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Tag Archives: Coen Brothers

Now Playing: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Inside Llewyn Davis
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.9

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The Wolf of Wall Street
dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.8

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American Hustle
dir. David O. Russell, 2013, USA

Rating: 7.7

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper The bottom line: “No more fake shit!”

Now playing in wide release are three ambitious American comedies, each of which takes place in the northeastern United States during a different era in the late 20th century: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (early 1960s), David O. Russell’s American Hustle (late 1970s) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (late 1980s through late 1990s). Although none of these made my list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013, I nonetheless think all three are well worth seeing on the big screen. In the middle of a busy “awards season,” when the overrated prestige-picture 12 Years a Slave and the overrated thrill-ride Gravity seem to be duking it out for most of the top prizes, it’s encouraging to see such a relatively deep field of auteur-driven cinema currently being exhibited in American multiplexes. There are also some significant parallels between these new comedies from the Coens, Scorsese and Russell: all might be said to be uniquely American in their focus on the intertwined themes of what it means to be “authentic” and the ruthless drive for success. One of the key lines of dialogue in American Hustle, spoken by Amy Adams, is “No more fake shit!” — a line that could have just as easily popped up in either of the other two movies. The fact that the line is spoken by Adams as a con artist using a fake-English accent (reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck as the title fraud in The Lady Eve) underscores the idea, presented in each film with varying degrees of cynicism, that getting ahead in America often entails pretending to be something one is not. These movies can also be seen as belonging to a wider trend in 2013 of what a friend on twitter referred to as “poppy critiques of capitalism,” a subgenre diverse enough to include Pain and Gain, Spring Breakers, The Great Gatsby and The Bling Ring. If Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite of the bunch, that’s probably because it’s the only one that doesn’t feature either a ludicrously happy ending or a familiar narrative trajectory about the “rise and fall” of immoral characters. Instead, it’s a daringly anti-showbiz-success story that offers a rare, empathetic look at a genuine loser.

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A musician friend recently complained that Inside Llewyn Davis has “no plot” and is “about nothing.” While I agree with the former statement, I certainly don’t see that as a flaw. Rather than being story-driven like most of their other efforts, the Coen brothers’ latest is more of a slice-of-life/character study that uses the title protagonist’s relationship with a cat as an unlikely but brilliant structuring device. Evocatively set in Greenwich Village during the early Sixties “folk revival,” the film is certainly “about” many things — including such substantial subjects as artistic integrity and the elusive nature of commercial success. This is nowhere more apparent than in the best scene: Davis (the excellent Oscar Isaac) auditions for folk club owner/manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) by performing the traditional song “The Death of Queen Jane.” Grossman’s response to the heartrending performance — “I don’t see a lot of money here” — is a devastating moment that succinctly illustrates how Davis’ music lacks the polish and accessibility that will soon make superstars of the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary. (It is also easy to imagine the Coens hearing similar complaints from studio executives in the early years of their own career.) The audition scene is mirrored by the film’s other best sequence: Davis serenading his nursing home-ridden father with a gorgeous rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring.” Equally devastating is his father’s lack of a response, indicating perhaps that Davis has spent a lifetime “auditioning” for — and failing to win — the old man’s approval. As any description of these moments indicates, Inside Llewyin Davis contains a pungent core of sadness, but it is also, as more than a few critics have noted, probably the Coen brothers’ warmest movie since The Big Lebowski. Their patented smart-ass humor has been replaced by (or has perhaps deepened into) something more emotional and affectionate, a lot of the credit for which should be given to Isaac and soundtrack supervisor T-Bone Burnett. But Inside Llewyn Davis is also more gratifyingly low-key and less aggressively stylized than the Coens’ other films from a production design standpoint, eschewing their sometimes annoyingly cartoonish fetishizing of props, sets and costumes. What they present instead is a relatively realistic and somber-hued comic valentine to an era, a musical genre and a couch-surfing way of life.

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The Wolf of Wall Street is the 23rd fiction feature by Martin Scorsese, now 71-years-old, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is to say that it radiates a propulsive, infectious energy that makes it feel like the work of an exciting young filmmaker. Consciously designed as a companion piece to Scorsese’s beloved Goodfellas, it tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ambitious young “penny stockbroker” who swindled investors and became, in the span of a few short years, the head of a billion-dollar Wall Street empire. Scorsese wisely decided to paint this particular portrait as a grotesque — and occasionally surreal — black comedy, simultaneously ridiculing Belfort for embodying the most asshole-ish aspects of the 1% (his existence is seen as a non-stop party of sex, drugs and the kind of debauchery that only “stupid money” can buy), while also sticking uncomfortably close to Belfort’s subjective state of near-constant euphoria. The result is arguably the funniest movie Scorsese has ever made: it’s like the Three Stooges but with Quaaludes and hookers. While some critics have objected to Scorsese making a film that “glorifies” white-collar crime, I would argue that the film is rendered not so much hypocritical as infinitely and unnervingly complex by the way that it presents Belfort’s story as exhilarating entertainment. True, Scorsese doesn’t show us Belfort’s victims but why should he? 99% of viewers are already victims of Belfort or “wolves” just like him. And if a lot of young men watch this movie and are dumb enough to want to emulate its hero, then that’s probably an indication of how effective it is as satire. A movie any more obviously critical of its protagonist would be heavy handed and ineffective. Having said that, I wouldn’t personally rank this as one of Scorsese’s very best latter-day achievements (No Direction Home and Shutter Island are, for me, the twin peaks of his 21st century output), in part because I don’t find white-collar criminals as compelling — as personalities — as the working-class mooks of Scorsese’s best-known work. But as a piece of storytelling, this is undeniably masterful stuff, with a three-hour running time that is not only justified but that fairly flies by. Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street is the cinematic equivalent of taking a high-speed ride in a Lamborghini — albeit by one whose driver is not on Quaaludes.

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Speaking of Scorsese . . . even if you haven’t yet seen American Hustle you’ve probably heard, or deduced from the trailers, that it has taken a page from the master’s playbook in terms of visual style (Paramount Pictures should really consider paraphrasing the old Bob Dylan ads by advertising The Wolf of Wall Street with the tagline “Nobody does Scorsese like Scorsese”). In telling a fictionalized version of the “Abscam scandal” that rocked New Jersey politics in the late 1970s, Russell has borrowed from Scorsese the use of witty voice-overs, music-video style period-music cues, exuberant tracking shots, freeze frames, and even Robert DeNiro in wise-guy mode; but he’s also clearly studied the work of Scorsese acolytes such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and, in a gratuitous car-trunk P.O.V shot, Quentin Tarantino. While this cinematic razzle-dazzle is undoubtedly exciting to behold, it also doesn’t always feel justified by what’s happening on the level of story or character. The question arises: can one speak of David O. Russell as even having a distinctive visual style of his own? American Hustle is as formally expressive as his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, was pedestrian but one feels that Russell is merely “trying on” Scorsese like one tries on a suit of clothes, and that nothing of this style will probably remain when the next David O. Russell film turns up in theaters. Russell’s real strengths — here, as ever — are his interest in female characters (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence have never been better) and his feel for neo-screwball dialogue: just thinking about the scene where Lawrence lectures Christian Bale about “the power of intention” cracks me up. Like Robert Altman, Russell apparently gives his actors free reign to help create their characters, which can admittedly lead to dead-end scenes and an overall sense of looseness but also moments of inspired nuttiness evident even in the hairstyles of the actors — e.g., combover (Bale), perm (Bradley Cooper) and pompadour (Jeremy Renner). So, no, it’s not the best film of the year by a long shot, but watching world-class actors riotously tearing it up for two hours and 18 minutes certainly ain’t nothing. And as far as light comedy/thrillers about government agents pulling off undercover sting operations go, this is a thousand times better than Argo.

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CIFF ’13: 13 Most Wanted

Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.

Bastards (Denis)

Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.

Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)

The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?

Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.

Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)

Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.

The Immigrant (Gray, USA)

I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).

Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)

With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)

Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.

A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)

Manuscripts

Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)

Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.

Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)

Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.

The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)

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The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)

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As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.

The lineup of the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival will be released soon. You can learn more, and see a sneak preview, at: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com


Cinematic Iceland: A Photo Tour

The country of Iceland has had a relatively prolific and surprisingly rich local film industry over the past couple decades, especially considering its population is currently hovering at an all-time high of barely more than 300,000 people. I recently visited this delightful Scandinavian nation for the occasion of my fifth wedding anniversary and was able to engage in many film-related activities along the way, including visiting the locations of prominent Icelandic movies and having coffee with legendary director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Below are some photos documenting my journey. Unless otherwise noted they were taken by me or my wife, Jill.

20130806_165430Me and the great Fridrik Thor Fridriksson in a quiet corner of Reykjavik’s fashionable 101 Bar. (Our full interview will be posted on this blog soon.)

Fridrik Thor Fridriksson is almost single-handedly responsible for Iceland’s impressive movie boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. His 1991 feature Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar), the only locally made film of that year, was the first Icelandic movie to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. He sunk the film’s profits into buying production equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive films in the following years. I interviewed Fridriksson over coffee and was able to see a beautiful 35mm print of Children of Nature, which I had only previously seen on VHS tape.

Children of Nature ranks for me alongside of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story as one of the cinema’s most powerful statements about the predicament of the elderly. It tells the story of Thorgeir (Gísli Halldórsson), an old man who is virtually forced by his uncaring family into living in a retirement home. Upon arriving there he meets Stella (Sigríður Hagalín), an old flame, with whom he soon steals a jeep and escapes to rural southern Iceland so that she can see again the land of her childhood. One of the film’s most evocative scenes occurs right before the couple flee Reykjavik for the countryside: Thorgeir strolls alone through Holavallagardur cemetery, a remarkable site that contains many graves dating back to the 19th century. Flowers and trees have been planted directly on top of many of the plots, giving the impression that the location is a garden as much as it is a graveyard. It is unquestionably the most beautiful cemetery I’ve visited and one that makes its stateside counterparts seem sterile and depressing by contrast.

20130807_152002Holavallagardur cemetery

childrenI love this movie so much I paid 1600 krona to see it!

Fridriksson may be best known in the U.S. for Cold Fever (Á köldum klaka), an absurdist comedy/road movie about Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase), a Japanese businessman who travels to Iceland to perform a traditional cleansing ritual at the site where his parents had died years earlier. The film was an international arthouse hit when it was released in 1995/1996 and part of what makes it so charming is the way it uses a fish-out-of-water story to present “typically” quirky Icelandic characters and scenarios to an outsider-protagonist who functions as a surrogate for the viewer. For instance, the first place Hirata visits in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor hot spring that has long been the country’s most popular tourist destination.

coldHirata (Masatoshi Nagase) visits the Blue Lagoon in a still from Cold Fever. The milky blue water and roiling mist contribute to an intoxicating, ethereal atmosphere.

bluelagoonJill and me in the same location 19 years after Fridriksson shot his scene. Please note the above photo was taken at 9:30 pm.

vlcsnap-2013-08-12-16h19m03s109Hirata stays at the upscale Saga Hotel in Reykjavik. In this still from the film he is enjoying a glass of wine in the hotel bar when he’s approached by a punky young woman desperate to sell her car.

100_2444The same location as seen today. It has since been purchased by Radisson and renamed the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel.

Unlike Hirata we didn’t pop into the Saga for a drink. We did however imbibe at many other local bars, including the amazing Big Lebwoski-themed Lebowski Bar.

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Of course we ordered White Russians . . .

lebowski2I had the “El Duderino,” which contained tequila and triple sec (appropriate for a drink named after the Dude’s Latinized nickname — or for those “not into the brevity thing”). Jill had the “Tree Hugger,” which was made with soy milk instead of cream!

One of the most popular Icelandic film-exports of the 21st century is Baltasar Kormákur’s offbeat comedy 101 Reykjavik, which details a young man’s affair with his mother’s lesbian lover. One of the movie’s central locations is a trendy bar known as Kaffibarinn. Unfortunately, Kormákur’s subsequent output has become increasingly generic and impersonal (culminating in a recent stint in Hollywood as Mark Wahlberg’s director of choice).

100_2468Kaffibarinn in 2013.

Iceland has become a popular destination for Hollywood productions in recent years (especially sci-fi films in search of exotic exteriors). The opening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, one of the most beautiful and enigmatic scenes in that abstract and still-underrated movie, was shot at the awesome Gulfoss waterfall.

prometheusGulfoss: the biggest waterfall in Iceland and one of the most impressive natural wonders I’ve ever seen.

Iceland’s exteriors have also proven to be an attractive option to filmmakers from other European countries. Aleksandr Sokurov’s ambitious Russian/German co-production of Faust (2011), for instance, memorably set its final scene in Geysir (pronounced gay-ZEER), the site of one of only two of the world’s continually spouting geysers. No one in Sokurov’s film, however, looks as remotely happy as my wife and I do here:

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This post would not be complete without mention of my visit to Iceland’s Phallological Museum, which contains penis samples of over 280(!) different mammals. The museum’s quest to find a human donor was the subject of the hilarious — and surprisingly sweet — 2012 documentary The Final Member, which I reviewed when it played the Chicago International Film Festival last year. Below is my photograph of the museum’s sole human sample, finally acquired in 2011. It belonged to 95-year-old former explorer Pall Arason.

finalmemberPlease forgive me for posting this.


Inherent Vice: Ruminating on the Book, Speculating About the Movie

“Sportello. Try to drag your consciousness out of that old-time hard-boiled dick era, this is the Glass House wave of the future we’re in now.”

— Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Inherent Vice

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I just finished reading Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book and the only one of his seven novels that I hadn’t already read. Although I was something of a hardcore fan of the reclusive author when I was in my 20s (who was it that said Pynchon and Jean-Luc Godard find every new generation of college students?), my extreme distaste for his 2006 novel Against the Day turned me off of reading Inherent Vice when it was first published as an uncharacteristically quick follow-up in 2009. The recent news that Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation has started shooting (the first of Pynchon’s works to be adapted for the screen) made me curious enough to finally read the book. And I’m happy to report I found it delightfully daffy from beginning to end: Inherent Vice is a surprisingly accessible, shaggy dog-stoner-detective story that seems to be deliberately minor in scale — but I much prefer good minor Pynchon to failed major Pynchon. Having said that, it’s still somewhat surprising to see the author working in the detective-fiction genre. Although Pynchon has acknowledged literary genres before, even “lowly” ones, it’s usually in the context of an incongruous mash-up — as in Against the Day, in which the boys’ adventure, western and spy novel elements not only provocatively clashed but were put to the service of a pretentious thesis about World War I representing the global triumph of Evil Capitalist Interests. Inherent Vice, by contrast, not only sticks closely to its main genre but seems to have nothing more on its mind than spinning an entertaining mystery-yarn about a bunch of eccentric characters. Which is precisely why it just might make a great movie. Remember that when Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hitchcock if he would be interested in adapting a Dostoevsky novel, the master of suspense sagely replied that he wouldn’t — because it wasn’t possible to improve on someone else’s masterpiece.

It ain’t a detective being put through the paces of this labyrinthine Chandler-esque plot. But a stoner who likes to bowl!
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Interestingly, Inherent Vice actually feels as if it may have been written with the intention of being adapted into a movie in much the same way that D’entre les morts, the source novel of Vertigo, was written by Boileau-Narcejac specifically for Hitchcock. This is not just because it is a remarkably concise and linear narrative coming from a master of the loose and baggy like Pynchon but also because the novel’s specific themes and story elements already feel familiar from other movies. The stoner-take-on-Raymond Chandler was of course perfected by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski, with which Inherent Vice also shares the additional tropes of a kidnapping plot involving a billionaire, the clash between counter-culture characters and the “square world,” a southern California milieu, some not-so-scary white-supremacist types and, hell, even lingonberry pancakes. No wonder Warner Brothers (as opposed to Annapurna Pictures) is financing this one. They could probably smell its potential cult status — and the Lebowski-like residuals that might bring for years to come — from a mile away. What seems even more likely, however, especially given Paul Thomas Anderson’s deep affection for and friendship with the late Robert Altman, is that the whole thing will turn into an extended homage to The Long Goodbye, which was the original (and the best and the funniest) attempt to bring Philip Marlowe out of that “old-time hard-boiled dick era” and confront him with the modern world. Although it was personally much easier for me to imagine Robert Downey Jr., PTA’s first choice, as stoner-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, I’ll be interested to see what the great Joaquin Phoenix does with the role. Phoenix has been doing “brooding and intense” so well and for so long that Inherent Vice should provide him with the welcome opportunity to show off some of the other, goofier colors on his impressive acting palette. If nothing else, we’ll get to see him wear some ridiculous disguises.

Philip Marlowe buying cat food? In a supermarket? That’s not right!
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Paul Thomas Anderson fans, who are accustomed to waiting five years between the director’s projects, are already rejoicing at the prospect of seeing Inherent Vice debut only one year after The Master. (As with that last movie, a Venice Film Festival premiere for Vice in the fall seems likely.) In addition to my own excitement about the film, I’m also grateful to Anderson for getting me to finally pick up the book. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even take another crack at Against the Day; hearing my students talk endlessly about big budget comic book and video game adaptations, and the endless sequels, remakes and “reboots” they engender, has already convinced me that its anti-capitalist message will go down a lot easier the second time around.


A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.


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