All this talk of memorable moments is music to my ears. Sometimes in a mediocre conventional film, a moment will come along that has such a breath of reality about it, such an undeniable truth, that it makes everything else that came before it pale. I treasure those moments, as disappointing as they often can be (ie: Why didn’t the whole movie have the courage of that one moment?)
Jim, your comments on The Kids Are All Right are well taken. I agree that that was the intent, and I had no problem with the intent itself. Sexuality is on a spectrum, and often we are not just “one thing”, and I did not mean to sound dismissive of the intent. The rote nature of Bening’s and Moore’s relationship at that point in their lives, its autopilot energy, made some sort of break inevitable. I suppose my problem with that aspect of the story was how conventionally it was told (this is more of a script issue than anything else). It seemed like there might have been more interesting and not so expected choices to be made.
Every single person in The Kids Are All Right emerges as real, and three-dimensional, with detailed subtextual funny performances (all of them - I particularly loved Josh Hutcherson as Laser, the son, on the verge of manhood, but still a little boy in many ways. He was terrific). I wanted some of the scenes to go on forever, so that I could keep watching everyone’s reactions and counter-reactions (and I certainly concede, Jim, that that could have had a lot to do with how these scenes were shot and framed). The scene of the group dinner at Ruffalo’s home when the truth comes out is a masterpiece of ensemble acting. (Side note: How I wish there was an Oscar for Best Ensemble. If I had a vote, and there were such a category, The Kids Are All Right would be at the top of the list for this year.)
This dovetails with our conversation about cinema literacy, and how we interpret what we see.
I know I keep gossiping about audience reactions in movie theatres, but sometimes they can be quite telling (albeit totally anecdotal). Here’s another one. In my first piece up here in the Treehouse, I had to stick up for the “average viewer”, because he is the bread-and-butter of the industry, and I’m thankful that people like that guy next to me at The King's Speech keep going to the movies. He went where that film wanted him to go. He was led, and in the end he was happy about it. That’s the whole deal. A film needs to be confident in how it tells its story.
Now to my anecdote: Years ago, I went to go see Trainspotting in a packed movie theater. The film had just opened and everyone was talking about it. There was a woman sitting with her boyfriend beside me, and she had obviously never seen anything like Trainspotting, and instead of sitting back and trying to LEARN about that which was new to her, she kept blurting out responses of confusion and annoyance at the film. Trainspotting is rather straightforward in its structure, but the filming of it is not, and she was put off by it. My favorite example was her response to the scene where Ewan McGregor’s character dives down the filthy toilet to retrieve the pills and then suddenly is seen swimming in a beautiful underwater world. To me, it is totally obvious what Danny Boyle was doing in that sequence. I don’t even have to think about it. Before the retrieval of the pills, life is a harrowing nightmare to McGregor, and so the toilet is framed to look like the grotesque gateway to hell. It is a psychological moment, made manifest, yes, in McGregor’s desperate acting, but also in how Boyle films it. Once the pills become retrievable, everything becomes blue and calm and beautiful, a perfect metaphor for what it’s like to be an addict. However, the woman next to me did not get one little bit of any of it and when McGregor was seen swimming through the blue water, she said out loud to her boyfriend, scornfully, “Yeah, RIGHT. Like that would EVER happen.”
This is obviously “illiteracy” on a pretty disheartening level. She had no experience outside her limited viewing history, and literally could not interpret anything she was seeing. That kind of thing makes me sad. Especially when something new is reacted to with dismissal, scorn, or rejection out of hand.
Jason, I loved what you had to say about Blue Valentine:
“There’s no reason to find the ring. But they search anyway, because they once loved one another so much, and they can’t bear to disrespect that love more than they already have. They can’t stand one another, but they also can’t stand to hurt one another. Life is like that. Messy.”
That is it exactly. I wish more films allowed more mess into them. I wish more films allowed the jagged edges to remain jagged, to let issues remain unresolved, or unspoken. I loved Steven Boone’s recent roundup on The House Next Door entitled “I Love Slobs”. Steven writes:
“I love slobs. Movies with their greasy shirttail sticking out. Ol' Dirty Bastard, not Kanye West. We have to stop rewarding slickness and boldness for their own sake. We have to re-learn the visual language and emotional acuity that all these hotshots are too business-adroit to be bothered with.”
Speaking of mess, I know there was a lot of improvisation in Blue Valentine, but it sounds to me like director Cianfrance knows how to set up an improv properly. Often improv is used by lazy directors who want the actors to do their work for them. (“Just let the fight play out. You guys are brilliant! ACTION!”) The resulting scenes are often very general, unfocused, or self-indulgent. If you’ve seen really good improv comedy, then you know there are very strict rules the players follow. It is the RULES that allow the spontanaiety to occur. There was a piece someone alerted me to recently where Michelle Williams discussed the scene in Blue Valentine that takes place on the overpass when Gosling makes like he is going to jump off. Williams said that Cianfrance whispered different instructions to both actors before they filmed that scene. To Williams he said “Do not, under any circumstances, tell him what is bothering you.” To Gosling he said, “Do whatever you have to do to make her tell you what is wrong.” I would call this a playable objective, the best of its kind. The “objective” (what the actor wants) is met by equally strong resistance in the “obstacle”. Often bad directors give actors unplayable objectives, ie: “In this scene, I would like you to be the IDEA of rain” (which was actually said to me once in a rehearsal). Now look, I am aware that sometimes people get annoyed when the craft of acting is talked about in a detailed nuts-and-bolts way. I get that. There can be a self-congratulatory feel to it (“I gained 25 pounds for my role, aren’t I so dedicated?”), but I find it no more obnoxious than a director/cinematographer talking about how he achieved the affects he achieved. Meaning: I don't find it obnoxious at all, especially if the movie works. You can tell me what "you worked on" all day long, but if it's not evident up on the screen then you haven't done your job.
So I’ll just finish up this actor-centric response to our fascinating conversation here with this: Cianfrance’s whispered contradictory directions to both Williams and Gosling before they played that particular scene shows that he understands exactly what he is doing, understands what actors need (even very talented ones like those two), and he knows how to set up a powerful situation (objective-obstacle-objective-obstacle) and then get out of the damn way. Gosling, as an actor, was so committed to playing his objective that he climbed up onto the bridge railing and hung one leg over the side. Nobody expected it. There was no net, he wasn’t on an invisible harness. He was playing his objective as hard as he could. THAT is how you set up an improv, younger directors. Take notes!
Actor-nerd signing off
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #1: INTRODUCTIONS
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #2: IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD PLAYING THIS WEEKEND?
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #3: A BLUE VALENTINE TO THE PERSONAL
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #4: THE BELLAMY AWARDS AND DIFFERENT WAYS OF LOOKING AT MOVIES
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #5: SO MUCH TO SEE, SO LITTLE TIME
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #6: HUMAN SEXUALITY AND ANNETTE'S EYEWEAR
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #7: MOMENTS TO REMEMBER