Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘One From the Heart

Musings of a cigarette smoking man

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After the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this week, Deadspin reprinted a profile by Steve Oney from the early eighties that offers a glimpse of a man whom many of us recognized but few of us knew. It captured Stanton at a moment when he was edging into a kind of stardom, but he was still open about his doubts and struggles: “It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts’s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art, which is all about centering oneself.” Oney continues:

But it was the I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws them (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.” He now does this before almost everything he undertakes—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”

I was oddly moved by these lines. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what the future will be, but it offers advice on how to behave, which makes it the perfect oracle for a character actor, whose career is inextricably tied up with luck, timing, persistence, and synchronicity.

Stanton, for reasons that even he might have found hard to grasp, became its patron saint. “What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the awful parts from early in his career,” Oney writes. That was thirty years ago, and it never really happened. Most of the entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is devoted to listing Stanton’s gigantic filmography, and its one paragraph of analysis is full of admiration for his surface, not his depths:

He is among the last of the great supporting actors, as unfailing and visually eloquent as Anthony Mann’s trees or “Mexico” in a Peckinpah film. Long ago, a French enthusiastic said that Charlton Heston was “axiomatic.” He might want that pensée back now. But Stanton is at least emblematic of sad films of action and travel. His face is like the road in the West.

This isn’t incorrect, but it’s still incomplete. In Oney’s profile, the young Sean Penn, who adopted Stanton as his mentor, offers the same sort of faint praise: “Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that attractive.” I don’t want to discount the love there. But it’s also possible that Stanton never landed the parts that he deserved because his friends never got past that sad, wonderful face, which was a blessing that also obscured his subtle, indefinable talent.

Stanton’s great trick was to seem to sidle almost sideways into the frame, never quite taking over a film but immeasurably enriching it, and he’s been a figure on the edges of my moviegoing life for literally as long as I can remember. He appeared in what I’m pretty sure was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater, Philip Borsos’s One Magic Christmas, which prompted Roger Ebert to write: “I am not sure exactly what I think about Harry Dean Stanton’s archangel. He is sad-faced and tender, all right, but he looks just like the kind of guy that our parents told us never to talk to.” Stanton got on my radar thanks largely to Ebert, who went so far as to define a general rule: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” And my memory is seasoned with stray lines and moments delivered in his voice. As the crooked, genial preacher in Uforia: “Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” Or the father in Pretty in Pink, after Molly Ringwald wakes him up at home one morning: “Where am I?” Or Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, speaking to the aged Jesus: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” One movie that I haven’t seen mentioned in most retrospectives of his career is Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart, in which Stanton unobtrusively holds his own in the corner of the film that killed Zoetrope Studios. Thomson describes his work as “funny, casual, and quietly disintegrating,” and when the camera dollies to the left near the beginning of the film as he asks Frederick Forrest’s character why he keeps buying so much junk, it’s as if he’s talking to Coppola himself.

Most of all, I’ve always loved Stanton’s brief turn as Carl, the owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which he offered the FBI agents “a cup of Good Morning America.” And one of the great pleasures of the revival of Twin Peaks was the last look it gave us of Carl, who informed a younger friend: “I’ve been smoking for seventy-five years—every fuckin’ day.” Cigarettes were curiously central to his mystique, as surely as they shaped his face and voice. Oney writes: “In other words, Stanton is sixty going on twenty-two, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a hood hanging out in the high school boy’s room.” In his last starring role, the upcoming Lucky, he’s described as having “outlived and out-smoked” his contemporaries. And, more poignantly, he said to Esquire a decade ago: “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive.” Smoking, like casting a hexagam, feels like the quintessential pastime of the character actor—it’s the vice of those who sit and wait. In an interview that he gave a few years ago, Stanton effortlessly linked all of these themes together:

We’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day.

If you didn’t believe in the I Ching, there was always smoking, and if you couldn’t believe in either one, you could believe in Stanton. Because everybody’s got to believe in something.

My alternative canon #8: Down with Love

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Ewan McGregor in Down with Love

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I didn’t see Down with Love when it first came out in theaters, almost exactly thirteen years ago, and at the time, it seems to have puzzled most viewers and critics. By the time I finally caught up to it on video, Mad Men had been on the air for several seasons, which went a long way toward making Peyton Reed’s unlikely gem more comprehensible: on its release, it seemed like an abandoned orphan, or a dead end, while hindsight has transformed it into a necessary transitional stage between The Hudsucker Proxy and the world of Sterling Cooper. As a result, it’s easier to appreciate now, and you don’t need to be familiar with the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies it’s ostensibly parodying—I’m certainly not—to enjoy its surface delights. The look of the early sixties is reproduced with a precision that Matthew Weiner would have reason to envy, and the film can indulge in the kinds of sight gags that he never could, as when Barbara and her friend Vikki march into a party wearing houndstooth and canary-yellow coats, respectively, and then remove their outer layers in tandem to reveal complementary outfits underneath. (Vikki, incidentally, is played by Sarah Paulson, who is unforgettably funny here a full decade before her big breakthrough.) Its canny visual pleasures, from the smutty use of split screens to the cheerful fakery of the sets, accomplish with seeming effortlessness what One From the Heart, for all its agonized labor, never could. And when the two leads burst into song over the closing credits, it’s a joyous, inevitable climax that I’d take over all of Chicago or Moulin Rouge!

But the real reason I love this movie is because of a pivotal scene that qualifies, I think, as the weirdest and gutsiest moment in any mainstream comedy of the last twenty years. (Please note that a big spoiler follows.) In a static medium shot that lasts an unbelievable three minutes, most of it without any music, Barbara delivers an epic confessional monologue to Catcher Block, her romantic target, explaining that the film’s entire plot was the result of an insanely convoluted plan to get him to fall in love with her, starting with the simple first step of writing “an international bestseller.” At a time when extended takes and tracking shots have become increasingly routine, this is the only one that still fills me with awe. It strands the movie without a backup plan, depending on an irrational faith in the screenplay, in Renée Zellweger’s performance, and, perhaps most crucially, in the cut to Ewan McGregor’s bewildered reaction. A lot of movies pretend to take showy risks, but this is the real thing, a shot that blows up the entire story and can’t be fixed in the editing room. Maybe the lightness of the surrounding material has kept it from receiving its full due; more plausibly, maybe it just didn’t work for a majority of viewers. But it sure worked for me, in large part because it zeroes in, almost by accident, on the ludicrous fallacy of every writer’s life—the idea that the solution to all of your personal problems lies in writing a bestselling book. Barbara’s plan is crazy, but it works. And here’s a related confession of my own: I conceived this whole alternative canon mostly just as an excuse to talk about Down With Love.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2016 at 8:31 am

My alternative canon #4: One From the Heart

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Nastassja Kinski and Frederic Forrest in One From the Heart

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next week and a half, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

Your feelings toward a movie can evolve over time, as in any other kind of romance. Occasionally, you can be persuaded to fall halfway in love with a film before you’ve even watched it, with a critic or an enthusiastic friend serving as the equivalent of a matchmaker, and that initial glow can blind you to even the most glaring of faults. Sooner or later, though, you start to see it more clearly, and you realize that it wasn’t meant to be—even if you’ll never forget how it once made you feel. One From the Heart, which in itself is a story about the ups and downs of a longtime relationship, is that kind of movie for me. I doubt if many viewers still seek it out these days, but for a few years in the early eighties, it was one of the biggest stories in Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola, coming off the hell and unlikely vindication of Apocalypse Now, had envisioned a new kind of movie studio, in which artists of all backgrounds could come together in a process of ongoing collaboration: it would be part theater troupe, part circus, part laboratory for audacious experiments. The test case would be a modest screenplay by Armyan Bernstein about a bored couple, Hank and Frannie, who take other lovers for a single night, then drift back together again. It’s a trifle of a story even by the standards of romantic comedy, but something in it seized Coppola’s imagination: he decided to set it in Las Vegas, which would give him an excuse to build gigantic sets at the Zoetrope Studios, and to test his new technology for computer-assisted review and editing. (Or, as an industry wisecrack quoted by Roger Ebert put it: “[Coppola] took an $8 million project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in for $23 million.”)

In other words, it was just the kind of doomed, lunatic project that excites me as a moviegoer, and it was even a musical, too. Not surprisingly, after my first viewing, I was convinced that I loved it. Over time, the flush of enthusiasm faded: the plot is so inconsequential that it seems to evaporate as you watch it, and most of the visual and aural delights on display never quite land as intended. (The one exception is the soundtrack by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, which I still think is one of the greatest ever recorded. It deserves to be part of everyone’s musical life.) But I can’t quite forget it, either. I was first turned onto it by a pair of reviews by Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times, the first of which was a rave, the second—written a decade later—a mediation on her own disillusionment. In retrospect, they anticipate my own experience with One From the Heart with eerie accuracy. When Benson first saw it, she thought it was “enchanting,” but a return visit brought her to her senses: “But ah, my foes, and oh my friends, the stuff that sticks the marvelous bits together now seems, frankly, strained beyond the most passionate loyalty.” That’s pretty much how I feel about it today, too, even if its immaculate opening credits and gorgeous title song still fill me with a wistful sense of what might have been. Few other movies have left such an incongruous dual legacy: it’s both a lightweight, frothy confection and the film that derailed the career of the most promising American director since Orson Welles. But it’s still worth seeking out. As Benson concludes: “Who knows, it may become the love of your life.”

The Pi paradox

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Life of Pi

Any consideration of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi needs to begin with the point that, objectively speaking, this may be the most visually astonishing movie ever made. Yet it’s likely that many, if not most, viewers will come away with a limited sense of the film’s accomplishments. This is a movie that, for a solid hour or more, consists of a single sustained visual effect, in which every shot has been created for us out of almost nothing, but at first glance, it doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like a small, intimate chamber piece, a two-hander that just happens to be about a boy and his tiger. Except for a limited number of shots, however, that tiger isn’t real, a point that seems to have eluded more than a few reviewers. It is, in fact, the most lifelike special effect I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the result is both totally miraculous and strangely invisible: this isn’t a tiger constantly showing off how tigerish it can be, but a living, breathing animal that we simply accept as part of the fabric of the story. (I suspect that Borges, who was obsessed by tigers of his imagination, would have found this movie both fascinating and problematic.)

As a result, I have a hunch that Life of Pi may lose the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to a showier but less accomplished movie, like Prometheus, much as 2001 didn’t win the award for makeup in the year of Planet of the Apes, allegedly because, as Arthur C. Clarke has claimed, the voters failed to realize that the monkeys weren’t real. And I can’t entirely blame them. As I watched Life of Pi, I had to constantly remind myself that I was witnessing a bravura display of visual effects, even as Lee and his collaborators seemed determined to conceal their wizardry as much as possible. I’ve noted more than once that in movies like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, the special effects still hold up magnificently, because those few precious minutes of footage were the result of years of thought and care. These days, computer effects have become so routine that even the most spectacular examples of digital mayhem, as in The Avengers, start to look like cartoons, so it’s heartening to find a movie, and a director, willing to lavish that kind of old-fashioned attention on more than an hour’s worth of visual magic.

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

But when trick effects become so seamless that artifice can no longer be distinguished from reality, it’s also something of a loss. Artifice for its own sake, when pursued with the same kind of love as perfect realism, can be a joy, as in Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Anna Karenina. The movie has its problems, but I think that if I’d seen it twenty years ago, it would have instantly become one of my favorites. I went through a phase in my early teens when I was fascinated by movies that gloried in their artifice, either to pay homage to the films of an earlier era, like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, or to push forward into a stylized world of their own, like Coppola’s One From the Heart. With its stage sets and images of model trains moving through tabletop snowscapes, Anna Karenina is a movie that embraces its artificiality, like Coppola’s Dracula or the late movies of Powell and Pressburger. In fact, it’s arguably the most ambitious recent attempt to make what Michael Powell has called “the composed film,” in which every element has been planned by the director in advance.

Of course, this can lead to its own set of pitfalls, and if Anna Karenina has one major flaw, it’s that its actors are rarely allowed to find lives for their characters apart from the production design. (Indeed, Keira Knightley’s performance depends entirely on costuming and makeup to dramatize Anna’s descent: as David Thomson has observed elsewhere, Knightley “is still more credible as a faintly animated photographer’s model than as an actress.”) Finding the right balance between artifice and realism, as Powell and Pressburger did in their best films—along with Welles, Kubrick, and Hitchcock—is the province of our greatest directors, and such moments are the ones, as a moviegoer, that I treasure above all others. Hence my love for the sequence in Life of Pi in which the screen briefly elongates to Cinemascope proportions, allowing a swarm of flying fish not just to come right out at the audience, but spill over the edges of the frame. It goes by in a blink of an eye, and Lee notes that most viewers don’t even notice it, but it’s a thrilling example of what a great director does best: giving us something that not only reproduces reality, but advances on it—at least if we’re willing to watch carefully.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2012 at 10:19 am

St. Francis of the Troubles

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Last night, my wife and I watched the great documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which will hopefully bring my resurgent fascination with Apocalypse Now to a close, at least for the moment. (Which is something my wife is probably glad to hear.) And yet I’m still not quite sure why this movie, so extraordinary and yet so flawed, seized my imagination so forcefully again, when it had been at least ten years since I saw it any form. Part of it, obviously, was learning about Walter Murch’s fascinating editing process in the book The Conversations, but I think it’s also because this movie represents an audacity and willingness to take risks that has largely passed out of fashion, and which I’m trying to recover in my own work, albeit at a much more modest scale.

For those of us who were too young, or unborn, to remember when this movie came out, here’s the short version. Francis Coppola, coming off the great success of the two Godfather movies, decides to make Apocalypse Now, from a script by John Milius, as the first movie by his nascent Zoetrope Studios, even though he isn’t sure about the ending. Instead of the small, guerrilla-style movie that other potential directors, including George Lucas, had envisioned, Coppola elects to make a big, commercial war movie “in the tradition of Irwin Allen,” as he says in Hearts of Darkness. He pays the most important actor in the world, Marlon Brando, three million dollars for three weeks of filming. The entire Philippine air force is placed at his disposal. He goes off into the jungle, along with his entire family and a huge production team—and then what?

Well, he goes deeper. He throws out the original ending, fires his lead actor (Harvey Keitel, who was replaced with Martin Sheen after filming had already begun), and puts millions of dollars of his own money on the line. When Brando arrives, hugely overweight and unable to perform the role as written, the rest of the production is put on hold as they indulge in days of filmed improvisations, searching for a way out of their narrative bind. Coppola is convinced that the movie will be a failure, yet seems to bet everything on the hope that his own audacity will carry him through. And it works. The movie opens years behind schedule and grossly over budget, but it’s a huge hit. It wins many awards and is named one of the greatest movies of all time. Coppola survives. (It isn’t until a couple of years later, with One From the Heart, that he meets his real downfall, not in the jungle but in his own backyard.)

This is an astonishing story, and one that is unlikely ever to repeat itself. (Only Michael Bay gets that kind of money these days.) And yet, for all its excesses, the story has universal resonance. Coppola is the quintessential director, even more than Welles. His life reads like the perfect summation of the New Hollywood: he began in cheap quickies for the Roger Corman factory, became an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, created two of the greatest and most popular movies in history, became rich enough almost be a studio in himself, gambled it all, won, gambled it all again, lost, spent a decade or more in the wilderness, and now presides over a vineyard, his own personal film projects, and the most extraordinary family in American movies. (Any family that includes Sofia Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Nicolas Cage is in a class by itself.)

So what are the lessons here? Looking at Coppola, I’m reminded of what Goethe said about Napoleon: “The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” And that’s how I feel about St. Francis of the Troubles, as David Thomson so aptly calls him. No director—not Lucas, not Spielberg, not Scorsese—has risked or accomplished more. If Zoetrope had survived in the form for which it had been intended, the history of movies might have been different. Instead, it’s a mirage, a dream, like Kane’s Xanadu. All that remains is Coppola’s voice, so intimate in his commentary tracks, warm, conversational, and charged with regret, inviting us to imagine what might have been.

The way of Coppola, the way of Kubrick

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Since yesterday’s posting on The Shining and Apocalypse Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, who arguably had the two greatest careers in the past half century of American film. There have been other great directors, of course, but what sets Kubrick and Coppola apart is a matter of scale: each had a golden age—for Coppola, less than a decade, while for Kubrick, it lasted more than thirty years—when they were given massive budgets, studio resources, and creative control to make intensely, almost obsessively personal movies. The results are among the pillars of world cinema: aside from the two movies mentioned above, it gave us the Godfather films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and more.

And yet these two men are also very different, both in craft and temperament. I’ve been listening to Coppola’s commentary tracks for the better part of a week now, and it’s hard to imagine a warmer, more inviting, almost grandfatherly presence—but even the most superficial look at his career reveals a streak of all but suicidal darkness. As David Thomson puts it:

[Coppola] tries to be everything for everyone; yet that furious effort may mask some inner emptiness. For he is very gregarious and very withdrawn, the life and soul of some parties, and a depressive. He is Sonny and Michael Corleone, for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too—and he is at his best when secretly telling a part of his own story, or working out his fearful fantasies.

Kubrick, in some respects, is the opposite: a superficially cold and clinical director, deeply pessimistic about the human condition, who nonetheless was able to work happily and with almost complete creative freedom for the better part of his career. His films are often dark, but there’s also an abiding sense of a director tickled by the chance to play with such wonderful toys—whether the spaceships of 2001 or the fantastically detailed dream set of New York in Eyes Wide Shut. Coppola, by contrast, never seems entirely content unless the film stock is watered with his own blood.

These differences are also reflected in their approaches to filmmaking. Coppola and Kubrick have made some of the most visually ravishing movies of all time, but the similarities end there. Kubrick was controlling and precise—one assumes that every moment has been worked out in advance in script and storyboard—while Coppola seemed willing to follow the inner life of the movie wherever it led, whether through actors, the input of valued collaborators like Walter Murch, or the insane workings of chance or fate. This allowed him to make astonishing discoveries on set or in the editing room, but it also led to ridiculous situations like the ending of Apocalypse Now, where he paid Marlon Brando three million dollars to spend three weeks in the Philippines, but didn’t know what would happen when he got there. (And as the last scenes of the movie imply, he never did entirely figure it out.)

So what do these men have to tell us? Kubrick’s career is arguably greater: while you can debate the merits of the individual movies, there’s no doubt that he continued to make major films over the course of four decades. Coppola, alas, had eight miraculous years where he changed film forever, and everything since has been one long, frustrating, sometimes enchanting footnote (even if, like me, you love his Dracula and One From the Heart). It’s possible that Coppola, who spent such a long time in bankruptcy after his delirious dreams had passed, wishes he’d been more like Kubrick the clinician. And yet Coppola is the one who seems to have the most lessons for the rest of us. He’s the model of all true artists and directors: technically astounding, deeply humane, driven to find something personal in the most unlikely subjects, visionary, loyal, sometimes crazy, and finally, it seems, content. We’re all Coppola’s children. Kubrick, for all his genius, is nothing but Kubrick.

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