Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Talk with Nicolas Cage

My short conversation with Nicolas Cage was conducted over the phone, while I was sitting in the Atlanta offices of my school's newspaper. Cage, meanwhile, was in New York City, filming another of his most unusual roles as the bloodthirsty lead of Vampire's Kiss. The Georgia State University Signal published my interview with this newfound star on March 1, 1988, in connection with Norman Jewison's Oscar-winning comedy hit Moonstruck.

Nicolas Cage can color himself lucky on all counts. After all, when an aspiring actor has Oscar-winning director Francis Coppola as an uncle, Oscar-nominated actress Talia Shire as an aunt, and Oscar-winning composer Carmine Coppola as a grandfather, he can do nearly no wrong on the path to success. Knowledge of the twenty-three-year-old actor's family tree conjures up images of Cage as a coattail rider, but that's an insult to his innately unique talent. Even so, Cage still can't keep from admitting that the connections have helped in his progress. As one of Judge Reinhold's co-workers at a fast-food parlor in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cage was virtually invisible (his part was edited down drastically, he says). And, in spite of trumped-up screen time, his work in a television movie called The Best of Times went totally unnoticed.

It was only in 1982, when Francis Coppola was casting parts for Rumblefish that Nicolas Cage got his first real break. "He gave me a job reading for other actors for the film," Cage says. "As it turned out, I got a large part, but I don't think Francis liked what I did in Rumblefish. Now he does but, at the time, I think he thought I was too stiff as an actor."

Valley Girl is the picture that really opened the industry's eyes as to Cage's onscreen value. As a beach-hopping punk rocker who falls in love with a spoiled San Fernando princess, Cage stole the show. Even now, more than five years after the film's release, Cage recognizes his debt to his first big hit. "Things didn't really start clicking for me until that film. It really surprised me. Going in, I thought it was just going to be another teen exploitation movie. I had no idea it was going to be as poetic a picture as it was. I guess I owe a lot to Valley Girl.''

Indeed, since it grabbed his uncle's attention and respect. "Francis saw it and decided that it was good work, so he agreed to have me continue to work with him." As a result of Valley Girl, Cage has worked with Coppola three additional times, playing Richard Gere's crazed brother in The Cotton Club, Kathleen Turner's doo-wop singing husband-to-be in Peggy Sue Got Married, and a small role in last year's Gardens of Stone.

Given the curvy twists he has given to these roles, as well as to such parts as Sean Penn's insensitive friend in Racing With The Moon, as a love-struck rower in The Boy in Blue, and as a scarred GI in Alan Parker's much-acclaimed Birdy (a role for which Cage pulled out two of his own teeth and wore bandages on his face for five weeks as mental preparation), one has to wonder what attracts the actor to certain scripts. Cage is quite confident when faced with the question. "I'm drawn to anything that's different from the last thing I've done, simply because it keeps me from being bored," he says. "I'm always looking for something new. And then I guess the other factor is whether or not the part seems real to me, if the character reads well on paper or is someone I can really identify with. Reality is the foundation to everything, I think. If I can take that reality and play with it, make it bigger or smaller, then I'm interested. But if it doesn't seem real to me, then I'm gonna be on a tightrope and there isn't gonna be any net under me."

1987 turned out to be an especially lucrative year for Nicolas Cage. After being served with mixed reviews for his wonderfully eccentric performance in 1986's Peggy Sue Got Married, he emerged with Raising Arizona, his most acclaimed work to date. In it, he plays H.L McDonough, a small-time crook who finds it difficult to change his wronging ways when he gets married to a policewoman (played by Conyers native Holly Hunter). When faced with the fact that his wife cannot have children, the couple puts into action a plan to steal a single infant from a set of quintuplets born to  furniture magnate Nathan Arizona. What follows is a side-aching, side-winding, and often strangely touching comedy about the joys and pains of parenthood. Cage himself thinks is perhaps his best work yet, crediting a great deal of the film's quality to brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, produced, and directed the film.

"It was a luxury to work with them on that script," Cage says. "They had it thought out the way they wanted it. They really took a lot of care with the plot and the words." Cage also take measure to dispel any image of the Coen brothers as pure technocrats (as their products are so ultimately flawless visually). He says that they go to great lengths to make sure their actors are comfortable but are, at the same time, extremely clear on what they want from a performer. "They're instinctive about directing actors. They give you a two-week rehearsal period and, during that time, they toy with anything they might want to alter. But when they get on the set, they're pretty instinctive. They just go with what they feel, with what makes them laugh."

Cage also says that it was the broad, physical strokes of comedy that were called for in the Coens' script that attracted him to Raising Arizona. "It's almost like slapstick has become taboo in cinema, that people like Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy have become antiques. But I think there's a lot to be learned from what they did. To make that kind of wild behavior seem real is what I really want to do. I don't want to put any limitations on myself and Raising Arizona gave me the opportunity to be as big as I wanted."

This actor's one-two punch continued in December when Norman Jewison's Moonstruck opened in New York to rave reviews. Since its debut, the film has garnered six Oscar nominations, yet he was passed over in the Best Actor category (he was nominated for the Golden Globe, though), Cage has received glowing notices for his portrayal of Ronny Cammareri, a one-handed Italian baker who falls for his older brother's outspoken fiancee (Best Actress frontrunner Cher). Though he was taken with playwright John Patrick Shanley's well-crafted screenplay, Cage admits he had certain misgivings about playing an Italian in this very ethnic-flavored film. “I am Italian," he says, "and I find that, in American cinema today, there seems to be a stereotype of Italians, with the hand gestures and the thick accents and this whole mobster image. Just one big-cliche. So when I decided to do Ronny, I also decided I wasn't going to get caught up in any of those claptrap images that Hollywood drums from Italians. I really tried to give the character some dignity."

His character in Moonstruck is a passionate but chronically depressed baker whose impending marriage was destroyed when his character's butchering duties were distracted by the dramatics of older brother Danny Aiello, leading to the loss of Ronny's hand in an automatic meat slicer. With this bizarre chain of events, Cage says his character was exceedingly difficult to work out. "I wanted to keep him from seeming too selfish or self-pitying. It's hard to play a character that talks about all the hardship and suffering he's been through without making him into a wimp."

Still, Nicolas Cage got it down pat. Now, he says, he couldn't be happier with the final product. "Hopefully," he says, "the movie will make people want to fall in love again, want to be with each other, want to work it out. It could be a medicine for couples that are falling apart. They would see Moonstruck and say 'See? It's alright to be angry with one another, it's alright to argue.' Love is not just about holding hands, y'know.”

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Talk with Harvey Pekar

I was instantly taken with the irascible, hilarious, and irrepressibly forthright Harvey Pekar upon seeing him, in the fall of 1986, on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman. This streetwise Cleveland comic book author, literary and music critic, and all-around raconteur became, after his rascally debut appearance, a regular visitor to Letterman's show. But, though the late-night icon reliably gobbled up Pekar's aggressive humor, a 1987 guest shot got Harvey temporarily banned (for nearly six years) from the show after he lambasted NBC owners General Electric for being a purveyor of nuclear energy threats and an enemy of the unions (Letterman, I should say, had deeper issues with Harvey's unruly reaction when faced with changing the subject to rants more suitable for a comedy show). But, thankfully, Pekar's dynamic early Late Night appearances led me to his comic book American Splendor, which resolutely changed my worldview in its artful dramatization of his own "ordinary" life. By design, Harvey encouraged all artists, assuring us that lauding sometimes mundane but often profound human existence was a noble intent, especially amongst the hoi polloi. Such illumination is THE ultimate goal in art, and Pekar's work needles us with the notion that. even in a blandly corporatized era, light can still be shed into everyday shadows. 

While working as an editor at the Georgia State University newspaper The Signal, I became determined to get an interview with Pekar, which I landed by simply tapping the Cleveland information line. I cold-called Harvey and he, in his own low-key fashion, was immediately welcoming. From my beginnings as a Pekar fan, I commenced to imagining the big-screen version of his work, and harbored ambitions aimed at being the filmmaker that would complete such a project. That outcome wasn't to be, but I was there in the fall of 2003 as the movie version of American Splendor, after becoming a chief feature at both the Sundance and Cannes film fests, unspooled as the opening night feature for that year's Atlanta Film Festival. I made a hundred copies of my original Georgia State University-published interview and distributed them to the Atlanta screening's attendees. This was a wispy ghost of my original goal, but at least it proved I was way ahead of the curve in appreciating Harvey Pekar's wisdom.

Two years after I talked with Harvey, I met both he and his wife Joyce Brabner at a comic book shop in NYC's East Village. Harvey and I had a genial chat, during which he signed a couple of my comics, and then I met Joyce. I was wearing a military bar on my jacket that day, and Joyce, being an expert on all thing martial (seeing as she was doing her own comic Real War Stories) notified me that this piece I'd purchased at an Atlanta military store as jewelry actually signified that the wearer had fought in a particular Vietnam battle. She sternly informed me I shouldn't be sporting it if I hadn't done the fighting. I was immediately concerned, but not convinced. But, on the way home by way of the NYC subway--and I still cannot comprehend the reality of this stunning coincidence--I was approached by a disheveled homeless man who'd glimpsed the bar I was wearing and mistook me for a Vietnam cohort. "Hey, man, I was at Khe Sahn. Where were you?" Mortified, I let him know I wasn't a military veteran, and I could see the hurt and confusion on his face. I took that tiny but so significant bar off when I got home and never wore one like it again. 

When the film version of American Splendor finally arrived on movie screens in 2003, I was impressed with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation (which earned them a well-deserved Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination). Their deft blending of documentary, narrative and animated storytelling registered as remarkable to nearly everyone who saw the film. After my first viewing, I recall thinking that, aside from a few minor quibbles, I could have done no better, especially with a brilliant cast that included Paul Giamatti (as Harvey), Hope Davis (as Joyce), Judah Friedlander (as his nerdy co-worker/best friend Toby), and James Urbaniak (as Robert Crumb). Pekar would go on to win a Harvey Award--the Oscars of the comic world--for his 1994 graphic novel Our Cancer Year (about his hard-fought battle with the disease). Now, thirty years later, I can see that Harvey Pekar was THE original blogger, letting the world know what was going on in his churning brain long before the Internet existed as an outlet for us fellow schlubs. As he liked to say "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff." After achieving his aim of being a distinguished writer and husband obsessed with literature, jazz, comics, and his own far-from-humdrum life, Harvey Pekar died in 2010.

Here is a reprint of my original interview with this lustrous artist, published May 19 1987 as the cover story for Georgia State University's Tuesday Magazine (the particular Pekar comic I used as the cover ended up acting as the script for the film's opening scene): 

The moment I first mentioned to my editors I was going to do an interview with comic book writer Harvey Pekar, I was warned not many people know who he is. Some might recognize him from his admittedly memorable and always funny appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, but that would be about the short extent of the mass audience's recall. Then I thought "Well, so what?” and realized anonymity might be a necessity for Harvey Pekar's proper function.

Not that he lacks ambition. He's got a following of adoring comic book and/or literature aficionados (he reviews books and music for various publications). But one need only to take a look at his comic American Splendor to see how important Harvey Pekar's "humdrum" life is to both the meaning of the work and to the man himself. American Splendor is very probably one of the most original and brilliant uses of pop culture since Andy Warhol started silk-screening portraits of Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s. The 47-year-old Pekar frankly states that, in it, he just does what most writers do anyway: he writes about himself. Only Harvey is lot more blatantly autobiographical than most of his colleagues. (It should be mentioned that Harvey does not draw the comic. He simply writes it. Such renowned underground artists as Robert Crumb, Gerry Shamray, and Gary Dumm, among others, do the fantastic artwork, based on stick-figure drawings provided by Harvey.)

You see, American Splendor is not a bloody war epic or a schlock horror collection, as comics are wont to deliver; it is, quite simply, a chronicle of one lone man's relatively uncomplicated but stressful life. It literally follows Pekar through the streets of Cleveland through the days of his tough youth, and through the everyday routine of his 21 years as a file clerk at a VA hospital, through lunches and dinners and lazy Sunday mornings, even through his sometimes troubled married life (his present wife, Joyce Brabner is, incidentally, also heavily into comics; she is producing a Marvel Comics-style book called Real War Stories, which will be sort of a cross between Platoon and Harvey's work, with real-life veterans relating sometimes dull, sometimes exciting stories about the horrors of Vietnam). American Splendor is a detailed, scathingly sincere examination of a single, very intelligent human surrounded by fellow humans, some smart and some clueless, but all separate and alone. More than that, though, his work is an essential glorification of the Everyman and the typical days they endure, in which nothing special happens and everything special happens simultaneously.

Recently, I shared an hour-long phone conversation with Harvey Pekar. He was watching a televised basketball game at his Cleveland apartment when I called. 

First of all, when did you start writing American Splendor?

Well, it was first published in 1976. But I started writing comic book stories in 1972.

Why did you choose comic books as your artistic outlet? Why not novels or screenplays or something else?

First of all, I think comic books are as good an artistic medium as any that exists. I mean, I have said...they are words and pictures and you can do anything with words and pictures. In fact, you can do anything with words alone. But there's a great deal to be explored in the medium and that excited me.

Why do you focus on non-fictional, everyday events?

Because, um, not enough people have. I think that, you know, like, 99% of your life is involved with so-called everyday events and I think there's a whole lot more drama, a whole lot more funny stuff, that occurs over the course of an ordinary day than people seem to realize. I want people to relate to my work. I want to write about my life and how it parallels their life. I want them to say "Oh, yeah, something like this happened to me," you know.

Does it bother you any that some people may see American Splendor as an act of narcissism?

Not too many have. Because, for one thing, I show myself in an unflattering light a lot. I don't want people to think that I'm just doing this as an ego trip. The most important thing to me is to do good art, not to make myself look like a great guy. Look, I think I make myself look like a worse person than I really am and that's fine.

Is it difficult for you to be so honest in your writing,  to expose so much of yourself? I mean, just to let everybody know about your personal life,  you know--to let people know how your marriages are going and so forth?

See, that's the thing. In order for me to do good work, I have to be honest. It's not only that, though. I think a lot of people can be honest. But I think what's more difficult is to analyze things correctly and to describe accurately your reactions to things. So, to me, the big challenge is to write with accuracy and clarity, not...I mean, the honesty part, there's no problem there.

Are you ever afraid that you'll become so well known that the routine feel that makes the comic appealing will be destroyed?

Yeah, I've thought about that. You know, I wrote that story "A Hypothetical Quandary," and I wondered what would happen if I made a living as a writer and not as a file clerk, how that would affect my writing. Still, I think, in all lives, interesting things happen, things that other people can relate to. I don't think that you necessarily have to come from one social class or one group of people to, know, to write good stories. There are stories about rich people and poor people that are interesting.

Do the people who know you feel the need to watch what they say around you for fear of their remarks ending up in the comic?

Not that I've recognized. In fact, more often, they're buggin' me. "Why didn't you put me in that last issue?" You know, they wanna get in the comic book just like they want to get on TV. It's like "Say anything about me, but spell my name right."

How do you get along with your artists?

By and large, very well.

Do you stand over them as they draw or do you just hand them a few pages and say "Here, go to it?"

Well, it's sort of in between. I mean, obviously, I can't be there when they are doing all the drawing. What I do is I write these scripts and storyboard them, you know, with panels and stick-figures and balloons and I write directions on the stories about what the background should look like and what the characters should look like. Then we discuss know, most of the guys live in Cleveland. Sometimes there will be a disagreement about something and I'll just let it slide. But there are certain things that I will put my foot down on. I think that from what I can tell, I'm not too hard a taskmaster. I try not to be, for one thing, because I don't pay that much. I can't afford it.

Okay, so every bit of this—the art, printing and publishing—is coming out of your pocket. How much profit do you see? 

Well, I haven't made any profit off of the book until...well, if you include the Doubleday advances--I've had two collections of my work published by Doubleday, for which I got advances that I split up with the artists. So, if you throw in the Doubleday advances, last year and this year I did make a profit on the books. All the other years, I didn't.

That must get very tiring. Do you ever sit down and say to yourself "Wby do I do this? I'm losing money, can't find any time." I mean, you must be pretty pressed...

I am now, but that doesn't have so much to do with putting out the book. It has to do with the fact that I'm writing more and more articles. You know, I write literary articles. Also, I've been on TV a lot and, for example, people coming around and. interviewing me. Not that I resent it; I'm flattered and I appreciate it. But as far as writing stories goes, that doesn't take me very long to do. What takes me longer is to cajole the artwork out of the artists.

How often do you publish?

Just once a year. But it's a pretty long book by comic book standards-sixty pages with no ads. That adds up to being, like, a ninety page Marvel comic or something. But it takes that long for the sixty pages to be illustrated. These guys do the work mostly after their regular jobs are over. A lot of them are not full-time illustrators. They have other jobs, they come home and then they do it.

I know that you're still working as a file clerk at the VA Hospital in Cleveland. You seem fairly attached to that job. Why is it that you like it so much?

Well, for one thing, it' has been real hectic, but now, as long as I keep working at a pretty steady pace, it's okay. It takes me all over the hospital; I'm always moving. I'm not in one place. It's not what people think, that I'm a file clerk all the time...

Where you're JUST sitting and filing things...

Right. I'm always moving around. It's a big hospital. I know a lot of people there, and you can more or less do my job without thinking too much. I mean, you gotta know SOME things to do the gotta be a detective or something to figure out where some files could be, you know. So you just go around and talk to people as you do your job.

And it helps your writing as well?

Yeah, sure. And you know, I like the people at work. I like the patients a lot.

Do you feel lucky to have a job that you feel so good about?

Yeah, I think most people don't have that. I think I'm lucky. But I think that, if you got a kind of crummy job, and you go to work day in and day out for forty years, that's a real heroic thing to do.

You know, when I told people I was going to interview you, a few of them said "Oh yeah, that really rude guy that's been on the Letterman show." But when I talked to your wife, she implied that your rudeness was just sort of an act. Or, at least, on that show, it is.

Well, I'm generally not as rude as I am on Late Night.

Do you like David Letterman?

He seems like an okay guy. Personally, I haven't had much contact with him at all. He helped me over the first time I did the show, he sent me a letter about an article I had written, praising me for it.

You always seem annoyed at his sense of humor, though.

Well, when I was growing up, I was sort of a street comedian and I guess there is a lot of kind of hostility in me that's kind of pushing to get out. You know, I'm kind of bitter about the fact that it's taken me so long to even get this far in comics, that there's a lot of stuff I can do well that I haven't
gotten recognition or enough recognition for. So what I do is I sort of let it run wild on that show and it gets me laughs. And they want me to do it. But I don't have any grudge against Letterman.

You're the only person on the show, and I watch the show faithfully, who really consistently catches him off-guard.

Well, the reason I do that (although I don't want to keep on acting like that, I should mention) is because I'm really down on the cult of celebrity. Now, Letterman is probably more intelligent, a more witty person than most, but he doesn't strike me as being a remarkable person. But people just worship this guy, like he discovered some kind of medicine that would cure the Black Plague or something like that. Letterman's a guy who just found his niche, who was in the right place at the right time. I mean, he bombed on morning television. So, when I mess around with Letterman, I'm just trying to say to people "Hey, look, this guy's an ordinary person just like you and me."

Much of American Splendor is pretty downbeat. You even advertised the first few issues as being "More depressing stories from Harvey Pekar's humdrum life." Are you feeling that same sort of bleakness in your life now or was that just a phase you were going through? 

Yeah, it was a phase I was going through for 47 years. No, things have gradually gotten better for me, actually. I'm still looking for my golden years to pop up. You know, my last marriage is still intact. But, you know, some people think actually, overall, the books are kind of uplifting.

Yeah, I definitely think that, too. They walk a tightrope between optimism and bleakness, but they side more with the former. Do you subscribe to any religious beliefs? 

No. I mean, my background is Jewish, but I'm not religious. I just think that a lot of that stuff is based on bullshit. I don't believe in an absolute moral code. I mean, I believe people should have morals, but I think the golden rule is a pretty good basis for morality. You know, how can I think the world is 6000 years old or that everything is run by some old man in the sky? A lot of people HAVE to believe. I just don't have to.

Okay. Now, you've been married three times?


And you enjoy married life?

Yeah. Better than being single.

Why so?

Because when you're single, you're alone all the time. I don't have much of a support system. I don't have any close family relations or anything like that.

Have you ever considered having children?

No, no...

Why not?

It's funny, the question should be why do people want them. But I guess I'm in the minority with my attitude. Um, I don't know. I like kids okay, like I like other people, but to have somebody off the street and support just seems like such an economic liability or something.

What is your IQ? Have you ever had it tested?

I suppose so, but I don't know what it is. I don't really put a lot of stock in those so-celled intelligence tests anyway.

I know you went to college, but did you finish?

No, I completed about a year and a half.

Why'd you quit?

Oh, well, my mother was never know, neither of my parents were ever really satisfied with anything I did, no matter how good I did it. I always had this burning desire to succeed and I was really pessimistic about doing it. So, after high school I didn't go to college right away. I worked for a while and then went back to school. And I started getting real good grades. I started hanging out with a different kind of crowd to which that kind of thing meant a lot to. You know, then I started putting such pressure on myself to get good grades, to get a hundred on every test, that I freaked out. I became almost catatonic and I couldn't study. So I dropped out of school. It was just too much.

I read that someone made a play out of American Splendor.

Yeah, there's this guy named Conrad Bishop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a company called The Independent Eye. He dramatized stories of mine.

How heavily were you involved with it?

In terms of staging it, not at all. I mean, he used pretty much my dialogue intact. He just made pretty minor changes here and there.

Were you satisfied with the final outcome?

Yeah, I was. The play...about five people reviewed it and they all gave it good reviews.

Have you ever thought about making a movie out of the comic?

Yeah, I've been contacted by a few people but nothing has ever happened. To tell you the truth, I'd rather do a movie than a play.

It would work better, I would think.

Yeah, you have the changes of scenery and you have the fact that the people don't have to shout the lines to be heard. You know, you can do more subtle things in a movie.

How would you go about it? I mean, would you make it a narrative film or would you do skits or a documentary or what?

Well, one guy contacted me and actually I started on an outline for a treatment. What it involved was my splicing together various stories and writing passages to connect them up. It would've started in the 1960s and then would've ended on an up note with the publication of my first comic.

In the most ideal situation possible, in the best of all possible worlds, what would you be doing or where would you be in your life right now?

What would I like to do? I don't know. I think I'd like to make my living as a writer. I've paid my dues.

What would you like people who read your work to come away with?

I would hope that it has clarified something for them or that they have learned something or that they were amused or entertained. Any of that stuff. That they felt deeply about something that I wrote about, maybe if I wrote about some painful situation that would alleviate their pain. I mean, one of the nicest things is when people write me and say "Well, I thought I was the only person in the world who was going through this stuff and it has really helped me to know that other people are going through it, too," That's always real gratifying.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Talk with Arnold Schwarzenegger

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of John McTiernan's sci-fi/action classic Predator, I'm reprinting the interview I conducted with Arnold Schwarzenegger in late May 1987. We met in his suite at the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton. He was dressed casually in a floral shirt, and had his trusty cigar always nearby. Shaking hands with the man was a memorable moment--I don't remember being intimidated by his height, but his width was certainly commanding, and his meathook of a hand crushed my own mitt with gentle confidence. He was kind and low-key, and he later signed my Predator one-sheet while puffing on that cigar. The interview appeared in the June 23 1987 edition of Georgia State University's Tuesday Magazine:

It seems strange to say, but it's the truth: Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting has, on the whole, been getting better and better ever since he first broke into movies back in the mid-1970s. He's may be no Olivier, but he's proven wrong those who once claimed this hulking man was nothing more than the post-1950s version of Steve Reeves, the screen's most famous Hercules. Schwarzenegger admittedly took a little time to bloom, but bloom he did, emerging tall above the star most often cited as his closest rival, Sylvester Stallone. While Sly takes himself and his movies with utmost seriousness, Arnold strikes a humbler stance, realizing what he provides audiences with is entertainment, and not necessarily great art (though, even as mere entertainment, his works approach artfulness often enough).

Schwarzenegger has been primed for success from the beginning, as unlikely as his success once seemed. A native of Austria, he began body-building before he hit age twenty. By the time he retired from the sport in 1974, he'd won the prestigious Mr. Olympia title an astounding and unsurpassed seven times. He was and still is an astonishing example of human construction and precision. But, more importantly, he's a model of determination, dedication, and willpower. "My decisions have always been, with certain things, to say 'Okay, I'm going to start at the beginning, down at the bottom, and I'm going to shoot for the top.' When I shot for the top in body-building, I was thinking of my idol, Reg Park, who was a three-time Mr. Universe. He had done several Hercules movies and opened up a chain of gymnasiums and so forth. I thought 'That's exactly what I want to do'--not just win the title, but use it as a means to an end. Have some fun, maybe get into some movies, get into the business and all those things." In 1970, Schwarzenegger even took up the beloved Hercules mantle in a little-seen B-movie called Hercules in New York, pairing him with nasal comedian Arnold Stang and too cleverly renaming Schwarzenegger as "Arnold Strong." The movie currently resides in the dustiest of video store shelves.

It was during one of the Mr. Olympia competitions that Schwarzenegger saw the materialization of his first shot at cinema greatness. Documentary filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore were so taken with the bodybuilder and his pursuit of what would be his final Mr. Olympia title that they decided to film the competition in full (including visitations with Arnold's closest rival, Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno). Once released, the documentary Pumping Iron was a critical and box-office smash, with audiences taking note that Schwarzenegger was no mere muscle-bound freak of nature, but instead a very human being replete with wild charisma, bright humor, and a booming sense of self-confidence--traits that usually translate well to the big screen.

Once Schwarzenegger decided he'd accomplished everything he could in the world of body building, it was time for a change-up. So, with 1975's Pumping Iron garnering raves, he turned his eyes to acting. At first, no one took him seriously. He showed up in a bit role as a bodyguard in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, but was constantly being shrugged off by agents and directors because of his thick Austrian accent, immense size, and formidably long name. But these obstacles didn't sway him, of course; he immediately began to take acting lessons and speech training. In the meantime, he made a few small but significant television appearances--significant because it was one of these assignments that helped net Schwarzenegger a role in a film by acclaimed director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens). All of the sudden, in Rafelson's Stay Hungry, Schwarzenegger was performing opposite acting heavyweights Sally Field and Jeff Bridges—and, amazingly, Arnold held his own, shining in a smart, well-observed look at the Alabama body-building scene. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association saw such merit in his performance they awarded him a 1977 Golden Globe for Best Newcomer. It's still his most personally insightful role.

The next few years, though, were relatively dry for Schwarzenegger. Demand for an actor with his imposing physical stature was then so low, so he had to stoop to appearing in such disappointing fare as Hal Needham's embarrassingly silly 1979 western spoof The Villain playing the white-suited "good guy" to Kirk Douglas' Wile E. Coyote-like title character (he did get to sport Ann-Margret as his female lead, which he recalls with a toothy smile). He landed a plum dramatic role in the TV-movie version of The Jayne Mansfield Story, cannily well cast opposite Loni Anderson as the blonde superstar's muscle-bound husband Mickey Hargitay. Even by 1982, when he starred in director John Milius' hugely popular adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian, it was apparent he hadn't yet found his niche. The film was a gigantic hit, but his performance was rather stiffly mannered in comparison to his earlier work. Still, Schwarzenegger himself can't deny the impact Conan The Barbarian and its sequel, Conan The Destroyer, had on his career. "That gave me the chance to launch an acting career that lifted me above a lot of the other guys and put me in a certain category," he says.

But Schwarzenegger's real big break--the one there was no retreating from once it dropped--came in 1984 when relative newcomer and Roger Corman protege James Cameron cast him in the diabolical title role of The Terminator. The film was an unexpected fall season sleeper--a remarkable combination of non-stop action, fresh characterizations, fast-paced direction, and mindbending science-fiction that owed much of its effectiveness to Arnold Schwarzenegger's frighteningly taciturn performance as an unstoppable killer cyborg from a decimated future. That year, The Terminator adorned many "Ten Best" lists and, with over $100 million in box office grosses, led the National Association of Theater Owners to name Schwarzenegger the International Star of 1985.

Since that film, Schwarzenegger has smartly developed a screen persona that can only be described as decidedly tongue-in-cheek. With movies like Commando and Raw Deal, two of the biggest hits of the past couple of summers, he's successfully blended his comedic, dramatic, and ass-kicking chops to create for himself a natural and engaging image for himself, comparable to the places top stars like Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood had secured for themselves decades earlier.

This summer, Schwarzenegger has delivered again. In Predator, he plays Major Dutch Schaefer, the leader of an elite rescue unit whose members, sidetracked on a mission in the South American jungle, are being picked off one by one by a crafty alien hunter. The film is a relentlessly taut science-fiction tale that Schwarzenegger strongly contends is, along with The Terminator, his best to date. "What I liked about this film, specifically," he says, "was that it was a team effort—an ensemble--rather than me coming out right on top, with the first scene establishing me as the lead character. Here, I try to blend in with a team of guys. I mean. I'm the leader of the rescue team, but everyone in the film gets the same amount of screen time until guys start fading away and being killed. Then I emerge as the lead. This is, again, a whole new concept that I'd never dealt with before." The film's director, John McTiernan, is a new name in the film business; his first film, Nomads, was released in 1986 to mild critical notices and less-than-outstanding public recognition. Yet Schwarzenegger maintains McTiernan is very much like Cameron in ability. "When I think about the way they work, the way they move the cameras, the way they visualize ahead of time what a film is going to look like after it's been edited, I am amazed at how incredible the similarities are," he says. "Cameron is a genius and I think McTiernan's a genius, too."

Even so, Schwarzenegger says he ran into a little bit of trouble with McTiernan (as he does with all of his directors) when he wanted to add certain elements of humor into Predator's most dire sequences. "For instance," he offers, "I fight with the creature at the end. I improvise on these things. I just go along with my feelings. So I said 'Wait, this thing just took his helmet off and it's fucking ugly!' And I just thought I should say that, that it would amuse the audience in this really tense moment. And John says 'Arnold, come over here. I don't want to make a big scene in front of all these guys but do me a favor: don't do this because you'll really fuck up the momentum of the whole picture.' And I said 'I realize all this, but I think it is more important to throw the humor in there because, by now, they are all very tense in the theater and now we throw in the comic relief and it makes them breathe a sigh of relief.' "

Ultimately, Schwarzenegger's instinct won out--this and a few other carefully-placed jokes were dutifully fit into Predator's final running time, to the delight of the test audiences which whom he's viewed the film; he says each gag is unfailingly greeted with gales of laughter. One may ask "If Arnold Schwarzenegger has such a gift for making people laugh, why doesn't he develop it?" He says he plans to in the near future. "Eventually, I will be doing a straightforward action/comedy. A lot of the time what happens is that ninety percent of the stuff I want to do is rejected by either the director or the writer. They think 'Wait a minute. You can't be in the middle of this battle in this village and have humor. You are there to do this job.'  So I say 'Yes, you're right. But I'm Arnold. People don't mind if it doesn't quite fit in. If Joe Blow does it, then it wouldn't work.' It's like Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child. Any other guy who might have done that film would've played the part as seriously as possible, because it was a serious matter. But he clicked in and bubbled off his stuff and was Eddie Murphy. People laughed. No one said 'That humor didn't quite fit in there.' It was enjoyable. That's why that movie--which was actually pretty crappy--did $70 million at the box office."

Although his movies are popular with audiences, they always spark a certain level of controversy due to radical on-screen violence (Commando, in particular, with its crotch stabbings and buzz-saw attacks hit a new high in this department). For that reason, his films, like Stallone's, constantly spark boycotts from concerned parents and church organizations alike (not to mention they're constantly being looked down upon by more high-brow film artists and moviegoers). Arnold has an assured mental outlook on this harshness, though. "You never worry about what people say because, remember, whatever you do, you will always have a certain percentage of people not liking your stuff and a certain percentage of people loving it. You just have to realize you're not out to win a popularity contest. You're just trying to do your best work possible."

In order to be attracted to a role, Schwarzenegger says the part must highlight a previously untouched aspect to his personality. "Every film I do, I try and reach out and find other things I haven't done yet.” And though his past performances may generally belong in the same ballpark, they indeed do each show us a new side to the actor: from the Bond-like sophistication he displayed in Raw Deal and the paternal instincts he showed off opposite Alyssa Milano in Commando ("Working with a child brings out a whole new you. You have to relate to a kid in your work and in your real life, so your whole personality changes—you become kind of cute”), then to the cog-in-the-machine feel he lent to his roles in Predator and his mechanically emotionless performance as The Terminator. "With each movie," he says, "I want people to go back and look over the entire portfolio I've collected, and feel certain that I've reached out for and hit my different emotional obligations."

Schwarzenegger has a plethora of emotional, artistic, and financial goals to live up to as well. His much-publicized marriage to journalist and Kennedy clan member Maria Schriver has just hit its one-year mark. Later on this summer, he will be seen in an adaptation of Stephen King's short story The Running Man, playing a contestant in a futuristic TV game show (hosted by kissy Family Feud scion Richard Dawson) where the object of the game is simply to survive. And, in the following months, he'll be toiling away on a Terminator sequel, reteaming him with director James Cameron.

As if that weren't enough, he'll continue putting time into his own businesses (he's a renowned real-estate developer, mail-order businessman, and art collector). Still, his first love will be acting, with body-building coming in a close second. When he looks back on his early career as an athlete and compares it to the present stage of his output, he sees very little difference. "I work as hard now as I did then. I did exactly the same things as in bodv-building. To be a good actor, you analyze what you need: you go to acting school, you go to speech training and so on. It's the same thing as having to work more on my deltoids, except now I have to work more on something like my accent. You pick certain things that are your weak points and the harder you work, the faster you grow up and the faster you can make it."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Talk with Spike Lee

This is a reprint of my interview with Spike Lee, printed in the Georgia State University's newspaper The Signal (as part of their features section Tuesday Magazine) on February 9, 1988. The interview was part of a promotional tour for Mr. Lee's then-new film School Daze, which was filmed in Atlanta, GA. The interview itself was conducted on a cold January day in a suite at Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton. 

Those who expect Spike Lee to be like Mars Blackmon, the affably clownish character he played in his directorial debut She's Gotta Have It, would be in for a jolt were they to come face to face with him. In reality, Lee is a reserved man on the sharp edge of cool. He makes few jokes and the laughs he does reach for come not from snappy one-liners, but from organic facial expressions, personal swagger and, occasionally, a juicy slang word.

Not that the 30-year-old Lee is sedate; he is simply considerate--a thinker. He sits back and lets ideas wash over him. If he doesn't agree, he'll speak his mind, but without raising his measured voice. He's shrewd enough to know that the first man who raises his voice has already lost the argument. He was also shrewd enough to realize, back in 1984 that, where black people were concerned, there was a bottomless void in the film industry. With few exceptions, their stories were not being told on cinema screens.

A year after he had graduated from New York University with his master's degree in film and a Student Academy Award for his thesis short film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Lee began to get antsy--he hadn't picked up a camera for months. So he cranked up the gears and began courting financiers for one of the two screenplays he'd written. When plans fell through for Messenger, a film about a Brooklyn bike courier's family life (possibly his next project), Spike Lee started over, swallowing the bitter hurt along with the weeks of intense rehearsal time he and his cast had spent on the movie.

Next time around, he penned a script he thought might be more appealing to investors--one that dealt with sex and the crippling double standard men place on women in that realm. That film, She's Gotta Have It, took six months to write. During that time, Lee was obsessed with getting the $175,000 he needed to complete the film. "It was a struggle trying to raise the money," Lee says. "I always had a lot of people telling me I could never do it, so I had to keep myself pumped up all the time." With a great deal of help from a number of New York arts councils and Island Films, the company that distributed the completed picture, Lee put the final touches on She's Gotta Have It on his 29th  birthday. That same day, he was invited to Director's Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, where he was given the prize for Best New Director.

Now Spike Lee has finished his second feature, a musical comedy-drama titled School Daze. Shot entirely on the campuses of Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, Clark College, and Lee's own alma mater, Morehouse College (where he graduated with a degree in mass communications), the movie follows an ensemble of black students through homecoming weekend at the fictional Southern black institution called Mission College. Lee has no problem admitting the autobiographical nature of the film, which he wrote right after leaving NYU. "School Daze is my four years at Morehouse in a two-hour film. But the film is not really about Morehouse as much as the whole college experience."

Fraternities and sororities are part of that experience but Lee's portrayal of Greeks in School Daze is far from adoring. In the film, Lee plays Half-Pint, a scrawny Gamma Phi Gamma pledge who is made to endure a slate of degrading humiliations before being accepted by the Gammas and their leader, Julian "Big Brother Almighty" Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito). Through this probing, Lee gets to vent his ill feelings about the Greek system. "The whole concept and meaning of fraternities--I'm talking specifically about black fraternities because that's what I know--has been corrupted over the years. I mean, what do fraternities do? These people, they're full of shit. Y'know, they say they're supposed to do all this community work. My experience is, the only community work they ever do is they might collect a couple of cans at Thanksgiving. And that was it." The filmmaker doesn't even agree with the conviction--at least, not in principle--that fraternities give certain social advantages to those who pledge. "I think a person's gonna have to try to find in themselves the things that will make them a better person and not go looking in a an organization or another person. I mean, you think because now you're wearing purple and gold because you're an Omega or black and gold because you're an Alpha or red and white because you're a Kappa, all of a sudden you're a better person? That's a fuckin' lie."

In spite of his innate feelings towards the Greeks, Spike Lee (who, of course, never pledged a fraternity) made a concerted effort to be fair in the film. He even went so far as to hire what's billed as a "Fraternity Life Technical Advisor” ("His name is Zelmer Bothic III--Z-Dog," Lee says, smiling. "We had a mass communications class together at Morehouse and I remember him not being able to sit down in class because he had hemorrhoids from all the paddlings. He also has twelve Omega brands on his body.") Clearly, to Lee's thinking, the attempts at even-handedness panned out. In fact, the director thinks his treatment of the Greeks in School Daze might even be a bit lenient. "There was a lot of stuff we put in this film about the nasty stuff they do, but we left it out. You got guys tying other guys up to chairs and pushing them down stairs and all that kind of stuff. I mean, that shit's crazy."

But while part of the controversy surrounding School Daze is directed towards the film's anti-frat attitude, the more potent portion of criticism will probably be pointed towards Lee's exploration of the differences that separate blacks from other blacks--those of a financial, class-based, educational or political nature. And, yes, it's the internal schisms related to skin color that will most likely inform white audiences and inflame black ones. Lee wrote two rival groups into the film: the Greek-oriented, blue-eyed, light-skinned blacks called the Wannabees, and the independent, nappy-headed, dark-skinned blacks called the Jigaboos. The former represents the black person's striving for success in a predominantly white world, even if that success means giving up authentic beliefs and background. The latter reflects the mirror image of that attitude: the retaining of the black heritage, even at the expense of mad economic success. Lee kept the actors playing the Wannabees and the Jigaboos in separate hotels during filming “so they wouldn't get chummy with each other." The tactic worked; an on-screen fight between the two factions was totally spontaneous.

Perhaps the film's most amazing feature is its refusal to take sides, regardless of its subject matter and the strong opinions of the man behind the camera. Lee, however, says that he, himself, does take sides. "I just don't put it up on screen. I don't hate anybody, either." Still, he believes that School Daze is going to upset a lot of black people. "We touch on taboo things that a lot of people think shouldn't be discussed, especially not in a film for the whole world to see."

That, in fact, is exactly the attitude that the Atlanta University Center administration took when they decided to bar Lee from filming on campus a few weeks after production had begun. The now-retired president of Morehouse, Hugh Gloster, had heard rumblings that the film was derogatory towards black colleges and contained, as Lee says he called it, "the M-F word." Gloster called Lee into his office and delivered an ultimatum: either he let him read the script or risk being thrown off the campus. Lee, thinking it would be futile to let Gloster judge his screenplay, refused. The production promptly ground to a halt long enough for a shift to Atlanta University, which was the only campus that had signed a location agreement. Lee says that the decision hurt him "but only for a minute." He then had to get down to the nagging business of finishing the film. Months later, he regards the decision with a mixture of humor and puzzled anger. "What they really wanted me to do was a documentary about black colleges that would have no cursing, no sex, students who look like they just walked out of Mademoiselle and GQ, talking very proper. That's not the school life. President Gloster really showed me how much he was out of touch with reality and with his students for him to think that students don't curse. And to think that parents wouldn't send their children to Morehouse just because they heard “motherfucker” in School Daze! I don't understand that kind of thinking. It's backwards."

At present, Spike Lee is trying to build up a new relationship with the AU Center's faculty. Nonetheless, he still harbors ill feelings towards many administration officials. "The woman who was acting president of Spelman last year was so ignorant, she wouldn't let us set foot on Spelman's campus. She hadn't even seen She's Gotta Have It 'cause people told her it was pornographic.” Even the students at AU Center now incur Lee's wrath. "They're asleep, for the most part. They didn't say nothin'. When I went there, if a young black filmmaker would've come to Morehouse and the administration shut them out, we would've had a fit. But people were a lot more active then. Right now, it's just about graduating, getting a corporate job, getting an M.B.A., a BMW, and making $35,000 a year."

Spike Lee carted School Daze to Columbia Pictures during producer David Putnam's short but productive reign as its chairman. Independent outfit Island Pictures was originally set to finance and distribute the film, but the financially-troubled company pulled out when budget estimates for the film zoomed towards $6 million. In his move to the Columbia roster, Lee brought with him two of his longtime collaborators, photographer Ernest Dickerson and jazz artist Bill Lee, who also happens to be Spike's father and, by admission, one of his top influences (Spike Lee doesn't acknowledge any filmmaking mentors, though he does admire Martin Scorsese's style). Lee is quite adamant, but still realistic, about his relationship with both artists. "I've done small stuff without Ernest," he says, "but I'd be very leery to do a feature film without him. We were classmates at NYU and, since we met, he's shot all my stuff, plus Brother From Another Planet and Raw. He's a fine cinematographer. Now, my father I want to use as much as I can, but there's going to be times where the type of music that he does best won't be the right music for that film. He's a jazz purist. He won't do any kind of electronic or rap music at all." It's Bill Lee who provides most of the music for his son's newest movie, including the exuberant songs that are performed by the young cast (although the movie's hit party song "Da Butt" is not an example of his work--that spirited number was penned and performed by Experience Unlimited, aka EU).

Spike also brought to School Daze an energetic cast, divided evenly between veteran actors--like Ossie Davis, Art Evans, Samuel Jackson, Joe Seneca, and Larry Fishburne--and newly minted performers. Lee was especially eager to work closely with his actors. The 15-day shooting schedule for She's Gotta Have It was usurped with technical problems, so time spent with the cast was strikingly limited. As a result, Lee thinks the acting in that film was "a little shaky in spots." Now, with the luxuries of Columbia's time and money, Lee was finally able to bear down on directing his actors. That explains his enthusiasm for the performances in School Daze. "I don't think there's a weak one in the movie."

Since he's currently filling that abyss-like lack of black-oriented movies, Lee is naturally more concerned with how this movie is going to hit black audiences. For years, he's been disgusted at the treatment black stories have gotten from white writers and filmmakers (one of his most abhored  targets has been Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, with Richard Attenborough's Stephen Biko biopic Cry Freedom standing as a new offender). Yet, Lee still speaks encouragingly when advising white screenwriters or directors on making films about black people.

"I think the number one dilemma that a lot of filmmakers have to face is the fact that you shouldn't write or make a film about something you don't know. If you know the subject and you know the people, go ahead and do it. And if you don't know about it, learn all that you can. That knowledge will be exemplified in the work. But if you don't know it, black audiences just sit there and go 'Black people don't speak like that'--'Get off my back, you jive turkey.' You hear dialogue like that, you know no black person wrote that. Just be truthful and you'll be all right."

Even though whites often achieve accurate portrayals of blacks in films, Lee says that often the converse of that statement is not true. "I think every black person is qualified to talk about white people because that's all you see all your life—in television, movies, commercials--everything. Yet you really can't say the same thing goes the other way around." Lee says he's considered doing a film dealing exclusively with white people, but that the right script has not come along yet.

But the black audience, and black stories, are still Spike Lee's main focus. He walks the high wire hoisted between activism and dispassionate observance. That's the limbo he's been caught in ever since he first rampaged onto the cinema scene two years ago. It's also an attitude with which he's soaked every frame of School Daze. He's hoping that that attitude will payoff when audiences of any racial background leave the stunning final scenes of his new film. "I think there's going to be a lot of conversation about the film, pro and con, which is good. Today, there's an awful lot of films, you sit there for 90 minutes or two hours, and it might even be a good film and you might laugh, but it's so generic that five minutes later you don't even remember what you just sat through. If you can make a film that raises some issues and gets people to talking, then you've done all you can do."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Film #174: The Fountain

A dialogue:

FUTURE ME: Why are we doing this? I have work to do.

PRESENT ME: Well, I called you two here to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

PAST ME: One of my favorites.

FUTURE ME: Oh, I was so young in 2006. Not even forty. I was really into anything kind of trippy and obscure.

PAST ME: How did I get so cynical in my old age?

FUTURE ME: Hey, I still like it, but I don’t ever need to see it again. I stopped watching movies I’ve already seen years ago.


PRESENT ME: That’s kind of where I’m at now. I think I’m starting to agree with Pauline Kael that watching movies even a second time clues you into their tricks and faults. Only the best ones escape this. This probably means I’ve been watching too many movies.

PAST ME: I can’t see many faults in this one. I saw it on the big screen twice and it stunned me with its boldness and beauty. There’s really nothing like it.

PRESENT ME: The Fountain works most effectively on the big screen, I agree. But there’s a reason for there being nothing like it—it’s a sentimental mess, though occasionally moving. And a box office bomb–way too inquisitive and slow for the masses, even if it’s only 90 minutes long. But it’s brave and beautiful nevertheless.

PAST ME: I love it. It just hits me, and fascinates me. And there’s part of me that sees it as Aronofsky’s effusive love letter to his wife, Rachel Weisz, whom he clearly adores. Just look at all those loving close-ups.

PRESENT ME: They’re divorced now. She remarried James Bond—Daniel Craig.

PAST ME: Aww, that sucks. Man, where’s the love? And I can’t believe Daniel Craig is James Bond now. Weird choice.

FUTURE ME: You should see who’s playing Bond now—Benedict Cumberbatch.

PAST ME: Cumberwhat?

PRESENT ME: Guys, guys…back on point. I still find the conquistador segment of the story transfixing, and the future bubble, with the Tree of Life being sent up into a golden nebula, remains a helluva image.

FUTURE ME: We still don’t have any flying bubbles, but we did finally get the Hoverboard down.

PAST ME: So it’s the present day story, with Hugh Jackman trying to save his wife from cancer that you don’t like?

PRESENT ME: Yeah, that part—which takes up most of the film—feels stiff, soapy and badly acted, even with the post-Requiem for a Dream gift of a supporting role for Ellen Burstyn.

FUTURE ME: Requiem for a Dream. Now that still works. And I DEFINITELY don’t need to see that one again. I’m depressed enough.

PRESENT ME: I get ya on that. But, yeah, I do like how the film is a melding of the three time periods, as if they’re conferring with one another. Do you think the Jackman and Weisz characters are all the same person, only reborn in different bodies?

FUTURE ME: It would seem in keeping with the spiritually transcendent feel of the whole thing. Sometimes it feels a bit overwrought, this aspect of it.

PRESENT ME: When you look back on Aronofsky’s career, there does seem to be copious soul searching throughout. I get the impression he’s ingested a lot of drugs in order to find his spiritual center.

PAST ME: A friend I saw it with the second time said the director has obviously done a lot of DMT, evidenced by the very end, which he said is a pretty fair approximation of that drug’s effects. And I know from another friend Aronofsky’s looking to buy land in Costa Rica. That should tell you something.

PRESENT ME: I’m sorta glad I haven’t hung out with those friends in years. They were fascinating back then, but it was frustrating trying to keep up with their insane babblings. But, yeah, with Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Noah (which was his dream project, amazingly enough), Aronofsky does strike me now as a sideways religious proselytizer.

PAST ME: He did a movie about Noah? Noah’s ark Noah?

PRESENT ME: Yes. Don’t watch it. It has big tree monsters or something in it. They’re introduced about two minutes in, and that’s when I cut it off. I think the drugs have finally gotten to him.

PAST ME: Thanks for the warning.

FUTURE ME: It’ll definitely be the Aronofsky movie you’ll be glad not to see. It’s a real shame. He’s doing heavy metal Christian music videos now.

PRESENT ME: Anyway, I wouldn’t want to fix The Fountain. It’s a movie Aronofsky fought hard to make, although I understand it started off a great deal differently, with Brad Pitt attached as star in an action-packed Matrix-y kick-ass-fest. Pitt still acted as a producer on The Fountain.

PAST ME: I definitely prefer Pitt as an actor over Jackman, who I think works here best as the bearded Spanish conquistador, devoted to his queen and to the quest for the Tree of Life. I’ve just never been able to connect with Jackman as a movie actor, although Aronofsky did a good job of making him look radically different in each episode here.

FUTURE ME: Jackman’s much more charming on the stage. He’s a song-and-dance man. He’s won two Tonys (for musicals) in the past twenty years. No singing and dancing here, though. By the way, why was it that the Tree of Life was needed to save Spain?

PRESENT ME: It’s a little murky, but it has something to do with vanquishing the evil Crusaders who, with their fundamentalism, were destroying the fabric of the country and the world. More to the point, it’s because the queen said it was necessary.

FUTURE ME: I guess Aronofsky made that fairly clear, now that I think about it. But it wasn’t very compelling from a plotting standpoint.

PRESENT ME: No, but I accepted it without much complaint. That section of the film is pretty gorgeous and constantly thrilling. When we switch back to it, I still feel myself prickling up excitedly. The acting style here just seems to suit that setting, and on an art direction and costuming level, I think it’s really sumptuous.

FUTURE ME: But the Matthew Libatique photography is a little dark, no?

PAST ME: It’s a dark film in general. But I like Libatique.

PRESENT ME: He’s at his best with Aronofsky–bet you can’t name one movie he’s done without him (Black Swan is a notable Aronofsky collaboration). I do love the way key shots are centered in a way that recalls religious iconography. Some of the work reminds me of Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, only tinted to a greater degree. However, the play between dark and light struck me sometimes as a visual cliché. I mean, is there any reason to have the surgery rooms lit like Don Corleone’s office?

FUTURE ME: Exactly. That was absurd.

PAST ME: I just though it looked neat. But maybe you’re right. I loved the twin shots of Jackman’s breath blowing against the hairs on Weisz’s neck and then onto the tree’s fuzzy trunk. That was immensely effective. You know, I think I’m compelled by that middle story just because I’m a goofy romantic.

FUTURE ME: How’s that gone for ya?

PAST ME: Not so well, I’m afraid.

PRESENT ME: Yeah, it’s been a hard road.

FUTURE ME: Uh-huh. Look, I can accept the darkness in the Spanish segment, particularly, because it’s contextually correct, and plus it adds to the menace inherit in that third of the story. It works, too, in the future section of the piece, because outer space is the setting. But, man, I can hardly remember now the “present day” part of the movie, except that it felt like an overly-intellectual Love Story to me, and that I became impatient with. 

PRESENT ME: Yes. Okay, two things I think we all can agree on: The visual effects have a wonderfully hand-crafted quality to them. I mean, I’m sure much CGI is used here, but Aronofsky and his team managed to conceal most traces of it. The future sequence is consistently brilliant, with its smoky, painterly travels through the ether and the odd sight of the live action backed in such a surreal manner.

PAST ME: This is true. Great effects, and also I should mention the terrific editing–it’s an economical movie in length, and it hops to and from each segment in inventive fashions. As to the computer involvement in the visuals, there are moments, approaching the nebula, that feel like we’re entering a CGI vagina. I dunno…maybe that’s a point Aronofsky was conveying there.

FUTURE ME: Yeah, and I suppose the tree is a kind of phallic stand-in. It’s a movie also concerned with the connection between sex and death, without being a very sexy piece (though there’s that rather chaste bathtub scene). I don’t think it knows what it’s saying here, beyond the “Road to Awe” theme that’s repeated throughout (by the menacing, opulent gatekeeper guarding the way to the Tree of Life, and then by Izzy, Rachel Weisz’s sickly present day character). I guess we can just leave it at that—both sex and death are the road to awe. The little death and all of that…

PRESENT ME: And is she named Izzy because she is the character that’s IS who she IS? That somehow she’s the character in the movie that most embraces her present? I mean, I know she gloms onto death gallantly and everything, but I think they fell down on that. She didn’t seem particularly special to me, even while throwing snowballs and romping around in the bedroom with her once-long hair. The film is radically humorless. 2001 has more laughs. The writing needed a little beefing up, I’d counsel.

PAST ME: That’s kind of cruel, but I guess you’re correct—Aronofsky didn’t rely on much beyond her sumptuous face and curious nature to illustrate her luminosity. Another point, getting back to the sex thing–not to get too gooey on the subject–but is there something there in the creamy white juice that Jackman’s conquistador wrings out of the tree?

FUTURE ME: Yeah, that’s there, but can we please not talk about it?

PRESENT ME: I do have to say, I find the climax to that story—and please excuse me for using that word—to be the most surprising moment in the film. It’s the moment we were waiting for—the confrontation with the Tree of Life, the film’s most mysterious character–and it leaves us shocked and breathless.

PAST ME: I agree.

FUTURE ME: Yep. Though I noticed they were careful in keeping that gunk away from Jackman’s beard.

PRESENT ME: Eww, you’re right. Moving on…

PAST ME: I bet the other thing you were going to mention is Clint Mansell’s score.

PRESENT ME: Exactly. It’s a wonder, just like his score for Requiem for a Dream, which was a masterpiece.

FUTURE ME: Yes, that’s the element of the film that’s beyond reproach. It completes its most important work.

PAST ME: It feels like a character unto itself.

PRESENT ME: That’s probably the best thing one can say about a score to a movie, though in some instances, it can be the worst.

FUTURE ME: Not here. It’s superb.

PRESENT ME: Okay, well, that was quick. One question, since we are gathered to talk about The Fountain while in the realm of science-fiction: Is this a science-fiction film?

PAST ME: That’s interesting. It strikes me more of a fantasy piece, but science does certainly play a role in it.

FUTURE ME: Believe me, there is no real science in it. It’s all a matter of the heart. As you get older, you find yourself faced with death often—the deaths of those you love personally, and the deaths of those you’ve never even met but to whom you were close to anyway. And you find yourself wanting to find a way to stave all that death off. But you can’t. We’re mortal. It’s something we have to live with. The idea of a cure to it, or some magic potion, increasingly escapes you, just as it escapes all the characters in this film. But I suspect—and I say this because I’ve never been in real love, except with my cats, which is not the same thing—the injection of deep emotion into the equation complicates things grandly. In the end, it’s a science-fiction film only by default of our own limited pigeon-holing of creative works into stifling categories, mostly for salable purpose. I mean, it’s got space travel and microscopes and telescopes in it and everything, so it’s science fiction, I guess.

PRESENT ME: So what does The Fountain have to say about death and life and sex?

FUTURE ME: I don’t see it as a movie about sex except peripherally. But on life and death, I think it states its case very clearly: There’s nothing we can do about anything but press on. Love doesn’t enter into it, except that it makes life’s inevitable conclusions that much more painful and yet transcendent.

PAST ME: It’s tough going, but I can accept that. What choice do I have?

FUTURE ME: No choice at all.

PRESENT ME: Okay. Well, it’s a thrilling movie to look at and consider, at least.

PAST ME: It makes us think, definitely.

PRESENT ME: That's good enough for me. 

FUTURE ME: Gotta get back to work. Are we done?


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Film #173: Fahrenheit 451

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I have yet to read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Even though I own an autographed first edition of it (and many other sci-fi/horror books), I mostly read non-fiction, preferring to get my fiction from movies. The irony is thick here, I realize.

A few times over the past decades, I remember telling a few film lovers how much I admired Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, only to have the opposition defame my assessment. I've long been always confused by this, because my first viewing of the film was so memorable, probably due to the fact I’d seen very little Truffaut up to that point. The New Wave signatures—the pump-ins, the occasional slow-motion, the graphically stunning irises—shook my world. But, seeing it now, I think I understand where the naysayers were coming from. Fahrenheit 451, in my advanced age, strikes me as an overly-simplified telling of this complex tale, first written in 1953 as a reaction against McCarthy-era devaluing of intellectual ideals.

As presented in the film, the story is one of personal awakening by its main character, Montag. In this strange vision of a future that is decidedly non-futuristic (I guess the film’s clearly low-budget got in the way of depicting an outlook more technologically far along than this, though I kind of like the mixture of the old and new worlds), Werner plays a fireman—that is, a man that starts fires rather than extinguishes them (“We burn books to ashes, and then we burn the ashes”)—who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his home and work life. Each day, he is sent out on  destructive missions that have begun to eat into his soul, with his commander (a jangly Cyril Cusack, in a role originally intended for Lawrence Olivier) and chief rival Fabian (haughty Anton Diffring) continually looking over his shoulder as if they know something is wrong with him. Montag returns home to Linda, his beautiful but vapid wife (Julie Christie) who can only tear herself away from her flat-screen TV--a bit of prognostication the film gets correct--long enough to down sedatives from her blue bottle (amphetamines are in the red one).

Montag is shaken awake by Clarisse, the gamine young teacher he meets one afternoon on his home-bound monorail. She, too, is played by Christie; the wife is long-haired, and the teacher’s do is more close-cropped, and that is almost the entire difference between the two performances (in the book, Clarisse is much younger). It’s a challenging choice, having the actress play both roles, and I understand Truffaut’s wish not to set up a typical heroine/villainess dichotomy with two separate actresses. Yet I wish Christie had, as Clarisse, enlivened her delivery a bit more; meanwhile, she perfectly assays the deadened Linda, maybe because she’s not much of an actress at this stage in her career (despite her having won the Oscar the year before for John Schlesinger’s Darling).

Still, it’s clear Clarisse is a self-described “well of words” whose embrace of ideas and narrative is obvious, even as she never discusses her secret passion for books. After all, she’s talking to a fireman, and people are generally afraid of firemen, who can approach with impunity and search your body for any books they might suspect hidden (one of the film’s best scenes has firemen patrolling a kid’s playground, with one casually upending a woman’s picnic basket, while another pats down a pregnant woman’s belly and later the captain finds a tiny tome hidden in a baby’s jumper). But Clarisse senses something is different about Montag, and she keeps him on her radar.

The film dramatizes this working man’s transformation rather clumsily. We’re aware he knows how to hide things—a talent he’s had to learn as part of his job uncovering concealed volumes–and once we see he has a secret compartment in his modern household, we’re sure there’s going to be a book hidden there sooner or later. The first one he reads is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and we see Montag going though the title page (word for word), starting with the chapter title “I Am Born.” Montag is born here, too, and this indomitable paragraph feels like it tells his story, just like it tells our own. This is a terrific sequence, centered in on the words on the page, instantly reminding us what’s essential about fiction, in that we can see ourselves in stories that put eloquent words to their character’s (and our own) struggles.

But the film falls down in showing Montag’s ultimate shift. Before we sense the difference in his personality from discovering the enrichment in reading (which never comes, because there is no step-up in Werner’s sleepy performance), suddenly there are massive tomes sneaking around his home. When this third-act discovery lands, we’re dumbfounded. “Wow, he’s been doing a lot of reading. When did this happen?” This is the point where I began to ponder the possibility of Fahrenheit 451 needing a remake (which, apparently, is happening courtesy of HBO, who announced in April 2016 a remake slated to be helmed by Man Push Cart and 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani).

This isn’t the first time such a project has been announced–I recall Mel Gibson being attached to a remake in the early ’90s. Even so, I can only hope this newly-proposed iteration is going to be an eight-episode miniseries or at least a four-hour two-parter, as Bradbury’s original story includes a bloody war going on in this dystopian world’s background (which would possibly clarify the explicit assault on words—here, it’s too-simply portrayed as a battle against people being threatened by ideas that might make them unhappy, while no thought is given to expressions that DO make them happy). I also had to ask myself, well, given that no one really likes to talk to each other in this world filled with empty-headedness and paranoia, how is essential information transmitted? This being a pre-digital telling of the story, the film shows Cyril Cusack going to a bank of file cabinets for information and pulling out Montag’s file, which includes only mugshots of Oskar Werner (including only 6, not the required 12, shots of the back of his head), and in seeing this I wondered “Well, how does this help in any given situation?” I could see a remake fixing all of this with well-placed digital goo-gaws. I also see reparations on those still-striking views Truffaut gives us of people rifling through newspapers filled with only wordlessly cryptic comic-book panels.

There are also problems with the film’s climax, with Montag escaping his former life and taking up with the Book People, a forest-bound commune of intellectuals who each choose preferable texts to memorize in whole in order to preserve them for future generations. Memorization seems like a weak defense for such importance (the digital world could fix this), and as beautiful–and gorgeously fun–as this sequence is, it doesn’t make for a very desirable outcome. The sight of people walking around in the snowy winter, endlessly reciting the volumes they’ve devoted themselves to doesn’t strike us as one that’s demonstrably preferable to  the robotic realm left behind. There’s still no real human communication going on.

Now, I realize my words are making it seem like I don’t like Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. But I do. I can see now his difficulty in making this his first (and only) English-language film. I can sense it in his direction to the actors; apparently, he had a communication clash with Werner great enough for the director to classify this as his most unhappy filming experience (he originally wanted to go with either Charles Aznavour or Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead, but producers balked at that, so Terrence Stamp was enlisted, until he realized he’d be overshadowed by Christie in the two female leads). And, unusually, I realize it in the titles Truffaut shows, in the film’s most difficult-to-watch sequences, as victims in the book-burning sequences (among the title being destroyed here: Proust, Genet, Behan, Nabokov, but also books by Charles Chaplin, and ones including images by Salvador Dali and even Truffaut's old haunt Cahiers du Cinema).

But when it comes to FILM language, Truffaut excels often. The movie’s most energetically edited sequences are its best: the firemen’s preparations for duty (a scene that probably influenced countless filmmakers, including James Cameron) and the bookburning sequences, chief among them the film’s centerpiece, an errand targeting Clarisse’s old-fashioned home (the more traditional they are, the more likely they are to house books), with the superb Bee Duffell, cast with her unmistakable chipmunk cheeks, as Clarisse’s housemate, a woman who would prefer to die along with her friendly books. Duffell was an Irish actress with an atypical visage who appeared in Quatermass and the Pit and, in her final performance, as an old crone in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Her one-scene performance here, though, cements her in film history. She bravely lights the match that sets herself and her print collection on fire, and as such, she still burns in the minds of those who love books and would gladly perish with them.

It’s the film’s sensational photography, by Nicolas Roeg, that keeps you going through it. Just looking at Fahrenheit 451 is a treat. Your eyes drink in those dazzling reds around the firehouse (where even the firepole senses Montag’s betrayal), or the maudlin oranges in Montag’s chilly home. The blue siren lights sing around the book-burning spots, as do the drab cement grays around the blocky British suburbs. The enveloping warmth of the Book Woman’s library is an oasis, albeit one short lived, while the autumnal and ultimately snowy vistas of the book-lover’s fiefdom leaves you with the impression that a fantastic movie has been seen (until you’re left to put it all together). There’s only one disappointing special effects shot to be seen here, a goofy view of four dangling air-patrolling policemen that’s clearly a blue-screened afterthought. Still, Tony Walton’s costume design (Nazi-influenced, when it comes to the firemen’s sternly blackened uniforms) and Syd Cain’s art direction also do their part (although one senses that the set design could use a little more cash thrown at it).

I also love Truffaut’s many dark gags: the needless breaking of things in the Book Woman’s house; Cusack’s throwaway “Stop it” to a man pantomiming a romantic embrace during the playground assault; the apple-chomping book lover seen throughout the entire film (munching on the fruit of knowledge); Anton Diffring’s cross-dressing second role as a briefly-seen woman observing Clarisse’s return to the elementary school she’s been fired from for being too smart; the Captain holding up a copy of Mein Kampf as he extols the burning of all books; the dumpy doctors outrageously dressed in white patent leather while giggling over tending to the comely Linda as she lies overdosed on downers; the inclusion of a Mad Magazine paperback during the book burning sequence; Linda’s gasp as she removes a picture from a wall and finds a book dropping from behind it (she acts like it’s a cockroach); the Book Woman’s smiling regurgitation of by-rote times tables as her executioners count down to her death; the twin book lovers at the end who represent the two volumes of Pride and Prejudice; and, most notably, the hilarious TV show (“Come Play With Us”) that Linda gleefully participates in, not realizing that her responses have been pre-determined by the producers (“What do you think, Linda?”). I adore these sly touches.

And there are more serious moments that land mightily, like the one where Montag identifies an elderly man as a book-holder (the film’s frame alarmingly solidifies the suspect, with blackness keeping him in check). There’s that great scene (perhaps Werner’s best) where he reads to Linda’s collected girlfriends, reducing us to sorrow because she had never been reminded of emotions she’d held inside. There’s the agitating moment where Clarisse tearfully revisits her stark elementary school, with a former student recoiling in horror upon seeing her (the kid is played by a pre-Oliver Mark Lester). In a quick glimpse, we see Montag’s escape story being told on TV, with only the shot of the back of his head (the one that his captain wanted more examples of earlier) being used as public identification. And, finally, there’s glory in the final sequence where human intelligence somehow finds peace in this absurdly callous world.

On speaking to how Ray Bradbury’s story has come to fruition, one has to look at the devaluation of books, and even movies, as commodities. As a collector, I can’t help but see my library (with many first editions, including a signed first edition of Fahrenheit 451) spiraling down in intellectual value now that millennials (at least) fail to recognize the worth of real-world books. But I do see this film, and the book it’s based on, as an effective clarion call to their import. No Kindle version, subject to open-ended editing, can be trusted against the power of the printed word, and no world without reading can be one that adequately celebrates the accomplishments of man. Still, I do hope for an eventually superior cinematic recounting of Mr. Bradbury’s universally prescient mainstay.