Tackling My Oscar Blues While Celebrating “BIRDMAN”


87th Annual Academy Awards - Show For anyone who has read my posts here for any length of time, you know that I have some serious issues with the Oscars. It wasn’t always that way and, perhaps, that is part of my struggle.

Like many cinephiles out there, the Academy Awards were, as a kid, a big draw for me. I never missed watching it on TV. From start to finish. I hung on every word, every sound, every clip. As I got older, started working at film festivals, moved to Hollywood, started working in the industry itself, sold screenplays, directed two features, wrote for the studios, worked over 2 decades in casting, and have been represented by UTA, ICM and Gersh, my outlook on both this town, this business and the Academy Awards changed quite dramatically. Peeling back that curtain can be a scary thing. Like when one of my friends told me “Be careful of meeting your heroes. There’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed.” Of course, this is not always true. But I think the idea he was trying to get across was that, oftentimes, people, places and ideas exist in our mind in a somewhat more “perfect” or fanciful way than they may in actuality.

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Tackling My Oscar Blues While Celebrating “BIRDMAN”

Cinephilia and Beyond The Infinite


003_t Cinephilia and Beyond is probably the single best film site out there and has taken the place of insightful film mags that no longer adorn our newsstands (or have been replaced by tepid and less-inspired magazines that carry on those publications’ legacies in title only).

The most recent article posted to C&B is TERRENCE MALICK’S ‘THE THIN RED LINE’ IS A TRAUMATIC JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF MAN. This article, like most articles on C&B, is more like a series of supplemental materials found on a Criterion DVD or Blu-ray than a straightforward write-up on Malick or THE THIN RED LINE. Contained on the pages of C&B is the screenplay for THE THIN RED LINE as well as storyboards, a short documentary, and interviews with key players like DP John Toll and composer Hans Zimmer. There are also links to books and other articles on both Malick and TTRL.

C&B is a true film-enthusiasts wonderland. And while the site is free, they do ask for donations to keep the good work going. If you’re interested in that, you can help support them at http://www.cinephiliabeyond.org/donate/. For the record, I am not affiliated with C&B in any way. I just think it’s an incredible site and love supporting it.

As for the subject of the article, Malick is still one of the few living and working American film geniuses. In a culture where the likes of Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuarón are casually called “Brilliant” and “Visionary,” filmmakers like Malick continue to explore film, cinematic storytelling and the human condition on a level the above-mentioned filmmakers will never attain or even strive for. Which doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy their films. Not every author is James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy or William Shakespeare.  Thin Red Line

But Malick, like Kubrick, holds this place in cinema history. And he’s still alive and making films. That makes us all very lucky indeed. If you would like to explore the filmmaker and his films in more depth (and you can choose how deep you want to venture), please visit C&B. But be warned, it’s hard to find your way out once you willingly tumble down the deepening rabbit hole of cinema-geekdom & C&B. Luckily, if you’re anything like me, looking for an exit will be the furthest thing from your mind.
Cinephilia and Beyond The Infinite

Must-See Films


powellThanks to modern internet technology (soon to be outdated), I have compiled the two previously posted MUST-SEE FILMS lists into one. The difference here is that, thanks to Listchallenges.com and its host, Eli Dragen, you can now click on the poster art for each film and it will self-calculate.

For me, what’s interesting about this exercise is not only counting how many of these “must-see” films you have already seen, but how many you have not. What a potential treasure-trove of cinematic delights that awaits each and every one of us.

Be warned: the list is long. 890 films, to be exact. Excessive? Perhaps, but we all wanted to create a list that would be far more comprehensive than the little lists floating here and there and everywhere around the internet. This is a true film-lover’s list.

Here’s what we wrote about it on the Listchallenges page itself:

This is a list created by 6 self-proclaimed Film-lovers and/or filmmakers who also share a strange love of making lists. So we decided to combine those two things to offer a “Must-See” film list for the true film enthusiast.

There have been other film lists passed around the internet, but we felt they were often such contemporary, mainstream lists of films that they, well, quite simply didn’t do justice to the art and entertainment of cinema. We also wanted to acknowledge films that were remakes, originals and/or alternate cuts. And while there are TONS of great films NOT mentioned here, the ones that ARE mentioned certainly show a wide range of tastes, styles, genres and interpretations of “Must-see.”

No film list can please or reflect the tastes of everybody, but we assure you that this list might at least challenge you and, we hope, open you up to some films that you may not have even known existed.

Be warned: This is a big list.

We hope you enjoy and happy viewing!

Click here: http://www.listchallenges.com/must-see-films

The names of the 6 list contributors are: Janice Findley, Paul Hansen, Karl Holzheimer, Caren McCaleb, Any Norman, Hal Masonberg.

Must-See Films

Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker


Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.36.21 AM

This is a daring and insightful speech given by Steven Soderbergh last week at SFIFF. It is one of the most perceptive and articulate commentaries on the state of cinema today and the difference between “cinema” and “movies.” For me, personally, it encapsulates so much of what I have been writing about for years and captures the very essence of why I started Off Leash Films and what I hope to achieve.

This speech comes at a perfect time for me as I have been engaged in conversation with a young filmmaker who recently commented on one of my older posts. The following is a response to several of his questions to me regarding editing choices I made on THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT and my approach and attitude toward making films and whether or not I consider the audience ahead of time:

Question: Hal, one question my friend, did you make the film for you or for the audience? That is what all filmmakers need to ask themselves. I agree with you, I need to see both films from beginning to end to judge and compare, also I’m sure the producers have taken away your characters and their emotions and made it all prokat – a recipe that works generally. I’m only saying I preferred the points where the film cut. The tightness of the shots and the fact that when it didn’t intercut it rounded up my emotional tension which is what I needed.

…I ‘m only young and learning and grown up with the fast cutting generation and think films like Amour are nerve wracking and should be respectful to the current audience and include editing – what is your view of films like Amour or Angelopoulos’s style? I love Fincher, hate Tarantino, love Attenborough, Altman, Nolan, Bergman… I love a good film, I don’t like self-indulgence and auteurs that do film only for themselves and just happen to have a good pr company behind them. I met Lars Von trier and he was horrible to us young students , full of pretentiousness and up his own. But I met Scorsese as well and he was amazing and helpful. It’s truth that I have learned from your site and take on board what you say about the intention. How do you know your intention? You shoot A and you edit B and on the way you might like C… is it always defined? Should it? If you were to do Plague again what would you do differently?

Answer: My answer is very simple: I don’t have an audience that is specific or makes any demands. I make films for myself WITH the knowledge that I am not so unique or unusual that I am going to alienate most or all of the human race. My audience are the people who will be moved and/or effected by my films and want to see more. Plain and simple. I am not a director for hire. If I were, then I would have to consider what the audience is that the producers want to reach if that is their goal. If I direct a pre-existing comic book or a James Bond film, then, yes, I must consider the audience. But if I’m making films that are an expression of who I am and tell the stories I have a need to tell and offer the experience that I want to put out there, then considering some non-existent audience makes no sense. The last thing I want to do is second-guess other people and decide what they might or might not like, what they might or might not “get.” Then I am not honoring anyone, least of all myself.

Hollywood has trained many filmmakers to think in terms of audience (males 16-25, for example). This has nothing to do with filmmaking for me. That is marketing and when marketing dictates what kind of films you make and how you are going to make them, the work itself becomes that much less personal and, as a result, that much less daring. Vittorio De Sica once said, “Art has to be severe. It cannot be commercial. It cannot be for the producer or even for the public. It has to be for oneself.” So I guess the question you need to ask is are you a director for hire or someone who has a vision they want/need to explore and share? Both are completely valid approaches. But they are not the same.

As for the directors you mentioned, AMOUR was one of my favorite films from last year. I love Haneke. I wouldn’t have changed a frame, not a beat. My other favorite from last year was the 3-hour cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET. The year before that TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA. So yes, I love Von Trier. And I don’t care whether he is a nice guy or not. That has no bearing on the effectiveness of his work for me. And you used the term “self-indulgence” negatively. Yet I think it’s a requirement for making any kind of art. Who are we supposed to indulge in making art if not ourselves? An audience? The audience finds the art, not the other way around. At least as I see it. Coppola is still one of my heroes and his approach to filmmaking now is absolutely thrilling to me. My favorite Coppola is still THE CONVERSATION. You like Bergman. He is one of my favorite filmmakers. He did NOT make films for an audience. An audience found his films. For him, it was about him and his actors telling stories. In a way that moved and excited them.

I think Theo Angelopolis’ LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST is one of the most beautiful and moving films I’ve ever seen. Yes, I get why some people find his films too slow, same with Tarkovsky films, but I adore them. They “speak” to me. They move me to tears, excite me in their artistry, in their ability to express and touch me. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, bores me now. He made 3 amazing films early on and the rest feel very empty to me. That does not mean they are empty, only empty to me. His recutting of ALIEN removed the very thing I found to be most effective and daring about his original cut. But several years ago he went back and “picked up the pace.” Shame. He didn’t even see what he had done and why it was considered so amazing by so many. He is a filmmaker whose instincts I no longer trust. I have met the man. I have had story meetings with him. He’s very nice. I enjoyed his company. But his ideas bore me, as do most of his films.

For me, THE PLAGUE needed to linger on the moments that resonated for me. That is the experience that I wanted to share. What happens in those moments and the feelings that come up for people experiencing that. However, it will not be the same experience for everyone. Another reason I do not consider the audience or allow them to dictate my creative decisions. I have no control over what individuals bring into the screening room with them. To try and second-guess that I see as a futile mission and one that has no appeal to me.

My desire, as well, with the editing of THE PLAGUE was to juxtapose certain images and themes, to suggest directly and subconsciously the connection between the kids and the adults. Every cut is made with purpose. Each has something to say, something that is nonexistent in the producers’ cut, which ONLY wanted to make a film with action and bloodshed. A killer-kid film. They wanted to answer as many questions as quickly as possible which, for me, reduces tension. That is something that I have no desire to be a part of. Nor do I find that to be effective in any meaningful way. I believe my cut is more frightening because of what it conjures up under the surface, those feelings that we don’t initially understand, but that rise to the surface nonetheless. I also believe that allows my cut to linger with its audience far longer than the other cut. But that is, as you know, also dependent on who is watching and what kind of experience they are open to. Again, something I have no control over nor do I have a desire to control.

You asked me what I would change if I could do THE PLAGUE again. Ironically, I would think less about audience reaction and more about what moved me personally. I would not have wasted precious energy on worrying about what others might think or how it fit into genre expectations. I would have made the film even more visceral, more abstract. I would have also trusted my instincts about the people I was working with and not talked myself out of taking the project elsewhere when I had the opportunity. And I would have never allowed myself to be talked (threatened) into miscasting the leads which, no matter how I cut the film, will always bog it down and dramatically lessen its impact. The film can never rise above the fact that they were miscast, that they were there to appease Sony’s marketing department despite the fact that they were not who or what we imagined in those roles, nor were they capable of pulling it off to the level that the film and story required in order to be what we intended and hoped the film would be.

There are so many quotes by so many artists that speak to me personally. They mirror my own feelings and articulate my own personal discoveries. They are also full of lessons and instigate thought. I want more from my films, both those I make and those I watch, than perhaps some others out there. That seems to be the case. But I also know that I am not “special.” There are so many people out there yearning and searching for the same artistic storytelling experiences that I am. Now maybe that’s not the majority of male 16-25 year olds (though it might be as so many films supposedly geared toward that audience still bomb), but I trust that what I want to say and how I want to say it has an audience. All I need do is be true to myself and follow my instincts and my passions. I feel no need to attract the largest audience possible. I am also not looking to make films for the studios or work with a budget of $200 million. So I have the luxury of not having to worry about such distracting things as what others might think and that someone might not like or respond positively to something I do. There are more than enough people who will have the opposite reaction, or simply their own complex reaction. I know what moves and effects me and that’s what drives me. I’ve written a fair amount about all this. You can find some of it at my production company site:

http://offleashfilms.com

I suggest reading the list of quotes there as I have personally found so many of them to be inspiring and deeply insightful.

And some other blog posts I’ve written that may or may not be of interest to you. Either way, they do articulate in more detail what I have been trying to say above. And probably more accurately. If you want to read them, they are here:

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/irving-thalberg-and-the-fearful-producers-wilderness/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/facing-the-unknown-the-organic-art-of-storytelling/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/eating-julie-taymor-when-artists-devour-their-own/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/eyes-wide-in-memory-of-stanley-kubrick/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/alas-more-wisdom-from-coppola/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/francis-ford-coppola-and-business-of-movies/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/hollywood-and-the-golden-arches-of-mediocrity/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/favorite-quotes-martha-graham-the-quickening-of-unique-expression/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/accusing-filmmakers-of-self-indulgence-other-storytelling-obstacles/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/great-american-films-still-get-made-theyre-just-hard-to-find-lonergans-3-hr-margaret/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/raymond-chandler-the-monkey-business-of-hollywood/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/desires-lessons-articulating-a-filmmaking-experience/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-or-the-descent-of-american-intelligence/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/sharing-coppola/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/why-fight-for-a-directors-cut-of-a-low-budget-horror-flick/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/articulating-bergman/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/how-dare-you-edit-your-own-film-and-other-creative-alienations/

https://halmasonberg.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/where-the-wild-things-are-a-love-song-to-boys/

Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker

Raymond Chandler & The Monkey Business of Hollywood


In March 1948, writer Raymond Chandler penned a piece in The Atlantic entitled OSCAR NIGHT IN HOLLYWOOD. Anyone who reads my blog on a semi-regular basis is already familiar with my strong opinions on the current state of Hollywood filmmaking and its own awards ceremony that never fails to shamelessly flatter itself. Mr. Chandler’s piece could have been taken directly out of my own head, though I never could have stated it anywhere near as eloquently as Mr. Chandler did so many years ago.

I am reminded of a recent “spat” I had with a reader of my blog who argued quite vehemently in favor of the artistic merits and outright “brilliance” of last year’s hit RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. I was very candid –perhaps even indelicate– in sharing my horror at the mere notion that anyone could bestow the words “intelligent” or “well-written” to such a tepid, slothful piece of filmmaking. Perhaps it was the title of my piece, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES OR THE DECENT OF AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE, that irked my reader so. You can read our exchange there in the comments section. I was, I’m embarrassed to admit, not my usual open-minded self, but somewhat brazenly repulsed by this particular reader’s insistence that APES was a bold and daring work of art. His sole argument, in addition to an overwhelming insistence that the film simply “was” brilliant beyond opinion or viewpoint, was to consistently hold up its box-office success and rather high Rotten Tomatoes score as inarguable proof of its artistic eminence. Comments like  “In what universe is this film not shot at the highest level of the art?” or “If a supermajority of critics and audience opinions means nothing to you, as well as half a billion in cash, then I’m not sure I really care what it is that means so much to you,” was the precarious ledge his argument teetered on.

And so it was that I found myself somewhat relieved and giddy to discover Mr. Chandler’s piece. He and I may well have agreed on the current state of Hollywood films. Both the self-congratulatory attitudes of those at the top who believe the hype (hell, they create the hype) that celebrates their genius for creating these financially and critically successful films, as well as those who unwittingly praise those very same films and filmmakers, all the while unaware of the slow and deliberate manipulation of their ability to recognize something that lacks the most basic ingredients for well-crafted storytelling –never mind good art– for what it actually is. Particularly when faced with unrelenting insistence by those who have drunk the same Kool-Aid, that a particular work is undeniably “brilliant.”

To understand the great capacity cinema has as an art form, what boundless arenas it has the power and complexity to explore, is to also recognize when that goal falls short, despite any proclamations and box-office numbers offered up as proof to the contrary.

“Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.” –Raymond Chandler

Oscar Night in Hollywood – The Atlantic.

By RAYMOND CHANDLER
I

Five or six years ago a distinguished writer-director (if I may be permitted the epithet in connection with a Hollywood personage) was co-author of a screen play nominated for an Academy Award. He was too nervous to attend the proceedings on the big night, so he was listening to a broadcast at home, pacing the floor tensely, chewing his fingers, taking long breaths, scowling and debating with himself in hoarse whispers whether to stick it out until the Oscars were announced, or turn the damned radio off and read about it in the papers the next morning. Getting a little tired of all this artistic temperament in the home, his wife suddenly came up with one of those awful remarks which achieve a wry immortality in Hollywood: “For Pete’s sake, don’t take it so seriously, darling. After all, Luise Rainer won it twice.”

To those who did not see the famous telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld, or any of the subsequent versions of it which Miss Rainer played in other pictures, with and without telephone, this remark will lack punch. To others it will serve as well as anything to express that cynical despair with which Hollywood people regard their own highest distinction. It isn’t so much that the awards never go to fine achievements as that those fine achievements are not rewarded as such. They are rewarded as fine achievements in box-office hits. You can’t be an All-American on a losing team. Technically, they are voted, but actually they are not decided by the use of whatever artistic and critical wisdom Hollywood may happen to possess. They are ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed, and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten.

The Motion Picture Academy, at considerable expense and with great efficiency, runs all the nominated pictures at its own theater, showing each picture twice, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. A nominated picture is one in connection with which any kind of work is nominated for an award, not necessarily acting, directing, or writing; it may be a purely technical matter such as set-dressing or sound work. This running of pictures has the object of permitting the voters to look at films which they may happen to have missed or to have partly forgotten. It is an attempt to make them realize that pictures released early in the year, and since overlaid with several thicknesses of battered celluloid, are still in the running and that consideration of only those released a short time before the end of the year is not quite just.

The effort is largely a waste. The people with votes don’t go to these showings. They send their relatives, friends, or servants. They have had enough of looking at pictures, and the voices of destiny are by no means inaudible in the Hollywood air. They have a brassy tone, but they are more than distinct.

All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck? The only answer I can think of is that the motion picture is an art. I say this with a very small voice. It is an inconsiderable statement and has a hard time not sounding a little ludicrous. Nevertheless it is a fact, not in the least diminished by the further facts that its ethos is so far pretty low and that its techniques are dominated by some pretty awful people.

If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the putty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women’s clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.

The point is not whether there are bad motion pictures or even whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect by the people who control its destinies. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, although not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. Today, if not always, the fugues and chorales of Bach, the symphonies of Mozart, Borodin, and Brahms, the violin concertos of Vivaldi, the piano sonatas of Scarlatti, and a great deal of what was once rather recondite music are mass entertainment by virtue of radio. Not all fools love it, but not all fools love anything more literate than a comic strip. It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.

The motion picture admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first. The people who sneer at the motion picture as an art form are furthermore seldom willing to consider it at its best. The insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity of production) than to judge literature by last week’s best-sellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits. In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom. If it were merely a transplanted literary or dramatic art, it certainly would not. The hucksters and the bluenoses would between them see to that.

But the motion picture is not a transplanted literary or dramatic art, any more than it is a plastic art. It has elements of all these, but in its essential structure it is much closer to music, in the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.

In painting, music, and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. In sculpture we are just funny. In prose literature we not only lack style but we lack the educational and historical background to know what style is. Our fiction and drama are adept, empty, often intriguing, and so mechanical that in another fifty years at most they will be produced by machines with rows of push buttons. We have no popular poetry in the grand style, merely delicate or witty or bitter or obscure verses. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called “significant,” and bedtime reading when they are not.

But in the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us. It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact. Of course it won’t. I’m just daydreaming.

II

Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed, overbrash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner,which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, and for once in a lifetime, I have to admit that Academy Awards night is a good show and quite funny in spots, although I’ll admire you if you can laugh at all of it.

If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, “In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived “; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn’t good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong, because this sort of vulgarity is part of its inevitable price.

Glancing over the program of the Awards before the show starts, one is apt to forget that this is really an actors’, directors’, and big-shot producers’ rodeo. It is for the people who make pictures (they think), not just for the people who work on them. But these gaudy characters are a kindly bunch at heart; they know that a lot of small-fry characters in minor technical jobs, such as cameramen, musicians, cutters, writers, soundmen, and the inventors of new equipment, have to be given something to amuse them and make them feel mildly elated. So the performance was formerly divided into two parts, with an intermission. On the occasion I attended, however, one of the Masters of Ceremony (I forget which—there was a steady stream of them, like bus passengers) announced that there would be no intermission this year and that they would proceed immediately to the important part of the program.

Let me repeat, the important part of the program.

Perverse fellow that I am, I found myself intrigued by the unimportant part of the program also. I found my sympathies engaged by the lesser ingredients of picture-making, some of which have been enumerated above. I was intrigued by the efficiently quick on-and-off that was given to these minnows of the picture business; by their nervous attempts via the microphone to give most of the credit for their work to some stuffed shirt in a corner office; by the fact that technical developments which may mean many millions of dollars to the industry, and may on occasion influence the whole procedure of picture-making, are just not worth explaining to the audience at all; by the casual, cavalier treatment given to film-editing and to camera work, two of the essential arts of film-making, almost and sometimes quite equal to direction, and much more important than all but the very best acting; intrigued most of all perhaps by the formal tribute which is invariably made to the importance of the writer, without whom, my dear, dear friends, nothing could be done at all, but who is for all that merely the climax of the unimportant part of the program.

III

I am also intrigued by the voting. It was formerly done by all the members of all the various guilds, including the extras and bit players. Then it was realized that this gave too much voting power to rather unimportant groups, so the voting on various classes of awards was restricted to the guilds which were presumed to have some critical intelligence on the subject. Evidently this did not work either, and the next change was to have the nominating done by the specialist guilds, and the voting only by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

It doesn’t really seem to make much difference how the voting is done. The quality of the work is still only recognized in the context of success. A superb job in a flop picture would get you nothing, a routine job in a winner will be voted in. It is against this background of success-worship that the voting is done, with the incidental music supplied by a stream of advertising in the trade papers (which even intelligent people read in Hollywood) designed to put all other pictures than those advertised out of your head at balloting time. The psychological effect is very great on minds conditioned to thinking of merit solely in terms of box office and ballyhoo. The members of the Academy live in this atmosphere, and they are enormously suggestible people, as are all workers in Hollywood. If they are contracted to studios, they are made to feel that it is a matter of group patriotism to vote for the products of their own lot. They are informally advised not to waste their votes, not to plump for something that can’t win, especially something made on another lot.

I do not feel any profound conviction, for example, as to whether The Best Years of Our Lives was even the best Hollywood motion picture of 1946. It depends on what you mean by best. It had a first-class director, some fine actors, and the most appealing sympathy gag in years. It probably had as much all-around distinction as Hollywood is presently capable of. That it had the kind of class and simple art possessed byOpen City or the stalwart and magnificent impact of Henry V only an idiot would claim. In a sense it did not have art at all. It had that kind of sentimentality which is almost but not quite humanity, and that kind of adeptness which is almost but not quite style. And it had them in large doses, which always helps.

The governing board of the Academy is at great pains to protect the honesty and the secrecy of the voting. It is done by anonymous numbered ballots, and the ballots are sent, not to any agency of the motion picture industry, but to a well-known firm of public accountants. The results, in sealed envelopes, are borne by an emissary of the firm right onto the stage of the theater where the Awards be made, and there for the first time, one at a time, they are made known. Surely precaution would go no further. No one could possibly have known in advance any of these results, not even in Hollywood where every agent learns the closely guarded secrets of the studios with no apparent trouble. If there are secrets in Hollywood, which I sometimes doubt, this voting ought to be one of them.

IV

As for a deeper kind of honesty, I think it is about time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to use a little of it up by declaring in a forthright manner that foreign pictures are outside competition and will remain so until they face the same economic situation and the same strangling censorship that Hollywood faces. It is all very well to say how clever and artistic the French are, how true to life, what subtle actors they have, what an honest sense of the earth, what forthrightness in dealing the bawdy side of life. The French can afford these things, we cannot. To the Italians they are permitted, to us they are denied. Even the English possess a freedom we lack. How much did Brief Encounter cost? It would have cost at least a million and a half in Hollywood; in order to get that money back, and the distribution costs on top of the negative costs, it would have had to contain innumerable crowd-pleasing ingredients, the very lack of which is what makes it a good picture.

Since the Academy is not an international tribunal of film art it should stop pretending to be one. If foreign pictures have no practical chance whatsoever of winning a major award they should not be nominated. At the very beginning of the performance in 1947 a special Oscar was awarded to Laurence Olivier for Henry V, although it was among those nominated as best picture of the year. There could be no more obvious way of saying it was not going to win. A couple of minor technical awards and a couple of minor writing awards were also given to foreign pictures, but nothing that ran into important coin, just side meat. Whether these awards were deserved is beside the point, which is that they were minor awards and were intended to be minor awards, and that there was no possibility whatsoever of any foreign-made picture winning a major award.

To outsiders it might appear that something devious went on here. To those who know Hollywood, all that went on was the secure knowledge and awareness that the Oscars exist for and by Hollywood, their purpose is to maintain the supremacy of Hollywood, their standards and problems are the standards and problems of Hollywood, and their phoniness is the phoniness of Hollywood. But the Academy cannot, without appearing ridiculous, maintain a pose of internationalism by tossing a few minor baubles to the foreigners while carefully keeping all the top-drawer jewelry for itself. As a writer I resent that writing awards should be among these baubles, and as a member of the Motion Picture Academy I resent its trying to put itself in a position which its annual performance before the public shows it quite unfit to occupy.

If the actors and actresses like the silly show, and I’m not sure at all the best of them do, they at least know how to look elegant in a strong light, and how to make with the wide-eyed and oh, so humble little speeches as if they believed them. If the big producers like it, and I’m quite sure they do because it contains the only ingredients they really understand—promotion values and the additional grosses that go with them—the producers at least know what they are fighting for. But if the quiet, earnest, and slightly cynical people who really make motion pictures like it, and I’m quite sure they don’t, well, after all, it comes only once a year, and it’s no worse than a lot of the sleazy vaudeville they have to push out of the way to get their work done.

Of course that’s not quite the point either. The head of a large studio once said privately that in his candid opinion the motion picture business was 25 per cent honest business and the other 75 per cent pure conniving. He didn’t say anything about art, although he may have heard of it. But that is the real point, isn’t it?—whether these annual Awards, regardless of the grotesque ritual which accompanies them, really represent anything at all of artistic importance to the motion picture medium, anything clear and honest that remains after the lights are dimmed, the minks are put away, and the aspirin is swallowed? I don’t think they do. I think they are just theater and not even good theater. As for the personal prestige that goes with winning an Oscar, it may with luck last long enough for your agent to get your contract rewritten and your price jacked up another notch. But over the years and in the hearts of men of good will? I hardly think so.

Once upon a time a once very successful Hollywood lady decided (or was forced) to sell her lovely furnishings at auction, together with her lovely home. On the day before she moved out she was showing a party of her friends through the house for a private view. One of them noticed that the lady was using her two golden Oscars as doorstops. It seemed they were just about the right weight, and she had sort of forgotten they were gold.

Raymond Chandler & The Monkey Business of Hollywood

Sharing Coppola


As always, I’m on the lookout for comments, articles, interviews by writers, filmmakers, artists of all shapes and sizes, that inspire me, guide me, or simply make me think. I have endless respect and admiration for writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. Sure, there have been a few films over his long career that didn’t seem on par with his greatest work, but it’s become common knowledge that Coppola allowed himself to become a hired hand in order to pay off a massive debt.

Now that the debt is history, thanks to many films and a successful wine-making business, Francis Coppola is back in the writer/director seat once again and this time with a vengeance! For the commercially-minded Hollywood, this may be a mildly discomforting annoyance, but for those of us genuinely interested in filmmaking as passion, as art, as a language of expression and a life-journey, this is great news indeed.

Segments of an interview/lecture with Coppola were recently posted at the99percent.com and I wanted to share that article here. I found it to be immensely inspiring. It is one that I will keep and go back to for years. It is a great filmmaker pointing a light forward and letting us know that this, too, is a path that can be traversed and explored, despite the many in Hollywood standing just outside the entrance with signs which read “DO NOT PASS,” or “NO ENTRY,” or “ROAD CLOSED.”

My suggestion? Just step on the gas and go. They’ll move out of your way.

Here are some highlights:

“Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money. Because there are ways around it… I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.”

“Always make your work be personal. And, you never have to lie… There is something we know that’s connected with beauty and truth. There is something ancient. We know that art is about beauty, and therefore it has to be about truth.”

“I just finished a film a few days ago, and I came home and said I learned so much today. So if I can come home from working on a little film after doing it for 45 years and say, “I learned so much today,” that shows something about the cinema. Because the cinema is very young. It’s only 100 years old.”

“An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.”

Read the full article: Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration.


Sharing Coppola

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Contains massive spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen the film!

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There’s more to Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS than meets the eye. If you were hoping to see KELLEY’S HEROES, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE or even a remake of the original THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, this film probably left you feeling like Tarantino missed some crucial elements of the Men-On-A-Mission/War genre.

In fact, Tarantino, who has exhibited his love of film and genre-filmmaking time and again, has bumped himself up a notch here and twisted our expectations to make a film that is both artistically and historically subversive.

But let me start with a brief introduction to Tarantino and my reactions to his earlier films. While I loved RESERVOIR DOGS and its character-driven and deeply cinematic approach to the Heist-Gone-Wrong genre, I found PULP FICTION (Tarantino’s most commercially popular film) to be rather slight. It was cinematically fun and contained moments of truly witty, well-written dialogue, but at the end of the day the film left me feeling empty. And while JACKIE BROWN was entertaining and gave us a chance to see some sorely missed faces return to the big screen, the film didn’t knock me out, though I did appreciate it. The KILL BILL movies I found to be terrific. Not deep or meaningful, but filled with a love and mastery of a specific genre that Tarantino knows very well. It is a glourious1homage to so many films that one has to share Tarantino’s knowledge to recognize them all. Luckily, that’s not a prerequisite to the film’s enjoyment. It just adds another dimension. DEATH PROOF, the second feature on the GRINDHOUSE double bill, was a mixed bag for me. I found the scenes with Kurt Russell to be mythic and engaging and exactly what I would have hoped for. The long passages of dialogue with the young women, however, particularly the first set, seemed endless and a tad masturbatory. For me, it took the wind out of the GRINDHOUSE sails, particularly after Robert Rodriguez’s rousing zombie actioner that preceded it. All this said, I believe each and every one of the above-mentioned films deserves another look as INGLOURIOUS proved to be so much more than I initially thought.

Upon leaving the theater after the brief closing credits for INGLOURIOUS, I thought to myself that I had just seen a truly captivating and fun Tarantino film. Already one of my favorites. But there was something nagging at me; areas of the film that seemed “underdeveloped” or misdirected. But Tarantino’s no dummy and he knows his genre films better than most. So what exactly was I feeling? What was that brewing just beneath the surface?

Well, through conversations with friends and my own inner dialogue, I started to see the film Tarantino had made, instead of the film I had expected him to make. And like some of the greatest filmmakers of all time (e.g. Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes) Tarantino’s new film will elicit different reactions based on expectations and might easily be dismissed and/or misunderstood. At least initially. That said, I don’t consider Tarantino a director of the caliber of a Kubrick or Cassavetes (yet), but I think in this age of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking, Tarantino still understands the word “cinema” and has placed his own stamp on it. This puts him leagues above many of his working contemporaries.

Let’s start with the Basterds themselves. A seemingly familiar team of rag-tag rebels thrown together by circumstance and talent to create the perfect unity for accomplishing a near-impossible task at great risk to themselves. And like all Men-On-A-Mission films, the lives of thousands, maybe millions, hang in the balance. However, the main thing that appears to be missing from Tarantino’s take on the genre is time spent getting to know these characters. In INGLOURIOUS, the Basterds are sorely lacking in dimension. We know little about most of them and, as a result, have little investment. Naturally, this seems to be the antithesis of the genre as we know it. Especially since one of Tarantino’s specialities is finding ways to make even the smallest character unique and three-dimensional. Take the inglourious-basterds-2scene in the underground bar, for example. The celebrating Nazi soldiers are given moments that tell us something about their personalities and interactions. When the female soldier (Petra Hartung) puts her pal in a headlock and teases him by twisting his nose (an iconic image of youthful innocence and playful — albeit somewhat masculine — affection), the young man’s anger, resentment and humiliation is present even as the camera pans away. Relationships, personalities and hierarchies are established almost instantaneously. Even the frightening Maj. Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) seems to be the only one present who recognizes that the film KING KONG was a reflection of America’s fear of the black male. While playing a name game, Hellstrom asks Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) “Am I the story of the negro in America?” When Hicox answers “No”, Hellstrom replies with “Well, then, I must be King Kong.” It is Hicox’s oblivious denial and lack of awareness that allows Hellstrom to be certain of the correct answer. So it takes a racist Gestapo Major to recognize an allegory for America’s fear and racism when we ourselves may not see it. And this, without question, tells us quite a bit about Hellstrom. It also serves as a hint to the audience that the film we ourselves are watching may be richer in social meaning than its facade suggests.

Even the new Nazi father, Master Sgt. Wilhelm, played with drunken delight by Alexander Fehling, immediately gains our sympathy and understanding. We don’t want him to die. We want him to go on to see his son Maximilian grow up. And there is an air of sorrow when he does not.

So why not make the Basterds equally as sympathetic? As revealing? Why not give them equal presence? It is Hellstrom and Wilhelm who steal the bar scene. It is they whom Tarantino chooses to explore. By comparison, Fassbender’s Hicox is shown to be both arrogant, dimensionless and sloppy. It is he who singlehandedly undermines the entire mission with his lack of self-control and self-awareness.

At first, one starts to think perhaps crucial footage was cut from the film in order to accommodate a shorter running time. In fact, some footage was cut (as is always the case), but I’m starting to think that may have been a wise, insightful move. The Basterds are presented as brutal, Nazi-scalping killers. And if one is to keep score (as you should), the most graphic violence in the film comes from these men.

inglourious_basterds_8By contrast, let’s take a look at the Germans, the Nazis, the “villains”? They are, oddly enough, more developed characters than our “heroes”. Christoph Waltz’s star-making turn as Col. Hans Landa, while being a frightful man in may ways, is also portrayed as engaging, intelligent and, at times, somewhat charming. He’s the German Sherlock Holmes. Only he’s hunting Jews. And we admire his skill, as appalling as its intent may be. And though he may not necessarily be “likable”, his time onscreen is nothing short of mesmerizing. And while he is responsible for the death of an innocent Jewish family early in the film, this massacre is shown with bullet holes in the floor as opposed to a splattering of blood and guts. Not like the graphic nature of the Basterds whose scalpings are shown in gory detail throughout the film. And both inglourious-basterds-brad-pittLanda and Brad Pitt’s commanding Basterd, Lt. Aldo Raine, each let one survivor go, both scarred in their own way. Both men are playing God. The difference is that Pitt’s Raine is presented as the quintessential American caricature. He’s dimensionless and boiled down to a series of stereotypes. This is, essentially, how we have portrayed Nazis and villains in film after film. The Aryan-featured SS officer with a scar down his cheek, a thick, repulsive accent, and a kind of sadistic glee. Pitt’s “Nazi Killer” is just that. Only he’s the American version with a scar across his throat.

We’re also reminded here of the Hollywood stereotype of American Indian “savagery”. After all,  Raine claims to be part Indian and thinks of his merry gang as “Apache Jews” and is himself known as “Aldo the Apache.” The fear tactics used by the Basterds are the same tactics used by American Indians against the U.S. Cavalry; essentially, being outnumbered, the Indians created an overwhelming degree of fear in the minds of their enemy through unspeakably violent and humiliating acts. So much so that the enemy believed it would be better to kill themselves and their families rather than be captured.  In contemporary terms, these tactics are commonly known as “acts of terrorism.” Even Col. Landa, in his face-to-face conversation with Raine toward the end of the film, makes a similar comparison. “And your mission–some would call it terrorist plot– is still a go…” If one stops for a moment to look at the Basterds’ final plan, it is to strap explosives to themselves and blow up a theater full of people. One need not stretch one’s imagination too far to make the necessary comparisons to today’s threat of suicide bombers. Nor would it be inappropriate to draw a line between some of the Basterds’ tactics and American military methods used at facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

holeLt. Aldo Raine’s interrogation of Bridgett von Hammersmark (played by the lovely and tough Diane Kruger), is nothing short of brutal and heartless torture as Raine calmly presses his finger deep into Hammersmark’s fresh and oozing bullet wound. What makes this scene even more subversive is that it is intercut with a quick “fireside chat” with a vulnerable and all-too-human Adolf Hitler as he explains his reasons for wanting to attend the upcoming screening of “Stolz der Nation.” Placing these two contrasting images side-by-side competes with our desired concept of heroes and villains, Americans and Nazis. To portray Hitler as more sympathetic than the American soldier trying to stop him clashes head-on with our collective self-perceptions by twisting and shattering beloved and much-needed icons. As a result, Inglourious_Basterds_Hitler_talksTarantino successfully blurs the lines between heroes and villains and what happens when human beings lose sight of their own humanity. No matter what side they’re on. And it is in that same conversation mentioned above between Raine and Landa, that Landa compares the two men as equals. “Tell me Aldo, if I were sitting where you’re sitting, would you show me mercy?” To which Raine replies with unabashed honesty, “Nope.” This is soon followed by Landa’s disgruntled observation, “Lt. Aldo, if you think I wouldn’t interrogate every one of your swastika-marked survivors… we simply aren’t operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed.”

Two peas in a pod.

But Landa is not the only character Raine is compared to. Despite claims that Pitt’s performance came across as if he were in a different film from the rest of the cast, Pitt plays the part of Raine with a full understanding of his role within the big picture. It is Martin Wuttke’s committed portrayal of Adolf Hitler as an angry, spoiled child that comes across equally as broad and stereotyped. Raine and Hitler inhabit similar worlds within the genre. But unlike Pitt’s Raine, Wuttke’s Hitler is never shown enacting any violence himself. In fact, in one scene, Hitler and the soldier Raine set free are essentially crowned Basterds-8-300with a halo of sorts. And Hitler never questions the surviving soldier’s lame alibi, but instead sets him free, though the weight of history and Hitler’s childlike relish at watching Americans slaughtered in the film within a film “Stolz der Nation” still keeps him a dangerous, buffoonish sort of villain worthy of a bloody end. But those same childlike qualities and vulnerabilities make his death just a tad less satisfying than, say, if he’d killed the surviving soldier as one would expect a villain like Hitler to do. He does not interrogate this “swastika-marked survivor” as Landa or Raine would.

By the same token, Raine and his men are only heroes to us in that they’re killing Nazis and history has shown us just how horrible and atrocious the Nazis were. But, as we’re starting to realize, in Tarantino’s Nazi occupied France, the Germans are presented in a somewhat different light than we’re used to from the genre. And though Tarantino is clearly relishing his ability to rewrite history, he is not presenting the Nazi’s as innocents or heroes. He’s not glorifying or forgiving them. Hardly. That’s not the history he’s rewriting. But he manages inglourious_basterds16something fascinating. When Richard Sammel’s Sgt. Werner Rachtman is asked by Raine to divulge the whereabouts of his fellow soldiers, their weapons and mission, he “respectfully” refuses. Even though he knows that he will face a brutal and painful death. But even though this man is a Jew-hater and murderer, there is also a bravery and strength of character, something admirable about him. And when he answers with a “Fuck You” to Raine, we understand and hope that we would have a similar conviction and commitment to our own beliefs. Yet his “Fuck You” is also followed by “And your Jew dogs”, forever reminding us who this man is, what he represents and, at the same time, instilling a sense of bewilderment at our own conflicted reactions to him. It is this depiction against the dimensionless brutality of Raine and his merry gang of mercenaries that we, as the audience, start to experience something that, at first, seems “wrong.” Isn’t Aldo Raine the hero? Aren’t the Basterds the good guys? Shouldn’t we be admiring them? Perhaps, but Tarantino concludes the sequence with Sgt. Donny Donowitz questioning the purpose of a medal hanging from Rachtman’s chest: “You get that for killing Jews?” “Bravery,” is Rachtman’s answer. And brave he is, by any set of standards. Even Rachtman’s walk to his inevitable death is given to us in slow-motion as a stirring spaghetti-western-flavored score — usually reserved for heroes and stoic characters — unspools in the background. Rachtman is then ceremoniously beaten to death with a baseball bat. And Tarantino trains the camera on every skull-cracking, brain-squashing moment. And we do recoil somewhat. Even though we know that this Sgt. has committed atrocities possibly worthy of such a death. And yet there’s something else in the air, something off in this interpretation of the genre as we know it. Even the young terrified Nazi soldier who is given his freedom gains our sympathy. We “feel” for him, his fear, his humanity. We don’t want to see Raine and the others beat his head in, too.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mIt should be pointed out that the American who wields the bat that crushes the life out of Sgt. Rachtman is horror/torture-porn director Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER, HOSTEL). Not personally a fan of Roth as a filmmaker, I carry that slight aversion onto his acting and presence in the film. He’s not awful, not by a long shot, but he’s also not of the caliber to be acting alongside the likes of Waltz, Pitt and others. There is also something definitively unsettling about seeing this guy who directs pornographically violent films, wielding a bat and series of machine guns and acting out what seems like a disturbed childhood fantasy. I’d like to think that Tarantino made this choice on purpose; that it was meant to be a statement in and of itself. That would certainly coincide with the rest of the themes inherent in the film and filmmaking. But Tarantino also used Roth to annoying effect in DEATH PROOF and produced Roth’s HOSTEL, so one can assume he’s fond of the guy. But Roth’s own take on INGLOURIOUS just adds to my distaste: “It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling…. My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day.” This led Roth to tag INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS “Kosher Porn.” Perhaps this is the place Roth needed to go (or was led) in order to play the character of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. The Bear Jew, but I do not believe it defines the essence of the film. It is a simplistic interpretation that I believe speaks more to Roth’s sensibilities than to the film’s.
 
Which brings me to a slight aside: Is a film its filmmaker’s intent? If Tarantino shared Roth’s interpretation of INGLOURIOUS, would that make it so? I believe, unequivocally, no. Like the makers of KING KONG who may not have intended their film to be an allegory for the slave trade, we do not know how many of the connections made here regarding INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS were intentional on the part of Tarantino. And truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. Once a piece of work is put out there for public consumption, it no longer belongs to the artist; his or her intentions are secondary to the experience of the film itself, as Tarantino himself will attest to:

“When I write, I’m not very analytical about it, I don’t ever deal with the subtext cause I just know it’s there… I just keep it about the scenario, I keep it on the surface, all my concerns… And one of the fun things is that when I’m done with everything, now you get to be analytical about the process, and now I can watch the movie and see all the different connection things and see all the things that are underneath the surface. But I don’t want to deal with the underneath while I’m making it or when I’m writing it… because, again, I don’t want to hit these nails on the head too strongly. But that’s one of the things that I love the most about when I do write film criticism and stuff, is getting into the subtextual areas.”

In fact, when confronted with similarities between the Basterds and Al Queda, Tarantino answered:

“I wasn’t trying to necessarily make a political point in there. It literally was just the next step in the story as far as I was concerned. However, once I did it, the irony was not lost on me at all.”

By the same token, Tarantino wasn’t completely oblivious either, as his statement here on his intentions suggests:

“I wanted the film [to work] sort of the way ‘Bonnie and Clyde‘ worked when it came out. It was an old genre that took place in the ’30s, but it was actually telling you something about the time today. And that was what I was trying to do with this in this genre.”

It is what is inside the filmmaker that comes out in his or her art and finds its way into the subtext. Any artist who trusts their talent and is not stifled by some predetermined formula knows this to be true. Tarantino again:

“My movies are painfully personal, but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. It’s my job to make it be personal, and also to disguise that so only I or the people who know me know how personal it is. ‘Kill Bill’ is a very personal movie…. It’s my job to invest in it and hide it inside of genre…. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.”

With that, I’ll continue.

In the above-mentioned Sgt. Rachtman death scene, we are given a glimpse into the background of one of the Basterds. Til Schweiger’s Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz. At first, I assumed this was a device that would be used to stiglitzreveal the histories and personalities of all the Basterds. But this turned out not to be the case. Again, no mistake. Sgt. Stiglitz was a Nazi turned Nazi-killer. He was inducted into the Basterds for his skills. He is still a German. And he is given more development than any of the American or British characters in the film.

I was told there were scenes shot detailing the past of Eli Roth’s Donny Donowitz. If true, I don’t know why the scenes were removed, but judging from the structure of the film and the themes present in this cut, I believe that better serves the film.

Now let’s take a look at the characters of the French Jew Shosanna Dreyfus and her unrequited Nazi suitor Pvt. Frederick Zoller, played by Melanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl respectively. Shosanna is cold and distant, but understandably so. Her family was brutally murdered by the Nazis under the command of Col. Landa. This “other” storyline has richer characters than any concerning the Basterds. The inglourious-basterds-danielbruhlpersistent Zoller is a walking contradiction; a German war hero who singlehandedly slaughtered upwards of 200 Americans in a 72 hour period, and who is also charming, sincere and extremely likable throughout most of the film. We can’t help but like him despite the fact that he has committed mass murder. After all, he was just a soldier doing his job and his affections for Shosanna seem downright innocent and boyish. However, the closest thing to a friend, or perhaps a mentor, that Zoller is shown as having is none other than Joseph Goebbels, played with disarming vulnerability by Sylvester Groth. Certainly not the Goebbels of our history books nor of American films past. This Goebbels has a genuine love of cinema and even sheds a tear of pure unadulterated joy when his Führer/father-figure proclaims that Goebbels’ newest film may be his best ever. Ironically, the German director responsible for the Führer’s new favorite film is nowhere to be found. He is not seated in the private booth with Goebbels and Hitler, nor is he (or she) ever mentioned or congratulated. This is especially noteworthy as Zoller is the star of the film within a film and Shosanna pangs him earlier with the line “I’m French. We respect directors” when he asks her why she included director G.W. Pabst’s name on the marquee for an earlier film showing at her cinema.

Meanwhile, Shosanna’s true love, her projectionist and partner in crime Marcel, played with understated pride by Jacky Ido, enacts a crucial role in the events to take place and in aiding in the development of Shosanna’s onscreen character. Sadly, he himself has far too little screen time and the film yearns for the possible inclusion of a scene that was supposedly shot and removed before release detailing how Shosanna became the owner of the theater and met and fell in love with Marcel. Not having seen this footage, I obviously cannot comment on the actual benefits of its inclusion into the story. Nonetheless, the result is once again going against convention and not giving equal attention to our typically heroic characters and, though we like Marcel, we are given little of him.

But Shosanna has another man in her life. Col. Landa. The scene staged between these two is filled with all the tension one would hope for from such an encounter. It is landafarmeralmost Hitchcockian in the way its deceptively simple dialogue places you on the edge of your seat. Like the film’s opening scene between Landa and Denis Menochet’s strong and sympathetic Pierre Lapadite. Few films can claim such a riveting opening consisting almost entirely of 20-plus minutes of pure conversation (as well as appropriately inspired camerawork).

But back to the scene at hand… One wonders fearfully if Landa knows who the woman he is sharing strudel with actually is? Was his ordering Shosanna a glass of milk to compliment her dessert an innocent gesture or a subtle torture? Or is all this insistence on milk and creme just Landa’s way of weeding out Jews by seeing who will consume dairy products not in sync with proper Orthodox dietary laws? We never find out. Shosanna’s plot to kill the Nazi elite, though successful, is never revealed to Landa, whose job it is to prevent such actions from occurring. Shosanna gets her revenge, but the man who killed her family is not there to witness it. He never knows who was behind it. Tarantino pulls the rug out from under us yet again as he denies us, as well as Shosanna, that moment of gleeful, personal revenge. In fact, Landa is too busy working out the details of his happy future living the good life on Nantucket Island to notice much else!

And here is where the lines blur even deeper as we find ourselves spiraling toward our climax. The charming and terrifying Landa gets his hands truly bloody for the first time in the film as he strangles to death German actress turned British spyinglourious_basterds14 Bridgett von Hammersmark. There is a brutality here that we have not seen before. Though he is responsible for the killing of Shosanna’s family, he has his soldiers do the actual dirty work. It is an important distinction and somehow manages to change how we feel about this character when he decides to do exactly what von Hammersmark was attempting by betraying his country and his comrades. It is he who carries on her work! His killing of von Hammersmark is not a product of national pride, but of personal pride. It has more to do with her foolish attempt to trick him than with what it is she is trying to achieve. Landa becomes truly monstrous at this point, beyond his already unsettling presence. And this, ironically, just moments before he decides to become a willing U.S. ally and let the Basterd’s plan run its course. It’s almost as if he had to prove his brutal worth within the context of the film before trying to become a Basterd himself.

At the same time, Shosanna’s boyish Nazi suitor shows another disarming quality as he exhibits a level of disgust at watching the film version of himself massacring the “enemy.” But just as we think we know where this is going, Tarantino throws us for another loop as Zoller shows us the dark side that allowed him to kill those people in the first place. Gone is the charming suitor, and in his stead we find a wrathful bully angered by Shosanna’s apparent lack of feeling. But it’s only after Shosanna has shot him down, both literally and figuratively, that she finally shows any real signs of sympathy and remorse. But it’s a direct result of her glimpsing Zoller’s “innocent onscreen hero” projected on the big screen before her and not Zoller himself. She, like the film’s Nazi audience, is taken in by the propaganda machine responsible for so many mistruths and untimely deaths. And it results in her own. Her moment of weakness (or humanity–you decide) is met with her brutal shooting at the 1224252968211_1hands of the real Zoller whose final act is one of bloody vengeance. Shosanna doesn’t live to see the fruits of her labor. By this point in the film, Shosanna is inexorably linked to her Nazi audience both physically, emotionally and psychologically. When she puts on her rouge to prepare for the evening’s bloody proceedings, it is clearly more war paint than makeup, and the swastika looming in the background completes the picture. It should also be noted that it is film itself, the highly flammable 35mm nitrate prints Shosanna has collected, that is used to spark the fire that destroys everyone in the theater and ends the war. Like its effect on Shosanna’s feelings toward Zoller, it is both creative and destructive, truth and lies, as our characters are both beautiful and ugly simultaneously. They are flip-flopping now at a rapid pace. The distinction between villains and heroes narrows even further. All victory, for the characters and audience, is marred.

And it is around this point in the film that we start to realize that Tarantino is truly playing God, not only with our moral conscience and our genre expectations, but with history itself. While we’re busy wondering how Hitler and Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi elite will escape the impending arson (because history insists that they must), Tarantino gives us the one thing no film in this genre has attempted before. He lets them all die. The war comes to a screeching halt and millions of lives that were lost in actuality, are spared. We are permitted to celebrate the fantasy death of these historical monsters as the film’s opening statement “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” comes to fruition. But all at a price.

While watching the film version of Zoller’s “heroic” massacre of American soldiers, the Germans cheer and celebrate each and every brutal killing. And in doing so, they disgust us. But suddenly the tables are turned as we find ourselves cheering the deaths of Hitler, Goebbels and others trapped inside the burning theater. As they panic and claw at one another in an attempt to escape the flames and smoke that will consume them (oven and gas chamber references welcome), two Basterds mow them down with machine guns. Men and women, in their best celebratory attire, drop like flies, their bodies riddled with bullets. Meanwhile, ibface2-thumb-500x264-11600Shosanna’s laughing face is projected onto the smoke from the flames like that of a crazed demon or the devil herself. She has placed herself in the film. She is the film. And the propaganda of her final act is now aimed at us. This is truly a scene of genuine horror. Heroes and monsters are suddenly lumped together as the audience watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS becomes a mirror image of the audience of Nazi elite watching Stolz Der Nation or Nation’s Pride. We are denied our moment of pure vengeance, of having done the right thing, of the heroes overcoming the villains. Everyone here is a villain. Even Donowitz’s frenzied destruction of Hitler’s face is both satisfying and sickening all at the same time. Hitler’s long dead by the time Donowitz turns his machine gun on him one last time. It all happens so fast that we are never given a moment to revel in Hitler’s realization that he has been outwitted and undone. It simply doesn’t occur. Our fantasy scenario has been marred and we are left unsure as to whether we should cheer or put our heads down and mourn the loss of all humanity.

And this is carried out right up to the last frame in the film. Though we know Raine’s carving of the Nazi swastika deep into Landa’s forehead is just and deserved, it is also shown in such graphic detail as to be simultaneously sickening. In fact, it is through Landa’s (and, in an earlier scene, a young Nazi soldier’s) point of view that we witness Raine’s final deed of “just vengeance,” making us, the viewer, the recipient of his knife-wielding handiwork. These shots, consciously or unconsciously, are disturbingly reminiscent of a famous publicity still (used on the film’s soundtrack LP cover) from Wes Craven’s chilling and bloody 1972 revenge-fest, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, taken from a scene in which one of the film’s sadistic killers, while out in the woods, carves his name into his victim’s flesh and then leans back to admire it, while his equally twisted partners-in-crime look on, impressed.

As a result, in the final shots of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Raine and his Basterd partner (B.J. Novak) seem a bit more demented than heroic, even though we can’t flaw them for their actions and, to a degree, celebrate them. But Tarantino makes it just a tad harder to revel in their deeds without infusing a small tinge of something else there too. Something lacking humanity.

And so, like Cassavetes’ use of the public’s expectations of the Hollywood Romance genre to turn the audience on their heads in MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, Tarantino takes our expectations of the Men On A Mission and American World War II genres and completely subverts them. He gives us our cake, and lets us eat it, too. But he purposefully leaves out the sugar.

melanie

Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS