Thursday, November 27, 2014

Nightcrawler: If It Bleeds, It Leads

On Thanksgiving Day, I’m not sure I’m thankful for the 24-hour news cycle. Not long ago, as I was stuck in L.A. traffic, I kept hearing teasers on my favorite radio station: the verdict by the Grand Jury regarding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would be coming soon.  As the clock ticked on, and my car inched its way homeward, suspense mounted. Would police officer Darren Wilson be indicted, or walk away a free man? Would a growing crowd outside the courthouse react peacefully, or erupt into violence? By now we know the answers to those questions. I strongly believe in the right – and the responsibility -- of a free press to tell the public what’s happening in the world. Still, at times it seemed that journalists were holding their collective breaths, just waiting for a town to go up in flames. Which, of course, would make a great top-of-the-hour story.

The idea that news coverage influences current events is not a recent one. Back in the Sixties, young people protesting the war in Vietnam and advancing their own New Left agenda would chant, “The whole world is watching!” They were right, of course. Thanks to television and other forms of mass media, their message was circling the globe. Today, the Internet has made instant messaging all the easier. The demonstrators participating in the so-called Arab Spring knew they were performing for the cameras, and that their struggles against the status quo (captured on cell phones as well as by professional news videographers) would quickly gain world-wide attention. And now, sadly, the shrewd maniacs in charge of the so-called Islamic State have discovered that video is a dandy recruiting tool. They stage the beheading of a western journalist or aid worker, then distribute the graphic footage to the news media worldwide. Soon ISIS’s latest coup is the lead item on news broadcasts everywhere, and the bloody images become must-see attractions on YouTube. 

Almost forty years ago, a movie called Network raised many hackles. This bitter, brilliant film, directed by Sidney Lumet, held television news executives responsible for pandering to the audience’s lust for sensational stories. This was the movie in which a newscaster’s suicidal rant that “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” drives up the ratings of a fictitious TV network to astronomical heights, leading to an increasingly outrageous manipulation of news events for Nielsen’s sake. I haven’t seen Network in many years, but I suspect that  -- in this era of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News – it won’t seem much dated. Early this past year, Dave Itzkoff published Mad as Hell:The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, focusing on the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. I haven’t read it, but one of these days . . . .

Meanwhile, I went to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s new release, Nightcrawler. It’s made me want to watch Network again as a point of reference. In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal (who also produced) plays a feckless young man, desperate for work, who finds he can earn good money from a local TV news station by shooting close-up crime and accident footage that emphasizes blood and gore. A culture built on the fact that “if it bleeds, it leads” is happy to reward him, even if he violates laws and social norms to grab the most gruesome shots possible. One thing leads to another – but you wouldn’t want me to give the plot away, would you? 

Despite it all, do find something to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

And Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols . . .

It was Anne Bancroft who won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, but perhaps that title best belonged to the late Mike Nichols. Nichols, who directed Bancroft’s funny and heartbreaking performance as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, seemed to be brilliant at everything he tried. As part of the performing duo Nichols and May, he helped invent a new kind of sketch comedy. He was a celebrated Broadway director, with seven Tony Awards to his credit, for everything from Barefoot in the Park to a celebrated revival of Death of a Salesman to the recent Monty Python musical, Spamalot. In Hollywood, he was a four-time nominee for a Best Director Oscar, taking home the prize for The Graduate.

The feisty young producer LarryTurman was smart enough to see that Nichols, then making a splash as a stage director of Neil Simon comedies, was just the guy to film Charles Webb’s quirky novel about a young college grad who sleeps with his father’s partner’s wife and then falls in love with her daughter. Turman admired Nichols’ fearless spirit, and Nichols obliged with some gutsy moves. Like bringing in comic actor Buck Henry, who had never before written a screenplay, to adapt Webb’s novel, And choosing to score The Graduate with an existing pop album by folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, the first time this now-familiar technique had been tried in a Hollywood production. Most gutsy of all, Nichols gave the leading role to an unknown actor who was convinced – along with much of the entertainment world – that he was all wrong for the part.

Dustin Hoffman, a thirty-year-old with a budding career as an offbeat off-Broadway character actor, could not imagine himself as the twenty-one-year-old Ivy League golden boy of Webb’s novel. As he put it, “This is not the part for me. I’m not supposed to be in movies. I’m supposed to be where I belong: an ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York, in an ethnic off-Broadway show. You know, I know my place.”  Much of the problem stemmed from Hoffman’s preconception of Benjamin Braddock: “He’s kind of Anglo-Saxon, tall, slender, good-looking chap. I’m short and Jewish.”

The smart money was that the plum part would go to Robert Redford, who was undeniably tall, blond, and handsome. The fact that he’d just been directed by Nichols in the Broadway premiere of  a hit romantic comedy, Barefoot in the Park, seemed to give Redford the inside track. And he auditioned for the role, as did Tony Bill, Charles Grodin, and several other young leading man-types. But Nichols ultimately wasn’t satisfied with these choices. In 1999 he explained in a Film Comment interview how he made his selection: “Dustin has always said that Benjamin is a walking surfboard. And that’s what he was in the book, in the original conception. But I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself.”

This is the unexpected fact about Nichols, that for all his suave showbiz success he remained inside Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, born in Berlin to a Russian-Jewish father and a German-Jewish mother. In 1939, at the age of seven, he fled Nazi Germany along with his younger brother: two little boys crossing the Atlantic alone. At L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center, there’s currently an exhibit called “Light & Noir,” honoring the cinematic contributions of such German emigrés as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann. Mike Nichols deserves a high place on that list. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Crying at Movies: What’s Grief Got to Do With It?

The other day, on my gym’s treadmill TV, I tuned in to the climax of Father of the Bride Part II. In case you missed it, that’s the one where Steve Martin’s wife and his daughter are both unexpectedly giving birth at the same hour, in the same hospital. Poor Steve dashes back and forth between the two delivery rooms, trying desperately to remain calm. And then, suddenly, he’s holding two not-small-enough-to-be-newborn bundles in his arms, one wrapped in a pink blanket, one swathed in blue. Watching Steve Martin’s character beam from ear to ear, and hearing him announce to the world that life doesn’t get any better than this, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.

Here’s what made this strange: on the Sunday before I got the weepies watching Father of the Bride, I had buried my ninety-six-year-old mother. The seven days between her funeral and my trip to the gym had mostly been spent greeting well-wishers and making poignant visits to the home in which I grew up. That week -- preceded by long hours of watching at a dying woman’s bedside --was stressful in the extreme. And I had loved and admired my mother very much. But during the solemnities of her burial service and all the condolence visits that followed I remained dry-eyed. So why did I choke up when an on-screen character experienced an improbably happy turn of fate?

It’s partly that I’m a sucker for happy endings. In movies I cry easily, but usually not when life on screen turns sad. Growing up, I loved the cinematic version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. There’s a point in the middle of that musical when a leading character dies, and a kindly neighbor folds the pregnant widow in her arms as she warbles, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s an undeniably heart-wrenching moment. But my tears do not flow until the end of the movie, when Billy Bigelow’s sad and lonely young daughter is finally accepted by her classmates, to a reprise of the same song. At that point, when life becomes sunshine and rainbows, I predictably turn into a regular Niagara. Perhaps it’s because I realize that life’s perfect moments are all too fleeting. When they’re captured on film in all their transient beauty, my tear ducts are wholly beyond my control.

A while back, I read a clever memoir by a writer named John Manderino. It’s called Crying at Movies, and it traces his development from boy to man in terms of his obsession with motion pictures. Often this involves his strong emotional response to oldies like It’s a Wonderful Life, King of Kings,  and Wuthering Heights. In Manderino’s telling, his relationship with the woman who later became his wife nearly died aborning because he was devastated by Brief Encounter, while she condemned it as a sappy story in which Celia Johnson wore a ridiculous hat. 

I can’t explain why Manderino cries at movies, though rarely in other circumstances. He himself has a curious theory, though: “It’s because there’s no theme music in real life. Seriously, I think it’s because there’s no background music.” He cites the long-ago funeral of his father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. The funeral parlor was crowded with weeping friends and family, yet he found himself dry-eyed, and totally ashamed of that fact. “But then the organist started playing ‘Amazing Grace,’ very quietly, very tenderly, and I fell apart.” Why? Who can say? But a word from Noel Coward seems apt here: “Strange how potent cheap music is.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Brad Krevoy: Dumb (and Dumber) like a Fox

Who woulda thunk it? Releasing a sequel to Dumb and Dumber, twenty years later, has turned out to be a smart move. Dumb and Dumber To, reteaming original stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, pulled in $38 million in its opening weekend, leading all films at the box office.

The 1994 Dumb and Dumber launched the careers of the Farrelly brothers. It further confirmed that Jim Carrey – also featured that year in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask -- was a genuine comedic star. Carrey and the Farrellys have gone on to be household names, especially in households that appreciate outrageous goofiness. Far less well known are the film’s producers. But one of them is a former colleague of mine, and it’s a pleasure to salute him here.

Brad Krevoy graduated from Beverly Hills High School, then went on to study at Stanford. After passing the bar, he entered the field of entertainment law. Then, in a 1983 episode that could have been concocted by a Hollywood screenwriter, Brad attended a Stanford football game. Also in the stands that day  was low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman, himself a Stanford grad. Brad had just read an article about the coming of the VCR, and how this new technology could revolutionize the film industry. He mused to Roger that the big studios would doubtless be slow to take advantage of the home viewing audience, preferring to wait until the market matured. Roger, he felt, was well equipped to ride the coming wave by quickly supplying product to fill up video store shelves. As Brad told me, “I said that to Roger on a Saturday, and Monday I was working for him. ”        

Brad’s role initially was to handle Concorde’s business affairs, looking for new opportunities as well as new sources of movie funding. His hunch about video quickly paid off:  “As the video business grew, we were at one point the largest supplier. We had deals with every major video distribution company in the world, to the point where we had orders in excess sometimes of 30 to 40 films a year we had to produce, because we had all these orders.  It was a really extraordinary period.” (I personally remember those busy days quite well. Yes, it was extraordinary!) Though Roger sent him out on occasion to slap competitors with lawsuits, Brad had no delusions about his prowess as a litigator. But moviemaking quickly got into his blood, and the lessons he learned from the master have stayed with him ever since.

As he moved into his own producing career, as founder and CEO of the Motion Picture Corporation of America, Brad always kept in mind the Corman mantras. Such as: rather than follow a trend, it’s wise to try satisfying the needs of specialty audiences. Says Brad, “Any film that I’ve ever had that’s done big business, it was because I was trying to play the niches.” He cites Dumb and Dumber as such a broad, silly comedy that no established studio would dare to make it. Roger taught him that “you really don’t have to be the biggest or the best on the block.  Do the best you can  . . . if you’re going to do a smaller film, be the best at the smaller film, and compete at your own level, that you’re comfortable with.”

Brad Krevoy is now the producer of over one hundred films, including the Emmy-nominated Iraq War teledrama, Taking Chance and the upcoming holiday romance, A Royal Christmas. All hail to yet another Cormanite who didn’t take dumb for an answer.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"2001": The Grand-Daddy of All Interstellar Movies

Last year it was Gravity; this year it’s Interstellar. In the real world of space exploration, the focus is now on robotics, like the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission that this week (semi-)successfully landed an unmanned spacecraft on a comet. But moviegoers still enjoy watching men and women personally contend with the perils of outer space. Space-travel movies date all the way back to the 1902 Georges Méliès fantasy, A Trip to the Moon. In the era of Sputnik, Roger Corman got into the act with 1958’s hilariously low-budget War of the Satellites. Of course there’ve been outer-space films aplenty. But the one that made all the difference was released in 1968. It was, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When 2001 first appeared, Time Magazine hailed it as “the most dazzling visual happening in the history of the motion picture.”  Today, when asked where he’s spotted the long-range impact of Kubrick’s space adventure, film industry veteran Bruce Logan responds, “Well, everywhere. From on-screen graphics for TV stations on down.” Bruce should know. A London-born cinematographer and effects specialist, he’s worked on such classic fantasies as Star Wars, TRON, and Batman Forever. But he started out as a self-taught animator, one who began his motion picture career at Britain’s MGM Elstree studios as part of the special photographic effects unit on 2001, under the supervision of the great Douglas Trumbull.
Says Bruce, “2001 was my film school.” For the first year of his involvement, he contributed to the animation of what looked like a spacecraft’s computer screens. Given that the film was made years before such computers existed, these computers today look remarkably convincing. He’s particularly proud of his work on the read-out monitoring the “sleeping” astronauts who all flat-line, in one of the film’s most disturbing moments. It took a while, though, before he was able to fully appreciate Kubrick’s achievement: “For the first ten or twenty years after the movie came out, to me it was just a bunch of shots that I had worked on, strung together. . . . I think that the time that I saw the genius most was when I saw it about a year ago, at the Academy, without any recollection – and I was able to see for the first time what a brilliant piece of work it was.”
In preparation for filming 2001, Kubrick had his visual effects team watch such sci-fi flicks as Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Voyage (which Bruce now calls “that terrible movie with bad special effects where they go inside the body”). Ultimately, though, Kubrick’s vision was wholly unique. It’s worth remembering that when the film was being planned, NASA missions were paving the way for the 1969 moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.While Kubrick and company were deciding what the moon in their film should look like, actual photographs of the far side of the moon were starting to be made available for the first time. The filmmakers seriously considered altering their visual concept to make it resemble the lunar surface as seen in NASA’s photographs, but then admitted to themselves that “the moon looks kind of boring.” That being so, they decided to forget about authenticity and stick with their original design plan.
Though Bruce made a Roger Corman detour upon first coming to America, he’s best known for his work on big-budget Hollywood spectaculars: “I blew up the Death Star. It wasn’t Luke, it was me! That’s one of my claims to fame.”