The REEL Star of this Embarrassing Show

Uggie

Months before the embarrassing Oscars of 2012, when I saw previews of The Artist, I thought cute, but I can wait till it’s out on Netflix. The first problem with the preview (and this thought was so instinctive it was a silent film in and of itself) was that the film stock was all wrong. If you’re going to mimic a silent movie, don’t use what looked like a contemporary color stock desaturated of it’s color. (Turns out I was 100% right about this. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman said, To create black-and-white images, Schiffman chose to shoot the film on color stock – KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 – and to drain the color out during digital intermediate timing at DuboiColor in France.
See: http://motion.kodak.com/motion/Publications/In_Camera/Web_Exclusives/index.htm.)

If you’re going to do it, use an orthochromatic stocks as was used in the 20s, so it will look like a silent movie. The preview of The Artist looked like a contemporary movie that was aping a silent picture. (At least to this filmmaker.) But no. Nobody asked me.

Then, of course, the ridiculous happened. Harvey Weinstein bought the evening of February 26, 2012, and The Artist won five Oscars. Was the best picture really “The Artist“? I’m not talking Academy votes here. I’m talking about really, as in, a better motion picture than, say, The Iron Lady? Not unless you drank as much as Jean Dujardin did in his picture. And in what universe was Dujardin (good-looking, but he needs some orthodonture) a better actor than George Clooney?

Was The Artist a sweet motion picture with a clever, interesting shtick, as well as one of the most predictable scripts you ever saw? Absolutely. Should it have been an Oscar-worthy contender? Maybe if you’re a voting member of the Academy desperate to get into Harvey’s private Oscar party.

Who was the completely overlooked best actor? Uggie, hands down. He stole the picture. If I were him or his trainer I would be completely pissed, because without that dog, all that would be left is a sweet, predictable love story desaturated of its color.

Unknown Women Writers…Were They Oppressed?

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In his article Female Authors Who Took Rooms of Their Own in the 2/24/12 New York Times about the current exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library on unknown women writers, Edward Rothstein notes that with the women on view here, “…there is almost no evidence of oppression, stifled talents, little signs of being ‘so thwarted and hindered’…”

The way men in the 1970’s looked incomprehensibly at the women’s movement wondering, ‘What are all these women whining about? Don’t we give them everything they want?” I fear he missed Virginia Woolf’s point entirely from A Room of Her Own.

Yes, these particular women may or may not have had kind fathers who let them go about their business unperturbed, (though sadly, one poor Lady Anne spent much of her life trying to gain the inheritance she lost when her father left everything to her brothers instead of to her. If oppression doesn’t look like this, then what does it look like?)

However, the patriarchy at large was making sure that anything this handful of women might accomplish did not become the cultural norm. When Woolf speaks of oppression, it is this larger oppression she alludes to that has suffocated women for millennium. If this were not true, there would be no need for an article such as this about a handful of such unknown ‘cultural oddities.’

Although I am sure Mr. Rothstein is very capable (though here he has proved tunnel visioned) why not assign an article about great unknown women to a woman?

THE WRONG LIFE

I just finished reading Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing. Nora Ephron is the funniest woman on the planet. I rue the day I was not born Nora Ephron.

Once I was sauntering around Amtrak in Penn Station waiting for a train. The waiting area was nearly empty if you can believe that. Not so unbelievable was that the only other person sauntering around with me was a bag-man. A wrinkled man in baggy pants who looked like a street person. Now one of my particular characteristics is that I have my father’s eye. I can spot celebrities (who think that they are cleverly impersonating regular people) from a mile away. But on that Amtrak day I must have been tired, because I was sitting in the waiting area for nearly ten minutes across from the bag-man before I realized that he was Stephen Sondheim! And I was flummoxed. FLUMMOXED (some words are so perfect) the way you are when you realize something incredulous you hadn’t realized that you should have realized. Then the stupid part of my brain started working (the way it does when you are FLUMMOXED by a famous person). I went over and actually said to him, If I could have anyone’s life it would be yours. Then I asked for his autograph. Being the kind bag-man he is he wrote, You have the right life. Stephen Sondheim. A nice thing to say. If only it were true.

Let’s take a poll. How many of you think it’s fair that Nora Ephron (and Stephen Sondheim) are so talented? Don’t you think a person should be limited to only one spectacular talent a piece? Nora Ephron can write books. Nora Ephron can write plays. Nora Ephron can write screenplays. Nora Ephron can direct movies. And she does it all brilliantly. How many of you think that’s fair?

I’m going to spend a week in Manhattan at the end of the month and the first thing that crossed my (infected) mind – I kid you not – was, I’m going to call Nora and go out to lunch. She likes Orso. Maybe we’ll go there. Then it occurred to me, I DON’T KNOW NORA EPHRON. But when you read her books, or see her movies, you feel like you know her. That is another of her great talents. She is so talented that she thinks Women in Film panels are stupid because in her mind OF COURSE WOMEN ARE AS GOOD AS MEN AT MAKING MOVIES. LOOK. SHE DID IT. SHE CAME OUT OF JOURNALISM LIKE ATHENA CAME OUT OF THE HEAD OF ZEUS AND BEGAN DIRECTING HYSTERICAL, AWARD WINNING MOVIES. JUST LIKE THAT. SO WHAT ARE ALL THESE WOMEN WHINING ABOUT?? Those are the kinds of thoughts that saunter around in your brain when you’re multi-talented.

I remember interviewing Sherry Lansing. At that time she was President of 20th Century Fox and she said to me, (sic) Almost never have I seen any examples of prejudice [in the movie business]. That was in 1985. At that hour, Sherry Lansing was one of the most beautiful women you had ever seen. Not coincidentally, she was also smart and sweet and nice as a geisha girl. She’d return every phone call whether you were a bag-man like Stephen Sondheim or a studio chief. She made everyone feel like a million bucks. If you think that was incidental (even if unconsciously) to the men running the movie business, then you deserve your fate as a bag-person.

I once spoke to Nora on the phone. It was around the same time I interviewed Sherry Lansing. I was producing a series for the Today Show on the then, novel subject of contemporary ‘pioneer’ women in film (i.e. women who at the time were remarkable enough to have actual paying jobs in the higher profile crafts). And probably because I was a producer for The Today Show, Nora picked up the phone.

At the time, she had written When Harry met Sally, Silkwood (which had been nominated for an Oscar), and the hilariously heartbreaking, Heartburn from her best selling book. I wanted to interview her as one of our pioneers. Perhaps marking this as the very first moment of her ‘scoffing’ period, Nora turned me down. She said she didn’t feel she had yet garnered the kind of experience to permit her accepting such a lofty mantle.

Another poll. How many of you would grab that lofty mantle with both hands and run for your lives if you’d written an Oscar nominated movie and two other screenplays to die for? Be honest now.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating. Most of us are not Nora Ephron. Most of us are mere mortals. Most of us are good at some thing, usually one thing. And then, there are the others. There are the Sherry Lansings of the world who truly, deeply and organically understand what is means to sail graciously through the social stratum of a man’s world and have no clue about what prejudice or sexism feels like . There are the Sherry Lansings, and there are the Nora Ephrons. I wonder if this kind of thinking is infectious? I wonder if it can rub off and stick?

I’ll have to ask Nora next week when we’re out to lunch.

Spielberg’s Homage

Watson as Scarlett
Spielberg's Homage

War Horse

Think The Red Violin, making its way through three centuries over several owners and countries. Only this is a horse, making its way over several owners and countries during WWI. First the Brits, then the Germans, then the French. But this violin (er, horse) finds his National Velvet way back to his owner, and not over centuries, but over the course of four years, 1914-1918.

I love the lighting of the closing scenes! Clearly, this is Spielberg’s homage to Gone With the Wind. THE LIGHTING! THE LAND! (TARA!!) THE MUSIC! – Only here is Emily Watson standing in for the As-God-is-my-witness-I-will-never-go-hungry-again Scarlett O’Hara.

You go Steve!

Mildred’s Folly

MildredPierce

Like Kate Winslet, Brian O’Byrne, Melissa Leo and everyone else in HBO’s Mildred Pierce, parts 4 & 5 last night, my mouth was hanging open for nearly two hours, though probably not for the same reasons. Deep in the bowels of the second act, credulity turned into the ridiculous. The bad seed of Veda Pierce leaves her Glendale home and her hated mother behind at long last. All we really really really want to see as audience members is Mildred breathing a long sigh of relief, and saying to herself, Thank God! But that never happens.

Incredulously, only a few weeks after Veda’s disappearance, Mildred hears on the radio that her daughter has become one of the world’s few and rare coloratura sopranos! Nary a hint of a singing note had ever escaped from Veda’s spoiled, horrid throat since the moment she was born. And yet, miraculously, in a few short weeks, she has not only become an opera singer, but a remarkably gifted one!

Come on. Are you kidding?! You mean to tell me that all during the long arduous road to bringing this multi-million dollar spectacle to HBO’s very expensive screen, I am the only to wince at this innane plot point?! Did no one before me think of killing the writer?

I know that Todd Haynes kept saying that he wanted to be ultra true to James Cain’s book. But being true to a novel with a dubious, if not downright ridiculous turn of events will not be made any more credible by making it into a movie. This is where HBO’s Mildred Pierce, which I had been routing for from the get go, completely lost me. I looked into the eyes of the enchanting Kate Winslet, Melissa Leo, Brian O’Byrne, the captivating Guy Pierce praying to meet at least a single comrade-in-arms at this utterly implausible turn of events. To no avail. Do you mean to tell me that not even HBO’s diva dramaturge Sheila Nevins thought to question this improbable, unconvincing, hard-to-swallow, far-fetched notion?

Sadly, this was the movie’s first giant catastrophe.

The second is really much more inexcusable. This is the complete disregard of the basics of good drama. Every screenplay 101 class teaches that the protagonist must learn from her foibles and completely transforms because of them from the beginning to the end of the story. Mildred needed to be utterly altered by what occurs between her and Veda. But Kate Winslet’s character never changes. She is a doormat at the beginning of the tale and remains a doormat to the end. Even when she catches Veda’s infidelity with her own husband, she goes right back, in practically the next scene, begging for Veda’s love.

At some point, to achieve dramatic catharsis, the protagonist, (and by turns, the audience) must acknowledge a completely new avenue to the character’s destiny. For Kate Winslet’s Mildred, this means to stand proudly in her own shoes of self-respect. It is imperative that we see Mildred inhabit her own strength, her own anger, by making a clear decision to wipe Veda out of her life for good. She needs to arrive at this conclusion herself, and it needs to be at the moment she chokes Veda, never to look back. Sadly, this does not happen.

I am not a fan of comparing remakes. The old Joan Crawford classic was clearly a different time in a completely different universe. But at the end, Crawford’s Mildred washes her hands of Veda. She gives her daughter over to a life in prison and never looks back. That Veda deserves what she gets and we applaud our heroine.

But this Mildred learns nothing from the beginning to the end of the story. At the last, she remains the same wimpy dishrag we met at the start. It doesn’t work to hear Bert tell Mildred at the film’s last moments that she must repeat after him, To hell with her. Dramatically, this statement can and must only emanate from Mildred herself. The fact that Mildred repeats the phrase after her husband tells her to, then washes it down with whiskey, convinces neither herself, and even less, her audience. This is the sad folly that made HBO’s Mildred Pierce one of the most giant dissatisfying nights of drama on HBO of all times.

What a waste of a spectacular cast! What a waste, especially, of the remarkable gifts of Kate Winslet, for whom I felt truly embarrassed.

Almost as a surreal aside to these disappointments was the painfully stilted dialogue. Good for a silent reading of a novel perhaps (though I can’t figure out how), but it really made you wince coming out of the mouths of these fine actors. There are many fine novelists who can write spectacular prose, but prove a tin ear when it comes to dialogue. Sadly, this was the case here. Staying loyal to James Cain’s prose proved a giant Woops! for Todd Haynes. As they learned the hard way with Margaret Mitchell’s classic, if you’re going to tackle Gone With the Wind in technicolor, best to leave the book lying on the bed at home.

83rd Oscars – No Women Directors, Just to be Perfectly Clear…

I enjoyed the show much more than anticipated. I thought the set was gorgeous. Very creative and magical. Anne Hathaway was over-bubbly beyond belief, but refreshing (although I really could have done without her WHOOPING sounds every time she introduced a star…this wasn’t college basketball). James Franco was a bit dour for my tastes.

No big surprises award-wise. I’m glad Christian Bale got his due for The Fighter. He’s a gifted young actor and certainly one to watch.

But what, oh what, was up with Hilary Swank and Kathryn Bigalow presenting the Best Director award?? Can someone please explain this to me? What message were they were hoping to convey by pairing an actress known primarily for her feminist roles, with the only female director ever to win an Oscar, to present the Best Director Award to six ALL MALE candidates?! In doing this, the Academy seemed to not only highlight, but to punctuate the fact that, once again, not a single woman was nominated…(but hey, remember when we did it once!) Good job Academy!

Am I the only one to catch this and be baffled by it?? I’d love to hear.

INTO THE MARVELOUS

Out of the Marvellous, Seamus Heaney

Last night, a lovely film about the “famous Seamus.” Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous, an Irish TV venture by Charlie McCarthy. A close-up intimacy with the Nobel poet.

What struck me about the film, what leaned into the marvelous, were the unobtrusive visuals, the delicacy with which the filmmaker matched Heaney’s words. I don’t mean literally. But as though somewhere, deep below consciousness, if the past could be summoned, then THIS is what it might look like. Case in point, fragments of his sonnet, Clearances 3 written for his mother:

By Seamus Heaney
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

In the peeling of potatoes line, the camera lingers deep below in a pot of water. And you watch, watery, as the peels drop into your view floating above, one by one. Your unconscious eye longing to be freed of the lens, freed to look upon the face of the mother, upon the longing, happy soul of the little boy.

And so the filmmaker, Mr. McCarthy, would seduce you, without you being aware you were in his net.

A little film. But you felt as though you had been steeped in a very personal evening with a remarkable individual. What truly struck me about the portrait was a rather offhand remark by Heaney. A slight of hand, a inner change of heart. Although he had been writing poetry for many years, and was even somewhat already known in his native land, he had a revelation, quite late on, that he not only wrote poetry, but that he could dare to call himself a POET. It’s a very serious thing, he said. It was at that moment, the moment he stepped into his bliss, took himself seriously as it were, that his world renowned spread suddenly like wildfire. This is no accident.

And quite a lesson. It’s a moment like that that can keep you up all night. Which it did. (Or maybe it was the French Roast?)

In any case, you won’t find this on Netflix. I saw it at Hofstra, in an evening presented by the poet Connie Roberts (a nominee for the prestigious Hennessy X.O Literary Award), who teaches creative writing there. Thanks Connie.

The Biggest Movie of All

Some Help From the Dead

Today I received the first copies of my new book, SOME HELP FROM THE DEAD published by Red Hen Press. Having a book published is always a euphoric, though surreal affair. For months and months you live with this thing under your skin. A huge growth. So large it permeates, amoeba-like, though all the pours of your psyche. Wars are going on all around you, but you’re oblivious. It is the biggest movie of all. The movie of your mind.

Then, finally the book arrives! You hold this thing in your hand. Wow! You open it. Wow. Then it comes, the sinking feeling. What is it?

It’s not that it’s not beautiful. It is! So what is this, this underwhelming feeling?

I think it’s that for all its NEWness, it is not at all new. Not to you, the author. And you feel that when you embrace the book like this, in its new form, that it SHOULD feel new.

So now what? What do you do? You blog. You call your friends. You walk the dog. You call your friends again, to celebrate. But everyone is too busy with their own movies.

So here it is. The day of the apocalypse. And what to you do?

Chop wood. Carry water…

But it’s my new book. I’m proud of it and I’m proud to be published by such a fine publisher as Red Hen. If you would like to see what I’ve been up to, if you’d like to support me, please order the book via this link:

http://www.redhen.org/RedHenPress.html#/catalog/catalogView/type=books;bookUUID=9B4A474B-AC76-9DFA-D003-7CC54DA594F7

And please let me hear your thoughts…

Blessings

Von Trotta’s Visionary “VISION”

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Last night, the great German auteur, Margarethe Von Trotta, appeared in person at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington to introduce her latest visual benediction to one of herstory’s important lost female voices. VISION is the story of popular saint and renowned German artist and mystic Hildegard Von Bingen.

I’m not going to review the film here. One can go to many sites for judgments and opinions. (How much easier to criticize than to actually MAKE a film!) From my perspective, suffice to say that the film is Von Trotta’s lyrical and visual apogee. It is like watching a Vermeer painting in motion. The look of the film so realistically inhabits the aura of this ancient past, that it imagistically mirrors the prophetic powers of Von Bingen herself.

In the past twenty years, Von Trotta’s oeuvre has moved beyond the voice of a German filmmaker into the borderless ions of movie-maker to the world. The Promise (1995) centers on two lovers separated for nearly three decades on either side of the Berlin Wall until the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989. For the next decade, she turned to writing and directing for German television. In 2004, she turns her eyes toward the real life events of non-jewish women who participated in a nine-day silent protest outside an office building on Berlin’s Rossenstrasse in order to prevent Nazi officers from deporting their Jewish husbands who remained inside. The film marked a turning point in German cinema, which previously shied from themes related to noble actions of Germans during the Holocaust. Along with its dramatization of a little – known moment of protest against the Nazi regime, Rosenstrasse also joins other recent German films – most prominently, Aimee and Jaguar – in rediscovering the Jewish role in German culture and the intertwined private lives of Gentiles and Jews before and during the Holocaust, commented Robert Sklar in Cineaste, 2004.

In 2010 I did a personal Von Trotta film festival, in which I watched all of her films again, this time in chronologic order. What was so clarifying and fantastic about this experience is that one gets to see the voice of the filmmaker so clearly. The intimate experience of female bonding is the glue that holds every one of her films together. The creed her protagonists live by is laid bare by the sub-character equivalent, her female initimate, her mirror. These foremost relationships are the things that influence, strengthen and change each of her main characters. No other filmmaker in history has paid such tribute to the import and the impact of female bonding.

I met Von Trotta just after she had completed Rosa Luxemburg in 1986. At that moment, she would have sworn on her life that she would never make another “bio-pic” as she called it. She felt so hampered by the tight structure of the realistic facts of biography. But…never say never. In 2009 she would once again tackle the resurrection of another of history’s remarkable women in VISION – Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen, the story of the great mystic visionary, writer and musician who has yet to be canonized. Her extraordinary visions often ran counter to the patriarchcial world she was steeped in. In spite of her conviction that she would not again touch a “bio-pic,” it seems Von Trotta had actually encountered the idea to fictionalize von Bingen even before embarking on Rosa Luxemburg.

In the 1970s, women involved in the Women’s Movement were looking for historical role models. At that time there were few female role models. History was written by men and made by men. The history of women was not told, and women were marginalized, as if they had never played any role. We came across Hildegard von Bingen in this search for forgotten women. Sometime thereafter, a lot of people were becoming involved with alternative medicine and were looking into the effectiveness of medicinal plants. It was then that Hildegard’s name resurfaced anew. So, I had already become interested in her before writing the screenplay for Rosa Luxemburg. That was in 1983, and soon thereafter I asked myself whether her life wouldn’t be good material for a movie. I even wrote a few scenes, but I thought that there wouldn’t be a producer who was ready to make this movie. So, I shelved it for a while.

When I met her again last night, I asked her why the 360 turnabout on what she previously felt like the “constriction” of the biographical format? Curiousity she said. That’s the main thing. I was so drawn to Von Bigen because of her grand curiousity. Von Bigen wanted to know so much. There’s nothing more alluring, to be deeply curious. I am so curious.

The Vatican’s appalling denouncement of the ordaining of female priests (comparing it a crime equal to priests molesting children!), makes it apparent that little has changed for women these many centuries within the Catholic Church, and makes VISION that much more prescient. Von Trotta points out two other issues of contemporary relevancy,

The film addresses two issues that are important to us today. One is the holistic approach to medicine. She once said, “First the soul must heal; then the body will follow.” The other was the warning that the elements could turn against us. At the time, people spoke of elements; today we speak of nature turning against us, or destroying us, if we don’t protect it. Both of these points make her relevant.

Hildegard’s accomplishments were many. She was a prolific composer of Gregorian chants, (fragments of which are heard in the film). She was a playwright, the lyrical drama, “Ordo Virtutum” is excerpted in a scene in VISION in which nuns uncharacteriscally don jewels and silk. She was also well read, a scholar by modern standards, with an amassed a library at a time when books proved a rarity. Further, she practiced holistic medicine and had a sophisticated knowledge of healing with herbs.

Von Trotta has been asked about her appeal to put strong women at the forefront of her films.

The figures that appeal to me are always strong women who also have moments of weakness;therefore, I never try to make heroines out of them. Instead I show how they fought to find their own way, how they put themselves out there, and how much they had to swallow in order to find themselves. I am fascinated by how they overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals. Hildegard von Bingen had a dream of founding her own abbey, and she suffered a lot of setbacks in the process. The moments of her greatest weakness are when the nun Richardis is to be taken away from her. In this situation, she behaves either like a small, abandoned child, or with fury. This conduct is all recorded in her letters. And it is precisely these moments of extreme self-abandonment that I find so beautiful, surprising, and contradictory. Hildegard von Bingen demands for herself what she usually gives to others. I absolutely did not want to portray her as a saint.

VISION marks the sixth collaboration with one of Von Trotta’s favorite muses, Barbara Sukowa, who has described her connection with Von Trotta across the decades as,

Certainly a friendship. It is always a special treat for me to work with Margarethe von Trotta, because she used to be an actress herself; she truly understands actors, and so she understands both positions. She is helpful and listens very carefully. I also find her very exciting as a person. On the one hand she is very intelligent and intellectually minded, and on the other, very warm and open to anything, even the irrational. When she began to make films, women still had to fight hard within the male-dominated world of cinema. So, sometimes she came across as harder than she is, because of how much she had to assert herself. Her other, more humorous side has come through even more so over the years.

When I met Von Trotta in the mid-80’s, (and probably, every who meets her has this experience), I felt I had known her many lives. Certainly her sympathies, the way she chooses to spend her hours, completely coincide with my own. I see no more interesting and important occupation of one’s time than to resurrect forgotten stories of remarkable women lost to the world’s patriarchy. The reason for so much of our global disintergration comes from the loss of great female intuition, knowledge, voices.

And so this great filmmaker, now in her late 60s, ardently continues her singular and visionary quest. Her next grand curiousity will be four years in the life of the great German Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt. One would think after nearly half a century of an auteur’s transformative work that raising monies for the next film would be a fait a compli. Does this struggle never end for women filmmakers the way it seems to for many male auteurs?

Utterly Magnificent Real Woman

I am so horribly late on this. Two years late. The brilliant, brave, lyrical thinker and writer Nuala O’Faolain (Are You Somebody?) who died from lung cancer in 2008, gives the most heart wrenching, real interview with Marian Finucane on Irish Radio. I never heard a radio interview that so utterly cracked me open. If you’re tired or cranky or otherwise distressed about your hum drum life, get a little perspective and listen to this.

For some reason, can’t seem to add the link directly. But go to this page to hear it. It’s worth it.

http://www.rte.ie/ten/2008/0510/ofaolainn.html