Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David O. Russell

Laugh and let die

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Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Note: Minor spoilers follow for American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Ever since the Golden Globes, there’s been a lot of talk about the state of modern cinematic comedy, and especially about how the category has expanded to include films that we wouldn’t necessarily classify with the likes of Airplane! Two of the year’s presumptive Oscar frontrunners, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are ostensible comedies that are really closer in tone to Goodfellas, and along with the other nominees for the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy—Her, Nebraska, and Inside Llewyn Davis—they made for a rather melancholy slate. Which isn’t to say that these movies aren’t consistently, brutally funny. David O. Russell has become the hottest director in America thanks largely to his ability to marry a compassionate view of his characters to a prankish, almost anarchic humor, and Scorsese has long been a stealth comic master. (Most of Scorsese’s great classics, with the possible exception of Raging Bull, could be recut into savage comedies, although probably at the expense of a “Layla” montage or two.) And what we’re seeing here is less a new development than a confirmation that comedy can, and should, emerge from some unexpectedly dark places.

I’ve noted before that the line between comedy and tragedy is finer than you might suspect, even at the highest levels: give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending, and you have a play that is tonally indistinguishable from All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare incorporates the threat of death into many of his problem comedies, and although it’s narrowly averted in the end, we’re still left with a sense that it could have gone either way. You might even argue that it’s the relative absence of death that allows American Hustle and Wolf to squeak into comedic territory. Nobody dies in American Hustle—unless you count a brief flashback, almost too quick to process, to an unrelated contract killing—and the stakes are exclusively emotional: Russell prefers to mine conflict from his characters, rather than generating suspense in more conventional ways, and we’re too interested in their interactions to be overly concerned about whether they’ll get away with their central con, much less get whacked by the mob. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t contain much in the way of death, either, and the most lamented character is a distant relative whose offscreen demise leaves millions of dollars inconveniently stranded in Switzerland. (Jordan Belfort’s grief at this, needless to say, is perfectly genuine.)

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

And yet the idea of risk, physical and emotional, is central to both movies, as it is to many of the greatest comedies. If contemporary comedies suffer from one flaw, it’s that they often take place in a sanitized world devoid of danger, when it’s really in response to danger that laughter is most cathartic. Many of the biggest laughs I’ve had at the movies have been at lines or moments that stand in contrast to a mood of mounting tension or excitement: think of the Indiana Jones trilogy, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the Bruce Willis movie of your choice. It’s perhaps no accident that both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are joined, oddly, by musical homages to James Bond: a cover of “Goldfinger” plays in the background of Belfort’s lavish wedding, and Jennifer Lawrence’s showstopping rendition of “Live and Let Die” may be Hustle‘s single most memorable moment. The Bond movies, many of which are thinly disguised comedies in themselves, know that we’re more likely to be amused by a gag when it emerges in counterpoint to action or violence. Bond’s frequently derided one-liners—“Shocking!”—have become a cliché, but like most other clichés in these movies, they exist because they fundamentally work.

That may be why there are surprisingly few “pure” comedies among my own favorite movies. When a film wants nothing more than to make us laugh, I’m likely to find it a little unsatisfying: the best jokes are all about surprise, or catching us with our guard down, which is why a movie that tries to spring a gag every minute can start to seem thin and forced. (This also works the other way around: a movie that is unrelentingly grim can feel equally untrue to life.) Humor is at its most powerful when it’s set against a dramatic baseline, however exaggerated, that provides a contrast to the moments when the comedy erupts. The best movies of Wes Anderson, not to mention Woody Allen, are strangely preoccupied with death, and Kubrick’s genius lay in constructing movies that were so finely poised between comedy and tragedy that they evolve in our own minds between viewings: The Shining becomes a richer, more baroque comedy each time I see it, and Eyes Wide Shut is really a farce played at the speed of a dirge. My favorite description of any of Kubrick’s films is Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Barry Lyndon: “When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, ‘This is fucking hilarious!’” And that’s the zone in which real comedy thrives.

The art of making choices

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Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, and Jennifer Lawrence

Who is the author of a movie? As with most collaborative art forms, it’s a question that gets tricker the closer you look at it. A screenwriter like William Goldman might argue that the author of an original screenplay deserves most of the credit, which seems reasonable until we remember that most stories are radically altered, often by anonymous hands, from initial draft to shooting script, and equally significant changes may take place in the editing room. An editor like Walter Murch plays an enormous role in finding the final structure and rhythm of a movie, but here, again, there’s a huge range of potential influence, from editors who simply reflect the director’s wishes to artists like Ralph Rosenblum, who discover a shape for a movie while working on their own. Then there’s the producer, who often shepherds the entire process from the initial idea to the marketing campaign, oversees major creative and hiring decisions, and is there to pick up the Best Picture award on Oscar night. This says nothing of the cinematographer, art director, sound designer, composer, and others, who can enormously influence our final experience of a film, or the actors, including a star whose involvement may have been crucial to securing funding in the first place, and who is often the only face the public associates with the finished product.

Usually, of course, we tend to think of the director as the final author of a film. This is a surprisingly recent development—the auteur theory as we know it wasn’t developed until the early fifties—and it’s often been criticized as unfair to the many other talents whose work is essential to filmmaking. Yet the auteur theory, while inherently undemocratic, is like democracy in at least one way: it’s the worst theory of film, except for all the other theories that have been tried. And it’s the only way I can explain a movie like Silver Linings Playbook. It’s funny, beautifully acted, and ultimately very touching, yet the screenplay is manipulative, contrived, sometimes superficial, and doesn’t always escape the trap of smug, affected quirkiness. Watching it, I realized that you could shoot the same screenplay, word for word, with most of the same actors, but in the hands of a different director, the result would be unwatchable. And the only explanation for its ultimate effectiveness is that David O. Russell, who also adapted the screenplay from Matthew Quick’s novel, is a director who understands his own strengths and limitations, and particularly his ability to make specific, subtle choices that can take otherwise routine material and make it compelling.

Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook

Because a director’s ultimate role is that of someone who makes choices, thousands of them, starting in preproduction and continuing on an hourly basis until the final cut is delivered, covering everything from the color of the wallpaper to which of three possible endings to use. As David Mamet says of his experience directing House of Games:

[The crew] came over to ask me my opinion regularly, not because of any talent on my part, or because of any expertise I had demonstrated, but because the film is a hierarchy and it was my job to do one part of it: to provide an aesthetic overview, and to be able to express that overview in simple, practicable terms—more light on her face, less light on her face; the car in the background, no car in the background.

This may sound straightforward, but anyone who has confronted the endless series of choices that a work of fiction presents, even for a writer working in solitude, knows that it’s the hardest thing in the world, especially when conducted in public, with thousands of dollars at risk of being lost with even the smallest delay. Those choices, as much as the individual talents of the creative team involved, are what give a film its flavor and individuality. Nearly everyone involved in movies on the studio level, from the color timers to the supporting cast, are there because they’ve reached the peak of their profession, but it means nothing if their gifts are squandered or misdirected.

And some of the most crucial choices that a director can make are, by nature, invisible. It’s no exaggeration to say that the best performance in the world can be turned into the worst by a deliberate selection of bad takes in the editing room, and Russell’s approach to Silver Linings Playbook is a reminder of how subtle this process can be:

There’s an extreme version we shot that’s very dark. You know, we had to cover it several different ways on a 33-day schedule. And the De Niro character was written harsher or warmer…So you have to be careful with it and it took a lot of careful work in the editing room with Jay Cassidy to calibrate it.

Which is why the role of a director, even after all this time, remains so mysterious. It’s about calibration, or finding the right balance and tone for elements that can be combined in an infinite number of ways—which is why it seems to go wrong more often than it goes right, despite all the talent involved. Novelists do much the same thing: every word represents a choice, as does the direction of the plot, the actions of the characters, and even the decision of which story to write in the first place. Craft is about learning to plan as much of this process as possible in advance, while developing enough intuition and experience to make smart choices in the moment when confronted by the unexpected. And when a director, or any artist, can bring this sort of craft to bear under pressure, when it’s needed the most, it’s then that he deserves to be called an author.

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

The singular destiny of David Fincher

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The most extraordinary thing about last night’s Academy Awards, which were otherwise inexplicably awkward, was the idea that in today’s Hollywood, five men like David Fincher, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Joel and Ethan Coen could be competing for Best Director, with only the unstoppable force of Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech excluding Christopher Nolan from the final slot on that list. It was perhaps inevitable that Hooper would end up playing the spoiler, but despite the outcome, the sight of so many unpredictable, talented, and relatively young directors in one room was enough to make me feel lucky for the chance to watch their careers unfold—and that includes Hooper, as long as last night’s coronation doesn’t lull him into premature complacency. (His next big project, an adaptation of Les Misérables, doesn’t bode especially well.)

That said, David Fincher deserved to win. And one day he will. Of all the directors on that list, he’s the one who seems most capable of making a major movie that can stand with the greatest American films, which is something that I never would have guessed even five years ago. For a long time, Fincher struck me as the most erratic of technical perfectionists, at least as far as my own tastes were concerned: before The Social Network, he had made one of my favorite movies (Zodiac); one of my least favorite (Fight Club); one that was good, but limited (Seven); and several that I can barely remember (The Game, Panic Room, and the rest). But as of last night, he seems capable of anything—aside from the ambitious dead end of Benjamin Button, which only proves that Fincher needs to stay away from conventional prestige projects.

Because the crucial thing about Fincher is that his technical proficiency is the least interesting or distinctive thing about him. The world is full of directors who can do marvelous things with digital video, who know how to choreograph physical and verbal violence, and who display a fanatic’s obsession with art direction, sound, and special effects. What sets Fincher apart is his willingness, which even Nolan lacks, to lavish these considerable resources on small, surprising stories. Many of my favorite movies, from Ikiru to The Insider, are the result of a great director training his gifts on subjects that might seem better suited for television. The Social Network, which grows deeper and sadder the more often I watch it, belongs proudly to that tradition. And I have a feeling that an Oscar would have made it much harder for Fincher to continue along that path.

A win last night might also have calcified Fincher’s perfectionist habits into mere self-indulgence, which is a risk that will never entirely go away. Fincher has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to elicit fine performances from his actors, but his approach to filmmaking, with its countless takes, has more often been an emotional dead end for directors. In On Directing Film, David Mamet sums up the traditional case against multiple takes:

I’ve seen directors do as many as sixty takes of a shot. Now, any director who’s watched dailies knows that after the third or fourth take he can’t remember the first; and on the set, when shooting the tenth take, you can’t remember the purpose of the scene. And after shooting the twelfth, you can’t remember why you were born. Why do directors, then, shoot this many takes? Because they don’t know what they want to take a picture of. And they’re frightened.

Fincher, of course, is more likely to ask for a hundred takes of a shot, let alone sixty. So far, the results speak for themselves: The Social Network and Zodiac are two of the most beautifully acted ensemble movies of the last decade. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ve singlehandedly forced me to rethink my own feelings about multiple takes in the digital era. In the old days, when  film stock was too expensive to be kept running for long, the need to stop and restart the camera after every take quickly sucked all the energy out of a set. Now that videotape is essentially free, multiple takes become more of a chance to play and explore, and can result in acting of impressive nuance and subtlety. (In a recent post, David Bordwell does a nice job of highlighting how good Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in The Social Network really is.) But they’re only useful if the director remains hungry enough to channel these takes into unforgettable stories. An Oscar, I suspect, would have taken much of that hunger away.

My gut feeling, after last night, is that if Fincher continues to grow, his potential is limitless. Over the past few years, he has already matured from a director who, early on, seemed interested in design above all else to an artist whose technique is constantly in the service of story, as well as an authentic interest in his characters and the worlds they inhabit. This mixture of humanism (but not sentimentality) and technical virtuosity is precious and rare, and it’s enough to put Fincher at the head of his generation of filmmakers, as long as he continues to follow his gift into surprising places. At first glance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo seems like a step back, but at least it affords the range of tones and locations that he needs. And if last night’s loss forces him to search all the more urgently for great material, then perhaps we’re all better off in the end.

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

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