Saturday, April 27, 2013

Michael Bay Retrospective

What can be said about Michael Bay? According to a number of film critics and fans, he is everything that’s wrong with cinema today. According to box office numbers and general audiences, he’s one of the most dependable filmmakers to turn to for old fashioned popcorn movie escapism. I’ve always sided with the former, but it’s hard to deny the amount of influence Bay has had over mainstream cinema. With the release of his tenth film, Pain & Gain, it’s time to take a look at Bay’s primary influences, what makes him unique as an artist, and why it’s still OK to hate his work anyway.


Bay first made a splash as a music video director, and it’s still easy to be impressed by his videos for Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love” or the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” even as they share many of the same characteristics that make his films unbearable. Bay’s approach of sensation over everything jives well with MTV-appropriate videos because A. they’re in 3-4 minute increments, and B. he doesn’t have to have his often gorgeous shots cohere to form a story. Bay was recruited from his successful days as a music video/commercial director by Jerry Bruckheimer, and it’s easy to see why: he is the logical successor to Bruckheimer’s previous prize horse, the late Tony Scott.

Like Bay, Scott specialized in super-slick, often beautiful compositions mixed with rapid-fire editing and action. Defenders of both directors could contend that the two are impressionists working within the action genre, men who blended images together to create sensory experiences in their car chases and shootouts rather than reality-based scenes that one could follow. I’d refute that argument with a brusque “there’s no tension to an action scene if I can’t tell what’s going on”, but it nonetheless shows a certain amount of craft even if one finds it counterintuitive to what makes an action scene great. Bay also follows Scott’s interest in hyper-masculinity. One can easily see the seeds for the Bad Boys movies in Beverly Hills Cop II and The Last Boy Scout, or for Pearl Harbor in Top Gun. Bay just happens to take Scott’s excessive style to an even more in-your-face extreme (until one takes late-period, particularly loony Scott films like Man on Fire and Domino into account).

Bay is also highly influenced by three great Hollywood action directors that came before him: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron. Bay paid his most noticeable tribute to Spielberg with the Dreamworks-produced Transformers movies, in which the younger director at least tries to capture Spielberg’s suburban wonderment and sense of awe. Bay was also no doubt influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, in terms of both style and a decision to mess with color saturation for certain scenes, when he made Pearl Harbor, even if his proudly jingoistic and pro-military film can’t capture the nuance of Spielberg’s films.

One can just as easily trace Bay’s interest (not to mention countless others’) in gargantuan-sized blockbusters from early viewings of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Sure, Lucas has a much, much better sense of cinematic rhythm than Bay (at least in his early works), but Bay undoubtedly borrows much from Lucas’ interest in large scale spectacle, not to mention the director’s sense of maximum kineticism, his fascination with sleek, shiny machines, and his wonderful gifts for composition. Bay also takes two notable thematic flourishes from Lucas: his frequent use of a storyline about a protagonist wanting to do something truly great (see The Rock, Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), taken from Star Wars and American Graffiti; and his unfortunate tendency to rely on racial (and, in Bay’s case, sexual) stereotypes for humor. In regards to the latter tendency, Lucas’ humor seems borne out of a certain amount of obliviousness, where Bay’s is more unapologetically in-your-face. If you have a problem with it, it’s your own damn fault.

Bay’s link to James Cameron comes for a shared interest in eye-popping stunts and spectacle combined with an unabashed love for macho, often blue collar heroes. Armageddon’s “oil workers save the world” plotline is like a dumbed down, overcranked version of Cameron’s The Abyss without the social agenda. Bay’s first bid for artistic credibility, Pearl Harbor, follows Cameron’s template for Titanic, i.e., take a real life tragedy and throw in a love story to give it some sense of structure, though Cameron was obviously more successful in this regard. Cameron and Bay share a distaste for certain authority figures, and while Bay’s is more adolescent and nihilistic than thoughtful (not to mention less critical of military matters), Cameron has seen enough of a kindred spirit in his fellow orchestrator of explosions to say that he’s studied Bay’s films and “reverse engineered” them. Now if only Bay could reverse engineer Cameron’s sense of structure and learn something from it.

Bay is, at the end of the day, a pop culture junkie with a great eye and an exasperating love for excess. Bad Boys is every buddy-cop movie ever, but with every element (the cigar-chomping, short-tempered chief; the mismatched sloppy/neat cops; the ridiculous villains; the huge car chases) filtered through his more-is-more aesthetic. The Rock and Armageddon take a number of images and references to cinematic masterpieces (from Pulp Fiction to Dr. Strangelove) and turns them into something for the lowest common denominator, all while taking Roland Emmerich’s disaster-movie obsession and somehow make it even more bombastic. Transformers is a talented, crass craftsman getting a chance to play with the world’s biggest train-set and showing just how well he can make things go boom, story be damned. He’s the American who looked at John Woo and decided that the crazy bastard wasn’t going far enough.

STYLE: Why it’s distinctive, and why it’s still OK to hate it

Many have called Bay one of the worst directors in the world. I wouldn’t be inclined to argue against that term so much as adjust it- he is one of the worst visionary directors in the world. The man has extraordinary talent in a way that the Brett Ratners, Roland Emmerichs, and Joel Schumachers of the world don’t. He is one of the few directors dealing with large-scale spectacle in a way that’s consistently successful with audiences. He has recognizable characters, themes, and stylistic flourishes. Most importantly, Bay has great eye for composition. If one pauses his films at any moment, they’ll end up on a beautiful image. Look at the offices in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the ecstasy-driven club in Bad Boys II, or any scene in space in Armageddon. All of these films look gorgeous on pause. The problem is what happens when one hits the play button and those images are blended together with his needlessly frenetic editing style.

It’s not a new criticism. While Bay’s action scenes are undoubtedly the main drawing point to his films, they’re still over-edited to the point where it’s hard to tell what’s going on, much less to care. Certain bits might be clear (the building just blew up, and now the one robot is beating up the other one), but how those moments connect couldn’t be less clear. Bay isn’t stupid- he’s getting the effect he wants, and that effect is mass chaos, carnage, and destruction. It’s less a case of incompetence and more a case of someone who’s more interested in effect than storytelling, which is a problem considering that filming action scenes is as much about storytelling as anything else.

Where someone like James Cameron makes very clear objectives in his action scenes (Sarah and Reese have to escape the police station to get away from the Terminator), Bay’s action scenes rarely have clear endpoints. Even in something as simple as a chase, Bay makes it difficult by never giving a clear idea as to the spatial relationships of the participants. Good luck telling just how close Nicolas Cage is to capturing Sean Connery in the car chase from The Rock, and that’s perhaps Bay’s best movie. Film theorist Bela Belazs felt that one could use bizarre angles so long as they had a purpose and the audience could still orient themselves. That’s my take on Bay’s use of editing: rather than going the Paul Greengrass route where there’s usually an objective shot that clarifies what’s happening beyond the chaos, Bay’s work is little more than chaos incarnate, storytelling be damned.

Storytelling tends to be a major problem with Bay’s film in general. Ignoring blatant logic problems in Armageddon (you can’t train drillers to be astronauts), Transformers (wouldn’t it be more effective for the Decepticons to just bring an onslaught on most of the world rather than wait and hide?), and Bad Boys (Martin Lawrence has to pretend to be Will Smith because…?), Bay’s patently stupid plots could easily be ignored if he would just blaze ahead with them and tell them concisely. No dice: Armageddon, Bad Boys II, and the Transformers movies are needlessly bloated to 2 ½ hours each, with Bay too focused on making everything awesome to establish a cinematic rhythm.

 Macguffins or objectives aren’t introduced until two-thirds of the way into the movie (Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). Comedy scenes and action scenes go on too long with no real purpose (any film, but the car chases and “Martin Lawrence does schtick” bits in Bad Boys II are particularly egregious). Many of those scenes are thrown into the movie with no rhyme or reason except, well, he wants to do a comedy or action scene now (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is chock full of these). Bay is particularly bad at maintaining a consistent tone, as he’ll blend ostensibly serious sequences with terrible comic relief or underscore an apocalyptic sequence with a slightly downbeat pop song.

Still, his movies look great, right? Right, but how he makes things look great is still often disconcerting. His films all have an impressive, constantly moving camera, a sleek orange and teal hue that sexualizes every image, and a tendency to try to make every image larger-than-life and in-your-face, particularly in the case of the notoriously excessive Bad Boys II. But one can’t maintain that without A. undercutting the effect by giving everything the same tone and feel, and B. making one wonder exactly what one is being asked to salivate over. Bay’s love for near-mythic hyper-masculine subjects (tough dudes, explosions, big ass cars) and sexy girls in skimpy clothing goes beyond the “all in good fun” argument when it’s presented with such bombast and sledgehammer style. With almost every Bay film, there’s a moment where his audacity overcomes the questionable material- the long tracking shot through a stripper-filled club in Bad Boys II, the explosion-fest of the rocket liftoff in Armageddon, Nicolas Cage’s final fight in The Rock- but it’s mostly exhausting and irritating.

Pearl Harbor, Bay’s worst film, is particularly troubling in what it fetishizes. The whole film has a corny postcard feeling to it that Bay uses as a way to sell the romance angle, but he doesn’t drop that look for the actual bombing sequence. The film still looks downright pretty as soldiers fall into the water, drown, and get torn apart. Bay tries to play with color saturation in the hospital sequence, where Kate Beckinsale and other nurses try to save soldiers’ lives, but it backfires, feeling both A. unearned by a stupid movie, and B. still too much like a soft focus action sequence. Bay makes action porn, all explosive money shots and excess. That aesthetic, while irritating, is perfectly harmless when he’s fetishizing carnage in Transformers. It’s downright reprehensible when he’s luxuriating in the carnage of a national tragedy.

And then there’s the unrepentant sexism, racism, and overall crassness of Bay’s films. Anyone who’s ever seen a Michael Bay film could cite an example of Bay’s questionable sense of humor or view of women. Black people are hilarious, sassy, and jive-talking (Armageddon, Bad Boys II, the buck-toothed twins in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)! Gays and Europeans are silly and weird (The Rock, Armageddon, Transformers: Dark of the Moon)! Gay panic is funny (Bad Boys, Bad Boys II)! Women are either skanks (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bad Boys) or sexpots meant to be idolized from afar or chastely romanced up close (Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor)! Threatening to rape/attack a 15-year-old kid is hilarious (the single ugliest scene in Bad Boys II)! Bay has an unrepentantly crass and vulgar sense of humor, but one should take the same measured tone here as when one looks at his approach to action. He has an unabashed love for stupid, hateful things, but he’s skilled enough that branding him as stupid is too reductive.

THEME: What’s this Alpha Male jackass getting at, anyway?

There are plenty of recurring tropes in Michael Bay films, though some feel incidental rather than central. The peripheral love stories in Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys II, and the Transformers movies show Bay’s interest in sex on film as purely adolescent. He’s more interested in leering than actual follow-through, which is usually used as either A. an aside, or B. something that feels like it’s there to appeal to another demographic. It’s rather telling that Bay hasn’t had much in the way of high-profile relationships the way many of his contemporaries have. The dude just isn’t interested in that mushy shit.

The real attraction to Bay’s films? Masculinity, in whatever form it should take. Bay is the ultimate modern Alpha Male, one interested in dudes with guns doing awesome things rather than character relationships. Many of Bay’s films have dual male leads- Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in the Bad Boys movies, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon, and Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor. These films are often focused on the bond between these men, but the actual details of how they feel about each other are glossed over as they bond over a shared love for action. Smith and Lawrence quarrel in the Bad Boys movies, but it’s all solved when they can get together and shoot the bad guys. Connery and Cage are at odds in much of The Rock, but if they band together against the bad guys, all problems can be solved. Willis and Affleck’s father/son relationship is strained until they have to band together to save the world from an asteroid in Armageddon. Affleck and Hartnett hate each other for a brief period in Pearl Harbor, but it’s solved as soon as they have a shared target in the Japanese air force. In Bay’s world, solutions come from violence and testosterone.

As a man who loves masculinity, Bay idealizes the working class. Lawrence’s character in Bad Boys is supposedly from a working class background, even though he rarely has to deal with working class problems. Smith’s character, on the other hand, is a trust-fund baby who has to repudiate his privileged background and reach for something more real- a job in the police force. The Transformers movies give Shia LaBoeuf’s Sam a supposedly lower-middle class background while still giving his family a nice house and Sam plenty of nice things. Armageddon makes the heroes blue collar oil workers rather than the brainy astronauts. One could easily find Bay’s view of the working class condescending or ignorant of the truth, but it’s more an romanticized view of the working class where they’re both down-to-earth and without the serious problems that they’d have in real life. Sometimes they might have to sacrifice themselves (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), but more often that sacrifice turns out to be a test before they save the day (Transformers trilogy, The Rock). Bay would have a world where the working class can solve anything, and that might be one of the reasons his films have caught on with a mass audience.

Similarly, Bay idealizes the military. The heroes of The Rock are capable men of violence with codes of honor, and Ed Harris’ military-based villain is a good man who’s been pushed too far. The men of Pearl Harbor are unambiguous heroes. The gung-ho military men of the Transformers films, while comically underdeveloped, are present at the end of every movie, having played a major role in the final battle. Bay’s view of the military is oversimplified to the point of being insulting, but like his idealization of the working class, it’s also highly effective in appealing to mass audiences.

At the same time, Bay has a huge problem with authority. Where the villains are usually typical movie bad guys (gangsters, evil forces, enemy militaries), authority figures are usually incompetent, untrustworthy, or ineffectual. That’s not uncommon among great blockbuster filmmakers (one can find this within the works of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron), but Bay’s view is too broad and adolescent to be satirical. Really, it’s just a matter of authority figures being dumb. The government agents of The Rock and Armageddon make situations worse and often risk the heroes’ lives. Joe Pantoliano’s police chief in Bad Boys is a shouting buffoon who can’t do what the heroes do. The ineffectual liberal presidential advisor of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had many mark Bay as a conservative filmmaker, but he doesn’t have a very positive view of the government of the Bush-era Transformers, which blatantly disregards the rights of Shia LaBoeuf’s hero. He’s not a political filmmaker. He’s more of a nihilistic anti-authoritarian.

At the end of the day, Bay isn’t interested in boundaries of any kind. One recurring theme is indicative of who he is as an artist: the ineffectual hero forced to take action. Bay’s former Wesleyan professor Jeanine Basinger described him as a quiet, polite, talented student whose brash films showed his bad boy personality. Bay has since transitioned to being an overtly confrontational filmmaker on and off set, known for yelling at his crews to get exactly what he wants. One can see signs of Bay in LaBoeuf’s protagonist of the Transformers trilogy, a meek, constantly stuttering boy who finally becomes more active and heroic as the series goes on. Then there’s The Rock, in which Nicolas Cage’s gee-whiz goofball becomes an ass-kicking hero by the end, going from making nonsense pronouncements of “Zeus’ butthole!” to actually swearing by the end. Gaining that sense of masculinity is all-important to Bay. It might be sickening on an ideological level to most critical viewers, but one shouldn’t mistake him for a charlatan pandering to man’s worst instincts. Whether one finds his sincerity exhilarating or infuriating, he means every bit of it.
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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Beyond the Hills

Grade: 83/A-

Fans of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu have waited five long years for the return of one of Europe’s most talented filmmakers, but they have not waited in vain. Mungiu’s Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, about two women seeking a black market abortion in communist Romania, was an almost unbearably intense realist masterpiece. Now, Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills takes another look at turmoil in a repressive environment in what’s an early contender for being one of the year’s best films.

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a young woman who has recently taken vows as a nun in an Orthodox convent in Romania. Alina (Cristina Flutur), an old friend from the orphanage she grew up in, has just arrived from Germany. The two young women had a relationship in the past which Alina would like to restart, but Voichita remains faithful to her vows. Depressed, Alina’s behavior grows more and more erratic. Gradually, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and nuns come to the conclusion that Alina has been possessed by a demon, and that they must perform an exorcism, but their actions will take a terrible toll on Alina’s mental and physical health.

As with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Mungiu proves himself to be a master of stillness. Every long dinner-table scene in masterful in its framing, contrasting the religious group’s piousness, Alina’s mixture of bile and sorrow, and Voichita’s confliction. Mungiu is particularly gifted when showcasing moments of unpredictable, jarring movement within the stillness, as with a scene of fish being dumped into a sink; Alina confronting the priest about the legend of a mystical idol in his altar; and any scene where Alina has to be held or tied down, often writhing against bodies with unbelievable fury. It doesn’t hurt that Mungiu has again found two wonderful amateur actresses in the soulful, calm Stratan and the volatile Flutur.

As with his earlier film, Mungiu is getting at the truth of repression’s effect on humanity. True, Alina’s behavior often endangers either others or herself, but much of that comes from the dominating presence of the priest (well played by Andriuta), a creepy patriarchal figure referred to by the nuns as “daddy” who determines what is proper or improper for women. That soul-eroding effect extends to Voichita, whose implied feelings of self-loathing for her homosexuality is borne of the oppressive nature of the fanatical religious. When Alina’s mental and emotional health plummets, it is the group’s ignorance and superstition that ultimately leads to tragedy, not the presence of a supernatural force.

Even so, there’s a certain amount of balance here, as the secular forces who later condemn the religious are even less inclined to help Alina. Beyond the Hills is sometimes a trying film, long (145 mins), furious, and designed to make viewers with even a modicum of impatience to scream out “just hurry up, already!”. But it’s also a deeply moving film, one about people torn between the hopes of their faith and the harsh realities of the secular world, all bound to lose their innocence.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.17: Elia Kazan's The Arrangement/The Visitors/The Last Tycoon

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

The 1960s and 1970s saw most of the masters of Old Hollywood failing to adjust to changing times. Frank Capra and Howard Hawks retired from directing. Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder made an equal number of interesting late-period works and embarrassing failures. There were certain exceptions (John Huston being a notable example), but by and large, their time had passed. Elia Kazan seemed like someone who might make a smoother transition to the New Hollywood era than most of his peers, given his progressive nature and influence over a generation of Method actors about to conquer the world. Yet Kazan’s last three films show an important artist floundering trying to adapt to modern filmmaking styles, like someone who might have something to say but can’t quite find how to articulate it.

The Arrangement Grade: 7/D-

Kazan’s problems started with 1969’s The Arrangement. Following the release of America America, Kazan took a six-year break before adapting his novel of the same name. It was a mistake. Where the novel found some favorable reviews, the film version of The Arrangement was wildly derided upon its release and helped effectively end his directing career in Hollywood. The film is no doubt a personal statement, but it’s also glib and wildly pretentious, mimicking new film styles without understanding them.

Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising man in the middle of an existential crisis. His relationship with his mistress (Faye Dunaway) has broken down because he refuses to leave his wife (Deborah Kerr), with whom he’s completely miserable. After a failed suicide attempt, Eddie’s life starts to take a downward spiral while he goes through a period of self-examination. He also restarts his relationship with his mistress while visiting his dying father (Richard Boone).

There’s a lot of potent material to be mined here- satire of the advertising age and consumerism,  a look at the breakdown of the family- but Kazan botches it badly. Most of the material dealing with Eddie’s cigarette ad-man advertisements are slick and shallow, and they can’t find anything interesting to say about selling out that hasn’t been said in any number of media satires before it, Kazan’s own A Face in the Crowd included. Where the earlier film was sharp and precise, The Arrangement is blunt and leaden. What’s worse, the psychodrama material is largely made up of overwrought shouting matches between Douglas, Kerr, and other family members, with characters openly trying to work out their hang-ups in a style that grows increasingly tedious. Kazan complained that he couldn’t get Marlon Brando to agree to the lead role and that Douglas was miscast as the introspective Eddie. Douglas is indeed overheated, but it’s doubtful that anyone could make much from this material. Only Dunaway comes close to having a genuine emotional moment. 

The film’s form matches its risible content and tone. Where Kazan’s past works had shown a masterful mix of noir-like expressionism and American realism, The Arrangement shows Kazan throwing in European and New Hollywood flourishes without much skill for them. The film gets off to a bad start with an early morning routine showcasing the distance and banality of Douglas and Kerr’s married life- they’re far apart at all times, but they do the same thing. It comes off as a pretentious sub-Antonioni affectation more than a profound statement on married life. A number of the early scenes intercutting Douglas’ troubled married life with moments of him fooling around with Dunaway on the beach play like attempts to capture Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard at their most playful (not to mention John Boorman’s unconventional editing techniques on Point Blank), but after half an hour of this it starts to reek of desperation. It’s admirable that Kazan tried new things when New Hollywood started, but his first attempt ended up being his very worst film.
The Visitors Grade: 32/C-

The Arrangement flopped so badly that Kazan had to self-finance his next film, the equally personal The Visitors. Again, it’s admirable that Kazan wanted to try something new, and in theory, this $160,000 thriller could have been a bold step in a new direction for the filmmaker. It was not to be. The Visitors wasn’t as embarrassing as The Arrangement- Kazan toned down his European art cinema pretensions- but it still stands out as a particularly weak entry into his filmography.

Bill Schmidt (an alarmingly young James Woods) is a Vietnam War veteran living with his longtime girlfriend Martha (Patricia Joyce), their infant son Hal, and Martha’s reactionary father Harry (Patrick McVey). When two of Bill’s army buddies (Steve Railsback and Chico Martinez) show up without notice in the winter, Bill reacts strangely but doesn’t tip off Martha what’s wrong. It turns out that these are two of the soldiers Bill had court-martialed for murder and rape. The soldiers bond with Harry as they start to intimidate Bill and Martha.

To Kazan’s credit, he starts the film off well with a stark, minimalistic feeling that’s aided by the 16mm film stock. Kazan also stages his actors well to capture a quiet, low-key menace that promises a slow build to something disturbing and unexpected. Woods is particularly strong in these early scenes as a man trying hard not to reveal his own fear of his old friends, lest he cause a panic.

The problem starts after the reveal of exactly what’s going on with these old friends and why Woods should be afraid- his low-key reaction is made unbelievable considering the ill will these men have towards him. As the film goes on, it becomes even less believable that Woods and Joyce wouldn’t try to kick out the soldiers or call the cops. More problematic: Kazan chooses to bait the audience with casual nudity, didactic speeches about masculinity, war, and politics, and one of the weirdest Chekhov’s guns I’ve ever seen in a movie. Rewrite of the rule: if a dog shows up and annoys a character twice in the first act, it’ll get shot and dumped on the porch by the start of the second (no, really).

What’s too bad is that Kazan had a chance to do something great here. The film is inspired by the story “Casualties of War”, the same one that would be brilliantly adapted by Brian De Palma in 1989. The idea of taking these characters and placing them in a post-war environment is a good one, but Chris Kazan’s didactic script and Kazan’s audience-baiting plays less like a bold artistic experiment from a visionary dramatist and more like Straw Dogs as reimagined by a wannabe John Cassavetes who thinks he’s got something new to say about war and the men who fight it. In short, this film is not very good.
The Last Tycoon Grade: 57/B-

Kazan’s final film, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, was a for-hire project for the director, but it’s oddly the most inspired of his final three films. That isn’t to say that The Last Tycoon matches Kazan’s best work- it’s clunky, uneven, and only partially successful. But the film shows what Kazan was great at better than most of his late-period work, and for that it deserves a second look.

Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro playing a character loosely inspired by Irving Thalberg) is a brilliant producer in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Monroe is used to teaching screenwriters (Donald Pleasence) how to do their jobs better, working against his chief rival (Robert Mitchum) within the studio, building up neurotic actors (Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau), and generally overseeing everything related to production. His rival’s daughter (Theresa Russell) openly pines for him, but Monroe is haunted by the death of his actress wife years ago. One day, Monroe sees Kathleen (Ingrid Boulting), the spitting-image of his dead wife, and falls madly in love with her. As Monroe’s obsession with her deepens, his health declines, he has difficult relations with a communist union organizer (Jack Nicholson), and he starts to lose power and control.

The film gets off to a great start with a meticulous recreation of Old Hollywood that’s so authentic that one could believe that Kazan got into a time machine and found long lost sets and films. The film’s early dealings with the ins-and-outs of the business (De Niro demanding rewrites, watching dailies, and quarreling with other studio heads over business) are largely terrific, in no small part due to a fantastic, internal lead performance from De Niro that suggests a semi-reclusive genius who only knows how to live through work (remember when he was the greatest actor alive?). Kazan and De Niro sells Monroe’s loneliness and isolation perfectly- he’s a man in a gigantic house with no one to live for, and his discomfort whenever Russell flirts with him is clear.

The film starts to wither as soon as the relationship with the utterly comatose Boulting takes over. Kazan keeps the images lovely and lyrical, and De Niro suggests a man who’s so preoccupied loving a ghost that he starts to lose control, but there’s no spark or interest to their love, so it’s hard to care. It’s an especially frustrating film, considering how much great stuff is going on in the margins (Donald Pleasence as a drunken screenwriter, appearances by Dana Andrews and Ray Milland, Mitchum’s philandering studio man, Russell’s frustration with both Mitchum and De Niro) and how little is going on in the central story.

Still, the film is worth seeing for a pair of particularly inspired sequences. In one, De Niro has been dumped by Boulting, who has married another man. Heartbroken, crying, and drunk, he reluctantly meets with Nicholson’s communist union man. Kazan puts them in gorgeous spaces but accentuates their distance and the pauses between their responses to one another- it’s no secret that Nicholson detests De Niro, and the sad drunk can’t help but pick at him. For most of the film, De Niro has been powerful, uncompromising, and perfectly willing to fire writers and directors if they don’t fall in line with his vision. Here, he’s just a shambling mess who can’t match Nicholson’s wits or, when he challenges the already irritated man to a fight, physical power. Nicholson’s quip that he “always wanted to hit 10 million dollars” is a particularly nice indication of how the men in power start to lose ground to unions. Kazan no doubt believes that this is right, but he can’t help but feel empathy for Monroe’s fall from grace.

That’s even clearer in the final sequence, which echoes an earlier speech Monroe gives a flustered screenwriter about “making pictures”. In the earlier scene, De Niro illustrated the magic of movies by writing a scene in his head involving a voyeuristic scene watching a girl. The roving camera follows De Niro around until he trails off. Screenwriter Donald Pleasence asks him what happens? “I don’t know, I was just making pictures”. Contrast that to its bookend, where a lonely and powerless De Niro repeats the speech while we finally see the scene in his head: Boulting going off with his rival, Mitchum, who has taken the studio away from him. He’s a man without anything, not even the ability to “make pictures” the way he’s always loved to do. As he walks off into an empty studio lot, saying “I don’t want to lose you” in a way that could easily apply to his lost love for a woman or for the movies, Kazan’s final film ends. It’s perhaps not the swan song some might call for, but it’s a lyrical image to end on nonetheless- the old guard can’t stick around forever, but their memory remains.

And with that, Kazan’s film career was finished. He wrote constantly for the next twenty-five years, published novels and his acclaimed autobiography A Life, received an Honorary Oscar presented by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in 1999 (though a number of actors, notably Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, refused to applaud the HUAC witness), and gave a number of interviews about his work until his death in 2003. Many people will never forgive him for his unfortunate participation in one of Hollywood’s darkest moments. But I can’t help but look at that body of work and say that they’d be ignoring a masterful artist.

1.     On the Waterfront (98/A)
2.     A Streetcar Named Desire (97/A)
4.     East of Eden (96/A)
. . A Face in the Crowd (95/A)
5.     Baby Doll (93/A)
6.     Panic in the Streets (91/A)
7.     A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (90/A-)
8.     Wild River (86/A-)
9.     Splendor in the Grass (85/A-)
10. Viva Zapata! (83/A-)
11. America America (74/B+)
12. Man on a Tightrope (67/B)
13. Boomerang! (64/B)
14. The Last Tycoon (57/B-)
15. Gentleman’s Agreement (44/C)
16. Pinky (40/C)
17. The Visitors (32/C-)
18. The Sea of Grass (17/D)
19. The Arrangement (7/D-)

Best Actor: Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Best non-Brando Lead Actor: James Dean (East of Eden)
Runner-up: Andy Griffith (A Face in the Crowd)

Best Actress: Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Runner-up: Patricia Neal (A Face in the Crowd)

Best Supporting Actor: Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Best Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Best Screenplay: Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Budd Schulberg (A Face in the Crowd)

Best Director: On the Waterfront
Runner-up: East of Eden

Best Scene: I Coulda Been a Contender (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Hey, Stella! (A Streetcar Named Desire)

The next Director Spotlight might take some time to get started, but that’s OK. I don’t think any of you want me to botch Orson Welles.

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Director Spotlight #13.16: Elia Kazan's America America

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 74/B+

From 1950 to 1963, Elia Kazan had one of the finest runs of any director of his generation, throwing off the shackles of the well-meaning middlebrow films of his early career and making a series of deeply personal films about social issues, alienation, and generational conflict. His final major film, 1963’s America America, would garner three Oscar nominations but fail with audiences. The film is not as heralded as On the Waterfront or A Streetcar Named Desire, and with reason: it is a film of great strengths and weaknesses, towering and gorgeous, messy and awkward. It cannot stand as Kazan’s finest hour. But Kazan loved the film more than any of his other works, and with reason. It is, bar none, his most personal work.

1890s: Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) is a young Greek living in Turkish Anatolia. Stravros has witnessed horrible oppression from the Turks over the Greeks and Armenians, and he dreams of making a new life in America. Stravros’ father sends his son to Constantinople with the family’s savings to make a living with his cousin, but he soon loses all that he owns and is forced to save doing odd jobs around the city. Stavros eventually falls in with a rich merchant and becomes engaged to the man’s daughter, but he never stops dreaming of America.

The film is based on the travels of Kazan’s uncle, and the personal nature makes the director awfully precious about the material. America America takes place over many years and nearly three hours runtime, and while Kazan’s story is a compelling one, the film is highly episodic and often without much organizing principle. It isn’t that any of the particular episodes (Stavros in Anatolia, on the road, working for cash, courting a rich man’s daughter, spending time with a rich American, on the boat to America) are poor in and of themselves, they don’t exactly add up to a well-structured film. The film is made more unwieldy by Kazan’s script, which too often throws obstacles in Stravros’ way as a way to prove a point about the arduous journey to America. No doubt Kazan’s uncle had many of the same hurdles, but it doesn’t make his experiences with a treacherous vagrant or with a thieving prostitute feel any less contrived. The film is also hampered by Giallelis’ highly variable performance, which is more convincing in moments of silent fury than in the outsized emotions Kazan deals with.

But those flaws are also part of what makes America America so great (or near great, anyway). The film is often clunky and melodramatic on a moment-to-moment basis, but it builds to a highly satisfying climax that wouldn’t register without those previous trials and tribulations. More importantly, Kazan and cinematographer Haskell Wexler give the film an absolutely stunning look, lyrical and lovely, complimented perfectly by composer Manos Hadjidakis’s score. Kazan and Wexler shoot Greece and Turkey in a way that shows the director’s gifts with expressionistic shadows (Giallelis’s conversation in the shadows with his hard father) and realistic, lived-in environments (the lively city of Constantinople). If anything, the film might have been better as a silent epic.

Kazan makes the city look both seductive and claustrophobic, and with reason: Stravros could have quite a life there, but it would mean giving up his dreams forever. A scene between him and his fiancée Linda Marsha is particularly moving: he has found a possible home filled with more privilege than he would find as a shoeshine boy in America, but he has no choice but to break the poor woman’s heart. He wishes for opportunity not for himself, but for his children, who could have a life without the repression he faces by the Turkish government.

Thematically, the film is thinner than Kazan’s past films, dealing with social issues (repression in Turkey), alienation (Stravros’ difficulty adjusting to life in Constantinople), and generational conflict (his family’s demand for his success) with less depth than one might have found in East of Eden. Kazan is more interested in telling a deeply personal story with as much emotion as possible. It makes for a sometimes difficult film, but a deeply rewarding one.
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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.15: Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 84/A-

Elia Kazan was only one of the many filmmakers to tap into the generational divide of the 1950s and 1960s, but few directors could rival him in terms of pure expression. Kazan’s 1961 film Splendor in the Grass serves as a terrific companion piece to his 1955 masterpiece East of Eden, but where the earlier film zeroed in on a troubled father/son relationship, the later film takes on a more controversial aspect of growing up: teen sexuality. Splendor in the Grass is less focused than East of Eden, but it stands as one of Kazan’s greatest blows against Puritanical ideals.

1928: Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty in his film debut) is a rich kid and high school football star. His girlfriend Wilda Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) is from a working class family. Bud and Deanie feel an overwhelming passion and love for each other, but their small Kansas town has a rather strict and Puritanical view on sex. Bud’s father Ace (Pat Hingle) pushes his son to succeed and go to Yale and discourages his relationship with Deanie, all while criticizing the choices of Bud’s flapper sister Ginny (Barbara Loden). Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) stresses how women shouldn’t desire men the same way men desire women. The conflict between desire and society’s expectations then do damage to the young couples’ psyches.

Splendor in the Grass sees Kazan working for a third time with cinematographer Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, Baby Doll), and again the two find a beautiful balance between expression (flowing waterfalls for sexual desire) and realism (the emotional performances from the stars, captured in tight close-ups). Kazan and screenwriter William Inge know that they have to push their characters to psychological extremes, as teenage years come with uncontrollable emotion and hormones. As such, the love scenes between Beatty and Wood are extraordinarily tender, while the arguments between overbearing parents and emotionally vulnerable teens are extremely volatile.

Kazan gets strong work out of the whole cast (Hingle is quite good as Beatty’s hot-tempered father), but the key supporting player is Kazan’s then-wife Loden. As Ginny, she represents the sad, undeserved truth of what happens to free-spirited women in small towns. Flirty, bubbly, overtly sexual, Loden plays Ginny as someone who pushes against the boundaries of her close-minded peers, only to be ostracized from all of society. The film hints at a pregnancy that led to an abortion and disgrace, and now Ginny is an uncontrollable mess- hard drinking, promiscuous, unpredictable. Kazan and Loden do not judge her behavior, but rather see her as someone who’s been constantly reminded of how she doesn’t measure up to society’s standards, and who must fill an emotional void. It’s a deeply sad performance.

Beatty didn’t have the wide range that many of Kazan’s past male leads had (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift all come to mind), but he’s very good in the quieter of the two lead roles. Played by Beatty, Bud is a sensitive, introverted young man pushed to be macho and successful. The key difference between him and James Dean’s character in East of Eden is that where one was explosive, this one is implosive. Rather than go against his father’s wishes, Bud shrinks and agrees to do whatever his father wants, leading to ill health, inner torment, infidelity to his girlfriend, and a brief alcoholic period when he does go off to college. He is a meek young man trapped in a high school football star’s body.

Wood, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays the film’s most dynamic character, one pulled at by conflicting messages from her judgmental mother.  On one hand, she’s given demands to stay pure and virginal. On the other hand, she comes from a poor family, and her mother stresses how good it would be for her to marry the wealthy Bud. Wood is, in a way, a clearer successor to the emotionally explosive James Dean than Beatty (fitting, considering that she co-starred with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause). She constantly hangs off of Bud, to the point of the relationship being unhealthy. When the two do break apart, she’s thrown into a nervous breakdown. Wood captures all of the heightened emotions that come with adolescent love, and the performance stands as proof to just how talented she really was.

Kazan plays with color very well to emphasize Deanie’s sexual passion. In the opening scene where she and Bud neck by the waterfall, she wears white as she stops Bud’s advances. Later, after she starts to open up to the possibility that she may want to sleep with Bud after all, she wears pink. At the point of her nervous breakdown, she has cut her long, flowing young hair to a more suggestive (for the era) bob, and she wears a red dress that invites Bud even after they’ve broken up, as she insists that she’s “not a nice girl”. When he rejects her, she goes to the waterfall with another boy, but she cannot sleep with him, and as she dives into the water, it’s a point of deep sexual and psychological confusion. Part of this is Bud’s fault, as he’s had sex with another, more promiscuous girl out of fear. But it’s largely because of society’s idiotic expectations.

Splendor in the Grass is not without its weak points, however. Like Wild River before it, Kazan strays from the central story in order to focus on a matter of social importance, in this case the Great Depression and its effect on Bud’s father. These are the weakest scenes in the film, as they muddle the focus and don’t feel connected to the main story. The last thirty minutes of the film dull the emotional core, throw out Loden’s character in a rather off-handed way (we learn she was killed in a car accident as if it were nothing), and deal with the downfall of Hingle in a way that feels like it’s straining for profundity. The film would have done better to trim many of these scenes and narrow the post-high school material to a few key moments.

Still, it’s a powerful portrait of alienation when it does focus on the two and how they grow up. It’s a tale impressionable kids straining against parents who want what’s best for them but don’t listen to what they actually want. As they’re driven away from home- Deanie to a mental institution, Bud to Yale- they’ve clearly broken from societal expectations. Where the former tries to work out her psychological hang-ups, the latter disappears into boozy depression and moodiness. They do find balance in the end, as the echo of Deanie’s melancholy reading of a William Wordsworth poem speaks to their bittersweet meeting at the end. They can’t concern themselves with their lost youthful ideals anymore. They can only take what they’ve been given.

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Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

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