"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Tree of Life

Decades in the making, the gestation period of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is as epic as the film itself. After Days of Heaven (1978) was released to critical acclaim and nominated for four Academy Awards, Paramount, the studio that backed it, offered the director a million dollars for his next project regardless of its subject matter. Despite being burnt out from making and editing Days, he agreed. Malick had been contemplating his most ambitious film yet: the creation of our galaxy and the Earth as well as the beginnings of life on our planet. It was originally called Qasida (a reference to an ancient Arabian form of rhythmic lyric poetry) and eventually shortened to Q. In 1979, Malick and a small crew began shooting footage in exotic locales all over the world. The footage they were getting looked great but Paramount was nervous about the absence of a screenplay (Malick would write 40-page poetic descriptions of the imagery) and a structured shooting schedule. Eventually, the studio lost patience with the director’s methods and he not only quit the project but the movie business for 20 years.

The first signs that Malick was returning to his Q project came during pre-production on The New World (2005) when producer Sarah Green received a revised treatment for what would become The Tree of Life. By July 2007, there was a script that fused the cosmic nature of Q with a semi-autobiographical story that focused on a Texas family in the 1950’s as seen through the eyes of the oldest child Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult). As early as Days of Heaven, Malick had been moving away from linear narratives to a more philosophical tone poem approach. With The Thin Red Line (1998), he began to explore in greater detail man’s relationship with his environment and with the Earth. This continued with The New World, which embraced a non-linear narrative more than anything he had done before. The Tree of Life is the culmination of Malick’s body of work so far.

The film begins with the death of one of the O’Brien children. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is understandably devastated while the father (Brad Pitt) is stoic but eventually the cracks begin to show and he also grieves in his own way. Cut to the present day and Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is an architect, unhappy and adrift in the world, still haunted by the death of his brother. The film flashes back to his reminisces of his childhood in the ‘50s. In this first section, Malick cuts back and forth between the impersonal concrete and glass jungle of the big city in which Jack works and the idyllic suburban neighborhood of his youth.

Early on in the film, the mother says in a disembodied voiceover, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” I believe that this passage is integral to understanding Malick’s film and it becomes apparent that the mother represents Grace, accepting insults and injuries, while the father represents nature, lording over his family.

Right from the get-go, Malick dispenses with the traditional notion of how a scene is structured and linked to another in favor of an impressionistic approach. This is no more apparent then when the narrative segues to an extraordinary sequence depicting the creation of our galaxy and the Earth with absolutely breathtaking imagery – a stunning mix of unusual practical effects (created by Dan Glass and the legendary Douglas Trumbull) and actual footage courtesy of NASA. With this sequence we are entering Stanley Kubrick territory. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Malick mixes science with spirituality, the cosmic and the ethereal, occasionally commented on via existential voiceover musings about God by the mother. He actually shows the Earth forming and early life being created on the most basic cellular level on up to the dinosaurs. This sequence and its placement so early on in the film is just one of the audacious choices Malick makes.

The film then goes back to early stages of the O’Brien family, to the creation of their children, the painful and glorious experience of childbirth, much like that of the Earth itself. Malick presents two approaches to parenting: the mother is a nurturing figure while the father is a stern disciplinarian. She is in tune with nature while he represents structure. It is this part of the film that is the most engaging as we are presented with familiar, relatable imagery: a very young boy gazes in wonderment and then jealousy at his baby sibling; the shadows of tree branches playing across a wall; the family playing with sparklers at night; kids playing in tall grass; and a tree-lined suburb at dusk with the sky the most amazing shade of purple-blue. These are the innocent, carefree days when you had no worries and would spend hours playing with other children until called in by your mother for the night. Malick has come full circle by returning to the same tranquil Texas suburbs first glimpsed at the beginning of Badlands (1973), his debut feature. These scenes will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the suburbs or a rural environment.

As he did with Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, Malick demonstrates an incredible affinity for working with children and pulling naturalistic performances out of them. All of the kids, especially newcomer Hunter McCracken, act very comfortable in front of the camera, almost as if Malick caught them unaware that they were being filmed. McCracken has a very expressive face, which he utilizes well over the course of the film as Jack becomes increasingly rebellious, testing the rules imposed by his father. Malick documents the children’s behavior and all of their idiosyncrasies, like how they interact with each other and how this differs with their interaction with adults, especially in the ‘50s when they were much more respectful. Much of the film is seen from a child’s point-of-view with low angle shots that look up at adults, trees, and so on. It’s only in the scenes with other children that the camera takes a more level position.

At one point, the father tells Jack that his mother is naïve and that “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” Brad Pitt doesn’t play the stereotypical strict father figure but one with layers that are gradually revealed through the course of the film. He works in a factory, a labrinythian maze of metal machinery but we learn that he wanted to originally be a musician but it didn’t work out. He had to become responsible and lead a more traditional life in order to provide for his family. He still plays piano and passes this ability on to his children. Pitt delivers an excellent performance that grounds the film. The actor has aged well and grown into his looks, relying less and less on them as he gets older. There is a nice scene where he accompanies one of his sons playing an acoustic guitar with the piano that is brief but does a lot to humanize his character. The mother, in comparison, is a more elusive character, more of an ethereal figure as played by Jessica Chastain.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of The Tree of Life is how it may be Malick’s most personal film to date. The parallels between him and Jack are quite striking. Malick also grew up in Texas during the ‘50s and was the eldest of three sons. Like Jack, Malick was known for his “precocious” behavior growing up. Most strikingly, the director had a younger brother who died. Larry was an accomplished guitarist studying in Spain. At one point he had an accident that damaged his hands and became quite upset over his studies. Their father asked Malick to go to Spain to be with his brother but Malick refused. Larry committed suicide and Malick has felt guilty about it ever since. Is this film a way of the director dealing with the loss of his brother after all these years?

You simply cannot engage The Tree of Life in a traditional way. The first section is a little impenetrable at first as one has to leave the concept of traditional narrative behind and get acclimatized to Malick’s approach. One has to let the film wash over you and let his poetic imagery work its magic. Like all of his films, this is one that people will either passionately love or hate because of its ambitious, unusual approach. It will be seen as pretentious by some but any film that strives to tackle big themes like life and death and what it means to be human on such an epic (and also intimate) scale runs that risk. What prevents it from collapsing under its own thematic weight is Malick’s sincerity. He really believes in what he is showing us and treats it with the solemnity and weight it deserves. The Tree of Life has the kind of lofty ambitions most films only dream of reaching and it is easy to see why it is being compared to 2001. Like that film, Malick’s will undoubtedly reveal more upon repeated viewings. There is just so much to absorb that one viewing is not enough because you are too busy trying to make sense of what all this breathtaking imagery means. It will take repeated viewings to fully appreciate what Malick is trying to do and say. This is an important film by a master filmmaker.

Further reading:

New York magazine takes a fantastic look at the decades in the making history of the film.

So does the Los Angeles Times.

A fascinating interview with the film's cinematographer.

A decent primer on Malick's life and career.

Salon.com has a posted a fantastic guide to understanding (comprehending?) this film. A must-read for anyone who admires or was confounded by it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Park Row / Laws of Gravity

Along with The Big Red One (1980), Park Row (1952) may be Sam Fuller’s most autobiographical film. It was a labor of love for the scrappy director who made it as a tribute to the journalists he knew as a newsboy in the 1920’s. By the time he was 17, Fuller became a crime reporter in New York City working for the New York Evening Graphic. He attempted to get Park Row made at 20th Century Fox but when studio head Darryl Zanuck wanted to turn it into a musical, Fuller refused and started his own production company, which allowed him to make it without any creative compromises.

Dedicated to American journalism, Park Row takes us back to the early days of newspapers and depicts the bitter rivalry between Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), owner of The Star, and one of her employees Phinneas Mitchell (Gene Evans). He resents her tactics, which include condemning the wrong man to death. As he says at one point, “The day The Star reports the facts Judas Escariot will be sainted.” He dreams of running his own newspaper, free of political influence and that would answer to no one. As luck would have it, a wealthy businessman offers to bankroll Mitchell’s dream.

Mitchell is ambitious and quickly assembles a staff that is equally hungry, chief among them veteran reporter Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes) who gets to deliver one of Fuller’s trademark impassioned speeches about journalism: “But a fighting editor is a voice the world needs. A man with ideals.” Mitchell’s The Globe gets off to a strong start with its attention-grabbing headlines which doesn’t sit well with Hackett over at The Star.

Frequent collaborator Gene Evans breaths life into Fuller’s pulpy prose and with an omnipresent cigar and no-nonsense attitude, he is the director’s cinematic alter ego, a blue collar Charles Foster Kane. Evans plays Mitchell as a passionate man, a two-fisted defender of the truth and freedom of speech.

Fuller does an excellent job recreated period details on an extremely low budget right down to the tools of the trade, the clothes that people wore and how they spoke. Park Row takes an authentic look at how newspapers were run in the 1880’s, from copyboys to the editor-in-chief. He shows how an issue of a newspaper is put together in a way that hasn’t been done in many years making this film a valuable historical document. In many respects, Fuller’s film is Citizen Kane (1941) on a much lower budget and scale with Evans playing a Kane-esque newspaperman that influences and sometimes creates the news his paper reports on in typical tabloid journalism fashion. However, where Orson Welles’ film attacked the worst aspects of tabloid journalism, Fuller also celebrates its best aspects – call him a cynical idealist. He spends more time showing the actual process of putting together a newspaper and the hard work involved as well as the cutthroat competition that arises among rival papers.

Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity (1992) was part of an exciting crop of American independent films to come out in the early to mid-1990’s and arguably the best of the Mean Streets (1973) wannabes to be made. It also featured a cast of young, up and coming actors that would go on to solid careers in film and television. Peter Greene and Edie Falco are probably the two most well-known to come out of this film but Adam Trese (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) and Paul Schulze (The Sopranos) also have prolific careers as regular character actors on T.V.

Set on the gritty streets of New York City, Laws of Gravity is about the relationship between two friends – Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Jon (Adam Trese), two small-time crooks that deal in stolen goods. Jimmy is the responsible one while Jon is the wild card always getting into trouble. When we meet them, Jon has skipped out on his court date for a shoplifting charge because he didn’t feel like showing up. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his girlfriend Celia (Arabella Field). Jimmy has problems of his own – he owes a sizable chunk of money to local tough guy Sal (Saul Stein) who’s breathing down his neck. As luck would have it, Jimmy and Jon’s friend Frankie (Paul Schulze) rolls back into town with a bunch of guns he wants to sell. Jon and Jimmy see this as an opportunity to make some fast, easy money but of course it doesn’t go as well as they planned. As Jon’s behavior gets increasingly erratic, Jimmy has to make a decision whether to stick by his friend and risk his future or cut him loose and focus on his own problems.

Gomez does a good job showing how a good-natured conversation can turn into a shouting match when Jon gets annoyed with Celia’s nagging criticisms. The dialogue and the way the scene is shot – cinema verite style – feels like we are intruding on an intimate conversation between real people. Gomez employs a restless hand-held camera, which replicates Jon’s anxious energy. He’s a schemer always looking to make some easy money and doesn’t care about who he pisses off.

Based on his solid work in Laws of Gravity, it’s amazing that Peter Greene isn’t a bigger star. He has had small but memorable parts in classic films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Usual Suspects (1995) but nothing as substantial as Laws of Gravity (although, there is his startling turn in the little seen Clean, Shaven). He has natural charisma and brings an authenticity to the role of Jimmy that is impressive to watch. This was also an early role for Edie Falco and she demonstrates considerable acting chops. It is easy to see why she has become such an accomplished actress.

Jimmy and Jon are constantly roaming the streets pulling petty crimes like shoplifting but to what end? They get into arguments that break into fights where nobody wins. These guys seem to have little aspirations and are content to live in the moment. Laws of Gravity is a fascinating slice of life look at people just trying to get by any way they can. It depicts the unstable relationship between two men and how it affects their friends and family. Gomez really captures how people from this social strata speak and act. His film is an under-appreciated gem waiting to be discovered and will hopefully find new life thanks to MGM’s MOD program.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Did Love Beat the Demon? - Forrest Gump vs. Natural Born Killers

Over the years there have been many films made about the American Dream. Some of them present the Dream as an optimistic pursuit of the self-made man as popularized by Horatio Alger, while other films have opted for a darker, more complex treatment of this particular vision. Two films came out in the summer of 1994 that share the same cynical view of the American Dream, but apply completely different approaches to their subject matter. Forrest Gump chronicles the adventures of a man with an I.Q. of 75 who stumbles his way through pivotal events in American history while becoming, through no fault of his own, a successful embodiment of the American Dream. In contrast, Natural Born Killers explores the media's fascination with serial killers and mass murderers, and how they are elevated to the status of folk heroes by media outlets interested only in ratings. An examination of both films in terms of technique, the intended audience, and the underlying message that they propagate illustrates the fact that Gump and Killers are not diametrically opposed visions of America, as the media and most critics have observed, but in fact serve as a critical analysis of the American Dream. Gump opts for a more controlled, classical approach, while Killers uses the tools of popular culture to not only mirror but critique society by using contemporary styles and methods. Despite the different approaches to their subject matter, these two films present similarly opposed visions of American culture; Gump shows a more pessimistic version of recent American history, while Killers offers an often nihilistic view of modern culture.

The cinematic techniques used in Forrest Gump and Natural Born Killers are crucial in understanding the intent of each film. Gump utilizes the Classical Hollywood style of filmmaking (1930-1950) so that the technique is invisible, while the story becomes of paramount importance. Director Robert Zemeckis uses the indiscernible editing and flashback technique reminiscent of this period of American cinema to create a film that harkens back to what many critics consider the golden age of film. Even the often-praised use of computer technology to seamlessly place Gump (Tom Hanks) with famous historical figures contributes to the masking of technique. This state-of-the-art technology performs its job so well that it seems like Gump is really interacting with prominent people from the past. Gump takes a more conservative approach by employing a classic style of filmmaking, but, in doing so, it subtly parodies the films of this period by aping their style. This approach is evident from the opening scenes of Gump’s childhood where Zemeckis uses the Classical Hollywood style to present a dichotomy of the “idyllic and [the] awful.” He juxtaposes postcard images of small-town American life, complete with white picket fences and vast fields of lush, green grass, with the dark flip side that involves Forrest’s mom (Sally Field) having sex with the school board superintendent so that her son may enroll in a regular class; Jenny fleeing from her abusive, drunken father; and young Forrest being attacked by vicious bullies who delight in bouncing rocks off the slow-thinking, handicapped child’s head. It seems, judging from the heaps of praise from critics and the massive box-office receipts of the film, that people have a selective memory, remembering only the good aspects of Gump while failing to understand the real intention of Zemeckis’ film.

While Forrest Gump stresses narrative over style, Natural Born Killers makes it blatantly obvious to the audience that they are watching a film. Director Oliver Stone applies a chaotic style of filmmaking that draws the viewer "into a vortex of the unreal," as one critic put it. By repeatedly mixing various film stocks, and by using front and rear-projection photography as well as animation, Stone is, in a sense, constructing the film "via television and as a homage to television ... like watching two weeks of television in two hours. There's the aggression of the imagery, the channel-surfing philosophy of moving on." Like Gump, Stone’s film also uses the initial opening scenes to introduce the style and technique of the film. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox’s (Juliette Lewis) stopover at a roadside diner is interrupted by a trio of rude rednecks who are systematically butchered (along with everyone else in the diner save one) by the couple in a frenetic, chaotic collage of film techniques. As Stone noted in an interview, this disorienting approach makes Killers “not an easy movie to settle into, you can’t get a point of view, you have to surrender to the movie. If you resist the movie with conventional ethics, you’ll have a problem.” Stone’s film adopts the style of the culture it parodies, and attacks tabloid media and MTV culture by using the hyperkinetic editing tempo of music videos and the constantly changing point-of-views within the film to mirror our channel-surfing, fast food culture.

One of the most interesting aspects of both Forrest Gump and Natural Born Killers is the audience that each film targets. Gump, with its classic-rock soundtrack and Classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, appeals to the Baby-Boomer generation looking for a comforting story in this age of violent action films. Ironically, Gump remains detached from much of the Baby-Boomer culture throughout the film, which tends to either show the negative side of its history or parody it. Zemeckis offsets important historical events with comical scenes that reduce these pivotal affairs to light, insignificant moments. This is true when Forrest inadvertently stumbles on a famous peace rally in Washington, D.C. where legendary sixties icon, Abbie Hoffman asks him to speak to thousands of anti-war protestors. Just as Forrest begins to speak, the sound to his microphone conveniently cuts out and his words are lost forever. It is a comical moment that trivializes this momentous event and only enhances what critic Dave Kehr recognizes as the film’s real intention: a “dark, social satire, fixed in an epic vision of American history as a series of con games and power plays.” Stone's film, on the other hand, attracts the opposite end of the spectrum: the twentysomething generation, which is skeptical about contemporary culture.

To this end, Natural Born Killers contains a soundtrack filled with fashionable, alternative music ranging from Lard to L7 and that has been arranged by Trent Reznor, the creative force behind the popular music group, Nine Inch Nails. By employing a music-video style in Killers, complete with its own rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, Stone is tapping directly into the youth market by introducing a film that young people can relate to instantly. Television has created short attention spans in the youth of today, and, as a result, they are unwilling to sit still for the long, meandering pace of Forrest Gump, and instead embrace the channel-surfing aesthetic of Killers. The media, to a certain degree, play a role in this generation gap. Many reviews have misread both films – praising Gump for its uplifting message of hope and celebration of the American dream, while criticizing Killers for its cynical, fatalistic outlook. This outlook may speak more to jaded youth than an older generation who still believe that there is a glimmer of hope. It is this glimmer that upon first inspection seems to shine brightly in Gump, but after closer scrutiny is revealed to be a hollow facade.

The underlying message that each film communicates is also indicative of the audience that watches it. Forrest Gump presents the triumphs and tragedies of the Baby-Boomer generation and wraps it up in "an entertaining story that satisfies [their] nostalgic urges ... and reaffirms the uniqueness and importance of their generation." Gump bombards the viewer with cheery pearls of wisdom like, "life is like a box of chocolates," but this nostalgic mood ends when the film moves into the late 1970’s and early 1980’s – a time of the Boomers’ decline. However, this is only a surface reading of the film. By presenting a figure like Forrest Gump who “survives because he isn’t very smart,” and remains “magnificently blank,” Zemeckis’ film suggests that only “by surrendering your will and identity, by refusing to see the horror around you, can you make it in America.” Those characters in the film that try to alter their fate or protest are punished for their trouble: Jenny (Robin Wright) wants to become a famous singer while Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) aspires to be a successful businessman. Both are killed off as a result and Forrest’s best friend, Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) has both his legs amputated. All three tried to make a difference and control their own fates, unlike Forrest who is content to run away from his predicaments. He survives because he refuses to stand up to his problems.

Conversely, Natural Born Killers challenges authority with its satirical attacks on tabloid media and its "trust no one" outlook on life in the United States. Unlike Forrest Gump, in which its protagonist maintains a safe, ironical distance from it all, Killers is "unafraid to implicate itself in the sadism of spectacle." Stone’s film is unafraid to present an amoral world where the protagonists are not instantly likable or endearing. It embraces and confronts the ugly side of the American dream head on. Moreover, the viewer is not safe from this view. By having us look at the action through the eyes of the murderous protagonists themselves, as is evident in the opening diner massacre, Killers implicates us as much as it does them in the spectacle of murder.

As one critic has observed, Natural Born Killers “is a film about film. It is Oliver Stone dueling with the recent history of the movie image. It is an attempt to look at how an ‘image culture’ has taken over from immediate experience.” Stone’s film is like one big collage of images, either sampled directly from or influenced by previous films. This includes a soundtrack that is not a coherent work by one composer, but rather fragments upon fragments of songs from a multitude of sources. Stone has taken to notion of film and distorted it so much that he has created something truly unique – a postmodern pastiche film that attacks the conventions of Hollywood.

Forrest Gump, in its own subtle way does much the same thing. Zemeckis' epic film is a potpourri of many existing genres, including the war film, the melodrama, and the comedy. However, Zemeckis plays with the conventions of each of these genres within his film so that our expectations and knowledge of them is challenged. Gump's tour in Vietnam invokes both The Flying Leathernecks (1951) and Platoon (1986). His tour is at once triumphant (he saves Lt. Dan) and tragic (Bubba dies). Zemeckis is twisting the genre's conventions by giving it a unique spin much as Stone's Natural Born Killers acts as an epitaph on the action film by exploding it to exaggerated and extreme proportions. This film goes one step further by showing how distorted the culture that the Baby-Boomers created has become. It has changed so radically, as reflected in the "deranged visual overload" of the mise-en-scene, that the Boomer generation barely recognizes it – hence their rejection of Stone's film and their embrace of Gump, which, on the surface, seems to conform with their nostalgic memories. However, Gump’s audience is perhaps missing the true intention of the film: to challenge the self-importance, which this generation assumes all too often. Killers achieves the same goal and also warns the younger generation not to repeat the same mistakes of the past.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Clay Pigeons

When Clay Pigeons came out in 1998, it was riding the tail end of the neo-noir boom of the 1990’s and was generally regarded as being derivative of the films of Quentin Tarantino and especially the Coen brothers with its quirky characters enmeshed in a neo-noirish story punctuated by sudden, jarring violence. To be fair, director David Dobkin admitted in interviews that he drew inspiration from Fargo (1996). Produced by filmmaker siblings Tony and Ridley Scott, Clay Pigeons featured then up-and-coming actors Joaquin Phoenix and Vince Vaughn with 1990’s mainstay Janeane Garofalo who all breathe life into their colorful characters created by first time screenwriter Matt Healy. The result is a playful noir with unexpected tonal shifts that keeps things interesting.

The film opens with a beautiful shot of a big blue Montana sky decorated with white fluffy clouds right out of an early Gus Van Sant film, which makes sense as Eric Alan Edwards, who shot several of his early works, was the cinematographer on this one. Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix) and his buddy are out shooting guns one sunny afternoon when he confronts Clay about sleeping with his wife Amanda (Georgina Cates). However, instead of killing Clay, he shoots and kills himself and with that Clay Pigeons kicks into the opening credits while the insanely catchy song, “Timebomb” by the alternative country band Old 97’s blasts over the soundtrack.

Freaked out that he will get blamed for his friend’s death (he certainly has motive), Clay tells Amanda what happened but the amoral femme fatale wants to continue their illicit affair. So, Clay decides to stage his friend’s death as a vehicular accident caused by alcohol. Wise old Sheriff Dan Mooney (Scott Wilson) seems to buy it and Clay seems to be in the clear except for Amanda who doesn’t get the hint when he tells her that it’s over between them. To further complicate things, a tall drink of water by the name of Lester Long (Vince Vaughn) enters his life. He’s a chatty, gregarious guy who dresses like a cowboy and may be a serial killer. Pretty soon the bodies start piling up, which leads Mooney to deadpan to Clay at one point, “Promise you’ll stop finding dead people.”

Hot off his scene-stealing role in Swingers (1996), Vince Vaughn is excellent as one of the most genial killers in cinema. There are the little details about his character that make him so memorable, like the cotton stuffed in one ear (to stop the occasional bleeding) or how he breaks off the filters on his cigarettes or the annoying little psychotic laugh he lets out once in awhile. Lester is happy-go-lucky to the point of insanity but he doesn’t think he’s crazy. Yet for all of his charm, Vaughn occasionally hints at Lester’s darker more homicidal impulses until his eventual meltdown. This was the actor at the top of his game. At that point in his career all of his acting tics and affectations were still fresh and funny. This is easily his darkest role as he digs into an angry side in a way that he has only offered glimpses of in subsequent films. What happened to Vaughn? Much like director David Dobkin, he’s chosen to play it safe with formulaic comedies.

Joaquin Phoenix has the unenviable task of playing the basically decent guy who is in way over his head. Clay isn’t nearly as colorful a character as Lester or Amanda but he does enough to make us empathize with his plight and root for him to get clear of the mess he has gotten himself in. Against these larger than life personas, Phoenix wisely underplays his role in a nicely understated performance coupled with his trademark simmering intensity.

With her tangled web of hair and pushy attitude, Amanda is one of the more grating femme fatales in the neo-noir genre. Georgina Cates plays it to the hilt complete with the forceful way she takes a drag on a cigarette and the annoying way she speaks. The first few times I watched this film she really bugged the hell out of me and then I realized that this was done on purpose and that, like Clay, you almost want her to meet a nasty demise if only to remove her irritating presence from the film but then you feel guilty about it afterwards because of its rather grisly nature.

The film’s secret weapon, acting-wise, is veteran character actors Scott Wilson’s portrayal of Sheriff Mooney. Initially, he seems to be the stereotypical slow-thinking backwater lawman who is clearly out of his depth but over the course of the film Wilson gradually provides hints that there is much more to this character and that everyone else is underestimating him, which makes the final payoff, when we realize that Mooney is actually the smartest character in the film, that much more satisfying.

Dobkin certainly knows how to establish atmosphere for a given scene, like the fog-enshrouded midnight rendezvous between Clay and Lester. Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards does a fantastic job giving Clay Pigeons a memorable look, from the golden orange of the rocks in the mountainous landscape to the cobalt blue skies decorated with wispy white clouds animated via time lapse photography that are inserted throughout the film. Dobkin captures the Montana town where the film takes place in a way that also evokes David Lynch by immersing us in small-town Americana that is both fascinating and a bit kitschy with a smattering of warped humor. In addition, the two FBI agents that come to investigate the multiple murders could easily rub elbows with Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper. They are all business but with their own off-hour quirks – she (Janeane Garofalo) likes to get high while watching Alien (1979) while he (Phil Morris) looks at crime photographs while watching reruns of Lassie.

The jaunty musical cues contrast the often dark imagery, like when Clay dumps a body in a nearby lake to the strains of “Di-Gue-Ding-Ding” by Michel Legrand. In another scene, “It’s Now or Never” by Elvis Presley plays during the build up to another vicious murder. On a more poetic note, “Moon Over Montana" by Jimmy Wakely plays over an establishing shot of a full moon at night, striking just the right tone to what happens next. All of these cues are held together by John Lurie’s Ry Cooder-esque score.

Dobkin worked extensively on the screenplay with Matt Healy before sending it out to any actors in order “to make sure the basics were as perfectly tooled as possible.” When Joaquin Phoenix first read the script he thought, “Wow, this could be really tough – in the wrong hands, it could just become preposterous.” He met with Dobkin, they hit it off and the actor agreed to do the film. Initially, Vince Vaughn was turned off by the character of Lester Long: “I thought, this is kind of sick. Not really my taste. Lester’s almost a demonic character, this dark force. But to play it for comedy … I thought, this could be cool.” His agent didn’t want him to do Clay Pigeons and instead go after high profile films after appearing in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). However, Vaughn was drawn to the script and working with a first-time director like he had done on Swingers.

Clay Pigeons received mixed notices from critics. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden praised the performances of Vaughn and Phoenix: “This results in a film that delights by confounding expectations. Mr. Vaughn's Lester is part shambling charmer, part lunatic, and you're never sure when he's suddenly going to erupt into a monster. Mr. Phoenix's Clay is a not-so-dumb country bumpkin whose saving grace is a stubborn, almost shining integrity.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan found the film to be “smartly written and stylishly directed.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “Clay Pigeons is a very odd – and actually rather funny – comedy. Not laugh-out-loud, ha-ha funny so much as smile-on-the-inside, weird funny.”

However, Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “Director David Dobkin and writer Matthew Healy find the right tone and many individual moments spring alive, but I think they go around the track a couple of extra times.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and wrote, “every scene is powered by a cut from a soundtrack available in a CD bin near you. In other words, it's young-Hollywood-driven business as usual in this derivative, nasty, and ultimately empty drama.”

Clay Pigeons has the off-kilter rhythm of a Coen brothers film as Clay gradually paints himself into a corner thanks to several bad decisions so that he has to figure a way out if he can. The film was an auspicious directorial debut for Dobkin who got his start in music videos and commercials. Unfortunately, the commercial and critical failure of this film saw him move on to broad comedies like Shanghai Knights (2003) and Wedding Crashers (2005). Looking back, Clay Pigeons seems like a freakish anomaly in the man’s career as he has played it safe ever since. It has the freshness of a first film and of a filmmaker willing to go for it with style, snappy dialogue and a fantastic cast of character actors.


Files, Gemma. “Clay Pigeons.” Eye Weekly. October 8, 1998.

Snead, Elizabeth. “Vince Vaughn on the Upswing.” USA Today. October 2, 1998.

Span, Paula. “A Working Actor.” Washington Post. September 25, 1998.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Escape from New York

John Carpenter is one of those rare filmmakers that entertains while also trying to say something about the society in which we live in. It is a tough balancing act that few can maintain but Carpenter's films make it look easy. From the special effects opus/remake drenched in paranoia of The Thing (1982) to the two-fisted diatribe against Reaganomics of They Live (1988), he hasn't been afraid to sandwich a thought-provoking message in between action sequences. In this respect, his films are much more than genre pictures; rather they critique the problems of contemporary society. And for its time, Escape From New York (1981) was no different. Carpenter's film examined the validity of the Presidency and the increase of crime and disguised it as a slick, futuristic race against time that was very prescient, going on to influence similarly-minded and looking films for years, including a fascinating sub-genre of Italian rip-offs.

Escape From New York is set in 1997 (?!) and crime in the United States has gotten so bad that Manhattan Island in New York City has become a maximum security prison with one simple rule: "Once you go in, you don't come out." One night, the President's plane is taken over by terrorists who crash it into the prison. The President escapes but quickly becomes a prisoner of the inmates led by the Duke (Isaac Hayes). It seems that the President is carrying a vital piece of information that is to be delivered to a historical summit in Hartford. Enter Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), an ex-soldier, now legendary fugitive who has been captured by the government and is scheduled to be transferred into the prison. Instead, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers him a deal: go into the prison, find the President, and bring him and the information back in exchange for a full pardon. Sounds easy, right? There's a catch: Snake only has 22 hours to do all this because by then the conference will be over and the world will be thrown into chaos. As an incentive he has two explosive charges lodged in his neck to keep him focused on the task at hand. And with this enticing opening, the film kicks into high gear as Snake enters the world's most dangerous prison to find the President and save the world.

Carpenter had just made Dark Star (1974) and no one wanted to hire him as a director so he shifted his focus to screenwriting. Inspired by the Charles Bronson film Death Wish (1974), Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay in 1974. He didn’t agree with the film’s philosophy but liked how it conveyed “the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make an SF film along these lines. He was also influenced by the Watergate scandal. "The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President. I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it" because the general feeling was that “it was too violent, too scary, too weird.” And so the director went on to do other films with the intention of making Escape later. After the successes of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980), Carpenter was in a position to make a motion picture with a big budget. He decided to revive his Escape script. But something seemed to be missing. "This was basically a straight action film. And at one point I realized it really doesn't have this kind of crazy humor that people from New York would expect to see." So, he brought in Nick Castle, a friend from his film school days at University of Southern California. Castle invented the Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) character and came up with the film's humorous conclusion that offset the bleak tone of the film with a skewed sense of satire.

The film's setting proved to be another potential problem for Carpenter. It is apocalyptic in tone: a decaying, semi-destroyed version of New York City. How could Carpenter create this world on only a budget of $6 million (his biggest at the time)? As fate would have it, in 1977 there was a big fire in St. Louis that burnt out several blocks of the downtown area. Carpenter and his crew convinced the city to shut off the electricity to these blocks at night and then proceeded to transform the burnt out remains into a New York City of the future. They even found an exact replica of Grand Central Station that was deserted and unused. It was a tough, demanding shoot that Carpenter had never experienced before. "We'd finish shooting at about 6 am and I'd just be going to sleep at 7 when the Sun would be coming up. I'd wake up around 5 or 6 pm, depending on whether or not we had dailies, and by the time I got going the Sun would be setting. So for about two and a half months I never saw daylight, which was really strange." This approach paid off, creating a dark, foreboding atmosphere of a futuristic film noir.

In addition, Carpenter shot parts of the film in Los Angeles and New York City. He and his film company were the first ones ever to be allowed to shoot on Liberty Island, at the Statue of Liberty at night. They let Carpenter have free run of the entire island. He remembers, “We were lucky. It wasn’t easy to get that initial permission. They’d had a bombing three months earlier, and were worried about trouble.” With Escape, the director created two distinct looks: “one is the police state, high tech, lots of neon, a United States dominated by underground computers. That was easy to shoot compared to the Manhattan Island prison sequences, which had few lights, mainly torch lights, like feudal England.”

The heart of Escape From New York lies in its main character: Snake Plissken. His cynical, world-weary attitude flies in the face of the earnest authorities who send him off to the save the world. Snake could care less. All that matters to him is "the next 60 seconds," as Kurt Russell commented in an interview. "Living for exactly that next minute is all there is." It is this kind of intensity that makes Snake such an interesting character. He is the ideal anti-hero ¬– intent on getting the job done and content on being left alone. Snake doesn't need anyone. Russell's performance clearly echoes Clint Eastwood's style of acting – the strong, silent type. Snake is a clever hybrid of The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. It is an amusing riff on Eastwood's two most famous characters, which is only reinforced by the appearance of Lee Van Cleef (who appeared in a few films opposite Eastwood). It is to Russell's credit that he makes Snake a character you want to root for, that you want to see win at the end. There is something charismatic about Snake that makes you automatically want to like him. What is so great about the character is that Carpenter and co-screenwriter Nick Castle remain true to him throughout. They don’t saddle him with a love interest or dilute his intensity by having him crack the occasional joke. Snake remains an unrepentant badass, the proverbial fly in the ointment with a surly disregard for authority right up to the last shot of the film.

And to think that the studio did not want Carpenter to cast Russell in the role. Up until then the actor had done a string of Disney films as a youth and worked with Carpenter on a T.V. movie about Elvis Presley. The studio did not see Russell as a tough action hero. In fact, Charles Bronson expressed an interest in playing Snake (Tommy Lee Jones was also considered). However, by Carpenter’s own admission, “I was afraid of working with him. He was a big star and I was this little-shit nobody.” Fortunately, the filmmaker had faith in Russell and Escape From New York continued a long-standing relationship between the two men – both personal and professional – that continues to this day.

Escape From New York also features a strong supporting cast of character actors like veteran thespian Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, the smartest man in the prison, and Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, a hack who stayed in New York even after it changed into a prison. Let’s not forget Adrienne Barbeau as the Brain’s girlfriend Maggie and yet she is anything but that, as the talented actress plays her character as the tough-minded female equivalent of Snake. The film contains an eccentric assortment of characters each of who get their moment to shine and this only enhances the enjoyment of watching Escape. One of the best things about it is how these characters interact with Snake and how he views them. The supporting cast also fleshes out more of this fascinating world. They continually offer all sorts of tantalizing tidbits that allude to Snake's colorful past, to conditions in the prison and how the inmates have created their own world.

Of interest to fans of Escape From New York is a ten-minute sequence that was cut early on. Filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, in order to utilize their futuristic-looking rapid transit system, it shows Snake robbing a federal facility in the desert and getting caught, which explained why he was being sent to New York City. However, test audiences didn’t like it and Carpenter took the sequence out. He said, “I had high hopes for this sequence – it was an introduction to the world and an introduction to the characters. Unfortunately, the audience didn’t care for it.” In retrospect, this scene may have over-explained what was later alluded to in the initial conversation between Snake and Hauk but it does offer even more, albeit brief, tantalizing glimpses of the world that exists outside of the prison.

Escape from New York received mostly positive reviews when it was released. Newsweek magazine felt that Carpenter had a “deeply ingrained B-movie sensibility – which is both his strength and limitation. He does clean work, but settles for too little. He uses Russell well, however.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “John Carpenter is offering this summer's moviegoers a rare opportunity: to escape from the air-conditioned torpor of ordinary entertainment into the hothouse humidity of their own paranoia. It's a trip worth taking.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "[The film] is not to be analyzed too solemnly, though. It's a toughly told, very tall tale, one of the best escape (and escapist) movies of the season." However, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr felt that the film, “fails to satisfy–it gives us too little of too much.”

First and foremost Escape From New York is a fast-paced action film that is never dull to watch. However, the film also contains a dark, satirical edge that never falters, even right up to the film's conclusion. One the most frustrating problems of most films are how they end. No one seems to know how to end a film without relying on tried and true clichés. Carpenter's film does not fall into this trap. Escape may be an action film but it also makes some very interesting comments about crime in the United States that are still relevant even today. One could argue that Carpenter's film is almost intended to be a warning. That if things get any worse, the world that is depicted in this film isn't that far off. It is these sobering thoughts that make Escape From New York as powerful and entertaining today as it was when it first hit the screens in 1981.


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Hogan, Richard. “Kurt Russell Rides a New Wave in Escape Film.” Circus. 1980.

Maronie, Samuel J. “On the Set with Escape from New York.” Starlog. April 1981.

Maronie, Samuel J. “From Forbidden Planet to Escape from New York: A Candid Conversation with SFX and Production Designer Joe Alves.” Starlog. May 1981.

Osborne, Robert. “On Location.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 24, 1980.

Yakir, Dan. “Escape Gives Us Liberty.” The New York Times. October 4, 1980.