Favorite Quotes: Martin Scorsese On The Uncomfortable Landscape Of Great Films


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In a recent review of John Ford’s classic film The Searchers for The Hollywood Reporter, Martin Scorsese discusses why he believes (as so many do) that The Searchers is not just a great western, but a great film. Quite possibly one of cinema’s greatest films. Throughout his review of this classic, as well as Glenn Frankel’s new book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, Scorsese explores what makes a film like stand out from so many others. And part of that story takes into account the film’s backstory and the many characters –Ford, Wayne, Hunter, Archuletta, Steiner– that came together both personally and professionally to create this moment in time.

What resonated most with me from Scorsese’s article, however, was his description of the film:

“Like all great works of art, it’s uncomfortable.”

As someone who is rabid about exploring –both as a filmmaker and a film-viewer– those areas that worm their way under my skin and stir those places oft left in darkness or unspoken, this description resonated in a way that helped articulate and validate many of the feelings and experiences I’ve been having on my own creative journey. I yearn to embrace those parts of my psyche that thrive more in my subconscious than on the surface. That is, until I either face them in my writing and filmmaking or in the taking-in of someone else’s exploratory work.

Later in the same article, Scorsese elaborates on his perception and interpretation of what constitutes a great film. And I wholeheartedly concur:

“In truly great films — the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable — nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery.” 

This describes most of my favorite films, as well as what I strive to achieve –in some small, personal way– in my writing and filmmaking. Ironically enough, these are also the very same qualities that many others have focused on in their negative criticisms of both my favorite films and my own attempts at self-reflection and self-expression via my writing.

But the exploration of these uncomfortable places and the mysteries they leave behind have always been, and will remain, what drives me.

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Favorite Quotes: Martin Scorsese On The Uncomfortable Landscape Of Great Films

Great American Films Still Get Made, They’re Just Hard To Find: Lonergan’s 3-Hr MARGARET


“Kenny, you made a masterpiece. Unfortunately it’s in the wrong decade and the wrong country.”

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.

Lonergan

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.

Sources:

Kenneth Lonergan on Margaret | Film interview, TimeOut Chicago

Kenneth Lonergan Discusses The Changes In The New Cut Of ‘Margaret,’ Digital Vs. Film, 3D & More, IndieWire

Kenneth Lonergan On The Inspirations, Performances, Resonances & Structure Of ‘Margaret’, IndieWire

Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece, NY Times

Great American Films Still Get Made, They’re Just Hard To Find: Lonergan’s 3-Hr MARGARET

Eating Julie Taymor: When Artists Devour Their Own


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to Julie Taymor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought, certainly.

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

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

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

Robert ended his review of the U2 concert by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating Julie Taymor: When Artists Devour Their Own

Boo George Lucas. Again As Always.


My admiration for Mr. Lucas fizzled out many moons ago. His first three films were simply stunning. THX-1138, AMERICAN GRAFFITI and the very first STAR WARS. The man didn’t return to directing until he decided to single-handedly destroy the “franchise” he’d built in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The three STAR WARS prequels he helmed are among the worst films I’ve ever seen. Incompetently written, showcasing the largest collection of god-awful performances by some of our industry’s leading actors, and completely devoid of any heart, these films can only be loved by either very small children or geeks capable of extreme levels of blind devotion.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that my beef with Lucas has less to do with these abominations and more to do with the absolute rape he has committed to the original three films. While even at the time of its release RETURN OF THE JEDI started to reek of Mr. Lucas’ desire to make toys over films, it was still watchable and had some terrific moments. Of course much of the film and story’s darker edges were eliminated (see clip below), some in post and much as early as the script stage (goodbye Wookies, hello Ewoks). But despite the early signs of Mr. Lucas’ transition over to the “dark side,” I had never imagined at the time that the films I loved (warts and all) would one day be digitally manipulated to such a degree that they could barely be recognized as the same films. Even THX-1138 has been completely overhauled, and in so doing, thoroughly destroyed. AMERICAN GRAFFITI, luckily for us, had only one scene altered, leaving the bulk of the original movie-going experience intact. But STAR WARS and its early companion films can only be seen in their original, un-assaulted forms in crummy, non-anamorphic transfers on Standard DVD or laserdisc.

With the recent announcement that the STAR WARS films will finally be making their way to Blu-ray next year (sadly in a box set where one will be forced to buy the unwatchable prequels), Lucas has, again, denied the call of the films’ true fans and stated:

“You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally. It’s a very, very expensive process to do it. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version.”

In other words, the original versions will not be included.

And I dare say it will be a lifetime before they ever are. And, from what Lucas himself has stated in the past, there’s a good chance they never will be.

George Lucas may have started out as part of the new breed of filmmaker that emerged during the 70’s including Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Steven Speilberg (they were all friends and created a small but well-respected community around them), but his interests veered so far away from those ideals that he eventually became a marketing entity with no trace of filmmaker left to be found. And, sadly, those of us out here who still believe in something pure (like the Rebel Alliance itself), must suffer the consequences until someone steps in and makes things right. Perhaps after Lucas himself has left this world (and I am not urging that he do so any time soon), a lover of cinema and restoration will step up and return to the world that which was taken from us: an innocent and creative young man’s vision that touched millions and inspired almost as many.

One day, perhaps…

Here’s a scene cut from THE RETURN OF THE JEDI before its original release. It will be included as an extra on the new Blu-ray set. A set I will not be buying. It seems the scene was simply too dark. But one gets a sense of what the tone of this film could have been. Had Lucas not heard the whispers of the dark side…

Boo George Lucas. Again As Always.

Scorsese Talks Blu-ray


Picture 7Martin Scorsese was the head speaker at this year’s Blu-Con 2.0 symposium in Beverly Hills. And he seconded what those of us already hooked on Blu already know:

“Blu-ray is going to extend the lifetime of a movie… I have a daughter who’s 10, and she can’t tell the difference between old films and new films. [That makes me] very excited and optimistic as a filmmaker and a film lover.

BD’s potential to replicate the original theatrical experience is the best I’ve seen in forty years of [movie] collecting. Blu-ray offers the ability to see the film as it was intended.”

He also added that Blu-ray has the potential, when mastered correctly, to offer:

“a film grain texture which I think is very important in recreating the film experience.”

He then went on to praise Criterion for their hi-def remastering of the brilliant and sumptuous 1948 Powell/Pressburger film THE RED SHOES, due for upcoming release on Blu-ray:

“It’s like experiencing the film for the first time again. It’s not just the details of the eyes or such; it creates a completely different experience.”

Scorsese talked about how a poor presentation can greatly alter a movie-watcher’s experience of a film:

“There are subtle things, like not being able to see the actor’s eyes. With Blu-ray, you don’t have that problem.”

As a Blu-ray collector and filmmaker myself, I can personally attest to just how incredible Blu-ray is. When used correctly. There are a few Blu-ray discs out there that don’t live up to the potential of the medium, but the majority of films I’ve watched and own are simply outstanding. It is genuinely a very different experience from watching standard DVD or, lord help us, video.

Picture 8Criterion’s new release of Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE is a revelation. I owned the previous DVD release and I can tell you right now that these are two very different film-watching experiences. Same goes for the newly remastered Blu-ray edition of the Hitchcock classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which was given a stunning new 8k transfer. The detail and texture now possible in the Blu-ray format has opened a door to allowing people of all ages to experience films, both new and old, in ways not possible since the time of a film’s original theatrical release. For anyone who loves film, or simply enjoys watching a movie now and again, Blu-ray is the only way to go. Unless you own a 35mm projector and a damn good print of your favorite film.

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Scorsese Talks Blu-ray

Cinematic Masterpieces: WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT


WoodstockBlu-rayIt’s funny. I hadn’t seen WOODSTOCK in its entirety in probably over 20 years. I had watched performance clips on Youtube and, of course, remember certain moments and statements and “characters” from the film, but I had completely forgotten what an absolute masterful piece of cinema it was. WOODSTOCK is so much more than a compilation of musical performances. And what’s frightening is how easily the film could have been shot or reduced to that very thing if it had fallen into the hands of different filmmakers other than the team that ultimately defied the impossible and brought this film to life.

Director Michael Wadleigh, along with a ragtag team of some of the best documentary cameramen and women ever assembled, ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a very young editor and assistant director, Martin Scorsese, managed to work through some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable to capture the entire experience that was WOODSTOCK.

We all know the basic story: They expected between 150,000 to 200,000 people max to attend. They ended up with over half a million. A small city. No one was prepared. But that didn’t matter. From audience to performers to coordinators, everyone worked in unison to pull off an event that was almost entirely peaceful and cooperative. And people from all over came to help with medical attention, food, shelter, whatever was needed to turn this state of emergency into one of the greatest events ever successfully undertaken. It truly was an unintended statement to the world at large. It was proof of something better, a way of thinking, a way of being. It wasn’t just artifice, but a sampling of humanity. It was a living alternative. And everything that was said and done then, still resonates today.

And the film puts you right smack in the middle of it all. But it does so with a unique and powerful vision. Shot entirely on 16mm, the film was designed for and released in the 70mm format. Quite a leap. But Wadleigh and team pulled it off with some of the most daring split screen opticals ever seen. Suddenly, the stories within the story start to appear. What is being said or done on one side of the frame is being commented on, visually and otherwise, on the other. And the performances are each approached with a unique individuality to best capture the feel and flavor of the music, the performers, the environment in which they were playing and the audience to whom they were playing for. It wasn’t just about capturing the music, it was about becoming part of the whole event. Thanks to the visionary talents of the folks behind the cameras and in the editing room, WOODSTOCK the film doesn’t just show you the event, it is an elemental part of the event. And because of that, we are as well.

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A great example is the CANNED HEAT segment of the film. One camera, one take. It’s a testament to Wadleigh’s eye, fluid camerawork and sense of the music (he was the handheld camera operator for this particular shot) and the great restraint and vision of the editors. It’s a powerhouse moment that personalizes the performers and the environment around them. Around us. There is no desire on the part of the filmmakers to disguise the fact that they are there. They are as much a part of what is happening on that stage as the band members themselves.

Then there’s THE WHO. Suddenly, we find ourselves with three separate frames within our single 70mm frame. The juxtaposition of images, many simply duplicates reversed to create a moving, breathing bookend to the center image, offer us not only different angles on the performers and crowd, but enhance–nay, recreate–the psychedelic and energetic nature of the music itself. It’s an all-absorbing journey deep into the psyche of the adventure that was taking place on Max Yasgur’s unsuspecting farm that evening. It is as much a visual feast of great complexity and wonder as it is a testament to the band’s unmatched musicianship and tirelessly vital performance.

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And after each band completes their set, we return once again to the ongoing saga happening behind the scenes. Be it one hell of a rainstorm that nearly stopped the show in its tracks, or the thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of the people attending, or the amazement, horror or joy of the local townsfolk at witnessing the behavior of their new neighbors, or the social impact one senses the event is already starting to have long before its conclusion is in sight, WOODSTOCK cinematically captures a world that is, in many ways, still with us.

While the “hippie” movement and Summer Of Love have faded into history, the remnants of those recent times have been absorbed into our everyday society, our very way of life. Health food stores have grown into chains, yoga is now as commonplace as school, spirituality has moved into new regions where the choices are endless and mainstream. It’s a far cry from the world that those who attended Woodstock may have envisioned, but changes were made nonetheless. Yeah, we still have wars and we moved into an age of greed and consumership that reflects the fear and confusion inherent in all societies and we still exhibit some of our puritanical roots, but we also have rallies and protests and the ability to call our leaders out and ask for something better. These are all things that were validated and given life in these times and the times that came before.

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While there are many who believe the movement was misguided, short-lived and, ultimately, a failure, one has only to look around to see the effects it has had on the world in which we live. And the music that reflected the era, that spoke to a generation and beyond, is still some of the most powerful and heartfelt musical expression to be seen or heard anywhere throughout our long history. And WOODSTOCK the film shows us that in all its shades of light and dark. One need only witness the performances by Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix to understand and realize that there were geniuses in our midsts. And I do not throw that word around lightly. These were men and women who tapped into something rare, that segment of humanity who grace us with their inner voice, with a talent that belies their youthfulness, with a form of expression that deeply touches the soul of man and reveals it, naked and for all to see, with exquisite delicacy and wonder.

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WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is part of that revelation. And I am grateful for its existence. Both for its cultural value, its spiritual value, and its extreme artistic value, which I was far too young to comprehend when last I viewed the film. It is a place I hope to return to again and again. And next time, perhaps, I will take some others with me.

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10 years

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Cinematic Masterpieces: WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT