07/04/12 4:00am
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07/04/2012 4:00 AM |

When Andrew Sarris died last month, his legacy was self-evident: as the godfather of auteurism in America, he inspired a way of thinking with lasting historical significance. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, with its comprehensive grasp of US film history to date, marked him early as something like a grand old man, a role his thoughtful, gentlemanly (for the most part), marvelously literate prose filled naturally. The auteur theory introduced the focus and scope of literary criticism to the world of film; Sarris’s reviews, though peppered with citations of technique, mostly place style at the service of tone and theme, which he expanded outward into the real world of politics and ideas. (Too frequently minus the last, most interesting part, this is still the dominant work done by serious print criticism, though Manny Farber’s esoteric vocabulary and charged readings of the visual seem to be gaining in influence as film culture moves online.) Films came to him to be clarified, classified, and placed in a context which expanded even as his shadow lengthened; Sarris’s great gift was to say not the most original or provocative thing but to say the most essential thing, and say it best.

But what the ordered categories of The American Cinema, and its fully formed philosophical scaffolding, have perhaps overshadowed is the specifics of Sarris’s inevitably personal, passionate pantheon—let alone the insights and sentences themselves, so often delightful for their own sake. (On the “psychic ills” of Nick Ray’s characters: “Jealousy of Joan Crawford is the murderous motivation of Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar.”) In his reviews for the Village Voice, especially the ones collected in Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969, Sarris was funny, and at times scabrously political—funny in the way of a brilliant, impatient thinker who’s gotten out ahead of the culture with energy to spare and maybe a few hip readers to keep up with his tossed-off riffs. He was, after all, the first real film critic at the first real alt-weekly.

He was lapped, inevitably: In the 70s and 80s reviews collected in the Voice Film Guide, you see a then more conspicuously joke-y, agit-whatever J. Hoberman box Sarris out of the bohemian beat; Sarris bristles, at times, when feminists and other recent arrivals from academia seemed to implicitly challenge his postwar-humanist outlook. (Never moreso than during the great Jeanne Dielman contretemps of ’83, which, like so many of Sarris’s pieces, triggers nostalgia for a paper where writers dispensed with plot summaries and release cycles to have it out over the course of multiple issues for a readership eager to follow along and take sides.) So yes, the relevance of the name above the title to the average American moviegoer, and its accompanying cultural legitimacy, makes for Sarris’s most permanent achievement. But even the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, attends to the day-to-day business of living. In applying his monumental idea and agile mind to whatever the culture served up every week for the five decades he worked as a reviewer, Sarris was as lively, pointed and inspiring as anyone you could ever hope to read on the subway.

06/06/12 4:00am
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06/06/2012 4:00 AM |

Creative Nonfiction, Lena Dunham’s 2009 debut feature, begins with the then-22-year-old filmmaker saying, “Ok, so there’s this girl,” over a closeup of herself. Then as now, the question of where “this girl” ends and Dunham begins is an open-ended one, which is very much the point. As Girls approaches its season finale on June 17, it’s something the show’s very many recappers continue to ponder; a couple of nights later, at 8:10pm on Tuesday, June 19, we’ll attempt to provide some supplementary material when Creative Nonfiction screens at the Nitehawk as The L Magazine’s selection for the Northside Festival’s film component.

Girls gets much of its resonance from the appearance of neurosis-baring, anxiety-purging honesty from Dunham, with its jokes at the expense of her character’s imperfect self-awareness vis-à-vis creative aspirations and romantic prospects. The show’s quality, though, is down to what has turned out to be Dunham’s actually very acute self-awareness, her ability to shape and order sloppy experience. This has been her game all along—recall Tiny Furniture’s study of post-graduation drift, undertaken shortly after college—even back to Creative Nonfiction, which throws a bit of collegiate reflexivity into the mix as well.

Compared to her similarly named Lena surrogates, Creative Nonfiction’s Ella seems less exhausted than Tiny Furniture’s Aura, and responsive to pressures more internal than external, unlike Girls’s Hannah. At a school that may as well be Dunham’s alma mater Oberlin, where the college scenes were shot, Ella is working on a screenplay, about a talented high school poet abducted by her teacher, then fleeing from him across America. (The stagings of Ella’s synopsis, described to friends as the story evolves, are swift and clever in their literalness, like when the student clutches to her breast a paper marked with an enormous “A+”.) On her walkabout, Ella’s protagonist, played by Dunham in a series of terrible wigs, meets characters who echo, in off-center ways, Ella’s life (though not as closely, per interviews, as many of Ella’s travails echo with Dunham’s own). Meanwhile, Chris (David Unger) is sleeping on Ella’s floor, claiming an outbreak of mold has rendered his own dorm room uninhabitable; he soon takes up Ella’s invitation to sleep in her bed, both all the while finding each other’s signals much more ambiguous than we do.

In one early scene, Ella critiques a classmate’s choice of imagery in a bad breakup poem; she responds that her ex-boyfriend really did leave a rotting fish in a pan in a corner of her room: “I write from life.” Creative Nonfiction had its roots in a screenplay much like Ella’s, which Dunham quickly abandoned; her first-person salvage makes Creative Nonfiction, to continue with the writing-workshop metaphor, something like an exemplary version of the retreat to “write what you know.”

Because Dunham’s writing is exemplary. (And Creative Nonfiction is well-thought-out visually: the operators of the digital camera squeeze into Ella’s single bed with her and Chris, for that dorm-room claustrophobia feel.) Creative Nonfiction, like Girls, shows her to be a savvy writer of, well, guys: the way that, for instance, a passive, less than confident young man might mislead a woman with his fear of giving offense, then take her embarrassment as an opportunity to appear wise. (After Ella has made a move that’s less unreciprocated than unacknowledged: “Sorry I brought it up.” “It’s ok.”) Ella finally presses Chris on his motivations until he says, “You assume that I actually think about things,” which is so funny and spot-on that you’d figure someone once said it to Dunham even if she hadn’t copped to it in an interview.

That’s not a criticism: Creative Nonfiction sees Dunham building up greatest-hits editions of undergraduate banter and types, like the girly-girl in the baby-pink dorm sweats who complains of feeling objectified; or the paragon of accessible sophistication played by Dunham’s best friend, Audrey Gelman. Creative Nonfiction is, in short, the notes of a scrupulously observant person.

04/25/12 4:00am
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04/25/2012 4:00 AM |

Last week, in assembling a contractually mandated listicle for the L’s website upon the death of Dick Clark, I lit upon a list of “incongruousAmerican Bandstand appearances, reveling in the supreme awkwardness of the moments when it seemed plausible that this or that cult might be swept up into the American mainstream. X appeared twice, for instance, in the early 80s, during the music industry’s scramble to open channels of communication with punk subculture. (The rolls of Saturday Night Live’s hosts and musical guests are a mother lode in this respect. Halloween, 1981: Donald Pleasance and Fear.)

Studio movies, ever contorting themselves, Twister-like, to keep in contact with all four audience quadrants, are excellent places to see this zeitgeist piecework in action. The Bond movies, for instance, are perhaps best considered as concentrations of exotic locales and hot-button fears, gimmicks and gadgets, and varieties of beauty and music-video styles with fascinatingly varied cultural half-lives.

These monuments to modishness, or brief surfacings of spotlight-disfigured undergrounds, are fascinating, and not just in retrospect. It isn’t a matter of these incongruous bits of the popcultural past being “dated”—datedness is just the observable gap between our current attitudes and aesthetic norms and a since-vacated settlement of same. (Irony, of course, is when a speaker positions himself in such a way as to amplify this distance, whether in opposition to a recreated past, as in Paul Verhoeven and Starship Troopers, or in alignment with a hoped-for future, as in Douglas Sirk and Imitation of Life.) (Time, or anyway the implication of time, is what differentiates irony from mere sarcasm. But I digress.) These incongruous moments are when the seams with which the contemporary is sewn together become especially visible.

Comedy, grounded in tribal specificity and shifting conceptions of hip, is a vital commodity to be parachuted into a movie, a lifesblood whiff of Now for the aspiring Event Movie. Rom-coms have always retold jokes from the current viral medium, whether it’s the immortally precise bits from the stage-trained names below the title in screwball comedies; TV’s first deconstructionist, Ernie Kovacs, mumbling past the fourth wall and into your living room in Bell, Book and Candle; or the sketch-clip players whose pop-cultural references fill out the his-and-hers spaces today’s leads occupy between FWB coupling. (Straight comedies are only slightly more cohesive: in the now-dominant Apatow school, movies are put together like the performances of a high-school jazz band, with each member of the ever-expanding combo getting a solo in turn.)

Also last week, I had a brief Twitter discussion with the L critic Jesse Hassenger, after he published on his own blog a comprehensively incredulous response to James Wolcott’s recent, deeply silly Vanity Fair thumbsucker, “Television Has Officially Surpassed the Movies.” Wolcott’s standard, for most of the piece, is an impossible-to-quantify buzzy ubiquity; as a baseball fan at a time when the national pastime seems pretty evidently to be football, I certainly understand this sort of cultural penis envy, but it’s not to be seriously credited. The cocktail-party fallacy, of extrapolating overarching conclusions about the national conversation from one’s own circle, is even more fallacious when reliant upon personally curated social-media feeds—which also make that conversation as Wolcott imagines it, with its alphanumeric hierarchical outline of watercooler topics, presumably distributed to everyone weekly by authoritatively titled magazines, strictly a nostalgic reverie. Or, maybe, it was ever thus: this is almost always the sane, sensible rejoinder, and it’s certainly the logical conclusion to draw after looking back on Dick Clark or a conference table of Hollywood executives trying to Frankenstein together a convincing synecdoche of American culture from the limbs of Special Guests and And Featurings.

03/14/12 4:00am
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03/14/2012 4:00 AM |

The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne write and direct moral fables that happen to be about working-class people, filmed with a handheld camera. Their The Kid with a Bike, opening March 16, concerns the troubled preteen Cyril (first-time actor Thomas Doret, a dynamo), abandoned by his father, who learns to control his emotions and live with others through the intervention of a good fairy: a hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France). I spoke to the Dardennes, through a French interpreter, during last fall’s New York Film Festival, in a hotel’s “Presidential Suite,” featuring a four-poster bed, suggestive crystal sculpture, and reproduction Rothkos on the wall. Before the interview began, Luc Dardenne pointed out highlights of the décor, then fixed me with a look and said (not asked, said), “Your home, too.”

I don’t know that it matters to the film, but I’m always curious how much filmmakers know about stuff that isn’t in the movie. Where is the mother?
Luc Dardenne: She’s not here. [Pause, just long enough for interviewer to become nervous.]

You have to choose when you make a movie. We decided that the person that the boy needs is his father. So we couldn’t have the mother there. You can say that she died, or that she disappeared with another guy. We didn’t want to tell her story, furthermore, because the boy meets a woman who’s called Samantha.

I want to ask about the biting. The way Cyril bites people in fights, it makes him seem almost feral, not fully adapted to society.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Well it’s true that Cyril is a violent person. Well because, probably I mean, he’s subject to this terrible violence of having been abandoned by his father. That makes one violent, oneself. It’s the way he found to be able to continue living. What the film talks about is really how he can extricate himself from this violence. How will his meeting with Samantha allow him to extricate himself from this violence and this life.

I noticed that Cecile de France’s character is wearing feather earrings at some point, and then later she is wearing shirts with animal prints. Is she, like the good fairy, surrounded by animals?
LD: You may see that in there, but that’s not what we were thinking. It’s possible to see it that way.

How important, in general, are clothes to you? How much time do you spend on them? How do you assemble the details of the film?
J-PD: Ok, the costumes are very important to us. We start the costume fittings when we start rehearsals.

LD: And until the last moment we leave ourselves open to changing them. Because it’s like the rehearsals. All the time that is devoted to trying on different costumes, takes us out of anything that could be stereotypical.

J-PD: You know, stereotypes that we may have about the characters, or that the actors may have about the characters.

LD: Because the normal response is that you want to lock the characters immediately into a certain personage. Then you’re happy, the work is over. You know: if he’s a juvenile delinquent then he has a sweatshirt with a hood and then we’re done. That’s the natural reaction.

J-PD: Whenever an actor says “Hey, I like this jacket, this is good,” we always, on purpose, say we don’t like it. Maybe later we’ll say, “Hey, well, maybe this jacket.” But you know actors, you always have to throw them off a bit. Throw them off balance, otherwise they don’t work well. Whether they’re professionals or not.

LD: And never can they decide with the costume designer, with the makeup artist, without us.

02/15/12 4:00am
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02/15/2012 4:00 AM |

Ruby Stevens was born on July 16, 1907, at 246 Classon Avenue. 246 Classon isn’t there any more—the even-numbered side of the block between DeKalb and Willoughby is where Pratt is now—and Ruby Stevens was soon subsumed as well, by her stage name. In his new book, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan assesses her life and especially her performances, in the kind of prose—swift, and matter-of-fact about emotional complications—familiar to admirers of his writing for this publication and others.

Dan concludes that Stanwyck was the most open, raw, unshowy and affectless of the Golden Age movie queens, in both her performances and offscreen attitudes; he builds a compelling personal narrative out of her contradictions: her bootstrapping tough-broad self-sufficiency (this slum kid was a rabid Ayn Rand fan and loved her Westerns best of all), her self-effacing, almost masochistic love life, and her radical spontaneity on-screen. On Sunday the 19th, Dan will be at the Museum of the Moving Image to sign copies, and introduce screenings of Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve and Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns.

How did your understanding of Stanwyck’s work and understanding of Stanwyck’s biography end up deepening and informing each other over the course of writing?

As I watched all of her films for the book, in rough chronological order, and researched her life, which at a certain point really did narrow to making those movies and giving her all to them, I was struck by how hard it must have been to sustain her all-out sensitivity on screen over the 60 or so years of her career. Her private life was in many ways disappointing, or unsatisfying, but she never closed up for the camera. She had the discipline to keep herself open without ever being destroyed by the hard knocks that kept coming at her in life. That’s why, to me, what she achieved really is a kind of miracle.

Both of the movies Stanwyck did for Preston Sturges—Remember the Night, which he wrote, and The Lady Eve, which he wrote and directed—feature some of her most charismatic, not to say sexually available, work, which then eventually shades into some of her most masochistic emoting, during story twists that involve a sort of cleansing self-abnegation for the sake of romantic love (as opposed to mother-love, as in Stella Dallas). Of course female self-sacrifice was both a moral and aesthetic norm in the American movies of the time, but what would you say is distinctive about the way Stanwyck played these storylines?

Stanwyck personalized the standard motions of self-sacrifice by suggesting that she wasn’t trying to please society or please men but to appease her own personal standards or demons. She never plays just one emotion or one line of thought in her best work but always has a few thoughts and emotions running on different tracks, and when they collide with each other, they feel like epiphanies, like an orchestra playing. Most actresses, even the very best ones, would wind up with a total confused mess if they tried to keep as many plates in the air as Stanwyck does. It took skill and practice on her part, but by 1940 and 1941, she was capable of all that and more.

11/09/11 4:00am
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11/09/2011 4:00 AM |

In the first half of Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s Wagnerian domestic drama (opening November 11), Kirsten Dunst’s depressive Justine has a breakdown at her wedding, hosted by Claire, her half-sister, and Claire’s magisterially wealthy husband. This section is called “Justine”; in the film’s second half, “Claire,” the world ends. Dunst won a best actress prize at Cannes for her fevered portrayal of the nihilistic Justine, but it’s Gainsbourg—who won the same prize for Von Trier’s Antichrist—who, while playing a contrasting breakdown borne of objective, exterior circumstance, is tasked with conveying a recognizable human response to the impending end of humanity. She spoke to me last month, while she was in town for the New York Film Festival, and following a brief delay while she tended to her newborn son.

In the two films that you’ve recently made with Lars von Trier, you enact two very different views of motherhood. How much time did you spend thinking about Claire as a mother? How do you play one?
With Antichrist, I didn’t want to think about myself, my experience of being a mother. I didn’t want to think about my own children because of what the character was going through. With this one, I felt that I was portraying a woman I disliked, in a sense that for me she was a fake mother, a fake wife, and she was faking her life in this fancy house. But that was my vision. I don’t know if that’s the way I portrayed her. I felt that she was quite cold, and also not facing reality—in the sense that once she has to face reality, with the end of the world, she can’t cope with it and she collapses. There was something about her that I, I was ashamed of her, this side of her that makes her a bit of a coward, but in that sense she’s very human. So to come back being a mother, I felt that she was pretending to be a mother; because that’s the only way she knows how to do it. It’s trying to control everything, as she wants to control the wedding and make sure that everything goes smoothly. That’s the only thing she knows how to do.

Your desciption of her seems very much like the Claire we see in the first half of the film—seems to be very much the way that Justine sees Claire, and sees through Claire’s pretending to be happy. In the second half, which is nominally about your character, she seems much more authentic.
There’s a real caring and loving part about her, caring about her sister. I find, the thing is, as soon as Justine no longer needs her, and she feels that she’s better, then my character completely sinks and can’t cope with anything anymore once she has to face reality. But I liked that I had not a lot of sympathy for myself. You know, it’s interesting, you don’t always have to love your character. It’s nice to have weaknesses that you’re ashamed of, as you are in real life. So in a way, I’ve very close to who Claire is, but I’m not proud of it. But the caring side was important and that makes her more loving. I remember with Lars we started out working on that. It’s the only thing we worked on, really. We’d just improvise scenes where I was more of the motherly sister nursing her and she was playing the patient, incapable of folding a napkin. That was our exploration, that’s what he wanted to insist on.

You’ve said that there’s not much rehearsal. A lot of the relationships in the film seem fairly allegorical—did you have much backstory in mind? For instance, what does Claire’s husband do, to have all that money? Or, was that something you made a conscious decision not to think about?
The thing is, I knew the money didn’t come from me. So that was quite obvious, and then, you do make up some things, some kind of background. Of course, it’s helpful. But I never discussed it with Lars, because I know he hates that.

I wanted to ask you about the end of the world. How much help did you have on set?

Oh, no help at all. We had to just picture it, imagine. But it was fairly easy, I mean, we’ve all been children.

People have described coming out of the movie feeling ecstatic after witnessing the end of the world. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a validating one in some ways, because people who are depressed in the film, they’re right. Their misery is clarity.
Yeah, they have nothing to lose.

And that’s what I think is interesting about Claire—she’s someone who does. And that’s why we see the end of the world through her, and not her sister.
Yeah, she has a life that she believes is what she wanted and what reassures her. Yeah, she has everything to lose.

You seem like the kind of person who will be asked to be on the jury at Cannes at some point.
I have been asked, a long time ago—well, not that long ago. It was with Liv Ullmann, when she was president [in 2001], and I wish I could do it again, because I didn’t get it at the time. I was embarrassed judging the films, and I didn’t feel I had the right to, or didn’t feel I had seen them properly. I think now I’d have the courage to feel stronger about films, and want to defend a film and want to defend my point of view. Whereas at the time I was a bit shy, and I think that when you are part of the jury, you can’t be shy. You have to fight for what you feel is right.

A colleague has written that you gravitate toward strong collaborators, and the filmmakers you’ve chosen to work with, and the musicians you’ve chosen to collaborate with, reflect a certain sensibility and confidence.
I love working with people I admire, it’s very simple. I find now that I don’t really care about the material, the script. I do care about the director and other actors; the human experience is more important than the rest. That’s what I find today.

09/28/11 4:00am
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09/28/2011 4:00 AM |

Michael Lewis is good—maybe too good—at shaping statistical abstracts into compelling storylines set in the worlds of finance and sport. Reading his Moneyball, it’s easy to see what attracted a filmmaker as data-driven as Steven Soderbergh to the project; watching Bennett Miller’s film Moneyball, it’s easy to see how the dictates of the studio sports flick drove him off.

Moneyball‘s underdog story concerns how, in the early aughts, Oakland As General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt here) ran a competitive team on a meager budget, using then-arcane statistical tools to measure value overlooked by a scouting community more fixated on physical potential than empirical data—basically, per Lewis’s hook, by finding cast-offs skilled in the unsexy art of pitch selection.

“An island of misfit toys,” offers Jonah Hill, in his cautious, schtick-reliant performance as the chubby and bespectacled Prometheus who brings the fire of advanced statistical analysis to pro baseball. Introducing run expectancy principles, he recites nut-graf explanations while the camera pans glazedly over computer screens; there’s a moralistic soft-sell to his explanations—it’s mostly a matter of giving people a chance, having faith in what the eye can’t see, and giving the big boys a run for their money.

One of the principals of sabermetrics, which Lewis is more ok with than the movie is, is that outcomes over a small sample will deviate significantly from the mean—a fancier way of saying, “anything can happen in a short series,” but it also implies that, contrary to the way scouts—and TV analysts, sportswriters, and especially fans—build athletes up, the guys on the field have less than complete agency. (And GMs like Beane have even less, despite the many pep talks Pitt delivers to his improbably attentive charges.)

In Chad Harbach’s new novel The Art of Fielding, a slumping ballplayer ponders the point of practice, no longer believing that “You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way.” It’s a question with no little existential sting: why labor, if virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded? American atheists have been working this through for some time, without, frankly, much response from the culture at large. (Harbach’s novel answers deftly, embracing the process of self-improvement as an outcome in itself, a sort of Zeno’s Paradox of the soul.)

Moneyball, though, doesn’t really know how to handle defeat: when the Twins bounce the As out of the playoffs it barely registers, the film having already climaxed with the team’s walk-off win of their twentieth game in a row. And then it ends with a victory—a moral victory, as victory in sports movies invariably is—as Beane turns down a better job, the better to stay close to his daughter.

The objection to sports movie simplifications isn’t just the pedant’s insistence that really it went like this, not like that (if anything, Moneyball is most pleasurable in its ripped-from-the-sports-page details, notably Arliss Howard’s cameo as John Henry, the slightly Asperger’s-y hedge fund kajillionaire who turned the Boston Red Sox into a model franchise, which suggests better than Pitt’s active performance as MLB vet Beane the sort of anxiety the new math still inspires in baseball). It’s the knowledge that you’re being sold a bill of goods. It’s how I felt watching the documentary Senna, even without knowing anything about Formula 1—the way it manipulates its narrative arc and leaves assertions ungrounded in specifics, the better to conjure a symbolically pure vision of racing driver Ayrton Senna.

The highlight-reel version is the overwhelming trend in sports movies—as it is in the national discourse surrounding sports, not entirely excluding some progressive corners of the internet. We streamline slightly wonky, sometimes self-contradictory but nonetheless crucial systemic understanding into wide-aperture narratives of moral instruction. As such, Moneyball is also an unpleasant reminder of our eternally broken political rhetoric.

08/31/11 4:00am
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08/31/2011 4:00 AM |

To make Where Soldiers Come From, director Heather Courtney embedded for four years with Dominic, Cole and Bodi, three young National Guardsmen from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, before, during, and after their deployment in Afghanistan, while also getting to know their families, girlfriends, and communities, in a homefront chronicle spanning two presidential administrations and a global economic recession. The unassumingly made film, a generous, surprising and compelling chronicle that more than lives up to its title, opens at the Village East on September 9th; we recently emailed with Courtney.

How’d you come to find this group of “yoopers” and focus on their experience going to war?

About five years ago, I went back to my hometown to tell a story about rural America, so “where soldiers come from” is actually where I come from too. I had always felt that small-town America wasn’t portrayed very authentically in mainstream television and film. Once there, I was perusing the local paper for story ideas, and saw an article about the local National Guard unit. I went to one of their monthly trainings, and that’s where I met Dominic, who was 19 at the time. He told me that he had joined the National Guard after graduating from high school, to help pay for college, and then he turned to a group of other teenaged boys and said, “and these are all my friends and we all joined together.” I thought that could be interesting, to follow a group of friends, at that age where they’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Focusing on this crucial moment in a kid’s life, and opening a window to the place and people they’re from, have always been more important to me than telling a story about war. So in that way, it started as a coming-of-age film, and I still think it’s a coming-of-age film, although it became a coming-of-age film in the context of war once they found out they were going to be deployed.

Can you speak at all to the availability of funding and support for a project this ambitious?

It is difficult to get the kind of financial support you need for a project that involves filming for four years, and not just dropping in for a week and shooting a few events and a few interviews. You really have to become a part of their lives, and a part of the fabric of the community. For me, that meant moving to northern Michigan for months at a time, and hanging out for just as much time as I was shooting. That meant being able to devote all my time to the project, and not have to work a full-time job. I was lucky enough to get ITVS Open Call funding about a year into my project. They took a risk by funding me fairly early on in what turned into a four-year project. There are only a handful of Open Call grants given twice a year, out of thousands of applications. There are other grants and support out there as well, but most involve piecing it together; there are not that many grants that provide the kind of funding that is necessary for a long-term cinéma-vérité project. It’s having the gift of time, and that means not having to earn a full-time income somewhere else. I was lucky, and I realize that it’s not going to be that easy to have that kind of support and that gift of time again.

The ways in which the soldiers and their families evolve as political thinkers is fascinating to watch. Obviously you want to encourage them to express themselves to you and your camera; how do you do that without imposing your own viewpoint on the conversation?

08/03/11 4:00am
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08/03/2011 4:00 AM |

Robert Ryan, probably the greatest actor in the history of cinema and subject of a long-awaited Film Forum retrospective from August 12 through the end of the month, was tall—six foot four—and handsome, the first son of a prominent Irish-American Chicago family, and educated at Dartmouth, where he was boxing champion all four years. He devoted much of his adult life to left-wing causes—civil rights, nuclear disarmament—and his three children recall a devoted if sometimes distant father. (In the early 50s, he wrote them a long letter about his family history and upbringing: “The time might come someday to one of you—or all of you—when you become curious about my early life. If that should ever happen, you will have this record to tell you.”) Ryan wasn’t beautiful enough to be a major leading man—his brow loomed over the rest of his face—but he was more than handsome enough in a presidential sort of way and found himself playing upright supporting parts before he decided, in 1944, to join the Marines, either out of a sense of obligation or to help his career. In Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography, Franklin Jarlett proposes that his time serving as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton gave him a distressing firsthand look at the cost of war; in the service, he befriended fellow Marine Richard Brooks, author of the novel The Brick Foxhole, and lobbied for the part of the homophobe (changed on film to anti-Semite) who kills a fellow soldier. He received his sole Oscar nomination for Brooks’s Crossfire in 1948.

If most movie stars embody one or another of our treasured notions about who we are, Robert Ryan quickly became a shadow-self, a fathomless well of postwar America’s weaknesses, insecurities, prejudices and demons. In Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 Act of Violence, he’s the war buddy who torments Van Heflin—the solid homesteader of so many Westerns, here symbolically cast as a suburban contractor—with knowledge of his dark past. A few years ago, The L‘s Nicolas Rapold pointed out Act‘s striking similarities to A History of Violence: Ryan is the specter of our worst capabilities, but also a conflicted, sympathetic character. Zinnemann keeps the camera on him as he stands just outside the threshold of Heflin’s comfy house, waiting to mete out his long-sought vengeance but also starting guiltily at the sound of a woman’s voice from inside, sweating and grimacing and trying to slow his churning heartbeat.

Ryan was always either pursuer or pursued, or maybe both, but he brought nearly infinite nuance and variety to his boogeymen. In Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952), as the small-town projectionist who hounds Barbara Stanwyck, he’s full of loathing borne of self-knowledge and given flight by Clifford Odets’s baroque, steel-edged dialogue; he’s more raw as the racist bankrobber in Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), with its great wintry uptown and upstate locations. Blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky makes the film’s heist into a racial allegory, plagued by tensions between Ryan and angry Harry Belafonte: most Ryan performances are psychoanalytic inquiries into the social ills of postwar America, revealed as hateful or frightened or drunk, but Polonsky makes it explicit, and the liberal Ryan, despite his conscientious disapproval of his character (which he discussed with the activist press), grants himself access to stores of blind, omnidirectional hatred in a relentlessly self-flagellating performance (check that bitter smile as he delivers his first line of dialogue, addressing a small African-American girl in mock dialect).

A decade earlier, Wise had cast Ryan as the soul of naïveté in his domestic boxing drama The Set-Up (1949)—the film’s a bit too midcentury mythpoetic about the modest dreams of little people, but effective for the “Paradise City” set, a backlot dream of Americana, and for Ryan, who plays a similarly idealized role, for once, with punch-drunk cadences turning slowly to self-discovery. He’s so open, which is also the source of his damage. Ryan had a big, sheepish smile and a soft, hoarse voice; his laugh was a sort of indulgent chuckle, which could be either sweet or terrifying. Even—especially—at his most menacing, he was tender, the way a bruise is tender. As the American gangster in postwar Tokyo, betrayed by Robert Stack’s undercover man in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955; a weeklong run ends the series), Ryan is shockingly needy; his every act of violence is almost like a last, desperate plea. (He is also surely the only actor who could have convincingly portrayed a homosexual subtext while speaking Sam Fuller’s dialogue.)

07/20/11 4:00am
by |
07/20/2011 4:00 AM |

In a leafy backyard in Soho, Miranda July, in town to promote The Future, recently discussed her film and other things, in a wry, clear voice whose thoughtful cadence gives the impression of unrehearsed introspection. The film is reviewed here.

Why do you think people say things like “Hello, person” when they wake up next to somebody they love [as July’s character Sophie says to her boyfriend Jason, played by Hamish Linklater]?

It’s funny that it’s not that easy to say “love,” to use words for it. To me that was a very sweet—the dumbness of calling someone “person”—to me that was real. I’ve done that, I’ve used that as a term of endearment.

There’s a weird sort of power and depth, is it a way to efface that? To avoid being embarrassed or self-conscious?

Sometimes me and my husband will—out of the blue one of us will go, “Separate person,” which is a reminder that we’re…separate people. And you forget that, and it’s always to us like this moment, “whoa, acid trip, just remember that this is all a dream,” except it’s real, that’s the feeling. So “person” is a derivation of “separate person.”

More generally, I wanted to ask about this metaphor, and why you think it makes sense—why it feels right to you that Sophie should confront her need for validation through the medium of interpretive dance, or why, in my favorite short story of yours, “The Swim Team,” for loneliness to be embodied by elderly people swimming on the floor?

I think in some ways you know the feeling, it’s so clear. You have the feeling but you almost need something out of left field to put it in, because if you just do the obvious example of that feeling, it’s inaccurate, it’s dulled…

Dulled by familiarity?

Yeah, and by the fact that you didn’t have to reach for it, you didn’t have to invent it. I think sometimes reaching out kind of blindly and grabbing something that you don’t even know why it’s right at first—an image has come forth and you just keep going with it and turns out, “Oh, in fact, this is the fruit that I was looking for.” But it’s the most uncalculating part…

But the impulse to go to the unconscious in the first place?

I mean, that’s what you do, trusting that. Getting in a space where you can trust that, is the real discipline of it, is the job to me. That is what I’m here to do—and you can only do that for fleeting moments at a time and then you sort of look at what you have, these riches that you’ve made. Some of them are important, and some of them aren’t. Then you kind of get to work, understanding them.

You’ve said in other interviews that you think film is a more symbolic medium because there’s not a voice guiding you the whole time.

You don’t get the intimacy you think you are, because you are looking at skin, and sometimes people are naked, and it seems so intimate, but you’re not inside of them. And you don’t have their voice in your head the way you do with a book. So you have to let go of all that, and think in a much more symbolic and lighter way. You’re just skipping through time, and using time itself, and rhythm, in a much bolder way that you wouldn’t have to do with fiction. It would be too chaotic anyway.

This is a question I ask in every interview: Was there ever going to be more sex in the movie?

Yes, in fact there was a sex scene between me and Hamish Linklater—between our characters—that we even shot. And it was accidentally almost too pornographic. I wanted it to be this real sex scene between a couple that’s been together for four years, but it just honestly looked like a porn movie and I cut it out. Which changes a lot: they don’t touch that much in the movie now. But it kind of served its purpose, to make us more intimate and more comfortable with each other, because we thought we had to do this. We had to be willing to do it, and do the work to be ok with that. So I think it served its purpose.

To what extent is your movie about Los Angeles?

In some ways it’s not a very good portrait-of-a-city movie because it’s just indoors—a lot of it is indoors and in these kind of mundane spaces—but I also think that people are quite isolated there. When Sophie goes to Tarzana, it’s like moving to another state or something. It seems just totally different. In truth, people from L.A. know that that’s just like fifteen minutes away from where they lived, probably. And there’s something crushing about that: so nearby, but in another world. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s super-L.A. and that probably reflects my disengagement from place and more involvement with interior worlds.

What are you reading right now?

So randomly, because I’m traveling and I finished my book of Alice Munro short stories, Friend of My Youth, I bought the Siri Husvedt book in the Philadelphia train station. Someone handed me an Italo Calvino book last night at the Apple Store. And that actually looks pretty good, and I haven’t read it. So I’m glad to have it.

Do people often…?

No, I was like, “This is a great thing to do. Instead of asking me to sign my book, just give me a book.”

I think it’s an understandable 

In fact I love that author. That’s a good idea, to give me that book. Also, that it wasn’t a book that they wrote was a particularly generous move.