My Favorite Treeks:
In Burbank there’s a great spot for a breakfast burrito just down the street from where I work. It’s the glorious fulfillment of the concept of wrapping a warm tortilla around a giant mound of eggs, potatoes and (choose your breakfast meat, or not), all blanketed with melted cheese and embedded pockets— Surprise!-- of the hottest jalapeno salsa allowable to the public without signing a release. The problem is, they also ain’t a secret, and over the past 12 years that my office has been in the neighborhood, more and more people have figured out that this little shack on the corner of Victory and Verdugo is ground zero for a truly remarkable portable breakfast. On any given morning you can wait in line for as much as an hour in between placing your order and the big payoff. So yesterday I printed out Steven and Jason’s posts and brought them with me to read over while I sat and waited, and by the time I left I was less interested in eating breakfast (or doing my day’s worth of office work) than I was getting a chance to respond to those posts and everything else that has been swirling inside the Tree House this week. There’s way too much to get to in one post, that’s for sure, but I’m happy to be able to stop squirming and get my next shot.
One of the things that Simon’s post reminded me of, emphatically, is that there’s so much more to see than it’s possible to see, and that’s obviously true whatever your temperament toward the current state of film distribution, or the state of filmmaking in general, happens to be. I came away from reading his post practically dizzy from the sense of how much goes on for which I have precious few resources or opportunities to partake. It’s not uncommon to scroll down to the comments thread of a post from a critic who’s willing to share that experience, and dare to choose titles to talk about (especially in an end-of-the-year context) that people haven’t seen, only to see them having to shield themselves from accusations of being “elitist” or otherwise self-promoting in their showcasing of movies beyond the mainstream than much of the general public, or even the online community of film writers, wouldn’t be interested in seeing even if they had the chance. And that’s the thing—there is now more of a chance, thanks to Netflix streaming and other (legal) online streaming services and specialty DVDs. So when I read a post or column like the one Simon wrote, I break out my writing utensils and start taking notes, because I want to remember the names of the movies that aren’t going to get Dark Knight-sized promotional pushes and seek them out whenever I’m able.
This is what I was alluding to in my initial raising of the subject of Armond White’s “Better Than” list, though as I wrote to Jason a couple days ago I fear that more of my bemusement in calling it “one of my favorite lists” of the year overwhelmed the arching of my eyebrows and consequently conveyed less of my genuine impatience for White’s shell games than I intended. The reason I would have never thought to make the connection between Paul and Uncle Boonmee is that there is likely little, perhaps none, to be made, and as Jim pointed out, if there was you’d scarcely know it from reading White’s 15 or so words on the comparison. Even his longer reviews are shrouded in this kind of “better than” silliness, but the comparison there, as in the shorter format, is not between movies (though it is often reliably that as well) but between White and the rest of the critical community, whose own “myopic resistance” to seeing the world as he does is somehow incontrovertible evidence of their (our) corruption. I like the fact that White sometimes reminds me of things I need to pay attention to, but unfortunately reading him is an unpleasant chore. The joy of encountering Simon’s list and taking away titles for further reference is that when Simon talks about Le Quattro Volte or The Last Circus or any number of other movies you may not have seen, he’s not trying to impress you with his breadth of experience or chiding you for not taking more chances outside the envelope—he genuinely loves these movies and you get a sense, even in just a couple of sentences, as to why. Dare I say that reading Simon is “better than”…
My own list of things I have yet to see from the past year is perhaps even more daunting and potentially embarrassing than usual. Among fiction films I still haven’t caught up with are A Dangerous Method, Certified Copy, 13 Assassins, Weekend, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter, A Separation and The Descendants, and the list of documentaries I need to absorb, is, to my mind, even more egregious: Into the Abyss, Project Nim, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Senna, Pina, The Black Power Mixtape 1969-1975, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop and perhaps the ones I want to see most, Mark Landsman’s Thunder Soul, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell. Given that there’s still that much (and more, believe me) left on my plate for 2011, and that the list of my favorites among what I have seen ain’t exactly deviled ham, it’s hard for me to concur with Jim’s feeling that 2011 had fewer truly memorable, notable offerings than last year. My own top 10 list is, like Jim’s and perhaps others here, weighted toward films made outside the confines of the Hollywood star-maker machinery, but it’s still possible that on that list as many as four slots out of that arbitrary 10 could be occupied by the likes of War Horse, Contagion, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and even that corporate totem Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
If I dig a little further down, I find titles like The Adventures of Tintin, Bridesmaids, Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, X Men: First Class and Hugo-- perhaps no one’s idea of art cinema, and maybe not movies any of us (including me) would want to necessarily promote as flawless classics. But they are, it seems to me, honorable examples of the kind of movies that, for better and/or worse, Hollywood has always done well—big, commercial, exploitable. That the system and the business model for ever-inflated budgets which in turn propagate the requirement of ever more ridiculously high box-office pole vaults in order to just break even could still result in fleeting glimpses of “product” even close to the quality of these movies signals to me that, fucked-up though things may be, all is not lost. I do think, Steven, for me, there must be a middle ground between the rejection of mainstream Hollywood and total resignation to the level of corruption and greed that exists there.
And of course I often worry that what passes for film journalism is just so much genuflection to what studios and publicists feed to the media. How many cute articles were there about Ryan Reynolds prepping for the task of embodying a beloved DC Comics legend for the movies, or Michael Fassbender’s frontal nudity quotient and parties devoted to bar-hopping through the Manhattan watering holes his character frequented in the few days before The Green Lantern and Shame (to pick two movies out of a hat) were released? Yet a week or two later, once those movies’ water-cooler cache has dried up and they turn out not to be box-office juggernauts or phenomena of the zeitgeist, it’s on to the next thing, and the movie gets tossed to the floor like one of Fassbender’s used Kleenex tissues (if you know what I mean). And that’s perfectly okay with the studios, because a movie like The Green Lantern practically evaporates on screen anyway. By Friday night’s last curtain (Curtains! Remember them?) studio honchos and box-office experts have already assigned the movie in question a pass or fail—what good does further discussion of the picture, any picture, as art or a significant artifact of culture do for them?
When folks like us actually talk about movies beyond their sell date, as if they mattered, it’s often perceived, except by those who care and know how to listen, as just more distraction, more noise. So I definitely sympathize with the despair I sensed in your comments, Steven, which I would hesitate to characterize as a harangue, even though those in charge of shepherding the relevance of this particular art form are in need of a good ass-whipping. But on the other hand I would be nothing less than hypocritical if I said that I believed we were at a cultural dead end, no matter how often I stumble, dazed, out of something like The Green Lantern or Real Steel or Fast Five and feel like just giving up. Because someone like Bennett Miller or Rupert Wyatt or Joe Johnston always manages to sneak in there and deliver something that works completely within the Hollywood model yet manages to shake things up a bit, make us sit up and believe that good, intelligent work is still possible when we stumble onto something as sharp and, yes, heartfelt as Moneyball, Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Captain America: The First Avenger. Gee, even Gore Verbinski managed to make up for those Pirates of the Caribbean movies by crafting the year’s best animated feature, Rango, with a sensibility so far left of Pixar as to be located closer to the realms of Hunter S. Thompson, Carlos Casteneda and Sergio Leone.
Sheila, I’m so happy that you’re here to talk about acting. I wish I could chime in on The Descendants and/or Margaret in terms of what’s going on there in their ensembles, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see them yet. I do think that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has just about the best all-around cast of the year and the kind of acting that is utterly invigorating in its micro-efficiency. If you aren’t attuned to the kind of information skittering across the poker-faced resignation of Gary Oldman’s Smiley like tiny snaps of static electricity, that poker face itself a mask on top of a mask, or the way the other actors submit to Le Carre’s universe of deception, repression and hidden agendas in similar fashion, sparking bitter rivalry and revelations in subtle sideward glances, then the movie might seem just a confusing husk of jargon and pregnant pauses. But it’s such an evocative piece of filmmaking in large part because of how the actors embody and embolden that minimalist approach and become integrated with director Tomas Alfredson’s allusive conjuring of this tactile, lived-in, entirely non-nostalgic period piece.
As a complete aside, last week I was privy to an online conversation in which someone tried to put forth the notion that TTSS was a dud because Oldman seemed, to this person, to be dozing through the movie. My own thought—especially as one who has had attention-deficit problems in the past related to the consumption of movies based on John Le Carre books (I’m looking at you, The Little Drummer Girl) was that it obviously wasn’t Oldman who was asleep. But this person then trotted out Oldman’s personal politics as a reason for discounting the film, and it was at that point I had to tune out. As Steven probably correctly surmised, Oldman’s political views are not ones any of us here might be likely to fall in line with, and we might wish he’d keep those views to himself. But I also doubt any of us would be so inclined to suggest he hasn’t the right to hold those views or to base our response to an actor’s work on screen on whether or not he votes in lockstep with right-wing reactionaries.
While I’m on the subject of ensembles and acting, I wonder if any of you have had a chance yet to see Ralph Fiennes’ film of Coriolanus. (Watch out! Here’s my bid to being timely and topical, as the movie opens today after a limited Oscar-qualifying release in December.) It’s precisely the sort of movie with which actors love being involved for obvious reasons, the opportunity to speak those words that Shakespeare wrote (Yeah, he did, Roland Emmerich) being primary among them. But another one has to be that the movie was directed by Ralph Fiennes, a fellow actor, and as such those in the cast must have been relatively assured that Fiennes would be sensitive to their needs as performers, to be predisposed to want to focus on the elements of performance that would make them look best, be most effective on screen. However, other than adequately framing and showcasing the towering presence of Vanessa Redgrave, whose effectiveness as Coriolanus’s willful, force-of-nature-like mother couldn’t be denied by even the most egregious hack, and occasionally magnifying his own physical prowess in the lead role, it seems to me that Fiennes undercuts the power of his cast, the power of those words, by having not a clue as to what to do with the camera. Fiennes loves his actors’ faces (including his own, of course), and so he keeps that camera jammed in their mugs constantly, when he’s not staging confusing, Hurt Locker-derived battle action.
At the expense of fully shaping and fulfilling the Bosnian setting in which he modernizes Shakespeare’s plot (what little of it there actually is), Fiennes chooses to establish a pattern of relentless examination of faces and then demonstrate no inkling of how to ground those shots in the geography of the scene or, more importantly, when to back away and allow the physical action, the physical movement of those actors, to shed the limits of his directorial claustrophobia. The scene where Coriolanus shouts down the senate and denies his people the satisfaction of getting behind the policies of war he himself initiated is, of course, compelling as written, but rendered in a flurry of shaky camerawork and other ugly business, all shot too close and jittery, the handheld aesthetic of big-screen TV and faux documentary features misplaced and run amok. Coriolanus is not a Baz Luhrmann-level abomination, by any means, but it strikes me as one of the more misjudged films of Shakespeare ever made.
Finally, in further defense of crass commercialism and at the further risk of my credibility (my wife already thinks I’m nuts for it), I’ll posit as one of my favorite ensembles of the year the cast of Tower Heist, directed though it may be by that guy whose feet aren’t nearly big enough to fill up his mouth, no matter how often he insists on jamming them in there. This is big, clunky sausage-factory moviemaking that just happens to be very entertaining, and the roster of game actors, including Tea Leoni, Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena, Ben Stiller, Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe, Casey Affleck, Stephen Henderson, Nina Arianda and, of course, Eddie Murphy, are all given clever, amusing business and their own moments to shine, which is often more than Irwin Allen or Sir Lew Grade offered their casts of thousands. It’s all in service to a pretty disposable end, but hell, Hollywood history is littered with disposable movies (albeit ones not nearly so expensive as this one) that are treasure troves of individual moments of grace and humor. I would nominate the brief scene between Murphy and Sidibe, an innuendo-laden would-be seduction staged over the tumblers of an ostensibly uncrackable safe, as one of my favorite things about the past year in movies.
God, am I glad we’ve decided go long into next week on this year’s Tree House. There’s so much more I want to touch on-- Bill Cunningham New York; Jason’s notion of releasing movies anonymously and how it relates to War Horse (go right ahead, Jason!); how movies in 2011 approached subjects as varied as Alzheimer’s and religious faith; plus some more favorite moments. There’s just too much stuffing to put in this burrito. Time to set it aside, digest and look forward to the next meal.
Dennis Cozzalio is the proprietor of the blog you are now reading as well as the gatekeeper of the Tree House. Come on in and grab a brew. Don’t cost nothin’.
TREE HOUSE POST #6: DISCOVERY THROUGH A SECOND LOOK
TREE HOUSE POST #5: PEDIGREE "BETTER THAN" HYPE?
TREE HOUSE POST #4: CHURCH OF THE MULTIPLEX
TREE HOUSE POST #3: FESTIVAL FAVORITES AND NETFLIX NUGGETS
TREE HOUSE POST #2: AGONY, ECSTASY AND THESPIAN PRIDE
TREE HOUSE POST #1: INTRODUCTIONS AND AN OPENING SALVO