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Twice-Told Tales

January 10, 2012 | by

Over the holidays, I go to the movies. This year I saw two of the critically praised releases of the fall, The Artist and Puss in Boots. Both of these films have relatively simple narratives. In The Artist a successful silent-film actor falls out of favor with the advent of the talkies, and a young actress with a crush on him passes him by on her way up the ladder of success. Puss in Boots is a revisionist collage that steals recognizable characters from a variety of literary sources, principally the eponymous seventeenth-century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, and fuses them together. Both of these films cull elements from earlier films and familiar narratives—and both succeed, in part, because of the joy of recognition we get when we see motifs from our collective imagination tweaked in new ways. But the most prominent aspects of each of these films are the technical approaches to their subjects. One is an old-school silent film, and the other uses cutting-edge computer animation, but technology is the star of both, albeit a star that is worked into the fabric of each movie so as not to overpower the performers. Read More »

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Breaking Bad

December 7, 2011 | by

The latest Alexander Payne outing, The Descendants, is based on a book, but unlike Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the book it is based on has not amassed an army of followers so ardent that they have their own moniker. The Descendants and Breaking Dawn were released on the same weekend. Undoubtedly one is making a play for an Oscar. Undoubtedly the other will dominate every MTV award category, including best kiss, best dude moment, best male shirtless scene, and whatever else the network that produces the Jersey Shore celebrates. The movies are in many ways very different. But both use sex as a submerged theme while on the surface promoting a wholesome idea of family values; both seem to devalue motherhood; and both deal with characters who are so financially secure that they are almost impossible to identify with. The Descendants is a much better film, but that is because it is not hampered by the precedent of an extremely successful book, a rabid fan base, and a studio that is out for green (so much so that they are willing to split the product into two films, even if it means stretching the material thin to the point of vapidity).

Alexander Payne likes his characters quirky, ugly, and pathetic. Read More »

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The Star-Crossed

November 10, 2011 | by

A few weeks ago, I went to the local art-house cinema in Royal Oak, Michigan, to see Gus Van Sant’s Restless, starring Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry Hopper, and the sensitive indie-girl du jour Mia Wasikowska. The movie is in many ways a conventional love story: awkward boy meets awkward girl; they both have secret traumas that they eventually reveal to each other; they support each other emotionally when the rest of the world is unable; they have a fight; and then, by the end, they come to a greater acceptance of each other. But one director’s trite structure is another’s fresh material. If Van Sant had made nothing but offbeat romances, Restless might have been boring. But he is one of the most experimental filmmakers we have, and his decision to helm an ostensibly ordinary love story is, itself, anything but ordinary. Read More »

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Mystic River

September 22, 2011 | by

Think of all the takes of all the shots of all the movies ever made. Think of all the scenes and angles and alternate readings and alternate lines that were recorded on film—and then discarded in the cutting room. There are endless reels that have been perused and discarded by editors, never to be seen again. Many filmmakers would consider the discarded material worthless, but I, as an actor who has spent fifteen years in front of the camera, consider all of it valuable. They are the essence of my art. Usually each shot is taken four to ten times and, in the final edit of the film, only one of these takes, or portions of a few of these takes, will be used. At best, only one tenth of my total output is ever seen by the public. The other shots are filed away or destroyed. Sometimes these takes are inferior. But sometimes—as when they feature an actor like River Phoenix in a film like My Own Private Idaho, the best of his generation giving his best performance—every scrap is gold.

Gus Van Sant made My Own Private Idaho in 1990 and released it in 1991. All the dailies were on film, nothing digitized; when I heard that Gus had held on to the editor’s film rolls, I told him that I would do anything to see them. We spent two days in Portland watching as much as we could. While we were watching, we discussed how Gus’s movies have changed in the intervening decades. His films now are much more spare in story and dialogue; they involve longer takes and fewer cuts. We were naturally led to wonder what Idaho would be like if he made the film now, and Gus offered to let me make my own cut.  It was overwhelming to be able to cut the raw material of my favorite film, a film that had moved me, that had helped shape me as a teenager. The only way I could justify cutting such material was to do what Gus and I had discussed: I cut it as if Gus had made it today.

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