Work. Love. Art. Life. All these things are intertwined, but sometimes it’s hard to keep them in balance. In fact, it’s often impossible. Sally Potter knows this, and yet she keeps trying to bring them all together. Her movies are about the constant struggle to find that balance. And in The Tango Lesson she puts that struggle at the heart of the movie.
First off, Potter plays herself, a filmmaker trying to focus on the work she needs to do in order to create her art. At the beginning of the movie we see her getting ready to work on the screenplay. First, she has to prepare the space. We see her standing in the sunlight in a sparsely furnished room, vigorously cleaning the table she’s going to write at. Next she lays a stack of paper on the table, and next to it, parallel to it, a pencil. We can tell by the careful, methodical way she approaches the task that this is someone who values order. Maybe a little too much.
But this isn’t just a film about making a film. It’s about the creative process in general. Things don’t flow in a straight line. Disruptions are part of the process. Distractions become the focus. Potter is walking down a street one night and hears music. She follows the music into an auditorium where she sees a man and a woman dancing the tango on stage. Entranced by the performance, she lingers after the show and introduces herself to the male dancer, Pablo Veron, also playing himself.
“You use your presence on stage like an actor in a film,” she tells him, a complement only a director would offer. “Do you work in the cinema?” he asks. From the first words they speak, their relationship is defined by the work they do. Potter wonders if Veron ever gives lessons. It turns out Veron has always wanted to be in films.
This is the beginning of a complex relationship, with Potter and Veron each playing multiple roles. Teacher, student. Director, actor. Man, woman. The relationship changes according to the roles they play. Veron is completely comfortable as the performer on a stage or the teacher instructing a student. In other words, when he can be in charge. Things are different when he isn’t the one calling the shots. Potter understands that when the two of them dance the tango, the man is in charge. But Veron doesn’t understand that when the two of them make a movie, the director is in charge.
As in most relationships, these two people are at the mercy of complex and conflicting desires. An artist has to be selfish. A lover must be unselfish. Veron seems genuinely attracted to Potter, but she could also offer him the chance to be in the movies. Potter becomes fascinated by the idea of making a film about the tango, but it could also be a way to stay close to Veron. It’s not always easy to be sure of what their motivations are. They may not even be sure themselves.
We watch this messy, multi-layered relationship unfold against the backdrop of the tango. In between the intimate conversations and the dramatic quarrels, Potter gives us a series of stunning dance sequences choreographed by Veron. We see the two of them performing an intense and intimate tango on an empty dance floor. There’s an ecstatic nighttime duet along the banks of a glittering river. And toward the end the two are joined by other dancers in a dramatic ensemble piece. Showing dance on the screen can be difficult. If the filmmakers aren’t sensitive to the rhythms of the performers, a beautifully choreographed sequence can be wasted. Fortunately, editor Hervé Schneid seems to have an intuitive understanding of how each scene should be shaped. His cutting is perfectly attuned to the movements of the dancers.
Cinematographer Robby Müller’s expressive black and white photography gives the movie richness and depth. He catches the moods on the actors’ faces and the way their bodies move through space. The film’s emotional landscape is also shaped by its subtle underscoring, the work of director Potter and multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith.
There’s no doubt that these two people care for each other, but they also care about their art. Passionately. The relationship may not survive, but whatever happens, Veron will go on dancing and Potter will go on making movies.
In 1968, screenwriter David Sherwin and director Lindsay Anderson made If…., a savage and surreal film about a small band of rebels at a British public school. Malcolm McDowell plays Mick Travis, a brash teenager who won’t accept the status quo. The whole film is a brazen assault on Kipling’s England, the bastion of tradition, held together by sadistic violence, the church, and a rigid class structure.
But that was the sixties. In 1973 Sherwin and Anderson brought Mick back in O Lucky Man, but he’d changed quite a bit in the course of five years. No longer the brash rebel, now Mick wants nothing more than to fit into the system, and to be as successful as possible. Starting off as a coffee salesman, he ends up roaming over the whole of England looking for the things he thinks will make him happy. Not surprisingly, those things are harder to find than he thought.
Both films are subversive, but in completely different ways. In O Lucky Man, the self-righteous anger that energizes If…. is gone. Now the attitude is a kind of amused detachment. British society is so strangely unreal that all Sherwin can do is laugh at it. And Anderson, the cynical idealist, joins in the laughter. He simply stands back and observes as policemen and politicians, scientists and financiers, complacently go about their business, lying, cheating, and stealing. And Mick is always at the ready, eagerly waiting for his chance to jump into the thick of things.
As terrifying as some of Mick’s adventures are, we can laugh along with Sherwin and Anderson, in part because they keep reminding us that we’re watching a movie. In fact, O Lucky Man begins with a film within a film. We see a brief silent prologue in grainy black and white. McDowell plays a peasant working on a coffee plantation. When he’s caught stealing a handful of coffee beans, the word “unlucky” flashes on the screen. Just as the authorities hand down a horrifying punishment, the screen goes black and the word “NOW” announces that we’re jumping into the present.
Playwright Bertolt Brecht wanted the audience to be aware that they were watching a story unfold, and in the sixties a number of British filmmakers embraced this approach. Writing about film in the fifties, Anderson insisted that the polished productions coming out of British studios encouraged the audience to become numb and complacent. He wanted to shake things up, and to create a cinema that put people in touch with the real world. He wanted to make movies that would push the audience to question the status quo.
O Lucky Man is all about questioning the status quo. We see Mick stumble into one situation after another, and he’s willing to go along with anything if he thinks it will get him what he wants. He’s so blinded by the shiny objects he’s chasing that he doesn’t bother to question anything. As a result, he’s tricked, beaten, tortured, and finally jailed.
Prison changes him. Sort of. Determined to live a better life, he’s spent his time behind bars reading and thinking. Having studied the great philosophers, he’s realized that happiness doesn’t come from chasing wealth. Mick has decided to renounce worldly possessions and devote his life to helping people. He thinks he’s found the answer. He doesn’t realize he’s just chasing a different shiny object.
The backdrop to Mick’s dizzying journey is a sweeping panorama of England, and I’m not just talking about the landscape. He gets to dine with the fabulously wealthy and serve soup to the desperately poor. He watches porn with local politicians and staggers into the sanctuary of a country church. One of his sales calls takes him to a large factory where he finds that no one there will need his coffee, since the entire workforce has been laid off. As he waits in the reception room of a corporate high-rise, he’s horrified to see one of the employees jump out the window and plunge to his death. At first he tries to master the world, meeting it with cocky self-assurance. Next he tries to serve the world, wearing a mantle of abject humility. But somehow the world doesn’t seem to appreciate his efforts.
McDowell radiates a beatific optimism as he wanders through the battlefield of life. Over and over again he gets hammered, and each time he bounces back, ready to take on the world. Not quite thirty when he played the part, McDowell has a freshness and openness that make him seem truly innocent. He makes one horrific blunder after another, but we can’t condemn him because he really doesn’t seem to know any better. In his wanderings he runs into a wonderful cast of supporting actors, who magically turn up over and over again in different roles. It’s a tribute to the talents of Rachel Roberts, Mary MacLeod, and Arthur Lowe, that even though we recognize their faces, they’re still completely believable in each new incarnation. Young as she is in this film, Helen Mirren already appears to be completely at ease as an actress. She seems to fill the screen without even trying. And of course, there’s the incomparable Ralph Richardson, always oddly askew and strangely compelling.
The score is by Alan Price, who wrote a beautiful set of songs for the film. Once again reminding you that you’re watching a movie, Anderson uses Price and his band like a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action as Mick goes through each new adventure. At first the director cuts away from the action to show the band performing in a studio. But halfway through the film, as Mick is making a desperate escape from another harrowing situation, Price and the band show up in a white van and offer him a ride to London. The story and the mechanisms being used to tell it flow together. Unlike most filmmakers who hide the mechanics, Sherwin and Anderson put them right up front for all to see.
This approach reaches its logical conclusion where Mick, dazed and disoriented, wanders into the casting call for a film entitled O Lucky Man. Director Lindsay Anderson spots him, decides he’s worth a test, and has him stand in front of a white backdrop as a photographer snaps pictures. The jaded director gives monosyllabic orders to his crew, while the photographer shoots Mick in different poses. And then Anderson says to Mick,
“Just do it.”
“What’s there to smile about?”
Finally the director loses patience, and whacks Mick with his script.
The next shot is a close-up of Mick, set against the white background. For a long moment, his expression is blank. And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, we see his mouth curl into a smile.
Is this the beginning of wisdom?
I’ve heard people complain that Dead Presidents tries to do too many things. Some see it as an unsatisfying cross between a gangster flick and a war movie. Others see it as an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to chronicle the Black experience in America. Many people complain that it goes on too long and has no focus.
Personally I don’t feel like Dead Presidents falls into any one category. Though directors Allen and Albert Hughes have made genre films, this is one case where I think they were reaching for something different. And this may be part of the reason why some people don’t respond to it. Dead Presidents doesn’t follow the usual dramatic arc. It’s more open ended. The story follows a young Black man named Anthony Curtis as his life unfolds. We first see him as a young man from a comfortable, middle-class home in the Bronx, then as a soldier in Vietnam, and finally as a vet dealing with poverty and alcoholism.
The Hughes Brothers are talking about America here, and there’s no doubt they see the system as destructive. But this isn’t a social tract and they don’t make Anthony a helpless victim. It’s more complicated than that. We see that as a young man Anthony could have gone to college and he decided to enlist instead. We see how black men were used as fodder during the Vietnam War, but the film makes it clear that blacks weren’t the only ones who were traumatized and crippled by the violence. We see Anthony come back home to a family he’s totally unprepared for, and how instead of dealing with the situation he gradually shuts down.
No doubt the Hughes Brothers could have jacked up the drama by giving us a bad guy to blame. But that also would have simplified things, and in Dead Presidents the directors are aiming for something more complex. They give us a sweeping view of a society where the deck is stacked. The country is always fighting a war somewhere, poverty is a prison that few can escape, and drugs are readily available for those who want an easy way to kill the pain.
Larenz Tate gives a moving performance in the leading role. Anthony is an average guy, a decent guy. Even as he sinks deeper into depression and bitterness, Tate keeps us with him. We can see that this young man could have done so much better, which makes it even harder to watch his downhill slide. Keith David plays Kirby, who lost a leg in the Korean War and now runs a local bar. Kirby is kind of a father figure to Anthony, and David plays the role with a touching mix of toughness and affection. The older man wants to help his young friend, but he’s caught in the same trap. Juanita is the mother of Anthony’s child, and she knows she’s caught in a trap. Rose Jackson’s nuanced performance shows us that even though Juanita loves her man, she can’t hide her mounting frustration. She wants to build a better life, and she won’t wait around forever.
Desperation finally drives Anthony to desperate measures. He and Kirby plan to rob an armored car. The heist goes horribly wrong. In the end, Anthony, Kirby and their accomplices all end up under arrest or six feet under. When Anthony is in court waiting for sentencing, he’s given a chance to speak and mentions his service in Vietnam. The judge, a WWII vet, is outraged, and tells the prisoner that Vietnam wasn’t even a “real war”. Then he hands down a sentence of fifteen years to life.
And the last we see of Anthony, he’s on a bus heading for prison.
A hand reaches into a cage and grasps a small bird. An elderly man is performing a magic trick to amuse a small girl. As he goes through the motions of making the bird disappear, we hear a voiceover explaining that there are three parts to a trick, the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Basically, the magician shows you something ordinary, and then makes something extraordinary happen. The voice goes on to tell us that even though we may think we’re trying to figure out the secret, we’ll never find it.
“Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really wanna know.”
Christopher Nolan likes to explore the way we perceive things. And beyond that, he’s interested in why we perceive things the way we do. Memento seems to be about a man who suffers from a rare memory disorder that keeps him from understanding his own life. By the end of the film, it appears that the disorder may be his way of coping with a past he can’t bear to face. Inception follows its main character as he dives into peoples’ unconscious minds to unlock their secrets. But as the story progresses we realize that his quests always end up bringing him face to face with his own demons.
Nolan never dug deeper than he did in The Prestige, a story about two magicians who spend their lives playing with the audience’s perceptions. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are constantly competing with each other, both onstage and off. Angier is a showman, a natural performer who knows how to dazzle audiences. Borden is a thinker, always analyzing what he sees, living his life mostly inside his head. In different ways, both men make huge sacrifices in order to achieve the acclaim they seek. They both want to astound the world. But their rivalry isn’t just a contest between two ambitious performers. It’s wound up tightly with a bitter personal feud. Angier blames Borden for the death of his wife, and is determined to take revenge. Their battle goes far beyond competitive one-upmanship, starting with violent, vengeful pranks, and evolving into maddeningly elaborate mind games.
While all this is going on, the film is also playing some mind games with us. The Prestige is a dazzling, extended display of cinematic sleight of hand. There are plenty of films that keep stringing us along with twist after twist, and while they’re sometimes fun, they usually don’t have much going on beneath the surface. In The Prestige, Nolan uses these twists to make us question the way we see things, and asks why we see things the way we do.
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Christopher Priest.* Nolan wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, and I gather they made some significant changes both in terms of plot and perspective. In the film, the Nolans seem to be making the case that magic isn’t so much a matter of creating an illusion as it is playing with perception. The magician prepares the audience by setting up a certain frame of reference, and then the audience is astonished to see something that doesn’t conform to their expectations. What they’re actually witnessing may not be so remarkable in itself, but because of the way they’ve been led to perceive things, it seems like a miracle.
It’s a sign of how the good a performance is when it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. And it’s a sign of how good the casting is when all the performers seem absolutely right in their roles. Before I get into talking about the actors, I’d like to give credit to casting director John Papsidera. He found exactly the right person for every part, starting with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Jackman’s Angier has the looks and the charm, the arrogance and the insecurity of a popular performer who’s desperate for the audience’s approval. He shows us how an ambitious young man is gradually consumed by an obsession he can’t control. Bale was the perfect choice for Borden. The actor often seems a little distant onscreen, a little withdrawn. This is absolutely right for Borden, who is always on guard, always protecting his secrets. He may have a wife and a child and a mistress, but he doesn’t give himself fully to any of them. Bale’s reserve makes it clear that Borden doesn’t quite connect with the world around him. His mind is always on magic.
But as I said, the whole cast is impressive. Rebecca Hall plays Borden’s wife Sarah with a tender sweetness, which makes it all the more awful to see her slowly broken by the misery of trying to share her life with a man who can’t share his. Scarlett Johanson has a striking assurance as Olivia Wenscombe, Angier’s on-stage assistant. This is a woman who’s smart enough and tough enough to survive in a world run by men. Michael Caine is obviously a favorite of Nolan’s, but the director has never given Caine a part as rich and complex as this one. Caine’s performance as Cutter, the aging sorcerer’s apprentice, is a reminder of how gifted the actor is. Cutter is part father, part hustler, part counselor, part con artist. He starts off as a mentor to both Angier and Borden, a crusty old pro teaching them the tricks of the trade. As time goes on, he gets drawn into and ground down by their rivalry. Caine plays the part with a straightforward simplicity, and at the same time brings a thousand subtle shadings that make the character absolutely real.
And then there’s David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. While Bowie painstakingly assumes the courtly manner and the measured speech of the legendary scientist, he brings a presence that gives his performance a powerful resonance. Tesla is something of a mythical figure. A brilliant inventor who played a major part in shaping twentieth century technology, he’s largely forgotten today. Of course, his part in the film is fictionalized, but it doesn’t seem far fetched to portray him as a man who stands at the nexus of science and the supernatural. And though we may think of Bowie as a flamboyant rock star, in reality he was a thoughtful, sensitive, orderly man, who spent much of his life exploring the overlapping worlds of art and technology. The two men may not be as different as they seem. Bowie brings a quiet intensity and a deep melancholy to the role of Tesla, a scientist who understands all too well that his inventions have the potential to cause terrible destruction.
While Borden and Angier perform their tricks in brightly lit theatres, much of the actual work they do takes place in dimly lit backstage areas and dingy workshops, away from public view. They take their bows in the spotlight, but they live in a world of shadows. That world in which they work their dark magic was carefully created for the film by production designer Nathan Crowley and art director Kevin Kavanaugh. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s richly detailed images capture a million subtle shades of grey, brown and black. David Julyan’s dense, brooding orchestral progressions reinforce the feeling that we’re exploring a psychological and moral netherworld. And as I said earlier, the film relies on cinematic sleight of hand to work its own disturbing magic, jumping back and forth in time and using misdirection to shape the way we see things. Lee Smith’s deft, expert editing makes it all appear seamless.
Since The Prestige, Nolan has focussed on making big budget action flicks, which he does pretty well. I think he’s tried in those films to push the boundaries, but in the end they always seem to fall back on familiar Hollywood formulas. When the producers are gambling a hundred million or more on a feature, they generally want the director to give the audience what it’s expecting. The Prestige doesn’t do that. Instead, it plays with the audience’s expectations. It challenges viewers to look for answers, not just to the superficial puzzles posed by the plot, but to deeper questions about who we are and how we see the world. And at the same time, it asks us why we spend our lives searching for answers.
“Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really wanna know.”
While surfing the net for info to write this post, I came across the web site maintained by the author of The Prestige, Christopher Priest. Apparently he published a whole book about the making of the film, which he called The Magic. And on his site he posted a brief summary of his thoughts on the movie, both positive and negative. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but it’s fascinating to get his take on the film adaptation. You can read it yourself by clicking on the link below.
I need to take a break. There’s been so much going on the past year or so, it’s gotten hard to find the time to post on a regular basis. I’m thinking I’ll take about six months off, and maybe get back into the blogging thing some time in the summer. There are plenty of movies I’d like to write about, so hopefully after a little time off I’ll be ready to dive back in.
I do have another project I’m working on. I’ve been writing for over thirty years, both fiction and non-fiction, and very little of it’s been published. In the not too distant future I hope to launch a web site where I can post some of the longer stuff I’ve written. It’s still in the works, and it might take a while, so I won’t make any promises. But if I can get it off the ground, I’ll post the link on this site.
Thanks to those of you who have been following the blog. Looking forward to reconnecting this summer.
A friend of mine sent me this post, and I thought it was worth sharing. It’s written by a twenty two year old guy in North Carolina who’s interested in the dying art of projecting movies on film. When he heard that Tarantino was arranging to have The Hateful Eight screened in 70mm at some theatres, he wanted to be involved, and ended up flying out to California on less than a day’s notice to offer his services. I really enjoyed reading about his experience, but beyond that, I was grateful to know there’s somebody under forty who’s actually excited about working with film.
I don’t want to get into an argument about film vs. digital. I’m not an expert, and aside from the inherent qualities of each format, what you end up seeing and hearing at any screening depends on the equipment being used and the theatre you’re in. But the fact is, the first hundred years of cinema history exist on film. DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K restorations are all fine, but if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia the way it was meant to be seen, you need to go to a theatre and see it in 70mm. Digital cinema is great, but it isn’t film. I can get on the net and track down a high-resolution scan of a painting by Van Gogh. It’s still not the same as going to a museum and seeing the actual painting by Van Gogh.
So it’s encouraging that this guy has invested the time and energy to learn how to run film through a projector. Future generations who really want to experience Sunrise, The Magnificent Ambersons or Do the Right Thing will be relying on people like this, people who are truly dedicated to the medium. They’re keeping film alive.
So anyway, here’s the link. And if you feel like I do, it couldn’t hurt to post a comment so he knows his efforts are appreciated.
Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Weight of Water, based on the book by Anita Shreve, was released in 2000. The movie had been held back by the studio for over a year, and when it finally made it into theatres it sank like a stone. The few critics who reviewed it weren’t impressed. I remember that the night I first saw the movie the audience numbered less than ten. In fact, it might have been less than five.
So why did Bigelow, after directing a series of audacious and offbeat action flicks, decide to switch gears and film a very intimate novel about two women trapped in suffocating marriages? It’s a question worth asking, and I think there are probably a few answers.
One answer might be that she felt like a change of pace. Directors, like actors, can be afraid of getting type cast, and it may be that Bigelow wanted people to know she could do other things besides make action movies. Beyond that, though, it may be that she needed to do something that took her outside the confines of commercial formulas. While she’d managed to test the limits of the action genre, and even subvert some of its most basic rules, Bigelow understood that she still had to deliver what audiences wanted. Playing with the public’s expectations can keep them from showing up at the box office. Near Dark had been a modest critical and commercial success, but after that she ran into trouble. Nobody knew what to make of Blue Steel. Point Break made money but got trashed by critics. Strange Days got some enthusiastic reviews, but audiences stayed away. So Bigelow may have been wondering if she needed to take a break from action movies and try something different.
Another factor may have been the fact that Bigelow is a woman. I mostly avoid bringing up gender in writing about movies, because I think too often we fall back on easy stereotypes, sticking people in categories based on their sex. There’s no reason women shouldn’t be able to make action films, and Bigelow had proven her skill in the genre. But it’s a fact that the audiences for that kind of flick are mostly men, and those men have very specific expectations. I think the biggest reason her early features didn’t always go over well is that she was deliberately turning the genre on its head. A thriller centered on a female cop? Commonplace these days, but not back in the eighties. An FBI agent seeking spiritual fulfillment? Shouldn’t he just focus on shooting people? The audiences that flocked to Die Hard didn’t want movies to play with their expectations. They wanted massive explosions and a high body count. Bigelow may have gotten tired of trying to deliver what the boys were looking for.
But most important of all, I think Bigelow felt a powerful, personal connection to Shreve’s novel. It tells two parallel stories about women who are isolated and frustrated, angry and alone. Given the fact that Bigelow was one of the few female directors in Hollywood back in the nineties, it seems likely that she was experiencing all of the above. On top of everything, though, she was married to a director who also acted as producer on two of her films. Given that James Cameron was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of the time, this might seem like a tremendous advantage. Really, I don’t think Bigelow saw it that way. At all.
It’s always dangerous to make connections between an artist’s work and their personal life. However close the parallels may seem, we have to remember that the work is fiction, not fact. Because of what we know about Woody Allen’s personal life, we may be tempted think that at times he’s actually presenting scenes from his life on the screen. This is a big mistake. Even if the episodes he’s acting out seem to echo incidents we’ve read about, we should never be so lazy as to think what we’re seeing is the “truth”. Art inevitably transforms reality. Allen may be incorporating autobiographical elements in Annie Hall, but Annie Hall is not an autobiography.
On the other hand, for me, a work of art is only worthwhile if the artist reveals something of his or her self. This may sound like a paradox, but it’s not. Who cares if the details depicted in a movie reflect the details of the filmmaker’s life. All that’s really important is that artists are honest about the way they see the world, the way they feel about themselves. We can speculate forever about possible parallels between Orson Welles’ actual life and the storyline of Chimes at Midnight, but in the end, none of that matters. What does matter is that when Hal says to Falstaff, “I know thee not old man,” we can feel the pain that’s crushing the new king’s former friend, and we know Welles felt that pain, too.
Anita Shreve’s novel The Weight of Water was inspired by a double murder that took place on a barren island off the Atlantic Coast at the end of the nineteenth century. A man was convicted and hanged for the crime, but speculation persists to this day that the jury sent the wrong person to their death. The book tells two stories, that of a young woman, a Norwegian immigrant, who relates the events leading up to the murders, and a modern story which focusses on a photojournalist who has come to the island to document the scene of the crime. Both the period story and the modern story are about relationships, both are centered on women trapped in unhappy marriages.
While Shreve’s book relates the known facts of the case, she makes it clear in a brief preface that it’s a work of fiction. The author creates a journal in which a young Norwegian woman named Maren talks about her youth, the pressures that forced her to take a husband, and the brutal challenges she faced after migrating to America, where she and her family are isolated on a remote, rocky island. The story that takes place in the present is centered on Jean, a photojournalist married to a famous poet. She loves her husband, but realizes his attention is straying, and the knowledge is slowly crushing her. As she investigates the Smuttynose murders, Jean finds Maren’s journal, and it’s clear she relates to the young immigrant’s desperation. They’re both just looking for a little affection, a little understanding.
Bigelow takes the fiction even further. Her film spends less time detailing the facts of the case and more time extending Shreve’s view of Maren as a deeply lonely, bitterly angry woman. In the book, the description of the actual killing is fairly brief. In the movie, the murders are crucial, and they are shown in terrifying detail. Like any filmmaker who uses historic fact as the basis for their work, Bigelow takes liberties to shape the story she wants to tell. Up to a point, I can accept that, but I’m not comfortable with showing a reenactment of a murder that’s based more on speculation than on evidence. Yeah, the film does offer a disclaimer, but it’s at the end, after we’ve seen a graphic depiction of Maren Hontvedt killing two family members. In reality, nobody knows who commited the crime.
It’s possible that the movie’s more visceral, graphic approach was the result of commercial considerations, but I doubt it. While I believe that Bigelow related to Shreve’s novel on a very personal level, as artists these two women are almost polar opposites. Shreve is a very careful, thorough writer who maintains a rigorous objectivity in her work. I have to say that I had trouble getting into the novel at first because the tone is so restrained. Gradually I was drawn into the world the author had created, both by her insight into human nature and the austere beauty of her prose. The book is really very moving, but Shreve always maintains a careful objectivity. She always keeps us at a distance from her characters.
Bigelow doesn’t keep her distance. As an artist and a filmmaker, she dives right into the world and drags us along with her. In her early films she used sound and image to create a voluptuous, kinetic experience, and at her best she pulled us right into the middle of it. Her characters were often thrown into situations where boundaries disappeared, and they’d find themselves caught between terror and euphoria. Though The Weight of Water is by no means an action film, again Bigelow’s protagonists find themselves pushed to their limits and beyond. In this case, though, the limits are less physical than psychological.
Here Bigelow uses her gifts to bring us into the characters’ state of mind. Jean sits on the deck of the yacht surrounded by placid blue water and crystalline vistas. The beauty and serenity of her surroundings are at odds with the tension that’s eating away at her. She watches her husband glancing furtively at the other woman on board the boat. She watches the other woman sliding a piece of ice down the length of her body. Seeing all this through Jean’s eyes, we know she’s just barely managing to hold herself together. The world Maren lives in, on the other hand, seems to be an expression of the melancholy she feels. The inside of her home is claustrophobic and dark. Within its oppressive quiet every small sound, the groan of the floorboards, the creak of a chair, is clearly heard. Even when Maren leaves the house, she’s still a prisoner on a barren island. There is no escape.
The script is extremely intricate, balancing the two stories against each other and weaving them together using deft, often abrupt, transitions. There are sudden shifts that may seem arbitrary, but actually the various threads are woven together with tremendous skill. Screenwriters Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle make Jean’s investigation of the murders an exploration of her own troubled marriage. The more she learns about the case, the more she’s convinced that Maren is the killer, and the more she understands Maren’s motives.
And Maren’s motives are complicated. She goes about her chores dutifully, sticking to the routine that keeps her sane, but inside she’s drowning in a sea of conflicting emotions. She seems to have accepted her life of lonely drudgery, but the arrival of her brother and his wife creates new turmoil. The presence of Maren’s jealous, vindictive sister Karen makes life even more unbearable. Maren’s family isn’t a source of comfort. It’s a prison.
Bigelow is not credited as a writer, but I wonder how much input she had on the screenplay. The film sticks to the general outline of Shreve’s novel, but there are a number of alterations, some of them important. One change that strikes me as crucial is the fate of Jean’s husband, Thomas. At the climax of both the book and the film, the boat they’re on is battered by a terrible storm. In the book, Thomas survives. In the film, he dies. In my mind, I can’t help associating this choice with the break-up of Bigelow’s marriage to James Cameron.
And here I may be making the kind of assumption that I was criticizing earlier. How can I justify drawing a connection between something that was happening in the director’s personal life with a fictional event that she depicts on the screen? But honestly, I’m not trying to tell you that Bigelow wanted Cameron dead. And I’m not even trying to tell you that Thomas is a surrogate for Cameron. The way I see it, his death has a broader and a deeper meaning.
Earlier I talked about the fact that Bigelow was one of the few women directing films back in the nineties. While she had a few female allies in Hollywood, for the most part she was trapped in a system controlled by men. And whatever her personal relationship with Cameron was like, it had to be difficult making movies with your husband acting as producer. I think Bigelow’s choice to make The Weight of Water, at least in part, came out of a desire to change both the course of her career and the course of her life, to break away from the action genre and the limitations imposed by a male-dominated studio system. I think killing Thomas was a symbolic way of setting herself free, of burying the past. The more I think about The Weight of Water, the more it seems to me that the film is an exorcism. A way of casting out the demons.
While Bigelow’s earlier work had a spiritual dimension, it was usually in the background, easy to miss amid the shootouts and high-speed chases. In The Weight of Water, spirituality is right in the forground. In her misery, Maren feels cut off from God, and wonders why God has imposed this harsh, loveless existence on her. And while Shreve’s book outlines Maren’s religious beliefs in a general way, the film explicitly embraces a Christian perspective. The cross is used as a symbol throughout the movie, sliding across the screen in the title sequence, worn as a necklace by one of the women on the boat, cast as a shadow on a wall in Maren’s home. Bigelow is clearly exploring the Christian themes of suffering and salvation, asking difficult questions, and not necessarily expecting any answers.
The Weight of Water came and went very quickly. While Bigelow has enjoyed greater recognition than ever in recent years, this movie is pretty much forgotten. It’s certainly not for everybody, but it doesn’t deserve its obscurity. No question the film is a grim, sometimes harrowing, journey into the souls of two women who feel completely, desperately lost. But it’s also one of the director’s most passionate and personal works. Near the end of the movie Maren says, “I believe that in the darkest hour God may restore faith and offer salvation.” The Weight of Water is Kathryn Bigelow’s statement of faith.
The movie Detour has long been considered a film noir classic. Reams have been written about director Edgar Ulmer’s amazingly terse, unnervingly intense exploration of alienation and despair on the lonely stretches of the American highway. Ulmer was certainly a gifted filmmaker, and Detour is one of the high points of his career, but it’s odd that in the seventy years since it was made, almost nobody has talked about the novel it was based on.
The novel Detour was published at the end of the thirties, and in many ways seems to be a distillation of the period it was written in, the tail end of the Depression. Like Alex Roth, the luckless musician at the center of the story, author Martin Goldsmith had spent some time hitchhiking, no doubt getting well acquainted with hunger and hardship. The film’s screenplay is also by Goldsmith, and almost everything in it comes directly from the book. It’s an unusually faithful adaptation.
There are some major differences. In turning his slender novel into a surprisingly spare film, Goldsmith cut one of his characters almost entirely. While the book is framed by Alex’s story, starting and ending with him, the chapters he narrates alternate with chapters narrated by his girlfriend, Sue. The two met and fell in love working at a club in New York. Determined to become an actress, Sue left for Hollywood, postponing their marriage indefinitely. Desperately lonely, Alex decided to hitchhike to LA so he could rejoin his girlfriend. The book goes back and forth between the two of them, giving us an intricate portrait of their tangled relationship.
While Alex and Sue are basically decent people, they’re both driven to degrading acts by loneliness and lack of money. Goldsmith lets them explain themselves in their own words, and their stories are a mix of desperate self-deception and brutal honesty. Alex knows he’s basically a bum, but he can’t let go of the idea that some day he’ll become a successful musician. Sue realizes she’s just another star-struck fool scraping by as a waitress, but she keeps telling herself that somehow she’ll break through in Hollywood. They’ve both done things they’re not proud of and spend a good deal of time trying to justify their actions. Bottom line, neither one of them is perfect, and they know it all too well.
In the movie Sue is pretty much gone after the first reel. The screenplay gets her out of the way to focus on the poisonous relationship between Alex and Vera. This makes sense for a commercial feature, but it also makes the movie more conventional. Part of what makes Goldsmith’s book so interesting is the audacity of using a pulp thriller to dig into the maddening contradictions inherent in most relationships. Making Vera the central female figure brings the movie much more in line with the classic pulp framework, a more or less innocent guy dragged down by a scheming femme fatale.
Another interesting aspect of Goldsmith’s adaptation is the fact that he cuts out all of his rants about Hollywood. In the movie, pretty much all we see of Tinseltown is a series of rear projection shots, and the characters only refer to it in passing. In the book, the author spends pages describing his characters’ reactions to film capitol, and gives us a fairly detailed account of what it was like to live in the community at the end of the thirties. Goldsmith was living in Hollywood when he wrote Detour, and it’s clear that he was both horrified and fascinated by the place. His characters have wildly different reactions to what they see there. Alex arrives in Hollywood and likes it right away, describing how clean and sunny everything looks, admiring the people who look so healthy and tanned. But Sue, who works as a waitress because she’s had no luck with the studios, is bitterly angry that she was foolish enough to believe the hype. “I had arrived so thoroughly read-up on the misinformation of the fan magazines that it took me a full week before I realized that the ‘Mecca’ was no more than a jerkwater suburb which publicity had sliced from Los Angeles….”
The movie is just as relentlessly cynical as the book, but in a different way. Born in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, Edgar Ulmer was steeped in the northern European traditions of romanticism and expressionism. Before he started his career as a director, he had worked as a designer in stage and film, assisting Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In making a film out of Detour, he brings a significant shift in emphasis. Goldsmith’s book is rooted in gritty reality, and in their moments of honesty the characters acknowledge that their lives were shaped by the choices they made. In contrast, Ulmer’s movie is about an innocent man whose life is completely derailed by fate. He has no choice. And there is no escape.
Ulmer spent most of his career working on low-budget and no-budget productions. At the time he made Detour he was under contract at PRC, possibly the cheapest outfit in Hollywood at the time. Most of PRC’s output was shot in six days and cut in one, an outrageously short schedule for making a feature film. In spite of these extreme limitations, Ulmer charges the movie with powerful imagery, making the visuals more striking and expressive than almost anything the major studios were doing at the time. Whether hitching a ride through the burning desert or brooding over a cup of coffee in a tiny diner, Al Roberts* is travelling through a dark psychological landscape. It often feels like the movie is taking place in his mind. Al is briefly enraged by a jukebox song that reminds him of his girlfriend. When he calms down again, the camera dollys in quickly to a tight close-up and the frame suddenly grows dim except for a small patch of light illuminating his eyes. Ulmer has no qualms about using a blatantly artificial effect to show the character’s emotional state. When Al stands over Vera’s corpse on the hotel bed, we see the room from his perspective, the camera panning slowly over various random objects, bringing them briefly into sharp focus, then allowing them to go hazy. We’re brought into the room with him, we share his feeling of stunned disbelief.
Another major difference in the movie is the way Vera dies. In Goldmsith’s novel, Al is so maddened by anger and fear that he strangles her when she tries to call the cops. It may not have been premeditated, but it’s definitely murder, and while Al is shocked by what he’s done, he doesn’t spend much time mourning. He runs. In the movie Vera’s death is definitely accidental. Having decided to call the cops, she grabs the phone, runs into the hotel bedroom and locks the door behind her. In total panic, Al grabs the cord and pulls with all his might, hoping to rip it out of the phone. Then he breaks down the bedroom door and finds Vera dead, the phone cord wound around her neck. There’s no knowing how this change came about. Did Goldsmith alter the scene on his own? Did Ulmer ask for something different? Was the production code a consideration? Whatever the reasons for the change, it definitely alters our perception of Al’s story. In the first version, he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t consciously choose to kill Vera. In the second version, he’s a helpless victim of forces beyond his control. After Haskell’s sudden death, Al’s chance encounter with Vera, and then her death in a freak accident, there’s no question that fate has taken a hand. He can run but he can’t hide. It’s only a matter of time before the darkness closes in.
Tom Neal has a forlorn charm that’s perfect for Al, an ordinary guy who’s trapped by an extraordinary set of circumstances. He just wants to get by, and at first he thinks everything will be okay if he just plays it cool. As things get worse and the pressure grows, Neal shows us Al’s nerves go from ragged to raw. He goes from ranting and raging to bargaining and begging, desperately trying to claw his way out of the mess he’s in. As Vera, Ann Savage burns a hole in the screen. It’s easy to believe that Al’s afraid of her. She’s a bottomless pit of anger and bitterness, and her intensity is scorching. But unlike the book, the movie gives us brief glimpses of another side of Vera. In her own way, she’s just as lost as Al. Vera’s led a hard life and probably doesn’t have long to live. In the few moments that Savage lets us see flashes of insecurity and desperation, it makes the character more than just another femme fatale. She seems vividly, pathetically human.
In the book, Alex manages to evade the law, but he can’t go home and he can’t go back to his girlfriend. He’s haunted by the memory of Sue, and tormented by the fact that his musical career has ended before it began. Goldsmith leaves Al stuck in limbo, bumming rides from one small town to another, earning a buck whenever he can. Still, he keeps moving forward. Life goes on. Ulmer’s ending is much more bleak. Al may have momentarily slipped free of the hangman’s noose, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught. It’s not just bad luck that’s sent him on this detour. A mysterious force has singled him out, and there is no escape. When the highway patrol car pulls up alongside him at the end, he doesn’t struggle or try to run. He meekly steps inside. Because he knows it isn’t the police taking him down.
In the book the character’s name is Alex Roth, but in the movie it’s changed to Al Roberts, no doubt because nice “normal” Anglo names were always preferred for Hollywood heroes.
In April of this year and again in November, the LA Weekly ran a two-part article on the way Hollywood treats women like second-class citizens. The author goes into detail describing the various ways that male studio execs stifle women’s voices. She interviews a number of women, and some men, all of whom confirm that women have a much harder time landing directing gigs, getting scripts produced, and even getting equal pay for work.
It’s pretty depressing, but hardly surprising. Just like every other corporate culture around the globe, Hollywood is dominated by highly-competitive men who see no reason to share power unless they’re forced to. I’d love to see this change, but I doubt that the solutions that are being debated will have any lasting impact. You’re going to shame these guys into sharing power? Good luck. They have no shame. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the endless parade of stupid, empty action films that the studios churn out. Sue the studios? They have lawyers who can drag these things out for years. Even if a settlement offered some concessions, who’s going to enforce them?
So what’s my solution? Let’s take a look at Alice Guy, a pioneering filmmaker who started her career in the nineteenth century. Guy is one of the first people to ever shoot a movie, and after a successful directing career she started her own studio, the Solax Company, in 1910. Acting as a producer and director, Guy made hundreds of films for Solax, and while the studio eventually collapsed, for years Guy was one of the most powerful people in the industry.
I think women filmmakers need to follow Guy’s example. Don’t wait around for the alpha males in Hollywood to change the situation. The change has to come from outside. I realize that building a movie studio takes years, and that there are plenty of roadblocks. Finding financing, getting distribution, putting together a production schedule, all those things are major hurdles. But there are thousands of women in Hollywood who have the intelligence and talent to make it happen, and many of them would probably be willing to give up some compensation for a chance to make movies they believed in.
Hollywood has always been dominated by men, and as long as the billions keep rolling in from the endless rounds of worthless blockbusters, they won’t see any reason to change. The only thing more important to these guys than money is power, and they won’t give anything up unless they have to.
Which is why I say, don’t ask for power. Take it.
If you’re interested in reading the Weekly articles, here are the links.
And if you don’t know about Alice Guy, I urge you to read up on this phenomenal woman. I’m including two links below. There are many gaps in our knowledge of her career, and you’ll find the articles offer conflicting information. What is undisputed is that she was one of the earliest film pioneers, she made one of the first narrative films, and she experimented with sound and color long before Hollywood even existed.
In the seventies, Hollywood was trying to figure out what to do next. The major studios had pretty much collapsed in the sixties. High-profile movies with big stars were bombing at the box office, while low-budget films that ignored all the accepted rules were raking in millions. Realizing that the old formulas weren’t working any more, but clueless as to what the younger generation wanted, studio execs greenlighted a number of offbeat projects in the hope they’d get lucky. It was a heady time. Sure, the studios still put our plenty of bland rubbish, but for a while when you went to the movies you knew there was a chance you’d see something new and different.
Scarecrow was definitely different. From the opening scene with two guys standing on opposite sides of a lonely country road, not speaking a word of dialogue, you can tell this movie has a rhythm all its own. For the most part, Scarecrow just follows these two rootless men, Max and Lion, as they hitch across the country. In place of a plot, you just have people, and the film takes it’s own sweet time, letting you get to know each of the people these two guys encounter.
Max has just gotten out of jail, and plans to open a car wash with the money he saved while he was doing time. Lion has been away at sea, but now he’s decided he has to go back home and try to connect with the child he fathered but hasn’t seen. At first, the two don’t have much in common, aside from the fact that they’re heading in the same general direction. But over time they become fast friends, and we realize that one thing they do have in common is that they’re both terribly naive. They may be grown men, but in many ways they’re as innocent as children. Neither one really understands the world around them.
As Max, Gene Hackman shows what made him such a unique and compelling actor. He has an unselfconscious openness, a fuzzy looseness that makes him seem completely accessible, but he also has a presence that holds your attention and an energy that’s a little scary. You’re always a little afraid of what he might do. Al Pacino plays Lion, and he still has the freshness of a young actor who’s willing to take chances. Lion is kind of shy, unsure of himself and of the world around him, and his reactions often seem as spontaneous as a child’s.
But the whole cast is wonderful. Eileen Brennan just has a small part as an irascible barfly, and still makes an impression in the short time she’s on screen. Dorothy Tristan radiates an easy warmth as an old friend that Max decides to drop in on. She never says a word when he starts flirting with her partner Frenchy, but you can see the twinge of jealousy in her eyes. Ann Wedgeworth plays Frenchy with an unabashed openness that’s totally winning. She immediately falls for Max, and she can’t stop flashing her huge smile, just waiting for him to make a move.
It’s not just that the actors are in fine form. Director Jerry Schatzberg knows how to use them. Again, this movie is primarily about people, and Schatzberg shapes each scene to bring us closer to the characters. Screenwriter Garry Michael White gives him a lot to work with. You have to wonder if White didn’t spend some time hitchhiking himself. He seems to know these people and their world well. The cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, slowly unfolds a panorama of the American landscape. This movie was shot in the bars and coffee shops, cheap hotels and bus stations that line this country’s rural highways. Zsigmond shows us the worn and wasted beauty in all of it without ever making us aware there’s someone behind the camera. Editor Evan Lottman is completely in tune with the movie’s vibe, throwing away the rule book and letting the people and the places determine the pace.
Max keeps talking about his car wash. Lion keeps thinking about the day he’ll get to see his child. What makes their story sad is that both of them are going nowhere. What makes it beautiful is that at least they’re going there together.