26 October 2009

53. All the President's Men

The movie starts and ends with close-ups of a typewriter giving us the equivalent of title cards. Thematically this makes sense, but Pakula does us one better: he layers the sound of the typewriter with whips and bullets: words can be weapons.

This is a long movie (over two hours), but it is nonetheless tightly structured and scripted. Like "Zodiac", it's about process. Watch how Woodward and Bernstein go from task to task, from roadblock to roadblock, how they cajole and investigate, building upon small pieces of information to find a larger whole. This movie does the most simple yet most difficult thing a movie can do: it makes us wonder what will happen next. It does that by embodying the the suspense genre, but goes one further: we know the outcome -- Nixon resigned just a few short years before the movie was made -- but the writer and director have made us wonder how we get there.

Like "JFK", it's overflowing with the information given to the audience. We get character after character coming at us as audience, we get phone numbers, dates, names. To include a subplot, personal lives or a love interest would be ridiculous. Goldman keeps us with the task at hand, and then he's done.

And it doesn't hurt that he included some amazing dialogue on top.

As much as Goldman did a great job on the script, Pakula is great here. There's so much to admire here: His expert use of casting, with the two main character being the biggest movie stars of the time (so that we identify with them and go along on their journey), with character actors in supporting roles (Robards, Holbrooks, Balsam) and no-names in cameos; his expert sense of pacing, keeping the movie flowing from scene to scene with none wasted; his intercutting to doodles and other office detritus during phone conversations to keep the audience interested; his sense of mise-en-scene; his use of Gordon Willis' dual-focus and long lens cinematography that's
always in service of the story, often in subtle but profound ways.

Everyone loves William Goldman (as well they should), but Pakula is always underrated.

16 October 2009

29. Sullivan's Travels

The thing I find most admirable about studio pictures of the 30's and 40's is their economy of narrative. Here we get the beginning, a patently false action scene: a train chase to end a picture, and then the lights come up in the studio office and the heads (commerce) duke it out with the director (art) -- a parallel with what the director was trying to represent with his fight, and a tip of the hat to the audience that Sturges has already made up his mind about the subject: he plans to give the audience what they want.

This is rich stuff already, and we're only in the first five minutes.

The director wants something that Robin Williams, Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey can relate to: he wants to make people think. Making them laugh is not good enough, not honorable enough for him anymore. He wants to discuss The World, he wants to make a picture about the poor, the common man, about Trouble. The problem? He's never had to work a hard day in his life, nor does he know from the poor. So: he'll LARP a hobo.

Within 10 minutes, they're off. He's tramping with an old-timey RV behind him, clad with a doctor, a photographer, a PR man. The director resents this entourage, because he desires an authentic experience. He wants no hand-holding, and gets away from the rest by hitchhiking with a boy in his derby car. Thus: a chase. The audience gets some laughs and some excitement, but there's a reason for it.

He heads off again, promising to meet them in Vegas. He has a run-in with a widow (and there's a great gag with her husband's portrait).

He meets the girl: Veronica Lake. Boy, is she beautiful. Boy, does she have great dialogue. But she also displays generosity, and his new desire in act 2 is to help her fulfill her dreams of being a working actress. His ruse is up with her eventually, and they go off again together, tramping at the train station. In this, she's doing more acting than she's probably previously done.

He gets sick on the train, so they hop out at a lunch counter. Again, generosity in the form of a counter-owner who gives them coffee and cakes for free. He is repaid when they spot the RV. They must return -- he is sick and must be bedridden. The counter-owner gets $100.

Once he's well, they're off again, this time locally. They goes to where the destitute, showering with them, eating with them, sleeping in piles with them. He trades boots with another man who's feet are freezing. All of this we're given almost as a silent film, with no word, just music. It's too long to be a montage, and it conveys everything we need to know about the poor. As such, it's what we would imagine Sullivan would want to make himself, if he could.

With this, he's done. He feels he's seen enough, but he goes down one last time to pass out money to the poor. A greedy old hobo notices and knocks him on the head, drags him off into a train car and steals his boots and money. The train takes off and the hobo is killed while trying to retrieve the cash.

Note: this above section with the old hobo is almost a small story unto itself. It remains me immediately of the Chris Tucker section of "Jackie Brown", which played as a small aside, still within the larger narrative, that could play without it. Again, the economy contained within is breathtaking -- we see an entire arc, are given a moral, and get a great image of fluttering dollar bills over a boot. Incredible.

The 3rd act begins. Now he's not longer acting -- he really is down-and-out. He commits assault and is sent to prison. Now he knows how the other half lives and, gaining that wisdom, he wants to return to his real life.

And why not? This life is hard, stuck in a sweat box, manual labor all day, a terror of a boss/warden. The only relief the men get is going to a church where they put a sheet down to play movies. A cinema in the church! The conceit is too great: this little bit of release is their salvation. Again, the generosity of people is too much -- they give up the front rows and sing "Let My People Go."

The show is a simple cartoon, but it allows them to do what is missing in their lives otherwise: laugh. That's when the lightbulb comes on over Sullivan's head: movies work best as entertainment, as escape, and there's no shame in giving people pleasure.

15 October 2009

54. Manhattan

The photo essay at the beginning, besides being beautiful, sets up (via voiceover) our character and setting: we're dealing with someone indecisive who idolizes intangible things, and he lives in and loves New York.

Now, the meat comes in the next scene. He's 42 and in a relationship with a 17 year old girl. This is played straight with little emphasis on it being illegal, and mostly focusing on him using their age difference to convince her that they should break up.

His best friend is having an affair. We met her at 15 minutes in, and she's the dissenting opinion. She slowly grows on him, and he gets with her. He crushes his teenage lover in a sofa fountain shop (an irony setting) and thus begins their short love affair.

But she's indecisive as well, as is the Yale, the man she was having an affair with. For the first time, Isaac wants to be with someone, but she doesn't want to be with him. And so, having no other options, he tries to return to the teenager, but she's off to London. And then we get a coda, a repeat of the beginning montage of beautiful New York.

It's actually more complex than my scant summary, but it is, like John Gardner said, "sophistication that lies beyond simplicity." It is a slight tale that is significant for being so contained.

Two main drawbacks about the writing: Allen's dialogue isn't ever as clever as he thinks it is, and even when it is, his punchlines never seem to fit the narrative and stick out like a stand-up comedian punching up a script. Also, the movie starts out with Isaac beginning a book. We see him quit his job impulsively to write the book, but the very idea of him finishing is absurd and it becomes a MacGuffin. Remember: gun in first act has to go off in the third act. And this one doesn't.

Two other drawbacks: Allen has thankfully learned, over time, that he shouldn't act. It's not that he's terrible (there's actually some subtle stuff going on in this movie, especially in the last scene, that I like), but he's relatively one-note and not nearly as charming as he imagines he is. The other thing is that he has Meryl Streep is his movie and hardly uses her. Inexcusable.

Besides the writing, the obvious thing to adore about this film is the cinematography. There's a lot to love here: the graceful dolly shots that allow the actors to do entire scenes in one shot, the amazing 2nd unit work that makes New York look delicious, the fact that when characters are moving apart they are always seen in close-up singles, the wide-angle deep-focus of the static shots. More specifically, look at the movement that's allowed when Isaac comes down the spiral stairs to see Tracy alone on the couch, reading under the light. She "lights up" his otherwise self-obsessed life and gives it a different meaning. Or watch Keaton and Allen in the planetarium, the lighting corresponding to their dialogue, sometimes bright when they are in sync, sometimes dim, backlit or in shadows when they are hesitating, and sometimes, courageously, completely dark.