Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sidney Lumet - RIP

After the recent passing of legendary movie director Sidney Lumet, I decided to go on a voyage of re-discovery. I’ve always admired his movies, been greatly entertained by them, and been impressed by his willingness to disappear inside the different stories he chose to tell, nothing flashy, just honest and earnest serving of the material.

What I didn’t expect to find is a vision that is startlingly relevant today. His career which spanned six decades grew increasingly concerned with the struggles of the little man, the working class, and the steadily weakening middle class to make ends meet. He was especially concerned with what man was capable of doing if pushed down hard enough and the consequences of his desperate actions.

The movies I’ve watched over the past week surprisingly fell neatly into two matched pairs. Dog Day Afternoon and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (his final movie shot when he was 82) are both about men driven to commit robberies to cover unexpected expenses. Daniel and Running on Empty offer two different views of revolutionary parents, focusing on the effects their actions have had on their children.

Every time my wife sees a poster from a family forced to hold a pancake breakfast to pay out of the blue medical expenses, she comes home upset and tells me I just have to write a letter to the editor. There is no way that people should be put through such hardship because fate deals them a card imprinted with a word like leukemia.

Dog Day with its famous “Attica! Attica!” spouting Al Pacino and Before the Devil with its brother attacking brother and father attacking son conflicts that approach Biblical proportions are moral quagmires. Pacino needs money to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. Philip Seymour Hoffman needs money to cope with his drug addiction. But, how unsurprising it would be to open the paper tomorrow and read, “Father Robs Bank to Keep Daughter Alive.”

Lumet was fascinated by radical figures, with clearly mixed feelings. The parents in Daniel – arrested and executed in the 1950s as Soviet spies – and in Running on Empty – on the run from the FBI after bombing a napalm lab – are presented sympathetically. But their children are put through Hell as if asking, “Was it really worth it?”

Daniel (Timothy Hutton) has been struggling to find meaning in his parents’ execution for most of his life and his sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) ends up suicidal. And there is no scene more deeply moving than Danny (River Phoenix) tearfully telling his girlfriend Lorna (Martha Plimpton) that he loves her, knowing that he may have to leave her tomorrow.

Lumet’s masterpiece is Network. I didn’t connect with it when I was in my twenties, but it has grown increasingly powerful with aging, its aging, my aging. It deals with a fourth place out of four television news network and its struggles to improve its ratings. The old guard has been striving to remain ethical even if it loses money and the new, represented most memorably by Faye Dunaway, wants to turn the station into, essentially, Fox News.

The most oft-quoted scene is when news anchor Howard Beale gets out of his chair during the live evening newscast and encourages his listeners to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Things just aren’t done live anymore. The sponsors have grown too concerned with their well-being to allow that and Timberlake and Jackson didn’t help matters. But I can imagine just as much shouting out of windows occurring today as back in 1976.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Film Unfinished

In a tenement building in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews are shown living merrily day to day, their courtyard filled with an ever growing mound of human feces as they toss garbage from their tenth story windows, appearing to enjoy living amongst filth.

This scene from the extraordinary documentary “A Film Unfinished” both reminded me of and trumped what has long been my most indelible portrait of the possibilities of hatred and the powers of propaganda to cloud minds. As a child, my grandfather would sit in his big, puffy easy chair – me on one knee and my sister perched on the other – telling us how the black neighbors didn’t even use the bathroom. They would just “go all over the house.”

He wanted us to think in the most unforgettable way possible to our impressionable young minds that blacks were animals.

“A Film Unfinished” makes a truly unique use of a fortuitous discovery. Ten years after the end of WWII, researchers began to sift through the racks of footage left behind by the Nazi propaganda machine. An odd, hour long film was discovered showing the daily lives of Jews. It’s editing was rough as if something abandoned. It had no titles or credits and the cans bore the simple title “The Ghetto.”

The film’s scenes juxtapose wealthy Jews living a comfortable existence and poor, starving Jews wandering and panhandling and often dying in the streets. The footage was long considered a valuable document of how things really were during those dark times.

Two discoveries in the years since have revealed this footage to be something else entirely. A document was discovered bearing the name of one of the cameramen, Willy Wist, and he was located and interviewed. And a never meant to be seen reel of outtakes was found. These two documents combine to show “The Ghetto” to be a most sinister and carefully constructed lie, the propaganda purposes of which we can only now surmise.

Healthy looking Jews, the few remaining, were costumed and placed in carefully redecorated and plush rooms and ordered to eat extravagant meals. They were ordered to walk down the sidewalks past starving Jews – themselves ordered to extend their hands begging for handouts – and callously place nothing in their hands.

Corpses were arranged on the sidewalks by laughing Nazi soldiers while “rich” Jews were ordered to walk past them carrying packages of food for their evening feasts without so much as glancing downward.

We learn of these filmmaking details from Wist. We learn just as much from viewing the outtakes. In scenes left on the cutting room floor, people are seen looking down at those corpses in horror – one particular little boy in disbelief. A scene of two filthy young boys looking into a shop window as a woman strolls inside to make her purchase is repeated four times until the filmmakers were satisfied with the illusion of authenticity.

The makers of “A Film Unfinished” have added one more layer to their presentation. Survivors, young children at the time, now in their 70s and 80s, are shown watching and commenting on the footage, the light flickering across their faces, fingers often covering their eyes. Watching a funeral scene, one woman says with disgust, “But Jews don’t bury their dead in coffins.”

Those scenes of Jews living amongst feces and garbage are revealed in the outtake footage for what they really are. A filmmaker is shown carefully, aesthetically arranging and rearranging a pile of garbage and toying with the idea of propping up a photograph of an elderly Jewish man atop the refuse, before casually tossing it aside.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Heaven's Gate Re-Re-Opened

James Averill has just completed the long journey to rejoin his lover Ella Watson bearing the gift of a horse drawn carriage. The Wyoming vistas are gorgeous, the music sweeping. He stashes the carriage away in the barn outside her bordello and goes inside. Their reunion is tender, their lovemaking sweet.

He unveils his surprise gift and she can hardly wait to take it for a spin and show it off. And then it gets me every time. The scene as the pair careen about in the carriage is so exuberant and the following scene as they enjoy magic hour on a lake shore is so touching that I begin to cry. I wipe my eyes and keep watching almost holding my breath and always saying out loud, “This is my favorite movie ever.”

You might be thinking I’m describing some acclaimed romantic epic from David Lean like Doctor Zhivago, but, no, I’m writing about a movie with the reputation for being one of the worst disasters in Hollywood history, a movie that almost singlehandedly sank United Artists, a movie filled with the alleged perfectionist indulgences of the director of The Deer Hunter run amok.

Yes, I’m writing about Heaven’s Gate.

I’ve had a long love affair with this movie. My first time was on the huge screen of Seattle’s Egyptian Theater during their international film festival. It is such a magnificently visual movie that I’d urge anyone to see it under those conditions if they get the chance. It’s the most memorable movie I’ve ever been overwhelmed by and I’ve been overwhelmed by the best.

The affair has continued over the years on home video, greatly enhanced by another great love – the writings of film critic Robin Wood. Most critics played leapfrog trying to outdo each other with creatively sarcastic and scathing reviews. Wood watched the movie many times and then wrote one of the most marvelous works of film criticism ever published. His piece “Heaven’s Gate Re-opened” and its equally illuminating companion piece on The Deer Hunter really shook me up. I’ve emailed Roger Ebert several times asking if he read Wood’s essay – and if he ever reconsidered his scathing remarks. He’s never replied.

The movie’s director, Michael Cimino, began his career as an architect. And with the aid of Wood’s insights, I quickly began to see this as the key to understanding the brilliance of Heaven’s Gate’s structure. The movie for many years, hell, even nowadays, has been condemned as being sloppy and unstructured. I watch it – once every few months – and ask, “What are these people smoking?”

The movie opens at Harvard during the graduation of two of its major characters, 20 years before the main action. There is a huge dance set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” with hundreds circling a tree. (This scene is almost tearfully beautiful as well.) Later, a dance set to fiddle music sends roller-skating dancers circling around a wood burning stove. Later still, settlers circle on horseback in a swirl of dust as they attack bounty hunters pinned against a tree.

All three of these scenes, its three great set pieces, play like ecstasies of the moment as if time came to a standstill. All are scenes that gradually build toward cinematic bliss, like the docking scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And all three work hand-in-hand to express in a way that’s beyond words the movie’s themes of sadness and loss and disillusionment.

Wood thought – and I agree – that Heaven’s Gate failed because people at the dawn of the Reagan era simply didn’t want to see a movie that eloquently portrayed the death of a nation.