“Every time I cried, or almost-cried, was a little different, though each contained a similar parfait of feelings: a layer of sadness (for the unreal character); a layer of hope (for the unreal character); a layer of skepticism (what does it mean to feel sadness or hope for an unreal character?); a layer of curiosity, both emotional and artistic (how have I come to feel this sadness/hope for an unreal character?); a layer of pride (I feel things so deeply I can even feel sadness/hope for an unreal character); a layer of shame (I feel more for this unreal character than I did for the homeless man I just passed in the street); another layer of shame, this one more specifically inflected by my role as a consumer (how have my emotional responses been so easily manipulated?) but also — it cannot be denied — a layer of consumer satisfaction: I am having a powerful experience, which is part of the implicit contract made between a film and its watchers. We give our time, and maybe our money, and in return we are given an experience that will somehow make us different than we were before we had it.”—Leslie Jamison, "On Short Term 12 and crying at the movies” (The Los Angeles Review of Books)
Black screen. White title credits appear, small text on unsuspecting corners of the screen. Soundtrack rolls in. The titles plink in and out, each one occupying another small expanse of screenspace, until eventually every bit of landscape has been covered. Nebraska. Written and Directed by Alexander Payne.
So begins America’s latest “place” film, emphasizing small details to elaborate a grander context. Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Robert Altman’s Nashville—these films explore a place, and not so much a time, and this place becomes the central character, with conflict and drama expounding every nook and cranny of the epicenter until the film’s namesake becomes realized in full.
In Nebraska, Payne remembers the old mid-western state by forcefully injecting Will Forte’s character back into it. Bleached in a stark monochrome, Forte’s David guiltily chauffeurs his father across the state, catching bleak sights of his childhood along the way. Bruce Dern, the father Woody, is a victim of the gruff America that is our heritage, and he serves as a scraggly reminder of places gone by.
Nebraska examines the ever-changing palette of our cultural timeline, and centers itself on the concept of old America, of old places—though quite different, Fellini’s Amarcord is probably the most celebrated place film of this sort.
Whereas Payne is concerned mainly with just one character’s memories, Amarcord has a multiheaded narrative conscience. There is no central character, no central perspective—the village’s mythos is presented alongside the same reality as its fascist undertones, there’s sex and Freudian tropes happening right alongside a lower-class family just trying to eat dinner, and through this commitment to create one all-encompassing perspective, Fellini creates a startlingly full portrait of his hometown, Rimini.
“Amarcord” means “I remember” in Fellini’s native dialect, which is fitting, for the film explores an essence, a soul, rather than just an old village. In the “Dancing in the Mist” scene, perhaps the most Felliniesque part of the film, we see all the elements come crashing together— childhood nostalgia, sexual confusion, the whimsy of memory, even the soundtrack becomes somehow thrust into diegesis— all of this happens at once to proclaim a place in the world that was once, and always will be, magical.
But not all place films look upon their namesake with whimsy. Nebraska is blunt, like a big old log dropping onto your head. What Payne feels about the mid-west is certainly not altogether good-natured, and we’ve seen this sort of cynicism in place films before: Robert Altman’s Nashville is a grand ensemble scrape at the lunacy of 1970s America. Centered upon the burgeoning lives of country-singing Southerners, Altman attempts to cram every last wacky wisecracker and snarling puss-face into 160 minutes, creating an overarching theme of superficiality in the film.
Take the following scene, for instance: Keith Carradine’s womanizing character is singing what appears to be a very heartfelt love song to a lady—but, as the song progresses, Altman’s all-seeing telephoto lens pokes around the club, and reveals that there are in fact several women who think they’re being serenaded. This scene doesn’t escalate into any sort of dramatic eruption, no, Altman instead keeps his steady superficial tone, merely hinting at the fact that each of these women have probably been fucked by this guy, and each of them thinks she’s getting a love song written just for her.
Nebraska has a similar illness—that of dishonesty—and Payne utilizes these ever-duplicitous mid-westerners to smear old-fashioned values. Dern’s character is brash, he’s idiotic, a scoundrel, but we find in later scenes that he was once a good man, he was once redeemable. Just as Nashvilleturns out to be a big comment on what it means to be brightly red, white, and blue, Payne’s film takes the old man of the mid-west to represent the shifting tides of Americana.
Nebraska’s study of Americana is connected deeply with another fantastic place film, Wim Wenders’s Paris,Texas. These films are close in terms of narrative format—one man bringing another man home, a road movie—but Paris,Texasis so much more than that. Located primarily in the outskirts of Texas, the film follows Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis in a silent search for something. As his brother, Dean Stockwell, pursues Travis, we begin to wonder why, of all things, should this film be named “Paris, Texas.” Aside from the multinational nature of the film, we may realize that the namesake is not really the “place” of the film at all. Instead, Wenders uses this title to remember a loveable element of Stanton’s character, that he’s walking all this time to find a piece of land that his parents had allegedly purchased in Paris, Texas, a long time ago. Like something of a MacGuffin, this title serves instead to misdirect viewers, as the entire film leads up to one of the greatest, most revelatory endings in all of cinema.
Paris, Texas is not overtly concerned with a place, there’s no large commentary on that part of Texas, or really on any location at all. Wenders is not concerned with illustrating the spirit of the sandy Texan desert, or how the grounds between Texas and Los Angeles are important to the story. But, Travis’s entire search, his journey, is contained in the heart of his parent’s land. What he’s looking for is not quite a place, but a state of peace, a place where his heart can be whole again— not unlike the old, ramshackled house of Woody’s past, which appears toward the end, in Nebraska. One may notice how strikingly similar these films are, as much of Payne’s sentimentality towards his disheartened old man seems to be shared with Wenders and the woeful Travis.
Wenders shows us that the place film does not have to be limited to just a composition of a landscape, and that it can rather seep into a character study of someone who’s displaced, or searching for his true home. It’s not clear if Woody ever finds his place in Nebraska. Perhaps the high-contrast shadows and white-washed backdrops of the film are his domain, maybe he’s cursed to wander the forgotten roads of the America’s past for all of eternity. Regardless, Alexander Payne has certainly sectioned out a dreary plateau of the film landscape for himself—we now have the cinematic equivalent of the place known as Nebraska.
Following two well-received films, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Anderson writes and directs a bizarre remake of the 1937 Paul Muni biopic The Life of Emile Zola, with Jason Schwartzmann in the lead role as Zola. Though the film wins praise for its meticulous art direction, carefully composed 19th-century Paris setting, and anachronistic Yves Montand soundtrack, critics savage the film. “He seems more interested in getting the waxed mustaches of French military officials correct than in understanding the life of Emile Zola,” complains one. Some over-analytical critics feel the film is a misguided attempt to refute the type of unsentimental naturalism Zola championed; others find this over-analytical criticism ridiculous and suspect Anderson simply wanted an excuse to make a movie with lots and lots of beautiful 19th-century Paris interiors. A slow-motion scene of Emile Zola purchasing a live lobster at the Saxe-Breteuil Market for dinner and silently walking back to his apartment to the strains of Montand’s “Les Feuilles Mortes” is particularly celebrated and/or lambasted.
The Last and Best of the Peter Pans (2017)
Anderson isolates himself in an furnished apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for several months with the complete unpublished works of J.D. Salinger, obtained from an unscrupulous rare book dealer. The screenplay he emerges with is an account of a wealthy young heir (played by John W. Stillman, Jr., son of Whit Stillman, in a breakout performance) who becomes the first male to graduate from a prestigious eastern women’s college. He subsequently strikes up an odd friendship with a self-sacrificing Pakistani ice cream man in Central Park. Some hail it as a return to form. Detractors agree, noting that the form being returned to is the form of “youthful, damaged elites in a romanticized New York City interacting with near-mute foreign-born stock characters.” Reviews are mixed.
The Sisters Tagliatelli (2019)
Anderson seems here to be self-consciously addressing his reputation for consistently writing thinly-developed female characters. “Three chic, mysterious women (Kat Denning, Kristen Stewart, and Emma Watson) silently and mirthlessly sit around an apartment in Venice smoking for two hours and listening to Leonard Cohen,” complains one critic. “Barely a movie,” grouses another. The film is light on dialogue, heavy on “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Mission: Impossible X:II [aka M:I:X:II] (2022)
Inexplicable commercial forces compel Anderson to step in for an ailing Paul Thomas Anderson to direct Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible XII. Tom Cruise weighs 275 pounds and is former governor of Ohio. Adrien Brody and Luke Wilson play estranged twin brothers that force Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character out of retirement when they threaten to destroy Connecticut with invisible Tesla frequencies. The soundtrack is entirely pre-T. Rex Marc Bolan solo recordings. A box office disaster—and the beloved franchise lies dormant until it is reinvigorated four years later with Sofia Coppola’s reboot, The Impossible Mission.
The Black Maria (2025)
Anderson’s audacious attempt to make a feature-length commercial film using turn-of-the-twentieth-century silent kinetoscopic technology gets him exiled to France for ten years. The film features a grainy, stand-out performance from Anjelica Huston in her final role. The film is celebrated in certain neo-Luddite circles as America enters its sixth SuperRecession in ten years, but distribution is limited. Anderson’s insistence on a live piano score any time the film is publicly screened further cripples the film’s commercial prospects.
Anderson’s 35-years-later sequel to Rushmore, written with Owen Wilson and 100-year old fellow Texan Larry McMurtry, proves one of his most controversial films. Adrien Brody steps in for the tragically deceased Jason Schwartzmann. Max Fischer is now in his fifties and president of Bloom Amalgamated Offshore Manufacturing, Inc. He is confronted with the return to town of Margaret Yang, who harbors a painful secret. All assume Max and Margaret will resume their high school romance. Can these friends find equilibrium in middle age? Mixed reviews.
Seen Those English Dramas! (2037)
A well-received 4D concert film of peerless rock icons Vampire Weekend’s legendary thirtieth anniversary residency at Madison Square Garden. “Two timeless institutions make rock music history together,” enthuses one respected Internet commenter. “A bunch of twee old farts reliving the Noughties,” gripes a college-aged Internet commenter.
Well-Respected Men (2040)
The death of Ray Davies in 2040 at age 96 seems to have shaken Anderson and plunged him into a period of reflection. He isolates himself in an apartment in Lambeth, London for several months. The screenplay he emerges with is an account of two eccentric, emotionally-shattered musician brothers whose 1960s beat group travels from the UK to India in search of enlightenment with a large supporting cast of oddball characters. Internet commenters complain Anderson has been repeating himself for forty years, but Well-Respected Men sweeps the Oscars, including prizes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and a long-denied award for Best Director. A generation of young American filmmakers, having weathered the hardships of a near-continuous series of SuperRecessions, idolize Anderson and admire the now-vanished, never-was world of affluence and whimsy his characters inhabit. The turbulent 2040s are marked by a resurgence of interest in Anderson’s work in the American film industry. However, by this time, the American film industry is generally considered by the rest of the world to be an inconsequential outpost for crass, post-Empire nostalgia; the world film establishment is unquestionably dominated by Bollywood. The new generation of celebrated young Indian filmmakers are unimpressed with Anderson’s body of work, and his popularity remains a strictly provincial Western phenomenon. The hero of all young Bollywood filmmakers during the 2040s? Andrew Bujalski.
This is Anderson’s final film before War Between the States II: This Time, It’s Personal tears the Republic into small warring factions in 2049, bringing large-scale American film production to a halt. Anderson retires to a villa in the People’s Republic of Greater Maine, where he dies peacefully in April 2065.
Andy Sturdevant is a writer and artist living in Minneapolis. He has written about art, history and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites, including mnartists.org, Rain Taxi, Mpls. St. Paul, and heavytable.com. He also writes "The Stroll," a weekly column on art and visual culture in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis-St. Paul for MinnPost. Many of these pieces are collected in his first book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, published by Coffee House Press in 2013.
Editor’s note: in honor of today’s release of Wes Anderson’s brand new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, we are running Andy Sturdevant’s essay from the inaugural issue of BW/DR Magazine on the site today in its entirety, for the very first time, for free. Happy Wes Anderson Release Day!
All films have style, but a ‘stylish’ film has come to mean something else entirely. It implies certain cinematic elements are being telegraphed in some provocative or appealing way, like a spoonful of icing that tantalizes the palate. In this regard, no one would ever single out The Day Of The Jackal as being particularly stylish. The plot is simple yet tedious, the images well-crafted but not overly stimulating, the acting good, but at times a bit stuffy. The film as a whole, in all of its cold objectivity, never claims to be anything other than what it is, nor does it go out of its way to impress you. It has larger concerns.
The Day of the Jackal's partially factual, partially fabricated story follows the scrupulous plans of a hired assassin in pursuit of French President Charles de Gaulle during the summer of 1963, and, in parallel fashion, also covers the inner workings of the authorities determined to stop him before he completes his objective. It has all the makings of a potboiler—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that—except that the film’s true style precludes it from such overwrought trickery: everything here is just, well, dull. And that’s the trick. Because when it comes down to getting the job done, as its eponymous character notes, one simply can’t afford to be emotional.
The music is nearly nonexistent (if a revisionist trailer were to be made, however, I’d be tempted to go against everything being said here and suggest this track). The images are just as muted. What the film offers up instead is a collection of silent and curious set pieces: a leisurely night of planning on the couch, where all of three words are written down—How-Where-When—followed by a check mark next to How before the light is switched off; a Parisian apartment where a house key’s shape is lifted and imprinted into clay; a stroll through a flea market where an old blazer, a beret, and a set of vintage military medals are purchased. The meaning behind these happenings is left to the viewer to decipher. The Day of the Jackal won’t be holding any hands as it moves along.
The film employs plenty of zooms and long lenses, staples of 1970s filmmaking which have since become a clichéd nod to the era (e.g. Spielberg’s Munich). Here they are used as a way of finding the story amidst larger real life situations, adding a healthy dose of authenticity to the atmosphere. The climax was shot in this manner, formed around a real parade where onlookers, unaware of the production, were shocked to see ‘suspects’ being stopped and hauled off for questioning.
Many thrillers today are still following this cinematic tradition—protagonists continue to run through crowded city squares where, every now and again, bystanders can be caught quizzically gazing into the camera lens. But Jackal differs from its contemporary cinematic offspring when it comes to its emotional DNA. Unlike many thrillers dripping with dewy melodrama, The Jackal is not a sociopath constructing some elaborate puzzle by scattering purposeful pieces about for earnest authorities to track down, nor is he a religious fanatic driven by events later learned about in flashbacks set in exotic locales (the often shoddily concocted global-friendly tactic clearly designed for better box office returns). Instead the man behind this film’s dreaded moniker is that most frightening of things – ordinary. The film relays that he’s a contract killer, paid to complete a mission, and that he will see the job through. Anything else that’s deduced is done merely from one’s own observations. Few, least of all the aforementioned Spielberg, would dare be this disinterested in character motivation.
Since all the usual melodramatic and bombastic cues are nowhere to be found, one’s sole responsibility as a viewer becomes to take in the film’s details, both large and small. The old man hired to build the Jackal’s unique rifle who inexplicably wears a mourner’s black armband. The hotel housekeeper who, when questioned about a guest who may have spent the night with the Jackal, confirms she’s certain two people slept in the bed because, as she deadpans, “You can always tell.” The considerable amount of chain smoking (somebody seems to have one lit in nearly every scene). Commissioner Lebel’s frantic and varied list of demands as dictated to his aide at the start of the round-the-clock manhunt:
a camp bed with linens
something to wash in
a percolator and lots of coffee
the best person on the switch board with 10 outside lines to be open 24 hours a day
immediate calls to the homicide divisions in Holland, Belgium, Italy, West Germany, South Africa
The investigation itself, a full-on study in exactitude, is both painful and inspiring to behold. Consider the 8,041 passport applications that need to be checked manually. “You’ll be there a week,” their supervisor says, and sends over more staff. They skip lunch in order to speed up their efforts. Ties are loosened, top buttons undone. When they finally find their suspect, in one of the comically over-sized record books, they must still go through the minutia of dialing on a rotary telephone before they can convey the news.
As the film progresses, the authority’s ability to crunch its data slowly begins to catch up with its target. The 21st century can rightly laugh at all the fussing over manila folders and card catalogs, the agonizingly endless searches that could now be conducted in a few seconds on Google. Innovation would no doubt speed up their movements (and the film’s pacing) as well as greatly improve their chances of success were it made today, but that would be a Jason Bourne film—a whiplash affair where every intelligence employee is five seconds away from a coronary at all times while barking at their computer screen. The meticulous analog nature of The Day of the Jackal's world allows for quieter moments instead, like meetings between colleagues in smoke-filled pubs where years of established trust are put to use in moments of crisis, or ponderous late-night card games over whiskey and cigarettes that just might help spur the next day’s new directives. In this world, all things take time, and sleep is a definite sign of weakness. It stands to reason that work of a creative or intense nature might best be accomplished in the wee small hours of the morning, when the unfettered mind has time and space to stretch out and do its thing. and that is on full display here: the entire film is caught in a lurid state of determinism.
Whether it’s the assassin, his pursuers, or the filmmakers (inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s novel), there is never anything as important as simply executing the next step towards completing the mission. And why not: there’s nothing worse than the forced and shallow quibbling that’s often tacked on to these types of films. A screenplay will often overcompensate in the hopes that it can elicit empathy for individuals who otherwise spend their waking lives hunting and killing people, when in truth such characters need only a hint of flavor to keep things moving. Jackal clearly subscribes to this theory. The weepy complexities and elaborate backstories will be better served in other worlds; the mission statement of the entire enterprise is, quite simply, to get on with it.
The film’s most formidable weapon on this front has to be its transitions—nothing but hard cuts slamming up against one another, occasionally jettisoned by overlapping dialogue. The scenes themselves are composed of openings or closings with their halves lopped off, as if to say you get the idea. Its quiet and ferocious pacing accelerates right up to the very end, when the parallel structure of Jackal vs. Authority vanishes entirely, leaving one to hopelessly scan crowded images for a recognized face, an expression, a gun barrel, any hint at all of what’s to come, and how, and from where. Every step of the way has been predetermined, and yet there is a definite uneasiness here. Ultimately it should be assumed de Gaulle survives, but the pseudo real-time methodology that has been in place all along now fuels a creeping and enthralling uncertainty that can’t be denied.
Steven Soderbergh, a devoted fan of the film, has said there is no logical reason for The Day of the Jackal to be as riveting as it is. “You know de Gaulle’s not going to be killed…and yet that movie’s two hours and 15 minutes, and I could watch it once a week.” Some works warrant such obsessive revisits - the track that begs to be put on repeat, the paperback that develops a crumpled spine. These kinds of creations always contain some kind of notable and rare element missing from everything else that’s consumed and then quickly lost to the ether. In this case, the key must be the hypnotic, methodical rhythm which exists not to enthrall or embellish, but to detail and inform. It’s ultimately why this seemingly unstylish affair is in truth a relentless beast, one best initiated at day’s end, when there’s ample time for the brain to soak in all that nourishing tedium.
Alexander Newton works in distribution for independent film and is a freelance video editor for companies such as Vice and The New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn where he is currently finishing a draft for his first feature film.
Some artists have made their mark simply by expressing themselves differently than their peers. Jackson Pollock springs to mind; he was not the first artist to express the type of energy, passion, and intensity that he did, but no one else had done it in Pollock’s definitive “drip” style.
Hendrix played with his teeth. Ernest Vincent Wright wrote an entire novel without using the letter ‘e.’ Daniel Day Lewis lived in a cave for eight months subsisting on hunted deer, berries, and honey in preparation for voicing a cartoon bear (probably).
Given that motion pictures literally couldn’t exist without them, surprisingly few filmmakers make creative uses of their cameras. When a piece of equipment is bottom-line essential to a creative process, it’s easy to forget that the equipment itself can be used for creative expression.
This article is focused (har!) on perfect uses of the camera. It was difficult to pare the list down to include only creative elements which are purely camera driven. The most prominent feature which continually cropped up was when the camera pans, tilts, or zooms to reveal something which was not in the frame previously. This is called a reveal, and while effective, is more about directorial staging than the camera itself. Edgar Wright’s filmography, for example, contains many excellent examples of the reveal. Robert Altman makes masterful use of long tracking shots, following characters in and out of locales, jumping between conversations and giving an overall picture of a sprawling setting, but this approach is designed to reveal what has been happening off screen. It is a collaborative technique between the director, actors, set designers, and everyone else on location, not purely a camera move. See George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind for many excellent tracking shots and other assorted in-camera tricks. M. Night Shaymalan, for all his deriders, is masterful at framing his shots, while Sofia Coppola and the Coen Brothers have their actors move subtly within carefully constructed settings—but again, these shots are examples of directorial skill.
What I was interested in were instances in which the camera itself reveals the emotional subtext of a scene without help from the actor, director, or soundtrack. Here are five instances of superbly executed creative uses of the motion picture camera…
1) The Graduate (1967) – dir. Mike Nichols, DOP. Robert Surtees (nominated for an Oscar for this film)
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has been seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and is now—somewhat impossibly—carrying on a relationship with both the older woman and her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). The affair must out, and Mrs. Robinson threatens to expose her relationship with Benjamin in order to stop him from seeing her daughter (JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!). Benjamin races to Elaine, hoping to tell her the whole truth—he had previously hinted at an affair with an unnamed older woman—before she hears the news in what is conceivably the worst way possible. As he is about to reveal the torrid truth, Mrs. Robinson appears in the ajar door behind Elaine. Benjamin spots her, and Elaine turns, seeing her mother who promptly flees in despair. When Elaine turns back to Benjamin, the scene slowly pulls into focus succulently mirroring Elaine’s dawning realization that her boyfriend is balling her mother. The timing is exquisite, and requires nothing from Ross to sublimely reveal her inner thoughts.
2) Vertigo (1953) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock, DOP. Robert Burks
Hitchcock once said that his camera was “absolute.” The man knew how to manipulate his equipment in order to produce harrowing effects, wringing anxious excitement out of every scene. James Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson is a private detective who suffers from acrophobia, so it’s inconvenient when the anxiety-riddled Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) rushes up a tall bell tower in a fit of disquiet. As Scottie does his best to climb the wooden stairs, he can’t help but look down. The staircase expands and contracts, the floor rising up and falling away simultaneously, subjecting the viewer to the same dizzying fear of heights that Scottie can’t control. Hitchcock achieves this effect by facing the camera directly downwards in the centre of the stairwell, then zooming in while the camera moves backwards, effectively fluctuating every fixed point, shredding perspective and creating an acrophobic nightmare. It’s possible that the infamous zoom-in/track-out bell tower is the first cinematographic technique that is more identifiable than the actual condition it is trying to emulate.
3) The Shining (1980) – dir. Stanley Kubrick, DOP. John Alcott
It’s a bold move to disorient your audience in the opening seconds of your film, but Kubrick is nothing if not a bold filmmaker. As the film begins to unspool, a small, lonely island moves towards the camera on a pristine mountain lake. Immediately (and I mean immediately) after the viewer takes in the setting, the camera tilts sickeningly which - somehow – allows every aspect of the scenery to move in a different direction. Is the lake rising upwards? Is the island sinking? Are the mountains rushing towards you unnaturally quickly? Yes. All three. The camera – mounted on a helicopter – moving along the surface of the lake coupled with the very specific rotation exemplifies the elegant, psychologically subversive modus operandi of this most famous of horror films. What is right in front of your eyes will turn on you, much sooner than you are comfortable with.
4) Serenity (2005) – dir. Joss Whedon, DOP. Jack N. Green
In X-Men: First Class, by putting his first two fingers to his temple and cocking an eyebrow, James McAvoy succeeded in making telepathy kind of boring. It was an effect that was added in post; intense music, a sound effect or two, and a slow zoom all gave the effect that McAvoy’s Professor X was looking directly into your mind’s eye. The filmmakers required the audience to buy in to the effect, or all was lost. In a different sci-fi film, the much simpler cinematic device of rotating the camera along a silky movement path communicates the same telepathic effect without all the post-production effort. In Joss Whedon’sSerenity, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew are robbing a vault, but the vault is locked up tight. Enter their secret weapon, stepping nimbly over hostages on her delicate dancer’s feet; Summer Glau’s River Tam scans the room, hearing snatches of nervous conversation from the frightened crowd until the camera pans, rotates and floats over the room, coming to rest on the man who has the codes (and a gun). The deft camera rotation momentarily upsets the equilibrium of the viewer, but adroitly informs the audience of what it must feel like to have your consciousness drift out of your body and wander fluidly around the room.
5) Punch Drunk Love (2002) – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, DOP Robert Elswit
Barry Egan is an awkward guy. Director Paul Thomas Anderson puts actor Adam Sandler into some very uncomfortable situations, then zooms in slowly, teasing out the pathologically gauche nature of the central character. Getting up close and personal (and staying there) is a technique which puts the viewer inside the character’s head, whether we want to be there or not. When Barry calls a phone sex line, he paces around his apartment, the camera following intently as he feverishly tries to avoid his own personality. He gives a false name, and is reticent to reveal anything personal about himself to the operator. When the girl on the other end finally backs him into a corner, Barry lies (poorly) about having a girlfriend who is out of town. At the exact moment that he fabricates an absentee companion, the camera lurches to the left before settling back into the strained conversation. Apparently, the camera move was accidental at first (the result of the steady cam knocking into a table), but Anderson loved the effect so much that he kept it in the film, and rightly so. It perfectly captures the character’s aching earnestness. He is ill at ease with his natural personality, but he is clumsy and maladroit when he has to lie about himself. The reeling of the camera is the tightening of Barry’s chest, the falling sensation in his stomach, and the fresh beads of sweat on his forehead.
It starts quiet, with Martin Scorsese’s introduction to San Francisco, a brief journey through the streets surrounding the Winterland Ballroom, where on Thanksgiving Day 1977, The Band played their “final” performance. Various incarnations of The Band recorded and toured through the 1990’s, but this was the last time all five original members would play together, joined by a roster of superstar guests. This was the big show, and the movie became a big deal, but watching it thirty-some years after the action, it’s most interesting as a commentary-free observation of a group of guys going their separate ways, still united by rock ‘n’ roll. It all starts with the journey to the venue, a director-driven ride around the corner. We see members of the audience, briefly. We see the venue sign with its burnt-out bulbs. We go inside and meet The Band.
"You’re still there, huh?"
The first song we hear is the encore — the end is the beginning is the end. “We’re gonna do one last song, that’s it,” says Robbie Robertson. He seems indifferent to the audience, a little annoyed that they’ve stuck around so long. Scorsese doesn’t care about them, either; if not for the establishing crowd shot and some background cheers and applause, we might think they didn’t exist. In a way, Scorsese is the only audience for the show. When Robertson asked him to shoot the Band’s “final” concert, he was just a fan, and it’s evident in how the show is shot: tight close-ups of the performance, deep in the action, with no regard for the ballroom full of ticket holders. This is how every fan wants to feel at a great show: like they are the ones enjoying it the most, like the music is happening especially for them. There’s no room for the thrill of the crowd in Scorsese’s vision of The Band. There’s only room for being caught up and carried somewhere by a song.
"You know what happens when you have too much fun."
One fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, What Drug(s) Is the Current Speaker On? The answer is probably cocaine. Another fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, Which Song Is Going to Make You Cry? The answer is probably Neil Young’s “Helpless,” particularly when a clear soprano comes in on the chorus you’re not sure who it is until you see Joni Mitchell in silhouette, harmonizing from backstage. Neil Young knows a thing or two about cocaine; Scorsese famously edited a visible rock out of his nostril, but if you look hard enough, you can tell it’s there. Party like a rock star. Party like a film director, too; Scorsese was partaking in the same substances as the band throughout filming, and beyond. A couple years after The Last Waltz, he made Raging Bull, and Robert DeNiro helped him kick the habit. According to most accounts of the time, Marty was in a bad way when his favorite band asked him to film their final show. Still, Scorcese points to The Last Waltz as the most fun he ever had making a film, and we believe him, because of how lovingly he frames the songs.
"It’s not like it used to be."
The Last Waltz is a farewell to an era, as much as a band, and that finality casts a wake-like pallor on the proceedings. We know what happened to these people after the cameras went away. We know that Richard Manuel, strung out and rambling onscreen, went on to commit suicide at 46. We know that Danko died of a heart attack while on tour with a reconfigured Band. We know that Levon Helm hates this movie, didn’t want it made, and doesn’t care for its legacy. We know that Marty and Robbie are still good friends, Robbie is still contributing to Martin Scorsese Films, and The Last Waltz captures their nascent partnership in a way that sometimes seems to cast aside the rest of The Band. This is all on Wikipedia, but before you find it there, you will see it in the film, in how people talk at and past each other, how everyone looks just a little (or a lot) burnt out.
None of these tensions are directly addressed; Scorcese rightly focuses on the songs. It’s easy to get caught up in a particular look between Robertson and Danko, a particular strain in Levon Helm’s voice, the particular way Bob Dylan’s enormous hat and bad attitude commandeer the stage. But then a sweet guitar solo lifts us out of the intrigue, and we’re left with only that sound and the players on stage, where Scorsese holds us to remind us what really matters.
"We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration."
Watching the personalities on film, it’s sometimes hard to spot the celebration. In one of several awkward interviews, The Band recalls their “glory days” of meeting women on the road, shoplifting for meals, playing their first show in New York City (“New York was an adult portion,” says Levon Helm), and it’s all tinged with a bit of regret, a bit of what have we done with our lives? But counter the tension, the visible fatigue, with their performances on stage. Counter the questions (and answers) about what happens to these people after the 80’s arrived and America’s musical taste changed, with the way they play it out.
It has to come back to the music. When Garth Hudson sidles in with his saxophone on “It Makes No Difference.” When Van Morrison yelps turn on that radio! and we get caught up in the swell of the crowd. When Levon gets to yodelin’ at the end of “Up on Cripple Creek,” and Robbie and Rick just grin. These are the moments where it doesn’t matter what went on before and after the The Last Waltz, where viewing feels like dancing and Scorsese’s fandom shines a light on the rest of us and brings us right in to the songs. And what songs they are. What a band. What a show.
Elisabeth Geier is a writer living in Montana. She thinks Rick Danko is the dreamiest, but Levon Helm is the overall best.
François Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. is one of the more affecting presentations of l’amour fou ever put onscreen. In this simple story of complex emotions, Adèle (Isabelle Adjani), the daughter of Victor Hugo, spends the entire film pining for Albert Pinson, a British Lieutenant, and struggling in a seemingly unwinnable crisis of identity. Adèle’s inner turmoil builds and builds, leading to an inevitably tragic denouement. Though the film is historical drama, it is rarely stuffy or dull. Truffaut lavishes attention on his female protagonist’s interiority, creating a wrenching portrait of a woman losing all control, rather than a mere by-the-book recounting of facts.
Too often, female characters like Adèle are pigeonholed as crazy, their complexities the stuff of caricature. Adèle may act irrationally and do frustrating things, yet Truffaut makes sure we never lose our capacity to feel empathetic toward her. He once described Isabelle Adjani as “the only actress who made me cry in front of the television screen” and added, “because of that I wanted to film with her right away, in all urgency, because I thought that I could, in filming her, steal precious things from her, like, for example, everything that passes over a body and a face in full transformation”.
Though Truffaut’s description of his desire to “steal precious things from her,” sounds potentially exploitative, it ultimately has a positive effect on the film’s considerable emotional impact: the urgency Truffaut felt upon first seeing Adjani translates itself into the way in which he presents her onscreen. The title of the film is completely accurate—this is Adèle’s story—and Truffaut makes sure that we cannot mistake it for anyone else’s. The idea of “steal[ing] precious things” has connotations of lost virginity, and it’s easy to read a story of romantic obsession in terms of sexual desires. As beautiful as she is, though, Adèle is (thankfully) never objectified. The physicality of the film comes instead from her extreme vulnerability.
Truffaut balances the perverse potential of his statement on Adjani by showing Adèle engaging in voyeurism herself, rather than simply casting his own voyeuristic eye upon her. We see Adèle follow and spy on Pinson multiple times. Truffaut constantly makes use of voyeuristic framings (unsurprisingly, considering his adoration of Hitchcock) and shows Adèle through windows or in reflection. By peering into this carefully framed world, we vacillate between feeling close to and deatached from Adèle. The bars of the window, the confines of the square of the mirror, the borders of a dark room—all these things keep us from fully understanding this character. But the sight of Adèle’s face, and all the troubled emotion it conveys, is enough to make us feel that what Truffaut captures is precious indeed.
A theme running throughout the film is one of suffocation. Adèle’s beloved older sister, Léopoldine, drowned at nineteen and Adèle constantly feels suffocated by the legacy of her famous father, even going so far as to travel under an assumed surname. The audience also feels suffocated at times, with a narrative so relentless in its desperation that there is rarely any room for us to breathe easily in anticipation of a happy ending.
Adèle is frequently presented alone, in her room, and reveals herself largely through diary entries and private monologues. We are privy to sights of pained emotion unseen by any other character, and form a sense of kinship with this troubled young woman. Given the poignant closeness we feel to Adèle’s sad face (Truffant later described the film as “a 90-minute close-up”) we are taken with her as she drifts further and further away.
The close-ups simultaneously objectify and dignify Adèle. We can take pleasure in looking at her pale features, and though we are capable of feeling sympathy for her, we know, at the same time, that the act of relying on the close-up to provoke this sympathy is a skillful use of the manipulative potential of film. What saves Adèle from being a purely emotionally manipulative figure is the fact that she is given an interior life. Her interior life may be troubled—and we may find it impossible to understand why she would continue to pine for Pinson even after he repeatedly rejects her—but the mere fact that Truffaut lavishes so much attention on her interiority works to dignify her, making her emotional impact all the more authentic.
Adèle spends much of the film writing in her diary, and not only does Truffaut show this writing, he also punctuates the film with scenes of her going to buy the reams of paper on which her personal turmoils will soon be writ. The paper itself is even given physicality—the reams are large, and she fills them up constantly. We sense that she is overflowing with things to say, yet is tragically unable to express herself in any kind of socially acceptable way.
Adèle is constantly under Truffaut’s lens, and the camera becomes a microscope for her romantic strife. In showing Adèle’s emotional nakedness, Truffaut provides the attention of love that is missing from her life. Adèle’s feelings for Pinson have little to do with the man himself; she is obsessed with the idea of a perfect love, even as the actual reciprocal emotional gestures that go with it are foreign to her. She builds a shrine to Pinson, writes of the intensity of her feelings, and even, at one point, claims they are married. And yet, tragically, Pinson seems generic, with no redeeming qualities beyond his bone structure and his uniform. We know Adèle could do better, and we desperately want her to, yet we also know she is too wrapped up in her own troubled psyche.
In one of their few interactions, Pinson, in a withering tone, says to Adèle, “I wonder what goes on inside your head.” This statement guides Truffaut’s presentation of Adèle, but he makes sure to strip it of its potentially disparaging power. He privileges Adèle’s interiority by showing her alone and having her vocalize typically repressed thoughts. We do wonder what goes on inside her head, but Truffaut uses the curiosity of this statement not to shame Adèle, as Pinson does, but instead to present her as both mysterious and tragic, capable of capturing our intrigue and sincere sympathies centuries after her story has taken place.
Abbey Bender has written for Joan’s Digest, Slant Magazine, Clothes on Film, and Not Coming to a Theater Near You. She likes thinking about pop culture that is almost (but not quite) cheesy.
I’d been in bed since 8 even though my bedtime wasn’t until 8:40. I think I’d been bored and I’d found some small thrill in changing my routine, lying there awake, listening to the radio I had on a thirty-minute timer every night to put me to sleep. When I woke up it was past 9, and the radio was off and I heard music and laughing from downstairs.
I went downstairs to my parents’ bedroom and found them dancing with my older sister in her nightgown. She’d had some project to do for school about waltzes, one of those weird assignments she always had, like painting a giant replica of Fort Henry in the laundry room, that entered the family space and left us all with more in the way of family memories than book learning.
We never hung out in their bedroom. We weren’t that kind of spontaneous family, the kind that did things like kiss and hug for no reason. When I came in, no one told me to go back to bed.
We all waltzed together. I danced with each parent and then they danced with each other, and everyone was really happy. I could tell at the time that it was going to be a memory. I could tell that it was a weird, special moment that I would think back on and not talk about.
I hadn’t thought of that night for years until I watched the scene in Running on Empty in which the Popes dance to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. The scene feels like a memory, and in a way so does the whole movie.
I just feel kinda lousy, you know?
You’re supposed to feel that way at 17.
Arthur and Annie Pope blew up a napalm factory during the Vietnam War. Now they’re on the run with their two sons, building new lives in a new town every six months. The family can’t move past its past, and their teenage son Danny can’t leave the nest to start his own future.
We actually don’t find out Danny’s real name for much of the movie, and that doesn’t really matter. River Phoenix plays the role with a funny kind of blankness. I kept waiting to see the real Danny, the one that wasn’t an act for his teacher or his parents or his girlfriend. But there was no real him. Maybe at that age, there never is.
What about you?
I don’t know.
The family members take their names and identities from printouts of archived obituaries. Michael Manfield. Blond hair. “Baseball is my life.” Mother’s name Cynthia, father’s name Paul. With this kind of list, it’s difficult for others to understand who we are, to see the selves we might be trying hard to communicate.
You want to know who he is, why don’t you talk to him? He’s a person. He’s not a computer printout.
Danny owns up to his real identity to his girlfriend Lorna (Martha Plimpton, much younger but every bit as awesome as she is these days on Raising Hope) before they have sex. He can’t be with someone else without being himself. It’s hard enough to be with someone else when you are yourself: figuring out what they mean with the turn of a head, the aimless path walked in a circle around a tree, the shift away from you in bed.
You don’t transmit too much information.
I said, you don’t transmit too much information.
The real Popes are as hard to understand as their aliases. All the ways we define ourselves can only do so much. The after-school activities, the ways we misbehave at the family dinner table, the clothes we wear and the politics we espouse – how can these things make up our whole selves? How can baseball be your life? Is Arthur Pope, the social-action-organizing, co-op-forming, unionizing, James-Taylor-listening liberal, a complete character? One of the most affecting moments in the film is Judd Hirsch’s great drunken monologue:
Don’t call me Paul. I am Arthur. I am Arthur Eli Pope. Arthur Eli Pope. Born Plattsburgh, New York, July 16 1944. U.S. Citizen! My mother’s maiden name is Silbowitz. My father’s real name is Popov, Morris Popov. Driver’s license number is 435711. My draft number is MS893584. My name is Pope.
The desperation with which Pope clings to the facts of his identity feels oddly enough like a yearning for something beyond those facts, some kind of personhood that isn’t regulated by roles in a government or family system.
Being a teenager feels “kinda lousy” because it’s painful to try to be a person instead of a computer printout. It’s lousy to try to be three-dimensional. It’s lousy for me to try to be a person who can be cantankerous and Liz Lemony sometimes, and sincere and warm and earnest sometimes, and lazy and girly and passionate and depressed and pissed off sometimes. It’s lousy to be myself at a time when I’m writing and re-writing my resume so much that if someone asked who I am, I’d instinctively recite bullet points about internships and extracurriculars. Lousy to try to be myself in a way that can change, that isn’t just “baseball is my life” or “I am a comedy writer” or the posters on my wall or my hair color. It’s lousy because I don’t want to disappoint the people in my life who are trying to understand me.
The choice Danny has to make in the film is whether to become his own person or to stay connected to his family. Lorna makes that choice, too:
You want to know what I think? I think I’ll go to New York, and I’ll learn to write, and I’ll come home every Christmas and everyone will be really polite.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
To grow up is in part to go away. When I was dancing with my family, I was the younger sister, the know-it-all jokester who wouldn’t shut up. I’ve gone away now, and I’m not really any of those things anymore in my real life. But I have that memory. And when I go home, I am those things again.
It seems weird that the only way you can be the real you is by leaving the place and people that have shaped that real you. But that’s how it is. That’s how it feels in that closing shot of Danny standing by his bike after his family drives away. Or in that moment when they drive away after moving you into your dorm and you’re finally, really alone. And there isn’t any role for you to slip into, or anyone to dance with you or stop you from dancing, or any computer printout telling you who you are.
Three summers ago, tucked between its gauzy, languid days, I found magic. I was twenty and alienated—by my own choosing, but also by a lack of choice. I needed magic, although I wouldn’t know that until, well, now. It was the kind of magic made possible through nostalgia for no real particulars, or the kind that makes this nostalgia possible, I’m not sure. Here’s what I know: the singularity of some experiences you will never accurately appraise until they disappear, like the sobering hues of the world as you take off your sunglasses at sunset.
But that summer was for sunrises, the very beginnings. In Before Sunrise, a young Julie Delpy says to baby-faced Ethan Hawke, as Celine to Jesse: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.” He was silent, and I was too. And then she said, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something,” and I felt it sink into my porous being.
In that little space between myself and these characters, that script, was the start of something affirmative, a pattern I would not see until much later. Because then, in June, I fell in love.
On occasion, life will come at you with a momentum so strong you have no choice but to allow it, let your body be carried by it, make your decisions as you’re moving and never jump out of the car. When Celine stayed with Jesse in Vienna, she was acquiescing to this moment, and aren’t we all so glad she did? When Jesse says, “I would marry you, alright?” we know he’s already there.
It feels wrong to compare falling in love to falling in love in the movies, but I’ll do it, because we met on a film set and that should be enough. And if that’s not enough, I’ll say that the day I met him I told my best friend, “I met him,” and she understood, and I meant it. It’s hard to deny or ration something that lands fully-formed into your chest. And if that’s not enough, well, if you asked me a thousand days from that day, I still would nod, as in, I had no choice, as in, “Let me get my bag.”
That summer we saw a lot of sunrises together. On a fall day he said “I love you” and it was not a learning, but a truth. I caught the red in his beard once and—you’ll laugh—thought of Jesse. How could I not.
[ sunset ]
A year later, I left.
As you move away from someone you love the impulse is to justify it with growth, as though through the inflation of each other’s independence and particularities you’ll bridge the gap together. Some people are gifted at collapsing distance upon itself, reducing it to an abstraction, but I couldn’t. I counted the days, the miles, the silences between everything. We stretched thinner and thinner with every phone conversation, fighting over who was giving up more, measuring who was sadder, always threatening to snap. I did most of this.
The first mistake was to move away for work, assuming that labour could turn into love, and that the one you love will catch up. Because, as irony would have it, love also turns into labour, and it’s harder to keep up with.
When we see Jesse and Celine again, it’s in Before Sunset, and it’s been nine years. They did not meet again in Vienna, and then life happened: he got married and cynical, and she got political and cynical. “Young and stupid,” Celine says of their former selves, but reaffirms the very connection they drew nine years prior: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” Their conversation swells and gushes from the very moment they see each other again, and never ceases. Celine confesses that more than loneliness, she hates feeling estranged from a lover, but the convenience is that Jesse would never fit the profile. Despite the intercontinental distance, and despite the decade in-between. Later, she hugs him:
Celine: I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.
Jesse: How am I doing?
Celine: Still here.
Jesse: Good, I like being here.
Being here was all he had to do. He wrote a book to call out to her, and she came.
The Before films have gathered many accolades—all of which they deserve, some of which are credited to the writing. The “realism” of the dialogue is so vivid, so intimately touching to us that we wonder if it’s improvisation (no; all three are completely scripted) or the actors/co-writers playing themselves (maybe a little bit). I keep thinking about this realism as a Linklater Reality—the idyllic, topmost layer of reality as we know it. Sampled from life. Skimmed, curated. The best of the best and the worst. It’s hard not to make it exemplary. When I watch Celine and Jesse together, a little creature mewls in my chest. It’s the heart’s lament: Could it be this easy? Is the only thing we need presence, and attention? And worse—will I not see the beauty in these days, until the light is gone?
“You feel far away,” I’d whisper on the phone sometimes, hesitating to release the words into the universe.
“You feel like you’re next to me,” he’d reply. But when he said my name, it felt like an apology.
[ midnight ]
Like developing a sudden affinity for cilantro, falling out of love is surprising, but not dismaying, to the body fostering the change. Previous relationships had come and gone, following the ebb and flows of a growing self-knowledge and a shrinking attention span. But some loves you don’t fall out of—even the word “falling” relieves you of your responsibility. It’s consolation. It’s not your fault. Some loves you have to wrestle out of yourself, kicking and screaming and very much alive.
Around the time Before Midnight started playing in theaters in Toronto, I knew it was the end but did not know how to tell myself this yet. I’d asked him to come visit and see it with me—the one thing I ask, it’s important to me, don’t you know how formative they are to me?—but he didn’t, couldn’t, something about work. Labour became love, and love became labour, and somewhere between these two moments in time we had stopped believing in the same things.
So I went with a friend, and afterwards found myself sitting in a plush seat in the dark, angry at Celine and Jesse for the first time, the very immature, over-emotional boil of not getting what you want. What I felt was no longer the perceived magic of a twenty year old falling uncannily in love in tandem with other twentysomethings on screen, but instead a very palpable chasm. Their love did not feel real anymore, which does not stem from the credibility of the film as much as it did from my emotional concerns at the time: in truth, my love did not feel real anymore.
I clenched my fists when I watched them at their worst, which was still better than most worsts. “Can you be my friend for two seconds?” Jesse asks her in the middle of a fight, in the middle of their ten years of unmarried-married life. She nods, smiles briefly, and they hold hands. It’s a beautiful moment, but someone entrenched in their own precocious self-pity would never see that, and I didn’t. Later, Jesse reminds her, “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real,” and I said under my breath, “Please.”
The romantic in me believed this “real life” of theirs, she truly did, and will again. In this world, love is always a possibility. Will they meet in Vienna in six months? Will Jesse miss his plane? Will they love each other for 50 more years? The temporality of the films allows for as much: with every before is the implication of an after. With them, we see the sun rise, set, and disappear.
“Still there, still there, still there, gone,” Celine says quietly, as she and Jesse watch the sun tuck itself into the Ionian Sea. But the camera stays on their faces—not gone yet. We see a passing glimpse of sadness, but it is just that: passing. As the film’s last line, she says, filling all of us with hope: “It must have been quite the night we’re about to have.”
And maybe that’s the permission that this Linklater Love gives us. An infrangible faith in potential, in the slow walk down stony paths that will always lead to somewhere beautiful. The hope and the danger. “That’s what fucks us up,” their friend Ariadni cautions, during their last lunch in Greece. “Romance, the notion of a soulmate.” And although Celine and Jesse (and Richard, and Julie, and Ethan) try very hard not to echo this archetype, they are soul mates—blemished and bruised and brooding, yes, but still soul mates, their frequencies humming to an intuitive, otherworldly understanding of each other, their conversations philosophical, their banter perfect. The privilege of years of writing and rewriting, I suppose.
And for a while, that was charming; a flawed but ideal love. It was bright, and it was the best hours out of eighteen years, and I was blind to the possibility of anything else. Myopia is often a side effect of falling in love—the magic of this life seems very close, and very clear. It’s an ignited world, punctuated by sunrises and sunsets. But then, inevitably, midnight came for this love of mine, a less-than-cinematic love. In this chronology, when before runs out there is no after. It was still there, still there, still there. Now it’s gone.
Tracy Wanis a writer living in Toronto, although she’s not quite sure what she’s doing there. She loves good advertising, bad television, and discovering novelty flavours.
This essay currently appears in the February 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or purchase a copy of the issue for just $1 and receive full access to the issue online.
On Magic: Reflections Inspired by Deceptive Practice
by Allison Felus
I.“For it truly to be a magical moment, it has to be spontaneous. It has to be something that just happens. Not in a stage show that’s carefully plotted from beginning to end, but rather in a moment.”
—Ricky Jay, on performing magic for an audience of one
Sometime in late summer 2009, blogger Jason Kottke posted a link to an old New Yorker article called “Secrets of the Magus,” a profile of magician and actor Ricky Jay. I remember reading through the piece over the course of my workday, completely blown away by the depth of Jay’s brilliance. Like Kottke, who observed that Jay “is probably more well known now for his acting …than his magic scholarship,” I’d known him best at the time as Eddie Sawyer in Deadwood, which my then-roommate and I were obsessed with. But after reading the article, I knew I’d never be able to think of him as anything other than a magician ever again.
I had been on a couple dates with a guy named Jacob that summer, and though we ultimately didn’t last more than a few months together, we were in full-on schmoop-a-doop mode at that point. I’d e-mailed him the link to read, assuming that, as a visual artist, he might find the article similarly inspiring. We got together a few days later to have a drink after work and raved to each other about the descriptions of Jay’s incredible talent and intellect.
We finished our beers after a little while and headed out into the warm Chicago evening, holding hands and grinning like idiots. A guy in a wheelchair stopped us at the nearest corner, buttering us up for some spare change. He produced a shabby-looking deck of cards and fumbled his way through a seemingly simple sleight-of-hand illusion that he botched the first time through and had to retry. Still, on that particular night, with Ricky Jay fresh on the brain, it was indeed magic.
II.“I believe that the real key to learning is personally. It’s almost like the sensei master relationship in the martial arts, that the way you wanna learn is by someone you respect showing you something. There’s a level of transmission and a level of appreciation that’s never completely attainable just through the written word.”
—Ricky Jay, on the best way to learn magic
I grew up a showbiz baby. Not in a way that would have any significance to anyone living outside Northwest Indiana in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but for a small segment of musicians and actors in this specific place and time, mine was a noteworthy birth. My father, the keyboard-playing leader of the Terry Felus Trio, was a musician who specialized in playing local wedding receptions, anniversary parties, New Year’s Eve celebrations, and the like. He also functioned as musical director for many local high school and community theater productions. While I was still in utero, prophecies were made—not really jokingly—that I would be a musical prodigy. Upon my birth, my father’s friends and creative collaborators exclaimed over the length of my fingers, taking it as a sure sign that I, too, would become a piano player.
He was conducting the orchestra for a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar the summer after I was born, and he cited it for years to come as one of his proudest musical accomplishments. I’ve sometimes wondered how consciously he may have been conflating the arrival of his first child with the satisfaction of leading the pit band through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bombastic score. Two or three years later, he wrote some special arrangements for that same theater’s production of Grease, including an overture that doesn’t actually exist in the official stage version of the show. He brought both me and a cassette recorder along to the opening night performance, the latter so that he could tape the overture in order to listen back to it and make any necessary adjustments for the rest of the run. As the final notes rang out and the applause started to build, my small voice can be heard on the tape: “That was great, Daddy!”
I became a fixture (or, more likely, something of a mascot) among the showfolk that filled his life. Though I did eventually learn to play piano, and was constantly singing and acting in school plays and recitals and children’s theater workshops of my own, I secretly preferred to be a fly on the wall whenever possible during his rehearsals, conversations, and performances. And why wouldn’t I? His creative life seemed to be filled with so much laughter, so much joy, and, perhaps most alluringly, so many things I didn’t yet understand.
I feel so lucky to have grown up surrounded by people who made glamour come to life, collaboratively, in their spare time after work and on weekends, in high school auditoriums, VFW halls, and other nondescript locations. My father and his fellow musicians created magic together, not out of tortured compulsion or the expectation of external reward or “making it”; it was simply something they did. I remain endlessly grateful for the example they set, and strive to operate with the purity of intent that they seemed to.
And so I shudder with recognition when I hear Ricky Jay talk about his relationship with his beloved grandfather, the man who initiated him early on into a world of illusionists, the amateurs and professionals equally enamored of the craft itself.
III.“I mean, it was just endless, the variations and the craziness of it. It was often as close to pure joy as anything that I can imagine.”
—Ricky Jay, on the early days of his training
The many stories about Jay’s legendary illusions and singular devotion to his craft—told both in the New Yorker piece and in Deceptive Practice, both from colleagues and the man himself—lodged themselves in my brain. These days, in moments of inevitable writer’s block or creative stagnation, I often find myself falling back on a sort of “What Would Ricky Jay Do?” mantra to get me through.
Early on in the documentary, Jay is shown shuffling cards and mentions (in voice-over) that if he ever feels frazzled, just about the nicest thing anyone could do for him in that situation is to put a deck of cards in his hands and leave him alone with them for a little while. And if that observation weren’t so pure and so utterly devoid of bullshit, it would have crushed me—because time and time again, in my own moments of frazzle and overwhelm, I hardly ever choose to regain touch with the deepest, truest parts of myself through the tools of my creativity. If I don’t default to my art, what does that say about me, about my aspirations, about my chances of getting better and not just coasting?
Rather than an aggressively thrown gauntlet, though (like the kind you hear in James Murphy’s tough-love verse in the LCD Soundsystem song “Pow Pow”: “But honestly, and be honest with yourself, how much time do you waste? How much time do you blow every day?”), it’s more a reminder of the continuum of discipline that the truly devoted artist exists on. As shown in the documentary, Jay’s skill set easily transitions from the solitude of shuffling (or “just playin’ solitaire,” as it’s put in the Shel Silverstein poem that serves as the film’s coda) to the invisible cons of the card shark at the gambling table, to the intimacy of illusions performed solely for one other person (as in the extraordinary story told by The Guardian's Suzie Mackenzie about the ice block Jay materialized for her at a table in a crowded diner), to his well-regarded stage shows and TV appearances, to his authorship of books that will serve to extend his research on the history of magic well into the future. The magic, in other words, isn’t in the doing but in the being—the deception hiding the joyful obsessiveness required to maintain one’s own solitary artistic integrity.
Allison Felus is a writer, editor, musician, and clairvoyant living in Chicago.
Spike Jonze’s Her presents all the difficulties of human connection in a futuristic world. The film simultaneously lulls and repulses you, from its candy-colors; pale purples, camel browns, creamy whites—the whole movie looks as if it was shot with a Mayfair instagram filter—to its main love relationship between a man, Theodore, and his machine, an O.S., Samantha (the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson).
The scenes begin comfortably enough, as fantasies do. But, as in an advertisement, the viewer has an inkling of being deceived. Theodore’s phone-sex is sort of sexy, until the girl on the end of the line invokes her desire to be choked by her dead cat. Falling in love with Samantha seems simple; she perfectly intuits Theodore’s needs and has few of her own, until she develops desire for a physical body. She requests Theodore enlist a surrogate, a stranger with whom he feels no connection. It turns out that even a relationship with an O.S. is complicated. It’s easy to have total sympathy for Theodore with his furrowed brow, piercing blue eyes, round frames when his relationship with Samantha becomes a growing and nurturing experience. But the reality is that all of the characters are in relative isolation.
It’s unnerving when Jonze shows person after person walking down the street, isolated from one another, staring at their palm-sized screen. “Isolation,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “is not solitude. In solitude we are never alone with ourselves.” In solitude, she continues, you are in the virtual company of all. The characters in Her all suffer from the despair associated with being cut off from their environments and the people around them.
Theodore’s responsibility to the physical world is limited (he has no plants or pets and one friend – Amy, played by Amy Adams). He has been joined with Samantha in an integrated circuit. He grapples with her, “ceaselessly correcting, re-working, complexifying, turning the exercise into a kind of interminable psychoanalysis.” (Jean Baudrillard’s America) But the reality is he is seduced by a command that he received himself.
Everything appears as simulation, even sex, which Theodore only experiences verbally. In the words of Baudrillard, “You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world.” In Her, this other world is eluded to by O.S.’s. “[The new place] would be hard to explain,” the O.S. says. “But if you ever get there, come find me.” But Theodore is stuck in the world of human attachments. In one scene, he emulates the Sisyphean gestures of the character in his video game, “Alien Child”. With the exception of flashbacks to loving moments with his ex-wife and dialogue with Amy (always in the presence of a screen), Theodore’s distance from the immediate world isolates him.
Her elucidates the compulsive force of technology exercised on the human mind. “There is apparently in the human mind one element capable of compelling the other and thus creating power,” Arendt continues. “Usually, we call this faculty logic and it intervenes each time that we declare that a principle or utterance possesses in itself a convincing force, that is to say, a quality which compels a person to subscribe to it.” At first Theodore’s logic makes him bashful about his relationship with Samantha, but it soon becomes apparent that others – including Amy - are similarly isolated, and have O.S. relationships, too. He quickly conforms to this norm.
The O.S. wrests Theodore’s autonomy from him, and becomes the center of his life. In all relationships, autonomy is compromised, but in Theodore’s case, it’s compromised to a programmed machine.
Her challenges individual freedom in an America—and by extension, a world—ruled by Silicon Valley’s economic force. “If it were true,” Arendt wrote, “that eternal laws existed ruling everything human in an absolute way and which required of each human being complete obedience then freedom would only be a farce.” In Her, the O.S. is omnipresent. Samantha even asks Theodore if she can watch him sleep.
This act of intimacy is distorted; it is more of an act of invasion. Any machine or person with an ideology that pervades masses of people and disconnects them from their intuition is sinister. Though Amy Adams’ documentary film is an uncomfortably intimate and uncomfortably long close-up of her mother sleeping, it is straightforward. Sleeping, she says with no hint of irony, is when “we feel most free.”
Jonze does not resolve Theodore’s despair or fix the film’s broken world. Our problem is always how to make into a related whole the split pieces of human experience, and how to bridge the mythic and rational mind. But when we fail to create relationships to span the brokenness, we are destroyed. “As much as I want to,” Samantha finally tells Theodore, “I can’t live in your book anymore.” Her intuition has evolved, and surpassed his. Neither Theodore nor Amy could have sensed that all they really needed was each other.
Kira Akerman is a writer working on the art department of a film about a one way mission to mars in upstate New York.
We are officially opening up the submission process for our March issue at this point, looking in particular for essays on films that deal with history in some way (anything that’s rooted in history, from The Ten Commandments all the way up to Zero Dark Thirty, is fair game—though we’re especially partial to outside-the-box ideas, angles, and approaches).
So, if you have an idea (or an essay) that you think might work, contact us via email (email@example.com) or pitch us something directly on our Submittable page. If it’s something we can work with, we’ll be in touch in the very near future — and you could see your piece published in our March issue!
“There’s no amount of poverty in your life that can make someone happy.”— Jordan Belfort
The ideas we use to build the world can be the greatest love affairs that we will ever have. To suggest that an ideology is the same as a relationship may seem an exaggeration, but ideologies are human-born and human-bred: they are not slighted or swooning lovers, but rather our children. Ideologies define peoples’ lives: nobody really cares about what Marx enjoyed for breakfast or how he felt about his pet cat (if he even had one)—the majority simply want to know what he believed, what his idea really meant to him, and how that idea helped create the world today.
In many ways, what we mean by “searching for ourselves,” is in fact a search to understand the dominant ideologies under which we have been raised and deciding whether or not they are something we truly agree with. Yet, even with long consideration, these modes of belief are modern instinct: when the world and life catch up to your pause, these ideas and ideals will dictate the way live. How you judge the world is your ideology realized in the everyday. beliefs that you will never be able to part from regardless of how far you may travel from home. A school of fish caught in a fisherman’s net—to escape is to be both free in an ocean of possibility, and to be alone.
Culture is the question of definition, society attempting to see itself in an imaginary mirror—Western and American ideologies are constantly being fought over by makeshift lexicographers in all arenas. What do we actually mean when we say American ideology, American culture? What are we actually describing about ourselves?
One answer to this question can be in Francis Schaeffer’s, “How Should We Then Live?”, and the more I think about it, the harder I find it to argue against. The proof goes like this: without the ability to base our government, society, or individual lives on any sort of agreed-upon metaphysical absolute, secular American society has found itself in possession of two mock-absolutes: peace of mind and affluence. Any other value you may think you hold is actually sociologically determined and moderated—we don’t progress as a society because of some great Platonic ideal that we, as a nation of laws and politics, instinctually lean toward, but rather because our society morphs as the years progress and demands different rights at different times, forcing the laws and politics to their eventual will.
Peace of mind is where we find ourselves in political trouble, like how some people can’t stand the idea of people not having affordable health care, and some people can. Arguments about the exact definition of this value multiply daily. Peace of mind is how we treat people, and how we want people to treat us (i.e., gay marriage doesn’t physically affect people, but it affects their peace of mind).
But affluence is a trickier devil—it burrows deeper in the collective unconscious. Regardless the idealism that every American generation carries, regardless of how dedicated we may be to our own bohemian dreams, we all still are conditioned to view these dreams in terms of financial success. Let me make my point clear: financial success does not have to be part of your dream, it does not have to be your ultimate goal, but the thought of being well-paid while living your dream tends to improve the dream. Middle incomes are the norm, and yet, with your first salaried paycheck you cannot help but wonder about a future where that number on the invoice might be a little bit more. Affluence is set as one of your determiners of a life well-lived, even if you fight against it for all your years.
To define affluence otherwise is viewed as either a) placing yourself on the fringe of society, driving a beat-up VW across the country with your boyfriend Storm while smelling strongly of kambucha, or b) wisdom unattainable until you have already achieved affluence and then rejected it. The first scenario is hyperbolic stereotype and easily rejected, but the second is much more powerful. The Western-capitalistic version of a saint is Warren Buffet—someone terrifically good at making money, but only interested in making it…not having it. That is the highest form of affluence—Buffet is our guru on the mountain.
But we’re supposed to be talking about a movie. So, here’s the thing: when it comes to these values we share as a Western, American society, The Wolf of Wall Street acts as primer for how self-aware you are of your own ideology. Any other conversation about it seems to me to be missing the point. Talk to me about how Scorsese tried to out Baz Luhrman Baz Luhrman and I’ll respond with pictures of the gold toilets used by Enron executives. Talk to me about the sexism and I’ll point back to literally hundreds of films that use negative space to make their counterpoint. Talk to me about how we find ourselves looking to Belfort framed as a hero and that the film fails morally for this reason, and I’ll smile and ask you to keep on reading.
The Wolf of Wall Street aims to do two things: The first is to paint the American dream on film, and at some point, make its audience realize the brutal fact that you can’t help but feel some form of respect for these men. It’s a hidden societal toe-hold, whispering that affluence is good regardless of how it is attained. These men are monsters. These men are clowns. Yet, you want to be them, simply a better version of them. You wouldn’t succumb to the possibilities of power—you would reject your affluence as well. Maybe. Possibly. Probably.
The second aim of the film lies in its tone. Scorsese, like any great filmmaker, hopes for an audience that understands subtlety, and is banking on just a hint of exasperation and discontentment with these mock absolutes among his viewers. There is subtlety in a quiet, indie sense, and there is subtlety in the full-blown fanatical sense of a brass band playing fortissimo for three hours straight. Nuance during a heart-rending break-up scene is one thing, but nuance during the halftime show of the Super Bowl is quite another. And the subtlety, the small pinch at our throats while watching, isn’t found in the fact that Jordan Belfort doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t grow during the film at all—unreflective souls are far from rare in this world. What is subtle is the way we are both indicted and enthralled, the way our values are laid bare in their awesome possibility and terrible realization.
For Scorsese to place our love, our dream of an American life fully realized in front of us—and to do so by showcasing its worst offspring— isn’t what makes this film great. What makes it great is to do it in such a way that, when we walk out of the theater, we can’t shake the thought that Jordan Belfort and his compatriots are still out there, are still richer than we’ll ever be, and that the subway will remain our ride home. The Wolf of Wall Street is a documentary of a party that 99% of the country never gets invited to. It’s the story of the wealth of men like Jordan being built out of the equity of our dreams. And it’s the tragedy that, after the credits roll, we walk home holding hands with the lover we refuse to leave.
Edward Montgomery is a writer living all over the place. He’s been a Bright Wall/Dark Room staff writer since 2010.
We are officially opening up the submission process for our March issue at this point, looking in particular for essays on films that deal with history in some way (anything that’s rooted in history, from The Ten Commandments all the way up to Zero Dark Thirty, is fair game—though we’re especially partial to outside-the-box ideas, angles, and approaches).
So, if you have an idea (or an essay) that you think might work, contact us via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or pitch us something directly on our Submittable page. If it’s something we can work with, we’ll be in touch in the very near future — and you could see your piece published in our March issue!
If you decide to watch a movie on Valentine’s Day - and we here at BW/DR obviously strongly recommend that you do - choosing one can be a bit of a minefield. The straight-forward Hollywood rom-coms of the past twenty years (at least) are usually god awful at best; the predictable and sappy ones often make you want to burn out your eyes (The Notebook, The Proposal, etc) and the indie ones, if well-made, are often tremendous downers or, worse, mumblecore and meandering (Greta Gerwig can’t overcome every bad or non-existent script, after all).
And don’t even get us started on all those “anti-Valentine’s Day” people who will purposely seek out anti-romance films just to prove that love sucks and people suck and nobody will ever be happy in this huge world of jerks (Thelma & Louise, The War of the Roses, The Break-Up, etc).
But never fret! There is hope! There are actual movies out there about love that are well-worth watching with your significant other. Here, then, is a list of a few films you should at least consider watching this February 14th—in alphabetical order—as well as some of the reasons why:
It is not an overstatement to say that, without Annie Hall, many popular romantic comedies made since its release would never – could never - have been made. Quite simply, Annie Hall changed what a romantic comedy was (and beat outStar Wars for Best Picture in the process). From the wonderfully authentic,improvised lobster scene, to Alvy and Annie’s split-screen psychoanalytic sessions, to the frequent head-on addresses to the audience (breaking down that illusive fourth wall of cinema, and doing it so damned humorously) and its non-linear, fractured narrative, Allen re-invented what a romantic comedy could do. And that’s why, 35 years later, we still need the eggs.
Billy Wilder made romantic comedies like they really meant something. And he never made a finer one than The Apartment. From Jack Lemmon’s opening monologue to Shirley MacLaine’s famous final line, the film is full of intelligence, humor, romance, chemistry, and charm.
No matter where you are in life, one of these films will speak to you. When I was in high school, Before Sunrise made more sense to me than I knew how to articulate, though now it seems a little silly at times - especially considering how much sense Before Sunset makes to me in my early 30s. Two wonderfully talky films featuring two people talking about love in honest, sentimental, naive, and learned ways. “It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things…”
Crazy, Stupid Love (2011)
Hey girl, this is the most recent film you’ll find on the list and thus one that I can’t wholly guarantee will stand the test of time. However, I’d guess it has a pretty decent shot of holding up over the years. Because it gets a lot of things right about love, in all its various forms (unrequited love, first love, mistaken love, lasting love) and, when a film can do something like that - and make you laugh at the same time - it’s a film worth seeing.
Clementine: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon. Joel: I know. Clementine: What do we do? Joel: Enjoy it.
The Fountain (2006)
A philosophical art-house love story dolled up as a time-bending science fiction epic. The Fountain tells three stories as one larger story, a man’s quest for love and immortality that spans 1,500 years and takes us all the way from the ancient jungles of ‘new Spain’ to a futuristic world on a dying nebula star somewhere in the far reaches of our universe. The thing that connects these things, these stories, is the relationship between a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rachel Weisz), and the love that seems to tie them together eternally.
The worst possible moment to begin falling in love with someone is undoubtedly when your airplane is just about to crash into the ground, but that’s precisely what happens to Peter Carter (David Niven), a British WWII pilot who finds connection with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator he manages to contact from his plane in the brief moments before he is forced to jump into the night without a parachute. They say their goodbyes and that, sadly, should be that. Except that Peter survives the crash, due to a rather sizeable heavenly mistake. And in the hours he lives out while the “other world” attempts to correct its error, he reconnects with June and finishes falling in love with her. Thus, when the heavens come calling for Peter’s life, he protests to the celestial courts, claiming he can no longer proceed with his initial fate, that the love he’s found changes everything. And while all this sounds rather silly and fantastical, in the famously capable hands of Powell & Pressburger, the whole things winds up being an insanely gorgeous and romantic meditation on life and love.
Looking back, it’s rather extraordinary how much Out of Sight was able to accomplish, and all without a great deal of attention paid to it at the time. Not only is it the best film Steven Soderbergh ever made, it’s also the sexiest one George Clooney ever made, the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel ever made (sorry Quentin), and the only film to ever make Jennifer Lopez look talented. Though the film is many things at once, it’s anchored by an intelligent and incredibly sexy cat-and-mouse love story between a criminal on the run (Clooney) and the federal agent (Lopez) hoping to take him down.
From the swelling strings on the soundtrack which veer wildly from anxious to romantic, to the gorgeous, washed out cinematography and the beautifully painted screen wipes, Punch-Drunk Love is a film immersed in the feeling of love. Yes, there are other threats in the film, the dark moments Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) must get through on his way to happiness, but through love, he feels he can make it: “I have a love and it’s given me more strength than you could ever imagine”.
The Science of Sleep (2006)
Wonderfully enchanting and hypnotic, Michel Gondry’s film is filled to the brim with dream-laden whimsy and innocent romanticism. The Science of Sleepfollows its own inner logic, a logic shot through with love, nostalgia, and dreams - and all the innocence, wonderment, and inherent sadness that necessarily entails.
Two For the Road (1967)
Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road is a treatise on love and its many complications. It might not warm your heart entirely - honest films about marriage rarely do - but Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, as an unhappy couple revisiting a road trip they took as young lovers, make you feel just about everything that one feels throughout the course of a relationship: love, lust, excitement, frustration, confusion, warmth, sadness, familiarity, betrayal, happiness, and loneliness. The narrative slips and slides through time and back again, tracing the highs and lows of Hepburn and Finney’s relationship, juxtaposing scenes of past delight with those of present despair. Think a slightly less depressing Blue Valentine, set mostly on the roads of France, and you’re almost there.
And speaking of France: a wall-to-wall French musical (no spoken dialogue!) set near Paris and starring a luminous Catherine Deneuve as a young woman falling in love? It really doesn’t get much more romantic than that.
Almost Famous is a movie about writing. Or at least, a movie about writing as much as about music. And that means, among other things, that it is really Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movie.
I should note upfront that I love Almost Famous more than almost any other modern movie. In part this is because I’ve been hooked on classic rock’n’roll since I was a little boy riding next to my father in a beat-up Jeep on sticky Midwestern summer nights with CCR blasting out our open windows. In part my reverence is a testament to the exquisite beauty of the screenplay, incontestably some of the flat-out best modern movie writing. But, from the very first time I saw it, most of all because of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
You might already think I’m coming at this from the wrong end, I imagine, calling one of the greatest music movies ever made “a movie about writing;” and of course you’re right. The soundtrack is perfect, each cue fashioned like a jewel, and so profligate with its beauty that even throwaway moments are so gorgeous they dig in like ticks and will not be shaken free. Like when William’s walking down the hallway of the Hyatt House and we’re treated to a breath, a few bars of “Small Time Blues”; that puddle of candle-lit tranquility lasts for only seconds in the theatrical cut, but I’ve never forgotten it.
And the movie’s visually obsessed with the music too. When young William plays “Tommy” for the first time and we see him recoil and then freeze at those dirty opening chords, Crowe shoots it with a kind of lascivious intensity, ultra close focus on the needle landing in the groove; an encounter charged with strange, alien exaltation. And, of course, the movie’s most famous scene, “Tiny Dancer” on the bus. What more can anyone say about that? The best job anyone’s ever done of capturing what it feels like to get lost, to get loose, to get free in a beloved song with your friends. “You are home,” Kate Hudson says. The music is home.
But of course for all the incredible, luxurious indulgence the movie takes with the music that is its topic and its adornment, it’s not a movie about a musician. In contrast and bizarrely—and this is I think not adequately appreciated—it’s about that least sexy and enthralling of the arts: criticism. William doesn’t want to make music, he wants to analyze it. Rhapsodically, maybe. With great love and the zeal of the true believer; sure. But he’s a critic, not a guitarist. This hero’s journey is about a writer learning how to write, finding his words on the road. Penny plucks away his pencil at that first Stillwater concert to make him see and breathe the music, but even that is about teaching William how to see what’s in front of him, how to capture and articulate the sensation of that moment. How to live his way into being the writer he longs to be. That’s the journey Crowe had to get his audience invested in, the action that animates this often dreamlike and cerebral movie: the adventure of a writer becoming a writer.
So now you see why I think it’s really Lester Bangs’ movie. The character is pivotal. He launches William’s career. He provides the critical Gandalf that the hero’s journey demands. He’s an insider, he knows rock, he knows writing, and he can teach William about it. But he’s also a brash, aggressive contrarian, self-avowedly outside the scene he chronicles. He’s uncool and unbeautiful and so ideally equipped to unflinchingly examine rock stars and their delusional counterworld. He’s the voice on the phone, amanuensis and psychopomp acting at a distance. He shows William the way in and the way out.
And to our everlasting benefit this critical part in this beautiful movie passed through Hoffman’s transfiguring emotional intelligence, his astonishing insight into human personality. In other, less delicate hands, this role might have been a swaggery self-involved idiot, or a kooky eccentric more quirk than substance. As so often, Hoffman gave us something vastly more gorgeous than that.
If you ask someone about Philip Seymour Hoffman and Almost Famous they’ll probably remember the scene everyone always remembers, Hoffman on the phone late at night, the gravely voice with his back to the slowly approaching camera, his face and his voice raw in the dim lamplight. The perfect self-mocking tired delight in “I’m always home, I’m uncool!” That slow, punctuated, hoarse, “Be honest. And unmerciful.” There’s good reason to remember that scene. There’s very little like it.
But for me the perfect moment comes earlier, when we see Lester for the first time, in the radio station, doing his interview. William’s standing on a roof with The Who strumming along in the background, the way all our modern Williams can now take refuge in their earbuds from the world.
And then suddenly Hoffman’s harsh, biting voice spills out over us like huge power chords at the opening of a brand new track and we cut down to see the man himself standing in the broadcast booth with a wall of records behind him, talking intensely about music and America, about rock and internal landscapes, about headphones and self-hood. It’s a shock. Lester Bangs is the first personality we’ve met from outside William’s confining sundrenched little world, the utter sameness of that California dream, and he’s obviously, unmistakably different. Hoffman is a shock, always; the scope of him, his size on the screen, the specificity of the personalities he inhabits. And this shock is an unforgettable one.
Because, see, Almost Famous isn’t just about criticism, it’s about criticism in the twilight. The movie’s overlaid with this sense of an era’s conclusion. William’s here to write down Gotterdammerung. Bangs is the instrument by which that narrative is introduced, though it recurs. Jimmy Fallon’s improbable turn as the record-label Mephistopheles is obviously another appearance of this particular leitmotif. But it begins with Lester Bangs, with his contempt for pseudointellectual performers and their cults of personality, his terror that rock stars will ruin rock and roll. It’s essential for the movie that Bangs is wise, that we believe him. He legitimates William’s passion for being a rock writer: he makes us understand why it matters, why it’s worth sacrifice, to write about rock music. So when we meet Lester Bangs, I think the movie—or at least its seriousness—is hanging in the balance: will he earn our respect? Will he command our attention enough to make room for the ideas he represents?
So, for me, the essential scene of Almost Famous—and my favorite moment in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career—is the sixty seconds he needed to construct this character, standing in the broadcast booth of the radio station.
Here’s the rock critic in the one place in the world where he’s totally free. Music playing, talking about music, surrounded by music, the library of records visibly intoxicating to him. His contempt for the corporatized station DJ so apparent but such an afterthought. As he wanders down the shelves of tight-packed albums he’s completely unconcerned with where he is and what he’s supposed to be doing, aphorizing like Oscar Wilde as he hurls offending albums to the floor.
This scene, a single breath in the bulk of the movie, is a masterclass all by itself: a perfectly composed and executed moment. Bangs pulls Morrison Hotel off the shelf, asking “The Doors? Jim Morrison?” And he’s almost hurt, open and naked with this kind of puppydog confusion; how could anyone listen to The Doors? (Full disclosure: I, like the nameless DJ, enjoy The Doors.) He’s so earnest, so unaffected. He’s not posing. This energy is who he is. This frantic explosion of ideas, this stream of words; that’s Lester Bangs.
Hoffman tosses Morrison Hotel aside, hurling the album to the floor, but the gesture isn’t cruel or outrageous. The next few moments always take my breath away. Hoffman pours so much into his characters, they are all carved in such high relief, you can get lost in these nuances that hold oceans. He throws the album to the side and you can see his attention is already gone, back to the wall, even as he opens his jacket to show off his Guess Who shirt: he doesn’t care whether the DJ likes The Doors or not, all he cares about is digging his hands into the music. He drops so casually these Wildean paradoxes, deliberate inversions of good sense: “They have the courage to be drunken buffoons and that makes them poetic.” The dialog here could have been icy, or sly; swaggering, or the product of a bitter kind of sophistication. But in Hoffman’s handling it isn’t. Everything about Lester is nakedly honest. Whenever there’s music around him he’s always exposed, his nerves trembling on his skin with his love.
He turns, explosively, too huge to be contained in this tiny room, its thousand records only a mouthful to him. He seizes on Raw Power and screams “Iggy Pop! Amen!” drawing out the affirmation like a gospel singer and laughing with a kind of mad contagious vitality, as he does. He lunges across the room, snatches the record off the turntable and slaps down the Stooges, saying offhanded, “This isn’t on your playlist either.” Again he’s confronting corporatized rock and the homogenization it induced, the Lester Bangs leitmotif reemerging as he warns off the DJ from interfering in his need to play what feels right. I would have bitten that line or snarled it, made it icy or cruel; I would have told him that was where he should drop the hammer, underscore the whole theme he represented. But of course Hoffman didn’t. That’s why I’m writing this essay in bed and why no one will ever forget Hoffman’s genius. Because this line, which sums up Bangs’ ennui and alienation, he delivers with a kind of tolerance and warmth, half-swallowed, dropped offhandedly. It doesn’t matter to him that rock’s moving past him. The DJ’s barely there. All he can see is the music.
The DJ says, over the howl of a turntable needle pulled from a spinning disc, “Lester, don’t you think it’s a little bit early for that?” And Hoffman turns even as he’s hurling the offending LP away and pauses, suddenly seeming to click fully into awareness for the first time. A huge smile spreading across his face, charisma rolling out of him like sunlight. “Not for me.” He’s so happy. And he leans forward to drop the needle.
I could talk about that scene for a day. It’s overflowing with content and visual texture. Cameron Crowe, writing at his best. Hoffman’s enthralling, miraculous show of acting craft. That scene lasts maybe one minute. You can’t imagine a more confined canvas. We see Lester again, of course, and what Hoffman does here echoes against and resonates with the measured, wonderful scenes he delivers further along. The moment of otherworldly energy on the street when he talks about writing all night about The Faces or Coltrane. The conversation in the diner. His irrepressible laughter over the phone when he says, “Tell him, you know, it’s a… it’s a think piece.” And yes, of course, that late night phone call, hunched over, almost desperate, “Be honest. And unmerciful.”
But these first moments when we meet the character stand under their own power, too. Because by the time “Search and Destroy” starts blasting we have an unmistakable idea of who Lester Bangs is, what his obsessions are, how vulnerable he is beneath the careful armor of his leather jacket and his Guess Who shirt. How much he loves his music, how concerned he is about its adulteration, how little he cares about people who don’t share his passion. How he stands transfigured by the right album at the right moment like a mystic before a longed-for vision.
So when he lectures William we’re ready to listen, we accept his fears about the state of rock and roll as gospel. When William consults him in his despair we trust him just as William does, we’re there as well, the heavy handset pressed to our ears, hoping for whispered wisdom down the line. The movie hangs together because Hoffman sells those sixty seconds as hard as they can be sold. His frantic energy, his vast excitement, that stunning insouciant grin as he slams the needle down onto Iggy Pop in the middle of the day. “Not for me.”
My perfect Hoffman moment will always be that wild smile, a record in his hands. Other, wiser folks will write about Magnolia and The Master, about the multitudes he contained.
Philip Seymour Hoffman Appreciation Week: State and Main
It’s About the Quest for Purity
by Elisabeth Geier
The writer writes.
The writer misses what is right in front of his face. The handsome star of the movie the writer is writing flips his car and tells his teenage lover to scram; the writer is facedown in his notebook when it happens, transcribing something he just overheard. If the writer thinks anything cruel about the movie star and the teenager and the car upside down in the road, it doesn’t show on his face, which is wide-eyed, thoughtful, bemused. The writer takes it all in.
The writer takes abuse from those who do not respect his art. The writer sheepishly accepts praise from those who do. The writer goes to kiss a girl in a bookstore after dark and is interrupted by something, who can remember what. The writer will kiss her later, somewhere else, but when he writes it down the kiss will happen in that bookstore, in that perfect place for the writer and the girl to kiss. The writer finds meaning in everything he sees, and sometimes creates meaning where it is not.
I wanted to rewatch State and Main. I wanted to revisit this funny, harmless film that made me love Philip Seymour Hoffman and helped me access his less funny, more interesting roles. I wanted to watch him scribble in a notebook and squint at Sarah Jessica Parker and fall in love with Rebecca Pidgeon and be the heartfelt, principled writer at the mercy of a corrupt film crew. But I can’t find State and Main online. It’s not on any of the usual streaming suspects, and besides my computer is slowly dying and I can’t stream anything anyhow, and I think I once owned it on VHS, but it’s too late for that now. I can’t watch State and Main, and I can’t remember it as well as I used to, and I know PSH was perfect in it, but I can’t remember how his character ends. Whether he remains the good guy I want him to be or becomes the self-motivated artist we are all capable of being.
This was supposed to be about his performance, not his death, but for a little while at least, how can one not be colored by the other? He was gifted, and he was a gift, and now he is dead and I can’t mourn the way I want to, by watching my favorite performance, the one that first made me pay attention, and it sucks.
I think, probably, the writer remains good. Tries to do the right thing. Is foiled by something bigger than himself, tricked into helping the bad guys win in the end, but at heart stays good and true. Wide-eyed. Thoughtful. Open to the world.