Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.
The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.Continue Reading
I’m Not There
Contrary to the average Hollywood celebrity, Bob Dylan’s a star who largely created the stories surrounding him, sold his image based on those stories, but then resisted those stories once the media and his fans began to read him too literally through them. In this fantasy documentary about the singer, director/co-writer Todd Haynes tries to walk the line between individualism (subjectivity defining itself) and his own radical semiotic belief that everything is just stories, signs signifying other signs. The problem here is that if there is no core Dylan that we can ever arrive at, only a series of stories that we compile, how can we understand or appreciate what Dylan was resisting against or why, since that rebel is nothing but another confabulation, no truer than the rest? As the title suggests, the movie celebrates Dylan’s resistance to being defined, giving its subject what he wants, a portrayal on his own terms, not held down by anything he says about himself or others. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Dylan gave permission for the extensive use his music. The irony here is that, despite its postmodernist structure of multiple narratives, the film divines a core Dylan-construct by giving into and clearly defending his side of the story, or stories.
One might be tempted to take the position that the only thing important about Dylan is his music, but this film isn’t about determining the meaning of his lyrics from his personal life. Rather, it asks how we should view an artist (or artist qua celebrity) in relation to his art. Haynes is right in the sense that, at best, all we’re going to get is a construct/story of Dylan, but aren’t some constructs better than others? You can sail as long as you like, but you ain’t going to fall off the world, regardless of how old your map is. Therefore, aren’t we entitled to hold the storyteller, or mapmaker, responsible for at least some of his creations? It’s in addressing this question of moral/political/aesthetic responsibility that Haynes gives up the postmodern ghost. As has been well reported, there are a number of actors playing what’s been best described as avatars of Dylan. None of them are named ‘Bob Dylan,’ nor are they supposed to be biopic versions of the man himself, only cognates of stories about the man that have been spun by Dylan and others. I’m only interested here in a few of them: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett as a female version of Pennebaker’s folk-rebelling Electric Bob in Don’t Look Back), Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin as a black child representation of Americana that Dylan emulated at an earlier age), and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere as the storybook American rebel and rambler that Dylan often played out in his songs and as symbolized in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, which featured Dylan in a supporting role). I no more care about their actual veracity than Haynes does, only the way he uses them as suppositions in his argument as a movie.Continue Reading
Rachel Getting Married
So, I'll go ahead and use a fussy distinction, and call Jonathan Demme's film cinÃ©ma direct, rather than cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ©, since it calls more attention to its subject than itself. It's grueling enough to deserve the three accent marks, however. Unlike the use of the shaky-cam in Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, always keep the camera in the objective, 3rd-person tense. They also, thankfully, keep it more transparent than Paul Greengrass's more navel-gazing camera eye. While moving room to room, the audience floats along, but when the wedding party guests are talking, the filmmakers fix the shot, remembering that modern cameras can re-focus on stuff in the background without having to move. Whatever you call it, Rachel Getting Married is realism at its squirm-inducing most direct.
Jenny Lumet's script rarely hits a wrong note in analyzing a particular bourgeois Connecticut family's power struggles that are inherent to most families. Whereas my family get-togethers center on frito-pie and football, Rachel's wedding involves Indian attire and cuisine with Robyn Hitchcock and Cyro Baptista supplying the entertainment. All attention is being paid to Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) until her younger sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), shows up with a weekend pass from court-mandated rehab. What follows is the gentrified version of the Electra Complex. The sisters compete for attention from Dad (Bill Irwin) using what they have: Rachel is the perfect daughter with some undefined perfect job, perfect friends (successful musicians and writers) and a perfect fiancÃ©, whereas Kym is the classic second-child fuckup, with drug addiction being her calling card.Continue Reading
The Arrangement (1969)
Thanks to my co-worker Jackie for throwing this one my way after telling her how much I enjoy Richard Lester’s Petulia.
Here’s another success from jack-of-all-trades Elia Kazan. This time around he’s mining the tumult of the white-collar male psyche amidst 1960s america. This was a time when veteran and rookie American filmmakers were absorbing the groundbreaking editing and storytelling techniques of European behemoths like Bertolucci, Bunuel & Bergman, and regurgitating them into something wholly new. Something prime Americana. This particular example is a great meeting place for leaders of the old guard (Kazan, Douglas & Kerr) rubbing elbows with a dash of the then-newer crop (Dunaway). This vehicle ends up working as a social mixer for the classic styles of Kazan’s past and the fresh ideas coming in from across the Atlantic. The resulting product nests roughly between the realms of a classic melodrama and a surrealist psychological satire.Continue Reading
Network has cemented its place as one of the finest and most enduring examples of American cinema. A satirical look into the media industry and its effect on the human condition, a film that unflinchingly makes points and claims that, in 1976, may have seemed like comedic exaggeration, yet today are accepted norms. Prophetic and eloquent, a film whose undying relevance seems to resonate with growing intensity as time moves on...
"This story is about Howard Beale, who was the network news anchorman on UBS-TV." This is the narrated introduction to the film. Beale, played by Peter Finch, has recently learned of his imminent firing from the station and announces his plan to commit suicide in a future broadcast, live on television. This creates a huge uproar at the corporate level and, soon after Frank Hackett, the Executive Senior Vice President of the network, appears (played by Robert Duvall) to fire Beale on the spot.Continue Reading
The Ice Storm
Set over 1973’s Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Storm is the tale of a group of suburban families in Connecticut dealing with ever shifting social mores and sexual desires.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Rick Moody, James Shamus’ screenplay adaptation is a dark but truthful examination of the American family. It is well structured with highly dimensional characters, never bowing down to the oversimplification of human behavior. Rather, he gives them each their own voice and distinctive point of view.Continue Reading
Director Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) returns to his roots by making a film with a bare-bones look reminiscent of his debut Pi. Aronofsky makes a far less polished film than its predecessors, as far as aesthetic design, focusing on performance above all else. The Wrestler is less plot driven than it is about the nature of desires, regret and one “broken down piece of meat”'s last shot at athletic glory.
Mickey Rourke (Barfly, Angel Heart) headlines the film as the wrestler in question, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Although he did some supporting work in such films as Tony Scott’s Domino and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, it is as the title character of this film that Rourke put himself back on the Hollywood map. As a man fighting against time, desperate for one last shot at life in the spotlight before his body fails him, Rourke plays Robinson with unflinching honesty. It is one of those performances when actor and character become so integrally linked that it feels as if you're watching true life unfold. It is a brave and unabashed performance. One of the year’s finest.Continue Reading
Requiem for a Dream
Based on the novel by American writer Hubert Shelby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Requiem is about the struggle of vice in the existence of four people. Aronofsky writes a tight and interesting screen adaptation with a strange timelessness, keeping much of the slang used decades before. Look for a great cameo by Shelby as a sadistic white-trash prison guard.Continue Reading
Panic in Needle Park
This is a film that speaks without fringe: no fancy lighting, no overblown plot, no music cues, not even a satisfying conclusion. It is a dark and human depiction of real characters, in a very real situation.
Panic in Needle Park is a story of two people who fall in love in the triangular intersection of Broadway and 72nd St. in New York City’s “Needle Park” – also known today as Sherman Square. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted the screenplay from James Mill’s novel Panic in Needle Park. In Al Pacino’s second film appearance, he portrays a small-time hustler and drug addict named Bobby who becomes the solace and lover of homeless girl Helen, played by Kitty Winn. The two young lovers become involved in the downward spiral of heroin and betrayal. Heroin invades their passion for each other, yet it becomes their drive to stay together.Continue Reading
The tightly plotted screenplay by Michael Hirst (Uncovered) is one of the most dynamic period dramas I have come across. It covers historical truth, while still maintaining a high level of dramatic scenarios and relationships.Continue Reading