A Critic’s Manifesto (West Coast Notes)

I must confess I’ve fallen into a bit of a funk lately, which is pure and simple why I’ve not been posting. (Nay, it wasn’t just because The L Word dashed our every hope.) It’s the “what’s it all about, Alfie?” cinennui that keeps hitting me below the belt, coupled with the precariousness of an underemployment.

I’ve been seriously taking stock of all and sundry in my life. Of the relevance of chiming my own voice in the cacophony of the cultural conversation already chattering. Obviously this sounds like the roaring of depression’s ugly head, but if it is, it ain’t just that. There really does exist an oversaturation right now of critical voices, partly thanks to the Internet — even it is a technology that has democratized the dispensation of information.

In some ways.

I’m out on the West Coast right now again, shedding some Pacifica light on my dusty and dull Easterly woes. As usual, I’m charmed beyond reason by the many missing pieces of the movie industry jigsaw that LA offers up with a big ole glass of watermelon juice. I’ve met Álex de la Iglesia, a Spanish filmmaker who pretty much comes second only to Pedro Almodóvar (pronounced AlmoDOvar here) in his own country but has received US scanty distribution even on DVD. I nervously coffee-klatsched with a group of older, bombastically funny old Hollywood types, including Paul Mazursky. I’ve drunk good wine in a studio bigwig’s backyard while the very future of the movie business was shoptalked. And one point that’s repeatedly been made is that new computer and television-viewing (Pay Per View, TIVO) technology threatens to derail the movie business as we know it.

Which has set me thinking about who really does benefit from all this new technology. When I ride the subway in Brooklyn, it’s mostly the American Apparel set and the lost-youth professionals who wield IPods, for example. The rest still carry CD walkmen, which now appear as bulky as the laptop I bought only three years ago. I try to imagine what steps it would take to bring the CD stragglers up to speed, and I feel overwhelmed for them. It doesn’t just entail IPods and computers and Internet access. It also entails a comfort level with the technology, which in turn entails education in addition to the necessary equipment.

I mention this because those of us who write about culture are in danger of only preaching to the choir — comprised, in this case, of each other.

The summer’s downslide in movie revenue has sparked a lot of conjecture about the habits and proclivities of the American viewing public, and those conversations have revealed critics’ assumptions. In his recent two cents on the subject, for example, Times critic AO Scott dismisses the worth of most recent movies by saying, “They will each show up eventually…on the transcontinental flight when your iPod battery is dead and you’ve forgotten to pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair.” That’s a pretty specific population that Mr. Tony is identifying there, one that, I’m willing to guess, doesn’t comprise the bulk of American moviegoers, even those who daily read the Times.

Being downright poor right now — the brokest I’ve been since I worked in the labor movement — I’m reminded of how paralyzing serious financial concerns really can be. I’m cognizant that given my education and community, I’m in a good place compared to many people in the US. (At that, most everybody in the US is in a fantastic place compared to many other parts of the world.) But not matter what, being this broke makes you doubt not only your self-worth but also your future. It’s hard to make plans in good faith when money is required to implement every step toward those goals, no matter how modest. Gas money, interview clothes money, daycare money: For lower-income people avoiding credit card debt or who aren’t even eligible for a credit card, the basic expenses of life loom painfully large.

Under those auspices, art is a necessary luxury. We need something to help us feel better, to both inspire us and to provide us a sense of community. And the role of critics in that equation is less esoteric than you’d think: We’re filters. We help connect a creation with an audience, help separate the cream from the crap. We can point people toward work that wakes them up rather than numbs them further.

In a conversation I had this week with Benoît Jutras, the Cirque de Soleil scorer, he mentioned something interesting. As a composer who began in the wildly esoteric community of contemporary classical music and now scores music for a truly mass audience, Jutras says the transition taught him that creations require perceivers. “Audiences complete the circle of creation,” he intones. So no matter what, he tries to be respectful of his audiences. Ideally, he wants his music to not only really reach listeners but to also take them a few steps past their comfort zone. (Along these lines, he is, admittedly, moving on from Cirque, at least for the time being.)

It’s a goal for critics, too.

Since I’ve been scurrying up and down this funny coast (this week I’m at the Seattle International Film Festival), I’ve had a chance to revisit how many different ways film (and television) fit into people’s lives. When traveling I realize just how dangerous it is to suppose anything about audiences because it’s clear how varied Americans still are, even with the mallification of the US. In fact, we are moving from that infernal melting pot toward a (tuna) niche salad these days, one in which critics take on an even greater importance because it falls on us to serve as guides.

That shift makes it particularly dangerous to write from any perspective other than my own. “I,” rather than “they” or “you” (sorry, Pauline Kael), is more useful and infinitely less condescending. Only by being clear on what I like and don’t like — reacting from my gut rather than to demographic suppositions or to the community of other critics — can I speak honestly and extemporaneously enough to be worth heeding. But on the other hand, I can’t assume that the persons I’m writing to are exactly like me. It’s just that the more specific I am, the more universal I can be; that way people can know who they are working with and what they are heeding. A translation is required, and I would argue that it is that translation which completes the circle between critic and audience.

So what does that translation entail, concretely? It requires less of the old boy’s club chasing their own tails and comparing the size of their, uh, pens, for one. We need new blood and new voices that specify where they’re coming from but never misconstrue those contexts as universal. We have to stop approaching films as mere fodder for potential catchy leads or trends to identify before our peers do (though humorectomists need not apply). It means that we should only include NY-LA industry buzz when it speaks to something larger than itself. And although this in some way contradicts what I am saying about being honest about your own perspective, we also do owe both films and audiences what they call in yoga circles “beginner’s mind,” no matter how many screenings we have sat through. When we’re so stifled by cinennui that we can only perceive a film through the lens of other films, maybe it’s time to take a sabbatical.

That said, my own cinnennui is lifting. I do want to get my voice out there right now, if for no other reason that I still really love films and really do think they articulate and ameliorate the modern human condition in all kinds of ways. I’m going to start posting more again. To highlight on this blog more of the films that I see, especially the amazing features that rarely achieve nationwide distribution (especially foreign language features). To include more interviews with filmmakers to raise the Wizard’s curtain. And I’m going to try, for a change, to get out of my own way. It’s time to see the forest and the trees.

And Then Sunday Night Fell Silent (The L Word Season 2 IM Postmortem)

Starring: jostle, aka Jocelyn, flavorpill queen and a true Lesbian Science Theater 3000 partner-in-crime; liser, aka me.

I leave our exchange fairly unadulterated (and promise to post something more substantive soon) so if you aren’t familiar with the show, we doth duly apologize.

jostle: guten morgen
jostle: i just ate a sprouted bagel with.. yeast!!!
jostle: which segs nicely into a lezbo discussion
liser: or concussion
liser: Ok, basically, we’re having an IM convo that wraps up Season 2 of The L Word, which we had, I think it’s safe to say, hotly anticipated
jostle: right up until we heard the new theme song
liser: exactly. someone let the fact they were getting some get in the way of taste when it came to using BETTY for the theme song
jostle: in what started to seem like every scene of every episode
liser: Betty was Where’s Waldo
jostle: i think Waldo’s cuter
liser: Better fashion, for sure
liser: Anyway, cheesy theme song….
liser: cheesy Season 2
jostle: yes, i think it took a little while to sink in, say about halfway through, but then we started to recognize that the show was in a serious sophomore slump.
liser: it got progressively worse the whole season
liser: we should disclose that we spent weeks before the new season began watching Season 1 on DVD. It got us through the February snow ambush and I do mean bush…
jostle: indeed
liser: so we were not inclined to acknowledge at first how crap the show got in Season 2
jostle: when the season commenced, we were all taken in by the wondrous transformation of Jenny Schechter, the sexed-up, annoying tree sprite to Jenny, the actually really hot, nearly lovable character, but that was about the only real exciting development
liser: yeah, Jenny didn’t suck for about three episodes
jostle: and then she headed into a self-reflexive women’s issue martyr role
jostle: i can’t remember. did she adopt some Christ-like poses during those final strip scenes? it seems highly possible
liser: you know, she’s a Jew so it was more like Survivor Syndrome chic than Christ at the Cross
liser: it’s like being jewish is the most exotic character trait ever seen
jostle: as you said, the fetishization of judaism
liser: But you’re right. it’s hard to remember now, but we had higher hopes in the beginning of the season
liser: Jenny had a spine
liser: Tina was pregnant and really mad at Bette so she had a spine while Bette was eating the crow
liser: which meant that Tina wasn’t just speaking in her weird, wheedling voice and Tina was!
jostle: Carmen was still almost hot
jostle: Alice wasn’t pathetic
liser: and Dana was still pathetic, just like we like her!
liser: Shane was still a lothario
liser: all was as it should be
jostle: one thing that occurred to me recently is that the primary problem was that they actually wrote themselves into a corner
jostle: almost all of the characters became one-dimensional
jostle: once out of the closet, what did Dana have to offer as a character?
jostle: judging by Season 2, nothing really. just someone who was uncomfortable with sex toys
jostle: once in a relationship with Dana, Alice lost all her humor and her spine, plus any confidante to reveal another side of her personality other than the co-dependent girlfriend
liser: they’d spend the whole of two episodes on Shane’s career and then drop it
jostle: yeah, what happened to the producer bitch?!
liser: and none of the characters related to each other anymore. It says a lot that neither of the two new characters had any dimensions
jostle: Carmen was never a character, more like a cardboard cut-out used to play other characters off each other. or a dj’ing vehicle
jostle: Helena began and remained a rich brat with a fetish for pregnant women
jostle: which didn’t change at all when she was confronted by her mother in what should have been a somewhat climactic scene
liser: the fetish for pregnant woman is so Remedial Freud
liser: Mommy wasn’t around. so…
jostle: I think they had the least well-hung cliffhanger i’ve ever seen
liser: i know. such dimension!
jostle: i mean, when Shane finally says i love you to Carmen–which was supposed to be huge–you have no idea why she’d even be attracted to her, nor do we ever get any kind of reaction shot from Carmen or hear anything from her!
jostle: weighty, dying father plot and all, Bette was the only one who really remained an interesting character throughout Season 2, and went somewhere
jostle: we’ll have to await Season 3 to see if they just blew their wad, so to speak, in Season 1
liser: their oh-so proverbial wad
liser: what makes it so much worse now? the show was still kind of bad, but it was enormously fun to watch and to talk back to
jostle: a) less sex!
jostle: i would say Season 2 had about 75% less sex
liser: b) too many plotlines randomly abandoned
jostle: ding!
jostle: how about? no real plotlines that stuck throughout the whole season?
liser: and the star cameos were nighmarish. they were just abrupt interruptions
liser: right
jostle: c) heavyhanded treatment of ISSUES
jostle: d) introduction of another lame and/or evil straight guy
jostle: guess what ladies? they’re not all bad, and it’s kind of boring to imply that
liser: ruth, you speak the truth
liser: it’d be a Better use of the straight guy if he was just a hapless but supportive sidekick
liser: like the gay man in romantic comedies
jostle: eggzachary
jostle: having ruminated upon it more, i think that the loss of Marina was a big blow to Season 2
jostle: she was sort of the Yani to Shane’s yang
jostle: and someone who wasn’t really in the inner circle, so to speak
liser: if you’re going to have more than a certain amount of main characters, it results in a superficial, soaplike treatment of all them. Better to have a limited amount and then some blatantly minor ones
liser: Marina was a perfect minor character
liser: interesting to look at and visit with but not as important so she wasn’t a competing plotline. They knew which cog she was!
jostle: the whole Season 2 played like they just hadn’t really mapped it out in advance, as if there were too many cooks in the Kitchen, all being really supportive of one another’s ideas in a really unhelpful, destructive way
liser: typical lezobots!
jostle: can i take this metaphor further?
liser: take it further, sister
jostle: the season two climax was all lesbian bed-death
liser: Shane:
jostle: it’s interesting. once she started to downshift out of Lothario mode early Season 2…
liser: she became almost as bad as Jenny
liser: she had this big freakout when her big studio boss tried to get with her
jostle: “everybody needs something from me!”
liser: and then she went to confession
liser: and then she was doing all the drugs
jostle: oh that was the WORST
jostle: the oxycontin freakout music?!
jostle: her character became so unmoored they had to start playing music that whispered SHANE SHANE SHANE in the background when she was fucking just to remind us where we were
liser: (the music in general:)
liser: (wet wet wet wet)
jostle: omigoodness i almost forgot about when she brought the twins home! twins! Twins!
jostle: (twins twins twins)
liser: i forgot about dem twins
jostle: (bed-death bed-death bed-death)
liser: that’s so hot!
jostle: it was like a porn soundtrack to heat things up when they really weren’t building them up properly
liser: we liked Shane before because she was a little tragic but had an understated wit about it
jostle: too true.
liser: maybe moving in with Jenny was a bad influence on her
jostle: Or Season 2 just ran her through the issue wringer
jostle: “have i ever really loved anyone?”
jostle: “where am i going with my life?”
liser: “has anyone ever really loved me….for me?”
liser: and
jostle: “what’s my fashion like?”
liser: “I LIKE TIES!”
jostle: “why don’t i wear glasses anymore?”
liser: the thing is, i don’t expect L Word to cover every issue and person in the lesbian community
liser: but i think that the L Word tries to
jostle: they do have a show to run and it ain’t ELLEN
jostle: if only it were.. then it’d be funnier
jostle: (worse dancing tho)
liser: it’s like a 14 year old who wants to tackle all the issues but you know like still be cool wrote this season
jostle: i think that 14 year old lives in Jenny’s pink room
liser: it had an unpleasant makeshift qualiity where if it was a liittle worse we could laugh at it and it if was a little Better we could relax into just viewing as lesbian Dynasty
jostle: well put
jostle: you knew it was bad when i looked up at the clock during the cliffhanger and was sad to see only 20 min. had passed
liser: it was like being held hostage at the bad play of a friend who is going to quit acting next year and go to law school in a few years so what’s the point of sitting through it in that drafty theater that smells like old cheese?
jostle: maybe shane should just get her own spinoff, like the hair salon she never had: SHANE
liser: i’d get my hair cut there any day
liser: if you catch my drift…
jostle: oh dear
liser: will we even watch season 3?
jostle: i think we have to see if it was just a sophomore slump, to see if they can pull it back together
jostle: really the end of Season 2 left me cold, but you never know
jostle: we know they’ve got new writers…
liser: yeah, but that’s what is weird. they always have good people connected to the show
liser: the directors list alone is nutso
liser: ernest dickerson, lisa cholodenko, etc
jostle: true
liser: yes, but the writing has a little too much Go Fish influence
jostle: INDEED
jostle: let’s put our heads together and lay on the floor and talk issues
jostle: i dug Guinevere Turner’s cameos on the show tho
liser: she’s a Bette-r actress than writer
liser: but i guess because she is a big old out lesbian and not uber gorgeous she ends up writing more than she acts
liser: but when she writes, lordy, the hand it is heavy
jostle: well, if Season 3 doesn’t pan out Dynasty is available on DVD now
liser: we could just turn off the sound and rename the characters with L Word character names
jostle: shane= blake carrington
liser: ok, final list
liser: different ways to spice up L word sex
liser: tantric sex
jostle: i think we’re in need of a friend three-way mayhaps?
jostle: Kit getting it on with a lady? mmmaybe Ivan is coming back
liser: Jenny should stay celibate from now on, though
jostle: she should at least let someone else remove her clothes once in awhile
jostle: i’m tired of the tit flash
liser: no more urine sex
jostle: HA! what WAS that???
jostle: no more shower sex
liser: ladies, in general golden showers are not so golden
liser: and on that note, my friend. i think we have put this baby out with the bathwater
jostle: baby angelica’s out of here!

Gordon Willis Speaks (‘Purple Rose of Cairo’)

Cinematographer Gordon Willis, the man behind such films as All the President’s Men, Klute, the Godfather triptych and many of Woody Allen’s finest, has become a conscientious objector.

When I mentioned Willis to the only notorious Hollywood insider whom I call my friend, he said, “A bunch of us were wondering the other night if he were still alive.” A quick IMDB search would easily have settled that score, but it also would have revealed that Willis, 74 next week, hasn’t made a film since 1997’s The Devil’s Own. Following a Cinematographers Guild breakfast screening of the The Purple Rose of Cairo last weekend, the DP shed some insight into that disappearance when he submitted to a rather lengthy question-and-answer period for his brothers and sisters.

The Guild had been kind enough to include me in their monthly Saturday morning shindig, their version of the more traditional beery union local picnic. I’ve a soft spot for unions of all sorts, and the cinematographer’s union boys are as good a lot as any. They sit on the arms of each other’s chairs, huddle close when they tell a story, regard each other with unmitigated affection, and somehow all seem alike, regardless of age and gender and race: avuncular with regional accents and bright eyes gleaming behind thick-framed glasses. They seem like family, in other words.

It’s a good scene overall, one certainly worth a temporary exodus from the briny bogs of Cape Cod, where Willis dwells these days. And you can bet the Guild nabs the finest prints possible of whatever film they screen.

Willis looked on from the back of the Tribeca Screening Room while Rose, which has aged into a lovely timelessness, ran. One of my favorite Allen flicks, it features Jeff Daniels as screen actor Gil Shepard who in turn plays Tom Baxter, the pith helmet-clad anthropologist who steps off the screen of a black-and-white Nick and Nora-style romance into the Technicolor Depression-era New Jersey movie theater to woo hapless fan Mia Farrow (who keeps her stammering to a tolerable level here). Less of a metamovie than a lovesick valentine to the transcendent power of ‘30s-era Hollywood glamour, Rose actually carries some of the same wistful contrasts as Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. But even Allen’s worst films spring more out of magic realism than the drab nihilism that Trier seems to regard as due punishment for those frivolous enough to attend movies, so Rose is infinitely lighter in its loafers — thanks in no small part to Willis’ mastery of the visual understatement.

Afterward, the cinematographer ambled to the front of the room. He has a shock of white hair and watery blue eyes, his confidence and acumen better telegraphed by the tough NYC kid posture and voice that New England hasn’t successfully erased. He speaks easily with colorful metaphors, the way almost all union guys do, whether they be ironworkers or cinematographers. Because of that, and because he’s such a compelling character, I’m including most of his comments verbatim.

About Purple Rose, he said, “We shot the black-and-white movie first, including the characters’ interactions with the people in the theater, and then photographed it again in color stock as it was running in the theater.

“Working with Woody is like working with your hands in your pockets. I would say how I thought something should work and then he would say how something should work and then together we would pound the dough. He shot it with Michael Keaton first and didn’t like the effect so they had to reshoot the first two weeks again. Not as many reshots as you’d think; just embarrassing for Keaton, I’d imagine. Allen has a writer’s mentality but I tried to make it difficult for him to redo things — and it was a film in which it was very hard to redo things.

“To make the black-and-white movie [within the movie], I just picked up the light pattern of ’30s movies and reconstructed it. For the rest of the film, choices were made to minimize color. Everything in the movie was sets except for the theater exterior, which was in Piermont, NJ. The interior of the theater was a real porn house in Brooklyn.” [Because this fact was not greeted with loud guffaws and whistles, at this point it became obvious this wasn’t a typical union.]

Willis moved into the health of movies, past and present. He’s not a big fan of technology for the sake of technology. “Zooms are lazy closeups. And too many people hang their hats on video assist; it’s a way to avoid too much. Video assist helps people dissociate from the scene that they are directing. Pretty soon the director will be directing all the way from his apartment.

“Coppola and Beatty got very into it. Frances used VA from his trailer and then a speaker to communicate with the actors,” he noted with a dry grin. “But I wouldn’t suck on that tube all day long. The truth is that video assist will always show you something different than what you throw on the screen. I used it for tech check and stunts only.”

Or: “Anamorphic [widescreen technology, in uber laymen terms] is in vogue right now. The smaller the indie movie, the more anamorphic. Back when I did The Paper Chase, I told Fox to do it anamorphic. Their response — and keep in mind Fox invented anamorphic — was ‘It’s not a Western.’ Like everything else, it’s how you use the format. Any idea in this business is like poison gas in a room. I liked how they used it better in the ’70s than how they do now.

Another cinematographer said, “Labs are laundromats now, so how you do get repeatability these days?”

Willis’ response was succinct: “I wouldn’t know; I haven’t done a movie for six years. Last time, the lab tried to help me but there was blood over all the walls. Working on The Devil’s Own I knew you get sick if you try to fix everything for everyone. [Note: According to IMDB, eight years have elapsed since The Devil’s Own was released.]

“When doing the Godfather movies, I had trouble with continuity, of course. Decades passed between making II and III, for example. I used brassy, burnt yellow a lot. The only problem with III besides it not being a very good movie is that it used a different technique. Super 185 to blow into 70 mm. I didn’t care for that, but Francis did…”

GW is very nuts and bolts. When asked how he developed as a cinematographer, he responded: “My wife was pregnant and I needed some money.” You both believe him and you don’t — he’s utilitarian but also clearly takes pride in doing his job well.

“Who mentored me? I guess not too many people. I did what I liked. I learned from watching at first, sure. You have to learn how to cut if you’re going to learn how to shoot well. Then I pushed through what everyone else was doing and thought I should be doing, and I did what I wanted. I was very specific about what I should do. In concert, it’s luck but it’s also always your attitude.

“A director would walk around for two days trying to sort out how a shot should look and I would just say in two minutes,’I think it should be this way.’ ”

Not shockingly, Willis is an enormous proponent of less is more. “I spent a lot of time on films taking things out. Art directors would get very cross with me. If something’s not going well, my impulse is to minimalize. The impulse of most people when something’s not going well is to add — too many colors, too many items on a screen, too many lights. If you’re not careful, you’re lighting the lighting. American films are overlit compared to European ones. I like closeups shadowy, in profile — which they never do these days.

“People by nature like complexity and rarely recognize the elegance of simplicity. I like simplicity. So I just do it. I figure out what you have to say in this scene and how it connects to the last and to the next and then shoot. Today they do what I call dumpster directing. They shoot too many angles in scenes. Two problems result: 1. It tires out the actors. 2. The editor ends up making the movie, since there’s no true point of view if you shoot it every which way.

“What’s needed is simple symmetry, but everyone wants massive coverage these days because they don’t have enough confidence in their work and there are way too many cooks in the kitchen.

“My philosophy has always been that it should look easy even if it’s hard to make.“

Someone asked him about a piece of Local 644 folklore and with a mix of chagrin and some residual pride, he said:

“Yes, it’s true. I threw a camera out on the street once during the shoot. The thing had broken three times, and each time they fixed it just well enough to get it running again but not enough for it to not break again. It’s a common mindset. And I’m not the type to fetishize a camera. I always say that ideally, something would have French design and German make. Because then it would work.

“Finally, I just got fed up. Each time it held up production. I threw it out, yes. You can believe the next camera they sent over was perfect. Well. I like stuff that works.”

Since not enough seems to work these days, Willis is for all practical purposes retired. He seems to think the industry and the world are in such dire straits that he’d prefer not to be actively involved. I talked with him alone afterward at the guild luncheon and he said he worries a lot about the world that his children, and all younger people, are inheriting.

Then, he seemed less gruff than sad. Sad and unfailingly kind.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy