Monday, September 28, 2009

A Lost Book On Constitutional Law Saved By Google Library Project

By Lars Trodson

I've been to Connecticut twice for different reasons in the past month, and during one of the trips I took a ride through Willimantic, which is where I spent some time when I was a kid. My mother grew up in a big old Victorian house on Church Street in that city, and lived with her grandmother Harriet Bass Fenton. I knew my Grandma Fenton -- she died in 1968 at the age of 93. I found her cane once and she rewarded me with a nickle. Her husband, my great grandfather, ran a company in Willimantic called the Windham Silk Co.

Robert Fenton had a brother, Horace Jewell Fenton. Both Robert and Horace seemed to know what they wanted to do when they were quite young. I have one letter written by each of them on the same day in 1887, and Robert writes about how they were building a new school in the town where they were living then, Saccarappa, Maine (now Westbrook). He later became an engineer and helped build the original pier at Old Orchard Beach. I have a scrapbook of his photos from that project.

Brother Horace writes that he can't wait to put his boat in the water, and he later had a career in the Navy. We always knew he wrote a law book that was once taught at The Naval Academy, but I had never seen it.

But I've seen it now, thanks to Google Library.

Here's the book:

Pretty cool.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Surprising Lesson Of Both "The Wizard Of Oz" And "Eyes Wide Shut"

By Lars Trodson

Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" is 10 years old this year, and "The Wizard Of Oz" turns 70.

Both movies (and the source materials) have been over-analyzed, to be sure. Oz is really a parable about the capitalist system. "Eyes Wide Shut" is awash in symbols of the Illuminati.

Or not.

There's been endless commentary about the connection both movies share: "Eyes Wide Shut" has abundant references to places over and under the rainbow. Anybody who finds themselves in uncharted territory, whether it be physical or mental, they are apt to say: "We're not in Kansas any more."

Neither is just a movie any more, either.

Kubrick never lived to hear the debate over his final film. I find quite a bit of the movie fascinating, and it marks a return to actors giving emotional and layered performances (for the most part) that Kubrick later seemed to abandon.

Nicole Kidman is wonderful, if a little uneven. The great Vinessa Shaw is both mysterious and comforting (she's one of the few actresses able to convey different emotions at once), Marie Richardson is touching as the tortured daughter of one of Cruise's patients -- they are all excellent.

You already know about the actors in "The Wizard of Oz."

Both stories involve a journey. The central characters (Dorothy and Dr. William Harford) are lost, and are trying to find something they feel is missing. Both movies are dreams, both movies are nightmares.

I think most dreams -- even those dreams that turn bad -- are eventually about the same thing: they are trying to remind us, or get us back to, the place where we feel most safe. Nightmares come when that journey is blocked. When we can't get back, or don't know how to get back. And so it is with both pictures. Dorothy and Harford are trying to get back.

So there is one thing that is always overlooked in this debate.

While the "Oz" ending is heartfelt and warm, and the "Eyes Wide Shut" ending is crude and clinical, both films, surprisingly, remind us of the exact same thing:

There's no place like home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Werner Herzog Wants To Talk Shop, Without The Mumbo-Jumbo

From Filmmaker Magazine:

WERNER HERZOG'S ROGUE FILM SCHOOL: "'The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense of poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those who can tell a story to four-year-old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream. — Werner Herzog

That's the mission statement of Werner Herzog's new Rogue Film School. Click here for more info. The first seminar takes place in L.A. January 8 - 10, and the application deadline is November 13. There is a seminar fee of $1,450. Details can be found throughout the site, including several fantastic directives on the "About" page. Examples:

The Rogue Film School will not teach anything technical related to film-making. For this purpose, please enroll at your local film school.

The Rogue Film School is about a way of life. It is about a climate, the excitement that makes film possible. It will be about poetry, films, music, images, literature.

Excerpts of films will be discussed, which could include your submitted films; they may be shown and discussed as well. Depending on the materials, the attention will revolve around essential questions: how does music function in film? How do you narrate a story? (This will certainly depart from the brainless teachings of three-act-screenplays). How do you sensitize an audience? How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth?

Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance.

Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mini Movie Reviews: "Surveillance" and "Choke"

By Lars Trodson


Directed by Jennifer Lynch and written by Lynch and Kent Harper

I like to feel tense and ill-at-ease at the movies. It's fun to be in the movie theater and feel dread - you know the lights are going to come on.

Jennifer Lynch's "Surveillance" certainly was creepy -- up until the end, which was mundane. I guess the question I would like to ask a director like Jennifer Lynch - who has adopted many of her father David's visual tics but little of his sense of the mystical or sublime -- is what it is exactly she wants us to feel when we leave a movie like "Surveillance"?

In the end it is hardly anything more than a slasher film. It wants to be a little bit like "The Twilight Zone" -- but without Rod Serling's sense of wonder. Because "Surveillance" doesn't end with a continuation of the unknown, or surrealism, is simply drills down to a couple of serial killers bellowing wildly. You know the type, two crazy outlaws so much in love they need to kill people.

It's been done at least since "Bonnie and Clyde." So what is the point, exactly? "Bonnie and Clyde" was as much about movie style as it was about rebellion - the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Terrence Malick's "Badlands" was about loneliness and alienation. Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" was about thick moral decay, as much as I dislike that movie.

"Surveillance" is about technique. Pretty good technique, no doubt, but again -- after being creeped out, which is fine, what am I supposed to do with all the carnage Jennifer Lynch has left behind?


Directed and written by Clark Gregg, from a book by Chuck Palahniuk.

Maintaining a consistent tone is one of the most difficult things to achieve in the movies, and "Choke" aced that test. It is the sweetest movie ever made about some of the most dysfunctional folks you're ever going to meet.

Everyone in the movie is an unholy mess. They cheat, they lie, they have addictions, they're needy, they can't hold a job - the list continues. But with an expert cast of actors, Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Joel Grey (!), Viola Harris, and so many more, and with a great script, the film is a continued surprise because it doesn't annoy you, it delights you.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two Articles On The State Of Films Today

There is a lot of conversation about what is happening to movies today -- the state they're in, the flagging interest of the public, the reliance on opening weekend receipts for success.

Here are two articles, one that address the current state of independent movies and the other on how to perhaps change the atmosphere on how movies are being made.

A good conversation starter, anyway:

This is from The Wrap:

This is from Ann Thompson's blog, Thompson On Hollywood:

-- LT

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New York Times Book Review Sparks Interest in ... Physicist?

It has been a long time since a review in the Book Review actually made me want to go out and buy a book with a topic way outside my conventional sphere of interests.

But a review of the newly published "The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom" (Basic Books), made me want to do just that. I had never heard of Dirac, and so it was a pleasure to be introduced to him and to want to learn more.

The review is by Louisa Gilder, and it is perceptively -- even movingly -- written. She was clearly inspired to match the way the book made her feel.

We're going to review the book once we're done with it, but read this great review, and get "The Strangest Man" if you feel you want to know more about the mystical Paul Dirac.

Here's the link:

-- LT

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pure Genius: "Sorority Row" Turns R Rating Into Marketing Opportunity

I was listening to the car radio the other day when an ad for the new movie "Sorority Row" came on. The body copy of the ad was OK, but at the end of the ad, which is usually the part when they mention the MPAA rating, something really caught my attention.

Usually the end of such an ad is filler. "Rated PG for blah blah blah..."

But then I heard the following: "'Sorority Row' is rated R for strong bloody violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and partying."

Bloody violence? Nudity? Partying?

That's not a restriction, that's a come-on. If "Sorority Row" is not the number one movie overall, or at least among its intended youth demographic, it wasn't for lack of trying.

In my line of work, which is marketing, you take a challenge, turn it into an opportunity and go for it. That's what they did here.

"Sorority Row" from Summit Entertainment opens today.

-- LT

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thoughts on Arthur C. Clarke's 'The Sentinel' And It's Origins for Kubrick's '2001'

By Lars Trodson

Speaking of "Two Lovers", the character played by the excellent Joaquin Phoenix has a poster of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in his bedroom. One presumes the poster is something left over from his childhood, and provides another hint of what kind of person Leonard Kraditor is, or was. Not everyone is attuned to the charms of Kubrick's peculiar masterpiece.

Mike Gillis -- who directs our films here at Roundtable Pictures -- and I talked briefly about Kubrick just this weekend, and we were talking about "A Clockwork Orange", and the general consensus was that "A Clockwork Orange" was either great or terrible. Who knows, really. I've seen the thing four or five times myself and I can't quite figure it out. At the very least it's fascinating.

It's like any Kubrick film: you enter his universe and you're at his mercy.

I was lucky that I got an introduction to Kubrick at an early age, when my father took my brother and me to "2001" when it opened at the old Cinerama Theater on Hope Street in Providence in 1968. I remember there were hippies in the lobby. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design were right down the street.

From the first frame to the last I was entranced, and still remember the experience of watching the film for the first time. Everything about it was simply fascinating -- from the apes to the technology to the music to Captain Bowman's hallucinogenic trip home through the energy fields -- something in my house we used to call the "storm of colors."

I used to think that's what the filmmakers must have called it, but it seems like that term was ours alone. I like it. You remember: Bowman is in the pod after he has shut down HAL and he flies through space and his trip is both spiritual and spatial. The "slit screen" effect, as it was called, put laser-like fields of color at the top and bottom of the screen. When Kubrick cut to Bowman, sometimes his eyes changed color. We used to call that the "storm of colors."

Arthur C. Clarke was Kubrick's collaborator on this film, and I had never read the story on which the movie was based: a very short story called "The Sentinel" that was published in 1950.

I happened to have a paperback called "The Making of Kubrick's 2001" -- an anthology edited by Jerome Agel and published by Signet in 1970. The book is its own kind of trip -- far out and spacey and probably already two years behind the times when it was published -- but it contains a series of articles about the movie and interviews with the writers and also Kubrick that are interesting. We learn that the movie was originally called "Journey Beyond the Stars", which sounds incredibly 1950s sci-fi conventional.

It also has a reprint of Clarke's "The Sentinel", which I had never read. The story begins like this: "The next time you see the full moon high in the south, look carefully at its right hand edge and let your eye travel upward along the curve of the disk. Round about two o'clock you will notice a small, dark oval: anyone with normal eyesight can find it quite easily. It is the great walled plain, one of the finest on the Moon, known as the Mare Crisium - the Sea of Crises."

That's a great beginning. What I found remarkable about this story is that Clarke adopts the tone of an enthusiastic, yet studied travel writer. The narrator is a geologist, but you utterly believe, from the first words on, that he has actually been to the moon -- the narrator knew its contours and personality and faults and pleasures.

The Mare Crisium is where the narrator finds the sentinel of the title. He believes it is some kind of device left by a long-ago civilization to send out messages about what is happening on the earth. The sentinel is the precursor of the obelisk in "2001", and it is about the only element of the story used in the film. In truth, Clarke's sentinel looks or behaves nothing like the black slab found in the film.

What I think Kubrick took away from the story was how natural Clarke made space travel feel -- and that is exactly what Kubrick and Clarke achieved in the film. When I was a kid in 1968 looking at that amazing film, it made space travel seem like the most natural thing in the world. Even though, at the time, no one had yet been to the moon.

Here is more from the story:

"I said just now that there was nothing exciting about lunar exploration, but of course that isn't true. One could never grow tired of those incredible mountains, so much more rugged than the hills of the Earth. We never knew, as we rounded the capes and promontories of that vanished sea, what new splendors would be revealed to us. The whole southern curve of the Mare Crisium is a vast delta where a score of rivers once found their way into the ocean, fed perhaps by the torrential rains that must have lashed the mountains in the brief volcanic age when the Moon was young."

This sounds like travel writing, but it was written almost 20 years before anyone had stepped foot on the surface of the moon.

In the story Carke casually mentions the remnants of exotic fauna found on the moon, and the dried up beds of old rivers and seas, but what drives the narrative is a seemingly innocuous, yet ominous, observation. The narrator is making the very English breakfast of eggs and sausage when he looks out the window of his "pressurized tractor", as Clarke describes their vehicle. He mentions that on the moon there is "no loss of detail with distance" when you are looking at things. There is "none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth."

The narrator continues, and this is the important part:

"I was turning away when my eye caught a metallic glitter high on the ridge of a great promontory thrusting out into the sea thirty miles to the west. It was a dimensionless point of light, as if a star had been clawed from the sky by one of those cruel peaks, and I imagined that some smooth rock surface was catching the sunlight and heliographing it straight into my eyes. Such things were not uncommon."

But of course it was uncommon. He saw something glitter. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, declares he's going to check out the promontory where he saw the reflection, and a fellow astronaut named Garnett volunteers to go with him.

The gravity-free atmosphere of the moon makes their climb up the 10,000 foot mountain relatively easy, but they are both convinced their trek will be fruitless. The Moon, then as now, has not produced revolutionary findings.

Except it was not a fragmented piece of sharp rock that produced the glitter. When he reaches the ridge where he saw the light, the narrator writes: "Probably no emotion at all filled my mind in those first few seconds. Then I felt a great lifting of my heart, and a strange, inexpressible joy. For I loved the Moon, and now I knew that the creeping moss of Aristarchus and Eratosthenes was not the only life she had brought forth in her youth. There had, after all, been a lunar civilization - and I was the first to find it. That I had come perhaps a hundred million years too late did not distress me: it was enough to have come at all."

He loved the Moon, the narrator says, and one of the feelings that you get when you watch "2001" is that the filmmakers, if not necessarily the people in the film itself, love the Moon, and are in love with the idea of space travel and the possibility that it affords. The possibility of adventure and discovery is what drives the short story "The Sentinel", and also "2001." Both were created when such flights could propel the imagination.

As much as "A Clockwork Orange" -- which was made three years after "2001" -- is much more pessimistic than the Anthony Burgess novel, "2001" is much more hopeful than the end of Clarke's short story. "The Sentinel" ends without much hope for Man, but is filled with the possibility that we can still be saved by some extraterrestial lifeforce.

Kubrick took the opposite view. Humankind, in the movie, is both destructor and savior. In that way Kubrick created one of his most hopeful stories. He is saying that no matter what damage we may have done, we may return, reborn, full of life, filled with hope.

In that way, Kubrick and Clarke together created a world that may be historically eight years in the past, but is defiantly hopeful for our future.

First Peek at New, Improved 'At the Movies'

First Peek at New, Improved 'At the Movies': "They're serious. They're grown-ups. They wear black jackets and they use big words. If you missed the Sept. 5 debut of its post Lyons/Mankiewicz resurrection, Buena Vista Entertainment has rolled out an online look at the updated, No Bens At the Movies reboot.

The sentiment expressed by At the Movies' official website is clearly, You know those two boneheads we hired to replace Ebert and Roeper? Don't worry, we canned 'em. The site's main page now features a dauntingly somber photo of critics A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, alongside a video preview trumpeting 'serious reviews, by serious journalists.' It's a big ol' slap in the face to Ben and Mank, but it gets the point across -- Buena Vista screwed up by hiring The Legacy and the Chucklehead, and now they desperately hope to repair the damage by replacing them with, well, actual film critics.

The clips of new reviews are like a big, frosty glass of water after enduring the Bens' desert of stupid. In one clip, Phillips and Scott actually engage in -- gasp! -- thoughtful deliberation about the tone of Big Fan, with Phillips telling the unimpressed Scott that he misreads the black comedy as a naturalistic drama. Watching smart critics say smart things, on subjects in which they're actually knowledgeable makes one nostalgic for the days when Siskel and Ebert were a weekly must-see.

Continue reading First Peek at New, Improved 'At the Movies'

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Joaquin Phoenix in "Two Lovers": A Masterful, Beautiful Performance

By Lars Trodson

Just when you think movie acting has gone all slick and slack on you, something comes along that gives you faith.

The actor is Joaquin Phoenix, and he apparently isn't acting any more. So maybe his performance in "Two Lovers" will stack up as one of the most poignant swan songs in movie history. Say it isn't so.

You need to pick up "Two Lovers", if you have not already, and simply enjoy the craft of a guy who is at the top of his game. Everyone else in it is great, too, including Vinessa Shaw, who seems both fragile and strong at the same time, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who seems fresh and unaffected here.

But it is Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, a mixed-up, depressed, quiet young man with an artistic bent who hits the right notes at the very beginning of this pitch-perfect film and never wavers.

It's a little film, produced by Marc Cuban's 2929 Productions, and I had never heard of it. It was released in 2008, and I wondered who had beat out Phoenix for an Oscar nomination. I googled who was nominated for Best Actor Oscars last year -- Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella, Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn -- and I hate to say it but the one we could have lost there was Pitt.

But that would have put the number of great actors in very small films at four, though -- and I think the Academy was taking some heat for ignoring "The Dark Knight" -- a real blockbuster. So, the thinking might have been that putting Phoenix into the lineup just would not have been good business. Or maybe no one even bothered to see the film.

It's nice to say that Phoenix turns in a performance that is artful. From the first haunting images of the film (photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay) to the last shot of two awkward lovers hugging during a New Year's Eve party, Phoenix etches a portrait of a person you seem to understand by the end of the film.

You may think the title, "Two Lovers", is obvious, but Leonard literally has two lovers. This didn't seem to be out of sync with reality at all. Leonard is a depressive, he's suicidal -- (at the beginning of the movie he jumps into Sheepshead Bay and later says to his mom, "I fell into the bay."), and he's back sleeping in his old bedroom. But he's a charmer with killer good looks.

I've known people like this, and you probably have, too -- some guy down at the local bar who is a bit of a loser and stone cold addict, but both women and men like him -- no, love him! -- and his bad habits never really seem to catch up with him until the very end.

That's Leonard. He's a mess, but so are the people around him -- except his parents.

This is one of the rare films that takes the time to allow the lead characters have a relationship with their parents that isn't one based on destruction. Leonard lives in Brooklyn, and his parents (played by Isabella Rossellini, still stunning, and Moni Moshonov) are both European emigres who own a dry cleaning shop where Leonard is working part time.

The parents are about to sell their shop to the Cohens, who arrive at the Kraditors apartment to celebrate the merger. The atmosphere of the apartment is palpably New York outer-borough, beautifully Jewish, without any hint of caricature or stereotype -- the details of this life are lovingly displayed.

The Cohens bring their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) along. Sandra had seen Leonard in the shop and wanted to meet him.

The Cohens also want Leonard to photograph their son's upcoming bar mitzvah in black and white. Sandra and Leonard click -- you like her immediately - but then crazy-ass Michelle comes into his life. Michelle is played by Paltrow.

I don't think Paltrow has ever looked more beautiful, but her character's got some problems. She leans on Leonard, who is a solid friend.

The beauty of Phoenix's performance is that he is put through a series of humiliating episodes, and painful encounters, and he never loses his dignity or sense of self. And he always has something wry -- but not writerly or over-poetic -- to say. (The script is by director James Gray and Ric Menello.)

We're not going to give away too many details. But rent "Two Lovers", and enjoy the performances, and particularly revel in the work of Joaquin Phoenix.

I was wondering why Phoenix gave up films, but maybe decided to go off and do his rap act after he realized that if he could turn in work this good and no one ending up giving a damn, then it would be better to quit.

But we give a damn, and maybe if you see the movie, you will, too. But give it a try.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thanks a Lot, William Safire

By Lars Trodson

Ann Coulter is running a series of columns titled "Liberal lies about national health care." On YouTube there is a video called "Dumb-ass John Kerry admits Barack Obama is a liar." A posting on asks: "Obama is a charming liar?"

I googled a two-word phrase "politicians liars" and came up with 10,200,000 responses. There were book titles such as "Big Fat Liars: How Politicians, Corporations, and the Media use Science and Statistics To Manipulate the Public" and of course Al Franken's book, "Lies, And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." (There is a website called David Corn of The Nation published a book called "The Lies of George W. Bush" in 2003.

Something faint was stirring in my memory. What I was thinking about was a column by William Safire that caused a bit of a stir years ago. I googled the phrase "William Safire congenital liar" and came up with what I was looking for. The column started out with this paragraph: "Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar."

He was talking about Hilary Clinton. The column, titled "Blizzard of Lies", was published Jan. 8, 1996. This caused a bit of a scandal at the time -- on his wikipedia page this column was said to have caused a "mild tempest."

However, I'm beginning to think this was a watershed event in political and social discourse. It made the accusation "liar" acceptable, and people have been having their sweet time with it ever since.

Prior to that, the word liar was used only in the most extreme circumstances -- and you had better be sure you were right if you used it. It was the strongest accusation you could make against anyone.

Before Jan. 8, 1996, politicians danced around the word. In political debates a candidate would be asked, in so many words, "Is your opponent lying about your record?" And the response was almost always something like, "Well, I don't think he has his facts straight" or a version of that. No one -- at least on the national level -- called anyone a liar.

Now, you could tell they wanted to use the word. And I may have even thought --- "don't beat around the bus -- call the guy a liar." It would have felt much more satisfying, and maybe closer to the truth.

You can imagine Safire coming to that very same conclusion as he began writing his column. He's a man of words: he could have called Clinton a prevaricator, cheat, con artist, deceiver, deluder, dissimulator, equivocator, fabler, fabricator, fabulist, false witness, falsifier, fibber, maligner, misleader, perjurer, phony, promoter, storyteller or trickster.

But, no.

Ahh, it must have felt good. It certainly gave Safire some juice. There was a public debate on whether Safire had crossed a line. President Clinton said if he hadn't been president he would have punched Safire in the nose. MediaMatters called the column "headline making."

So, as you listen and read your favorite pundits and thinkers and they accuse so-and-so of being a liar or a teller of lies, we can thank our learned friend, Mr. William Safire, a weaver of memorable and undeniably influential phrases.