Friday, June 9, 2023

A Helluva Film About Two “Heavenly Creatures”

When a prolific English mystery writer named Anne Perry died in L.A. this past April. I didn’t pay much attention. Then I  discovered that, under her birth name (Juliet Hulme), she had been one of the two young defendants in a gruesome 1994 murder trial that set all of New Zealand abuzz. Back in 1954, two teenaged girls who had met at a tony all-female prep school and  become inseparable friends were worried about being parted when one was sent off to stay with family in South Africa. That’s why Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme conspired to murder Pauline’s mother in cold blood. Because they were both well underage, they escaped New Zealand’s death penalty for their crime, but were sentenced to five years in separate prisons. Ultimately each of them  left New Zealand, found religious faith (one of them as a devout Roman Catholic, one as a Mormon), and led unexceptional lives.

 The obsessive relationship between Pauline and Juliet was captured in 1994 by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson in Heavenly Creatures. It was this film that introduced to the world two actresses, then teenagers, who continue to have an impact on today’s entertainment industry. Melanie Lynskey was 16 when she was chosen from among 500 New Zealand schoolgirls to play ugly-duckling Pauline; she has since had a long, rich career as a character actress in films and on television (Two and a Half Men, Yellowjackets). Kate Winslet, just a bit older and more experienced as an actress, soon came aboard as the more glamorous Juliet. One year later, she received her first Oscar nomination, as well as worldwide attention, for her supporting role in Sense and Sensibility. (In total, she has racked up eight nominations, winning the golden statuette in 2008 for The Reader.)

 Peter Jackson is of course best known for fantasy epics, including the masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thinking back to my first viewing of Heavenly Creatures many years ago, I mostly recall the girls’ exuberant but ultimately lethal relationship. This time around, I was stunned by Jackson’s stylistic choices, and by the way he has inserted a fantasy world into a grim kitchen-sink kind of story. (Much of this material was taken directly from Pauline’s diaries.) The film, shot in Christchurch at the locations where the killing actually happened, unexpectedly begins with a kind of Technicolor promotional travelogue detailing the city’s charms: its leafy landscapes, its bustling city streets, its noble-looking institutes of higher learning. The locales we see in the travelogue appear to have no room for sinister behavior. But soon enough Juliet, the new kid in town, meets Pauline in a stuffy French class, and an obsessive friendship is born. Juliet, always the leader, includes Pauline in her imaginative construct of a “Fourth World,” a kind of pastoral heaven without the dreary religious stuff. At times we watch the two girls actually romping through this magical place. Elsewhere we see them role-playing the chief romantic protagonists in a fairytale kingdom of their own devising. Both girls like to draw and to fabricate items out of plastic, and these later become life-sized human and gargoyle figures that appear, armed with huge swords, in times of stress. One gargoyle also shows up, most unexpectedly, in a bizarre situation involving Pauline and one of the young male tenants who lodge in her parents’ home. It’s a key sequence that might help explain how far she is willing to go in resisting what she sees as her mother’s oppression.

 Prep school life, it appears, is far from prim.



Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Filmmaking That’s Fast, Cheap and Under Control

When I first saw a primer on indie filmmaking called Fast, Cheap and Under Control: Lessons Learned from the Greatest Low-Budget Movies of All Times, I was eager to find out where Roger Corman fit into the narrative. And when I discovered that the opening section was devoted to Roger and his protégés (soon-to-be famous directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Demme). I was keen to know whether author John Gaspard had consulted my Corman biography. Turns out he had—and credited me as the source of a key Corman-related quote from indie writer/director John Sayles. So I can give Gaspard credit as a guy who does his homework. He reads what’s out there to be read, and has also spent countless hours personally interviewing indie filmmakers, along with those who’ve gone on to bigger and possibly better things. Like Steven Soderbergh, whose major Hollywood career was sparked by the dramatic Sundance success of his indie chamber piece, sex, lies, and videotape.

 True to the nature of its subject, this is a low-rent book. Let’s put it this way: the book is so cheap that my copy lacks page numbers. And, though Gaspard gives thanks to a copy editor, there’s an egregious grammatical error on the very first line of the very first page. So English majors like me might feel some dismay. Still, there’s a very good education to be had within these covers, both for those who want to make low-budget films and those curious about the kind of wildly inventive cinema that doesn’t require millions. Happily, Gaspard has a great appreciation for small films, whether they are classy stylistic experiments (John Cassavetes’ Shadows) or gruesome horror flicks (The Night of the Living Dead) or outrageous comedies that make a virtue out of cheapness (e.g. the clopping coconut shells that simulate horse hooves in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). One section is devoted to science fiction on a budget, another to mock-documentaries like The Blair Witch Project, a third to the growing field of digital “filmmaking.”

 I particularly enjoyed the tips from ambitious upstarts like Kevin Smith (Clerks) and Jon Favreau (Swingers), who explain in detail the writing and directing choices they needed to make in order to stay on schedule and within budget. For instance, Smith’s one-set film takes place in daylight hours in a rather seedy convenience store. But early on, a leading character who plays the counter man gripes that the store’s blinds are stuck shut, which means that, along with other workday annoyances, he has to do his job in semi-darkness. There’s a reason for this: Smith was actually shooting after the store closed for the night, and didn’t want to give away the fact that there was no sunlight outside the windows. In Swingers, Favreau (directing himself) looks longingly through a batch of photos of a lost love, instead of the usual Hollywood flashback to happier times. Such necessary measures often breed creativity. Longtime indie director Henry Jaglom (Someone to Love) quotes to Gaspard a lesson he learned from the great Orson Welles: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

 I was pleased at the inclusion of Dark Star, a USC student film that gave John Carpenter a start as a Hollywood director of sci-fi and horror by using such inventive tricks as making an ordinary beachball into a space alien. My future husband worked on that film, creating a good-looking space console out of plastic junk. Carpenter borrowed $50 from Bernie and promised screen credit. Eventually he got neither. That’s another way to save money.


Friday, June 2, 2023

“Turn Every Page”: Robert Caro vs. Robert Gottlieb

The film opens with a sound many people today have never heard. But I remember it well: the clacking of typewriter keys. These keys are being struck, in rapid succession, by two fingers, one on each hand. After 87 years of life and the publication of two best-selling biographies (one in four volumes, with a fifth on its way), Robert Caro has not yet discovered either computerized word processing or touch-typing. Writing in depth about Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro sticks to the old ways, including carbon-paper copies of all his drafts.

 In his long, illustrious career, Caro has always worked with one editor: the now 92-year-old Robert Gottlieb. He is by no means Gottlieb’s only prize author: Gottlieb has overseen the publications of such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, and Bill Clinton. But his relationship with Robert Caro seems to be a special one, though it is not all smiles and pats on the back. As Gottlieb explains it, “He does the book work, I do the clean-up, and we fight.” Partly they fight because Caro, an obsessive researcher who started out as a newspaper man, turns in drafts that are many thousands of words over their contractual limit. That’s why Caro lugs his massive drafts into Gottlieb’s New York office, where together (always with a pair of #2 wooden pencils) they wrestle each book into submission.

 This is what we see on screen in the new documentary, Turn Every Page, It was shot over five years by Gottlieb’s filmmaker daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb. But despite her close proximity to her father and his most famous client, Lizzie did not get total access to their working relationship. Yes, they are separately candid in answering her questions (says Gottlieb admiringly about Caro’s accomplishments, “Anyone can be adorable but not everyone can be industrious—with good results”).  But the two men steadfastly refused ever to sit for an on-camera interview together. It was only near the end of the filmmaking process that Lizzie was allowed to film them working—emphatically changing words and x-ing out rejected passages. In those scenes we’ll never know exactly what they were saying, because she was expressly forbidden to record sound.

 We do learn, though, a great deal about Caro’s research process. A strong believer in conveying the impact of place on a biographical subject’s life story, Caro long ago persuaded wife Ina to move with him to the impoverished Texas hill country, all the better to soak up the atmosphere in which President Lyndon Johnson was raised. This helped particularly when he conducted a key interview with Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson. Though he had interviewed Sam Houston several times before about his brother’s childhood, Caro distrusted the results. Aside from a drinking problem, Sam Houston had a reputation as a spinner of tall tales. But following a  religious conversion and a period of sobriety, Sam Houston was persuaded by Caro to be interviewed inside the old family home. Caro seated him at the well-worn Johnson dinner table, then stood behind him, frantically taking notes as the man—encouraged, surely, by the once-familiar surroundings—began to reminisce. This, of course, is exactly what Caro was hoping for. I’m only amazed that he trusted to his notetaking (and not a pocket tape recorder) to get it all down.

 Caro told Lizzie that all those carbon copies of his drafts were stored in a kitchen cupboard. Near the end of her film, he opens the cupboard door : thousands of sheets of paper are stuffed inside. Who knows what additional treasures they contain?