Friday, October 31, 2008

More on Buster Keaton

"Steamboat Bill, Jr. was his last really fine feature. His face is older and sadder, but he still exhibits humid romanticism, sniffing a girl's hair as if in a trance. The gags play with expectations and build suspense; in one perfect moment, though knocked out and stuffed upside down in a car, Buster still manages to cross his legs jauntily.

These last few films are the most refined expression of his art, unafraid to draw out situations to the point of, and even past, tedium. They are something like Beethoven's last string quartets: heaven for the specialist, alienating for the casual viewer..."

"...In many ways, Buster was the Godard of the twenties, the Rossellini of slapstick—he needed to improvise. He was unable to come up with a cut-and-dried script—that just wasn't the way he worked...."

"...Like Chaplin, he had a native gift for movement, but, unlike the Little Tramp, he had very modern instincts that propelled him far ahead of any of his contemporaries. For so long, he was thought of as just a forgotten pie-thrower with stone face and porkpie hat. Today he is revered for that stream of pure movies from the twenties, a sequence of work that has improved with age and speaks to us all from the viewpoint of an artist who is both burned and purified, numb and serene, hopeful but cynical..."

From a profile by Dan Callahan on Senses of Cinema:

Real Escapism: Kentucker Audley and Team Picture

You can't really talk about Team Picture without mentioning Mumblecore at this point, which is unfortunate, considering how many things the film does as you watch it, and what an accomplished stylist the director clearly is. Mumblecore might have died a slow death as a conversational seque into a group of films and filmmakers Kentucker Audley has fallen in with, the most active verb of which has been Cassavettes, but Audley's Team Picture has a much wider array of precedents, and Audley especially seems too full of ideas and idiosyncratic talent to pitch his tent for very long in anyone's camp...

See the rest of this essay at Fanzine

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jared Leto as Jake LaMotta

Discussing his preparation for the role of Mark David Chapman in the film Chapter 27, Jared Leto talks almost exclusively about the weight he gained, and the toll this took on him physically. Chapman, you'll recall, murdered John Lennon outside the Dakota Building in December of 1980. He wasn't a small guy, or even apparently in any condition approaching "fit"; nor does he seem, in the pictures I've seen, strikingly obese. In the making-of featurette which accompanies the Chapter 27 DVD, Leto says that the weight gain affected him completely; the way he moved, the way he thought and felt. It was horrible. He'd stretched out his stomach to such an extent, he said, that if ever he bent over during the shoot, bile would start to flow back up his throat. His feet ached unbearably on the walk from his trailer to the set. He took to using a wheelchair. It's something you couldn't pay him to do again, and yet the role, he understands, required it of him, as if it were something of a calling.

Just how ridiculous this is becomes apparent when you consult the film again and see that Leto, as Chapman, looks no more hideous than half the people you know, none of whom you consider horribly out of shape, some of whom you might even find slightly or more than a little attractive. To hear Leto talk, you would think the actor gained hundreds of pounds to portray his subject faithfully. Reportedly, he gained 67 pounds for the role, by drinking microwaved pints of ice cream mixed with soy sauce and olive oil every night. His body doesn't seem to have lost its muscle tone altogether; in various scenes depicting Chapman in his hotel room, the actor wanders around in underwear, the lamplight moving over a still fairly structured physique. You can see Leto's mind working feverishly in these shots, trying to run through his rolodex of fatso behavioral attitudes. He puffs out his cheeks, retracts his chin, allows his body to double over, creating vaguely pendulous silhouettes. It's as if Leto is noticing his body for the first time, as though the role gave him an excuse to enjoy his physicality as something corporeal and sensuous, rather than a vessel whose sole purpose is to make money and maintain a competitive edge through various systems of deprivation and abstinence.

According to Jared, being that heavy was depressing, and because he couldn't think of anything else, he apparently can't believe that Chapman would have been able to either. Ergo, Chapman killed Lennon because he was unhappy, which is to say because he was wretchedly fat. The director subscribes to this kind of reductionism as well, promoting the idea that Chapman had very little on his mind beyond "kill" and Catcher in the Rye, from which the movie quotes shamelessly and copiously. While Chapman might have inscribed a copy of Salinger's novel with his signature and a paragraph indicating his conviction that the book would explain his behavior, he has also acknowledged that he was directed and judged by a committee of imaginary "little people", and that he was equally fascinated with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. No such complexity here. The voice-over narration of Chapter 27 presents a rambling, wimpy caricature, closer in spirit to the feeble but grumpy public persona of Bette Davis succumbing to late stage Alzheimers than a man who, however mentally unbalanced, managed to travel around the country on money he talked his wife into borrowing from her mother.

Chapter 27 is interested only in Salinger and Catcher. Everything in the narrative must be explained by this connection, reducing Chapman to a simplistic notion of obsessional insanity. It chooses to focus on Chapman's last three days in Manhattan, but not how he funded his stay, or the circumstances of his life in Hawaii, including lost jobs, a short fuse, an extra-marital affair which consumed him with guilt, and a desire to kill himself which brought him there in the first place. Many conspiracy theories have evolved concerning his murder of Lennon, the most persistent of which asserts that he was a mind-controlled assassin, trained by the FBI and the CIA. Such is the movie's particular accomplishment that even after driving home its singular theory for an hour an a half, it succeeds in failing to make Catcher in the Rye feel very compelling or even believable as the engine of a mental disorder, and renders the idea that Chapman would have killed anyone in anything but a momentary pique of irritability highly implausible. The mind-control conspiracy makes much more sense.

Leto isn't horrible, and I wonder what he might have done with more intelligent direction, or writing. The most poignant thing about Chapter 27 is the sense it gives you that this, the first opportunity for its lead actor to dig into a character with any depth who doesn't happen to be peripheral or supporting, might also be his last.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Polanski: A Biography

Books on Roman Polanski, even critical studies, tend to regard the events of his life and the movies he's made as somehow interchangeable on some perhaps Jungian level, as if the two realms informed each other in readily identifiable, quantifiable ways. Within that system of logic, Rosemary's Baby ties directly into the murder of Sharon Tate, and Tess becomes a response to the incident at Jack Nicholson's house involving sodomy with an underage girl.

Following that line of thought inevitably involves viewing Polanski's films through a tightly constricted, inevitably distorted lens, allowing for heightened experiences of them in some respects, if a limited appreciation overall. Surely Hitchcock, another director whose culturally defined psychological profile is read outside his films, carried back into them, and seeps back out again, was processing some sort of issue with blond actresses, dressing Tippie and Grace as if they were his dolls, but Marnie and Rear Window can hardly be described as chapters out of his autobiography, or therapy sessions, especially once you consider that, however extensively he plotted his films in advance, the stories typically began as someone else's script.

Compared to its predecessors, the latest biography on Polanski shows remarkable restraint. Christopher Sandford does a more admirable job keeping everything straight; certainly he does better than Denis Meikle, whose Odd Man Out reads more like a USA Today article than a biography. Polanski's autobiography was more of an entertainment and an evasion than an illumination, serving as a reaction to the continual and intentional confusion between his life and his work. A book by a man as reviled in the press as Polanski has often been might be expected to come across defensively, but as a result, you learn more about the worldliness of young girls who look older than they are and horrible journalists who refuse to discuss anything but murder and rape than you do about the films themselves in any detail approaching critical acuity.

It isn't that the events in Polanski's life are avoided in the Sandford book, or even skimmed over. They're written about at length. But no effort is made to connect said events in any conclusive way to the movies preceding or following them. And the films themselves are discussed on a variety of levels, including circumstances of production, financing, critical reception, and artistic intention. Hearing about events surrounding the production of Tess, you learn that the director's personal affections at the time were for young women and lots of them, that he was particularly interested in Natassia Kinski, that he appeared with Kinski at Cannes to promote the film ahead of its release, declaring, "I've never hidden the fact that I like young girls. I will say again, once and for all, I like very young girls," after which he rolled his eyes in ecstasy and covered his crotch with his hand.

You also learn that the production of Tess was fraught with complications which beset cast and crew from the very first day of filming, when a scene meant to be sunny was scheduled on a day pouring with rain. Natassia was German and hadn't acted much if any, requiring voice lessons and the better part of Polanki's already compromised focus on set. Eleven weeks into production, the film's director of photography took ill and died the same day. The production extended through summer and autumn and into the worst winter France had experienced in the preceding sixty years. Blizzards were involved. Production was incessantly interrupted by the noise of French air force jets and nearby traffic. Stonehenge was rebuilt from scratch. There were myriad delays, stoppages, and distractions. At one point, "Natassia Kinski repeated one short speech twenty-seven times before the sound crew deemed it technically passable." The budget went from 8 million to 12. Add to this the fact that Polanski jumped into the film immediately after arriving in France, a welcome diversion from his recent troubles in America. He'd lost his homes in America and in England. The rape charges were unquestionably on his mind. Being human, and a film director, plenty else besides was, as well.

Reading all this, it's difficult to narrow down the focus of the film to a straightforward commentary relating directly to Polanski's fateful experience at Jack Nicholson's. But the book doesn't join the cult of apologists for its subject either, many of whom excuse some of his more spectacularly shitty behavior as an understandable side effect of genius. Unlike the documentary Wanted and Desired, which approaches Polanski's behavior in LA as more of an indiscretion than a crime, portraying the director as a victim of a publicity-hungry judge, Sandford makes it clear that Ritterband, the judge in question, never in fact promised Polanski would be placed on probation rather than be sentenced to a term if only he confessed guilt and served time at the Chino State Prison for an evaluation period. To the contrary, court documents show Roman saying he fully understood exactly that, whatever he says now. Besides which, one might expect particularly tenacious rancor in cases involving sex with minors and quaaludes. Seeing the director in the kind of detail provided by Sandford, without the excessive bias typically involved, opens the films up to wider interpretation, allowing the reader to review them more comprehensively with a broader spectrum of reference points. Ultimately, the filmmaker and his work are served better by this kind of scrutiny than by the fog-like layers of mysticism which often cling to all things Polanski, obscuring anything but the most reductive analogies.

That kind of diplomacy works in Polanski's favor in other ways. Tate has long been regarded by many as the victim not just of Manson's creepy-crawlies but of her husband's philandering as well. Even when biographers and critics have conceded that the couple had some sort of understanding about Polanski's extra-marital affairs, they seem to imply that Tate was weak and didn't feel she had much of a choice in the matter, that each affair damaged her irreparably, that she was fragile, pining, and needy, all stereotypes applied to women which further served to excoriate Polanski by devaluing Tate. Sandford gives ample enough reason to see Tate as more independent and self-contained. The fact that she made far more than Polanski did at the time of her death has remained relatively unknown. Of the two, she had far more pull in Hollywood. For a Hollywood couple, that means more power in the relationship, not just out of it. Sandford argues that Tate knew about Polanski's affairs and made certain resolutions about them, not all of which were conducted in private or under duress. If anything, she had far more choices than her husband, which isn't to say his affairs didn't sometimes or even often irritate or even deeply upset her; rather, she made whatever decisions she did from a more informed and empowered position than anyone wishes to give women they choose to dismiss as helpless blond bimbos credit for.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

JT Leroy: Autobiography As Set Piece

JT Leroy, the subject of the book GIRLBOYGIRL, was a literary phenomenon who turned out never to have existed beyond the imagination of Laura Albert, a middle-aged San Franciscan. A small time James Frey, Leroy began his brief existence through phone calls to various writers whose work might be said to have been sympathetic, if not catalytic, creating imaginative back-story and relationships which provided legitimate worker bees for the propagation of the JT storyline. Writers got JT published. Publication got JT celebrity friends. A movie adaptation of his story followed, with trips to Cannes and Italy and the offices of several producers eager as ever to visualize the emperor's new clothes. Ultimately, JT was exposed in a series of magazine and newspaper articles, the most interesting of them written by Stephen Beachy. Until now, Laura and crew had been relatively silent.

GIRLBOYGIRL is ostensibly the story of Savannah Knoop, Albert's sister-in-law,who was commissioned by Laura to impersonate JT after journalists and others grew impatient with the photo Dennis Cooper had loaned to Leroy for use as himself. The first autobiography to emerge from the JT Leroy conglomerate, GIRLBOYGIRL makes for a nice extension of the JT mythos, showing how adaptable the basic story is, even now that JT Leroy has been exposed as the creation of Laura Albert.

It isn't a bad book. The JT novels themselves weren't either, though many people changed their minds about them once the scam was exposed. GIRLBOYGIRL operates within the same format as SARAH and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, trading in tell-all vernacular. Like JT, who was said to have been pimped out by his mother to her johns until a therapist saved him by encouraging him to write, Savannah essentially "finds herself" through the course of the story. Like JT, she arranges events like a film, presenting a collection of cinematic vignettes which eschew the mundane in favor of the memorable. These involve her acquaintance with various celebrities: dinner with Gus Van Sant and Mike Pitt, girlboygirl crush on Asia Argento, residence in Carrie Fisher's guest house.

The JT story was something of an ad-lib. Readers completed it using a subtext provided by magazine articles, interviews, and the recommendations and endorsements of other authors and a motley assortment of public figures. The novels were essentially sets upon which JT's fans could play out their fantasies of him; they were endlessly adaptable this way, and their merit was based on the extent of imagination brought to them by their audience and by an awareness of the work their texts evoked: Dennis Cooper, Bruce Benderson, Mary Gaitskill, and others did more than half of JT's work for Albert, providing dimension to an otherwise fairly dimensionless narrative. JT was a familiar character, if one with no real-life analog, recognizable from the figures who populated other novels and stories. The subtext provided texture, reinforcing the idea that Sarah and Heart were poetic representations of a much more complicated, inarticulate universe. They lent a sort of credence and cohesion to the work of the authors they borrowed from as well, encouraging readers to see them as a bigger picture.

GIRLBOYGIRL presents Savannah as a repentant transgressor. Like JT, who hid behind sunglasses and wigs to protect his true identity, Knoop lived vicariously through the disguise. She played out a fantasy of herself, allowing for projection. Like JT, she got lost in the performance, felt trapped, was debased, controlled, and now, freed through writing, might be saved and start over. The book characterizes her situation as an addiction: she suffers not just from the impersonation, but from an eating disorder and aggressive self-hatred. Fittingly, she has body issues to go with her persona dysmorphia. Both are out of her control. The last line of the book compares well against those in other, better known autobiographical tell-alls: I will survive, I have learned, I have been to hell and back, etc.

The hell in question, of course, remains an attractive one, which is, after all, the book's reason for being. Savannah is no less enamored with the celebrities JT met than JT himself was. Whatever the stresses of a double life, she was able to travel, see the world, make some cash, and feel the love, if only for a while. A while is more than most people get, and the accomplishment of the book is its ability to make mountains out of these molehills. Toward this end, it uses the same language JT's own story did: Knoop is humble, she accepts responsibility, she knows what she did was wrong, she can't believe little ole her is actually sitting across from the one and only Gus Van Sant! Her simpleminded adoration of Asia Argento reads as endearing aw-shucks naivete, and Asia's eventual exposure as a selfish, ego-maniacal princess with feelings for no one save herself actually elicits sympathy, as if this would come as a big surprise to anyone who has watched TV in the last twenty years and knows how this very predictable plot operates. Like JT, Savannah is able to present herself as a simple soul so removed from her element, class-wise and otherwise, that the reader would have to be cold-hearted not to pardon her obvious gullibility.

To her credit, she resists the temptation and pressure to demonize Albert, with whom she seems to have remained friends. She touches on some of Albert's controlling qualities, as well as her own personal issues with weight and a chronic sense of inadequacy. Such is the book's achievement that even after reading it you could be excused for failing to see Laura as the manipulator she would truly have to be. The book is reasonably successful in making the whole thing seem more like an ordeal that was over its participants' heads than a juggling act single-handedly kept air borne by Albert for a number of years, through careful, even obsessive plotting, fanatical strategic advances and retreats, hours and hours of phone calls wherein she portrayed another person for hours and months on end, total, tireless vigilance over an assortment of related media, contract negotiations which required, given her assumed name, all kinds of subterfuge and, one would think, legal counsel, a sustained charade with a therapist who never met JT in person. This wasn't something which happened to Albert or Knoop. It was something they worked at. Consider a day in the life of Albert at the time: chocolates to Dennis Cooper, emails to various writers who'd received press and might be able to hook JT up, phone calls to Mary Gaitskill and Bruce Benderson, solicitation of blurbs and endorsements, coaching Savannah on voice and gesture and back story, and the writing, which, given such necessary distractions, must certainly have been like wrestling with a pit bull, as JT once said.

Once you consider how much was left out, you start looking at where room might have been made, and you see that what mattered to Savannah, the celebrities and the attention, matters even more so now. They fuel the book, reactivating the story in alternate combinations. They remain useful magnets, as ever. Had she wanted you to understand, she might have written an account detailing how all this worked and was sustained; a sort of technical manual for a specific kind of publicity machine. Doing so would have sacrificed her bid for sympathy, in which case there would be little point in writing her story in the first place. You begin to see her position only if you break the pattern of imaginative participation and suspended disbelief required by the JT novels themselves. What interests Savannah is continuing the story. This is the next chapter in the franchise, to be followed by documents from Albert and Knoop's half brother and Albert's one-time romantic partner, Geoff Knoop. JT's narrative was always a series, an interactive soap, with installments which didn't always fit but were made to. The characters were and still are Albert, Geoff, Asia, Gus, Cooper, Benderson, Ira Silverberg, et al. The possibilities for elaboration are endless.

The above photo shows Laura Albert (left) after various surgical procedures, and Savannah Knoop (right) as JT Leroy.

The article by Stephen Beachy detailing the "hoax" can be found here: