July 31, 2009

To the Motion Picture Production Code on its 75th Birthday

by Mick LaSalle

hayscodedisclaimer.jpg The story of the Production Code is a special story, in that it's the one time the producers didn't win. They didn't because of a single, dread miscalculation that ended up changing movies and American society, in both cases for the worse. The effects of this miscalculation are still being felt today.


Taking a step back: There's a disease that seizes the imagination of both the right and the left in America, the conviction that if only the side of goodness and virtue had control of the movies, it could rid the world of everything bad. These are people inflicted with an idealism that takes the form of wanting to destroy art, and from the beginning, movie producers have known how to deal with such characters: Humor them. Give them a press conference. Give them a studio tour. Make them feel as if they're being brought into the fold. Never say no to them. Only say yes, of course, we will do that. We've never thought of that. We must make an arrangement, immediately...

Then, photos taken, handshakes exchanged, and newspaper articles written and filed, the opposition invariably disbands. Its members return to their towns in the South or the Midwest, where they bask in their success and their brushes with glamour. Then they wait... and watch... as nothing happens.

But of course nothing can, not right away. They know this, they've been warned. A year's worth of movies are always in the pipeline. So at first they don't worry. They know, they believe, that soon the virtuous movies—the society-changing movies—will come along. Then a year passes. No change. Then eighteen months. No change. In confusion, they try to get their new friends on the phone, the ones at the studio, but somehow they're always in conference. Laughing, probably. And finally the truth dawns, as all at once the reformers' Hollywood memories, the ones they've been dining out on all year, turn bitter. They've been had.

At this point, they can re-group and try to galvanize a press that has since moved on and is reluctant to tell the same old story. Or they can give up. Most of the time, almost all the time, the crusaders give up, or watch their ranks dwindle to nothingness. This is how Hollywood deals with troublemakers.


The story of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 begins in 1929, with a group of Catholic clergy and lay Catholics from Chicago coming together in the conviction that movies were undermining the moral structure of the nation. It was a time of technical, historical and social convergence. Movies were changing; the country was changing, and the Chicago group wanted to control the change.

"Talkies," newly arrived, were making movies more literal, their subjects more quotidian, their messages more direct and pointed. Therefore, threatening. Then, just as a priest named Daniel Lord was writing a provisional draft of what would become the Production Code, the stock market collapsed. World War I and Prohibition had already undermined Americans' belief in organized authority. The Great Depression would kill it outright. In the 19th century, heroes were people who worked within the system, but that's when people believed in the system. With the Depression, the new-style American hero would be the anti-hero, the man who beat the system. This was already in the air in 1929—and also threatening.

But most threatening of all was what contemporary magazines were calling The New Woman. By late 1929, a set of progressive ideas and assumptions, which had been on their way since the 1910s, had found common acceptance in mainstream American society:

1) Women have the capacity for and the right to sexual pleasure;

2) In the financial, social and sexual realm, women have the same rights as men;

3) A woman doesn't have to be a virgin to be marry-able. In fact, virginity is not very important at all.

When ideas find common acceptance, those ideas find their way into movies. Anyone with a pulse could recognize these ideas creeping into movies in 1929. The Production Code was a last-ditch attempt to erect a dam before the deluge.

willhays.jpg And so there was a meeting. The Chicago faction went public with their Code and kicked up a fuss in the press, and so the studios—under the collective banner of their trade organization, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, decided it would be best to meet with them. The MPPDA was set up in the twenties, with Will Hays as President. Though Hays is the name most often associated with the Code, Hays was really an employee of the studios, not a moral enforcer. He cared as much about bringing morality to movies as Jack Valenti did forty years later. He was a Gentile front man for the Jewish moguls, a functionary, a buffer between the fanatics and the industry, and therefore a benign (or at worst inert) influence.

In bringing the would be reformers to Hollywood, the MPPDA was following the traditional playbook, already familiar by 1930: Show them around, agree to everything, send them home. But this time the producers made a fatal mistake. Instead of feigning vague agreement with the principles outlined in Father Lord's production code, the producers agree that there should be an actual Production Code, a set of rules governing what could and could not be shown in motion pictures. And so they found themselves locked into a room with anti-art moralists, collaborating on a document that would supposedly tell them how to run their businesses.

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 is too lengthy to quote in detail. It's a curious document, in that much of it is taken up with justifications for its very existence. It explains the differences between movies and other art forms that make moral intervention into movies uniquely necessary. It describes, in rather lofty language, the exalted role that movies can play in creating a more decent society. And then it lays out rules, about how women shouldn't dance with their feet stationary and their bodies wriggling, and how there should be no nudity, no sex outside marriage (unless it's made to look bad), no sympathy incited for criminals, and disrespect expressed toward authority, particularly law enforcement and clergy. It is both an idealistic document and a prescription for bad art in an authoritarian, patriarchal culture. As such, it might be the purest expression of the frightened traditionalist spirit than we have ever had in America.

It was ratified and signed by the major studio bosses in March of 1930. The studio heads, with their usual combination of arrogance and cowardice, the moguls had no intention offending the reformers – and even less intention of abiding by the document. Meanwhile, the reformers thought they'd saved the world. The studios under-estimated what it meant to give a group of Utopian dreamers a document to rally behind. In the battle between the cynics and the dreamers, it's notable how often in American life the dreamers tend to win, even when they're wrong.

Today, when we read the Production Code—still the single most influential document in American cinema history—we see an antiquated relic. The reformers imagined we'd react differently. They thought we'd recognize it as the central turning point that tamed a raw art form and harnessed its energies for the side of good. Of course they anticipated us. Of course, they cared. We were all they cared about—the future. They didn't care about movies or particularly like them. But they cared about us, enough to want to make us into their own image. And, in a way, they succeeded, but in a horrible, Dr. Frankenstein way that would make them scream and rave like Colin Clive if only they could see what their monster hath wrought.

Crawford_Possessed.jpg For the next four-and-a-half years the Code had no influence, except as a rallying cry for a small minority of fanatics. As far as movies were concerned, it's as if the Code didn't exist. Indeed, if you look at the American movies made between 1930 and July 1, 1934 (when the Code was finally enforced), it's as if the studios used the Code's prohibitions as prescriptions. A month after the Code was ratified, Norma Shearer starred as The Divorcee, in which she played a married woman who goes on a promiscuous tear when she discovers that her husband has cheated on her. She was the heroine and suffered no negative consequences.

Prostitutes were the most popular thing in movies, and then, over the course of this pre-Code era, they disappeared to give way to heroines, like Joan Crawford in Possessed (1931), normal women who led what might have been considered scandalous love lives. On the male side, there were sympathetic gangsters, and soon later there were heroes—played by actors such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable and Warren William—who were shady as gangsters, but were the good guys.

Essentially, movies were progressing in the way that European cinema was progressing. Our films weren't censored, but they were, of necessity, responsive to the sensitivities and standards of the general public. As the public progressed, so did movies. They became political daring (The Gold Diggers of 1933), disrespectful of authority and sexually sophisticated. Design for Living (1933) dealt with a ménage à trois. Queen Christina (1933), tastefully but unmistakably, explored the issues of gender identity and bisexuality. Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and The Scarlet Empress (1934), the last pre-Code released, contained nudity.

The vast majority of Americans were happy with these movies. Only a small minority objected. How that minority—spearheaded by Will Hays's duplicitous publicity man, Joseph Breen—managed to take control of the film industry's dormant censorship apparatus is a whole other story. It was no one-man operation, but Breen, a political reactionary and a raging anti-Semite, was the essential player in enlisting the Roman Catholic hierarchy to threaten boycotts and institute a movie-rating wing called the Legion of Decency. Under the threat of lost business, the studios caved and set Breen up as the head of the newly formed Production Code Administration, which strictly applied the strictures of the 1930 Code to all scripts and finished films. Without a seal of approval from the PCA, no major studio film could be released to theaters.

designforliving1.jpg

Design For Living

It's in this second phase (1934-1968) that the influence of the Code is felt directly. Hollywood made many great films during this period, but the negative influence of the Code is present in film's treatment of authority, moral issues and women. Explorations of contemporary sexual morality—a dominant genre in the early 1930s—disappeared. The romantic, sexually provocative, happily self-sufficient heroines gave way to the bizarre bifurcation we find in the 1940s, in which women were either celebrated for sacrificing their independence (in the woman's film genre), or were portrayed as evil sexual predators (in film noir).

The Code's founders hoped to foster a wholesome culture. All they fostered was a repressed culture, one with neurotic emanations slipping through the cracks. Look at the Marilyn Monroe persona and those of her imitators in the 1950s—the image of woman as oversexed child. For that matter, look at the much more palatable gamine image of Audrey Hepburn in that same decade, the image of woman as asexual child. These are sex symbols for a guilty, prurient, and uncomfortable culture, one nothing like the pre-censorship film culture of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Code collapsed in 1968, due to a number of factors: The influence of foreign films (which were not signatories of the Code), the busting of the studios' monopoly on distribution, a Supreme Court decision designated film as a form of speech, and a general liberalizing of American society. But an entire generation had passed since the halcyon pre-Code days, and there could be no return. For an entire generation, Hollywood had been forced to depict romance without sex. With the lifting of censorship, the divorce between sex and romance remained in effect, as Hollywood now gave us sex without romance. If you're looking for a reason why there's nothing less sexy than a sex scene in an American film, look no further. In Europe, which never experienced such a divorce, in which sex and romance remained naturally intertwined, sex is about longing, and personalities, and about life. In American movies, sex is a plot point.

If there is one distinguishing characteristics of American cinema, it's the centrality of moral questioning. Europeans care about behavior. But American movies, for better and worse, turn on issues of right and wrong, in identifying the true course, of finding the moral way of seeing and doing. These questions span the range of our movies. They are at the heart of our most trivial romantic comedies (the search for Mr. "Right") and of our masterpieces. A great American movie is almost invariably and principally a grand moral document, whether we're talking about Casablanca and Citizen Kane or Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men.

The irony of the Motion Picture Production Code is that this supposed vehicle for moral enforcement effectively curtailed the American cinema's moral questioning in whole areas of our national life – politics, religion, sexuality. We can never fully measure the Code's effects on social behavior, though women who came of age during the years of the Code often speak of the despair and loneliness of being surrounded by nonstop images of submission, conformity and surrender.

We can more confidently gauge its lasting effect on movies. When we look on the pre-Code years (from roughly 1929 to July 1, 1934), we see an American cinema in which actresses are as important or more important than actors, in which love and sex are presented with a certain blithe insightfulness and maturity. Then comes the wrench—and from then on nothing is the same.

It is perhaps possible that even without the Code Hollywood would have arrived at its present state, with movies that are mainly adolescent entertainments all about jacking up fear and soothing it, in which the Female Principal is all but ignored and in which actresses are second-class citizens.

Modern America's current schizophrenia about sexuality, our wild swings between Puritanism and pornographic, surely can't completely laid at the door of Joseph Breen and his do-gooders.

But don't discount them, either. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was the serpent in the garden that introduced shame into the paradise that was our early cinema. Ever since then, things have never quite been the same.


San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle is the author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, and the upcoming The Beauty of the Real: The Women of Today's French Cinema. He was the co-author and associate producer of the Complicated Women documentary, which aired on Turner Classic Movies in 2003.

Posted by ahillis at 12:18 PM | Comments (1)

July 30, 2009

INTERVIEW: Ulrich Seidl

[First, a most necessary shout-out: welcome back, David Hudson! We missed you, desperately.]

Ulrich SeidlMany are quick to label Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, Animal Love) first and foremost as a provocateur, as if his unflinching, tableau-heavy films about "the poor, dispossessed and unredeemable that have come to stand in for Europe" (as Vadim Rizov astutely noted) had no further depth than their confrontational qualities. Finally getting a U.S. theatrical release since its 2007 Cannes premiere, Import/Export—easily his richest work to date—opens at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow:

Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s latest feature film tells two stories that at first glance appear unrelated. One is an import story, beginning in the Ukraine and leading to Austria. The other is an export story, in which the trajectory is reversed. The first concerns Olga, a young nurse and mother who, determined to leave the Ukraine, decides to go to Austria, where she eventually finds work as a cleaning lady in a geriatric hospital. The other story follows Paul, a young Austrian man who finds himself unemployed and in debt, until his stepfather takes him along to a job in the Ukraine installing video gambling machines.

Both of these characters are in search of work, a new beginning, an existence, life: Olga, from Eastern Europe, where unremitting poverty is the order of the day; Paul, from the West, where unemployment means not hunger, but a crisis of identity and a sense of uselessness. Both are struggling to believe in themselves, to find meaning; both travel to a new country, and thus into its depths. Import/Export is a film about sex and death, living and dying, winners and losers, power and helplessness.

By email, Seidl was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the film...

Import ExportIn an interview on your website, you said that, for years, you've wanted to make a film in Eastern Europe because you feel very close to the people there. Specifically, how so?

Apart from the hospitality that characterizes all the countries of Eastern Europe, I mainly feel that I can relate to the mentality of the population. The people in the East (Ukraine) take life as it comes and have more time for each other. In contrast to our western society, where time defines and regulates people's lives (although paradoxically, we live in a leisure society), they take their time with things in the East. There are times for celebration and mourning.

Some of the shooting locations looked extremely treacherous. While in the Ukraine, did you ever feel like you were in any physical danger?

Not really. As a rule, I have faith that, in foreign places, people react to how one approaches them. However, naturally one is scared when entering a ghetto populated by thousands of unemployed Gypsies where people have been segregated, hated and left to their fates for the first time.

You've long seemed to favor tableau images, with a focus on their geometry and symmetry. Do you see a specific power or purpose in this aesthetic that has made it versatile throughout your filmmaking career?

Maybe my tableaux are an attempt to describe the world in one picture. Life is frozen for a few moments; the people are often frozen but breathe the pictures. It is a type of magical moment that is transferred to the viewer. The glances meet and one looks each other in the eye.

Import Export

To me, your films are recognizable by some of your trademark styles, even when you work with different cinematographers. What was your working relationship like with Ed Lachman, as compared to your long-time collaborator Wolfgang Thaler?

In Import/Export, I could afford the luxury to work with two as experienced as different cameramen, Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler. This was not only a special experience but also a great joy for me (although the intention was never to reinvent my film language). The field of responsibility was also very varied. While Wolfgang handled the camera, Ed was responsible for the light; in my case this meant using as little lighting as possible. I believe that it was exactly this task that was the lure in our collaboration for Ed: to make big cinematic imagery with a minimum of technology.

Just like the photographer Diane Arbus was regularly criticized, some have questioned whether you exploit your documentary subjects by depicting them in unflattering conditions. How would you react if that was brought up in regards to the elderly patients, who arguably aren't as self-aware as the internet porn actors?

Allegations of this kind have accompanied my entire filmmaking carrier to date. But who wants to determine what is permitted, what is not and who wants to set the limits? I know that as a director I take and accept responsibility for how I portray people. The question is whether I portray people in a way that allows them to keep their dignity. I think that I have accomplished that and have even given some of it back to them through my portrayal. Or are moribund people not worthy of portrayal? Are they too ugly and/or miserable? Those that think like this apparently have a bad conscience, are aware of the fact that they are responsible for it. What I showed in geriatrics, namely that all these people finally end up perishing alone and very lonely is a responsibility of society and therefore, the responsibility of us all. The fact that we accept this is the real scandal. Oh yes, getting the formal agreement from the geriatric patients was not a difficult but purely a bureaucratic task.

Import Export

Is there such a thing as "too provocative," an artistic boundary that shouldn't be crossed?

I confront the viewer with certain realities, also or exactly because they are unpleasant. The viewers are responsible and I don't want to keep certain truths from them. I do not want to make things appear nicer than they are in order to make it easier for the viewer. Fomenting unrest is sometimes the task of an artist. But apart from this, naturally boundaries exist for me. Boundaries for what and how I want to show something (there are some things that I am unsure I want to show). However, this is based on my own convictions and feelings regarding something and not consideration towards the viewer.

In his Import/Export shooting diary, assistant director and Ukraine producer Klaus Pridnig said he only saw you smiling twice, both during extreme weather conditions. Your films are known for their despairing conditions, and any moments of comedy are usually pitch-black. What makes you smile, or even happy?

I believe that one has to be thankful for moments of happiness because happiness can’t be created; my life has moments of happiness too. I know I am seen as very serious and demanding but I always try to find humor in melancholy. If I manage to make people laugh with my films and their laughter gets stuck in their throat in the next moment, if I succeed in doing that, then that makes me happy.

Posted by ahillis at 12:32 PM | Comments (2)

July 29, 2009

SUMMER VIEWING: Toons in Tinseltown

Greetings from sunny Los Angeles. I've been off the radar for a few days because I'm here this week covering InFilm's 5-day F/X program, which I'll chronicle this weekend. As part of the workshop, I'll be attending a hot-ticket conversation tonight (at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) between Pixar mastermind John Lasseter and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, two industry titans who will not be meeting for the first time:

And here's the trailer for Miyazaki's latest, Ponyo, which opens in the U.S. on August 14th:

Relatedly, as the interwebs have been abuzz about Tim Burton's upcoming adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, it seemed appropriate to commemorate the (un)birthday of Disney's original animated version, which was released 58 years ago today:

Posted by ahillis at 8:19 AM

July 23, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: In the Loop (Peter Capaldi)

IN THE LOOP star Peter Capaldi Peter Capaldi isn't a widely recognizeable name in the U.S. (yet), though the silver-tongued Scottish actor has starred in such beloved films as Local Hero, Dangerous Liaisons and The Lair of the White Worm. He also, much to the confusion of people who identify him as a thespian, won an Oscar for a nifty 1994 short film he wrote and directed (Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life), but it's his insult-tossing, handily scene-stealing performance in In the Loop with which people will soon associate him. From my Sundace '09 festival review, which should be read before you watch this deleted scene and taste Capaldi's witty wrath:

A cynical, razor-sharp, truly laugh-out-loud farce about the symbiotic relationship between ineffectual, flip-flopping bureaucrats and the sneaky, petty spin doctors who need them, co-writer/director Armando Iannucci's loosely inspired expansion of his BBC comedy series The Thick of It values and cleverly parodies the power of language (vulgarity, doublespeak, jousting, meaningful ambiguity). A finger-on-the-button chain reaction begins with a single word as the British Minister for International Development (Tom Hollander) accidentally burbles to the media that war is "unforeseeable," much to the chagrin of the PM's foul-mouthed Director of Communications (Peter Capaldi), yet to the delight of those on the other side of the pond with their own pro- and anti-war agendas.

Calling Capaldi in the UK, I'm certainly to blame for giving him the green flag to use creative obscenities, but I'm proud that it dug up "Tucker's Law," a dirty joke that went too far and had to be cut. Our rather droll conversation turned to the pragmatic benefit of the F-bomb as an actor, the bizarre adventure of working with Ken Russell on The Lair of the White Worm, and why he's decided to never see Michael Mann's Public Enemies (hint: it's my fault!).

To listen to the podcast, click here.
[WARNING: Explicit Language / NSFW]

In the Loop opens today in limited release, and will be available on demand via IFC's Festival Direct beginning July 29. For more info, visit the official website.

Posted by ahillis at 11:11 PM | Comments (4)

July 21, 2009

SUMMER READING: Screenwriting in the International Marketplace

by Craig Philips

Ray Morton's article in the new issue of Script magazine (an article I believe is only available in print), called "Going Global: Screenwriting in the International Marketplace," features an interesting section, "Remake Out," on the surprising number of properties exported from America to other countries. (We all know about the sheer number of US remakes of foreign titles—which Morton also writes about.) While this section doesn't represent everything I necessarily believe in, it's important food for thought:

Remake Out
Traditionally, Hollywood has always been an exporter—our movies play in every market in the world and our television shows have been dubbed into most known languages. Lately, we have even begun to export our history as a number of US film companies have licensed remake rights to some of their movies to overseas producers. For example, in May 2007, Viacom made a deal with Studio 18--India's largest film company—that will allow the Bollywood studio to do a Hindi-language remake of
The Italian Job [itself a remake -ed.], an arrangement that also allows Studio 18 to pursue redos of other titles from the Viacom library. Groundhog Day and 12 Angry Men have also been remade—in Italy and Russia respectively—and plans for many others, including an Indian re-imagining of Cellular, have been announced... Obviously, this is all good news for the writers that penned the original films and shows since, under the terms of the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement, they get paid whenever their work is redone.

But, in the next section, called "Remake In," he shifts to the converse story we're all more familiar with, the number of foreign titles being remade in Hollywood. Skipping ahead to end of that section:

For many observers, the increasing reliance o foreign material is a sign of two distressing developments in the US entertainment industry. The first is how risk-averse the big entertainment companies have become—rather than take a chance on any original material, they seem to be interested only in pre-sold properties that have already proven themselves to be successful in other markets, be they best-selling books; remakes of old US movies and TV shows; classic toys, games and comic books; or popular material from other nations.

The second is the apparent loss of American creativity. "From a writing standpoint, what gets me is that we've stopped innovating," opines Dan Handfield. "We've stopped being the ones who are creating entertainment that the world is coming for. It's like we're out of it. I wish these networks and the studios would take more chances on homegrown entertainment, stuff that might be a little more off the wall, instead of saying, 'This was a hit in a foreign country so let's adapt it.' It's [other] countries that are actually the ones that have the freedom to do the innovation because they're not as constrained."

Despite its dire implications for the industry's ambition and creativity, the remake trend provides a lot of work for established American screenwriters because they are the ones who get hired to adapt all of this material. Of course, it bodes less well for the authors of spec scripts since it means that there's less and less market for original material."

While Handfield's quote probably comes off as more xenophobic-sounding than he intended, what do you—writers, producers, distributors, makers—think of the larger points here? Is this an issue or is it overblown, in your own experiences?

Posted by cphillips at 3:08 PM | Comments (2)

July 17, 2009

SUMMER READING: Cinema Scope, Summer '09

Antichrist, from 'an overhyped TV director'

In his scathing Cannes 2009 wrap-up "Stupid, Adjective," from the latest issue of Cinema Scope, editor and publisher Mark Peranson lambasts this past May's edition of the festival as "far and away, the stupidest Cannes ever." Before tearing into Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Park Chan-wook's Thirst, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay, and especially Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void ("I felt like I had seen perhaps the stupidest film I'd ever seen at Cannes," he writes, smacking Noé's latest as a "repetitive, punishing, and alienating experience."), Peranson has another, unlikely target in his sights:

Every year, the stupidity at Cannes begins with the critics. Before the festival began, there was a feature in [indieWIRE] that asked, "Is Cannes still important?" Asking this question is stupid: of course, Cannes is still important, and, of course, it will remain important so long as film festivals exist. But important for whom? Let's be precise: Cannes is important because it presents the critic with perhaps the last remaining opportunity to be in a leading position to set the terms for discourse about how a film is going to be treated, discussed, and analyzed. Cannes plays into the ego of the critic to be part of something important—a fact made even more crucial at a time when, on a daily basis, the influence of film critics is being hacked away body part by body part, while, paradoxically, there is more film criticism than ever before. At Cannes one is surrounded by literally thousands of people of various degrees of intelligence all eager to make their views well known in as rapid a manner as possible. In other words, a recipe for complete and utter disaster. When exacerbated by technology that enables an even rapider response time than ever before, and a slate of films that insists on poking at one's gray matter with a sharp stick to elicit a reaction, the end result, for me, was a closing-down of sorely needed critical functions. And why bother to write anything? It's got to the point where one doesn't even need to go to Cannes to experience it: Cannes has become the most virtual of all festivals.

At Cannes, stupid critics lose sight of the goals of film criticism—instead, their function becomes the need to make over-the-top, egregious generalizations and pronouncements with as little critical thinking and reflection as possible. Part of this surely stems from the ceaseless waves of projections, one "masterpiece" giving way to another "abomination." Thus, what otherwise, in a different context, might seem acceptable becomes plain-out stupid; what may be a mediocre effort by an always talented auteur—as great filmmakers never make bad films—becomes a high masterpiece. And never the twain shall meet.

Posted by ahillis at 9:21 PM

July 14, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Lookin' to Get Out

Lookin' to Get Out

Lookin' to Get Out
Directed by Hal Ashby
1982, 105 minutes, USA
Warner

As chronicled in Nick Dawson's book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel (further clicking: my podcast with Dawson), Lookin' to Get Out was a wildly over-budget production, filmed during a chaotic and desperate time in Ashby's professional life. When ultimately released in an abbreviated, studio-sanctioned edit that was out of the Shampoo auteur's hands (Ashby was only an Oscar-winning editor, no big whoop), the film bombed so badly that it isn't even disparaged today; like most of Ashby's work in the '80s, it was forgotten. As Jon Voight—who starred, produced, co-wrote and worked on the butchered version of this long-lost Vegas farce—recalled to me last April, it was Dawson who first informed him that a director's cut (or as the new DVD positions, an "Extended Version") secretly survived:

I asked Nick, "Where'd you see it?" He said, "I saw the version that Hal left to UCLA. It's a version that he did quietly before he died." The first thing I said was, "Describe the opening." He described it, and I knew it was a cut I hadn't seen, because I knew all the cuts. So I got [co-writer] Al Schwartz, and we went down to see it. We put the first reel up, and it was indeed another cut, and it was terrific. I said, "Let's put up another reel." We put up one more reel, and that, too, was perfect.

Lookin' to Get Out"Perfect" obviously overstates the case, but with Voight's help, Lookin' to Get Out no longer seems the high-pitched, broad laffer that its tepid theatrical reviews described, though it's now one of the stranger screwball movies to come out of the studio system. As duplicitous as its rogue's gallery of lowlifes, the film situates the raw, loose stylings of '70s Hollywood (Haskell Wexler even shot the picture) in a glitzy, corny '80s vehicle. One minute it has penthouse-luxury fantasies and a rollicking chase sequence that could share a double bill with The Hangover; in the next, it's a downbeat character study of the unsympathetic and antagonistic, guys who are down on their luck but refuse to acknowledge so—which seems more in line with a Cassavetes picture.

Lookin' to Get OutOnce the film tanked, Voight never again tried comedy (short of the tongue-in-cheeky Anaconda), but I found him to be an irreverent delight as self-confident loser Alex Kovac, a motor-mouthed New York gambler whose sporadic wins in life are typically tethered to the other shoe dropping, the inevitable result of his impetuous, wise-ass conduct. When he and his sluggish Muppet of a sidekick Jerry Feldman (who knew Burt Young could steal laughs with tiny one-liners and tinier facial expressions?) try to outrun their debts, their angry debtors follow them all the way to Las Vegas. Alex and Jerry have a scheme to make it big (don't they always?), wherein they dupe the MGM Grand to bankroll their game by pretending to be high-roller cronies with the casino's out-of-town owner—who, to add another wrench in their plans, is dating Alex's old flame Patti (an underutilized Ann-Margret).

Lookin' to Get OutAs should be expected, said other shoe indeed drops for the boys, leading to two decidedly unfunny acts of unexpected violence, a desperate break-the-bank ruse, and a drag-down brawl among the blackjack tables. In its giddiest moments, the film plays like California Split on nitrous oxide, which I'm guessing set the tone for the theatrical cut. The scenes that were likely excised—including Voight's aforementioned opening, where Alex retrieves his Rolls Royce (with one working headlight) and riffs obnoxiously about China to a parking attendant he learns is actually Korean—are those that add nuance to the psychology of these carefree also-rans. I even thought about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, albeit without the politics or drugs, because who needs an artificial high when you have the natural euphoria of compulsive gambling? Every time Jerry asks if a woman they meet is a hooker, I also imagined him pouring beer on his chest to facilitate the tanning process like Dr. Gonzo.

Lookin' to Get OutIt's probably not saying much to call Lookin' to Get Out Ashby's most vital film of the 1980s. (If anyone thinks Terry Gilliam has a hard time finishing movies, read Dawson's book about what Ashby endured post-Being There.) And humor being subjective, the film should at least be considered a must-see curiosity for Ashby and Angelina Jolie completists. You read that correctly: just before the epilogue, the kindergarten-aged tomb raider makes her screen debut as the love child of Patti and Alex (unbeknownst to him, making their estrangement quite ironic). And yet, the father-daughter-mother circle continues: watch for the late Marcheline Bertrand, Jolie's real-life mama, as a woman driving a jeep with whom Alex flirts at a stoplight.

Posted by ahillis at 12:50 PM

July 13, 2009

KARLOVY VARY '09: Poets, Pretentiousness, Paskaljevic & Pálfi

by Ronald Bergan

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2009I usually go every year to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (which wrapped Saturday night) to catch up on East European films, mainly in the section which they call "East of the West." I also go for the less elevated reasons of renewing my acquaintance with many in the critical fraternity, enjoying the atmosphere of this pretty spa town (formerly known as Karlsbad), and going to social gatherings, the best being at the neo-baroque Grand Hotel Pupp (pronounced "poop"). Despite the wet weather, none of this disappointed.

Among the most successful films in the "East of the West" section was the Hungarian Lost Times (directed by Aron Matyassy), a somber, emotionally-charged tale, rather reminiscent of Bruno Dumont's studies of the French lumpen-proletariat, and set in one of those God-forsaken villages on the Hungarian-Ukraine border, where a young car mechanic lives with his mentally-disabled sister. Room and a Half, directed by the veteran Russian animator Andrey Khrzhanovsky, is an extremely moving and unusual biopic of Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, which mixes documentary footage with animated sequences, and fictional passages. It won Best Film in the section, one of the few awards I agreed with.

Devil's Town Mind you, it could have also gone to the very different pitch-black Serbian comedy Devil's Town, an impressive debut feature by Vladimir Paskaljevic, son of Goran Paskaljevic. Despite the episodic structure of Paskaljevic Jr’s film, similar to his father's most celebrated film Powder Keg (1998) and many others coming out of East Europe—a range of different characters' lives crisscross over a short period of time—it most skillfully manages to move from outrageous comedy to pathos within one sequence. Although the title refers to Belgrade, and there are some references to the civil war in the ex-Yugoslavia, the never-predictable plot of corruption, perverse sexual encounters and human inadequacy, should resonate internationally. There is an especially funny scene where a young man is trying to elicit money from his dying father to invest in a film he wishes to make in which the Serbs are seen as madmen to satisfy the west, and then provides his suffering supine parent with the way he imagines the musical soundtrack.

It was far superior to the Croatian-Serbian co-production Will Not Stop There, by Vinko Bresan, a crass comedy-drama, whose humor and violence was as heavy as the symbolism of reconciliation between the two co-producing countries. Unaccountably, it won the Fipresci prize, the jury of which had the unfortunate task of judging the main competition. I almost feel pity for the programmers of film festivals in the "A" category—apart from Berlin, Cannes and Venice—who can only choose world or international premieres for their competition. When the Big Three have taken the lion's share, there is little of value left for the other "A" festivals. Karlovy Vary does its best, but the festival's treasures lie elsewhere—this year there were tributes to Alan Rudolph, John Malkovich (who was handed a Crystal Globe), Patrice Chereau and Jan Švankmajer, and sections such as "A Female Take on Russia," excellent documentaries, Andrzej Wajda's best film in many years (Sweet Rush, previously shown in Berlin), and a spanking new digitally-restored print of Cover Girl (1944).

Villa Amalia's Isabelle HuppertPretentious, which my dictionary defines as affected, unwarranted or of exaggerated importance, is a word I rarely use to describe a film because it is often used by those who find certain films too difficult to comprehend (like Last Year In Marienbad), but this year in Karlsbad, I found myself using it a lot. It came to mind while watching Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia, in which Isabelle Huppert gives a great imitation of Isabelle Huppert. She plays a rich and spoiled concert pianist (again!) who gives everything up—walking out in the middle of a concert, burning all her clothes, leaving her philandering boyfriend—and changes her life to become a rich and spoiled owner of a villa in Italy, where she has a lesbian affair. Among the other pretentious films in competition was Angel at Sea—directed by the Belgian Frederic Dumont—which, to my astonishment, won the Grand Prix of $30,000. Desperately in need of the Dardenne brothers to cleanse it of symbols, it was set among French and Belgian expats in Morocco, and featured the superb Olivier Gourmet as a serial cat-killing manic depressive. Gourmet shared the Best Actor prize with Paul Giamatti, who merely looks confused, as well he might, throughout Sophie Barthes' stunningly ponderous and contrived allegory Cold Souls, introduced at Sundance this year.

There were some pleasant discoveries in the competition such as I'm Not Your Friend by the Hungarian György Pálfi, who gave a new meaning to the word "grotesque" with Taxidermia a few years ago. This highly cynical battle of the sexes was shot in 20 days of improvisation between the filmmaker and nine amateur actors, the hand-held camera helping to create the fluid nature of their relationships. The film is topped and tailed by an irresistible documentary focusing on the interaction between 4-year-old children (shot over three months), foreshadowing that of the adults.

The inevitable Iranian film in competition was Twenty by Abdolreza Kahani, which won the Special Jury Prize. For me, most Iranian films, good or bad, are intrinsically interesting for what they say about Iran, and this was no exception. It takes place mostly in the confined setting of a restaurant, whose owner is forced to sell, a decision that has a negative effect on his staff. There are some melodramatic soap opera elements, and the cast hardly ever change their expressions, but there is an implicit condemnation of the society and its treatment of women. At the award ceremony, the director, whose film won a Special Jury Prize, got the audience to stand up and give their support to "the people of Iran," which we dutifully did without being absolutely sure which Iranians we were supporting.

Whisky with Vodka But the most pleasurable surprise among the international premieres was Whisky with Vodka, by Andreas Dresen, which belies the common (and false) idea that Germans have no sense of humor. Actually, in this case, it is an obvious homage to Woody Allen, with a nod towards the relationship between Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. The film, which won Dresen the Best Director award, is in the tradition of Day For Night and Allen’s disastrous Hollywood Ending, about the making of a film within the film, and one of the most convincing.

One of the particularities of the K.V. fest is the avid audience of backpacking youngsters who come from all over the Czech Republic to see as many as six movies a day and then party through the night. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm for film is not translated to Prague, where few of the same films are shown. However, this holds in most countries where warmly-greeted unpretentious festival films, like Devil's Town and Whisky with Vodka, might have to struggle to find distributors.

[Ronald Bergan (PhD English. Lit), film historian, critic and lecturer, is a regular contributor to The Guardian. He has held a Chair at the Florida International University in Miami, where he taught Film History and Theory. Among the many books he has written are Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict; Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise; The Coen Brothers; The Eyewitness Guide To Film (published in 8 languages) and Francois Truffaut Interviews, which he edited.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:16 PM | Comments (4)

July 9, 2009

PODCAST: Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard

HUMPDAY's Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass & Joshua Leonard

If Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton had an actual career hump to get over, she has most certainly done so on the strength of her third feature, the hilariously perceptive Humpday. Since its premiere at this year's Sundance, the officially too-often-cited "mumblecore bromance" was picked up by Magnolia Pictures after a six-company bidding war, played a handful of renowned fests including SXSW and Cannes, and in the interim, had its buzz cranked a few more decibels when Shelton won the 2009 "Someone to Watch" Spirit Award for last year's My Effortless Brilliance. And that title's a fine turn of phrase for the success she's receiving from her deceptively simple new comedy:

It's been a decade since Ben (actor-filmmaker Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) were the bad boys of their college campus. Ben has settled down and found a job, wife, and home. Andrew took the alternate route as a vagabond artist, skipping the globe from Chiapas to Cambodia. When Andrew shows up unannounced on Ben's doorstep, they easily fall back into their old dynamic of macho one-upmanship.

Late into the night at a wild party, the two find themselves locked in a mutual dare: to enter an amateur porn contest together. But what kind of boundary-breaking, envelope pushing porn can two straight dudes make? After the booze and "big talk" run out, only one idea remains—they will have sex together...on camera. It's not gay; it's beyond gay. It's not porn; it's art. But how exactly will it work? And more importantly, who will tell Anna, Ben's wife?

In town together a couple weeks back for their New York premiere, Shelton, Duplass and Leonard sat down with me at the Magnolia offices—though Shelton wound up laughing herself literally under the conference room table, courtesy of her co-stars' irreverent banter. Before becoming a comedic free-for-all, the four of us discussed their open-ended collaboration, oneupsmanship, the kinds of friends you can talk "therapy shit" with, and the gayest thing they've ever done.

To listen to the podcast, click here.
[WARNING: Explicit Language / NSFW]

Humpday opens in New York and Seattle tomorrow, in Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas beginning July 24, with more dates to come. For showtimes and more info, visit the official website.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Tomorrow night (July 10), I will be moderating a Q&A with Joshua Leonard following the 7:30pm screening at NYC's Angelika Film Center, as well as introducing the 10pm screening.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:15 PM | Comments (1)

July 6, 2009

Jesus Christ, Rock Star: Sion Sono

By Andrew Grant

[NB: Sion Sono was in New York last week for the New York Asian Film Festival, promoting his two latest films, Love Exposure and Be Sure to Share. I had a chance to sit down with him and discuss these films as well as his career as a whole, but our time was cut short owing to an overbooked schedule. Our too-brief interview was mostly spent discussing Love Exposure.—Andrew Grant]

sionsono.jpg

Japanese director Sion Sono is fascinated with borderlines. Whether addressing love and hate, good and evil, the individual versus society, or even the distinction between art and commerce, it's the precarious balance between the two that defines and runs through most of his work.

Though he's directed nearly twenty films over the past thirty years, Sono's work remains relatively unknown in the States outside of the fanboy/J-Horror circle, with whom he made a splash in 2001 with the cult film Suicide Club. Several other titles have found a life on DVD, but unlike his peer Takashi Miike, he's never found acceptance from the arthouse crowd. However, that may change with Love Exposure, his 2008 four-hour near-masterpiece that has been picking up praise and awards at festivals worldwide, and which was a surprise hit at the Japanese box office.

Sono's first love was poetry, and by the age of seventeen his work had already appeared in several prestigious journals. Dropping out of college, Sono began making 8mm films including I am Sion Sono!! (1985), a thirty-minute DIY self-portrait that incorporates his avant-garde poetry, and which had its premiere at the PIA Film Festival. What it lacks in technical expertise it more than makes up for in youthful rebellious spirit, and was his earliest example of the struggle with individualism in a society built on collective thought.

Several other experimental films followed, including A Man's Hanamichi (1987), which won the Grand Prize at PIA, and his first feature, Bicycle Sighs (1990), an autobiographical coming-of-age story that found success on the international festival circuit. “When I first started making films, I was working more in an arthouse genre, and interested in artistic self-expression,” Sono told me. One of his best, but criminally underseen films from that period is My Name is Keiko (1997), a powerful study on loss and grieving that consists entirely of an internal monologue by a young woman who has become obsessed with time since the loss of her father to cancer.

Things changed for Sono with the release of Suicide Club (2001), which had its international premiere at Rotterdam, and has found great success on DVD worldwide. A darkly comedic essay on fad obsession, its tongue-in-cheek premise of teenagers killing themselves en masse unfortunately gives way to an overly-convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying second half, but still remains oddly compelling.

Sono's career would take a decidedly different turn from this point forward.

“With the success of Suicide Club, I wanted to find the commonality between entertainment and expression,” Sono says, and this perfectly describes the films of this period. From the teen drama Noriko's Dinner Table (2005) (a sequel of sorts to Suicide Club), the dysfunctional family theatrics of Strange Circus (2005), the fiercely independent, New York City-based Hazard (2005), to the straight-up J-Horror of Exte: Hair Extensions (2007), there's an aesthetic and stylistic individuality to each film such that one might never guess they came from the same hand. Thematically, however, all contain his signature subjects-the relationship between individual expression and societal expectation, teen angst and rebellion, and the psychologically damaging effects of a dysfunctional family.

love exposure

Love Exposure, Sono's four-hour excursion into perversion, sin, guilt, and the power of love is a treatise on all these themes—and more. Nearly impossible to adequately summarize, this oversized dramedy follows the lives of five damaged individuals and their often twisted relationships with religion, be it Catholic Church or dubious cult. Angelic teenager Yu is the son of Tetsu, a recently ordained Catholic priest grappling with an inability to maintain his vow of chastity thanks to Saori, a seductress who wishes to be cleansed of her sins. Transferring his own guilt onto his son, Tetsu forces Yu to confess his sins daily, though the pure-hearted boy has done nothing worthy of confession. Seeking sin, he falls in with a gang that teaches him the fine art of clandestine upskirt photography. After becoming a master voyeur, Yu meets Koike, a cocaine-dealing founding member of the cult-like Zero Church who will have a powerful impact on all their lives. Finally there's Yuko, man-hating step-daughter of Saori, who Yu believes is his own Virgin Mary. And that's just the first hour.

Sono's original cut of the film clocked in at six hours. “I started from the opposite point of view,” he explains. “Why can't films vary in length like novels? A RomCom can be an epic length without being an epic.” At the request of his producer, Sono agreed to a compromised running time (a somewhat more theater-friendly 237 minutes). That it achieved box-office success came as a surprise to all involved.

Poking fun at Christianity is nothing new in Japanese popular culture, yet Sono insists he wasn't taking shots at the Catholic Church, or religion as a whole. “The reason it's set in a Christian household is more metaphorical," Sono says. "I wanted a strict father figure, an ultimate authority who teaches good and evil, and a son easily molded by those influences. I've had personal experiences with fickle judgments—where, depending on mood, black can turn into white and vice versa. Tetsu represents this. He uses the authority of the lord, telling Yu it's God's will, when it's really just his own.”

loveexposure2.jpg

Sono isn't a Christian, and he draws a sharp distinction between Christ the man and the religion based on his teachings. “I'm a member of the Jesus Christ fan club. The line in the film about him being as cool as Kurt Cobain—that's my view. He's in the same category as John Lennon as an object of admiration. Reading the New Testament is like reading a biography of a rock star.”

Yet the existence of The Zero Church in the film (a highly structured corporate-like cult that bears more than a passing similarity to Scientology) would indicate that religion is more than just a metaphor. Sono sees little difference between cults and organized religion: “They both take what's useful and convenient for their own objectives.”

Carefully sorting through Love Exposure's plenteous and complex ideas—which include incest, gender and sexual identity issues, blackmail, castration and pornography (to name but a few)—it seems the film boils down to a single key moment in which Yuko dramatically recites a passage from Corinthians. Sono agreed with me: “During filming, I knew that that this scene was absolutely critical, and would determine whether the film would succeed or fail.” That Love Exposure hinges on a single philosophical absolute about love might seem hackneyed, but after four hours of hell its bit of heaven is more than earned.

Posted by cphillips at 11:11 AM | Comments (1)

July 3, 2009

1776: Cool Considerate Men.

Not that we're ever overtly patriotic here on GreenCine, but certainly the 4th of July conjures up both a fondness for things Americana and thoughts (okay, brief thoughts) about our founding fathers. Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's dated but still amusing musical, and its subsequent movie version directed by Peter Hunt, 1776 features some fine songs (who knew those founders could be so musically adept?) but one of the numbers from the film was excised from the theatrical version due to a complaint from then-president Richard Nixon (who soon would have a little less pull, but at the time was friends with producer Jack Warner). The "Cool Considerate Men" sequence was more recently put back in the restored version of the film, as seen on DVD. The song allegedly drew parallels between opponents of American Independence in 1776 and the modern conservative movement. It doesn't seem all that thinly veiled, even. "Never to the left, forever to the right," they sing.

With our land, cash in hand
Self-command, future planned
And we'll hold to our gold
Tradition that is old, reluctant to be bold.

[More on this on the LA Times from a few years back.] Happy Fourth! --craig phillips

Posted by cphillips at 10:30 AM | Comments (2)

July 2, 2009

PODCAST: Pablo Larraín

TONY MANERO director Pablo Larraín

As Andrew Grant, David Fear and I discussed in our podcast last October, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero was my favorite feature at the 2008 New York Film Festival, a marvelously unhinged study of pop-culture obsession in a suffocating environment (if I may crib myself). From All Movie Guide:

As Augusto Pinochet holds Chile in the grip of dictatorship, a fifty year old man obsessed with John Travolta's character from Saturday Night Fever imitates his idol each weekend in a small bar on the outskirts of Santiago. Each weekend, Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro) and his friends—a devoted group of dancers—gather in a small bar and act out their favorite scenes from Saturday Night Fever. Raúl longs to become a showbiz superstar, and when the national television announces a Tony Manero impersonating contest it seems like he may finally have a shot at living his dreams. But as Raúl is driven to commit a series of crimes and thefts in order to reproduce his matinee idol's persona, his dancing partners (also underground resistance fighters who rail against the regime) are persecuted by the secret police.

Calling in from Chile, Larraín and I got down! ... I mean, we got down to business over fascism, disco, the Chilean filmmaking scene, and why he agrees with one of his naysayers—with an appropriate smattering of cultural references throughout: Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, John Zorn and Felix Mendelssohn (?!).

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Tony Manero opens in New York tomorrow and in Los Angeles on July 17, with more dates to come. For showtimes and more info, visit the Cinema Village website.

Posted by ahillis at 9:13 AM | Comments (2)