Friday, October 10, 2014

Whip It Good

"The brain is hard-wired to distrust creativity," Derek Thompson informs us in his Atlantic article, "Why Experts Reject Creativity."  Psychologists know that any kind of change, anything new, involves a degree of uncertainty, which gives rise to anxiety.  Which is why dysfunctional relationships, especially families, often remain in what we call homeostasis.  Be ever so awful, there's no place like home.  

Thompson cites research that shows that the way to introduce something new in any field is to couch it in something familiar.  "In Hollywood, the 'high-concept' pitch offers a useful example....To grab their attention, writers often frame original ideas as a fresh combination of existing ideas.  'It's Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds!'  Or 'It's Transformers on the ocean!'"

So, writer-director Damien Chazelle's film Whiplash (named after a song rehearsed in the film--the music by Justin Hurwitz is terrific) might be described as Rocky in the arena of jazz drumming, or Rocky meets The Great Santini or Full Metal Jacket, with Miles Teller playing an Iowa Bob inspired get-obsessed-and-stay-obsessed drummer who aspires to be the next Buddy Rich, and who meets his mentor and tormentor in the form of a music school teacher played with ferocious intensity by J. K. Simmons (below right).  

The movie has the dark, greenish palette of a David Fincher film, (kudos to cinematographer Sharone Meir). It was shot in just 19 days and edited in 10 weeks (with razor-sharp cutting by Tom Cross). Considering that this is only the second feature from 29-year-old Chazelle (he made a jazz musical in 2009 called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), it's a truly impressive piece of work, directed with exceptional craft, style, and passion.

Whiplash has a familiar frame with  common tropes, but Chazelle manages not only to subvert (or perhaps exceed) outcomes when the expected plot points occur, but he relentlessly amps up the intensity, so much so that we think the film can't possibly continue to top itself.  But then we get to the climax and, well, it is orgasmic.  At the screening I attended, the film got a standing ovation, and everyone seemed wrung out and flushed...and thrilled.

Chazelle (above) revealed post screening that the film was based on his own high school experience as a drummer (although the movie is set in what can only be a stand in for Julliard).  He recalled that every day that he went to music class he would feel a "mounting dread," and that rehearsal was like "going to war."  Hence his decision to make a "music movie as if it had been a war movie."  He wanted to show how lonely being a musician can be, and also how drumming is "abstract, like mathematics." He said that, in high school, he would practice 6 hours a day until his hands bled.  And you can bet that Miles Teller's character's hands bleed a lot in the film.

Aside from the fact that drumming involves hitting and banging, Chazelle views jazz itself as having an "undercurrent of hostility"; he also said he feels that "conflict is a big part of jazz."   In Whiplash, that conflict is in our faces in the sparring between Teller and Simmons. These are, respectively, career-making and career-capping performances from the actors.

Just go see it.  As reviewer Brad Brevet put it, auteur Chazelle turns the volume up not just to eleven, "but he breaks the damned thing off."

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Monday, July 14, 2014


In her essay "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf wrote, "I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time.  It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past."

Perhaps that explains why I suddenly found myself inexplicably crying as I made breakfast the morning after seeing Richard Linklater's Boyhood.  (Linklater reportedly wanted to title it "12 Years," the time it spans, until that other movie with the similar title came out.)  Linklater and his editor Sandra Adair seamlessly transition from one year to the next (similar to how Slacker segues from one character to another); the parents don't look all that different, but the changes in the children (one of whom is played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) are often startling.  

The gestalt of the movie, like its march of time, didn't hit me until the next day--much as it does for Patricia Arquette's character (left), when it finally hits her that her nest is finally about to be emptied.

In Linklater movies, the characters talk.  That's their action.  What they say and what they talk about defines them and the action.  And when you think about it, all of his movies are about deep attachments between and among characters--whether it's the kids in Dazed and Confused or the lovers in the Before trilogy.  So it's no surprise that there's a scene in which Patricia Arquette's character teaches a psych class in John Bowlby's attachment theory.  Maybe I was crying for all those friends and lovers gone, even those for whom I'd lost all affection. Maybe I was tearful because I didn't want the movie to end, and, like Arquette's character, I thought there would be more to life....

Boyhood has been compared to Michael Apted's 7 Up series and also to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.  Like the Apted series, Boyhood's premise/structure is genius and yet so simple and elegant it's hard to believe that no one thought of doing it before (it's also amazing that Linklater was able to keep the project secret so long).  Like The Tree of Life, it focuses on a boy's history--here, through time, divorces, stepfamilies, moves to new cities--although one can argue that the film could have been (albeit awkwardly) titled "Personhood," because it's about the evolution (and sometimes devolution) of all the characters.  The Tree of Life was far more imagistic and impressionistic, with little dialogue and more internal whispers.  (For those who hated it, they'd probably say it was a pretentious version of Boyhood.)

That's not to imply that Linklater's work (that's the writer-director above) is not deep or philosophical.  It's rather that what appears ordinary, perhaps simply contemporary or topical, is the Real Thing--is all there is. Like William Carlos Williams' red wheelbarrow, everything depends upon it. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote of "the malady of the quotidian," yet Stevens adhered to a structured daily regimen working as an insurance executive, for God's sake, that fostered his writing.  As he wrote in "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven":

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.

In the world of Richard Linklater, a GTO (Linklater owns one, BTW) is the objective correlative of a character.  It's shorthand for everything we need to know about the psyche of the father played by Ethan Hawke (right) at the outset.

The car's emotional significance (and the connection to the father it symbolizes) is underscored by son Mason (Ellar Coltrane) later in the film.  It's not just a car.  It is just a car.  It's that duality that we must accept of life, that makes it poetry.  Which is what Linklater movies show us, in their quietly sophisticated way.

Speaking of the world of Richard Linklater, the other thing I like is his depiction of Texas.  He shows us the state where not everyone totes guns and is an arch conservative.  I'm from Connecticut, but as I write this I'm wearing my Stubb's Austin T-shirt:

And like all Austin citizens, Linklater loves music.  The source music for the film spans the years from Coldplay to Arcade Fire and even includes some Paul McCartney; there's a scene (one of my favorites) in which Mason's father gives his son a bootleg Beatles Black Album CD and explains the significance of the order of the songs.  (My only beef with the soundtrack is that I wish the songs had been a little louder.)

Go see the film.  It's almost three hours long, but I guarantee you won't want it to end.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Knick: Health Care Isn't What It Used to Be

Last night I attended a screening of Steven Soderbergh's upcoming Cinemax series, The Knick, short for Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City circa 1900, followed by a Q & A with the director and series lead actor Clive Owen (several other cast and crew members were also in attendance, including actor Andre Holland, writers Jack Amiel & Michael Begler, Soderbergh's longtime production designer Howard Cummings, and the excellent costume designer Ellen Mirojnick [Wall Street, Basic Instinct]).

First off, kudos to Cummings for design and Soderbergh for cinematography; the film looks stunning.  (It's often quite literally dark; I'm not sure how that will play on smaller screens, but Soderbergh said he delighted in the Red camera's ability to work in low light and show actors' dilated pupils.)  

In the opening scene, there's a sense of an uncertain time and place--I didn't know anything about the series, and I almost thought it was set in a kind of retro future (there's an electronica score by Cliff Martinez), as Dr. John Thackery (Owen), wearing cool black sunglasses, steps into...a carriage.  Soderbergh said that he deliberately didn't want to depict a period piece in the usual way, with a kind of stuffy reverence.  Instead he wanted to use the "solid foundation of the medical drama" to show that what Thackery and his acolytes were doing in their day was as new and exciting to them as we perceive our own times to be.  Hence the director's choice to use contemporary music and to give the series a timeless quality despite its firmly anchored period.  (I'm reminded of another new series that's also conveying an exhilarating period quest well:  AMC's Halt and Catch Fire.)

There's a graphic frankness to the show (or at least the first episode) that's refreshing.  We are forced to watch actual operations, with scalpels cutting through skin, viscera, pumped and sponged blood, and a surgeon digging his hands into a pregnant woman's belly to try to pull out her baby (and it's all so amazingly realistic!).  There's a senior nun who smokes and trades barbs with the apparently free lance ambulance crew who negotiate fees for prospective patients (the Knick needs more patients because its finances are dwindling).  There's a nurse played by Eve Hewson (yes, Bono and Ali's daughter, below), who is delightfully green, earnest, and lovely.

Dr. Thackery is a cocaine addict and a pragmatist, which is an interesting combination.  He wants to push the boundaries of surgical science, so he needs to keep the Knick afloat so he can do so.  I won't reveal more of the initial plot to avoid spoilers.  But let's just say that Thackery is as drug addled as he is proficient.  And that while he may come across as simply arrogant and racist when the hospital urges him to hire a surgeon who happens to be black (Holland), it's really Thackery's drive and pragmatism that make him resistant.  The show promises to realistically portray class as well as race issues.

Soderbergh told moderator Elvis Mitchell, "I think proficiency is compelling," and referenced the Edward Fox character in Day of the Jackal--he's an assassin, but his proficiency makes your shadow side root for him.

Asked by Mitchell about the fact that Soderbergh had declared that he was on a sabbatical from filmmaking, the director shrugged and said that he had been sent the script, and, well, "I got lit up." 

Soderbergh immediately phoned Clive Owen,  
who was a tad skeptical about doing a series, but after reading 40 pages of the script, was compelled to commit.  Both men were mightily impressed with the writing and the detailed, copious research the writers had done to get the medical and period details right.

And of course what also drew Soderbergh to work with HBO again was the "creative autonomy on the ground" that they allow him.  (No calls from the studio asking, he quipped,"Where's the coverage?")   This autonomy allowed Soderbergh (below) and his "brain trust" to move more swiftly to conceive and execute complex shots.  They reportedly did 70 setups the first day.

My reaction to the first episode?  Wow.  Best new series I've seen since True Detective.  And like True Detective, the same writers did all 10 episodes, and Soderbergh turned it into a "10-hour movie."  I just wish I got Cinemax.  And I certainly hope Soderbergh will not retire from filmmaking.  Here's the trailer:

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