Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Two Thumbs Down

One of the reasons this blog (and I guarantee you countless others) exists is from the influence of a show that started out as "Sneak Previews" on PBS in 1975 featuring two local Chicago film critics, each writing for competing newspapers. That show eventually turned into "Siskel & Ebert," and after Gene Siskel's death in 1999, "Ebert & Roeper." Now the show, at least in its current and comfortingly familiar incarnation, will cease to exist.

From Roger Ebert's website:
After 33 years on the air, 23 of them with Disney, the studio has decided to take the program named "Siskel & Ebert" and then "Ebert & Roeper" in a new direction. I will no longer be associated with it.
Here's Richard Roeper's take, from a Yahoo! News article:
Several months ago, Disney offered to extend my contract, which expires at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season. I opted to wait. Much transpired after that behind the scenes, but an agreement was never reached, and we are all moving on.
Replacing them will be TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. He's a reasonably likable fella, though he's not as good as primetime host Robert Osborne. He also comes from a fairly formidable pedigree: his great uncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the classics A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve; his grandfather Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote arguably the greatest movie ever, Citizen Kane.

Also replacing them will be current E! News movie correspondent, Ben Lyons. His pedigree includes his father, Jeffrey Lyons, long-time film critic and current host of the syndicated "Reel Talk," one of the many "Siskel & Ebert" knockoffs. A better way to describe the Lyons is not through their television credits, but through the fact that last year eFilmCritic.com named them two of the top 10 "Whores of the Year" among film critics. Jeffrey astoudingly was named the #4 whore of the year and, not falling far from the whorish tree of film criticism, Ben came in at #7.

I have not seen Ben Lyons criticize a film, for he in fact is really a film journalist, and I even use that term loosely. His appearances on E! amount to little more than marginal insider knowledge and good deal of useless industry/celebrity gossip, such is the function of the E! Network as a whole. I do believe there is a place for this kind of (puffy) movie reporting, but not on the show that introduced intelligent and entertaining film criticism for a whole generation of people who may not have been exposed to it otherwise. Is Ben Lyons really good enough to replace the late Gene Siskel or the inimitable Roger Ebert? If the powers that be at Disney who are turning the show in this new direction think so, I have some advice as to where they can stick their collective thumbs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Charles H. Joffe, 1929-2008

I'd be remiss today if I didn't take the opportunity to note the passing of Charles H. Joffe. He may not be a household name but if, like myself, you are a fan of movies directed by Woody Allen, then I'm sure you've seen it. In that unmistakable white, Windsor font, plainly laid on a black title card, the name has flashed consistently at the beginning of Mr. Allen's films for the past forty years and in the process is partly responsible for the one the best and most influential body of work in the second half of twentieth century American cinema. R.I.P.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

I joined the glee club.

"Art is made by the alone for the alone."

--Luis Barragán, Time (May 12, 1980)

In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and consider it as one of the conditions of human life. ...Reflecting on it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of effective communication between people."

--Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1896)
The two seemingly disparate conclusions made by the above quotes together, oddly, serve to elucidate both the dichotomy between the creation and reception of art and, also, the nexus upon which they come together. Art is an emotional shorthand, a distillation of feelings and ideas too deep and wide to express in any complete way. In the past few weeks, I have seen a trio of films which speak to this notion of how art unites vastly different people as well as unites what is fractured and incomplete within oneself.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) has emotionally flatlined since the death of his wife, existing in an intellectual and professional malaise in Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor. At first Walter takes piano lessons as a means of trying to connect with the memory of his late wife, who was an acclaimed classical pianist. This quest for solace and meaning in art works to no avail until he is forced to temporarily moves to his New York apartment to speak at an economics conference. It is there he meets the "visitor" of the movie's title, Tarek, a Syrian-born immigrant. See, Tarek and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend, have been renting Walter's apartment unbeknownst to Walter, who is a professor in Connecticut and hasn't occupied the place in years.

Tarek plays an African drum, practicing it in the apartment (Walter has by now allowed the two to stay with him), performing in jazz clubs, and playing with others in Central Park. Slowly, but surely, Walter begins to show interest in the music, wanting to play and Tarek abides. Certainly Tarek teaches and encourages him as an act of good faith for giving him a place to live, but there's also something intoxicating about another human being showing interest in what you create. And while Tarek is thrilled that his new landlord not only tolerates but revels in the music he makes, Walter is given a hand to draw him out of his doldrums. Two men who shouldn't (and don't really) have anything in common are bound by an abstraction.

Back to the first quote by Barragán. Movies may not work fully here because of its propensity to be collaborative (though in a way I still think it does fit), but there is something solitary and introspective about being an artist, about going through the process of creating your work that is peculiarly your own. This solitude is what permeates Anton Corbijn's biopic about the late Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, Control.

The film thankfully skirts the usual pitfalls of the musical biopic by refusing to reduce the subject's life to a series of high- and lowlights. And even more so, by refusing to explain it through the superficiality of pop psychology: an abusive or overbearing parent, a downtrodden upbringing, a wandering libido, or some other seminal moment that can exist easily as a narrative scapegoat.

What remains is actor Sam Riley's quiet internalization of Curtis's anguish. With all the turmoil surrounding him, the film is as uniquely pensive as Curtis is. And what Curtis retreats to amid these storms is his art--his music. The film fails to penetrate his psyche and while I initially wished the movie explored more about the process of writing and creating the music, ultimately that would contradict the mood and tone of the picture. For just as the film keeps Curtis at a distance from the other people in the film, he is also kept at a distance from us. The only way into him is through his music--the lyrics a tunnel to his mind, the art a conduit to his soul.

But where the two above quotations funnel together into a single point is in Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening. The movie begins with Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a college student, interviewing long-forgotten novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) for her thesis. What transpires throughout the film becomes a treatise on the nature of art, the critical analysis of it, and the emotional toil it creates within the artist and on its audience.

Schiller embodies the idea of the solitary artist, the writer sitting endlessly in the silence of his lonely room, having nothing to keep him company but the unmistakable clicks of his pounding typewriter (yes, he still composes on a typewriter). At his advanced age, the only self-proclaimed goal he has left in life is to finish his final novel. Initially, he rejects the notion of helping the young grad student because of the distraction from his work. But since Schiller isn't entirely a curmudgeon, he relents, allowing Heather to conduct a series of interviews at his apartment for research.

A writer puts a wall around himself. It's easier and in his nature to look inward and crumble within himself. It is until he implodes and out come the words (or images or sounds or whatever). Schiller most certainly has this wall and the first few interviews between he and Heather contain moments that are quite tenuous. Midway through the film, he even says to another writer, "There's something about collaboration that brings out the worst in writers." It isn't until she tells him why she loves his work, the story of her first discovery of his writing does he begin to open up and to be more honest about the nature of his craft. It's only when the personal and private efforts of his work connect tangibly to something in the public world can he learn to fully engage with, well, anything really.

Thus the collision of the two quotes also highlights one of the most revealing and intriguing traits of the artist: he (or she) is a massive hypocrite. For the creation of art is at the same time a selfless, giving olive branch to the world around us and a highly selfish and self-indulgent pastime.

A good friend of mine (not to mention a writer I admire) once wrote that men are assholes, that they are driven by ego. I reacted personally and violently to such a harsh assessment. But in the end, I think she was right. I would extend that specifically to the artist, for he is defined by ego--consumed by it. Schiller, despite his elevated and reserved demeanor, is such a person. It's a quiet arrogance he possesses; an elitism that seems particular to people who create. To be fair, I don't mean this necessarily as criticism, but something I think is quite indispensable to the process. It's the oddest of juxtapositions: the quest to connect through whatever medium the person possesses is guided by an air of superiority. Even kind and likable Walter Vale in The Visitor isn't immune to this type of haughty behavior, as evidenced by his response to a woman who asks him what he writes about: "It's difficult to explain to someone who isn't a writer." He immediately apologizes to her--such is his mien--but the mentality is still present, no matter how latent.

Yet the talent to create is a remarkable aphrodisiac and contains the allure of connecting in ways that don't involve regions nether the belt buckle. In all three of these films, the main characters forge new relationships both platonic and romantic by way of art--sometimes their own, sometimes that of others. As I said before, it is a form of emotional shorthand and listening to someone else's song, or watching someone else's movie, or reading someone else's short story they sent you via email, it invariably reaches you in a way that is unique. It has a way of wading through the muck, a way of pushing through the bullshit that a (dare I say) "normal" conversation can't.

But the best way to understand that is to not listen to someone like me talk about it, but actually going out there and experiencing it for yourself, so I'll see you at the movies! Or as David Bowie more succinctly and wittily put it: "Talking about art is like dancing about architecture."


I meant to post this link when it first came out, but I was busy trying to do my own post. I've often thought about this topic and would write about it, but Emerson puts it much more elegantly that I ever could. If you even remotely like the stuff that is written on my blog, I highly suggest reading his post as well as everything else he writes on here. (If you scroll down far enough, you'll find my comment and reaction to his thesis.)