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Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
2. Fashions of 1934 (Dieterle)
3. I Killed My Mother (Dolan)
4. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
5. Brute Force (Dassin)
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
7. Liberte-Oleron (Podalydès)
8. Black Rock (Aselton)
9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
10. The World’s End (Wright)

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Film Producer Interview: Erica Mann Ramis

Over the summer I had the great pleasure of hosting a very special guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College: Erica Mann Ramis. The occasion was the screening of a terrific 2012 documentary that Ramis produced, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. The film combines archival footage with incisive new interviews to paint a vivid portrait of the fascinating relationship between the Joffrey Ballet’s co-founders, the larger-than-life personalities Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, and shows how the evolution of their company over the past half century has mirrored changes in American society. Below is a transcript of our informal interview, which occurred in front of my class, immediately prior to the screening.

erica Erica Mann Ramis (right) with dancers Trinette Singleton and Charthel Arthur

MGS: Oh my goodness, I feel like James Lipton right now: “Tell me about your childhood.”

EMR: (laughing) You don’t want to know.

MGS: (laughing) Actually, I really do.

EMR: My father.

MGS: Yes, I mentioned to the class that your father, Daniel Mann, was a noted stage and film director. He worked with everyone from James Dean . . .

EMR: On Broadway.

MGS: Yes, to Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon. And, of course, he directed Liz Taylor in her first Oscar-winning performance . . .

EMR: Butterfield 8.

MGS: Yes, and also one of my favorite actresses, Anna Magnani . . .

EMR: That was his favorite actress.

MGS: Really? He and I have similar tastes then.

EMR: The Rose Tattoo.

MGS: Yes. That must have been a really interesting environment to grow up in.

EMR: Here’s my answer: it was! My father made a lot of films. He made many of them in New York. So, even though I grew up in L.A., we went to New York a lot to be with him. It was a whole different world of moviemaking then. There were studios. If you were a director you would sign with a studio for, you know, whatever, 10 films. And, you know, my father wore a suit and tie to work. And there’s photographs of us as children really dressed up to go to the set. My father started on Broadway. He did Come Back, Little Sheba on Broadway and he did Paint Your Wagon on Broadway — the musical. And actors loved him, actresses loved him. It was a different world. The business world and the creative world were very separate. In my father’s world he was the creative one. And always, the business world, they were there to cut you down and make you come in under budget. But he worked really, really well with actors. And, later in his life he taught directing and I got to sit in on some of his classes. And working with people to see a scene done that you could’ve fallen asleep (during), and then see him work with people to get it to the point where you were absolutely emotionally involved, it was pretty remarkable to see. He just had incredible communication with people. He was tough. He was very tough. He had very high standards. He was very concerned about society and issues and social justice. He was not a Communist but many of his friends were card-carrying Communists and were blacklisted during that time. There were many people over that were artists and intellects and musicians. And it was the kind of thing as a kid when you’re running in and out of the house, you would hear interesting conversations that somehow sunk in. A woman and her husband, Salka and Peter Vertiel, owned our house before us and all the German expats, they had a salon: like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin and all those people would come to our house. So when I was a child their mail still came. Letters came for Greta Garbo and I collected them . . .

MGS: (laughing) So you opened them and read them, right?

EMR: They were mostly not much personal but . . . I’m not sure I really answered your question. But I skirted it.

MGS: No, you did. That’s amazing. It sounds like an amazing environment to grow up in. Did you feel like going into the “family business” as a kid?

EMR: I still feel like it.

MGS: Well, you have. When you were growing up, were you interested in pursuing an acting career?

EMR: I always wrote. I still write poetry and I have some unfinished screenplays that — maybe now that our youngest child is going to college — I’ll attempt to finish. I always wanted to write and I did study acting although it was sort of to see writing from another point of view. And I loved it. I really, really loved it. I had fabulous teachers and some horrible teachers. I think it’s so important in anything like that to trust your gut even if you don’t know a lot. If you aren’t feeling like you’re being opened up and uplifted, I’d say go somewhere else. The hard thing with my father, as his child . . . There were many hard things but one of them was when I first wanted to study acting in high school, he said, “Nobody can teach you to act. You either come into the world with this gift or you don’t have it.” I’d sit there and go, “Well, I mean, I just want to take a class. I’d like to get on the stage.” And the truth is, whatever he meant by that, he also taught acting and he taught directing and he was talking about some untouchable . . . something you can’t even say to a child. It wasn’t right, it was not okay.

MGS: It was too advanced.

EMR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MGS: So, speaking of acting, you were in Club Paradise.

EMR: I worked on that movie as an assistant to the director (Harold Ramis) who ended up being my husband.

MGS: But you had a bit part in the film as well . . .

EMR: I did, I did. I worked for the producer on that movie. The bit part had no words. They were all internal (laughs).

MGS: What is your credit? Isn’t it “Girl . . .”?

EMR: It’s “Erica Mann — Girl at Bar” (laughs). It was a lot of fun to do. I was with Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis. Club Paradise was one of Harold’s movies that came and went rather quickly but I actually like it. It was a lot of fun to do. We were on the island of Jamaica for four months — the cast and crew and all and it was pretty great.

MGS: Were you still pursuing acting then or were you more interested . . .

EMR: I was more interested in writing. So working in production had really little to do with my love but I thought it was a great opportunity and a great way to learn. And I loved moviemaking. I’ve been on movie sets all my life. I still — if I’m going on set or if I’m in L.A. and go to a studio — I still get butterflies. I just love it. I love taking nothing and creating something, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. I mean, obviously, good is great and bad is not so great but when you’re making a film, everyone — even the worst of movies, I promise you — when people are working on them, everyone believes in the film. Because you’re working 14, 16-hour days and you’re suddenly like on an island, figuratively speaking, with 150, 200 people and you’re making magic one way or another.

MGS: I’ve made a couple of short films and I know exactly what you’re talking about — the synergy between the cast and crew. It’s a labor of love for everybody because they’re not doing it for the money.

EMR: No.

MGS: And your husband has an enormous amount of integrity to be working in Hollywood in the present day. It’s tough, I think, to navigate a career in Hollywood today.

EMR: But he was very lucky. I mean, the first screenplay he wrote was Animal House, and the first movie he directed was Caddyshack . . .

MGS: And that success has allowed him to do more personal work in recent years?

EMR: Absolutely.

MGS: Groundhog Day is one of my favorites. I actually show that in class a lot. And, also, I’m a big fan of The Ice Harvest.

EMR: Are you? Wow, I’m gonna tell him you said that.

MGS: That’s a really underrated film.

EMR: It is. I think when people are successful for being in comedy, when you change your tune a little bit it’s very hard to be well received. And Ice Harvest is kind of film noir-ish and edgy in a way that Harold never really had done before.

MGS: Right. It’s a black comedy.

EMR: Yeah, and I really like it. I agree with you.

MGS: And it’s a great Christmas movie too.

EMR: Yeah, it is.

MGS: (to class) You all should see The Ice Harvest if you have not — with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

EMR: And Oliver Platt.

MGS: And Oliver Platt who kind of steals the movie . . .

EMR: I love him. Very funny.

MGS: Okay, let’s talk about Joffrey now. How did this movie come about and how did you end up producing it?

EMR: Gerald Arpino, who is one of the partners — he and Robert Joffrey started the Joffrey in the 50s in Seattle. Harold and I first moved here in 1996. I think the Joffrey had come maybe that year or the year before to Chicago. And we had the opportunity of meeting Gerald Arpino. And I kind of fell in love with him. And I think he kind of fell in love with Harold. But that’s okay. (laughs) No, he loved me too.

MGS: And were you a fan of ballet before that?

EMR: Oh yeah. I did study dance. Dance and poetry were my first loves. So I studied, not ballet, but modern dance for many years through college. I love dance. We initially met Gerry because Harold came up with an idea for a ballet, a big story ballet. And it was a wonderful idea. We had lunch on a yacht. It was so dramatic. We had lunch and we went out on the lake and we had just moved here and suddenly there was this huge thunder and lightning storm. I was absolutely terrified. I kept just wanting everyone to say, “You’ll be okay.” And Harold told him the whole story. And he (Gerry) loved it. But he said to do a ballet of that caliber would be millions and millions and millions of dollars. It was impossible to do. But we really liked each other and so we all just got together a lot. If they had, like their season here, let’s say it’s, I don’t know, 10 shows or whatever it is, I would go to see the same show every single night. Because I loved it so much and I just connected with Gerry’s choreography. So the way it happened, we have other friends from Michigan and they were down — we all went to the Joffrey Gala some years ago and Gerry was quite elderly and frail. And I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and it really was surprising to see. And as we were leaving, we were both in our separate cars and we called each other and we all four had the same idea at the same time: “Why don’t we just get Gerry on film? Let’s just tape him. Let’s interview him. He might not be here very long.” And I don’t think he’s ever been interviewed that way before.

MGS: To tell the story of the company?

EMR: Yeah, and about him and about dance and whatnot. So we knew about this documentary film house called Media Process and Bob Hercules who directed it. So we called him and said “Right now we just want to get Gerry on tape.” So at first we just did these interviews with Gerry that were fabulous and we had some of the dancers doing rehearsals in the studio with him and that’s the last time . . . it was his choreography. It was his first piece and his last. And that was the last time we ever saw him. It was so incredible.

MGS: So powerful.

EMR: Yeah. So once we had that, then we thought “What if we develop this?” And then we met with the heads of the Joffrey and with various people and it all just started happening. We were very lucky.

MGS: It sounds like when you started out, you didn’t really know what the final form of it was going to be . . .

EMR: No. At first we didn’t even know we were making a film. We knew we wanted him and from that we’d see. After we had that we thought “It’s crazy not to make a film.” And then with the director and Una Jackman, who was also my producing partner, we did a lot of research and read a lot of books about the Joffrey and started calling and traveling all over the country to do interviews with people connected and dancers. And then Bob the director started talking about form and it was really like having a puzzle. Here was this footage with Gerry, which turns out, as I think you’ll see in the film, we couldn’t use a lot of it because he really looked like he was on his last legs. And he was. It was very poignant.

MGS: But that (interview) was the seed?

EMR: But that was the seed. And then the rest of putting it together came from: “Who will we interview? What are we asking them? What’s our goal here?” Once we got all of that, it all had to be transcribed, you know? And then you start piecing it all together and we filmed actual dancing and rehearsals. And it was wonderful.

MGS: And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. Thank you so much for chatting with me.

You can watch Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance in its entirety on the PBS website:

http://video.pbs.org/video/2320387369/

joffrey


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Westbound (Boetticher)
2. Twixt (Coppola)
3. One Way Boogie Woogie (Benning)
4. Deseret (Benning)
5. Sicilia! (Straub/Huillet)
6. Female (Curtiz)
7. The Canyons (Schrader)
8. The Green Ray (Rohmer)
9. Los Muertos (Alonso)
10. Death of a Cyclist (Bardem)


Celluloid Flashback: The Green Ray

100_2611Sippin’ a Rayon Vert while watching Le Rayon Vert.

For my second “Celluloid Flashback” post, I’ve chosen to revisit Eric Rohmer’s 1986 masterpiece The Green Ray, aka Le Rayon Vert, aka Summer. (While the movie is known in the U.K. by its literally translated title, it has regrettably only ever been releaed in the U.S. by the English-language title Summer, perhaps because distributors feared “The Green Ray” would make what is essentially an intimate romantic comedy sound too much like science-fiction. Matters were infinitely complicated with the 1996 release of Rohmer’s Conte d’été, which was distributed in the U.S. as A Summer’s Tale. It’s enough to make you pull your hair out.) I had only seen The Green Ray once previously, on VHS in the 1990s, but a couple of neat coincidences caused me to track it down again recently in order to give it a fresh look. First, I noticed a relatively new craft beer on the market, a Belgian-style pale ale named “Rayon Vert,” which obviously took its name from the same Jules Verne novel that Rohmer’s film did. Because it amuses me to no end to take photographs of myself drinking a movie-related beer while watching the film in question, the idea of renting The Green Ray on DVD was thus planted. Then, I read Gilbert Adair’s delightful 1995 book Flickers in which the late critic celebrated the cinema’s centennial by analyzing one still image from one movie made each year between 1895 and 1994. His entry for the year 1986 was an examination of The Green Ray, and what he had to say about it was so damned intriguing that it sent me fairly racing to my local video store to check it out again.

greenray

The Green Ray is the fifth entry in Rohmer’s six-film cycle known as “Comedies and Proverbs” and many critics regard it as the best although, like all Rohmer’s movies, it’s not without its detractors. It tells the story of a young woman named Delphine (Marie Riviere), a Parisian secretary who decides to go on holiday alone three times over the course of one summer. The film’s true subject is loneliness and Delphine’s journeys are more psychological than physical as she learns, through her encounters with other people, a series of tough lessons that allow her to become less asocial and more engaged with life. Only when she learns to be content with herself is she truly ready to be transformed by the kind of love that has eluded her since the film’s beginning, represented by a climactic “double miracle” that recalls the cathartic ending of Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece Journey to Italy. I believe Rohmer’s special genius as a writer/director was his uncanny ability to show, accurately and without condescension, the elaborate lengths to which human beings will go in order to deceive themselves. Marie Riviere is one of the best actresses Rohmer ever worked with (by my count he directed her a whopping 10 times, which is remarkable given how infrequently he tended to recast actors), and she arguably nails this quality of self-deception better than anyone, including the brilliant Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s. The effortlessness of her semi-improvised performance was greatly abetted by Rohmer’s decision to shoot the movie with a lightweight 16mm camera, which clearly proved less intrusive than the larger and bulkier 35mm cameras to which the director was accustomed.

greenrayA real green ray photographed in Santa Cruz, California.

The film’s unusual title is a reference to a real optical phenomenon in which a setting or rising sun seems to emit a flash of green light. The observance of this phenomenon provides The Green Ray with its climactic moment (half of the “double miracle” referenced earlier), which, incidentally, is also a sublime reference point in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. According to Gilbert Adair, Rohmer spent a year attempting to film a real green ray and, only after deciding he was incapable of capturing one, resorted to creating the illusion in a lab with the aid of special effects. Adair calls Rohmer’s green ray “the tiniest and most moving special effect in the history of cinema” and notes that it is impossible to notice on a television screen. I practically smacked my forehead upon reading this, knowing that when I first saw the movie on VHS I literally did not see the green ray and thus did not fully comprehend the meaning of the ending. (Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as unfortunate as the student who told me she had never understood the ending of Citizen Kane until she saw it in my class because the word “Rosebud” hadn’t been legible on her tiny T.V. screen at home.) Because Adair wrote his book during the VHS era (when image resolution was considerably lower than what can be seen today on DVD or Blu-ray), I was eager to see The Green Ray again mainly to find out whether or not Rohmer’s tiny special effect would be visible on DVD. Is it? The following screen capture I created provides the answer:

vlcsnap-2013-08-17-21h25m09s99The cinema’s “tiniest and most moving special effect.”

The Green Ray won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1986 (27 years ago next week). Rayon Vert Ale won Bronze at the San Diego County Fair in 2012. I endorse both.


Now Playing: The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster
dir. Wong Kar-Wai, 2013, Hong Kong/China

Rating: 8.8

grandmasters
The bottom line: grand mastery.

Opening this Friday in select U.S. cities is Wong Kar-Wai’s ambitious, years-in-the-making martial-arts epic/Ip Man-biopic The Grandmaster, which premiered in China back in January shortly before receiving its international bow — in slightly truncated form — at the Berlin International Film Festival. There has been a fascinating divide in terms of how the film has been received in the East versus how it has been received the West, which in many ways reverses how Wong’s movies are usually received: The Grandmaster has gone over much better in China (with both critics and audiences, becoming the director’s first true homegrown hit in a career spanning 10 features) than in Europe and North America. While Wong has typically been a darling of western critics and cinephiles — especially in the period lasting from Days of Being Wild in 1990 to In the Mood for Love in 2000 — his movies have often been quizzically regarded as arty and pretentious specialty items back home. I think the reversal evidenced by The Grandmaster‘s reception can be explained by what might be termed its China-centric qualities, especially the way Wong explores notions of Chinese identity and history and, perhaps most importantly, the philosophical side of kung fu (though it is also chock-full of good old-fashioned kick-ass fight scenes that should satisfy genre aficionados). Western critics have been quick to criticize the new film’s narrative “patchwork” quality (it is certainly the most elliptical thing Wong has ever made) and they definitely have a point. To paraphrase something Andre Bazin said about Robert Bresson, however, I would argue that Wong sees in his narrative awkwardness the price he must pay for something more important; for, while it may not be as “perfect” as beloved earlier films like Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, I believe The Grandmaster‘s astonishing thematic richness makes it more profound than either.

grand

As a piece of storytelling, The Grandmaster definitely has the quality of seeming like it’s the digest of a much longer movie. The plot, such as it is, unfolds as a series of almost self-contained vignettes in the life of Ip Man (Tony Leung, underplaying but charismatic as ever), a real kung-fu master who immigrated from southern mainland China to Hong Kong in the mid-20th century, single-handedly popularized the minimalistic fighting style known as Wing Chun and became Bruce Lee’s first teacher (yes, an adorable moppet turns up as young Bruce in the final scene). Each scene feels like a narrative block that has been separated from the ones that precede and follow it by a span of several years, sometimes with only intertitles to fill viewers in on crucial missing information. Characters who seem like they will be important (especially Ip Man’s wife and a mysterious barber/martial artist known as “Razor,” played by Song Hye-kyo and Chang Chen, respectively) pop up for a scene or two, make a big impression, then vanish. The film’s second most important character is Gong Er (an excellent Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a kung-fu master from the North, who is the center of a parallel narrative that sees her attempting to avenge her father’s murder, and who shares feelings of mutually unrequited love with Ip Man. While unrequited love has long been a pet theme of Wong’s, the characters’ emotions here, while deeply moving to witness, are not the film’s primary reason for being — as has always been the case with Wong’s movies in the past — but are rather the byproduct of a fascinating allegorical story about the paths different Chinese people took in terms of dealing with social upheaval and adapting to exile during a specific period in history. (Unusual for Wong, he collaborated on the original script with co-writers: Xu Haofeng and Zou Jingzhi.)

grand

One of the Grandmaster‘s most fascinating aspects is the way it illustrates how the philosophy behind kung fu can provide valuable lessons for not just how to fight but how to live. Wong has always been concerned with preserving the past — whether shooting old buildings for Fallen Angels that he knew would soon be torn down, to making Hua yang de nian hua (2000), a short film celebrating the golden age of Chinese cinema, to lovingly recreating the past of Hong Kong and China in Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and The Grandmaster. The importance of preserving the past becomes the explicit theme of the new movie as Wong uses kung fu as a metaphor for Chinese culture in general — the “grandmaster” Ip Man is a teacher who passes along traditions and thus allows his cultural heritage to perpetuate. In this sense, one of the most important scenes shows how Gong Er’s father, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), is incapable of teaching his traitorous disciple, Ma San (Zhang Jin), a particular kung-fu move that involves the act of “looking back.” Ma San soon colludes with occupying Japanese forces and thus symbolizes disrespecting tradition and sacrificing one’s own integrity in order to survive. Gong Yutian informs Ma San that he will never attain the highest level of martial arts — the ability to “see humanity,” which follows “seeing oneself” and “seeing the world.” By contrast, Ip Man and Gong Er are able to maintain their ideals (Ip Man informs Japanese government officials that he would rather starve than eat their rice), and live in exile in Hong Kong — although their differing philosophies ensure that they too meet different destinies. Gong Er betrays her father’s final wish in seeking vengeance for his death and allows herself to become mired in pessimism and opium addiction. Ip Man, however, has the ability to look forward and backward simultaneously; his essential optimism — even in the face of overwhelming suffering (two of his daughters starve to death and he and his wife are separated from each other against their wishes) — ensures that he alone among the film’s characters is able to “see humanity,” and that his Wing Chun school in Hong Kong will flourish. Regardless (and perhaps because of) the disjointed quality the movie takes in getting there, the final scenes are the most mature and humane that Wong has ever created.

grand

I hasten to add that I hope my analysis of the Grandmaster‘s thematic content does not make watching the film seem like anything less than the viscerally exciting experience that it is. The action scenes were choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping and part of the fun of watching the characters fight is seeing how their personalities are expressed through their different fighting styles: the clever and humble Ip Man’s brand of Wing Chun is based on the precise execution of a few effective blows, while the more petulant Gong Er is the last remaining practitioner of the maximalist style known as “64 hands.” Razor — a master of the Bagua school — is both barber and undercover assassin, and wields as a weapon the blade that gave him his nickname. Wong, working with his longtime editor (and production/costume designer) William Chang, as well as collaborating for the first time with cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd, has broken martial-arts movie tradition by capturing the fights not with long takes and long shots but by using close-ups, varying film speeds, fast cuts and an unusually shallow depth field. (This last aspect is a major trend in contemporary digital cinematography and has the effect of turning everything in front of the camera lens — drops of water, icicles, Zhang Ziyi’s porcelain skin, etc. — into a fetish object.) These breathtaking visuals, aided immeasurably by the bone-crunching sound effects, do not seek to whip viewers of the ADHD set into a frenzy the way that most spatially/temporally-challenged Hollywood action movies do. Rather, they manage to break down each fight — especially the instant classic train-station climax involving Gong Er and Ma San — into many comprehensible individual moments. In other words, to watch The Grandmaster is to take a master class in filmmaking.

You can view the trailer for The Grandmaster via YouTube below (please ignore the awful car-commercial voice-over):


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls)
2. Foolish Wives (Von Stroheim)
3. Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (Kemp)
4. The Bay (Levinson)
5. Blue Jasmine (Allen)
6. The Grandmaster (Wong)
7. Rock in Reykjavik (Fridriksson)
8. Raven the Rascal (Munchow-Pohl/Jesse)
9. A Letter to Momo (Okiura)
10. Children of Nature (Fridriksson)


Tony Leung Talks Training to Play Ip Man in WKW’s The Grandmaster

I shot this video at a Q&A in Chicago last night following a sneak preview screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. It was quite dark in the theater but the audio is clear. Tony is quite the charmer:

The Grandmaster opens in the U.S. on August 23rd.


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