Monday, July 20, 2009

The Screengrab Library of Unproduced Screenplays: John Belushi's "Noble Rot"

It was twenty-seven years ago last month that John Belushi died, at the age of 33. At the time, Belushi's movie career was approaching a crossroads. At the end of 1981, he had released two films, Continental Divide, and Neighbors, that had an important place in the trajectory of his career--they were the first features he'd done in which he played a clearly defined starring role, rather than as a standout member of an ensemble cast (as in National Lampoon's Animal House and 1941), in a movie that (unlike The Blues Brothers) wasn't a pretested spin-off of something he'd done on Saturday Night Live. Taken individually, Continental Divide was a tepid comedy for which Belushi tried to stretch himself to play a romantic lead, and a flop, whereas Neighbors was a misplayed, sloppy travesty of Thomas Berger's darkly comic novel, which Belushi came to hate, and which actually made some money. Neither film capitalized on what Belushi might have been able to bring to movies, but between them, they seemed to sum up what Belushi (perhaps ill-advisedly) wanted to do, and what the studios, to his horror, thought he was good for.

That tug-of-war was going on as Belushi spent his last days mulling his choice of projects: a comedy based on (or at least yoked to the title of) The Joy of Sex that was being pushed on by the studio, and Moon Over Miami, which the director Louis Malle and the playwright John Guare, fresh from their upscale success with Atlantic City, wanted to tailor to Belushi and Akroyd's talents. (It would have starred Belushi as a small-time con artist employed to help Akroyd, as an uptight FBI agent, cook up an Abscam-like sting operation.) This time, though, Belushi had his own pet idea, a script called Noble Rot that he and Don Novello were adapting from a screenplay by Jay Sandrich called Sweet Deception. If Belushi was disgusted by what the bosses were offering him but nervous about jumping into the art-movie deep end with Malle and Guare, it must have made sense to him to try and work with Novello, a colleague from the SNL days (where Novello, a staff writer, used to pop up in the guise of Father Guido Sarducci), to shape something specifically to what he saw as the true nature of his gifts. Of course, it must have also seemed like a good idea one night to check into the Chateau Marmont hotel and send out for speedballs.

Noble Rot is about Johnny Glorioso, the 30-year-old son of a Northern California winemaker whose wastrel tendencies have made him the despair of his family, though even the cops who hand him over to his father in the opening scenes can't do enough to stress how well-liked he is by everyone and what a lovable rapscallion he is. (They pay tribute to the fighting prowess that made it necessary for four cops to bring him down.) Dad has his own problems. The big wine contest is coming up, and his other son, the responsible one, can't board the plane because he's had an allergic reaction to some seafood. "I can't believe it," he laments. "I got on son who can't eat lobster, and one son that can't drink." He sits Johnny down and tells him that he has to take his brother's place, explaining the importance of the occasion in a speech that also serves as an explanation for the script's less-than-selling title. It seems that every once in a great while, a special grey fungus known as Botrytis cinerea infects grapes which, if they are picked at just the right point, can in turn yield a spectacular wine. Just to make sure we get it, the old man tells Johnny, the black sheep, that he has undying faith in him because he is "my noble rot--my blessing in disguise."

Johnny heads out for the East Coast and finds himself sitting next to Christine on the plane. She is a looker, but when she fails to be dazzled by his line of patter--she asks the flight attendant to find him another seat while he's sneaking a joint in the can--the viewer is clearly supposed to think, "What's her problem?" instead of, "Jesus, if the attendant hadn't found another corner to shove him into, I'd have jumped out in mid-air and taken my chances." Right away, one may pick up on a certain disconnect between how charming Belushi thinks his alter ego would have come across and what's on the page, because Johnny's supposedly funny, seductive conversation peaks with his testimonial in praise of the scintillating quality of the in-flight magazine (he's disappointed to learn that he has to catch a plane whenever he wants to check out the latest issue) and then levels out when he discovers that the movie they're showing is The Deer Hunter. (He's seen it before and thought there'd be more deer hunting in it.)

It turns out that Christine is involved in a diamond smuggling operation. (Her boss is one of those guys whose lines--"I won't involve your young friend anymore. He's served his purposes."--that you can't read without hearing the "MWAAHAHA!" at the end.) She involves Johnny in an elaborate push-pull relationship that is designed to throw off the people on her trail but also seems to speak volumes about the star and co-writer's woman issues. It's also around this point that you begin to notice that, for what's largely a con-game comedy with a character who's supposed to be a wild man in the role of the fall guy, Noble Rot is very short on narrative invention; not a hell of a lot actually happens. Christine keeps pulling Johnny close to her to keep his distracting presence in the game, then pushing him away and vanishing only to reappear, while he stands around with a big question mark over his head. Belushi must have thought that he was making Jay Sandrich's material "his" and making it edgier by making his character cruddier and ruder, and maybe he also sensed that Novello, with his gentle satiric wit, was the right person to reign him back from the going too far over the top and lending the movie some charm. But neither Novello (who would go on to publish the Laszlo Letters series, write and produce for SCTV, and lend his affable presence to many film, TV, and radio roles, but never did get a real screenplay credit or publish anything else with a real plot) nor he had the story sense to replace the scaffolding they were tearing down with a workable replacement.

In place of a story developing, there are several moments where Belushi would have gotten to assert what a wild and crazy guy he was (such as a throwaway moment in which he shows off his idea of a promotional gimmick for his long-suffering dad's winery: T-shirts with the words "GLORIOSO VINEYARDS" surrounded by a skull and lightning bolts). And how hip he is: Christine may be smart and sexy and better able to function smoothly in society than this coarse brute, but she says things like, "This is the 1980s--all you need is money," and she needs reminding who Keith Richards is. ("Yes, of course. Of the music group?") Considering that the Rolling Stones once hosted SNL, and that Robert De Niro, the star of The Deer Hunter, was a friend of Belushi's on the L.A. party scene--he dropped by Belushi's hotel room the night he died--some of the cultural references come across as bits of name-dropping trying to pass for inside jokes. (There are also scripted appearances by Orson Welles and Marvin Hamlisch, who gets to tickle the ivories in a party scene while some lucky bit player tells another, "He wrote The Sting, you know.") As in much of The Blues Brothers, Belushi seemed to be trying to fit into the '80s by claiming to be keeping the spirit of the '60s alive while making something that felt a little as if he and his buddies were trying to become the new Rat Pack.

Noble Rot ends with a final twist that leaves Johnny on top and Christine out in the cold. It's a looking-out-for-number-one conclusion that betrays audience expectations that Johnny will either get something real going with the girl (or any girl) or that he'll come through and win his family's wine the recognition that it deserves, and the fact that Belushi apparently saw it as a crowd-pleasing happy ending shows that he actually fit into the "all you need is money" 1980s better than he wanted to admit to himself. In the whole picture, there's one climactic scene where he gets to really Belushi it up: at the wine-testing, where a French judge overrules the impressed reactions of his fellow judges and bad mouths the Glorioso wine. ("Perhaps 'skunky' isn't the right word. Actually, it tastes more like the fur of a wet dog.") Johnny, of course, goes nuts--you can bet that a glass of wine gets emptied over somebody's head--and delivering a detailed condemnation of the judge that does not neglect to mention France's outstanding war debt. This rhymes with an earlier scene in which Johnny delivers a lengthy monologue describing the horrors of a visit he once made to France, where wandered into an eatery in hopes of getting a hamburger and was grossed out with an offer of head cheese. I don't know what would have happened with John Belushi's movie career if he'd lived longer, but if he'd made Noble Rot, I'm pretty sure that he never would have won a Légion d'honneur medal to clink against Jerry Lewis's.

John Waters Talks of Teabagging

Last week, various good citizens of these United States participated in a mass public protest that, because of what as near as we can determine was a voluntary decision made by the organizers, went by the name "teabagging." Apparently this was supposed to call up memories of something that happened in Ye Olde Colonial Days, when some drunken vandals dressed as Indians made a mess in Boston Harbor using somebody else's shipment of tea. (Last week's events were given extensive coverage and promotion on Fox News, which as we all know is all about the destruction of personal property and consumer goods by domestic terrorists.) However, the protests also inspired a certain amount of giggle-puss coverage by media people who know that "teabagging" has another meaning, referring to a nonpolitical act that is also sometimes performed by men dressed as Indians, in some cases at the behest of people who've paid them extra for it. It remains unclear whether the people who organized the protests are genuinely unaware of this or if the whole thing was an elaborate bait and switch to get the on-air staff at MSNBC to admit that they knew about it and reveal to the viewing audience what perverts they are.

Of course, a lot of us first learned about "tagbagging"'s dirtier alternate meaning the same way we learned 75% of the filthy things we know, from watching John Waters movies. "Teabagging" surfaced in the sensitive 1998 coming-of-age story Pecker, a movie that we like to think the DeMille of Baltimore made just so that some hardy soul somewhere would approach the box office and say, "May I please have a ticket to see John Waters's Pecker?" (For God's sake, they call him that because he pecks at his food!) The very good people at Boing Boing initiated an e-mail exchange to confirm with Waters himself that it was he who popularized the term, or at least put it out there where the David Shusters of the world could add it to their vocabulary without risking winding up on some out-of-the-way websites of their own. In addition to Waters's reply, Boing Boing has the history-making clip, as well as a useful clip in which Mr. Waters shares his views on the practice of discouraging smoking in theaters.

John McTiernan Jailbird Update

The last time we checked in on John McTiernan, the director of Die Hard and Last Action Hero (as well as his 1986 debut Nomads, which has a special place in my heart as the first movie that ever put my date to sleep), he was waiting for the hammer to come down, again. As we recounted just the other day, in 2006 McTiernan pled guilty to the charge of lying to the FBI in the course of their investigation of rogue Hollywood P.I. Anthony Pellicano, only to subsequently withdraw his plea, explaining that at the time he entered it, "he didn't have adequate legal representation, was jet-lagged and under the influence of alcohol," all of which probably amounted to a replication of the condition he was in when he made Nomads. It took until two months ago for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule definitively that he did have the right to withdraw his plea. Now, to the surprise of no one, McTiernan has been indicted on two counts of lying to the Feds and a shiny new charge of perjury, which is based on statements he made to a federal judge in the course of withdrawing his guilty plea to the FBI-related charges. McTiernan's lawyer complains that "The prosecutor has taken one count and tried to expand it into more charges in a new indictment. There seems to be retribution because John refused to play ball the way the prosecutors wanted and because we were successful on appeal." Either that or the prosecutor just saw Nomads. Hey, if you don't like hearing about it every two sentences, take up a collection and give me back my eight dollars.

As we also mentioned last week, McTiernan has set up a web site to showcase his charges that he is but one of several victims of Republican schemer Karl Rove, who, McTiernan alleges, had his minions hard at work on the Pellicano case trying to shake out dirt that could have been used against possible presidential contender Hillary Clinton last fall. McTiernan has made a documentary pressing his case, The Political Prosecutions of Karl Rove, which you're supposed to be able to watch at the website. I tried watching it myself, but when I hit the "Play" button, I got a pop-up ad in which a woman appeared on my screen and asked, "Hi! Are you a genius!?", which under the circumstances felt kind of like she was adding insult to injury. Then I found what appears to be the movie at YouTube, starting here, where I watched enough of it to feel confident that I'd gotten to the bottom of why McTiernan, who narrates the film, doesn't do voice-over work for Pixar. Personally, I'd recommend waiting to see if McTiernan tries to show it in court as part of his legal defense. If he does, and it gets him off, I will sell off my body one organ at a time in order to fund the making of Nomads 2.

Michael J. Fox's Missing Years

"It has been so long since Michael J Fox was a movie star", Emma Brockes notes in the Guardian, "that he's not sure his youngest children even know that's what he was, nor what he does for a living now." Fox and Tracy Pollan, his wife wife of twenty-one years, have four kids: nineteen-year-old Sam; twin fourteen-year-old girls, Aquinnah and Schuyler, and eight-year-old Esme, is eight. "I don't know that they've ever seen Back To The Future all the way through. Just as Parkinson's isn't a big topic of conversation in my house, neither is my career. I go down to my office every day and they say, 'Dad's going to work.'" Fox was first diagnosed with Parkinson's seventeen years ago, a year after he "woke up one morning in 1990 and noticed his little finger shaking," which he took for "a side effect of a hangover." At the time, Fox was already in a strange place mentally, trying to navigate a career path from Back to the Future's 24-year-old teen idol to success in more mature, or at least grown-up, roles. In his new book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist, Fox recalls that period of his life as one spent in "the bubble", with fear as the dominant emotion. He was away from home a lot, and when he was at home, he drank at lot. The Parkinson's diagnosis did nothing to wean him off the bottle. "The alarm call came a year later, when he woke up on the sofa one morning, stinking of booze, with his baby son crawling on him and half a can of beer on the floor next to him. When he opened one eye to see his wife looking down at him, she didn't seem angry or disgusted, but, worse, indifferent."

Fox says that his first reaction to being diagnosed with Parkinson's was, "Hide." He was told that "if he was lucky he could keep acting for another decade", and that's about what happened: in 1996, Fox played his last starring, on-screen role in a movie in Peter Jackson's underrated The Frighteners and then jumped back to TV for the stability that a weekly series offered in Spin City. (He had practically auditioned for the sitcom role a year earlier with his supporting role in The American President.) He left the show in 2000, two years after going public with his condition. Of this milestone, he writes in the book, "I had been Mike the actor, then Mike the actor with PD. Now was I just Mike with PD."Since then he's done some voice work and short stints on Boston Public, Scrubs, and most recently, Rescue Me. Of that last gig, he says, "It felt good. I played a paraplegic, which is insane. It was nice to revisit [acting] again. But at the same time I didn't feel like, 'Aw, I'm home!' It was like visiting a place where you know the currency and the language, but you've moved on."

In his previous book, Lucky Man, Fox wrote about coming to terms with his ailment; in the new one, he describes his public evolution into a public advocate for stem-cell research at a time when the political powers that be didn't want to hear it. He cut a campaign commercial for a friendly candidate and wound up helping the country gauge the general level of Rush Limbaugh's loathsomeness. But after having a troubled reaction to seeing "a younger, healthier me" on TV one night, he managed to make a happier connection with Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984. "Fox rang Ali's wife, Lonnie, to ask about this particular thing, the horror of being confronted with the way you once were. 'I was thinking, What does he think when he sees himself on television as he was as Cassius Clay? Ducking and weaving and joking and spouting poetry. Does he feel sadness? A sense of loss?' Lonnie said, 'He loves it. He loves to see himself. He can't get enough of it.' 'And I got that,' says Fox. 'Because it's still him. Parkinson's doesn't take away anything of his identity.'"

"Treeless Mountain"

The writer-director So Yong Kim's second feature, Treeless Mountain is set in South Korea and stars pair of kindergarten-age children as six-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sister, Bin (Song Hee). The movie begins with the girls' young mother (Soo Ah Lee) announcing that she's taking them to stay with "Big Aunt" (Mi Hyang Kim) while she goes out in search of their estranged father. Jin still sometimes wets the bed, and in a delicately observed scene early in the film, she has to wake her mother and let her know that it's happened again. Mom cleans her up and, before sending her to sleep on the unoccupied side of her own bed, whispers a reminder that no one will ever know what's happened: "It's just between us." Later, when the girls are with their aunt, the woman pulls them out of bed in the morning to find the sheets stained with urine and instinctively blames the smaller girl, who protests her innocence in a piping voice. Big Aunt doesn't believe her, which is bad enough for both girls--the one who winds up being punished for something she hasn't done, and the one who has to feel guilty for having been too afraid to take the rap. But what's really upsetting is the difference in Big Aunt's tone and approach from the girls' mother. It's not just that she's scolding and angry; she sounds as if she wouldn't mind sticking a sandwich board reading "I PEE THE BED" on the kid. Whoever's the guilty party, it is definitely not just between them.

Kim's highly acclaimed first feature, In Between Days, was about a teenage Korean immigrant (Jiseon Kim) in America, trying to adjust to her new surroundings while dealing with what may be her first serious (unrequited) crush. The movie was big on mood and atmosphere, at least partly (one assumes) to compensate for the fact that the nonprofessional lead actress was resolutely inexpressive, and I had a little trouble connecting with it. Treeless Mountain is vague at times, too, but on the whole it's a much fuller, richer picture, which may have something to do with Kim's development as a filmmaker but definitely has a lot to do with the child leads here, and the skillful way that the professional actresses playing their caregivers work with them. This non-professional actor thing that so many of your "neo-neorealist" directors are into these days definitely pays off better when the people they choose to point their cameras at can compensate for their lack of training with a naked, unself-conscious emotional openness, and very small children may be a better bet for that sort of thing than most adults (or--God knows--most teenagers). Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee had never met before they were cast, but they play at being sisters very believably with no fuss, and their faces really take the camera. The beauty and resilience in those faces somehow make the movie more painful yet easier to take at the same time.

The director's work with them is all the more remarkable for the fact that the movie is reportedly based on her own childhood feelings about being parked with her grandparents on a rice farm while her newly divorced mother went to America to try to start a new life for her family. It must have taken a superhuman balancing act of empathy and directorial control for her to make this movie, which is essentially seen through the girls' eyes, leaving them the freedom to express their own feelings about being in a situation drawn from her own experiece. vorced when she was young; her mother went ahead of her children to the United States, and Ms. Kim lived for a spell with her grandparents on a rice farm. The movie tells the story of two sisters, 6 — year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and 4-year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim), who develop their own ways to cope as they are shuttled from one family member to another. “Writing it was the most difficult part,” Kim said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “I couldn’t proceed until Bin and Jin were their own individuals. If I saw too much of myself, it wasn’t ready.”

The movie doesn't demonize the adults, and it keeps its perspective: it's hard to say that anything the girls are put through constitutes real abuse or abandonment, and the adults always have their reasons. But it returns you to that frame of mind small children have that adults who've grown out of it are all too eager to forget about, when being so small and vulnerable makes you feel as if your whole world could crumble in a second and no one would notice, when any hint of rejection or even indifference can feel as scary and upsetting as an unexpected blow to the face. The worst blows can be the ones that some adult has unthinkingly come up with on the spur of the moment to make the world seem more magical, and for which they may even have congratulated themselves. About to leave, the mother tells her daughters that if they obey Big Aunt "she'll give you a coin" to put inside their big, smiling, pink piggy bank, and that by the time the bank is full, she'll return for them. But then Bin buys a snack and gets change, and Jin does the math: breaking up a big coin gets you many more small coins. So the girls collect all their big coins and go running to the shops to load up on change, which they thin stuff into piggy, and voila, it's all full. Then they go down to the bus stop, and wait.

Crowdfunding: The Filmmaking Teenage Jules Verne Enthusiast's Friend

Many years ago, when I was working for a small film festival, I met some hairy young self-starters who were in the process of Scotch taping together their first feature film, a padded-out gutbucket horror movie, which they wanted to submit to the festival, even though there was some question as to whether they could actually get it finished in time. I did my best to give the impression that I was going out of my way to shepherd them along while hoping they'd all step into an open manhole and criticizing their mothers to anyone I met. The night their film was shown, I was standing at the back of the theater, staring at the slowly crawling, interminable list of final credits, cursing under my breath and thinking about setting fire to the screen so I could go ahead and lock up and maybe make it home in time for Conan, when I saw my own name, very nearly spelled correctly, listed no lower than three hundredth among those accorded "Special Thanks". At that moment, I wanted to throw my arms around them, call them each "Brother", and offer them pie. I offer this tender memory as my way of saying that I can sort of see where Adrian Bliss, Benjamin Robbins and Toby Stubbs are coming from.

Bliss, 18, Robbins, 18, and Stubbs, 17, are British, and are keen to produce and direct a film version of an obscure 1897 Jules Verne novel called Clovis Dardentor. Their pitch likens it to Indiana Jones meets Four Weddings and a Funeral. You might think that if three teenagers want to film a Jules Verne novel that you've never heard of, all they need to do is whisper it to a blue jay and then lie back to wait for the money to fall from the clouds, but apparently it takes a little more work than that. But maybe not a lot more. Having promoted their idea on the Internet, the guys started raking in money in exchange for their effort to credit contributors onscreen in the movie. Minimum charge for inclusion is a pound. You can donate, or just check out their pitch here. The relative slickness of their site inspires admiration for their potential filmmaking careers even as it sends chills down my spine. I'm tempted to send them a few bucks on condition that they lose my name but instead give whoever composed that music a wedgie.

Apparently the term for this sort of thing is "crowdfunding". The Dardentor boys didn't invent the concept, and not every crowdfunder peddles screen credits in exchange for cash. Artemis Eternal, a short sci-fi film whose director, Jessie Mae Stover, promoted it at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con, inducts its contributors into the ranks of "The Artemis Eternal WINGMEN." And "Franny Armstrong, a documentary director, raised £450,000 for The Age of Stupid, a recently released film on global warming, through gifts from hundreds of donors." The Times also cites recent examples from outside the world of filmmaking: "Four years ago a British student, Alex Tew, set up a Web page to raise money for his university education, selling off pieces of a digital mural on the site for $1 each. He ended up raising more than $1 million. More recently, the Cologne soccer club in Germany has been selling chunks of a Web portrait of Lukas Podolski, a star striker, to help finance the cost of acquiring him from another team, Bayern Munich." Who knows? Perhaps the crowdfunding concept can even be tweaked in a way that it could be used to provide extra cash and the odd sexual favor for hard-working and underappreciated movie bloggers. Feel free to put your work on that cancer cure on hold to flesh that one out.

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The Best & Worst Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in Cinema History

"The Daytrippers"

Greg Mottola's low-pressure charmer Adventureland hasn't done the business it deserved, but as a major studio release, it at least stands the chance of an afterlife on DVD. Maybe if the gods are kind, somebody will roll the dice on getting Mottola's debut film, The Daytrippers, back into print on home video. When this comedy first started drifting into theaters in 1997, it stood apart from the indie-film pack for its unflashiness and lack of condescension towards its middle-class characters. Seen today, it may inspire a certain nostalgia for its movie era: here are the indie-film all-stars of the late '90s in the full bloom of youth, before they started lining up to take on Wolverine or competing with each other to see whose new TV series could get cancelled quickest. The Daytrippers begins with Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci as an apparently happily married couple living in Long Island. Tucci works at a Manhattan publishing firm, and after he heads off for work with plans not to be back home for a couple of days, Davis finds what seems to be a love letter that was written to him by someone named Sandy. Confused and nervous, Davis invites her family--including her parents (Anne Meara and Pat McNamara), her sister (Parker Posey), and the sister's boyfriend, Carl (Liev Schreiber)-- to talk her into believing that it's nothing. The upshot is that the whole pack winds up venturing into the city to confront Tucci, piled into a broken-down station wagon with a busted heater on a late-November day that isn't getting any warmer.

The suspense is pretty much kept under control. Any questions about whether or not Davis has good reason to distrust her husband were answered as soon as Tucci nabbed the part. Nor is The Daytrippers what we film blogger types or others with working eyeballs would call "visually distinguished." Its pleasures come from watching so many gifted comedians shoved together and left to chew on each other. The cast also includes Campbell Scott (who co-directed Big Night with Tucci, and who would also co-star with Davis in The Secret Lives of Dentists, Duma, and the TV series Six Degrees) as a novelist, the writer-director Douglas McGrath as Tucci's boss, and Marcia Gay Hardin, who tears it up in a cameo as a woman who's come to a holiday party so she can make an elaborate show of not paying attention to her ex-boyfriend while asking strangers to check to see whether he's paying any attention to her.

As Carl, Liev Schreiber delivers a beautifully full portrait of a sweet, well-meaning intellectual pseud who, unless nothing is done to discourage him, is well on his way to becoming a full-blown asshole of fearsome proportions. "Let me tell you something," he says by way of making small talk as the car crawls past the architectural horrors that dot landscape along the L.I.E., "the Europeans may have been imperialists, but they knew how to make a building." Carl, whose need to declare his superiority to the rabble has inspired him to become Long Island's leading proponent of a return to a system of aristocracy, enlivens the road trip by describing the plotline of his novel, "an allegory about spiritual survival in the contemporary world" about a man born with the head of a dog. "What kind of dog?" asks Dad. It doesn't matter, Parker Posey says, but Carl jumps in happily to stress that it's actually a very important detail. It's a German short-haired pointer.

Good as the men are, The Daytrippers really belongs to its women. Hope Davis, not for the last time, demonstrates a special gift for seeming too depressed to think while simultaneously being funny and likable and even seeming rather lively. (Just standing still, she'd have been thrown out of an Antonioni movie for disturbing the peace.) She keeps you guessing about just how much emotional life there might be behind those heavy lids until the climactic moment when she catches sight of her husband across a crowded room, acting suavely goofy, and her face breaks out into a wide grin that life is about to take a sledgehammer to. Posey does a reverse spin on the same act, acting vivacious and flirty in a way that seems to hint that her character is a total bitch waiting for the moment to attack, only to reveal the defensive little girl (and supportive sister) hidden inside the attitude and layers of make-up and clothing. (With her lips a crimson slash and blue raccoon eyes, and wearing a green scarf and red thigh-highs with a heavy winter jacket, she's the most colorful thing to be seen on this fall day, and when she makes a run for it, she looks like a yard sale in motion.) And the eternally underused Anne Meara probably has the best movie role of her life; she's the essence of every parent whose zealousness to pound their children's lives into the shape they think they should be has turned them into a gorgon. She's Livia Soprano with a human face.

The Undersea World of Jean Painlevé

Happy Earth Day! There are a few ways that you can celebrate while expanding your cinematic vocabulary. One might be to immerse yourself in the work of Jean Painlevé, a member of the Surrealist movement whose fascination with nature, combined with his aesthetic interests, led him to compose a Surrealist "zoological" tract and to serve as "chief ant wranger" on Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's short film manifesto, Un Chien andalou. Painlevé made hundreds of what might be called nature documentaries, driven by an eye for beauty and a committed search for the unusual. Yesterday, the Criterion Collection released Science Is Fiction, a three-disc collection that brings together 23 of Jean Painlevé's films, along with more than two hours of interviews that he did for TV not long before his death, in 1989, at the age of 96, as well as new soundtrack music recorded by Yo La Tengo. For a taste, check out Painlevé's 1945 short Le Vampire (above), which combines his own film of sealife and vampire bats with footage from F. W. Murnau's great Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, intending an anti-Nazi political message. Below, we see what happens when somebody mates his hypnotically lyrical 1934 sea horse ballet L'Hippocampe with a soundtrack derived from the experimental British band Current 93. Feel free to switch the sound off when the guy starts babbling about spit:

"Drive, He Said"

Today marks the 72nd birthday of Mr. Jack Nicholson. In 1958, Nicholson made his movie debut in the title role of the 70-minute Roger Corman production Cry Baby Killer, which would lead to more than a decade's worth of solid employment in low-paying jobs in low-budget indie films, many of them for Corman, most of them exploitation and drive-in fare, though a few of them (such as Irving Lerner's 1960 Studs Lonigan and the pair of "existential" Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, that Monte Hellman directed back to back on Corman's nickel in the mid-'60s. (Nicholson also wrote the script for Whirlwind and had writing credits on a few other '60s films, including Hellman's 1964 Flight to Fury, The Trip, and the Monkees vehicle Head, with whose director, Bob Rafelson, he later made Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Blood and Wine.) The movie that made Nicholson a star, Easy Rider, was basically an art-house version of the biker movies that Corman had made, starting with The Wild Angels, which starred Easy Rider's Peter Fonda. Nicholson had come on board Easy Rider as an afterthought, when Rip Torn, who was set to play the good-hearted good ol' boy George Hanson, got into a bitch-slapping contest with Dennis Hopper and got his invitation to join the production rescinded. In fact, at the time, Nicholson thought that his acting career was over. He was tired of bashing his head against walls trying to break into the industry and had arranged to make his directing debut with an adaptation of Jeremy Larner's 1964 campus novel, Drive, He Said. It was only when he saw Easy Rider with an audience and picked up on the crowd's reaction to his performance that Nicholson realized that his career as a movie star had just begun.

Like Richard Farina's 1966 Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me, Larner's novel (which takes its title from a Robert Creeley poem) was published early enough in the 1960s to later seem prescient about campus unrest in the Vietnam era, and both books were turned into movies that were released in 1971, by which time the campus protest movement had peaked in the wake of Kent State. Nicholson's movie was filmed in Eugene, Oregon on and around the state university. William Tepper, who looks here like a stork-legged cross between Abbie Hoffman and the Robert De Niro of Mean Streets, made his movie debut as Hector Bloom, a star basketball player who is called out by his coach (Bruce Dern) for having an attitude problem. Hector, who could have any girl on the campus he wanted, has pulled the genius move of having an affair with Olive (Karen Black), who is married to a professor played by Robert Towne, who had also labored in the Corman factory as a screenwriter (The Last Woman on Earth, The Tomb of Ligeia) before writing a couple of movies that gave Nicholson two of his most memorable roles, The Last Detail and Chinatown. (Towne took the name of his Chinatown hero, J. J. Gittes, from Harry Gittes, a friend of Nicholson's who co-produced Drive, He Said. Though the script for this movie is credited to Larner and Nicholson, both Towne and Terrence Malick are said to have taken an uncredited crack at it.) Things turn out badly, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. It turns out that Olive's husband is an overly cerebral, phlegmatic type who knows perfectly well that Hector is balling his wife--it's not easy to miss--but wants to impress everyone with how well he's taking it; a part of him is sort of proud that the great athlete deems him worthy of cuckolding. Olive eventually pushes both of them away, telling them that they're "both big babies" who "deserve each other."

The surprising crosscurrents between the actors caught in this triangle, and also between Tepper and Dern (whose tightly focused performance as the hard-ass coach is some of the very best work he's ever done) capture what's best about Drive, He Said and suggest what Nicholson might have been able to bring to movies if he'd stuck with it as a director. Tepper himself gives an extraordinary performance as an inarticulate but deeply troubled man with the manner of a put-on artist and a romantic soul. (After Drive, He Said bombed, Tepper did some TV but disappeared from movies for a decade. In the early 1980s, he turned up in Miss Right, a comedy that reunited him with his co-star Karen Black, and he had supporting roles in the 1983 remake of Breathless and the 1984 Tom Hanks-Adrian Zmed comedy Bachelor Party, and hasn't been seen on-screen since.) Nicholson shows a free but sure hand with the cast, which also includes Michael Warren (of the TV series Hill Street Blues) and, in smaller roles, David Ogden Stiers (lean and hirsute and recognizable only by his voice, even though he's attempting a cracker accent), Cindy Williams, and June Fairchild, beloved to many for her role as the woman who snorts Ajax in the Cheech and Chong movie Up in Smoke.

For all that's brilliant (or at least brilliantly promising) about Drive, He Said, it's easy to see why it tanked in 1971. Nicholson doesn't seem to have any idea how to shape the material into a cohesive hold, so it feels like a succession of sequences rather than a movie, and the audience is left to get its bearings on its own. Probably a lot of people sat through as much of it as they could stand without ever getting them. There's also the subplot involving Michael Margotta as Gabriel, Hector's roommate, whose character must have struck some people as embarrassingly dated even in 1971. Nicholson fails to establish any basis for a relationship or even any kind of emotional bond between Hector and Gabriel, but what does come through is that, while Hector resists bending to the demands of The Establishment, Gabriel can't even consider it, and the pressure is driving him crazy, at a time when it was fashionable to view going crazy as a noble quest. Gabriel never has a quiet moment in the movie; he's always attacking the M.P.s during his draft induction physical, taking a sword to a TV set after screaming, "They staged the moon landing in Phoenix, Arizona!", throwing commodes out of second story windows, etc. At the climax, he tries to rape Olive, during an assault on her house (and body) that he (maybe with a little prodding from the director) stages as if it were a night of bad experimental theater, and after that doesn't work out, he walks naked into the campus biology lab and sets free the various critters caged there. It must be said, though, that even here Nicholson keeps a tight enough rein on Margotta's performance that only intermittently does this stuff play as foolishly as it sounds. (And in the scene in the lab, there is one glorious caught shot of one of the freed mice appearing to try to make out with one of the frogs, which spurns its advances and hops away.)

Nicholson didn't direct another movie until 1978's barnyard comedy Goin' South, in which he also starred, and that wasn't until after he'd added The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor) to his resume. After he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Terms of Endearment, Nicholson began telling interviewers that his ultimate dream was to take home one more Academy Award, for Best Director. He pretty much stopped saying that after his third and, to date, last film as director, The Two Jakes, slithered out from under a rock in 1990. An attempted sequel to Chinatown from a fresh Robert Towne script that Towne had tried and failed to make himself five years earlier, it was the kind of movie that absolutely had to have propulsion and a clear plot line, and once again, Nicholson didn't know how to put it together so that the sum would amount to more than a pile of scenes strung together. Maybe it's not that surprising that, with so little practice sitting in the director's chair, Nicholson had gotten no better at what he had been hopeless at twenty years earlier, but he had also lost his touch at guiding his fellow actors: he couldn't even get a decent performance out of himself.

You'd have to be crazy to suggest that Nicholson took the wrong road after savoring that explosion of applause for his performance in Easy Rider. Chances are that Drive, He Said (which played at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival) wouldn't even have gotten as much attention as it did if its director hadn't been a movie star, and if Nicholson hadn't worked as hard as he did at his acting career in the early 1970s, he might not have stayed a movie star for long. (Peter Fonda, the real star of Easy Rider, sure didn't.) As it is, he became the biggest, most durable star of his generation. But he did have something special when he directed Drive, He Said, and it's a shame that, when he reached for it again, it had dissipated.

Blasphemy Isn't What It Used to Be

Ron Howard's new movie, Angels & Demons, starring Tom Hanks as symbologist super sleuth Robert Langdon, is a follow-up to their 2006 piece-of-shit movie The Da Vinci Code, which was based on Dan Brown's bestselling 2003 pice-of-shit novel of the same name. (Angels & Demons is actually based on an earlier novel that Brown published in 2000, which marked the first appearance of the Langdon character.) I couldn't quite follow the thread of The Da Vinci Code, but I think it had something to do with clues hidden in the Mona Lisa that Amélie is Jesus Christ's great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. (I think there was also something about how "the Holy Grail", legendary for being Jesus's favorite thing to drink from, was actually his pet name for Mary Magdalene, but that's so unbelievably filthy that I must have imagined it. We are, after all, talking about a movie made by Opie, starring Forrest Gump.) The new movie reportedly has to do with the return of the Illuminati, which (in Brown's conspiracy-fantasy mythology) was murderously wiped out by the Catholic church some three thousand years ago for being too scientific and artistic and progressive and all. As before, the new movie is being threatened with organized protests from Catholic groups who take offense at seeing their church portrayed as Murder, Inc. with funnier hats. Faced with these complaints, Howard has done what any serious religious history scholar would do: he's gone to the Huffington Post to deliver his Sermon on the Mount.

Howard's bete noire is William Donahue of the Catholic League, who, in Howard's words, "writes that I and the people who made this thriller 'do not hide their animus against all things Catholic.'" (Apparently all things Catholic include basic grammar.) "Let me be clear," writes the director of Frost/Nixon: "neither I nor Angels & Demons are anti-Catholic. And let me be a little controversial: I believe Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie for what it is: an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome. After all, in Angels & Demons, Professor Robert Langdon teams up with the Catholic Church to thwart a vicious attack against the Vatican. What, exactly, is anti-Catholic about that?" As to the details, "Mr. Donohue's booklet accuses us of lying when our movie trailer says the Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence the Illuminati centuries ago. It would be a lie if we had ever suggested our movie is anything other than a work of fiction (if it were a documentary, our talk of massacres would have referenced the Inquisition or the Crusades)...Mr. Donohue's op-ed [in the New York Daily News] and booklet also suggest that we paint the Church as 'anti-reason.' There is plenty of debate over what the Church did or didn't do with Galileo, but I for one do recognize that the Church did much throughout the ages to encourage and preserve education, the arts and the sciences." As Jesus used to say to Pontius Pilate, passive-aggressive much?

Unmollified by these and other valuable points made by Howard (ranging from "And if fictional movies could never take liberties with reality, then there would have been no Ben-Hur, no Barabbas, The Robe, Gone With The Wind, or Titanic. Not to mention Splash!" to "Even the current 'faith vs. science' debate over embryonic stem cells is briefly depicted in Angels & Demons in a balanced way."), Donahue has struck back in his latest press release: “Dan Brown says in his book that the Illuminati are ‘factual’ and that they were ‘hunted ruthlessly by the Catholic Church.’ In the film’s trailer, Tom Hanks, who plays the protagonist Robert Langdon, says ‘The Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence them forever.’ Howard concurs: ‘The Illuminati were formed in the 1600s. They were artists and scientists like Galileo and Bernini, whose progressive ideas threatened the Vatican.’ All of this is a lie. The Illuminati were founded in 1776 and were dissolved in 1787. It is obvious that Galileo and Bernini could not possibly have been members: Galileo died in 1647 and Bernini passed away in 1680. More important, the Catholic Church never hunted, much less killed, a single member of the Illuminati. But this hasn’t stopped Brown from asserting that ‘It is a historical fact that the Illuminati vowed vengeance against the Vatican in the 1600s.’" Perhaps sensing how many readers stepped out into the hallway for a smoke while he was rattling off dates, Brown adds, "Moreover, we know from a Canadian priest who hung out with Howard’s crew last summer in Rome (dressed in civilian clothes) just how much they hate Catholicism.” Personally, I have no plans to see Angels & Demons, but I would pay half my body weight in gold bullion to see a movie based on the true-life adventures of an undercover Catholic, dressed in a Canadian priest's idea of "civilian clothes"--I'm picturing Disco Stu with a cross around his neck--who hangs out with Opie and Forrest to listen to them express the true, hateful feelings they have about Catholics when they think all the Pope's children are in the bathroom. ("And the rhythm method--what's that all about!? You look at the size of some of these families, I guess maybe Mel Gibson's had a little trouble finding the backbeat, y'know what I'm saying? Cheese it, here comes Coppola!")

Now, we don't really have a dog in this race. And make no mistake about it, we here at the Screengrab are just crazy about blasphemy and try to encourage it whenever we can. What's discouraging, though, is Howard's good-natured, reasonable tone: yeah, we kind of dis your church's history and make your guys look like nut jobs and gangsters, but we don't mean anything by it! It's just necessary to the plot of a good thriller. What are you saying, that you don't like good thrillers? Go dig Hitchcock up and blow shit at him! Some real moviemakers like Bunuel risked their careers, their standing in the community, and maybe even their lives to make blasphemous movies, and somebody like Howard flirts with it, out of commercial necessity--somebody is going to make movies out of Dan Brown's bullshit--and expects everybody to understand that it doesn't really mean anything to him, so it shouldn't give offense to anyone. I myself am no fan of Oliver Stone's JFK, either as a movie or as an historical argument, but I'll give it this much: I'm willing to believe that the murder of John Kennedy is something that Stone is, or was, genuinely freaked out about. it's understandable that Howard would be baffled and even offended by William Donahue's assertion that he's actually a hater and propagandist against the Catholic church instead of a guy trying to make a buck with a pre-sold property, but if he would open his mind up a little, he might be able to see that, in his way, Donahue is paying him a compliment by suggesting that he's a serious enough man to believe in his own crap. As Al Pacino put it in Dog Day Afternoon, if somebody's going to blow my brains out, I hope it's somebody who does it because he hates my guts, not because it's his job.

Charlie Kaufman Would You Like to Know That He Really Does Care About @#$%ing Structure!

Synecdoche, NY has just opened in England, and Laura Barton stopped by Charlie Kaufman's hotel room to help him measure himself for a coffin. "Does he read the reviews? 'Uh. I've stopped,' he says, not remotely convincingly, and immediately contradicts himself: 'I tend to not only read reviews, but also every little stupid thing online. It's a very bad idea, and there's a lot of angry people in the world. And it's weird to absorb all that weirdness.' He speaks like a hen pecking the dust. 'Were you at the screening [in London] last night?' He directs the question to the carpet. 'I was, like, what in the world would motivate someone to shout, "Rubbish"? I speculated it might be the same guy who asked later on, "I've noticed that your movies don't have any structure, and I'm wondering if you are comfortable with your movies not having any structure, or whether you'd rather they had structure..." He said "structure" three times.'"

Kaufman doesn't exactly agree with the contention that he his intricately built scripts have no, ahem, structure. "There's this inherent screenplay structure that everyone seems to be stuck on," he points out, "this three-act thing. It doesn't really interest me. To me, it's kind of like saying, 'Well, when you do a painting, you always need to have sky here, the person here and the ground here.' Well, you don't. In other art forms or other mediums, they accept that it's just something available for you to work with. I actually think I'm probably more interested in structure than most people who write screenplays, because I think about it." At the same time, he is by nature what might be called an improvisational writer. "In the case of Being John Malkovich, which is the first screenplay I wrote by myself, I was trying to take two separate ideas and combine them. So I would see if I could surprise myself, if I could force myself into directions that were unanticipated. It was a conscious decision to try and duplicate that process of writing with someone else, but doing it by myself. But one of the reasons it's nice to have a collaborator is that when things get bad, you can have fun with it, you can make jokes about it."

Of course, a tendency for making jokes about things getting very bad may be part of what has made Kaufman such a controversial figure. On Synecdoche, "I was trying to present a life, with its moments of nothing. There is something that happens to people when they get old, which is that they get sidelined. There isn't a big, dramatic crescendo and then their life is over. They're forced out of their work, the people in their lives die, they lose their place in the world, people don't take them seriously, and then they just continue to live. And what is that? What does that feel like? I wanted to try to be truthful about that and express something about what I think is a really sad human condition." Kaufman was nonplussed by some of the praise he got, from people who had been hostile to his earlier work (and, with Synecdoche< went right back to being hostile to it), for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because they "said it was the first time that I had expressed any human emotion, or heart, or something like that."

Some of us find Kaufman's work so emotionally affecting that the only way we can account for the accusation that it's too cold is that it's a rationalization formed by people who are made angry by his work because it gets to them in soft, sensitive places where they'd prefer to remain untouched. Kaufman himself doesn't say this, but some of the things he does say make you wonder if he could maybe relate to that. On Synecdoche, he was trying to address his own awareness of death: "I think death is a hard thing to look at, but I can't really not." As for the idea that one needs time and distance to gain the perspective necessary to write about painful experiences, "It's not only that I don't like [that concept], it's that I think there's a dishonesty to it. I've come to that sort of conclusion that it doesn't exist, that distance, ever. It's not real. We tell stories about the world, and our lives in the world, and relationships. It's just a way that the human brain organizes things. You never actually live there. The thing that you're putting in perspective is always over, you know? And the truth is that it's very hard to live where we really are, but that's the only place we get to live. So I'm kind of interested in that, in exploring that."

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Screengrab Review: Synecdoche, NY

In Other Blogs: Synecdoche-Mania

The Rep Report

NEW YORK: An unnamed but prominent runner-up in our recent list of notably unexpected movie reunions, Luis Bunuel's Viridiana (1961) marked the director's homecoming to the country of his birth, Spain, from which he had exiled himself before beginning his movie career rather than live under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Bunuel was invited to return and launch his first production made on Spanish soil at a time when Franco, or somebody, was apparently feeling sore about the Generalissimo's international reputation as a stifler of creativity who presided over a country that his regime had sucked dry of all life and spirit. The Spanish Film Board duly okayed the script and sent the finished product off to the Cannes Film Festival, cheerfully oblivious not just to its sacrilegious content but also to the possibility that there just might be a hint of a rebuke to Franco in such details as the title heroine's line, "The weeds have taken over the past 20 years... And beyond the second floor, the house is overrun with spiders."

The movie won the Palm d'Or at Cannes that year, but it was also denounced by the Vatican as an affront to the church. In response, Bunuel shrugged, "I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am." Franco dismissed all the members of his Film Board and burned every print of the movie that he could get his hands on, and Bunuel had to get along as best he could, making his movies somewhere else on the planet, for the rest of his career. Viridiana wasn't shown again in Spain until 1977, two years after Franco's death, and if you'd been living there, you too would have wanted to give it a while to make sure that the silver bullets really worked. I saw it several years ago in New Orleans, in a theater that was full of Jesuit priests, and all the way through it, those guys laughed their heads off at stuff that I'm guessing I didn't have a thorough enough religious education to appreciate. Then the movie ended and the lights came on, and they scuttled out of there as if were afraid of being caught by their mothers at a porno flick. Starting this Friday, Film Forum brings Viridiana back for one week to see if it still has the power to spook the pious. Buneul's last word on the subject was to declare, famously, that he was "still an atheist, thank God"; Franco, his total life achievements accurately summed up in the words of Chevy Chase, is still dead.

For five days starting tonight, Anthology Film Archives hosts a retrospective of the work of Shirley Clarke, a maverick independent filmmaker whose work dates back to that moment when "independent cinema" in America seemed to be an offshoot of the Beat movement. Clarke's first film, the 1961 The Connection, was based on the Living Theater's production of Jack Gelber's New York play about junk and jazz, with a cast that includes Warren Finnerty, Carl Lee, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Garry Goodrow, as well as an onscreen musical combo that includes Jackie McLean. Clarke followed that up with the j.d. drama The Cool World (1964), doubly valuable today as a time capsule of Harlem, and the verite monologue documentary Portrait of Jason (1967). Anthology is showing them all, as well as some of her lesser-known work, including her final film, a 1985 portrait of Ornette Coleman.

The 8th annual Tribeca Film Festival runs from tonight through May 3. In its earliest years, Tribeca was a sprawling mix of international and indie films and big, glossy Hollywood fare that commanded a lot of attention but seemed in no immediate danger of developing its own coherent identity. Last year they scaled way back and were rewarded for it with a minor breakthrough: the top prize winner, Let the Right One In, emerged as a cult hit and counts as the closest that Tribeca has come to putting its stamp on a emerging success, which is seen by many as the mark of a major festival. This year Tribeca has scaled back even further, which people are hoping will result in a tighter focus. The opening night selection is Woody Allen's Whatever Works.

SAN FRANCICSO: The The San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 23 to May 7.

For God So Loved the Human Race That He Brought Keanu Reeves Out of Mothballs...

Benjamin A. Plotinsky thinks he's picked up on some recent tendencies in science fiction. "
There is a young man, different from other young men. Ancient prophecies foretell his coming, and he performs miraculous feats. Eventually, confronted by his enemies, he must sacrifice his own life—an act that saves mankind from calamity—but in a mystery as great as that of his origin, he is reborn, to preside in glory over a world redeemed. Tell this story to one of the world’s 2 billion Christians, and he’ll recognize it instantly. Tell it to a science-fiction and fantasy fan, and he’ll ask why you’re making minor alterations to the plot of The Matrix or Superman Returns."

The evidence is pretty much right there on the surface, and not just in such moments as the one early in The Matrix where someone tells a not-yet enlightened Keanu Reeves, “You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ,” or the later one where Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus tells Reeve's Neo, “Like everyone else, you were born into bondage.” Morpheus also tells Neo, “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth. . . . After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return—that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people.” As Plotinsky notes, "We don’t know [whether Neo is the One] until near the movie’s end, when a comrade-in-arms betrays Neo and Morpheus. Neo chooses to save Morpheus’s life by surrendering his own. The machines kill him—but then he mysteriously returns to life and obliterates his enemies, to the grand accompaniment of trumpets and a choir...It takes no great perception to recognize how closely this plot tracks the basic Christian narrative, though it conflates the Passion with the End Days, adding the betrayal of a Judas to a messianic Second Coming."

As for "Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns (2006) sought to answer an age-old question: Does humanity need gods? Lex Luthor, Superman’s eternal nemesis, answers early on. After Luthor compares himself to Prometheus, an accomplice retorts: 'Sounds great, Lex, but you’re not a god.' 'Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind,' Luthor snarls. He’s in agreement with Lois Lane, who has won a Pulitzer for an op-ed titled 'Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.'" When Superman returns, he proves both his archenemy and his old flame (and mother of his son) wrong: he selflessly saves the world, after which he "remains in a coma until his son...restores him to life. He leaves his hospital room empty until a nurse discovers it, just as Mary and Mary Magdalene find Jesus’s empty tomb."

It may be possible to nod appreciatively at all this and still have doubts about whether sci-fi stories are automatically enriched if they mirror religious mythologies. The Christ story parallels underlying the Matrix trilogy definitely got heavier and more explicit as the movies crashed into their second and third installments, and whether this is coincidental or not, there are plenty of people who think that the movies themselves also got progressively worse. There may be even more people who would argue that any position that depends on including the terms "underrated" and "Superman Returns" in the same sentence has to be a non-starter. To his credit, Plotinsky readily acknowledges that when, "As the world knows to its sorrow, [George] Lucas revived the Star Wars franchise in 1999 with The Phantom Menace," any inclination to downplay the religious-mystical aspects of the earlier films, or treat them playfully, were long gone, and the movies suffered because of it: "...where the original movie never deified Luke, The Phantom Menace describes Anakin—the future Darth Vader, Luke’s father—in terms so messianic as to make Neo blush, repeatedly calling him 'the Chosen One.' The source of the term is in Luke—the Evangelist, that is—where Jewish leaders say of the soon-to-be-crucified Jesus: 'Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!' The movie is fuzzy about who exactly has done the choosing, however—a failure doubtless rooted in Lucas’s carelessness with plots."

Plotinsky makes a case that religious themes, which he also detects in The Terminator, E.T., and I Am Legend, jumped to the front of sci-fi creators' minds as the Cold War receded and geopolitics, which had once fueled the Star Trek series, became too confusing and gray for easy metaphorical consumption. Certainly it was a bleak day for the Star Trek franchise when Earthlings and Klingons learned to just get along. Incidentally, if there's anything to all this, might it not be true that The Terminator, with its save-the-unborn-savior plot and its very-'80s nuclear-terror tremors, is a key transitional work, about a messiah coming to save us from the bomb? (I just thought I'd drop that in here; I'm sure not trying to suggest that Plotinsky's article needed to be any longer.) In any case, we may have already seen things start to shift back: the recently completed Battlestar Galactica series invoked God and gods and religious prophecy left and right, but in the context of an allegory about 9/11 and the development of post-9/11 morality. Will the new Star Trek movie mark a full return to the thrilling days of intergalactic secular warfare involving aliens with growly accents and exotic facial hair? As the old Vulcan proverb says...

"Il Divo"

The tepid cartoonishness of Oliver Stone's W. suggests that, as the director of JFK and Natural Born Killers approaches his seventieth birthday, he's having trouble deciding whether he wants to be praised for having "matured" or instead wants to hear that he can still lay out whoopee cushions with the best of them. In his dotage, Stone can at least take pride in knowing that his work has not been without influence. The Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, a gonzo biopic about Giulio Andreotti, who dominated the Christian Democratic party for decades between his arrival in Parliament in 1946 and the last of his three terms as Prime Minister, which ended in 1992. (Named a Senator for life in 1991, Andreotti is still hanging in there at ninety, and ran unsuccessfully for President of the Senate in 2006.) Andreotti's last term as PM coincided with a massive corruption scandal that consumed and destroyed his own party, and which may, just be clearing the ground, may have helped lead to the Berlusconi era in Italian politics, which would be a hard thing for any serious man to have to live with. Andreotti may have much worse things to live with: after his term ended, he was indicted on charges of complicity with the Mafia, in trials that dragged on for years and which resulted in some convictions that would ultimately be overturned. Il Divo begins with Andreotti (Toni Servillo) sitting at his desk, alone and wreathed in darkness, musing about how all his life, he has managed to somehow outlast those who predicted his imminent defeat or demise. He sounds like a bemused naturalist describing an interesting trait in a strange species of insect life that he's just discovered, which happens to be himself.

In terms of style, Il Divo is the anti-Gomorrah, in that that film (which also featured Toni Servillo) seemed to suck the life out of the room in its efforts to treat the subject of corruption in Italian life solemnly and unglamorously, Sorrentino came to party. The first several minutes, which include a montage of gaudily staged violent deaths of characters whose acquaintance we have not yet made, amounts to a guarantee that, whether or not you understand the first thing about Andreotti or his role in recent history by the time this movie is over, you won't be bored. Il Divo isn't boring, but its in-your-face style, which is sure to be lauded by a lot of people as a brilliant demonstration of how to bring a complicated subject to life, is more than a little insulting. I've already heard one reviewer marvel at how a movie that deals with the minutiae of Italian politics might turn out to have international appeal, but Il Divo doesn't really help you understand much about how the Italian parliament works beyond the usual depictions of glad-handing and arm-twisting, and it doesn't help you understand Andreotti's particular genius for survival and for accumulating power. At one point he tells the camera that he has a vast "archive" in his mind that relates to anyone who challenges him; are we to infer that the key to his long career has simply been that he's got something on everybody? That's kind of a comedown, especially in the context of a movie that presents it as a given that he's some sort of lizard sage, a one-of-a-kind genius of the game. Sorrentino is less interested in telling you anything than in showing you fireworks. If you're wondering where all those years of MTV "stye" went after the channel turned into a reality show network, my best guess is that Sorrentino picked it up cheap at a yard sale.

This is a movie that purports to tell you something about what goes on behind the scenes but which is, itself, all surface. Servillo walks through most of it with his face set in a prune-like expression and his shoulders hunched up into the back of his neck; he looks like Geoffrey Rush playing Peter Bogdanovich imitating Richard Nixon. He and most of the other actors seem to have been turned into living caricatures of the men they're playing, and there are lots of scenes of them acting like gangsters or just walking around, overdressed and in slow motion to the accompaniment of booming music, as if in a lost episode of Miami Vice. Probably this stuff plays a lot differently if you've seen the original versions of these characters on the TV news every day for years, but at its best, these scenes still should be the set-up for a deeper, more detailed satire that never really arrives. In the domestic scenes that might be used to show another side of Andreotti, he's the same colorless drone who appears before the TV cameras, and it's hard to tell whether this is a joke or just an admission to a failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers, who couldn't imagine how he could ever be any different. It may be both.

Il Divo does have its smarter moments, which at their best are smarter than anything we've come to expect from Oliver Stone on his better days. There's a terrific, iconic image of Andreotti's midnight constitutionals: in his formal suit, he walks the streets of the deserted city, accompanied by a car moving alongside him at a slow crawl and a phalanx of bodyguards with their guns at the ready. He looks like an updated creature out of folklore--the little man who secretly runs the world and can never be seen by mortal man, for his own good, and maybe for mortal man's, as well. And Andreotti has one remarkable scene, a fantasy monologue in which the great man reveals what he would say, to explain himself and his view of the world, if only he could let his mask drop and just let fly. But for the most part, Il Divo leaves you with the feeling that Sorrentino is just fine with not knowing or even speculating on what's going on behind the curtain. Andreotti is legendary for the sour wit that. over the course of his long career, has produced a thousand glittering, cynical epigrams, and Sorrentino may be so appreciative of them that he doesn't want to really get at what's behind the mask, only to flirt with the idea a little. The movie keeps reminding us that "truth" is unknowable, to the point that it begins to sound like a statement for the defense. It may well be the case that it's one of the rules of the universe that we can never know the whole truth. But one of the reasons people make movies is that it gives them a chance to create a world where they make their own rules.

The Great Netflix-"Crash" Mystery

Somebody noticed that Paul Haggis's Crash has been Netflix's "No. 1 rented movie" for more than three and a half years, since it was released on DVD in September 2005. Needless to say, this is not the kind of factoid that speaks for itself and must be dealt with until a satisfactory explanation if forthcoming. God knows that Haggis, who write and directed the Academy-Award-winning message movie, has no earthly idea why anyone would want to rent the thing: "I have no idea why anyone went to the movie in the first place," he told the Chicago Tribune, "let alone rent it. It was a little independent film, and when people started to see it, I was amazed." (Haggis, to his credit, is also bewildered that the fruit of his loins won the Oscar. "I love the Oscars; I just think they are the best thing in the world, but if you asked me if it was the best film of the year, I'd say, 'Of course not.'" He adds, "I happened to like my second film [In the Valley of Elah] better than Crash, but no one went to see it." Incidentally, Elah was technically his third movie as a director, the first having been 1993's Red Hot, but apparently even he didn't see that one.) If it makes him feel better, Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey confirms that, based on his numbers, "More people have now seen Crash on Netflix than in the theater." He added that, because the movie is on so many people's queues, it's always out and people have to wait a long time to get to rent it, which in turn "adds to the demand for people wanting to see it."

A couple of points might be added to the discussion. First, to make any broad assumptions about how many people have "seen" Crash based on how many people have rented Crash might be kind of a broad leap. Lots of people who had been barely cognizant of the movie's existence prior to the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony probably automatically stuck it in their queues as soon as it won the Oscar. And a lot of other people probably did the same thing at some point, not because they could barely contain their excitement at the prospect of having Thandie Newton and Don Cheadle demonstrate to them the folly of racism, but because they picked up some vague signs in the atmosphere that this was a worthy movie that they should see. It may be that one of the major advances in the culture for which Netflix can take a bow is that, rather than actually going to see such films, people can now stick them on their rental queues, and then, when the discs arrive, procrastinate for weeks and even months before returning them unseen. (Let's face it, that has to be what a lot of people are doing. Either that or they're holding onto the disc for extended periods of time so they can watch it again and again, carefully studying it so they can savor all the subtle nuances they missed on the fourth or fifth viewing. The thing is, if there's anything in Crash that wasn't crystal clear to you the first time you saw it, your senses are in such desperate needs of heightening that your only hope may be to get bitten by a radioactive spider.) Then there's all the people who thought they were renting that movie where James Spader can only get it up with the aid of a car accident.

Whatever the case, the idea, at least, that more people are experiencing his best-known feature film on their TV screens is one that Haggis, cutting way against the grain, claims to find pleasing. "It's a small movie," he says. "And I like to see small movies on a small screen. I'm a TV guy, so I'm much more comfortable watching something on a small screen, particularly movies I've made. Other people's movies, I want to see on a big screen." Which reminds us that Haggis's best work was actually the short-lived 1996 TV series EZ Streets starring Ken Olin, Jason Gedrick, Debrah Farentino, and Joey Pants. And the pilot is available on DVD! The next time you rent Crash and don't watch it, why not, as a treat, rent EZ Streets too, and watch it. Live a little.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Online: Shooting Off "Sparks"

Like every successful and talented young actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to direct. He recently completed his first effort, a short film called Sparks starring Carla Gugino, Eric Stoltz, and Xander Berkeley, which Gordon-Levitt also produced and adapted from an Elmore Leonard story. Then, he invited his members of his on-line community to improve on the poster art. For five years, Gordon-Leavitt has been tinkering with his own web site,, which, as Jason Guerrasio explains in Filmmaker magazine, is conceived as "a site where artists and filmmakers can go to post their work and then collaborate with a community of users who can contribute to the work by adding their own tweaks, or as Gordon-Levitt puts it, remixing."

"This is my whole take on the Internet creative culture," Gordon-Levitt says, stressing that anything goes so long as people's users' attitudes towards others' work is encouraging rather than snarky. "Why would you take time out to be negative? Instead of posting something that’s negative I’d rather move on and look for something good. Everyone understands this and has built a positive community." He continues: "What is good about hitRECord is that you don’t have to confront that blank page. I see what’s getting a lot of hearts (the way works are rated on the site), I add something to it and reupload it. The idea is if lots of people do that we’ll get a collective refining of our records. It’s not about an individual author; it’s the desires of what I hope will be hundreds of refinements."

Gordon-Levitt, who labors at the site under the username "RegularJOE" ("The old media tends to call me Joseph Gordon-Levitt, that being my name and all."), created the site with his brother, "Burning" Dan, and now hopes "to take the site to the next level by making more user-friendly features and building awareness of the site’s existence. Currently Gordon-Levitt says there are about five to 10 dedicated registered users who put up their work or add their talents to others. But he’s shocked there are even that many, as up until now the site has only been a hobby of his." Hobby or not, he seems to feel that hitRECORD has the potential to be the vanguard of something. "The truth is the traditional forms of entertainment are outdated. This is how I would like to do my work in front of and behind the camera in the future. Soon the Internet is going to be the only platform.

"Please Kill Mr. Kinski"

Last week we reported that Ecco Press will soon publish Werner Herzog's journals written during the production of Fitzcarraldo, which starred Klaus Kinski, who made five films with Herzog when he was alive and, posthumously, played the title role in Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend.. In the clip above, Herzog gets a little misty-eyed as he remembers when the Peruvian Indians who were employed as extras on the set, and who had to listen to Kinksi's endless, eardum-shattering tirades, sweetly asked the director if they'd like for them to see if the actor would be a little less noisy if his head and torso were on separate ends of the room. You might guess that this is as muc a Herzog story as it is a Kinski story, but apparently this was not the last time that someone working with Kinksi on a movie developed a dreamy smile while imagining what the star would look like with pennies on his eyes. More surprisingly, it was not the last time that the director had to do some fast talking to keep his leading man upright until the shoot was finished. In 1986, David Schmoeller directed Kinski in the horror movie Crawlspace; thirteen years later, he described the experience in the wry remembrance below, which we remember seeing for the first time on John Pierson's late, lamented IFC TV series Split Screen. The sound is a little off, but Kinski-lovers and haters alike will find it worth the effort.

l Newman Biographer Regrets NY Post Columnists' Inability to Make Up Their Own Smears

This past weekend, we began to notice stories popping up in various places about Paul Newman, lout. The stories, which were linked to the forthcoming publication (on May 5) of Shawn Levy's Paul Newman: A Life, the first comprehensive, posthumous biography of the star, tended to leave the impression that the book is a bombshell that portrays Newman as a "functioning alcoholic" whose much-admired, fifty-year marriage to Joanne Woodward was a cover for a string of affairs, which in turn by undermined by the fact that he was too drunk to play the great lover off-screen. To be honest, we weren't quite sure what to make of these reports, not just because there had been so little in coverage of Newman's life when he was alive to defend himself, but because Levy's earlier books--on Jerry Lewis, the Rat Pack, and Porfirio Rubirosa--were not slag jobs. Now Levy, who reviews movies for the Oregonian, has posted an entry at his blog lamenting those reports, which he sees as a misrepresentation of his book, and which he has traced back to Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and its "Page Six hatchet man Richard Johnson."

According to Levy, Newman had a feud with the Post that went back to the production of the 1981 movie Fort Apache, the Bronx, a cop opera that was attracted protests at its location shoot by dimwits who, having put it together that the movie's genre and its setting would result in the on-screen presentation of persons of color who were engaged in criminal activity, which they figured meant it was racist. (The central plot turn involved a white cop, played by Danny Aiello, who throws a Puerto Rican kid off a roof.) The movie was also attacked by progressive local press outlets such as The Village Voice, but given Newman's position as a high-profile celebrity liberal, the conservative Post must have gotten a special kick out of being presented with the chance to tar him as being party to a bigoted depiction of life in the South Bronx. ""I wish I could sue the Post," Newman announced at one point, "but it's awfully hard to sue a garbage can." "A few years later," writes Levy, "Newman and the Post were fighting about -- of all things -- how tall the actor was (the Post said he was no more than 5'7", whereas Newman held he was 5' 11")." Things got so bad between the two warring forces that it "even extended to the TV listings, where Newman's name was left out of descriptions of his films (The Hustler with Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Robert Redford and Katherine Ross, etc.)."

Whatever one thinks of the Post and its staff--summed up by Levy as "an amazingly angry and illiterate bunch""--one might have guessed that they had the minute amount of class and humanity necessary for them to let this shit die when the actor did. Thanks for clearing that up, I guess. In the meantime, Levy has been put in the uncomfortable position of decrying their description of his book and its contents even though he knows that that very description stands to move a few units. The fact that he's upset enough about this to protest it is to his credit. As for Murdoch, he himself happens to be the subject of a new book by Michael Wolff--The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch--for which Wolff was given a great deal of hands-on access. In a discussion of that book in last week's The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann noted that, under the influence of his current wife, "Murdoch has come to regard Fox News and some of his other right-wing associations as embarrassing." We're sure that knowing that, thanks to the current state of the Post, his original "right-wing association" in this country, he's currently paying the salaries of vultures to break into Paul Newman's coffin makes him feel a lot better.

New Tarantino Film Begins Advancing on Newsstands

The May issue of Vanity Fair includes a whole, long scene from the screenplay of Quentin Tarantino's Enghlawerious Bass Turdz, or whatever the hell it's called. The excerpt is not available online, presumably because the Internet is not yet capable of sustaining its awesomeness. I don't want to entirely spoil it for you, since I know you're going to want to run right down to the newsstand as soon as you get your pants on, but I'll tell you this: it's got a Nazi in it. It also has a French farmer, so the Nazi will have somebody to point his dialogue at. The dialogue goes on a bit, in that QT way; it takes the two combatants half the scene to phony up a reason for them to speaking in English, as multiplex audiences in the United States tend to prefer. But once they get done, it has been made clear that, in this World War II picture, the Nazis are the bad guys, which isn't necessarily something you could have guessed from the trailer.

Don't get me wrong; I like Tarantino. I even put his half of Grindhouse on my ten best list for that year, which I think makes me the official Tarantino booster in these parts, unless we're already at that point where the correct term is "Tarantino apologist." However, that trailer, which somebody here has probably already filed a review of, does look like a cross between a psychotic eight-year-old's big-budget adaptation of a Sgt. Rock comic, which is something that I thought Schwarzenegger's political career had spared us from getting, and the Hitler movie of Mel Brooks's dreams. Everything about it, starting with that goddamn title, gives off an ominous whiff of sheer goofiness, which is a constant factor in QT's work but one that he, at his best, tends to push against a little instead of wallowing in it like a pig in shit. Anyway, if you want to start prepping for it, the VF website does have a brief photo slideshow of the stars. It confirms that Diane Kruger is of great benefit to any clothes of any era that she deigns to wear, and that this is one of those Brad Pitt movies in which Brad thinks he's supposed to act, so he does that thing where he contorts his features into funny expressions to help us make the imaginative leap it takes to think he's somebody else. One of these days somebody is going to sneak up behind him and yell "Boo!" and his face will stick that way, and won't Angelina be surprised when he comes home from work. That's when Billy Bob makes his move.

Caitlin Flanagan on Alec Baldwin: Who's Your Daddy?

Caitlin Flanagan's essay-review on Alec Baldwin's book about divorce (A Promise to Ourselves) has some witty, whiplash insights and a chewy center. Flanagan reports that the book "proceeds from a double-pronged thesis: that American divorce laws are deeply flawed, and that Kim Basinger is a crazy bitch," adding, "I would have liked to hear more about the latter..." As he made clear in the interviews he gave at the time it was published, Baldwin's book is intended as a serious examination of the toll that divorce can take--"this," writes Flanagan, "is the go-to book if you’re thinking of ending a two-movie-star marriage"--with a special emphasis on the way the legal system, particularly as it relates to child custody, can exacerbate unfairness and human suffering. However, his own experience may be more specialized than he cares to realize. Flanagan claims to "have a fair grasp of the way contested-custody decisions are made in California, and it’s not too difficult to read between the lines of Baldwin’s book and get a sense of what has probably been taking place over the years. Baldwin’s fury at the system emanates from his belief that the institution is reflexively anti-father. Yet he also admits to having a terrible temper, and to having displayed this protean force in front of the very people authorized to decide his fate. Family court is charged with protecting the physical and emotional safety of children, and if you tend to rave during depositions, you’re not going to like the custody orders you get."

Flanagan probably speaks for the room when she guesses that, whatever Baldwin thinks he's doing, "his real purpose is to exonerate himself from an incident so grotesque that it’s hard to imagine any piece of written communication short of a suicide note changing our opinion of it." The "incident" in question is, of course, the night two years ago when Baldwin "stepped away from a dinner table in Manhattan to place a call to her. He stood outside the restaurant, like a man calling his mistress, and eagerly dialed the number (the court order having guaranteed him telephone contact), but all he heard was the child’s familiar, lilting voice, inviting him to leave her a message. Standing on the street, once again confronted by life’s inability to meet him halfway with his simple desire to be the center of the universe, he snapped. He raved at the child in the ugliest language imaginable, threatening her and calling her terrible names. Shortly thereafter, the message was leaked to an Internet scandal site. (By whom? Cherchez la femme.)"

Flanagan continues: "If you were female and heard that tape recording, you remembered two things about it: the pitch and tenor of the snarling male voice and the use of that word. When a man calls an overweight woman a pig, he is saying she is fat. When he calls a slim and attractive girl—someone like Ireland—a pig, he is using the word in another sense, one that suggests a particularly feminine kind of repulsiveness. It was a horribly crude, almost sexual thing for a man to call his daughter. The whole voice mail was clearly a product of the kind of uncorked rage that always ends in remorse and sorrow, but it was not entirely witless. It begins with a lucid description of the situation, proceeds to a vivid accounting of how the event has made him feel, and then lays out an action plan for correcting the problem: he’s going to fly to California for a day, and 'I’m going to let you know just how I feel about what a rude little pig you really are. You are a rude, thoughtless little pig.'” She adds, "For all of the recriminations and ugly episodes, one thing the child surely knows: she is important to her father."

The essay also includes surprisingly compelling, considering what she's describing, narrative accounts and examinations of the power dynamic of Baldwin and Basinger's courtship on the set of The Marrying Man, their subsequent three-arc marriage, and Bladwin's post-voice-message appearance on The View. It concludes with a long, provocative speculation on the sexual dynamic of the father-daughter relationship which some may find as interesting as it is icky. I am not sure that I am one of those people. But it may be a kind of tribute to its power that I rather wish that I had read right the piece right up to the beginning of that section and had then been spared reading the rest of it by suffering a well-timed fatal stroke.