Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A FEW RANDOM THOUGHTS

     Here are a few scattered thoughts, more diary-like than most of the posts on this site have actually turned out to be:

     First, it was delightful to start the post-Oscar movie-going season with Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.  The picture’s opening scene, in which a tweedy Tom Wilkinson attempts to spin a yarn with some decorum but is pelted by his pea-shooting son in a fashion reminiscent of the Marx Brothers and “Our Gang,” gives viewers license to laugh.  Such permission is important because the design of the film is so artful, its plot so filled with unexpected twists and its balalaika score by Alexandre Desplat so original that one might feel too overwhelmed to guffaw as she or he should.

     Part caper movie, part screwball comedy and part buddy picture, GBH is brilliantly performed by Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, newcomer Tony Revolori and a shockingly star-studded cast that includes Wilkinson, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton and a host of less well-known but equally capable character actors.  (Fisher Stevens, Wallace Wolodarsky and Saoirse Ronan are among those who deserve to be more recognized.)

     The narrative unfolds like the cinematic version of a Russian nesting doll-- as a story within a story within a story. Bob Yoeman’s rapidly moving camera always hits its mark perfectly and contributes as much to the movie’s breakneck pace as Barney Pilling’s taught editing.

     Adam Stockhausen’s sets capture the grandeur of an exclusive hotel in the Dinaric Alps on the eve of World War II while also emerging as works of art in and of themselves. An elevator reminiscent of Matisse’s “Red Studio” shares screen time with intentionally primitive looking funiculars, hilarious paintings, Agatha Christie-inspired train compartments, impossible bakeries, Andersonian servants' quarters and a fa├žade that makes the Grand Budapest look like a dollhouse.

     There’s a model of Stockhausen’s hotel on display in the lobby of the Arclight cinema in Hollywood, and the rendering is eye-popping and fun.  But it’s also a reminder of the depth, complexity and hilarity of Wes Anderson’s story, not at all a relic of a movie overwhelmed by its own scenery. One takes it in while exiting the theatre and wants to turn around and watch film again.

     The pleasure of  seeing THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL at the Arclight – moving on to the next random thought -- brings to mind what a great city Los Angeles has become for motion picture viewing. Not only does it still have grand movie palaces (The Vista, El Capitan, The Egyptian and the main auditorium at Mann’s Chinese Theatre), its “repertory cinema” is at a level of quantity and quality I haven’t seen since I lived in New York in the 1980’s.  There, on any given night, I could watch great European and Asian films, old and new, as well as vintage Hollywood pictures, at such venues as The Thalia, The New Yorker, The Carnegie Hall and Bleeker Street Cinemas, at Cinema Studio and at the venerable Film Forum. Only Film Forum, as far as I know, survived the crushing blow of real estate development, which has made it nigh impossible for a single screen theatre with low admission prices to turn even a modest profit.

     But in L.A. today, Cinefamily, The New Beverly, The American Cinematheque, (at The Egyptian and The Aero) and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) all have excellent World Cinema and Hollywood “golden age” programming.  On March 1, the night 91 year-old Alain Resnais passed away, I watched a restored print of JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME at Cinefamily. (Resnais’ 1968 film also played that night at Film Forum in New York).  This month LACMA will present an evening with Ennio Morricone (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, THE UNTOUCHABLES, DJANGO UNCHAINED) and interviewer/collaborator Quentin Tarantino.  Later in March, the museum will screen the Hollywood classics MY MAN GODFREY, GOING MY WAY and MOROCCO.

     It would seem, then, that all goes well for Los Angeles movie lovers. But I must end on a much darker random note:  I was deeply saddened to hear that director Scott Kalvert died on March 7, apparently by his own hand.  I worked with Scott on DEUCES WILD (2002), which featured a remarkable ensemble cast. Matt Dillon, Stephen Dorff, Brad Renfro, Fairuza Balk, Debbie Harry and a then-unknown James Franco were all eager to work with Scott because of his stellar direction of Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Juliette Lewis and Lorraine Bracco in a 1995 adaptation of Jim Carroll’s THE BASKETBALL DIARIES.

     I have no special knowledge of what made Scott despondent.  But it often seemed to me he never recovered from lawsuits alleging that murderers at high schools in Paducah and Columbine were inspired by a dream sequence in THE DIARIES.  The fact that the suits were frivolous – that they ignored the fundamental sociopathy of the killers – and the fact that they were consequently dismissed, didn’t especially mitigate the damage they did to Scott.  Filmmakers who excel at their craft must be unusually sensitive.  And any sensitive person would be devastated by the suggestion, no matter how wrongheaded, that his work led to the killing of innocent teenagers.

     Blaming Scott Kalvert’s adaptation of Jim Carroll’s memoir for the shootings was as preposterous as asserting that The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” caused the Manson murders or that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is the reason Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon.  No doubt, the British band and the reclusive author were affected by news stories linking them to heinous crimes.  But neither the fab four nor Salinger were sued by victims.  And both had bodies of work so extensive and esteemed as to insulate them from ludicrous accusations.  THE BASKETBALL DIARIES was Scott’s first feature film; he was all but defenseless.

     My deepest condolences to his loved ones. Rest in peace, Scott Kalvert.

     


         

Thursday, February 13, 2014

50 YEARS OF THE BEATLES

“In the increasingly mechanized, automated, cybernated environment of the modern world,… man’s need for his biology has become much more intense… Enter the Beatles – soul by proxy, middlemen between the Mind and the Body.  A long way from Pat Boone’s White Shoes.  A way station on a slow route travelled with all deliberate speed.” – Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1965).

     When the Beatles first came to the U.S. in February 1964, the Cold War was raging.  Our country had invested in rich and diversified public school programs, reasoning that even lower middle class kids might contribute to the space race or to building bigger bombs.  One such program brought a string quartet to entertain our “assembly” at P.S. 165 in Queens, New York, shortly after the fab four’s appearances on Ed Sullivan.

     I listened to the recital politely.  But my true love (or childhood crush) was rock ’n’ roll and I couldn’t wait to ask the classical players what they thought of my new heroes.  Their response: “Fifty years from now no one will remember that these lads from Liverpool even existed.”

     The quartet’s not-so-great Paganini, of course, proved to be better than their prognostication.  Beatles music has remained enormously popular for half a century.  And it transformed all of pop culture right from the start.  The band’s influence remains powerful not just in music, but in film, video, art and literature.

      When the fab four came on the scene, pop records were immediately disposable.  “I’ll Get You,” for instance, B-side of the 1963-64 hit “She Loves You,” was released with a glaring mistake:  John Lennon, unsure if the lyric was “make you mine” or “change your mind,” settled on “mange your mind.”  This, no doubt, resulted from having a budget for only one take per tune.  But a mere few years later, the band would spend months in the recording studio on each album, with lots of editing, overdubs and electronic effects.  Rock music took on a perfectionism it hadn’t known, except, perhaps, on a few Phil Spector singles.

     The cultural sea change, however, entailed more than just higher quality records, as Eldridge Cleaver suggested in Soul on Ice. The Beatles weren’t a healing balm after the JFK assassination, Cleaver asserted.  They represented continued rejection of the Eisenhower years, initially signaled by Kennedy’s election.

     Underlying this rejection was African-American pop culture.  Cleaver quoted Norman Mailer:  “It’s no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro… For the Negro’s equality would tear a profound shift into the psychology, the sexuality and the moral imagination of every white alive.”

     Thus, after Brown vs. The Board of Education at Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools, the sanitized, disembodied pop culture of the 1950’s began to unravel.  “It is significant,” Cleaver wrote, “that the Twist and the Hula Hoop came at the end of the Eisenhower era.” And then the Beatles arrived.

     “The popular music of urban Negroes – which was known as Rhythm and Blues before whites appropriated and distilled it into a product they called Rock and Roll,” the author of Soul on Ice continued, “is the basic ingredient, the core of the gaudy, cacophonous hymns with which the Beatles of Liverpool drive their hordes of… fans into catatonia and hysteria. For Beatle fans, having been alienated from their own Bodies for so long and so deeply, the effect of these potent erotic rhythms is electric.”

     Add to this erotic surge the fact that most of the band’s audience were post-War “baby boomers” – the oldest, then, being eighteen, all of them a roiling jangle of adolescent and pre-adolescent hormones – and electric became explosive.  The girls had to scream.  The boys never got that image out of their heads.

     Fifties and early sixties pop music had been dominated by the likes of Pat Boone, who covered r ’n’ b tunes but whitened them so much Pepsodent could have shared producing credit.  Deracinated, emasculated and disembodied interpretations of songs like “Ain’t That A Shame” (by Fats Domino),  “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” (both by Little Richard) made Boone the number two record seller of the period, just behind Elvis Presley. 
    
     The King, to be sure, paved the way for the Beatles.  As Cleaver saw it, “(The beatniks and) Elvis dared to do in the light of day what white America had long been doing in the sneak-thief anonymity of night – consort on a human level with blacks.” But Pat Boone and Elvis Presley coexisted peacefully. Not so Boone and the Beatles; the fab four’s preeminence abruptly ended his career.

     In a 2012 interview, the fifties star confided, “they had 5 of the top 10 records at once and were selling about 40 or 50% of all pop records… It knocked my record royalties into a cocked hat.” Once a superstar, Boone stopped performing, and turned to selling prints of Beatles oil paintings, some of which hang in Liverpool’s The Cavern to this day.

     So… 50 years ago, white audiences were ready to hear black music played blackly.  John Lennon said in an interview back then that his favorite act was an r ’n’ b girl group called the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), whose approach to vocal harmony can be heard in every song the Beatles performed during their first Ed Sullivan show. They opened their third Sullivan gig, on February 23, 1964, with “Twist and Shout” by Motown’s Isley Brothers.  And a few weeks later, Capitol Records released The Beatles Second Album, featuring six rhythm and blues covers: “Roll Over, Beethoven” (Chuck Berry), “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (Smokey Robinson), “Money” (Berry Gordy), “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Please, Mr. Postman” (The Marvelettes) and “Devil in Her Heart” (The Donays).

     On “Long Tall Sally,” Paul McCartney didn’t so much adapt Little Richard as channel him, just as he did Fats Domino a few years later on “Lady Madonna,” his homage to the great South Carolina singer/songwriter. And what became known as “the British invasion” in the wake of the Beatles appearance on Sullivan consisted, essentially, of English rock bands releasing and performing faithful renditions of African-American r ’n’ b tunes. 

     Half the tracks on the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. LP were just such covers: “Carol” (Chuck Berry), “I’m a King Bee” (Slim Harpo), “Can I Get a Witness” (Holland-Dozier-Holland), “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” (Willie Dixon), “Walking the Dog” (Rufus Thomas) and “Route 66” (Bobby Troop, a white writer whose composition had already been recorded by Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry).   Their second album featured Berry’s “Around and Around” and “Come On,” as well as Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.”

     The Animals had a big hit with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” and great success, live and on record, with John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom Boom Boom” and Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.”  Even the Dave Clark Five had a deserved Billboard chart-topper with their soulful version of Berry Gordy’s “Do You Love Me.”   

     All of these English rockers had completely assimilated African-American pop music, then re-presented it in a way that enabled white Americans to hear it for the first time as it truly was – un-sanitized, sensual and and sexy. Europe had been starved for records from the U.S. throughout World War II and the immediate post-war period.  When budding musicians like John, Paul, George and Ringo; Mick, Keith and Brian; the Erics (Burdon and Clapton) and, yes, even Dave Clark and Mike Smith finally got their hands on vinyl from the States in the fifties, they couldn’t stop listening.  Their obsession with black American pop, and their reproduction of it, became infectious.  White America rediscovered the music, along with its physicality and subversiveness.

     Years later, while in college, I realized that British bands' passion for  rhythm and blues was similar to French New Wave directors' passion for Hollywood cinema in the late fifties and early sixties.  Having had no access to U.S.-made films during the German Occupation, young auteurs like Francois Truffaut and Jean-luc Godard consumed them ravenously after the war, then reintroduced Americans to the cream of the crop with articles in Cahiers du Cinema and with their own movies, filled as they were with homages to Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Fuller and Lang, among others.

     It was inevitable that groundbreaking New Wave filmmakers and British invaders would meet.  Expatriate director Richard Lester’s A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, like French films of the period, was shot in black and white and energized with jump cuts. When the Beatles contemplated a documentary about themselves, John Lennon wanted Jean-luc Godard to direct it.  Paul preferred Michael Lindsay-Hogg (son of Orson Welles, a god to the New Wave), who ultimately directed LET IT BE.  Godard, instead, helmed ONE PLUS ONE/SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL with the Rolling Stones.

     What early sixties French cinema and English rock ’n’ roll had in common was a new sense of internationalism in the aftermath of World War II.  The planet had shrunk.  16 million American men and women lived in Europe for over 3 years during the war, spreading U.S. culture and absorbing that of the continent.  This was in sharp contrast to the xenophobia both fueling and fueled by U.S. isolationism between the world wars.

     When the Beatles arrived at Idlewild airport on February 7, 1964, regularly scheduled transcontinental jet travel was only five years old.  Their PanAm Boeing 707 from London shared the tarmac with large, commercial turboprop planes.  The rapid and continuing increase in international mobility also contributed to post war globalism that fused British and American rock and roll.

      So did scientific advances.  Cold war investment in education, referred to above, increased exponentially when the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space in 1957. And five years later, a mere nineteen months before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, AT&T and Bell Labs launched Telstar, the world’s first communication satellite.  Hard to imagine a world before communications satellites!  But that technology was so new, the band would  participate in the very first transnational telecast, seen round the world performing  “All You Need is Love” live via satellite on June 25, 1967.

     By then, three years after Sullivan, the Beatles had changed the world and it had changed them.  No longer “disembodied,” their white fans embraced black music and moved from the Twist and the Watusi to writhing at Grateful Dead-driven “acid tests” as well as to the music of the fab four.  The boys themselves took LSD and recommended it to one and all. George Harrison wandered the streets of Haight-Ashbury during the “summer of love” while, in England, Paul McCartney helped introduce the world to Jimi Hendrix.  John preached “love and peace,” later earning the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and getting on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.  All the while, the group's music became stunningly bold, as songs incorporated sitars and tablas, orchestras, sound effects, complex time signatures and avant-garde experiments, and they pushed the bounds of existing recording technology.

     All of which makes it feel a little weird to celebrate the Beatles’ semi-centennial with cuddly grandpas Paul and Ringo leading us in sing-alongs of the band’s safest songs.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s sweet to watch audience members who clearly fell in love while listening to this tune or that chiming in with such gusto.  Delightful to see how deeply the two surviving Beatles love each other and how fondly they recall John and George.

     But what I remember is the fab four as agents of change.  I remember discovering Motown and Howlin’ Wolf and all kinds of great music because of the Beatles and the Stones.  I remember coming to expect that each new record, from “Rubber Soul” on, would take me to places I’d never been.  I remember, as a young teen, learning the term “consciousness” from the Beatles, and also learning that it was something to “expand.”   I remember getting the idea from them that popular artists grow by taking risks, in and outside of their work.  And that risk-taking was a good thing. 













Tuesday, January 28, 2014

REST IN PEACE, PETE SEEGER (1919-2014)

     When I heard that Pete Seeger had passed at age 94, I realized I’d seen him perform live more than I had any other musician. It’s not because I always raced out to get tickets for his shows.  It’s because for decades, if there was a demonstration or a benefit concert for a good cause Pete lent his services.  Enthusiastically. 

     Whether the event was to protest the Vietnam War, an infringement of civil rights or the Kissinger-engineered coup in Chile -- whether it was organized to demand cleanup of the Hudson River, to end nuclear proliferation or to protect the disenfranchised from the privileged in any way -- I knew I was going to hear Pete Seeger, and be happily singing along with him.  If I was close enough to the stage, I could read the inscription on his banjo: “This machine kills Fascists.”  That always tickled me as much as the sound effects we all made with our mouths when Pete had us do our parts on “Coming ‘round the Mountain.”

     Indeed, Pete Seeger inspired everyone in my generation who ever wanted to do some good while working in the entertainment industry. Sure, many of us, long ago, read Jean-Paul Sartre on the subject of artistic “engagement.” Most of us are familiar with the Zen idea of “right livelihood.”  And we all admire the writers, poets, musicians and actors who generously donate time, energy and money to promote good causes. But for Pete, the good of the planet and the death of Fascism were fulltime occupations; he was the one to emulate.

     He weathered the McCarthy era blacklist (refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955) and CBS censorship (when they cut his Vietnam War protest song “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” from a 1967 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour).  His refusal to compromise was downright heroic. 

     Both his personal stands and his music roused people to action.  And many of his songs -- including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Bring ‘em Home” and “We Shall Overcome” -- became so anthemic people forgot he wrote them.  

     In addition to entertaining with his great original tunes, Pete Seeger taught his listeners the basic twentieth century folk canon.  Most of us who know Woody Guthrie’s songs (from “Union Maid” to “This Land is Your Land”), Leadbelly’s (from “Goodnight, Irene” to “Blue Tail Fly”) and those of rebellious slaves and labor organizers, heard them first when Pete sang them.

      So, too with what is now called “world music.”  In 1950, his adaption of the Hebrew folk song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” became a Number 2 hit for his quartet, The Weavers.  A year later, the group had another top seller with Pete’s adaptation of the South African chant, “Wimoweh,” which I first heard morphed into The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  In 1966, his adaptation of the iconic Cuban ditty “Guantanamera” became a hit for a band called The Sandpipers. 

     Of the above, I’m fondest of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” In the extremely assimilationist Jewish household of my childhood, it was the only Hebrew-language record.  So I not only learned folk music and world music from a political hero, he taught me a little Hebrew as well.

     Many young film buffs, I’m sure, think they don’t know Pete Seeger’s music. But they probably do without knowing it. The banjo, whistling and yodeling theme played throughout RAISING ARIZONA is Carter Burwell’s arrangement of Pete’s “Goofing Off Suite.”  Joel and Ethan Coen grew up listening to the record and knew, even in pre-production, it would be a perfect underscore for their yarn about the ne’er-do-well H.I. McDunnough.

     Pete had other connections to cinema, too, and I found them all exciting.  He played himself, at Woody Guthrie’s bedside, in Arthur Penn’s ALICE’S RESTAURANT, and he lent the scene warmth and authenticity… his warmth and authenticity.  In Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary, FESTIVAL, later excerpted in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan doc NO DIRECTION HOME, Pete looks on, beaming like a proud father, as Bob Dylan leads a songwriting workshop.

     He was the subject of the 2007 film, PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG, and he graced the screen in Lewis Lapham’s THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS.  He was featured in LOMAX THE SONGHUNTER, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE: THE STORY OF POPULAR MUSIC, THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOT and LET FREEDOM RING: HOW MUSIC INSPIRED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.  Whenever he appeared on screen he was more than just an avuncular presence; he seemed to personify an essential goodness, a true and profound heroism.

     So… another great hero, made from a mold that was broken long ago, is gone.  He will be missed.  His many achievements, including a radical cleanup of the Hudson River, will be remembered and rightly lauded.  And, thank goodness, he’ll be discovered and rediscovered because his work has been preserved in recorded music and movies.

    

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

THE 30TH ANNUAL SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

     A few months before the second annual Sundance Film Festival -- held in January 1985 -- Joel and Ethan Coen, chain-smoking Camel lights in the tiny editing room I shared with sound designer Skip Lievsay, said in a very offhand manner, “Redford has this festival in Utah where you ski all day and watch movies all night.”  They mentioned it because BLOOD SIMPLE had been accepted to compete at this very odd venue. Lifelong schussmeisters from Minnesota, the Coens seemed more excited about the days than the nights.  For Skip and me, their announcement simply meant we had to be ready to mix the film’s sound in time for festival presentation.

     We were.  The boys skied, BLOOD SIMPLE won the Jury Prize… good times! Exciting times! Independent cinema was an embryo.

     Now, for better or worse, it’s a grownup. The festival has become a sales venue – a place where agents sell independently financed films to studios, large and small. There’s a Fred Segal franchise at the foot of Park City’s chairlift.  In a town where drinking was illegal, after-screening parties are now sponsored by booze manufacturers.  A tiny room in a tiny cabin, miles from Park City, can be more expensive than a suite in a trendy New York hotel.

     What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that it’s incredibly exciting to have a film in competition at the festival.  So I’m very excited, again this year, indeed.

     INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, written and directed by Maya Forbes, which I edited, has its worldwide premiere on January 18th, during opening weekend of the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival.  It was delightful working with Maya on the film.

     I met her about a year ago – a few months before the start of principal photography – after reading and falling in love with her screenplay and “mission statement.”  The script tells the tale of a manic-depressive father who, in the early 1980’s, becomes the primary caretaker of his two young daughters.  He must rise to the daunting task of raising the girls regardless of his mental illness.

     What I loved about the mission statement was Maya’s clear intention to make comedy an essential part of the film’s overall tone.  It would be too easy and probably too dark, she said, to focus on how bleak the narrative of a mentally ill father could be.

     While cutting the film, I was reminded of an interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis that appeared in Premiere Magazine many years ago. Gordon, with whom I was privileged to work on MANHATTAN and STARDUST MEMORIES, said that an essential part of his job was reminding the director of her/his original goals.  A given location might make it impossible to shoot what had been planned, for instance, but Gordon had to find alternatives that were in sync with the director’s vision.

    And so, in the POLAR BEAR cutting room, as we shaped scenes in which authentic and beautiful performances by Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana captured the seriousness of the father’s situation, I found myself -- along with Maya – mining material to enhance the lighter tone originally intended.

     I think we pulled it off.  At least well enough to be one of the 16 films selected, from more than 12,000 submissions, to compete for the jury prize at the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival.

     Sundance is my favorite of all the galas, because it’s still, basically, a Mecca for motion picture lovers.  Over the years – having edited seven “official Sundance selections” -- I’ve met film fanatics from all over the world who trek to frigid Park City just to see what’s fresh and new and non-formulaic in contemporary American cinema. The marketplace notwithstanding, most people attend Sundance just to enjoy themselves at the movies.  It reminds me of what rock musicians love about playing far-flung venues:  audiences don’t come, as they might in Los Angeles or New York, to “be impressed.” They come to have a great time. I know that this year, once again, they will.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Oliver Stone Interview, Part II: JFK

     Oliver Stone’s JFK is one of my favorite films.  Period.  Each time I watch it -- and I’ve done so on countless occasions since its 1991 release -- it not only “holds up,” it improves with age.  Repeated viewings never fail to deliver fresh insights and new emotional jolts.

     Indeed, I place it in a pantheon with THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II, with the best of Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks and John Ford.  It’s a truly great American movie.  And when I chatted with Stone about it recently, he betrayed no false modesty on the subject.  “JFK was staggeringly complex and beautiful," he said. "It was perhaps my greatest film in terms of ambition and everything coming together at one time.  But it was so drenched in controversy there was no way we could come out in the end as the Best Picture.”

     Nonetheless, it did receive eight Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and won the trophy for Best Cinematography and Best Editing.  To be sure, the cutting, by Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia and their associates, Hank Corwin and Julie Munro, is awe-inspiring.  They mix black and white and color film, shot in 8mm., 16mm. and 35mm. formats, in ways that are both meaningful and visually arresting; they blend documentary, re-enacted and original dramatic footage seamlessly; and they tell the complex story of Oswald, of the labyrinthine plot to kill Kennedy, of the assassination itself and of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s “hero’s journey” -- all in a 200 minute rollercoaster ride that never stalls or lags.

     This was accomplished “under the gun,” Oliver Stone told me.  “But the editors and I were actually helped by the rush to make a Christmas release date, because there wasn’t enough time in the schedule to preview the film – to have test screenings.  One executive at Warner Brothers wanted a preview in Pasadena and I refused to go along with that.  I said, ‘this movie’s very complicated and long.  Once you get into the preview process - with questionnaires and focus groups - and audience members tell you they didn’t understand this or that, we’ll start pulling the film apart and we’ll miss our release date.’  Terry Semel and Bob Daly (respectively, CEO and President of the studio) supported me, so we were able to keep JFK intact.”

     Not having to preview the film must have delighted its editing crew.  Test screenings are effective tools for marketing experts and even filmmakers working on more conventional fare.  But they can be destructive to a picture as groundbreaking as JFK, especially if its post-production period is truncated.

     Yet even with an accelerated schedule, Oliver Stone and his editors were able to do extremely creative work.  “For instance,” the director told me,  “in the first draft, I had X, Donald Sutherland’s character, come back at the end of the movie in a coda, which didn’t work.  But some of the coda’s dialogue was important, and I wanted to incorporate it into an earlier scene with Sutherland and Kevin Costner.  This seemed impossible, because the actors’ wore different costumes in the two scenes.  But we figured out a way to do it. Playing Sutherland's dialogue from the end bit on his back or over black and white flashbacks and documentary footage, we were able to collapse the two scenes into one.  I got to use all the material I wanted but didn’t have to end the movie with Mr. X.”

     This anecdote is a great example of what editing aficionados mean when they say films are “made in the cutting room.” But even without the filmmaking virtuosity shown by Oliver Stone and his collaborators, JFK would be a magnet for movie buffs.  Its centerpiece, you see, is a strip of 8mm. film – an amateur home movie of the killing -- shot by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder. 

     Before continuing I should say that, like the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations (1976-1978) -- which had more time and greater resources than the Warren Commission -- I believe “President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy.”  According to a recent Associated Press poll, so do most Americans.  I mention these things because, weirdly, as we approach November 22nd, mainstream media are running stories averring that a crazed Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, gunned Kennedy down. This take on the assassination was thoroughly discredited decades ago.  

     One of the reasons it’s impossible to believe the “lone nut theory” is the above-mentioned Zapruder film.  “Until Jim Garrison showed it during Clay Shaw’s trial for conspiracy to murder Kennedy, five years after the Warren Commission issued its report, the film lay unseen in a vault at the Time-Life building in New York,” Oliver Stone recalled.  “Only still frames, printed out of order, had been shown before that.”

     The director features Zapruder's 26-second home movie during JFK’s riveting third act courtroom sequence.  A screen is set up. Blinds are closed.  A vintage projector runs and the shaky but clear, uncut visual record of Kennedy's killing makes its indelible impression. 

     “A picture speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it?” Garrison asks a stunned jury.  “The Warren Commission thought they had an open and shut case: three bullets, one assassin.  But two unpredictable things happened that day that made it virtually impossible.  One, the 8 mm. home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder while standing near the grassy knoll.  And two, the third wounded man, James Taig, who was nicked by a fragment while standing near the triple underpass.  The time frame, 5.6 seconds, established by the Zapruder film left no possibility of a fourth shot.  So the shot or fragment that left a superficial wound on Taig’s cheek had to come from one of the three bullets fired from the sixth floor of the book depository. Which leaves just two bullets. And we know one of them was the fatal headshot that killed Kennedy.  So now a single bullet remains.  A single bullet, then, has to account for the remaining seven wounds in Connelly and Kennedy.  But rather than admit to a conspiracy or investigate further, the Warren Commission chose to endorse… one of the grossest lies ever perpetrated on the American public. We’ve come to know it as the ‘magic bullet theory.’”

     What’s clear in the Zapruder film is that two seconds elapse between the moment Kennedy is shot in the throat and the moment Connelly, sitting directly in front of him, is hit.  Yet the Warren Commission says the same bullet struck both men.  Common sense and my experience as a film editor make this assertion ridiculous.    

     Thirty-five millimeter film runs at 24 frames per second, so I’m used to adjusting cuts by twenty-fourths of a second.  Assembling a close-range shooting scene, I might leave a frame or two –- that is, up to a twelfth of a second -- between a muzzle flash and a bullet’s impact.  I’ve even left an eighth of a second to enhance and stylize the drama of particularly violent gunplay. But more than an eighth of a second (three frames) between discharge and impact at close-range begins to look silly.

     Again, Zapruder’s home movie shows Connelly hit almost two seconds --forty-eight frames! -- after Kennedy reacts to a throat wound.  A projectile moving that slowly wouldn’t even have pierced Connelly’s skin.  But somehow when Oliver Stone made JFK in 1991, many in the mainstream media still considered the Warren Commission a sacred cow.

     Fortunately, Warner Brothers supported the picture. “They wanted it badly, because they were hungry to do business with me,” Stone recalled.  “I had won Best Director Oscars for PLATOON and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY.  And they loved WALL STREET. So I took JFK to them.  I bought Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, and I told the studio, ‘I own the rights to these books and I’d like to make this movie.’ They were eager to do it.”

     But because of the film’s controversial nature, Stone needed a big star to play Jim Garrison.  “To make the whole thing work,” he recalled, “I had to get Kevin Costner.  It was a very expensive movie, and I needed a star of his magnitude.  So I flew to London, where he was making ROBIN HOOD.   And it proved to be a bit of a struggle.  I mean, why should he take the risk at that point?  You have to buy into it.  Jack Lemon believed in the story.  All of the other actors did, to some degree.  But Kevin is conservative.  Eventually, his wife, Cindy, and his agent, Mike Ovitz, convinced him to do it.  Before I got Kevin, who was not only a big star but also a big Warner’s star, I couldn’t get the money to make JFK.  After he signed on, I could cast anyone.”

     And one of the most remarkable things about JFK – a movie with many remarkable aspects – is its stellar cast:  Costner, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Cissy Spacek, and Gary Oldman, along with an elite group of character actors, including Laurie Metcalf, Brian Doyle-Murray, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Bob Gunton, John Laroquette, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sally Kirkland, J.J. Johnston, Ron Rifkin, Lolita Dovidavitch, Tony Plana and Frank Whaley.

     If you hired any three of these giants, you’d have a solid ensemble.  But Oliver Stone felt he needed more than that.  “I wanted big stars,” he said, “because there was a lot of stuff in the script that was necessary but dull and dry.  I remember thinking at the time that I needed “road maps.”  When you go through all the literature on the assassination, which I did with Jane Rusconi – we did a lot of research – it can be very arid:  Who’s who, who’s a doctor and who was in this apartment, when did that happen… So I wanted some road maps. I thought you needed a Jack Martin who would stand out.  You needed a David Ferrie, a Fletcher Prouty, a Lee Oswald, certainly…  But they also had to be believable and memorable faces.  So I went to actors like Jack Lemon (who played Martin) and Ed Asner (who played Guy Bannister).  What a great combo!  They fit together perfectly. 

     “I went to Brando for Sutherland’s role – the Fletcher Prouty character - but I think that was a mistake because he would have made that dialogue fifteen times longer.  The reason, again, was financing.  Glen Ford also turned me down for that role. But I was lucky to get Sutherland because he’s a fast actor. And he was great.

     “Everyone else was a first choice, pretty much. Kevin Bacon… I knew Perry Russo, the male prostitute he plays, and guys like him, and Kevin just felt to me like a New Orleans street hustler.  Joe Pesci… I loved him in RAGING BULL, and he was great as David Ferrie.  Funny, too!

     “I also wanted Cissy Spacek very much.  Liz Garrison was the mother of six children and was raised in the Southern tradition. So you don’t cast some urbane Hollywood-type who’s going to give backtalk to Jim. Cissy brought something perfectly Southern and old fashioned to the part.

     “And getting Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw was a great coup.  He strikes you as a strong macho guy.  But he played Shaw, who was part of an early sixties gay New Orleans underground, as elegant and effete.  Tommy was pitch perfect, and he got an Academy Award nomination.”

     Also nominated was composer John Williams, for Best Original Score.  Maestro Williams’ approach to JFK’s music was unusual.  “He wrote his initial theme after reading the script, which he loved, before principal photography,” Stone told me. “He created something in his head – without picture – that I think was very appropriate.  Later, he did write incidental music to picture.  But we had this great piece to edit with right away.  And it’s beautiful.  He doesn’t play it much, but he let us use a piece of it in UNTOLD HISTORY. The music is so evocative and memorable, with marshal drums and Tim Morrison’s trumpet solo; it’s almost a love theme.  John loved Kennedy.”

     Indeed, the composition does convey love for the young president, along with a sense of loss and mourning.  It is thus a perfect companion to JFK’s look, created by Bob Richardson.  (Richardson won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.)  His palette, early in the film, consists of both black and white and soft, muted colors.  It reflects the innocence of “Camelot” and Jim Garrison’s love of Kennedy, as well as his naive acceptance of the Warren Commission report.

     “Then,” Oliver Stone recalled, “the movie jumps ahead three years to an eye-opening… actually life-changing conversation between Garrison and Senator Long (Walter Matthau), and it bursts into warm, deeply saturated color. The D.A.’s monochromatic view of the world is left behind with the simplicity and mass credulity of the early sixties.

     “The scene with Matthau is brief but pointed,” the director continued. “Afterwards, Garrison goes home, as in his book, and begins to read the Warren Report.  The whole question of who Lee Oswald is starts to engage him.  And he gets into it.  He remembers David Ferrie’s bizarre behavior, years earlier, two days after the assassination.  One thing leads to another and he re-opens the investigation.  And before you know it, he’s involved up to his eyeballs in the hottest case in American history.” The vibrancy of JFK’s color scheme at this point reflects Garrison’s fervor.

     The film’s look is entwined with the emotion of each story point, each thematic element. “A lot of it came from me arguing things back and forth with Bob,” Stone recalled.  But it was also influenced by what the director was watching when during production.  “At that point in my life I was shooting long, moving masters as much as possible,” he said.  “I was very influenced by Bertolucci.  Every time I made a movie in those days I looked at 1900 over and over because I think it’s one of the most beautifully shot films.  And I’d talk about it with Bob Richardson. Bertolucci was my hero.  Not just 1900, but THE CONFORMIST, too. There are some incredibly complex shots in both pictures, really well thought out. And the shooting on JFK became very complex, too.”

     The editing was also quite intricate, and sometimes required cutting into these elaborate masters at unexpected points.  “When you’re ‘through the looking glass’ on this kind of movie,” Stone reflected, “you kind of make up your own rules for condensing time or making connections.  I could just cut anywhere I wanted. 

     “But a lot of interweaving – a lot of unusual cutting—was written into early drafts of the script.  I deleted some of it because I wasn’t sure Warner Brothers would get it.  Then, during post-production, we restored it… restored that kind of editorial boldness.’”

     What was always in the screenplay, from first draft to shooting script to final cut, was the story of Jim Garrison’s journey -- of his transformation from a Capra-esque World War II veteran who believed in the integrity of his government to a tragic hero who is convinced there may be a “secret government” and a figurehead president.  This journey toward shocking revelation, like JFK's look, was inspired by what Oliver Stone was watching.  “The movie was structured like Constantin Costa-Gavras’ Z,” he said. “In Z, the crime is presented at the very beginning.  Then you peel the onion and you see it again and again until you understand what really happened.  There’s a murder in the square, then you start to figure out who did it and why, and how that’s covered up.

     “My film also opens with the crime. There’s a warning from a strange woman on a highway, then shots are fired, pigeons fly off the book depository roof, Cronkite reads a bulletin.  A ‘normal man’ hears about it.  He’s the District Attorney of New Orleans, and he’s shocked; he liked Kennedy. All he knows is what was known at the time.  Dallas. Three shots.  A sinister, even cretinous lone assassin.”  So at the outset, Garrison is like us. We know what CBS, NBC and ABC told us.

     And the role of television in JFK is remarkable.  Immediately after the shooting, CBS interrupts “As the World Turns” with the announcement that “In Dallas, 3 shots were fired…” The D.A. and his assistant leave their office because “Napoleon’s has a TV set,” from which they learn that the president has died.  Mourners are shown on another "idiot box" in another bar, and are derided by Guy Bannister.  Back to Napoleon’s, where Oswald’s arrest is shown. Then to the television in Garrison’s living room, from which he and his wife learn more about Oswald and hear him say he was “just a patsy.”  Then Garrison and his staff watch Jack Ruby murder Oswald on the TV set in his office.  And when FBI spokesmen announce they’ve found no evidence that David Ferrie was involved in the killing, we see some of their press conference on a security guard’s "boob tube."  But as  Garrison finally begins to study the evidence, his connection to the facts ceases to be mediated by television.  Only the D.A.’s young daughter continues to watch, riveted to a cartoon in what Oliver Stone calls his, “POLTERGEIST shot.”  TV becomes kids’ stuff, banal and foolish.

     Such rich and subtle directorial touches bring this profound and complex script to life!  And all the while, Oliver Stone makes us identify with his hero.  Even JFK's opening montage -- starting with Eisenhower's address about a new, little-known and frighteningly powerful “military industrial complex,” continuing with a barrage of images that highlight covert operations during the cold war and ending in Dealy Plaza -- comes at us so rapidly and with such force that we feel unable to process it all, just as Garrison must have felt in the early sixties.

     The New Orleans D.A. remains somnolent and overwhelmed until he sets out on a “hero’s journey.”  Like many men of his generation, he’s a World War II vet, a fighter against fascism. It’s hard for him to adjust to the tedium of 1950’s family life.  He keeps a Nazi helmet, a souvenir of the liberation of Dachau, on his office desk, and he continues to serve in a U.S. Army Air Force Reserve unit.  Then he’s called.

     The facts call him.  Nothing in Oswald’s history suggests “lone nut.” Medical and photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony indicate multiple shooters, some of them in front of the president.  Allen Dulles, who Kennedy fired and humiliated after the Bay of Pigs, serves as a Warren Commissioner.  The Commission’s 26 volumes, which Garrison reads, have no index!

     He must get to the bottom of this. Even as his good name is besmirched and his family is torn asunder, he must. The quest takes him to strange places: Angola Penitentiary, New Orleans’ homosexual underground, the world of covert operations.  “And that’s Garrison’s problem,” Oliver Stone observed.  "How do you explain the world of covert op’s to Americans in 1969? Today, even after the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran/Contra and so on, that's still hard to pull off.”

     So, ultimately, Jim Garrison becomes a tragic hero. His flaw is his compulsion to reveal the truth even at the expense of effective prosecution.  In Stone’s brilliant summation scene – a highpoint of Kevin Costner’s career – Garrison begins to win the jury and the entire courtroom over.  The Zapruder film has proven there had to be, “a fourth shot, and a second shooter.  And if there was a second rifleman,” Garrison says, “then, by definition, there had to be a conspiracy.”  A nervous Clay Shaw fidgets with his cigarette holder. Liz Garrison smiles.  Her husband elaborates.  The prickly judge overrules a defense objection. A former assistant D.A. nods at his boss, encouraged. Shaw sinks in his chair, rubbing his temple.  John Williams’ score and Wylie Stateman’s powerful sound design hint at victory.

     And Garrison goes on, debunking the lone nut scenario. He asks if the American people really believe that John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were all slain by crazed, isolated individuals who had no motive. Music fades. We hear ceiling fans. And murmurs. The word “fascism” is uttered. And finally Garrison gets to his point:  “President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy that was planned in advance at the highest levels of our government and it was carried out by fanatical and disciplined Cold Warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s Covert Operation apparatus.”

     The judge rolls his eyes.  Liz frets. “It was a public execution,” Garrison concludes.  “And it was covered up by like like-minded individuals in the Dallas Police Department, the Secret Service, the FBI and the White House, all the way up to and including J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, who I consider accomplices after the fact.”  Onlookers are incredulous. Slowly, smugly, Shaw smiles.  He knows that Garrison’s gone too far and that he’s off the hook.  The jury delivers its verdict: not guilty.

     Outside the courtroom a juror speaks to the press.  “We believe there was a conspiracy,” he says, “but whether Clay Shaw was a part of it is another kettle of fish.”  Asked if the not-guilty verdict vindicates the Warren Commission Report, Garrison responds, “All I think it proves is that you cannot run an investigation in the light of day even questioning the intelligence operations of the United States government.”

     As whistleblowers remain under attack, with Chelsea Manning behind bars and Edward Snowden in exile, Garrison's comment continues to resonate.

     At the outset of my interview with Oliver Stone, I asked why his film, JFK, retains a powerful immediacy 22 years after its release.  He said, “Well, there’s John Kennedy himself, and his reputation.  And there’s the film.”  Yes.  There’s the film.  The prescient, poetic, profound and deeply moving film.