Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A LETTER TO DIRECTOR RIAN JOHNSON


UPDATE March 6, 2009

I got the information incorrect about the opening date for Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom. It's coming out May 15, not March 15, a couple extra months to wait for what looks like a terrific entertainment. Look at this trailer and see if you don't agree. (Choose "Play Now" to view on this page.)



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Mr. Johnson,

There are many occasions we have as moviegoers to experience regret, about as many as there are opportunities to opt for special, even once-in-a-lifetime screenings over the average multiplex fare, because we most certainly can never see all there is to see on any given night, especially in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle or anywhere else a moviegoer might be tempted. I can say with certainty that I regret having had to miss the recent “Festival of Fakery” you programmed at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles. The series, films all thematically linked by the notion of cons and fraud and the familiar idea of things not being what they seem, cleverly provided an showcase for your new film, The Brothers Bloom, a bunco comedy starring Rachel Weisz, Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo, which bows to the public on May 15. More importantly, within this theme you were able to introduce other films and continue what has fast become a bit of a tradition at the New Beverly, turning over the calendar to a filmmaker who can now share a love of films not only through the ones he or she makes but by programming and talking about the ones that formed his or her sensibility as a creative artist.


The movies in your “Festival of Fakery” series that I regret having missed included Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Spanish Prisoner, The Sting, The Man Who Would Be King, 8½ and F for Fake, all of which were undoubtedly made even more vivid and rich on the big screen through your introductions. But I cannot fully mourn missing the festival, because I did indeed make it out for the first night of the closing program, a delightful double feature of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a pairing I can’t imagine would have been likely to have come up in any other context. It was the pairing, however, and not the festival that brought me and my oldest daughter to the New Beverly last Friday. I wanted her to experience the giddy joy of Preston Sturges’ very best movie at my side and open up to her a new element of classic Hollywood—the screwball comedy—to ride shotgun with her burgeoning appreciation of westerns like Bend of the River and Buchanan Rides Alone. And I knew she would dig the demented dioramas and perverse gigantism of Gilliam’s movie—I’d shown her the first 20 minutes on DVD and so when we saw it would be playing at the New Beverly it instantly became a must-see event. I expected that she would find two new films to love that night.


What I didn’t expect was that you would treat my daughter to not only these great movies, but also to what was surely the most elaborate and well-thought-out presentation in the short history of these New Bev filmmaker series. The essential ambience of the evening’s musical accompaniment was performed on pedal steel guitar instead of house organ, and it was a real treat. My daughter and I were sitting four rows from the front and had a great view of the card trick you performed (with the help of New Bev institution Clu Gulager) to warm up the crowd before the first film, and the look of amazement on her face, even so early on in the evening’s entertainment, was alone worth the price of admission. Nor did I expect that, perfectly in tune with another shot at exposing my daughter to classic cinema, you would essentially be putting on for the lucky audience a brief film school lecture, complete with projected slide show, anecdotes and directorial history, to lay the groundwork for seeing The Lady Eve. My daughter listened with great interest as you explained a little background on Preston Sturges and his position in the food chain of the studio system of 1940s Hollywood. She was even more fascinated when talk turned to Gilliam’s movie, its history, and even your experience viewing it for the first time. (I added my own little dimension of fascination when I revealed to her that Munchausen was, in fact, the very first movie her mother and I saw together, on the night we first met back in 1988, at the old Century Plaza Cinemas on the night the movie opened.) Again, the slide presentation really opened up what could have been a dry little talk and helped make it sing with your own enthusiasm.


And in between films I was caught up with a bit of emotion when you unexpectedly screened the two George Melies shorts, which so clearly demonstrated Melies’ fascination with motion picture photography and the endless possibilities for cinema trickery. Some of the tricks he employed in the first short, The Wizard, were precisely the same stunts my friends and I concocted on Super 8 back in the ‘70s, with minimal awareness of Melies or his significance. (The visual magic on display in Melies’ Four Heads, which you also screened, was and ever remained far more sophisticated, with its hilarious self-decapitations, than anything we could have ever come up with.) I was struck by that connection between Melies and young filmmakers feeling their way through this new (to them) medium, how we movie-geek kids were funneling creativity in our own way, virtually unaware that the same tricks had been discovered nearly a century earlier by a pioneer of film who was in his way as seduced by the movies as we were. I thrilled to the opportunity to explain why these old films were so important, and she laughed her head off at the crude, eye-popping slapstick, a fresh audience for hundred-year-old tricks who looked at them as if they’d never been seen before.


Finally, I couldn’t have appreciated more your sidebar discussion of those Renaissance cabinets of curiosity whose tradition is carried on by The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a funky museum of oddities and wonders that my daughter found very mysterious and fascinating from your description. We are planning our first excursion there very soon, and we will be thinking of you during our tour, to be sure.

All this for the very reasonable price of a New Beverly ticket and no expectation other than the enjoyment of the two grand movies we initially came to see. We both are very thankful that we were treated to so much more, courtesy of your genial and informative presentation, which made a simple night out at the movies for dad and daughter into what will certainly be one of the most memorable and enjoyable outings for us to the movies this year. I look forward to attending The Brothers Bloom during its theatrical run at the Arclight Cinemas here in Los Angeles beginning May 15. And right now, after I post this, I’m going to return to Brick. I tried seeing it last night, on about two and a half hours sleep, and I became mystified by the dialogue after about an hour—I literally couldn’t keep up with what the characters were saying in this strange but rewarding mystery where everyone in high school speaks Dashiell Hammett instead of John Hughes. I look forward to rejoining the movie tonight with a fresh set of ears and eyeballs. And I look forward to anything else you might have up your sleeve in the future as well. But most of all, I will always hold dear the memory of being in your New Beverly Cinema film class last Friday night with my daughter. If she develops a serious interest in the movies you will surely have played an important part in that, and even if she doesn’t she still laughed at your tricks, and at Henry Fonda’s elegant pratfalls, and Barbara Stanwyck’s supernatural turns of phrase, and the King of the Moon (head only) chasing Baron Munchausen around the Sea of Tranquility. For that you have my utmost appreciation and my best wishes for all the stories you choose to tell.

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The New Beverly Cinema continues to delight this spring, with a series of Sid Haig's favorite films (Mar 24-31), as well as a splashy new print of Aliens, screenwriter Josh Olson in person on March 8 & 9 to introduce A History of Violence (which he wrote) and Straw Dogs, a new print of A Boy and His Dog paired with The Day the Earth Caught Fire, a William Peter Blatty double feature of The Exorcist III and The Ninth Configuration, Ashes of Time Redux, a Mad Max triple feature, Tartovsky's 205m. Andrei Roublev, and on April 14 & 15, for those who missed them in theaters the first time around, a pairing of Kelly Reichardt's sublime Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. I was going to say, now there's a double feature not to be missed, but you'd really have to say that about the entire upcoming schedule at the New Beverly. Check out their calendar for the dates for all these pictures and tons more coming up between now and May. The New Beverly continues to be a wonderful oasis for Los Angeles movie lovers, and we should all be doing our part to give some of the love they project every single night back to them on a regular basis. See you there soon!

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9 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

Harlan Ellison in person and no screening of The Oscar? Someone better call him on that!

More seriously, if your schedule permits, let me recommend taking your daughter to the Ashes of Time Redux double feature. Once Upon a Time in China is recommended not only for early Jet Li, but the sublime Rosamund Kwan. And I think your daughter would enjoy seeing action movies where the women also participate and are not just passive observers.

The Driveindude said...

The Ninth Configuration? Wow, haven't seen that film in ...geez I guess forever. I hope I can squeeze that one in. I've been meaning to check the New Beverly Calendar and I someone never get around to it. Thanks Dennis.

bill r. said...

Brick is good. It shouldn't work, but it does.

Dennis, I really hope Johnson reads this. I'm guessing he'd be thrilled. Man, I want to see movies with you!

And how could you miss The Spanish Prisoner!? Damn you, Cozzalio!!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peter: What do you think the odds are of getting a swing thrown my way if I mention The Oscar to him in person?

Thanks too for the advice re women in action cinema. Your previous suggestion of Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies went over very well. And my daughter is already very familiar with the oeuvre of Michelle Yeoh-- she loves Supercop, so if I can get my laserdisc of Wing Chun dubbed to DVD, I'm sure she'll love that. And I have a feeling she'll go for Rosamund Kwan too! She even knows Jet Li through The Forbidden Kingdom and the latest in the Mummy series-- I actually showed her some of Once Upon a Time in China and she was sufficiently intrigued. That double feature with Ashes of Time Redux sounds like a very good one for her.

DID: Yeah, that Blatty fest sounds pretty good. I never "got" The Ninth Configuration to the degree that so many others seem to have, but I'd be willing to give it another try. And I think Exorcist III is pretty underrated.

Bill: I was thinking the same thing about Brick: it sounds suffocating and too self-conscious by half, but it helps to know that Johnson isn't trying to make a statement about how high schoolers live and think, but more (and this is being said by someone who is not finished watching the film even yet) about how literary conventions work (or don't work) when placed in an ostensibly "real" situation and divorced from their original context. In that way I suppose Brick could be seen as a form of what my daughter and I experienced Friday night-- film and literary history being offered to a new generation by a set of terms which could conceivably make more sense to them than that seemingly forbidding black-and-white world of Howard Hawks and Philip Marlowe.

As for missing The Spanish Prisoner-- I have already seen it, but I know it was one we'd talked about before as being a good candidate for revisiting on my part. I beg your forgiveness!

Jonathan Lapper said...

Dennis, that sounds like a great treat for you and your daughter. I've loved The Lady Eve since the first time I saw it. But believe it or not I saw The Birds and the Bees first, the 1958 remake with George Gobel. It was on tv when I was about seven or so and when I saw The Lady Eve a few years later I didn't know the Gobel movie was a remake of it and thought it was weird how similar it was to that Gobel movie. Anyway, I finally put it together.

And don't listen to Bill if he ever asks you to meet him in the park with your blog formula. Boy, I fell for that one last year and I'm still smarting from it.

bill r. said...

I think that one of the main things that makes Brick work is that Johnson just commits to his idea, and doesn't wink at the audience. It helps that he can write, obviously, and has assembled a good group of actors, but if Johnson thought the idea was goofy, then the film would be a disaster.

Anyway, I don't know about the rest of what you say about the film. That doesn't mean I disagree, but I only saw the movie once, and I was too busy getting caught up in the story (and trying to follow it) and the look of it. But now that you mention it, whether or not it was Johnson's intention, Brick could very well work as a kind of gateway film, leading to the classic crime films of the 40s and 50s. Although I believe Johnson has cited Miller's Crossing as his primary influence, so he might just end up leading teenagers to that film, but there's nothing wrong with that, God knows.

Leetal said...

This is random but I was in the same audience a row ahead of you. I wouldn't have known except that I remember your daughter, and thinking how amplified "Baron Munchausen" was with a child in the audience! There are rarely any kids in New Beverly audiences, but hearing that laugher during that movie, I was reconnecting with my own inner child in the most awesome way... I left the theater so elated with the film (my first time seeing it) but also with how much more the experience was with that little detail.

And it makes me feel better to read someone else was so absolutely impressed with Rian Johnson's attention to detail. I still managed to miss out on the whole two weeks, too. Bah!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Leetal: If you're who I think you are, you were sitting a row ahead and to our left, were you not? I remember because I think I caught your eye a couple of times when she was laughing and it made me happy to see that you were smiling too! Thanks for your note. It made a great topper to an already wonderful day. I'm so glad that my daughter was able to enrich your experience instead of creating a distraction for you.

Brian said...

What a lovely letter! And a wonderful double-bill- I wish I could have been there for it myself!