"...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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dogtown and Z-Boys / Lords of Dogtown

In the mid-1970’s, California was hit by a crippling drought that made it impossible to surf any kind of decent waves. The locals that lived in an area of West Los Angeles known as Dogtown always had skateboarding to fall back on when the surfing wasn’t any good. They all hung out at a local surf shop that reflected their surroundings: a rough seaside slum that fostered a proudly anti-establishment image because they all felt like outcasts. The surf shop was a place where these kids felt like they belonged.

The core group consisted of 12 kids who rejected the tried and true skating techniques of the 1960’s for a more aggressive, stylish approach inspired by the way they surfed. Amazingly, no one had thought of doing this before and it blew the world of skateboarding wide open. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) is a documentary that traces their origins and the rise and fall of this group, known as the Zephyr team (or Z-Boys for short), from the perspective of its members.

At the time, there were no skate parks so the Zephyr team had to skate in deserted schoolyards and then, once they discovered them, empty swimming pools drained by the drought. They ended up being the perfect spots for skating and ushered in the era of vertical skating thanks to the influence of surfing and the vision of one of their own, Tony Alva. The only problem with skating in background pools is that the Z-Boys weren’t supposed to be there and a session would end suddenly when the owners or the cops showed up.

Finally, skateboarding enjoyed enough of a resurgence that a national competition surfaced in Del Mar in 1975. The Z-Boys got a team together and came in with their punk rock aesthetic and blew the minds of people used to the hopelessly outdated ‘60s style. However, the downside came in the form of rich skateboard companies that broke up the Z-Boys with the lure of money and fame. Within a year, their beloved surf shop was out of business.

The documentary goes on to trace the rise of several of the Z-Boys, like Alva, Stacy Peralta and Jay Adams, into superstars. They were treated like gods in the skateboarding world and went from living on the streets to having all kinds of money, fame and women thrown at them. Some of them, such as Adams, couldn’t handle the sudden fame and fortune. It’s a shame because he was the most natural and spontaneous of the team, a brilliant “athletic stream-of-consciousness,” as one person puts it. However, Alva and Peralta were able to diversify and take control of their careers and still skate today, capitalizing on their early success.

The impetus for this documentary came from an article that appeared in Spin magazine about the Z-Boys. Within a week of it hitting newsstands, six major Hollywood studios contacted Stacy Peralta wanting to buy the life rights to their story and make it into a fictional film. Executives were able to get Tony Alva and Jay Adams on board but Peralta agreed only on the condition that he would have some input. The studio refused and he decided to do a documentary on the Z-Boys himself. Peralta was able to get Vans, a skateboarding gear manufacturer, to finance the film for $400,000 and give him complete creative control. With his connections to the scene, he was able to get access to all the key people who were around back in the day.

There is an infectious energy to this documentary that mirrors its subject. Gone are boring talking heads mixed with standard stock footage. Instead, we are presented with stills and vintage footage taken back in the day and that comes to life thanks to kinetic editing and period rock ‘n’ roll music setting just the right tone.

Like its subjects, the doc’s style lets it all hang out. For example, at one point, the film’s narrator, none other than Jeff Spicoli himself, Sean Penn, clears his throat in mid-narration. Most slick docs would have edited this out but director Stacy Peralta keeps it in. It is these little touches that make Dogtown and Z-Boys distinctive.

What also gives Dogtown and Z-Boys such authenticity is that it was made by one of their own, Peralta, and this gives the documentary unprecedented inside access that an outsider would never have. This is a fascinating look at these maverick skaters and how they influenced contemporary skateboarding that we now take for granted.

Dogtown and Z-Boys was a hugely successful documentary chronicling a group of wild skateboarders in Venice Beach, California in the ‘70s. Why dramatize an already great documentary that pretty much says it all? Naturally, Hollywood got interested and wanted to make a fictional version (because hey, no one watches docs, right?) with Fred Dirst (of Limp Bizkit fame) directing and David Fincher producing.

Fortunately, someone came to his or her senses and Dirst was out with Fincher taking over but the budget for his vision was too large. So, the studio opted for a low budget take with independent film darling Catherine Hardwicke, fresh from the success of thirteen (2003), taking over as director. In an effort to keep it real, Stacy Peralta, who made the Z-Boys doc, wrote the screenplay for Lords of Dogtown (2005) and worked closely with Hardwicke in order to remain true to what he and his friends went through all those years ago.

The film takes us back to the heady days of 1975 when the Venice Beach locals would surf the dangerous waters where you could easily get brained by a piece of the nearby pier. These were tough kids growing up in a tough neighborhood and out of it came a group of young surfers who adopted the same style they used to attack the waves to skate asphalt and concrete: Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) and Stacy Peralta (John Robinson).

One of the reasons why Lords of Dogtown works so well is because of the superb casting. The actors who play the three lead Z-Boys are dead ringers for their real-life counterparts. In fact, the entire cast looks and sounds like the real people. In particular, Emile Hirsch is excellent as Jay Adams, a naturally gifted skater who comes from a troubled home. Hirsch is wonderfully cast against type as an edgy, brooding teen — it’s a world away from his naïve dreamer that he played in The Girl Next Door (2004).

Thankfully, the film’s producers didn’t raid the WB cabinet for the young cast. Instead, they got Hirsch, Rasuk (from indie fave Raising Victor Vargas) and Robinson (from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant) who have some actual acting chops but not a high enough profile so as to distract. They disappear into their roles as does, surprisingly, high profile actor Heath Ledger. He does an excellent job of becoming his character, one of the Zephyr skate shop owners who is a burnt out drunk but has vision and tries to protect his team of young skaters.

According to Peralta, he made sure to teach the actors how to “look comfortable on a board.” To this length, the actors portraying skaters underwent a three-month training course led by none other than Alva with surfing in the morning and skating in the afternoon. Of the three lead actors, only Rasuk had no board sport experience before the film. The actors not only had to learn the distinctive skating style of the ‘70s but also had to do it on vintage equipment from that era. Not surprisingly, the actors suffered all kinds of skating-related injuries during the course of training and filming but there hard work paid off as is evident from the final result.

Hardwicke adopts a down ‘n’ dirty approach to the look of her film. She uses a lot of hand-held camerawork and grainy film stock that makes you feel like someone who was there shot it. The film’s warm color scheme is filled with yellows, browns and reds for an almost sunburnt look with grey-blues for the ocean/surfing scenes. The style of the film is never gimmicky; the story dictates the style. The attention to period detail is flawless: the pool surfing, the convenience store cuisine and the music.

These kids aren’t driving around in brand new Mustangs or Woodies but beaten-up junkers as befitting their social status. The film uses period music that is typical of the era but doesn’t rely on the really popular, obvious tunes except during appropriate times like at a party where you would listen to crowd-pleasers like that and so it is justified.

The trailers for this film totally misrepresented it as an over-processed, heavily edited piece of lunchmeat. Instead, Lords of Dogtown perfectly evokes the times it depicts with unerring authenticity. It portrays skaters as they were back then — stylish and below the radar, just before the sport took off to the wildly popular institution that it is now.

Lords of Dogtown shows how fame eventually broke up the Z-Boys. It was inevitable. These kids came from nothing and were suddenly thrust into the spotlight and all kinds of money was thrown at them. Alva and Peralta became hugely popular and went corporate, constantly competing with each other while Adams stayed true to his roots and walked away from it all because he was in it for the love of skating and the thrill of the ride. This film will bring back a lot of memories for people who grew up and skated during these years, making this film more than just a simple retread of the Z-Boys documentary.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

It was the film many thought would never happen and that languished in development hell for years, bouncing from studio to studio until New Line Cinema took a very big gamble with filmmaker Peter Jackson who, at that point in his career, was known for making slapsticky low budget horror films (Braindead) and had one art house hit (Heavenly Creatures). He wasn’t someone you would necessarily entrust millions upon millions of dollars on making a trilogy of fantasy films – not the most commercially successful genre (Willow, anyone?). Jackson was also tackling The Lord of the Rings, the much-beloved series of books by J.R.R. Tolkien – get it wrong and you’re going to have legions of very unhappy fans.

However, Jackson was a fan too and he had a vision, which, with the help of his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and an army of collaborators, brought The Lord of the Rings vividly to life. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), was a massive critical and commercial success and would be followed by two even more successful sequels, The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003). Everyone has their favorite film of the trilogy and for me it’s the first one because it has an intimate feel rendered on an epic scale, if that makes any sense. In other words, The Fellowship of the Ring is about a small group of characters, the Fellowship, and the journey they undertake.

Jackson establishes this intimacy early on with Bilbo Baggins’ (Ian Holm) birthday celebration. The Special Extended Edition DVD version takes its time introducing the hobbits and their world. Jackson uses warm, inviting colors and folksy music to convey that the hobbits are friendly, down-to-earth people who live in a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other. Most importantly, we are introduced to Frodo (Elijah Wood), the hero of this epic tale. For it is he who Bilbo entrusts with the last remaining Ring that he must to take Mordor to destroy so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the evil Sauron.

The Shire sequences also establish the dangerously seductive lure of the Ring, the origins of the quest and the creation of the Fellowship as led by the mighty wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Aside from Frodo, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) join him on his journey. The group starts simply enough and over the course of the film others join their ranks, including Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a human ranger, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elvan archer, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a grumpy dwarf, and Boromir (Sean Bean), a human fighter. At heart of the Fellowship (and really all three films) is the friendship between Frodo and Sam. It is Sam who looks out for Frodo and sticks with him for the entire quest.

There are all kinds of parallels, story structure-wise, between The Fellowship of the Ring and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). The Tolkien books were an obvious influence on George Lucas’ films. The main characters from both films are plucked from obscurity, a remote rural environment to go on a dangerous quest and are mentored by an elderly wizard type. Hell, Han Solo and Aragorn are characters cut from the same cloth and are both given cool introductions to establish their respective badass credentials.

Jackson manages to get some career-best performances out of many cast members. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Orlando Bloom, in particular, have never done anything better since (or before for that matter, except maybe for Wood and his chilling turn in Sin City) and this film launched a series of very eclectic leading man roles for the always watchable Viggo Mortensen (it doesn’t get more diverse than disparate roles in Hidalgo and Eastern Promises). Both Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee give the film some serious class and loads of genre credibility. It is Wood and Astin that anchor this film and give its heart. The relationship between their two characters epitomizes most noble aspects of friendship and of the Fellowship. This only deepens in subsequent installments.

Once our heroes begin their journey, Jackson establishes a riveting urgency as they are pursued by the nightmarish ringwraiths and a vicious army of orcs. And yet this only strengthens the camaraderie among the hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship despite its dysfunction in the form of Boromir. However, when it matters and when faced with dangerous opponents, they work as a team as evident in the exciting and visceral battle against a monster in Balin’s Tomb and the even grittier battle against the orcs at the film’s climax.

Contrary to popular belief, Peter Jackson did not have a lifelong ambition to adapt Tolkien’s books into films. Producer Saul Zaentz owned the film rights for years and gave them to Jackson when he and Fran Walsh met with him and expressed their passion for the project. Zaentz sold the rights to Miramax who wanted to make only one film with Jackson. Disney was the financial backer but they didn’t believe in the project, refusing to give Miramax the money to make it. Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, gave Jackson three weeks to find someone else to make the film and in 1998, New Line agreed to make it into three films. Jackson originally proposed two films but it was New Line’s idea to make three.

In order to cut down on costs, Jackson decided to film all three films back-to-back over a grueling 274-day shooting schedule on location in remote areas of New Zealand in more than 100 locations with 20 major speaking roles and 20,000 extras. At the height or production, the film crew swelled to 1,300 people with seven units shooting multiple elements simultaneously. Jackson and company were at the mercy of New Zealand’s notoriously mercurial weather – unseasonal snowstorms and overnight flooding but in the end, the filmmakers accomplished what they set out to do and the proof is in the impressive final results.

The Fellowship of the Ring received overwhelmingly positive notices from most of the major film critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "Peter Jackson ... has made a work for, and of, our times. It will be embraced, I suspect, by many Tolkien fans and take on aspects of a cult. It is a candidate for many Oscars. It is an awesome production in its daring and breadth, and there are small touches that are just right.” USA Today also gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "this movie version of a beloved book should please devotees as well as the uninitiated." In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, "The playful spookiness of Mr. Jackson's direction provides a lively, light touch, a gesture that doesn't normally come to mind when Tolkien's name is mentioned." Entertainment Weekly magazine gave the film an "A" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "The cast take to their roles with becoming modesty, certainly, but Jackson also makes it easy for them: His Fellowship flows, never lingering for the sake of admiring its own beauty ... Every detail of which engrossed me. I may have never turned a page of Tolkien, but I know enchantment when I see it." In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley praised the cast, in particular, "Mortensen, as Strider, is a revelation, not to mention downright gorgeous. And McKellen, carrying the burden of thousands of years' worth of the fight against evil, is positively Merlinesque." Finally, Time magazine's Richard Corliss praised Jackson's work: "His movie achieves what the best fairy tales do: the creation of an alternate world, plausible and persuasive, where the young — and not only the young — can lose themselves. And perhaps, in identifying with the little Hobbit that could, find their better selves.”

The Fellowship of the Ring is one of those rare films that lives up to its mountains of hype. Jackson tells an engaging story and crams as much of the source material as possible into the film. Sure, certain characters and subplots have been cut-out but that is the nature of a feature film adaptation. Maybe, some day, someone can turn it into a mini-series so that everything can be included. Until then, we have Jackson’s magnificent films to enjoy.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Alexander Payne is part of an exciting wave of filmmakers who grew up during the 1970’s and were subsequently influenced by the films from that era. His contemporaries include the likes of Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David O. Russell to name but a few. And like his fellow filmmakers, Payne eschews the Hollywood trend of placing an emphasis on special effects and trendy actors in favor of character-driven, comedy-drama hybrids populated with character actors like Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick and Kathy Bates.

Payne’s About Schmidt (2002) continued his fascination with American cinema in the ‘70s by featuring one its biggest (and most prolific) stars, Jack Nicholson. His next film, Sideways (2004), continued the road movie motif from Schmidt and combined it with the buddy film. Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) is a failed actor about to be married. He decides to go on one last week of uninhibited fun with his best friend, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), a grade school teacher and struggling author. They go on a wine-tasting tour through California’s Central Coast and squeeze in a bit of golfing as well.

Miles is an avid (nay-elitist) wine aficionado while Jack is completely ignorant of wine beyond what tastes good to him and what doesn’t. Miles is trying to get his book published with little success and he’s grown cynical and defeated as a result. Initially, he comes off as an unlikable loser not above stealing money from his mother. Jack counters Miles’ repressed nature by coming off as something of an instinctive kind of person who indulges in his raging id. He was on a hit television show... 11 years ago and is now relegated to doing voiceovers for commercials. Along the way, Jack and Miles meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), a beautiful waitress who Miles knows from way back when, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a winery and catches Jack’s eye.

Jack and Miles are complete messes as human beings. They lack direction and are hypocrites. Miles says he’s an author but his book is going nowhere, while Jack is getting married but hits on anything in a dress. They are hardly a sympathetic pair. And yet Payne is able to get a lot of comedic mileage from them. Miles is a wine snob who rambles on about the taste, color, and so on, only to have Jack sum up his opinion simply, “I like it,” which comically deflates Miles’ pontificating. They have an intriguing dynamic. While they lie to others – Miles to Jack’s friends about the status of his novel and Jack being nice to Miles’ mother when he clearly wants to get back on the road – they are no pretenses between each other. These guys are getting to the stage in their lives where they’re looking back as opposed to looking ahead. Jack sees marriage as an institution that will stifle his freedom while Miles has a very negative outlook on life, finding any excuse not to ask Maya out despite obviously liking her because he assumes that it will go nowhere.

An interesting thing happens during the course of the film. At first, Miles starts off as an unsympathetic character while we warm up to Jack’s funny repartee as the charming rogue. Halfway through the film they flip roles and it’s Jack who is exposed as a pathetic womanizer and Miles becomes more sympathetic thanks to Maya’s influence. She humanizes him and is easily his intellectual equal. She knows her wine and this clearly impresses Miles. She’s smart and beautiful so why is she even wasting her time with a sad sack like Miles? She gets to know him beyond his looks and liquefies the pretension of his character. Maya pierces his wine-speak armor that he throws up all the time with her easy-going nature and Miles realizes that he doesn’t need to constantly impress her. There is a nice scene where they get to know each other and it is great to see two skilled actors getting a chance to act and really delve into their characters. In this scene, we finally see someone thaw out Miles and get him to open up, stop worrying and thinking so negatively. They use their mutual love for wine as a way to share their passions and aspirations with each other. It’s a beautifully realized scene because you are seeing two people starting to fall in love with each other. Like a fine wine, Maya allows Miles to breathe and he gets better as time goes on. She’s a romantic who is able to cut through his cynicism and soften his hard edges.

Fresh off the success of American Splendor (2003), Paul Giamatti is one of those actors who make it look effortless as he inhabits the characters he plays so completely. Miles is a neurotic mess; a depressed cynic who is definitely a half glass empty kind of guy. Giamatti is able to tap into his character’s deep reservoir of pain and anger. In a couple of shots early in the film, Payne hints at Miles’ past when he looks at old photographs in his mom’s room. They evoke happier times with his father (now out of the picture) and wife (now divorced). Giamatti’s sad expression in this moment conveys more than any words could. During the course of the film, we find out more about why Miles is so miserable and a lot of it has to do with self-loathing, which explains why he tries to sabotage things with Maya. In some ways, Miles is a variation of Giamatti’s take on the equally acerbic Harvey Pekar in Splendor.

Ever since the short-lived television sitcom Ned and Stacy, Thomas Haden Church has been an untapped resource and with Sideways he was given the role of his career. As Miles’ crass, philandering best friend, he plays Jack as a middle-aged frat boy who still calls women, “chicks.” Haden Church has never been afraid to play abrasive, bordering on unlikeable, characters and he expertly does the same here as a guy who presents a jovial façade but underneath lurks a lot of pain and an insensitive mean streak. Haden Church’s dead-panned delivery of smart-ass lines works well against Giamatti’s uptight straight man. Together, they make an excellent team. After years of playing supporting character roles, it’s great to see Haden Church and Giamatti starring in a film. They play so well off each other that you’d swear they’d acted together before. Haden Church and Giamatti are very believable as long-time friends from the way they interact with each other.

For years, Virginia Madsen has been biding her time in direct-to-video hell and so it is great to see her in a high profile role like this one. From The Hot Spot (1990) to Candyman (1992), she’s always been an interesting actress to watch and with Sideways, Madsen is given strong material to sink her teeth into and she delivers a nuanced performance. Sandra Oh has been quietly building a nice body of work over the years and was unfairly overlooked in the numerous awards that have been lavished on this film. Granted, of the four main cast members, she has the least amount of screen time but she makes every moment she has count.

Producer Michael London was a former Los Angeles Times journalist and studio executive who had become frustrated by the studio development process of shepherding a film from script to screen. He bought the rights to the unpublished semi-autobiographical novel Sideways by Rex Pickett with his own money and gave it to Alexander Payne to read in 1999 while the filmmaker was promoting Election. Payne found himself drawn to “the humanity of the characters” and how it tapped into his desire to make films about “people with flaws,” and “unfulfilled desires.” He was not a wine expert but always liked it and thought that the subculture would be fun to explore and act as a backdrop to the relationship between Jack and Miles. However, he was committed to making About Schmidt next and so he and London kept optioning the book over the years. Then, he and his long-time writing partner, Jim Taylor, wrote the screenplay for free. Payne and London drew up a budget and financed pre-production themselves thereby allowing themselves the kind of creative control they wanted. They only began approaching movie studios once they had the script, budget and a preferred cast in place. Four studios were interested with Fox Searchlight winning out.

Based on the reputation of his previous films, several big name actors campaigned for roles in Payne’s film. Both Brad Pitt and George Clooney were eager to play the role of Jack and met with the filmmaker but it ultimately came down to Thomas Haden Church and Matt Dillon. Edward Norton expressed an interest in playing Miles and Payne seriously considered him for the role. With the exception of Sandra Oh, his wife at the time, all the actors auditioned for Payne and London. Haden Church had auditioned for both Election and About Schmidt (narrowly losing out to Dermot Mulroney on the latter) and even though Payne did not cast him in those films, he had been impressed with the actor. When it came to Sideways, Payne felt that Haden Church “kind of is that character,” and cast him as Jack. At the time, he had moved away from acting and when he read the script in May 2003, thought to himself, “I have no shot at this whatsoever, but I have to answer the call of duty. If I get a chance, then I gotta take it.” When Paul Giamatti auditioned for the film, he had not read the whole script, just an excerpt – the scene where Miles talks about his love of Pinot Noir wine to Maya. The actor found Miles’ obsession with the wine to be “an interesting theme for this guy” who was constantly “striving for transcendence through the wine and the wine milieu, and it just keeps collapsing in on the guy because he’s such a wreck.” After casting Giamatti and Haden Church, Payne insisted that they spend some time together before filming, hanging out and practicing their dialogue so that characters’ friendship would be believable.

The setting of the story was very important to Payne as he brought a documentary sensibility to capturing the people that inhabit the area. Before shooting, he spent four months living in the wine country of California, taking notes so that it would be accurately depicted in his film. The actors spent two weeks of rehearsals with Payne, “shooting the shit and indulging in good food and wine,” according to Giamatti. With a budget in the range of $16-17 million, Sideways was shot over 54 days in the Santa Barbara area. For the look of the film, he drew inspiration from the photographic style of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), screening it for his director of photography, Phedon Papamichael (Moonlight Mile), in order to study the softness of colors and the lack of sharp, vivid lighting that he wanted in his own film.

I think it’s safe to say that Sideways received almost universally positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The characters are played not by the first actors you would think of casting, but by actors who will prevent you from ever being able to imagine anyone else in their roles.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss felt that it was “by far the year's best American movie.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Mr. Giamatti gives off soulful sparks with Ms. Madsen, a 41-year-old sultry-noir-dame veteran with generally unappreciated acting gifts. Maya, like Miles, is still recovering from a previous failed marriage, which helps make Sideways even more of a movie for grown-ups.” USA Today gave the film four out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “This is a building-block movie: Its stand-out excellence becomes apparent only gradually.” In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “But it takes more than courage to push actors to their limits of their talents, which Mr. Payne does here. You need to understand that the truth of both a human being and a screen performance doesn't exist only in grace and beauty, but in small fissures and cracks.” The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson wrote, “Church, best known for his character Lowell Mather in the television show Wings, is a revelation. He turns a cad into an unforgettable and, dare I say, lovable rogue.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Maya and Stephanie are vivid, fetching abstractions; Jack and Miles are male archetypes, as well as the two most fully realized comic creations in recent American movies.”

Payne’s film harkens to Bob Rafelson’s classic character-driven films from the ‘70s, like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), featuring prickly protagonists. Payne rejects traditional mainstream tastes in favor of presenting unsympathetic characters and a conclusion that refuses to wrap things up neatly. He even employs multiple split-screen montages and snap zooms, which were very much en vogue during the ‘70s. Miles is the voice of reason while Jack is the voice of fun in Sideways. However, Miles understands who he is and is honest with himself and his lot in life unlike Jack who continues to live a lie, or rather play a role. Jack lives in a bubble and they always break. Miles doesn’t have to worry about that because he bursts his bubble on a daily basis. These men are idiots and it is the women who are smart and truthful. The men lie, cheat and are forced to face the repercussions of their actions. This provides them with a chance at redemption as embodied in Miles who learns to loosen up and finally let someone new into his heart.


Biga, Leo Adam. “A Road Trip Sideways.” The Reader.

Donnelly, Joe. “Here’s What Happened, Sweetheart.” October 21, 2004.

Epstein, Daniel Robert. “Alexander Payne.” Suicide Girls. October 21, 2004.

Goldstein, Patrick. “Moving Sideways to Stay on Track.” Los Angeles Times. December 16, 2003.

Robinson, Tasha. “Thomas Haden Church.” A.V. Club. April 7, 2008.

Ross, Matthew. “In Vino Veritas.” Filmmaker.

Stein, Joel. “He’s Got Good Taste.” Time. October 25, 2004.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Depicting the Conspiracy to Kill John F. Kennedy in Libra and JFK

The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. As Don DeLillo comments in his novel Libra, "Powerful events breed their own network of inconsistencies." DeLillo also makes this observation in an essay entitled, "American Blood" in Rolling Stone magazine, which contains the groundwork for issues that he would later explore in more detail in Libra. DeLillo's novel depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed film complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. This creates a strong parallel between Libra and Oliver Stone's film, JFK (1991) which covers much of the same ground and uses many of the same techniques but to achieve different conclusions.

Libra and JFK present the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. Libra examines the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as an ambiguous occurrence filled with many coincidences, loose ends, and viewpoints; in contrast, JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government. Libra and JFK are works which present the Kennedy assassination as a moment that contains many discrepancies and misleading facts, but differ in their presentation of how this affects our perception of the event.


"Beyond this confusion of data, people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated." – Don DeLillo

For DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination is an important event not only in his life, but as an author. The profound effect it had on DeLillo is evident in an interview where he states that "it's possible I wouldn't have become the kind of writer I am if it weren't for the assassination." The assassination left him with the feeling that he had lost a "sense of manageable reality" which made him more aware of "elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos." It is these feelings that DeLillo would later convey in the character of Nicholas Branch in Libra. Branch must come to terms with his own feelings of confusion and self-doubt while investigating the death of Kennedy and the conspiracy that surrounds it. DeLillo expresses these feelings of randomness and ambiguity in the incidences leading up to the assassination. They are often presented in an uncertain way to convey the conflict between the facts, the eyewitness accounts, and the memories that often contradict one another, obscuring the truth:

“We still haven't reached any consensus on the specifics of the crime: the number of gunmen, the number of shots, the location of the shots, the number of wounds in the President's body – the list goes on and on. Beyond this confusion of data, people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated.”

As DeLillo wisely points out in this interview, history has been manipulated so that we can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction. There is a passage in Libra where Lee Harvey Oswald gets into a shoving match with some Anti-Castro Cubans and not even Oswald can remember how it was started. There is a sense that not only the reader is being manipulated, but the characters as well. This is apparent when DeLillo writes, "Lee felt he was in the middle of his own movie. They were running this thing just for him." Oswald recognizes that the boundaries between what is real and what is not are beginning to blur. The simplest facts, like his run in with Anti-Castro Cubans, "elude authentication" because the origins of the event are unknown and we are left to theorize what the motivations were for it happening.

JFK also creates this blur of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage so that it becomes difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Oliver Stone does this in order to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation." Like Libra, JFK presents the incident between Oswald (Gary Oldman) and the Anti-Castro Cubans as a simple event which becomes obscured by multiple interpretations. Stone begins the scene in 16mm, black and white film stock and then switches to Super 8mm in color with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) narrating the whole scene. Stone is presenting three different points of views in this scene; one in 16mm black and white, one in Super 8mm color, and Garrison's own narration:

“It was a public event, it was seen by people, and to this day there are different versions of what happened that day. Were the Cubans really angry, or was it a stunt? Was it a staged arrest? We wanted to fracture the perception of it as a mere flashback from across the street.” – Stone

The change to Super 8mm symbolizes a different view or reading of the event as reconstructed in the mind of the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison. This is similar to what the characters in DeLillo's Libra experience, except that there is no single protagonist as there is in JFK. Instead, Stone creates different points of views or layers through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence that Libra creates through its various protagonists.


"Branch thinks this is megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred." – Libra

One of the major sources of this confusion of data and information stems from the Warren Commission Report which DeLillo describes as "a ruined city of trivia." This encyclopedic tome is a microcosm of the assassination itself. It takes simple facts and scatters them about to create a convoluted path that both Nicholas Branch and Jim Garrison must navigate in order to find the truth. As Garrison explains, "It's all broken down and spread around and you read and the point gets lost." Garrison begins to interview people who testified in the report only to find that, as one witness points out, "It was a fabrication from start to finish." Within the report there are contradictions and forged testimonies supporting the government's theory that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. Like the assassination itself, the Warren Report contains all the facts but distorts and presents them in such an unorganized fashion that any attempt to piece together a coherent narrative or conspiracy is "like drowning." It is up to Garrison to make sense of this mess and establish a coherent narrative which he does at the conclusion of the film when he presents his case in court.

In Libra, Branch also realizes how confusing and misleading the Warren Report is to its reader. He understands that this is its purpose:

“He questions everything, including the basic suppositions we make about our world of light and shadow, solid objects and ordinary sounds, and our ability to measure such things, to determine weight, mass and direction, to see things as they are, recall them clearly, be able to say what happened.”

Like the actual events themselves, the Warren Report blurs the line between fact and fiction so that the truth is concealed. The whole notion of a conspiracy seems uncertain because no one fact supports it, but rather leads to even more questions and theories that must be sifted through. DeLillo's Libra presents on one side the conspirators, but contrasts this with Branch, the investigator, who must make sense of the Warren Commission Report. The facts clearly aid the conspirators who, with some convenient coincidences, like Kennedy's decision to visit Dallas, create a puzzling trail for Branch to follow.


"'Lee Harvey Oswald' often seems a secret design worked out by men who will never surface – a procedural diagram, a course in fabricated biography." – Libra

To this extent, the conspirators even create figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, who are ambiguous in nature. From the start, the conspirators plan to put together someone, to "build an identity, a skein of persuasion and habit, ever so subtle. He wanted a man with believable quirks." The conspirators construct multiple Oswalds to support a lone assassin theory:

“We want to leave an imprint of Oswald's activities starting today and ending when the operation is complete. A series of incidents. We want to establish Oswald as a man that people will later remember. What if Oswald doesn't cooperate? We create our own Oswald. A second, a third, a fourth. This plan goes into effect no matter what he does after Mexico City. Mackey wants Oswald all over Texas.”

By creating several Oswalds, the conspirators effectively create a metaphoric room of mirrors where the real Oswald cannot be separated from the many fakes. This confusion works well as Branch realizes, "They all look like Oswald. Branch thinks they look more like Oswald than the figure in profile, officially identified as him." Branch is presented with facts about Oswald that contradict themselves. Oswald appears in several places at the same time in a rather crude fashion so that Branch no longer knows what to believe. DeLillo shows how these multiple images of Oswald, created by the conspirators, are rough but effective in masking the real man. Branch is able to separate the multiple Oswalds, but this still does not get him any closer to the heart of the conspiracy or the true nature of Oswald. It only makes him "wary of these cases of cheap coincidence. He's beginning to think someone is trying to sway him toward superstition. He wants a thing to be what it is. Can't a man die without the ensuing ritual of a search for patterns and links?" Branch has become tired of sorting through these lies and longs for a more structured path where everything is black and white.

This structured path lies in JFK as Garrison and his team also sort through the multiple Oswalds. Stone presents many of the same events as described in Libra while also crosscutting footage of an unknown person piecing together a photograph. This in turn is crosscut with real photographs of Oswald and staged shots of Stone's Oswald. As the mysterious photograph is completed, it is revealed to be the famous Life magazine cover of Oswald with the rifle that supposedly killed Kennedy and that "pretty much convicted Oswald in the public eye," as one character observes. This mixing of footage, both real and staged, symbolizes Oswald's various pasts, both real and faked. By showing the famous Life photograph being doctored, Stone is using that as a metaphor for Oswald's past. On the surface it looks believable, but upon closer scrutiny there is a more complex story as Garrison wisely notes, "They put Oswald together from day one." This is true both figuratively as the montage of fake Oswalds demonstrates and literally as the construction of the famous photograph illustrates.


"We used a lot of different film stocks and formats to question the nature of reality. To a large degree, JFK is not a political film; it's philosophical. It shows how the truth is fractured until we don't know what reality is." – Oliver Stone

DeLillo is an author clearly aware of film techniques: the energy they contain and the power they convey. This is clearly established in his essay, "American Blood" where he states, "Violence itself seems to cause a warp in the texture of things. There are jump cuts, blank spaces, an instant in which information leaps from one energy level to another." This effect is used in describing the death of Kennedy. DeLillo presents four different perspectives of the event: one from Oswald's point of view, a second from another hired assassin, a third from a woman on the grassy knoll, and a fourth from Nellie Connally, the First Lady of Texas at the time and sitting in the car when Kennedy was shot. DeLillo effectively jumps from one perspective to another in order to show the assassination from all the crucial vantage points; from the casual observer, to someone right in the motorcade, to one of the assassins. Each jump cut causes "a warp in the texture of things" so that there is a feeling of chaos intruding on the event. As each account is presented, information "leaps from one energy level to another" and a disordered view of the assassination is revealed. By presenting these various perspectives, DeLillo is commenting on how an event can be interpreted differently by many people so that there is no clear cut reading.

JFK adheres to DeLillo's above statement in an even more precise fashion with its depiction of the assassination. Stone mixes real footage of Kennedy's motorcade with his own footage, while also using various film stocks to show the multiple interpretations of a public event that was viewed by many people. Stone jumps from Kennedy's arrival in Dallas to his motorcade heading for Dealey Plaza with several quick edits. He also crosscuts footage of a clock at Dealey Plaza to show that time is running out for Kennedy, he will soon be killed. This quick rhythm of editing creates an anxious mood and the tension increases. The film cuts to black followed by the sound of a gun being cocked and then fired. Kennedy has been shot. A black and white shot of a rooftop with birds flying into the sky appears with the sound of the gun shot echoing into the distance. Stone has taken what DeLillo has said in his essay and translated it visually. Stone "jump cuts" from the footage of the motorcade to a "blank space" for an instant so that "information leaps from one energy level to another" as DeLillo puts it in "American Blood." We go from the energy of the assassination to the shockwaves that ripple out by introducing the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison and showing his reaction to what has happened. This is the leap that DeLillo writes about it in his essay, but depicted visually. By mirroring DeLillo's statement with this sequence Stone creates the strongest link between his film, which seems conscious of DeLillo's essay, and Libra.

Libra and JFK are important works in the sense that they accurately portray the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Both works present an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing, but diverge at how they present it. Libra reaches the conclusion that the conspiracy to kill Kennedy "succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance." DeLillo presents several points of view, ranging from the individual conspirators, who create a confusing web of information, and elaborate figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, in order to dissuade characters like Nicholas Branch from trying to make sense of it all. The conspiracy starts as a small affair discussed by a few men that grows into a large chaotic web that connects all the characters through chance and coincidence. JFK, on the other hand, contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. Stone does not have the time to go into as much detail as DeLillo's novel and as a result paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images in an attempt to create "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission." DeLillo opts for a more intellectual and detailed examination of the assassination as one character in Libra explains, "Let's devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second." JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public was still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy. Both Libra and JFK are proof that Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that these works openly advocate.


Crowdus, Gary. "Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone." Cineaste May 1992: 25-27.

DeCurtis, Anthony. "An Outsider in This Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo." The Fiction of Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990: 281-304.

DeLillo, Don. "American Blood." Rolling Stone. December 8, 1983: 21-74.
--- . Libra. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Riordan, James. Stone -- The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Smith, Gavin. "The Camera For Me Is An Actor: An Interview with Oliver Stone." Film Comment. January-February 1994: 26-43.