Friday, June 23, 2017

“The Player”: Pitching “The Graduate, Part II”

Few would consider Robert Altman a Hollywood director. Though he enjoyed hits like MASH (1970), the box-office failure of Altman’s ambitious McCabe and Mrs. Miller made studios reluctant to send production money his way. Still, no one has been better than Altman at skewering the way Hollywood goes about its business. I just re-watched his 1992 film, The Player, and marveled at how well it understands moviemaking, Hollywood-style.

 Not that my own years in the film industry resembled what happens on the movie lot depicted in The Player. Working for B-movie maven Roger Corman on the low-budget end of Hollywood, I hardly spent my days in a capacious office suite, nor enjoyed pricey lunches among the beautiful people. (In fact, my deal required me to eat at my desk, while going through piles of script submissions.) Still, I experienced enough of Hollywood to recognize the film’s acid-dipped portrayal of insecure people jostling one another for position. I understood Hollywood’s obsession with star-power and with cranking out formulaic movies chockful of the list of traits described in The Player: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”  I grasped why nearly every pitch heard by studio types within the film has a role guaranteed to be tailor-made for Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts.

And, of course, I love The Player because it features my friend Adam Simon. Fans of the movie will remember that The Player begins with an eight-minute tracking shot that roams the studio lot repesented by Hollywood Center Studios, the former site of Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope. As the roving camera fleetingly captures development execs driving through the gate in sleek cars, listening to pitches, and giving Japanese investors insider tours, a down-at-the-heels screenwriter-type named Adam Simon is desperately trying to accost anyone who might be interested in his latest project. He’s shrugged off by one and all, and a dapper Griffin Mills (star Tim Robbins) demands to know who let him onto the lot. As the film’s story begins to unfold, poor Adam (his actual name is used on screen) is being hustled away, still trying to convince someone—anyone—of his value as a storyteller. It’s a better picture of the writer’s status in Hollywood than any other I’ve seen.

(Adam Simon is still around and still writing. I knew him in my Concorde years as the writer-director of several horror films, including the innovative Brain Dead and Roger Corman’s biggest video hit, Carnosaur. His horror documentary, The American Nightmare, is well worth a look. He got the gig in The Player partly because he’s a longtime friend and colleague of Tim Robbins, with whom he helped found the Actors’ Gang, a local theatre troupe. Adam can’t spell, but he’s a very good guy.)

Adam Simon is not the only sighting in The Player of the writer-as-victim. The film is, among other things, a thriller, and a writer named David Kahane comes to a bad end in a way that sends Griffin Mills’ life completely out of control.  But there are lots of other writer-characters as well, most of them busy pitching their hearts out to suits who are barely being polite. That long tracking-shot at the start features a pitch by none other than Buck Henry, who’s enthusiastically pushing a follow-up to his own screenplay for The Graduate: “Ben and Elaine are married still. . . . . Mrs. Robinson, her aging mother, lives with them. She’s had a stroke. And they’ve got a daughter in college—Julia Roberts, maybe. It’ll be dark and weird and funny—with a stroke.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

One Summer at the Movies: Bill Bryson Looks Back

What’s the big deal about 1927? Bill Bryson, my favorite pop historian, devotes an entire book to the events between May and September of that year. The book is called One Summer: America, 1927. Bryson makes a great case for the fact that the personalities who came to the fore during that six month period—aviator Charles Lindbergh, baseball great Babe Ruth, President Calvin Coolidge, anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti—helped make the United States into the 20th century powerhouse it would soon become.

Naturally, the subject of movies crops up. Movies were evolving back then from a cheap attraction for the lower classes into a full-fledged art form, and their use in capturing reality can’t be overstated. When Lindbergh made the first successful aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, newsreel cameras were in Paris to greet him. Manhattan’s huge new Roxy Theatre showed an exclusive Movietone newsreel of Lindbergh taking off from Roosevelt Field, in which sound was an integral component. As Bryson describes it, “loudspeakers were set up in the theater wings, and a technician with good timing played a separate sound track so that the engine’s initial sputters and final triumphant roar matched the image on the screen.” The combination of sound and visuals brought six thousand patrons to their feet at every screening.

Feeding on the excitement generated by this new era of aviation, Walt Disney released a new Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Plane Crazy.” And after his flight the triumphant but very private Lindbergh was offered $500,000 and a percentage of the profits to star in a cinematic version of his life. According to Bryson, he could have earned as much as $1 million if he’d agreed to be filmed while searching for and finding the girl of his dreams, culminating in a Hollywood-style wedding.

Meanwhile taciturn President Calvin Coolidge was discovering how much he liked appearing on film. Having shown up at a South Dakota hunting lodge for a long summer vacation, he insisted that his whole entourage reload their luggage into cars and drive 200 yards down the road so they could re-enact the presidential arrival for the newsreel cameras.

In Los Angeles, home of movie magic, the big sign in the hills still read Hollywoodland, advertising a local housing tract. But studios were churning out 800 feature films a year. Movies were now the country’s fourth largest industry, but few individual pictures made much profit. Early film moguls looked for answers in new stars (like the sexy “it” girl Clara Bow), new cinematic expertise (the aerial stunts in Wings were spectacular by any standard), and new technologies (this was of course the year of The Jazz Singer and the advent of the talking picture). Meanwhile, exhibitors tried to elevate the moviegoing experience by building extravagant movie palaces. Bryson mentions the kitschy Orientalism of Grauman’s Chinese but especially the bejeweled Roxy on 50th Street and 7th Avenue in New York City. It seated 6,200 moviegoers, but could also accommodate elaborate stage performances. Fourteen Steinway pianos were at the ready; the Roxy also boasted air-conditioning and push-button ice-water dispensers. A New Yorker cartoon of the era showed an awed child asking her mother, “Mama, does God live here?”

Bryson laments, as so many cineastes do, the fact that talkies swept in as silent film was reaching its aesthetic peak. But he makes a fascinating statement about the impact of sound in movies. With a few exceptions, Hollywood’s stars spoke with American voices. “With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor . . . America was officially taking over the world.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Best in Show: A Mockumentary that’s Going to the Dogs

A few weeks back, while huffing and puffing on the elliptical trainer at my gym, I chanced to flip TV channels and came upon the Beverly Hills Dog Show. History was being made: for the very first time the dog show’s Best in Show competition was being broadcast on television. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine who would care. Then again, I don’t understand the rationale behind dog shows in the first place.

Yes, the dogs are – one and all – quite beautiful. Best in Show means that the winners in various specialized categories (the work dogs, the terriers, the toys, and so on) are competing against one another, with one to be named the overall winner. The Best in Show competition in Beverly Hills pitted a whippet against a corgi, a bichon frise, and several others. As is apparently typical of dog shows, none of them is expected to do anything spectacular (like, say, rescuing Timmy from a burning building). Each trots around a circle at his or her master’s side, and then stands at attention, waiting to be admired for being a credit to his or her breed. Judges study the dogs from all angles, examining their teeth and gently lifting their tails. Frankly, it reminded me of a scene from Twelve Years a Slave, except that these dogs were competing for trophies, not being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The other distinctive thing about a dog show is that the dogs are far more graceful and aristocratic than the human beings. Each owner accompanies his or her prize-winner around the ring, sprinting lumpily at the canine’s side. They’re an unlikely lot: the men dressed in sober business suits, the women in ill-fitting tailored attire (with skirt inevitably too short, too tight) and flat-heeled shoes. And their seriousness of purpose can’t be missed.

No wonder Christopher Guest felt that dog shows were ripe to be satirized. Guest (also known, as the 5th Baron Hadon-Guest) first fell into the mockumentary business when he appeared as rocker Nigel Tufnel – the one whose amp goes to eleven -- in Rob Reiner’s 1984 classic, This is Spinal Tap. Following up this comic salute to “one of England’s loudest bands,” Guest began directing his own semi-improvised mockumentaries, featuring a troupe that generally includes Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, and Parker Posey. I’ve never quite gotten over their first effort, 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, about a small-town musical revue whose castmates dream of showbiz success. (Guest himself is a hoot as Corky St. Clair, imported from Broadway to lead the locals to glory.)

But Best in Show (2000) may be the merry band’s most popular effort. I think it’s because audiences love dog movies, and also because in this film the dogs have so much more dignity than their human handlers. Take Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), a trophy wife whose standard poodle Rhapsody in White is the stoic victim of Cabot’s penchant for sartorial makeovers. Or Gerry and Cookie Fleck (he has, quite literally, two left feet, while she seems to have past history with every man she runs across): they like to serenade their Norwich Terrier, Winky, with their own semi-musical dog barks. Or the Swans (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock), a yuppie couple whose own social and sexual neuroses seem to have caught up with their Weimaraner. Only Guest’s own character, a backwoods type named Harlan Pepper, actually seems at one with his bloodhound. Who wins? That’s for me to know. . . .

But I’d say it’s the audience. (Then again, I find  beauty pageants hilarious too.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“Seinfeldia” Gives Us the Yadayada . . . Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

Though the show Seinfeld left primetime in 1998, after a stellar nine-season run, it still has plenty of fans. That can be proven by its success in syndication, by the existence of such social media sites as @Seinfeldtoday, and by the incorporation into our language of references to Festivus and the Soup Nazi. A Brooklyn Cyclones baseball game held in 2014 at a Coney Island stadium was a good-natured gathering of Seinfeld enthusiasts who showed off their affection for their favorite show by donning Jerry Seinfeld-style puffy shirts, imitating Elaine’s herky-jerky dance moves, passing out Vandelay Industries business cards in imitation of sadsack George Costanza, and hawking “master of my domain” sweatshirts.  

The source of all this Seinfeld trivia is a bestselling 2016 book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, now newly out in paperback. It’s called Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, and it digs deep into the Seinfeld archives, exploring Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s original impetus for the show, how the characters evolved, how the writing staff functioned, and how the public came to adopt “a show about nothing” as their own. The origin stories of some of the most famous episodes are here (“The Junior Mint”!), and we’re introduced to the actual people who gave their personalities and in some cases their names to members of the cast. I particularly like the way a poster advertising one of the show’s fake art-films, Rochelle Rochelle, showed up recently on a defunct New York marquee, totally surprising the SoCal woman who’d posed for it twenty years earlier. Rochelle Rochelle, billed as “a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk,” was only one of the movies the Seinfeld characters favored. Others, including Prognosis Negative, Chunnel, and Sack Lunch, have since been given their own photoshopped posters by fans of the show, with Hollywood celebrities in the leading roles.

What apparently made Seinfeld a standout in its day was its attention to the minutiae of daily life, as filtered through the perception of characters who are lovable but not exactly likable. Larry David insisted from the start that sentimentality would never be part of the mix. His credo (which later got printed on jackets for cast and crew): “No hugging, no learning.” When Seinfeld began, both David and Jerry were standup comics who were TV production novices. But once the show caught on, their very flip, very meta style began to have imitators. Soon the aesthetic of Seinfeld was starting to dominate TV sitcoms: cutting became quicker, laugh-tracks were eliminated, “single-camera” on-location shooting began to be favored over three-camera shoots in front of a studio audience. There were other kinds of influences at work too. One newspaper editorial credited Seinfeld with turning around the reputation of New York City in the 1990s. Audiences took away from Seinfeld the fact that the city was a funny, quirky place to live (this despite the fact that almost all the filming was done in L.A.)

Author Jennifer Armstrong’s research for Seinfeldia took her to some interesting places. She learned a lot in discussing the show with the woman charged with translating it into German. So much does Seinfeld depend on the quirks of the American idiom that a good translation is nearly impossible. Take for instance the episode when Jerry tries to remember the name of a girlfriend. She’s told him it rhymes with a female body part.  Just imagine being the translator who needs to come up with a Germanic name that fits a very private part of the German anatomy. (In English, the name turns out to be Dolores.)       

Friday, June 9, 2017

Harold and Lillian: In Love With Movies, and With Each Other

Though Harold and Lillian is rightly billed as “a Hollywood love story,” it’s taken two years for this film to arrive at SoCal theatres. This amiable documentary, made in 2015 by the Oscar nominated director of The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,  chronicles a lifelong love affair between a former GI named Harold Michelson and the best friend of his little sister. Because Lilian Farber was poor and an orphan, Harold’s family did not welcome her into their ranks. So the two eloped to post-war Hollywood, where Harold was beginning to put his artistic skills and his keen eye to work, drafting storyboards for some of the world’s best filmmakers.

Most of us outside of filmmaking circles don’t know much about storyboards. They are a series of cartoon-like drawings, intended to graphically sketch out for the film crew exactly what scenes will be shot, and from what perspective. Harold, who had been an aerial navigator and bombardier over Germany during the second World War, was especially adept at combining his drawing skills with a sophisticated comprehension of distances and angles. The biographer James Curtis, who recently published a book on the legendary contributions of William Cameron Menzies to the field, agrees with me that some directors—especially those with no camera experience—rely heavily on sketch artists to map out their visuals prior to shooting. In those instances, the storyboard artist makes a huge (though generally unsung) contribution to the way a film unfolds. In other cases, a director with a sophisticated grasp of what a camera can do makes artistic choices that the storyboard artist simply renders on paper.

Daniel Raim, writer-director of Harold and Lillian, seems understandably eager to give Harold Michelson full credit for creating the look of films as famous as Hitchcock’s The Birds and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. The film’s interview subjects, who range from Francis Ford Coppola to Mel Brooks to Danny DeVito (he also functions as executive producer), loudly sing Harold’s praises. And I can’t deny that he worked on a number of major Hollywood productions, including Ben-Hur, The Apartment,  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Catch-22. Later in his career he moved up to the post of art director, nabbing Oscar nominations for his work on Terms of Endearment and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Clearly he was a very talented man, though I doubt that he singlehandedly gave the imperious Hitchcock his famous sense of visual style. And as the author of an upcoming book on The Graduate, due out in November 2017 from Algonquin, I can’t buy the idea that filming Benjamin Braddock through Mrs. Robinson’s arched leg was entirely Harold’s brainstorm.

While Harold was putting in long hours at various Hollywood studios, the feisty Lillian struggled to raise three sons, one of whom had serious psychological difficulties. Along the way, she also fell into her own life’s work, when she became a volunteer at the film research library on the Paramount lot. Eventually she was to buy that library, struggling to find a home for it at such varied studios as Coppola’s Zoetrope and Dreamworks. Alas, such libraries are becoming rare at today’s movie studios, but her books and files were invaluble in checking out visuals and historic details for such films as Reds and Fiddler on the Roof. For the latter, she needed to verify what sort of  undergarments would be worn by Jewish girls in an eastern European shtetl. Always an intrepid researcher, she went to the legendary Cantor’s Deli on Fairfax to track down some elderly Jewish ladies who supplied her with a pattern from their girlhood.