Monday, January 28, 2008

Unseen Images: Kes

***This review contains mild spoilers (the ending is strongly hinted at)***

Whether big budgeted or operating on a shoe string I ask only one thing of a drama: Give me characters I can believe. I don't have to like them (Ethan Edwards The Searchers, Christopher Cross Scarlet Street, Travis Bickle Taxi Driver) but I do have to believe they are real breathing people, not phantasms created by a clever screenwriter. Kes gives me characters I can believe and then exceeds expectations. In fact, I have a hard time convincing myself there were actors involved at all. I've looked it up on IMDB and sure enough, there are actors playing the parts (David Bradley, Brian Glover), a writer (Barry Hines) and a director (Ken Loach). But I think it's all a ruse. You can't convince me that someone didn't take a camera into Barnsley, England in 1969 and simply film students, teachers and surrounding locals then edit it into a movie. That's how Kes feels.

I could give Kes a plot summary review but there wouldn't be much to say. It follows Billy Casper, local Yorkshire youth, as he wanders through school and life, finds a kestrel chick, trains it and improves his bleak outlook. But this film is wonderful for two things in particular: 1- It is meticulously observed on a personal level that gives it a feeling of absolute authenticity, and 2 - It is among the most unpretentious and unsentimental movies I have ever seen. Watching Kes made me feel (whether true or not) that films have forgotten how to observe a story instead of telling it. By that I mean rather than forcing us to feel or react in a certain way due to musical cues or camera set-ups the movie simply places the camera midground, excises the music and observes the action. I have nothing against telling the story, but I have seen enough stories like Kes ruined by a director intent on telling us what to feel rather than trusting that the story will take us there.*

Here is the tagline for the film: They beat him. They deprived him. They ridiculed him. They broke his heart. But they couldn't break his spirit. Whoever came up with that tagline didn't understand the film at all. It's not that it's not true, it's that it's true in the wrong way. Sure they couldn't break his spirit, but that's because he had none. He was resigned to a life of misery and despair, eventually relegated to working in a coal mine. His brother Jud works there and takes out his frustrations (physically) on Billy. Both of their lives seem pointless and hopeless and they have a mother who couldn't seem to care less.

Throughout the film Loach gives the viewer an insightful look into the failed social systems in Billy's life. His public school and career counselors all fail Billy spectacularly. Loach maintains a cinematic distance from all of this, employing mainly long and medium shots, only closing in on Billy and Kes as their relationship develops. And the washed out look of the film makes no shot pretty but not falsely deglamorized either. There is a greyness all around that befits the environment and story, if not the mood of the film.

And then there is the ending which on first viewing, and second and third, is jolting. This may sound like I'm trying to drive you away from the film rather than towards it, but this has to be one of the bleakest endings on record. And yet, there is a robust strength to the ending that resonates with the viewer long after the film is over. The ending is not bleak because of what happens but in how it is presented. What happens at the end has happened a dozen times in other movies with animals and if you haven't seen it you can probably guess what it is. What you can't guess is how it is presented or how it comes about. It is presented in such an offhand matter of fact manner with such a complete lack of goopy strings, of lingering close-ups or of a protracted conclusion that one walks away from the film feeling that one has just viewed the most horrible moment in an isolated child's life callously recorded for someone's home movie. It is unsentimental in the extreme.

I had not seen Kes when I did my original Oscar picks for the late sixties. Had I seen it before then I may well have chosen it as the Best Picture of 1969. In a recent British Motion Picture poll of the greatest British films ever made, Kes made it into the top ten, at number seven. The six films ahead of it were Kind Hearts and Coronets, Great Expectations, The 39 Steps, Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter and The Third Man. I saw that list before seeing the movie and wondered what all the fuss was about. Why was a simple kitchen sink drama (a genre I admittedly love) ranked so highly along side these titans of British cinema? Now I understand. Completely. Hell - I'd rank it higher. See Kes if you haven't already. Then you'll understand too.


*(ahem, cough, Steven Spielberg, cough, cough).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

And in the End...

***Warning: Big stinking spoilers throughout. Read at your own risk.***

Roger Ebert wrote this recently in his positive review of There Will Be Blood concerning the ending: "Those who hate the ending, and there may be many, might be asked to dictate a different one. Something bittersweet, perhaps? Grandly tragic? Only madness can supply a termination for this story."

The ending of There Will Be Blood is indeed insane. I laughed throughout. I don't know if that offends Paul Thomas Anderson or if he intended people to laugh at the ending but I was not laughing in a mocking, condescending way. It was more of a "giddy with delight" kind of laughter. If you haven't seen the film and don't want it spoiled for you then stop reading now. If you don't care about spoilers, read on. To sum it up quickly and cleanly, the movie follows the life of Daniel Plainview and his selfish, megalomaniacal descent into madness. He is a cold businessman who hates people and takes offense where none was intended. He has dealings with Eli Sunday, an evangelist who uses Plainview's success to build his church. All of this is told in a sweeping manner among the dust strewn wastelands of the oil fields. Then suddenly, after two and a half hours of slow burn, we are jettisoned sixteen years forward, Eli comes to see Daniel in his mansion, Daniel humiliates Eli, chases him around his bowling alley and clubs him to death with a bowling pin. Daniel's butler walks in, presumably to collect Daniel's breakfast tray, and Daniel says, referring to the breakfast tray and his meeting with Eli, "I'm finished." The End.

Okay, let's be frank: That's crazy. And to many viewers it is a disconcerting and bizarre way to end the movie. But I enjoyed it (obviously - I've since watched the closing scene on YouTube several times and just laugh and laugh when I see it - Paul Thomas Anderson hates me right now). It's even funnier than Dirk Diggler wagging his rubber dick in front of the mirror. The truth is I usually like understated films. If you look at what I've reviewed on Unseen Images (Luck of Ginger Coffey, So Big, Walkabout) you can get a good idea of what I prefer in a movie, and it's usually not something like There Will Be Blood. But occasionally I like something big and sloppy and messy and this movie is as equally full of flaws as it is ambition. But the real point is the ending.

Ebert suggests those who don't like it write another ending for it. This is unnecessary as there already is another ending for it, written some thirty four years ago by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. The ending I'm referring to is the ending of The Godfather, Part II.

I have a hunch that many people who don't like the ending of There Will Be Blood were subconsciously hoping for the ending of The Godfather Part II Redux. Daniel Plainview slowly but surely isolates himself from everyone around him and finally rejects his own family (his adopted son). At this point it would be perfectly understandable and fitting if a filmmaker decided the best way to end the story was to have Plainview's son walk out and the camera fades to a day or a week later. The camera then slowly zooms in on a lonely and empty Daniel Plainview staring coldly ahead, his whole life reduced to this, to nothing, to meaninglessness. Slow fade to black and silence as the credits slowly crawl up the screen. After all, there really is little reason or motivation to even bring Eli Sunday back into the story. He's been absent for quite some time at this point and practically forgotten. He never made much of an impact as far as the story arc is concerned in the first place except for providing some juicy embarrassment at the baptism of Daniel. So why not give the movie a tragic dignified ending?

I don't have the answer to that question but I'm glad Anderson didn't. This may sound insulting, but I am vaguely reminded of Kevin Bacon pitching his stark winters tale to the studio executive in The Big Picture until it is finally reduced to Beach Nuts! I have this fantasy where Anderson is pitching the movie and describing Plainview's bitter loneliness in the snow as the camera fades to black. The studio executive stares at him blankly.

Anderson quickly realigns himself and says, "But then Plainview realizes his tragedy and reunites with his son."

Nothing from the studio exec.

"Uh, um, okay maybe Plainview joins forces with Sunday and decides to become a new man."

Still nothing.

"Okay, I got it, Sunday comes by, Plainview goes batshit insane, chases him around the bowling alley hurling bowling balls at him while screaming, 'I am the Third Revelation' then beats Sunday to death with a bowling pin!"


"We'll call it Oil Nuts!"

I think there could have been straighter played, more dignified, more overtly tragic endings to this movie but I don't think there could have been a better one. I have seen many a stoic character study that ends in understated silence. I believe many are excellent (such as The Godfather Part II, although I am not its biggest fan) but every now and then it makes me feel good to know that there is a filmmaker as reckless as Paul Thomas Anderson (rubber dicks, frog downpours, bowling pin clubbings). I have a feeling as he makes more movies he will become more sedate and subdued and learned in the wise ways of constructing a stoic character study in which Burt Reynolds, Marky Mark and the music of E.L.O. have no place. There will be no room for hyper-acted scenes where characters scream phrases like "Drainage Eli!" and "I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!" or biblical plagues in the middle of Los Angeles. There will be more Godfather, Part II and less Apocalypse Now. And certainly no room for One From the Heart.

Perhaps it's because I like understated smaller films that when I see a big drama I want it to just barely graze this side of a train wreck. If I'm going to spend three hours on a character study when I believe most good ones can be done in two, I want some goddamn spectacle. I want some madness. I want the filmmaker to do the equivalent of ordering a bunch of Peruvian natives to haul a 320 ton steamer over a mountain. And dammit, I want Michael Corleone to get off that damn bench, run inside the boathouse, call Tom Hagen a "basket bastard" and then club Al Neri to death with the row boat anchor. I'd drink that milkshake! I'd drink it up.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Documenting Doomsday: The Day After Trinity

Alamogordo Test Range,Jornada del Muerto desert 5:29:45 A.M., July 16 1945.

Trinity Site.

At that moment, at that location, exploded the first man-made nuclear device ever created. Leo Szilard had the premonition in 1933 that inexorably led to this moment in history. The device, by modern nuclear standards, was small but effective, and powerful. Even a small nuclear device like the Trinity device, nicknamed The Gadget, with an estimated yield of 20-22 kilotons was a terrifying weapon. Once the conventional explosives triggered the implosion of fissionable plutonium at it's core (only the Little Boy bomb used on Hiroshima employed Uranium) the ensuing fireball grew to several hundred meters across within 109 milliseconds. The twenty meter high steel tower it sat atop vaporized into the ether and the nuclear age was born. It was the first nuclear test. There would be many more.

There have been many documentaries on cable that have dealt with the nuclear age in general and the Manhattan Project in particular but precious few theatrically released ones. The Day After Trinity (1980) which documents the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the first atomic bomb was made in 1980 by director Jon Else and writer/editor David Webb Peoples and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It would be the last time many of the physicists who worked at Los Alamos would be interviewed for a documentary and for that alone it has the weight of being an important historical document.

Having covered the details of the Manhattan Project in my previous post on Day One there is no need to go into the details again. The Day After Trinity has the physicists who worked at Los Alamos telling the familiar stories, New Mexico locals telling odd stories about the events of 1945 and the usual recap of history. What sets The Day After Trinity apart from most if not all documentaries on the nuclear age is the attitudes, the mannerisms and the odd behavior on display by all the participants, recording history by eyewitnesses before they die, setting itself up as a vital record to be studied not just cinematically but sociologically for the years ahead.

There's the farmer describing, with amusement, the black cat that became white after the Trinity test due to fallout. The cat was later sold to a tourist. He also describes the cattle and how they had white patches as well. None of it seems to bother him. No recognition seems present on his part that something potentially deadly and genetically altering has covered his land.

There's the New Mexico woman describing driving down the highway at 5:30 in the morning with her sister when the bomb went off. After the intense white flash, her sister asked, "What was that?" The director Jon Else asks why is it notable that her sister asked that? The woman responds, "Because she's blind."

There's Robert Serber, Los Alamos physicist and Robert Oppenheimer protege, acting as strangely as a man can act before the camera. He rocks backwards and forwards in his chair, he speaks with a bizarre cadence, emphasizing articles and participles rather than nouns and verbs. He recounts going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki within 10 days of the blasts to investigate the damage. He brought back an artifact from Hiroshima. It was used to determine from the angle of the burned on shadows that the bomb went off at the proper elevation, 1,850 feet. He could have chosen any item of the thousands of building pieces with burned on shadows from the outskirts of Hiroshima to prove this but he chose this one, and he pulls it out to show us. It is a section of wall from a schoolhouse. He seems to have no recognition of the oddness of using something from a battlefield identified with children. He seems eager to point out the burned on shadows to prove his point. By the time he's done you half expect him to pull out a baby carriage to further support his case.

There's Frank Oppenheimer, Robert's brother who also worked on the project, grabbing his forehead and covering his eyes at least one quarter of the time he is on camera. Almost as if he doesn't want to be seen telling this story.

There's Robert Wilson, Los Alamos physicist, and his wife, Jane Wilson, recounting how euphoric he was after Germany surrendered and then Jane talking of how depressed and physically ill he was after Hiroshima was bombed.

And above all, there's Freeman Dyson. World renowned British physicist Dyson did not work on the Manhattan Project but did later come to know many of the physicists who did. It is this distance that allows Dyson to have the clearest analysis and most eloquently stated thoughts on the matter. If you have never read any books or articles by Dyson I highly recommend doing so. He is as much philosopher as he is physicist. He speaks of how the machinery was in place to drop the bomb the moment the project was authorized. Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of paid workers meant the decision to drop the bomb had already been made. It was made the moment they began work on it.

And through archival footage, there's Robert Oppenheimer. He stayed on with the Atomic Energy Commission after the war and fought against the construction of the Hydrogen Bomb. As a result his security clearance was revoked and he was shown the door. In one interview from the sixties he is clearly consumed with guilt, crying as he expresses his thoughts on that July 16th day in 1945. In another interview from 1965 the interviewer asks him what he thinks of President Johnson's proposal for nuclear disarmament. Oppenheimer replies, "It's twenty years too late. The time for that would have been the day after Trinity."


As The Day After Trinity is a documentary made in 1980 there is no trailer for it so I took it upon myself to create one. I hope you will watch it and I hope it gives some sense of the documentary itself. It is just under three minutes long. It is a simple trailer, opening as the film does with Haakon Chevalier, a friend of Oppenheimer, reading a letter he had written to Oppy after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had finally revealed the Manhattan Project to the world.

Next you will see images of Frank, Robert's brother, as I described him above.

It concludes with the images of Hiroshima from the documentary with a voice over I extracted from an interview in the documentary by the great Freeman Dyson, explaining more eloquently than I ever could why the bomb was dropped and why so many non-violent physicists worked on it.

Please watch it and check out the documentary if you can. The music used is the music from the documentary itself.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Oscar's Odd Behavior

Let's face it, half the time Oscar doesn't know what the hell he's doing. Great films go un-nominated (Modern Times, Rear Window, Touch of Evil), films of questionable quality win big (Cimarron, The Greatest Show on Earth) and performers with a lifetime of great achievement go unnoticed (Toshiro Mifune, Myrna Loy, Joseph Cotten). But this has come to be expected of Oscar. He's a little flaky and his judgment leaves much to be desired. Sometimes, however, Oscar really goes loopy.

Oscar often seems to make up the rules as he goes. That's because he does. Usually it takes a bizarre event to bring a problem in the process to Oscar's notice. One of the oddest acting situations that forced Oscar to do some rule changing occurred for the year 1944. The great actor Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for a Supporting and a Lead Oscar. No problem there. We've seen it happen many times since, most recently in 2002 with Julianne Moore, nominated for Best Actress for Far From Heaven and Best Supporting Actress for The Hours. But here's the thing with Barry: Both of his nominations came for the same performance. That's right. For his role of Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor. He won the supporting award.

The problem was this: Before introducing the Best Supporting award, it was understood that Best Actor or Actress meant whoever gives the best performance no matter the size of the part. By 1936 it was clear that smaller roles were being shut out so the supporting categories were born. But the original intent of the Best Actor or Actress Oscar was still in the minds of many of the voters. So when marking their nomination ballot they felt that Fitzgerald had given the Best Supporting performance of the year and that that supporting performance was also the best performance of the year period. So they marked him twice. Uh oh. Oscar scratched his head and decided from now on whichever category the actor in question gets the most votes for is the category he will be nominated for. If the exact same amount of members vote for him to be nominated in both categories then screen time will be used to break the tie. How much screen time? Well, no one's really sure. That's why Oscar decided a long time ago to make it clear to the studios that they have to decide in advance and push said actor to be nominated in one category or the other.

Oh that Oscar, always passing the buck.

Which puts me in mind of Harry Truman. You know Harry had a sign on his desk that said the buck stops here. Later he was portrayed on stage by James Whitmore in a one-man show, Give 'Em Hell Harry. In 1975 one of these performances in Seattle, Washington was videotaped by directors Steve Binder and Peter H. Hunt. The videotaped performance was shown on Los Angeles legendary Z cable station. It also showed on cable in New York. The Academy members saw it on Z around the clock. The station was new having just started in 1974 and Give 'Em Hell Harry was played over and over. The result? Academy members nominated James Whitmore for Best Actor. Not for giving a performance in a one-man film, like Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor. No, no. He was doing his usual stage performance before an audience and it was videotaped. So in a way, you could say that this is the only time an actor was nominated for a performance that didn't really occur in a movie.

But the above two examples are nothing compared to the double rule change whammy that occurred after the 1972 awards.

The Academy has always relied on release date in North America (specifically Los Angeles and New York) for eligibility, essentially stating the movie doesn't exist, no matter how many times it has been seen abroad or in how many places, until it plays here. Thus films like Brief Encounter, Bicycle Thieves and The Third Man all received nominations a year after they had taken in awards abroad because it was full year later when they finally premiered in the States. This nebulous policy, as well as a rule for musical scores, led to a bizarre incident for the 1972 awards

Everyone was sure that Nina Rota would win the Oscar for Best Musical Score for his beautiful score to The Godfather. Then it was discovered that elements of the score had been drawn from previous work he had composed and since it had to be completely original to the film being scored, Rota's nomination was withdrawn. Since the sure bet was now withdrawn the Academy voters were free to be creative, if you will. The Oscar for Best Original Score for 1972 went to ...

Limelight. Scored by Charlie Chaplin. In 1952!

Because of the inability to get distribution deals with the United States distributors since Chaplin was officially Persona non Grata due to suspected communist sympathies, it was not released in the States until 1972. And that's when, according to Oscar, the film now officially existed. People were happy to see Chaplin get an award but there was enough jaw-dropping to embarrass Oscar into swiftly dropping the release date rules and going with a new more vague rule of thumb that any film over two years removed from its original release date (wherever that may be - no longer just America) could not be considered. Oscar also decided that composers could employ previous compositions into a new work and still be considered for the Original Score Oscar. How nice of him. This worked out well for Carmine Coppola two years later when he employed a large chunk of Nina Rota's original Godfather score for Part II and then won the Oscar himself. I have no evidence of this, but I'm guessing Nina Rota despised Carmine Coppola after that. Although Oscar was nice and gave an Oscar to Rota too for that same film. Even though he hadn't worked on it. Because, you know... 1972 had happened.

Oscar sure is funny. One artist is nominated for the same work twice (Fitzgerald) and another is withdrawn from nomination because he use the same work twice (Rota). A third wins based on the second's work (Coppola) and a Hollywood legend walks away with an Oscar for a musical score he'd probably forgotten he ever did. This would all fall under the category - "You Can't Make This Stuff Up."

Will there be more bizarre behavior by Oscar this year? Let's hope so because let's be honest: Oscar's getting old and when he's not screwing up the rules six ways to Sunday, he's pretty boring.


Oscar did it again! Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood was disqualified for nomination due to other music (Brahms) being used for the film. In case you're wondering here are the relevant guidelines:

1. The work must be specifically created for the eligible feature-length motion picture.

4. The work must be recorded for use in the film prior to any other usage including public performance or exploitation through any of the media whatsoever.

5. Only the principal composer(s) or song writer(s) responsible for the conception and execution of the work as a whole shall be eligible for an award. This expressly excludes from eligibility all of the following:

(a) supervisors

(b) partial contributors (e.g., any writer not responsible for the over-all design of the work)

(c) contributors working on speculation

(d) scores diluted by the use of themes tracked or other pre-existing music

(e) scores diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs

(f) scores assembled from the music of more than one composer.

Take a look at the guidelines again. Okay with number 1 I can understand that Brahms' work was not created for the picture. But this has always been given a pass in the past. Let's take 1999 for an example. Two films up for Best Original Score that year were American Beauty and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both used music on their soundtracks from other sources not written for their respective pictures (music from South Pacific in American Beauty and multiple jazz selections, specifically Charlie Parker in The Talented Mr. Ripley)and yet neither was ruled ineligible.

Now look at number 4. The music must be recorded for the film before being used anywhere else in any media. As The Godfather Part II used music from the first it is in clear violation of this rule and yet, again, no one seemed to care. The Godfather Part II also violates rule 5f which states any score compiled from the music of more than one composer is ineligible. So somehow Carmine Coppola and Nina Rota were the same person? Was it like Ray Milland and Rosey Grier? Did they have one body and two heads? No. Oscar was still embarrassed over 1972 and by god they were going to make sure Rota and The Godfather won for that music one way or another. So they ignored the rules they had so foolishly applied just two years earlier.

Now it's 2008 and Oscar has suddenly noticed his rule book again. I may be wrong in this (I probably am) but I have a feeling older, more conservative composers in the Academy were hemming and hawing about this Radiohead boy and his dissonant music everyone is talking about and jumped on the fact that Brahms is used to put him out of the running. Just a hunch.

There used to be a category for Best Adapted Score so that studio composers could be honored for their arrangements of other people's music but this fell by the wayside as adapting a score was simply conducting someone else's music. In another category there still is an adapted version: Screenplay. Now with screenplays, adapting a book to the screen is indeed a true adaptation and the screenwriter deserves credit for making it work. But in some cases it's outright ludicrous. This year Johnny Greenwood was disqualified for using Brahms in his almost completely original score but in 1996 Kenneth Branagh received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Hamlet, which is notable for being the first time the entire play was actually done word for word up on the screen, instead of in truncated form like Olivier's 1948 version. Greenwood uses some Brahms and he's out but Branagh inks not a single word of a screenplay and he's in. Clearly the Academy has an another guideline that overrides all other guidelines. That would be the one that states, "We must always follow our guidelines except in those cases in which it is deemed by the over/undersigned authorities of the Academy, it's board and all paid servants herein, including pets and bit players, that when we don't want to we don't have to - HA!"

And so the Academy plays fast and loose with the rules again. I'd write more about it but I'm working on this screenplay adaptation of King Lear and it's pretty time consuming. I have to add the word "screen" in front of the word "play" before we begin shooting. Hold on... okay done. I think I smell a nomination coming my way. Keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

Have you ever passed by something and thought of a movie? I have. In fact it happens everyday I return from work (I'm a secret agent for a super-secret international organization of really cool spies). Anyway, I work in Washington D.C. so I'm not talking about thinking of Independence Day every time you see the White House or living in San Francisco and thinking of Invasion of the Body Snatchers every time you see the TransAmerica building or living in New York and thinking of every apocalyptic science fiction film ever made when you see the Statue of Liberty. No, no I mean something that has nothing whatsoever to do with a movie and yet you can't help but think of a specific film every time you see it.

For me it's the Swiss Embassy. I walk past it each night. The other night when getting off work I snapped some photos of it. The photos suck but there's a reason for that. The subject in question is a good hundred yards from the gate so I had to stick the camera through the gate, zoom in and jack the light filter up since it was dusk. Fortunately I was not besieged by Swiss guards wielding army knives.

Here's the photo:

And what do I think of? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King of course. Every time. It's that damn white tree. I can't get close enough to inspect it but it's metal or plastic or something and it must mean something to the Swiss but I don't know what. I guess I could just look it up but I rather it remain a mystery. The mystery of the bizarre white tree sculpture. Anyone else have any movie moments in their everyday life?

Oh yeah I almost forgot, the Swiss may make precise time pieces but their embassy employees suck at picking up their papers.