Archive for December, 2008

Frost/Nixon

 

TV vs Stage vs Film vs History

TV vs Stage vs Film vs History

The material that makes up this particular piece of art represents one of the most unique challenges for me to write about. “Frost/Nixon” the film has just opened, was directed by Ron Howard and stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. If these actors are not household names of cinema, it may make a little more sense to learn that they originated the material on stage, the medium it was created for by writer Peter Morgan. It started in London and transferred to New York on Broadway. That was where I first saw it, in the summer of 2007.

So now I have the rare perspective of having seen the same actors performing the same material as the same characters on both the stage and screen. Which is better, you might reasonably inquire? That is what I wondered and still wonder.

In the journal I kept on that trip to New York City, I wrote to myself that the play did not quite have the power I had expected it to and that Michael Sheen, whose acting I had loved onscreen in 2006’s “The Queen,” made the fatal error of over-gesturing. He cycled through them over and over, and the performance rang of inexperience and actor trickery (something I know a little about myself, I will admit). But it was the play’s writing that most offended me. It made abundant use of one of the most tiresome theatrical conventions, in which a minor character continually broke the fourth wall to give us plot updates, usually during scene changes. Dreadful lines like, “We were about to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had!” were delivered with all the subtlety of machine gun fire next to your ear. Ouch.

It was to my immense surprise, therefore, that both Sheen and the entire supporting cast were handled so much better in the film. Sam Rockwell plays the character, James Reston, and his asides are translated into interview style, direct-addresses to the camera. Also wise is the decision to allow more than just Reston a voice. Both camps are represented, which also provides slightly more balance than the play gives. In the play, you feel perpetually off-center, because it is narrated by someone you care little about, and about a man kept always at a distance. By giving Nixon’s people more of a voice, it inflates the scope of the film, and raises more questions about how we may perceive Nixon himself by the end. And Sheen seems so much more comfortable on camera than onstage. His gestures are more contained, he trusts stillness more, and the movement he does choose is grounded in purpose and intention, instead of fear from the total exposure that is live theatre (I do not know if he was nervous, it could easily have been that I saw the evening show after a matinee. The man could simply have been tired).

But for all that, Ron Howard manages to do what he always does and that is to say that he makes a Ron Howard movie. I cannot quite put my finger on the problem, except to say that his films have a way, in my opinion, of overlooking the acting and story that they are supposed to be capturing. There is something inherently bulky and bloated about the way his shots are arranged, especially now. My favorite film of his is, hands down, “Apollo 13,” because unlike most of his films, it feels authentic. But in movies like “Cinderella Man” and even a movie I mostly like, “A Beautiful Mind” there seems a lack of specificity to his movies and the way he captures performances.

And speaking of performances, Frank Langella. It’s a very good performance in the film. You can tell that Langella knows his character; is his character. It is everything that good acting should be. And yet. As solid as his big moments were in the film, they were dynamic on the stage. He has a monologue at the end, in which he is making his apology. Howard shoots it tight, he bludgeons us with closeup, closeup, closeup. It still works, it’s still effective, but on stage! Oh, on stage, Langella’s voice was barely a whisper, like he was afraid to say the words too loudly. The distance drew us in all the more. It was mesmerizing. It was crystal clear, I caught every single word, even from nearly the back of the theatre. The crowd was so completely silent. There was no music underscoring it. Just two men in chairs, one speaking, one listening. Ladies and Gentlemen… Theatre.

So how do you decide which is better, when more people are better in the film, but the lead actor is better on stage? Which is the better way to view a piece of dramatic art? IS there a better way, or maybe just a different way? Since you obviously can’t go back in time and see the play, you should do yourself a favor and see the film. For it’s flaws, it is inherently fascinating subject matter; very similar in fact, to Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk,” another true story, in which knowing the ending actually increases the effectiveness of the film. 

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Christmas Music 2

Well! I have proven myself wrong! What wonders you can find if you just do a bit of searching. Today NPR informed me that Weezer has an EP, Christmas With Weezer (thanks iTunes, I’ll take that) and I never knew The Killers did a Christmas single each year (picked those up too). What with all these plus Aimee Mann, I’ve got more Christmas music than I know what to do with. 

Today, as is our way, my family will go skiing on fake snow, then head over to a family friend’s house for dinner and relaxing. The first year, I fell down nearly every time I tried to do a difficult course on the skis. Last year I fell only twice, and they were spectacularly bad spills – skis 20 feet away from me, poles God knows where, even my gloves fell off. This year, it is my Christmas wish that I not regress. As long as I fall 2 times or fewer I will be satisfied. 

Then, as is my own Christmas tradition, I’ll come home, put on a movie or a delightfully informative commentary (David Fincher films feature some of the most insightful discussions) and wrap presents. I employ quite a lot of Christmas bags and simple tissue paper arrangements. My present wrapping is infantile at best, and it does actually bother me that I am at the same skill level as most 6 year olds, but what’s to be done.

Here’s hoping your Christmas Eve and Day are wonderful and fun and lovely to behold. And seriously, check out the Weezer stuff. It’s good listening.

Christmas Music

I don’t like it. I don’t know why. No, I do know. Aside from the fact that at a given time I have a painful amount of music I haven’t listened to yet and want to, or feel I should, and aside from the fact that Christmas music consists of the same songs over and over and over, the biggest turnoff is a pretty simple one – I don’t care much for the singers. I don’t care for their voices. They are general and bland and overly-smaltzy. It does not help their cause that these schlock-tunes are played earlier and earlier every year. Were I President, or better, Dictator, Christmas music would be allowed from December 10th-December 31st. That is three full weeks, and a generous, gracious dictator I should be thought. 

I grew up in the late 80’s and 90’s. My time was divided equally between playing videogames, playing with my action figures (and watching their corresponding TV shows and/or movies), and playing basketball. Consider Christmas in the house with no cable. All major programming stations featured faceless mass choirs singing songs in low lighting. Super Mario wouldn’t be caught dead here, neither would Raphael, Robin Hood, or Dick Tracy (nor his trusted sidekick, Sam Catchem). Since then, that image has always been associated with Christmas music, and Christmas music has always been associated with the word “AVOID!!!

But I am a grownup now, and when you grow up, you must away childish things. A few years back my family went to a Christmas concert performed by a large swing band. It was delightful. It was energetic. “AVOID!!!” only came to mind 10 or 11 times the whole night, as opposed to a constant stream of it, shouted at fever-pitch in my mind’s ear. 

But even so, I own exactly ONE Christmas album – One More Drifter in the Snow, Aimee Mann’s Christmas CD. As it turns out, many of the songs are palatable, even enjoyable, when sung by the right person in the right way. And I began to ponder. What I wouldn’t give for a 2-disc, 25 song compendium of Christmas Glory performed by The Decemberists. Or Tom Waits and a single piano serenading me into the silent night. I would gobble up such products. Because they are musicians I trust.

Most Christmas music is boring because most musicians singing them don’t do anything with them. The emotional weight of the song is placed solely upon the shoulders of the lyrics or individual chords, instead of upon this particular musician’s singing of those lyrics and playing of those chords. They shirk their artistic responsibility to bring something to the music, to invest it with some part of themselves. In short, the Christmas music played on radio stations is lazy. And that is death for the active listener.

Yeah, But What Do I Know?

I’ve had my film camera for only about 5 months. I’ve shot two short films so far, and now, moving forward, I feel like it’s time to close the gap of obvious things I don’t know. Everyone says it’s unfair to compare yourself at your age to a well-respected filmmaker when they were that same age. But here goes. I got a real treat tonight when I saw for the first time, Paul Thomas Anderson’s short film Cigarettes and Coffee. It is 26 minutes, stars Philip Baker Hall, is shot well, edited well, and made when he was 22 yrs old. Let the inadequacy begin! And while I can watch it and say, “Well, some of the dialogue is a bit too precious” I also have to look back at a whole heap of my own writing and say the same thing. Also, he was 22. Also, none of his full length films inspire that critique in me. Also, he moves his camera really well. His sound is good. His film looks like film. 

Where was I seeing this recently? Someone was talking about the distinction between the things you don’t know you don’t know and the things you know you don’t know. If you don’t know you don’t know, then you can’t be expected to take the initiative to learn right away. But if there are things you know you don’t know, then there is no fault but your own if you continue on in ignorance. I know I don’t know about the technical side of film. I know how to move the camera, how to construct shots and coordinate them. I know how to communicate with actors, and I can give them decent things to say. I don’t know how to light a shot. I don’t know how to get a higher quality shot with better resolution. Is it just getting better film? Are there functions on my camera that I can utilize better? I’ve thumbed through the manual, but I haven’t read it cover to cover. What other lenses do I need? What filters should I get? I don’t know how to make it look less like video and more like film. I don’t know how to get better sound from everything. I don’t know sound. DON’T KNOW SOUND. And I need to learn.

What I do know, though, is what I want to do. I’m writing a short film right now tentatively titled “Grande Venti Tall” which I think genuinely has the potential to be very very good. I’ve been writing a helluva lot recently, and one thing I know is, I don’t want to write something frivolous. I’m not interested in writing something simple and cheap. And already the “P” word is looming over me. The “E” word is close behind. But I don’t want to shoot some youtube video. It may be undue pressure, but I feel like I don’t have time to be dicking around. This is not to say that I am going to make serious, dramatic, unfunny movies. I intend to write a lot of comedy. But not “that” kind of comedy, you know? Yes, but even if I can manage to write it… can I make it and make it well? 

 

P = Pretentious / E = Elitist

Running in Place

I came to drop bombs!

I came to drop bombs!

Well, I did it. I finished. I set the goals for myself. I trained myself. I worked hard. I ran when it was cold, when I was tired, when I didn’t want to, when I did. I ran and pushed myself, and it paid off big time. Here’s how it went down. Race starts. I let a lot of people go in front of me, because I wanted to avoid having my momentum stalled up front. So, I waited a minute or two, then started (your time doesn’t start until you cross an electronic stripe that communicates to a chip they give you, so waiting doesn’t hurt your time). And I passed SO MANY PEOPLE!!! I was weaving in and out of the group. I settled in the middle for a few moments, just to feel the feeling of running in a pack like that. Seeing everyone running was just great. So, yes, passing people all over the place for the first 20 minutes or so. And I’m thinking, are you kidding me? This is awesome. 

 

Well. Then you settle in. And your pace slows. Or at least mine did. And let me tell you, after that first big push of mine, I passed ONE person the entire rest of the time. One. How many people passed me are untold and innumerable. It was constant. And I got worried. At times, I had to turn off  my iPod and regroup, because I felt like I was going so slow, I thought, oh no, did I train enough? Mind games… they’ll kill you. Also, I read the mile markers in the most cynical way (and to be fair, they were not clear. Had I completed mile 5? Or was this the start of mile 5? So the entire race, I thought I was going slow, with the mile markers and the getting passed. In the middle of it all, I thought, you know, maybe I should just give up. Go slow, finish the race, never look at the time, and just leave. Try again next time. Or don’t. I thought I had failed. I thought, there’s no way I’m on pace to do it in under two hours, even though all my training told me that was totally feasible. 

Then, with 2.2 miles to go, I looked at my watch. 18 minutes. Oh boy. It would take a very strong effort to do this. Less than a 9 minute mile, when I’ve been running slow. And then I thought, I’m here, I’m running, when am I going to run another half marathon? Not for a while, I know that. Am I really going to let this slip away? And I battled with myself. And I picked up my pace, and it hurt, and I was tired, and more people were passing me. 

So, I move past the mile marker for mile 26 (which is for the full marathon runners) so I knew I had 1.2 miles left. I came around a bend and thought, let’s move it, Jason. Move your ass. Except…what’s that? That’s the finish line 0.2 miles away. I had read the mile indicators as if I was a mile behind the entire race.

There is a feeling I want to talk about now. I felt it in basketball my senior year of high school. It is a feeling of awareness. Awareness that a dream or goal is about to become a reality. It is about to exist and be, and it is yours. And I will tell you, for that last 0.2 miles, I ran with more joy and heart and love than I’ve ever run with. I crossed the finish line with a time of 1:51:17 which comes out to just under 8 1/2 minutes per mile. 8 1/2… fitting. I placed 218th out of over 850. As a wonderful surprise, my mom showed up to watch me finish. Hint: It’s always better to have someone there for you. 

I went to Chicago for Thanksgiving. I ran by the lake a few times, and it was amazing. I ran when I went to California last summer. I ran all through downtown Toronto in September. And when I was in London a year ago, I ran through its busy streets while its inhabitants made their way to work. And now I have completed a half marathon in my hometown of Kansas City. There is something about running in places that ties you to them, I think. It’s a chance to meet them and talk with them and experience them without any sort of plan. You’re not going somewhere, you’re just…going. You’re just running. There is nothing like it, I’m telling you.

Roger Ebert Writes for Me!

Here is the 2nd post about Mr. Ebert and in no way the final one. You’ll hear about him again in a month or so when I make my list of Top 10 movies from 2008. It will be shared with all, even though it will be written mostly for me. 

Back to Ebert. He has a bi-weekly column called “Great Movies,” in which he… reviews a Great Movie. It can be popular, obscure, old, new, black & white, color, silent, talkie, or any mixture of them. It is a great way to learn about movies. And it is not an absolute science. For instance, he recently reviewed 2002’s “Adaptation,” which was not his #1 movie of that year, “Minority Report” was, but “Adaptation” has been bumped up to Great status first. This is neither here nor there.

It is not unkind or untrue to say that Ebert is getting older. He has health problems. He has been unable to speak for at least 18 months, and worse, he was unable to write for a long, empty spell. It seems to me like he is choosing movies as his way to say good-bye. He is making amends with some movies, like “The Godfather, Part II.” He is choosing movies about God – recently “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” – and now “Magnolia,” (my favorite film) which is also quite a lot about death, as are “Adaptation” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” which was the final film of one of Ebert’s favorite filmmakers, Robert Altman. As it happens, Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote and directed “Magnolia” helped out on that film, since Altman was sick. He acted as insurance for the film’s completion. If “Magnolia” is interested with the interconnectivity of life, then its appearance at this very moment in Ebert’s cannot be overlooked.

Ebert discusses the film’s obsession with coincidences, or rather, how coincidence may not be coincidence at all, it just seems that way from down here. So what does it mean that the review was posted on Thanksgiving? And what does it mean that I was in Ebert’s home city of Chicago this Thanksgiving, on the VERY DAY he published this review? Did he write this review for me and neither of us knew it? 

I have not talked about “Magnolia” yet, really, and I’m not going to. Too early in the blog’s life to go on and on about it… and I will. For now, be contented that Ebert is the world’s best film critic, and even though “Magnolia” is not his favorite movie of all time, I betcha he writes about it better than I will. Read it.


It Has Come to This

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