Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa Fe: Some Highlights

I think I've probably violated some tacit blogosphere codes of conduct by posting the best of my observations from Santa Fe here on What Is This Light. Well, as I wise woman once said, tough noogies. I've gotta keep this stuff close by since that little Santa Fe Film Fest space, though successful in its moment (hotdog!!!), might go under something or get lost somewhere or just change a lot in the future. Ha, but of course this space right here will be around forever, right? Because, its not like blogging is at best a historically bound social movement and at worst a fad, right? Right then. Below are some of the things I wrote at the Santa Fe Film Festival 2008. There will probably be more reflection about the things I saw there, but right now those things are chomping up my mind-heart and can't yet be born into the world.

Santa Fe: Guerrilla

Predictably, I'm behind in my reportage and, predictably, I don't have much time to catch up. But, I must finally make time to scratch this pesky brain-itch left by the second half of Steven Soderbergh's Che.

In the piece I wrote about Che: Argentine, I described the inability of the first half of this epic to stand alone and, in Soderbergh's language, the strong 'response' necessary from Guerrilla to fully answer The Argentine's 'call'. Well, answer it did. For as much as The Argentine is a perfect climb, Guerrilla is a terrifying plummet and, as I had imagined (with the help of Amy Taubin and Steven Soderbergh--FilmComment Nov/Dec), the two films only make sense when read together. Indeed, they have a perfect inverse relationship, such that adding these films in the straightforward math problem they suggest, leaves one at an impenetrable zero. I have mixed feelings about this. I would have been brought even deeper if our gallant Che of The Argentine had been a bit conflicted about ANYTHING or at least faced a few more obstacles and, similarly, I would have sunk even further under the weight of Guerrilla if Che ever swerved from his march toward death. That being said, the mathematical problem at hand is a fascinating one, producing a symmetry that I'd like to analyze until my brain swells. I want to watch the movies on two screens side by side and then I want to write volumes and then I want to draw it and then paint it. For now, I'll just write some notes.

When we left Che in Argentine, he was just settling into victory in Cuba and when we catch up with him in Guerrilla, he's making plans and getting ready to start the fight in Bolivia. The interim we miss is an active one: Castro's regime took some brutal steps to consolidate power and Che was very much a part of this; further, Che tried to export the revolution to the Congo and failed catastrophically. However political or controversial this ellipsis is, the toll of these years shows up in Benicio Del Toro's bedraggled face, in his gait, and in his tired eyes. The Bolivian color pallet is most often gray and bleak compared to the vibrancy of the Cuban and New York settings in Argentine. Guerrilla's camera abandons the artful (semi-distracting) close ups and fragmentation of the New York sequences and the hyper-sleek look of the Cuban battles in favor of hand-held camera whose first language is anxiety. This camera seeks out encapsulating details: a white wet horse in the blue night, Che's beard and hair grown wild, a bloody towel, dried leaves shaking with the wind. With Alberto Iglesias' score echoing through the mountains, these elements compose a death march on the level of Werner Herzog's haunting Aguirre, Wrath of God (1977). The Andean scenery is only the outer ether of these films' kindred spirits. Both Herzog and Soderbergh's men realize their fate and continue on their march, knowing that the futility of the thing might hit them if they stop. They watch things, minds, and bodies deteriorate as they climb through the mountains and force their minds into strange positions in order to carry on. Herzog's journey eventually moves so internal, goes so mental, that landscape becomes a reflection of the men's insanity. While Soderbergh doesn't go this far--he keeps us witness to the death march instead of putting us right in the center of its psychosis--he does slowly turn his movie into a horror film. This idea about war-film and horror-film is debatable (debate with me!) but there are a few scenes that speak the language of horror quite clearly. Most notably, when a camera follows at a distance behind three soldiers walking up a hill so that, while our three heroes appear oblivious, the audience and the camera seem to know something terrible is coming up the other side of that hill; and also, when a certain line of men assembles (and you'll know it when you see it) causing such terror to descend, such a feeling of being trapped that is exactly the same stuff of the They're-Calling-From-Inside-The-House realization.
All of that stuff up there in that paragraph, it builds a color, tone, and noise that's Argentine's opposite, but it doesn't get at the exact kind of symmetry I'm out to describe. Because within this tableau, Soderbergh has taken a fine edged knife to carve out moments and images in Guerrilla that are direct quotations of Argentine, just flipped. Of the most obvious, in Argentine Che makes protestations at allowing a 16 and a 14 year old to fight for the revolution but, met with the same situation in Guerrilla, Che simply states, "At 16, a man already knows what he wants." End of discussion. He gives the same speeches to similarly assembled men, asking them to decide now if they don't have it in them and if they want to leave. In Cuba, this feels inspirational (weeding out the garbage! hurrah hurrah!) and even gets funny. In Bolivia, it feels like a trap, like everyone wants to desert but for some reason they won't...or can't. In Cuba, Che's comments about perseverance come off as inspirational while in Bolivia they just seem criminal. The squabbles between Cuban soldiers are set up as jokes for the audience to take a breather from the action but disagreements between Bolivian soldiers spell real danger. While the Cuban revolutionaries help peasants along the way, giving them food and medical care, the Bolivian peasants get caught in the crossfire and are used and abused by both the Bolivian army and, due to their desperation and disorder, the revolutionaries. The times when Che and his men do help the peasants in Bolivia, we're shown a close-up of a grotesquely infected child's eye whereas the mantra in Cuba seems to be a happy "more meat and less work!" The deaths in Cuba felt somewhat expendable, even if sometimes they made Che very sad, but the deaths in Bolivia feel like portents. Che constantly pushed his willing and energized Cuban comrades toward education of all sorts, but in Bolivia one man seems to speak for all when he says, "We are too old to learn, when the wheel rolls down hill, let it go." Che's asthma in Cuba was proof of his heroics but in Bolivia it brings us to one of the most startling and tragic moments in the film. Argentine marks time only when switching between periods, but in Guerrilla, we watch the days tick by--at day 340, I found my jaw quite literally dropped. I should stop. But you get the idea.

The call of the Argentine is answered in Guerrilla. They belong only together. I have yet to navigate my affection for these films. Are they great? But until I have another 4 hours to spare, Che will stick with me as a formally and structurally entertaining film. I will also probably continue to wish Benicio Del Toro would walk through the door and look in my eyes and say, "What makes a revolutionary?...Love. Love."

Santa Fe: Kassim the Dream

Kassim the Dream comes to SFFF as part of the American Film Institute Project 20/20. A documentary, the film tells the story of Kassim "The Dream" Ouma, his past as a child-soldier in Uganda, his success story as a professional boxer in the United States, and his trip back to Africa. You can imagine the clichés a story like this could throw up and the sensationalist and exploitive tack a filmmaker could take, but I can assure you, you can't imagine the graceful balance of humor and sincere emotion with which filmmaker Kief Davidson succeeds in this project.

The film is well made. It knows when to pause and it knows when to party. It stays really funny, really serious, really adorable, and really sad without ever crossing into excess, an accomplishment that evidences the hard work and smart decision-making behind this film. Shifting from eloquent footage symbolic of Kassim's past, to professional boxing matches, to Kassim and his family, to interviews with boxing experts and Kassim's closest friends, to Kassim's return to Uganda, Davidson's work manages a number of different aesthetic and emotional demands quite seamlessly and maintains the spirit of the film. This spirit, as Davidson himself acknowledged in a post-screening Q&A, is Kassim's. And really, this is where the heart of the film lovingly rests. Kassim is magnetic. Through much of the film, he smiles a smile that made me sure I was right there with him laughing at his kids' Cuteness (that's a capital 'C') and sharing in his joy. He's a professional boxer and an ex-child-soldier, two worlds that--in obviously quite different ways--breed violence and one-track minds, yet Kassim persists in his complicated existence: he tears up at a devastating loss in the ring; he winces and squirms as his hair is tugged and braided; he believes in the choices he has made; he opens himself up to the emotional reality of his past and present with a courage and commitment I can't begin to describe here.

Above all, this is one of the most viscerally and joyfully engaging movies I've seen in a while. Kassim's love for life is too beautiful and the tragedy beneath everything is too overwhelming for this film not to make an impact. There was a moment in this film, after Kassim has faced the terror of his past and the Uganda he left behind, where Kassim gives a glance and a strained sigh that showed me grief complete and brought me very near a feared edge. I imagine anyone could find a moment of that magnitude in this film.

Sant Fe: Las Meninas

Yesterday was wild fun. My afternoon started with Las Meninas, a film that hails from Ukraine and, more specifically, from the mind of painter Igor Podolchak and cinematographer Svetlana Makarenko. It's a disturbing poem that communicates a world of immense claustrophobia, darkness, anxiety, and hyper-aurality inspired, it seems, by both Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror and 18th-century still-life painting. While I can't speak much for the latter--except for the film's fascination with food on plates, grapes and other fruit in bowls, table-settings and especially silverware, clothing, fabrics, and the stylized lounging of women--I can comment on a few of the ways this film evokes Tarkovsky's vision in Mirror.

For one, Las Meninas takes an interest in how sound and images constitute one another. The sound of a fork scratching a plate is pushed to unbearable heights; voices and words layer and repeat; falling sugar cubes hit the ground with the sound of shattering glass; the sounds of opening a cabinet or closing a door are just amiss from their corresponding visual component. Through such an active and unpredictable auditory world, Podolchak not only gives us the chance to examine the relationship between sound and image but also meditates on the idea of silence and how it breaks.

This film also moves like Mirror in its constant linking of ideas and people through very physical substances and elements--water, urine, hair, metals, grapes--and more abstract threads--words, camera angles, colors. Further, these people live in a house of mirrors, windows, and other framing devices. They are perpetually not only themselves, but their reflection, the reflection of their reflections, reflections of objects in the house, and of each other. The most enjoyable part of this film for me was the commitment of the camera to interact with these mirror images in ever more clever ways. For about 10 minutes, all of the action takes place in a mirror on a far wall. We see people move in and out of this frame but the large and luxurious room around it remains inanimate. After a time, we begin to see only this mirror; even though it is reduced to about 1/16th of the "real" cinema screen, it holds the moving images and so we start to conceive of it as the movie. We fall into this illusion of these mirror images so deeply that it's a bit startling when the outer world of the "real life" room begins to interact with the mirror/mini-cinema screen. These moments (of which there are many) when the house of mirrors, or the clever drift and zoom of the camera, or a play with light and darkness create insightful illusions, but the film never reaches the dramatic heights and beauty that make something like Mirror so utterly mind-blowing (see the kind of strange poem-y things I have to scream out every time I see the movie in this older post). But, I realize that's like saying this review doesn't quite hit the mark André Bazin, or Pauline Kael, or J. Hoberman would have.

My only real complaint with Las Meninas was its rather grotesque treatment of the female body. The film renders all sexuality rather disgusting, a choice which adds to the effective and well-crafted discomfort of a lot of this film, but the men seem to at least be in charge of their grotesque behavior whereas the women are subject to A TON of skirt lifting and physical violation by male figures, including a difficult-to-stomach fetishization of the straps and girdles that keep them all locked up. Not to mention that many of the (crotch) shots put the viewer in a voyeuristic position, leaving me feeling both violated and predatory. One woman leaving the theater exclaimed, "I just kept crossing my legs!" But do go see this movie if you're willing to abandon any taste for narrative in order to check out how Tarkovsky's ideas live on through Podolchak, Makarchak, and contemporary Ukrainian cinema

Santa Fe: The Argentine

Well, consider this thing up and running. Last night Santa Fe Film Festival '08 kicked off with Steven Soderbergh's Che: The Argentine, the first half of his epic on Ernesto Che Guevara, that mythic giant in which filmmakers, authors, historians, and trend-setters continue to see endless intrigue, beauty, and profitability. I can't say I'm opposed; Che's life and transfixing gaze is the stuff film thrives upon:
I mean, Right?
As such, any new work on Che begs certain questions about its contribution to or detraction from myth-making and, more broadly, its engagement with history. I have to see the second half (Che: Guerrilla, which tells of Che's attempt to export the fundamentals of the Cuban Revolution to Bolivia and screens tonight in Santa Fe, same time same place) to think through these historical/cinematic questions. I will say, however, that Part 1 does nothing to challenge Che's star-status. In Benicio Del Toro, Che is shown to be a revolutionary, a soldier, a teacher, a doctor, a den-mother, an intellectual, a beauty, a gentleman, a disciplinarian, a symbol, a star, a snarky dude, and a man of unquestionable moral dignity. If reading that list was annoying, I only did it to conjure what I was feeling in The Argentine's least subtle moments. Soderbergh does a convincing job showing the day-to-day of these revolutionaries out there in the jungle, mustering enough faith and will-power in their moment-by-moment existence to ultimately make something HUGE happen, but at times, this quiet climb to power is broken by moments that can only be described as cute. I know, I feel weird about that too. I need both hands and a few toes to count the number of times Che scolds one of his soldiers for smoking something goofy instead of doing some math homework, or taking the enemy's convertible in victory, or calling each other names. He rolls his eyes at his kids' silliness and we all feel in good, strong hands. But, Che is so terribly good, it hurts. Sure, we see him change into the iconic images pop culture's taken hold of. We see him donning beret and smoking cigars with his comrades and soaking up the victory, but even in the moments when we most expect the saintly Che persona to fall and crash--or at least crack! splinter! show any sign of weakness!--he more fiercely maintains it. "Can I get my stuff and go home, Che?" a soldier asks, "No, the war is over, but the revolution is just beginning," he says, with the tenor of his voice and the glint in his eye pointing us back to all of his previous noble encounters with the sick, the tired, and the dejected.

Papa-Bear, Den-Mother Che
There is quite literally, however, a piece missing to these observations, namely the second half of the movie. In her 2002 Filmmaker and her 2008 Film Comment articles, Amy Taubin argues that the "structuring principle underlying [Soderbergh's] films is contradiction, not in the Marxist political sense but as an aesthetic according to which an object is defined by what it is not. Contradiction determines the shape not only of Soderbergh's individual films but also the relationship of one to another. The sexy, extroverted Out of Sight (1998) and the melancholy, introspective The Limey (1999), for example, are more dazzling as a pop art couple than either is on its own. What Soderbergh terms the call and response relation between The Argentine and Guerrilla is intrinsic to their form and meaning." Without even seeing Part 2, I'm willing to bet I'd rather think of Che as one movie rather than two, for the 'call' of The Argentine is much too lean and weak without a response, one that hopefully Guerrilla will provide. Standing alone, The Argentine is a story of climb and advance, climb and advance, etc, etc, etc, without any counterpoint. Of course we know the Revolution happens, of course we know our winners are going to win, but Soderbergh doesn't employ the strange sort of suspense commonly used in stories with obvious endings--Titanic or, perhaps better articulated, the recent Milk. And so, I don't really know what to do with the narrative of The Argentine. In a way, so much happens but nothing happens at all: Castro and Che decide to go for it, their success builds, and then they win. Since they do just win, this movie never approaches the stunning, narrative-bending circles of something like Zodiac, but it is, quite strangely, an action-film with a serious affinity for monotony. And even when the obvious does come, it's clear that's not really what we've been working toward the whole time anyway. The rather exciting routine of The Argentine calls, indeed screams out, for its other half.

All of that being said, I was pretty much entertained the whole time, an entertainment factor which, for me, was about 80% fascination and astonishment with the formal qualities of this film. Firstly, though the plot is excessively straightforward, it's told elliptically and at times has the sensibility of an amped-up Terrence Malick film in its will to unpredictably cut from or linger on images. (Malick wrote the initial version of the script and his influence flits and flutters throughout the film). It jumps from era to era, giving sometimes incongruent moments to make up a whole. To make matters more beautiful, scenes depicting Che at the UN in New York are shot in a black and white 16mm that will knock your socks off. I reached out to touch its texture and taste its richness, thinking the energy that film strip produced could not possibly be kept on the screen. The jungle scenes, on the other hand, are shot with a new digital camera prototype called The Red One, a camera that Taubin describes as "capable of delivering scope-dimension images with the lush, satiny beauty of 35mm." I have definitely never seen a camera that moved so quickly but captured so much so clearly and colorfully. The contrast and collaboration between these two delicacies is divine and I'd see it again (on the big screen, gotta see this one on the big screen!) just for the pleasure it wrought on my eye-balls.

So, onward and upward. I hope the Guerrilla leaves me jaw-dropped and wimpering, I really do. But first, so many more movies. I'm outa time and hope to get back here on the blog soon. Until then, then.

Santa Fe: Waltz With Bashir and the Fog of War

The Santa Fe Film Festival has the good fortune of screening Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir as one of this year's Gala Presentations. The film received six awards from the Israeli Film Academy-- including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay--as well as critical acclaim from festivals around the world.

As an animated war documentary, from the outset Waltz With Bashir operates on intriguing ground. After all, documentaries are supposed to at least tip their hats to that murky, malleable concept of objectivity, so why the cartoon medium in this business of uncovering truth? This film makes these somewhat contradictory modes of form and genre work in a strange kind of tandem by which animated images, film, dreams, individual and collective memory (or amnesia), and history all come under interrogation. Folman's findings show these soldiers' pasts, Israel's past, and--by explicit extension--all stories of war as mediated and re-mediated. Venturing through (and learning from) the layers of emotion, through the clouding forces of time, through attempt after attempt at self-preservation, through the mind's purposeful gaps and holes in its powers of repression, leaves Folman and all of us at last staring at the overwhelming and revolting truth--at least a far less mediated version of it.

An Israeli veteran from the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, Folman opens the film with his realization that he has virtually no memory of the war and thus ventures on a personal and cinematic quest to uncover what actually happened. On this point, Waltz with Bashir embarks on the kind of fact-finding missions of more traditional documentaries and halts on familiar questions of post-war reflection, namely, who and how did I hurt. He interviews classmates, other soldiers, the first Israeli reporter on the war, and his best friend who also happens to be an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder. Slowly, the pieces start to come together around the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, an astounding incident that left thousands of Palestinians dead by the hands of Lebanese Phalangist militiamen and by the acquiescence of Israeli forces.

Such interviews and historical descriptive elements could have thrived on film/video as another talking-head/news footage documentary, but Folman’s movie demands more. Waltz with Bashir is made complete not by mountains of facts but by the fog of memory, the fluidity of dreams, and a severe emotional and aesthetic darkness. In other words, a revealing interview with the ex-reporter carries the same narrative significance as a friend's dream in which he jumps the boat to war and finds refuge on the curves of a giant naked woman backstroking in the sea. A pack of wild charging dogs, their ferocity other-worldly; a vague and repeating vision of silhouettes emerging from water; a surreal dance through gunfire–these elements necessitate the animated image in order to realize their full effect. “I knew it had to be this way,” says Folman, “if I couldn’t animate the film, I couldn’t do it at all.”

And so, Waltz with Bashir manages a difficult harmony of elements. The animated image pulls us into personal dream worlds that, side by side with interviews and bits of historical exposition, compose Waltz with Bashir’s truth, a truth which lies both in the hidden intimacies of one man’s memory and in the assertion that universally, war is hell.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Santa Fe Film Festival 2009: Here. I. Come.

hello imagined community,

I hope you'll stay with me in this next week or so as I cover the Santa Fe Film Festival on a blog I made for their website. It should be fun if completely exhausting. I'm looking to put up at least preliminary thoughts on the Santa Fe blog as the week goes by, but I imagine the project will spill over to post-festival recaps. I'll also probably reserve some of the more developed thinking for What Is This Light, so stay tuned regardless. Right now, my festival schedule includes:

The Class--Laurent Cantet
Che: The Argentine and Che: Guerilla--Stephen Soderbergh
Everlasting Moments--Jan Troell
Ciao--Yen Tan
Still Life--Mahesh Pailoor
An Unlikely Weapon--Susan Morgan Cooper
Squeezebox!--Steven Saporito
Persian Portraits--Experimental Shorts from Tehran
Doubt--John Patrick Shanley
Em--Tony Barbieri
Kassim the Dream--Kief Davidson
and also a few series of animated shorts and more experimental short material too.

If anyone cares too look at the list of films picked for the 2008 SFFF and give me their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about which ones I can't miss (or who I should try and interview), that would be tremendous. I can't say I'll listen but there's a lot here and obviously I want to miss the least amount of amazing stuff.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

You Really Hurt Me, "Synechdoche, New York": Continued

I knew What Is This Light couldn't be done with this movie. Thankfully, my friend Evan Cook chimed in on the Synechdoche, New York post and put some new ideas out there so I tossed some other ideas back. Hope you'll find it takes the original post a step or two or seven further.

Evan writes:

“While this may have something to do with the fact that I saw it alone on a Monday as opposed to a Sunday night—a film far less polymorphous than Synecdoche could have easily changed its connotation in twenty-four hours—I still think you missed it.
I do think you got closer than Manohla did though.

You’re right; Synecdoche is not a film that is, “a call to life.” That’s too easy. It isn’t a, “wise up, get-out-of-bed Eeyore, and go see all that beauty that’s out there,” kind of affair. Yet it’s also not the antithesis, either. It’s a film that—by bestowing us with the perspective of a hero who has either forever lost or never had one—champions equilibrium. A film that, through its defiance of it, begs us to find a balance between family and work, self and community, love and lust, sycosis and health, humor and psychosis and most visibly art and life.

Caden is, as so many of us become in our darkest moments (when we let one thought, person, or project get the better of us), a man without ballast. Living exclusively in the tiny, extreme moments of his life when the pendulum of time has frozen at the apex of its respective side, and then proceeding to ignore the happenings that occur along the way to its next pause, he loses everything he loves. Years pass by him (and eventually us) without notice. He jumps from one honed obsession to the next, sitting shiva for one corner of his life while everything else in the room suffers.

Take the beginning. We meet Caden when he is already steadily on an uneven keel. His perseverating over his staging of Death of a Salesman has led him to where we first encounter him: alone in a family. Although we never see it, we can presume that Caden’s unbiased focus on his work has led to the host of other problems we see pop-up into his life like the pustules and other diseases he “falls” victim to, namely his failing marriage. While his art is his overarching obsession throughout the film, an addiction that worsens as it goes on; at the film’s start he still has a chance at recovery. Adele may be well down the path to leaving him, but Olive is still there, he has the choice to fight for her. Instead, when Adele tells him she’s going to go to Berlin alone (and I’m paraphrasing here cause I don’t quite remember which he jumps into first) he cycles through fixating on treatment, other women and eventually his gesamtkunstwerk, only turning his obsession to Olive when it screams at him across the ocean through a magazine. Even then, as opposed to pursuing a balance, he (more than once) abandons his work and his new family to fly across the world to immerse his focus completely. And just like every time before and each time after, when Caden neglects one thing for another, he is punished by what he ignores.

And this is why he’s punished—not because life is wholly unmitigating, or because it’s courageously beautiful if you just take the time to look—both of which can seem true sometimes—but because life requires symmetry. Lame metaphor alert—look at it as if “life” were a patient with renal failure and “art” was a dialysis machine (stay with me now…). Without art, life is sick, unable to distill the quotidian toxins. Without life, art is just a machine, an object that has the potential to save but isn’t doing so. Only when they’re entwined, transfusing one another, are they alive. A synecdoche fails without the part that represents the whole—a car is not a car without its “wheels”—and without the whole to represent the part, it is just that: just a part.

I don’t know… Maybe you’re not evaluating what he’s trying to say at all… Maybe you’re just saying that Kauffman attempts to give us that “get out of bed” emotion and just fails to do so properly because you walk out of the movie feeling like the only place you’ll be okay is exactly there—in bed…”

Martha Responds:

I think the problem I have with Dargis' reading of the film is fundamentally the same problem I have with your reading of it. Let me try and shake this thing out: Dargis says that Synechdoche is a call to life by way of Caden so pitifully rejecting it. Even if I agreed with this argument about the film (and my post I hope clearly indicates that I think Caden does indeed engage in life) well I still would take issue with the power and clarity of the film's "call to life" and I would take issue with it for, surprisingly, the same reason I can't feel this movie the way you did.

You say the film is a call to equilibrium by way of Caden living in the extremes. And I like this idea because, though I never thought Caden was pure victim and though I realize his serious inability to multi-task and though I saw his internal inertia building building building until he's again wound up in tragedy, you really pushed forward the idea that Caden Cotard is an agent in his own implosion. So, really, a sincere thanks; I feel like the next time I see this thing (geez, will I be able to swallow and stomach it another time?) I'll be much better queued into Caden's willful negligence of everything outside of the one thing he's currently, passionately, destructively obsessed with.

But, like I said at the start, I see a similarity between your and Dargis' reading that (I think?) explains both of your love of this movie as well as the fact that I sincerely respect it but can't 'love' it. For quite different reasons, you and Dargis find this movie to be a call to something (life, a better life in equilibrium) by way of Caden's inability to do just that, but I'm over here finding it extremely difficult to learn from negative examples. I do horribly with it and I always have. I didn't include this idea in my original post but I tried to hint at it when I said, I really can't feel this movie as a call to life...Maybe this sentiment resides somewhere in the film, but for me this lesson gets lost and obscured by the extent of cruelty and tragedy to which Caden Cotard is subjected. For this same reason, I can't feel this movie as a call to equilibrium either. I choose that subjective wording carefully because I really do think this springs right from my taste, right from the way I can and can't learn something. And wow, Evan, now we're here swimming in the molten core of criticism--subjectivity! opinions! what!?!?! But really, what might work on others has a history of failing on me. When I see depression on screen, I hardly ever think Martha, Note To Self: Don't Be Depressed! And when I see people make mistakes on screen, I think That Is Tragedy or That Is Misery or That Is Trouble, never I Will Do Better. And I know I'm rendering a pretty unconscious interpretive process painfully literal with these trite little phrases, but there is something to this; At one point you say "Maybe you're just saying that Kauffman attempts to give us that 'get out of bed' emotion and just fails to do so properly because you walk out of the movie feeling like the only place you'll be okay is exactly there—in bed…" But, I hope it's clear by now, I don't think it failed at its message because I don't see its message as a kind of leading by negative example the way you and Dargis do. I don't feel these types of calls to other life-styles. I think this film succeeded! (Hugely! Impressively! Memorably!) as a valuable meditation on human mis-steps and mis-prioritization (thanks to you), and on human grief and inability to step up to the cruelty the world can dish out, and on getting so lost in so much that we end up decaying alone.

Now, I don't want the above laundry list of human misery for myself, it's true, but the fact that the movie didn't empower me in anyway to avoid it--there's I think where any lesson of being better than Caden Cotard gets lost. Here, I'm clinging to my point about Caden's efforts at facing the real world being met with the film's most poignant cruelties. I see his reaching out points, with his wife, with his daughter, with Hazel as, yeah, maybe the other end of a dangerous pendulum swing, but still worth something. Still sincere. Still the best of Caden Cotard. And the fact that these moments are met with such tragedy, well right there any hypothetical (again, I don't think it exists) call-to-better-living from Charlie Kaufman gets swallowed and drowned for me. Synechdoche records the life of a faulted human being in a cruel universe and I feel a deep urge to (with all my will for masochistic viewing power) feel this and sit with it instead of flipping it around and looking at its mirror image and seeing some sort of backward inspirational emerge. So, I guess that's just what I'll do.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I've been searching for the way I want to talk about Lance Hammer's Ballast, a film whose narrative grows up from the Mississippi Delta, whose aesthetic ancestors hail from art cinema houses near and far, whose editing rhythms emerge from a rich tradition of leaving things unsaid, and whose distribution tactics result from a passionate DIY attitude. There's a lot to talk about and a good deal of it has already been said, which, oddly enough, leads me to my first point.

The way this movie looks and moves speaks to a lot of other styles and traditions, causing many reviewers to write about Ballast in these terms, terms like "aesthetic ancestors"...sound familiar? Yes, I feel the pull to say Ballast cuts and pauses like a David Gordon Green movie and hope that that reference might trigger some things in my reader(s) mind about how those cuts and pauses actually look and sound and feel. But, tempted as I am, I'm tired of reference. It's lazy. It can be a helpful shorthand but it has to actually be helpful, which means not so shorthand that nothing is actually said. Importantly, I appreciate comparisons and examples, it's just that they have to be explained, justified, cracked open, bled dry. That's the fun of it! If everything can be explained by just saying it's something else, where's the dirt and the joy and the discourse in that? Even in our post-modern whirlwind of ideas referencing ideas that only lead back to referencing those first ideas, even this has to be taken apart and spread out on the living room floor to really see how it's working. And another thing, letting a name and a short adjective phrase stand for making a critical observation keeps perfectly "qualified" people out of the conversation and anybody who is sincerely in pursuit of learning something, of engaging with the beast, and listening to other human beings, well they either don't or ought not do this. Ha. It sounds like I'm talking to somebody specific, but I'm not. It's a critical limitation of many, sometimes me.

In an effort to rein this thing in and bring it back to Ballast and at the risk of making this piece completely over-wrought with these meta-critical remarks, Michael Koresky's opening graph to his Reverse Shot article on Ballast first got me going on this mental jag and I continue to find his words quite liberating. He writes,

"It’s sometimes necessary to discuss a movie without reducing it to a category. Unfortunately, that’s not what critics often do. A film like Lance Hammer’s Ballast deserves to be considered on its own terms, rather than compartmentalized and defined in relation to concurrent film movements. To simply talk about the aesthetics and storytelling approach of Ballast by comparing it to the work of the Dardenne brothers or perhaps the American independent strategies of early David Gordon Green (both of which dredge up even more film historical categories, respectively neorealism and a Malickian brand of poetic naturalism) is an easy out, and not that different from reducing it to labels like 'Southern' or 'black.'"

Right on.

And so a few words on the film,
As it's title suggests, Ballast is heavy. It's a story of one twin's heartache at the loss of his other half and it's a story of the struggle to keep it all together in the face of poverty, broken family, and the trouble that rolls in like a dark storm when bored kids do dumb things. Hammer shapes this grief and struggle quietly: young James (JimMyron Ross) plays in the crowded remnants of an abandoned home; Lawrence (Michael J. Smith) finally emerges from his home to eat a silent dinner with a concerned neighbor; Marlee (Tara Riggs) stares at her son's bruised face; plastic deer stand stock still and expressionless in a cold yard. The midwinter Delta forms an unrelentingly gray backdrop, punctuated only by a lone motorbike careening through dirt roads and the sound of dried twigs crunched underfoot. Hammer's camera waits patiently with an image until we can fully feel the weight of the world sink into Marlee's posture, or James' gun-wielding hand, or Lawrence's eyelids. But Hammer doesn’t just use long takes, he describes a moment or a feeling by cutting together its most essential parts, a kind of elliptical editing that seems to channel the rhythms of an erratic, unseen ocean. Together, Ballast’s form and content create this omnipresent weight and conjures a feeling of unchangeability, brought even deeper by fleeting moments that hint of other, lighter worlds--a flock of birds taking flight, a train rushing through town, the speed of that motorbike against the wind. All of this is quite beautiful.

But what makes this movie special is its ability to slowly and subtly push back against the heaviness of the world. It does so through a rather hopeful theme of learning and teaching. Lawrence, Marlee, and James do not just personally commit to overcome their differences and march in unison toward a happy ending; their character development is not the product of individualized soul searching, which is why I find it helpful to understand their character development as more of a learning curve. From running the store, to overcoming grief, to putting down a gun, to the literal manifestation of this theme in Marlee and Lawrence’s decision to home-school James, the changes in these characters are results of one-on-one negotiations. In the face of such weight, they allow themselves to learn from each other. This movie isn’t as tidy as some would like to think; these peoples’ problems are too big and their futures are too fragile and Hammer is too smart for this thing to tie up in a clean bow, but the hope, the floating light in this heavy fog, is that simple idea that human beings can come together and learn from each other in order to make things work.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Going Public

For all of her young life, What Is This Light has been a secret blog or at least a semi-secret blog. A couple days ago I read Anna Clark's Bitch Magazine article, "The Ambition Condition: Women, Writing, and the Problem of Success" and it proved at once cathartic and terrifying. Clark says things I already know much too well but couldn't quite articulate. The thunder clap that hit the hardest inside this little heart is as follows:

"Ambition is a slippery creature in the lives of writers of all genders; no one is safe from feeling uneasy about affirming one’s literary ambitions, and insecurity is the devil of anyone who faces a blank page. But the thing is, women are more likely to be justified in doubting themselves. Yes, a woman is less likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: in 106 years of the prize, only 11 winners—about 10 percent of the total—have been female. In the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’s 60-year history, female authors have snagged the award 27 times. Shaking out 57 years of the National Book Award for Fiction reveals a mere 15 female winners. As for journalists, the gender gap indicates that women are far less likely to land their stories in the nation’s top magazines and newspapers. Likewise, in the digital world, political candidates made a point of stopping by the YearlyKos conference last summer, headlined by a prominent progressive male blogger, but were absent from the BlogHer conference, which drew top women bloggers together. 

And So On
Furthermore, to even say that you want to write lasting novels, garner hundreds of thousands of blog hits, or handmake a chapbook is to expose yourself to the “who are you to think you have anything to say?” sort of pummeling that Gould received. It can be tempting, then, for women in particular to write quietly and hope that the work will speak for itself. But by not owning up to her ambitions—whether they are in the public or private realms—a writer feeds the machine that discounts the aspirations and talents of all women writers. The silence is implicit support for editors who claim that their byline disparity is because women don’t want it enough. It sets an example for other writers that ambition is something to be ashamed of. Though it might be the last thing in the world she means to do, by keeping her intentions for her work hidden, a female writer allows others to make assumptions about her work, and to decide where it will and will not go.

And so, I'm going public. I don't expect much to change around here, but I've mustered enough gumption to really take on this mental paradigm shift and so it's critically important for the blog to record this event
right here
right now.

Monday, November 10, 2008

You Really Hurt Me, "Synechdoche, New York"

I love Manohla Dargis' review of Synechdoche, New York, so much so that I want to feel this movie the way she did, but I just don't. I know my feelings about this movie are colored by the mental unbalancing act I was conducting the day I saw it--a mixture of headache, heartache, something flu-like, and seeing this sucker alone on a Sunday night--and I wonder if, upon a second viewing and/or Manohla's unlikely return of my (many) phone calls, I'll feel differently.

In Dargis' close, she raises her fist and sings:
Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, “Synecdoche, New York” is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.

I wholeheartedly agree that this movie is a "cry from the heart" and is "tethered to the here and now," but as it stands, I really can't feel this film as a call to life, to be present and loving in all the pain and muck and beauty. Maybe this sentiment resides somewhere in the film, but for me this lesson gets lost and obscured by the extent of cruelty and tragedy to which Caden Cotard (Philip Seymore Hoffman) is subjected.

When relationships crumble, when he reaches desperate measures with the younger (annoying) women around him, when his body pops and burps and twitches with disease, Caden Cotard uses his "genius grant" to construct a theatrical universe where he can play all these scenarios out with the theater director's strange combination of intimacy and remove. His construction of this universe is painstakingly elaborate. He pours himself into this inauthentic world and this is what Dargis sees as his fatal choice and this is what we're supposed to learn from. But I struggle to absorb this point because I don't think Caden actually does make this choice; Cotard does engage in the world around him! He heartbreakingly, desperately tries to do so! And, in a hopeless stroke of Kaufman's brush, these noble efforts are met with more cruelty, more dead ends, more death.

He longs for his disappeared daughter; he reads her diary; sends her gifts; touches her things; his memories are tangible. He tries to find her on multiple occasions and succeeds! And in these sought after encounters, he's quite brutally separated by soundproof glass, security guards, a decade of brainwashing, language, lies, and grief.

He longs for his wife. He stares at her studio, looks at her paintings, visits her exhibits, asks for her at the front desk, goes into her home, cleans her toilet, leaves her notes. As much as this character can be thrilled, Cotard gets a thrill (if tinged with masochism) from just briefly occupying spaces she inhabits. He takes in her obliviously insensitive notes--in which she thinks she's writing to her housekeeper Ellen but are actually to her ex-husband and secret housekeeper Caden--with deep breaths.

And after all of his crushed efforts to find the world, the family, the life he had created for himself, he faces reality in one more, crushingly honest way--he finally acknowledges the evasiveness of his previous life and opens up to have a real, loving connection with a longtime friend and partner. The gratification is pure because it's so fettered and honest and imperfect and it crashes to a close because she dies.

Yes, Cotard created a huge, inauthentic world, a carbon copy, a mold, a replica. But I don't see this as the escapism for which Dargis sees it, largely because it's coupled with all of these other honest, emotional actions. I see this massive construction and his leap into fabrication as a legitimate way to examine these real life tragedies. He stages them to remove himself just enough to put on his directorial jacket and analyze them. Given the cruelty of his life, one cannot blame him for going a little overboard with this project. I think this reading is better suited to Kaufman's film which is so soaked in modernist reflections on art, performance, filmmaking, storytelling, and inauthenticity. For, what is a movie if not a giant-expensive construction of a beast we might face off-camera. And what is this movie but an artificial projection of the terror and anxiety that floods the soul when disappointment overwhelms us, when such longing fills us, when things crack and then break irrecoverably, when death mounts.

Caden Cotard stages a production of Death of a Salesman with all young actors so that the tragedy grows out of realizing that the young, vibrant faces on stage are fated as well, to at least death if not Willie Loman's brand of loneliness. It seems Charles Kaufman gives us Synechdoche, New York with a similar message--not so much, you can face life and do better! but more, look how we must face life and see how it wilts us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Weird and The Night of the Hunter

I'm being quite serious and careful when I say Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter is, above all, weird. It came out of Hollywood at a moment (1955, the same year as Rebel Without A Cause) when very few members of the establishment were just dipping their toes in the stylistic and narrative risk-taking that would become more prominent in 60s and 70s American cinema. Night of the Hunter plays with light, mixes and matches angles, includes scenes and whole montages for their aesthetic/emotional effect, and generally paints with the brush of German Expressionism. It is incredible Laughton pushed this experimental gem out of and into its 1955 cultural and aesthetic context, but the real magic of the film arises from its very conscious play between this stylistic risk-taking and more traditional characters, settings, and modes of storytelling. In better words, Night of the Hunter tips its hat to the film it "should have been" before it completely departs from it; It politely acknowledges the culture's expectations and then delves into a deep underworld of experimental cinema past and future. In this way and in its existence as a major Hollywood motion picture, Night of the Hunter does not keep to itself and the expressionistic art world in which it belongs but engages in the rather aggressive art of subversion.

The film has a simple story: two kids with the onus of knowing where their dead father's fortune lies. One ridiculously evil, bible-wielding, manipulator (Robert Mitchum) pursuing the little ones into dark cellars, forests, rivers, and deserted Ohio Valley landscapes. As Michael Atkinson describes, "Hunter contains no social critique—the issues are elemental, the morality biblical, the trials Homeric." It's good and evil rendered so literal it's even inscribed on ole Reverend Powell's hands.
This simple story is given a predictable cast of characters. The evil preacher (Mitchum), the gullible and blasé mother/wife (Shelley Winters--about whom a wise best friend yelped, How did she ever have a career!? She's so dumpy and bland!?), the smart older brother who spends the whole movie desperately trying to protect what remains of his family, and the cabbage-patch-kid younger sister constantly making near-fatal mistakes. The town is composed of the kind of dumb, gossipy Americans you might find in the chorus line of a 1950s musical. They wear hats and assume that, since they live some place where nothing happens, we'll understand if they're being a little too nosy about their neighbors' business or sipping the whiskey a little too hard and a little too frequently. The place and the land are similarly recognizable; it's the Ohio river valley in all its bleak horizons and American flags and pictures of Abraham Lincoln. All of this extreme "normalcy" makes you think The Night of the Hunter is the movie it was sold as:

But, the world Laughton composes is not this Hollywood world and neither is it a pure art cinema revolt against it. The Night of the Hunter rests beautifully in between by using Expressionism's language and its love of the weird to create a world just one beat off of the expected Hollywood picture. It's this complicated and awesome trait of Laughton's film that gives rise to Night of the Hunter's similarities with all things Lynch; in its elements, the filmic world appears very "normal" or at least a very normal Hollywood adaptation of what is "normal," but in motion, this world is just oddly enough paced, just dark enough, just ugly enough, just surprising enough to be just perfectly off. John and Pearl, Laughton's two kids and the two characters closest to any sort of off-screen reality, could have been the kids next door in Twin Peaks. They commit to their prescribed characters--older, responsible boy and younger cute and gullible sister, but they look so weird!
They look like little Aliens
alien baby redux
And they do weird little things all the time! Four year old Pearl is constantly falling asleep. Pearl and John have just made their break for it and run to find help and Rev. Powell is on the prowl and I'm sweating on the couch and changing positions and clutching my best friend and Pearl, little crazy faced Pearl, is fast fucking asleep. What!?!
thanks a million, Pearl.
The Mitchum character is really bazaar too. Again, Reverend Powell pays an homage to a beloved cliché--the villain who wields a manipulative brand of Christianity and flaunts his own supposed piety in order to score some serious cash. And, of course, nobody's gonna get in his way, not even the pale and dumb Shelley Winters, who he'll ruthlessly murder, or the sweet Pearl, whose puppy-like devotion and trust he'll use and abuse. So, on paper we've got Rev. Powell pinned and it looks something like this:

Obviously, Rev. Powell is going to become monstrous as he gets closer to that money, but Laughton, using his bag of Exprissionistic tricks, makes him into really stunning, surprising kind of monster.

Watch first half of this clip for a bunch of reasons: First, related to this last point about Mitchum's character, the sound he makes in this scene is other worldly--this ain't no ordinary monster. Second, related to the previous point, Pearl's yawn is amazing. Third, the scene on the river and Pearl's song is really why this movie pushes and stretches the boundaries.

Finally, this scene with the underwater, murdered Shelley Winters provides the perfect encapsulation of what I'm trying to say. In a film where most scenes (save the above river boat scene so similar to this scene's lyricism) are about 12 seconds long, we're allowed to meditate on hair, water, weeds. It's beautiful and haunting and a very strange break from the action. But what makes this scene most remarkable is the same thing that makes this movie most remarkable. The art of this scene is not continuous; there's a cut to above water where a hyper-typical fisherman, replete with his less-mystical score and predictable expressions, sees the drowned angel. We cut back down to the solitude and beauty of the underwater art cinema. It's this interplay between cinematic modes, one of convention and the other of experimentation, that brought me in and took hold.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

László Moholy-Nagy, Tarkovsky, and Learning to See

I remember a conversation I had with my brother in the last months of my first year at college. I asked him if the Spring seemed markedly more stunning that year than in years past and I told him that, to my mind, blues were worlds deeper and reds vastly more red. I told him that things--all of it: a sky, a volvo station wagon, a sock, a donut--they were all coming together more beautifully than they had ever come together before. I remember thinking that the noise of the world was never so loud, so strangely and constantly present and I remember running on a trail through southern Minnesota prairie and being moved to some seriously silly tears thinking, Well, this is it. There is nothing more perfect. I asked my brother kind of self-consciously if it were possible that I was seeing, really seeing for the first time. I think, as remarkable as it sounds, this was true and I think it has a lot to do with watching movies.

I like this quote about László Moholy-Nagy from Michael W. Jennings' introduction to a book of Walter Benjamin's essays:

"For Moholy, the automatism of the camera lens is a crucial prosthesis, an extension of the range and power of the human visual apparatus that alone can reveal to human cognition new relationships between elements of the perceptual world. What Moholy is interested in here is not so much the representation of things as they are, not the true nature of the modern world but instead a harnessing of new media's potential for cognitive and perceptual transformation. Moholy's theories on photography as a technological prosthesis are inseparable from his anthropology; they remain rooted in a call for a continuous recasting of the human cognitive apparatus and the values and behaviors that are based upon it."

Moholy-Nagy was above all concerned with the "necessary relationship between technology, media, and the development of the human sensorium" and considered a work of art "productive" if it combined light, movement, emotions, and images to create a sensory experience that would teach us to see the world in new light. His famous question probably captures all of this best: "Space, time, material--are they one with light?" and it makes perfect sense he would make this piece from 1932 entitled Lightplay:

(For more on László, go ahead and visit with Fiona MacCarthy's article in The Guardian:

Judging from my first impressions of Malick's The New World--recorded around the same time as my first realizations that I was fundamentally seeing the world differently--I was aware that watching movies was growing my perceptive ability and wreaking some big consequences for my life outside of the cinema and in the world. I wrote:

"Terrence Malick’s movies are meant to be seen on big screens, or maybe in the world all around us—in the sun and sky, in the people you love, and in the moments when our hearts are finally and truly struck. Is such an imposition of Malick’s vision on our daily lives impossible? Just an emotional fantasy of an overzealous moviegoer?"

I've been re-visiting and first-time viewing some Tarkovsky lately, and it feels like a million bucks for the same reasons Moholy-Nagy points out and for the same reasons Malick has had such a paramount impact on my little heart. I watch this stuff and I can feel the world shifting around me, some kind of perceptual tectonics.

Tarkovsky asks me,
What's the sound of rain! What's the sound of fire! How do they exist without their image parts?
What's the stuff of dreams! What's the stuff of life! What's a human being! Could it all be wind?
What does light do to the body! What power lies in water! What will it look and sound and feel like when the world falls apart?
What is 'empty' rendered tangible?
How can a movie be inside the world be inside a movie be inside the world be inside one movie?!


What can time do to our sense of something? Could speeding past the lights in a tunnel be a strip of film writ large? Don't wheels on pavement sound like taking off into outerspace and don't both of these things sound terrifying? Did we build something too harsh for us to live in?

Art teaches us how to perceive the world and this is a very small observation; of course we learn new ways to see, hear, and feel the world until the day we die. But in practice I think this just has to be the most exciting part of being alive.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Me and My Friend, Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio just flicked me off but it’s okay. I know he isn’t really mad. We just do this thing sometimes where we pretend to really hate each other’s guts, pretend to just stomp on each other’s hearts and not even care. But then by lunch break, at noon, which is in 32 minutes, then everything is back to normal and Leo D and I go get wine and sandwiches at PishPoshWich. That’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is. I shouldn’t have asked him about his long weekend anyway.

I’m an assistant to the assistant sound technicians for Martin Scorsese’s new picture, HalfBack. The one thing that I do, which is the same thing that two other assistants to the assistants do, is to make sure that all the signals from all audio sources are feeding without glitches or problems or any other interference type stuff. It’s a pretty okay job since the movie’s completely awesome. It’s all about big oil companies, hit men, and Scarlett Johansonn looking super pretty. In the end Leonardo DiCaprio steals Scarlett Johansonn away from the conniving and totally immoral Kevin Spacey.We’ve been filming for five weeks now, and Martin thinks things are going pretty well but that we might have to ‘rethink Leo’s action scenes--he looks too weak. He’s too wan and skinny to be leaping rooftops and jumping fences.’ Martin also thinks his wife is having a passionate love affair with Julianne Moore, but he can’t actually blame his wife because, if given the chance, he too would make love to Julianne Moore on the screened in porch while the spouse was away on business. I know all this because the microphones are always on and boom mics linger around and personal mics stay tucked and turned on inside jacket lapels even after scenes are cut so that when Martin chitchats or reveals his deepest darkest secrets to Spacey during breaks, I can hear just about everything. This is also how I know that at 2pm each day, Leonardo DiCaprio goes to the bathroom, unscrews his flask with a turn turn squeak squeak, takes two hard pulls of its contents, slaps the mirror with his palm, and sobs for 10 minutes.

Four weeks ago after one of these bouts, Leo D didn’t even bother to put some cold water on his eyes or pop an Altoid to cover the GrandDaddy Whiskey, and Spacey tried to have a conversation with him, saying stuff like, This happens to all of us. There’s a point when you’ve made it…and then you wonder, what next? And you have all this money and a society that trains you to spend it on booze, nice coke, and expensive prostitutes…But while Spacey was talking, Leo D was taking off his sandals and bending them in half so that they formed two big mouths in each of his hands, and then, right when Spacey was talking about expensive women, Leo D started opening and shutting the sandal mouths while saying “blahblahblah blah blahblahblah,” and then he screamed “shut the fuck up, Spacey! You don’t know anything about anything!” He screamed this in Spacey’s face and Spacey just looked to the side and shook his head slowly. And everybody was like, Who talks to Kevin Spacey that way? and What a jerk. Hollywood’s really chewed him up and spit him out. But I don’t know, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is. I think he’s still got a lot going for him. Because like, the Martin Scorsese cast him in HalfBack even though everybody said that Leo D was on his way out and all dried up with nothing more to give. Even though there are no pre-teen girls in love with Leonardo DiCaprio anymore and even though he’s in this total rough spot, Martin still gave him this sweet chance because I bet he remembers how great Leonardo DiCaprio can be. Leo D probably just needs to realize what he’s got and also stop crying in the bathroom with GrandDaddy.
There are two blonde girls named Mandy who hold clipboards and hover over Martin. One of the Mandys I think has extremely limited on-set responsibilities and this is the one that whispers into Martin’s ear and then he claps his hands together five times and stands up to tell us “Break for an hour. Back at 1:00 with scene 10, Leo’s entrance.” As usual, Leonardo DiCaprio goes in the back and takes off his suit and his loafers but keeps his white undershirt on. He puts on a pair of jeans and his sandals and then goes outside to lean against his trailer, light a cigarette, and wait for me to come out of the studio.
“Hey man.” I trot toward Leo D and think about which sandwich I’m gunna get.
“Samuel, why don’t you cut your hair man?” Leo D squints because the sun is in his eyes and he taps the ash off his cigarette.
I touch my layered brown curls, “This is nerd-chic, Leo! This is hot right now and you know it. Yesterday this really beautiful girl mistook me for the guy from The Strokes!”
He grins and he grinds out his cigarette on the smooth white paneling of his trailer and says, “Yeah okay. You smell like thrift store and don’t eat meat, so it all fits I guess.”
“Well, now, I mean…,” I start to mumble with the idea of talking about putting people into boxes, and how being judgmental is fun, especially when you’re hanging with Leo D, but then how maybe it isn’t very productive or nice in the long run. But, again, I don’t think I could actually go through with saying this to Leonardo DiCaprio especially when he’s about to buy me a sandwich and a glass of wine, and, once again, I don’t get the chance because he says,
“Let’s walk, we’ve only got 46 minutes,” and lights another cigarette.
After the Spacey-sandals incident, Martin stopped inviting

Leo D back to his private room where every lunch break, only a select group enjoys big jokes and a fine glass of wine from Martin’s very own basement-cellar. But, Leo D being Leo D, he tried to get back there anyway and that’s when I saw Scarlett Johansonn turn, stomp on Leo D’s toe, and slam the door behind her. Then, Leonardo DiCaprio held his foot in his right hand and stared at the shut door that muffled a shrill Scarlett Johansonn laugh and the classic three claps and deep chuckle from Martin Scorsese. I was trying to look busy putting away the assistant to the assistants’ headphones, but then I just blurted out, “Leo, do you wanna maybe get a sandwich?,” which was totally defying all this tacit and also not so tacit on-set etiquette!
Leo D was kind of limping down the hall because Scarlett Johansonn had been really serious and was also wearing heels. As soon as I said what I said, I was really nervous, and to make it worse Leo D repeatedly punched the air with both arms and both middle fingers as he limped away down the hall. A totally classic Leo D move, if I ever saw one. But then the next day, he was leaning against his trailer and chain smoking when I got out of the studio at 12:07. He yelled at me but I just shoved my hands in my pockets and kept walking because, like, he’d flicked me off so incredibly hard the day before.
But Leo D put out his cigarette and yelled, “Hey, I’m talking to you with those tight-ass jeans and pretty high-tops.”And I’m all like, oh shit, Leo D is yelling about my high tops! So I turned and was like, “oh, hey, Leo, hi.”
Leonardo DiCaprio walked towards me and he sheltered another cigarette from the wind as he lit it. He kept walking when he got to me but said, “What’s your deal?,” as he passed me so I knew to follow him.
“Umm. I dunno. My name is Samuel. I’m a sound techie for your movie…” I looked up and saw in the arch of his eyebrows that Leo D liked it when I said your movie, “and I’m wasting pretty much everything I’m earning on sandwiches and wine at this ritzy shop around the corner because I can be confident that PishPoshWich lists their peanut related products, unlike those bullshit caterers in there…,” here Leo D kind of smiled and nodded as he took a long drag, “and I dunno, I guess I’m just trying to make it or something.”

“That’s my whole thing too,” said Leonardo DiCaprio and then we walked into PishPoshWich and Leo D bought me my hot pepper and humus sandwich and we split the most expensive bottle of wine.
The cool thing is that it didn’t end there. Because Martin, Spacey, and Scarlett had formed this Leo-hating clique and they kept bringing more and more people into it. Even people that didn’t matter, like the second Mandy clipboard girl. They just wanted to make sure that the whole set knew that if you mocked Kevin Spacey and screamed in his face when he’s just trying to impart some of his totally awesome wisdom, well then you’re asking for a world of trouble. So Leonardo DiCaprio and I just hung out each and every lunch hour. And we talked about everything! I talked about getting the shit kicked out of me every one of my 12 years in the Los Angeles public school system and Leo told me about the torture he went through with all that totally harsh Titanic fanaticism. One time, Leonardo DiCaprio told me about when he did a line off of Madonna’s gold plated cigarette case in the women’s bathroom at the 1997 Academy Awards and about how him and Madonna still joke about it when they cross paths and also how we all could go out sometime maybe.

One Friday night we got off work at 8:00 and I went to the bus stop that’s four blocks from our studio to wait for the 8:24 bus, but then Leo D drove by in his really hot Jaguar and was all like, I’m going to meet Toby Maguire downtown at 10:00 but I have an hour to kill so do you wanna hang with me? And just to be too cool I was like, Mmm, I don’t know, I got a thing at home maybe. But then Leo D totally called my bluff and started to drive away! Yeah, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is. So I jumped up off the bench and caught up to the Jag and he unlocked the door.
Going out for drinks with Leonardo DiCaprio was pretty sweet but I felt kind of stupid carrying my backpack into such a stellar, red carpet kinda place. Leo D got me wasted on Maker’s Mark shots and when Billy Crystal came into the bar he pointed and winked at me and Leonardo DiCaprio. We were just two cool guys having some nice drinks after work and it was really nice. But then Leo D had to run so he slapped Billy Crystal on the back and took off, which was kind of hard because I felt pretty totaled and blurry eyed and I didn’t know what buses connected to that part of downtown. So I just got a cab but it cost me $42 to get home which is way more than I spend on bus fair in a week. But it was okay because I got home and the next morning I got to write down the parts that I remembered in my blog.

Today, we sit in our booth and I order the cheese and avocado, but Leo D claims he isn’t hungry. He orders us two bottles of wine instead. I’m like, “Leo, you’re gunna be hungry later and also totally wasted if you don’t eat anything now.”
“Yuck Samuel, I hate it when you act like my mother. If I wanted to hear from her, then I’d pick up the phone and interrupt her codeine cocktail hour and ask her if I should eat a fucking sandwich right now.” I kind of laugh but he just pours a glass of wine and drinks it pretty fast. I try to figure out in my head if it will be possible to drink all that wine in the remaining 34 minutes of our lunch break but as I’m working it out, I realize Leo D has already downed another glass and so I have to have complete faith that he will polish off the bottles. We sit in silence and I wanna ask him about his long weekend, but this is the subject that earned me a cross-the-set Fuck You earlier this morning.

This is the Monday after a four-day weekend in which Spacey went to his house in Maine with his wife and kids, Scarlett went to her Montana ranch to ride horses and exchange backrubs with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Martin Scorsese drank martinis with Quentin Tarantino in New York for 72 hours straight. I took advantage of this sweet time off by going home to my apartment and drinking nice beer, watching TV with my really sweet cat Paws II, and not getting ordered around for four days.But all of this was topped by Leo D who had, according to all these Tabloids, plus People Magazine, USWeekly, and the TV “taken L.A. by storm in a self-destructive whirlwind that landed him alone at 4am outside his Beverly Hills mansion having lost his mind, even more of Hollywood’s respect, and $800,000.”
On Sunday night I was watching TV with Paws II, who is this really special and beautiful orange cat I adopted, and we snuggled up and hunkered down for one of our favorite shows which is Entertainment Tonight. And oh man, we saw all these pictures of Leo D puking in the bushes outside of all the hot spots in L.A.. We also saw photos of the wrecked limo which he drunkenly drove home while his driver was smoking pot with Lindsay Lohan. E.T. also did this really impressive montage thing where they spliced together videotape of my friend, Leo D, arriving home on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. The videotape was in that green-tinted night vision and the wind was blowing branches in front of the camera lens but you could still see what was going on. Thursday night he threw up on his doorstep with one infamous Hollywood blonde under each of his arms. A giant red stamp that said “STRIKE OUT” pounded onto the screen. I winced and Paws II shifted positions. The footage from Friday night was almost the exact same picture but this time with two infamous Hollywood brunettes. Another E.T “STRIKE OUT” stamped onto the screen. Then Paws II and I saw the Saturday night footage where Leo D drove up in his limousine with David Bowie coming hard and loud through the speakers. We saw Leo D drive into his front porch at fifteen miles an hour. The airbag exploded and the car steamed out of its dented front for ten seconds and then the door opened and Leo D rolled out of the seat and onto the pavement. He crawled away from the car in this slow way where his head hung down and his blonde hair dangled in his eyes. He crawled to a lamppost on the walkway to his front door and curled his body around it. There were some nonsense words that he yelled when he was pulling off his shoes, his pants, his shirt, his underwear. I could tell by the white numbers at the bottom of the camcorder screen that the cameraman filmed for at least two hours and seven minutes but E.T. did a nice job of splicing it so you got the highlights: Leonardo DiCaprio throwing his pants and screaming “Spacey’s a … bitch…face,” Leo D peeing all over himself and asking the lamppost to “come on, help a guy out,” and finally, Leonardo DiCaprio crying violently and lying naked, his arms and legs spread wide, hugging the sidewalk. The big red ‘STRIKE OUT’ hit the screen again. Paws II and I turned off the TV and sat in silence. Then I took out my cell phone and looked up Leonardo DiCaprio’s phone number because I have it. I called but he didn’t pick up. I called again but he was probably sleeping off his totally intense weekend. That’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is.

We have eight minutes until we have to be back and Leo D is still working on the wine and I have had three glasses myself so we are both drunk enough that I can ask, “Hey, how do you feel about that totally nuts-o weekend you had, Leo?”
Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes narrow when he looks at me across the table and he thumps his fist down in these slow thumps when he says, “I don’t know what the big deal is, because,” Leo pauses way too long after this because right now he is too drunk to know what the effective length of a dramatic pause is, “because that is who I am now…that is what I do now. And they just…they were just there to see it this time.” Leonardo DiCaprio’s vowels are too long and slow for him to be able to deliver Martin Scorsese’s lines when we’re back at the studio in 8 minutes. Even though I’m tipsy, I’m getting a little nervous about this. It will just give Martin, Spacey, Sacarlett, the rest of their clique, and the rest of Hollywood more ammo! Leo keeps digging himself further into this hole!
“Yeah totally, Leo. I hope you’re not beating yourself up too much over this because these kind of weekends happen to everyone and it’s just that there are all these total jerks with camcorders snooping from your bushes and also hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of jerky-Americans who will eat it up on Sunday’s Entertainment Tonight. So like, it’s cool,” I wait for a second but then decide to go ahead and ask, “But, I mean, are you ashamed at all?”
“What the fuck, Samuel?” People in the restaurant are turning and looking at Leo D because he has his arms raised and he said the ‘fuck’ part really loudly. “This isn’t even any of your business. Don’t ask me, Samuel, if I am a…a…ashamed about my own business, that is my own business…and not your business, Samuel!” Leonardo DiCaprio is super drunk and totally screaming at me during PishPoshWich’s busiest hour. I was just asking if Leo D was ashamed because I think that if he did feel just a little bit of shame, just a little bit at all, then maybe he wouldn’t do so much stuff that kept him sad and drunk all the time. But Leo D totally doesn’t get that I’m not trying to be his mom or something but that I was only starting to talk about shame because I’m just trying to be his friend! It feels totally shitty that Leo D does not get this. But, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is.

Leo walks back to the studio and goes really fast and swings his arms a lot because he’s so ticked off. I follow behind him and I keep my head down and my hands in my pockets since it’s totally stressing me out that my friendship with Leonardo DiCaprio is on the rocks. I walk and mope and wonder what’s gunna happen to us. Then I remember this one time at lunch where Leo D told me a joke that went like, The other night I took this chick out to dinner. I had the Eggplant Parmesan. She had the Polish Sausage.’ Did I mention that I’m Polish?! I didn’t get the joke but I laughed anyway and then finally I did get the joke and I thought it was pretty disgusting and had to reassure myself that it was just a joke and probably not a reflection of how Leo D actually treated women in real life. But I just kept laughing, even though I thought all those things, I kept laughing anyways.

I get to the studio and I’m glad to be back because scene 10 is this brilliant restaurant scene where Spacey and Scarlett are having dinner and all like pretending to be a happy couple even though they’re not because Scarlett is secretly totally in love with Leonardo DiCaprio. And then Leonardo DiCaprio comes into the restaurant! And he sits at a table near them! And the scene gets super awkward because Scarlett and Leo D are trying not to let Spacey know about their affair but it’s hard for them because they are so in love.

We start from Leo’s entrance in scene 10 and even though Hair & MakeUp had at him for 15 minutes, Leonardo DiCaprio looks grey and gross. I check the signals on the personal mics and fix the faulty connection for the Boom over Scarlett and Spacey’s dinner table and when I put on my headphones, I absolutely catch Scarlett and Spacey in mid conversation.
Scarlett says, “He smells like late nights in Venice. No, no, close but not quite. Ah, he smells like sad people at weddings.”
Spacey shifts over so he can see Leo D leaning against a tensed-up Extra and snapping at his heavily eye-linered assistant Lacey to get him a cigarette. Spacey tells Scarlett, “He looks strange. He’s depressing. He needs help.”
When Martin says ‘Action,’ the Extra elbows Leonardo DiCaprio in the rib cage because Leo D doesn’t even realize what’s going on. But then his eyes get big and shoot over to Martin and Leonardo DiCaprio kind of snaps back into the moment and gives the Extra this big shove and then walks into camera one’s view with all this confidence. Leo makes it to the restaurant table but falls into the chair in this really awkward way and Martin says to do it again. The next take Leo D trips and the next take he sits in the wrong chair and in the next take he giggles the whole time and Martin then asks if someone could please get Leo a glass of water. For all these seconds nobody moves, not even Leo D’s assistant Lacey, which is definitely stupid because I’m sure ‘Water For Leonardo DiCaprio’ is totally in her job description. So I take off my headphones and wait one more second and then one more second and then bring Leo D my water bottle. I don’t like that I’m the only one who would bring Leo D water. And I also think it’s sad that right now I really hate bringing Leonardo DiCaprio water. After that lunch where he got so mad at me for nothing, should I even do my friend Leo D a favor? And then, with totally wasted eyes, he looks up at me walking over and the whole set is murmuring and minding their own business and Leo D kind of smiles at me. And his half-smile makes me want to help him again because sometimes he appreciates stuff and sometimes he’s a fun friend. I hold out the water bottle to him. But I totally didn’t realize the smile was a smirk. Leonardo DiCaprio just stares at the water bottle and keeps smirking. He doesn’t take it and instead he just says, “Who...the fuck…do you think you are?”
I stand and look at Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, which are also looking at my eyes but his have slow blinks that cover them sometimes. I want to scream at him and tell him that over all these weeks he’s been pretty selfish about stuff and even though it was still totally fun and still totally worth it, well now here, in this moment when I’m a) just following Martin Scorsese’s directions and b) also just being a real friend to you, well then you should probably clean up your act and, like, find some respect for me or something. But I just drop the water bottle and stand there and stare at him for three more seconds until Martin calls, “Let’s try this again.”
In the next take, Leo D sways during his entrance but gets to the table. He gets to the table just in time to hear Scarlett say, “fucking ridiculous,” under her breath and Leonardo DiCaprio turns to tell her off but instead he just pukes all over. She screams because it’s on her and her dress and Spacey jumps up from the table so that his chair falls over and then Martin yells at the top of his lungs, “Leo’s done!”
I decide that I need a breath of fresh air because I know we won’t get going again for a while, maybe not even until Toby Maguire signs on to the role which might have to be after the next Spiderman, and because it smells a lot like red wine throwup in the studio. I go outside onto this sunshiny patch of pavement right next to the studio and I sit cross-legged on the ground and hold my chin in my hands. I’m looking at my shadow on the sidewalk and how the silhouette of my mop of hair looks kinda funny and kinda nice on the white pavement. The door opens behind me and I turn to see Leo D stagger outside. He changed his clothes but forgot to put on a shirt and his face is contorted and he’s flailing his limbs around like a total crazy. Leo D swears a lot and finds his keys in his jeans pocket and then walks right past me without even noticing, and I look up at him but he just makes his way to his Jag and climbs in. Leo D doesn’t see me! Me, Samuel, who’s spent so many lunch breaks with him and supported him through all his wild and totally serious shit. And he just climbs into his Jag totally out of it and he’s so drunk he’s probably gunna crash it and kill himself on the way home. But I guess, that’s just the kind of guy Leonardo DiCaprio is.