Friday, December 28, 2012

Fabulous Roman Candles: A Beat Generation Primer

BLOGGER'S NOTE: In anticipation of my upcoming review of On the Road, I have written a brief introduction to the key members of the Beat Generation.


"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night," - from "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

And with those words, poet Allen Ginsberg created a manifesto for a whole generation – a group of people who felt like they didn't belong anywhere in 1950s society. Not in the paranoid hype of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, not in President Eisenhower's military war machine, and not in the sterile sitcom suburbia of Leave It To Beaver. Ginsberg was speaking for the disenfranchised everywhere with his poem that celebrated everything that was taboo. The media soon picked up on this small movement, and built up its most charismatic members – Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs – to mythic proportions. The Beat Generation, as it came to be known, began to mutate into something different from its original intentions. Antiquated terms like "beatnik" and "hipster" became the watchwords of this new entity. It even acquired its own dress code: berets, turtlenecks, and goatees, all to the beat of the bongos. In short the Beat Generation became a parody of itself. But it didn't start out that way.
           
In 1943, a young Allen Ginsberg arrived at Columbia University in New York City with the intention of becoming a labor lawyer. Being the son of a poet, Ginsberg had some pretensions to the written word and with fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr they became interested in finding a "New Vision" in literature. This pursuit led them to form a friendship with two aspiring writers, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs in 1944. Kerouac was at Columbia on a football scholarship, but an injury had cut his career short and as a result he began to study literature. Burroughs met the other three men through an acquaintance of Kerouac's and impressed them with his vast knowledge of literature and the refined way in which he carried himself. Being older than the others, Burroughs became like a teacher to the young men, introducing them to all kinds of European authors and initiating them into drug culture. He subsequently presented the group to his drug contact, Herbert Huncke, a Times Square hustler who embodied what would later become the rather nebulous term, "beat."
           
The arrival of 1946 brought an important element to this ever-increasing group of writers. Neal Cassady, a friend of Ginsberg's from Denver, arrived in New York City on a Greyhound bus and became Ginsberg's lover and good friends with Kerouac. Cassady, with his charismatic manic energy, was an important catalyst to the group – particularly to Kerouac who transformed Cassady into the mythical central character of two of his novels, On the Road and Visions of Cody. Cassady also symbolized everything that was "beat" but on the opposite end of the spectrum to Huncke: he was wild, unpredictable, and, more importantly in Kerouac's eyes, the essence of spontaneity. Along with be-bop jazz, Cassady's frenetic lifestyle provided the inspiration for Kerouac's own literary style, which he later called, "Spontaneous Bop Prosody." In essence, it was Kerouac's attempt to emulate jazz in his prose. As he once explained, "by not revising what you've already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself." The musical cadences in Kerouac's work become readily apparent when you hear the man himself read his own prose and this gives a whole new perspective to the printed word.

"...because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles..." - from On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The group now had all the elements that they needed for their "New Vision" except a name for their group, which did not present itself until 1948 when Kerouac met another aspiring writer in New York named John Clellon Holmes. As Kerouac remembers they were "sitting around trying to think up the meaning of the Lost Generation and the subsequent Existentialism and I said 'You know this is really a beat generation.' And he leapt up and said "That's it, that's right!'" The "beat" for Kerouac and the others took on several meanings. It could be seen as being "beat" and "beaten down," as in being tired and worn out, or the "beat" could be interpreted as "beatitude," or a sincere belief in spirituality and God, or the third significant distinction of the word was applied to the rhythmic beat of jazz and the fast tempo of this musical form. Despite the many meanings of the word "beat," the core of this crew, according to Kerouac, was "a swinging group of new American men intent on joy," and not a group of hoodlums and criminals as the media later tried to label them.

However, Kerouac and the others were hardly angels either. More than anything they were a product of post-World War II malaise and out of this developed Ginsberg's fear of the atomic age: a fear of the bomb, a fear of contamination, and of radiation sickness or what he saw as a "disease of the age." To escape this fear, the group experimented with all kinds of drugs: marijuana, morphine, heroin, and Benzedrine which fueled their writing and aided in what Ginsberg termed, "some kind of opening of mind." It also pushed them outside of mainstream society so that they became a "community of outlaws," as Burroughs biographer, Ted Morgan later observed. Burroughs was known to forge stolen prescriptions for drugs and often robbed drunks on the subway for money. Kerouac even went to jail as a material witness for helping Lucien Carr destroy evidence after the latter had fatally stabbed David Kammerer, another member of their group while at Columbia. This incident also resulted in Ginsberg being sent to the Columbia Psychiatric Institute for a short duration. They were no strangers to the fringes of society, for they constantly lived on its edges.

"And always cops: smooth college-trained state cops, practiced, apologetic patter, electronic eyes weigh your car and luggage, clothes and face; snarling big city dicks, soft-spoken country sheriffs with something black and menacing in old eyes color of a faded grey flannel shirt...." - from Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
           
Despite this dangerous side of the Beats, they were really romantics who celebrated the little things in life that most people took for granted or failed to notice. For Kerouac and the others, they were on a spiritual journey that involved "walking talking poetry in the streets, walking talking God in the streets," as Kerouac so eloquently described it in an essay for Playboy magazine. Critics and the media tried to paint them into a corner as troublemakers who were against the world, but they refused to be pigeon-holed by this view. In most of his public appearances, most notably on The Steve Allen Show, Kerouac came across as gentle, sincerely religious soul who celebrated life, not condemning it. "This is Beat," he once said, "Live your lives out? Naw, love your lives out."
           
By the early to mid-fifties, the East Coast Beats began to disperse and Ginsberg headed out West where the scene developed in San Francisco with poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure amongst others. Kerouac and the others were going in their own directions but the friendships between them endured over the years. This small, initially tight-knit group had inadvertently created the blueprint for a bohemian community. They were what historian Alfred Kazin called a "family of friends." They fed off each other, inspired each other, and generally supported one another's interest in writing. The result was astounding. Some of the most exciting literature to appear in the 20th century came out of this community: Kerouac's ode to travel, On the Road, Ginsberg's epic poem, "Howl," and Burroughs' hallucinogenic satire, Naked Lunch. They inspired a subsequent generation and their works continue to inspire and fascinate today. Despite what critics of their day said, they were no fad, no flavor-of-the-month, but a strong new voice that showed a different perspective on life: living for the moment. Their philosophy didn't fit the modern, fast paced, 9-to-5 rat race, but rather celebrated shifting gears and enjoying life for the short time that we experience it.

"...and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty." - from On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Friday, December 21, 2012

Bridget Jones's Diary


Before Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) was released in theaters, much was made of the casting of soft-spoken American (from Texas no less!), Renee Zellweger as the very British Bridget Jones. It was seen as almost heresy by fans of Helen Fielding’s very popular book of the same name. It was a pretty ballsy move on the part of producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of Working Title Films, the British production company responsible for revitalizing (or destroying depending on your point-of-view) the romantic comedy with the massively successful one-two punch of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999).

Bridget Jones would be their most ambitious entry into the genre to date, adapting a wildly popular best-seller and attempting to quell the controversy of casting Zellweger by having her appear alongside Fellner and Bevan’s cinematic good luck charm, Hugh Grant (who had starred in both Four Weddings and Notting Hill) and Colin Firth, best known (at the time) for his role as Mr. Darcy on the British television miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995). To almost everyone’s surprise, Zellweger pulled it off with a credible British accent and a real commitment to the role (she even put on the weight required to play the character). Working Title scored another box office hit and continued their impressive reign as rom-com champs.

Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) is a sworn bachelorette. She has her family and friends but despite her defiantly single stance the biological clock is always ticking. She finds herself looking for Mr. Right. She does fancy her roguish boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), but also finds herself strangely drawn to the repressed and distant Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). The film follows Bridget as she must decide who she loves more while also getting her life in order.

Bridget is not some ultra-thin model (or “American stick insect” as she calls the glamorous New York City career girl that Daniel cheats on her with) type but a full-bodied woman who sometimes acts awkward in social situations, including showing up to a party dressed like some kind of Playboy bunny. Bridget is instantly relatable and immediately gets our sympathy. We care about what happens to her and become emotionally invested in her and her world.

Renee Zellweger is willing to put herself out there, successfully embodying this British phenomenon. She is also willing to look silly and poke fun at herself. However, the way she is lit and the warm colors that surround her, highlight Zellweger’s luminescent, beautiful pink skin. Director Sharon Maguire champions her voluptuous physique and doesn’t hide how she looks. There are lingering shots of Bridget getting dressed, which is refreshing in this day and age. Zellweger is Bridget Jones and looking back at the film after all this time, one would be hard pressed to think of anyone else in the role.

After being type cast as the meek nice guy in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Hugh Grant is cast refreshingly against type as a raunchy cad. It gives the actor a chance to poke fun at his own image and it gave his career a much-needed shot in the arm, allowing him to branch out and play more flawed characters, like his wonderful turn in About a Boy (2002).

At the time, Colin Firth was period piece guy. He shot to success as the thinking women’s sex symbol in A&E’s production of Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones firmly established him on the contemporary pop culture map. At first, Mark seems like a stuck up, cold fish but over the course of the film his true feelings for Bridget become apparent. Firth has an uncanny ability of conveying repressed, unrequited feelings. It’s all in his eyes, which are very expressive.

The film’s screenplay, co-written by Fielding, Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice), and the always reliable Richard Curtis, offers all kinds of astute observations about single life and the pressure society and the media puts on us to find a mate and get married (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.”). Not to mention, the film is insanely quotable with many, many memorable bits of dialogue (“My mum, a strange creature from the time when pickles on toothpicks were still the height of sophistication.”).

Bridget Jones’s Diary started as a satirical column by Helen Fielding in London’s The Independent newspaper in 1995, which was then compiled into a novel that was published in 1996. However, it wasn’t until word of mouth and the paperback edition being published the next year that sales really took off. It went on to sell four million copies worldwide, 1.5 million in the U.K. alone. Before sales went through the roof, Working Title Films quickly bought the film rights.

Producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan asked screenwriter Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill fame to work with Fielding (whom he was also good friends with) on adapting her book. Documentary filmmaker Sharon Maguire, a friend of Fielding’s and the inspiration for Bridget’s best friend Shazza, was hired to direct and connected with the material instantly. “I know this world because it’s mine. I understand first-hand who Bridget is and what it’s like to be in your 30s, successful in your career, and yet wondering why you’re still alone.”

Producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan spent two years looking for the right actress to play Bridget Jones and considered the likes of Emily Watson, Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham Carter before deciding on Renee Zellweger, impressed by her comedic abilities. In March 2000, she went to London where the actress lived for two months, working with dialogue expert Barbara Berkery who had previously worked with Gwyneth Paltrow on Sliding Doors (1998) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Zellweger underwent daily dialogue exercises and spent a lot of time with Berkery going out shopping and sightseeing in London. She said in an interview, “I’m trying to familiarize myself with the culture. I feel a very strong responsibility to make sure she’s as truly British as I can make her.”

In addition, the actress worked at a publishing company (much like her character) and gained weight, putting on 20 lbs. for the role. To gain the weight, she was put on a regime of three meals a day, multiple snacks and no exercise. By the time of the film’s release, the actress had clearly tired of all the talk about her weight gain for the role: “It’s so sad when people focus on being fat because that is not the word I would use at all. I felt voluptuous for the first time in my life.”

Bridget Jones’s Diary received mostly positive reviews from critics with Zellweger often singled out for her performance. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Zellweger for being, “fully herself and fully Bridget Jones, both at once. A story like this can't work unless we feel unconditional affection for the heroine, and casting Zellweger achieves that.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Don't expect Bridget Jones's Diary to deliver any searing revelations about the human condition. Even as a do's and don'ts resource about the dating life, the wisdom it dispenses is questionable. What it is is a delicious piece of candy whose amusing package is scrawled with bons mots distantly inspired by Jane Austen.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna also praised Zellweger: “But where the highly likable actress proves most valuable is in making us adore this insecure, clumsy, contradictory creature. She has us at hello, or at least from the opening credits, where she strikes a perfect picture of self-pity.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris felt that the film wasn’t as good as the book but singled out Zellweger: “Ms. Zellweger makes the most of what she’s given and manages to triumph time and again over her pratfalls and public rump displays. In a word, she’s terrific.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “Grant is casually fabulous and very amusing, but all power to Firth the actor. He's the compleat Darcy, and he never wavers. There's no sentimentality, no flirtation with the audience, no final moment of pandering to the niceness gods; he's a cold geek all the way through.”

Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Hugh Grant is charming too, luxuriating in naughtiness, taking a holiday from his usual floppy, velvet romantic image as Bridget's caddish boss, Daniel Cleaver, with whom the employee embarks on a bound for disaster affair.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “There are flat patches, some situations verge on being overdone, you can see the plot twists coming, but with this spirited a performance in the title role, it's hard to protest too much. Bridget Jones' search for inner poise may be doomed, but her film is anything but.” However, in her review for the Village Voice, Amy Taubin wrote, “The film, like the novel, shies away from the uncomfortable truth that both Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right are attracted to Bridget not only for her cushiony body, but because her empty-headedness makes her seem vulnerable and unthreatening. Bridget gets her man, but you should think twice about whether that constitutes a happy ending.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, “So Bridget has to be reimagined as a lovable, infantile clown – but once this leap has been made, Renée Zellweger's impersonation of Bridget is entertaining. She has an excellent English accent, the best since Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma. And her Jake La Motta-ish weight-gain is a thing of joy.”

With the commercial and critical success of Bridget Jones’s Diary, a sequel was inevitable. Fielding had written a follow-up but the problem became how to replicate the magic of the first film and yet make it different enough not to be just a retread of what came before? Everyone’s favorite curvy, clumsy British journalist returned in The Edge of Reason (2004).

Bridget and Mark are still a couple in a happy relationship. However, as she writes in her diary, “What happens after you walk off into the sunset?” It is this nagging question that will cloud her judgment. Daniel Cleaver is now a T.V. personality and as rudely funny as ever. On his show he describes the Sistine Chapel as the “First example in history of poof interior designer gone bonkers.” Trouble arises when working class Bridget feels out of place in Mark’s affluent, upper class world. To make matters worse, she starts to feel pangs of jealousy towards one of Mark’s beautiful co-workers, Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett). Her gorgeous looks and casual familiarity with Mark makes Bridget nervous and jealous. How can she compete with a thinner, smarter, more attractive woman? This leads to issues like marriage and children to raise their ugly heads and cause a rift and ultimately split-up Bridget and Mark.

The big problem with this film becomes apparent early on. In the first film, we were laughing with Bridget. In this one we are now laughing at her. For example, she skydives for her morning T.V. show and lands in a muddy pigpen. The segment ends with a gratuitous shot of her dirty behind. The Edge of Reason also recycles many jokes from the first film. Mark and Daniel get into another knock-down, drag-out fight. The film relies too much on physical humor. Bridget falls off the roof of Mark’s flat. Finally, she falls off a ski lift. See a pattern developing? The film takes a gag and proceeds to beat it into the ground until it isn’t funny anymore.

The chemistry between Zellweger and Firth is still strong. They make a great couple and clearly have a good rapport. Zellweger gamely puts on the pounds again and certainly has a knack for physical and verbal comedy. But the film places too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter. However, Hugh Grant is a breath of fresh, smarmy air as the roguish Cleaver. He openly leers at any good-looking woman and casually insults people with his scathing wit. The film only comes to life when he’s on-screen.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is much more than just the quintessential single woman’s survival guide. It is a funny and engaging romantic comedy that champions a more realistic image of women. Bridget Jones is the photo negative of The Sex and the City women. She is not like them, with their perfect shoes and witty repartee. Bridget would be watching that show and not be on it. And this is part of the appeal of the film to the average woman. The Edge of Reason, on the other hand, eventually settles into a comfortable groove, merely a pale imitation of the superior original.



SOURCES

Bowes, Peter. "U.S. Eager for Bridget Jones." BBC News. April 6, 2001.

“Bridget Jones Hits the Silver Screen.” BBC News. April 4, 2001.

"Bridget Jones Star Goes Undercover." BBC News. May 12, 2000.

Bridget Jones’s Diary Production Notes. 2001.

Brooks, Libby. "No, I'm Not Bridget Jones. Not Yet." The Guardian. April 12, 2001.

"How Renee Became Bridget." BBC News. April 4, 2001.

Kennedy, Dana. “A Character Actress Trapped in an Ingenue’s Body.” The New York Times. September 10, 2000.

Lyman, Rick. “Bridget Jones, Child of the 80’s.” The New York Times. April 13, 2001.

“Renee Wins Bridget Role.” BBC News. February 24, 2000.


Wood, Gaby. “A Bridget Just Far Enough.” The Observer. March 4, 2001.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Blu-Ray Review of the Week: Heaven's Gate: Criterion Collection



With Heaven’s Gate (1980), Michael Cimino made the classic risky gamble that many ambitious filmmakers make. Still flush from the commercial and critical success of The Deer Hunter (1978), he used all of his newfound clout to make an epic tale depicting the Johnson County War of 1892 with a massive budget, courtesy of United Artists, and a star-studded cast headlined by musician and some-time actor Kris Kristofferson. The film’s production was plagued with several well-publicized problems and the end result was a difficult and challenging film that was savaged by critics as a muddled mess. Worst of all, Heaven’s Gate was a huge box office flop, which resulted in United Artists going under. The lion’s share of the blame was leveled at Cimino who was punished for his hubris. Over the years, he made the occasional film but never enjoyed the kind of resources he did at the peak of his career.

As sometimes happens, the years were kind of Heaven’s Gate, especially when cineastes discovered that the version released in theaters was the studio cut and that his original was much better. The reclusive director had taken refuge in Europe where he’s still regarded highly. Reappraisal of Heaven’s Gate has been a long time coming and recently Cimino’s finally been given the opportunity to restore the film to the way he originally envisioned it so that it can rightly be judged on its own merits.

James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is a federal marshal that arrives in Casper, Wyoming where he learns of a plot by cattle ranchers to kill local European settlers for their land, sanctioned by the government no less. He soon finds himself embroiled in a bloody battle. He also finds himself conflicted as many of the wealthy cattle ranchers come from the same Harvard-educated background as he did, but Averill also has a strong moral sense and wants to stand up for the settlers who are getting ripped off and killed for their troubles.

Cimino juxtaposes the rich, pompous cattle ranchers, who gather in their ornate wood lodge drinking the best liquor, with the settlers that live in abject poverty and entertain themselves watching cock fights in the backroom of the local bar. He also shows how the community gathers for a county dance at the local roller skate rink that leaves little doubt as to which side Cimino favors.

With Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Kris Kristofferson demonstrated some considerable acting abilities. He had gotten a few more films under his belt by the time he appeared in Heaven’s Gate and was called up to headline this epic, which he does admirably, delivering a thoughtful performance that is quite naturalistic. He is supported by an impressive cast that includes the likes of Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert among others. They all turn in excellent performances, helping bring this fascinating world to life.

It’s a cliché to say it but they just don’t make films like Heaven’s Gate anymore. It was shot on location with massive sets populated by hundreds of extras. The film’s excessive budget is all up there in every frame, gorgeously photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond. The film has plenty of ambition to burn and assumes that its audience is intelligent enough to follow the complex narrative and the numerous characters that are a part of it.

Heaven’s Gate is often blamed from the Film Brats fall from grace in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the rise of the producers, but the writing was already on the wall with other ‘70s auteurs having costly flops, like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), to name a few. The reign at the top of the Hollywood food chain was over for most of them and Heaven’s Gate just put a fine point on it. Now that enough time has passed, Cimino’s film can be rediscovered and re-evaluated.

Special Features:

This new transfer of Heaven’s Gate has been personally supervised by Cimino. While it may not look like it did when first projected theatrically, a lot of work went into cleaning up the film to the director’s specifications. The transfer looks very impressive, still retaining the filmic look but devoid of any blemishes. The new 5.1surround soundtrack, also supervised by Cimino, is excellent with David Mansfield’s score sounding better than it ever has and the ambient noises and sound effects coming through loud and clear.

There is an illustrated audio conversation between director Michael Cimino and producer Joann Carelli that runs an absorbing 30 minutes. Rather fittingly, he starts off talking about the inspiration for Heaven’s Gate, which was research he did on barbed wire, of all things. Cimino also talks about how he writes screenplays with Carelli acting as an objective editor, keeping him in check and making sure everything made sense. They cover many topics, including how to direct actors, scouting locations, costumes and so on.

Also included is a new interview with Kris Kristofferson who talks about what drew him to the project – mainly the chance to work with Cimino. He loved the attention to detail in the film and how it helped him as an actor. He recounts several fascinating filming anecdotes in this engaging interview.

There is an interview with musician David Mansfield. He said that Cimino wanted real musicians to play live during filming and hired him and other notable musicians, like T-Bone Burnett. Mansfield talks about how he composed the film’s memorable score, his choices for instrumentation and so on.

Assistant director Michael Stevenson is interviewed and mentions that Cimino originally wanted him to work on The Deer Hunter but he was busy at the time. He talks about the mind-boggling logistics of some of the more grandiose sequences in Heaven’s Gate and one really appreciates all the hard work that went into this film.

There is a “Restoration Demonstration” that briefly examines the painstaking work that went into restoring the film to Cimino’s exact specifications. We also see how the numerous scratches, splice cuts and other imperfections were removed.

Finally, there is a teaser trailer and T.V. spot for the film.

Since this edition has been given Cimino’s seal of approval it is not surprising that the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate is not included. It is quite critical of Cimino and the film, which probably explains why it has not been included, which is too bad as it goes into a blow-by-blow account of what went down. The documentary is easily found online as is the book it is based on, by United Artists executive Steven Bach.