Read Good Shit On Musings: film essay

Jonathan Demme’s ‘A Master Builder’ and the Elusive Magic of Bringing Stage to Screen by Tina Hassannia

By Yasmina Tawil

Criterion’s three-film box-set of the works of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory—My Dinner With Andre, Uncle Vanya, and A Master Builder—features several supplements, including an interview between the theater artists and writer Fran Lebowitz. She makes a frank confession: “I don’t like watching theater.” Gregory, a man who’s spent his entire life in the theater, says he feels the same way.

Lebowitz explains that she loves to be drawn into a good film or novel, but, with the exception of Shawn’s work, she’s never experienced the same with theater. She’s not alone. While theater may not exactly be a dying art form, it was long ago upstaged by cinema and television as our de-facto entertainment, and our appreciation for it has dwindled in kind. Theater requires us to suspend disbelief that we’re watching mere make believe, more forcefully than film, which benefits from a metaphysical distance from the viewer. Why sit through 2-3 hours of physical artifice just to see actors move through the spectrum of human emotion when there are so many easier and supposedly better options?

Those lucky enough to have witnessed really good theater know this a philistine’s line of thinking, but even so, its cultural relevance is tightly bound to its usurper, cinema: film adaptations of plays are usually better known than famous productions. (Consider the populist understanding of A Streetcar Named Desire without Marlon Brando—it doesn’t exist.) But adaptations are in essence, films, not theater. Transmitting the visceral pleasures of actual theater is nigh-impossible. If you’ve ever made the mistake of watching a recorded stage performance, you know you’re missing an essential thing privy to members of the audience. No matter the quality of the performance or camerawork, filming a play cheapens the experience. Theatricality is transmogrified into an over-exaggerated mess onscreen. The chemistry unique to each performer and audience, which gives birth to an atmospheric energy that changes with every performance, is lost.

A Master Builder director Jonathan Demme tries to describe a similar sentiment in another Criterion supplement, an interview between himself, Shawn, Gregory, and critic David Edelstein. Having seen the duo’s final production of A Master Builder —which Demme calls “literally spell-binding” and “very emotionally intense”— the director chronicles in the interview his experience watching Gregory watch the play. Having finished his part as Brovik, Gregory joined the audience, but, according to Demme, appeared to subconsciously direct the performers as if through an “energy field.”

“I remember seeing his face responding to everything that was going on there and feeling the connection,” he says. Edelstein follows up with questions, as what he’s hearing sounds too “woo woo”: Were the performers looking at Gregory? Was he in their peripheral vision? … What, exactly? It’s not Demme’s fault he can’t eloquently explain the phenomenon, because words rarely do the experience of live theatre justice. It’s an inexplicable sensation that can only be experienced to be understood.

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Mirror, Mirror: When Movie Characters Look Back at Themselves

By Yasmina Tawil

By Sheila O’Malley

“I always feel it behind me. It’s myself. And I follow me. In silence. But I can hear it. Yes, sometimes it’s like I’m chasing myself. I want to escape from myself. But I can’t!” —Peter Lorre as child-murderer, M (1931)

There was a period in the ‘60s and ‘70s when you could barely call yourself a male movie star if you didn’t do a scene where you stared at yourself in the mirror, doing various “private” things. The device shows up before then, too, but the floodgates opened in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Meryl Streep has observed, “Often the scenes that are the most exciting, and most illuminating in film, are the ones with no dialogue…where a character is doing something alone, where the deepest most private self is revealed or explored. Exposed.”

 

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Paris sans Agnès

By Yasmina Tawil

By Andrew Lapin

It was morning in Paris when news of Agnès Varda’s death reached the world. On a hunch, I left the apartment I shared with my girlfriend in the city’s 5th arrondissement and walked the 30 minutes, past the hordes of tourists cramming into the skull-stacked Paris Catacombs, to reach Rue Daguerre in the Montparnasse neighborhood, where Varda had lived since 1951.

This is where Varda and her husband, fellow French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy, had purchased a derelict pink storefront and turned it into the production house Tamaris Films, later renamed Ciné-Tamaris, so they could produce Varda’s first film La Pointe Courte in 1954. The pair moved into the tucked-away apartment/studio complex and quickly became fixtures of the neighborhood, spreading art, whimsy, and cats around their tiny world (although the building’s exterior remained in poor shape, with paint perpetually peeling and the roof leaking).

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When Dirty Harry Fought Pauline Kael

By Yasmina Tawil

By Keith Phipps
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“Dirty” Harry Callahan fought many bad guys across five films between the years 1971 and 1988, from a serial killer named Scorpio to violent revolutionaries to a gang of seaside rapists. But one of his most persistent foes lived off screen, which didn’t keep her from becoming a kind of obsession for the film series Harry called home. Directed by Don Siegel, Dirty Harry quickly became the subject of controversy and condemnation — as everyone making it no doubt knew it would, with its casual endorsement of police power and dismissal of accused criminals’ rights. But few were as vocal in their condemnation as Pauline Kael, who pinned on the series, and its star, an f-word both would have a hard time shaking. The “action genre has always had a fascist potential,” wrote Kael in The New Yorker, “and it has finally surfaced.” The review locked Callahan and Kael in a battle that would continue until both retired, leaving no clear winner at its end.

 

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3D, Part 2: How 3D Peaked At Its Valley

By Yasmina Tawil

By Vadim Rizov

I didn’t expect to spend Thanksgiving Weekend 2018 watching ten 3D movies: marathon viewing is not my favorite experience in general, and I haven’t spent years longing to see, say, Friday the 13th Part III, in 35mm. But a friend was visiting, from Toronto, to take advantage of this opportunity, an impressive level of dedication that seemed like something to emulate, and it’s not like I had anything better to do, so I tagged along. Said friend, Blake Williams, is an experimental filmmaker and 3D expert, a subject to which he’s devoted years of graduate research and the bulk of his movies (see Prototype if it comes to a city near you!); if I was going to choose the arbitrary age of 32 to finally take 3D seriously, I couldn’t have a better Virgil to explain what I was seeing on a technical level. My thanks to him (for getting me out there) and to the Quad Cinema for being my holiday weekend host; it was probably the best possible use of my time.

 

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The Wondrous, Sensuous World of Astralvision by Charles Bramesco

By Yasmina Tawil

You don’t find it; it finds you, most likely in the dead of night.

You can’t sleep, you may or may not be on drugs (you don’t have to be, though it’d be a lot cooler, as they say, if you were), and you’re clicking around the weirder back channels of YouTube again. You pinball from ‘80s-era NASA test footage to “36 NEW SHOWS FROM THE HELLISH MID-SEASON TV OF 1979” to the deep catalog of VHS...

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The Wondrous, Sensuous World of Astralvision

By Yasmina Tawil

 By Charles Bramesco
image

You don’t find it; it finds you, most likely in the dead of night.

You can’t sleep, you may or may not be on drugs (you don’t have to be, though it’d be a lot cooler, as they say, if you were), and you’re clicking around the weirder back channels of YouTube again. You pinball from ‘80s-era NASA test footage to “36 NEW SHOWS FROM THE HELLISH MID-SEASON TV OF 1979” to the deep catalog of VHS oddities discovered and uploaded by a dedicated corps of obsolescence fetishists. It’s here, among the creepy camcorder detritus and lost video-dating profiles, that “Electric Light Voyage” has been waiting for you.

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The Cat Who Wont Cop Out: Shaft as the 70s Black Superheroby Jason Bailey

By Yasmina Tawil

(The following essay is excerpt from Jasons new book, Its Okay With Me: Hollywood, the 1970s, and the Return of the Private Eye.)

The first thing John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) does in Gordon Parks Shaft, after emerging from a Times Square subway station below the grindhouse movie theaters that would eventually and enthusiastically screen his adventures, is walk into New York City traffic (Shaft cant be stopped, even by Eighth Avenue) and flip off the driver who gets too close to him. Meet your new action hero, Middle America; here is his message to you.

Shaft came early in the so-called blaxpoitation movementa period, running roughly from 1970 to 1975, that saw an explosion of films made for, about, and often by African-Americans. This was an underserved audience; with the exception of independent race picture makers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, their stories simply werent told onscreen, and they certainly werent told by mainstream studio films, which consigned black performers to subservient roles (or worse). The winds started to shift in the 1960s, when Sidney Poitier became a bankable name and Oscar-winning star, but he was the exception to the rule. It wasnt until football star-turned-actor Jim Brown leveraged his supporting turn in the 1967 smash The Dirty Dozen into bona fide action hero status that this untapped swath of moviegoers, hungry for entertainment and representation, began to make itself known.

1970 saw the release of two very big (and very different) hits: Ossie Davis high-spirited crime comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Melvin Van Peebles provocative, X-rated (by an all-white jury! boasted the ads) Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song. Peebles film was, essentially, the black Easy Rider, a rough-edged road movie with a decidedly European sensibility that grossed something like $15 million on a $150K budget, a return on investment so huge, the (flailing) studios couldnt help but take notice.

Shaft was next down the chute. Adapted by Ernest Tidymanwho also wrote that years Best Picture winner The French Connectionfrom his 1970 novel, the film was helmed by Gordon Parks, the influential photographer whod made his directorial debut in 1969 with the autobiographical The Learning Tree. MGM gave him a modest $1 million budget; model-turned-actor Roundtree was paid a mere $13,500 to play the title role. (Isaac Hayes was among the actors who auditioned, and though Parks passed on his acting, he hired Hayes to compose and perform the pictures iconic funk score.)

Shaft essentially was a standard white detective tale enlivened by a black sensibility, wrote Donald Bogle, in his essential Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. As Roundtrees John Shaftmellow but assertive and unintimidated by whitesbopped through those hot mean streets dressed in his cool leather, he looked to black audiences like a brother they had all seen many times but never on screen. Hes right on both scores. Shaft, who is smirkingly called a black Spade detective, is embroiled in a commonplace private eye narrative, engaged by a lying client (uptown gangster Bumpy Jonas, smoothly played by Moses Gunn) to find a missing girlin this case, the clients daughter. Shaft is a snappy dresser and sharp shooter; he uses the neighborhood bar as his second office.

But weve never seen a private eye who looks like this. Shaft leaves the shirts and ties to the cops and gangsters; he wears turtlenecks with his suits, along with that amazing leather coat. In the documentary Baadasssss Cinema, blaxploitation acolyte Quentin Tarantino is critical of the lack of action in Shafts opening credit sequence (Im semi-frustrated that [the theme] wasnt utilized better, he explains. If I had the theme to Shaft to open up my movie, Id open my damn movie), but hes underestimating the visual jolt of merely showing a man like Shaft strutting the streets of New York, and gazing upon him as he stakes his claim.

Theres something undeniably sensual about that gaze. Shaft was among the first major motion pictures to feature a black man of sexual potencywith the phallic overtones embedded right in his surname, and thus in the films title. He gets a full-on sex scene with his steady lady early in the film; later on, he shares a steamy shower with a white pick-up, a mere four years after the carefully sexless interracial romance of Guess Whos Coming to Dinner.

But aside from that sceneand the iconographically loaded image, during the climax, of black militants turning fire hoses on white peopleShafts racial politics are surprisingly middle-of-the-road. Shaft may kid Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) with lines like It warms my black heart to see you so concerned for us minority folks, but he humors the white cop, and mostly cooperates with him. The script is careful to disassociate its fictional black-power revolutionary group from real ones like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, but it also shows them to be ineffectual, and Shaft is ultimately interested in their manpower, not their politics.

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