Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Film review - Malcolm X (1992)

Based on the book The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, screenplay by Arnold Perl and Spike Lee, who also directed and played Shorty. Denzel Washington as the lead role, featuring Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo (as of this writing one of the best reasons to watch The Chicago Code) and Al Freeman, Jr.

An epic film based on the life of a real person is always cause for both excitement and alarm. Short of a complete, second-by-second film of a person's existence any book or film is going to be edited, whittling out the parts that Sir Alfred Hitchcock called "the dull bits." We cannot as an audience actually bear witness to every moment; it is impossible. It is just as impossible for a writer or filmmaker to bear witness, even if the tale they are telling is their own. Memory, as Stephen King wrote, is such a subjective thing.

Epic films, for me, always have at their center one figure. (Usually it is a man; how I wish someone would give an epic treatment to the life of Mahalia Jackson.) As the film weaves its tale, the central figure usually has to fight their own demons until they see that they themselves are not as others and simultaneously the times around them are in a similar upheaval. The central figure of an epic, then, is a showing of the zeitgeist; their tale is the story of us all, writ large, showing on the expansive canvas of history as it unfurls.

Think of Lawrence Of Arabia; Gandhi; Patton; even The Ten Commandments. Here, we see men, men like no other but not seeing that they are different until events surpass them. (Granted, the real Patton had a rather clear view of himself in history, but he is an exception rather than the rule.) As the events of their world overtake them, they rise up and refuse to bend, standing taller than the rest but showing a reflection of that which we all know and feel.

The story of Malcolm Little, who later became Detroit Red, and then Malcolm X and finally El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is the story of the United States writ on the flesh of one man, whose soul and blood make clear so much of what has been missed.

His own story is the story of a man's journey, from angry heartbroken child to thug pimp hustler to an awakened soul to, finally, a soul of legendary proportions. In the book's introduction, Haley remarks how, upon meeting (the then) Malcolm X, that the man was closed, refusing to open himself up until Haley asked X about his mother. That caused a moment, a breakthrough and the tale began to flow.

This film is massive, like any other epic. It catches the ebb and flow of the times and the tsunami of a man's understanding of his own soul and his proper place in history.

To be completely honest, I was raised during the time of his ascendancy and the man was not a man but a monster, hate filled and rage possessed.... or at least I was told. When the film came around, my family was in one of our periodic moments of low funds, so I had to wait until it came out on video.

I was most interested in the film mostly due to the director. Spike Lee has made some truly astonishing films. Also, I have been a fan of Denzel Washington from his days on St. Elsewhere, and the two men working together sparked a real desire. I'd already seen She's Gotta Have It (which was hysterical) and Do The Right Thing (genius but misunderstood). DtRT was an angry film, a different form of hysterical, and I could see how people thought it was about hate when it was, instead, about anger. Hot days, hot nights, hot tempers: how could the film NOT end any other way?

I approached School Daze with some trepidation, then, fearing more rage, and instead was shocked back to my core. The film did not come out and say to me, Hey, White Boy, you don't get it half what you think you do, but it could have, and maybe should have. The last line, spoken by another acting giant Mr. Laurence Fishburne "Please. Wake up." was a kick in the balls.

From that moment, I was totally all about Spike, as I had in the past with his closest peers, Ingmar Bergman, Frederico Fellini, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa.... brilliant.

Finding the first pairing of Washington and Lee Mo' Better Blues, I was stunned. Not that the film was so good (I expect no less from Lee), not that the acting was first rate (no less from Washington) but that it was so damned neglected... the fucking thing ends with a brilliant montage that is, at heart, a music video for John Coltrane! What's not to love and adore here?

Thus, seeing them team again, to approach one of the biggest figures of my childhood... I could hardly contain myself.

There was absolutely nothing to prepare me for this film. I am glad of that. The first thing I want/need to say is that the film was so powerful, so perfect in its rendition, that after I rewound the tape I dug my copy of the book. Had I not had to be at work, I would have read it cover to cover in one sitting. I was stunned: the first thing that went through my mind was the old Firesign Theater album: Everything You Know Is Wrong.

I was also stunned into a silent rage that this film, so sweeping, so grand, so epic in every conceivable manner was utterly neglected by the Oscars. Nothing, not a nomination or recognition.

The supporting cast is brilliant. Watching Delroy Lindo's character go from street power to hopeless waste of a man is heartbreaking. Angela Bassett, so beautiful as to bring the film to a halt is so flawless in her portrayal that one cannot fathom why she isn't in more films. Al Freeman, Jr., a familiar face in so many films, carries a quiet sense of personal dignity that is majestic.

It is Washington, though, that carries the burden of bringing this misunderstood man to the screen and to life. He performance of the man mirrors Lindo's at some points, and Freeman's and is a perfect foil with Bassett. The man's life is shown as a series of movements in the symphony of American History, powerful, strong and (as Arthur Miller wrote) needful of attention. We dare not ignore this man.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Gestalt: Zeitgeist as Auteur

The Auteur theory of filmmaking was based on a series of articles in the Cahiers du Cinema (Movie Notebooks). Within the pages of that magazine were critical analysis' of certain trends found in cinema, notably within the cinema of the United States. (It was also here that the genre known as film noir was coined.)

The Auteur theory was: the director of the film is its author, more so than the screenwriter. It was the unique vision of a given director that marked their films. Both Howard Hawks and Sir Alfred Hitchcock were used as examples, and for the most part this theory has remained, along with genre criticism, as the foundation of film theory.

For the most part, there is a good, solid foundation for this. The filmography of certain directors show a tendency to various patterns: Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and others, all created films (and some continue) that had a unique stamp, not only visually but in all manner of the presentation. The dialog, the music, the editing and, of course, the camera work and editing.

What caused me to post this was the work of various directors whose work is largely uneven, sometimes brilliant, sometimes merely pedestrian and sometimes... the only term that is appropriate would be Epic Fail. Joel Schumacher immediately comes to mind. His brilliant 8MM and flawless Falling Down are superb, A Time To Kill is good, solid filmmaking but hardly a work of lasting art as is his rendition of the Weber version of The Phantom Of The Opera, and his two entries into the Batman series are, at best, regrettable.

It was, however, in looking at his career that I started to wonder. Why? Why so uneven?

I began to notice how certain directors were also stuttering along, one moment grand opera and the next barely a cut above porn.

Here, then, is a little background.

In what was once called The Studio System, the studio (usually in the form of the producer) would assign certain films to certain directors. This was due to a track record of success; Hitchcock made thrillers and mysteries, Hawks made westerns. As the director grew in terms of monetary return to the studio, that given director would be given a little more authority over the film (or product) and some (certainly not all) directors began to thrive.

Hitchcock made few Epic Failures, but one that comes to mind was Jamaica Inn, an attempt to do a period piece. It is wretched. That last three word sentence is overly kind.

Be that as it may, as the auteur theory took hold, and Hollywood saw that the directors were growing in stature, the reins began to loosen. Granted, at the same time, the Studio System was faltering, but the era of the Auteur that was self-aware of the Auteur theory began. From this era, we got: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, Altman. The list goes on and on, but more interesting is what was happening underground.

In the cheapie, grade Z movie industry, certain studios (much smaller than the majors) were still using the old Studio System, even if they weren't completely aware of it, but also tagging young directors and giving them a certain freedom, if only on a restricted budget.

From here, then, we find Bogdanovich being allowed to make a film so long as he included Boris Karloff. This gave us what may be one of the best films of his career, Targets.

As the years have gone on, and the director became weaker in authority (losing final cut privileges, for example: the studio can hack and re-edit without consent of the director), and the free agent style of actors and directors wandering from studio to studio, the films of the United States as a whole started to take on a different feel.

While a film can be (and sometimes is) a work of High Art, it must never be forgotten that a film is, first and foremost, a product. It is meant to make money, pure and simple. What this mindset has birthed is the idea of using an audience survey prior to releasing a film. This is nothing new: Stan Laurel (of Laurel & Hardy) would often preview a film before an audience. The difference was, though, that Stan stood at the back of the theater with a stopwatch and would time the laughter, so that he could then return to the editing and tighten up the comedy.

Now, however, the audience dictates editing. Sometimes to the point of rewriting the entire film.

On the DVD release of Final Destination, the producer, director and screenwriter all talked about using the audience preview to make changes in the film. Of importance here was that the film was completed, but the audience reaction was such that nearly the entire film had to be rewritten, re-shot and re-edited.

As making a film has become an expensive endeavor, and as the director has become less powerful, what is starting to happen is that the group effort in making a film has become paramount. There is no one particular voice, but rather a group.

This leads us to M. Night Shyamalan.

While his very first film, Praying With Anger is sadly not available for purchase, his second, Wide Awake is, and there, in that film, there is a significant difference between it and that which follows. Wide Awake is the last film he has made that uses someone other than James Newton Howard as the music director.

Newton Howard creates a score for Shyamalan's films that never cease to be anything other than brilliant, making a good film great, and a great film classic. Think of Hitchcock with Hermann, or Lucas with Williams (or Spielberg with Williams), or Burton with Elfman.

This is a gestalt, a group of separate minds gathering together, and adding their own touch to an overall work.

When we, the intended audience, are brought in, which is becoming more and more the norm, to witness the "finished" (if not released) product, then the gestalt widens, and the zeitgeist, the collective unconscious begins to alter the direction of the film. Here, everyone is involved, if only loosely.

When this works, it is unmistakable, the film ends up making a dent in the minds and psyche of the viewing populace that was not involved in the creative process. When the film makes a return grand enough to inspire the studios to continue in a similar vein, then the process repeats itself, as if the zeitgeist demands more, the collective consciousness of the global brain says to a smaller, more selective few: Here, this: this is what we want, give us more.

Coming to mind also, then, was the fact that two separate novels had been written and released within months of each other, and each was optioned by different studios. One was The Glass Inferno (by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson) and the other was The Tower by (Richard Martin Stern). Both novels dealt with the same premise: fire breaks out near the top of a superstructure and the stories of the people trying to survive as well as the efforts of the rescue workers to get them out and stop the fire. Rather than release two competing films of the same nature, the two studios joined to cover production costs and split the returns and the resulting film was the entertaining and rather flawed film, The Towering Inferno.

Armageddon and Deep Impact were released the same year by differing studios as were Volcano and Dante's Peak. The first two deal with an impending impact of a meteor /comet, and the second pair deal with the results of a volcanic eruption.

Some of this is mere happenstance of course, but there is also that sense of multiple minds gathering to create one, new fable, a story that wants to be told.