Thursday, June 16, 2011

Midnight in Paris, and its antecedents

When Woody Allen's musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, was released in 1996, Roger Ebert made a bold proclamation. As he watched the penultimate scene, he wrote, it occurred to him that the film was "the best... Woody Allen has ever made. Not the most profound, or the most daring, or the most successful in every one of its details -- but simply the best, because he finds the right note for every scene, and dances on a tightrope between comedy and romance, between truth and denial, between what we hope and what we know."

I no longer remember if I read Ebert's review (which is among his most eloquently written) before or after I saw Everyone Says I Love You, but once I did, I found myself in complete agreement with him. Nearly 15 years have passed since the film debuted, and while I've come to value Allen's dramas (such as Interiors and Another Woman) every bit as much as his comedies, I haven't changed my mind about the greatness of the life-affirming Everyone Says.

In many ways, Everyone Says anticipated Allen's recent European films since it was set not only in New York, but also Venice and Paris. The film's final act takes place in the City of Light over the holiday season. As the narrator, D.J., explains, her family doesn't do the normal things families do at that time of the year, like sing carols, but instead, "what we do is head for Paris, to spend Christmas at the Ritz."

Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, feels like a feature-length version of the Paris sequence of Everyone Says. Both films are full of Allen's love for the city, its history, its culture, and, in fact, its parties (Everyone Says concludes with a party in honor of the Marx Brothers). There are visual echoes, too. The beginning of Midnight in Paris has been compared to the beginning of Manhattan, but I think it echoes Everyone Says more noticeably. The new film opens with a series of shots depicting Paris through the course of a single day, going from morning to afternoon to twilight to evening; it reminds me of the way Allen introduced each new season in Everyone Says with a brief series of shots of New York locales during spring or summer or fall or winter. Both shot sequences are about the passage of time, whether several months in Everyone Says or several hours in Midnight in Paris.

I was also reminded of Oedipus Wrecks, Allen's wonderful contribution to the anthology film New York Stories. In that short film, the Allen character's deceased mother appears as a ghost in the sky. But the inspiration behind this boldly comic idea came from an unlikely brainstorm. Allen has said, "Once, long before I did New York Stories, I was sitting in my apartment looking up at the sky and I was listening to a jazz record [soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet]... and I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could see that musician in the sky playing music and, you know, only I could hear this musician playing it for the whole city?'"

Obviously, Allen took the idea in a different direction in Oedipus Wrecks, but the sentiment remained. The same wishful thinking seems to have been the catalyst for Midnight in Paris. The aspiring novelist played by Owen Wilson romanticizes Paris for its writers and artists, and then one night, out of the blue, a Peugeot pulls up and takes him to a party attended by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Cole Porter, among others. The longing for contact with great artists of the past is very touching in both Allen's daydream about Sidney Bechet and the story of Midnight in Paris.

The film is a triumph on all levels. After my frustration with the fragmentary, over-edited quality of The Tree of Life, it was a pleasure to see a film so beautifully and carefully crafted, with its leisurely long takes and perfect timing. (Watch how long Allen stays on close-ups of Marion Cotillard in a few scenes.) The ensemble cast is Allen's best in several years, though my favorite cameo is undoubtedly that of Adrien Brody (reunited with Wilson, his co-star from The Darjeeling Limited), who plays, with great intensity, Salvador Dali.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

My problem with The Tree of Life

As I was watching The Tree of Life, the new film written and directed by Terrence Malick, I remembered something legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis told me when I interviewed him for my book about James Bridges. "The lack of definition in movies today is appalling," Willis said. "Very few people know how to mount a narrative anymore. If a scene works in one cut, you don't need ten. Or it might need ten; let's not make it twenty."

The Tree of Life is a case study of how not to follow Willis's tenets about cutting. In all of his recent films, and particularly in this one, Malick seems to subscribe to the idea that if a scene works in twenty cuts, it will work even better in fifty, rather than the other way around.

Terrence Malick and Gordon Willis began their film careers within one year of each other; Malick's debut, the short film Lanton Mills, was completed in 1969, while Willis's first feature, The End of the Road, was released in 1970. Theirs was an era in which long takes were prized, and editing within scenes was deeply connected to the visual rhythms established by the cinematographer and, more importantly, the emotional meanings established by the screenwriter. In an interview in Vincent LoBrutto's Selected Takes: Film Editors on Editing, the great editor Tom Rolf observed, "It's much more important to learn what not to cut.... You learn that the scene is playing, you don't have to justify your existence by making a cut; it works." (Coincidentally, Rolf edited the last film Willis shot before retiring, 1997's The Devil's Own, directed by Alan J. Pakula.)

Yet Malick has come to reject this approach, leaving behind the clarity and precision of the great films of the '70s -- including his own Badlands -- for an editing style that seems, frankly, chaotic. Rolf says not to cut when a scene is playing without one. But after I saw The Tree of Life, I remarked to a friend that the movie didn't seem to contain any real scenes at all -- only fragments of scenes. The film is a series of snapshots, and it's hard to judge, exactly, what we're missing in all of the cutting. In this crucial way, the story (about a middle-class family in Texas in the 1950s) lacks any context at all, even though the film's admirers will point to the 2001-like context Malick tries to give it through the shots of the origins of life on Earth, etc., etc.

"[E]very cut interrupts the flow of storytelling," Otto Preminger said to Peter Bogdanovich. That was true for Preminger more than most. The great directors and editors know that those interruptions are often necessary, even essential. But most of the cuts in The Tree of Life are not necessary, let alone essential, and indeed they do interrupt our emotional involvement in the story.

At times, it felt like I was watching a 138-minute trailer for The Tree of Life. Steven Soderbergh's 1999 crime film, The Limey, is rarely discussed this days, but there's a daring sequence in which Peter Fonda's character, Terry Valentine, is introduced by way of a series of shots of him borrowed from later in the picture. As Soderbergh described it, it's supposed to be like a trailer for Terry Valentine. That was the point. But this sequence lasts for perhaps 20 seconds, not two hours and 18 minutes.

After the film was over, I overheard a number of audience members express their utter bewilderment at Malick's evasiveness -- there's no other word for it -- as a storyteller. To his credit, they were interested in his story, and hungry for more of it. They wanted more detail about the Brad Pitt character's frustrated musical ambitions, and less about dinosaurs and natural history.

One of my favorite films is Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon. Like The Tree of Life, it's set in the South in the '50s -- Louisiana instead of Texas. Like The Tree of Life, it depicts family life -- three (eventually four) sisters instead of three brothers. The character of the father is rather overbearing in both films. And tragedy strikes in both films, too. But the differences in style between The Man in the Moon and The Tree of Life are vast.

Mulligan respects Jenny Wingfield's brilliant, subtle screenplay much more than Malick seems to respect his own. (I hasten to add that I haven't read any of Malick's screenplays.) I say this because all of Mulligan's visual choices reinforce, rather than obscure, the point of a given scene.

Consider a scene late in the picture, after the tragedy of the film has occurred. The middle child, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), asks her mother, Abigail (Tess Harper), if she can skip going to church this Sunday and instead join her father (who always skips church and spends Sunday mornings fishing). The camera pans Dani into the living room, where Abigail is sitting down, holding Dani's newborn sister. She stops and asks her mother, who after a pause quietly says, "All right." Dani exits and the camera then moves in on Abigail. But the shot doesn't end on Abigail, as we think if might. Instead, the camera focuses on Dani, who we can see through a bank of windows behind Abigail. Abigail cranes her neck toward the windows as the camera moves beyond her and follows Dani through the windows, panning across them from left to right. When Dani gets in her father's pickup truck and she and her father leave, the camera again follows them, this time from right to left. The shot ends up back on Abigail, who after a pause, looks up. She is thinking of her eldest daughter, who is in her room upstairs. Like Dani, she, too, has been greatly affected by what has happened.

Well. This is an impeccably directed scene, and I can't see how its humanity would have been deepened if it had been filmed in ten shots rather than one. Or if the camera was swirling. Or if it was intercut with shots of outer space. The Man in the Moon proves that you don't have to show shots of the cosmos for a movie story to have cosmic significance.

An editor who worked with Mulligan, Sid Levin, said to me, "The rhythm and pacing of [Mulligan's] films are not of this time." Regrettably, the rhythm and pacing of The Tree of Life is very much of this time.