It's Soooo High School
And that's a compliment to Rian Johnson's teen detective noir
BY ROBERT WILONSKY
Dashiell Hammett goes to high school the perfect studio pitch. Yet after wowing 'em at the film fests, Rian Johnson's knockout debut as writer and director, Brick, languished in theaters and on DVD. It took a bunk, as Hammett mighta said, and wound up wearing a wooden kimono.
Johnson, who wrote Brick when he was twenty and shot it after he'd passed thirty, kind of expected that. He knew there were plenty of people who didn't dig his movie who said it was too arch, nothing but a smarty-pants put-on starring kiddies playing shamus-and-dames dress-up while spitting black-and-white dialogue out of their Technicolor yaps. He knew the risks of flashing SoCal sunshine on pitch-black noir. And he knew it wasn't going to be easy convincing an audience that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Humphrey Bogart a gumshoe in tennis shoes.
"Definitely people tend to go one way or the other with Brick," Johnson says now. "One of the things people are turned off by is the fact these are high schoolers acting like adults."
Ironic, because not only is Brick one of the year's best movies, it's also among the greatest high school movies ever made deserving of its place in the trophy case alongside the likes of Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, even Rebel Without a Cause. Yeah, yeah Johnson's got a gimmick. But barely concealed beneath the ironic quotation marks is your high school experience, complete with jocks, mathletes, stoners and loners, but this time starring Bogie and Bacall instead of lousy ol' you.
The story goes that Johnson wrote the film without any intention of setting it in a high school; it was straight-up noir, an homage to such Hammett novels as Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. He likes to say the decision to set his murder mystery, filled with archetypal loony goons, good-girls-in-dutch and scrawny bespectacled sidekicks, in a high school was random, almost an accident. But soon he would find that setting a film noir inside the hallways and lunchrooms and smoking porches of a high school his high school in San Clemente, as a matter of fact made perfect sense. Johnson knew the high school genre the "clique flick," as its been dubbed well. "John Hughes' movies were the touchstone of my adolescence," he says. Plus, where else but high school is every little experience given larger-than-life significance?
"Look at a movie like Heathers," says Johnson of Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters' 1989 film. "When I watched it when I was younger, even though there was all this ridiculous violence and the stakes were life or death, it made sense to me. It captured the way high school feels that intensity and that insane level of, 'If this friendship falls apart, my life does too.' In high school, the stakes aren't as 'serious' as they are in the adult world, but when you are a teenager and in that subjective reality you don't think of yourself as a kid or a high schooler. You're just a person in this world trying to survive in it."
Iraq's Cinema of Longing
A conversation with director James Longley
James Longley's Iraq in Fragments is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn't just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to the stories of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It's that he used this occasion to make an art film.
Iraq in Fragments has kept the Seattle-based Longley on airplanes and in hotels for much of the past year, and it's still making its way, accompanied by the filmmaker, around the U.S. and the world. In between flights, the 34-year-old director talked on the phone about his film.
Rob Nelson: You've said that the film was made to spur discussion and debate, that it's a political film only "under the surface." But was the style of the film your choice to make Iraq look immensely beautiful a political decision?
James Longley: Well, the fact is that Iraq is not an ugly country [laughs]. But of course there are a million ways to film any subject. On some level, the beauty of the film is a reflection of the reality that I found. A lot of Iraq is stunning in that sensual kind of way, with very lovely, earthy colors. I wanted the film to be experiential, for people to really be in this place when they're watching it. I don't want the viewer to be pushed out. I want them to be almost seduced by the visual world, to feel beckoned inside.
Most docs aspire to pure reportage rather than poeticism. Do you find that audiences are taken aback by the film, that they don't expect to see so much longing?
Well, that's funny, because I feel that the film is pure reportage [laughs]. If "pure" reportage conveys the essence of a place and a situation, then yes, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to make a film that has a lot of assumptions built into it. If you look at the reporting of Iraq on CNN or PBS or whatever, it comes with political assumptions. I don't blame them: In mainstream media, there's almost no way to escape that kind of issue-driven, news- and event-driven work. For me, the work is a way to play a game with myself as a filmmaker. I'm almost trying to escape my own politics.
When you were shooting the film unembedded, under extremely harrowing conditions, did you think a lot about the politics of embedded journalism?
I can't blame any journalist or filmmaker who chooses to be embedded with the U.S. military. I don't think that side of the story is illegitimate; I just knew that it was already being covered.
Has it been possible for you to stay in touch with the people you filmed?
One translator I worked with has been seeing the family I filmed, the one with the brick farm, and he says they're all the same, doing well. But Sheik Aws al Kafaji, the Shiite cleric from the film, is apparently in prison. He was arrested by the Americans. I don't know exactly why; I'd love to find out more about that, but it's kind of tricky. He was arrested and tortured under Saddam, so it's kind of ironic now that he would be arrested by the Americans. I imagine him taking a very ironic, darkly humorous perspective on that. I hope he makes it through.
I wrote from Sundance that your film is without precedent in the history of documentary. Would any of your influences encourage you to disagree?
I have a lot of heroes in documentary filmmaking. But my style probably comes more from the fiction films that I've seen and liked in my life. I'm working within the documentary form, but most of the people who have really pushed the aesthetics of film have worked in fiction. I don't see the two forms as being mutually exclusive.
Certainly fiction has incorporated elements of documentary.
Longley: And vice versa. The documentaries I like most are quite old: Berlin, Symphony of a City or Man with a Movie Camera. Those films are from before the age of television, before documentary was corrupted by talking heads, before this marriage of newsprint and radio media with the moving picture. Watching Berlin, you get a better sense of pre-war Berlin than you would get from any history book. And that's an inspiration to me. You're taking the audience and saying: Experience this thing this multidimensional, extremely complicated, million-legged beast through the medium of cinema.
Hall of Famer
Legend, yes. But Clint Eastwood's not done yet.
BY SCOTT FOUNDAS
On an early December afternoon at the offices of Malpaso Productions, Clint Eastwood's four Academy Awards have been placed into thick velvet carrying bags, while that famous poncho the one Eastwood donned for the entirety of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy is being carefully loaded into a large shipping box. But that doesn't mean that Eastwood himself is packing it in. The memorabilia in question is merely being loaned out to the California Museum in Sacramento, where Eastwood has just been inducted into the California Hall of Fame (part of an inaugural class that includes Cesar Chavez, John Muir and Ronald Reagan). "Will I ride off into the sunset? Maybe. Will I be dragged off kicking and screaming? Probably," he told me back in 2004 when I came here to interview him just prior to the release of Million Dollar Baby. And in the full spirit of those words, he's spent much of the intervening two years devoted to the biggest, most ambitious project of his six-decade career.
That project was to have been a single film, Flags of Our Fathers, about the American soldiers who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima one of the bloodiest in all of World War II and how they later became unwitting cogs in the war effort's well-oiled propaganda machine. Then, during pre-production, Eastwood had a thought: What about the Japanese troops who fought so bravely to defend those eight square miles of volcanic terrain, 20,000 of whom died in the process? And the more Eastwood thought about that, the more he couldn't stop thinking about it, until he found himself at the helm of a second Iwo Jima movie, this time told from the other side of the front lines, filmed with an all-Japanese cast and all-Japanese dialogue. Now, with Letters from Iwo Jima opening wide, Eastwood once again sits on a dark-horse Oscar contender that it's hard to imagine any other American filmmaker (save perhaps Steven Spielberg, who served as Eastwood's producer on the movie) managing to get made.
"I just thought it would be good to tell the whole story," says Eastwood with his trademark nonchalance, adding that he was particularly drawn to the figure of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played in Letters by Ken Watanabe), the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima who, prior to the war, traveled extensively throughout the Americas, logging time as a military attaché in Washington and as a student at Harvard. Kuribayashi's lyrical dispatches back to his wife, daughter and son, published in the book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, provided the connective tissue for the Letters screenplay (by first-time Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita). "The book doesn't say very much it's just his letters home and these little sketches he made of himself and the people he saw," Eastwood says. "But you can see that he was a very concerned father, worried about his kids, their academics, their spelling, telling them he's going to fix certain things when he gets home, that he can't wait to see them, that he wishes he was there. All the things that a normal husband and father would do, anywhere in the world."
That humanizing view of "the enemy" is central to Letters, which, like Flags, unfolds from the perspective of the low-ranking conscripts who Eastwood calls "young men asked to live a very short lifetime." As the war in Iraq nears the start of its fifth year amidst talk of a renewed military draft, Eastwood, who tends to be terse with regard to his films' thematic implications, says the contemporary parallels aren't lost on him. But with their reciprocal depictions of wartime rhetoric and thoughtless atrocities committed against POWs, Flags and Letters seem less an anti-war diptych than a troubled inquiry into the moral relativism of the battlefield. As handily as Unforgiven muddied (literally and figuratively) the mythology of the classical western, Eastwood's latest films shatter the clear-cut notions of heroism and villainy ingrained in almost every Hollywood WWII movie, up through and including Saving Private Ryan.
"At some point, you have to get real about things," Eastwood says. "That may not be appealing to audiences who want a kind of escapism, but these pictures aren't necessarily for the escapist." He's right: The audience did not embrace Flags, which has performed well below Eastwood's usually robust business since its release in mid-October. Eastwood admits he's disappointed, but says he doesn't have anything left to prove to anyone, save for himself. "All you can say in the end is, 'Do I like it?' Yes. It's what I intended to do, and because of that, I'm happy."
Indeed, Eastwood seems content, and with no new projects in development, he says he's only interested in making films that ignite his passions as fully as the Iwo Jima saga. "When you're younger and things first start happening to you for me it was the 1960s you say yes to a lot of things. Your agent says, 'Do this, play in this picture because you're in it with Richard Burton.' Then someone asks Richard, 'Why are you in the picture?' And he says, 'Well, because I'm in it with Clint.' But why are we here? I did a lot of pictures like that you could go through a whole list of them. People lean on you, and like all actors, you think every job's going to be your last job. At that age, you don't wait for the perfect thing that may or may not come along in ten years. But now, if this is the last picture I do, that's fine."
Made when he was a stripling of 24, Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman's first feature, A Chrysanthemum Burst in Cincoesquinas, was a violent story of love and revenge. He must have gotten that out of his system: Though Burman's subsequent movies also traffic in what he calls "the great transitions of life" identity, marriage, parenthood and death, not necessarily in that order they embrace an ambivalent but warm view of domesticity that has made Burman, now 33, a film-festival favorite.
Burman's self-deprecating Jewish humor has also invited inevitable comparisons with Woody Allen. "It's not a measurable comparison," said Burman during a recent trip to LA for the AFI Fest screenings of his wonderful film, Family Law. "But I'm very happy with it. I admire him more than anyone else in the world."
Burman's modesty becomes him, but the analogy only goes so far. Certainly, his work bears some resemblance to early Woody Allen, before Allen's work took a turn for the rancid, lewd and bitter. Burman's three most recent films feature neurotic Jewish men (all played with minimalist delicacy by the seraphic young Uruguayan actor Daniel Hendler) suffering crises both Oedipal and existential. But where Allen's movies are fueled by an unprocessed hostility and, at their lowest ebb, contempt for his Jewishness and his family, Burman's tone is wry, loving and tender even when, as often happens, things fall apart. I suspect that worn-out term "dysfunction" would make him shudder.
Waiting for the Messiah (2000), about a young man caught between love of his family and the need to separate, and Lost Embrace (2004), in which a similar young man struggles to sort out his relationship with an absent father, are both set in Burman's beloved Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, where he grew up and about which he made a documentary, Seven Days in Once. Family Law extends Burman's meditation on the tug between belonging and self-definition that challenges even the most loving father-son relationships. In this case, the son is a university lecturer and new parent accustomed to keeping the world at bay through compulsive routine, while his father is a public defender deeply engaged with his mostly poor clients. Burman's own father was a lawyer, and he himself went to law school. But though there are bits of Burman's life in all his work (Family Law grew out of his experience of becoming a father twice in the last four years), the autobiography in his movies is always internal, which is to say an expression of his responses to the changes in his life.
Listening to Burman a fast, funny and hyperarticulate talker even when mediated by an interpreter deconstruct his movies is almost as much fun as watching them. He uses the word "dialectic" a lot, not in the Marxist sense but to describe the friction between thought, feeling, word and deed when his characters are hit by life's big changes. "There's a moment in life when one decides whether one's going to turn into one's father or the opposite," says Burman. "It's difficult to be in the middle." I ask Burman which one he is, and he lobs me another dialectic. "I'm the opposite of my father," he says. "Until now."
Late in Family Law, a tragedy catches the son, Perelman Jr., by surprise, but the trauma is handled so matter-of-factly, and so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of his life, that we only register Perelman's grief as he registers it himself: while eating breakfast, caring for his toddler (played by Burman's son, Gaston) and trying vainly to avoid full participation in the inescapable materiality of family life. Burman's movies are so richly steeped in the warp and woof of domesticity, they might have been made by a woman, but their point of view is ineluctably male.
Burman is happily married, and the male-female relationships in his movies are confused but loving, though his women are almost invariably listeners and helpmeets, for which Burman often catches flack. "The other day at a screening in Boston a woman asked me angrily, 'What's wrong with the women in this movie?' Nobody asks Jane Campion what's wrong with the men in her movies," he says with some exasperation. "There's nothing wrong with them. I just don't care what happens to them, they're fine. The women have some worth, but they don't have a discursive presence. Men have to talk a lot to say a few things."
Burman's next movie will be about the empty nest, which seems a touch premature for the father of two children ages four and three. "I see the joy in my kids, and they enjoy me," he says. "I'm angry at the idea that they are going to abandon me someday." Maybe the comparison to Woody Allen, king of worriers, isn't so off-base.
Taking the Long View
Children of Men and the value of an unedited shot
BY JIM RIDLEY
A car speeds down a forest road, only to be surrounded in an instant by armed crazies who materialize from the nearby woods. In the visual grammar of big-budget action films, the sequence that ensues should be a scattergun barrage of images: Wheels! Guns! Blood! Shriek! Fireball! Crash! Add a soundtrack that amounts to a Dolby clubbing, and this visual shrapnel will come to resemble the excitement the audience doesn't feel.
Something different happens, though, when the scene plays out in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's film version of the P.D. James novel about a near future when infertility has tripped the doomsday clock on man's extinction. The attack is seen entirely from within the besieged car, and its horrific aftermath is captured in a single brilliant take that shifts with fluid urgency among the terrified passengers. The sequence builds from quiet to chaos without even an eyeblink of a cut to break the flow action cinema as on-the-spot reporting.
This is filmmaking of swaggering virtuosity, and the long-take bravado Cuarón displays throughout Children of Men easily the most physically persuasive vision of the future since the rain-soaked noirscape of Blade Runner has already antagonized some of the visually impaired critics who dismiss Brian De Palma with depressing predictability. But Cuarón believes that audiences so often mugged by montage will respond to the seeming simplicity, and realism, of a moment captured in a single unbroken shot.
"Subconsciously, I think something is telling them there is not the safety net of editing that you're not hiding behind tricks," said Cuarón, who previously used lengthy takes to anchor Y Tu Mamá También in the class strife and political turmoil of his native Mexico. "With editing, you manipulate time. Here, you have just the constant flow of a moment. I believe heartbeats get connected in that moment."
The movie year 2006 bears the director out. Whether as a reaction to the count-one-and-cut school of editing or the everything-can-be-faked hyperbole of digital imagery or just happy coincidence many of the year's most indelible moments on film come from shots that allow motion and emotion alike to unfold in real time. They can be as intimate as Will Oldham tending to faded friend Daniel London in Kelly Reichardt's elegiac Old Joy; as elaborate as the crane shot that catches a glimpse of Hollywood horror beyond a boilerplate shootout in De Palma's underrated The Black Dahlia; or as exuberant as bad-ass Tony Jaa pulverizing an endless string of human obstacles up the ascending levels of a Guggenheim-like restaurant in the Thai import The Protector. They can be portraiture like the still-lifes of Lisbon tenement dwellers in Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth or death-bed studies like the pitiless last shot of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which reduces the expiring title character (spoiler!) to a heap of life's laundry. Each catches a moment in a butterfly net, and manages to pin that moment without killing it.
The astonishing single takes in Children of Men particularly one sustained shot that follows Clive Owen's cynic-turned-savior high and low through the rubble of an urban war zone seem likely to tickle movie geeks' taste buds. But they never become, in the cautionary words of Cuarón's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, "an Olympics of long takes." In blocks of real time, they convey, as movies rarely do, the sense of existing in a nightmare that can't be blinked away.
"I think audiences are getting tired of all those zillion-billion cuts," said Cuarón, a giddy cinephile who traces his fascination with elaborate camerawork from Hitchcock's Frenzy through the films of Tarkovsky and Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó. "It's the easiest thing you can do as a director: get a lot of cameras, shoot a lot of set-ups, and then hand the whole thing to your editor. But I think that slowly more interesting ways of doing cinema are getting into the mainstream. Or that's my hope, at least."
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