Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part I)

With only one good movie so far this year (thank you, Ghost Writer) and only one likely contender on the horizon (helllloooo, Mother!), I've managed lately to catch up on my reading. Better than sitting through bad movies is reading about good ones, especially when the book is as engrossing as Pictures at a Revolution (2008).

I avoided Pictures when it hit the shelves because I thought I knew its premise too well: 1967 was a watershed year for American cinema, with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate pushing the envelope onscreen and stirring debate offscreen. To his credit, though, author Mark Harris is interested in more than just the 'Birth of the New Hollywood' of his title. His book is really about the clash between the New Hollywood and the Old Hollywood as evinced by the five Best Picture nominees that year. It's about how the movies that change the industry are rarely the ones that win awards.

Rather than approach each of his five subjects separately, Harris deftly weaves the story of each production together. For clarity, however, let's take them one by one.

Bonnie and Clyde
  • Plenty of credit is given to "the boys," screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, who wanted to recreate the American gangster genre (which had long ago seen better days) in the style of the Nouvelle Vague. Their dream director was one of the French New Wave's leaders, Francois Truffaut, and they almost got him. 
  • Truffaut's on-again, off-again relationship with Bonnie and Clyde was frustrating, but did help Newman and Benton, who had never written a script before, shape their approach of blending comedy and violence not only within the same movie but within many individual scenes . "Of all the scripts I have turned down in the last five years," Truffaut wrote to them, "Bonnie and Clyde is the best...." Still, his heart had long been set on making Fahrenheit 451 his English-language debut.
  • Nevertheless, Truffaut also helped Newman and Benton attract the interest of, first, Jean-Luc Godard, and then Warren Beatty. Godard's conceptualization was ultimately too wacky (four weeks of shooting in New Jersey -- substituting for the Dust Bowl! -- with a French actress as one of the stars). Beatty, on the other hand, was an ambitious young actor struggling to prove himself more than a pretty-boy and a pain-in-the-ass, and ultimately succeeded in negating one of those impressions.
  • Harris brings Beatty to life more convincingly than anyone I've read. He focuses on Beatty's intelligence and drive and vision to be a producer back when actors had little to no say over their careers. He also refreshingly couldn't care less about Beatty's womanizing: whereas Peter Biskind leaves a trail of drool over every paragraph on the subject, Mark Harris briefly mentions and then drops it.
  • That said, Harris does seem oddly fixated on a scene ultimately cut from the screenplay -- a "three-way" between Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and C.W. Moss (to be played by Michael J. Pollard). Truffaut or Godard might have had fun with that, but Arthur Penn, who eventually agreed to direct after turning down the project multiple times, thought it diluted the intensity of Bonnie and Clyde's relationship. It also would have unquestionably raised hackles from the MPAA and the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures, and there was already plenty to complain about. (Harris charts the influence -- and antiquated ideas -- of both groups masterfully.)
  • Beatty had worked with Penn once before, on the flop Mickey One. They argued throughout the production, but Beatty enjoyed their arguments, saw them as boons to creativity. "Let's promise to have at least one argument every day," he told Penn shortly before filming began on Bonnie and Clyde. Not a problem.
  • Penn was reluctant to direct Bonnie and Clyde because he had just made The Chase, an unsuccessful crime picture with Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. He finally assented after looking beyond the script's romanticism and finding a story about socioeconomic issues -- "about the agricultural nature of the country." He also knew that however heated his disagreements with Beatty might be, that Beatty would never take the movie away from him.
  • Harris conveys Penn's intentions quite well, but he errs in describing an early scene where Clyde "hands a gun to a black farmhand and allows him to shoot out the window of a foreclosed house," suggesting "an alliance against the Man that crossed racial lines." Actually, Clyde offers the gun to the white former owner of the house, who then hands it to the black man.
  • It's amusing nowadays to hear gripes about the movie's historical inaccuracy, since accuracy was never one of the filmmakers' objectives. In truth, Bonnie and Clyde is a fascinating amalgam of authentic settings (shot on location in rural Texas, as was Newman and Benton's original intent) and 60s attitudes, attires (note Faye Dunaway's trend-setting berets) and mores.
  • Robert Towne, who would go on, it seems, to script-doctor many of the best movies of the 70s (before writing a few of them himself, namely Chinatown), was signed on by his pal Beatty to perform surgical procedures on Bonnie and Clyde. Most crucially, Towne enhanced the structure of the film. In the original script, for example, the kidnapping of the undertaker (played by Gene Wilder) came after the sequence where Bonnie visits her mother. Towne put the comical undertaker scene before the somber passage with Bonnie's mother, letting the mood gradually turn darker, foreshadowing the principals' deaths.
  •  Harris offers heaps of praise for editor Dede Allen (who passed away last week), suggesting that while her cross-cutting in the robbery sequences and the apocalyptic climax are justly famous, it was her focus on character that made the movie work. "Allen knew just how long she could hold a shot of Beatty to reveal the insecurity beneath Clyde's preening; she seemed to grasp instinctively that sudden cuts to Dunaway in motion would underscore the jagged, jumpy spirit of Bonnie Parker," he writes. "And Allen cut Bonnie and Clyde with an eye and ear for the accelerating pace of the story, making the building of its panicky momentum her priority."
  • Jack Warner, sole head of Warner Brothers and Old Hollywood dinosaur by the time the 60s rolled around, half-heartedly gave the green-light to Bonnie and Clyde, but never understood what Beatty and Penn saw in the project and hated the finished product. (Sidebar: Harris notes that Warner Bros. was, during Warner's reign, infamous for making terrible films.) One of my favorite passages in the book is Penn's anecdote about Beatty trying to explain to Jack Warner that the movie was an homage to classic Warner Brothers gangster pictures, and Warner replying, "What the fuck's an homage?"
  • Nevertheless, Bonnie and Clyde may have been saved by, of all things, the Six Days' War. Israel's victory made Warner so magnanimous he vowed to release every film that had recently completed production, even the ones he loathed.
  • Pauline Kael's passionate, 7,000 word defense of the movie is oft-cited as having been a rescue mission, but actually she "was uncharacteristically late to the fray," according to Harris. Kael's piece helped her win a permanent gig at The New Yorker, but it was Joe Morgenstern's about-face in Newsweek -- initially panning the film, then admitting he was wrong -- that turned the critical tide.
  • Missing the boat completely was Bosley Crowther, old-guard critic for the New York Times. Harris does a nice job humanizing Crowther, frequently regarded these days as a fusty butt of jokes. (Okay, maybe a quick jab for hailing Cleopatra a masterpiece.) Crowther wrote no less than four pieces condemning Bonnie and Clyde, revealing him as out-of-touch with the paper's growing young readership and eventually dismissed. Often unremarked is, in 1977, he would reverse many of his original opinions of the film.
  • Bonnie and Clyde did decent business, all things considered, with a limited initial release in 1967. In early 1968, following the film's ten Oscar nominations, Warner Bros. (at Beatty's incessant urging) took the unprecedented step of rereleasing the film. It was then that Bonnie and Clyde became a smash and the frontrunner for Best Picture.
Next: a musical debacle, a studio's shameless Oscar-whoring, and a mighty ego named Rex....

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Terrible Judgment and Excellent Taste (Mitchell Zuckoff's Robert Altman: The Oral Biography)

1. Although I was vaguely familiar with Altman's Catholic, jazz-loving, Kansas City, Mo. upbringing, I didn't realize until reading Mitchell Zuckoff's Oral Biography how long he had lived there before going Hollywood. For years he honed his craft making industrial films for the Calvin Company, whose offices were incidentally in the Altman Building, located in downtown KC and named after his grandfather.

2. I also didn't know that Altman was a WWII fighter bomber pilot who flew over 50 missions, when surviving 30 was considered miraculous.

3. Altman was married three times, the last 47 years of his life to the same woman: Kathryn Reed. When they met, the first thing he said to her was, "How are your morals?" She replied, "A little shaky. How are yours?"

4. Bob and Kathryn met on the set on Whirlybirds, one of many TV shows where he was a director-for-hire and she was an actress with a bit part. Working with helicopters on that show would later inspire the famous opening credits sequence for M*A*S*H.

5. Altman's television work became widely admired. "He was fantastic on Bonanza," reminisces producer David Dortort. "He was the best director I had. The series became sharper, more focused. He was born with a camera in his brain."

6. He had also already acquired a reputation for being difficult. Shot an episode of Combat! (featuring Vic Morrow and Michael Murphy) that the studio told him not to do (and was subsequently fired). Wrote a nasty letter to Alfred Hitchcock accusing the latter of stealing one of his ideas for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Harbingers of things to come.

7. Altman's general contempt for producers and screenwriters dates way back to this period. So too does his admiration for actors. Throughout the book, Murphy and countless other performers marvel at how open Altman was to their ideas compared to other filmmakers. Reza Badiyi, who worked on Altman's first directorial credit, The Delinquents, says, "If you go on the set of a Sam Peckinpah and you want to tell him anything, he kills you right there."

8. While Altman's body of work is primarily known for its collection of remarkable performances, Zuckoff makes a convincing case for his innovations in technical aspects of moviemaking. These originated even before he went to television, while making documentaries at the Calvin Company. A sound engineers recalls that he "had this passion for sound. He was always looking to do sound a different way, different than everybody else." Additionally, a former cameraman praises Altman's ability to find "something different in the way of camera angles, the way he accomplished shots."

9. These qualities failed to come together for Altman's late-60s forays into film, Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park. They did come together in 1970 for M*A*S*H, but only after every other major director had turned the picture down. Altman also originally turned it down.

10. Stanley Kubrick was the first choice to direct M*A*S*H. Needless to say, that would have been a different movie.

11. Despite what became his glowing reputation with actors, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould so hated working with Altman they tried to get him fired. Says Gould: "I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren't getting Altman's genius."

12. Although there is a great deal of fawning by many from Altman's ensembles in Zuckoff's book (too much of it, in my opinion), the most interesting reflections come from the contrarians. For every ten or twelve actors rhapsodizing how Altman made them feel "safe," there's a Julie Christie who, recalling her reluctant walk-on in Nashville, says that "Robert by no means got his way by being sweet all the time. He could be manipulative." Keith Carradine, Robert Duvall and Shelley Duvall echo each other's sentiments that the first time you ever turned down a part for one of Altman's movies (as Carradine did the lead for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Bob Duvall did Haven Hamilton in Nashville, and Shelly D. did the female lead in A Perfect Couple), there was a good chance you'd never be asked to work with him again.

13. The director's technical wizardry also receives a compelling critique from Warren Beatty, who, at the end of a lengthy chapter on McCabe & Mrs. Miller where he's roundly mocked and dismissed by several from Altman's stable, makes a good case that the movie would have been even better had Altman taken time to improve the sound.

14. Still, his bursts of inspiration, when they arrived, could be flabbergasting. McCabe's famous climactic shootout in the snow was filmed by Altman on the fly (against Beatty's protests). The recurring variations of John Williams' theme for The Long Goodbye was also Altman's idea. Ditto the inspiration for "Suicide is Painless," the famous theme song for M*A*S*H written by his son, Michael Altman (who ended up making more money for his work on the movie than his father did). Paul Newman, who starred in two of his films (Buffalo Bill and Quintet), goes deeper than most other actors by explaining that "Bob directs using active verbs....I was playing a scene with another actor....and (Altman) said, 'Crowd him.' It was so clear and so defined and unmistakable what he wanted from that scene and from that character that he made it easy to play."

15. For all of Altman's fights with Hollywood "suits," his reputation as an undisciplined freewheeling director has been widely overstated. Little known is the fact that he usually delivered his films on budget and on time, often coming up with ingenious ways to save money. (The crowd at the Parthenon at the end of Nashville, for example, originally came for a cookout. Secret Honor was shot at the University of Michigan -- its lead, Philip Baker Hall, recalls -- because they "could get certain special conditions from the Screen Actors Guild...because he could shoot it as part of his class work, and he could also use the kids.") His own money slipped regularly through his fingers (as did Michael Altman's lucre from M*A*S*H), but Altman was relatively conscientious about handling the finances of others.

16. Also misunderstood, Zuckoff suggests, is Altman's emphasis on "improvisation." Many of the scripts he directed were quite formulaic. Altman would disguise this not through improvising but density: overlapping characters, dialogue, situations on top of each other to create the illusion of spontaneity. I think I agree with this. A good example that comes to mind is Gosford Park, where many of the crucial exchanges between Helen Mirren and Clive Owen occur along the edges of scenes.

17. I lost the quote in the book, but one interviewee notes that Altman had a curious quirk while directing movies: after a patient, painstaking preparatory phase, he would frequently rush to finish a film when he neared the end. John Considine, one of his longtime collaborators, believes that physical problems prompted Altman to hurry through the editing phase of Buffalo Bill: "I always thought if he went back and recut it, it could have been a more successful film."

18. Zuckoff captures the pain of Altman's "wilderness years" in the 80s, following the disastrous reception for Popeye (which still managed to gross $60 million on a $20 million budget). But he also highlights some important artistic successes, namely Secret Honor and the groundbreaking Tanner '88 series for HBO. 

19. As a teenager during this time, I was underwhelmed by Nashville and one or two other movies of his that I had seen on crummy VHS tape. The first Altman film I liked was actually one of his return-to-television movies, 1988's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. I still remember being taken aback by Eric Bogasian's rambling drunken monologue at the end of the film, where he calls out Queeg's critics for their hypocrisy. Not in the original, I'm guessing.

20. This anecdote isn't in The Oral Biography, but I also recall warming to him again after reading an interview he gave about ten years later, following the unexpected box-office success (by his standards) of 1999's Cookie's Fortune. The conversation turned to film criticism, and the interviewer brought up James Cameron's infamous letter-to-the-editor to the Los Angeles Times where the King Of The World called for the firing of Kenneth Turan on account of the critic's negative review of Titanic. "James Cameron, can he write?" Altman deadpanned. Then added: "He deserved a negative review. It's a shitty movie."

21. At the 1993 Academy Awards, where Altman and his seminal comeback, The Player, were nominated for several Oscars but up against Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, he and Kathryn sat in the front row and munched on a bag of her pot brownies. "We'd clap and appreciate," she laughs, "and every time we'd tuck in our legs so (Eastwood) could get to get his Oscar...By the time he got up there to get Best Picture -- we were all for him."

22. Neve Campbell, who worked with Altman near the end of his life on The Company, corraborates his love of weed, which seemed to increase after he gave up drinking: "I don't know any eighty-year-old who could smoke as much pot as he could and still function."

23. Altman was in dangerously poor health in the mid-90s, while making Ready to Wear and Kansas City. Soon after he had a heart transplant, which wasn't revealed until eleven years later, when he accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Oscars.

24. Altman was not allowed to make A Prairie Home Companion until Paul Thomas Anderson, his protege and close friend in the last years of his life, agreed to be on the set as backup director. "The last day we shot the last scene, the one with Kevin (Kline) with the garbage falling and him playing the piano," Anderson recalls. "And Bob definitely had a melancholy feeling about him, in his face."

25. Although A Prairie Home Companion has an aura of finality about it -- Altman's Tempest -- he continued working up til his death. He directed a play in London, Resurrection Blues, whose poor reception producer Scott Griffin blames on its star, Kevin Spacey. "He's the Norman Bates of show business," Griffin colorfully states. "One minute he asks you to come in from the rain, have a sandwich, and talk about his bird collection, and the next minute you're standing there buck naked and he's dressed as an old lady, coming at you with a carving knife. At least that's how he treated Bob."

26. There were also plans for another movie, the wonderfully titled Hands on a Hard Body, to be an ensemble picture about a group of people who "try to win a truck by keeping a hand on it longer than anybody else." Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Steve Buscemi, Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Chris Rock, and Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson were among the cast. Wish we could have seen it.

27. Upon completing Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, I came away with a vivid sense of how clearly his art was based on actual life experiences, as opposed to the film-school brats whose works often seemed to reflect other people's movies.

28. I don't mean to imply that the latter directors were wholly impersonal. A constant theme in Spielberg's films is fear-of-abandonment, the result of his parents' divorce; Coppola's recurring obsession is the tension produced by familial bonds; Scorsese's best movies have frequently focused on the struggle of the individual within an urban environment. All these filmmakers have channeled their lives into their art. Nevertheless, it's one thing for a young man to make a war movie (as Spielberg did in his teens, setting off firecrackers in the desert), and quite another for one to experience real combat. Moreover, the book underscores the difference between studying great movie scenes in film school (or at a video store) that an aspiring auteur may come to steal pay homage, and developing a singular style as Altman did.

29. There's also a good lesson in Altman's ability to adapt in hard times, his refusal to give up. However, Zuckoff is keen to note that Altman brought many of his problems on himself. It was admirable to not sell out following the success of M*A*S*H, for instance, but it also smacked of petty jealousy to accuse Larry Gelbart's TV version of being "racist." (For me, seeing the original movie after years of watching the show was a discombobulating experience, so I can imagine the reverse was true for Altman. Still, in some ways I think the early years of the series hold up better than the film. Gelbart, the showrunner for the first handful of seasons, was as comedically brilliant and biting as Altman, his roots steeped in more of a vaudevillian tradition.) 

30. On the heels of Richard Schickel's recent tirade against Altman in a non-review of Zuckoff's book, it's richly amusing to see an image of an early poster in the book with a huge rave at the top by none other than Schickel himself: "M*A*S*H is what the new freedom of the screen is all about!"

31. Last, my favorite anecdote from the book comes from producer Peter Newman, who introduced Altman to his teenage son following a panel discussion of A Prairie Home Companion. "At the end of the evening I brought my son up, and said...'I just want you to know his favorite movie of all time is Brewster McCloud,'" Newman recalls. "Bob grabbed the bottom of his beard, stroked it a little bit, and smiled. He said, 'You have excellent taste -- and terrible judgment.'"

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hard Sells (Up in the Air and The Informant!)

During the Great Depression, Hollywood produced classic screwball comedies (My Man Godfrey, et al) that covertly noted the social hardships of the era while also offering the kind of captivating entertainment that allowed audiences to forget their troubles for a couple hours in the dark. We're now in the worst economic straits since that time, yet a movie like Up in the Air isn't content with the simple pleasures of cinema -- it also wants to be taken seriously, and these two goals, at cross-purposes to put it mildly, pull the picture apart.

For a while, Jason Reitman's film achieves the first exceedingly well. Ryan Bingham, the professional "terminator" hired by gutless executives to fire their employees, fits George Clooney like a glove. As Bingham jets across the country, looks his victims in the eye and exudes brusque empathy for their plight, Clooney does more than sell to them the opportunity for a fresh start; he sells the character's lifestyle, making living out of a suitcase, driving expensive rental cars and sleeping in posh hotels a seductive alternative to the traditional family unit.

It's not an overstatement to compare Clooney's achievement here to the best of Cary Grant -- only Grant, in his most pleasurable star-wattage vehicles, never worked with a filmmaker as insecure as Reitman. I haven't read Walter Kirn's original novel, but the last act of the movie has all the compromises and contrivances that result from studio "brainstorming" sessions. After conveying the appeal of Bingham's travels, underlined by his fly-by-relationship with fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), Reitman then detours into the kind of family-first sop that would have Judd Apatow nodding with approval. After an interminable detour at his sister's wedding, Bingham decides that he wants to settle down after all. But Alex, continuing the traditionally negative portrait of female characters with masculine names (the implication being good women don't act like men), gets an unconvincing third-act revelation that betrays Farmiga's sharp, radiant performance: had Reitman directed The Lady Eve, he'd have punished Barbara Stanwyck's character for grifting.

I'm also unclear how to take the turn-of-events that leads to Bingham's young protege/rival Natalie (Anna Kendrick) quitting their Omaha-based company. Natalie, you see, advocates a more impersonal approach to firing people via computer, which is implemented by the company only to be scrapped when an individual she terminated meets a tragic end. However, the incident happened when Natalie tried Bingham's method, so how does this negate her approach and endorse his "artistry"? Most of Up in the Air isn't as bad as how it ends; it doesn't reek of the toxic fumes from Reitman's last film, the Diablo Cody-scripted Juno. I don't mean it as a putdown that Reitman does superficial very well; movies could use more "Golden Age" fun. But it's another case of a child-of-Hollywood trying to connect with "real people" and missing by a mile.          

Clooney's pal Matt Damon doesn't coast on charm in Steven Soderbergh's latest head-scratcher, The Informant! He mugs like crazy as Mark Whitacre, the true-story-based upper-manager of lysine-producing ADM company in early-90s Decatur, IL who became an undercover mole for the FBI in exposing a price-fixing scam. ADM was involved in illegal activities, the movie makes clear, which were overshadowed by the discovery that Whitacre himself was bipolar pathological liar who made off with several millions before his eventual arrest and conviction. Damon put on weight, a cheesy mustache and a loud hairpiece for the role; he also motormouths his lines in a manner that's funny, if not exactly convincing in how it fools everyone into thinking he's a stand-up guy.

Soderbergh deserves credit for not turning The Informant! into a social-issue-meets-star-power statement like his own Erin Brockovich. From Marvin Hamlisch's bouncy retro score to Whitacre's odd stream-of-consciousness interior monologues, he ably deconstructs the genre. Unfortunately he doesn't add anything in its place, or go half as deep as Shattered Glass in revealing the face of an unreformed narcissist. The Informant! is amiable, mildly intriguing, and a cosmic waste of time. Making movies has become nothing more than a game for Soderbergh, and if he's having any fun he's not sharing it with the rest of us. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Altman Tournament - Championship Game

Yessirree, last night's championship contest was a humdinger. Not since the Harlem Globetrotters visited Gilligan's Island have so many performers competed with each other at the same time. On one side, Nashville, the odds-on favorite; on the other, Short Cuts, the minimalist upstart. Things got off to a rocky start for Nashville with a traffic jam, but then Short Cuts got diverted with a fateful fishing trip. Then Gwen Welles sung very badly, yet truth be told the grating Annie Ross wasn't much better. Yet Jennifer Jason Leigh left Keith Carradine speechless on the telephone, and notorious weak-link Andie MacDowell came through with the most adequate performance of her career.  Finally, with Hal Philip Walker a no-show, his fellow performers couldn't remember if this was Dallas or Nashville, until an earthquake sent the Parthenon tumbling down. It was a mighty struggle, but Short Cuts beat the odds and came out on top!

Thanks for following along....

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Altman Tournament - Final Four

Yesterday's Final Four of the Altman Tournament did not disappoint, with one favorite and one underdog advancing to the climactic round. In the first game, high-powered Nashville refused to let some early difficulties rattle them, as they vowed to keep-a-goin' and regrouped their way to victory over McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a worthy opponent sadly reduced to a inert opium state. The stage for the second contest, however, was ripe for an upset, as Short Cuts proved their sixth-seed was too low as Chris Penn exploded late with a beer-can haymaker that knocked off possibly overconfident favorite The Player. Not even Lyle Lovett chanting "One of us! One of us!" could shake the Carveresque upstart from advancing.

Monday night's championship contest looks to be a battle of Sprawling Ensembles and loaded with intangibles. How far will Julianne Moore go to, um, distract her opponents? Sure, everyone knows that Keith Carradine is easy....but is he too easy? Find out!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Last Temptation Easter Tale

When The Last Temptation of Christ came out in 1988 I was a freshman at Marquette University, a Catholic institution in downtown Milwaukee, WI. By then I was the height of my movie-buffdom, binging on as many of the "auteurs" as possible and Martin Scorsese was one of them. I had liked most of his movies up to then and was anticipating Last Temptation all the more due to the notoriety the film had acquired even before its release. For Scorsese, a screen adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's controversial novel was a longstanding passion project that had unraveled in pre-production before, but the success of his previous film, The Color of Money, gave him enough clout (barely) to make the movie on a near-shoestring budget and get it released in the face of overwhelming outrage. Milwaukee is a large city with little public transportation and without a car I fretted that I'd be unable to see it. Yet an arts organization on campus offered a free bus ride to the lone art cinema that was showing it. Al McGuire, the legendary college basketball coach, was still Marquette's deity of choice, but the university remained open to other faiths.

In their outstanding current "Conversation," Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy convey the same response to the film that I had then and now: It's a very good movie that gets stronger as it goes, with a final "temptation" sequence that brings together its disparate ideas and tonal shifts. Seeing it in my teens, I was struck by how different the movie seemed to the stiff Biblical epics of yore. Compared to The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-Hur following the chariot race, and countless other 1950s-era religious films, The Last Temptation of Christ was blessedly intimate, informal, and as Ed and Jason point out, not afraid to look ridiculous on occasion. Pauline Kael said she admired Scorsese's "passionate thrashing around" in the picture, as did I. On the face of it, I could see what bothered the protesters, a handful of whom picketed our theater a lot more politely than reported elsewhere. Yet the film before my eyes was clearly the work of a sincere, questioning artist, as would be Kevin Smith's Dogma about ten years later; unlike the latter movie, however, Last Temptation was also the work of a filmmaker who knew how to stage a scene.

Also around ten years later, my dad and I attended a "special evening" with Martin Scorsese, recipient of the Wexner Prize for creative achievement from the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. Roger Ebert, longtime friend and champion of Scorsese and his work, hosted a lively Q&A discussion with the director that included clips from several of his films. (This was prior to Ebert's health difficulties, when he could still speak.) Many of the black-tied attendees, it seemed to me, were hermetically-sealed stuffed-shirts who were there only for the sake of being seen and had little idea of what was in store. On a humongous screen above the stage, some of the most violent scenes from Scorsese's films battered the audience senseless (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, et al). And when the extremely intense crucifixion sequence from Last Temptation appeared, a woman in the audience passed out.

It's not hard to see how, devoid of the rest of the film's context, that scene could seem needlessly brutal. (Much like the entirety of The Passion of the Christ, the other movie that Ed and Jason discuss in their piece.) Scorsese is infamous for his violence yet less known for his rich sensuality. They go together for him, as in Goodfellas (made right after Last Temptation) when every Joe Pesci outburst is offset by images like the one of Paul Sorvino cutting garlic with a razor blade. The scene from The Last Temptation of Christ that was particularly out-of-contexualized -- the heart of the furor -- was the hallucinatory passage where Jesus has sex with Mary Magdalene. This, of course, is the "last temptation" of the title: having rejected wealth and power, Jesus is seduced with the offer of living a normal life. The movie depicts this temptation seriously, tenderly, an understandable flight from responsibility that ultimately fails (depending on how you look at it): Christ returns to the cross and fulfills his destiny. Then again, it may be disingenuous to expect any context would have appeased the larger and angrier crowds than the one in front of the theater I attended.

Yet Jason and Ed's discussion triggered my memory of a true curiosity in relation to this film, something that happened from a completely unexpected source.

 In the late-80s, one of the most popular, infamous and irredeemably tasteless syndicated "talk-shows" was The Morton Downey, Jr. Show. A forerunner to a lot of what passes for television today, Downey was an ultraconservative trash-talking blowhard who chain-smoked through every episode, had a knack for a good pull-quote ("pablum-puking liberal" being a favorite among my friends) and enjoyed stirring up his all-too-easily riled guests. The topics were generally sordid, the conversation degenerate. Yet unlike his current-day media grandchildren (Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, Coulter), a knowing intelligence would occasionally flicker across Downey's face, an amused self-awareness that he knew that what he was doing was only shtick. (He had shifted shape in his career before, initially as a singer following in the footsteps of his father.) Downey would ultimately self-destruct, professionally at first (his TV show was cancelled in 1989), then succumbing to lung cancer in 2001. Before any of that, though, he aired an episode debating The Last Temptation of Christ.

I've no idea what compelled me to watch it. I only remember having my expectations confirmed by the hysterical drivel from the opponents of the movie, as well as the meek, easily shouted-down support from its defenders. The "debate," such as it was, went on like this for awhile, with promises from the host prior to each commercial break that he had seen the movie and would weigh in with his assessment. At last the moment came, and I braced myself for the worst.

"I was filled with such a love for Jesus!" Downey exclaimed. To the shock and dismay of his fans in the audience, he went on to declare that Scorsese's movie had inspired him, that its critics were ignorant and out-of-bounds. Downey would do this from time to time -- turn against the demographic to whom he would usually pander. (I've been reminded of a later episode where he introduced his gay brother.) Savvy performers are known for this tack (see any of Chris Rock's stand-up routines), yet there was no doubting Downey's sincerity: The Last Temptation of Christ had moved him.

What's the moral of this story, you ask: Sleazy talk-show hosts are people too? No moral, no point. Just memories of a moviegoing experience that stick with me today.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"I like my nose. I like breathing out of it."

Please excuse the recent dearth of posts, but there's actually a good excuse: I broke my nose. There I was, at my favorite biker bar on Spring Break (hah!), when some muscle-shirted, tattooed chump had the gall to claim that Rivette was better than Resnais, and so naturally I had to verbally upbraid him. Insults were exchanged, and inevitably fisticuffs ensued. Actually, this whole incident may be the morphine talking, but I prefer to remember it that way than something more banal (falling in the bathroom, for instance). A 14-hour hospital stay and some yummy antibiotics later and I'm still a little sore and out of it, but otherwise no worse for wear. In some ways the nose looks better. Hope to post soon.