Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fargo (1996)

FARGO, by Joel and Ethan Coen, is probably a "love it or hate it" kind of film, depending on your tolerance for dark comedy, but I definitely fall into the former camp.

It plays well as a straightforward thriller but also contains a strong undercurrent of jet-black humor that's never quite outright mean-spirited or completely unpleasant (even though it involves kidnapping, gruesome murders, and dismemberment in a wood chipper). Shot largely on location in North Dakota and Minnesota, Roger Deakins' cinematography captures the bleakness of the weather and the long flat expanses, which atmospherically reflects the state of the characters in the story.

The real standout performance is Frances McDormand as practical and tough policewoman Marge Gunderson, but William H. Macy (as the meek everyman in way over his head with kidnapping and loan fraud schemes), Harve Presnell (as his no-nonsense Midwestern business tycoon father-in-law) and especially Steve Buscemi (as a perpetually nervous and volatile hitman) all contribute fine turns in playing well-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into.

Dark comedy is one of the most frequently mis-used labels when it comes to describing movies, and one of the toughest forms to pull off. FARGO pulls it off, and does so admirably well. It's certainly one of my favorite films of the past 20 years, and my favorite work by the Coens.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Mikado (1939)

While the 1939 film of Gilbert & Sullivan's THE MIKADO is far from a faithful adaptation in terms of containing every song and scene from the show, it is certainly faithful to the spirit of the great 1885 operetta by one of the great teams in theater history.

THE MIKADO was my introduction to the work of Gilbert & Sullivan. I had first learned about this film years ago from my grandfather, who had seen it at the Little Theater in Baltimore when he was about the same age that I was at the time. He had never forgotten the stunning Technicolor photography and mentioned wanting to see the film again. I managed to find a copy on VHS at the time, and it has since become a favorite of mine as well.

Victor Schertzinger, a songwriter and filmmaker whose other directing credits include the first two Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" pictures, does an admirable job in bringing the operetta to the screen. The film is photographed in Technicolor, imbuing the film with a gorgeous, pastel look. The casting of Kenny Baker, as Nanki-Poo, is a rather obvious concession to popular taste, but he acquits himself well in the role. The real stand-outs in the cast are the members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, especially Martyn Green as Ko-Ko and Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah.

Most of the classic Gilbert & Sullivan songs are present, although the film does omit a good deal of the score in order to maintain a manageable running time. Perhaps the most regrettable excision is Ko-Ko's comic song "As Someday It May Happen", which was shot but deleted from the film prior to its release (thankfully it is included as a supplemental feature on the recent Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection).

Schertzinger's film of THE MIKADO may not be great cinema, functioning instead as a kind of filmed theater.  But it is a valuable and vivid record of the incredible talent involved in the D'Oyly Carte company, capturing the performances of Martyn Green, Sydney Granville and others for posterity, and for that fact alone is a treasure. It also remains a fine and effective introduction to the work of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Filmmaker Interview: Charles Tashiro

About seven years ago, in the early days of online video, I had the pleasure of connecting with filmmaker Charles Tashiro. I became familiar with his work first through his YouTube channel, then through a series of podcasts he was recording at the time that examined both ideas about film production as well as critical theory. As a budding filmmaker myself, I was intrigued by Charles' films and his ideas about online video, which lead me to contact him through email.

Over the years I've greatly valued our ongoing correspondence about virtually all aspects of film, and was excited last year when he informed me that was embarking on making another costume drama, called Better than Wine (which is now available for viewing online at the link provided at the end of this interview). 

A graduate of the UCLA Film production and screenwriting program and USC's Critical Studies division, writer, director and multimedia artist Charles Tashiro has been making films since the 1970s. A former producer for the Criterion Collection, he has created several CD-ROMs and DVDs in addition to his film and video production. His work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, Szczecin, Poland, Mexico City, Macao and other venues.

In this interview, Charles discusses his recent film Better than Wine, costume dramas, Modernist approaches to filmmaking, and the unique qualities of Rochester as a place to make films:

Matt Barry: Describe the genesis of BETTER THAN WINE. How did this project come into being? (describe your experiences using Kickstarter, working in Rochester, etc.)

Charles Tashiro: I had wanted to make a costume film for some time both because it is effectively my m├ętier, and because I thought that Rochester was crying out to be used as the setting for such an effort. When I decided to proceed, I contacted Dave Barker and Bryan Maslin to get their feedback on the script, to pick their brains about potential locations, and to elicit their help in putting together the production. I can’t stress enough how helpful they were. We know each other from working together on projects for my job at the University of Rochester, and many of the crew members were people I already knew from those projects. I also got help from the Rochester Film Office, who put me in touch with Rick Staropoli, who in turn helped me connect with other actors. I had originally planned to shoot in June, but because of various scheduling conflicts, we weren’t able to shoot until August. When we finally did shoot, things went incredibly smoothly, probably the smoothest of any production on which I’ve ever worked. It’s really a testament to the level of commitment and professionalism of the Rochester film community that things went so smoothly.

Nonetheless, I had underestimated how much it would cost, so that when I had finished cutting the picture, I knew I would need more money to finish the project properly. So I started a Kickstarter campaign which was successful—in something like the last hour! That too was a measure of the local community’s commitment, because the pledge that put me over the goal was a substantial donation from someone who had already made a significant commitment.

MB: You’ve described your work as belonging to the High Modern tradition. Can you elaborate on how this applies to BETTER THAN WINE?

CT: Well of course, there are as many Modernisms as there are Modernists. I suspect, in fact, that many viewers seeing Better than Wine might be surprised to hear it described as “Modernist” because, to the extent the term means anything to most people, they probably associate it with abstraction, and BTW is obviously not abstract. Indeed, superficially, it may seem quite “classical” in style, which may explain why some viewers are baffled by it. It doesn’t even demonstrate my usual proclivity for non-linear, “baroque” structure.

The most obvious manifestations of the Modernist spirit in the film are the ambiguity of characterizations and the open ending. But the most deeply Modern characteristic is the examination of meaning itself. By that I am not referring to the characters, but to the use of filmmaking tools to explore thematic ambiguity and ambivalence. I don’t think it’s a distortion to say the real subject of BTW is the production of meaning. Many people have commented that they don’t “get” the movie, but by saying that, they show that they have gotten it. There is no such thing as fixed meaning, only art that pretends to provide it. BTW makes no such pretense. It is not a Rorschach test, there are limits on what it can be said to express. What it does do, however, is use the indeterminacy of all expression as a starting point, or better, as the central subject and method of the movie. BTW does not reject multivalence, it exploits it. In that sense, there is nothing to “get” beyond the viewer’s own response.

Alain Robbe-Grillet once said of Last Year at Marienbad, (a film that has probably influenced me more than any other) that it is about how it makes you feel, the ideas, emotions, perceptions, memories, desires that it arouses in the act of watching it. Inevitably that reaction will vary from one person to the next, from one screening to another. Similarly, there is no “correct” reading of BTW, there is only the response for each of us at a given place and time. The major difference between BTW and Robbe-Grillet’s approach is that I have used a fairly straight-forward narrative and situation, and I think that is what confuses people, because it looks as if there should be a simple conclusion to take away from it. Instead, BTW is a narrative film that accepts, takes for granted, even encourages the fact that each viewer will construct his or her own meaning from the material it provides. One of those pieces may be a simple, linear story, but it is no more important than anything else. That’s the essence of my feeling about narrative: I value the story, but no more than anything else.

MB: For someone who is unfamiliar with your previous work, can you talk a bit about your previous period films, and how they informed your approach to BETTER THAN WINE?

CT: I’ve been making costume films almost from the beginning, which is to say from the age of 13 or 14. Over time, I began to realize that they were central to my interests. They are also expensive, of course, and that is why I haven’t made as many of them as I would like. The two of my earlier films that are most relevant to BTW are The Off Season, which was produced when I was a student at UCLA and Naked Bastard, which is probably the most popular film I’ve made. It has certainly had more views online than any of my other films.

Ironically, though, it’s tough for me to detect any real pattern or similarity between the three of them, beyond the obvious point that they are all costume films set in roughly the same period. For example, both Off Season and BTW have very condensed, Pinteresque dialog, but Naked Bastard is more Wildean. NB and BTW are both to some degree about marriage, but The Off Season is about a romance, or rather, an almost romance. The exterior settings are extremely important to both Off Season and BTW, but barely exist in Naked Bastard. All three have distinctive visual styles, but then that’s as much a matter of generic convention as anything else and equally true of just about everything I do. While all three demonstrate an important relationship between architecture and the stories, that’s also probably true of just about all my mature work.

MB: Some viewers will no doubt compare BETTER THAN WINE to programs like DOWNTON ABBEY. Can you describe how your approach to the costume drama differs from what they might expect to see on Masterpiece Theatre?

CT: The British costume drama is, of course, a long and venerable tradition for which I have a great deal of respect. But I have to admit that in many ways, it leaves me cold. The reason is simple: on film, at least, it far too often becomes a matter of well honed dialog delivered by highly trained actors against archaeologically correct and over-decorated backgrounds, all of which adds up to a lot of stuff rather than a cinematically exciting, imaginative recreation of the past. The one major exception to this tendency is, ironically, the horror film, best exemplified by Hammer Studios at their best.

I have always been much more interested in and influenced by the Italian period film tradition, mainly because of their ability to combine equally sumptuous and accurate period design with imaginative filmmaking. Programs like Downton Abbey strike me as at best guided tours through a museum. The results are well mounted, but not what I am interested in producing. I mean, when you get down to it, just how important is it that every bit of china be absolutely period correct? And I’d argue that such a fussy concern with accuracy can get in the way of using materials expressively.

Maybe this is one characteristic shared by all of my “big” period films. In none of them am I especially worried about getting every detail “right.” Maybe this is a matter of making a virtue out of a necessity, but what matters to me is an essence of the period, one that plays off of a general, often vague and inaccurate vision of a particular era. BTW is probably the most period accurate of the three, and yet saying that just gives the lie to the whole proposition, because I never had any illusion of creating the dense period background of something like Abbey. Rather, the period stylization provided a sensuous backdrop to the formal experimentation that I was interested in performing.

MB: Explain a bit about your approach to directing actors.

CT: Actors have to externalize the emotions and thoughts that a novelist, say, can provide through simple narration. All other tasks are secondary, which is one reason why most film acting is conventional: it’s little more than behaving the way the actor would behave without a script or direction. There is no real character, just persuasive miming and emoting.

The problem with American acting at this point is that the Method has become so pervasive that people mistake it for the only kind of acting or worse, they mistake it for real behavior. Good Method acting can be miraculous, but it should never be used as a standard of verisimilitude against which other approaches are measured.

My work with actors centers on helping them find the core of the character they’re playing. I’m not indifferent to gesture, inflection, etc., but as much as possible I let the actors find that on their own. This is just a further expression of my belief in the “non-interpretative interpretation.” I have strong ideas of what each character is like and I share those with the actors. How they (literally) embody those qualities, however, I leave to them. I only intervene if I think something is downright wrong. It’s really the same approach I take with all of my collaborators.

MB: What filmmakers inspire you?

CT: Have a couple hours? ;-) Let’s see, in no particular order, Kubrick, Losey, Ophuls, Visconti, Mizoguchi, Resnais, Godard, Tarkovsky, Lubitsch, Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Roeg, Rossellini.… But it is misleading to restrict my inspirations to filmmakers, because I have been at least as influenced by writers—Pinter, Stoppard, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Chekhov, Henry James, Borges, Kafka, Robbe-Grillet of course—as by filmmakers. And visual artists too: Gros, David, Meissonnier, Manet, Degas, Mondrian, Klimt, Vermeer, Titian, Mies van der Rohe, Palladio, scores of others. And in music too, because music remains a structuring metaphor for much of my thinking about film: Richard Strauss, Schubert, Beethoven, above all Bach. But I could go on and on.

MB: Viewers might be surprised to know that BETTER THAN WINE was made entirely on location in Rochester, NY. Can you describe the locations you used and the qualities of Rochester as a place to make films? 

CT: Aside from the comments I’ve already made about the quality of the cast and crew, the one thing that Rochester and upstate New York have to offer is distinction. Every town has its own look and feel.

There are actually four locations in the film. Neither of the two houses that we see are contiguous with the picnic area or the interiors. The lunch scenes and Merit’s walk in the woods were shot at a Bed and Breakfast in a small town outside Rochester. The interiors were all shot in another B&B on Lake Ontario.

The locations provide perfect examples of the rich variety available in upstate New York. Upstate always lives in the shadow of the City, and people here tend to be a bit defensive about the differences. The reality is, however, that from a cinematic perspective, Upstate is a far more interesting place than the City. New York City can never be anything but itself, and that only in a contemporary setting. Worse, it cannot even be itself without huge expense and effort for film crews. It’s ironic that the “New York City exteriors” for the latest Spiderman film, for example, were shot in Rochester. As a film location, the City has become a Zero, whereas Upstate has hardly even been discovered.

Rochester and scores of other upstate cities can be themselves, they can stand in for other places. There’s an embarrassment of riches. And at a purely operational level, there’s simply no comparison between the level of cooperation you get here and the endless hassles shooting in a major metropolitan area involves. LA is just as bad as New York in this regard. The first question anyone asks is “How much will you pay me?” whereas in Rochester, they ask “How can I help?”

For more information on Better than Wine, visit the official website and "like" the Facebook page. You can read more of Charles' thoughts on film at his blog, What I Watched Last Night, and view his other films at vimeo.

Better than Wine from Charles Tashiro on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: Fritz Lang - The Nature of the Beast

Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
by Patrick McGilligan
University of Minnesota Press

Fritz Lang produced one of the most-studied and celebrated bodies of work of any filmmaker, and yet he remains a largely enigmatic figure. After a highly successful career as one of the leading directors in Germany during the silent era, Lang eventually emigrated to the United States, where he directed numerous films in Hollywood and became one of the most internationally-recognized filmmakers in the business. Yet his personal life has remained largely shrouded in the mythology, often spread by Lang himself, that built up over his long career.

Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (originally published by St. Martin's Griffin Press in 1997, and now available from the University of Minnesota Press) undertakes documenting Fritz Lang's life and work beyond the publicity and personal mythology. It is an exhaustively-researched, meticulously-detailed work. McGilligan gives us a comprehensive biography, covering each period of Lang’s life and work in extensive detail, and masterfully interweaving his research with quotes from those who knew and worked with Lang, to give us a stronger sense of how the filmmaker's life shaped his work.

Beginning with the director's early years in Vienna and Paris, McGilligan does an excellent job in shedding light on Lang’s formative experiences, including accounts of his military career as well as his training in the arts. Lang’s entry into motion pictures in Berlin, initially as a scenarist before turning to directing, is well-covered, with welcome descriptions of his earliest works that are now lost, and details about the two producers who did more than anyone else to facilitate Lang’s early film career – Erich Pommer and Joe May.

McGilligan spends a good deal of time in The Nature of the Beast exploring the mythology surrounding the director, particularly in two key incidents that have remained clouded by conflicting accounts of the events. The first involves the death of Lang's first wife Lisa Rosenthal, the cause of which was never fully determined. While it was ruled a suicide, following her discovery of Lang’s affair with screenwriter Thea von Harbou (whom Lang later married), there persisted suggestions that Lang had played a role in her death. Interrogated by the police on the night of Rosenthal's death, Lang and von Harbou insisted it had been a suicide. It is here that McGilligan makes some of his more controversial connections of this incident with Lang's filmography, citing the recurring suicides and slayings in the films - from Brunhild's suicide in Die Nibelungen all the way through the burlesque dancer's murder in his final American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - to suggest that, even though these kinds of plot devices had been present in Lang's work almost since the beginning, they took on a much greater deal of significance after the death of Lisa Rosenthal.

The second incident occurs in 1933. Lang claimed that he had been summoned by Joseph Goebbels for a meeting, in which Goebbels offered him a position as head of the German film industry. According to Lang's account, he quickly fled the country, although there are conflicting accounts of the story and doubts expressed over certain details by numerous sources. What is certain is that during this time his marriage to Thea von Harbou dissolved. With her allegiance to the Nazis, and Lang's own Jewish ancestry, the marriage came to an end in 1933 as Lang prepared to leave Germany.

These events lead in to Lang's departure from Germany, to his brief stay in Paris, and to his eventual arrival in Hollywood. McGilligan gives us a revealing portrait of Lang's struggle to fit in with the structured and producer-centered model of the Hollywood studio system. He developed several ideas for projects before directing his first American film, Fury, for MGM in 1936, and quickly ran in to opposition for some of his more controversial ideas for the script. Lang also struggled to fit in with the colony of other Jewish actors and artists who had fled Germany following the rise of Nazism. Lang's relative comfort stemming from his prestigious reputation in the German cinema, as well as rumors about the death of his first wife and conflicting stories of his meeting with Goebbels, did nothing to endear him to his fellow expatriates.

McGilligan covers Lang's years in Hollywood through accounts of his professional struggles within the studio hierarchy, and providing solid accounts of the often complex production histories of Lang's films from this period. He paints a portrait of a singular artist who never quite adapted to the studio system, as evidenced by the recollections of Lang's collaborators during this time. One of the critical moments in Lang's later career came during the height of the Blacklist in the early 1950s, when he was forced to distance himself from his left-leaning political positions in a similar way that he'd had to distance himself from his associations with Nazism after leaving Germany, another struggle against changing political tides.

Such incidents are consistent with McGilligan's portrait of Lang as an outsider, someone eternally in the process of adapting to his environment and re-writing his own personal history in order to do so. McGilligan's accounts of pivotal moments in Lang's life reflect the approach he has taken with his book, exploring the facts beyond the personal and professional stories that have built up over the years (and have taken on seemingly mythic proportions) to get at a better understanding of the man behind the mythology. Whether or not the reader agrees with the conclusions that McGilligan draws, the book is a meticulous work of research that does an admirable job in presenting the biography of its highly complex and often contradictory subject.