Saturday, August 11, 2007

Feudal Allegiance

In the film world there's a lot of talk of homage. I've long held a personal theory that a filmmaker should not attempt an homage until he or she has successfully completed at least five films that are at least watchable. I mean come on, is it really paying respect to a great filmmaker by copying the way they shot a scene in a recognized masterpiece in your otherwise hackneyed and uninspired digital video short? Whenever someone tells me their film is going to be an homage to a great filmmaker I shut down. As I do when meeting someone that voted for W. or that's born again. I don't say anything because it would be like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo; sorry, Inuit.
Of course we're all inspired by other films. Portland filmmakers Grace Carter and Holly Andres made a short film called Nora this year that artfully copies the shower scene in Psycho frame by frame in order to discuss gender politics. Our film Dangerous Writing was inspired by Goodbye South Goodbye, the films of Antonioni and Children of Men. The film is about writing and the creative proess, so the visual poetry of a film like Hou Hsioa-Hsien's Goodbye South Goodbye was a huge inspiration. I've also long wanted to do something with long takes so as to minimize the arduous, time-consuming editing phase of the filmmaking process. Hou is a master of long takes where nothing seems to happen, yet as in a Jane Austen novel, one world ends and another begins with but the slightest of gesture. Jack Nicholson, who worked with Antonioni on The Passenger, says that, "For Antonioni actors aren't the most important thing, they're sort of moving space." I had a specific tone in mind for DW that I wanted the actors to be subject to rather than affect through their performances. I was concerned with the landscape of a well-to-do artist living in a liberal neighborhood in a liberal city. How does our environment contain us? Both Antonioni and Hou asked this question in their films. I wanted the camera to be far enough away that the actors forgot about performing and a distance such that would allow the audience to laugh at the vanity and folly of artistic process. If we were too close, the audience might thing they were to empathize with the characters. I wanted to allow them to respond truthfully, to forget the idea of a hero's journey. I also had a theme in mind that was martial, at least psychologically. Alfonso Cuaron wanted Children of Men, a war film whose tactics were political in a most personal sense, to seem like a documentary. One of the greatest war films shot in a documentary style is The Battle of Algiers. Cuaron didn't copy Battle of Algiers. He told Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, just as Pontecorvo used the documentary techniques of the time in making BofA, we must use the doc techniques of our time to shoot CofM. When the studio got the dailies, they were like, "Where's the closeups?" He didn't shoot closeups because closeups are about character and Cuaron wanted CoM to be about context. To my mind it is a much greater demonstration of respect to advance the dialogue of the cinema rather than to reiterate it.
Especially in a commercial entertainment such as The Bourne Ultimatum. Peter Greengrass claims to pay homage to The Battle of Algiers in The Bourne Ultimatum. Please. Peter, you're making a mega-million dollar product that is virtually without risk of losing money. You cannot hope to think that you are creating art or continuing the conversation of cinema. Is Nike paying homage to Michael Jordan by using his soaring silhouette on their Air Jordan products? Is Nike advancing the dialogue of sport in the tradition of the Greeks? No, his Airness is endorsing their brand and helping them sell sneakers. For a very tidy sum. Maybe Greengrass should pay Pontecorvo's estate a fee for helping sell popcorn. Greengrass says: "We're developing the story as we shoot and move. That means the end is in doubt right until late in the process." I really fucking doubt it. There's no doubt that he brings a stylish dynamic to the film. I'm not saying he's not talented. He clearly is. What I object to is this notion that a hundred million dollar movie is getting made without a blueprint.
It would be great if I'm wrong. Cuaron was able to push the boundaries of convention with Children of Men. I would love for Greengrass to open the doors to a more organic process in Hollywood. Not just because it might give a guy like me a greater chance at getting some work someday, but simply as a filmgoer.
I will probably enjoy The Bourne Ultimatum if I see it, but I sincerely doubt that I will be challenged by it as I was by Children of Men.
The hand-held verite look is a style that is in vogue: Babel, Casino Royale, even Borat and Knocked Up use it to comic effect. That's cool. Let's just not go crazy thinking it has a lot of substance. Or that it's paying sincere tribute and swearing allegiance to the cinema's great maestros.

Signore Direttore

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