Thursday, March 26, 2015

WOMAN IN GOLD



WOMAN IN GOLD
Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

WOMAN IN GOLD tells a story that most of us may not know. The level of that ignorance is nicely conveyed by a brief moment midway through the story when a young attorney (Ryan Reynolds) registers a law suit against the country of Austria to restore a famous painting to its rightful owner, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren). “Austria?” replies the law clerk to the attorney’s request; “my daughter is a big fan of kangaroos!”

The famous painting?—it’s by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), once the leading Austrian painter during the Vienna Secession’s revolt against academic art. “Portrait of Adele” is one of two portraits Klimt executed in 1908 of Maria’s aunt, a young beauty named Adele Bloch-Bauer. The son of a goldsmith, Klimt perfected his so-called “golden style” in its overwhelming decorative surface, a dazzling interplay of figurative portraiture, a profusion of jewel-like shapes, and a wealth of golden stamping. Once the property of the Altmann family, it was stolen by the Nazis and after the war ensconsed in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. And there it remained, until more than sixty years later, when Maria Altmann determined to reclaim what she insisted was rightfully hers.

I saw WOMAN IN GOLD one day after enduring the new Will Farrell vehicle, GET HARD. Both demonstrate Hollywood at its extremes. Within 24 hours, I went from “Get Hard” to “Get the Painting”! And both films, in a weird way, are similar: Each conveys an atrocity. GET HARD foists its tasteless, sophomoric humor onto a hapless public. WOMAN IN GOLD depicts the Nazis’s wholesale theft of European art works (a subject recently chronicled in the wonderful RAPE OF EUROPA documentary and in the execrable George Clooney feature, MONUMENT MEN).

I might quibble at some of the simplifications in the story and some of the formulaic political maneuvering that balances the “bad” Austrians intent on retaining possession of the painting with a few “good” Austrians that asist Maria in her quest to take it to America. . . But no, I prefer to applaud its cultural referents that include the backstory of the painting itself and some generous quotations of classical music, including a few minutes of “Verklaerte Nacht,” an early piece by the famous grandfather of Maria’s attorney, Randol Schoenberg. Mirren, of course, is terrific, and so are Daniel Bruehl as the “good” Austrian and, in the flashback sequences, the great Allan Corduner as Maria’s father. Ryan Reynolds and Katie Holmes are along for the ride.

So. . . don’t “get hard” but instead “get thee" to THE WOMAN IN GOLD...

Monday, March 23, 2015

JEAN RENOIR'S DAY IN THE COUNTRY



Jean Renoir films in the 1930s are among the glories of cinema. This painting, by his father Pierre August, "The Swing" (1876), is one of the many images that Jean translated into A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (1937).


Originally planned to be a feature, the film was left incomplete at 41 minutes and not seen theatrically until its release in 1947 as part of an anthology film, WAYS OF LOVE. For years all I had available to show to my classes was a wretched dupe-16mm print. Even so, its pictorial glories and astringent bitter-sweet tone revealed the masterpiece it is. And now, at last, it's been freshly packaged by Criterion on DVD Blu-ray, restored to its pictorial lushness, and accompanied with loads of outtakes and screen tests that were discovered in the French Cinematheque in 1994.

Nominally based on a short story by Guy deMaupassant, A DAY IN THE COUNTRY recounts a city family's outing along the sunny banks of the Seine in 1860. A city family is on holiday. Parents and grandma picnic and snooze on the grass and the lovely innocent daughter, played by Sylvia Bataiile, abandons herself to the ecstasy of the moment on a swing. She catches the eye of a more worldly young man also on holiday. There's a flirtation, a boat ride, a rain shower, and a passionate embrace. Afterward, she is left, abandoned and alone, facing an uncertain future.


There is nothing quite like its blend of dappled images and rippling water, tempered momentarily by an advancing rain shower. We savor the incidental moments, the sly character digressions (watch for Jean Renoir himself as the innkeeper), and the fluid and willful camerawork by Claude Renoir (nephew of the director) that is alive to every nuance of the character and scene. Less heralded, perhaps, but evocative of its own sunshine and shadow, is the lyric music score by Joseph Kosma, specially composed for its 1946 release.


There might be a temptation to label this film Renoir's "masterpiece," if only because its incomplete state heralds a future we can only brightly imagine. . . but that accolade must always belong to THE RULES OF THE GAME, in my opinion. But in terms of its "plein-air" spontaneity, unabashed romantic feelings, and disarming freshness, only Renoir's earlier BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING rivals it.

 











Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DIPLOMACY, Directed by Volker Schlondorff. Adapted from a play by Cyril Gely.


A new film by the great German director, Volker Schlondorff (Young Toerless, Swann in Love, Circle of Deceit, The Tin Drum) is always cause to celebrate. And here is Diplomacy, a taut interior drama about a very large subject, i.e., the imminent destruction of Paris as the Nazis pull out under threat of Allied invasion.

General Choltizt (Niels Arestrup) has been ordered by Hitler to carry out a carefully designed plan to detonate a network of bombs that will not only reduce much of Paris to rubble, but will cause the flooding of the Seine that will complete the mass destruction. As the target date and time approaches, we find the General alone in his office, overlooking the dawn coming up over the city. Unexpectedly, a Swedish diplomat, Consul Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier) appears in his quarters. Neither a soldier nor a partisan of either Germany or France, he inveighs against Coldtitz to change his mind and disobey the order. The General, at first, is adamant. He is a professional soldier who always obeys orders. Moreover, we learn as the debate ensues, that Hitler has recently bolstered his order with the threat that if the General disobeys, his family will be executed. “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” he demands of the Consul.

Momentarily taken aback, the Consul counters with a plan: He will contact friends who will guarantee the General’s family’s safe passage to safety. Sensing the General weakening, he presses the point.

Meanwhile, the German bomb squad is in place, waiting for the General’s order.

The conversation continues. Does the General want to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris? On the other hand, does the Consul want to be remembered as the man responsible for the execution of the General’s family?

Well, we know, of course, that Paris was not destroyed. The suspense here is in wondering how the General came to countermand the order. . . and if he does so, what will happen to his family?

Now, there is a peculiar tension to all this. The consul is a crafty—actually, a strangely mysterious character. Why is he here? Just as a non-partisan, he says at first. But gradually, it becomes clear he is determined to try to change the General’s mind. He seems to know lots of things about the General. He has contrived to enter his rooms by means of a secret back stair that no one but he knows about. A hundred years ago, he explains, Napoleon III had it built so he could surreptitiously visit a mistress. Moreover, he reveals at length, he has been positioned behind a two-mirror that has allowed him knowledge of the General’s movements and plans.

Finally, at the last moment, the General countermands the order. The Consul assures him his family will be safe. Exhausted, the General slumps to his chair and takes out the pistol from his desk drawer. But no, he joins his men and surrenders to the Allied troops.

Epilogue. A few titles inform us that the General and his family were not prosecuted. Indeed, years later the Consul met with him and gave him the medal he had won for saving Paris.

True story? Not exactly. Apparently this overnight encounter never happened. See Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning? (1966) with Orson Welles as Nordlling and Gert Frobe as Choltitz for a rather different spin on how Paris was saved by General Choltitz from destruction.

But about that back stairway. . . Was that an invention of the playwright? And consider how important it was that it was a secret passage that gained the Consul entry to the General. The Consul’s arguments, like that stairway, were a stealthy intrusion upon the General’s implacable determination. Gaining entry, like disrupting the General’s orders, was a hidden strategy that breached not just the room but the General’s orders.

Diplomacy is exactly what the title implies. And it is carried out in a small room with two men, portrayed here by two fantastic French actors, feinting and dodging, back and forth, before ultimately capitulating. It is a chamber drama, to be sure, but Schlondorff keeps his camera in motion and the action moving forward.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

HOLLYWOOD SPEAKS!



John Tibbetts with Steven Spielberg
Now that I’ve sent off to Palgrave Macmillan publishers in London my new book manuscript, HOLLYWOOD SPEAKS! (slated for publication in Fall 2015), I want to kick back for a moment and talk about the 40 years of my interviews that have gone into it.

Hollywood, as we have come to know it, seems always to have been around. Even back in the dusty nickelodeon days, before that “mystic commotion” of flickering images became the big business of a global industry, we sensed its presence and its promise. Only the benefit of years of hindsight, however, rather than the application of calipers and measuring sticks, can gain us any sense of its proper proportion. Similarly, only now, as I take the long view of these interviews—a selection of which is collected in this volume—can I grasp the composite portrait of Hollywood it affords. I could echo the words of Otis Ferguson, written in 1940: “The movies were upon us before anyone had time to grow up and become a professor in them. They literally grew out of the people, the hundreds of thousands of people who jumped in to produce, distribute, exhibit, direct, write for, or act in a popular commodity.”

Thus, like Hollywood itself, my Hollywood Speaks! just sort of accumulated. Once inside these talks, I am now outside them. I can see that, taken together, they provide a kind of running oral commentary on the history of classical Hollywood. The result is not unlike the classic Grimm tale, “The Juniper Tree,” wherein those scattered bones hint at a deeper, collective shape and meaning.

With Phillip Glass

And the interviews? Most of them are on video, and they include directors Steven Spielberg talking about The Color Purple, Terry Gilliam about Brazil!, and George Miller about the Mad Max films; cinematographers Allen Daviau (E.T.) and Glen MacWilliams (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat); Muppet master Jim Henson and puppet master “Buffalo Bob” Smith; composers Philip Glass and Carl Davis; film historian Kevin Brownlow; and many more.

With Terry Gilliam
And so many moments documented here. . . 
  • Terry Gilliam, when asked what his Brazil is all about, exclaims, “Windmills! All of western civilization! From plastic surgery to terrorist bombing to late-night shopping—We’ve got it all!”
  • Kermit the Frog’s sudden appearance, via Henson’s“naked” hand; who, upon leaving just as abruptly, declared: “This is Kermit the Frog saying goodbye from Dallas. I’ve got to leave now; I’m not wearing any clothes!”
  • Stuntman Richard (The Grey Fox) Farnsworth’s hair-raising accounts of the stuntman’s life: QUESTION: What goes through your mind as you’re waiting for an archer to take aim at you? ANSWER: You just have to be in the right frame of mind! And if you’re not, you just get up and walk away!
  • Australian director George Miller’s explanation for the worldwide popularity of his Mad Max films: “People understand car crashes in any language!”
With George Miller
  • The first time producer John Houseman set eyes on Orson Welles: “I remember how flat-footed yet graceful he seemed; but there was energy and tension coiled up in him. And the voice! Ah, it was a voice of great clarity and power!”
And Hollywood Speaks! becomes more like Hollywood SQUEAKS! when Disney animator Ollie Johnston described how to “act” out Mickey Mouse’s ever-changing personae: “His body would change shape: If you wanted Mickey to be cockney, he could lift up his chest; if he was sad, he could droop his shoulders...”

And we conclude with Kevin Brownlow and composer Carl Davis restoring and premiering Abel Gance’s five-hour epic, Napoleon: “There we were,” remembers Davis, “on a Sunday morning, November 30th, 1980 at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square. . . and I’m conducting with my back to the audience, the orchestra and the screen in front of me. . . attempting to synchronize the score to the action on the screen.”

With Kevin Brownlow
FINAL NOTE: My interviews here span forty years, from 1976 to the present, with video camera and tape recorder in hand. I approached them with respect and affection. The soul of good conversation, after all, is sympathy. Except for a few opportunities in television studios and on Hollywood studio-organized junkets, most were done in the more intimate, casual confines of private homes, classrooms, back stage, even a few bars and watering holes. I have found that in the relative unreserve of such private discourse, as William Hazlitt has observed, “The subjects are more at liberty to say what they think, to put the subject in different and opposite points of view. . . to obviate misconception, to state difficulties on their own side of the argument, and answer them as well as they can.”

I took advantage of my privileged access as a former radio and television journalist for CBS television, pursued inside contacts in Hollywood as editor of the National Film Society’s American Classic Screen, and deployed academic connections as a Professor of Film at the University of Kansas. Finally, I found these people at specific moments in time. Some look back at their careers from the long end of history; while others are in the moment, reacting to the flux and change of their personal and professional lives.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

LEONARD NIMOY COMES HOME

On June 1, 1984 I had the privilege of interviewing Leonard Nimoy. The occasion was the premiere of STAR TREK 4 in Los Angeles. The attached video is a document of that interview. I met him several times, but on this particular occasion, as director of the film, he had a special pride in its message about ecological concerns. Moreover, he talked about how the film was a “homecoming,” of sorts, for him and the “Star Trek” story in general. Imagine that easy smile and quietly amiable manner as he speaks. . . Here is an excerpt.
NIMOY: I became interested in introducing [ecological concerns] into this film when I read a book called Biophilia, by Edward O. Wilson, a biologist at Harvard. He tells us by the nineteen-nineties we’ll be losing ten-thousand species per year at the rate we’re going now. That’s an average of one species per hour! What’s really fascinating is that many of them will not even have been recorded; we won’t even know that they were here; we won’t even know what they were; and the scientists will not have even gotten to them before they’re gone. So, although this picture is essentially an entertainment piece, there is an opportunity to introduce the idea that what we’re losing today may turn out to be terribly important to us a hundred or two or three hundred years from now. We thought at first about some kind of a plant that we might need to create a medicine— something that we had to go back in time to get and bring it back into the twenty-first century to save Earth. What was it gonna be, either a person or a plant or a bird or a fish? Well, we ended up deciding on a couple of very large creatures, namely, whales!

TIBBETTS: What aspect of “coming home” can we find in your character of Spock?

NIMOY: We do have a lot of homecomings in this picture. We come back to Earth now, in 1986 (two years in the future from now, in 1984). We come back to the spirit of the series in the sixties, and Spock comes back to his full identity at the end of this picture.
Better yet, see the photos and the attached.


video