Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Wanderers: Robert Forster

In The Wanderers, a long neglected series here at Cinema Styles, I discuss actors who never did a lot of leads or many famous supporting roles but stayed busy throughout a long career, taking what parts they were given and never letting foolish pride stand in the way of good, solid work. It's not a series for chronicling the works of A-listers like Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Sylvia Sidney, Thelma Ritter or Thomas Mitchell. It's for people like Geoffrey Lewis, James Edwards and Diane Baker , the first three actors profiled in the series. And now, finally, a fourth, Robert Forster.

Now it's true, Robert Forster is a little more famous than those three but mainly, or possibly only, because of Jackie Brown, although he was famous to fans of indie cinema, before there was such a thing, for Medium Cool and later, on tv, for his television show Banyon. Before he landed the role of Max Cherry, Bail Bondsman, in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Forster accepted any number of roles in low budget action thrillers to keep the paychecks coming in and the acting skills honed. He also took the lead in Disney's The Black Hole, a film that failed to live up to the box-office expectations of the studio and thus didn't contribute to any sort of career boost for Forster. Years later, at the age of 56, he landed the part that would net him his first, and as of this writing, only Oscar nomination, in this case for Best Supporting Actor. The role was for the previously mentioned Jackie Brown and in it, Forster is a revelation.

Sometimes an actor has to go through an entire career before someone finds them a role that's made just for them. In 1997, Forster got that role and even though it wasn't written for him (Elmore Leonard created the character in the original novel upon which it's based, Rum Punch) it seemed written for him and Tarantino may have had him in mind when adapting the screenplay (although I have no proof of that). Seeing Forster play Max Cherry is more like seeing a 56 year old bail bondsman named Max Cherry who bears a striking resemblance to Robert Forster, if that makes any sense. Forster is Cherry, Cherry is Forster.

It's a remarkable performance but you won't find it on many "Greatest Supporting Performaces" lists because there's very little about it that is showy and very little that feels urgent or needlessly energetic. What it does feel like is a tired man who doesn't get excited even at the prospect of walking away with half a million dollars. He's tired of his job and wonders, while sitting on the couch of a man for whom he's laying in wait to stun and drag to the police, if he should just quit. He falls for a woman, Jackie Brown, but is so undemonstrative about it that you wonder if he is emotionally stilted or reliant upon an overly developed defense mechanism of nonchalance. By the end, when the audience may finally get its answer, Max Cherry recedes into a soft-focus blur as Tarantino shows his final respect for this hardened man's privacy.

As noted above, Robert Forster received the nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Jackie Brown, and in one of the greatest (or perhaps just the most recent) disappointments in the category, he lost to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting. Words simply fail. Forster has spent his entire career taking what parts he could find and didn't give a damn if you knew or cared that he was capable of delivering greatness. In Jackie Brown he proved it and if that's the only role he ever had it would be enough. Forster remains a wanderer, but one with a performance that ranks with the best the cinema has to offer. Or as Max Cherry might say, "Yup."


This post done in tandem with "Max Cherry meets Jackie Brown" at Unexplained Cinema.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Episode IV: A New Hope (for Cinema Styles)

I've been at this blogging thing for years now (a little over three) but in the last year I've gone up and down the mood gauge as unemployment has taken my focus away from the movies. Now, this Monday, I start a new job (finally!) and, going into my fourth year here at Cinema Styles, I expect more changes to occur. For one, I won't be on during the day anymore, except on a day off of course, but I don't think that's very much a concern at this point. These days more of us are logging on at night and doing brief check-ins on social networks like Facebook during the day, something I can quickly do on a lunch break. But there are other changes too, changes in how I view movies.

In the last two years my wife and I have become huge fans of the AFI Silver here in Silver Spring and I've gotten to experience so much classic Hollywood and world cinema on the big screen that I don't know how I ever survived without it. It's to the point where I'll make sure a film I haven't seen before, but is playing on, say, TCM, isn't going to be playing at the AFI first. If it is I don't want to blow the first time I ever see it by seeing it on television. But it's more than that.

When I started Cinema Styles it was decidedly a classic Hollywood film blog. That was its primary focus and I tried to keep everything to 1979 and before. Gradually I mentioned some newer films and liked the idea of being a part of the conversation on current cinema. Cinema Styles doesn't have a lot of reviews but now, it seems, those that are here have as much chance as being current (Avatar, Shutter Island) as being classic (Foreign Affair, Easy Living) and that's fine by me. However, the one area I haven't really moved into is documentaries, even though they have quickly become my favorite form of movie to watch (I watch at least two or so a week, sometimes not a narrative film at all). The reason is because I take them all personally (I watch primarily political docs) and don't want to get into a fight over politics on my blog, I really don't. It seems easier to review a narrative film based on its technique without necessarily arguing about the philosophical content of its message. With a documentary, often, the message is the thing. I occasionally review a historical documentary, like the ones I have reviewed on nuclear tests and the Cold War, but that's different. History is more easily argued in a civilized manner because of the benefit of hindsight and a body of established facts from which to work. That being the case, I don't think Cinema Styles will be moving into the direction of documentary reviewing any time soon.

In fact, I don't know what direction it will be moving in, just that it's exciting to be getting back to work and Cinema Styles will have to adapt to a new schedule, that's all. The rants will still be here, In the Land Before CGI will still be here, Opening Credits I Love and even other much longer neglected features, like The Wanderers, will still be here and pop up from time to time. And Unexplained Cinema and The Invisible Edge will still be here too, although I've neglected The Edge for almost two weeks now. And I'll still be here, just at night more than during the day. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Post-Nuclear Cinema

Today, July 16, 2010, marks the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the atomic age. It was on this date, at 5:29 a.m. local time in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, that the United States Army Corps of Engineers under the military supervision of General Leslie R. Groves and scientific supervision of J. Robert Oppenheimer, detonated the first bomb powered by nuclear fission, a bomb code-named, in a moment of breathless military understatement, "the gadget." Ever since that "gadget" successfully detonated and the United States used two more over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the atomic age has been one of fascination and revulsion the world over. The new super-energy attainable through the atom quickly went from revulsion in popular culture to sci-fi plot point magnet. And it was those early atomic age sci-fi films that prodded me along to become a bonafide sci-fi fanatic by my early teens. The Japanese were among the first to embrace nuclear energy in a science fiction setting with films like Gojira (Godzilla in its Americanized version) although not the first specifically, as films like War of the Worlds used atomic bombs within the story, if not as a method of creation like Gojira.

In was in that method, using atomic energy as a means of growing a monster, in literal form, that acted as catharsis for the Japanese viewing audience. And that catharsis was brought to them via legendary director Ishiro Honda. If you'd like to read more about the great Japanese sci-fi/fantasy director, you can do no better than these two articles, one by Kimberly Lindbergs at TCM's Movie Morlocks and the other by Mykal Banta of Radiation Cinema. In fact, Radiation Cinema is itself a wonderful resource for all the pop culture of the Atomic Age. Mykal stopped updating it in November but until he starts up again there is plenty to peruse at one's leisure. Also, while not specifically an atomic age article, this post by Richard Harland Smith at Movie Morlocks does touch on many of the same themes and includes some very important post-nuclear movies.

And while these atomic age sci-fi wonders nudged me in the direction of sci-fi, they didn't do anything for my interest in the age itself. That would come from history books, science books and fear of annihilation. Growing up during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were often at the forefront of conversation. My father had several history books in the house, including The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial, 1969, Philip Stern. I read through it, though as a small child I skimmed more than anything else. Still, there it was and of all the books my father had, including an invaluable set of encyclopedias dealing exclusively with American history, it was the one that caught my eye. It wasn't long before I was reading up on nuclear energy, SALT talks and philosophies like M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). I learned about Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi and Ernest Lawrence. I watched On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe as many times as I could (thank you TBS for running them over and over and over). And when a new movie like The China Syndrome came out, I was the only kid in school who actually wanted to see it.

Then, late in high school, The Day After (d. Nicholas Meyer), with Jason Robards and JoBeth Williams, aired on ABC and it was a sensation. This was 1983 and the Cold War was at the boiling point. I watched the ABC movie with rapt attention and the next day the local news showed up at my high school to get student's reactions. Naturally, they were told by classmates to ask me, which they did. I got a lesson that day in how clever editing can make you look like a complete idiot. The reporter came to me to ask my reaction, thrust the mic in my face and I talked. And talked. And talked. I wouldn't shut up. I went on and on about the difference in conditions and results between Hiroshima and the destruction showed in the movie. I critiqued the footage of multiple bombs going off seemingly within a couple of miles of each other and saying how, given the yield of a thermo-nuclear warhead, the dispersal of heat and dozens of miles of fallout radius, this would be a waste of bombs and, in reality, the dispersal pattern would be much larger. Yes, I was a teenager. And that poor news crew discovered I was very anxious to show off how much I knew about the subject. I also threw in a criticism that not enough people died from radiation burns or sickness and that the movie seemed to focus on one or two characters getting slowly sicker where I felt that point should have been hammered home with much greater force.

After school I excitingly told my father and mother that I was going to be on the news, interviewed about The Day After! Oh my God, it was going to be glorious! The news came on and the three of us gathered round the tv to watch. The reaction to the movie was the lead story! Of course, there was a lot of reaction, from all over the country so the high school students' part was cut to mere seconds. I was a part of that mere seconds. About one second of it. There I was, front and center on the television saying simply, "Not enough people died." Anyone who didn't know me saw an idiot teenager who didn't like the movie because there wasn't enough bloodshed.

Other Cold War movies, like Wargames, were must-see events as well. I saw that one on opening weekend and as far as I'm concerned, it not only holds up but still has one of the best opening sequences to a thriller I've ever seen. However, for me, documentaries became the route to take because, while I enjoyed the thrillers and realistic fictions, it was the real story I wanted and that, in turn, led to my interest in documentaries over all. And while I have viewed many more documentaries on the subject of nuclear war than fiction films, not all have been satisfying. A documentary like The Atomic Cafe is excellent but too concerned at times with ridiculing the era rather than giving a real appreciation for the gravity of what was going on in the world during that time. To this day I meet younger people who have seen The Atomic Cafe and seem to have the impression that the Cold War was this really big silly-fest that went on in the fifties and sixties. It wasn't. It was serious, and frankly, pretty damn scary. I much prefer to direct people towards the documentaries and narrative films on the subject that I have reviewed here, including The Day After Trinity, Day One, Trinity and Beyond and Radio Bikini. Most of the original comments on those reviews are lost forever as I foolishly used Haloscan for comments here for the first year and a half and that system is now off the grid but if you'd like to comment on any of them, please, feel free. My friend Marilyn also has two excellent reviews of movies in this category, I Live in Fear and The House in the Middle, not a review proper but an interview with film preservationist Rick Prelinger that touches on the infamous nuclear civil defense film. Finally, Peter Nellhaus has a review of one of the best films ever made on the subject, Black Rain.

Today's date is a sobering one in human history and one that guided my interest in history and documentary filmmaking. It's a subject I don't think can be taken seriously enough and perhaps that is why, to some degree, I have always been a bit annoyed at criticisms that Fail Safe lost out to Dr. Strangelove because it took itself too seriously. No, it's just that Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest films ever made but Fail Safe is still, nonetheless, an important and well-made film on the topic. I recommend both highly, as well as the documentaries listed above.

I close out with the trailer I made for the documentary The Day After Trinity two years ago. There was no actual trailer ever made for the film so I made one myself and put it up on YouTube. With nearly 12,000 views and three pages of comments, it's one of my more successful videos. The man at the start of the trailer, reading the letter he wrote to Oppenheimer, is Haakon Chevalier; the man looking distraught in the middle is Robert's brother Frank and the voice you hearing narrating the final part is physicist Freeman Dyson, not a Manhattan Project scientist but an integral part of the documentary, acting as the objective observer for most of it. It would be the documentary I would recommend the most as a start-up for anyone interested in the subject.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Unexplained Cinema Logo

This is the logo that will appear before my short films in the future, whenever they get finished that is. Unexplained Cinema, the title, doubles for both my production company, such as it is, and my alternate cinema blog. As for the logo film, I animated it from several old public domain photos that I stitched together (for instance, the seated man and the abandoned building interior are two separate photos put together). The idea is that we see the outside of the abandoned building first, as we hear the click of the projector turn on and rev up, lighting up its surroundings, and then go inside to see the man seated on a makeshift bench, waiting for the film to start. Then, of course, it dissolves to the logo.

As for Unexplained Cinema, the blog, I think it's time for another sea change. What that change will be I don't know for sure just yet, but hopefully, it's coming soon.


This blog is cross-posted at Unexplained Cinema

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Moment that Makes Greatness

Recently I've been thinking more and more about what makes a film great? It must be more that acting, editing, cinematography, writing, scoring or any other part that when added to the sum makes up more than the whole. If it were quantifiable in technical terms then Gus Van Sant's Psycho would be as equally celebrated as Hitchcock's and it isn't, nor should it be. More than that what makes a film great to one may not make it great to another. After years online, writing about movies and discussing them in comment sections, I'm still surprised sometimes when we don't all agree on the goodness, badness or ugliness of a particular movie, as if somehow we should all know the exact markers of a great or bad film and simply check them off to know with which kind of film we're dealing.

Much of this thinking process was sped along by my friend Bill Ryan's recent post on Mulholland Dr, written and directed by David Lynch and released in 2001. That's a film I know is great but I don't know for sure if I could tell you why. In fact, for much of the film the cinematography is rather pedestrian by these eyes, doing very little of interest with interiors for example. The editing, scoring and writing are all perfectly good in an almost purposely unremarkable way. And yet, I know that this is a great movie. Not just a good one, a great one. How do I know? I don't know. But I do know when I know.

For me, I often have moments when I know a movie is great and for Mulholland Dr it's when Rebekah Del Rio takes the stage at the Club Silencio, a full hour and 49 minutes into the movie, and performs "Crying" ("Llorando") in Spanish. Why does that moment signal the turn for me? I have no idea, I just know that it does. The entire Club Silencio sequence has a quiet beauty for me that very few movies achieve and when Del Rio is on stage I can feel an emotional pull that feels real but seems inexplicable. And how many movies, really, how many, can keep you interested and even deeply involved for almost two hours and then, THEN(!), at the time when most movies would be winding down, ramp everything up to a fever pitch that makes you, the viewer, feel like you've just been given a shot of adrenalin directly into the heart?

That's what Mulholland Dr does to me but there are so many movies that give me that "great" moment. Here are just five from a list of hundreds:

The Bridge on the River Kwai: This moment's a bit obvious and clearly intended to be a "comes the dawn" moment for the viewer but still it ropes me in every time. It's the moment just before the intermission when Colonel Nicholson is informed that the wood they're using has been known to last for 600 years and his eyes widen as he whispers in amazement, "600 years?" He's gone and now you know it. It chills me every time and takes the movie from excellent to great.

Dodsworth: Some movies hold out until the very last second and Dodsworth is one of them. I find the whole movie terrific but it's that moment, that scene on the ocean liner, almost at the very end of the movie that does it for me, that transforms it from good relationship drama to great relationship drama. [SPOILER]In the penultimate scene, as Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is on board, returning to the states with his wife (Ruth Chatterton) even though he's in love with another woman (Mary Astor) and this is 1936 and you know, just know, that this is how the production code dictates it must end, suddenly Dodsworth stands up, essentially says, "To hell with this and you and all your phoniness" and leaves to go to Mary Astor. What an ending. [END SPOILER]

The Earrings of Madame de...: The movie's initial set-up plays like a farce. Earrings are sold, re-bought by the husband, given to mistresses, lost in casinos and so on until our lovely lead, the Comtesse Louise, played by Danielle Darrieux, meets and falls in love with the Baron Fabrizio Donati, played by Vittorio De Sica. And then they dance, and dance, and dance. And when that dance scene happens, that takes us through the opening whispers of their love, as they dance until the band stops playing, that's when it becomes great.

The Third Man: Another obvious moment but still, I can't deny it. It occurs when Holly (Joseph Cotten) is stumbling drunk into the street from Anna's (Alida Valli) apartment and spies none other than Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the doorway across the street. The same Harry Lime that, up to now, was supposed to be dead.

Stroszek: I highlighted this sequence a while back at Unexplained Cinema and it remains for me the greatest moment in the whole movie but, also, the moment that tips the movie over the edge from fascinating and bizarre study to greatness. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) stands motionless as his home abandons him and exits stage left (house right).

I could keep going and, in fact, so many scenes in movies that are celebrated in movies are celebrated for the very fact that they often are the moment the movie transcends expected standards and moves into the area of greatness ("We're going to need a bigger boat" from Jaws being an easy example) but it's more interesting when, as in Mulholland Dr., you're not really sure why a moment takes you to the next level, it just does and when it happens, it can be exhilirating.