Waking up to the news of the passing of Leonard Nimoy was like being hit in the face with an unexpected left hook. It reverberated throughout my body and is breaking my heart in a thousand different ways. Like losing a dear friend.
Bless the Brits.
Here in the States, we seem to pride ourselves on our right to be ignorant. But the British MASTERS OF CINEMA series of DVD and Blu-ray releases, like THE CRITERION COLLECTION here in the U.S., cares about the integrity of the work it puts out there. MOC takes it to the next level, however.
In reading through the booklet that came with the region-free Blu-ray of Murnau’s CITY GIRL, I came across the following page:
That’s right. I am clearly not the only one who finds it intolerable and unacceptable when people dramatically alter the intended experience of art that so many people worked so diligently, creatively, skillfully and proudly to create. I’ve literally gotten into heated arguments with friends and family who pride themselves in simply not giving a shit.
Walk into any restaurant, bar, coffee shop, etc. with a TV on (and they ALL seem to have TV’s these days, which I find egregious, but that’s another story), and you will see images that are stretched or squeezed by folks who could either care less or, worse, don’t even seem to notice! For me, it’s more than a pet peeve. It’s a spotlight on an attitude toward art and creativity that I think puts this country culturally and educationally behind many others.
It’s also the language that MOC chose to use that brings such a joyous grin to my face: “The above images are a distortion and corruption of the original artwork, which travesty the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space.”
MOC doesn’t stop there, however. The bottom of the page adds a SPECIAL NOTE addressing the horrific use and overuse of “motion-smoothing” which many, if not most, HD TVs now have as their default setting. I have been preaching for years now against the atrocities of this technology that makes everything look like it was shot using a soap opera video camera. Yes, motion smoothing (aka frame interpolation), too, is both a corruption and a travesty. Even if you don’t care. Ignorance or apathy do not make good arguments in favor of anything.
Once you grossly distort an image, you are no longer experiencing the work as it was intended, therefore it no longer reflects the creativity, artistry and, possibly most importantly, the humanity that was shared and expressed via the artist or artists behind the work. You are, in essence, removing the storytellers from the storytelling. What you are left with, in such a case, is something that is false, a poor imitation prone to misinterpretation.
So thank you to MASTERS OF CINEMA for not only giving a shit, but for being willing to call it for what it is. And for the desire to educate. Something that has become somewhat of a dirty word here in the States.
These were actor Mark Ruffalo’s words to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan upon seeing the 3-hour cut of Lonergan’s film MARGARET.
For those who don’t know, playwright Lonergan’s second film (his first was the incredibly well-received YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, also starring Ruffalo), underwent a tremendous journey from script to screen. The epic urban tale was filmed in 2005 by Lonergan and lingered in an interminably long editing limbo. Lonergan had a difficult time finding the cut that worked for him; an artist struggling to find his vision while financiers and a studio breathed down his neck. Not that Lonergan was a victim here. His needs (to be left alone to do the work) are a lot to ask when so much time and money is on the line. Something Lonergan is well-aware of. And he seems to carry little resentment over how things went down. He seems to understand all-too-well the role he played in the film’s history.
“Nobody really did anything wrong, exactly, it’s just everyone was very frightened and nervous. Some people can have fights and then go back to work; I have a big fight and I shake for the rest of the day. Or even if it’s not a fight, it’s just a conversation, and a problem comes up I think about that [constantly], so I very much need to be left alone completely and that’s the one thing that’s very difficult for people. Understandably. I mean, write a cheque for $12 million dollars and you wanna make sure it’s going to come out all right, it’s reasonable. But I need to find a way to separate the two things… Not that it was all bad, the film came out very well, I’m happy with the result and I’m happy that people seem to like it. So I don’t know what more I can ask for. Except to be younger.”
Producer Scott Rudin pushed Lonergan to complete his cut until he finally realized what was happening:
“Kenny’s not a guy who takes distractions well or easily. He’s somebody who is highly concentrated on the work and not at all interested in the politics. So when the politics started to become noisier than the work, that was hard for him.”
Lonergan was contracted to deliver a two and a half hour film. Financier/producer Gary Gilbert stepped in when this seemed like an impossibility and commissioned a 2-hr cut from a different editor. This satisfied no one but the financier himself. Finally, in the fall of 2008, Lonergan delievered a 2-1/2 hr cut that everyone but Gilbert signed off on. Many say Gilbert didn’t sign off out of bitterness and a vindictive nature due to the negative response to his handling of Lonergan and his insistence of his own 2-hour cut as the preferred version of the film. Gilbert refused to pay his half of the $12.5 million budget. Lawsuits ensued.
According to Rudin:
“The guy who pays for the movie is not supposed to be [in the editing room]. . . . He’s a guy who wrote a check. Mr. Gilbert badly hurt the movie. Mr. Gilbert going in and working in the editorial department was a very destructive act… If you’re making a movie with Kenny Lonergan and you sign off on the script, he’s the director, that’s the contract you made. Because you decide that you’re anxious about your investment, that doesn’t give you the right to completely recalibrate your relationship.”
Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (both friends and supporters of Lonergan’s) were brought in to the editing room to heal wounds and delivered a 160 minute cut that everyone signed off on, including Lonergan, but again Gilbert refused. Mark Ruffalo:
“There comes a point where people cut off their nose to spite their face, and I certainly witnessed that. Whatever bad blood went down between them, I never felt like Gary ever got over it and actually tried to ensure that the movie and Kenny would be harmed.”
So with three cuts now in limbo and still no version really satisfying Lonergan’s vision, the film ended up in cinema purgatory for a total 6 years, unseen by a curious public confused by the many behind-the-scenes tales.
Eventually, in the fall of 2011, Lonergan’s own 2-1/2 hour cut of the film was released with almost no marketing. It disappeared almost immediately. A twitter campaign fueled by fans and critics resurrected the film for another theatrical release in October of that same year. But it was too-little too-late and the film was barely recognized by the public at large.
Now, the 2-1/2 hour cut has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. But Lonergan’s 3 hr cut has also been released, though you will not find it streaming or for rental. It is available ONLY on DVD and ONLY on the DVD/Blu-ray Combo pack sold on Amazon. And while this is not being marketed as a Director’s Cut but as an Extended Cut, it is widely considered the cut to see as it seems to be the version that comes closest to capturing Lonergan’s vision.
In the writer/director’s own words:
“It’s not a director’s cut. We’re calling it an extended cut. It’s a different version. A director’s cut is where they take the movie away from you and chop it to pieces and send it out without your permission…This is just another version with a little bit more of everything in it.”
Matt Damon, who is one of the film’s many notable stars, explains:
“One of the reasons this took so long is because [Lonergan] didn’t want to give up and he’s put his whole soul into this thing to the exclusion of any other work he could have been doing. And it wasn’t a triumph at the end because they weren’t able to release his version.”
Well, now that version is available. But sadly, that availability is limited and will still only be seen by a select few “in the know.” So, while it’s great that we finally get to see the film, there is still a battle to find a way to put this cut of the film out there for others to access, to discover, to be potentially moved by (not to mention to see it in Hi-def on Blu-ray). In a country where surface mediocrity is lauded as deep and introspective (THE DESCENDANTS, UP IN THE AIR), it’s a shame that one of the greatest contemporary American films has gotten so lost, so mismanaged, so belittled. Academy voters were either unaware or indifferent. Not that an award is the be-all and end-all of any work of art, but it does offer an opportunity to raise awareness of a film’s existence. But then the question comes into play as to whether the average American movie-goer would even get that they were in the presence of one of the greatest American films to come along in years. Very few contemporary films suggest that Americans as filmmakers and filmwatchers are capable of any level of depth or insight. More than not, most American films showcase our unwillingness to dig beneath the surface, to understand anything but the most literal, the most blatant. This was not always the case, but it appears we have somehow managed to devolve into such a state. It’s not that there aren’t daring writers and filmmakers out there, it’s just that the battle to get those films made, no less released, is near-impossible. The corporatization of the industry combined with a slow infantalization and anti-intellectualization of the populace has culminated in a rather hostile creative landscape. To quote Ruffalo again, “it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country.”
Of the three best contemporary films I’ve seen recently, only MARGARET is American-made. The other two, CERTIFIED COPY and NORWEGIAN WOOD, are both foreign-made, foreign-language films. Only the 3-hour cut of MARGARET represents the artistic potential and expressive sensibility present in our country and, as stated already, most Americans are completely unaware of its existence and will have a hard time seeing it even if they are. And, by any contemporary standard, the film’s an anomaly; films like MARGARET rarely, if ever, get made here. And when they do, birthing them is usually an extraordinarily painful process and these babies are reviled as bastard children or stillbirths by the masses (certainly by the corporate powers-that-be). But thankfully, there are those who recognize their beauty and their innate humanity and fight vigorously and tirelessly to see these children find their proper place in the world. And that’s where our hope for the future lies. But it’s a staggering uphill battle.
Then there are those who recognized something extraordinary in Lonergan’s theatrical cut who have not been able to make the leap to the three hour cut. I’ve read online a number of self-proclaimed reviewers mourning the longer cut as “ruining” a masterpiece. They complain about “unnecessary” imagery of people walking the streets of N.Y., of the soundscape of the film having been changed to no longer focus exclusively on the main characters, but on the people in the world around them. I have heard complaints of too many shots of planes and buildings and of the 3-hour cut’s use of opera music. We have become so unaccustomed to anything but the most patent and transparent that we have lost sight of subtext, of metaphor, of cinematic language. I cannot imagine MARGARET without the scenes of our main character Lisa walking among the throngs of New Yorkers, her voice, her story, no more important than the voices and stories taking place all around her. This is a film about a teenager slowly coming to the realization that she is not the center of the universe. That her life is no more or less important than the lives of those around her. She is literally becoming aware of the world she lives in.
As for the opera music and scenes, the entire film centers around how teenagers often see their experiences as taking place in a melodramatic world; they hear the histrionic scores of their lives as they stumble their way through a rather self-centered world on the brink of shattering with no real understanding or perception of the consequences of their actions. This isn’t a judgement, but an observation. Without this, the film loses one of its most powerful threads thus weakening the final moments of this beautiful, touching and emotionally poignant film. After all, the movie is titled MARGARET, who is not a character in the film, but taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem titled “Spring and Fall: To a young child:”
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
THIS is what the film’s about at its heart, in its soul, and all the pieces Lonergan has placed back into his Extended Cut and all the changes he’s made from the shorter version work toward enhancing this theme, both emotionally, practically and aesthetically. The shorter version is, while still extraordinary, more “conventional” than the longer cut. Certainly less poetic. And, as a result, it lacks the nuances of its sibling.
For example: Planes and buildings… The film takes place in a world still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11: the violence and suffering, the trauma, the fear, pain, longing and need for retribution that so many felt in the years following that tragic event. And how we eventually lost some of what we gained through our shared experience. Lonergan:
“Don’t you remember how everybody was slightly more awake or more attuned? You’d hear a car backfire and you’d jump? I remember it took several years before I stopped noticing airplanes. It was sort of like the city was still shaking from it, but also didn’t quite know how to be about it. I feel like it just suddenly supercharged everybody with an awareness that they didn’t have before, but without much more information… In 2003, every time an airplane went by you went ‘Oof,’ felt nervous. That’s not the case any more. That lasted for about 5 years… so [back then] everyone was a bit nervous and on edge. It was a bit different for a few years and unfortunately I don’t think the difference has sunk in in quite the way that I wish it had. For a moment it felt like, I felt like, the U.S. had joined the rest of the world, and then two weeks later all the TV commercials were back and it was all the same again. And I don’t think it’s very different now from how it was in 2000.”
For anyone who has read any of my other posts either on writing or on film, it should come as no surprise that Lonergan’s MARGARET is my kind of film. My personal journey as a writer has taken me down a path where I have started not only to trust my subconscious throughout the storytelling process, but to consider it my most valued and faithful partner:
“I tried to turn off my conscious mind and that’s why the first draft of the script, it was never meant to be shot, but it was 306 pages, because I let scenes go on. I knew where it was going and I knew where the beats were and I just kind of closed my eyes, and it’s amazing what happens when you do that. I had a wonderful time writing it and it was very easy to cut a hundred pages out of it in two weeks — you know when she goes to see the bus driver in Brooklyn, that scene is probably six pages long and it was sixteen pages long when I wrote it.”
The growth Kenneth Lonergan has shown from his first feature to his second is monumental. Where YOU CAN COUNT ON ME had a terrific script with terrific performances, it was most certainly directed by someone whose hand had not yet steadied to the cinematic craft, though Lonergan himself is a lover of cinema, particularly classic. With MARGARET, Lonergen has made one of the most profound, insightful and emotionally gripping pieces of cinema to come out of the heart and mind of an American filmmaker in years. It is the greatest reflection of who and what we are, of how we see and experience the world. This is a film that showcases what American filmmakers are capable of beyond our technological prowess. I urge you to find a way to see it.
In its full 180 minute Extended Cut version, of course.
I’ve read most (though not yet all) of Haruki Murakami’s books. NORWEGIAN WOOD is easily his most straight-forward and accessible. This from a writer known for his stream-of-consiousness and oftentimes abstract and dreamlike storytelling qualities. The book came as a surprise to those who may have wondered if Murakami was capable of writing outside his surreal comfort-zone (a zone I love, by the way). Apparently, Murakami wrote NORWEGIAN WOOD to answer this question for himself as well. It’s a beautiful work, heart-wrenching and melancholy, but also filled with vivid joys and hidden pleasures.
I was concerned when I heard the book was being adapted to film. It was somewhat of a relief to learn that the film was being done in Murakami’s country of origin, Japan, and not here in Hollywood. Then when I found out the director would be Vietnamese-born Tran Anh Hung, who gave us the stunning and evocative THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA, my hopes raised even higher, despite the fact I had hoped for a Japanese director (Hung lives in France and doesn’t speak Japanese). But Hung’s sensibilities as a filmmaker offered the possibility that the emotional backbone of the story would be honored.
The film was released internationally in 2010 to some good reviews, but it wasn’t until January 2012 that the film found a VERY limited release here in the States (with the exception of one film fest screening at the always open-minded Seattle International Film Festival back in 2011). Following its almost non-existent U.S. theatrical run, the film finally found its way to DVD here in the States –but oddly not Blu-ray in this somewhat artistically limited country of ours. And that’s a shame as WOOD is a visually stunning film and deserves the hi-def treatment (a region-A Hong Kong Blu-ray version is available).
Tran Anh Hung’s interpretation of Murakami’s NORWEGIAN WOOD is an incredibly visceral and moving experience. Like PAPAYA, the story unfolds through a series of impressionistic moments, emotional beats and haunting imagery. The casting is terrific with faces that burn into our mind’s eye and linger as if excised directly from our own past, from our dreams, fantasies and nightmares. The film is a beautiful piece of work and I believe will stick with me for some time to come. It is also a film I will return to. I already feel the pull to experience it again and it hasn’t even been 24 hours.
Sadly but not surprisingly, American critics were luke warm at best in their response to WOOD. However, I think Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir summed it up best:
“This is a wonderful, passionate, well-nigh unforgettable adaptation of a great novel about the horrors of love, and the wonderful fact that at least some of us live through it and come back for more.”
The film brought me back to the roller coaster of complex emotions that still linger in my sense-memory of the madness and joys of youthful love and the inevitable loss which followed –in much the same way Murakami’s novel so hauntingly did. The New York Times Stephen Holden summed the film up in what I expect was meant to be a negative illustration, but one I think apt and, for me, praise-worthy:
“Norwegian Wood” registers less as a coherent narrative than as a tortuous reverie steeped in mournful yearning.”
For me, the most natural form of storytelling –the one that registers in our deepest recesses– are the ones told, not as so-called “coherent narratives,” but as reveries, steeped in metaphor. All of us, as human beings, lie our heads down each night to face our subconscious which naturally, organically, works through our struggles, joys and fears with surreal, metaphorical storytelling. We wake, oftentimes having to interpret the stories we’ve created for ourselves while our defenses were down. And these stories often linger within us, even if the events themselves have been forgotten. For me, NORWEGIAN WOOD successfully taps into that same place where dreams are born.
I originally wrote this article for THE EXAMINER on March 29, 2010. I’m slowly transferring some of those articles over to my blog.
Blu-ray is the best thing to hit the home theater world since, well… since DVD. Except it’s so much better than DVD. And while the picture and sound are mostly quite astounding (albeit with varying degrees of quality depending on studio and film), there are still some areas that need work.
Among the biggest pet peeves one reads about is the almost always ridiculously awful cover art. One wonders if the marketing folks behind such things have a clue as to what the movies are about, what tone they set, or who their audience is. Original artwork is almost always tossed aside and replaced with what appears to be a slapped-together series of still cutouts ranging from the patently boring to the grotesquely absurd. Will someone please take the time to honor these films with something that borders on creative and/or fitting?
Next up would be disc menus. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to create menus that contain actual scenes from the film you are about to watch, but it has caught on and spread like the bubonic plague. As if the viewer of said movie needed that extra little bit of inspiration to click “play.” Because, after all, who doesn’t want to see crucial scenes from the film they’re about to watch?! There are Blu-ray menus out there that actually contain scenes from the films’ surprise climaxes (e.g. “House Of The Devil”). Are the menus geared toward folks who have already seen the film? Is that the logic? Because if you’re the type of viewer who doesn’t want to know what happens in a film before you see it, then you’re gonna have to devise some way to navigate through the menu without catching crucial moments from the film while doing so. Good luck with that. Perhaps Warners has the right idea with Blu-ray discs that skip the menu entirely and go directly to the film itself. Pop it in and watch.
Taking this discussion one step further, let’s discuss for a moment the distribution companies that insist on making it impossible to jump to the menu. No, first you have to either watch or skip from one trailer to the next. And oftentimes the “skip” option is disabled. That’ll boil your blood. Then there are the endless advertisements extolling the virtues of Blu-ray for people who clearly already own a Blu-ray player! Is no one considering the fact that those who purchase Blu-rays most likely watch these films more than once and may not want to sit through a hundred trailers each and every time they throw the disc in their player? And even if this is done for the first-time viewer, can we at least have the option of going straight to the menu anyway? Ever hear of the term “user-friendly?”
Then there’s the overuse of DNR and edge-enhancement. Great films like PATTON and OUT OF AFRICA and most recently SPARTACUS get shredded daily on Blu-ray sites and blogs for their excessive grain-removal techniques which reduce actors’ faces to wax museum replicas. Not only are these companies narrowing sales numbers via a swarm of negative press, but they are fueling the notion that the companies behind these transgressions either don’t know what they’re doing or simply don’t care. It creates an air of distrust between consumer and distributor. In the beginning, it may have been a learning curve for all involved, but at this stage, the less-than-savory results of excessive DNR and edge-enhancement are well documented.
Then there’s the occasional Blu-ray (“Crank 2” anyone?) that requires your player to have a memory card installed in order to work. So if your player doesn’t have one of those, hopefully you have your digital camera standing by with that extra memory card you can borrow. Is all this extra data really “necessary” to the Blu-ray experience? To the point that it actually impedes your ability to view the film?
Hopefully, someone somewhere will read this –or another post like it– and realize that, though Blu-rays are a very exciting addition to the home theater community, there are still a few areas that can be improved upon to create a product that at least feels geared toward the consumer’s desires and ease of use.
What are some of your Blu-ray kvetches?
Say what you want about Steven Speilberg, but he is fast becoming a firm and vocal voice against the re-writing of film history. So much so that he has not shied away from some very vocal jabs against old pal George Lucas who has recently come under fire once again for his incessant altering of his Star Wars franchise to the point that there is a fan campaign to boycott the upcoming Blu-ray release of these films.
At a recent screening of a new digital restoration of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at Los Angeles’ Hero Complex, Spielberg commented on filmmakers who alter their films, thus erasing their historical context:
“Speaking for myself, I tried this once and I learned to regret it. Not because of fan outrage, but simply because I was a little disappointed in myself. I got very kind of overly sensitive to some of the criticism E.T. had gotten from parent groups when it was first released in ’82. Having to do with Elliot saying penis breath or the guns with the CIA. And also there were some rough around the edges close-ups of E.T. that I had always thought if technology ever evolves to the point where I can do some facial enhancements with E.T. I would like to. So I did an E.T. pass for the third release of the movie and it was okay for a while then I realized that what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T. My only contrition that I could possibly do because I feel bad about that, the only contrition that I really performed was when E.T. came out on DVD for the first time. I told Universal, we’re going to do this or we’re not going to put E.T. on DVD. You have to put two movies in the box and one movie will be the 1982 version and the other will be the digitally enhanced version. What I’d like to ask is this. We’ll do a little poll here. I know we’re coming out with the Blu-ray of E.T. If I came out with just one E.T. on Blu-ray, the 1982 one, would anybody object to that? [Audience shouts ‘No!’] Ok, so be it.”
But friends and colleagues must be careful of just how “critical” they are of their pals. Spielberg also added:
“Let me put it this way, George does what he does because there’s only one George Lucas, and thank god for that. He’s the greatest person I’ve ever worked with as a filmmaker collaborator and he’s a conceptual genius. He puts together these amazing stories and he’s great at what he does. My feeling is that he can do anything he wants with his movies because they’re his movies and we wouldn’t have been raised with Star Wars or Indiana Jones had it not been for George.”
But luckily, Spielberg’s point has been made and it is a most welcome response to Lucas’ continued alterations and his open disdain for the people who are fighting for the very things he himself once stood before Congress and campaigned so vigorously for (see my post HERE). Let’s hope more filmmakers take the same stand Spielberg has. Which, in supporting the importance of film and its history, automatically sheds a light on just how selfish and misguided George Lucas has become. Perhaps one day, Lucas himself will come to understand and respect the wishes of those of us who care about preserving film and cultural history and remember that there was a time when he was one of us. Let’s hope that Mr. Spielberg is, in perfect Dickens fashion, the first of many ghosts to haunt Mr. Lucas.
Disc 1 – Blu-ray
The Grateful Dead Movie in its entirety transferred from the original 35mm film negative in High Definition and presented in: 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio presentation of the original theatrical audio mix
DTS 5.1 audio mix, mixed from the master multitrack tapes LPCM
2.0 audio mix, mixed from the master multitrack tapes
Feature-length commentary with supervising editor Susan Crutcher and film editor John Nutt
English subtitles option on entire movie
Disc 2 – DVD
More than 95 minutes of bonus concert footage, including: —
Uncle John’s Band — Sugaree — The Other One — Spanish Jam — Mind Left Body Jam — The Other One — Scarlet Begonias — China Cat Sunflower — I Know You Rider — Dark Star — Weather Report Suite
Bonus songs transferred from the 16mm camera-original film negative
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix on all bonus songs, mixed from the master multitrack tapes
Dolby Digital 2.0 audio mix on all bonus songs, mixed from the master multitrack tapes
Visible Lyrics Option on all bonus songs
“A Look Back” documentary film
“Making of the Animated Sequence” documentary film
“Making of the DVD” documentary film
Television commercial for Mars Hotel album from 1974
Multicamera and multitrack audio demonstration
Extensive photo gallery of production notes, photos, film stills and other historical items from the Movie’s production
I wish the supplemental concert footage were being released in Blu-ray as well. But beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. At least the film itself should look and sound amazing! Thanks, Shout!
For anyone curious to know more about this film, here is a link to my extensive review.