The real story of 20018's "A Star is Born" is how it's stars, who play stars, are unable to do anything but imitate how someone would behave when they achieve stardom, rather than expose their own "lived" experience.
Bradley Cooper's gives the portentous advice " Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that's a whole other bag," even as he is directing a movie with nothing new to say. It's a timid note-for-note copy of it's predecessors. He has even artificialized his voice, it's a gravelly octave lower. in order to better imitate a burned-out rock-star.
And he's imitating only the good parts. With the exception of a couple of pasted-on jarring bouts of bad behavior, Jackson Maine is the most courtly "self-destructive drunk" ever seen. Have you ever known a real alcoholic? They are ANGRY. They are bloated. They lie. Not once and then tearfully apologize, they lie all the time. They don't black out in a hotel room and spring up the next morning to laugh and quip over room-service breakfast. That's not what a blackout hangover looks like.
Gaga however does show some realness, but not about her character. It's about the earnest of wanting to do a good job as an actor. We see her caring about pulling out the right emotions. And in a way that's endearing and makes us want to care for her. But it's not what an ingenue propelled to stardom would feel. Instead she would be subject to roiling welter of emotions: being caught up in her new power, feeling like an imposter, having a sense of vanquishing her naysayers, worrying over how long it would last, experiencing both appreciation and resentment for the fact that the launching of her stardom was due to her partner. These are all missing, instead the script has her character put on the cloak of success with ease, with a few shouts back to her goombah muckety-muck adopted family of commercial-ready livery-cab drivers.
Unless we see these real, and often conflicting emotions, there is no way to care about the characters or to root for them as a couple. Cooper and Gaga seemed to be saying their lines in a soap-opera-esque fraught way, with the occasional burst of emotion that seemed more to do with the novelty of movie-making than with how they relate to each other. By the end one grows weary of Jackson Maine, there was no real dark side to him. So his efforts at redemption seemed superfluous.
Imagine if he had been a real bastard, and yet we still cared for him. Or if Gaga's ego had blown up but she was able to cast it aside and return to humllity when the chips were down. That really would have been "having something to say."
I thought "The Boys in the Band" would be a campy ridiculous movie, redeemed only by its groundbreaking status as one of the first mainstream films that dealt with homosexuality. Instead I found it to be thoughtful, serious, well-written, and brilliantly-acted. Its dubious reputation is the result of homophobic film reviewers (the dark side of Pauline Kael) and the fact that, as gay liberation blossomed, the gay community felt a need to distance itself from the subject of self-loathing.
In terms of camp, many primetime t.v. shows now feature outre gay characters for comic effect. Every "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" owes an immense debt to Mart Crowley (writer, producer) and William Friedkin (director). The point to this campiness in 1970 was to establish that this was not going to be a film about assimilation, about how gay people are just like anyone else except maybe more sad. Instead this film would show a (literal) walled garden where gay men acted as they would were nobody watching.
The result was pathos, similar in tone to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). in which the reigning heterosexual king and queen of the movies, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, exposed a self-loathing just as deep.
The plot is strikingly similar, an outsider arrives and witnesses the reality that lies beneath surface appearances. In "The Boys in the Band" Peter White, as straight college chum Alan, plays the naif role that belonged to George Segal and Sandy Dennis in "Woolf". Both movies started as stage plays and feature strong acting ensembles.
Leonard Frey, as Harold, the "thirty-two year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy" is particularly compelling. And I just don't see performances like Kenneth Nelson' as Michael - breaking down at the end of the movie when the reality of his situation hits him - in movies today. Maybe I am watching the wrong movies. The movie ends with a note of hope: after Harold verbally demolishes hypocritical, abusive Michael, he leaves and as he is going says "Call you tomorrow..." underscoring that their friendship will survive even this . I have to admit to envying the depth of their connection, most friendships between heterosexual men, mine included, seem mannered and fearful in comparison.
"The Boys in the Band" highlights for me the terrible treatment gays have received up until a short time ago. As I've mentioned before, the good old days weren't so good for gays, blacks or anyone different. Which causes me to think about which groups are marginalized today in a way that we won't acknowledge as a society until decades hence. I think certainly animals: Jonathan Safer Foer's "Eating Animals" seemed to me to be a necessary call-out to Michal Pollan's evasive "Omnivore's Dilemma". I struggle with this issue practically daily and haven't been able to convert to vegetarianism. Other groups might include the physically ugly - the greatest most-unspoken discrimination ever I think, the aged, and, in terms of sexuality, BDSM practitioners, acceptance of whom is slowly becoming more mainstream, at least if you go by porn as a leading indicator.
Most of the actor's in "The Boys in the Band" died in the first part of the AIDS epidemic. To me they were brave, and their work showed us a glimpse into "real" life, often I think art, movies, films, culture are the only true public glimpse into what's actually going on people's heads. To dismiss "The Boys in the Band" as campy self-loathing says more about the reviewer than the film.
Intangible Asset 82" is an independent film which chronicles Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker's trip to Korea in search of grand-master shaman drummer Kim Seok-Chul. The title of the movie refers to the fact that the South Korean government has declared Seok-Chul to be a national "intangible" asset. I bought the dvd after seeing a recital by Barker and some traditional Korean muscians at Lincoln Center's "Target Free Thursdays."
At the recital Barker tells the story of first heard the grandmaster on a rare recording. The person who played the recording for him said something like "this is an example of awful drumming." Barker's reaction was that this was the best thing he ever heard in his life and he wanted to find out all about it.
This is a great start. He likes what other people hate, this chaotic free-form improvisatory drumming. As a jazz drummer he must have had a degree of freedom to improvise, but nothing like what he heard on the recording. I find that jazz, in general, despite its reputation for creativity and freedom, can often seem bland and overly formalized. Think of how much jazz sounds the same, or of the traditionalist spoutings of Wynton Marsalis.
I would rather hear Koreans banging on pots and pans than Wynton Marsalis hectoring me on the classicism of Louis Armstrong.
Barker visited Korea seventeen times before this final trip, where he meets Seok-Chul just days before the shaman dies. Along the way we meet various other shamans and traditional musicians. We are told that the apprenticeship for being a shamanic singer is to live in a hut by a waterfall for several years, and to shout at the top of one's lungs for literally seventeen hours a day. Have you ever tried to shout at the top of your lungs for 10 minutes?
I wished that Barker would have taken a more questioning approach to Korean music and culture. For example, he often describes Korean rhythms as "incredibly complex". The point is made several times that improvisation is based on rigorous technique and years of study. I didn't hear this. As an erstwhile drummer I didn't hear time signatures being changed, or intersecting polyrhythms, I just heard pleasant banging. But I liked the banging, and I like the traditional singing, which was most often like a throaty wail. It seemed highly improvised and honest. I didn't see the need to justify it.
Barker seemed blissed out for most of the film, like a Deadhead (another genre I don't get) and the soft-focus cinematography reflected his mood. Lots of sunrises and sunsets, lights blinking on, picturesque old men in the public square, little children running. Like a K.A.L. commercial. My reaction to this was that I was being sold something. Perhaps he was trying to put a sweet coating on a challenging type of music that can sound harsh and simultaneously chaotic and repetitive. I longed for a happy traditional Korean tune.
It's hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries. In "Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present" HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that's a considerable feat.
Critics are lauding "The Artist is Present": Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it "A riveting portrait". It's easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn't work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice.
Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought "negative" elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.
"In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country" (Sean O'Hagan, Guardian UK).
In "Rhythm 0" she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her. As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns.
"The Artist is Present" is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition. There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her. As the exhibition continued, Abramovic's rock-star status began to grow - people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her. Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds. There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad. This is jarring because most of Abramovic's work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body. Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored.
Instead the focus is on the crying. Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock. The soundtrack repeats the sins of "March of the Penguins", a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that "it's time to feel now". A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad. Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can't help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic. Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big "faceless" corporations. It's about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get.
Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians. Sure there are some films where the event is the event ("The Last Waltz"), but here it's used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn't have the curiousity to explore the question "What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?"
As I've suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken. That is all the event you need. And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance. Focusing on an orchestrated "happening" can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative.
What are some of those themes that could have been explored? In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse. Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life. She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck. He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success.
So to me a central question raised by the film was "What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?" Is she less successful now that she is "successful"? What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want ("Rhythm 0") to being prohibited from make a simple gesture ("The Artist is Present")?
Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn't as a neglected child. Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering? If she were to find love, would her art suffer? She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it's worst. What does this say about art?
There are many other areas in this artist's life that would have been fruitful to explore. Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.
Remember Werner Herzog speaking on the topic of nature while filming Aguirre, Wrath of God?
"...and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain."
In his recent film, "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga", he's done a complete about-face, creating a paeon to nature: a cross between a Leni Riefenstahl-style "Bergfilme" and a Disney documentary.
Let's not forget, this is a director who created a definitive cinematic statement on man's powerlessness against nature - "Aguirre - The Wrath of God" In that film nature is an irresistable force that causes only madness and death.
Even as recently as" Grizzly Man" there was an ominous undertone to his depiction of the natural world. Gradually though, as in "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and E"ncounters at the End of the World, " his view has become much more sanguine. And by that I don't mean "bloody".
"The Happy People" features self-reflective, ethnic-Russian fur-trappers, musing philosophically as they conquer nature with a series of canny traps, self-made gadgets, dugout canoes, and home-brewed insect repellent (along with snowmobiles, chainsaws and plastic sheeting). I find this sort of thing very enjoyable, there's a Robinson Crusoe-esque self-reliant quality that seems like a good antidote to the anxiety of modern life.
The problem I had with "The Happy People" isn't want Herzog puts in, it's what he leaves out. He barely touches on the indigenous "Ket" people of that region of Siberia, who are at the bottom of the social order. They are plagued by alcoholism, and their culture and language are disappearing. These are not the "Happy People". They are like the mythological Eris, left out of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis ,and it would have been more fruitful for Herzog to explore their discord. They in fact invented many of these canny traps and techniques that the Russians use.
But Herzog now seems to be beyond provocation and provocativeness. He's in a steady groove that ignores reality but garners good reviews all around. Kael's comments on later Scorcese seem applicable:
"He has become a much more proficient craftsman... but the first films he did that I responded to intensely - Mean Streets and Taxi Driver had a sense of discovery. He was looking into himself and the world.... Even though Scorcese shows what he can do in some ways, he doesn't shape the material." (Conversations with Pauline Kael, p. 167)
I have some other quibbles. Could a man really travel 150 kilometers in -50F weather at night in a snowmobile? I don't think "Survivorman" would try this with the best gear. How would you survive if your snowmobile breaks down? How do you get out of bed when it's that cold? How do you wash yourself? How happy a person are you when a tooth becomes infected?
Creative people often have a brief shining period of amazing originality, followed by years of reputation-coasting. It's unreasonable to expect everyone to be Picasso. Herzog has become a master emcee. I'll remember his earlier work. I'll remember Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier films" too.
In the meantime, may I recommend the low-budget film "Alone in the Wilderness", the story of a man who builds himself a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with just hand tools. Think of it as "The Happy People" without the quirky Bavarian voice-over.