director Alexander Payne. image: wnyc.org, photo: Claudette Barius/New Line ProductionsA couple of weeks ago, I called About Schmidt the Thinking Person's My Fat, Greek Wedding and linked both back to the 1955 Academy Award sweeper Marty. Now, after giving it some thought, Vogue's Sarah Kerr notes an "odd coincidence" in a Slate discussion of the films of 2002: "Did you know that Payne is of Greek extraction and that in his boyhood his father owned a Greek restaurant in Omaha? Ring a bell with another movie this year?"

[Listen to Payne talking about Omaha on Studio 360.]
[MoMA's Film Department will honor Payne with its 2nd Work In Progress Award in February.]

January 1, 2003

Rollin' With My Homi

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over Triboro Bridge, so many, I had not thought the MLA had undone so many. - apologies to T. S. Eliot
The MLA Convention was in town, "but now they're gone." (apologies to Blue Oyster Cult.) Thankfully, the Observer did the painful hanging out for you, capturing the employment angst that haunts the event.

So why do 1,000 or so fresh lit crit PhD's ("talking loudly about post-docs and Homi Bhabha") think they're not gonna get one of the dwindling number of tenure-track university departments? Is it that the jobs are dwindling? Their knowledge and skills are at odds with the market? No, this year it's the publishers. Academic publishing channels are disappearing, but universities' stubbornly rely on said publication for faculty hiring. But oddly, the publishers only want to books that sell, by celebrity thinkers, a French concept the US thankfully hasn't really embraced (Non-thinking celebrities only, please. Desole, Mr. Penn.)

According to the big names at MLA, films are a potential solution. And they don't mean hosting one panel on "The Hollywood Musical, 1970-2002". MLA Jefe Stephen Greenblatt consulted on Shakespeare in Love. And special guest star/historian (and "haute couture communist") Natalie Zemon Davis shared writing credit on Le Retour de Martin Guerre, so that's two. I see no one's taking credit for Sommersby, though. Hmm.

Well, the MLA convention itself is overflowing with ideas, analysis, papers, panels, content. It's the most microsegmented idea bazaar around. The index does sound like a pitch meeting: "Guns and Barbies," "The Bible & Toni Morrison," " Talkin' Funny III" (Sequel. Good. I see Kirstie Alley and John Travolta. Go on.), "Theorizing Beowulf: The Cognitive-Economic-Postcolonial Beowulf" (Okay...), "Cash Bar and Dinner Arranged by the Joseph Conrad Society of America" (Cash bar? He did Apocalypse Now and it's cash bar??).

Impenetrable monologues, job envy and economic disparity? Sounds like the perfect NY writers party. And the reaction of naive MLA'ers reveals it to be so:

"You get the sense that everyoneís in on some big secret that youíre not a part of," said Ms. Vlagopoulos.
"Or that theyíre all playing a practical joke on you," added Ms. Sobelle.
. Well, womyn, it's called Mafia, and you're dead.

As for publishing, well, that one's got me stumped. It's not like there's an easy-to-use, economical model for publishing that facilitates discussion and dialogue. I'd love to be proved wrong, but for all their content and desperation to get the word out, it looks like not one person blogged the MLA.

Sifting and digitizing footage for S(J03) until the batteries in my camera ran out, when I watched two DVD's back to back, XXX and Don't Look Now. At a stretch, I can say XXX is research for the Animated Musical. Nicolas Roeg's 1973 thriller, though, is a concentrated course in editing in general and intercutting in particular.

Julie Chrystie in Don't Look Now

When I cited the seduction scene in Out of Sight as inspiration for intercutting scenes 1 and 2 in Souvenir, a couple of readers suggested seeing the similar Donald Sutherland/Julie Chrystie love scene in Don't Look Now, "one of the subtlest, most affecting erotic sequences in the history of cinema." Similar? Apparently, in the Out of Sight DVD commentary,Soderbergh cops to copying this scene; frankly, I think he improved on it.

Roeg's a cinematographer-turned-director, and it shows. Venice looks awesome in the dark (blown out sunlight at the end of a long alley) and the light (endless boats crossing shimmering canals). And Roeg never met a mirror or semi-transparent surface he didn't like (or shoot); when the unsettling Scottish sisters confront Christie's grieving mother in the ladies' room, there are so many reflections you wonder where the camera was.

The love scene is unexpectedly intense (think twice before watching this one with the in-laws), and not just because I went into the movie thinking Julie Chrystie was the one in The Belle of Amherst. The intercutting is quite effective and interestingly different from Out of Sight. The differences between Roeg's and Soderbergh's scenes are both consistent and convenient. Don't Look Now: impassioned married sex between people who know each other well is intercut with the aftermath, stolid scenes of getting dressed for dinner. The sex is guaranteed, just part of the fabric of life. Out of Sight: Self-conscious flirtation between pursuer and pursued is intercut with the payoff, uncertainty banished and anticipation building to a striptease and one hot night in the sack.

Roeg packs his film with foreboding cuts; pay attention, because everything seems intentional or freighted with meaning. Handheld camerawork (a church accident and late-night chase along a canal, in particular) crops up unexpectedly and with great emotional effect. Some of the love scene cuts are a bit obvious, though; a shot of Julie Chrystie rolling over cuts to a shot of her turning around and putting on lipstick, and there's a silly pelvic thrust as Sutherland puts on his pants. Even if it feels a little heavy-handed or self-indulgent sometimes, Roeg's is an expressive style of filmmaking that's largely dropped from sight these days.

Except, of course, for the "exciting faux-documentary style of Bloody Sunday; the feverish intercutting in Adaptation, Chicago, The Hours, Solaris, even The Two Towers!" which Slate's David Edelstein points out...

December 29, 2002

On Fame. Not Fame, Fame.

Kevin Spacey and John Cusack in a movie I won't name. image:reelcriticism.com

If you thought the best thing in this Guardian story about Kevin Spacey's popularity in London is the phrase "pashmina intelligentsia," you're too easily pleased:

On one occasion, the actress Sienna Miller was sitting next to Spacey at a bar. She had just seen The Usual Suspects and was excited to find herself close to one of the film's stars.

Approaching him she said: 'I just wanted to say I can't believe I'm sitting in a bar drinking champagne next to Kevin Bacon.' 'Spacey,' said Kevin. 'Yeah, it is, isn't it?' said Miller.

Which reminds me, I saw a part of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil the other night on TV, and I realized its similarities to Adaptation haven't been mentioned anywhere. [Of course, my mentioning them here isn't going to help me get ahead at Spacey's online film company, Triggerstreet. What the hey, here goes.]
  • Both are adapted from very popular books, which were in turn adapted from magazine articles (Okay, Midnight just seemed like a 400-page Vanity Fair article.)
  • The writer, desperately inserts himself into the story. Hilarity ensues. We then experience a melange of fiction, fact, imagination and multiple levels of reality. (Okay, Charlie Kaufman was upfront about it. To a fault. John Berendt's been much cagier. No pun intended.)
  • John Cusack is in both films. But he's much better in Adaptation (Okay, I'm guessing, but he can't have a worse role than he did in Midnight, etc.)
  • And most significantly, Midnight director Clint Eastwood is Adaptation director Spike Jonze's father. (Okay, I made that one up, but I had to finish big.)

  • December 28, 2002

    S(J03): Tape Logging Complete


    Just finished logging in the third and final tape for S(J03), and I'm pretty relieved/excited. At first, three hours of footage for a 5-minute film seemed daunting, like we'd never be able to cull it down, but after watching it all, it's won't be a problem. That makes it sound like there's only 5 minutes of usable footage in the whole day, which is not the case at all. With a lot of long takes and exploring, there is more extraneous stuff; it's just that there are some shots which are so clearly good, you can flag them right away.

    When we shot the ironing scenes at the hotel, for example, we went start-to-finish on three shirts. (Ironing? Huh? Read the script.) By the third shirt, Patrick, the cinematographer, had really gotten a feel for it; his intimacy and comfort with the camera come through as he shot the entire shirt in one continuous take.

    As soon as I get the Powerbook set up for editing, I'm off. Detailed logging means I'll probably only capture about 20 minutes of video, which is very manageable.

    December 27, 2002

    The Best Boxing Day, EVER

    New New Yorker Jason Kottke made my Boxing Day by including greg.org on his weblog's "not recommended at all" list. It's right under Gawker (who I'd come to imagine as a top, so that's unsurprising). Thanks, Jason! (And unless you're just a single clone hitting reload, welcome, all Kottkeians, to greg.org.)

    View from the window at Le Gras, 1826, Joseph Nicephore NiepceView from the window at Le Gras, 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
    image: Ransom Center, UT Austin

    Or specifically, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin:
    1) to see the world's first photograph, a view out his window taken by a Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in 1826. Jim Lewis writes about it on Slate.
    2) to read the unpublished manuscript of Minstral Island, a futuristic musical by Thomas Pynchon and Kirkpatrick Sale, which they recently acquired. [Fill out your research application before you go. Oh, and get Pynchon's written permission if you want to make a copy. I'm sure he's listed.]

    December 27, 2002

    Just One. Last. Shot


    This morning, I ran off to shoot one more pre-sunrise shot of the mountains and highway for S(J03), a cold, dark 2.5 hour round trip from SLC.

    With the sweet Powerbook that Santa brought me, I'll get some stills up this weekend or next week, depending on the editing schedule. Stay tuned for a rush course in short filmmaking!

    What a way to spend Boxing Day. I logged two of the three hours of footage we shot Monday for S(J03), which took most of the afternoon. Now that I know what we have to edit, the question is, how can I best tell the story in the script? Technical issues and changes on the ground complicate things a bit.

    Technical issues: Unstable monitor settings which we didn't solve until about 11AM means that some really good shots from the morning are just too dark to use. Others are too good not to use, even if they are a little dark. The solution: work the lighting into the story, using it to mark the passage of time. As it works out, this jibes well with the daily routine in the cleaners, which is staggered half-a-day from the dry cleaning process. (i.e., they do the first steps (cleaning and pressing) in the afternoon/evening and the last two steps (bagging and sorting for pickup) the next morning.) The light/shadow/darkness in our footage maps onto the process well.

    Changes on the ground: In the script, the main character spends a day working at the dry cleaners. Rather than negotiate and explain this to Joe, the cleaners owner, over the phone, I just asked if we could shoot without disrupting their routine. Joe was nervous because Monday is their busiest day. Looking at the footage, an arc emerged: we started exploring the facility, then observing the people, then asking questions. After building up a degree of familiarity and trust, the man quietly and naturally offered to help. This evolution from observer to participant, and the growing trust it entails, was more satisfying than what I'd originally intended, so it became an organizing principle for the film.

    Out of Sight, dir. Steven Soderbergh, image: georgeclooney.orgFinally, the J-Lo Factor. Watching the footage, there are so many wonderful details and vignettes, it feels like I'd have to make an hour-long documentary to include them all. Not gonna do it. With the basic structural principles in place (light>>dark, start>>finish rather than just day>>night, reticent observer>>trusted participant) a rigid narrative, sequential arc seems less imperative. The film is more reflection than narrative, we decided, especially in the dry cleaners. Pushing this forward, we came up with the idea of intercutting between two timestreams: ironing and driving, getting ready and going.

    Steven Soderbergh, in what I still feel is one of the sweetest examples of this technique, just brings it home in the seduction scene in Out of Sight. I've mentioned this before. If my repetition bores you, by all means, clue me into other great scenes.

    This all relates to notes I made on the table today at lunch. Check out a transcript here.

    Mom's house, those chocolate cookies with powdered sugar on them, embarassing family pictures, elaborate meals. For several fleeting moments, you're ten years old again. You actually feel it. Why? It seems like every other year, but those visceral feelings of actually being back in time... What could be different?

    Then, as you surf the news at Google [sure didn't have that when I was a kid!], and as you read the Times and the Guardian [that, either.], it breaks on you like a dawn. Something extra this year. It's a clock, alright, but not as in "clock, turning back the," more like "clock, doomsday."

    What really makes you feel like you're ten again is the Doomsday Clock, the one your uptight Viet Nam vet civics teacher told you was inching perilously close to midnight. [Uptight? He'd blink hard a few times before answering a question, trying to hold it all together.] Go figure. Hadn't thought of that for a while.

    Thank you, President Bush. And thank your friends. For a Christmas just like the ones I used to know.

    Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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    find me on twitter: @gregorg

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