Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Master Says 017

Money is everywhere but so is poetry. What we lack are the poets.

Federico Fellini

The Three Conceits of Tommy Lee Jones

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was a difficult film to sit through. I'm not sure why I didn't walk out. To say the film is stoic is a gross understatement. The lack of emotion lent itself to an overall mood of apathetic nihilism. If the actors and the filmmaker don't care about anything; why should the audience?
I like things that are left unresolved. I like stories that refrain from textual explanations. I willingly accept a few conceits in order to get to the bigger issues. I had no problem with Matt Dillon pulling Thandie Newton out of the burning car in Crash, for example.
But in Three Burials nearly every cut was a conceit. Now we're here. Now we're there. Now he's running away. Now she's in a motel room with the man her husband has killed in a flashforward and will kill again in a flashback. Oh, so it's just a coincidence that the ornery border patrol killed the Mexican (a goat herder, goat in Spanish is cabron. Cabron also means cuckold) with whom his bored and neglected wife recently had a tryst.
Having just gone through rewriting a single script with producers and agents for the past three years, I'm a bit resentful. Guillermo Arriaga seems to get away with things that I can't. He has been called the Mexican Tarantino for his temporal shifts. I enjoyed them in Amores Perros. I didn't see 21 grams. In Three Burials the jumps in time don't serve anything. The filmmakers are trying to create a murder mystery where there is none. You can't really say what this film is about in any tidy way. In the past I thought that was pure Hollywood horseshit to essentialize. But I don't think that so much anymore. An old fool by the name of Aristotle seemed to think unity of action was important.
Is this film is about returning a friend to his home after he's been murdered? Or about making another man pay for his sins? Or about making a man that doesn't believe in hell, believe in it? Is it a morality play? (Definitely) What are the consequences for Tommy Lee Jone's character? Where are the seeds of his moral ambivalence? How does he move from affable to cold-hearted? Why the blind man? Why the second scene with the blind man?
This last question offers a clue to the lavish praise and awards bestowed on the film and its makers -- there is much mythologizing in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Critics and festival panels (French panelists especially) love mythmakers. There is plenty of symbolism - Melquiades as goat herder being one of the more subtle examples. Other symbols were far less subtle - the impotent sheriff, the border patrol officer masturbating, the mobile homes, the telenovela. The pack horse falling was brutal, hackneyed in its motivation and an inelegant rip-off of Bunuel's Las Hurdes.
Speaking of the symbol of the pack horse falling, I will concede that otherwise Jones handled poverty evenhandedly. I also enjoyed the way the Mexicans were presented - as full-blown human beings for once. Though the coyote was given a sympathetic point of view that I don't believe is in any way deserved by a man that earns his living preying on simple folk.
The coyote scenes were among so many moments where I said to myself, You've got to be kidding me.
After seeing a film like this I appreciate reading film critics for insights to which I might have been blind. In the case of Last Days, the critics helped me be patient with Van Sant's meditative film and to see its achievment. Reading that this film is one of the best of the year and even of the past decade, does not inspire deeper appreciation.
I love westerns. John Ford and Sam Peckinpah were certainly laconic and they told stories to support that emotion, where the lack thereof spoke volumes. Mentioning Tommy Lee Jones and his subtext-lite film alongside those greats is infuriating. As are the raptures regarding Ang Lee's direction of Brokeback Mountain.

Nobody ever raised a statue for a critic.

Signore Direttore

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Blind Leading the Blind

In preparation to direct a film or play, I make a rehearsal plan. It involves much more than a schedule of sessions to read the script together and block the scenes. One of the first things I do is conjure a metaphor for each scene. Last week I did my metaphor work for But A Dream. I wrote "The blind leading the blind" for Scene 2. When I looked at my notes a few days after that, I had no idea what activity I intended for the blind leading the blind in rehearsal. I let it go until the next day. Still nothing. We were on Scene 1 in our rehearsal, so I let it go again. Five-thirty this morning I open my computer to look at my notes before going to get the boys. There it is: "The blind leading the blind." I don't know what that means yet. Oh well. "Trust," I tell myself.

I know what the phrase means in a conventional sense, but I'm not interested in a literal reenactment. I needed to set up an activity that will allow it to happen between the two actors. I also had this quote in my head from one of the Flying Wallendas - "Being on the tightrope is living, the rest is just waiting." So there's two blind guys and a tightrope in my head. Not really making sense to my pre-dawn not-yet-caffeinated brain, so I let it go again. In the meantime, I get back to basics and have the boys move out across the park and back in the manner in which we've been training. They come back. I give them some notes on their movement then we do a variation that was closer to the given circumstances of BAD. It started coming together for me as we were working. "Okay, good let's go over to the playground area." I didn't know what we we're going to do, but instead of thinking about it, I started running and said, "Let's go." I was really letting go of it. By the time I was half way across the park I saw some bleachers by a baseball diamond and voila!, it all came together.

I had Joey close his eyes and stand on the diamond. Heath was next to the bleachers with his back to Joey. Heath had to maintain a field of vision to the front. He had to whisper instructions to Joey to get him around the backstop and up the bleachers without looking at him. In doing this we (re- )discovered that Joey is afraid of heights. His whole body trembled, but he kept moving.

But A Dream is about a soldier that can't take another step for fear that he'll step on a landmine. It's a reasonable fear in a minefield, but standing still in the middle of a field is not a soldier's primary objective. It's Heath's task to get Joey across the field. When Joey auditioned he was doing the dance of being too afraid to step forward. I thought it looked phony. When I saw Joey unable to climb those steps this morning, my judgment was confirmed: Joey acting scared and Joey scared are distinctly different.

So we moved on to a tightrope-like exercise -- crossing a narrow bench -- while covering one another. Joey did it without a problem. On the third run through I told him to stop halfway. Heath berated him, shamed him, reminded him of the mission. Stuck. "Tell him a joke, Heath." He does. Joey steps. Heath tells him another joke. He turns to me, "This is taking too long." "Sing a song," I direct. He does. Joey sings along and we're off the bench.

After rehearsal Joey told me, "You know when you're scared, you don't have to act scared, because fear produces more fear. All I had to do to be scared was focus on the fear I was actually experiencing."

Equipped with little else but a metaphor, we rehearsed the scene. What happened is exactly what happens on the page. There is no need to memorize lines. There's no blocking or practicing for performance to be done.
It truly is the blind leading the blind.

I love this shit.

Signore Direttore

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Shot List

"If I don't know where to put the camera in a scene, something else is wrong." - Godard

This afternoon I meet with the DP to discuss a shot list. We've been throwing ideas about in passing conversations for the past several weeks. I have ideas and storyboards. More importantly, by allowing myself a producer's and a cinematographer's collaboration, I can think about this shot list in a way that I've never before been able.

Instead of thinking about the framing in a concrete, finished, result-oriented manner, I've been thinking about how much space I want to feel. Rather I want to push into or pull away from the subject. How much do I want the audience to breathe? How can I force perspective to allow these things? How can I use the frame to define relationships?

I'm also more open to camera movement than ever before. There's serious talk about Steadicam. If you asked me about Steadicam a year ago, you would have been the recipient of a tart diatribe.

I'm allowing Godard's watchwords to serve me. I'm not conforming a shot arbitrarily in order not to feel stuck or uninspired. I'm considering that my lack of inspiration may indeed be the result of some shortcoming in the writing or earlier blocking.

A friend that has completed a feature and is preparing her second confessed to me that she didn't know where to put the camera. In order to feel superior to her, internally at least, I preened that I didn't ever have that problem. That bit of self-deception could really endanger my work if I don't let go of feeling insecure that K. made a feature film and I haven't.
(Even though I deserve it more than her. Just ask me. In fits of shadenfreude, I reveled that her first film stunk. Ugh. That shadenfreude sure ain't pretty.)

A River Dertch,
Signroe Direttore

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Terence Malick Nature Theatre

Yesterday we went out to Sauvie's Island for a rehearsal. The sun is rising much earlier than it was just ten days back. We missed the dawn, but enjoyed a vigorous workout under very sunny and cold weather. The primary thing I'm trying to communicate to the actors in our rehearsal at this point is that soldiers move without a lot of chatter or even visual eye contact with one another. It involves trust. Can't seem to get away from trust when it comes to human interdependence.

Actors tend to want to hold on to one another's eyes. In a combat situation this is especially perilous. Many times I observed Heath and Joey from the vantage of the enemy with ample opportunity to flank them or take aim on them while they focused on one another rather than their objective. Granted we're trying to acheive something in a few rehearsals that the military accomplishes in weeks of intensive training.

After our initial work of the day we broke for coffee and water. We observed a bald eagle soaring above us and sweeping close. Formations of geese flying. Thinking of Terence Malick, I mused on the possibilities of intercutting nature shots with the action of But A Dream. As I contemplated this aloud I noticed a lone tree across the way. Many small birds perched in dark silhouette in the tree's uppermost limbs. Another group of birds lighted on the branches and as they did so the first group took flight and moved on. This pattern persisted as several groups moved through just as soldiers move on the battlefield.

So wonderful to be able to show rather than tell.

It requires great trust on the part of a director to let go and see what will happen.
We've had several rehearsals and haven't touched the script.
I love it.
It feels as if I'm finding Fellini after all.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Master Says 016

It is a hard and difficult struggle to learn to draw well.

Vincent van Gogh

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Getting is in the Giving

When we put our attention on our fellow actors there is no anxiety. That is once we've learned to see and accept that whatever they are doing is indeed what is happening. And what should be happening.
Of course this is reflexive.
In life I find it much easier to accept in others what I struggle to accept in myself. Putting my attention on others allows me the opportunity to be more forgiving of myself.
When I focus on what I can get or what I want, I soon get sick in the stomach.
When I focus on others I am free.
Or at least as free as I can be.
Is that free enough?
Am I good enough?
Me. Me. Me.

A River Dertch,
Sre. Dir.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Munich - Bigger Than Life

As a cinematic experience, Munich was a tour de force of operatic camera work. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I had trouble with a few scenes particularly toward the end, but as always with Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, they've earned whatever conceits they choose to indulge by the sheer virtuosity in the greater scheme of the film.

In a telephone interview with American Cinematographer, Kaminski reflects that the task of re-creating historical events offers a cinematographer a range of possible approaches. Whereas Schindler’s List was characterized by a sober mise-en-scène and stark black-and-white imagery (see AC Jan. ’94), the approach for Munich was more “distanced,” says Kaminski. “We wanted this to feel like a movie, bigger than life. Our goal was not to simply re-create reality. The subject matter is too fresh, too relevant to what’s happening today. We wanted a bit of distance and didn’t want viewers to think we were doing a propaganda movie. Whereas there’s a clear knowledge of who the bad guys are in Schindler’s List, this film is more ambiguous, more complex. We didn’t want to make a simple moral statement.”

Some other things I loved about Munich:
Eric Bana's work. Compelling. Honest. Moment to moment he was absolutely there.
Ayelet Zurer. Beautiful. Free. Complex. Playing the wife of the far traveling hero ain't easy. Small part, yes. Small actor, no.
The colors. Greens and golds. But a Dream is to be gold, silver and green.
The light. Rich. Shadowy. Perfect.
Mathieu Amalric. He reminded me of a young Roman Polanski in Chinatown.
The shot on the Main River in Frankfurt shot in dawn's early light, the characters silhouetted in the fog. I spent many a night strolling along the Main with my first love long ago.
Geoffrey Rush.Nothing more need be said.


Signore Direttore

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Gearhead – Peripheral Produce Production Grant Award

The Gearhead – Peripheral Produce Production Grant Award rewards filmmaking excellence, providing an independent filmmaker whose work best demonstrates the potential to undertake a production project beyond his or her normal budgetary scope.
The value of the grant award is Two Thousand Dollars credit applicable at Gearhead Grip + Electric toward the rental of Grip Truck Packages and Equipment, Lighting, Camera Support and Production Supplies for a future project.

I'm feeling like a proud papa as the initiator and author of this grant award and our sponsorship of the PDX Fest.

Giving is fun,
Signore Direttore

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Up at five today and out to Sauvie's Island with producer Neil Kopp and cinematographer Greg Schmitt for my upcoming short film, But A Dream. We plan to shoot the film as if it's happening just before dawn in the dreamy crepuscular light. Of course there won't be enough light at that time, but we wanted to see it with our eyes in order to apply some movie magic to later in the day for a similar look.

We had a blast. It was really great to spend the morning with two guys that love what they do that bring positive attitudes and extreme competence to the project. One thing I really apreciate is the lack of posturing and defensiveness I have often experienced with less experienced filmmakers.
I love making movies.

Signore Direttore

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Process and the American Artist

Pretty high flying title, huh? Takes me back to the Ivory Tower. Whereas my friends in academe strive ever harder toward abstraction, I trudge toward the essential. Not very post-modern, but certainly adventurous. I do believe that after the French we buy into Post-Modernism more wholesale than any other national culture. I dare say that historically we embraced its tenets more readily than our amis. Simply put, our single revolution in which we became a republic predated the three it took the French by fourteen years.
By becoming a republic, the idea was that every boy, and girl (Thank you Geena Davis!), could grow up to be President. Quite different from hereditary monarchy. The seeds of this possibilty were sown by the Puritans. The Puritan's departure from the old world set the stage for so many cultural legacies in America. Least of not was the conceit that one could and should reinvent oneself. This was unheard of in Europe. And still is to a certain degree. In America, ambition became virtuous. Along with our Puritan forebears came many a forger, thief, con artist and philanderer. Process was tossed aside for bigger, better, more convenient, more profitable. Old world customs of apprenticeship quickly gave way to self-starting. Guilds and unions were disdained and the corporation (the idea that an incorporated business warrants the rights of an individual is really quite astounding) was born and exalted.
These are very broad strokes, I realize. Fast-forward to the present day. Combine the fruits of an ambitious couple of centuries and the legacy of self-reinvention and voila you've got a lot of people that want to be artists. And they want to be artists because they say they are artists. Their process involves little more than a declaration. Throw in some help from having watched a few films or perused a few websites and books (think non-fiction, Becoming a Master Artist For Dummies type books). Better still, many are armed with a reawakened conviction born in childhood that they always wanted to be a ( ). Funny that, since we all have grown up with television and have been inundated with entertainment and images of taking leisure.
I just spent the weekend with my eighty-three year old grandmother. She was born on a South Dakota farm. Didn't eat at a restaurant until after she had my father and didn't own a television until the 60s. A vanishing breed to be sure.
Anyway we seem to think we can just jump into things. We presume that self-will and ambition will supercede process. "I'll figure it out." "I'll have to see once I get into it." "No problem." Ready for a really good one? "Just Do It."
Poppycock and arrogance. Stuff and nonsense, as my British wife scoffs.
Don't get me wrong. It's a wonderful thing to live in a society so affluent as to afford the luxury to reinvent oneself. I'm just spouting off to remind myself and those I work with that though we have certain freedoms, we are not free from responsibility.
As aspiring artists we must deflate our ambitions and egos and find the starting point if we are to become anything more than poseurs or hobbyists. No shame in the latter, by the by. We must also remember that what we first assume to be the departure point is probably way ahead of our abilities. We must remain humble and teachable. We must be un-American.

God Bless America,
Signore Direttore

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Two old geezers ...

... get together to brainstorm over what to get their mate for his 80th birthday.
Let's get him a girl, says one.
That's it, says the other, he hasn't had sex in years.
So they call up an escort service and have a girl meet them to check her out and pay her fee.
She arrives -- a lovely little thing, very curvy and sweet. They give her her fee and their mate's address then tell her to make sure to give him some real super sex.
Off she goes. She gets to the birthday codger's door and rings the bell.
He answers the door and asks, What do you want young lady?
She opens her coat, revealing her beautiful self and says,
Your mates sent me to give you super sex for your birthday.
The old fool says, I'll take the soup.

Signore Direttore