DOUBLE FEATURE AT THE NEW BEV WITH ARGENTO'S 'THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE'
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One of the great documentaries on filmmaking, “De Palma” is Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s loving homage to the modern master of suspense, which plays out like one long monologue. (The format is particularly ironic given his general hatred for overly talky movies.) Brian De Palma is one of his generation’s greatest talents and one of the most underrated. As he takes viewers through his filmography, film by film, a pattern starts to emerge – he’s a filmmaker obsessed by certain themes (voyeurism, sexuality, the slipperiness of a good conspiracy) and determined to bring those themes to life in the most entertaining way possible. He doesn’t always succeed. But the attempt feels Herculean and seldom appreciated. With humor, grace and candor he doesn’t just examine his work, he examines his life. And the resulting film is profound and arresting. Just be warned, after watching “De Palma,” you’ll want to re-watch all of his films again. – Drew Taylor
Rich Eisen: In Carlito’s Way, Pachanga’s lines were originally written in phonetically spelled heavy-accented slang that offended some of the crew members of Latino descent, so the lines were rewritten in standard English, and you were directed to improve – uh, improvise some slang. Is that true or false on that film?
Luis Guzman: Yeah, I improvised everything, and I improved everything. [Eisman laughs] And one of the lines that I did was, we were doing ADR, and Brian De Palma, who directed it, he said, ‘Can you say something here?’ And it’s like, it’s the scene where Carlito’s dying, you know, this is after he’s been shot by Benny Blanco, and I looked at him, and I dropped in the line, says, ‘It be’s that way sometimes.’ But that was a real thing that we used to say in the neighborhood, that the older guys would say. You know, if you complained about something, they would look at you, say [shaking his head], ‘It be’s that way.’ So, yeah. But you know…
Rich Eisman: That was improvised, from your upbringing, you brought it to the table.
Luis Guzman: Yeah, I did. I did. I did, that was Luis Guzman, courtesy of the great poet writer that I grew up with in the neighborhood named TC Garcia.
Rich Eisman: You got a good Pacino story for me?
Luis Guzman: A good Pacino story… Yeah, so one day, you know, we’re doing that scene when Viggo Mortensen rolls into the office? And so, I had to go from upstairs… well, no. I had… something, it was seeing that I was downstairs, the camera starts on me, and then Al’s in the office, he walks out, he’s coming down the stairs, I’m running up the stairs, and it’s total darkness. You can’t see anything. So, I think on the second take, so the first time, some guy walks by me, I made it up. Second time, the guy’s in my way. And I grab him and I push him to the side and said, ‘Get the hell out of my way, I gotta get up there!’ I did not realize that that was Al. [Eisman laughs] That was Al.
You've always tried to work with American auteurs too, like Brian De Palma on Femme Fatale. Melanie Griffith had worked with him twice before. Is that what drew you to him?
When Brian called me, Melanie was very pushy! She said: 'You should read his script!' I read it and I said to her, 'Melanie, there is no beef here.' These characters are very lean and I didn't know if I should do it. I talked to Brian and asked him if we could talk about it. He said, 'Of course, write whatever you want.' So I started composing the character... and put it together in a completely different way. We went for dinner in Paris, and I brought up my papers and read for an hour. At the end, he said "This is very good. You did a good job but it's not my movie! If you want to be in my movie, you have to do what's written. And I appreciate what you did - for another type of movie it would be great. But I have very specific ideas of what these characters will be. You decide.' I took a couple of days and said 'Yes'. For me, even if the character was not a main character, it was an opportunity to work with a person who I consider a master. He has a very strong personality on screen, and I just jumped into the part, I didn't regret it for one second.
What about your times with Steven Soderbergh? You worked twice with him on Haywire and The Laundromat...
Woah! That was a different world. Fast. Furious. No lights. I got to set on my first day in Barcelona [on Haywire], a conversation in a coffee shop at the start of the movie. And two cameras, digital. You go there, you sit, no practical indications, action! Boom boom boom boom boom. Two cameras. Action! Boom boom boom boom boom. Moving on. To the airport. No lighting. Nothing. Just the natural light. I remember shooting in Mexico, with Michael Douglas and with Ewan McGregor, and we did six sequences in one day. It's a totally different method, a totally different shoot.
You've twice directed features, Crazy In Alabama and Summer Rain. Having worked with so many great directors, how was it stepping into the chair?
To direct a movie is such a crazy thing. It's very complex. You have to become an answering machine and carry so many things at the same time. I thought at the beginning, when I directed Crazy In Alabama, that my strong point would be working with the actors. I loved doing that, and I did it on Summer Rain too- getting a bunch of kids together who had never been in front of a camera before. But I discovered in Crazy In Alabama, I had a tremendous [love of] framing and the meaning of that. I love that aspect of making movies, how you tell the story like that. Sometimes I have been working with directors just for that purpose.
Shadows and Dreams: The use of sound, on and off screen, is so central to the storytelling here. What kind of work went into capturing that to everybody’s satisfaction?
Paul Hirsch: Dan Sable was our sound effects editor. They hadn't invented the term sound supervisor yet. He was responsible for recording the sounds. The placement of the sounds within the scenes was critical, and I did that.
Dan moved some of the sounds, and I had him move them back. The picture cuts were triggered by the sound, and the temp effects I laid in had to be treated like dialogue, sync-wise. The picture cuts and the sounds are like in a dance with each other, and you can't shift the sound without spoiling the picture.
Shadows and Dreams: Was that your suggestion to DePalma to introduce Burke, the John Lithgow character much earlier in the film?
Paul Hirsch: I think that came out of an early screening of the film for a few friends, who found a lack of tension in the early reels. Introducing the antagonist sooner was our solution to that note.
Shadows and Dreams: Another celebrated moment, the Zapruder-influenced scene where Jack syncs his recorded sound to the published photographs. Was that an example of DePalma letting you do your own thing with the material?
Paul Hirsch: Well, he always let me do my own thing unless he had a problem with something I had done. Then we would change it.
Shadows and Dreams: Did DePalma storyboard a lot with the cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond? If so, did you reference any of that for your work?
Paul Hirsch: I only look at the script and dailies. Brian did his own boards for a long time, and they were difficult for me to decipher. Anyway, they are all about how he planned to shoot a scene. Once the scene is shot, they are irrelevant.
Shadows and Dreams: In your book, you talk about the conflict with you and DePalma over the final movement. How did you ultimately resolve that?
Paul Hirsch: We disagreed over the timing of Travolta's run to save Nancy Allen. I recut it according to Brian's instructions. Then George Litto, the producer, saw the cut and expressed an opinion that coincided with mine. So Brian agreed to go back to the earlier structuring, although with film, you had to take apart one version to create a new one.
So I had to try to remember what I'd done. It was all about how early or late we started John running. As for the final scene, I would have preferred a hokey happy ending, but that's just me.
-Flashback-Tuesday, March 27, 2012'CARRIE' PAPERBACK ON SALE AT CENTIPEDE PRESS
Joe Aisenberg's in-depth study of Brian De Palma's Carrie is a must-read, must-have for any De Palma fan. As I reported before, the book features extensive interviews with De Palma and Cohen that alone would be a must for De Palma fans, but Aisenberg's deep analysis into every shot of Carrie makes the book a joy to read. Aisenberg has read just about everything written about Carrie, and offers a critical look at those writings, while also gleaning from them useful perspectives on the film. He offers an exhaustive account of Stephen King's conceptualization of and writing of his original novel, as well as King's alternating views of Carrie (both book and film) throughout the years.
This naturally leads into a chapter on how the movie was made from the novel, with Cohen and De Palma providing key details, such as how producer Paul Monash had originally hired a young woman (no one seems to recall her name) to write the screenplay. After her first draft made Monash very nervous (because, as Cohen says in the interview, "it just wasn't good"), Cohen, having loved King's book and having a very strong idea about what the film of it should be, went on a three-week marathon in which he did nothing but eat, drink, and sleep Carrie. There is also a well-considered background on De Palma leading up to the making of Carrie, even quoting the interview De Palma did with the now-defunct web site "Le Paradis de Brian De Palma" to illustrate what Aisenberg calls "a rare romantic insight into De Palma's notion of film":
"The great movies that I remember are the ones that went right into my subconscious, and I don't know why they obsess me, or why I keep thinking about them, or why in a postmodern way I keep trying to recreate them, like Vertigo, for instance. It's just something that's inexplicable. These images have taken seed in your subconscious, and you can't get them the hell out... There are a few great directors that have been able to do it, and that's why we never forget those movies. Aisenberg allows insights such as this to color his analysis of Carrie throughout the study.
These initial chapters are well-researched and fascinating, and then the book really takes off when Aisenberg begins his scene-by-scene analysis, illustrated with black-and-white frames from the film itself. Incorporating an author interview with Betty Buckley in addition to the others mentioned, Aisenberg weaves his research in with the fabric of his analysis, producing a text that is as entertaining as it is insightful. Aisenberg deftly illustrates how the opening volleyball scene establishes Carrie’s theme of competition, which is presented most prominently by the film’s ongoing juxtapositions between Sue and Chris, but also between Margaret and Miss Collins, with Carrie (and, perhaps, “the boys”) stuck in the middle. Like the film itself, Aisenberg keeps moving forward, stopping to consider moments such as when Sue walks into the background of the scene in which Margaret pays a visit to Sue’s mother, and giving that moment just the right touch of curious investigation before linking the scene directly to Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane:
As Mrs. Snell hands over a contribution of ten dollars to be done with Margaret, which clearly annoys the religious woman, a further visual detail complicates the dramatic tension. Through the doorway behind them beyond the pink hallway where Mrs. Snell answered the phone is a sliver of another doorframe (frames-within-frames [Aisenberg highlights these throughout]) in which Sue appears and silently hovers. While most films would probably cut around at this point to make all the characters’ stakes obvious, De Palma expertly stages things on the cheap so that viewers can connect the dramatic dots between things for themselves, imparting to Sue hints of guilty feeling that will shortly lead her to atone for her actions.
When I asked De Palma about this scene, as well as other moments in which he makes use of background and foreground actions, or places things independent of one another on the left- and right-hand sides of the screen, De Palma described the effect in musical terms as “contrapuntal,” with roots in the deep-focus arrangements of Citizen Kane, a film that also lets scenes run on without too many cuts. Indeed, the staging here recalls an early moment in Kane specifically, wherein little Charles’s mother transfers legal custody of the boy to a lawyer. Up front, Kane’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) sits at a table signing over guardianship of the boy to her cold attorney, despite her husband’s protest, while deep in the background, through a window, the boy can clearly be seen playing in the snow enjoying a childhood which has already slipped away. Carrie reverses the terms: the child figure hidden in the faraway depths of the frame is the guilty party, while those near at hand are still “innocent” of life-changing events that have taken place (thus Sue’s image is appropriately blurred and ambiguous).
Later on, in his analysis of the prom scene, Aisenberg lays out very nicely Carrie’s deliberate echoes of David Lean’s The Bridge On The River Kwai, and elsewhere delves into the film’s inspirations from John Boorman’s Deliverance and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood. Regarding the moment of shock just after the pig’s blood spills over Carrie, and the film shows Carrie’s viewpoint in a kaleidoscope effect, Aisenberg states that it recalls “some of the overdone visual distortions and expressionistic devices of silent movies, such as in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), whose themes, incidentally, parallel Carrie’s enough to compare them, I think.” Aisenberg also compares this moment in Carrie to a similar subjective visualization of shock from the 1958 version of The Fly.
I stated above that Aisenberg has read just about everything related to Carrie, and, well, he has listened to just about everything, too. The book includes bits of information throughout from the very rare Criterion laserdisc edition of Carrie, which included audio commentary by Cohen and Laurent Bouzereau. At one point, Aisenberg also serves up a quote from a recent Raising Cain-focused episode of the online radio show Movie Geeks United, in which editor Paul Hirsch discusses the music for the final dream sequence of Carrie:
The temp score for the nightmare was Albinoni’s Adagio for Organ and Strings, which was the saddest music I could find for Amy Irving laying the flowers on Carrie’s grave. And then I found a deliberately arrhythmic moment. I mean I lined the music so there was an arrhythmic moment when the hand shoots up out of the ground, and for that I used the main title from Sisters, which starts with an anvil strike, a sharp metallic sound just at the moment when the first rock is dislodged, you know, starts to move, and the hand comes shooting out. So you have this soft sweet, sad organ and strings interrupted at a very unexpected moment by a loud anvil strike guaranteed to startle anyone. So Pino [Donaggio] just copied that.
Aisenberg’s Carrie expertise makes for an eye-opening book, and provides a necessary credibility when he goes for the gusto and declares that both De Palma and Hirsch are wrong when they insist that the split-screen section at the prom does not work. “The scene is thrilling, marvelously realized,” states Aisenberg, adding that “the use of split-screen serves several purposes.” After quoting De Palma explaining his original rationale for conceiving the sequence in split-screen as a way to avoid simply cutting from Carrie to things moving around, Aisenberg explains why he thinks the sequence works so well:
Indeed, [De Palma’s] solution seems an ingenious way to dramatize Carrie’s power in action—she looks here, she looks there, and on the other side of the screen objects do her bidding. The effect is heightened by the stunning way Carrie’s face, at one point, slides from the right side of the screen to the left. De Palma’s frames and expertly montaged juxtapositions throughout the movie suggest irrational lines of influence hard at work between things; the split-screen liberalizes it. Also, from a practical point of view, this device makes the most of relatively little in the way of special effects-induced chaos, since all that’s really happening during the first part of the sequence is that the lights change and a fire extinguisher hose stands up like a penis-snake and starts spraying everybody. As with the volleyball game, where a single unbroken take was employed by the director so that the audience could see it being played in real time, De Palma may have instinctually hoped that by combining as many images on screen as possible he could trick viewers into thinking they were seeing al the destruction happen before their eyes.
Split-screen has stylistic-thematic significance as well. Throughout the film characters have been shown acting on several contradictory levels in bifocal shots, that oppose but mirror one another. Once the split perspectives come together in Carrie’s ultimate degradation, the traumatic force literally breaks the image itself in half, and a new doubling of the viewer’s experience sets in. The audience sees exactly how Carrie is misperceiving the situation in her crazed state, believing there to be a much bigger conspiracy at work than there really was—one including everybody, even Miss Collins.
Other tidbits from the book's De Palma interview include: a brief discussion about the two songs written for the film, one of which producer Paul Monash (whose wife wrote the lyrics to both) wanted to run over the opening credits (De Palma says he fought tooth and nail against that); De Palma switching cinematographers after initial filming around the school because he did not like the way Isador Mankofsky was lighting the girls (De Palma didn't like the way they looked); and how after figuring out how Margaret would be killed, they decided to go back and shoot scenes of Carrie in the closet, for which set designer Jack Fisk created the haunting Saint Sebastion figure "with all the arrows in it."
It is not how this type of story is supposed to go. Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a lad who is also a thinly veiled portrait of Steven Spielberg’s youth, has been bullied, humiliated, and finally assaulted by his high school’s golden boy, Logan Hall (Sam Rechner). The six-foot-plus gorilla never openly made an Antisemitic jape at Sammy’s expense. But when Logan’s buddy Chad (Oakes Fegley) did, Logan stood there and laughed—and later tried to break Sammy’s nose when the smaller kid stood up for himself.Previously:
Yet here they were, a few months later and on prom night, sharing something akin to camaraderie. Logan even offers Sam a drag of a joint he just rolled. The 180-degree pivot from animosity surprises the kids, just as it does the audience who expected a revenge of the nerds style of comeuppance. There was even a perfect opportunity just one scene earlier when Sammy revealed his “Senior Skip Day” short film at the prom. Surely, this would be the scenario where Sam could get back at the physically bigger bullies by depicting them as buffoons. In a locker room they might be big men, but in the editing suite, the director’s God.
Yet that’s not the type of movie Sammy wanted to make. In retrospect that perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise either. Spielberg came of age during the same period as a lot of the filmmakers behind ‘70s and ‘80s high school revenge fantasies, but that was never the instinct of an eternal onscreen optimist like Spielberg. And it also does not become Sammy’s choice—at least not entirely. While the more openly hateful bigot does become the butt of the joke in the short film, Logan is elevated to the status of a demigod. He looks noble and beatific onscreen, worshiped even as he’s filmed dominating volleyball on the beach and winning a race that has all the stakes of Body and Soul.
Not only does it flatter Logan’s ego, but it captures the imagination of the kids in the dance hall. Future Spielberg contemporary Brian De Palma would make horror history when he adapted Stephen King’s Carrie so masterfully that to this day we crack jokes about pig’s blood at school proms. After all, it’s at such a dance that Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is humiliated by a bucket of livestock blood, causing her to reveal her ominous superpowers to her peers.
In its own way, the prom sequence in The Fabelmans plays the same. Before this sequence, Sammy is at best a curiosity for his WASP-y classmates, including his girlfriend (Chloe East), who is as enamored with the forbidden fruit of Sammy’s religion as she is the funny kid always holding a camera. But when the class sees one of his films, they at last see him. Filmmaking, at least according to Spielberg, who co-wrote The Fabelmans with Tony-winner Tony Kushner, is his superpower. And while the other kids are not horrified by that gift like Carrie White’s classmates, they’re nevertheless thunderstruck by it. Shock or awe, it looks the same on a big screen.
This includes Logan, who cannot reconcile the images he saw of himself coming out of the projector. The man he watched onscreen was perfect, divine, even innately good. Hell, he was a bigger all-American hero than the sometimes caddish Indiana Jones. That isn’t the real Logan though. The audience knows this; Sammy knows this; and even the jock knows it. Nonetheless, it’s such a seductive image that the girlfriend Logan cheated on takes him back after seeing that he-man up there in the flickering light.
“That’s not me!” he later laments in a fury to Sam. It’s a lie! He doesn’t understand why the put-upon Jewish kid would give him this monkey-pawed slice of hagiography, and to be honest Sam is also not entirely sure. “Maybe I did it to make the movie better?” Sam finally offers.
Woody Harrelson honored Michael J. Fox at the 13th Governors Awards this past Saturday in Los Angeles. Fox was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which is awarded to an "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry." Here's a breakdown of Harrelson's on-stage story via MovieMaker's Margeaux Sippell:
But of the honorees, only Michael J. Fox has tasted cobra blood. It happened in the late 1980s, as Harrelson visited Fox in Thailand, where Fox was shooting the 1989 Brian De Palma Vietnam War drama Casualties of War.
“One night, Mike took us to the end of the jungle, and we stopped at this little hut, and Mike, you know, ran out of the car, this kid runs up to him, and he hands him like thousands of [Thai] baht, which probably amounted to about $16,” Harrelson said.
Suddenly, Harrelson saw something he didn’t expect.
“I couldn’t believe it. I look in there and Mike is sitting next to this kid with dozens of cobras all around them ready to strike and—no jest—and the kid was toying with these cobras,” Harrelson recalled. “He taunted a bunch of these cobras and then he found the orneriest cobra, grabbed it by the neck, threw it in a cage with a mongoose, where I saw the craziest fight I’ve ever seen between any animals other than studio executives—you guys know I’m kidding.”
Woody Harrelson continued.
“And the mongoose won, they took the snake, tied it by its tail, ran the blood out, half-filled four glasses with cobra blood and half with Thai whiskey,” he said. “Drinking the cobra blood is called ‘becoming brother to the snake. … Mike and I drink lots of things together and he can hold his own—what can I say, he’s Canadian. But Mike promptly vomited his snake cocktail. Never could hold his cobra blood.”
You can watch Woody Harrelson tell the Michael J. Fox cobra blood story here or above.
But seriously, folks: Harrelson also noted that Fox, who has spent years advocating for greater research for people with Parkinson’s, “never asked for the role of Parkinson’s advocate, but it is his best performance.” He added that his friend “sets the ultimate example of how to fight and how to live.”
Fox seemed to enjoy it all.
“I love you,” he told Harrelson as he accepted the award. “We did some damage. We did some damage in the ’80s.”