Monday, July 26, 2010
Years ago, I wanted to make a documentary on the 105 pound competitive eater Sonya Thomas, aka “The Black Widow.” Here was a tiny woman who kept beating all these huge men in contest after contest.
Of course, the idea of me actually doing a movie about Sonya was preposterous. Who would ever give me the money to do it? And even if somebody did, I didn’t really want to spend a year or two of my life traipsing around to the world’s eating contests. But I felt there was a really good feature there if somebody else would do it.
But, believe it or not, I just made a short film about Sonya. Here it is:
Making films with no plans for festival play has liberated me. YouTube Cinema. The first one was my documentary on animator/artist Jeff Scher. I made that in a little over a week .
Early on in his career, producer Ted Hope used to say that the budget was the aesthetic. For me, my only aesthetic question is: are my subject and my treatment of it interesting enough for a ten minute video? So I don’t agonize over edits, picture quality, music, sound mix, etc. I have learned the hard way that you can spend months fiddling around with little details on films that ultimately suck.
Better, I think, to make more movies, and concentrate on who or what you choose to make films about and how you choose to do it, rather than striving for the kind of pristine polish required for festival play. Pursuing this has freed me.
Jean-Luc Godard once said that the Cinema is the truth 24 times a second. For me the cinema is now 640 x 480 and ten minutes or less. Please resist the button that makes the image bigger. See it in glorious Lo-Def! You don’t need to wait for the Blu-ray to come out.
Working quickly and cheaply means that I can make any kind of movie I want to. In this case, it is not intended as a bio of Sonya, although it has elements of that. I never tried to interview her although there is contact info on her website. I knew from the start it wouldn’t be about her so much as it would be about my thoughts about her and her world. A movie about the way I saw her world from outside, not the way she saw it from inside.
It began when I discovered all sorts of terrific web video on Sonya in every format you can imagine: on phones, home video cameras, local TV stations, shot off TV screens, etc. So I thought, “okay, I’ll just sling a few of these wonderful things together and I’ll have another one-week movie.” But as I got into it, I broke my rules and it became a massive three-week undertaking. In the future I’ll try not to go over my time allotment on my zero-budget movies.
I’d like to thank Melissa for not blinking when she encountered me at one a.m. singing “Black Widow, Sonya’s the Black Widow” into a microphone.
Postscript: I sent the link to Sonya via her website and she loved it! It turns out that today is her birthday and she saw it as a nice gift.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
I’m bewildered by all the bad press the iPhone 4 has been getting lately. Holding the phone in a certain way means that you get less reception? Less bars? It means absolutely nothing to me and I doubt that many iPhone owners give a damn either. Apple is offering a full refund to iPhone 4 owners who aren’t satisfied--let’s see how many people take them up on that offer.
I have never relied on my iPhone as a phone. Usually I can’t make or receive calls on it and if I have been lucky enough to get a connection, it cuts out right away. Once my wife and I were shopping in different parts of a store and she wanted to let me know she was ready to leave. So she called me. She would have had better luck tossing a paper airplane. When she finally found me and we left the store, she was pretty pissed off, but not as much as she was when my iPhone booped and told me I had received some calls. Using the iPhone’s amazing visual voice mail feature, I could listen to her calls in any order I wanted: for example, I could start with the angriest one first.
The iPhone does have email and it works serviceably. I’m sure that anybody who never owned a Blackberry would be very happy with it. But if you have had a Blackberry, the iPhone is a Ford and the Blackberry is a Lamborghini. My trained Blackberry thumbs could fly like the wind. I could type on my old Blackberry at a speed slightly slower than thought. Using my hunting and pecking skills on my iPhone, I am back to second grade, written communication-wise.
But I looooooove my iPhone. Next to my musical instruments computer and TV set, it is the object I get the most use out of and enjoy the most. To my mind it’s one of the most amazing devices ever invented. It tells me the weather, it helps me from getting lost, gives me news, information about movies, reminds me when I have appointments, records interviews, plays me music through Pandora when I’m exercising, takes excellent photos and videos, among of course, tens of thousands of other things. Of course I could probably get everything I need on an Android, but that would mean that people could reach me on my cell and I’d never get any peace.
With my iPhone I can go shopping any time I want and not spend a penny. There are tons of games and apps of all sorts that are free. And as soon as I “buy” something, Apple sends me a receipt so I will remember about the nothing I just spent. This makes me feel really good—like I got away with something. I keep all of these receipts in a special folder so I can budget for more free purchases in the future.
My iPhone is so pretty that it makes me happy just to look at it, something I do often. I am so moony over it that my wife gets jealous sometimes, so I buy another fart application so she will recognize that there is something for her in it too. My iPhone reminds me of the vintage Rickenbacker bass guitar I once owned. I never played it much, as I have never liked the raspy way a Rick bass sounds. But I got a lot of pleasure just opening the case. Oh God, it was a great looking guitar! And after I finally sold it, I got much more than I paid for it. Likewise, I sold my iPhone 3G on eBay last week and got $190 for the phone I paid $199 two years ago for. Not as good a deal as the Rick, but still pretty sweet.
Anyway, as I said before, all this talk about bars disappearing when you hold the phone a certain way flummoxes me. Bars? I don’t need no stinkin’ bars! I swear to God I never looked at the damned bars until everybody started making such a to-do about them.
In some places I have read that the iPhone 4 is better phone than my old 3G, as long as you hold it properly. A case too. People should stop whining and get a damned case! One tech blogger said that he had used his for three hours, something he had never done since the first one went on sale. And I admit that I got a call from somebody at a doctor’s office when I was at my podiatrist this week. I thought it was one of the alter kockers who worked there. They had been extremely confused about my appointment, so I thought they might have been calling me from the other room to confirm. But it turned out it was a receptionist from a gynecologist’s office. I was able to stay on the line long enough to tell her I was a man. She wanted to know if that meant I wanted to cancel, but eventually we sorted it out. Mission accomplished! So maybe I shouldn’t be so negative about my iPhone. Maybe I will start getting lots of calls. But at this point they will be limited to wrong numbers, until I build up my confidence.
Still I am happy about this whole “losing bars” deal. Because of the phone’s antenna issues, Steve Jobs is going to send me a “Bumper,” a piece of colored plastic that costs him a nickel and he was selling for $30. More free stuff! Not only that, I get to choose the color.
After I get my Bumper, I hope Steve sends me a nice receipt.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
I’ve been reading a lot of snarky blog posts and articles lately about my favorite film critic. I’ve heard these comments before: he’s just a knee-jerk contrarian who gets off on having the opposite opinion as everyone else; he can’t possibly believe what he writes; he’s just looking for attention, etc. One writer went to the trouble of going through nearly every paragraph in one of his reviews, searching for some nitpicky way to trick him up. Talk about snarky.
What threatens these haters is the possibility that he just might be right. If there’s anything we have learned from history, it’s that the conventional wisdom of today isn’t necessarily the way things will be perceived in the future. Who’s to say? Maybe recent buzzeroonie movies of the moment like “Toy Story 3,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Inception” will end up in the trash can of cinematic history, whereas “Marmaduke” will fascinate film scholars for eons to come. I’d be willing to wager that a lot of the people who are making these snap judgments haven’t even seen “Marmaduke.”
Why can’t an American critic write a great review without getting beat up?
His review of “Marmaduke” came out on the 4th of June, 2010, a day that I will never forget. The outraged response from the serious film academy—including nearly every member of “Rotten Tomatoes” who hadn’t had computer privileges taken away by their moms—was so virulently negative that it reminded me of an event that had happened six days and 97 years prior: the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29th, 1913.
His first paragraph stirred my soul with its erudition, rigor and authority:
Unlike over-hyped time-wasting piffle like “L’avventura,” “Tokyo Story,” “Yi Yi,” “The Godfather,” “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Son,” “The Bicycle Thief,” “Grand Illusion,” “Citizen Kane” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Psycho,” “Raging Bull,” “Metropolis,” “Shoah,” “2001,” “The Searchers,” “Children of Paradise,” “Pather Panchali,” “The Seven Samurai,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “The Rules of the Game,” “Breathless,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Caché,” “Talk to Her,” “Spirited Away,” “There Will be Blood,” “In the Mood for Love,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Taste of Cherry,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Blade Runner,” and “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Marmaduke” is a real film, a film for the ages. Tom Dey has reinvented the lovable Great Dane comedy. I must admit I didn’t think that Dey could ever surpass his work on the unjustly maligned “Failure to Launch,” but he has done it! (Matthew McConaughey gave the performance of his life in that film.)
I would like to reprint more and even offer a link, but his review has been taken down, and I only memorized the first paragraph.
Go ahead and scoff. I bet a lot of you haven’t even seen “Marmaduke.”
Monday, July 05, 2010
I enjoyed Tad Friend’s piece in the July 5th issue of The New Yorker, “First Banana,” about Steve Carell and the new improvisatory process of film and TV comedy. In a nutshell, it’s about how contemporary movie comedies—made by filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, Nicholas Stoller, and Jay Roach, and featuring actors like Carell, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Jason Siegel, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd—often find their biggest laughs through the adlibbing of the actors rather than through their scripted punchlines. So much so that it’s inconceivable that these kinds of movies could exist in their present forms if they were made any other way. In essence, the method of their creation equals the style of the comedy.
He contrasts this new approach to comedy with the “written” style, as exemplified by more classical writer/directors like Billy Wilder (who he reports as bewildered by an act of improvisation on his set) and Woody Allen (who actually encourages every actor to improvise freely, although few do). But I admit I was a little pissed off when he used this example to illustrate the stodgy old ways:
Traditional comedies have a sleekness that calls to mind the typewriter. Consider the moment in the 1980 film “Airplane!” when two passengers chat before takeoff: “Nervous?” “Yes.” “First Time?” “No, I’ve been nervous a lot of times.”
For one thing, I thought it was weird that he would use the movie that was such a dramatic break from the past in its day, and ultimately led to “Saturday Night Live” and ultimately the movies that Friend is describing. And the other thing, is as I mentioned last week, I worked on “The Naked Gun” and have a real soft spot for the guys who made that film as well as “Airplane!” and “Top Secret!”
But yeah, they were guilty of writing funny stuff, and staging it exactly as they wrote it. On the other hand, unlike Billy Wilder or Woody Allen, they were a team of three, brothers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. In fact there were four of them if you counted producer Robert K. Weiss, who was an equal player in the posse that constantly engaged in a Talmudesque debates about what was funny and what was not. Like the comedies described by Friend, it was very much a collaborative approach to making movies.
I remember one day we were shooting a scene where the film’s clueless policeman, Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant Police Squad (played by Leslie Nielson), stuck on the high ledge of a building, slips and grabs onto the penis of an ornamental statue to break his fall. Numerous variations of the stunt were tried, as the team wrangled over the best way to execute the gag. The stuntman was tiring. Finally David shouted, “I’m the director, I’m the director! Two hands isn’t funny! One hand is funny!”
They were very influenced by Mad Magazine and in particular the little pictures that would be hidden in the magazine, funny stuff you might not notice the first time around. They wanted people to find things on second viewing that they might miss the first time. For example, Drebin’s cop car said “To Warm and Serve.” On each episode of “Police Squad!,” the cult TV series that “The Naked Gun” was adapted from, Drebin would stop his car and knock over a bunch of garbage cans. The number of garbage cans he hit corresponded to the episode number. Needless to say, he was hitting a lot of garbage cans by the time the movie came along.
There were rules. Driving home every day from work I would pass this sign that said “dip,” and it gave me a dumb idea for a joke. I asked Abrahams if he thought it would be funny if Drebin stopped at the sign, and dunked a corn chip in a jar of salsa conveniently waiting there. “We have found that there can only be a limited amount of puns in our movies,” he intoned earnestly. He wasn’t making any value judgment about my idea; it was just over the limit. On the other hand, I remember driving to a location for a week or so and passing a pair of odd-looking industrial silos. They looked like a giant brassiere. And sure enough, when I saw the movie, they turned up on-screen, underneath Drebin’s voice-over, “Everything I saw reminded me of you.”
While I don’t remember much improvisation on the set, their method was to shoot a lot more material than they planned to use. They’d see how funny it turned out to be at dailies. The final test was to screen the movie. If people didn’t laugh at a joke, I don’t think it made it in.
I have many warm memories of working on that movie: rich conversations with Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy about their careers; many laughs with the late Nancy Marchand (so brilliant years later as Livia Soprano); hanging out with Reggie Jackson on the field of Dodger Stadium; going to Priscilla Presley’s house for a photo shoot. Leslie Nielsen had a piece of rubber that he kept in his pocket to make fart noises. He said that it changed his life; it made everybody think about him in a different way. He sure had that right. When my family came to visit the set, I tried to nudge him into action. “That Mexican food we had for lunch, Leslie… I don’t know…”
But O.J. Simpson? There wasn’t much depth to him, as far as I could tell. Generally he would say stuff like, “I hope shooting doesn’t go on too long tonight. I have a golf tournament I want to get to in Palm Springs.” Believe it or not, when he exploded onto the front pages of the media, I got calls from many major media outlets. Journalists were scouring for anybody who had any contact him and I suppose they thought, he’s a publicist. I told them all, “I spent a lot of time with the guy, but there is no one in the world who knows less about O.J. Simpson than me. He never said a single thing that was interesting.”