June 28, 2012 | by Matt Weinstock
In April The Believer declared Nora Ephron “the original Tina Fey.” This week, an obituary on The Daily Beast said that she was bigger than Twain. Both superlatives gloss over the fact that Ephron’s work was widely reviled (a Village Voice review of Bewitched even argued that “the Ephrons should have to sharecrop, for all the good they've done for the culture”) and that, even for Ephron devotees, part of the charm of seeing her latest flick was wondering whether it’d be typical Burbank dung (Mixed Nuts! Michael!) or a piece of deathless Hollywood legend.
Ephron kept dice in her purse, was willing to “teach almost anyone how to play craps at a moment’s notice,” and her writing had a gambler’s unevenness. The rambling digressiveness, along with the faint datedness, of her worldview only intensified your shock when Ephron arrived, seemingly by accident, at an incisive thought. Here she is in her 1983 roman à clef Heartburn, recounting a speech she often made while preparing Lillian Hellman’s pot roast recipe:
I have no problem with her political persona, or with her insistence on making herself the centerpiece of most of the historical conflicts of the twentieth century; but it seems to me that she invented a romantic fantasy about her involvement with Dashiell Hammett that is every bit as unrealistic as the Doris Day movies feminists prefer to blame for society’s unrealistic notions about romance … it occurred to me as I delivered [the speech] yet another time that I had always zipped through that part of the speech as if I had somehow managed to be invulnerable to the fantasy, as if I had somehow managed to escape from or rise above it simply as a result of having figured it out. I think you often have that sense when you write—that if you can spot something in yourself and set it down on paper, you’re free of it.
As someone who was corn-fed on her movies as a child, the passage seems eerily prophetic. Seeing Ephron gab about “unrealistic notions about romance” in 1983 is rather like hearing those reports that the young L. Ron Hubbard told friends, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion”—and it hints at the nagging contradictions of Nora Ephron’s life.
June 5, 2012 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
The best films scramble your brain, changing you slightly. You emerge from the dark with new, blinking eyes, adjusting to a different world. It’s why for many of us a good movie is a small miracle, worthy of devotion. So far, Norwegian director Joachim Trier has made two such small miracles, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Two sharp films that, when I saw them, settled down into some small part of me, changing the way I thought about youth, ambition, and the meaning of life, if only for a night.
I suspect the films of Trier speak particularly to anyone with literary ambitions, anyone who knows what it’s like to be besotted by a work of art and anyone who wants to create something strong and beautiful and true. The director has an uncanny eye for the worries of sad young men afflicted with dreaminess about art and ideas, the same sort of disease written about in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. His exuberant, French New Wave–influenced debut, Reprise, is the story of two boyish twenty-something writers wrestling with literary ambitions and madness. Reprise is charming, formally daring, and focused on youthful folly; in Oslo, August 31st, the folly is over, and it’s time for the morning after.
April 17, 2012 | by Jane Yager
A man with a briefcase arrives in a place called City-A looking like a double agent from 1973: mustachioed and trenchcoated, forever ducking into phone booths for cryptic conversations. The man, Mr. Holz, is a geophysicist of unknown origin. He has come here to work for the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company. City-A is mesmerizingly bleak, a grid of concrete high-rises set between a brackish sea and a wintry industrial wasteland, all of it reeking of environmental contamination and failed utopia. Many things, Holz notices, are amiss here. Clocks don’t run sixty seconds to the minute in City-A. The drinking water is spiked with lithium, a shadowy entity has confiscated his passport, language is rationed, and what exactly is this New Method Oil Well Cementing Company, anyway? As the bewildered-looking Holz moves through the city, is he piecing together clues to solve these mysteries or just being shuttled around by a powerful unseen force?
This, roughly, is the storyline of whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, the new film by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation. But because this noir is, as the title promises, algorithmic, the film has no beginning, middle, or end. Read More »
February 21, 2012 | by Perrin Drumm
On February 26, approximately forty million people will tune into ABC to watch the eighty-fourth Academy Awards. It was around this time eighty-three years ago that the first winners of the Academy Award of Merit were notified, via telegraph, even though it would be another three months before the ceremony itself took place—an event that drew an audience of only 270 people, each of whom paid five dollars for a private dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel. While guests dined on filet of sole sauté au buerre and half-broiled chicken on toast, master of ceremonies Douglas Fairbanks dispensed with the awards in a mere fifteen minutes. There were no speeches and no cameras. It was the only untelevised Academy Awards in history.
There aren’t too many people who are still under the impression that the Oscars shine an unbiased eye on all the films of the year. But, in fact, it was never intended to be an impartial awards ceremony. According to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who created the awards, “the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them ... If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” Predictable though they may now be, even the most jaded of cinephiles can’t help but get at least a little excited when the nominations are announced each year.
Only this year one not-so-predictable contender was announced: the unlikely audience favorite The Artist swept up ten Oscar nominations, including Best Motion Picture. If it wins it will be only the second silent film in history to win in the category. The other was Wings, a war film by William A. Wellman, which won Best Picture at the very first Academy Awards.
This fact alone is a point of contention. In 1929 the Best Picture award was split into two separate categories, Unique and Artistic Production, which went to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, and Outstanding Picture, Production, which went to Wellman’s action-packed WWI aviation adventure. The next year, when the award was consolidated into the single Best Motion Picture, it was Wings that went down in the books as the sole winner and, according to many historians, as the last great silent film. Read More »
February 14, 2012 | by Emily Stokes
In one of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, “In The Electric Tram,” the narrator describes the feeling of well-being that comes with sitting in a moving vehicle on a rainy afternoon: the joy of lighting a cigarette, the satisfaction of composing a tune in his head, the urge to strike up a conversation with the reticent conductor. His gaze takes in the other passengers: “the drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl,” before happily settling on his footwear. “I must say,” he confesses to his reader, “I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.”
The German industrial city of Wuppertal still has a functioning electric tram, which hangs from long beams like an aerial camera and which travels through Wim Wender’s new 3-D dance movie, Pina, an homage to the German choreographer Pina Bausch. It is a running joke, appearing during the movie’s opening titles as the audience grapples with their 3-D glasses and cropping up in different scenes throughout the film—suspended above two dancers performing a duet on a roundabout, or situated below a dancer who, sitting on the tram’s old fretwork, shoves his legs around as they pop up like disobedient wooden beams. Later, in the tram’s car, a male dancer wearing cardboard cut-out Spock ears takes a seat in the back row and stares straight ahead, apparently oblivious to his appendages—and to the female dancer boarding the vehicle, whose dark hair is entirely hiding her face. She heaves along with her a white pillow as if it were a live thing, making squelching sound effects, before reassuming her anonymity and sitting down. This is Bausch’s world—a little like ours, but stranger: perhaps more like Walser’s Berlin of 1905, a city of would-be actors and artists, voyeurs and dilettantes, and elderly women with lipstick on their teeth. Pina reminds us of the ways we are all performing to one another and pretending to ignore others’ performances, and it’s one of the most blissful things I’ve ever seen on a rainy afternoon. Read More »
January 10, 2012 | by James Franco
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 »