Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Barton Fink in Hollywood, Where Writers Sink Slowly in the West

When actor John Mahoney passed away earlier this month at the age of 77, most commentators mentioned the popular sitcom, Frasier, in which he played Kelsey Grammer’s blue-collar dad. I have to thank my colleague, Carl Rollyson, for reminding me of Mahoney’s very different role in the Coen brothers’ outrageous 1991 Hollywood saga, Barton Fink. Carl, a prolific biographer now researching literary giant William Faulkner, loves Mahoney’s portrayal of W.P Mayhew, a celebrated novelist-turned-Hollywood-hack who (with his Southern charm and ever-present whiskey flask) is an obvious Faulkner clone.

In Barton Fink, Mayhew/ Faulkner represents the way the movie industry uses and abuses writers. With his talent squandered on scenarios for unworthy entertainments, he might as well be dead—which is why he behaves as though he already were. Fink himself (as played by John Turturro) also suggests a familiar literary type. His character reflects the career of Clifford Odets, a 1930s Broadway darling whose gritty kitchen-sink dramas (like Awake and Sing!) chronicle the triumphs and failures of the common man. Barton Fink is first seen on the evening of his greatest theatrical triumph, being feted by nightclub-goers who celebrate his contributions to the New York stage. The applause may be grand, but Fink’s agent advises that it’s time to cash in: he’s been offered a lucrative Hollywood screenwriting contract, and it behooves him to make some real money, before returning to Broadway with his wallet fattened and his dignity intact.

Except that things don’t go as planned.  Barton’s time on the coast in fact comes to seem something like Dante’s descent into Hell, with horrors multiplying at every turn. The studio houses him in the seedy Hotel Earle, where the paper is peeling off the walls, a creepy Steve Buscemi seems to be the only staffer, and the motto for guests is “a day or a lifetime.” (The Hotel Earle is surely a 1940s version of Hotel California, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be called “lovely.”) Even when Fink enters swankier surroundings, like the office of the Hollywood mogul who hired him, the atmosphere remains nightmarish. His new boss and the lackeys who surround him barely let Barton get a word in edgewise, and he spots the great W.P. Mayhew vomiting in a toilet stall. Worst of all, he can’t get started on the wrestling picture he’s been assigned because his creative juices seem to have dried up for good.

I won’t get into the film’s unexpected twists and turns except to say that they somehow include his one new-found friend, a jolly insurance salesman  played by John Goodman. Let’s just note that Barton Fink’s California sojourn goes from bad to worse, until he’s faced with an unspeakable tragedy. Years ago, when I saw this film in first-run, I didn’t know what to make of it. This time around, because I’ve spent so much energy pursuing the life of a writer, I’ve found myself focusing on the implications of Barton’s writer’s block. I know what it’s like to be stymied at just the moment when you need to be most brilliant. I know what it feels like when the words don’t come. One detail I’m sure I overlooked back in 1991: it is only when Barton is faced with the grimmest, the most grotesque, of real-life circumstances that he can turn his back on the world, approach his typewriter, and begin happily pounding out a story. The whole film, then, can be seen as an elaborate metaphor for the act of creation: it’s only when life is at its harshest that the imagination kicks in.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Remembering “Coco”: It’s a Scary World, After All?

Little kids, I’ve discovered, like things that are scary . . . as long as they’re not TOO scary. But they’re not crazy about sitting quietly in the dark of a movie theatre for a long period of time. And they value entertainment that’s simple and straightforward. They understand about good guys and bad guys, but shades of grey are pretty much beyond them. These are some lessons I learned when I took two young family members (ages 6 and 3) on their first big movie outing, to see Pixar’s Coco.

Personally, I loved this film, the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for best animated feature. It’s beautiful to look at, and does a splendid job of mirroring Mexican culture in a way that’s both respectful and fun. From the opening credits, spelled out in brightly-colored papel picado (paper-cut) banners, to the incorporation of Mexican Dia de los Muertos traditions, Coco is a visual treat. The music is terrific too, and the film’s message about family solidarity and respect for one’s past certainly resonates.

That being said, Norteamericano children six and under can be forgiven for not appreciating the charms of Coco. After all, it’s almost two hours long, which makes for a lengthy sit. And it’s complicated: not every kid can quickly grasp why the plucky young hero has to journey to the realm of the dead and (worse yet!) risk not being able to return. And Coco is—let’s face it—a wee bit scary. Hundreds of animated skeletons appear among the cast of character. Even though most of them are quite fanciful and lovable, their presence poses questions about the meaning of death that I suspect make most American kids uneasy. (Mexican culture is traditionally good at acknowledging death in ways both loving and humorous, so I’d enjoy  hearing how a six-year-old steeped in that heritage would feel about the movie.)

 Anyway, the two youngsters I took to see Coco have now survived their very first trip to Disneyland. The three-year-old, a girl who loves puppies and unicorns, enjoyed her dizzy ride in those whirling Alice in Wonderland teacups (every adult’s least-favorite Disney attraction), but later proclaimed that what she liked best was prancing on a white wooden horse on the King Arthur Carousel. Her big brother, newly six, was definitely in the market for scares. He survived the Haunted Mansion, then graduated to the thrills of Star Tours, the Indiana Jones ride, a Matterhorn bobsled, and the bone-rattling Wild West rollercoaster called Big Thunder Railroad. Each of these he found scary, but not too scary to be fun. I’m certain he’d go back at a moment’s notice.

Why was he put off by Coco, even though he couldn’t get enough of these thrill-rides? Well, first of all, the rides are short, so there’s precious little time to get anxious or confused. And though they may be full of physical jolts, you can’t call them mentally taxing.  True, they simulate danger, but rescue always comes very quickly. Though he wouldn’t want to see Coco again, this six-year-old can be mesmerized by early Disney cartoon shorts, like one where an obvious bad guy (Pistol Pete?) is foiled by spunky hero Mickey Mouse, who deftly removes consecutive rungs of a ladder Pete is climbing. In comic shorts like this, everyone gets a bit battered, but the humor is so broad that we know there’s no harm done, and that everyone is going to live forever without anything much changing. In Coco, lives change forever—and that’s a lot to grasp when you’re sitting in the dark.

Monday, February 19, 2018

“Battleship Pretension” Sets Sail at Oscar Time

Classic film enthusiasts are well acquainted with Battleship Potemkin, the thrilling 1925 silent Soviet epic in which director Sergei Eisenstein showed the Russian people rising up against their Tsarist oppressors. But do these film fans also know “Battleship Pretension”?

This latter is something totally unknown in Eisenstein’s day: a podcast. It’s been around for 13 years, regularly doling out opinions about movies. As the “Battleship Pretension” site makes clear, it offers  “movie talk from two guys who think they know more than you do.” Frankly, I’m not convince they know more than I do about The Graduate. I first met Tyler Smith, one of those two self-confident film dudes, when I climbed aboard “Battleship Pretension” to talk about my new book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson. Tyler may not have been the ultimate expert on The Graduate, but he was savvy and charming. That’s why we scheduled a second conversation to compare notes on the upcoming Oscar race. Afterward, I couldn’t resist asking Tyler about himself.

Tyler is currently a graduate student in the UCLA film school, majoring in critical studies. He’s the rare film geek who holds conservative social values, and considers himself a committed Christian. (By contrast, his co-host and longtime friend David Bax is, in Tyler’s words, “a liberal atheist.”) One thing that fascinates me about Tyler’s perspective is that – unlike a good many Christian conservatives – he has no use for censorship of any sort. Devices like Vid Angel that remove nudity and rough language from an existing film, are for him completely missing the point, and he wouldn’t dream of favoring a cleaned-up version of a Scorsese or Tarantino film, because “that stuff is the movie.” No fan of most overtly Christian movies, he points to the evolving Samuel L. Jackson character in Pulp Fiction as an unlikely but genuine Christian role model.

Each year’s Oscar season is a special time for “Battleship Pretension” and its fans. Since 2013, Tyler and David have been handing out the BP Awards, based on the votes of about 30 movie experts, including site contributors, fellow podcasters, and previous guests. The winners are announced at the end of February. Alas, there are no fancy gold statuettes, but the BP folks do generally stage an impressive ceremony that is featured on the podcast. OK, so it’s faked – but they have fun adding music, crowd noise, and celebrity photos. Tyler has loved putting these bogus events together: “I don’t know if anybody enjoyed it as much as I did.” 

Most of the BP award categories are familiar ones – best supporting actor, best documentary feature – but Smith and Bax have given themselves the right to invent categories of their own. That’s why there’s an award for best stunts, as well as the unique “The Bruce McGill in The Insider Award for Best Performance Under 15 Minutes.” Past winners of this prize have included Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street and Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar! But Tyler seems most jazzed about the 2016 award, which went to journeyman actor Neal Huff for his tiny but key scene as an abuse survivor who gets the ball rolling in Spotlight. Tyler loved the fact that Huff was hardly a movie star. “Battleship Pretension” contacted his publicist, and learned that Huff would be happy to tape a gracious acceptance speech. 

This year’s nominees, who include Bruce Greenwood as a frantic reporter in The Post and Harriet Sansom Harris as a soused client of couturier Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, are by no means celebrities. Let’s hope the BP Bruce McGill Award really makes someone’s day.