Monday, August 17, 2009
When the media cluster-f*ck was going on around Michael Jackson’s death, I thought, “well I know something interesting about Michael Jackson that few other people know.” But I had no interest in blogging about him then. It turned my stomach the way everyone was cashing in on his death. But I guess it will never end so I’ve decided to write this, because I think it’s different from the usual peregrinations about the singer/dancer/cherub/plastic surgery addict/accused child molester/pill-popping eccentric.
I want to write about Michael Jackson the businessman.
People don’t usually talk much about Michael Jackson’s business side, probably because it doesn’t gibe with anything else we think we know about him. It’s easier to push it aside. It’s like: “That fragile sweet-voiced guy? Oh, and by the way, he was a cutthroat businessman who bought the Beatles catalog out from under his Ebony-and-Ivory chum Paul McCartney.” It didn’t seem to me that McCartney was living in perfect harmony after Jackson took his life’s work away from him. It always sounded kind of ruthless to me, albeit no different from what anybody else did in Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington, D.C. But it jarred my mind somehow that a guy who floated around on fairy dust could get all medieval and Madoff on you if he was in the mood.
I never met him, but I had a connection to Jackson’s manager, Freddy DeMann, through a woman I knew who was also a client, a singer named Madonna. When I met her, as production publicist on Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” in 1984, she told me that Freddy’s approach was to skew their marketing towards the very young. DeMann’s idea couldn’t be simpler. Build a fan base of young people and they will buy a ton of records. Sales brings money and credibility which makes the record company support you. Before long your audience will get older, and if you continue to hold that young audience, you will always be a superstar.
Madonna was too sexual to pretend to be a Michael Jackson naïf and and too insouciant to want to. Her approach was to avoid wearing clothes that a kid couldn’t afford to buy; and she didn’t want to create an image that would get young girls thrown out of the house if they tried to imitate it. Of course she enjoyed wearing and looked great in the teddies, plastic bracelets and the “Boy Toy” belt, but she wanted to create an image that teenage girls could easily recreate. If memory serves, Cyndi Lauper—who was huge at the time—had green hair, maybe even half her head shaved. Madonna wasn’t going that route. If you find this overly calculating, let me make it clear that Madonna had a sincere identification with her fans that was honest and heartfelt. It wasn’t very long before that she was one of them—and she remembered well.
The essential difference between Madonna and Michael Jackson is that Madonna outgrew and abandoned that strategy very quickly. She held onto her audience by running ahead, not by retreating to the schoolyard. We had to keep up with all her new personae and reinventions. But Michael Jackson glued himself to the DeMann strategy until the day he died, even though he fired DeMann soon after he began repping Madonna.
Going for a youthful demo was business for Michael Jackson. It was a means to become the biggest star in the world and stay on top forever. But of course it wasn’t all business, or it could never have worked. It came from a love for his fans that they could see was genuine. They were dazzled by his talents, but they were fans forever because of his love.
There was only one slight hitch with the plan: it was impossible. As he grew older, Jackson’s youth strategy got mixed in with all the other sicknesses he had and became obsessive and twisted. A child-like 25-year-old’s identification with the innocence of children is sweet; a 40-plus guy who likes to take boys into his bed is downright pervy, no matter what Reverend Al says.
It was no big deal that he was 50. Lots of performers work through their 70s and beyond. But he was afraid to change course. He didn’t know any other way to hang onto his King of Pop crown except for appealing to little kids. Neverland was basically Disneyland, taking a page from the book of America’s most beloved purveyor of children’s entertainment. If you are an old PR Man like me, it’s hard to think that helping sick kids isn’t to a certain extent Public Relations. Call me cynical, but that is the way this stuff is played, and everybody in PR knows this. In my mind, celebrities who do charity and political work are guilty until proven innocent of some kind of self-promotion or self-interest. Say what you will, Jackson had hundreds of millions to gain by retaining his youthful demo.
From this perspective, his perpetual facial alterations could have other explanations beyond “My Dad told me I was ugly.” This was the “Rosebud” explanation that Jackson put out in every interview, and it’s part of the accepted canon of belief about him. Of course, he also told journalist Martin Bashir in “Living with Michael Jackson” that he hadn’t had any surgery except for maybe a little work on his nose, and people didn’t really buy that. People listened to the things he said, accepting much of it without question, and ignoring anything that exceeded their personal tolerance for his self-delusion and lunacy. Joe Jackson gave me the willies with just one appearance on Larry King—I’m sure it was very traumatic to have him as a dad. But his brothers didn’t screw with their faces; nothing only has one reason. The truth is, Jackson didn’t want to be a teen idol like Fabian and have his fan base become a bunch of Golden Oldies-loving old ladies—shudder!—his own age. He didn’t even want to be a classy Tony Bennett-style legend, aging with grace. He had to be the #1 star in the world, a superstar’s superstar. And as the only road he knew how to travel was the kiddie’s lane, he wouldn’t allow himself the right to age. It wasn’t about looking like Diana Ross so much as it was trying to stay 30 into his 60s and 70s and beyond. Not allowing yourself the right to age is a very cruel and desperate thing to do to yourself, but as he told Bashir, he was hardly the only one in America who did plastic surgery.
Let me state as forcefully as I can that I’m sure Michael Jackson sincerely loved children and wanted to help them. But doing that was also business, and Jackson had learned how to be a very shrewd, take-no-prisoners businessman. Perhaps he understood what many frightened and weak-willed boys have learned: that money begets power, and power keeps the Boogey Man away. Of course in his case, the Boogey Man became a part of his posse.
Maybe he didn’t die because he was Peter Pan or the King of Pop. Maybe he died because he was King Midas.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Soon after I moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1986, the Paramount publicity department offered me a meeting with John Hughes on a film he was about to make called “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” I asked if I could see a script (I liked to be prepared for the “What do you think of the script?” query), but the guy from Paramount said that Hughes didn’t give out his scripts. I thought that was cool, very Woody Allen, for Hughes to keep the suits’ hands off of his screenplays. Of course, I couldn’t have cared less what the movie was about. I loved Hughes’ movies.
I got to the Paramount lot early, because everything about getting around in LA still flummoxed me, especially studio lots. I can get lost practically anywhere, but give me a little map filled with trailers that might not be there by the time I get to them, and I’m hopeless.
But Hughes didn’t have a trailer--he had a building. Hughes Entertainment was exactly where they said it would be on the map. I went up the stairs and took a seat in the waiting room. The place was nice, but it wasn’t trying to knock me off my feet with its massive import to the universe, like other offices I’d visited. It was low-key and hip. There was a bookcase designed to slant in this off-kilter way against the wall. It was cool looking, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t buy if I wanted to.
The characters in John Hughes movies like “The Breakfast Club” weren’t my age, they were a bit younger, but I related to them a lot, particularly Ally Sheedy’s character in “The Breakfast Club.” She was a weirdo, but I was an outsider in high school too—the only Jew and long-haired bell-bottom-wearing hippie. American high school life was pretty timeless, and I realized that these tales of people slightly younger than myself were written by someone slightly older. I had a certain idea in my head about what Hughes might be like. I wanted to be right.
I was ushered into a room where I was introduced to Hughes and his producer. Hughes set me at ease right away and asked me about the movie I had just finished working on--Robert Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War.” He had a lot of questions about Redford and also took an interest in the white paratrooper pants I was wearing. I had bought them at an Army-Navy store before I went to Belize for “The Mosquito Coast.” This was appropriate garb for the jungle heat, but back in the States they made me look like a fey guerilla wannabe, striding the mean streets of Westwood in my hiking books and Banana Republic safari shirt. Of course I thought I cut a raffish figure. Hughes loved my look.
Me on the set of “The Mosquito Coast”
I could see that this wasn’t going to be one of those fussy job interview-type meetings; we were just going to shoot the bull until he could figure out if I was going to be someone he’d like hanging around. After a while I forgot that I was interviewing for a job I really wanted and started having fun. The only thing that was disconcerting is that his producer took an immediate dislike to me. I knew that wasn’t a good sign, as he’d be the guy who would really decide to hire me or not. But Hughes was the boss, so maybe I still had a decent shot at the gig.
After a while, I asked him what his movie was about. I knew next to nothing except the title and that John Candy and Steve Martin were going to be in it.
Hughes started telling me the story of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But he did much more than just describe the plot—he performed it for me. It was funny and moving, just the way the movie would be. At the time I was thinking that he really must have connected with me to tell this story that was a Woody Allen-style secret. Looking back I realize he was doing something a similar to a pitch. But pitches are for high-powered studio execs, not for lowly Unit Publicists. The Unit Publicist usually ends up on the credits somewhere between Craft Service and the guy who drives the Honey Wagon (toilet truck). But talking through stories was a normal aspect of LA life, and for some reason, he felt like telling his story to me. It was wonderful, but as he went on, I kept thinking. “There is no possible way he is going to take this all the way to the end….” But he did. He performed the whole damned movie just for me.
When the show was over, so was the interview. Hughes said goodbye to me warmly and the producer looked at me like I had just killed his dog. Perhaps he had heard the story of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” a few times before and didn’t appreciate a guy who could elicit another retelling. Still, I left feeling it had been a good meeting and I felt pretty confident I was going to get the job. I was very disappointed when the producer called me the next day and said it wasn’t going to work out.
What film did I end up doing instead? A Molly Ringwald vehicle called “For Keeps.” It wasn’t the only time I would encounter important people from the Hughes universe. I rode from the set of “Jacob’s Ladder” with a pre-“Home Alone” Macaulay Culkin (who played Tim Robbins’ son), and years later I became Ally Sheedy’s publicist, beginning a friendship that continues to this day. A lot of representing Ally involved fielding “Brat Pack” memory requests, including a very nice tribute to “The Breakfast Club” in Premiere Magazine.
I would really have liked to have worked on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” and gotten to know Hughes a little bit. What would he have been like? I’ll never know, although this person’s beautiful story tells a lot. But I had a really entertaining and memorable experience meeting with Hughes. I got my money’s worth, as much as I did at “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Home Alone,” and of course, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” Looking back, I’d have to say it was the most successful job interview I had during my years in LA.
The responses have been pretty good for the early Beta version of SpeedCine. We have a ton of work ahead of us, like adding iTunes, features like "Director Search," and many more movies. It’s been interesting to find out that a lot of the films are viewable in some parts of Europe, which I didn’t think they would be.
But we've been getting a lot of useful feedback, and we'd love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
I am happy to announce that we have launched the Beta version of SpeedCine. This is a site that allows you to search for legal films that are available on the web: to watch free, rent, buy, or via Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature. You can think of SpeedCine as a Google for helping you find legal movies--we don't link to the other kind.
We currently index over 13,000 films from Netflix, Amazon VOD, Hulu, and many other sites. We're adding more movies every day, and will have iTunes in our system by the end of the month.
Most of you are aware that lots of recent Hollywood productions, classic movies, horror, and high-quality American Independent movies (many through Cinetic and b-side) are available for free online. But I doubt that you know the diversity and quantity of what’s available. So many good films are scattered over the web, on sites that you may not be aware of.
Some of the free films available today include: Sundance prize-winners like Tom DiCillo’s "Living in Oblivion" Todd Solondz’s "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and Chris Smith’s “American Movie;” Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” "Monty Python’s "And Now For Something Completely Different;" Joan Micklin Silver’s "Hester Street;" Nicholas Ray’s "Bigger Than Life" (in case you missed it at the Film Forum); Sam Fuller’s "Fixed Bayonets;" Jacques Demy’s "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," Bruce Robinson’s "Withnail & I," Takeshi Kitano’s “Boiling Point;” Robert Downey Sr.’s long out-of-circulation cult film, "Greaser's Palace," Marlon Brando’s “One-Eyed Jacks;” Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and “Our Man in Havana;” Richard Lester’s “The Knack, and How to Get It;” Hal Hartley’s "Henry Fool," Ringo Lam’s “Full Contact” (one of my very favorite Hong Kong films), Alan Rudolph’s debut "Welcome to L.A.," Orson Welles' "Mr. Arkadin" and "The Stranger;" John Carpenter's "Dark Star" and "Starman;" Roman Polanski's "Cul-de-Sac" and "Repulsion;" Billy Wilder rarities like "Kiss Me, Stupid" and "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes;" under-apprecIated 70s films like John Huston’s “Fat City,” Bob Rafelson’s “The King of Marvin Gardens,” and Ivan Passer’s “Born to Win;” Stephen Frears' debut "Gumshoe;" Werner Herzog's "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," Robert Altman's "California Split," "Streamers," and "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," and ten films by Mika Kaurismäki.
This is is truly a cineaste’s delight. And they’re all free, and available in a few seconds. And there are hundreds more. Just look in A-Z index on our Home Page and click “Free Movies.”
Of course, they are free-with-ads. If you’re willing to pay….thousands more movies are available for rental and sale, commercial-free.
It is often said that new business models are needed to get people to pay for movies online. There are a lot of things that can be done from that perspective, that is—not focusing on stopping people from watching for free, but convincing them that it is in their interest to pay. And that can be free-with-ads, a rental, a purchase, or a Netflix-style subscription. There’s a lot of companies doing good work trying to make this happen. We are offering a free service for movie fans that we hope will help websites that provide movies online, distributors, and filmmakers themselves (particularly DIY ones).
Give SpeedCine a test drive. Let us know what you think at email@example.com or in the comments section below.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Long ago I attended a MoMa tribute to the great Hollywood director Douglas Sirk (“Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” “All That Heaven Allows”) with the Maestro himself in attendance. It was a heady moment for me as I had loved Sirk’s movies since college and now I was meta-appreciating them through Fassbinder’s reinterpretations (“Fear Eats the Soul,” “Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven,” etc.) And nowadays, younger people can find their way to Sirk through Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.” One of things that is so great about Sirk is how he has inspired so many filmmakers to adapt and shape his work to their own talents.
During the Q&A, somebody asked him, “Mr. Sirk, what do you think makes a good director?”
Sirk stopped to think and then answered quietly: “Making movies is very hard. Very hard. In my opinion anyone who makes a movie….is a good director.”
I’ve always loved that he said that. It was so unexpected. If he had said the usual baloney I would never remember it today. Most people would find the idea crazy, ridiculous, filled with false humility, or even dangerous, but if you had been there, you would have known he was absolutely sincere.
And having tried to make movies myself, I’ve been forever grateful for what he said. I may not have had the talent to make something good--but at least I tried. Or so I thought until recently.
Lately I have been looking at a lot of online movies as I gear up for the launch of SpeedCine Beta. My work involves going to Amazon VOD hundreds of times a day, where I am treated to the first two minutes of some of the most astonishingly bad movies I have ever seen. After looking at a few hundred of these opening salvos of cinematic malignance, a director like Chris Seaver starts to look like Orson Welles. At least the auteur of “Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker!,” “Anal Paprika 3: Menage-a-Death,” “Filthy McNasty,” “Heather and Puggly Drop a Deuce,” and “Terror at Blood Fart Lake,” knows how to conjure up a memorable title.
There are thousands of movies that are turned down by every festival in the world each year. Nobody in a position to curate ever found anything in them to praise. In the past, they might as well have been languishing in outer space; now they go on to glory on Createspace.
But as I said, at least they tried. And maybe if they keep trying, they’ll get better. I think Robert Rodriguez said something like everybody has at least seven bad films in them. But I think what he meant was you should wait before you hit number eight before you launch your marketing campaign.
Still, for better or for worse, no matter how much negative feedback you get, no matter how many film festivals turn down your movie, no matter how much debt you get yourself in trying to express yourself….no matter what, it is an achievement that you had the perseverance to make a feature film. You’re in a special club and no one can take it away from you. Except for me right now.
But not Douglas Sirk. He gives you props.
I need a long rest after all those movies….
Monday, July 13, 2009
“I’ve got to make films.”
It was back in the late 70s, and I was having a coffee with a friend. It was a common refrain from her. She wasn’t trying to convince herself. She wasn’t gearing herself up emotionally and practically for what she would need to do to make her dream a reality. It was just a statement of a basic need, like eating or sleeping, something not to be denied. I was certain that she’d achieve her goal--but I felt that way about lots of people I knew. But she was different.
I thought Kathryn Bigelow could make great films.
I met Kathy (that’s what we called her then) in New York in the late 70s in New York. She was part of a circle of friends that gathered for a film club every weekend at cinematographer Ed Lachman’s immense loft on 19th Street. Somehow Kathy and I became friends and we started hanging out a bit outside the group. (She was way out of my league to be anything more than a friend). Kathy was (and is) strikingly beautiful and overwhelmingly talented; she would have been extremely intimidating to be around if she wasn’t so nice. Kathy probably could have made it as a painter if she had wanted to stick with that. She had received a scholarship at the Whitney, but then moved on to Columbia Film School.
She had a tremendous fascination with how violence could be portrayed in the cinema, particularly as seen through the filter of a French writer and philosopher I had never heard of named George Bataille. I got the sense that Bataille was some kind of mélange of surrealism and eroticism and de Sade-like cruelty, but the precise way he blended them and what he put in of his own was vague to me then, and even more vague to me now. But what I did understand was that Kathy wasn’t just looking back to the styles and techniques of Hitchcock, Peckinpah, Romero, Argento, etc.—she was attempting to build on a highly aestheticized foundation. She didn’t want to ape anybody else, she wanted to make a kind of movie that hadn’t been made before. This I understood well, as it was a commonplace in European cinema for filmmakers like Godard and Resnais to use literary ideas as a means to “reinvent” cinema. The difference, and it was a huge one, is that Kathy was reading different books. What she wanted to create was more visceral and stomach-churning--more of a punch to the stomach and a battering of the subconscious than a detached and modish Brechtian challenge for the mind.
Kathy had a reckless ambition that made her want to be more than a director; she wanted to elevate the art. Sure, there was an abundance of would-be filmmakers around town, as well as lots of people who liked to talk about the aesthetic potential of cinema, but Kathy had everything working full cylinders, plus talent, charisma and determinism.
Just for fun, I googled “Kathryn Bigelow” and “George Bataille,” and I found a 1998 academic paper, “Georges Bataille and the Visceral Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow,” written by Jeff Karnicky, then a grad student at Penn State. He wrote: “This essay finds similarities between George Bataille's philosophy of expenditure and Kathyrn Bigelow's films “Strange Days,” “Near Dark,” and “Point Break.” More specifically, I argue that, among other things, Bigelow's films viscerally elicit, in the film spectator, many of the concepts Bataille discusses in his writings, so that the practice of ‘joy before death’ becomes more than words on a page. Philosophy becomes visceral sensation, leaves the world of abstract thought and enters the domain of bodily sensations.”
When I watched her new film “The Hurt Locker,” my hands started trembling during the first sequence and they didn’t stop until an hour into the movie. They were shaking so much that the man who was sitting next to me got up and left. I suppose it’s possible that the movie was too much for him, but I doubt it—my hands were distracting me too. The movie had literally entered my nervous system. I’m willing to bet that if you’d measured everybody’s vital signs in that theatre, they’d have been off the charts.
Actress Hanna Schygulla, me with horrifying 70s hair, Kathryn Bigelow
In David Poland’s interview with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, she says that the material was so strong that she didn’t want to aestheticize it in any way. It was intense enough that it didn’t require it. While that’s undoubtedly true, I believe Kathryn Bigelow is such a masterful filmmaker because there are ideas behind what she does, and yes, aesthetic underpinnings to her style. And the main one, decades ago, was Bataille. Perhaps she jettisoned him while making this film, but can she really work him out of her system completely? Let me count how many films I have seen in all my years of movie going that have made my hands tremble like that. Let’s see….there’s one. It’s hard not to think of Mr. Karnicky’s words: “Philosophy becomes visceral sensation, leaves the world of abstract thought and enters the domain of bodily sensations.”
I remember seeing a monograph on Bigelow in a bookstore once, and being delighted. Imagine! Kathy, who once expressed herself with the high-toned jargon of academia, had gone on to become “Kathryn Bigelow,” someone with a book studying her oeuvre! I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a lot of Bataille in that book. Bigelow is a serious intellectual, I’m sure she’s spoken about Bataille relative to her films, and I doubt Karnicky is the only one to study her from that angle. Still, I don’t know if critics from popular magazines have written about her in that way. And I’d like to.
Anyway, Bigelow is an artist, always developing and changing. She’s taken what she could from all her mentors and the directors who preceded her and has lived to become someone that others study. David Poland, in his interview, asked her:
Poland: Do you look back much?
Bigelow: Never. I don’t. I just kind of keep looking ahead.
(Poland was asking her about whether she looked back on her previous films, but it sounded to me like a more general philosophy.)
I’ll end with a story. After she finished her first feature (co-directed by Monty Montgomery), she brought her poster art to my apartment/office. (I don’t remember exactly why, but perhaps it was because I had supervised the printing of many posters while at New Yorker Films.) It was simple and striking—basically a very intense picture of an extremely young Willem Dafoe(it was his first film) in a leather jacket. But she didn’t like the title, “Breakdown” at all. It did seem too generic for the film. She left me some of her publicity materials and I took a look at them that night. In the midst of the text, she wrote, “the loveless and the damned.” I called her up and said, “Why don’t you call it ‘The Loveless and the Damned?” She didn’t say anything, but a little later, she called me up and said, “I’m going to call it “The Loveless.” And she did.
Monday, July 06, 2009
As you can see, I’ve changed the name of my blog. Originally I thought I would be writing about issues involving online video, intellectual property, piracy, etc. The original title, “Shake Your Windows,” came from Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changin’,” and the general idea was that the internet is changing everything and if people in the industry don’t figure out how to take advantage of it, it’s going to run them over. (Of course it also suggested the way people in the industry use the term “windows.” I spent days writing these blog posts and threw them all out. In fact, I hated what I was writing so much that I deleted some of my early posts. There are so many people generating millions of blogs on these issues, that I didn’t see how I could offer something new and distinctive into that discussion. So I fell back on what I did with my first blog (on Zoom-In Online), and started writing about my own life. I do other stuff too, but that’s the general thread.
The inspiration for all this was years ago, when I was having lunch with Amy Gross, who was then an editor at Elle. I was telling her a lot of my stories and she said, “you’ve got to write this down!” So she gave me an assignment to write the crazy story I told her. But a week later River Phoenix died, so I asked her if I could write about him instead. So that was my first story, “Remembering River,” and it ran in Elle in their February 1994 issue.
At that point I started to think I might have a book in me. And I knew what I wanted to call it: “My Life as a Dog.” That really summed it up for me, even though other publicists got really indignant when I told them the title. But I didn’t see being a dog as a negative thing. Who doesn’t love dogs? No one. Being a dog is great. I got to be around talented and famous people, many of them my heroes. I often had the opportunity to help them, and that made me feel really good. I have always said that the most important thing a publicist can offer is love, and I gave everything I had.
I never made any real money doing publicity. It was an unselfish love, just like the kind a good dog gives its Master. Can there be anything better than that? Or more satisfying?
If you look at the picture above long enough, you will recognize that there is a true nobility to my vocation.
I tried to be helpful with people’s careers, and in many cases, I was. I’m very proud of that, and I think I’ve had a wonderful life. Promoting movies is something I do well, and I’m very fortunate to have had the chance to do it. There are so many bonuses I can’t even list them, like when you go to industry parties, you get goodie bags, or as I like to call them--treats.
Anyway, my friends talked me out of writing the book, saying it would be career suicide. They said it was better to commit career suicide the way I was already doing it—in bite-sized chunks—rather than going whole hog at one go. So that was it for “My Life as a Dog.”
But when I realized that “Shake Your Windows” made no sense with what the blog was shaping up to be, I sent out some emails to friends to ask them what they thought about “My Life as a Dog.” The response was lackluster. And while I was doing that, I came up with “My Life as a Blog.” And that seemed right. It may not make any sense, but then again, neither does my life.
Monday, June 29, 2009
One of the first jobs I was given after I started at New Yorker Films in 1976 had to do with Nagisa Oshima’s “The Ceremony.” Office Manager Jose Lopez told me that there had been some complaints about our 16mm prints. Some people had voiced concerns that the reels were out of order. Jose told me watch all of them, see if there was a problem, and if necessary, fix them.
I had only seen one film by Oshima before, and that was “Death by Hanging.” This was about a convict who somehow survives hanging, but loses his memory. As the law requires him to be aware of his crimes, the officials stage a rape and a murder. They are so enthusiastic in their reenactment that they actually kill a girl, the first of many crimes. The only other thing I knew about Oshima is that the rape in “Death by Hanging” wasn’t an unusual occurrence in his films. I can’t find the quote but I remember reading something like, “Oshima without rapes would be like John Ford without Monument Valley.” I did find this from Audie Bock: “In every Oshima film at least one murder, rape, theft or blackmail incident can be found, and often the whole of the film is constructed around the chronic repetition of such a crime.”
So in my case, the “crime” was that some fool had screwed up the order of the reels and it was up to me to fix it by chronic repetition. Still, if I was going to have to watch a movie six times, you can imagine my relief that it would be an Oshima film and not a snooze-fest like Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” or four hours long like Jacque Rivette’s “L’amour fou.”
“The Ceremony” is a family saga that spans generations, and its story is told through a series of family gatherings and rites--weddings, anniversaries, f unerals, and so on. The actual title of the film is “Ceremonies.” Oshima said about the film: “Ceremonies are a time when the special characteristics of the Japanese spirit are revealed. It is this spirit that concerns and worries me.” If you see this movie, you will sure as hell agree he’s got a lot to be worried about, because it is one weird movie, even if you don’t have to watch it over and over and over.
Because the film went from ceremony to ceremony, I had sympathy for those who watched it and weren’t completely sure it was out of order. I didn’t have any script, but after a single viewing, there didn’t seem to be any question in my mind. By any standard—narratively, artistically, formally—it seemed to me that “The Ceremony” wouldn’t make sense unless reel three played before reel two.
At that point, I got curious to see what the critical response had been to the 16mm screenings. It turned out the fakakta print had been getting rave reviews. This didn’t surprise me. At that age, I often praised certain classic films when I had absolutely no clue what they were about or why I was expected to like them.* I had various ways of dealing with those situations, most often by reaching into my toolbox of Academic jargon. So if people were secretly bewildered by our screwed up print, I could see how they might cope with that by applauding its meta-narrative anti-temporal whatever.
Anyway, I explained to Jose my logic for re-ordering the reels and he gave me the go-ahead to change all six prints.
And that was that until a few months later, when Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” was scheduled to premiere at the New York Film Festival.
“In the Realm of the Senses” was the first art film I knew of that featured hard-core sex scenes. Since then Catherine Breillat, Vincent Gallo, Lars von Trier, Larry Clark, John Cameron Mitchell, and others have made this ho-hum for the artsy-fartsy crowd, but then people got very worked up about whether Oshima was exploiting his actors. The movie was based on a real-life story and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that it had a notorious castration scene. 1976 was a banner year for castration movies. Gérard Depardieu, walked around naked through much of Marco Ferreri’s “The Last Woman,” often with an authentic boner, before going DIY and slicing off his own schlong to prove a point to Ornella Muti. (Criterion, this film is calling your name!) I’m sure there was a third penisectomy that festival season, but I can’t remember what it was. (Cineastes, can you help me out?)
Anyway, at the last minute, the US Customs refused to let the print of “In the Realm of the Senses” into the country. With Oshima set to be in attendance and a crowd of A-listers expected, a replacement was urgently needed. Festival Director Richard Roud asked for “The Ceremony,” and Dan sent our one 35mm print over immediately. On the night of the screening of “The Ceremony,” I was walking out after the previous film, Alain Tanner’s “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” one of our upcoming releases. As you can imagine, there was no movie I wanted to see less than “The Ceremony.” But something came to my mind and in a very casual way I turned to Jose and asked:
“Did you ever fix the 35mm print of ‘The Ceremony’?”
Jose’s face turned ashen.
With “The Ceremony” set to begin screening in minutes, I rushed up to the projection booth. Jose and I explained the situation to the projectionist. If I tried to tell you how tightly wound and jittery this guy was, you wouldn’t believe me. He took his job extremely seriously, and it was a matter of life and death to him that every detail be rehearsed and that there would be no leeway for mistakes. He was quivering with nervous energy before I arrived to send him bouncing off the walls with fear.
It was entirely possible that the 35mm print would be just fine. In any case, I had just made the changes a month or two before and I remembered them well. Unfortunately this wasn’t a 16mm print like the ones I’d fixed. There were only four reels in the 16mm prints, but there were seven reels in the 35mm print. I had to keep calm. I started a few reels in and began looking at the beginning and endings, until I was sure.
“It’s in the wrong order,” I said.
I felt like I had killed the projectionist. But I refused to let his freakout affect me; I had a job to do.
“Take these two reels and put them before this one.”
The projectionist looked like he wanted to cry. But I was 22 years old and the many castastrophes I would live through in the movie business were still far ahead.
“Don’t worry,” I said.
And then I went home.
After the screening, Roud approached Oshima gingerly.
“Mr. Oshima, were the reels in the right order?”
Oshima looked at him like he was out of his mind.
“Of course,” he said.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Writing about Coppola last week made me think of a story I’ve told many times to my friends about Andrei Tarkovsky, who just happens to have a retrospective coming up on July 7th at the Walter Reade Theater in New York.
In the early 80’s, I was running a movie PR firm called “Reid Rosefelt Publicity.” The title sounded impressive, but it was only me and an assistant or two working out of my bedroom in my apartment on Riverside Drive. Some of the people who worked with me included future Premiere Magazine editor Howard Karren, director/producer Sara Driver (mentioned last week), writer Jane Hammerslough, leading New York unit publicist Julie Kuehndorf, and filling in for a few weeks as a favor, Adam Brooks, who would go on to write Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” and direct “Definitely, Maybe.” Among the films that were promoted out of my bedroom include Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Querelle,” Bertrand Tavernier’s “A Week’s Vacation,” Paul Verhoeven’s “The 4th Man,” Jeanne Moreau’s “L’Adolescente,” Stephen Frears’ “The Hit,” and Dennis Hopper’s “Out of the Blue.” I might add that before Jarmusch made “Stranger,” I hired him to put up posters for a re-release of “The Seven Samurai.” (He had a lot of experience, having done it for his band, The Del-Byzanteens, and knew where the good spots were.)
In 1983, my firm was hired to publicize Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia.” I was dazzled by the prospect of spending time with Tarkovsky. To me he was such a legendary director as to be slightly unreal. I had only seen “Solaris” and “Stalker” at that point, and they totally mystified me. I loved them but I couldn’t explain what they meant or why they had such an impact on me. It was more the atmosphere that I got—the constantly dripping water, the mists, the fog, the beauty of his compositions, the aching feeling of loneliness and alienation.
“Nostalghia,” is a very slow, melancholy and meditative film. It’s not an easy film to watch, but if you give it your deepest concentration it is a very moving and rewarding experience.
Of course not everyone agrees with me. In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that “the meaning of water in his films isn’t as interesting to me as the question of how his actors keep their feet reasonably dry.”
The story is about a Russian poet (Oleg Yankovsky) who is traveling in Italy with a beautiful translator (Domiziana Giordano), to write a book on a 17th Century Russian composer who had lived in Bologna. The translator is hoping that they will become lovers, but the poet is too sad and caught up in his own world to connect with her in any way. Instead, he becomes fascinated with an eccentric madman named Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson).
The meaning of the title isn’t “nostalgia” as we know it, but the pain of exile, the longing that Russians have when they are separated from the homeland. Sadly, after making the film, Tarkovsky found himself in the same place as his character. Searching for creative freedom, Tarkovsky defected after “Nostalghia” and never returned to Russia. He made one more film, “The Sacrifice,” in Sweden in 1985 before he died in Paris at the end of the following year. In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky wrote, “How could I have imagined as I was making this film that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen was to be my lot for the rest of my life.” I don’t believe one word of this. You don’t make a decision to defect in five minutes. I think the whole film, his first made outside Russia, sprang out of his tortured considerations about possibly becoming an exile.
To deal with this anxiety I felt about working with Tarkovsky, I watched nearly all of his films that I hadn’t seen. During the summer, I managed to see all but his debut, “Ivan’s Childhood,” on decent sized screens in revival houses. You could do that in those days. This was followed by research. In those pre-Google days, research meant going to MoMa film library. Mary Corliss (married to Richard) would bring out these little boxes of faded clippings, which I would carefully peruse. After I made my choices, I’d go down the hall and wait in line to use the Xerox machine. Google is faster and more convenient, but the information in Mary’s boxes was a hell of a lot more comprehensive. I also loved just being there--it oozed the serious contemplation of cinema. There were cool posters on the wall and there were always scholars silently poring over their boxes, no doubt knee-deep in preparation for an article in Sight & Sound magazine or writing a monograph on Eisenstein.
By the time Tarkovsky turned up, I was as well versed in his oeuvre as I could be. He was a lot shorter than I thought he’d be, but otherwise he was pretty much what you’d expect, ultra serious and intense. He was accompanied by his wife, and a “translator” who not only wasn’t as beautiful as Domiziana Giordano, but who I suspected was something of a Soviet watchdog, there to make sure nothing got said that was out of line. Or at least a jerk. On the first day, he encouraged me to use a Russian word that he said Tarkovsky would appreciate. It turned out to be something like “comrade” and of course Tarkovsky hated me for it.
Julie Kuehndorf remembers that he always kept the window shades down in his room at the Mayflower and his wife sent her out for a pineapple, something they couldn’t get in the USSR.
One of the people who came to interview Tarkovsky was Michael Wilmington, who I knew when we were both students at the University of Wisconsin. Michael would later become a critic at the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, but at that time he was working for Heavy Metal magazine. In the photo above, you can see Tarkovsky flipping through a copy of the magazine to get a taste of the highly prestigious publicity outlets I’d found for him.
It turned out that the Botticelli-beautiful Domiziana Giordano was living in New York at that time, and I had the opportunity to meet her. Later on, Neil Jordan would cast her in “Interview with the Vampire,” based on seeing her in “Nostalghia.” She would also go on to appear in Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague” and numerous Italian films, as well as a varied career as an artist, video artist, photographer, poet, and writer. Recently, this multifaceted intellectual appeared on a “Survivor”-like Italian reality show, which made me wonder what it would be like if Susan Sontag could have lived to be on “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”
The distributor of “Nostalghia” was a father-and-son company called Grange Communications. The father, Myron Bresnick, had founded the 16mm non-theatrical film company Audio Brandon and sold it to MacMillan. He was now picking up high-quality European films and sub-distributing them through companies like Kino. Myron was old school, but Geoff Bresnick, who was closer to my age, was pretty wild. It was weird to team up with a character from the cast of “The Hangover” on this profound art film, but after I got used to it, it was a lot of fun.
The Bresnicks took Tarkovsky to the Telluride Festival, where they put on a big tribute for him in the Opera House. As soon as we got there, the festival directors Bill Pence and Tom Luddy whisked him away to points unknown. See ya! I thought that was a bit extreme as the Bresnicks had gone to the great expense and hassle of bringing him to the U.S., as well as bringing him to Telluride. The idea of Telluride at that time was that publicity was strictly verboten, and publicists like me, while not completely persona non grata, weren’t supposed to work while they were there. Telluride opened up that policy years ago, but then it took a major effort just to locate Tarkovsky and meet my commitment for one measly phone interview. But the thing that really drove me nuts about the whole Telluride experience is that they programmed “Ivan’s Childhood,” the one Tarkovsky film I hadn’t seen, at the same time as the Tarkovsky tribute! But the tribute was amazing, as all Telluride tributes are. And after the festival ended, Geoff Bresnick drove me to Denver at what seemed like 150 MPH the whole way, which now that I think of it is a perfect way to top off watching a lot of Tarkovsky films.
So what does all this have to do with Coppola, you ask?
Throughout my time with Tarkovsky, I refused to give up trying to make a connection and draw him out. After all, I was a card-carrying Tarkovsky buff! Attention must be paid! I had a lot of questions, but I was always in the same position as Domiziana’s character and the poet in the movie, getting nowhere He would dismiss me, telling me over and over again that I could never fully understand his films because I wasn’t Russian.
But one time he was talking for a long time about “The Godfather;” really getting into it in a very sophisticated way. Thinking that I had him, I asked, “How can you understand ‘The Godfather’? You’re not Italian-American.” He looked at me in this bemused way, perhaps with a trace of compassion for my inability to grasp the obvious.
“All artists understand each other,” he said.
Monday, June 15, 2009
“The Rain People” isn’t even mentioned in Francis Coppola’s Wikipedia biography, and perhaps that’s understandable, as it hasn’t been seen by a lot of people and few would argue it’s one of his best films. Warner Brothers never released a DVD, and has only recently made it available as a special order from WBShop.com or as a download.
“The Rain People” is a low-key road movie about an unhappy Long Island housewife (Shirley Knight) who flees her marriage when she finds out she’s pregnant. Driving cross-country with no set destination, she picks up a brain-damaged ex-football player (James Caan), who she gradually becomes responsible for, and has an encounter with a sexually aggressive highway patrolman (Robert Duvall). At the time, the film was generally perceived as a bit arty, and as a gloomier mirror image of “Easy Rider.” Nowadays it’s seen as an imperfect, but ambitious and important step in Coppola’s development. Dave Kehr wrote that “The Rain People” was the “first statement of Coppola’s perennial theme—crippling loneliness within a failed family.”
What thrilled me about “The Rain People” in 1969 wasn’t the movie itself, but the way Coppola made it. He loaded a small production team into a handful of vans and cars and made the same trip that Shirley Knight’s character did through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Nebraska.
The entire cast and crew of “The Rain People”
This all was very vivid for me at the time because his friend and American Zoetrope partner George Lucas documented the trip in “Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas.” I didn’t see Lucas’s film then, but there was an edited featurette that I saw many times. I have a very strong memory of Coppola saying in the featurette that he imagined a day when each town could have its very own film crew. As a teenager making my little Super-8 films, I found this incredibly inspiring. Here was this freewheeling traveling carnival, experimenting and improvising as they rambled from town to town. They were young and cool cinematic hippies challenging the “man” (Hollywood). Coppola even had a beard--just like Jerry Rubin! I would have given anything to be riding in that caravan.
If I had been able to see the whole “Filmmaker” I would have seen a very different portrait of Coppola. He was no hippie—he was a hot-head born to be pissed off. He fought with Shirley Knight, and raged against a DGA spokesman on the phone, escalating a demand for another AD to a world-level crisis and a potential end to all hope for the future of American cinema.
Another thing I didn’t know was that Coppola started out by bankrolling “The Rain People” himself with his Hollywood-earned loot. As he told Lucas: “I was acting very irresponsibly. I was committing all my personal money, with no guarantee that we were going to make the film. So I stood to lose everything. It’s not too much because I figure if you’re not willing to risk some money when you’re young, then you’re certainly not going to ever risk anything in the years that follow.” I know that Warner Brothers did ultimately step in to provide financing, but I’m not sure if Coppola got any of his investment back.
Today “The Rain People” would be called a Sundance film and of course it would have premiered there and Sony Classics would have brought it out. Instead it was released by a studio that didn’t understand or care about it and basically dumped it. That year, Coppola and Lucas set up their own company, American Zoetrope, to make studio films to pay for riskier fare. Unfortunately, the first one, Lucas’s “THX-1138” was a flop and Coppola was left $300,000 in debt. This would become a recurring pattern in his career: bold and expensive ventures followed by devastating financial ruin. In this particular situation, Coppola bailed himself out by making a film called “The Godfather.”
Years later, in 1989, I was working as unit publicist for the New York shooting of “The Godfather: Part III.” The production set up for a few days on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, to film the sequence involving the shooting of Joe Mantegna’s character, Joey Zaza. Coppola spent most of the time holed in his much-publicized Silverfish, a huge trailer rigged up with computers, monitors, and assorted high-tech sound and video gear. From the outside, the Silverfish looked like the kind of Greyhound bus you’d find in Oz and inside was Francis the Wizard with all his gadgets. It was state-of-the-art 1989-- I remember the stacks of countless Hi-8 Video cartridges. While the crew was sitting around in the usual torpor of movie sets, Francis was working furiously in the Silverfish. He wrote interstitial scenes to help the actors better understand how they got from the last scene in the script to the one they were about to do. He actually edited the film using video, something I had never seen before. And he plotted ways to keep people on their toes during the shooting. As we were getting close to the big moment, when Mantegna’s character got his, there was supposed to be one final rehearsal. But Coppola had the special effects guys make the actual killing happen in the rehearsal, without telling the actors, thus adding actual surprise and giving the scene more immediacy. He also had a thing about talking to the extras, giving them little backstories. Everything was important to him. Despite all doing all this stuff, Francis somehow found time to explain the Silverfish technology and tell me some great stories.
I set up shop for my publicity activities in a coffee shop across the street from the Silverfish. Paramount had supplied me with this huge brick cell phone. One day I saw Jim Jarmusch and his girlfriend (now wife) Sara Driver (also a terrific director, and a former employee of my publicity firm) come by (they lived very near there). We hung out in the coffee shop for a while, both of them fascinated by my hairdryer-sized phone until I asked them if they wanted to meet. They didn’t take much persuading.
Francis gave Sara and Jim the grand tour of the Silverfish and everybody had a great time. I got a big kick out of watching my friend Mr. Less-is-More talk to my idol, Mr. Monumental-is-More. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering, “what if?” What if things had gone differently with American Zoetrope? Would Coppola have had a career like Jim with complete artistic control—and own his negatives? I realized that it couldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t have happened. Coppola had a different kind of talent, the talent that flourished on a large scale and was often enriched by battles with producers, studio heads and all the anti-art suits. More than any American director I can think of, his career has lurched about like a boat in a storm. And a lot of the stories this now very calm and wise man told me in the Silverfish were about how he did something in reaction to someone like Robert Evans breaking his balls.
Now of course, the thing I thought could never happen--has happened. Coppola is making movies on a smaller scale, and just like Jim, he has complete artistic control and now he owns his negatives. He’s even doing the distribution himself. It wasn’t something he actually planned (see David Poland’s interview below), it just kind of happened. He spent five years trying to make two epic films, “Pinocchio” and “Megalopolis,” and both of them fell through. But something that seemed to me like a hobby in 1989 had made him incredibly wealthy. Now, as he says, he can be a rich guy making films as a hobby. So we can look at “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro” with the knowledge that they are made by the guy that made the Godfather trilogy, “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Cotton Club” “Dracula,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Tucker.” And we can look at this guy who has reinvented himself over and over again using calamity as a fulcrum. People talk about how he’s become young again at 70 but of course that’s ridiculous. He was always at war when he was young and now he’s become the enlightened general who presides over the peace. This is just his latest reinvention, when he doesn’t need to struggle any more to find his greatness. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we get another Coppola at 75. If he has the desire to make something like “Megalopolis” in the future, and feels up to it—he will.
But for the moment, he’s utilizing his experience as Roger Corman’s assistant (45 years ago!) to bring these movies in on budget, the same skills he drew on when he headed off on that trip with “The Rain People.” I can’t wait to follow him wherever he takes us.
David Poland's interview with Francis Coppola
Monday, June 08, 2009
Last week, I read that beeTV, the latest in a series of so-called “recommendation engine” technologies that have emerged lately, announced they had raised eight million dollars. Here’s their video:
I think you’re all aware of the way Netflix uses complex computer algorithms to calculate what movies people like and make suggestions. Although I’m not crazy about the idea of reducing people’s tastes to mathematical formulas and psychological theories, apparently a lot of people find it quite useful. If you’re not a movie buff, but just enjoy movies, how else can you make a choice out of over 100,000 titles?
This kind of technology comes under the rubric of “data mining,” something that makes sense out of tremendous amounts of data, as Wired put it, “trying to make useful sense out of a gigantic dataset, typically rather noisy, completely unintelligible to the naked eye, and, despite its size, often painfully incomplete.” Sounds like an online video service to me. In addition to Netflix and beeTV, other recommendation engines I’ve discovered include WHiWA (“What I Watch”) and jinni.com. (And of course there are things like Pandora in the music world.)
Do these things really work? Netflix has a well-publicized contest going now which is offering a million dollars to anyone who can make their system 10% more effective. While no one has yet been able to reach that goal, some of the entrants have already made the algorithm over 8% more effective. (One of the top competitors for that million is Gavin Potter (aka “just a guy in a garage”), who is now working for….beeTV.)
So it does seem to be effective. Many people are watching the films that the software is recommending. (Of course there may still be a few bugs in the system, as this actual Netflix page above suggests.)
Another aspect of some “recommendation machines” is they allow you to pick a movie based on your mood, as you can see in the beeTV video.
Do you want to see a thriller? How about a sexy thriller? How about a sexy thriller comedy spoof? Jinni.com allows you to search by mood, plot, genres, time/period, etc. It even features “Story Tuners,” which are little sliders where you can fine tune your searches in the various categories, in case you’re in the mood for something approximately 70% Fantastic and 30% Well Known.
All this stuff raises what I think is a very important question: will “recommendation engines” become an ever-increasing part of the way people choose which movie to watch? After all, Rotten Tomatoes already has definitely had that kind of impact. Local critics used to have much more influence in their communities. Now that you mention it, there are a lot fewer formerly influential critics nowadays, largely due to the impact of the internet on newspapers’ bottom line.
Last week, Scott Kirsner asked the readers of his blog, “How Do You Discover Movies?”
“If you think about the last few movies you've seen (whether in theaters, on DVD, via iTunes or BitTorrent), how did you hear about them? Was it via a Netflix suggestion, a Variety review, an e-mail or Tweet from a friend? (Or maybe even an old-school billboard or TV commercial?)”
The large majority of Scott’s commentators made their choices because of recommendations from actual human beings--trusted friends, critics, and bloggers. They watched trailers. They heard about stuff from friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook. They went to films made by their favorite directors and featuring their favorite actors. And even though they readers of Scott’s blog are likely to be very knowledgeable about film, I think this is the way it is for most people. But there are people investing millions of dollars in the belief that a lot of people will be open to the idea of letting their computers do the shopping.
These recommendation engines make me more than a little uncomfortable. I’d like to believe that people are more complicated than that. But even if I’m wrong, as my friend John Pierson told me, “it’s a terrible indictment of the state of public herding.”
Even if people are as predictable as that, movies aren’t. Take a movie like “Anvil.” On the outside it looks like a real-life “Spinal Tap,” and yes, it is funny in that way. Using one of these algorithms you might pass it by, as it’s a genre of one. If you hate heavy metal, it takes a persuasive human being to slice through your resistance and explain why you might like it. That’s the kind of thing that critics like Pauline Kael excelled at. She was a rock star. She led audiences through the power of her writing ability, intellect and persuasive gifts. Her reviews were thrilling events (sometimes more exciting than the movies she was championing). And I’m sorry, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t fulfill that function. There are many wonderful critics working now, but the great age of the movie critic is over. And that’s a very sad thing.
Maybe this line from the jinni demo video says it all:
“Searching on jinni is like talking to someone who’s really listening to your words.
Sometimes you need a machine for that.”