Monday, May 27, 2013

Review - The Act of Killing

When we see Anwar Congo spending time with his grandsons in The Act of Killing, the scene should be a heartwarming one. The old man is tender and attentive with the boys as he instructs them on how best to care for an injured chick, but the apparent innocence of this sight is tainted by what we know about the man. We have already heard Congo describe in explicit detail how he tortured and executed countless men by tying a piece of wire around their necks and pulling it until the deed is done. Later in the film, we see him calling his grandchildren to sit on his knee and watch a filmed recreation of his bloody past. He talks of his crimes in a casual, carefree manner, displaying little conflict or remorse as he does so.

Anwar Congo was a death squad leader in Indonesia in 1965. Following an attempted coup, teams of ruthless gangsters were enlisted and ordered to purge the country of communists, with the resulting death toll being estimated at anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million. The men who carried out these executions still live in the region now. They are old men, but they still recall the events of the 1960s with clarity and pride. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to get their stories, and he had no trouble getting them to talk. They take him to the sites where they committed genocide, they cheerfully recall the ease with which communists or alleged communists were condemned ("One wink and they were dead," one claims), and one particularly repugnant character reminisces about raping 14 year-old girls ("I'd say it's going to be hell for you but heaven on earth for me," he states with a leering grin). Oppenheimer just lets them talk, and then he takes things one daring step further.

Oppenheimer gives his subjects the opportunity to make films depicting their past actions in any style they desire. The men readily take up the challenge, believing that the work they produce will be of vital historical importance for younger generations, but for viewers watching The Act of Killing, this takes the film into incredibly murky moral territory. To see these men glorify their crimes and paint themselves as heroic figures is stomach-churning. They dress as '30s Hollywood gangsters, name-dropping Brando and Pacino, and Anwar Congo dyes his white hair black in order to be a stronger leading man. They have a ball as gangsters, and carry with their fantasy recreation of their memories, adapting them into a western and even cross-dressing to take part in a surreal musical. While their productions may be amateurish, the participants all take it very seriously, fully dedicating themselves to their work with a conviction that clearly traumatises a group of children who see a village massacre being portrayed.

As queasy as it is to watch murderers indulging in the recreation of their abhorrent crimes, the true purpose of Oppenheimer's tactic gradually begins to reveal itself as Anwar Congo's involvement in the filmmaking takes an unexpected turn. He lets slip that he is sometimes haunted in nightmares by the ghosts of those he has killed, and as the film progresses we often find him lingering uncomfortably on the fringes of the action. This man who so boldly demonstrated his technique for torturing suspected communists is suddenly beginning to contemplate the true extent of his actions. Oppenheimer's most potent move is to get the murderers to portray their own victims in the reconstructions, a twist that suddenly breaks through whatever defences Congo had built around his own sense of self-disgust. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, Congo's conscience comes flooding to the surface – "I did this to so many people, Josh" he tearfully tells the director.

The Act of Killing is surely one of the most creative, provocative, weird and powerful films ever made about genocide. It displays the manner in which men, prompted by orders and emboldened by their position within a group of like-minded individuals, can cut themselves off from humanity and commit the most heinous deeds. Oppenheimer's brilliantly constructed film is an audacious gamble that pays off, by forcing a man like Anwar Congo to see his actions with fresh eyes, and to allow himself for a moment to inhabit the role of the men he killed without a second thought. Roger Ebert once described cinema as an "empathy machine," and that idea is vividly enforced here. Through the act of filmmaking, Anwar Congo's life was revealed to him in a light that exposed all of its darkest corners. "Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here?" He asks Oppenheimer. Of course, he is only experiencing a fraction of what his victims felt, but it will be enough to haunt him for the rest of his days.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Commentary Tracks - All That Jazz

All That Jazz (1979) with actor Roy Scheider

Comments on the Film

On getting the part
I wasn't supposed to play this part. This part was originally cast with Richard Dreyfuss. When Mr Fosse went to Columbia Studios and showed them the script they were scared to death, because it's a very strange and unusual musical comedy, but they had Dreyfuss who had just won an Academy Award for The Goodbye Girl that year. Rick was a friend of mine, and he came by my apartment in New York to visit the family, and he said to me "I don't think I want to do this movie." I asked him why and he said "I don't like Fosse and Fosse doesn't like me, and I just don't feel mentally prepared to do this thing." I said to him "Rick, you'd better tell him because you've been in rehearsal for a week," so he did tell him and he left the picture, you know, the usual artistic disagreements. Then my agent who was also Fosse's agent called me up and asked if I would like to read this script, and it blew my mind. I told him to get me a meeting with Fosse right away, and then I went down to Fosse's office and told him all of the silly, wild, crazy, dopey, ridiculous parts that I had ever played in summer stock and other places that perhaps he never would have dreamed that I could play. I wanted to give him an idea that my theatre background – which was considerable, 14 years – had a lot of classical theatre but a lot of fun stuff too, and he liked what I was saying. He said "I tell you what. If you're willing to come to my apartment every night and read this script with me, I'll consider you for the part." I went on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – and by the end of the week he said "Okay, you're the guy." He went to bat for me with the studio but they said no, the other agents said no, everyone said it was artistic suicide. "Roy Scheider? The guy from The French Connection? You've got to be kidding." But Fosse stuck with me and said this is the guy, and so we began.

On Jessica Lange's character
This was the second movie that Jessica Lange did after King Kong. Fosse had seen her, wooed her for a while, and told her that he had a wonderful part waiting for her in a picture called All That Jazz. The scenes with Jessica Lange were shot at the end of the shooting of the rest of the film, just in case Mr Fosse had something else that he wanted to talk about with the Angel of Death, or the Angel of Life, whatever you want to call it. He described this figure to me who would always be there, and that she was his idea of an idealised death. Of course she would be a beautiful woman. He talked a lot about the fact that she was the one character in the movie that he couldn't bullshit. She was the only character he could tell the truth to because she was hip and wise to his schemes and she could see through him, she knew all his lines. He keeps telling these things and he expects her to not like him because of it, but what does Death care? Death finds all of these addictions and normally harmful things very attractive, because Death is going to take him in the end anyway.

On Bob Fosse as a director
Bob Fosse was probably the best director that I've ever worked with anywhere, in the theatre or in movies, and I've been lucky enough to work with some of the best directors in the business. I say that he was the best because he was the only director I know of who was really conversant with actors in understanding how they develop character, how they do their homework, what their fears are, what their pluses and minuses are, when to leave an actor alone and how to ride him when he needs to be pushed. In other words, he was a director who went to scene study classes at the studio, who had read Stanislavski, who had been in acting classes, who was himself a performer, so you were working with someone who was very close to you as a creative performer. I thought he had a lot of pluses that no other director that I knew of had to offer, and there's also the fact that here is the man you're playing standing right in front of you. I don't do any of these things to excess like he did, so I would have to ask him how these things felt and how they affected him, and when I couldn't from my experience pull them up I'd have to find something else. This is all Stanislavski method stuff, you go back into your memory and think of something as close to that as possible. I'd tell him what he was using and if he thought it should be a different feeling he'd ask me "What else have you got?" in my own personal bag. When I came up with the thing he wanted he'd say "That's it. That's what I want you to feel."

On the Everything Old is New Again dance routine
While I was working on some other scene in the weeks that we were preparing the film, Anne and the daughter were off rehearsing this scene Everything Old is New Again. He pulled me out of the room I was in and took me to one of the dance studios, and he sat me down and said "Watch this," and they did the whole number, you know, in rehearsal clothes. I sat there and watched the whole thing and I just began to weep. It was so lovely, so sweet, so charming, and they were so giving, both of them, Anne and Erzsebet Foldi, they were just terrific. When they finished he asked if I wanted to see some more and I said "I don't want to see any more, I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to think about it until the day we shoot." I wanted to forget what that moment was like so I could try to recreate it when we did it again. I just think it's one of the best dance numbers I've ever seen.

On dancing
I had never done any dancing before – I mean, I had never done any dancing like that before. You know, I'm as good a ballroom dancer as the next guy, but I don't have those kind of muscles or that kind of training. So I started to work on all the scenes as an actor would attack scenes in a play. I worked with a dance master and dance mistress, and we worked for hours and hours for about two weeks. When it came to shoot, he announced to me that the first scene he wanted to shoot was the one with the daughter, where I'm dancing and talking with her. I said "You want me to dance and talk and act at the same time?" and he said "Yeah, sure. You've been rehearsing, you're ready for this." That was the first scene we did and I was frightened to death, but it worked out fine. He had confidence in me and the fact that he did made me feel so much better. I really had a great deal of respect for his attitude and discipline towards the work, which was almost intimidating, he wanted so much from everybody. But he was always there willing to give as much himself. If you watch the dancers they work so hard in this film, and I learned a lot about dancing. I learned they're like football players, no matter what show they're in there's always the first and second team because they get hurt all the time. They pull muscles, they break bones, they get fractures, and they're in a constant rotation. It's just like on the Friday before a big football game when they announce who's on the injured list. The dancers loved him, because even if he asked them to dance in unison out the window of a 10-storey building they would do it. They would die, but nobody would look better than they would look under his direction, and that's the way they felt about him.

On the budget concerns
When we had gone about 12 weeks and were about a million or two over budget, the head of Columbia Studios at that time sent Bobby a message and told him that he thought the Angel of Death, Jessica Lange's character, was not necessary to the movie, and perhaps we wouldn't shoot that. Well, I thought Bobby was going to have another heart attack, but we held on, and my agent and some other people went down to Florida to see Alan Ladd, Jr. who was then the head of 20th Century Fox. We showed him the dailies and asked if 20th could come in to lay off some of the cost, and luckily they did. My job was to stay in New York and call Jessica to tell her not to worry: "You're going to be in the movie, don't panic, don't leave town." I promised her that all of those scenes we had rehearsed and talked about would still be in the movie. Eventually we did get to do all of those scenes but it was a very troublesome three or four days.

On the film's impact
There have been many popular movies made after this that have exploited dance because Bobby opened up a new frontier with this picture. If think if the picture were made today it would be better received now than it was then. It was nominated for five or six Academy Awards, we won at the Cannes Film Festival, I was nominated, and it did very well, but the reviews were sort of mixed. The critics were a little upset with his self-absorption, but now the film is in everyone's home library, I mean look at what we're doing here now. This is a film that's going to last and be around a long time because it's beautifully shot, it's well-acted, it's beautifully directed, it's intelligently written, it's honest and it's also fantastically entertaining at the same time. It involves all of our fantasies about death, and you can substitute anything that you've dreamed with what he's dreamed. So I think the movie still has a lot to say to audiences.

On death
For Fosse this was very much a 'couch movie.' He was a man who had been in therapy before but this was an artistic chance to really examine himself, and he was pretty hard on himself. For example, in the last scene, the death finale scene – of course it's marvellous for a director to choreograph his own death – he has the character of Joe Gideon run up into the audience to say goodbye to his friends, wife, daughter, mistresses, producers; all those people that he loved or didn't love, and they either loved or didn't love him. He shakes hands and kisses and does all those things and then he runs back down to the stage. On the day we rehearsed that three or four times to get the timing right, and he said to me "That must be a pretty good feeling, to do that." I said to him "Why don't you do it, Bob. Try it." He said no but everyone started going "Come on, Bobby. Do it." So they started up the music and he raced up the stairs and he did all of the things you see me do in that scene, he said goodbye to all those people. When he came down he was puffing pretty hard and he said "Oh man, that was really great. And you know what? They all forgive me." That's the moment I remember the most from the film. I think he knew that his death was not going to be as wonderful as this, so that's why he spent so much time making it wonderful in the movie. As you know, he died on a park bench in Washington DC. He was walking along with Gwen Verdon  having just watched a rehearsal of Sweet Charity, which was opening that evening. He said "I don't feel well," he laid down on a bench, and he died.

Bits and Pieces

Alan Heim was the editor of this film and after two days of shooting the editing of this scene [the opening montage] was left pretty much intact by Bob Fosse, he was very happy with what Alan had done with it.

This is my first real contact with the professional dancers who were going to be in the entirety of the film, and I was just as much in awe of their dancing as they were of my acting. There was a mutual respect club here. For Broadway people this like The Bible, this movie, the dancers know that this is a genuine portrait of what it's like to work in a Broadway musical. I get a lot of respect from them for just having made the movie.

Leland Palmer, who plays my wife in this film, was a wonderful dancer and a wonderful actress who had a great career on Broadway, but after All That Jazz she left the United States, left the business, and went to Israel.

Well, you know, Cliff Gorman, who plays the lead character in the film that he's making, is really doing the film that Dustin Hoffman made with Bobby about Lenny Bruce. Cliff had done that part on Broadway and Cliff is brilliant in it. It's different from Dustin, but they're both equally wonderful, and I thought that added a big plus to the movie.

When the picture was made a lot of critics said "How dare this man. The audacity of him to make this film which is so egotistically examining his life, saying he's all this interesting." Well, I never thought of that as a performer. It was all knew to me so it was fine, and it was only Bob's closest friends who were offended by almost everything in it. I didn't see anything wrong with a director who wanted to film that was very heavily autobiographical; why not? I mean, people write books, why can't a director make a film? And to do it this entertainingly with this much great music and dance. I think it's a big plus, and who gives a damn if he paints himself blacker or whiter in certain scenes?

We talked a lot about the symptoms of heart attacks, how you get a tingling sensation in your fingers and your hands, and sometimes your arm feels number. We had talked about those things so I knew the places where I wanted to use them. And of course the hacking and coughing. One time he gave me a coughing lesson. He didn't like the tone of my coughing, he wanted it to be deeper and uglier, so we had to have a coughing rehearsal.

One of Bobby's mentors was Paddy Chayefsky, who Bobby showed everything to. The scene in the hospital where Joe Gideon is struggling to stay alive and telling Cliff Gordon all of his character facets, that was based on stuff where Paddy Chayefsky had come to see Bobby in hospital. Fosse was telling him all of the people in his will and wanted to get Paddy's opinion, and when he had finished listing the people in the will, Paddy asked if he was in the will. Fosse looked at him apologetically and said he wasn't, and then Paddy just said "Well die!" and left the room. It was a gag, but that was the kind of crazy stuff that was going on at the time.

He took the film out to California to show to some advertising and promotional people at the studio, and they had a screening one night. My friend Mr Spielberg, who I did Jaws with, called me up and said some very complimentary things, he liked the picture a lot. I thanked him and about an hour later I got a call from Fosse. He said "Your friend Spielberg was here" and I said "I know, he called me and was really complimentary," and then Fosse said "You know what he said to me? Bobby, you can't end a film where the protagonist gets zipped in a body bag!" Fosse said that's what the whole film was about, it's the story of a guy who destroys himself, but Spielberg said it was going to lose millions at the box office because people were not going to like that. Both guys have a point.

Most of the filming took place at Astor Studios in Queens, and I think the movie was budgeted for about $9-10 million, which was a pretty good price in those days. We closed down a few times, not because we were having problems, but because Mr Fosse wanted to take two or three days to rehearse the next dance number. The studio heads went absolutely crazy, we had all those people on salary, but that's what he needed to do and of course he took those days.

I remember being on the street in San Juan in Puerto Rico with my daughter, who was approximately the age of the girl in the film, and I was approach by a nun in a habit. She said "Aren't you the young man who was in that film?" I said I was and she said "I thought it was a very interesting movie, theologically. I never would have thought of death as a beautiful woman, but why not?"

The character has another heart attack after the first heart attack, and I had no idea how anything like that would feel. I asked Fosse what it was like to go through a triple bypass and then have another heart attack. He said it was like having an enormous weight, like an anvil, pressing down on your chest. So when it came time to do that scene I had the assistant director put his knee on my chest. You can't see it because the camera's only filming my face and my shoulder, but if the camera pulled back you see an assistant director kneeling on my chest and pressing harder and harder. I'm an actor who believes in anything that works, you know?

Final Thoughts

I've enjoyed the opportunity to talk about this film, not only because it's very close to me but because it is a tribute to one of the great creative artists of the 20th century. Mr Fosse, along with Balanchine and Robbins, is one of the great choreographers of our time. Choreography is not something that's written down like music or art, it's something that's passed on orally, and this movie passes on the man's work. I've always felt there was a part of Fosse that was very apologetic about being commercial, crass, cheap, burlesque or vaudeville. Yes, he was all those things, but he managed to combine them into something more than that, something so exhilarating and marvellous to look it, the way he made the human body move, it really gave you a thrill to watch it. I feel the movie is a great piece of entertainment, but it's also a great tribute to him.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"For me, filmmaking is a process of discovering what the film is rather than simply executing it." - An Interview With Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas's career to date has been defined by its variety and range, with each film taking the French director into an exciting new direction. However, his last two features have been preoccupied with the political climate and revolutionary spirit of the 1970s, with his epic Carlos being followed by the autobiographical drama Something in the Air. In his latest film, Assayas follows a young man as he engages in student radicalism before being drawn to the world of filmmaking, following a trajectory that closely mirrors his own. It's another astutely observed, fluidly directed and richly atmospheric film from one of the most consistently impressive filmmakers working today, and I met Olivier Assayas this week to discuss it.

How does it feel to get back to making a regular-sized film after Carlos?

Well, I knew I would have to downsize! [Laughs] I initially wanted to go as far as I could in terms of downsizing, and that's why I wrote a story about teenagers, which was as simple as it gets, but gradually I realised it was much more complex than I ever imagined. The film grew much bigger in certain ways than I initially anticipated because of the reconstruction of that era, the '70s. Ultimately it was much more difficult, in terms of recreating the era, than Carlos, because we shot Carlos in certain parts of Germany or Lebanon where it's easier to recreate the 1970s. Recreating the '70s in Paris or around Paris is very difficult, every street shot is a problem and it's a nightmare to find locations. I also realised that the film only worked if I was absurdly careful with the details of it, and that ended up obliging me to focus on areas of filmmaking that I usually don't have to deal with. I had to be there for the sets, the props, the costumes and everything in ways that are way beyond what you usually do on the film set. I was working with the same crew and they are really excellent, but here it was very much a matter of every detail being exactly correct or otherwise it would throw the whole thing off balance. So in the end the film was much tougher to make than I had imagined.

Does the autobiographical element also make a difference? Is it harder because it's more personal?

Yes and no. I suppose the fact that I deal with places, people and situations that I have first-hand experience of is more challenging because I can't get away with just recreating the '70s, I have to recreate the mood of the '70s. I have feel the things I felt when I was experiencing those events and situations. It imposes on you to be much more rigorous than when I was doing Carlos, for instance, because Carlos is part a recreation of a reality and part fantasy.

I felt the presentation of the '70s was very immediate. I didn't feel that it was an older man looking back on his youth with a sense of judgement or hindsight.

Yes, that was essential. In a certain way it was the difference between Carlos and this film. Carlos is seen from the point of view of today on events forty years ago, based on knowledge we have now and did not have at the time. When I started thinking about Something in the Air it was the idea of making a film immersed and embedded in the 1970s, in the middle of the chaos of it. If you want to revive the idealism, the hope or the dreams of those years you have to do it from the perspective of being inside it, not to try and second-guess it or whatever.

I guess with a movie like this we often try to draw parallels with modern times, but there's a genuine sense of hope in these youngsters rather than the disillusionment and cynicism we might see today.

Yes, but the thing is that you are depending on history and your times. The '70s generation didn't just pop up, it was something that was carried by social history. In the '60s you have this youth movement and it's something worldwide. All of a sudden you have the youth questioning the values of modern society, and it's not like kids criticising their parents, it's a whole generation that believes it has some kind of historical mission to accomplish a revolution. We're talking about the generation before mine who did May '68, more like the baby boomer generation. The generation that comes after that has a sense of living in some revolutionary times because we had the model of May '68. There was this event and nobody has really made sense of it, but at least it had this explosive energy that echoed within the whole of French society. You had this powerful youth movement all over the world simultaneously and there really was a sense that it was going to throw the whole of western society off balance. We were part of a generation that would finally change the values of western society, but we were empowered by something that went way, way back to the late 19th century. There was this belief in the past, this knowledge and scholarship about the revolutionary past. In high school you would discuss the fine print of the Russian revolution or the Spanish civil war or the Chinese civil war, and you were extremely precise. You knew exactly where the anarchists stood in relation to the Trotskyists, you knew where this group of Trotskyists stood in relation to this group of Maoists, and you knew all the nuances. And we had a faith in the future.

Today you don't have any kind of defining event like May '68 to propel the youth. On the opposite, you have this kind of discouragement about politics and this disastrous feeling about politicians on the major issues in today's world. You don't have something that would be a positive point of reference for any profound criticisms of today's society, so everyone sees what's wrong but there is a fear that if you contradict it you will end up in a horrible place, like Soviet Russia or something like that.

We see in the film that these would-be revolutionaries were divided among themselves into bickering factions. There was no way of harnessing this spirit into a single unifying force for change.

Yeah, that is exactly what happened. Ultimately that is the history of French leftism, and it's possibly the root of its failure.

I wanted to ask how your writing informs your direction, because when I watch your films they feel very loose and spontaneous, not as if you have rigidly planned each sequence.

I write very minimal screenplays, with very little description. I write it the way you would write a play or something like that. I describe very briefly the mood or the background and then I would go very quickly to the action or the dialogue. I really have this conviction that you have to leave it as open as you can so you can adapt to the locations, to the actors, to the ideas you will have on the set. The thing is that when you read the screenplay after watching the film, you will realise it is very precise and it is all there, but when you read the screenplay without having any notion of the images you will have a hard time imagining them. To me, a screenplay has to remain open but what is important is the backbone, it needs to have some narrative logic that structures the film and gives it a base, its musicality if you prefer. Within those scenes you can give yourself space to expand, retract, reinvent and transform while knowing that you can always rely on the backbone. For instance, not only do I never storyboard but I don't even design a shot until the very morning of the shoot, because whatever I will do with a specific scene is defined by what I have done in the previous scenes of the film. So it can't be something pre-planned that I will execute; the style of the film is something that will take shape day after day. For me, filmmaking is a process of discovering what the film is rather than simply executing it.

You have a number of young actors in this film with no experience. Do you have to direct performers like that in a different way to your professional cast?

The only one who has any kind of solid experience is Lola Cr̩ton, because she was the lead in a couple of films, and India Menuez has done some small things but she's not really an actress, she's actually a visual artist. The thing is that it's a completely different approach to what I have been doing in my recent films, which is mixing actors and non-actors. When you have smart actors who understand what you are looking for and know what you are trying to do, you can give them space and they will use it; well, some of them will use it and some of them won't, it depends on their instincts. When you have individuals who have no experience in acting and you throw them into a scene with actors, they can also improvise because they just react, but with kids Рand specifically when you are representing the 1970s Рyou can't give them much space to improvise because they would not use the right language or have the correct reaction. So it does become a very different style of directing actors to whatever I have been doing recently.

Finally, one film that has been referenced a lot in relation to this film is Cold Water, but that seems to be the hardest of all your films to see, in this country at least.

That film has a disastrous story, it's just ridiculous. I should sum it up because it's funny, actually. The film should have been in competition in Cannes and this got to the ears of some guy at Polygram, which was a quote-unquote "European major." We shot the film for no money and made it in four weeks, and our producer had no belief in the film, it was just like nothing, some tiny thing he had helped produce. When the Polygram guy came to him he said, "Oh great, I'll give you the international rights to the film, we'll share the profits," and then we signed the contract and it's done. It was done in five minutes and he gave away the rights to the film for fifteen years, to this guy from Polygram. Then  it was similar to Carlos, actually – all of a sudden there was a legal problem with having Cold Water in competition at Cannes because it was made with TV money, so we were out competition and in Un Certain Regard, which was fine, I was more than happy to be there. And then this guy from Polygram who was running some kind of "classics" division was fired, and they closed down Polygram Classics after six months, so we ended up in their catalogue in London where nobody knew what the film was. The thing is that they had tried to sell it in Cannes for an absurd amount of money – which I think had something to do with why the guy was fired [laughs] – so he never sold a single territory and the film remained in Polygram's library. Then Polygram fell apart, it was bought by Universal, so now the rights belong to Universal in LA and every single time I have tried to get the rights back they have told me that Universal has a policy of never selling their assets.

Not even to the director?

Not to anyone. After fifteen years they lost the rights, but at that point we didn't have the music rights anymore, because we had bought the music rights for ten years or twelve years and now we have to re-pay for the music rights. Criterion wanted to release it but as soon as they saw the bill they said, "Whoa, this is crazy." I don't know, it will take time. At least I managed to have new prints made, and the film was released on DVD in France so at least there is a DVD, even though it doesn't have English subtitles, which is a pity. But there is an English-subtitled print and I think at some point I will end up buying back the rights. It's just one of those absurd stories.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review - It's Such a Beautiful Day

Bill is a pencil-drawn stick man. He has a circle for a head and his eyes are merely two small black dots. He doesn't speak, and his only distinguishing feature is the hat that is permanently perched on his head. Bill is the star on Don Hertzfeldt's first feature film It's Such a Beautiful Day, and although we spend little over an hour in his company, the brilliance of Hertzfeldt's craft ensures that Bill is one of the most fully realised characters you'll see in a movie all year. You won't believe how much emotion Hertzfeldt can elicit from that simple little black-and-white creation.

Of course, we've already seen Don Hertzfeldt work wonders with stick men in his acclaimed short films. In Rejected, he created an increasingly anarchic series of comic commercials before the whole film deteriorated and collapsed in on itself, while The Meaning of Life incorporated dazzling in-camera effects to take us on a journey through time and space. The short films he has made show an artist gradually growing in confidence and technique, and testing the boundaries of what his chosen medium can do, but nothing can prepare you for the advances he has made in his latest work. It's Such a Beautiful Day consists of three short films (Everything will be OK, I Am So Proud of You and It's Such a Beautiful Day) that Hertzfeldt has edited into single work, and the complexity and depth of the film, both in its storytelling and emotional content, is simply staggering.

As Hertzfeldt's visual and thematic ambitions have moved forward, the one constant in his work has been the simplicity of his protagonists. Bill remains a simple stick man, whose lack of defining characteristics only serve to make him more relatable to the viewer. When placed against the live-action footage and optical effects that Hertzfeldt layers into the film, the subtle manipulations of Bill's few features imbue him with an extraordinary depth and humanity. When he leans forward to look at the words "I love you" written in the sand, the manner in which he moves and peers intently expresses a whole range of feelings – curiosity, sadness, confusion, hope – and Hertzfeldt creates such moments throughout the film, often simply through a minute variance in the positioning of his eyes or hands. When Bill receives an unwelcome diagnosis from his doctor, he removes his hat from his head and disconsolately rubs his head with his hand. It's one of the most surprising moments in the film, and it carries an incredible power.

It's Such a Beautiful Day begins by taking us through the mundane episodes of Bill's nondescript life, all of which is narrated by Hertzfeldt in a dispassionate, deadpan style. Some of these brief vignettes are funny and surreal, such as Bill's reasons for pulling fruit from the back of the supermarket shelves, or his vision of humans as little more than brains and spinal cords wandering around independently, but gradually the tone darkens. It's Such a Beautiful Day is a film about Bill's failing mind and body, territory that Hertzfeldt charts fearlessly but with a tangible tenderness. The film's non-chronological structure shuttles back and forth between Bill's present-day experiences and his often-troubling memories of growing up in a family embattled by mental illness. A Proustian instinctiveness drives Hertzfeldt's exploration of Bill's world, with memories being sparked by objects or emotions and then connections being drawn with other experiences, but he never allows the audience to feel lost as we pinball around inside this emotionally wrenching tale, even as the complexity of his visual and aural design threatens to overwhelm.

It's hard to think of another recent film that has explores themes of life and death with such a light but perceptive touch. The construction of It's Such a Beautiful Day (along with some shared musical choices) recalls Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but in truth there is nothing to compare it with because Hertzfeldt is a truly original voice. It's Such a Beautiful Day a miniature epic; a film replete with sublime, heart-stopping moments that manages to detail the whole of a man's life, laying bare his heart and soul, in just 61 minutes. Don Hertzfeldt has always been a singular talent, but this film shows us a maturation and refinement of his artistry, and his deepening humanism. His earlier short films were often cruel and nihilistic, but It's Such a Beautiful Day has a lingering hopefulness, even in death. Bill may only be a few pencil markings on a piece of paper, but Hertzfeldt has created a character who will live forever.

It's Such a Beautiful Day is available to watch here.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Review - Sleepwalk With Me

At the start of Sleepwalk With Me, Mike Birbiglia turns to the camera and insists that the story we are about to see is true. He also reminds the audience to turn off their mobile phones, before he recalls being in a cinema when a fellow audience member answered his phone with "Who dis?" – "Not only was he willing to talk to someone on the phone, he was willing to talk to anyone on the phone!" a perplexed Birbiglia exclaims. This opening quickly establishes the style that will carry Birbiglia through his debut feature; the stand-up comic's wry observations on everyday absurdities, the frequent reiteration that all of this really happened, and the direct address to the viewer, which allows him to take us into his confidence and ask for our support. "It's important before I tell you this portion of the story to remind you that you're on my side," he tells us before an episode that potrays him in a particularly unflattering light.

Birbiglia's ability to keep us onside even as his behaviour occasionally appalls us is one of the key factors in Sleepwalk With Me's success. He has given the leading character in the film the name Matt Pandamiglio, but the events his film depicts are drawn from those covered in Birbiglia's confessional one-man show. Matt is an aspiring stand-up comedian whose aspirations haven't been dimmed by the lack of success he has had with his few performances to date. His girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) is supportive of his ambitions, but she wants something more from their long and now stagnating relationship. Abby has started talk of marriage and kids, something which sends Matt into paroxysms of anxiety, and that anxiety manifests itself as a series of incredibly vivid dreams and sleepwalking episodes.

One of the more persistent and troubling archetypes in recent American comedy is the selfish, commitment-phobic schlub who nonetheless manages to sustain a relationship with a woman who clearly deserves much better. When the star of the film is the director or creative force of the picture, this disparity between partners can come off looking like narcissism or wish-fulfilment, and some viewers will surely note that Matt doesn't deserve a woman as virtuous and lovely as Abby, even before his behaviour seals the deal. Much of the film is based around his unkindness and deception. When he finally gets the opportunity to take his act on the road, driving hundreds of miles for low-rent gigs, his first spark of success comes after he introduces his marriage woes into his routine with the line, "I don't want to get married until I'm sure nothing else good can happen in my life." Matt makes his relationship with Abby the central thread of his act, hiding this fact from her while she waits at home, proud of his promising progress reports from the road.

Birbiglia gets away with it partly through his own affable charm, and partly because his film feels so well-observed and sincere. Both the portrait of a young comedian's struggles and the scenes of awkward domesticity feel authentically depicted, and the fantasy interludes drawn from Birbiglia's nightmares ensure the film feels more accomplished cinematically than a stand-up's adaptation of his own routine might otherwise have been. In many respects, the tone and content of the film recalls Annie Hall, though there's a rough-and-ready quality to Birbiglia's filmmaking that leaves it falling short of Allen's great relationship comedy. There is plenty of promise evident in Sleepwalk With Me, though, and Birbiglia has already stated his intention to adapt his latest autobiographical comedy routine for the screen too. In Sleepwalk With Me he manages to play himself as the bad guy and still earn our sympathy; whether he'll be able to pull off the same trick twice is an open question.