Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Spacey

Swimming with sharks on House of Cards

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Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

I’ve always been fascinated by Kevin Spacey. This is an actor with less genetic charisma than any other leading man I can name—he’s neither handsome enough for conventional star parts or physically distinctive enough to be a striking supporting player—but his intelligence and craft have resulted in some of the most indelible performances of the latter half of the nineties, and beyond. I don’t think any other living actor can claim a run as good as SevenThe Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and American Beauty, not to mention Beyond the Sea, which I’m convinced is one of the great bad movies of all time, deserving, as David Thomson has noted, of an award given annually in its name. There’s a preening, endearing vanity behind Spacey’s nondescript looks that emerges whenever he’s asked to sing, which he does very well, or do one of his uncanny impersonations. He’s a showoff trapped in an everyman’s body, and although I don’t think he’s ever given a truly uncalculated or uninhibited performance, he’s also provided me with more pleasure as a moviegoer over the years than most actors with more conventional endowments.

And he’s the perfect lead for House of Cards, the weirdly compelling political drama that premiered over the weekend on Netflix. Spacey always seems to be in a kind of conspiratorial huddle with the audience, even if he’s only conning us in the end, and as the scheming majority whip Frank Underwood, he isn’t above giving the lens itself a wink, and occasionally an extended monologue to comment on the action. If the show were more realistically plotted, this would be distracting, but a realistic look at power politics isn’t quite what this series has in mind. Underwood is a master manipulator, but everyone around him is so gullible, including the supposed Washington operators with whom he interacts, that it’s as if he’s read the script notes for the next thirteen episodes. The fetching Kate Mara does what she can in the role of an ambitious metro reporter, but her rapid rise, once Underwood starts feeding her information, is more Brenda Starr than Bob Woodward. It should play worse than it does, but if there’s anyone who can carry this sort of thing, it’s Spacey, who clearly relishes the chance to have the camera to himself, and knows how to sell arch lines like “I love her like sharks love blood.”

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

And I kind of love it, too. House of Cards is remarkably unsubtle in its writing, but benefits from considerable subtlety in its art direction, photography, and sound design. Every frame glows with the burnished yet chilly digital look that David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, has long since perfected, and the compositions are both clinical and playful: instead of the long tracking shots of The West Wing, we’re treated to a vision of power as one glossy tableau after another. The sets and locations are lovingly detailed—even if my wife observed that no real newsroom kitchen has that much free bread—and we’re given plenty of time to drink them in, with a pace that some viewers have criticized as being too slow, but which suits the balance and polish of the images on the screen. The result is a television series that looks and feels more like a movie than any I’ve ever seen, and its elegance goes a long way toward addressing its narrative shortcomings. (It’s also presented in an unusual aspect ratio, slightly narrower than the standard 16:9 size, which I suspect represents a compromise between the anamorphic format that Fincher prefers and the demands of a show destined to be viewed primarily on widescreen televisions.)

And for all the hype over the fact that the series is being released in one big chunk, rather than parceled out in weekly installments, I have a hunch that its real influence will be in its look and tone, rather than its delivery system. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, and although I intend to watch the rest soon, it doesn’t strike me as the kind of densely plotted show that demands to be devoured in a few epic viewing sessions: all the conventions of serialized storytelling are here, but mostly for the sake of appearances. I’ve written before about the challenges of constructing shapely long-form narratives in television, in which a show can be canceled after two episodes or run for years, and although the Netflix model presents one possible solution to the problem, my initial impression is that it leads to a sort of complacency: subplots are introduced without any particular urgency, with the implication of a payoff somewhere down the line, where a series produced under greater ratings pressure might feel more of a need to justify itself moment to moment. House of Cards is secure, even occasionally a little smug, in the fact of its own survival. I’m enjoying it tremendously, but I can’t help but feel that it might have been a stronger show, if less lovingly crafted, if, to borrow the title from another Kevin Spacey movie, it had been forced to swim with the sharks.

Written by nevalalee

February 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

Birdemic and the lure of awful movies

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Over the weekend, on the recommendation of the AV Club’s New Cult Canon, my wife and I finally watched the film that has become the darling of the midnight movie circuit: Birdemic: Shock and Terror. I’d already heard of Birdemic, which was shot around Half Moon Bay in California—one of my favorite places in the world—for something like $10,000, but had managed to avoid seeing it until now. And reader, I loved it, so much that I watched it twice, first on its own, second with the Rifftrax commentary. Somewhat to my surprise, I preferred the original version, which lets you savor the lengthy driving scenes and incomparable dialogue as they were meant to be experienced. (My favorite exchange comes after the hero asks if he can accompany his love interest back to her apartment. She: “I’m not that kind of girl.” He: “Ok.”)

My sudden affection for Birdemic has taken even me off guard, because I’m not someone who normally goes in for ironic appreciation. Yet there’s something so charming about Birdemic’s ineptitude that I can’t help but love it. The director, James Nguyen, obviously adores movies—his first two films are both homages to Hitchcock—and every hopeless frame of Birdemic is filled with his obvious enthusiasm. As Scott Tobias points out, the underlying premise (an environmental remake of The Birds by way of An Inconvenient Truth) isn’t even half bad. And there’s something appealingly innocent about the proceedings, from the film’s earnest discussion of environmental issues to its PG-level nods toward its exploitation roots (mostly consisting of a few shots of Whitney Moore, very fetching, in her underwear).

And the result is much closer to the urgency of genuine bad cinema than the endless self-aware variations on grindhouse films that we’ve seen over the past few years. Birdemic is nothing less than the natural, more likable successor to Manos: The Hands of Fate, with its long, pointless conversations and interminable driving sequences. (Umberto Eco once pointed out that only in pornography do you see a main character get into his car, pull out of the driveway, and head for the location of the next scene, with the film showing every red light along the way. If Eco ever saw Manos and Birdemic, he might be inspired to expand his definition.) And watching it reminded me of my adolescent love of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I once saw as the ultimate television show, a pop cultural laboratory in which the tropes and vocabulary of an entire civilization could come out to play.

In a way, that’s the real virtue of bad cinema: it puts a spotlight on a culture to an extent that great filmmaking rarely can. Birdemic is the bad movie we all deserve: achingly well-intentioned, squeaky clean, and seduced by the false promises of CGI. And your enthusiastic response to a bad movie can tell you more about yourself than your reactions to a masterpiece. To name just two of my own favorites: Beyond the Sea is jawdroppingly misguided, but there’s something seductive about Kevin Spacey’s vision of himself as the ultimate pop crooner, greater even than Bobby Darin, that cuts to the heart of what stardom and show business is all about. And Angels & Demons is a travesty, but also a summation of the overproduced blockbuster thriller, sumptuous, gorgeous, and without a thought in its pretty head. Birdemic is much more modest, but it tells us more about the underlying dream of all filmmaking, which is that a man with $10,000 and a movie camera can make a masterpiece. Or, failing that, at least Birdemic.

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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