Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

By Lars Trodson

Well, 2008 has come to a close and more than a few people have said this might have been the worst year ever. I don't necessarily buy into that -- perhaps it was just that we had a very, very bad year and it happened at a time when we are all tired, and beat up a little bit, and are looking forward to the future for respite from all the bleakness.

What 2008 also proved is that art sometimes needs a little conflict to thrive. There was a tremendous amount of art produced in 2008 -- and some of it even managed to get into the multiplex.

Maybe it proves a point. Remember the speech by Orson Welles at the end of "The Third Man" when he extolls the benefits of turmoil on art?

It goes like this:

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and what did that produce -- the cuckoo clock."

Never in a million years would we advocate for another 2008 in order to get a good movie or book, but what it does prove is the value of art, the comfort it can give us, and how it can symbolize our need to battle what is unpleasant around us.

There was certainly a lot of unpleasantness in 2008, but plenty of evidence of people fighting against it.

Here, then, is a wish for less ugliness in 2009, but for just as much effort, if not more, for people to try to eradicate it by producing something beautiful, something true.

Happy New Year from all of us at Roundtable Pictures.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nothing But Two Idiots

By Lars Trodson

There was a time, of course, when you could gleefully disagree with a critic on their assessment of a movie yet still respect their point of view.

I used to read Pauline Kael in 'The New Yorker' all the while howling at her narrowmindedness over some issues. But I also realized that she was teaching me quite a bit. She knew not only how to construct a review, but she also knew how to deconstruct a movie.

How times have changed.

I was home on vacation the other day when I watched a program called "At the Movies" with the reviewers Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz -- the latter whom I remember as a host of American Movie Classics. One of the movies they reviewed was something called "Nothing But The Truth", a movie that is loosely based on the Judith Miller case. Miller was a reporter for the New York Times who went to jail when she did not reveal her sources on some stories she wrote about the former CIA agent Valerie Plame. She later left the paper.

Anyway, as you can see from the clip linked below, both Bens recommend "Nothing But the Truth." Now, of course, when you say, as a critic, go see a movie, you're telling the public to pony up their ten bucks for the ticket and another 20 for snacks because you believe the thing is worth seeing. You are saying this is a satisfying thing, and that is generally works. You're asking for a commitment from the theater-goer, and you, as the critic, are saying they will not have wasted their money or their time.

And yet -- here's the kicker -- both of these critics say the final act of "Nothing But the Truth" is, and this is a quote, "cringe-inducing." That is to say it is a disaster. An absolute mess. So what Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz are saying to you is: Go spend your money, your time -- hell, even get a baby-sitter -- and what you'll get in return is a movie will utterly fall apart. Oh, you'll enjoy it for the first 100 minutes or so but the closing -- those final moments that should be among the most memorable of any movie you'll ever see, and the culmination of just why you have been in the theater for the past hour and a half -- well, it's terrible! It's awful!

This is of course beyond stupid. If a movie can't get itself together to give the audience a decent ending then it doesn't even deserve to get made. And if a movie critic is too flaccid to realize that an ending of a movie ought to be at least moderately satisfying in order to recommend it to the average movie-goer, then he doesn't deserve to be on the TV, or in the paper, or whatever. But of course these guys don't have to pay for anything, so why should they really care anyway?

Movie criticism is dying, and it's perishing for one reason. Critics, whether on the web or on the paper, have no idea how to dissect a movie. The general content of a movie review is this: It's great! Go see it! Or, it's terrible! But they can't tell you why any more either way. No wonder members of the movie review profession are panicking. We are getting to the point where we can say that critics are irrelevant not because we disagree with them, but rather because a good many of them no longer not only don't understand movies, they have no idea why we go to the movies.

To be clear, if any critic says go see a movie, even though the last 10 minutes are beyond stupid, then by any critical assessment they DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT.

Here's an analogy: If I offered you an exotic dish that I prepared but warned that, while delicious, it'd give you horrible stomach cramps just as you finished eating it, you'd not only decline the offer but you'd think I was an idiot.

Movies - even the movies of today - deserve better than these two dolts:

Here's the clip:

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Critics Ignored, Caught Up, and Then Took Credit

New York Times

How Clint Eastwood Is Still Misunderstood

By Lars Trodson

Sometimes I get the feeling -- even if it’s the New York Times -- that reporters get about five minutes with their subjects. That was the sinking feeling I got when I read the “profile” of Clint Eastwood in last Sunday’s (Dec. 14) NYT’s Arts & Leisure section. It was written by Bruce Headlam, who wastes no time in larding the piece with unnecessary and cringe-inducing information because, as I said, I think he got five minutes with his subject.

The first paragraph:

“Being introduced to Clint Eastwood is something like seeing a California redwood for the first time. The difference is that this redwood, at the age of 78, reaches out to shake your hand with a firmness that still intimidates no matter how much time you spent preparing your grip (for the record: three days).”

Actually, the difference between Clint Eastwood and a redwood is that Eastwood is not a tree. But anyway, what a simp this writer is -- pumping his fists for three days hoping that Eastwood wouldn’t put the death grip on him. Oy.

Newspapers aren’t necessarily tanking just because the economy is bad. It’s flaccid prose like this that’s killing the medium.

But there’s more. The second graph of the piece starts like this: “He arrived at the interview at the Mission Ranch restaurant here as if he owned the place, and it didn’t make any difference that, in this case, he does.”

I have to say this, but even I think I could walk into a restaurant acting like I owned the place if I owned the place.

Are there no editors any more?

But the real grievance here is that while Clint Eastwood has had one of the most interesting and moving careers ever in the history in Hollywood, we get the Wikipedia version of his career. That’s fine for Wikipedia, but not for, as Dustin Hoffman once said in “All the President’s Men”, “the goddamn New York Times.” What we get in the NYT piece instead is a thumbnail rehash of a career trajectory that even the most casual viewer of “Access Hollywood” or reader of “People” magazine will have heard about before.

And that's the frustrating problem with newspapers: they are rarely ahead of the curve anymore. Here's what we get from the NYT about Eastwood's career: “Starting in the mid-1980s he began to change some minds by pushing the boundaries of his cowboys-and-cops image with films like ‘Honkytonk Man’ and ‘Tightrope.’” Wow wow wow.

The offense is not just the lazy prose, though; it’s that a writer for the New York Times, in a Sunday edition piece, didn’t even bother to pierce the cliches surrounding Eastwood’s career. Eastwood, after all, is now the owner of one of the most significant, impressive and moving careers in all of Hollywood’s history. But what the New York Times decided to give us was dreck. I don’t like dreck with my Sunday morning tea.

Let’s acknowledge this: Eastwood has always had a restless, boundless artistic temperament. Do you think that Sergio Leone, in his attempt to redefine what western’s could achieve, would have picked an empty-headed dolt? It is no accident, that of the untold numbers of spaghetti westerns made from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s there may be cult favorites -- but the classics belong to Eastwood. "Zapata", anyone?

If you believe even superficially that the Leone pictures are meditations on violence, then it is easy to see what led Eastwood to direct, as his first feature, case, “Play Misty for Me” (1971). If not an attempt to flesh out an idea that violence is the by-product of madness, then what is this picture? It certainly has its trendy violence, but it was no shoot-em-up, as he could have easily done. His character is a late night jazz DJ, for goodness sake.

There are real attempts at character development - including a sympathetic portrait by Jessica Walter of a woman who is demented and pathetic. It’s not a great film - but I hate to diminish it even in that way. It is safe to say that “Play Misty For Me” does signal that Eastwood was interested in the ramifications, and the complexity, of violence long before “Unforgiven.” He looks at this theme again in "The Outlaw Josey Wales" -- a film that I have not seen in the 30 years since its release, but I can still see scenes vividly in my mind.

Eastwood's career is old-fashioned in one respect: he emerged as a director in a time when your shortcomings were up there on the screen for all to see. Technology and a crew of 300 people can mask any director's inability get shot coverage the lead actor to cry, but 35 years ago, if you missed the shot or your actor couldn't cut it, you simply had to sigh and learn and move ahead.

That is what Eastwood did, and so we get the interesting failures. I remember distinctly that critical reception for “Tightrope” and “Honkytonk Man” and “Bronco Billy” was grudging. I can't sit through "White Hunter, Black Heart" or "Bird" -- but it is imperative for an artist to learn to grow.

Eastwood’s career certainly needed a jolt in the early 1990s. His career by this time had already been through it all -- huge hits, critical successes, audience adulation, phrases that had entered the lexicon and utter indifference. But no career can swoon forever and the decade previous to “Unforgiven” was distinctly undistinguished. It was 10 years of directing films called “The Rookie” (with Charlie Sheen), “Sudden Impact” and “Heartbreak Ridge.” The acting side was probably a little worse. So “Unforgiven” was just as much a reaction to market forces as it was a man who knew he had to muster all his artistic sensibilities - and all that he had learned -- to the forefront if he was going to be allowed to continue.

But Eastwood could make "Unforgiven" precisely because he had been allowed to make mistakes. He could also make it because he's obviously smart, and obviously different from the character so many of his movies have him out to be.

I remember quite distinctly a Merv Griffin show from the early 1970s when Eastwood was a guest along with the Maharishi Yogi, who was promoting (I think that is the right word) transcendental meditation, or TM. The Maharishi was decked out in a throne of flowers - as I recall - and when Eastwood came out he was handed one of those flowers.

He made a comment -- and I am going on memory here -- that maybe audiences would react differently to his movies if he took a flower out of his jacket instead of a gun. He mimed taking a flower out of a holster. This was right around the “Dirty Harry” era, and audiences back them were sophisticated enough to realize there was a difference between an artist and his art. So the audience laughed, and they got it.

So it must amuse Eastwood to read critics who believe he came into his own as an artist with "Unforgiven" only because that was when the critics themselves really began to notice he had matured.

Maybe critics today only need five minutes with their subjects. Why would you need more if you know all you're going to do is rehash the same old stories anyway?