Ronan Farrow and the Woody Allen Witch Hunt


Let me start by saying I have no idea if Woody Allen is guilty or innocent of molesting his daughter. And to that point, neither do you.

We don’t know these people. What seems to be clear to me is that there is a lot of anger, hurt, sorrow, fear and dysfunction among the Farrow/Allen group. As there is in any family. What concerns me far more than anything Woody Allen is accused of doing, is the reaction of the public to the tweets and statements of Ronan Farrow and family. The constant commentary on social media that Woody Allen is a monster, that he is evil, that we should stop supporting him as an artist, the call for his head (or his balls) on a stake… This is dangerous and far reaching. It doesn’t effect just one person or one family. It reaches out and envelops something far deeper, far more nefarious and destructive.

Now granted, my reaction here comes from my own fears and doubts, my own dysfunctions. My personal fear of being misunderstood or misrepresented, my fear of a mob-mentality, my fear of people who know what’s right not stepping up out of their own fears of attack or retribution… These are some of the things that drive my emotional reaction to the media circus playing out right now. And I can’t take them with any less seriousness than I do the actions and reactions of others.

History has shown us that people’s fear and hatred can be quite easily manipulated. Whether it’s the Salem Witch Trials or Nazi Germany, the war in Iraq or the Tea Party, people can be rallied with relative ease into forgoing truth or facts and replacing them with pitchforks and torches. The vitriol that I have witnessed against Woody Allen in the past few weeks has left me shaken. Not out of concern for Woody Allen. Again, I don’t know if he is a victim or a victimizer. What frightens and concerns me is that Ronan Farrow and family seem to be on a dangerous mission. And people, from the ignorant to the well-educated, are falling in line to back the hatred and anger (far more than the sadness and hurt) based, not on facts or reality, but on their own personal fears and dysfunctions. And Ronan (and whoever else may be behind this) knows exactly what to say and where to say it to create this tidal wave of misguided loathing. I say misguided because we simply do not know the truth or even anything vaguely resembling the truth. Woody Allen is being tried in the media, not by a jury of his peers, but by a jury of easily manipulated emotions and misinformation or, as one commentator observed, “a media psychodrama with the verdict handed down by random members of the general public.” This whole fiasco goes well beyond the question of Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence. The only thing here that comes close to encapsulating the word “monstrous” in my opinion is the behavior of the public in this matter. It is historically and socially monstrous. Have we learned nothing?

What adds to the horror of the scene for me is not only that people are gathering to stir one another’s dread and hostility, but that so many of them (most, I dare say) are completely ignorant of any of the actual facts of the case. I have read and heard so much information and accusations in discussions and tweets and chats and posts that are completely and absolutely false. Factually incorrect. Robert B. Weide‘s piece in The Daily Beast, The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast, is the first sane piece of writing on the issue I have read to date. There is more than enough information out there to, at the very least, suggest the possibility that Woody Allen did not molest his child. In fact, there is just as much evidence to suggest the possibility that Mia Farrow may have coached her daughter into believing this. But no one seems to be up in arms about that possibility. Now don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting that any of the above is true or false; I am not trying to do to Mia what Ronan is doing to Woody. All I am pointing out is that people are reacting, not to facts or evidence or truth or reality, but to what they want/need to believe to fuel whatever fears and desires they have surrounding this issue. And people like Ronan Farrow are igniting that fire every chance they get. Again, I understand that he is hurt and outraged. I understand that he may need or want others to share in that rage. I understand that it must be extremely painful to watch this man you believe to have done something horrible to you and the ones you love being celebrated with lifetime achievement awards and accolades. I get it. That must be extremely painful and frustrating. But to act out that rage on social media knowing full well that the people he gathers there do not care about truth or justice, to use their dysfunction as a means to rally them to his side, to enact his fantasy of a mass rejection of Woody Allen, to essentially mark him as a monster… THIS is something worthy of a public discussion. THIS is something playing out right here in front of us, something we ourselves are a part of. NOT the private matters of a family none of us know or could possibly know.

The witch hunt that is taking place, the ease with which the Farrows have stirred mass hatred by using the public’s ignorance as a tool to soothe and satisfy what is, essentially, a family tragedy, is frightening to me. And to see it reach those I know whom I considered intelligent and thoughtful people, to see them pick up their hangman’s noose with such fervor and conviction shows me that we have not evolved very far at all. Certainly not far enough to avoid future tragedies. We have proven once again that we are out here, waiting to be duped, lied to, tricked, or simply misguided with good intentions by those with an agenda, be it innocent or nefarious. We are the masses happy to point fingers at what frightens us all the while shying away from pointing that finger at ourselves. We gather and yell “monster” never seeing the monster that stares back at us in the mirror, the real monster we should be facing, the real monster we should be working so diligently to bring out into the light.

Ronan Farrow and the Woody Allen Witch Hunt

Oscar Noms Tepid As Usual – Part 1

Anyone who knows me or has followed my posts knows that I am no fan of Award Ceremonies. And my expectations for the Oscars is at an all-time low so there’s very little they can do to surprise me. Which is different from disappointing me as I hold out vain hope that one day Academy members will evolve to a place where they recognize daring, challenging and creative cinema for what it is and stop celebrating mediocrity. I know, I know, this is the lie I tell myself so that I can move forward while still living and working in this town committed to the lowest common denominator.


So here’s my brief reaction to this year’s noms. I’ll start now on a positive note: TREE OF LIFE. Terence Malick’s cinematic masterpiece. Probably the greatest filmic work to come out of America in a decade. Whether or not you agree with that statement, there’s no denying that this is a film by a man who makes films from his heart, from his gut, from his own subconscious all the while taking great risks and pushing the medium itself to the very edge. If you are not inspired by what Malick is doing, then you probably thought THE DESCENDANTS was a deep film. Unfortunately for Malick’s contribution to American cinema, TREE is the dark horse in this race as it received the lowest number of votes for Best Picture of the nominees (along with the revoltingly bad EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE).

Which brings me to one of my great pet peeves. Alexander Payne. Critics love this guy. The Academy loves this guy. I find him to be, while not awful, incredibly bland. His films often touch on interesting subject matter, but never, ever, dip below the surface. His films are “deep” for people who don’t actually like to go deep. THE DESCENDANTS was an incredibly contrived film in my opinion. The only performance in the entire film that rang true for me was Judy Greer. And Payne relegated her to a joke. And while I do like watching Clooney, his performance felt somewhat detached to me. And why people are amazed that Clooney could play a husband and a Dad is beyond me. Why is this a stretch? It’s not. You’d think he was passing himself off as Margaret Thatcher. To nominate him as best actor is to disregard far stronger and soul-bearing performances given this year in much better, more sincere films. Again, I’m a Clooney fan. But this is not among his best work. For me, many of the performances in THE DESCENDANTS relied more on “indicating” than on “being.” And while that may not have been the experience of the actors themselves, it was my experience as an audience member. And I do applaud Payne for his subject matter choices and often his casting choices, but his films are directed like TV movies and manage to somehow make everything look ugly and drab in a way that never serves the story or characters. He is that filmmaker whose work is applauded by a public hungry for content, but ultimately without the desire to really try anything new or daring.

Glad to see Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS get some attention. It’s a good film. But let’s face it, it’s also quite fluffy. When Allen tackles anything heavier than this, the Academy has no idea what to do with it.

THE ARTIST. I’m glad that this film is getting some attention. That said, I thought the film was enjoyable but far from great. And while it may delight audiences unfamiliar with silent film (and a few others who love silent film so much that they can’t see past the film’s imperfections), I thought THE ARTIST did a disservice to the silent film era by suggesting that most silent films were fluffy little adventure pics, serials and romances. Given that the film is called THE ARTIST, it almost comes across as an ironic joke given the lack of true artistry depicted in the film when compared to the artistry that was actually taking place during the silent era. Not to mention THE ARTIST didn’t really feel or look much like a silent-era film to me (except in the most basic ways, but those didn’t hold up for me under close scrutiny) and the film used music from later periods as its soundtrack, which didn’t help.

HUGO. Moderately entertaining. Was bored by the first half (which may have been me distracted by the 3D). As always, the Academy celebrate Scorsese’s lesser works over his masterful ones. Again, sigh…

MONEYBALL. A very solid film. The writing, acting and directing were all top notch. And while it wouldn’t be a best film of the year for me, I still found it to be incredibly well-made, smart and entertaining.

WAR HORSE. Not as horrible as I’d heard, the film still shows that Spielberg doesn’t trust his material enough to let it speak for itself. Spielberg’s direction feels forced, like he’s trying too hard and, combined with Williams’ score, topples over the edge of sentimentality and dictated emotion in such a way as to actually diminish the impact of the story for me. But this is the kind of stuff Academy members eat for dinner and call fine dining. For me, it’s closer to the Olive Garden. That said, it’s a film I would have loved as a kid and I was able to appreciate moments on that level. And the fact that I don’t need much prodding to become emotionally invested in the well-being of animals didn’t hurt either. But at the end of the day, the film felt uncertain of itself and inconsistent to me. I can only imagine what a theater/film director like Julie Taymor might have brought to the table. I would have liked to have seen that.

THE HELP. Not surprising that this was nominated. It’s a film I liked for its performances despite a script that, ironically, given the subject matter, takes very few risks and sugarcoats many of the characters, either painting them as cartoon villains or letting them off the hook by having them magically turn into compassionate heroes by film’s end. But the cast is strong and they somehow manage to weather some moments of less-than-stellar writing and a script afraid to go to the daring places some of its characters do.

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. What was Stephen Daldry thinking? There is very little that is believable about this film. Or even very interesting. It’s another forced film with its heart in the right place but the pieces just never came together for me. And though the young lead gives it 120%, I never for a moment bought him as a kid with autism. Or even as a real kid. I found the plot to be ridiculous in a “feel good” way that simply reeked of schmaltzy Hollywood films past. This one belongs in the PAY IT FORWARD class. Except that it takes itself even more seriously. Ultimately, it’s a message film where the message is written in big bold letters from frame one. And then you have to sit there while the actors go through the motions. I hate to be so harsh, especially since, like I said, the film’s heart is in the right place, but there’s an insincerity to this film that unfortunately informs almost every frame.

As for directors, thank the lord Malick made the cut because there is nary a director here or abroad that could touch the level of talent and vision he displayed with TREE OF LIFE. Which just means he won’t win.

Michel Hazanavicius for THE ARTIST is not a surprise. And I’m okay with it. I’m not anywhere near as big a fan of the film as others, but it’s still quite entertaining and, though still targeting an audience that doesn’t respond well to challenges, very respectable.

Alexander Payne. Well, he’s always a favorite of voters, but to me he’s innocuous at best. Little-to-no visual sensibilities whatsoever. And he cuts away whenever an actor or character are in danger of dipping beneath the surface and actually getting in touch with something genuine. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that he’s probably got some great films sitting on his cutting room floor. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to see it. This means he’ll probably win. And if it isn’t Payne, it will be Hazanavicius, which I’d prefer.

Scorsese for Hugo is just another example of Hollywood telling its greatest directors that they don’t have to try too hard to get their attention. In fact, if they actually put themselves out there in a big way, they’re likely to be ignored. Not that HUGO’s a bad film. It’s not. And it’s a film that meant something to Scorsese clearly, and that I respect. And that he made a film somewhat out of what I imagine is his comfort zone. All positive stuff to be applauded. But compared to his entire body of work, HUGO just isn’t that far up there for me…

Woody Allen. Again, I’m glad he’s being recognized. Allen’s a great filmmaker and a great writer. He deserves any attention he gets. Allen is constantly making films, taking risks, and staying true to himself.

Actors… George Clooney: I like him. I didn’t think this performance was anything special. Certainly not award-worthy. He’s charming. He’s sincere. He’s smart. But under the direction of Payne, he will only be allowed to go so far. And for me, it’s not far enough. Especially given that Michael Fassbender isn’t nominated for SHAME, a performance that makes Clooney’s nomination seem downright diabolical. It certainly feels more based on Clooney’s popularity and likeability than on the depth of performance given. No offense to Clooney.

Demián Bichir. Nice performance in an average film, but it wasn’t quite award-worthy for me either. The film and the role-as-written never attained that level.

Jean Dujardin. Absolutely deserved. He was the best part of the film (along with his dog). A terrific performance through and through.

Gary Oldman. Also completely deserved. To walk into Alec Guinness’s shoes and do them justice? And to give us such a nuanced, subtle performance? Beautiful. This is a film that also greatly deserved its writing nomination. To take such a complex and vast story as TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and boil it down to a two-hour film without sacrificing the integrity or complexity of the work, while not dumbing it down or making it easy, wins both my respect and admiration.

Brad Pitt. He should have been nominated for TREE OF LIFE which I think was an even better performance, but he was terrific in MONEYBALL as well. Highly deserved.

Glenn Close. Even though I didn’t completely buy her as a man, I still thought the character she created to be absolutely mesmerizing.

Viola Davis. Incredible performance that aided in this average film rising above itself.

Rooney Mara. Still have to see the film.

Meryl Streep. Hated the real Margaret Thatcher, love Meryl Streep. This performance once again shows us that very few American actors, particularly stars, ever attain the level of immersion that this woman does. She is the best there is. Deserved.

Michelle Williams. Always love her. This was a thankless role with built-in strikes against it and Williams pulled it off. If only they’d remove the musical bookends, this would be a flawless performance. Not just because she captured something innate about Marilyn, but because she brought a humanity to the role that would have remained an impersonation in the hands of a lesser actor.

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention that the biggest travesty of the awards this year in that MELANCHOLIA received absolutely no nominations. One of the most daring, insightful, honest films of this year (or any other). Lars Von Trier was snubbed. Perhaps it was his Hitler comments at Cannes that lost it for him. That would be a shame and a gross overreaction to those statements which, while both provocative and uncomfortable, seemed to have been somewhat misunderstood. To paint a picture of Hitler as a human being one can sympathize with is just too much for most people to accept or even consider. And it’s clear that Von Trier himself was uncomfortable and attempting to lighten the mood and talk his way out of an unintentional corner, only to dig himself in deeper. Add the language barrier and he was doomed from the get-go. And the harsh reality that Kirsten Dunst wasn’t nominated for her work in MELANCHOLIA only showcases Academy voters’ deep inability to truly understand what an actor can offer us of themselves. No script nom, no director nom either… This film’s absence from the nominations is a glaring signpost to just how limited Academy voters are. And why it will continue to be difficult for true film artists –both behind and in front of the camera– to ever truly get the recognition they deserve for the depths of their souls they are willing to lay out for us.

Oscar Noms Tepid As Usual – Part 1

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

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

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

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

“You have no perspective,” was the reasoning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will repeat: there are no rules in art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soderbergh Distresses About The Current State Of Film

Steven-Soderbergh-on-the--001In an interview with Henry Barnes of The Guardian UK, director Steven Soderbergh laments what currently feels like an industry that no longer has room for artists and visionaries like Soderbergh. And with increasing reports that studios are “taking even more control” and not allowing filmmakers or actors to call the shots anymore, Soderbergh may be right. Partially.

“I’m looking at the landscape and I’m thinking, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know. A few more years maybe. And then the stuff that I’m interested in is only going to be of interest to me… In terms of my career, I can see the end of it. I’ve had that sensation for a few years now. And so I’ve got a list of stuff that I want to do – that I hope I can do – and once that’s all finished I may just disappear.”

Luckily, Barnes adds:

It would all sound depressing if Soderbergh didn’t pepper his speech with fits of incredulous laughter.

And who wouldn’t feel this way if they’d been through what Soderbergh has been lately. His most recent film MONEYBALL was pulled just five days before production was set to begin (check out my post here). And his current film now showing in theaters and on pay-per-view THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE has a very limited audience despite some really positive reviews.

And then there was CHE, the Benicio del Toro starring biopic that found little distribution and support. The fact that the film was quite epic (shown in two parts) and all in Spanish didn’t help the commercial potential of the film, but it’s a sad state of commentary that a director like Soderbergh has to struggle to make films of depth and quality. Certainly there was little struggle in putting together the OCEANS 11 films. They appealed to the lowest common denominator and made heaps of cash. But the “one for you, one for me” system of filmmaking doesn’t seem to be working anymore. It’s now the “one for you and… hey, where’d everybody go?”

Now granted, CHE is not without its flaws and, according to Soderbergh, was a very difficult and not particularly satisfying experience.

“Everybody got scarred by [Che] a little bit. I don’t know how to describe it. It took a long time to shake off. It was just such an intense four or five months that it really … You know, for a year after we finished shooting I would still wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Thank God I’m not shooting that film.’… It’s hard to watch it and not to wish we’d had more time. But I can’t tell you that if we’d had more time it would be better – it would just be different. There was an energy and intensity that came out of working that quickly.”

Hopefully, Soderbergh will land firmly on his feet again soon. And any of us out here trying to make good films and finding ourselves standing face to face with the current incarnation of the Hollywood Studios understands Soderbergh’s despair. But he is a rare talent and he does have an audience. And with his love and discovery of the digital realm and his ability to make a film on the fly, and the number of actors and other talented individuals who would relish the opportunity to work with Soderbergh on just about anything… Well, I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more of him for a while. And like Woody Allen before him, Soderbergh may just have to head to Europe to find a landscape a bit more suited to his needs and desires. Somewhere where he would be greeted with open arms, instead of having to defend his vision to people incapable of meeting him on solid ground.

Soderbergh Distresses About The Current State Of Film

The Sad State Of Film Criticism

criticThe internet has been a blessing and a curse to the world of film criticism. The bad side is that everyone’s a critic. The good side is, we’re no longer limited to the opinions of those able to get their words in print. Trust me, just because you’re writing film reviews for a major newspaper doesn’t mean you know a damn thing about film.

The perfect example: I had a friend who ended up being hired to write additional film critiques for a major U.S. city paper. Though a very sweet man, he knew nothing of film. Not its history, not its art, not its technique. He didn’t even understand the concept of genre. His taste in film was limited to the bizarre and offbeat. Anything else was trash. Some of the greatest films to be released in the years he was a staff film writer were met with vast amounts of ignorance and negative “stay away” comments. Understand, there wasn’t a malicious bone in this man’s body. However, what he understood of film could be balanced on the head of a pin. We who knew him and considered him our friend (and still do) cringed weekly at reading his reviews. He was hired by the paper because he was good at writing critiques of literature, something he actually did know something about as he was, himself, a novelist. And a damn good one. But a film critic? Not on his best day.

So how many truly wonderful films were greeted with less than stellar attendance due to this man’s negative reviews and complete misunderstanding of the medium and the intentions of the artists working in it? Quite a few, I’d venture to guess.

On my journey as a film lover and film maker, I’ve run across some truly surprising and distressing comments. Some made by “professional” critics, others by bloggers and various online movie sites of varying degrees of popularity.

Let’s start with Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. His review of the new movie MOON begins with this comment:

There are those who think “2001” is the greatest movie ever made, and then there are those of us who think it’s the greatest boring movie ever made.

To think that a major film critic in this day and age can’t even see the value of a film like Kubrick’s 2001. Sure, it’s all a matter of taste. Or is it?  I’ll be honest, I could never trust a critic who would write something like this. I couldn’t trust the man’s basic understanding of filmmaking and storytelling. For 2001 not to be your cup of tea is one thing, but to devalue it and not seem to appreciate its merits and place in history or to recognize its great artistry… Aw, hell, I can’t respect anyone who writes about film for a living who thinks 2001 is boring. Sorry, Peter, but I just don’t trust that you know of what you write.

And speaking of 2001, here’s critic Kyle Smith of New York Post fame suggesting WATCHMEN is similar to the films of Stanley Kubrick in depth and artistry:

Director Zack Snyder’s cerebral, scintillating follow-up to “300″ seems, to even a weary filmgoer’s eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as “2001″ must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles “A Clockwork Orange. Like those Stanley Kubrick films – it is also in part a parody of “Dr. Strangelove” – it transforms each moment into a tableau with great, uncompromising concentration. The effect is an almost airless gloom, but the film is also exhilarating in breadth and depth.

I suppose I should simply be happy Mr. Smith even knows the films of Stanley Kubrick and can list some of them off in a positive light.

Or how about this paragraph recently culled from online pages of  Rogue Cinema:

If you want to call me lazy, so be it, but I personally prefer films that actually spell everything out at some point during the story rather than leaving me to wonder about it.  I like many people, don’t watch films to think.  I watch films to get away from all the thinking I have to do when I’m not watching films.  When a film leaves me wondering at the end, I feel unsatisfied, like the story wasn’t completely told.  It’s kinda like reading a whole mystery novel and then finding out that the last ten pages are missing.  It’s not the viewer’s job to finish the story in their head.  It’s the film’s job to tell the story in a complete way, or at least, if it’s not going to give a complete explanation, give enough of one so that it’s easy for the viewer to piece it together.  Now I know there are some people out there who like to get deep and analyze everything in a plot in order to come to their own conclusions, but I would hazard to say that those types are in the minority.

Really? REALLY? You don’t like movies that require thought? This “reviewer” actually states that he prefers to have everything spelled out for him. Maybe I’m in the minority when I say that I find this kind of thinking to be quite astounding in all the worst ways. I guess this is how films like CRASH win Academy Awards and tons of accolades. And CRASH is one of the better films to explain everything to the audience as if they weren’t really all that smart. Hey, at least it’s trying to be a smart film with something to say. Unlike 90% of what hits the big screens showing studio-fare. I guess it’s a scary proposition to make a film that requires true thought and participation on the part of the audience in an age where critics think 2001 is boring and films are meant to be nothing more than an escape from using one’s brain.

I gotta tell you, though, that’s not how I was raised. Sure, we had silly, mindless films when I was younger, too (I’m 45 now, not quite ancient yet), but we were inundated with films that relished ambiguity, promoted conversation, assumed the audience contained intelligent beings who actually liked using their brains and had the ability to do so.

Even famed critic Roger Ebert makes assumptions about how film should be made and what film should be. Here’s a comment he made about Woody Allen’s CASSANDRA’S DREAM:

The identical premise is used in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which is like a master class in how Allen goes wrong.

A master class? Okay… I suppose Mr. Ebert never noticed that Mr. Allen IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT KND OF STORYTELLER AND FILMMAKER THAN MR. LUMET? Both have made great films and both have made films that some would say were not among their best, but neither should be compared to the other with the notion that one is right, the other wrong. There are no rules, no guidelines to filmmaking. I know people like to suggest that there are, but there aren’t. You start out with a blank piece of paper and move forward from there. Film is still, essentially, in its infancy. There should be no restrictions placed on the artist’s imagination or the ability of the audience to decide which filmmaker and films move them/effect them. There is no “master class”. And Mr. Allen didn’t “go wrong.” He simply made a Woody Allen film.

Or how about critic Sean Smith’s embarrassing Newsweek article about M. Night Shyamalan? In it Smith quotes, and appears to support, comments made by the producers he interviewed in which they seem to denounce artistic freedom as if it were the devil:

The success of “The Sixth Sense” gave [Shayamalan] total creative autonomy, and he has isolated himself in Pennsylvania, where all his movies are made. “When someone is given total artistic freedom,” says one blockbuster producer, “the result is usually bad.”

Later in the same article, Mr. Smith continues:

The solution, most suggest, is for [Shayamalan] to break out of his self-imposed cocoon. “The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be,” says an indie exec. “Look at Stanley Kubrick. If you see ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ it’s clear he hadn’t left the house in 20 years.”

Well, with this school of thought engaging the minds of the masses, it may take a while for Mr. Smith and the world at large to recognize the cinematic masterpiece that is EYES WIDE SHUT. Yeah, I know, lots of people hated that film. But truthfully, I have little respect for those who dismiss the film as garbage. Again, personal taste is one thing, but I have little faith in many people’s ability to recognize daring, groundbreaking and/or important cinema when it’s staring them in the face.

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

I love that this indie-exec has decided what constitutes an artist and art. I love that he or she has also decided that Shyamalan’s choice to live in Philadelphia is making Shyamalan’s world “smaller.” As if Los Angeles were the center of the universe and a solid reflection of the “real” world. This sad way of thinking is only made more distressing by the critic who used these quotes to support his narrow argument.

Take film critic Desson Thomson’s comments from his review of Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH in the Washington Post:

Coppola proves that even the best of our film artists can lose sight of what this medium is all about: entertaining, enlightening and including its audience.

Again, I am (almost) struck dumb by the assumption on the part of so many critics as to what film is and is not supposed to be. Really, Mr. Thomson, is that what the medium is all about? Thanks for enlightening me. And I’m sure for enlightening Mr. Coppola, who obviously needs to sit down and take a film class from you! And did it ever occur to you that maybe this film did achieve all of these things for some other members of the audience? Perhaps the less narrow-minded?

And this is where so many great films get lost or destroyed because of a false belief in what is possible and acceptable within the medium. This is why most Kubrick films are often bashed upon release by critics, only to be held aloft years later as revolutionary, groundbreaking films. Create something unique, expand your horizons, and there’s a whole world of film critics ready to tell you that you did it wrong.

David Lean’s DR. ZHIVAGO was met with venom upon its initial release. But that was nothing compared to the negative critical reviews of Lean’s next film, RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Critics were so harsh on this incredible movie from an artist at the top of his game, that Mr. Lean couldn’t bring himself to make another film for almost 14 years! Good work, kids. Your lack of vision and open-mindedness lost us some potentially great inclusions by Mr. Lean to the world of cinema. Thank god we got the amazing A PASSAGE TO INDIA before Mr. Lean left us too early.

Luckily, we know there are still people out there who do like to use their brains and appreciate and seek out films that ask them to do so. And we know there are critics out there who also appreciate such cinematic adventures. But they are becoming few and far between. But perhaps we will see a shift. If all is cyclical, then we may soon see a new age of cinematic literacy again. Another golden age. Or, we will just continue to slip deeper down the chasm of mindless entertainment, and films that require thought will be considered trash by the masses or, better yet, declared illegal.

I guess then I will have to become a member of some underground movement. Or, perhaps, I already am.

The Sad State Of Film Criticism

WHATEVER WORKS. Sadly, Larry David Doesn’t

whatever_worksI’ve always been a big Woody Allen fan. Yes, even through his period of being publicly crucified for Soon-Yi and allegations of pedophilia (which I simply never believed). Woody Allen’s always been an easy target: an intellectual who makes films that a large portion of the population just don’t “get”. Add to that the fact that he’s not attractive in any classic sense (unless you’re attracted to intellect) and you have a recipe for harsh criticism and judgment. People have historically always been afraid of what they don’t understand. And it’s been my experience that when people are afraid, they tend to turn that fear into resentment. And that resentment is only a fine line away from outright hatred and hostility.

But luckily, the folks who get Woody Allen really get Woody Allen. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer, a brilliant comedian, and a brilliant filmmaker. He is also one of the most prolific. And as a result, not every film is a masterpiece. But they almost ALL have something to offer. And so many are downright masterful, in my opinion; MANHATTAN, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, HUSBANDS AND WIVES, ANNIE HALL, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, LOVE AND DEATH, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO… And there are so many more to add to that ever-growing list. And despite the fact that Mr. Allen claims his films are in no way autobiographical, many of us still tend to believe that his films are, at the very least, a deep reflection of the man and his psyche. 

His newest film, WHATEVER WORKS, while not one of his greatest endeavors, is still a smart and entertaining film with some wonderful performances. Particularly from Evan Rachel Wood. Unfortunately, what keeps the film down, in this viewer’s opinion, is its star and Woody-Allen-alter-ego, Larry David (in a role originally written for the late Zero Mostel). Brilliant in his own series CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, David is out of his element here. And that is odd because, on the surface, he seems the perfect choice. Ironically, David’s character in the film discovers that things which seem great on paper–Picture 3communism, capitalism, his own marriage–don’t necessarily work in the real world. And so it is with Larry David in a Woody Allen film. Uncomfortable, detached, wooden are all words that come to mind when I think of David’s performance in this film. In many ways, it feels like these takes were rehearsals where David was saving himself for the real mccoy and therefore only giving 25%. Now whether the fault lies with David or Allen, I couldn’t say. What I can say is I never bought the character for a second. Now part of the problem David faced here was that he was, essentially, standing in for Allen himself. And for those of us who love Woody Allen and that persona, well, we’d just rather see Woody Allen do it. But Mr. Allen is older than Mr. David and, since this character ends up on the receiving end of the affections of a much younger, quite beautiful woman, Mr. Allen would have only been welcoming more of the criticism and public beatings he has worked so hard to move beyond. 

I’ve also been told that Mr. David did not initially want to do this role. If true, perhaps he was afraid that he would not be up to the task and that his performance would end up much as it has. Or perhaps his fear of failure became somewhat of a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows? What is clear is that Larry David is not an actor. And I’m guessing he’d be among the first to say so.  

Whatever-Works-premiere-W-015WHATEVER WORKS made me yearn for Woody Allen’s physical presence. Had Larry David managed to enter the skin of the character and make it his own, I would have been overjoyed and not missed Allen at all. But that is not the case. Even in recent Allen films like VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, we find ourselves in the world of Woody-speak, the rhythm, the words, the phrasings… But that’s a good thing. Mozart sounded like Mozart, Michael Jackson like Michael Jackson, Martin Scorcese like Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen like Woody Allen… It’s a stylized approach. People don’t necessarily sound in art the way they do in the real world. But this is how people sound in the world of a Woody Allen film. And it’s a world I love being in. And some actors just slip in there effortlessly.

Sadly, Larry David does not. And while he seemed like a great idea on paper, he is not able to take Allen’s words and make them his own in any way. He’s a stand-in, a distant second. And a very weak link in an otherwise entertaining film.

WHATEVER WORKS. Sadly, Larry David Doesn’t