Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Noah Baumbach's Meyerowitz Stories-- All In the Family

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach is something of a poet of family dysfunction. I was impressed by his The Squid and the Whale (2005), though I came away vastly relieved that I had never had to survive the challenges of a split-up family. I feel the same way about Baumbach’s newest release, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which was greeted enthusiastically at Cannes last spring. This film too has a lot to say about the impact of failed marriages on the children of these unions, but its tone is gentler, with occasional glimmers of nostalgia.

Don’t expect from Baumbach a tightly-plotted movie. He’s not going to become a Hollywood-style director anytime soon. As his title hints, the film is structured like a collection of linked short stories. He meanders from one character to another, one situation to another, until we have a full multi-generational picture of the Meyerowitz clan, people who were born to drive one another crazy.

Everything starts with Harold, a bearded and paunchy New York sculptor. He’s played with cantankerous panache played by 80-year-old Dustin Hoffman, who’s now worlds away from his role as just-turned-21 Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Harold Meyerowitz, modeled after Baumbach’s own grandfather, is a semi-success in his chosen field: the Whitney Museum once purchased one of his pieces, though it now doesn’t quite know where to find it. But he’ll never get over the fact that he lacks the recognition accorded some of his peers. His 33 years as an inspirational art teacher at Bard College seem to mean nothing to him. And he dismisses his three grown children (from two of his four marriages) with a blend of condescension and disdain. This is not a man that most people would find lovable, though his perennially soused current wife (an hilarious Emma Thompson) and his major art-world rival (Judd Hirsch) are firmly in his corner. So are the grown sons who can’t live with him, can’t live without him.

Ben Stiller does well as the neurotic younger son who has besmirched the family name by lacking artistic talent, but now (as a highly successful financial planner) could buy and sell all the other characters. In the awkward position of being his father’s clear favorite, he struggles to make everyone happy while simultaneously wrestling with his crumbling marriage back in L.A. But most of the film’s critical attention has gone to Adam Sandler, for his intricate portrayal of the angry older son. He’s been embittered by his father’s neglect of him from childhood onward, and yet he’s also a good and loving dad to his own daughter, who’s on the brink of her college years. (She aspires to be a filmmaker, and her would-be-bold student films are among the film’s most hilarious moments, especially given that everyone in this artsy family feels obliged to show them high respect.)

I’m not familiar with the TV and stage work of Elizabeth Marvel, who plays the third--and most neglected–-Meyerowitz sibling. As the mousy Jean, she’s poignantly left out of the loop no matter what’s happening. Other small but vital roles are played by Adam Driver (as a petulant celebrity client of Ben Stiller’s character) and Candice Bergen (as an ex-wife with a conscience). The Meyerowitz Stories is hardly straight-ahead filmmaking, but it contains great pockets of delight. Like that awkward MOMA art opening attended by Hoffman and Sandler in matching tuxedoes, and especially the climactic moment when the Meyerowitz half-brothers finally, clumsily, act out their mutual disgust before acknowledging that, after all is said and done, they need each other.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro: Keep Calm and Write On

I’m thinking of two movies I thoroughly admired. One of them, a sumptuous Merchant-Ivory costume drama from 1993, was nominated for eight Oscars, but had the bad luck to go up against Schindler’s List. The other, featuring three rising young English actors, garnered some critical raves in 2010 for its offbeat storytelling, but was largely overlooked by moviegoers. What do The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go have in common? Both are based on novels by the world’s newest Nobel laureate for literature, Kazuo Ishiguro.

When The Remains of the Day first crossed my radar, I was surprised by the name of its author. This classic story of a butler (Anthony Hopkins in the film) devotedly serving the lord of a English manor without ever stopping to question his master’s tainted values seemed about as British as tea and crumpets. So why did the novelist have such a Japanese name?

As it turns out, Ishiguro is fully Japanese by birth. Born in Nagasaki, he moved to England with his family at age five because his father was doing research at Britain’s National Institute of Oceanography. Somehow, they never quite left. Although he grew up in a thoroughly Japanese household, young Kazuo attended English schools, ultimately graduating from the University of Kent with an honors degree in English and Philosophy. Along the way, he certainly immersed himself in the strictures of British mores and manners, as his novels reveal. By the same token, Ishiguro’s transformation into an Englishman (he became a British subject in 1982) was accelerated by the fact that Japan and England share a number of cultural values. Both are island nations that have long depended on a sense of hierarchy, with those on society’s lower rungs expected to be quietly deferential to their superiors. Both countries also prize the ability to restrain one’s emotions: what Brits call “stiff upper lip” helps to define the butler’s inability to share his emotions with the housekeeper (the film’s Emma Thompson) who hopes to win his love.

The screen version of The Remains of the Day apparently had its problems. Mike Nichols was slated to direct, from a script by playwright (and Nobel laureate) Harold Pinter. But when producer Ishmail Merchant and director James Ivory took over, the storyline began to evolve, and Pinter chose to remove his name. I can only say that the result is classy in every respect, a true example of what this team could do when let loose among the stately homes of England.

If The Remains of the Day reflects the values of England’s past, Never Let Me Go hints at the nation’s potentially dark future. What starts as a conventional story of three young people in a classic English boarding school takes an ominous turn as we move in the direction of dystopian science fiction. For this attractive trio (played in the film by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightly) are not exactly human beings. Rather, they serve humans in a way that shocks us, and makes for a love story with a poignant ending. Once again, unspoken passion seems to be the watchword, connecting this film with Ishiguro’s most famous earlier effort.

The choice of Ishiguro as a Nobel laureate is far less bold and controversial than last year’s selection of Bob Dylan. But he’s a major talent, and I’m sure both Britain and Japan are celebrating. At a time when immigration is coming to be an ugly word, it’s also nice to see how someone who blends two cultures can rise so dramatically to the top of the heap.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Memo to Harvey Weinstein: A Secretary is Not a Toy

Of course the big news out of Hollywood at the moment is Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace. He’s a big man, and his departure is making a big splash. But I certainly can’t feel sorry for someone who apparently spent decades hitting on actresses and company employees, using the power of his position to get women in compromising positions.

Of course the casting couch is nothing new. But I’m happy to say that my years in the film industry were largely untainted by that kind of sexual byplay. Of course there was that meeting (I think there were four of us in the room at the time) when a creepy actor’s agent put his hand on my thigh and just kept it there. Yuck! And yet my boss, Roger Corman, was never less than a gentleman. Cheap, yes, but not one to chase a starlet -- or a story editor -- around the office.

(In fact, some of the weirder moments in my working life took place when I was a professor of English at the University of Southern California. Still, given the news stories coming out of USC of late, I guess that’s not so surprising.)

But I digress. The booting of Harvey, following an inflammatory story about his misdeeds in the New York Times, coincided with my sitting down to watch a movie I’d gotten from my local library. In L.A. you never know WHO you’re going to meet over lunch. At the Brentwood Country Mart I made the acquaintance of a very nice lady who turned out to be playwright and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. She has been involved with such high profile screen adaptations as The Girl on the Train. But she introduced herself to me as the writer of Secretary, a film I knew only by its reputation as something controversial and kinky. Naturally I wanted to check it out.

Secretary, based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, is the offbeat tale of a troubled young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) given to cutting herself in moments of stress. Newly released from a mental hospital, she tries to remake herself as a super-efficient but humble working gal in the office of a rather ominous young lawyer (the always slightly sinister James Spader). He finds multiple ways to degrade her, then confuses her thoroughly by sometimes being unexpectedly sympathetic to her wants and needs. Their relationship bumps up a notch when his punishment for her misspellings turns physical. (Though perhaps his cruelest act is to force a 21st century office assistant to take care of all correspondence on an old-fashioned typewriter. What? No spell check?)

Secretary is the rare movie that acknowledges the possibility that pain can be a part of pleasure for both women and men. At times it’s darkly funny; at other times merely strange. But, curiously enough, its two central characters are completely credible, and not as off-putting as one might imagine. This is due at least in part to Gyllenhaal and Spader’s no-holds-barred performances, which allow for tenderness as well as cruelty, love as well as sado-masochism. Gyllenhaal in particular evolves before our eyes from a scared young girl to a confident, self-motivated woman. I’ve also got to credit my new friend Erin’s credible writing and director Steven Shainberg’s elegantly visual handling of the action. 50 Shades of Grey -- the obvious comparison – seems both far cornier and more clumsy than this intriguing, thought-provoking film.

But I wonder how Harvey Weinstein would respond to Secretary’s suggestion that power can be sexy. Surely it would make him rise to the occasion, right?

Friday, October 6, 2017

David Geffen, Elias Davis, and the Rise of the House of Usher

This week the front page of the Los Angeles Times was splashed with a rare happy story. Music industry mogul David Geffen had just pledged $150 million for the renovation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was hardly Geffen’s first grand philanthropic gesture: he has enriched the coffers of theatres, museums, and concert halls on both coasts. And UCLA’s prestigious School of Medicine was renamed in his honor following a $400 million donation.

So David Geffen’s an impressive guy. But some forty years ago, he was just a young drudge working a lowly job at CBS. One fine day, kibitzing with his supervisor, he mentioned his plan to find a hot literary property, buy the rights, and make a film. That supervisor, Elias Davis, was hardly impressed with his youthful optimism. He pointed out that the kid was merely an (expletive deleted) usher.

How times have changed! Today Geffen is one of the world’s wealthiest men. But that supervisor—officially the assistant usher supervisor—has not done so badly himself. Elias Davis, who was interested in cinematography but somehow became a writer of sitcoms and film comedies, now owns an Emmy and a house in Malibu. For his work on such landmark TV as M*AS*H, Frasier, and The Carol Burnett Show, he and co-writer David Pollock have racked up a slew of nifty award nominations.

I’m not sure why, but writers of stage and screen comedies often come in pairs. One advantage of writing as a team is the opportunity to bounce ideas off a like-minded partner. Sometimes these duos get along famously; sometimes not. Elias cited for me a passage in Moss Hart’s Broadway memoir, Act One, in which Hart reminisced about his collaborations with George S. Kaufman. The two spun such farces as You Can’t Take It With You into comic gold.. But at every work session, Kaufman obsessively picked lint from carpets and furniture before he could settle down to make theatrical magic. Working “head to head,” Elias and Pollock apparently struggled with no such quirks. Of course there was the time that Pollock came into the office one morning with a cold opening that struck an awed Elias as “just perfect.” He never shared with his partner his secret anxiety that perhaps he himself was not really needed.

Today those who aspire to break into TV comedy talk knowledgeably about show runners and writers’ rooms. Elias remembers a much different era, when a show’s producer would hire one staff writer, and freelancers would carry much of the load. Gradually, though, writing staffs became enlarged. Elias counts among his favorite memories his years on the staff of M*AS*H, where he felt among both cast and staff a sense of camaraderie and pride he’s never experienced on any other show. Another special opportunity involved being chosen by the great Paddy Chayefsky to collaborate on a comic pilot called Your Place or Mine. The show flopped, but he cherished the opportunity to learn from a master.

Today Elias devotes himself to making music in various ensembles (he’s graduated from trombone to recorder). But he can imagine himself writing for a contemporary satirical comedy like Veep. He’s amused to recall that in the early days of Showtime, he and David Pollock were hired to wring a sitcom from a quirky Bruce Jay Friedman play in which God is a Puerto Rican steambath attendant. Their resulting Steambath, though, proved too boldly satiric for Showtime, which aspired in those days to be just like the networks. Times certainly have changed. Says, Elias, with a shrug, “It might work now.”

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Lights Out in Las Vegas

Las Vegas -- a place where anything’s possible, a place that encourages visitors to let go of everyday reality -- has now become a site of all-too-real death and destruction. The events of Sunday night won’t leave my head anytime soon.

I’ve always had mixed emotions about Las Vegas. When I was a kid, it was where my clean-living parents went for adults-only weekends, during which they swam in glamorous pools and celebrity-gazed at classy low-rise hotels like the Sands and the Dunes. (No, they never gambled—and I was startled to learn that they occasionally ordered a round of something called Dubonnet.)

When I was old enough to drink and watch shows featuring topless women, my in-laws treated my spouse and me to a few Las Vegas weekends. My father-in-law, who was born into abject poverty, loved Vegas. For him it was a place to put on his best suit and check out the craps table. He certainly never gambled to excess, but I think just being in that atmosphere made him celebrate how far he’d come in the world. Even when he was elderly, bereaved, and sad, he perked up in Vegas: the place seemed to give him a new lease on life.

Moviemakers too have always loved Las Vegas. Its garish atmosphere combined with its proximity to workaday Los Angeles has made it a destination in countless movies. Remember Vince Vaughn’s exuberant shout as he and his buddies drive toward the Strip in Swingers: “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” For his playboy character, Las Vegas is a place of escape from the humdrum world, a place where anything can happen. It plays a similar role in countless other wacky and raunchy comedies, from 1964’s Elvis flick, Viva Las Vegas, to 2009’s cringe-worthy The Hangover. Given how much money changes hands in Vegas, it makes a great setting for rollicking heist dramedies like Ocean’s 11, both the 1960 Rat Pack original and the all-star 2001 remake. And it enjoys an effective closeup in Rain Man, where Tom Cruise’s character sends his autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) to the blackjack table, to take advantage of this savant’s unlikely talent for numbers.

It’s no secret that Las Vegas has had a long association with mobster types. One source of the Strip’s frenetic glamour has always been a struggle for power between tough guys who fully intend to hold all the marbles. In the town that some would-be wits call “Lost Wages,” the winner takes all. This fact has resulted in powerful Vegas dramas like Bugsy and Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Films of this sort link the Vegas gambling-joints with dangerous men, femme fatale women, and bloodshed on tap.

But the Las Vegas film that lingers in my memory banks is not about the city’s big “machers.” Leaving Las Vegas, from 1995, explores the seamier side of life just off the Vegas Strip. Nicolas Cage, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays a failed Hollywood screenwriter who has taken up residence in Vegas in order to drink himself to death. By his side in his seedy final abode is a kindly prostitute (Elisabeth Shue) with troubles of her own. When Cage’s character leaves Las Vegas, it’s clear it will be feet first.

It’s a life (and a death) he’s chosen. But those poor souls who came to Vegas last weekend to enjoy a country music concert didn’t deserve to have their lives shortened. If their killer found the need to leave Las Vegas in grim fashion, how tragic (and how unfair) that he chose to take them with him.