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 published. His 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.