters, many of them ‘doubters’ because they do actually care, I know, when one has heard for three decades that resonant Bronx accent saying 1:1.77 in relation to Barry Lyndon one doesn’t forget it, nor the circumstances surrounding the words. 

“(20) Now THE LETTER which I have received and possibly from Stanley. I can say with 99.9% certainty that it is genuine.

“(21) He often enclosed a letter like this on first release in key cities everywhere not only with this film (I wasn’t with Stanley when Barry Lyndon was shipped out, but I was there for the whole shipping operation for Full Metal Jacket, in fact, I supervised most of it personally and physically) in an attempt to have the film seen universally in the way he in tended it when he was shooting.

“(22) What has to be realised is this: 1:1.77 was not your common-or-garden aspect ratio. It may have been that some cinemas were unable or unwilling to have a special 1:1.77 aspect ratio’ plate made or even look for one.

“(23) Being a pragmatist at heart, Stanley would have had a ‘Plan B’ which would have been, I paraphrase here, ‘If you can’t show it in 1.77, show it in 1.66′ (a more common format anyway), ‘… but no wider than 1.75′.” 

“(24) [This Plan B option/approach] would have been to avoid, at all costs, showing it theatrically in 1:1.85, an aspect ratio that does not suit this picture anymore than it suits Clockwork Orange which many theatres these days can only show it in as they no longer have the choice of screening even in 1:1.66. I know this because like The Battle of Barry Lyndon, I have fought The Battle of Clockwork Orange and The Battle of Dr. Strangeloveover the years too — both when Stanley was alive and since. And I can add that even when forced to shoot in 1:1.85, Stanley loathed the format because it wastes so much useable screen area.

“I’m sorry for the length of the explanation. I have tried to be succinct but as with everything concerning Stanley, nothing is ever that simple to explain.

“I suppose that whenever I have been asked the question, as recently during the New York and LA press junkets for the release of the 40th Anniversary Bluray of A Clockwork Orange, I SHOULD HAVE SAID that Stanley COMPOSED his pictures for Barry Lyndon in the Aspect Ratio of 1:1.77 and WANTED it screened that way’. 

“Maybe that would have taken some of the controversy out of it. So my abject apologies if I have inadvertently contributed to the controversy.

“But I would urge everybody to look at the film, relax into its atmosphere, watch the outstanding performance by Ryan O’Neal (who was in almost every single scene and with whom Stanley was ‘well pleased’) along with the cream of the English acting profession, many of whom were all idols of mine at the time – Andre Morel, Marie Keen, Murray Melvin as the Reverend Runt, Frank Middlemass as Sir Charles Lyndon, Stephen Berkoff as the effeminate Lord Ludd and many other actors who in the final cut had very little of their performances left and then realized that it is probably the most wonderfully accurate portrayal of 18th century England, its mores and it’s social structure (and how not to succeed in social climbing) they’ve ever seen on the film screen.

“Very best to all fans of Stanley’s work — Leon.”

In addition to Vitali’s comments, The Stanley Kubrick Archives released by Taschen in cooperation with the Kubrick estate lists LYNDON as 1.77:1, though this too may have been per Vitali:

In addition, a series of photos marked by Kubrick himself seem to support the 1.77:1 ratio (notice the blue-box in the center):

And truth be told, there’s no way to know what Kubrick would have chosen to do with LYNDON on Blu-ray. We know he wasn’t a fan of letterboxing and started making his last few films full-frame-safe for life on video. However, with 16:9 TVs now in most homes and Blu-ray being 16:9 native, Kubrick may have chosen to release the film to fill the frame. Especially since he clearly composed it knowing it would be shown at different ratios depending on where it was being screened. My gut tells me 1.66:1 would have been his personal favorite, but that doesn’t mean it’s the ratio he would have chosen for Blu-ray. We’ll never know. So while contradictions abound and the controversy continues, the film nevertheless looks stunning on Blu-ray and remains as timeless as ever. Perfection in cinema. Whether at 1.66:1 or 1.78:1, I couldn’t love it more.

I’ll leave you now with four frames, the first a scaled-down image from the Blu-ray at 1.78:1, the second an image from the DVD release at 1.66:1, the third an overlay of the two (Blu-ray on top), and the fourth Kubrick’s own markings on the original location photo that suggest the idea of a safe area of 1.66:1 through 1.75:1 (or possibly 1.77:1). Clearly, the 1.66:1 shows more image, but whether or not it’s the best framing for the film will have to come down to a matter of taste. I fully support a director’s initial intent. However, that intent remains in question. And probably will for all time.

Eating Julie Taymor: When Artists Devour Their Own

Posted in Art, Film, Theater with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by halmasonberg

A few weeks back, I entered into an unsettling “Facebook conversation” with a couple of screenwriter/filmmakers. Yes, I should have known better than to engage, but it was one of those moments when someone posts something that seems to require a response. You’ve probably been there yourself. You know if you say something you’re opening a can of worms, that life will be easier if you just ignore it, walk away. But you don’t. In hindsight, I now wish I’d walked away because the “conversation” that commenced left me so shaken, so depressed, almost to the point of paralysis.

Thanks to the internet and sites like Facebook, we now live in a world where everyone’s a critic; everyone has a vocal opinion (myself included) and with that the ability to actually effect the world around them. This can be in some small way, as in just among your closest friends, or in a larger sense, by adding your voice to the many already out there gaining momentum.

The particular tête-à-tête I was so shaken by started with a comment posted about artist, filmmaker, theater director Julie Taymor. Having recently been fired off –or at least asked to take a creative step back from– the much publicized musical SPIDER-MAN, Taymor’s name has been in the press quite a bit of late. Leading up to this parting of the ways between Taymor and her associates, were a number of tragic accidents during both rehearsals and performances of Taymor’s interpretation of this extraordinarily popular comic book character and the mythos surrounding it. Now I don’t intend to get into the details of what happened or didn’t happen or even point fingers as that is not what our discussion was, ultimately, about. And what I would like to examine here is less about the individuals themselves with whom I conversed, but what I see as a slippery slope of commentary that reflects a reactionary attitude that leaves little room for intelligent discourse and seems more based on emotional venting than on enhancing whatever medium is at the forefront of discussion.

With the digital medium expanding, with information (accurate or not) at everyone’s fingertips and the opinions of both “professionals” and non-professionals now appearing side-by-side, with camera and phones that can capture every moment and present it as if it were real and place it within a context that might NOT be real, and with the popularity of shows like TMZ and the non-stop media insistence that other human beings’ suffering be viewed as must-see entertainment, I find myself increasingly uneasy. In part that I may one day myself be on the receiving end of it, that I may one day find myself unwittingly drawn to it, or simply that potentially creative, insightful people and their work may be suppressed or choose to withdraw out of the fear of what I see as an increasingly hostile environment. Yes, I know, it’s part of human nature. We used to go to public lynchings and watch Gladiators fight to the death for entertainment. Sure. It’s always been here with us. But I’m afraid I find small comfort in that notion, nor do I feel that it’s much of an excuse not to be a tad more self-reflective and attempt to elicit change.

The comment posted that initially grabbed my attention was not the first negatively-tinged comment that I had seen posted about Taymor and SPIDER-MAN. What got me this time was the idea of perpetuating an environment that somehow diminishes artists and their art without the author personally knowing the artist or what the art itself really is. i.e. not having seen it or experienced it himself. And to take it one step further, the idea that what doesn’t work for one person should then be treated with disdain, contempt and commented on as if the commentator was somehow superior to the work or the artist. This is a transgression we see daily both on the internet and in print. But it’s always a little worse for me when it comes from one artist to another. This cannibalistic tendency is, in my estimation, far more dangerous than it might seem on the surface.

The posted comment was in quoting director Neil Jordan’s statement that, after having sat down with both Bono (who was doing the music for SPIDER-MAN) and Miss Taymor, Mr. Jordan (who was being considered to write the play’s book), commented that it was clear that Miss Taymor’s vision for SPIDER-MAN was “narratively incoherent.” The post was meant to be, not a slight on Mr. Jordan, but somehow proof of Miss Taymor’s unworthiness as the visionary/director behind such a project. Now, if you want to discuss the physical dangers inherent in her vision and the possible difficulties in pulling it off practically without anyone getting hurt or, worse, dying, then I’m all for that. There’s most certainly a point where, vision or no, it is not worth a human being getting hurt. However, “narrative incoherence” has no universally shared definition. There is, in all reality, no such thing. To put Julie Taymor down for wanting to tell a story that did not fit into Mr. Jordan’s idea of narrative coherence is not a bad thing. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was termed “incoherent” by more than one critic. As was Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS. Hell, I was reading quotes recently that suggested the film INCEPTION was too difficult to follow narratively. And what of many Bergman, Fellini or Godard films? Or even the experimental narrative films of lesser-known artists like Seattle-based filmmaker Janice Findley? What might be a difficult narrative for one person to follow, may be no trouble whatsoever for someone else to follow with ease. But even if a work is created with the very notion that it should be interpreted differently by each member of the audience, it is no less valuable than a story that follows a more “traditional” narrative.

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” –Stanley Kubrick

This Kubrick quote is, for me, words to live by. I do not take it to mean that all film narrative need take this approach, but it offers an awareness that this approach is, indeed, a valid one. Coming from a filmmaker whose films were often met with harsh criticism as they offered a narrative approach often quite unique to the filmmaker himself and not in keeping with the “accepted norm,” I find inspiration in the boundaries Kubrick pushed.

“[The way Kubrick] tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.”. –Steven Spielberg

“If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.” -Martin Scorsese

As someone interested in exploring narrative, structure, the over-all power of expression offered via filmmaking, I am constantly disheartened when I see other filmmakers and lovers of film close the door on particular avenues of expression via the medium. Living in Hollywood –a town I find very limited in its approach to telling stories on film– I am always relieved and excited to find a fellow compatriot, a brother (or sister) in arms, as it were, who shares my deep love and desire for open forms of expression and storytelling. So it is always difficult to come to the realization that there are very few of those people in my world. And most of the ones that ARE in my world, don’t live in Hollywood (Hmmm… do I see a pattern emerging?…).

I recently had a conversation with a Hollywood filmmaker friend with very strict guidelines as to what actually constituted a film or filmmaking. He suggested that filming two guys having a conversation over dinner would “not be filmmaking.” If I were to buy into that school of thought, I would have to take Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE off my DVD shelf.

As someone who is about to embark on a project that I am aware might be “narratively challenging” for some, I find myself rather sensitive to arguments that suggest, directly or indirectly, that what I am attempting is, ultimately, invalid. It may not be the intent of the commentators, but the end result is the suggestion, and often the outright proclamation, that certain attempts are no more than the product of ego and steeped in pretension. Or worse, not real filmmaking. I will suggest that ego is an essential part of any artist willing to express themselves in a public forum. To even believe that you have something to say, something to offer that another human being may want to experience and engage in requires a certain amount of ego. For most of us, it’s a rather scary endeavor, but one worth overcoming such fears and allowing what’s inside to be seen by all. And to take a chance and know that you might fail. Or that you might succeed but no one around you may notice. And to know that quite often when your work is termed a “failure” by others, you are systematically thrown to the wolves.

Which brings us back to Julie Taymor.

It has been written that the producers of Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN were hoping for something with the visual splendor and excitement of CIRQUE DU SOLEIL. In fact, there was talk that the show, if successful, might even find permanent residence in Las Vegas, as CIRQUE has. And one has to assume that, given Mr. Jordan’s comments, Bono and others were well-aware of Miss Taymor’s vision for this piece long before it was put into production. It seems by all accounts, this was to be unlike anything before or since. Unique. Daring, Visionary. Expensive. I’m guessing (as I have not seen it but based on everything I’ve read) that it was all of those things. However, some of those things (or even all of them) aren’t seen as good qualities by some. For all we know, Taymor’s vision for SPIDER-MAN, had it worked logistically and managed to have an actual run, might have been a masterpiece of theater. Or maybe just a lot of eye-candy. But in truth, it probably would have been both, depending on who you spoke with. But like so many films and other works of art derided in their day only to become cherished works in later years, Julie Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN may have become part of our celebrated culture. Or not. We’ll never know. But what I do know is this: when someone with a vision –and Taymor certainly has vision, regardless of whether or not it adapts to your tastes– is lynched and derided in the public eye, it makes it that much harder for other artists to take chances, to risk, to fight for their vision, or even think of trying.

“If you’re not allowed to experiment anymore for fear of being considered self-indulgent or pretentious or what have you, then everyone’s going to just stick to the rules — there’s not going to be any additional ideas.” – Francis Ford Coppola

I submit that CIRQUE DU SOLEIL would be termed by many in attendance as “incoherent narrative.” Every CIRQUE DU SOLEIL show tells a story. But it does so in its own way, via its own form of expression. Now perhaps the visual feats of the show itself compensate for any confusion the audience may have about the actual “story” being told, but that does not mean the essence of the story is not taking hold. Modern dance, ballet, acrobatics, music all tell stories in unique ways that are not always comprehended in traditional terms. Or they simply take an understanding of the language of the art form in order to decipher more accurately what is being expressed. But having those tools is not necessarily a requirement. There are many ways in which we take in narrative, in which we experience storytelling. Some are more challenging than others. And some reach us in ways we don’t understand and perhaps have a violent or negative reaction to as many do to, say, the films of John Cassavetes.

One of the other writer/filmmakers who chimed in on our Facebook chat once shared his opinion with me that directors should not edit their own movies; that doing so has more to do with ego than with what is best for the story, for the film. I wrote about that exchange and why I personally, as someone who edits his own films, found it to be not only extremely closed-minded but dangerous insomuch as it applies rules to the artistic process where no rules should apply. What works for one filmmaker, writer, sculptor, painter, actor, singer, dancer, what have you, is not necessarily what works for another. Artistic expression, language, and the paths and processes we engage in on our journeys toward our finished works are not things that can be set down as rules. There is no such thing as right and wrong in this arena. To assume there is, is to limit the artists and, by default, the level of art we receive, are exposed to, moved by, provoked by, touched by. You can read my essay on that particular subject in more detail at: “How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations.

This same filmmaker recently commented that SPIDER-MAN deserved better than Julie Taymor, a comment which on its own is a strange beast given that we’re talking SPIDER-MAN here and not, well, Shakespeare, which Miss Taymor has also tackled on numerous occasions to both critical acclaim and critical disdain. I personally land strongly in the former. I thought TITUS was a singular vision of Shakespeare’s words and world that stirred me. I thought it was tremendous. But there are those who are not fans of TITUS or any of Taymor’s work, who would prefer to call her “Pretentious.” Ahhhh… Now there’s that word again. Be wary, friends. Pretentious… Those same films I mentioned earlier that were termed “narratively incoherent?” Exactly. They were also coined “pretentious” by many a critic and audience member. But what would make those films or even Julie Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN pretentious? According to one screenwriter, Taymor’s involvement with SPIDER-MAN was nothing more than an “unfettered ego sidetrack thing.” He suggested that Taymor’s intention to combine the SPIDER-MAN story with “some Greek dance magic” had nothing to do with the world of SPIDER-MAN and was not only “PRETENTIOUS,” but was actually an outright rejection of the SPIDER-MAN source material with intent to imprint it with an auteur vision and therefore an insult to the artists who created the SPIDER-MAN mythos and was condescending to boot.

So let me get this straight. Wanting to take a new and different approach to the SPIDER-MAN legend is pretentious. Altering it from what it has been in the past is pretentious and condescending. I suppose the comics, the TV series, the first movie franchise, the new “re-boot” movie franchise currently in the works… There’s no room in the world for another vision of SPIDER-MAN? Really? To attempt such sacrilege is an act of pretension? Well, I suppose if you are referring to the definition of pretentious as grandiose, elaborate, extravagant, flamboyant, ornate or even overambitious. Well then I don’t have an argument. But if you are using the term in a derogatory manner to mean sophomoric, pompous, artificial, snooty, or characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, then I question how anyone, not having seen the show nor engaged with Miss Taymor herself, would know such a thing? The play may not have been any good, that possibility certainly exists, but pretentious? Probably not. What I have found is that this is a word that is not only overused as a replacement for genuine, honest criticism, but it is also quite often misused.

As for Miss Taymor’s combining of Greek mythology and the SPIDER-MAN mythos, I would not have been surprised if her interpretation might not have captured something innate, something familiar and revealing in the way in which our myths converge despite thousands of years’ separation in creation dates. I suggest reading author Vladimir Propp’s book MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE for more connections on that concept.

As for being an unfettered ego-sidetrack thing, let’s look at Taymor’s career. It has been pointed out on many occasions by those familiar with Taymor’s work, that she has always had a deep fascination with the connection and integration of humans and animals. For the production of Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag, Taymor designed the masks and puppets which combined a man with a stag. Taymor also designed the puppets and masks for Juan Darien, wherein a boy becomes a tiger. And then, of course, there’s The Lion King, which seamlessly integrated humans and jungle animals. Or how about The Green Bird, the off-broadway and then Broadway production about a prince trapped inside a bird? So is it so unreasonable, so outside comprehension, that Taymor would be attracted to a story about a man who becomes, essentially, part man, part spider? In her re-imagining of the tale, Peter Parker is bitten (impregnated, in a sense) by a female spider who is an offspring of Arachne, a character inspired by Greek mythology, who turns out to be the villain of the show. This is certainly not the first time Taymor has mixed stories and ideas to create a new hybrid of the two. Quite often to startling effect and rave reviews.

Another screenwriter commented that Taymor was nothing more than the establishment’s accepted version of avante garde. He suggested that most everything she does from The Lion King to Shakespeare, is nothing more than “tricked-out kitsch” and that she was, by all accounts, a “weak storyteller.” Well, here’s one account that may not be in sync with that particular line of thinking.

Jeffrey Horowitz, the founding artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, commented upon seeing Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN:

“Once Spider-Man began… it was unlike anything I had ever seen or felt. That’s often the case with Julie’s productions. Her theatricality engages the audience’s imagination. Taymor is called a visual genius, but her imagination isn’t only visual. It’s visceral. She makes you feel what it’s like to be something or someone else.

“In Spider-Man, I couldn’t be judgmental about humans flying around a theatre in ways I wished I could. I was enchanted by the whimsy of theatrical sets which presented New York City from extraordinary multiple perspectives that I could only see if I were a bird or a super-hero. Two dimensional cinematic images were contrasted with three dimensional people and surreal masked characters. Images flipped like the pages of a comic book, but it wasn’t a literal comic book. It was like being a kid again or being awake during a dream. And, like a dream, there were parts that I couldn’t understand, but it really didn’t matter. I surrendered to this strange and fabulous circus crossed with rock and roll, myth and a comic book.”

There are forms of storytelling, not unlike the kind suggested by Stanley Kubrick in the quote I referenced earlier, that transcend traditional narrative and rely on feeling, on a mutual dream-state, on the subconscious, on those ethereal and intangible connections we have as human beings, to relay, transmit, and share with one another. There’s nothing that says you have to like it or engage in it, but there is no denying that it has its place in the world of art, be it music, poetry, sculpture, theater, dance, film, painting… What would art be without a sense of the abstract? And who is to pass judgement on the worthiness of an artistic attempt, particularly by those who have not themselves experienced that art in which they criticize?

What happens when we shout “pretentious!” in a crowded theater? Well, for one, we aid an environment that is not conducive to risk or vision; where thinking out of the box is a punishable act. It is, in many ways, artistic bullying. Now I am not suggesting that we not be critical of our art. On the contrary, I believe critique is not only welcome, but essential! But it is “how” we critique that I question.

Film director David Lean who brought us such cinematic treasures as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, OLIVER TWIST, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and many, many others, praised by fellow filmmakers like Steven Speilberg, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, voted the 9th greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute Sight & Sound “Directors Top Directors” poll, stopped making films for nearly fifteen years. Why?

”I got terribly discouraged and I sort of gave it up for something like 14 years. I suppose round about ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ I got quite good notices. Then, as I went on, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ got the worst notices you could ever see. ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was absolutely torn to shreds by the critics and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’

”When you’re a movie director, the only people that you really believe are the critics. You mistrust your friends because you think they’re being nice, but there in black and white with the power of the printed word it says you stink and you have no idea of what you’re doing. I just thought I’d lost the drift somehow or other.”

Popular film critic Pauline Kael’s review of RYAN’S DAUGHTER was, though consummately written as always from a literary standpoint, nothing more than a disrespectful piece of nastiness. But of course Kael was not a fan of most of Lean’s films stating of his work “the emptiness shows in every frame.” Kael was eventually fired from McCalls by editor Robert Stein who stated, “I [fired her] months later after she kept panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.” It was, of course, not only Miss Kael’s right to dislike those films, it was her job to write about them. However, I submit once again, it is how we choose to go about critiquing the work of others that should be explored.

Invited to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics in New York, Mr. Lean stated:

“It was one of the most horrible experiences I have ever had. I remember Pauline Kael meeting me at the door and leading me by the hand to the table where there were ten or twelve critics and they sat me at the head of the table and within seconds they started grilling me in the most unfriendly fashion. One of the most leading questions was, “Can you please explain how the man who directed Brief Encounter can have directed this load of shit you call Ryan’s Daughter?” It really cut me to the heart, and that was Richard Schickel.”

Luckily for us, Mr. Lean eventually returned to filmmaking and now we have the masterful A PASSAGE TO INDIA. But what did we lose in the interim? We know we never got to see Lean’s take on MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY or his adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel NOSTROMO, both projects dear to his heart. Perhaps, had critics been more “constructive” in their criticisms of Mr. Lean and his films, had they had the foresight and vision to recognize that this was not a filmmaker devoid of talent, a hack, as it were, they may have offered him “useful” criticisms that he may have taken to heart or simply accepted as a difference of opinion, and we might then have NOSTROMO and many other unmade David Lean films to experience as well.

As a counter-balance to Miss Kael’s deciphering of Mr. Lean’s work, I offer filmmaker Martin Scorcese’s take on those same “empty frames,” which one could certainly interpret as a direct response to Miss Kael’s writing:

“His images stay with me forever. But what makes them memorable isn’t necessarily their beauty. That’s just good photography. It’s the emotion behind those images that’s meant the most to me over the years. It’s the way David Lean can put feeling on film. The way he shows a whole landscape of the spirit. For me, that’s the real geography of David Lean country. And that’s why, in a David Lean movie, there’s no such thing as an empty landscape.”

When I suggested in our online conversation that we had, especially as fellow artists, some responsibility to promote an environment that allows artists to grow, take risks, be moved by their visions and, maybe most importantly, learn from their mistakes, I was met with the notion that it was not the critics’ job or responsibility to foster artistic growth. No? Well, perhaps my argument is that it should be. Or, at the very least, one should invite the question of intent. “What do I hope to gain from engaging in this criticism?” If not to foster artistic growth, then is it simply to be judgmental for judgment’s sake? Is it as a means of feeling superior? I suggest that it may be beneficial for anyone critiquing the work of another to know what they would like the end result to be.

During our discussion, the question was raised on more than one occasion that if Miss Taymor were indeed an “artist,” then why was she engaging in directing a “massive, insanely commodified venture like a broadway musical franchise.” I’m not sure why taking on a Broadway show automatically removes Taymor from having a worthwhile vision. And unless you’ve actually seen the show, you cannot, in good conscience or fairness, critique its worthiness or artistic merits. One of the screenwriters engaged in this line of thought was someone who wholly embraced and highly recommended the experience of James Cameron’s AVATAR in 3-D. Certainly this is a fair equivalent to Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN in sheer size and expense. It was, after all, the most expensive movie ever made. And despite a rather large consensus that it was somewhat lacking in the script department and followed a rather overused, if not outright tired, formula, it was still nonetheless a cinematic experience that the screenwriter I was speaking with felt was at least as important for film lovers to see in a theater as Kubrick’s 2001. And I won’t argue that he was wrong. And yes, I know many, many people who hated AVATAR and many who loved it. But had the film bombed financially, Cameron’s attempt at spending this much money on a massive, insanely commodified venture like a Hollywood movie to tell an environmentally conscious alien love story would have been tagged “pretentious” alongside its “failure” moniker. Regardless of who it touched.

All this said, one need not like an artist or their work in order to allow it the right to exist and, at the same time, have meaning for others. And I’m afraid, while I do believe that it’s every person’s right to criticize in whichever manner they choose, for whatever reasons they choose, I still believe that a certain level of responsibility is inherent. Whether or not you care about the outcome or effect of your words is another thing entirely. But know that your words can result in works of art you may have quite possibly cherished, not being created at all. We have a choice: we can be constructive in our criticism or destructive. I personally found many of the comments I heard on the subject of Miss Taymor and SPIDER-MAN to be more destructive and lacking in any real criticism of the work itself; it felt more like partaking in and quite possibly relishing the public bashing Miss Taymor was receiving. Like sharks in blood-infested water. If there’s to be growth, artistic and otherwise, a bit of self-reflection might be in order. But perhaps this knee-jerk reaction, as I see it, may have more to do with some measure of fear, or perhaps an honest misunderstanding of the process, than it does with any type of actual criticism. Accusations of pretension, incoherent narrative, or a simple, “I don’t like it” are no replacement for analytical critique any more than saying something is “stupid” or “boring.” It’s an honest and valid reaction, but it says nothing about the artist responsible for the work. It’s all about the recipient. But even if one’s criticism is limited to “stupid” or “boring,” how we present those particular criticisms makes all the difference. To simply say “That work is stupid and boring” is not the same as saying “I found that work to be stupid and boring.” Semantics? Nitpicking? I don’t think so. Words have power. How you present your thoughts has a direct effect on how they land and what their impact and repercussions are. To call a work stupid or boring is to make a sweeping declaration of what that work innately is. On the other hand, to alter that phrase to point out what your personal experience of that work is, is another thing altogether. To go under the assumption that any statement you make is naturally taken as your opinion even when it’s not stated as such is to misunderstand and diminish the power of words. Again, this may seem a small change, a slight alteration in how we present our thoughts, but I believe it has great significance in the bigger picture of creating a safe and healthy environment for artists to work and explore.

I also find myself discouraged at the level of outright “glee” I’ve witnessed on the part of some at the news of Julie Taymor’s firing and the disdain present in the notion that she, in attempting to do what she does, in being called a “visionary” or even simply having a vision, might not be, at least partially, a result of misogynistic tendencies, whether conscious or unconscious. I’m not saying that anyone who dislikes Taymor and/or her work are haters of women, but I would be remiss in my duties here if I did not at least entertain the possibility that this might, indeed, play some part. There is an extra “bite” to much of the criticism I have read and heard that seems to suggest something else under the surface. Not unlike some of the hate I’ve seen directed toward President Obama that, like it or not, suggests at least the possibility that racism might play a role in a portion of the public’s strong negative reaction, despite most everyone’s insistence that it plays absolutely no part in their actions, reactions, or decision-making.

Food for thought, certainly.

Robert Hilburn was the head music critic at the Los Angeles Times for 30 years. Something Robert managed that very few of his fellow critics managed, was that he was actually influential in the music world; he gained the trust of musicians, not by showering them with praise, but by offering them very real, constructive criticism. In my conversations with Robert, he was very clear about how uncommon it is to find music critics that seem to move beyond either blind praise or churlish, angry criticism. It was Robert’s desire that, as a music lover, he see artists grow, expand, reach their full potential. Why? Because as a lover of music, this would allow great music to potentially be created and, therefore, Robert himself would be able to partake of the joy of listening to and being moved by that very music. He wasn’t a music critic because he loved to criticize musicians, he was a music critic because he loved music! So while other critics were vicious toward an up and coming band called U2, Robert, though disappointed in many of their early albums and not afraid to express that in his reviews, often focused on what was good and promising about U2. He saw the potential of what was there and wanted to see them grow to reach that potential. But he was not afraid to criticize them.

After the release of U2′s WAR, an album he loved, Robert attended several live shows on that tour and was deeply disturbed by Bono’s dangerous physical antics, such as climbing over the balcony rail and dropping fifteen feet into the arms of  fans on the ground level. From Robert’s book CORNFLAKES WITH JOHN LENNON:

“I was troubled. In his eagerness to inspire, Bono could hurt himself and lead others to do the same thing. Indeed, two fans at the arena did follow Bono’s lead and leapt from the balcony, only this time there were no outstretched arms to greet them.”

Robert ended his review of the U2 concert by saying:

“When you have music as exciting and as purposeful as U2, you really don’t need a sideshow as well, especially a potentially dangerous one.”

The day the review appeared, Bono called Robert to say he would heed his words. That the rest of the band had been trying to stop Bono from his “antics” for a long time, but he just hadn’t listened. Until now. He informed Robert that he would not be jumping off balconies or climbing scaffolding anymore. He understood, now, that the music was enough.

So I ask again, what is to be gained in publicly calling Julie Taymor pretentious or stating that SPIDER-MAN deserves better than Julie Taymor? And what do we really know about her?

Again, Robert Hilburn’s words have relevance for me here:

“I found that I often didn’t recognize musicians I was familiar with when they were profiled in other newspapers and magazines. All too often, the writers seemed to mold the artists to fit their stories… Every great artist goes through periods when his or her image and integrity are questioned… Springsteen had been widely accused of being just “hype” when Time and Newsweek both put his photos on their covers, and [John] Lennon had to combat backlash against his “[The Beatles are] bigger than Jesus” remarks.”

I’m reminded of the public reaction to the Woody Allen scandal. It was fascinating and horrifying all at the same time. I have always been a big fan of Woody Allen’s work. And I know many people who have simply never liked him. They don’t connect with his humor, they find his intellectual ramblings boring, even distancing, and I’ve heard more than one non-fan call him downright creepy/disgusting/homely. So when it was suggested by Mia Farrow that Allen was a pedophile and had sexually assaulted their infant child (a charge he was acquitted of), it was amazing to watch how many people hopped on that bandwagon. People who knew nothing about the man, neither personally nor professionally beyond the fact that they knew they didn’t like him and maybe considered him “creepy”, found an event that fit into their pre-conceived notion of who and what he was and this accusation validated their feelings. “I knew it!” “I always said there was something wrong with that guy.” “Doesn’t surprise me at all.”

How quick we are to judge, based not on any particular reality, but on our own fears, desires, and misunderstandings.

So what of Julie Taymor? Once again I turn to the Theatre for a New Audience artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz:

“In media reports about Spider-Man, Taymor has been described as a perfectionist out of touch with concerns of budgets or the opinions of others. The person I know is a true collaborator who enjoys and wants the contributions of others and incorporates their contributions into her ultimate vision. She is also caring, hard-working and mindful of budgets. Furthermore, what’s wrong with being a perfectionist or committed to a vision?

“It is now reported that Spider-Man is undergoing rewrites and changes without Taymor. Julie Taymor is responsible for articulating her vision, and for me — and for what seemed like most of the audience who cheered when I saw Spider-Man — her vision was thrilling.”

It is far easier to condemn someone whose work we don’t appreciate or understand, than it is to find ways to foster growth in the areas that we see potential. It seems to me that what happened here with Taymor may have fit more into what some people were feeling about her already, their preconceived notions, opinions and reactions –or their deep feelings about “the Spidey mythos” itself– than about any truth of what she was trying to do. That said, the same can be said of me. My reaction is based on the fact that I admire much (though not all) of Taymor’s work. I want to see more. And I don’t find her to be a “weak-storyteller” in the slightest. Nor do I have any love or deep connection to SPIDER-MAN or its mythology so I have no opinions to offend there. Ironically enough, I had very little interest in actually seeing SPIDER-MAN outside of Taymor’s contribution. I’m not a big fan of the music of U2 and therefore Bono doing the score is not a personal draw for me, though I understand and appreciate its commercial and popular allure. No, for me, what Taymor was bringing to the table was the ONLY thing of interest to me about the entire project. And I dare-say, what ends up remaining of her vision in the final product may be the only part of the production that shows any creativity for me beyond the simply commercial execution. But again, these are my flaws, my preconceived notions, opinions, and desires. I am not immune to any of this. But I do desire to be aware of my own limitations and the ways in which I allow them to manifest. Both internally and externally. Perhaps even what I’ve written here today will prove to be less insightful or constructive than I intend and hope it to be. Perhaps it will be seen as just more bashing. I certainly write it as much from a need to articulate my thoughts and feelings as I do a need to affect change.

In their closing comments on our Taymor thread, I was accused of stating that it was not okay for someone to dislike a particular work; that I was suggesting the disliking of a film in and of itself was a form of negative criticism. Of course, I never said nor suggested any such thing. I was also accused of stating that anyone we deem, or who deems themselves, an “artist” is automatically “worthwhile,” and should be respected and exist free from hard critical scrutiny. Again, never said it or even suggested it. But it’s a curious thing to witness and it harkens back to what I was mentioning earlier about what we bring to the table that may have more to do with our reactions than the subjects we are actually commenting on; that it is more a reflection of us, than of anything else. Though nothing I wrote suggested any of the above accusations, perhaps what was “read” as opposed to what was “written” has more to do with the fears and concerns of the reader than the intent of the writer. And the same could be said of my interpretation of their comments. Though I have re-read them all for clarification, I am not immune to the particular magnifying glass of experiences and emotions that I view the world through.

And while it would be a perfect universe if artists were made of stone and unaffected by the negative press and misguided rantings of those more interested in serving their own desires to condemn and lambaste as opposed to taking a higher road and offering real-world constructive criticism for which every party benefits, the sad truth is that it is quite daunting and frightening to go out on a limb to express oneself, to have a vision of something that is new, different, or simply unknown, unexplored, but deeply felt. Artists are, more often than not, quite fragile individuals. And while I fully grant my friends that they have every right to proclaim someone pretentious or egomaniacal or even a hack, I also offer the notion that there is another option out there. But I suppose that all depends on what we hope to feed: the art itself and the environment in which it’s created (an environment we ourselves proclaim to be a part of) or our own fragile egos.

The huge budget musical extravaganza SPIDER-MAN, for which Miss Taymor committed nine years of her life, looks like it may not have ultimately been the best avenue for her to express herself artistically, insomuch as the final result will most likely not be an accurate depiction of her vision. But not all great works are created with little money in dark basements. GONE WITH THE WIND holds a special place for many for a reason. And I am often VERY critical of big-budget Hollywood films, as anyone who knows me will attest to. Mostly because I don’t find it a conducive environment to artistic expression or one that attracts many filmmakers interested in artistic expression. But there are ALWAYS exceptions. And I have no doubt Miss Taymor has learned some very hard lessons about herself and her own needs and desires here and the environments in which they may be best able to thrive. And I, personally, look forward to seeing what she does next. Regardless of whether or not it completely works for me.

Eyes Wide: In Memory Of Stanley Kubrick

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2011 by halmasonberg

It was 12 years ago today that one of the greatest filmmakers of all time died. On March 7, 1999, Stanley Kubrick, just weeks before the release of what would be his final film, went to sleep and never woke up again. I can say with absolute conviction that my approach to film, my love, passion and admiration of the art form, is a direct result of seeing Kubrick’s films at an early age.

I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in its initial release. I was six years old. I returned again on opening day for its re-release in 1972. For me, Kubrick understood cinema, the language of film, like few others. He lived it, breathed it, consumed it. And even more than that, he consistently pushed the boundaries of what cinema was, what it was capable of, even in the face of harsh criticism.

EYES WIDE SHUT was his final masterpiece and it was, like so many Kubrick films, misunderstood in its time.

“If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.” -Martin Scorsese

There are those who argue that EYES WIDE SHUT is a failed film because they believe Kubrick would have re-cut it in the final weeks before its release. And he may well have. He had certainly done that previously with other films. But never in a way that dramatically altered the film’s essence. 2001 was shortened by 17 minutes (that footage was recently rediscovered). However, Kubrick claimed that he did not prefer one cut over the other.

“I didn’t believe that the trims made a critical difference. The people who like it, like it no matter what its length, and the same holds true for the people who hate it”.

I believe the same holds true for EYES. The film as it stands is, in my opinion, one of the only film masterpieces to come out of Hollywood in the last three decades. This was the work of an artist at the top of his form and not, as many in Hollywood would have you believe, the work of a man secluded and out of touch with the world.

From the New World Encyclopedia:

According to his friends and family, Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s personal favorite of his own films… The general consensus is that Kubrick was very happy with his final film at the time of his death.

Kubrick’s in-depth exploration of sex, relationships, marriage, fidelity, sexual fantasy and society, particularly American society and its oftentimes hypocritical notions of social morality, was beyond anything audiences had ever seen. Kubrick always felt that film should be more like music than like fiction; that it should be felt before it was understood. It seems that in not “understanding” the film, audiences and many critics dismissed the work as a failure. But it was, in fact, a work told in a language enhanced and explored by its maker. Like those who cannot put down a book by Stephen King but find it difficult to get past the first page of a book by Evelyn Waugh, the cinematic language of EYES WIDE SHUT left many bewildered and, instead of looking inward, they pointed their fingers at the film and its filmmaker. Luckily, many of Kubrick’s filmic peers recognized the mastery of his work. Steven Spielberg commented that the way in which Kubrick “tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.” Martin Scorsese, in his introduction to Michael Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, observed of EYES WIDE SHUT:

“Many people were put off by the film’s unreality – the New York streets were too big, the orgy scene was a total fantasy, the action was slow and deliberate. All of this is true, and if the movie were designed to be realistic, it would be absolutely reasonable to judge these as failings. But Eyes Wide Shut is based on a Schnitzler novella called Dream Story, the story of a rift in a marriage told with the logic of a dream. And as with all dreams, you never know precisely when you’ve entered it. Everything seems real and lifelike, but different, a little exaggerated, a little off. Things appear to happen as if they were preordained, sometimes in a strange rhythm from which it’s impossible to escape. Audiences really had no preparation for a dream movie that didn’t announce itself as such, without the usual signals- hovering mists, people appearing and disappearing at will or floating off the ground. Like Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, another film severely misunderstood in its time, Eyes Wide Shut takes a couple on a harrowing journey, at the end of which they’re left clinging to each other. Both are films of terrifying self-exposure. They both ask the question: How much trust and faith can you really place in another human being? And they both end tentatively, yet hopefully. Honestly.

“Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, how could anyone have climbed that high? There are emotional passages and images and spaces in his films that have an inexplicable power, with a magnetic force that draws you in slowly, mysteriously. [Like] the raw intimacy of the exchanges between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.

“…[Kubrick] was unique in the sense that with each new film he redefined the medium and its possibilities. But he was more than just a technical innovator. Like all visionaries, he spoke the truth. And no matter how comfortable we think we are with the truth, it always comes as a profound shock when we’re forced to meet it face-to-face.”

Whatever reactive buttons Kubrick’s final film initially pushed in audiences, it doesn’t change the fact that time has a glorious way of allowing masterpieces to rise to the surface. I have no doubt that EYES WIDE SHUT will find its rightful place among the great, daring works of American cinema.

A film made by a man who knew that he did not want to live in Hollywood, who created an idyllic life surrounded by friends, family and nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the movie-making machine and the egos and tyrants that are, to this day, drawn to it. And in his relatively simple life, Kubrick was able to explore not only himself, but those around him. No, Kubrick was not cut off from the world; he was closer to it than most any other filmmaker living and working in Hollywood today. And EYES WIDE SHUT is the final gift he gave us. Hopefully, as a society, we’ll catch up to it one day and give it the recognition it deserves.

“If Kubrick had lived to see the opening of his final film, he obviously would have been disappointed by the hostile reactions. But I’m sure that in the end he would have taken it with a grain of salt and moved on. That’s the lot of all true visionaries, who don’t see the use of working in the same vein as everyone else. Artists like Kubrick have minds expansive and dynamic enough to picture the world in motion, to comprehend not just where its been, but where it’s going._ –Martin Scorsese

Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE. The L.A. Screening

Posted in Childhood, Favorite Quotes, Film, Misc with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by halmasonberg

After a lifetime of waiting, I was finally able to catch up with a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s infamous first narrative feature film FEAR AND DESIRE. Made at the youthful age of 23, after having shot and directed a few short documentaries and having been a photographer for LOOK magazine for a number of years, Stanley Kubrick embarked on what would turn out to be the beginning of a lifelong passion. Today, FEAR AND DESIRE is best known as the film Stanley Kubrick didn’t want anyone to see.

Rumors persist that Kubrick tracked down prints, as well as the negative, and had them burned. Not true. Or so says Eastman House Motion Picture Curator Caroline Frick Page. Turns out Kubrick never owned the rights to the film, but did request on numerous occasions –and quite adamantly– that Eastman House not show the print of the film residing in their permanent collection. But now that Kubrick has passed on to the world beyond (the infinite?), Eastman House seems to be a bit more open to screening their print. Though don’t expect to see much of it as this is, apparently, the only known surviving 35mm print in the world. Some (though not all) of the negative has been found and, according once again to the very gracious and articulate Caroline Frick Page, a collaboration may soon be undertaken to restore FEAR AND DESIRE for wider public consumption, though nothing official is as yet in the works.

What to say about the film itself… Well, it’s easy to understand why Kubrick felt this production to be amateurish and why he was embarrassed by it. At least when viewed beside his other works. However… while it is true that the acting is at times quite bad (and at other times quite passable or, at least, fascinating), and the script rather portentous and amateur, the visuals are nothing shy of a feast. Shot by Kubrick himself, the black and white photography is stunning and the compositions exceptionally potent. The editing isn’t always as strong as it could be, but there are times when it is oddly effective and certainly the inception of concepts to come. But it’s the imagery that is without question the film’s strongest element and more than enough of an excuse for seeing this first narrative work by one of the world’s master filmmakers.

And while there’s no fixing the script, the themes and concepts explored are ones that Kubrick would return to repeatedly in his later work. This is, as well as the visuals, another strong argument for the film being seen. Add to this actor/director Paul Mazursky’s acting debut (a very strange and disturbing performance) and I truly think the argument to show the film outweighs Kubrick’s desire to have it hidden. At the same time, part of me wants to honor Kubrick’s wishes, while the other part of me is just thrilled beyond measure that Eastman House chose to screen this print. As a filmmaker and film-lover, seeing FEAR AND DESIRE was and is a rather big moment in my ongoing experience of cinema. It is also a fantastic insight into the early creative mind of a filmmaker who helped sculpt how I see cinema and opened artistic doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. And despite its many flaws and imperfections, FEAR AND DESIRE is a film worth seeing. And one that sticks with you (at least it did me). Kubrick once said that film should be more like music than like fiction. Well, FEAR AND DESIRE may not be Kubrick’s master composition, but it certainly shows an artist who had already formed that notion very early on, regardless of whether or not he was aware of it at the time.

The screening at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood was followed by a Q&A with Paul Mazursky and Eastman House’s Caroline Frick Page. Below you will find audio for that Q&A (not professionally recorded, but quite listenable nonetheless). Please note that several Melies shorts were shown before FEAR AND DESIRE and are referenced in the Q&A. The Q&A is presented in three parts:

Below is an audio segment from an interview with Stanley Kubrick done in 1966. In this segment, Kubrick discusses the making of FEAR AND DESIRE and his feelings about the film:

Doug Trumbull’s BEYOND THE INFINITE 2001 Doc

Posted in Blu-Ray, DVD, Film, Home Theater with tags , , , , , , on September 9, 2010 by halmasonberg

Being as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is still, lo these many years later, my all-time favorite film, nothing could thrill me more than getting a sneak peak at effects wizard Douglas Trumbull’s new documentary on the making of 2001. This looks to be, from all reports, the quintessential behind-the scenes-documentary.

The video trailer for the film is available on Trumbull’s own web site and is very exciting indeed! Just go to the site, scroll down, and click “2001:  A Space Odyssey – Documentary.”

I’m not sure if this doc will be released on its own, or whether it will be part of Warner Bros. proposed Stanley Kubrick Blu-ray Collection.  When I find out, you will, too!

Either way, I’ll be there.

“How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations

Posted in Art, Film, Los Angeles, THE PLAGUE, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by halmasonberg

Why is it that so many people have such rigid definitions of what constitutes art or the artistic process? To me, it seems to defy the very definition. My experience working as a filmmaker in Hollywood has brought me face to face with folks who are striving to say something, and others who place little value on artistic self-expression. But what’s most difficult to navigate for me, is the artist who appears to have given in to the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to make a film.

I recently had a conversation with two friends about film editing. They are both extremely intelligent, extremely creative people. One of them has directed a feature that got taken away from him in post, the other is about to embark on his directorial debut. Both suggested that it was not in the best interest of the film or the story for the director to edit his/her own movie.

“You have no perspective,” was the reasoning.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe every director should edit his/her own movie. Quite the contrary. Editing is an art form all its own. It is also a skill that is developed. And there are some extraordinary director/editor relationships that are downright biblical (Scorcese/Schoonmaker, Coppola/Murch, Tarantino/Menke).  These artists have found a creative connection that inspires; they each feel that they are better together than separate. It has become an integral part of their creative process. And, of course, this extends to writer/director relationships (Powell/Pressburger, Ivory/Jhabvala, Lee/Schamus), director/cinematographer relationships (Bergman/Nykvist, Mann/Alton, Bertolucci/Storaro), and director/actor relationships (Scorsese/DeNiro, Allen/Keaton, von Sternberg/Dietrich). I doubt there are many people out there who would rather these relationships didn’t exist. But just because these teamings are successful, does that mean writers should not direct? Directors should not shoot? Actors should not direct? Or in the case of this discussion, directors should not edit?

There are no rules to the creative process. Every artist must approach their art in the way they believe leads to the end goal. And to do so, one needs to have an end goal in mind. That goal can be something concrete, or it can be something amorphous, more a feeling, a tone, something instinctual. I love the collaborative creative process. And I love the solitary creative process. As a writer, I remain solitary. Until I feel that I can go no further without the creative input of those I trust and admire. Some folks prefer having a writing partner. I’ve done both and, currently, I prefer the former. I have found it to be more creatively freeing and inspiring. For me.

There is not a one-size-fits-all roadmap to making art. To storytelling. To self-expression. To filmmaking.

Woody Allen claims that one should never try and write a script without knowing exactly where it’s going; that if one attempts to write that script otherwise, they will hit a wall around page 60 and have no idea where to go from there. I am a life-long admirer of Allen’s work. I think he is a brilliant, insightful writer/director. However, his take on writing is true for him. And, I am certain, for many, many others. It is not, however, the approach I have found works best for me in achieving what I want from a script. I prefer to work stream-of-consciousness. I have learned to trust my subconscious to create things in the moment that reveal themselves to me later. It is that very same experience I want to take with me onto the set AND into the editing room. As the writer/director/editor of a film, I am fully engaged in the writing process which, for me, not only continues through editing, but finally arrives at editing. It does not cease simply because I have moved beyond the script. I am telling a story. Hopefully, with a unique voice. The writing of that story, in film terms, is not complete until the picture is locked. So until that happens, my subconscious is allowed to run free.

After writing and directing my first feature, I lost that film in post-production to the powers-that-be and the film was re-edited from scratch without my participation. The result was a story and film that showed virtually nothing of who I was as an artist, filmmaker, director, writer or human being. During our editing conversation the other night, my friend suggested that there are only so many ways an editor can change what you’ve shot.

There are very few things in this world I disagree with more.

There are infinite possibilities for how a film can be put together based on the footage shot. Tone, style, pacing, meaning, even the very story itself, can all be different from what was initially intended. All via the editing process. Performances can be dramatically altered. Even main characters can be turned into secondary characters. Unless, of course, one is editing an Alfred Hitchcock film. Hitch, to maintain creative control, would edit his films, essentially, in-camera so that there was only one way to put the images together. He found a way to be the editor on his own films without entering the editing room.

Barring that approach, anything is possible in the editing room. There are thousands of ways to edit together a single scene. Millions to edit together an entire film. One has to truly understand this in order to comprehend the enormous power and potential of film editing. It has been my experience that most people do not.

When I sat down to create my own cut of the film that the studio took away (something I was told I could not do, but did anyway), I learned something I never knew before: I loved editing more than any other phase in the filmmaking process. I experienced a level of intimacy with the story, performances and footage that turned this part of the journey into one of the single most satisfying creative undertakings of my entire life. I was connected to the film in a way that transcended where I had been. And believe me, after 8 years of fighting to get the film made and living through the all-encompassing experience of directing it, I was already pretty damned immersed in the world of my story. But this was far more intense and personal than the seven weeks I spent working with an editor before the film was taken away and re-cut by the studio.

It was thru editing that I was able to complete the story, in my own voice, and impart an experience on to others that matched, not only what I had envisioned, but what I had felt. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that I put the film together exactly as I had storyboarded it. Or even exactly as I had shot it. There is no point in the creative process when I want to close myself off to inspiration. Editing was more creative and instinctual a process for me than the actual writing itself. It was a crucial extension of the storytelling journey and the final piece of the puzzle I was looking for. And I am certainly not the first filmmaker to feel this way.

“I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.” –Stanley Kubrick

When asked which area of filmmaking he most looked forward to, filmmaker John Sayles replied:

“It’s editing, actually. So often when I write a movie I have no idea if I’m going to get to make it — or make it in the next decade. It’s taken us so long to get some of our movies made, and I’ve had to do other lower-budget things first, that you can feel like a real sap when you sit down and write. I like a lot about directing, but it’s really stressful because there is always disaster looming with each new shot. The sun may go away, or you might have an actor who starts a new film tomorrow and you still have five scenes to shoot with him. So many things are totally out of your control. It’s a bit like trying to write something very serious with a taxi meter next to you. You just see the money ticking off every second you’re thinking. When you get to the editing, you’re still making the film, you’re still working with the actors, their performances, the rhythm of the film. You’re still rewriting, but there’s not that pressure. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or not. I know, at that point, I’m gonna make the movie. I know it’s not going to fall apart and the money isn’t going to disappear from the bank if we get it that far. It’s one of the reasons I continue to edit. It’s more fun.”

From what I was able to gather, my friends felt as if, in denying the editing of the film to be done through fresh eyes, I was not taking advantage of all of the opportunities offered in the filmmaking process, hence not putting the film first, but my ego instead. I suppose the same could be said of a writer who does not allow another director to take over and interpret the script through fresh eyes. Or a director who does not allow someone else to shoot and light the film. Or a director who does not allow someone else to star in the film.

I will repeat: there are no rules in art.

There is no question that a healthy, creative relationship with an editor can and will yield amazing results and unpredictable discoveries. But it is not the only valid approach to making a film. The filmmaker’s storytelling palette, if it extends to editing, may bring something of equal or greater value. It works both ways. To suggest that the filmmaking process is dependent on hiring someone else to edit is to limit the creative process of the individual. It is just as valid to edit the film oneself as it is to have an editor. But one must want to go on a solitary editing journey. And have the skills to do so. And they must have a strong vision and be open to discovery. And trust their instincts. And their subconscious. All approaches will yield something different. All are equally creative. But to limit that process to one way and not another is, well, in my opinion, a misguided lesson to impart to future filmmakers. Were everyone to believe that a director should never edit his/her films, then the filmmaking world would be missing some of the great works by the Coen Brothers, John Sayles, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh… All filmmakers who edit their own films. Some, like Soderbergh and Rodriguez, even shoot their own films. Are they not artists who serve their stories?

Yes, film is almost always a collaborative effort. But what portions are collaborative are up to the artist, assuming one has control. Does the writer have to have a writing partner, or is it equally valid to write the script oneself? By dictating an artist’s palette, we risk destroying the very creative process itself.

From Sean Smith’s dismal, misguided Newsweek article “Career Intervention.”

“When someone is given total artistic freedom,” says one blockbuster producer, “the result is usually bad.”

Yes, there are producers who feel directors should never have creative control. Does that make it so? This is undoubtedly true for that particular producer’s approach to making a film, but if it were to be accepted as the way to make a film…

In an excerpt from that same article, one indie exec comments on the negative repercussions of filmmakers (like Stanley Kubrick) who choose to live and work outside of Hollywood:

“The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be.”

As if there were only one true way to be an artist. As if Hollywood were the center of the universe. In a town where people are told how things are done and what can and can’t be done, there are many who fall into the trap of believing what they’re told without actually finding out for themselves. “No one gets final cut.” If you’re a filmmaker in Hollywood, you’re going to hear that line uttered more than any other. It is not true. But I’ve heard it repeated by filmmakers themselves, regurgitating what they have been lead to believe. Yet, there are directors who get final cut. Yes, even some first-time directors. So what happens when the facts outweigh the statement, but the statement is perpetuated? What is the psychology behind this? If having final cut is not important to someone, then it is a non-issue. However, if maintaining creative control is important to you, then it can be done. It is every day.

If, as a filmmaker, you look forward to working with an editor, if that excites you, inspires you, then that is what you should do. But to dictate that approach to all other filmmakers is creatively restrictive. Every filmmaker has a different reason for making their film. Every filmmaker envisions a different outcome, enjoys a different process. We all find what works best for us as individual artists. As individual creators. As individual storytellers. Even in a town where the word “individual” is dirty and creative alienation is the soup of the day.

For more thoughts on film editing, check out my post: “The Art Of Film Editing & The Plague Of Ego.”

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: A Love Song To Boys

Posted in Blu-Ray, Books, Childhood, Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2010 by halmasonberg

I wish I could take credit for that phrase, but it was a friend of a friend who coined it. And it’s perfect.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is everything the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book should be. In a non-Hollywood world. One can only imagine what this film might have looked like in the hands of a Ron Howard (the live-action HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS starring Jim Carrey) or a Bo Welch (the live-action THE CAT IN THE HAT starring Mike Myers). But in the hands of Spike Jonze, the film is a raw, emotional journey more akin to a poem than a plot-driven narrative. Kudos to Warner Brothers for getting behind Jonze’s vision and seeing that a mature and artistic film was produced and released. And while it’s true WILD THINGS didn’t make as much money as the two above-mentioned atrocities, nor did it receive any Academy Award nominations (THE GRINCH won for Best Makeup and was also nominated for Best Costume Design), even though WILD THINGS is brimming over with creativity and the creatures are simply the most expressive and individual creations I’ve seen on screen in many a year (and that includes AVATAR), I believe WILD THINGS will stand the test of time better than any of those more immediately “profitable” films.

There’s a Stanley Kubrick quote I often repeat and I’ll do so again here:

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

That was certainly the case with Sendak’s book. It wasn’t a long book, just a few pages, really, with some vivid images and very few words. So while the story itself wasn’t “fleshed-out” in the way a novel would be, the book stirred the imagination and evoked feelings, both joyous and frightening, but always honest. And Jonze’s film adaptation stays true to this in spades. Jonze:
“One of the things I was worried about is that the book is just so beloved to so many people. And as I started to have ideas for it I was worried that I was just making what it means to me, and what the book triggers in me from when I was a kid. And I’d be worried that other people were gonna be disappointed, because it’s like adapting a poem. It can mean so much to so many different people. And Maurice [Sendak] was very insistent that that’s all I had to do… just make what it was to me, just to make something personal and make something that takes kids seriously and doesn’t pander to them. He told me that when his book came out, it was considered dangerous. It was panned by critics and child psychologists and librarians, because it wasn’t how kids were talked to. And it took like only two years after the book was out that kids started finding it in the libraries, and basically kids discovered it and made it what it is. And now it’s 40 years later and it’s a classic. So he said you just have to make something according to your own instinct.”

It should be noted that WILD THINGS isn’t necessarily a film for kids. Now that doesn’t mean, of course, that kids won’t like or appreciate it, but it doesn’t speak down to them and Jonze pulls no punches in his telling and interpretation of the story. It is incredibly scary and unsettling at times. The film does, after all, explore the wild emotions that surge through all of us when we’re young and don’t yet have the tools to control or understand the sweeping inner turmoil we are subjected to. And lead actor Max Records imparts this inner conflict with such abandon that it is impossible not to participate in his wildly emotional journey.

From the first frame of Max, dressed in his now famous wolf costume, chasing his dog around the house as if interacting one wild beast to another, the audience is told immediately that this film is more about emotion than plot; more interior than exterior. As Max catches up with his dog and latches onto it like a wolf pouncing on its prey, his mouth open wide and screaming with the fierceness and joy and exuberance of a creature both out of control and in its element, Jonze freezes the frame as the main title appears. Wild things, indeed. We are clearly not in for a saccharine ride.

And the tone that Jonze sets in that opening sequence maintains its momentum and strength throughout the film. From Max’s interactions with his sister and her friends, to his mother and her boyfriend, Max’s journey is a roller-coaster of joy, sadness, anger, loneliness, exhilaration and confusion. But it is also a journey and celebration of small moments. Like when Max plays with his mother’s stockinged toes under her writing desk where she works. It is one of those intimate moments we have as kids; a private world–a cave of sorts–where we get to examine things up close, to touch and feel and poke. A place we rarely go to as adults, but which linger deep in our subconscious and in our sense-memory. Places of comfort, be it that space under the desk or a self-made igloo created in the aftermath of a blizzard or, as the film later parallels, a nest to be built and destroyed and rebuilt again. Creation is often followed by destruction and then creation again, much in the same way we eventually leave some of our wild beasties behind, even though we never forget them and still hold them somewhere close, just out of reach. They are the building blocks of our personalities, our way into the world, how we interact and comprehend.

And the world of both Max and his Wild Things are presented to us as equally real. Not a fantasy world painted with broad, colorful strokes or a CG wonderland of unreality, but an organic world of dirt and shadow, of sunlight and cold. As children, the worlds of our imagination are all-consuming; they are real to us and Jonze honors that world. He takes it as seriously as we ourselves do.

As a writer myself, I have learned to embrace and celebrate the process of writing stream-of-consciousness; not working from a pre-determined plot or sequence of events, but instead, allowing my subconscious to run free, uninhibited; to let the characters and events speak for themselves, to dictate what will happen next. To allow myself to be surprised and to trust that my own inner voice has something to say, something to reveal. It is, in many ways, the antithesis to how Hollywood approaches storytelling.

Hollywood today can be seen as the death of subtext. Stories are written and rewritten by committee until the story has been stripped bare of that individual voice that is–or would have been– our most personal link to the story and characters. Gone are the unspoken themes that emerge regardless of an author’s intent; the layers beneath the layers that are imparted to our unconscious, those things that are felt before they are understood. All too often in the contemporary Hollywood film, emotional responses are calculated, plot beats and motivations explained. It is more often than not whittled down to something that works on the surface, but rarely touches on the primal, where I believe the best stories flourish and thrive. Spike Jonze:

“I slowly just tried to trust that there were certain feelings in the movie that didn’t need dialogue, and that we didn’t have to have dialogue saying what the movie is about so much as the movie just being about it. So we slowly just tried to find places where we could strip the dialogue back and let the feeling of the photography and the mood and the performances do the work.”

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE inhabits this primal, poetic world, and it does so with the exuberance of life and childhood, with honesty, and without apology. It is truly an inner journey–helped along by Karen O and Carter Burwell’s stunning, evocative score–that trusts our hearts over our minds, while intimately celebrating both.

It is truly a love song to boys. And to all children. And the adults they become.

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