Thursday, January 13, 2011


Dear everyone:

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












Peter Nellhaus said...

Somewhat related to the Transpotting anecdote is my own experience of having some coworkers complain to me about the ambiguous ending of Jacob's Ladder.

As far as great performances appearing where you might not expect it, one of my favorites is Eugene Clark in Land of the Dead. No dialogue, yet he conveys everything needed regarding his intelligent zombie.

Kevin J. Olson said...

A theater anecdote I'll never forget:

I remember seeing Requiem for a Dream in theaters. I was a year removed from high school and I remember seeing a lot of people that I went to school with crammed into our tiny, one screen art-house theater here in Salem, OR (which resided in a parking garage...) . Basically, these people were there to see an exhilarating drug movie -- or to put it another way -- they wanted to see how cool drug-taking could be. When the horrific final moments where Jennifer Connely goes through hell showed up on the screen, they hooted and hollered at the screen as if they were watching a porno that was meant to arouse them. It was weird; I was only 18, yet I was appalled by the behavior of people a year younger than me who obviously weren't there to see the film for what it was trying to be.

There ya go...that's my bad theater experience where the audience members weren't interested in letting the film take them somewhere they didn't want to go.

Which makes me think about something else you all have been talking about: the "average" (a term that, as has been pointed out by Stephen, we should be careful with) moviegoer's interest in subtext.

Reading the subtext of the film (which we should be clear, or at least I will be as I can't speak for everyone, isn't a requirement to enjoying a movie) is something that can be learned, though. It's been established here already, but it's just like reading a text. Even if you hate reading, you can become a more fluent reader and actually end up enjoying it if you practice. I can only speak from own experiences at work (I am a teacher) as I try to teach this to my students everyday.

My students are labeled "at-risk" and are seen as not just the type of students who are "troubled" and have no interest in their education, but they're also most likely the types of people who would rather text during a movie instead of paying attention to it. Yet, I have successfully taught them about subtext, context, et al (they even read, and love, my favorites like T.C. Boyle short stories) in literature and film. And they find it not just interesting but empowering to have that kind of knowledge about text (visual or print). I have had many students tell me that they look at movies in a different way now, and that when they see something over the weekend with their friends, they're pointing out things like camera angles and lighting and telling their friends what it all could mean within the film's context.

It's wonderful to see them appreciate something we watch in class like Adventureland as something more than a movie about kids who drink and smoke weed and waste time at an amusement park. When I showed it to them, they were successful in identifying it as a coming of age story that is actually deeper and about so much more than its slacker veneer.

All of that to say: the more people continue to write (and essentially teach through their writing) about the things that get the initiated and uninitiated to look differently at an artistic medium the better off we'll be...and who experiences (what Sheila called "cinema literacy") may be better, too.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Kevin - Ugh, that Requiem for a Dream story is very depressing.

Just so I'm clear: "average viewer" was a quote from Matt Zoller Seitz which kind of started this whole conversation. My first essay here (way down below somewhere) was a defense of the average viewer, the guy who goes out to a matinee with his wife, and enjoys what he sees. These are the people that keep the industry afloat. My whole first piece was all about that. I rarely talk about "average viewers" - My own experience on my own site is this: When I break down why something works (for me) - and usually it has to do with the nuts-and-bolts of how an actor plays a scene - people who might be considered "average viewers" - often rush out to rent/see the movie again so they can try to see it that way too. I love that curiosity. I have the same thing when I read an analysis of something that I hadn't perceived or picked up on. It's exciting: "ooh, let me go watch that again THROUGH that other person's eyes."

So I personally find the "average viewer" (again, it's always been a quote for me) totally ready and willing to absorb anything. Sometimes it's the more serious film fans you've gotta look out for! You know, people de-friending each other on Facebook because they didn't like Winter's Bone or something (an actual case from a friend of mine). That's ridiculous.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh, and Kevin: I absolutely love stories about teachers who help students to "get it", to see their way deeper into something, the light bulb going off. My sister is a middle school English teacher and some of her stories, of a kid suddenly GETTING reading - and how fun it is - but also: getting that an author is DOING certain things to illuminate the story - metaphor, analogy, subtext - and these 12, 13 year olders suddenly GET it. Some of these kids are probably hooked on reading for life because of suddenly "getting" The Outsiders, or I A, the Cheese, or the other books she teaches.

It's quite thrilling. It's also a good reminder that we all still have a lot to learn. God save us from those who always feel they know it all. Because what's the fun in THAT?

Kevin J. Olson said...

It's quite thrilling. It's also a good reminder that we all still have a lot to learn. God save us from those who always feel they know it all. Because what's the fun in THAT?

Sheila: The first thing my students here from every day is to not be afraid to correct me (or other teachers) or to question what they're being taught. For me, critical thinking is the number one thing all English teachers should be striving to teach their students. So what if they can read what's in front of them? How are they UNDERSTANDING it (or as you do they GET it). How do I get them to read without their eyes, essentially? That's the question I seek to answer every day. I love what you say in that what we can never approach something -- whatever it may be -- thinking that we have it all figured out. That's applicable to anything in life...and within the context of my classroom with my students it's extremely powerful for them to understand that.

One of the best things I've ever taught them -- and, as is always the case with this thing called teaching, that they've taught me -- is that you can never know everything and it never hurts to question.

Oh, and your sister is a lot braver than I teaching Middle School English. I have a helluva a lot of respect for Middle School teachers.

Melvillain said...

Concerning audience reactions:
At a recent viewing of Black Swan, I found myself annoyed with the audience that kept bursting into laughter. I couldn't figure out what they were laughing at. Yes, the movie had humorous moments, ostensibly to relieve the suffocation of Aronofsky's direction, but nothing struck me as laugh-out-loud worthy.

In the days after my viewing, I couldn't help but wonder if the audience "got" it and I did not. This thought was reinforced when I read all the reviews referring to Black Swan as camp. I'll admit, the camp factor (paranoid stage mom, lascivious choreographer, promiscuous rival set against innocent, etc.) was so obvious that I didn't consider it as the main goal of the movie. The fractured nature of Nina's psyche was also obvious from the shaky camera work, and the multiple scenes of Nina shot in mirrors fractured by seams and edges. I got to the end of the movie and thought: "This is it?"

To reiterate, I can't figure out if I missed Aronofsky's point because I was so busy dissecting the craft and the audience I was with enjoyed it because they took the film on its own terms, or it was just a mess that left it somewhere in the no-man's-land between entertainment and art. (Not that they are mutually exclusive.) There has been a lot of discussion, especially on Jim's site, about the personal reaction to movies. Obviously, Black Swan did not work for me, but, on some level at least, it worked for the audience I was with.

Kevin J. Olson said...


I had the same experience seeing Black Swan in the theater. My guess is that the audience didn't know what it was really in for (maybe they thought it was an Awards/prestige picture about a ballerina) and laughter was their way of dealing with their uncomfortableness. I often find that to be true with most audiences (myself included): laughter is the first emotion we have when we're uncomfortable.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I can't remember if I shared this here or not (age'll do that to ya), but my Black Swan story has to do with what you're talking about, Kevin, in terms of what the audience may or may not have been expecting.

I was in line at at splashy, reserved-seat theater in Hollywood to see The Fighter and there was a woman and her daughter, who I guessed was about 13 or so, standing behind me. They began talking (not whispering) and I overheard the woman say something along the lines of, "I'm really looking forward to seeing Black Swan. I've heard it's really good. Maybe you'll be able to get some good ideas for some dance moves from it."

Yikes. After another minute or so listening to the mother's cheerful obliviousness, well, I just couldn't help myself. I turned to her and said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to eavesdrop, but are you two seeing Black Swan today?" The mother confirmed it, so I went on. "I don't mean to be a busybody, but your daughter seems pretty young. Are you aware that the movie has a lot of grotesque imagery and fairly explicit sexual material in it?"

The mother looked kind of puzzled for a second and then said, "No, I didn't know that." But before I could relax in the warm glow of my good deed she laughed and continued. "But that's okay! I'll just cover her eyes during the naughty parts!"


Does this mean it's fine if I show Repulsion to my eight-year-old?

Kevin J. Olson said...


Your anecdote gets me thinking that most moviegoers think about content that way without any regard to the context of the film. It's why it's so silly to merely look at what a film is rated. My dad took me to see R-rated action movies when I was a kid, but he was always good about making sure I understood what it was I saw on screen; in other words, that I knew that Steven Segal tearing a dude's throat out was something akin to a comic book, and that within the context of the movie it's appropriate because the bad guys are getting their just-desserts. If I ever said something extremely violent was cool, my parents would ask me why I would say that, and whether or not I understood what it was that I was saying.

My dad never cared much about content (he never took me to anything with explicit sex), but the movies he took me to where also not impossible to understand the motivations of the characters and why they did what they did within the film. It's sad that the mother you're describing is thinking only in terms of content instead of context. I'm sure her young daughter was way more disturbed by non-sexual images in that movie because she probably was too young to process what the hell was going on on-screen.