Tuesday, January 31, 2017

La La Land, Revisited: We’ll Always Have Paris

So a La La Land, the most L.A.-centric of movies, has copped the lion’s share of this year’s Oscar nominations. I’m charmed that this new musical film lovingly presents a romantic, technicolor vision of the city of my birth. And yet, within the film’s (rather slight) story, it’s Paris that remains the place of glamour and opportunity. Spoiler alert: It’s Mia’s trip to Paris that turns her world around and makes her dreams come true.

I’m sure this irony wasn’t lost on filmmaker Damien Chazelle, who borrowed heavily from old French musicals when writing and directing La La Land. The movie’s already-famous opening, in which freeway commuters leap out of their vehicles and proceed to sing and dance, is a direct steal from Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. This 1967 flick begins when the members of a traveling carnival troupe spring from their caravan of trucks to stage an impromptu musical number in the middle of a country road. Demy’s French-language film also features both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris of West Side Story fame, thus reminding us of the long artistic connection between France and Hollywood. Kelly was, of course, the star of the 1951 Best Picture musical, An American in Paris, which ends in a fantasy ballet sequence that’s either breathtaking or brain-numbing, depending on your point of view. Some of the spirit of that ballet has also found its way into the conclusion of La La Land.

Despite its Paris setting, An American in Paris was made almost entirely on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. For Casablanca, filmed as World War II raged, a  romantic Paris flashback was shot on the designated “French Street” at Warner  Bros.’ Burbank studio. The original 1954 Sabrina also fakes its Paris locales. But eventually, as Hollywood production became more international, actual Parisian locations were put to good use in romances (1957’s Love in the Afternoon and Funny Face, along with 1958’s Gigi) and thrillers (1963’s Charade). The trend certainly continues. Woody Allen set aside his love affair with New York City long enough to shoot the delightful Midnight in Paris (2011) and the second film of Richard Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy—2004’s Before Sunset---also makes use of genuine Parisian byways.

French filmmakers adore the City of Lights too. Paris plays itself in nouvelle vague films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Metro, and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. It’s worth mentioning that when Jacques Demy (Varda’s husband) came to the U.S. to follow up on the international success of his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he chose to make his English-language debut, Model Shop (1969) on the streets of Los Angeles. As he later told the L.A. Times, “I came here for a vacation, not to make a movie. But I fell in love with LA. . . . I learned the city by driving—from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. LA has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”

I’ll close with a very charming, very French film that became an international hit (and prompted a craze for taking photo-booth snapshots and sending garden gnomes on trips ‘round the world). Amélie emerged in 2001, and quickly won the love of romantics everywhere. Now it’s a musical headed for Broadway. That’s, I guess, because Paris puts a song in our hearts.

On the other hand, look at 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist. It’s a French-made silent film about the glories of early Hollywood, shot entirely in L.A.          

Friday, January 27, 2017

Less and (Mary Tyler) Moore: Thoughts About Women in the Arts

The sad news of the death of Mary Tyler Moore has put me in a nostalgic mood. I remember  how much I loved laughing at her – and with her – on both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s worth pointing out, of course, that she was an actress and not simply a charmer. Her chilly performance in Ordinary People was definitely worthy of its Oscar nomination. But when I think about her, my mind goes back to a charity basketball game I attended, one in which the Harlem Globetrotters were challenged by Hollywood celebrities. The players were all male (I think I recall Ryan O’Neal and Henry Mancini on the court), but there was a cluster of female cheerleaders trying hard to rouse the crowd.  The one person who truly stands out in my recollection is Mary Tyler Moore, who seemed to be bubbling over with delight at the opportunity to  wave her pompoms for a good cause.

Along with Moore’s death, this past week has brought an Oscar nomination roster that points up that—as writers and directors—women are still at a distinct disadvantage in Hollywood. And I’ve just finished reading the biography of a once-famous 19th century American writer whose life story points up the complex and self-contradictory role of women in the arts. Anne Boyd Rioux’s fascinating Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist deals with a figure previously unknown to me. In her own day, though, she was hugely popular, with critics as well as the reading public. Such literary giants as Henry James were her admirers and close friends.

Woolson struggled, though, with the fact that in the post-Civil War era there was still a stigma attached to being a literary female. (See the Gilbert and Sullivan lyric, from The Mikado, about “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” as one of the social species “who never would be missed.”) A demure Victorian lady, Woolson was bold in writing about the passions of others but kept her own life strictly within bounds. After a romantic disappointment in her youth, she embarked on a writing career with a firm determination to be independent and self-supporting. The corollary, for Woolson, was that she permitted herself no room to consider marriage and children. At the same time, she shied away from the public acclaim enjoyed by male authors in her day, feeling the need to deprecate her own talents in their presence.  

Woolson died tragically, a probable suicide, in 1894. The news spread quickly throughout the English-speaking world, but there was little sympathy for her in an era when (in the words of biographer Rioux) “an aura of tragic sensitivity had not yet formed around the image of the suicidal artist.” In later years, the suicides of authors Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath were the stuff of movies. (See The Hours, for which Nicole Kidman won an Oscar, and Sylvia.) Woolson, though, not proto-feminist enough to be re-discovered, is mostly forgotten.

How does all this fit with the perky Mary Tyler Moore? Her first TV roles, like that of a sexy receptionist on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, focused on her body, not her brains. But on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), playing an associate producer at a Minneapolis TV station, she demonstrated it was possible to be a smart, talented female who succeeded in the workplace without sacrificing her girlish appeal. In an era when—in reaction to the old-fashioned world of Constance Fenimore Woolson—feminists were often seen as strident, Moore’s TV image pointed us toward a middle path.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

George Lucas: The Unlikely Star of “Star Wars”

A few weeks back, amid all the doom-and-gloom stories about American politics, world affairs, and bizarre weather events, the Los Angeles Times featured a rare cheerful headline. the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art was heading for L.A.’s Exposition Park. The choice of Los Angeles over San Francisco as the site of filmmaker George Lucas’s self-financed billion-dollar museum was by no means a sure thing. Though civic boosters like L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti had pushed for this, various commentators opposed it. More important, Lucas has never had much affection for L,A. as a cultural milieu. Yes, he’s been extremely loyal to his film school alma mater, the University of Southern California, which has benefitted hugely from his largesse. But as soon as his career permitted, he abandoned Hollywood for the San Francisco Bay and his super-private Skywalker Ranch.

My friend and colleague, Brian Jay Jones, is the author of the fascinating new unauthorized biography, George Lucas: A Life. When we discussed the newly-announced plans for the museum, Brian admitted to being surprised. In his words, “I thought Lucas would surely want it in his backyard where he could piddle around with everything.” As I’d learned from reading Brian’s book, George Lucas is both a mild-mannered guy and the ultimate control freak.

Lucas started out in workaday Modesto, California as a mediocre student passionate about pop music and fast cars. American Graffiti, his first big hit, is a fair picture of his teen years. Early on, his imagination was shaped by comic books, TV, futuristic heroes like Flash Gordon, and an opening-day visit to Disneyland with his family. This trip took place in July 1955, when Lucas was an impressionable eleven-year-old. The now-long-gone Rocket to the Moon ride was one of his special favorites. It’s certainly fitting that, decades later, Lucas was able to participate in the launching of a more updated Tomorrowland adventure: Star Tours.

It was after he entered film school at USC that Lucas truly came into his own. At first he cultivated his skills as an editor. Later, after moving into directing, he continued to rely on his technical abilities, sometimes to the detriment of story and performance. Like my former boss Roger Corman (who was also particularly devoted to technical matters)  Lucas never developed a gift for working with actors. But there’s no question that he knew what he wanted.

I learned from Brian Jones’ biography that Lucas has never been happy writing screenplays. Yes, he’s cranked out a number of Star Wars scripts, but (especially as the Star Wars universe has continued to expand) he’s astonishingly willing to move into production without a finished screenplay in hand. As a longtime screenwriting instructor in UCLA Extension’s world-renowned Writers’ Program, I cringed in discovering how much Lucas exalts post-production over the rigors of the writing process: “The editing is how I create the first draft.” 

Of course Brian’s book is full of fascinating tidbits, like how C-3PO got his voice. (He was originally supposed to sound like a Bronx used-car dealer, not an English butler.) Brian also spends considerable time showcasing Lucas’s determination to upgrade every element of the original film to take advantage of technological breakthroughs since 1977. It’s certainly understandable that purists are not happy with alterations to a film they know and love. This is  especially true when Lucas’s tweaks seem to change beloved characters like Han Solo (who in Lucas’s revised version shot the bounty hunter Greedo only in self-defense). The last line of Brian’s author bio makes his own feelings crystal-clear: “He continues to believe that Han shot first.”

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Monster Calls: The Darkness Before the Dawn?

I tend to prefer movies made for grown-ups.  And my friend Susan, a serious cineaste whose favorite films of 2016 include Neruda and Manchester by the Sea, can never be accused of opting for kiddie flicks. So when Susan suggested we check out A Monster Calls, I was surprised, to say the least. I’d seen the trailer, which looked visually intriguing. But the story (based on an acclaimed 2011 children’s novel) seemed all too familiar: a boy whose mother is dying of cancer finds solace through the sudden appearance of a fantasy figure. Somewhat like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, young Colin O’Malley experiences three visitations. In his case, it’s not ghosts who come to visit, but rather a huge and mysterious tree-creature with three stories to tell.

For their work on this novel, author Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay won two of Britain’s most esteemed literary prizes. Ness went on to write the screenplay, which is perhaps why the film’s characterizations ring so true. Colin (played by Lewis MacDougall) is not the adorable kid of so many poignant children’s films. His unhappiness constantly plays out on his face, whether he’s getting ready for his day without parental help, ducking the sympathies of his teachers, dealing with schoolyard bullies, or fending off the horrific nightmares that plague his sleep. Felicity Jones is his mum, an artist who’s still vibrant but fading fast; Toby Kebbell is the dad (now busy with his new family in California) who just can’t connect with the son he’s left behind. Only Sigourney Weaver, as the strait-laced grandmother with whom Colin must come to terms, seems questionable casting. But highest kudos for Liam Neeson, whose unearthly basso voice contributes so much to the presence of the tree-monster.

The monster’s stories are really what set this film apart from other variations on this same theme. Vividly told through the use of gorgeous animation, the stories are by no means obvious in their message. A prince commits murder, and gets away with it; little girls die when a parson turns to a healer for help that does not come. The stories make Colin angry, and prompt him to commit violent acts of his own. Ultimately, though, the presence of the monster leads him to an important acknowledgment of his feelings about his mother’s condition. At the end of the film, a fraught sort of peace descends.

A Monster Calls  bears an unusual credit: “from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.” Dowd was a celebrated  author of young adult books. She had every intention of writing this story, but a terminal bout with breast cancer defeated her plans. As Patrick Ness has put it, “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time.” She died in 2007, at the painfully early age of 47. A Monster  Calls is a strong testament to her imagination and her spirit.

Perhaps it’s because mortality is a very real part of this film’s legacy that it hit me so hard. I don’t duck movies that focus on the darker side of life, but it’s not often that I see a film that genuinely moves me to tears. This one assuredly did. By the final fadeout there was a lot of sniffling going on in the screening room, as the all-adult audience confronted the fact that the pain of loss is a fundamental part of our human inheritance. Still, I think we all felt hopeful that life remains worth living, thanks to the power of love to transcend darkness. A lesson, perhaps, for our turbulent times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

“Arrival”: How to Handle Illegal Aliens

This week, as the air waves were being dominated by politics and world issues, I went to see Arrival. This is hardly Hollywood’s first stab at the depiction of friendly (as opposed to scary) aliens. I think back to 1977’s Steven Spielberg hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which Richard Dreyfuss is welcomed aboard a craft piloted by extraterrestrials. Twenty years later, Robert Zemeckis shot Contact, in which Jodie Foster plays a SETI scientist chosen to interact with mysterious beings visiting from outer space. Two more decades have passed, and (in some political circles, at least) aliens are now interlopers of a different kind. But Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, goes back to some classic assumptions: that the creatures making contact seek communication rather than warfare and that it’s a sensitive but brainy woman who’s best capable of  knowing what to do and say.
We’re now in, it should be noted, an era when women are being recognized for their STEM expertise, at least on the movie screen. We’ve had gutsy, heroic female astronauts in both Gravity and The Martian. The recent Hidden Figures is dedicated to three real-life African American women whose mathematical gifts made possible the U.S. manned space program. In Arrival, star Amy Adams is not exactly a scientist or engineer. Instead she’s a high-powered linguist who (in the word of her sidekick character, the physicist played by Jeremy Renner) thinks like a mathematician. And she’s the one American capable of deciphering the exotic written messages being sent her way by two unearthly beings code-named Abbott and Costello.

Arrival is based on an award-winning 1998 short science fiction tale by Ted Chiang, titled “Story of Your Life.”. I haven’t read Chiang’s work, but I’m told it’s a densely packed philosophical musing on the role of time and causality, because the extraterrestrial heptapod creatures studied by Amy Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, have no sense of past, present, and future. Perhaps that’s why the throughline of the film version has me so confused. It’s clear enough from the film’s many memory flashes that Louise is suffering from the loss of her young daughter to a terrible illness..(Frankly, there’s something all too obligatory about the fact that all the STEM-superior young women in movies like Arrival and Gravity are compensating for the loss of a child.) But while watching Arrival I didn’t grasp what the movie was trying to say about basic chronology as a purely human construct. And I now suspect that the film critics I started reading after the lights came up understood better than I did because they had Chiang’s story to clue them in.

I needed no help, though, in understanding the film’s geopolitical messaging. It seems that alien visitations are simultaneously taking place in twelve locales spread throughout the world, including such unlikely outposts as Venezuela. At the U.S. site, located in rural Montana, scientists like Louise are closely monitored by Pentagon brass, but still manage to conduct their probes in a humanistic way. China and Russia, however, quickly move toward a militaristic posture, convinced as they are that the outer space invaders mean war. Louise becomes our only hope for convincing the nations of the world to work together peaceably for the sake of understanding and learning from the extraterrestrial visitors. It’s nice to see our heroine as a spokeswoman for peaceful coexistence. But this week some of us may be wondering – at a time when nationalism and xenophobia seem to be rapidly mounting around the globe – whether a worldwide push for peace can ever really be possible.