Friday, June 10, 2005

Robert Altman's Short Cuts

A few years ago I saw the movie Magnolia and instantly loved it, repeat viewings only confirmed its genius, and it's found a place in my top 5 films of all time. In reading about the film, I frequently saw it called Altmanesque, particularly in reference to two of Robert Altman's films, Nashville and Short Cuts. So naturally, I was compelled to check out these films and see where Magnolia came from.

Last summer I saw Nashville, a 1975 film about a whole bunch of people who are in the title city for a country msuic event. Over the course of the film, we see a whole bunch of different stories, that are loosely connected, sometimes by shared characters and other times by just the appearance of one character in the background of another person's scene. So, it's a whole bunch of loosely connected events, which is similar to Magnolia.

After seeing this film, I sought out Short Cuts, which only came out on DVD recently, and saw that last night. Short Cuts was the culmination of Altman's resurgence iin the early 90s, a resurgence that began with The Player, a film I also watched this week. The Player was quite frankly a pretty bad movie. I think the novelty of an inside Hollywood comedy is gone following Larry Sanders, Curb Your Enthusiasm and countless other HBO series. And without that novelty, there just isn't much there. The score, despite being by Thomas Newman who wrote some great stuff for American Beauty, makes full use of dated synthesizer sounds, and the plot isn't particularly engaging. The only thing that still holds up is the film within a film, in which Bruce Willis rescues Julia Roberts from a gas chamber, followed by this dialogue.

Julia: What took you so long?
Bruce: Traffic was a bitch.

And then the credits, classic awful action movie line. But one good laugh does not a film make, and this film does not hold up.

However, Short Cuts does hold up, and doesn't seem particularly dated. Like Nashville and Magnolia, it chronicles a whole bunch of lives that occasionally overlap, but generally it's just people moving through the city, doing their own thing. There's a lot of characters, about twenty, and the film is 187 minutes, so you've got to be ready for a long sit.

The film has a great cast, to name just a few: Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher, Frances McDormand, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin and Robert Downey Jr. Most of them play fairly engaging characters, and it's a fun movie to watch for the level of acting alone.

I should preface what I'm about to say by saying that I really enjoyed the movie, I can respect the craft that went into it and would reccomend it to people. However, looking at this movie after seeing Magnolia, I can't help but see its flaws. PT Anderson drew a lot from Short Cuts, but he did so much more with the style than Altman did.

Altman sticks fairly strictly to the definitions of art cinema, the idea that you've got to avoid artificial conflict and strive for realism in the film, avoiding the excess emotion of classical Hollywood cinema. This technique was necessary in the 1950s when the New Wave came about because classical Hollywood cinema completely lacks any sort of emotion realism. However, in responding to those perceived excesses, many art films went to far in the opposite direction, to create films that just drift along, without any sort of emotional beats for the audience. That's my problem with Altman's work, he seems so committed to avoiding narrative artifice and over the top emotion that the film becomes sterile, you just watch the film as an observer, never becoming fully engaged in the characters' emotional existence.

This is quite different from Magnolia, which isn't particularly narrative driven, but still manages to engage you with the characters emotionally. That's largely because of the filmmaking. Altman's camera very rarely draws attention to itself, you're kept at a distance, strictly an observer. The only really emotional moments are those in which Annie Ross' singing is juxtaposed with other events. Those scenes are the highlight of the film, but even those can't reach the level of the "Wise Up" sequence in Magnolia, which is emotionally devestating.

PT Anderson fits in with a new group of art cinema people, who reembrace strong emotional involvement with the characters. Other people doing this are Gaspar Noe and Wong Kar-Wai, both of whom use all the film techniques at their disposal to make you feel. Altman, at least in what I've seen by him, has never created anything that touches the emotional intensity of those directors' films. I guess it's not his goal, but it makes it difficult to love his films. Sometimes it's good to embrace narrative mechanics if it allows the audience to get drawn into the film. Short Cuts leaves you at an almost awkward distance watching the emotional scenes, like you're spying on these people and shouldn't be there, whereas Magnolia makes you feel exactly what the characters are feeling.

Now, admittedly it's unfair to compare this film to one of my favorite films. Up against most films it's a masterpiece, but I demand more from my films than to just be above average. Obviously, Altman's films were essential to the creation of PT Anderson's stuff, so for that reason alone, he deserves respect, and the films themsevles are top notch too. It's just that he touches greatness and doesn't quite make it there, that's what's so frustrating. In his effort to avoid Hollywood cliches, he goes so far in the other direction that his films become a bit too sterile.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Summer So Far

Well, I've been off for nearly a month, and I've been pretty much in relax mode, but I do have some stuff going on. I made enough money working at the lab last semester that I've been able to take the month off and still maintain my lifestyle (as in buy a DVD every week or so), as well as the extravagence of social activities like seeing Revenge of the Sith three times and eating at the diner more than once.

I did do some jobs for LMC. I taped an infotainment DVD on haircutting that will get packaged with R*Own haircare products. It was a fairly entertaining shoot and I was paid for it, so that was good times. I hadn't shot anything in a while and it was good to be back behind the camera. I also taped the LMC awards, where we won 'Best Adult Drama' for Tabula Rasa. That adult refers to the age of the people making it, not the content of the film. I was a little disappointed I didn't get to do an acceptance speech, to thank my agent, publicist, personal assitant and of course, God, but alas, that was not to be.

I've also been going around for LMC putting up fliers for our workshop, which starts on July 5. I think the workshop may actually have been my favorite job I've had. I've done a lot of jobs where you do nothing, and this job was actual work, but it was fulfilling. What I did was teach three workshops, one on broadcast news, one on film and one on documentary to a bunch of 12-16 year olds, and at the end we had three pretty solid finished products. The film especially is really entertaining, I was surprised how well that came out, and I think the people had fun making it. To be paid a ton of money to make a movie is the goal of my life, so this is a start.

In coordination with LMC, Jordan and I are running a summer film series at the library here in Mamaroneck. I always like bringing new movies to people so I'm really excited about it, with any luck, some people will turn up and we'll have some solid discussions about the films. It's at the Mamaroneck library community room, by the Emelin, and these are the films we're showing.

June 30: 2001: A Space Odyssey
July 7: Infernal Affairs
July 14: Safe
July 21: Oldboy
July 28: Waking Life
August 4: Fallen Angels
August 11: American Beauty
August 18: Irreversible

They're some of my favorite films, and I think there's a lot of stuff in there that most people won't have seen. There's definitely awkward moment potential with Oldboy and Irreversible, but if others really enjoy it, the awkwardness will be worth it. I don't know who's going to turn up, hopefully some people will, and if not, it's just an excuse to have LMC's projector to watch movies I like.

Speaking of LMC's projector, I've been running a 'screening room' with it in my house for the past couple of weeks. I've been watching a whole bunch of movies, mostly older stuff, because I feel like I've seen most of the stuff I want to see from the 90s and 00s. There's still a few titles out there to discover, but most of the movies that people mention as quality from the era I've already covered, which means it's time to go backwards, and that's what I've been doing. Over this summer, I'm going to try to see all the 60s and 70s American classics that I haven't yet gotten to.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Six Feet Under: 'A Coat of White Primer'

It's been eight months since I last saw a new episode of Six Feet Under, on September 25, I wrote:

"I think in the next season, Nate and David might actually get some happiness, but Claire and Ruth seem to be ready to take over with the pain. It's pretty obvious that Claire is heading towards a drug problem, and considering this show's fairly liberal attitude towards drugs, it's going to be interesting to see how that's dealt with. If Claire actually gets together with Billy in a relationship, there's going to be some really weird family dynamics between Nate/Brenda and Claire/Billy. Whatever happens,
there should definitely be more Billy next season.

Geore is definitely more interesting than he was at the beginning of season four. I don't see good things in the future for him and Ruth. While the stripper plot got a bit ridiculous at times, I really like the way it turned out. Rico living at the house is a good idea, since it makes it easier to keep him integrated in the stories. And we'll have the opportunity to see him as a single guy, which is something we've never got before."

Well, to be honest, I barely remembered what happened at the end of season four, I forgot that Claire and Billy had gotten into a relationship, I didn't really remember David beating up the guy in the sushi shop, or the Rico moving in plot. Watching this episode, I saw him walking in behind Ruth and I was wondering why there was some guy just walking around the house.

Without going into spoilers, I'll just say that this was a really great season premiere. I viewed in this a different way than I had the other season premieres, because I watched the rest of the show in a binge run, with no breaks between the seasons. So, this season premiere actually had to bring me back into the world after a pretty long break, and in that respect it succeeded. It's not as stunning as the series' best episode, season three's premiere, "Perfect Circles," but it's a damn fine piece of television nonetheless. I've been watching Gilmore Girls over the past month or so, and while that's a pretty good, entertaining series, watching new Six Feet Under shows you just how good TV can be. This one episode had moments that were absoultely hilarious, and also moments that were incredibly sad, blended together in a way that recalls the best of Buffy, and even goes beyond that in terms of emotional impact.

Onto the specifics. The death of the week was pretty good, and I think it addresses an interesting question that does thematically tie in to what comes later in the episode. This woman finds actually telling the truth so liberating at first, but there's certain people who apparently can't handle the truth. So, the opening raises the issue of how open people can be, if you tell the truth all the time, you'll end up wounding those around you, but if you're too guarded, it's impossible to relate emotionally. This ties in to the stories of almost all the characters, each of whom are trying to guard things, and cannot be completely honest with each other.

The post death first scene was phenomenal. We see Nate's wedding video, Lisa and Nate so happy, the whole world ahead of them, and we assume that it's Nate watching the video, reflecting on what his life was then versus what it is now with Brenda. However, things are twisted and instead of Nate, it's Brenda watching the tape. She mocks it, but looking at the scene on the beach with Lisa, it's clear that she envies Lisa's purity. Brenda is someone who guards her emotional vulnerability by making jokes and rejects what she really wants because she refuses to be 'cliche.' This comes out in her discussion with Nate about how stupid she feels for wanting her 'dream wedding,' she can't allow herself to enjoy normal things, she has to be different, and Lisa was someone who could clearly unironically enjoy her wedding.

This is one of my favorite themes from the series, the fact that these characters define themselves with respect to what they percieve as boring, normal cliches. Claire and Brenda in particular are all about not doing the expected thing and trying to prove they are special by rejecting things that others embrace. This is best summed up in one of my favorite scenes in the whole series, from season two, when Nate and Brenda are breaking up. She tells him not to throw his ring at her because that would be "so fucking cliche," she's more concerned about preserving her self image as someone who's original and different than being present in the emotional moment. Then, when Nate does throw the ring, it cuts her even more because she has to recognize that she is the same as everyone else, and she no longer has Nate. The Claire art school arc in year three and four is all about this too, she has a disdain for the world, and considers herself above everything, but where does this lead her. "And that guy with the fucking boy scout jacket. I mean is that supposed to be ironic?"

That basically sums it up, and I think she has a conflict about her position outside society. It's quite similar to the story of Angela in American Beauty, who wanted more than anything else to be extraordinary, because to be normal would be the worst thing. I think this appeals to me so much because I have the same sort of conflicts, part of me just can't give in and enjoy these moments which are cliche, I have to do my own thing, even though it means missing out on potential fun. This is the sort of issue that doesn't seem like it would make for great drama, but on this show it does, and it's one of the complexities that distinguishes Six Feet Under from more pedestrian soap opera.

Anyway, the funniest scene in the episode is when the three Fisher siblings go out on the porch and decide to smoke a joint, only to get in a fight over who has the best weed. The high pitched weed speaking is hilarious, but the scene reveals the underlying conflict between them. Nate and David don't approve of Claire being with Billy, and they each see him as a ticking timebomb, who's going to end up hurting Claire.

Clearly Claire has these feelings too, as we see in her dream sequence, when she imagines Billy stabbing her in the neck, claiming that Brenda will always be his, and there's a lot of awkwardness in the conversation at the end of the episode, when Claire and Billy discuss the fact that the two pairs of siblings are dating. I think the Billy/Brenda relationship is the most interesting on the show, and pretty much anything surrounding the two of them is interesting, so setting up these clear conflicts should lead to some great stuff later in the season.

On TV shows, there are certain characters who make every scene they're in interesting, people like Spike on Buffy, and here, Billy is definitely one of those. He places everyone slightly on edge and makes for really odd dynamics. A show like this needs those jolts to the system to keep things from settling into predictability.

Speaking of jolts to the system, the Ruth/George plot is another really interesting story. Ruth clearly feels gypped by the fact that she married this guy, and after only a couple of years, she has to become his caretaker. She's defensive about the fact, as evidenced by the scene where she slaps Claire, a really effective, shocking moment. I loved the ECT scenes, really jarring due to the great filmmaking.

But, the episode is really about Nate and Brenda. The miscarriage scene is harrowing, and the pall it casts on the wedding scene makes for a really interesting tone. It's a combination of extreme sadness and what's supposed to be "the happiest day of her life." As I mentioned before, I love the Lisa scene. It gets to the core of Brenda, her struggle to reinvent herself after a rather sordid past. Can she really change, or is she being punished because of what she did on the first go around with Nate? I love the scene with her and Nate, where he consoles her. Peter Krause and Rachel Griffiths are amazing, and I'm really glad that they're back together, and apparently at the center of the series.

And at the end of the episode, we see Nate finally break down after being strong for so long. He told David that he wanted the baby for Brenda, but clearly he wanted the baby also, and the fact that Brenda has to abort their child causes him extreme pain. Once Brenda leaves the room, he can no longer keep up the facade, he breaks down and cries. He, like Ruth, is forced to play the stable caregiver, and sometimes, it's much easier to just break down.

It's so good to have new Six Feet Under again, I haven't been this excited about a show since Angel was airing every week. Monday is now the highlight of the week, and I can't wait to see where things go from here.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Sopranos

I've been doing a rewatch of The Sopranos with my dad over the past month, so far we've seen through season three's University. The show is one of my all time favorites and was actually the first really great TV series I watched. I saw the first three seasons of The Sopranos about a year before I watched Twin Peaks, but I guess I considered The Sopranos an anomaly, and thought that most TV shows weren't like it. And now having seen a lot more great TV shows, I would still say that there's nothing like The Sopranos.

The thing I love about the show is the high level of moral ambiguity, the characters are all incredibly flawed, looking out for themselves most of the time. While something like Buffy or Angel did have ambiguous characters, they were all at heart good, fighting for something bigger than themselves, and most of the time they didn't disappoint you. I hate it when people claim that only depressing stuff is realistic, but in this case, the series is very realistic because of how flawed the characters are.

As the episode I watched yesterday, University, makes quite clear, all the characters have many sides. In the episode, Silvio, a character who is usually used as comic relief, beats up one of the women who works for him, a shock to the audience because we had gotten used to seeing him as a pretty nice guy. There's a great cut from him beating this stripper to him eating dinner with his wife, making jokes about how he zones out in front of the TV. It's that juxtaposition of the really ordinary parts of these peoples' lives with the mob stuff that makes the series so effective.

I think the series really effectively captures the reality of suburban life in America, and even if Tony was not in the mafia, I think the show could still work as a really interesting portrait of generational conflict and people searching for purpose. However, by adding in the mob element to the really ordinary stuff, it makes the show so much more interesting. It's quite similar to Buffy, in that by twisting reality just a little bit it makes ordinary life into something grand and operatic.

The show is constantly forcing the viewer to consider ethical questions, and we're frequently disappointed when one of the characters chooses to do something wrong or bad. In the best episodes, you're left in a moral vacuum, where neither choice feels right. One of the best examples of this is 'Employee of the Month,' in which Melfi is raped, only to have the rapist be set free because of a technicality. She is faced with the question of whether she should tell Tony about the rapist and have him 'punish' this guy. You really want her to get Tony to kill this guy, even though you know that society's rules tell us that we should not sanction punishment by death. In the end, she decides that just the knowledge that she could have him punished if she wanted to is enough and she decides not to ask Tony to help her.

Another example of messing around with audience feelings is seen in one of the series' greatest hours, 'D-Girl.' Other than 'Funhouse,' this is my favorite episode of the first two seasons. It's one of the funniest, particularly Christopher's interactions with Jon Favreau, and his constant insulting of Swingers, as well as d-girl Amy's hilarious Hollywood speak. But underneath that is the story of two people at a crossroads in their lives, namely Christopher and Pussy. Christopher journeys into a world he's not comfortable in as he tries to sell his film script to Favreau. He is put in a position of weakness, and over the course of the episode he gets rejected by Amy, someone he opened up to emotionally in a way he never does with Adrianna. Over the course of the episode, Christopher is able to view a world completely different from the mob, and sees a way out of the life. However, after being rejected by Amy, he loses this out, and has no choice but to return to the mob, a decision he makes in a really amazing scene of Christopher just sitting outside, realizing that if he goes back in, he'll never be able to leave mob life.

This is intercut with Pussy sobbing in the bathroom. Earlier in the episode, we saw Pussy attacking his wife and being very standoffish to her. She can't understand why he treats her so badly, and that treatment can't really be excused, but we can understand why he is doing that. The pressure of wearing a wire really gets to him, and distracts him from his home life. The final scenes with Pussy in this episode are phenomenal because they first have him talking to Anthony Jr, telling him how Tony was his best friend, stayed with his dying sister in the hospital, conveying how great a man is, but at the same time, he is wearing a wire, betraying Tony and letting the feds build a case against Tony, so he can go free. That drives him to the bathroom where he cries because he's stuck in a situation where he has no out, he can't save himself and Tony, and in putting Tony ahead of himself, he betrays the brotherhood that is supposed to tie crews together.

There are no villains here. The feds should be doing whatever they can to arrest Tony, and Pussy should take whatever out he can to avoid a thirty year prison sentence, but at the same time, to betray Tony is just awful. This all comes to a head in the second season finale, where Tony is forced to kill Pussy. It's a brutal scene, as we watch Tony, Paulie and Silvio kill Pussy, someone who was family to them, but they don't have a choice. They can't let him live without endangering themselves.

At the same time as we are made to love these mob characters, we occasionally are reminded of the deplorable means by which they make their living. The final montage of 'Funhouse' brings this to the fore, as the happy family party at the Soprano house is intercut with scenes that show us the effect of all the havok they've reeked, and the destruction they've left in their wake over the season. This is emphasized in a discussion in 'Bust Out' between Tony and David Scatino, where Tony says how consuming businesses like David is his "bread and butter," they make their living by destroying other peoples' lives. That's why Tony allowed David to borrow the money to get in the executive game, because he saw someone he could use, and his business sense superceded his responsibility as David's friend. The mob characters find people at their most desperate and take advantage of this desperation to make money for themselves. This movement between personal and professional is exemplified by the David storyline, comparing personal Tony, who jokes with David at college night to professional Tony who assaults David to ensure that he pays off his debt.

I love entertainment that challenges you and forces you to draw your own conclusions about the work's morality. Tony is a character who is at times despicable, but at other times really sweet and that's what makes the show so good. We want them to get out, to do good, but they never will. One of the most heartwrenching episodes is the end of season five, where we're led to believe that Christopher and Adrianna are going to run for it, leave Jersey and start a new life, but Christopher can't do that, and he lets Silvio kill Adrianna. You want to believe that things will go well, but in that world, we know that doing good isn't what matters, and it's a question of how these people can deal with the immorality of their actions.