Monday, October 7, 2013


     In early September, noting that nearly fifty years have passed since President Kennedy's assassination, I sat down with Oliver Stone to discuss his masterpiece, JFK.  My first question for the esteemed filmmaker was rather broad.

     “The president was murdered in Dallas half a century ago,” I said, “and it's been 22 years since JFK was released. Yet the film remains pertinent to our lives. What - in the world and in the film - accounts for its ongoing immediacy and power?”

     Mr. Stone responded:  “There’s the film, on one hand and, on the other, Kennedy’s reputation. Mainstream American media have for the most part depicted him a ‘minor president’ who wasn’t in office long enough to make a difference. Lyndon Johnson, in that narrative, came in and fulfilled JFK’s vision with the Civil Rights Act and so forth, and basically continued his policies. I vehemently disagreed with this view back in the nineties and I continue to disagree with it as I’ve deepened my own awareness in the last five years while working on THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. In Part 6, ‘Kennedy to the Brink,’ (co-writer) Peter Kuznick and I show JFK to be a great president.  Not a near-great or glamorous one, but a great, great one who, next to Franklin Roosevelt, effected the biggest change in the U.S. government and its attitude toward the world.”

     UNTOLD HISTORY is a documentary series directed by Mr. Stone for Showtime and broadcast in 2012.  On October 15th, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will release all ten episodes, along with hours of previously unaired material, on Blu-ray.  The high quality of these one hour shows – from “World War II” to  “Bush & Obama: The Age of Terror” – place them squarely in a tradition of excellent nonfiction films made by the best fiction directors. Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY, NO DIRECTION HOME and LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD epitomize this tradition today. But decades before Mr. Scorsese, such renowned storytellers as David Lean, Carol Reed, John Ford, John Huston and Frank Capra crafted superb fact-based motion pictures.

     Mr. Stone’s program is a direct descendent of Mr. Capra’s Second World War series, WHY WE FIGHT.  Using voice-over narration, newsreel footage, clips from feature films, re-enactments, maps (some of them produced by the Disney Studios in the 1940’s), and original as well as classical music, UNTOLD HISTORY pays homage to Frank Capra.  Early episodes feature clips from WHY WE FIGHT itself, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY, which Mr. Capra “quoted” in his two-part “The Battle of Russia” (1944).

     The Showtime series is thus stylistically conservative, in marked contrast to  motion pictures like THE DOORS, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and, especially, JFK, in which the director exhibited groundbreaking technical virtuosityBut a mainstream, even old-fashioned approach suits UNTOLD HISTORY.  Partly because of the show’s Capra-esque feeling, Oliver Stone’s love of country comes across clearly. Not a jingoistic patriotism or love based on “American exceptionalism.” But a love of ideals like FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) and of heroic figures like FDR’s progressive vice president, Henry Wallace (1941-1945), and, of course, President Kennedy.

     Which brings us back to Oliver Stone’s reflections on the 35th chief executive.  “As we show in UNTOLD HISTORY,” said Mr. Stone, “Kennedy was, at first, a typical cold warrior.  From 1952 to 1960, when Eisenhower’s budgeting cycle was complete, there was a huge build-up of hydrogen bombs, and JFK supported it. He continued to do so early in his own presidency. But he changed after the Bay of Pigs debacle and even more so after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. He changed radically.”

     Thus, the director said, “Everyone today owes the simple fact that they’re alive to JFK. Because the situation created during the Cold War -- with first strike nuclear capability over the Soviets and the ’brinksmanship’ policies of Allen Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950’s -- made the US overwhelmingly armed, shockingly aggressive toward the USSR and willing to use those first-strike capabilities to destroy the Soviet Union and communist China forever.

     “(Air Force Chief of Staff) Curtis LeMay and other generals were ready to go whole hog, urging the president and Secretary of Defense McNamara to bomb Cuban missile sites. If you’ve seen DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, you know the scenario. Bombing Cuba would have resulted in the end of life as we know it. And Kennedy understood that.”

     The president expressed his view of nuclear war concisely but dramatically in a September 1961 address to the U.N. General Assembly, excerpted in episode 6 of UNTOLD HISTORY:  “Today, (everyone) must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable.  Every man, woman and child lives under the sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

     With that perspective, Kennedy stood up to the military brass.  Oliver Stone explained: “Kennedy -- and UNTOLD HISTORY goes into detail about this -- actively resisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA.  Eisenhower weighed in heavily in favor of going into Cuba, to attack them and the Soviets. So for Kennedy to say no to the CIA at the Bay of Pigs was enormous.  To say no during the missile crisis was enormous. To say no to the Joint Chiefs of Staff when they wanted to invade Laos, was enormous.”  Kennedy’s leadership – his fearlessness and forcefulness in the face of nearly rabid, united opposition -- changed the course of human events.

     What emerges, then, from Oliver Stone’s UNTOLD HISTORY and from his dialogue about JFK is not a rehash of Howard Zinn’s PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, which focused on historic contributions of “common” people rather than high ranking officials.  Nor is the Showtime series steeped in leftist paradigms one might expect from a supporter of Bolivarian socialism. Absent, too, are revelations of conspiracies behind earthshaking phenomena. Underlying UNTOLD HISTORY, instead, is a kind of “great man” theory of history.

     The theory, popularized by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, holds that highly influential individual contribute to change by utilizing their special skills or power. But Oliver Stone’s take on this worldview is not that the actions of great historical players are fated or predictable. As Jon Wiener wrote in The Nation, UNTOLD HISTORY’s thesis is that “at many pivotal moments… history could have taken a radically different course.  The missed opportunities, the roads not taken – these are Stone’s central themes, which he argues with energy, passion and a mountain of evidence.”

     Therein lies the “untold history.” Mainstream texts usually present Henry Wallace, for instance, as a marginal third party candidate in the 1948 presidential race. The Showtime series, on the other hand, maintains that had Wallace won the Democratic nomination for a second vice presidential term in 1944 – which he almost did -- he would have become president in 1945. As a student of Buddhism, Mr. Wallace certainly wouldn’t have dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the cold war and arms race might not have ensued.

     Similarly, conventional history texts hold that President Truman’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan ended World War II expeditiously.  The attacks are portrayed as wise, even humane.  But THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES reminds us that Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, along with many of the scientists who developed the bomb, opposed Truman. They felt his decision was unwise and inhumane.  Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved if the generals and scientists had held sway.

     In the series’ final episode, Oliver Stone argues that if George W. Bush had heeded a CIA brief entitled “Bin Ladn Determined to Strike in U.S.,” delivered to him 36 days before the 9/11 attacks, the world would be very different today.

      And in episode 6, the writers assert that if JFK hadn’t been assassinated in November1963, he would have withdrawn all troops from Vietnam and negotiated an end to the cold war. Which brings us back, once more, to my chat with the writer/director about President Kennedy. 

     “JFK’s position on Vietnam is much misunderstood,” he said. “He never sent combat advisors there, although that was recommended repeatedly; he sent non-combat advisors instead.  In fact, he tried to keep a distance from the Vietnamese conflict. In the end, when Kennedy issued National Security Action Memorandum 263, proposing the recall of troops, he made it clear to his closest advisors that if he won the election against Goldwater in 1964, he would with withdraw entirely from Vietnam. 

     “He was also moving toward the end of the Cold War with Khrushchev.  They signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, of which he was most proud.  He tried to end the space race, proposing that the US and the USSR work together on a piloted mission to the moon.  He was attempting, through a secret emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba.  On every front, Kennedy would have been a great second term president.

      “He’s the only American president since Roosevelt to give a speech about the Soviet Union – at American University – paying homage to their sacrifices during World War II. He said that what happened to the Soviet Union was the equivalent of the United States being blown up from Chicago to New York. He empathized. He understood suffering because he had suffered his whole life. His brother was killed in the war, he was injured, and he behaved honorably in combat. That’s why men with three and four stars on their shoulders didn’t intimidate Kennedy - the guys who were telling him to go to war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

     I became aware of the American University speech while watching JFK.  In a clip from the 1963 speech shown in that film, President Kennedy humanized the Soviet people in a manner unheard of at the time. He said that the U.S. wanted peace, but “not a Pax Americana,” because at our core, we were the same as the Russians.  “We all breath the same air,” he said, “we all want the best futures for our children, and we are all mortal.”

     Oliver Stone added, “Kennedy was the last American president who really stood for peace.”  Which, Kevin Costner’s character in JFK (Jim Garrison) slowly realizes, “made him a threat to the establishment.”  In the 1991 feature, this becomes motive for murder. A strong case is made that there was a conspiracy behind the killing and a cover-up of the crime. The Warren Commission Report is thoroughly discredited.  But in THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, Mr. Stone’s voice-over narration simply states that the public found “unconvincing” the commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the president.

     This isn’t to say that the director has any less conviction that a conspiracy lay behind the president’s murder than he had when JFK was released.  He made such a powerful a case in 1991 that Congress created the Assassination Records Review Board to continue collection and declassification of material related to the killing. And Mr. Stone still argues persuasively on the subjects of conspiracy and cover-up.

     In a few weeks, Part II of my interview with Oliver Stone continues with a discussion of the Kennedy assassination and Mr. Stone’s amazing film on the subject.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Dad

     My father - Irving Miller - passed away on July 23d at 90 years of age.  I’ll miss him. He loved movies, and his passion for them was infectious and inspiring. Even as he neared the end, I could distract him with conversations about great pictures we’d seen together. Among his favorites were LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, early Brando films and anything in which James Cagney appeared.

     I never tired of hearing about Cagney entertaining GIs aboard the ship on which dad -- a World War II vet -- sailed to Europe after enlisting in the army.  The great star sang, danced and palled around with the troops, keeping spirits high and creating lasting memories. One afternoon, shortly after I started working in the industry, I saw Mr. Cagney walking to a screening room at Technicolor Laboratories to watch dailies of his cameo performance in RAGTIME. Lab employees lined the hallway to applaud the legend and I welled up, recalling my father’s stories; I couldn’t wait to tell him about my star sighting.     

     But mostly I enjoyed his anecdotes. In addition to tales of James Cagney, there were yarns from childhood about whole days spent in grand movie palaces under the “el” in Jamaica, Queens.  These spectacular theatres -- the Loew’s Valencia, the RKO Alden, the Merrick – had twinkling stars in the ceilings, ornate balconies, eye-popping chandeliers. Dad would arrive early with a cousin or a friend to watch, one after the other, a stage show, a newsreel, a B feature, promotional events for local businesses, “previews of coming attractions” and, finally, the A feature. Occasionally, he’d repeat the cycle.

     During my own childhood, holidays were marked by movies on television: YANKEE DOODLE DANDY on July 4th and MIRACLE ON THIRTY-FOURTH STREET after Macys’ Thanksgiving parade. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was standard fare for Christmas, EASTER PARADE for its day.

     Of course, there were non-holiday favorites as well.  Among them was DEAD END, which reminded my father of the Broadway play on which it was based. The production meant a lot to him because, like William Wyler’s film adaptation, it featured his Jamaica neighbor Billy Halop, along with other “Dead End Kids” Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall.  (Michael Curtiz’ ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES hit a casting trifecta for my family: Billy Halop, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.)

     But my father loved stage actors who became Hollywood celebrities even if they weren’t from the neighborhood.  I had thought Busby Berkley’s THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, featuring the Dead End Kids and John Garfield, was in dad’s pantheon because of Halop.  But as we watched BODY AND SOUL or THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, he would speak, lovingly and with awe, about seeing Garfield in a Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets’ AWAKE AND SING. He was only twelve at the time and the actor was then known as Julius Garfinkle; watching the play made him a fan for life.

     Dad also liked seeing stars in person, offstage.  I took my parents to The Russian Tea Room for dinner once, and we sat next to Joan Fontaine.  As good as the food and pepper-flavored vodka tasted, seeing Ms. Fontaine was the high point of our meal.  Afterwards, we laughed about how her dancing in DAMSEL IN DISTRESS was not up to the standard set by Ginger Rogers for co-star Fred Astaire, and we all agreed that her Oscar-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA was perfect.

     Hitchcock was one of the Miller family’s favorite directors. While my father had no interest in abstractions such as Andrew Sarris’s “auteur theory” he was, practically speaking, an “auteurist.”  He wouldn’t miss a film by Hitch and chatted enthusiastically about such great ones as THE LADY VANISHES, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, DIAL M FOR MURDER, REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO, even as we watched them on tv.  Dad pointed out the director’s use “The Merry Widow Waltz” when SHADOW OF A DOUBT aired, and suggested, as LIFEBOAT unspooled, that the Tallulah Bankhead/William Bendix kiss was the best in all of cinema.  (Talking while movies played in our living room was perfectly acceptable; the assumption was that I’d see the good ones again and again. No wonder that viewing a film many times, as editors must, always seemed normal to me!)

     Dad also saw Hitchcock pictures on the big screen. I was too young to be taken to see PSYCHO and the film was (correctly) believed to be “too gruesome” for mom, but I vaguely remember my father coming home, both shaken and enthralled, after seeing it at the Parsons Theatre in Kew Garden Hills, Queens.  A couple of years later, he saw THE BIRDS at the same venue and was affected the same way.

     But Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t the only auteur my father liked.  Michael Curtiz was another, even if dad didn’t know his name.  Curtiz’ YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES and CASABLANCA were all “must watch” movies when they aired.  Dad would grin ear to ear during Cagney’s dance numbers and well up during Bogey’s “hill of beans” speech – every time.

     William Wyler made his mark in our home with DEAD END, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and BEN-HUR.  Elia Kazan’s GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, ON THE WATERFRONT, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, A FACE IN THE CROWD and SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS were greatly admired as well.

     While unaware that Sarris considered The Marx Brothers auteurs even though they didn’t direct (and probably unaware of Sarris himself), my dad was a big fan of theirs as well. His favorite set piece in any movie was the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  And what a brilliant bit it is, with Groucho, Harpo and Chico at their best and staging on which Buster Keaton consulted!

      Another fond memory of that film, for me, is “Alone,” a romantic duet sung by Kitty Carlyle and Alan Jones as the Marx Brothers’ ship sets sail.  Later in the movie, Harpo reprises the song with his magical mixture of grace and comedy.  And dad used to play it on the piano!  My cousin Barbara told me recently that at age 5 she’d sit at her Uncle Irv’s feet and ask him to play a piece he’d written, over and over and over.  (Yes, this dry cleaning supplies salesman wrote a very sweet song!)  The number I requested repeatedly was “Alone.”

     Dad’s love of music was as infectious and inspiring as his love of cinema. While his refusal to listen to anything recorded after the 1940’s could be maddening, his passion for opera, swing and show tunes affected me deeply as a moviegoer and as a filmmaker.  The emotional wallop packed by the intermezzo from “Cavaleria Rusticana” in RAGING BULL was magnified tenfold because I associated it with my father.  So, too, with “Rhapsody in Blue” and the entire soundtrack of MANHATTAN, as well as all the great songs in SWING KIDS!

     Most moving to me, though, was this: despite the fact that my dad didn’t listen to new music, he did go to see new movies, and he never missed one of mine.  Even when driving to the cinema became an ordeal, as it is for any nonagenarian, he’d go opening weekend. And he always had kind words to say – often out of proportion to the actual quality of the work. So… as I said earlier, I’ll miss him.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


     Two days before his death, Roger Ebert wrote that he was about to take “a leave of presence.” He will be greatly missed. The depth of his passion for film and filmmakers made terms like “reviewer” or “critic” inapplicable; he was more of an advocate for movies he loved. And while he was an exceptional and witty wordsmith, he seldom seemed to revel in his own cleverness or profundity. The pictures came first.

     In 1967, along with The New Yorker's Pauline Kael, Ebert -- in his first year at The Chicago Sun-Times -- helped rescue Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE, writing a rave review after The New York Times and Newsweek savaged the film. Readers ignored the stodgier critics and came around. Now, of course, Penn’s movie is considered a classic, as well as a paradigm of modern film editing.

     A year later, Ebert went to bat for Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, reviewing it twice! The first time, he called it, “an important act of filmmaking” and said it “presents violence in such definitive (indeed, even excessive) terms that it becomes, paradoxically, a statement against violence and a reaction to it.” The second time, he watched it with a paying crowd and mused that its hyperrealism and excess made viewers aware that they were watching a motion picture. As self-reflexive cinema, the critic wrote, it called into question cheering for traditional Western heroes played by the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Hopalong Cassidy.

     For such insightful and impassioned writing, Roger Ebert received the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1978. But he became truly famous reviewing films on television with colleague Gene Siskel, first on PBS’ “Sneak Previews” (also in 1978) and, subsequently, on “At The Movies.” Tuning in to Siskel and Ebert’s debates exposed audiences to the joys of discussing what they’d seen at the multiplex. Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue between Clarence and Alabama, early in TRUE ROMANCE, may be a lasting tribute to “At The Movies”:

Clarence: ...after I see a movie, I like to get a piece of pie and talk about it. It’s sort of a tradition I have. Do you like to get a piece of pie after you see a good movie?

Alabama: Yeah, I love to get pie after a movie. 

Clarence: Would like to go get some pie with me? Alabama: Yeah, I'd love some pie.

     Ebert consistently argued for accepting a motion picture on its own terms. “When you ask a friend if HELLBOY is any good,” he wrote, “you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to MYSTIC RIVER, you’re asking if it’s any good compared to THE PUNISHER.” Thus he didn’t expect ANACONDA to be CITIZEN KANE.

     Unlike most American critics, Roger Ebert had experience in the trenches of Hollywood. He wrote the cult classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, directed by Russ Meyer, as well as Meyer’s BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE SUPERVIXENS and UP!. So, to a degree, Ebert was an “industry insider.” This enabled him to love filmmakers, not envy them. And the feeling was mutual. Werner Herzog dedicated his 2008 film ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD to Roger Ebert. And in 2009, the Directors Guild of America made him an honorary life member.

     I was privileged to begin an occasional email relationship with Ebert when I started this blog. His response to the first post he liked was a pithy: “tweeted it.” More often, when he didn’t like a post, he simply didn’t tweet it. (He was so economical a writer, I told myself, he could say “meh” in less than one word.) When discussing a particular film, or baseball, on the other hand, he was more effusive.

     Roger Ebert was one of a kind: an American cineaste. Gone much too soon. Rest in peace. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The 63d Annual A.C.E. Eddie Awards

     The annual A.C.E. Eddie Awards dinner reminds me of the Passover Seder.  Each year, when Jewish families celebrate the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the youngest child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  (Ritual requires that four answers be given; these responses, each including the words “on this night,” have paradoxically become known as “the four questions.”) 

     Like Passover repasts, Eddie Awards ceremonies mark a divergence from the norm.  On this night, editors get together with a thousand peers to honor excellence in a craft that’s usually unnoticed or misunderstood, even by fellow filmmakers.  On this night, editors bask in the limelight.  On this night actors and directors seem to feel privileged just to be in the company of editors.  On this night editors receive full recognition for their work, even as co-writers and co-creators of performance.

     And so, on this night - February 16, 2013 - it was delightful to see 1,000 esteemed colleagues at the Beverly Hilton Hotel celebrating nominees for and winners of A.C.E.’s highest honor.  Mingling with such editing luminaries as Alan Heim (NETWORK, ALL THAT JAZZ), Bob Leighton (THIS IS SPINAL TAP, A FEW GOOD MEN), Dody Dorn (MEMENTO, INSOMNIA), Mary Jo Markey and Marianne Brandon (STAR TREK, SUPER 8), Steve Rivkin (PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, AVATAR), Kevin Tent (ELECTION, THE DESCENDANTS) and so many others, I felt both humbled and at home.  At home with filmmakers who understand what it means to combine several takes in order to create one well-performed line of dialogue!  Who know how, oddly enough, a film might improve as a whole when a good or even great scene is deleted to accelerate its pace.  Who know, as Paul Hirsch (STAR WARS, RAY) once told me, “The difference between a good cut and a bad one is a twenty-fourth of a second.”

     All of the above-named editors have found themselves in the limelight at one time or another, with Academy or Eddie Award recognition.  And this year, I found myself sharing the limelight, as co-presenter of the trophy for Best Edited Documentary with Josh Radnor (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, LIBERAL ARTS).  Arriving at the Hilton, I was invited by A.C.E.’s Marika Ellis, event planner extraordinaire, to walk the red carpet.  The irony of an editor smiling for paparazzi and fielding questions from journalists was palpable.

     But I truly enjoyed sharing the insights that those queries elicited.  Asked to name one quality that was essential to good editing, I recalled a moment from early in my career.  The producers of a tiny movie I was cutting showed a rough assembly to Jerry Greenberg (KRAMER VS. KRAMER, THE UNTOUCHABLES).  He commented that the work “showed some sensitivity.”  Sensitivity?  This, I thought, from the editor of such testosterone-fueled pictures as THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3!  What he meant, I learned, was that editors had to allow themselves to be moved by the raw material – by what was authentic, or beautiful, funny or sad - and that, regardless of literal matches or mismatches of action, good cutting mandated that the deeply affecting pieces of film make their way into the cut.

     The notion of sensitivity recurred, putting me in the spotlight once more, as the award presentations began.  Jon Voight (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, COMING HOME), with whom I’d worked on ANACONDA, took the stage to announce the nominees for Best Edited Student Film.  He’d asked me backstage if he could share a story about the snake movie, which he proceeded to do.  From the wings, I heard him recount that, in a shot where the enormous ophidian had spit him out at Jennifer Lopez’s feet, he winked at the camera, but no one on set had seen it.  I did see it, of course.  And, sensing that the wink was a key to finding ANACONDA’s arch tone, I used it.  The moment wound up in the final cut as a signal to the audience that, yes, it was okay to laugh at the movie.

     So… this night was different because a four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner for Best Actor led the way in shifting focus away from thespians and directors, onto editors.   The celebration of “invisible artists” by those with high profiles continued when the winner of last year’s Golden Eddie, director Alexander Payne (ABOUT SCHMIDT, SIDEWAYS), co-presented a Career Achievement Eddie to Richard Marks (APOCALYPSE NOW, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT).

     In a callback to his hilarious yet touching Golden Eddie acceptance speech, Alexander Payne overemphasized the American Cinema Editors acronym when referring to Richard Marks, A.C.E. as he had when praising his longtime collaborator, Kevin Tent, A.C.E.  (Kevin was 2012’s winner for Best Edited Feature, Payne’s THE DESCENDANTS.)  The director spoke almost reverently of Marks, his former film instructor at UCLA.  It was wonderful for a roomful of cutters to hear Alexander Payne state unequivocally that he’d learned most of what he knows about filmmaking from one of our own.

      And how could an aspiring filmmaker not learn from Richard Marks, A.C.E.?  His credits include LITTLE BIG MAN, SERPICO, THE GODFATHER: PART II and APOCALYPSE NOW!, ST. ELMO’S FIRE and PRETTY IN PINK, BROADCAST NEWS and AS GOOD AS IT GETS, DICK TRACY,  SAY ANYTHING, YOU’VE GOT MAIL, JULIA AND JULIA and more.  Obviously, American Cinema Editors doesn’t mess around when giving a career achievement award.  

     During Marks’ acceptance speech, which he re-edited right down to the wire, he, too, mentioned sensitivity as an important attribute for cutters.  He said that as a student, Alexander Payne was “performance sensitive.”  That same quality in Richard Marks himself is what makes his films he so vibrant.  “Although I always try to protect the original intentions of the script,” he says, “a film has a life of its own and it evolves.”

     Documentaries, as a rule, are made without a script.  So on this night, legendary non-fiction editor, Larry Silk (MARJOE, PUMPING IRON) was acknowledged for career achievement in shaping compelling stories from hundreds of hours of film on each project.  Doc icon Barbara Kopple (HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A.; MY GENERATION), presenting Silk with his trophy, talked about how honored she felt when he agreed to edit her Woody Allen piece, WILD MAN BLUES.  And who wouldn’t have been?  His work – on the CBS series THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (with Walter Cronkite), JOHNNY CASH! THE MAN AND HIS MUSIC, the aforementioned MARJOE and PUMPING IRON, and so many other projects – has always been groundbreaking.  Speaking of their collaboration, Kopple shared her awe as she watched Silk whittle her raw material down from hundreds of hours to fifteen hours, to five and, finally, to an hour and forty-five riveting minutes. 

     And on this night, 2013 Golden Eddie-recipient Steven Spielberg (JAWS, LINCOLN and everything in between), exuding a kind of humility borne of true greatness, also acknowledged editors as storytellers and close collaborators.  He spun a wonderful yarn about being on the Universal lot as a wide-eyed 19 year old, watching a television editor work with abysmal dailies of a courtroom summation.  The lead actor couldn’t remember two consecutive lines, spewing expletives more often than scripted dialogue.  So the cutter tossed out visuals of the star floundering.  He then deleted all flubs and swearing from the sound track, creating a serviceable audio version of the previously mangled monologue.  Next he strung together shots from throughout the show that illustrated the speech he’d rescued, creating an effective summation montage to go along with the salvaged performance.  Spielberg was duly amazed.  Always the gifted raconteur, however, he finished his story with a twist: the network hated the editor’s solution and reshot the scene as scripted.

     But the esteemed director moved easily from irony to love and gratitude.  Of his three decades-long collaboration with Michael Kahn, A.C.E., he simply said, “Without you, I wouldn’t be standing here tonight.”  His remarks about the cutting room itself – that it’s a “safe haven” in which you can try anything with your film in the utmost privacy – bespoke a profound understanding and appreciation of the process of editing.  And illustrating the kind of family-like closeness that develops in post-production, Spielberg said he’s been following the editing career of Michael Kahn’s former assistant, Billy Goldenberg, who, minutes later, won the Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic), for ARGO.

     The Passover Seder ends with a dessert known as the afikomen.  My Eddie Award dinner afikomen was presenting the Best Edited Television Documentary statuette to Pamela Arnold for AMERICAN MASTERS “PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE.”  Pam and I started our editing careers together in New York, cutting “after school specials.”  At the time, I’m not sure we even knew Eddies existed.

     Of course, I congratulate all the award winners and nominees.  They should be extremely proud of their excellent work.  As should Jenni McCormick (a force of nature), Marika Ellis and Tami Flannery, producers of the 63d Annual Eddie Awards.



Sunday, January 13, 2013

Some Random Thoughts and Opinions

    It’s hard to find time to blog while editing, so I haven’t posted in a while.  But during the holiday break from my current project I got a chance to watch films that were vying for Academy Award nominations.  And now that the nominees have been announced, it’s a good time to write.

     Here, then, are a handful of random thoughts and opinions:

     As always, there are movies that should be in the Oscar race but for some reason aren’t.  QUARTET, Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut, is high on that list.  It’s a tale of rekindled love, set in a home for retired musicians.  Filled with humor but equally long on pathos, it features stunning performances by Tom Courtney, Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Sheridan Smith and Michael Gambon.  Each of these fine thespians might well have been considered in the Academy’s Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories.

     Woody Allen’s TO ROME WITH LOVE may not be as fully realized or fulfilling as last year’s PARIS I LOVE YOU, but it’s a thing of beauty.  Darius Khondji’s cinematography is as suited to romanticizing Rome as Gordon Willis’s was to heightened passion in MANHATTAN.  Woody’s jokes (about exchange rates, parental neurosis, inside straights, Ambien with scotch chasers and, of course, mortality) are as sharp as ever.  Performances are uniformly exceptional, all worthy of Oscar nominations.  The Roberto Benigni chapters about our culture’s obsession with celebrity are deeply incisive without ever failing to entertain.  And Woody’s reworking of Fellini’s THE WHITE SHEIK in one of the film's subplots is so fresh that many fans of the esteemed Italian auteur didn’t even know that’s what they were watching.

      Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD is commendable, oddly, because it doesn’t suck.  It’s easy to screw up a period film, misinterpret a literary touchstone or in some way fall short of fans’ expectations on this kind of project.  But Salles avoids the pitfalls.  A Charlie Parker-based soundtrack, seasoned with Dizzy Gillespie, sets the pace for this adrenaline and amphetamine-driven “mad-to-live” story.  ON THE ROAD is further infused with bebop energy by its editor (Francois Gedigier), who, boldly, as though playing at Massey Hall, never “lets scenes breathe.”   And screenwriter Jose Rivera does an estimable job of balancing faithfulness to the novel with natural colloquial speech. 

     Where the film falls short is in its male casting.  Except for Viggo Mortensen (as Old Bull Lee/William Burroughs), the actors reduce characters defined in the novel by their divinity and wildness to mere mortals inspired by an oddball.  One recalls, while watching a just-okay portrayal of Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassidy, that Kerouac’s first choice for the role was Marlon Brando.

     But ON THE ROAD’s somewhat flawed acting seems brilliant compared to the laughably inept performances (of melodramatic and clunky dialogue) in ZERO DARK THIRTY.  Obviously, I haven’t imbibed the same pro-Katherine Bigelow Kool-Aid as many others whose opinions I respect.  Sitting down to watch her film, I expected something at least well-written and directed, albeit with a pernicious pro-torture message and a hostile attitude toward due process of law.  But this crude propaganda piece is so bad I’d almost believe some of the tastemakers who embraced it were paid to do so.  One key dramatic moment made me laugh out loud:  A CIA bureaucrat berates his subordinates for being ineffective.  “What are you going to do about it?” the man roars.  Then he pauses, bangs on a table and yells, “Bring me someone to kill!”  For real!

     I’m violating an unspoken rule of this blog – be positive about films and filmmakers – not just because ZERO DARK THIRTY supports torture and illegal assassination (even Adolph Eichmann, after all, was given a 14 week open trial in Jerusalem), but because the movie is poorly made.  While decrying the racism of BIRTH OF A NATION one may, nonetheless, appreciate D.W. Griffith’s filmmaking genius.  Viewers revolted by the fascist ideology of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL might still recognize Leni Riefenstahl’s directorial skill.  But Kathryn Bigelow’s film, though well-edited, seems otherwise to have been made by simple-minded amateurs using trite episodic television tricks.  Even its musical score sounds like a porno track.
     Such tripe is, at best, D-level freshman film class stuff.  And we’re not in a freshman film class.  This is Oscar season!  So Mark Boal’s laughable, insipid screenplay is competing with the work of such masterful writers as Tony Kushner, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino, not to mention un-nominated scenarists such as Tom Stoppard and Woody Allen.  Does anyone really think that Boal’s hackwork belongs in the same category as the output of those scribes?  That it measures up to scripts by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD), Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (MOONRISE KINGDOM) or Michael Haneke (AMOUR)?

     Brooks Barnes writes in The New York Times, “The brutal (torture) scenes (in ZERO DARK THIRTY) are presented with no obvious political tilt, creating a cinematic Rorschach test in which different viewers see what they want to see.”  This viewer sees that characters Bigelow paints as heroes acquire information by torturing their captives, in violation of U.S. and international law.  Those “heroes” use this information to assassinate their target without due process.  Thus ZERO DARK THIRTY has an obvious “political tilt” – toward a benign view of torture and contempt for well-established legal conventions.  It is, as they say, “somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.”

     Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino was unfairly overlooked in the Academy’s Best Director category, probably because of inane political objections to DJANGO UNCHAINED.  Spike Lee has stated, without seeing the film, that it “insults his ancestors.”  Yet it’s impossible to watch this amazing antebellum western and conclude that Tarantino finds slavery to have been anything but horrific.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, slave-owner Calvin Candie, is villainous.  Overseers, traders in human flesh and enabling house slaves are also shown to be reprehensible.  The movie’s heroes – a liberated African-American bondsman and his German benefactor – (legally) kill those who own and live off the forced labor of other human beings.  The freeman (the eponymous Django) rescues his wife from Candie-land and they ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

     Why, then, is Spike Lee so upset?  I believe his unwarranted and unseemly rage is directed at precisely what makes DJANGO UNCHAINED a remarkable motion picture:  The film tackles a big subject with a style uncontained by the conventions of made-for-television or mainstream Hollywood movies.  In his best work, Quentin Tarantino stretches the boundaries of genres that fascinate him.  Here, the autodidactic film scholar/auteur explodes the “spaghetti western.”  And from his opening frame, when the theme song from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 DJANGO kicks in to underscore blood-red Caelian-type titles, viewers know they may never see westerns the same way.

     Unlike most  “oaters,” as they were once called, Tarantino’s takes place before the Civil War.  Civilization is being brought to the antebellum South, not to the frontier, as in most of the genre's films.  And its apostle isn’t an Eastern lawman or returning Civil War veteran, he’s an urbane European dentist.  His name:  Dr. King… Schultz.

      Ironically, in light of objections by Mr. Lee and others, DJANGO UNCHAINED may be the most non-racist western ever made, and the most overtly anti-racist, because it takes on the very institution of slavery and those who benefited from it.  John Ford’s highly esteemed THE SEARCHERS is also about bigotry.  But it’s a personal story.  Its central character is a former Confederate officer named Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), whose virulent hatred of Native Americans is finally melted, to an extent, by the love of his niece.  In other words, Ford views his protagonist as flawed and, finally, redeemed.  Tarantino’s heroes, on the other hand, oppose slavery and the inhuman ideology upon which it was built from the outset of his story.   

     What does link DJANGO UNCHAINED and THE SEARCHERS, then -- aside from the fact that Tarantino pays homage to his esteemed predecessor by composing a “doorway onto the world” shot straight out of the 1956 western -- is that both attack race prejudice in ways that make some viewers so uncomfortable they see the works themselves as racist.  And arguably, Ford’s classic does harbor unenlightened views of race even though Ethan Edwards’ prejudice is seen as a profound imperfection.   

     DJANGO UNCHAINED, though, is not an unenlightened film.  It is willfully misperceived as such simply because its characters use the “n” word, as the media call it, ad nauseum.  The pernicious house slave does it, as do plantation owners and overseers.  But the “good guy,” Dr. Schultz, never does.  And Django does so solely when tricking racists into thinking he’s “one of them.”  Only the most uncritical and insensitive viewer (or in the case of Spike Lee, non-viewer) could miss this.

     But Quentin Tarantino’s film ruffles feathers for another reason.  As only the most sophisticated motion pictures can, it mixes genres – western, spaghetti western and slave liberation drama.  While doing so, its writer/director states, implicitly but boldly, that one needn’t be African-American to explore African-American themes.  

     In similar fashion, forty-five years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron ran afoul of black critics when he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner.  His work was derided in a collection of essays called William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.  Some objected to the author’s depiction of the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion as moody and sexually disordered; most simply thought it was wrong for a white author to address the subject at all.  But there were dissenters from the pack.  Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin appreciated the novel for its literary merit, and historian Eugene D. Genovese defended Styron’s right to create a fictional version of the historical Turner.

     Obviously a glutton for punishment, Styron stuck his jaw out for Jewish critics to whack, twelve years later, when Sophie’s Choice was publishedHis tale of a Catholic concentration camp survivor who falls in love with a paranoid schizophrenic Jewish American shocked those who’d convinced themselves that gentiles couldn’t write about the Holocaust and that all Nazi victims depicted in American literature had to be Jews. In a missive to his daughter Suzanna, which appears in the recently published Collected Letters of William Styron, the novelist writes:  “A foolish ass of a Yale professor named Harold Bloom told me that the word was out that Sophie was violently anti-Semitic and would be dealt with accordingly…  Can it really be that the furor over Nat Turner is going to be duplicated?”

     So it would appear that Quentin Tarantino is in lofty company.  Like William Styron, he has dared to tread where white men are suspect.  What’s more, he’s dared to make DJANGO UNCHAINED brilliantly and relentlessly entertaining.  That kind of accomplishment seems to anger jealous filmmakers even as it delights audiences.


     As a film cutter, I must make an unrelated comment about Tarantino’s film.  It’s the director’s first outing without his longtime editor, Sally Menke, who passed away last year.  It can’t have been easy for him to make the picture without her.  But he can be proud of how well cut it is, as I think Sally would be on his behalf.

     One final (random) remark:  Congratulations to this year’s Oscar nominees and to all my colleagues vying for A.C.E. Eddie Awards.