Monday, April 27, 2009

Eraserhead

"Eraserhead's not a movie I'd drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of Star Wars."

- J. Hoberman, Village Voice, October 24, 1977.

The arrival of 1977 saw the release of two important films – Eraserhead and Star Wars. Both films couldn't be more different visually or thematically, and yet they share a common bond in the sense that each feature a filmmaker with a unique vision. Hoberman's quote points out the respective ends of the spectrum that Star Wars' director, George Lucas and Eraserhead's director, David Lynch occupy. Lucas made a wildly popular film that appealed to a mass audience, while Lynch created an intensely personal film that attracted a small, but devoted group of admirers. Interestingly enough, these two films were so captivating and distinctive that they would entice people to watch them repeatedly but for entirely different reasons. However, where Lucas' film is essentially a homage to the works of other filmmakers and films that he admired – albeit given a unique spin to make it his own, Lynch's film remains truly original and as fresh and innovative as it did when it first appeared at its midnight screening premiere at the Filmex in Los Angeles.

Many writers have tried to sum up the story of Eraserhead, but few have been able to accurately convey what exactly is happening. It is no secret that Eraserhead is a film that defies an easy synopsis. You don't watch the film per se, but rather experience it. However, one of the best attempts to describe it comes from the director himself who once summarized the film as "a dream of dark and troubling things.”

Eraserhead is an urban nightmare set in an industrial wasteland "reminiscent of the paintings of the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger” whose works contain images of decaying biological matter and people trapped in machinery, becoming one with industry, much like Lynch's film with its bleak landscapes of buildings and factories with no signs of nature present. The motion picture's protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a rather odd fellow who wears a black suit with a white pocket protector and white socks to match, his hair styled like some sort of electrified pompadour a la the Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As the film opens, we gradually learn that Henry is on vacation from La Pelle's factory and after a particularly gruesome and rather humorous dinner with his girlfriend Mary X and her strange family, he learns that she has given birth to a premature baby. The rest of the film shows how Henry comes to terms with this situation and copes with all of the problems inherit in rearing a child in an area that can only be referred to as an urban hell.

Now this all sounds pretty straight forward right? Well, Eraserhead doesn't quite play out in this linear fashion. The film follows its own leisurely pace in order to let the rather nightmarish mood and creepy atmosphere slowly work its magic on the viewer. And this is where the film loses or keeps its audience. You are either captivated by its often disturbing, yet somewhat beautiful images, or repulsed by its rather negative and pessimistic worldview. Either way, Eraserhead is an unforgettable film guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction, which is what a good film should do.

David Lynch first conceived of Eraserhead as a black and white film. "Black and white takes you kind of far away. Some things are said better in it, some feelings come across better.” He wanted to capture the feeling of fear and alienation that he had felt while living in Philadelphia and using black and white film stock would convey this mood effectively. The first image that appeared to Lynch was that of a factory where the insides of someone's head would be used to make pencil erasers – an image that would later survive to the final cut and provide the title for his film.

And yet, in later years whenever an interviewer would ask Lynch what was the main influence or inspiration for Eraserhead he would almost immediately reply, Philadelphia. Lynch and his first wife, Peggy had lived in the city from 1966 to 1970, buying a 12-room house for $3,500 in an industrial district across from an old city morgue. Lynch experienced first hand the feeling of urban decay and the evil nature that man was capable of as violence, danger, and fear surrounded him on a daily basis. Their house was broken into three times, twice when he and Peggy were at home. Lynch remembers one such eye opening event that stayed with him for some time, an event that led to him writing and filming Eraserhead.

“And a large family was going to a christening of this small baby. And a gang came swooping down on the other side of the street, and attacked the family. And in the family there was a teenage son who tried to defend the whole bunch, and they beat him down, and they shot him in the back of the head.”

For all of its negative aspects, Philadelphia was a positive experience for Lynch. “I never had an original idea until I came to Philadelphia.” His stay there marked an intellectual awakening of sorts. Lynch became even more fascinated and in tune with the philosophy of light and dark, good vs. evil that would later become the focal point of his films.

Lynch moved to California soon after he had enrolled at the American Film Institute under the Center for Advanced Film Studies in 1970. He had achieved this scholarship thanks to a string of strange, unclassifiable film shorts that had won him all sorts of accolades and awards. Initially, Lynch wasn’t even planning to make Eraserhead but had originally submitted an idea for a film short called Gardenback, which he described as “a story about adultery, really, but it had a lot to do with gardens and insects.” However, the Center wasn’t exactly keen on the idea and didn’t really understand what he wanted to do, so Lynch ultimately abandoned it. This left the filmmaker frustrated, heartbroken, and on the verge of quitting the AFI. Instead, Lynch began studying the structure of film by attending conferences and a film analysis class taught by Frank Daniel, former dean of a Czech film school. This in turn provided the technical groundwork for his most ambitious project yet: Eraserhead.

By the next year, the Institute gave him $10,000 and so Lynch began the pre-production stage of Eraserhead, working with a 21-page script that he had written in a compressed style that relied heavily on images. "He showed me this little script he had written for Eraserhead. It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing,” remembers Jack Nance, the man who ended up playing Henry Spencer. When truly inspired, Lynch worked fast on the screenplay. For example, the infamous family dinner scene was written mainly in a single night, while some ideas, like the Lady in the Radiator, developed gradually over time. This rather spontaneous method evolved from Lynch's practice as a painter. He was used to collecting and accumulating images and ideas that were similar or could be linked together via his imagination.

The script for Eraserhead did not take shape in terms of a plot, but rather in terms of textures. Lynch loved to study textures of all various kinds, from the organic sort to ones of an industrial or urban nature. Before and while working on Eraserhead, the filmmaker conducted all sorts of experiments with textures. He discussed one such experiment in an 1980 interview with Wet magazine: "I'm obsessed with textures. We're surrounded by so much vinyl that I find myself constantly in pursuit of other textures. One time I removed all the hair from a mouse with Nair-Hair just to see what it looked like. And it looked beautiful." Lynch was also fascinated by the textures of factories and cities, in particular, the buildings of downtown Los Angeles and the "industrial/agricultural feel" of the L.A. River. This famous metropolis, for Lynch, had a great black and white mood to it, like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel or a film noir like Double Indemnity (1944) made by his favorite director, Billy Wilder. To this end, Lynch captured the dark, forbidding mood synonymous with all film noirs, and evoked in it his own film by actually shooting some the exteriors in downtown L.A. Eraserhead has that look of the old film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, with the only difference being that Lynch goes one step further by staging the entire film at night with some scenes taking place in an almost completely darkened landscape. In this respect, Eraserhead takes the film noir to its stylistic limits.

Actual filming began on May 29, 1972 in the abandoned AFI stables, located at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Henry’s apartment was a deserted garage where filming took place between one am and dawn for a whole year. All of the soundstages that were used in Eraserhead Lynch and his small, but dedicated crew of five or six people had built themselves. The AFI money soon ran out and the young filmmaker was so poor that he ended up living on the set, building sheds, replacing hot water heaters, and delivering the Wall Street Journal for extra money.

“I was a paperboy. I had a route that started at 11:30 at night and the first night I got my route it took seven hours to complete it. And I worked very hard, and one day I got an overview, suddenly, mentally of my route and that was two or three weeks later and I was able to reduce my route down to one hour. So fast I went that one night I had the stomach flu and before the route I was sick and after the thing was done I had worked such a sweat up doing the route, that I was healed.”

This is a great example of Lynch’s wry, subtle sense of humor. Clearly, there is some truth to this anecdote. Lynch did deliver the Wall Street Journal, using a 1959 Volkswagen, and no doubt worked very hard at it, but he is also having a bit of fun at the interviewer’s expense by also mentioning the flu that was miraculously healed in one hour.

Despite living poverty, Lynch’s time spent working on Eraserhead was one of the best times of his life. He was obviously a man in his element that had made a personal connection with his material.

“I really liked living the way I did during Eraserhead. I had a TV, a shop with enough wood to build things, a radio, a house, a washing machine. No dryer – the sun dried my clothes, which was amazing. Now I go onto the set with 60 people, and it’s just not the same. It’s harder to feel the mood and settle into it.”

For Lynch, this was the perfect environment to develop the right mood and start capturing ideas. At the same time he was fulfilling his dream of living the life of an artist – smoking cigarettes, working late into the night on his film, and building sheds. The plans for these structures originated at Lynch’s favorite restaurant, Bob’s Big Boy Coffee Shop, where he went nearly every day at 2:30 in the afternoon to soak up the atmosphere and drink chocolate milkshakes accompanied by a hot cup of coffee. Amidst all the discouraging struggles to make ends meet, Lynch could always find respite at Bob’s Big Boy where he “would be almost in heaven with happiness.”

Every aspect of Eraserhead was constructed with painstaking care and detail by Lynch and his crew. This not only included building all of the film’s sets but the complex soundtrack as well. The film’s sounds came courtesy of Lynch and his sound editor Alan R. Splet who had cut his teeth at a small production company mixing sound on industrial films. This would provide the ideal background for Eraserhead’s urban soundscape. Splet had been recommended by a friend of Lynch’s who had done the sound on the filmmaker’s first student short film, The Alphabet. The two men subsequently collaborated on Lynch’s next short entitled The Grandmother. The experience proved to be so enjoyable that Splet joined Lynch on creating Eraserhead’s soundtrack.

Lynch and Splet worked on the soundtrack in another empty garage room in the deserted AFI stables. They designed, built, and then hung sound-deadening blankets over the walls to get the cleanest, purist sound possible. Lynch and Splet started with natural sounds and then altered them. The two men used a variety of machinery, from one that could vary the pitch of sounds, but not the speed to “a graphic equalizer, reverb, a little Dipper filter set for peaking certain frequencies and dipping out things or reversing things or cutting things together.” It was the perfect environment for Lynch and Splet to create the ideal soundtrack for Eraserhead as Lynch said in an interview, “we could make sounds the way we wanted them to be. It took several months to do it, and six months to a year to edit it.” At times, the two men had 15 separate sounds going at the same time on different reels. The effect is a truly unsettling collage of noises: grinding gears, factory whistles, and other eerie sounds of a city on the verge of decay, bombarding the viewer, threatening to overload the senses. As critic Henry Bromwell observed, “the sounds, mostly industrial noise never cease; in fact, they increase when Henry is alone, the city filling his head, literally, and turning him into a kind of mechanical zombie.”

Eraserhead not only continued a long working relationship between Splet and Lynch but also marked the beginning of many long term, creative relationships with others. The film marked the first appearance of soon-to-be Lynch regular, John Nance (known as Jack), an actor who had done some theater work in San Francisco. Nance had recently arrived in L.A. to look for film work and apart from some small parts in low-budget AIP programmers, Eraserhead was his first film. Lynch transformed Nance into Henry, who was actually based on Lynch himself. Nance had to live with his rather bizarre haircut for five years, and began to even act like the director, adopting many of his mannerisms. Lynch consoled him by saying that “one of these days, guys are going to be wearing their hair like that,” but Nance was unconvinced, remarking, “making a film with you, Lynch, is one frame at a time.” However, the experience must not have been all that bad for the actor who has gone on to appear in many of Lynch’s films. Perhaps it was Lynch’s personal approach to directing his actors that Nance enjoyed so much. “David will use that moment and start talking to you and give you verbal cues to the scene like “wrapped in plastic” and you’ll be reacting to what he’s saying and do it on the spot. He has caught you, caught you unawares. It’s really neat and it’s really personal, a kind of intimate thing.” It is this style of more actor-oriented directing that has attracted a lot of actors to Lynch and may account for the steady use of certain people like Nance. This has also crossed over to the people working behind the camera who have remained with the director over several of his films. This not only included Splet but cinematographer Frederick Elmes who began working with Lynch on Eraserhead, operating one of the two cameras used in the film (the other operated by Herbert Caldwell). Elmes’ contribution to the film is very crucial. His use of lighting (or the lack thereof) and shadows is important in creating a real feeling of dread and menace. He also mixes many of the stylistic elements of film noir with surrealism to create the sensation of watching a waking nightmare. Elmes would go on to work with Lynch on some of the filmmaker’s most important work – Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1991), helping to define the distinctive cinematic look of these films.

Eraserhead took a critical beating when it debuted at the Los Angeles Filmex on Saturday, March 19, 1977. Comments like, “dismal American Film Institute exercise in gore,” and “commercial prospects nil,” did not hold much promise for the film’s future. As a result, Lynch reluctantly cut approximately 20 minutes from the film. Eraserhead might well have faded into obscurity if it weren’t for the appearance of exhibitor turned distributor, Ben Barenholtz, a fascinating, often overlooked figure in the world of independent film who was responsible for giving many uncommercial films a chance. Most notably, he made Alexandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1971) a huge cult hit and backed several of the Coen brothers’ films.

After viewing Eraserhead, Barenholtz deemed it a “film of the eighties,” realizing that its bleak worldview would appeal to audiences in urban areas because it successfully captured the way people felt about living in such places.

“The bleakness of the landscape is coming true. There’s a strong feeling of helplessness, of being controlled by forces that you don’t know. Henry is the innocent; he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I think it’s a general feeling that younger people have been coming to over the past few years. Eraserhead couldn’t have done anything in the late sixties or early seventies. It’s not an optimistic film.”

Barenholtz’s faith in Eraserhead as some sort of watershed film, prompted him to talk Lynch into moving to New York City in the summer of 1977 where they would assemble a print of the film for an East Coast premiere. Lynch and his second wife ended up staying in a room in Barenholtz’s apartment because they couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else. Lynch worked constantly in the lab to get a good 35mm print of the film for the New York opening. What was to initially take only a couple of weeks, ended up being a couple of months before an acceptable print was ready. Barenholtz proceeded to hold two invitational screenings for two hundred people before it opened at the Cinema Village in the fall of 1977.

Eraserhead’s debut at the Cinema Village is hardly what one would call impressive. Twenty-five people showed up the first night and twenty-four the following night, which depressed Lynch to no end. However, the twenty-four people who showed up the second night were the same twenty-four from the previous evening. Barenholtz persuaded Cinema Village to keep the film on as a midnight attraction and it went on to run for nearly a year through to the summer of 1978. It reappeared at the Waverly where it lasted 99 weekends before enjoying lengthy stints at NuArt in L.A. for over three and half years and just over a year at the Roxy in San Francisco. By 1982, Barenholtz had thirty prints of Lynch’s film in constant use with the film being shown in England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain.

Word of mouth transformed Eraserhead into a midnight cult film success that has been rivaled only by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). But where Rocky Horror lends itself to a collective experience, Eraserhead is rather an “intensely personal” one, which makes its success that much more impressive. All of the images and themes presented in Eraserhead are of an introverted nature, aimed at the individual, and not towards a group of people like the active participation of Rocky Horror. Eraserhead contains all sorts of bizarre, often complex images whose meanings aren’t readily apparent, thus leaving it up to the viewer to decipher and makes sense of what they have seen.

So what is Eraserhead’s legacy? Well, for one thing it launched David Lynch’s career. Mel Brooks saw Eraserhead a few years after its debut and tagged Lynch with that famous moniker, “Jimmy Stewart From Mars.” Brooks was so impressed with Lynch’s film that he met the filmmaker and offered him a chance to direct The Elephant Man (1980). Lynch hasn’t looked back since, continuing to release one intriguing film after another. Yet, none of them, with the possible exception of Blue Velvet, have been able to surpass the originality and sui generis of Eraserhead. All of Lynch’s subsequent work contain echoes of this film, from the unsettling, dimly-lit hallways of Dorothy Vallens’ apartment building in Blue Velvet, to the famous dream sequence in Twin Peaks. All of these moments of surreal brilliance and creepy dread can be traced back to Lynch’s first feature film. Perhaps it is the lack of intimacy on his film sets that he once enjoyed while living on the soundstages of Eraserhead. However, with the technical innovations and cost-effective benefits of digital cameras, Lynch has been able to return to more personal, intimate works and bypass the studios altogether as evident with his last feature film Inland Empire (2006).

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I’m not a huge fan of westerns. I could count my favorites on one hand but at the top of the list is Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), an epic story about three men’s pursuit of a chest of gold during the American Civil War. In fact, this film is one of my favorites of all-time. Instead of doing my usual in-depth examination of the film’s production, which has been covered in definitive detail in Christopher Frayling’s excellent Leone biography Something to Do with Death, I’ve decided to take a look at some of my favorite scenes.

The way Sergio Leone introduces the film’s three main characters says so much about them. Tuco a.k.a. The Ugly (Eli Wallach) is the film’s wild, uncontrollable id and the humanistic character of the three in the sense that he has all of the foibles and weaknesses that we all do. He is one of the most lethal, yet ungraceful characters in the western genre. His introduction sets up what a formidable opponent he is as he quickly dispatches three men come to kill him. Tuco crashes through a storefront window with a gun in one hand and a huge chunk of meat and bottle of wine clenched in the other, which perfectly captures the wild, untamable essence of his character. Not even a freeze frame that Leone employs at one point during this sequence slows Tuco down. He is a character of extremes.

Angel Eyes a.k.a. The Bad (Lee Van Cleef) is a cold-blooded killer and Leone captures the menace in the man’s eyes in his first close-up. With this shot Leone establishes that Angel Eyes is pure evil. He visits a man who knows the identity of someone who helped steal a box of gold. He spends a few minutes staring the poor man down, never taking his eyes off him, even while eating, which has to be pretty damn unnerving. The film’s first bit of dialogue is finally spoken in this scene, ten-and-a-half minutes in (including opening credits), which demonstrates Leone’s mastery of visual storytelling. For me, the key bit of dialogue in this scene is when Angel Eyes tells the man, “But when I’m paid, I always see the job through.” He then proceeds to kill the man and his youngest son without hesitation. If that wasn’t bad enough, Angel Eyes goes back to the man who hired him and kills him too because the other man paid him to and, of course, he always sees the job through. There’s a fantastic last shot of Angel Eyes blowing out the room’s lamp and in doing so, disappears into the darkness with a bit of ominous scoring by Ennio Morricone.

Blondie a.k.a. The Good’s (Clint Eastwood) introduction has to be one of the coolest in cinematic history. Three men capture Tuco, who is a wanted fugitive, and one of them says, “You know you got a face beautiful enough to be worth $2,000?” And then a voice off-camera says, “Yeah. But you don’t look like the one who’ll collect it.” Blondie then steps in view, coolly lights a cigar and guns down the men with brutal efficiency. Leone prolongs a shot of Blondie’s face as long as possible until we find out that he and Tuco have a deal. Blondie captures Tuco and brings him in for the reward money. He then rescues Tuco before he’s hanged to death and they repeat the process as the reward money increases. When Blondie brings Tuco in to the authorities, the fugitive lets loose a hilarious string of insults and curses directed at his captors. No one can quite say the word, “bastard” with the same kind of passion and venom as Eli Wallach does in this scene.

Later, as Blondie and Tuco split up the reward, the two men talk about the risks each takes in their endeavors. Tuco gives Blondie a warning that says a lot about his character: “Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco.” He laughs and in a nice bit, chews on one of Blondie’s cigar. I always wondered if that last bit was improvised by Wallach as it has a spontaneous feel to it. However, when Blondie decides to end his partnership with Tuco, he foolishly does not heed the outlaw’s warning and leaves him alive, even if it is the middle of nowhere. Blondie is a fool if he thinks that will kill Tuco, or maybe he just doesn’t care and figures that they will never meet again.

Angel Eyes witnesses Blondie and Tuco’s routine and responds to a woman who expresses relief that Tuco is being hanged by telling her, “People with ropes around their necks don’t always hang.” She asks him to explain and he replies, “Even a filthy beggar like that has got a protective angel.” Blondie is only heroic in an ironic sense. Leone underlines this notion at one point when he uses a faux angelic musical cue by Morricone to play over a shot of Blondie about to “rescue” Tuco from a hangman’s noose. Angel Eyes tells the woman, “A golden-haired angel watches over him.” Blondie is a mercenary but he does have his moments of compassion. He may be an efficient killer but unlike Angel Eyes he only kills when it is absolutely necessary or for profit.

Leone plays with our notions of good and evil with these three characters. Blondie isn’t truly good in the traditional sense but he is within the context of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Angel Eyes is truly bad, a pure killing machine who is in it only for the gold and not above repeatedly and viciously slapping a woman around in order to get information out of her. There is a glint in Van Cleef’s eye that suggests Angel Eyes enjoys making others afraid through physical intimidation. He is also very cunning and smart. He knows it would be pointless to torture Blondie when he is held captive at the Union Army Prisoner of War camp because he would never talk, as opposed to Tuco who will do or say anything to save his own skin.

Tuco is actually the film’s only sympathetic character. Sure, he is a liar and he’s crude but he also straddles the line between good and evil — at times he is one or the other — much like most people in real life. He is also quite smart as evident in the scene where he expertly assembles his own custom revolver. The others underestimate him and think that he’s stupid, but he’s quite cunning. If anything, he’s a survivor that repeatedly escapes death during the course of the film. While Angel Eyes is pure evil, Tuco is just out for himself and therein lies the crucial difference between the two characters.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a marvel of editing. For example, the scene where Tuco and his three henchmen ambush Blondie is edited in such a way that there is an incredible amount of tension created from cutting back and forth from Blondie cleaning his gun, Tuco’s men quietly approaching his room, and the army marching outside. We are left wondering if the sounds of the army will make it impossible for Blondie to hear the approaching ambush in time and if he will be able to re-assemble his gun in time. Almost no music is used during this scene, just ambient sounds and this helps ratchet up the tension even more.

A lot of people forget that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is also a devastating critique of the American Civil War. For example, there’s a scene where Angel Eyes walks through bombed out ruins and finds all kinds of wounded Confederate soldiers. He talks to their Commanding Officer who accepts a bottle of alcohol in exchange for information. We see this again when Tuco takes Blondie to a mission to nurse him back to health after nearly killing him in the desert. They go through a room full of wounded Confederate soldiers – more casualties of this costly war. There’s also Blondie and Tuco’s time spent at a Union Army P.O.W. camp where Angel Eyes poses as an officer who tortures prisoners for information. Finally, the harshest commentary on the Civil War comes when Blondie and Tuco are captured by the Union Army and meet the Captain who is a jaded drunk. He tells them about the “stupid, useless bridge” that his men fight over with the Confederate Army two times a day because it is a strategic spot, but he dreams of seeing it destroyed. And that’s just what Blondie and Tuco do in a brilliantly choreographed sequence. At this point, the Captain has been mortally wounded but before he dies, he hears the bridge detonating and gives a smile before dying. It was Blondie’s idea to blow up the bridge for the Captain and this act is not only a nice thing to do for the man but also allows him and Tuco to cross the river as the two armies leave, no longer having anything to fight over.

Even though The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is operatic on an epic scale it is the relationships between the three main characters that makes the film so good. In particular, the relationship between Tuco and Blondie is one of the film’s strengths. They often double cross each other and have a real love-hate relationship but at the film’s end, Blondie shows mercy for Tuco’s fate. It goes without saying that it is the talent of the three lead actors that makes these characters so interesting to watch. Clint Eastwood comes from the less is more school of acting and suggests a lot from doing or saying very little. In sharp contrast is Eli Wallach’s flamboyant, over-the-top performance as Tuco. If Eastwood is all about minimalism, then Wallach lets it all hang out. Finally, Lee Van Cleef is a confident, malevolent force of nature — the pure essence of evil.

One of Eli Wallach’s finest moments in the film is when he tries to get Eastwood’s character, who is near-death, to tell him the name on the grave that contains the chest of gold. Wallach goes through a whole range of emotions as Tuco tries every trick that he knows to get the name (including using a friendly approach, begging and even crying) but no dice. It’s a wonderful scene and one that shows Wallach’s range and skill as an actor. Even more revealing is the next scene between Tuco and his brother, which provides all kinds of insight into his character. Tuco’s brother condemns his sibling’s wicked ways and past, but Tuco replies passionately, “Where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit. You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder!” For all of his bravado, this is a moment where Tuco shows a vulnerable side and it adds another layer to this fascinating character.

What I’ve always found interesting is that we never find out if Tuco could beat Blondie in a gunfight. At the film’s climactic showdown, Blondie beats Angel Eyes but he tricks Tuco by not having any bullets in the outlaw’s gun. Is it because he knows that Tuco is faster on the draw? Or is he simply hedging his bets knowing that he could outdraw Angel Eyes but that would leave him little time to shoot Tuco before he shoots him. Alas, we will never know. Living up to his moniker, Blondie doesn’t kill him even though he could. He messes with him a little bit by putting him in a hangman’s noose just like Tuco did to him earlier in the film. However, he gives Tuco enough slack so that he doesn’t die and leaves him some of the gold. Blondie can’t kill Tuco because, despite everything he does in the film, he is easy to like. Again, Blondie only kills when necessary. Of course this doesn’t stop Tuco from shouting out one more curse as a parting shot and a great way to end the film.

The three men system that Leone applies to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of the best plot devices ever. While it’s true that Blondie is no saint he is as close to the traditional definition of “good” as you’re going to get out of a bounty hunter. Angel Eyes is pure evil and Tuco has worked with both of them so what does that make him aside from the “ugly” moniker? He has aspects of both Angel Eyes and Blondie. It’s true that Tuco robs a store for his gun but it is done from a perspective that makes is somewhat sympathetic. Tuco is like most of us, forever unable to decide if he’s all good or all evil. He allies himself to both so that he can call on either depending on the situation. Hence, his shifting alliances with Blondie and Angel Eyes. He knows that Blondie and Angel Eyes will never become a team because Angel Eyes is only using Blondie for the name on the tombstone and Blondie is just looking for a way out.

I think that one of the things I love most about this film is how Leone takes his time and lets scenes play out, using editing only when necessary, when it fits the tone and mood of a given scene, like the aforementioned climactic duel where we get all of these insane close-ups of each man’s hands, eyes, guns and so on. The tension builds and builds for what seems like forever until you’re ready to go insane and yell at the screen, “shoot already!” And then, of course, it all plays out in a few seconds. How brilliant is that? The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of those rare films that works on several levels, some that only reveal themselves upon subsequent viewings. While many champion Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as Leone’s greatest achievement, I have always felt that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was the best thing he ever made – a perfect marriage of epic scale and an intimate, character-driven story.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has always been at odds with the Hollywood studio system. He has spent the majority of his career trying to make movies without their help. He is a genius and an innovator in the area of film but has had to relinquish his dream of independence and submit to the system he despises. This makes him the perfect person to do a film about Preston Tucker, a 1940s automobile designer who dreamed of making cars outside of the established system, only to be defeated by the said system. The parallels between Coppola and this intriguing historical figure are very similar and it is easy to see what attracted the director to a project that celebrated a distinctive vision, innovation, and a passion to create something truly unique. Coppola not only sees these attributes in his subject, but in himself as well. The end result: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), an enthusiastic and entertaining tribute to a misunderstood dreamer.

Tucker is a film cleverly presented as a kitschy promotional film/documentary straight out of the 1950s, complete with a cheery narrator and flashy titles that occasionally decorate the screen. However, these amusing details never distract us from the story that concerns Preston Tucker's (Jeff Bridges) dream of making a safe and reliable family automobile — a rather radical idea for his time. As a result, the established car manufacturers considered his car a threat to their products and with good reason. Tucker's car could be built for a fraction of the money it took the mainstream car makers to build one. His car also featured a wide array of extras like disc brakes, seat belts, a fuel-injected engine in the rear, a padded dashboard, and a front windshield that popped out in a severe collision. As amazing as it seems, these ideas were considered revolutionary at the time, and as Tucker began to make his car a reality, the powerful Detroit automobile makers and the authorities in Washington, D.C. worked together to ruin him. Even though Tucker's life is ultimately one that encompasses a tragic rise and fall, the film does not feel like a somber lament but rather a colorful celebration of the wonderful things that he achieved.

The film's inception can be traced as far back as 1976 when Coppola considered it as a potential project with Marlon Brando playing Tucker. Nothing ever materialized and so Coppola ended up meeting with composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein with the idea of transforming the film into a musical comedy. This approach was deemed "impractical" and the film was shelved again. It didn't hurt that anyone less than 30 years of age would even know that this person actually existed. A studio wasn't interested in doing a film on a rather obscure historical figure like Preston Tucker.

It wasn't until 1986 that Tucker became a viable commodity in the eyes of a studio. This was due in large part to the involvement of Coppola's close friend and cinematic contemporary, George Lucas who guaranteed a $25 million budget for the film. Lucas' timing couldn't have been more perfect for Coppola. He was still mourning the death of his son, Gio (Coppola dedicated the film to him) and the opportunity to do a motion picture with this much creative and financial freedom renewed his love affair with film.

Coppola had a certain amount of personal affiliation with the material. His father had been one of the original investors in Tucker stock and since Coppola was a young boy he had always admired the inventor's short-lived legacy. Although, he stated in an interview that, "It was that beautiful, gleaming car that caught my imagination, but it was also something else: the whole notion of what our country was going to be like in twenty or thirty years, based on our new position in the world...our technological inventiveness." However, if one begins to examine the careers of both men, a strong parallel between the two begins to emerge. Tucker tried to push the existing boundaries of car manufacturing much in the same way that Coppola attempted to experiment with the rules of mainstream filmmaking. Like Coppola refusing to work in Hollywood, the established area to make films, Tucker resisted the urge to conform and manufacture his cars in Detroit, the heart of America's car makers. The more the lives of both men are examined and compared, it is readily apparent to see that a boyhood admiration of the man was not the only thing that drew Coppola to this project; he saw much of himself in Preston Tucker.

By this extension, Tucker could also mirror the life of filmmaker Orson Welles, another dreamer whose ambitions often outdistanced his grasp. It's no secret that Coppola greatly admired and was influenced by Welles. Many of his films contain echoes of Welles' films — in particular Rumble Fish (1983) which is an homage of sorts to the techniques that the director made famous with Citizen Kane (1941). "I not only always admired Orson Welles, I always was drawn to the kinds of things he seemed to have been interested in — the theatre, magic, cinema, as having powerful illusion-creating abilities. And just innovation in general, to be able to use the tools of theatre or radio in a new way, that's a most wonderful thing." Tucker continues Coppola's love affair with the life and work of Orson Welles by imparting some of the man's characteristics into Preston Tucker and by using many of the director's celebrated techniques (low angle shots and deep focus photography) in his own film.

Principal photography for Tucker began on April 13, 1987 shot on location in and around the Bay Area. Lucas' input on the production side of things helped Coppola immensely as his wife, Eleanor remembers, "Usually he's at odds with the production side of things; they haven't understood him, and haven't given him money in the areas where he needed it. On Tucker, he felt relieved to turn over some of the responsibility to George, who's a fellow filmmaker." Lucas not only leant his state-of-the-art sound facilities to Coppola, but his own expertise in filmmaking as well. This resulted in one of the director's most enjoyable and entertaining films to date.

With Tucker, Jeff Bridges shows yet again why he is one of the best actors working in film today. He plays Tucker as the eternal optimist; no matter how bad things get he remains positive. And yet, the car manufacturer does not come across as a grinning idiot, which is due in large part to Bridges' ability of showing us glimpses of Tucker's darker side — the frustration and anger he feels whenever his dreams are consistently set back. Ultimately, the enthusiasm he imparts on Tucker's character is contagious — you can't help but root for him and hope that he succeeds. Johnny Depp would channel this same kind of irrepressible optimism as filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

Martin Landau's character, Abe Karatz, Tucker's right hand man, is the perfect foil for Bridges' character. Abe remains a crabby cynic and sober realist throughout the film and this acts as a nice counterbalance to Tucker the dreamer. Landau's performance is nothing short of impressive and it is easy to see why he was nominated for an Academy Award — he steals every scene he's in. But Landau's best moment is when he confronts Tucker one night to tell him that he's resigning from the team. The FBI has exerted a tremendous amount of pressure by threatening to bring to light Abe's criminal past. It's an emotionally charged scene as Abe tells Tucker, "If you get too close to people, you catch their dreams." It is at this moment that Abe transforms from cynic to dreamer.

These two actors are in turn supported by a wonderful cast that features Joan Allen, Dean Stockwell, Coppola regular, Frederic Forrest, Mako, Elias Koteas, Christian Slater, and Lloyd Bridges in an uncredited role as Senator Ferguson, Tucker's most formidable opponent in his battle to make automobiles. Even though each of their respective screen times vary in length they are all important in the telling of Tucker's story.

Another excellent aspect of the film is its look. With longtime collaborators like cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis, Coppola created yet another visually impressive film. Every frame of Tucker looks beautiful and evokes a nostalgic image of the '50s with its warm color scheme that consists of brown and golden hues. This film also contains an incredible amount of detail, from the period clothing and hairstyles of the characters, to the look of Tucker's cars. All of this gives the impression that you've time warped back to America in the 1950s or at least the way most people would like to remember it.

Coppola’s film was generally well-received by most critics. However, Roger Ebert wrote,Tucker does not probe the inner recesses of Preston Tucker, is not curious about what really makes him tick, does not find any weaknesses, and blames his problems, not on his own knack for self-destruction, but on the workings of a conspiracy. And it makes the press into a convenient and hostile villain.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “His emotional connections with Tucker cars and this project are inextricable … And that heartfelt passion seems to have fueled what could be a needed and satisfying commercial breakthrough for Coppola.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “But there is another more common, more potent American Dream, which involves not the invention of products but the invention of self. And this movie, genial and fierce, is proof of Tucker's success in that more basic line. And proof of its sure grip on our imaginations.” In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Francis Coppola's stylish and heartfelt tribute to the innovative automobile designer Preston Thomas Tucker turns out to be one of his most personal and successful movies.”

If there is one drawback to the film, it is Coppola's omission of the more unsavory aspects of Tucker's life, like the disappearance of the $26 million that he raised. This mystery is never resolved — a significant blemish on this otherwise excellent film. Tucker makes a compelling argument against the stifling of artistic expression and innovation. If people like Preston Tucker were encouraged rather than oppressed perhaps the world would be a better place. Coppola's film argues that the country needs more people who are willing to think big and have the courage to take risks — two of the many attributes that the United States was founded on — if we are to progress and develop as a civilization. By this reasoning, the last line spoken in Tucker could actually be the film's credo: "It's the idea that counts, and the dream."


Monday, April 6, 2009

Syriana

If there’s one good thing that came out of George W. Bush’s presidency it was a wealth of politically and socially-minded art in response to his unpopular regime. Leading the charge, in Hollywood at least, was George Clooney who positioned himself as a vocal liberal celebrity with two high profile movies in 2005: Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. The latter film was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), and was loosely based on See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, Robert Baer’s memoir of his days as a CIA operative in the Middle East.

Structurally, Syriana follows the same template as Traffic with four distinctive yet also interlocking storylines presented in a non-linear fashion but containing all kinds of layers and complexities. The first one focuses on Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an attorney working for a Washington, D.C. law firm whose job it is to make sure that the United States government approves a merger between two large oil companies, Connex and Killen, both of whom have lucrative oil drilling refineries in the Middle East. Connex is losing control of crucial oil fields in a kingdom ruled by the al-Subaai family. The emirate’s foreign minister, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) has granted drilling rights to a Chinese company which has pissed off the American oil industry and the energy interests of the U.S. government. In retaliation, Connex starts a not-entirely legal merger with Killen, an oil company that has recently won the drilling rights to key oil fields in Kazakhstan.

Robert Barnes (George Clooney) is a veteran CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer who works in the Middle East collecting information on and preventing the trafficking of weapons by arms dealers. After one particular job in Tehran to assassinate two Iranian arms dealers, he suspects something is wrong after an anti-tank missile that was intended to take out his targets was diverted to an Arab. After writing a memo to his superiors that upsets them, he is given a desk job. He gets increasingly frustrated with his superiors because they have no idea what is really going on in the Middle East. So, they send back into the field to kill Prince Nasir.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an idealistic energy analyst based in Geneva, Switzerland. His superiors assign him to work as an economic advisor to Prince Nasir in the Persian Gulf out of sympathy for a tragedy in his personal life that was indirectly the fault of Nasir. Woodman soon finds himself caught up in a power struggle between Nasir and his brother for control of their ailing father’s vast empire. His younger brother is chosen as the King’s successor instead of Nasir who plans a military coup so that he can introduce democratic reforms to counter his father’s conservative government.

The last storyline shows how terrorists are cultivated. Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) are fired from their jobs at Connex oil refinery in the Middle East because of a Chinese company outbidding Connex. This fosters a deep resentment towards these wealthy companies. It also makes Wasim and his friend easy recruits for a terrorist organization that appeals to their religious beliefs and provides them a structure and a purpose to their lives.

Since 9/11, the typical Tom Clancy spy movie blockbuster that was popular in the 1990s has been replaced with a more realistic and more immediately relevant type of film. With Syriana, writer/director Stephen Gaghan was interested in portraying “the world right now.” The inspiration for the film came from 9/11 and his lack of knowledge on the Middle East. “When 9/11 happened, it suddenly was a war on terror, which I think of as a war on emotions. It all started to click for me,” the screenwriter remembers. While working on Traffic, he began to see the parallels between drug addiction and America’s dependency on foreign oil. A few weeks after 9/11, Steven Soderbergh sent Gaghan a copy of Baer’s See No Evil. Soderbergh had bought the rights to the book and negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. Gaghan read the book and wanted to turn it into a film. It added yet another layer to the story he wanted to tell. He managed to convince the studio to give him an unlimited research budget and no deadline.

Gaghan met with Baer for lunch and they talked about turning the book into a film. The summer was ending and Baer was taking his daughter back to boarding school in Europe. According to him, “all the players in the Gulf spend August in the south of France,” and he invited Gaghan along to meet with some of these people. For six weeks in 2002, the two men traveled from Washington to Geneva to the French Rivera to Lebanon, Syria and Dubai, meeting with lobbyists, arms dealers, oil traders, Arab officials, and the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah. Gaghan did his own legwork, meeting with oil traders in London, England and lawyers in Washington, D.C.

Gaghan got an indication of the kinds of people he was meeting when in moments after arriving in Beirut in 2002; he was taken from the airport in a blindfold and hoot and taken to visit Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah. Fadlallah was interested in films and decided to grant Gaghan an audience even though the screenwriter had not requested one. From there, Gaghan dined with men suspected of killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and met with Former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle.

Meeting Baer, Gaghan realized that the man had “gone out there and done and seen things that he was not allowed to talk about, and wouldn’t, but he was angry about and also trying to make amends for.” With Syriana, it was important for audiences to understand how a soldier looks at things and how someone at the top, close to presidents, also looks at things. While writing the screenplay, Gaghan claimed to be influenced by European films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), Costa-Gavra’s Z (1969) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966).

Gaghan and his crew shot in over 200 locations on four continents with 100 speaking parts. At one point, Syriana became so complicated in terms of structure and content that Gaghan eliminated one complete storyline in post-production. The fifth storyline involved Michelle Monaghan playing Miss USA who becomes involved with a rich Arabic oilman. He found that he could not balance more than four stories.

In the little screen time he has early on, George Clooney does an excellent job showing the rusty compass that his character lives his life by. The actor has improved and refined himself with every subsequent role he has done and relies more and more on what is going on behind his eyes than falling back on his good looks. His performance in Syriana goes beyond the obvious Method trappings – the weight gain and growing the thick beard – to his expressive eyes and how he uses them to convey Barnes’ world-weariness. This role is easily his strongest to date and his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was well-deserved. However, Clooney took one for the team in the worst way. During the harrowing scene where his character was tortured, Clooney was hurled to the floor more than 20 times. During one take, he hit his head and began experiencing severe back and head pain. Doctors later discovered that the actor had ruptured his spinal fluid sac and needed multiple surgeries.

Woodman’s first scene with his family is brief but effectively sets up the close bond he has wife his wife (Amanda Peet) and his two sons. One boy is not keen the pseudo-bacon he’s told to eat and so Woodman tries a piece to show that it’s good and fails miserably. Matt Damon does a good job of selling his priceless reaction shot and offering a light moment that immediately makes us empathize and like his character and his family. Jeffrey Wright delivers an understated, minimalist performance. When Holiday meets with the superiors in his firm, he appears nervous – he’s in the big leagues, swimming with the sharks – rich, powerful men as embodied by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) and malevolent good ol’ boys politicians (played with scary conviction by Tim Blake Nelson and Chris Cooper).

One of the film’s central themes is the strained relationships between fathers and their sons. Barnes’ son resents all the moving around that they do as a result of his old man’s job and this robs him of a normal life. Woodman must cope with the tragic death of his little boy. Holiday copes with his alcoholic father who disapproves of his son’s work and the effect it has on his well-being.

Stephen Gaghan’s direction reflects the stories in the film. Everything isn’t spelled out. There are a lot of gray areas with morally and ethically ambiguous characters whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. If, at times, it is hard to follow all of the characters in this film this is done on purpose in order to illustrate just how hard it is to keep track of all the players in the Middle East oil trade and their numerous alliances, both obvious and secretive, with corporations and governments. Trying to make sense of it all can be a confusing and frustrating experience.

Syriana was very well-received by critics. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, "Gaghan relies on Clooney's agnostic heroism to lure viewers into his maze. When they get there, they will find not a conventionally satisfying movie but a kind of illustrated journalism: an engrossing, insider's tour of the world's hottest spots, grandest schemes and most dangerous men.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "This is conspiracy-theory filmmaking of the most bravura kind, but if only a fraction of its suppositions are true, we — and the world — are in a world of trouble.” USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Gaghan assumes his audience is smart enough to follow his explosive tour of global petro-politics. The result is thought-provoking and unnerving, emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B-" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "it's also the kind of movie that requires a viewer to work actively for comprehension, and to chalk up any lack of same to his or her own deficiency in the face of something so evidently smart.” Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers gave the film his highest rating and praised George Clooney's performance: "This is the best acting Clooney has ever done – he's hypnotic, haunting and quietly devastating.”

However, Charles Krauthammer criticized the film for its "anti-American" views and moral equivalence, stating that "Osama bin Laden could not have scripted this film with more conviction.” Fellow Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen called its portrayals of terrorists, the CIA, oil companies, and the U.S. government "crude clich├ęs."

The timing of Syriana couldn’t have been more relevant as it exposed the dirty dealings between the U.S. government, American corporations and various oil-rich families in the Middle East. Reading between the lines, it also sheds light on the real reason why the U.S. is in Iraq. It isn’t to democratize its people, as the White House party line would have us all believe, but because of their abundant oil resources and the money Bush and his cronies made from it. While this is nothing new to anyone who is well-informed, this film does act as a decent primer to the uninitiated.