Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Taxi Driver

The riffs of Wall Street

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Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal in The Wolf of Wall Street

Over the weekend, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street for the second time, and I came away with two thoughts: 1) I like this movie one hell of a lot. 2) It still feels about twenty minutes too long. And unlike Casino—a propulsive three-hour epic that I wouldn’t know where to trim—it’s easy to identify the scenes where the movie grows slack. Most of them, unfortunately, revolve around Jonah Hill, an actor whose performances I enjoy and who works mightily in the service of an unwieldy enterprise. Hill is a massively energetic presence and an unparalleled comic riffer, and Scorsese appears to have fallen in love with his talents to the point of grandfatherly indulgence. The scene in which Hill’s character delivers a briefcase of cash to Jon Bernthal, for instance, seems to go on forever at a point in the story when momentum is at a premium, mostly so Hill can deliver two or three inventively obscene tirades. It’s amusing, but it would have been just as good, or better, at half the length. And while for all I know, the entire scene might exist word for word in Terence Winter’s script, it certainly feels like an exercise in creative improvisation, and it caused me to reflect about the shifting role of improv in film, both in Scorsese’s work and in the movies as a whole.

Improv has been a part of cinema, in one way or another, since the days of silent film, and directors have often leaned on actors who were capable of providing great material on demand. (Sigourney Weaver says as much in Esquire‘s recent oral history of Ghostbusters: “Bill [Murray] was kind of expected to come up with brilliant things that weren’t in the script, like day after day after day. Ivan [Reitman] would say, “All right, Bill, we need something here.”) Given the expense of physical celluloid and repeated setups, though, it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing performers to riff on camera, as many viewers assume. More frequently, an actor would arrive on set with unscripted material that he or she had worked out privately or in rehearsal, and the version that ended up in the finished scene was something that had already gone through several rounds of thought and revision. Things began to change with the widespread availability of excellent digital cameras and the willingness of directors like Judd Apatow to let actors play off one another in real time, since tape was cheap enough to run nonstop at marginal additional cost. When the results are culled and chiseled down in the editing room, they can be spectacular, like catching lightning in a bottle, and the approach has begun to influence movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, which was shot on conventional film.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson in The Departed

Like all good tricks, though, the improv approach gets tired after a while, and Apatow’s movies since Funny People and This is 40 have presented increasingly diminishing returns. The trouble lies in a fundamental disconnect between improv, character, and situation. A line may be hilarious in the moment, but if the riffs don’t build into something that enhances our understanding of the people involved, they start to feel exhausting or enervating—or, worst of all, like the work of actors treading water in hopes of a laugh. We aren’t watching a story, but a collection of notions, and they’re at their weakest when they’re the most interchangeable. Hill’s riffs in The Wolf of Wall Street are funny, sure, but they’re only variations on the hyperaggressive, pointedly offensive rants that he’s delivered in countless other movies. By the time the film is over, we still aren’t entirely sure who his character is; there are intriguing hints of his weird personal life early on, but they’re mostly discarded, and the movie is too busy to provide us with anything like a payoff. Many of Hill’s big scenes consist of him hitting the same two or three beats in succession, and for a movie that is already overlong, I can’t help but wish that Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker had kept Hill’s one best take and saved the rest for the special features.

Of course, many of the most memorable lines and moments in Scorsese’s own filmography have arisen from improvisation—“You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver, “I’m a clown? I amuse you?” in Goodfellas, the confrontation between DeNiro and Pesci while fixing the television in Raging Bull—so it’s hard to blame him for returning to the same well. Yet when we compare Hill’s work to those earlier scenes, it only exposes its emptiness. “You talking to me?” and “I’m a clown?” are unforgettable because they tell us something about the characters that wasn’t there in the script, while The Wolf of Wall Street only tells us how inventively profane Jonah Hill can be. And this isn’t Hill’s fault; he’s doing what he can with an underwritten part, and he’s working with a director who seems more willing to linger on scenes that would have been pared down in the past. We see hints of this in The Departed, in which Scorsese allows Nicholson to ham it up endlessly—imitating a rat, smashing a fly and eating it—in his scene at the restaurant with DiCaprio, but there, at least, it’s a set of lunatic grace notes for a character that the screenplay has already constructed with care. Improv has its place in movies, especially in the arms race of modern comedy, which is increasingly expected to deliver laughs without a pause. But as in so many other respects, The Wolf of Wall Street is a warning about the dangers of excess.

The kindest cut

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Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Has an ‘uncensored’ version of a familiar entertainment ever scandalized you?”

Earlier this year, there was a brief online furor over a report that Martin Scorsese had cut a few minutes of footage from The Wolf of Wall Street to get its rating down from an NC-17 to an R. Looking back, the initial response seems overblown—if there’s one thing that Wolf doesn’t need, it’s more graphic sex—but it’s easy to understand the reaction. Scorsese is both our most acclaimed living filmmaker and something like a national treasure, and he should presumably be allowed to release his movie in whatever form he sees fit. In the past, Scorsese’s struggles with the ratings board have resulted in some genuine losses: the original bloodbath that concludes Taxi Driver was desaturated in postproduction to avoid an X rating, and although the version we have plays just fine, I still wish we could see the vivid colors that the cinematographer Michael Chapman wistfully describes. Yet there’s also a part of me that believes that there’s a place for a system that requires filmmakers to pull ever so slightly back from their original intentions. Like it or not, less is often more, and sometimes it takes an arbitrary, borderline annoying set of cultural watchdogs to enforce that discipline, even at the cost of a frame or two.

This isn’t meant as a defense of the MPAA rating system, which is badly damaged: it ignores violence but panics at the slightest hint of sex, and it permanently destroyed our chances of a viable cinema for adults in the United States by its bungled rollout of the NC-17 rating. (As Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, it was a mistake to simply substitute the NC-17 for the X, which only transferred the existing stigma to a new category: the real solution would have been to insert a new A rating between X and R, allowing for adult content that fell short of outright pornography. Unfortunately, the revised system was allowed to stand, and there isn’t much of an incentive in this country for anyone to make a change.) But I’d also argue that the ratings have their place, within limits.  We often end up with a more interesting cinema when directors are forced to work around the restrictions, pushing them to the extent of permissibility, than if they’re simply given a free pass. It wasn’t what the ratings board had in mind, but just as the Hays Code indirectly shaped the conventions of noir, you could argue that American movies have benefited from their puritanical streak—not in the blandness of the mainstream, but at the edges, where smart, subversive filmmakers skewed the rules in ways the censors never intended.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

And it’s often the most imaginative and formally inexhaustible directors who benefit the most from such shackles. I’d rather watch Psycho again than Frenzy, and you can make a strong case that David Lynch—who at his best is the most interesting director of my lifetime—works better under constraints. I’ve written elsewhere of how Lynch was contractually obligated to produce a cut of Blue Velvet that was under two hours, which he and editor Duwayne Dunham delivered down to the minute. The result is nothing less than my favorite American movie, and although it lost close to an hour of footage in the process, the sacrifice was a crucial one: the deleted scenes featured on the recent Blu-ray release are fascinating, often wonderful, but including them would have left us with a movie that most of us would have been glad to watch once, like Inland Empire, rather than one I’ve wanted to experience again and again. Since then, Lynch has moved on, and his most recent work, shot on digital video without any eye to commercial appeal, seems designed to avoid any constraints whatsoever. And he’s earned the right. But I don’t know if he’ll ever make another movie like Blue Velvet.

Lynch also clearly benefited from the thematic constraints enforced by television. Twin Peaks gained much of its power from the fact that it had to operate within broadcast standards, and it was endlessly evocative precisely because it left so much to implication. (The difference between the original series and Fire Walk With Me is that between the intensity of restraint and its opposite.) Much the same is true of Mulholland Dr., the first two acts of which were originally a television pilot. And Wild at Heart, at least to my eyes, was actively improved by its television cut. When I first saw it, back when it was a real event for me to catch a movie like this on a broadcast channel, I loved it—it was sweet, sinister, colorful, and charged with perverse romance. A few years later, when I caught a screening of the full version at the late and lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, I was surprised to discover how much less I enjoyed it: it was uglier, more indulgent, and ultimately less true to its own conception. This is all very subjective, of course, but I still believe that the television cut retained most of what I love about Lynch while paring away the worst of his excesses. In its existing form, it feels ever more like a footnote, while the television cut is a minor masterpiece that I’d love to see again now. I only wish that I’d taped it.

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 1)

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Tomorrow night, my wife and I will be attending the Chicago Symphony’s Tribute to Roger Ebert, where orchestral selections will be played from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, including Casablanca, The Third Man, and 2001. This would be an exceptional evening in any case, but it’s especially meaningful to me, because Ebert, who is scheduled to be there in person, has had more influence on how I think about the movies than any other film critic, and more impact on my life than most writers of any kind. Which isn’t to say that we don’t often strongly disagree—you could start with his one-star review for Blue Velvet and work your way back from there. But a critic who always agrees with you isn’t much of a critic, and Ebert’s opinions, whether I share them or not, have been a central part of my life for as long as I’ve been able to read.

When I was seven years old, I stole Ebert’s Movie Home Companion from my parents’ bookshelf, and haven’t given it back since. Over time, my first copy, which would have been of this edition, grew so tattered that both the front and back covers fell off. (Judging from the discussion on this article on the AV Club, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.) I absorbed Ebert’s thoughts on Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and hundreds of other films years before I had the chance to see them myself, to the point where I’m often able to recognize a movie on television solely because I’ve memorized his review. His discussion of the Sight & Sound poll was my first exposure to the idea of an artistic canon, an idea that has guided much of my life ever since, for better or worse. And I certainly learned a lot from his reviews of such films as Emmanuelle and Caligula, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The result was that—much the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress did for George Bernard Shaw—Ebert’s reviews formed a sort of cultural bedrock in my brain, teaching me how to write and think, as well as how to watch movies. And it was through his work that I began to realize that the life of a critic is nothing less than the best possible excuse for an extended conversation with the world. When you consider the length of Ebert’s career—which runs from Bonnie and Clyde through The Social Network and beyond—it becomes obvious that no other writer of the past five decades has engaged with so many artists and cultural issues for such a large audience. And it’s no wonder that Ebert’s other published work, which ranges from walks in London to the Phantom of the Opera to the joys of the rice cooker, is so beguilingly diverse: after a lifetime spent on the front lines of the culture, he’s emerged as complete a human being as they come.

But his greatest legacy, of course, is what he’s taught us about the movies. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking more closely at Ebert’s reviews, which have profoundly influenced the way I think about all works of art. (In the meantime, here’s a classic article about his wonderful house.)

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