Monday, March 19, 2018

It's Not Even Past #14: New Directions in Movies Part 1 (Complete)

I saw Phantom Thread the night before I began writing this podcast. I'm not a PT Anderson fan, but I preferred this one, at least, to a number of his other movies. At this point, there's not even a doubt, PT Anderson is the most acclaimed filmmaker of Generation-X. Quentin Tarantino is of course his nearest rival and still the director who defines his generation's ethos; but what goes up must come down, and the world hates Quentin Tarantino right now as much as they used to love him. For the last twenty years, the acclaim for PT Anderson was consistent, universal, and in my opinion, undeserved.

Like everybody, I love Boogie Nights. Like Pulp Fiction or Jaws or The 400 Blows or Citizen Kane, it's a movie in which a new director of huge gifts announces himself and shows exactly how brilliant he is. The whole thing manages to be both excessive and perfect: the gaudy, seventies excess of Southern California, in which the porn industry is just an extreme example of the excess people put into living everywhere during that perverse decade. It's the movie Anderson was born to make, and it's frankly all been somewhat downhill from there. Right after Boogie Nights was Magnolia, in which this director with an extreme eye for style tried to match his style with emotional substance. PT Anderson is not Ingmar Bergman. Sweden is not the San Fernando Valley, and it's treacherous waters to try to create characters of enormous depth in a place where everybody tries to be so superficial. The only other movie of his I truly like is Punch-Drunk Love. It's not a perfect movie, but it's so strange that it's hilarious, which is I'm sure exactly how it's meant. Anderson is clearly a director whose natural inclination is to light and exuberance. He's what the English would call a 'High Comedian', whose natural inclination is to create works that are both light and erudite - like Tarantino, even the violence is comic. But America doesn't like High Comedians. The idea that anybody can be proud enough of being smart to wear their intelligence lightly about it is as un-American an inclination as there is. So as PT Anderson's supposedly matured, he's done everything he can to suppress his natural exuberance so that his public will take him more seriously. I still haven't seen Inherent Vice, and frankly, it's subject matter strikes me as perfect for PT Anderson, so everything I may eat the words of everything I say from now on in this podcast. But except for Hard Eight, I've seen everything else, and I think I've seen enough to know that even if Inherent Vice is any good, it's still a blip on a trajectory.

The San Fernando Valley or 'The Valley' is the place where PT Anderson grew up, and Boogie Nights proved that its superficiality is his natural home. But for the rest of his career, he's tried very hard to be deep, and to me, PT Anderson's movies read like a playboy's vision of intellectual depth. Many people believe There Will Be Blood the greatest movie of its decade, but I thought it's was a bit like watching beautiful paint dry. The central set piece of the oil explosion was stunningly beautiful, but the movie is so hypnotized by the landscape and Daniel Day-Lewis's incredibly hammy performance that it didn't really take care to truly examine the issues it brought up. I'm sure many people think the movie says something very deep about the American clash between big business and religion, but look around, what's amazing about big business and religion in America is not that they clash but that they get along so well. If the movie was really a statement about America, Daniel Plainview would have found business, gone into business with Eli Sunday, and they would have beaten the union negotiator with a bowling pin Goodfellas style.

But you'd have to be a fool to not see that There Will Be Blood also has some enormous strengths. Anderson clearly knows California, and he photographs his lonely locations with a desolation that's a perfect reflection of the story he's trying to tell. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis overacts, but at least it distracts from the paucity of material he has to work with, but better than DDL is Paul Dano's haunting performances as the Sunday twins. Ten years later, Eli Sunday's preacher scenes still haunt me while DDL's overacting just makes me laugh. Both performances, in some ways, work as reflections of their surroundings. I forget which critic says that Daniel Plainview's voice sounds like the oil he mines, but there is something about his voice and cadence which does smell of gasoline - like a cross between John Huston and Burt Lancaster. , for me, a two-and-a-half star movie whose grim heaviness the intellectually insecure film world mistakes for sublimity.

The Master, on the other hand, is just plain bad. Unintelligible, plodding, mesmerized by its photography, and did I mention that the plot is unintelligible? Anderson has proven over and over again that he can create great scenes, and there's no doubt the scene on the boat between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joachim Phoenix is masterly, but a great movie does not need great scenes if every scene around it is bad. Scenes for PT Anderson are just another elaborate set piece. A movie with twenty good scenes and no bad ones is a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. So what the hell is the ending of that movie supposed to mean? I doubt Anderson thought about it half as deeply as people who watched it. What the hell is the point of Joachim Phoenix leaving the cult by driving off into the distance except to showcase Anderson's brilliant desert photography, what the hell is the point of the scene where everybody gets naked for twenty seconds, only to be fully clothed again in the next shot? So much of that movie is absolutely incomprehensible because PT Anderson is a virtuoso organizer of gimmicks, but beneath the surface of his movies is more surface.

On the strength of Boogie Nights, I persist with Anderson, waiting for him to discover in what direction his real potential lies and build on his initial great achievement. But he persists in mining this phantom realm of intellectual gravitas he doesn't have. Phantom Thread seems, to me at least, the logical endpoint of his current trajectory; a movie by a brilliant director who cares about nothing but surface and style about a brilliant fashion designer who cares about nothing but surface and style. It lays bare Anderson's artistic bankruptcy as though it were a confession. For three hours we dine with a man whose extremely specific habits are a way of shielding himself from life, who makes luxury products that nobody but the extremely wealthy could ever appreciate, and by living through an unbreakable routine, eviscerates any semblance of vitality which the chaos of life might give him.

When Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement after Phantom Thread, I was cynical about the claim for a number of reasons. Reason #1 is that Daniel Day-Lewis just came out of retirement to play this role - his third retirement for those who are counting - this new one is retirement #4. This was DDL's first role since Lincoln, five years ago, and after Lincoln, he went back into seclusion on his Georgian estate. Reason #2 is that in the midst of the #metoo imbroglios, it would have behooved many actors to lay low. The timing of DDL's announcement, always extremely cautious about his choices, seemed to me a little suspicious. Finally and most importantly, reason #3, Daniel Day-Lewis said that the reason he's retiring is that the part of Reynolds Woolcock was simply too draining to ever act again. No actor since Marlon Brando has been so famous for his character preparation, and Daniel Day-Lewis goes so much further with method preparation than Brando ever did. As many people have pointed out, method acting is the favored preparation of so many famous male actors: Brando of course, but since him Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, Shia LeBouf and of course, the late Heath Ledger, whose method acting may have killed him. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep just shows up. Occasionally you hear about Hillary Swank or Charlize Theron going method, but Kate Winslet? Julianne Moore? Helen Mirren? Cate Blanchett? Jodie Foster? When has anyone ever heard a story about a great actress carrying her work home with her? This is not yet another podcast in which the author calls out sexism or the disparities of behavior between men and women. My point in bringing this up is that if there were any appreciable difference in the quality between male actors, so many of whom 'go method', and female actors, the vast majority of whom just act, then the method would have something to recommend itself. As it stands, the method seems more like narcissism than acting. Just think of There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis, the world's most famous Actor-With-A-Capital-A, spent a year preparing to be Daniel Plainview. Paul Dano was hired to play Sunday on Thursday and had to start shooting Monday. Even if nobody agrees with me that Dano was better than DDL, everybody agrees that this 23 year old B-List actor completely kept up with the emperor of the profession. Daniel Day-Lewis grew up in England, where he thoroughly trained in the most traditional, classical school of acting in which you don't prepare for the part with research or carrying your character over to everyday life, you just do the role by knowing the text like the back of your hand. In a repertory theater company, there's no time for that kind of exhaustive research, but what you lose in inwardness you gain in the strength of having a cohesive cast that acts with one another in production after production and spend decades learning how to make a cohesive ensemble and play off your colleagues. If Daniel Day-Lewis is so tired of the method, then as Olivier said to Dustin Hoffman, why doesn't he just try acting?

But once you see Phantom Thread, you realize that his claim about this part draining everything from him was absolutely serious and there needn't be any other reason for his retirement. The movie itself is not bad, it's just rather bland: I'd give it a seven-out-of-ten or a soft three stars out of four. The ending is not exactly coherent, but it's still pretty funny, and it's nice to know that Anderson can still occasionally let his sense of humor out. But in both the cases of Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, the character of Reynolds Woolcock can be a standin for the essential decadence of their approaches to art. DDL claimed that both he and PT were utterly drained and depressed from the experience of making it, and when you see it, you might infer exactly why that is. Since 2000, nearly every movie either has made is greatly revered without being loved. With the possible exceptions of Lincoln and Punch-Drunk Love, they both make utterly cold products, divorced from life as most people live it. It must have been like turning their eyes into their very souls, and seeing the reflection of something neither wanted to admit - that if the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature, then they both have lived a middle age that holds nature at bay. If that was the realization they had, it must have been devastating.

PT Anderson, a director who practically defined what fashion was for the cinema world for twenty years, made a movie that is completely tone-deaf to the zeitgeist.

Were it made twenty years ago, it would have been the kind of movie Harvey Weinstein would have backed; a movie for people over seventy who spent their younger years watching Merchant-Ivory movies and Masterpiece Theater adapt Victorian novels they never finished. It's a costume drama about how a wife finds satisfaction in ministering to a white male genius who dresses the super-rich. When you get home, you look PT Anderson up and you realize he's been married to Maya Rudolph since 2001, which in Hollywood is an eternity - and that they have four children. Maya Rudolph is one of the most brilliant comic actresses alive, but for the last ten years, her most famous appearance is defecating in a sewer while playing backup to Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. Perhaps while she was on SNL, PT Anderson was the one taking time off for the kids. And admirably, Anderson has waited years between every project: five years between There Will Be Blood and The Master, three years between Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. Nevertheless, since Maya Rudolf left SNL in 2007, Anderson's made four movies, all of which got huge critical acclaim. There's a clear disparity in their partnership, and in an era when awe at the male genius is no longer what it was, PT Anderson, be his achievements great or small - is beginning to look seriously unfashionable. When you hear Reynolds Woolcock's narcissistic cry of despair at people preferring other dress designers because they're thought more chic, and his agony at how he thinks his marriage is destroying his creativity, you begin to wonder who's really doing the talking.

About five years ago, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson's homonymic rival for cinematic prestige, was at a similar crossroads in his career - mesmerized by style, irony, and immaculate shot composition. Still enamored of his fashionability, but after the disaster that was Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou, no longer fashionable (and shut up, it's terrible). But rather than make movies as he so often did about adults who act like children, he made Moonrise Kingdom, a movie about the virtues of children. Rather than make a movie about artificially affected people, he made Grand Budapest Hotel, about an era in human history when pretentious affectation was a virtue. In losing his fashionability, Wes Anderson gained substance, and perhaps the time's finally arrived when PT Anderson will do the same, but the world is not the 90's anymore. The 90's were a decade populated by young cinematic puppies filled with knowledge about film and little knowledge about life: the boy prophet was Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch his John the Baptist, along with apostles like the Andersons, the Coens, the Wachowskis, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufmann, the Davids Fincher and Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Gus Van Sant, and exactly one woman - Sofia Coppola, the daughter of a Hollywood King. These are film bros whose cinematic subject is usually technology of some sort, possessed of technique so virtuoso that admiration of it precludes every other quality in the movie, so filled with knowledge of film that half the shots are homages. Everything in a face or nature can be airbrushed in a computer, and the movies of these cold fish are cold enough to give off the glare of a computer screen. Sure, there are exceptions, one or two movies by most of these directors I like or love, and directors like Richard Linklater or Alexander Payne or Jason Reitman whose work is far more human, but they're the exceptions, and speaking personally, I've had a rule the last few years that whatever movie people buzz about, wait five years to see if people are still talking, or if it's simply tossed off like another gadget - though I usually don't last the full five, or I just never get around to seeing it...

So far as I know, there have never been stories with PT Anderson of the kind of on-set tyranny one gets about some of these cold fish like the Davids Russell or David Fincher. Working with him doesn't seem to be a particular ordeal, and he's not even a director about which coworkers seem to have ambivalent feelings the way they have about Quentin Tarantino, whom everybody seems to agree is a fundamentally warm-hearted guy who can turn into a loose cannon. PT Anderson is not a particular dinosaur in his attitudes, he is only a dinosaur in the sense that nobody can articulate the ethos of an age forever.  Anderson is pushing fifty, and in relatively quick succession, he has been the director of movie after movie fascinated with the stories of men who would be great. Perhaps for the first time in the entirety of human history, stories about ambitious men are deeply, deeply unfashionable, and true to the spirit of our time, we're now seeing movies pop up left and right which tell the stories about everybody else, and it's thrilling enough to see something new at the movies that I'm now violating my rule about waiting five years. None I've seen of these movies so far, not even Lady Bird, strikes me as a masterpiece, but seeing these movies has gotten me more excited to go to the movies than perhaps I've been since college. Every week this Oscar season, it seemed like a new movie was coming out whose approach was completely new and different, no longer brined in style and irony, and no longer taking a back seat as it has for twenty years to the substance we seem to find everywhere on television.

So what about these movies signify a new direction?

Let's start with the obvious place, this year's Oscar winner, The Shape of Water, made by Guillermo del Toro. PT Anderson is brilliant, but Guillermo del Toro is a genius. Like the true Californian PT Anderson is, he pursues style for its own sake. But in del Toro's movies, style is only there to illuminate the substance. Look at Pan's Labyrinth, my choice for the greatest movie of the 2000's, and wonder to yourself if there isn't a single image in the whole movie that doesn't illustrate a deeper mythical, historical, philosophical point. The movie is absolutely bottomless, and if you can stomach multiple viewings, there are no end of meanings within it to find.

The Shape of Water is not Pan's Labyrinth. It's a Guillermo del Toro project almost deliberately scaled to be no larger than Hollywood would ever risk. Guillermo del Toro already has twenty-five projects that never got off the ground. It may be the most since Orson Welles, and when you look at del Toro's finished projects, you wonder if he's a Welles-level genius. The projects include The Wind in the Willows, George R. R. Martin's Sandkings, Thor, The Hobbit, Tarzan, Dracula, Roald Dahl's The Witches, Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Beauty and the Beast, the Hulk, Godzilla, a Wolverine X-Men project, and a stop-motion animation of Pinocchio. Genius, real genius, makes its own rules; it doesn't know the definition of highbrow or lowbrow, it simply creates and incorporates whatever influence seems useful.

In Hollywood, the inability to work within the system is almost a badge of honor - a sign that your talent cannot be contained by commercial limitations. Entertainment makes money, but art costs money, and Hollywood does not like taking chances on directors that are too good if the result is art rather than entertainment. Think of all the famous Hollywood projects that, for whatever reason, never materialized: think of the last twenty years of D. W. Griffith's life, think of Stroheim's Queen Kelly, David Lean's Nostromo, Leone's Lenningrad, Kubrick's Napoleon, Jerry Lewis's The Day The Clown Cried, Jodorowsky's Dune, Ridley Scott's Blood Meridian, Coppola's Megalopolis, Gilliam's Don Quixote,  Louis Malle's Moon Over Miami, Herzog's Conquest of Mexico, Scorsese's Gershwin, Malick's The English Speaker, Cronenberg's Frankenstein, Lynch's Ronnie Rocket, Stallone's Edgar Allen Poe, Fincher's Heavy Metal, even The Beatles wanted to make Lord of the Rings and Steven Spielberg had Night Skies - a kind of horror sequel to Close Encounters. And then, there's Orson Welles, a full three quarters of his projects either were never made or never finished. Film, for better or worse, is so expensive and chaotic that the ability to make art out of it, the way one might with a novel or painting, is almost antithetical to its spirit. Film is a cold machine that manipulates your emotions. Art can certainly be made from it, but when the expectation of what it is is so ironclad - the running time, the story, the genre, it is very difficult to call a huge amount of it art. Now to those of you in 2018, no doubt most people listening to this, who bristle at the idea that most movies are not art, let me ask you something: how many movies before Star Wars have you actually watched? And when you do, how many of them have you liked?

I love Classic Hollywood, and I think many of the movies are a lot more entertaining than the latest superhero or horror flick. But the very great majority of them, even the classics, languish unseen by an ever increasing number of people who fancy themselves film buffs. Even the majority of people obsessed by movies in 2018 write them off as formulaic and dull. I think that's unfair, but if so many of them were made by formula, it's because the formula was considered a successful and lucrative form of entertainment that made money relative to the price it costs. Orson Welles is art, Bergman and Renoir are art, Truffaut and Herzog are art, and they're sufficiently individuated from other movies that I'm fairly sure they'll be appreciated for their differences in four-hundred years. Art can certainly be entertaining, but it must be meaningful, and the meanings must be new from age to age. So I have some doubts that even the best Westerns or Romantic Comedies or Superhero Movies, or maybe even Film Noir, are art in any particularly deep sense. I could have course be wrong, but when you see a real genius of film, and how much trouble they have getting their projects made while workmen who make a reliable product churn out movie after movie, it's difficult to not appreciate a great chasm between what one kind of filmmaker makes and another.

Were all of these unfinished projects going to be great? Of course not, I guarantee many of them would have sucked and played to the directors' worst, most undisciplined instincts. Moneymen may be slime, but sometimes they're right. And yet, there's equally no doubt, some of these would have been utterly dimensional portals, bending the history of film and art itself into something we can never know about. A director like PT Anderson can consistently get his movies made because his movies, ultimately, are predictable. Worthy projects of high prestige whose audience is a known commodity, but who rarely ever truly get surprised. But when you have a talent that is nothing short of genius, your talent is too explosive to be contained. Every project is a role of the dice which could make or bankrupt a studio. This is why John Ford made a hundred forty-six movies, and there exist only thirteen finished movies by Orson Welles.

del Toro said that if this film had flopped, he would have retired from filmmaking altogether. His confidence has clearly been shaken from the hostility of so many producers, and I worry that like so many filmmakers of genius as they become middle-aged, he's so worn down by hearing the word 'No' that he will never again be as audacious. The Shape of Water is scaled down del Toro, low-key, perhaps even chastened, and as a reward for clamping down on his explosion of talent, Hollywood gave him their highest honor. We've seen both the Monster and the ending of The Shape of Water in Hellboy, almost completely unchanged. The fascist villain of Pan's Labyrinth is reshaped for the contours of mid-century America, but is still the same basic template. Hell, the healing powers of the monster is basically ripped straight from ET.

There is something almost cynically calculated about The Shape of Water that panders to the exact political climate of today. It's one thing to create an almost deliberately unrealistic villain from a military officer in fascist Europe, because in our era, fascist soldiers now stand as an archetype for evil itself. Maybe I'm too behind the times or too trapped by my own male privilege, but a caricature of what's now termed toxic masculinity just doesn't have the same weight in my imagination, and I doubt it does for too many others. I have no doubt that many American white men were assholes, I have no doubt they sometimes committed all manner of abuse and villainous acts, but they were not genocidal in intention or result, and there were plenty of people in their day whose intentions and actions were far more evil; probably including the Soviet spy played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who was treated with a sympathy such a character does not deserve. I would like to think that these are not political points but artistic ones. Michael Shannon is one of Hollywood's natural villains and heavies whose menace can elevate any project, he was very nearly the best thing about Boardwalk Empire, but he can only do so much to elevate the menace of a character who seems more like a projection of fashionable attitudes than eternal villainy. Evil as sexual harassment and assault of course is, and I wish the current political climate didn't make me have to give that proviso, I find it hard to get it out of my mind that Michael Stuhlbarg's character was probably a soldier in the Red Army during World War II who probably took part in the mass rape of millions of German and Polish women. We are asked in The Shape of Water to root for and against people whom at least my natural inclinations tell me do not deserve the allegiance for which we're asked.

Pan's Labyrinth is an eternal masterpiece, The Devil's Backbone scarcely less, that project the past incredibly, and Pacific Rim does the same for the future. But while The Shape of Water takes place in the past, it is clearly a work of 2017. And as such a perfect reflection of its time, it not only reflects what's wrong with our time, but also what's right with it. The central romance between a mute woman and a monster is absolutely gorgeous. I find it very hard to see it and not think that an allegory for trans and intersexual romance is deliberately intended, and it is gorgeous. Think of the line: "When he looks at me, the way he looks at me... He does not know, what I lack... Or - how - I am incomplete. He sees me for what I - am - as I am. He's happy - to see me..." The main characters in this movie -- a closeted gay man, an African-American woman, and a mute woman - all of whom are treated with luminous humanity. The Busby Berkeley style musical number toward the end is amazing, in part because it's so unexpected. I suppose I can understand why some differently abled people find it 'ableist', but you cannot tell me that at moments of extreme joy, everyone in the world doesn't at some point long to sing or shout or exclaim to express themselves. The scene captures a longing that is absolutely universal, and if you told me that some people wouldn't ever want to express themselves that way, I wouldn't believe you.

Like Mad Men, this is a second draft of history, in which the past is seen through present eyes. But Mad Men, extraordinary as it was, was made of acid, and treated its 'different' characters with merciless realism. Think of Sal, the closeted gay man, fired because a client came onto him whom he refused; or Midge, Don's Bohemian artist girlfriend, who ends up addicted to heroin; or Paul Kinsey, the copy writer neglected by Don who ends up in a cult; or Michael Ginsberg, born in a concentration camp and turns schizophrenic, or, of course, Layne Pryce...

The greatest strength of The Shape of Water is that, as a fairy tale, it gives hope to the kinds of characters which, in mid-century America, had none, and in doing so, expresses a hope and longing for the present and future which is incredibly moving. But it might also be a weakness. In an era that elected Donald Trump, how much chance is there that this vision for the future proving true?

I have no idea. The ending of Pan's Labyrinth was both devastating and hopeful that even if there is no justice in the real world, there exists, in some dimension, a world where we are rewarded for our suffering. Great as so much of The Shape of Water is, it feels a little bit like the punches are pulled. As a fairy tale, it works on the level of telling us 'wouldn't it be nice of the world worked out like this?' But it works as a fairy tale because the reality for these characters has been so grim for so long, and now that they have a chance to live their best lives, the advantaged white males are clamping down on preserving the privileges they still have as mercilessly as they can.

But what makes The Shape of Water give us hope for the future is that it's such an example of a traditional great director turning his focus to people so different than himself. Imagine Citizen Kane from the point of view of Susan Alexander or The Godfather from the point of view of Mama Corleone. To do it, Guillermo del Toro toned down his explosion of metaphysical visuals to give space for atypical characters, people who don't usually get a place to express themselves in a movie. The Shape of Water is not a masterpiece. Some of the characters are simple stereotypes, and when we're being honest with ourselves, even Octavia Spencer's part is a little mammyish. But the effort made to get into the shoes of these characters who've existed on the fringes is extraordinary in a manner that very few mainstream Hollywood releases ever try, and because del Toro is just so good, it's extraordinary how well he succeeds. Regardless of what all of this means politically, it makes for a genuinely unique movie. When you compare this to PT Anderson's more of the same ambitious men, you realize that perhaps this is indicative of a new wind blowing through North American movies that can vastly increase the quality of movies, which, let's face it, has been suffering for an entire generation. 

Next week, we'll compare Selma, another very old-fashioned movie from four years ago, to Get Out, a completely different kind of movie whose popularity exposed just how much America has changed between 2014 and 2017.

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