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Wrapped loosely in the packaging of a documentary, "Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of the Midnight Cowboy," is written and directed by Nancy Buirski. It features Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Brian de Palma, Charles Kaiser, Lucy Sante, Brenda Vaccaro, the voice of John Schlesinger, and many others who either were in "Midnight Cowboy," involved in its production, or were admirers of the film.
When the documentary opens with a closeup of Jon Voight, recalling an existential crisis by director John Schlesinger after the completion of "Midnight Cowboy," the film almost implicitly states that it will be about the creation of that film. Yet, "Desperate Souls" only lightly touches on the creation of "Cowboy." Instead, this film spends most of its time investigating the era during which it was made. "Midnight Cowboy" lived at the nexus of a war, the civil rights movement, and the early beginnings of the gay rights movement.
A movie, good, bad or indifferent, is always “about” something. But some movies are about more things than others, and as you watch “Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy,” Nancy Buirski’s rapt, incisive, and beautifully exploratory making-of-a-movie documentary, what comes into focus is that “Midnight Cowboy” was about so many things that audiences could sink into the film as if it were a piece of their own lives.
The movie was about loneliness. It was about dreams, sunny yet broken. It was about gay male sexuality and the shock of really seeing it, for the first time, in a major motion picture. It was about the crush and alienation of New York City: the godless concrete carnival wasteland, which had never been captured onscreen with the telephoto authenticity it had here. The movie was also about the larger sexual revolution — what the scuzziness of “free love” really looked like, and the overlap between the homoerotic and hetero gaze. It was about money and poverty and class and how they could tear your soul apart. It was about how the war in Vietnam was tearing the soul of America apart. It was about a new kind of acting, built on the realism of Brando, that also went beyond it.
And it was about love. Jon Voight’s Joe Buck, that rangy Texas good ol’ boy with his fringed buckskin jacket and his jutting-front-teeth grin and his sexy bright naïveté, and Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, sweaty and unshaven, long hair greased back, hobbling through the streets, hording his change in a shoe with a hole in it and no sock — these two had nothing in common except that they were losers, hanging by a thread, and only after a while did they realize that they had nothing in the world but each other.
The risky, offhand greatness of “Midnight Cowboy” is that the movie, while it knew it was about a lot of these things, also didn’t know it was about a lot of these things. More, perhaps, than any other formative New Hollywood landmark (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider”), the film channeled the world around it. “Desperate Souls, Dark City” tells the story of how “Midnight Cowboy” got made, and how the people who made it — the director John Schlesinger, the screenwriter Waldo Salt, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and James Leo Herlily, who wrote the 1965 novel on which the film was based — took the essence of who they were and poured it into a personal vision of what we were seeing onscreen.
As a documentary filmmaker, Nancy Buirski (“By Sidney Lumet”) comes at you from a heady impressionistic angle. For all its tasty anecdotes, and there are lots of them, “Desperate Souls” is less concerned with production war stories, with the everyday nuts and bolts of how “Midnight Cowboy” got made (we see the famous scene in which Ratso bangs on a car and shouts “I’m walkin’ heah,” but don’t get the usual story about shooting the scene), than with the emotional metaphysics of how a movie about a blinkered hustler and a homeless loser came to embody what Hollywood was becoming: not a dream factory but a truth factory, an eerie moving mirror of who we were.
Have you been discouraged at all by the negative reaction “The Idol” has received from some quarters? Or was that something you expected?
No, no, that very much expected.
I keep waiting for it to shift, like “Dressed to Kill,” the Brian De Palma film (who also directed “Scarface” and “Carrie”), which is very slow in the first half and then suddenly becomes fast-paced and exciting.
Brian De Palma is a huge inspiration for all this, and of course [Paul] Verhoeven [“Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall,” “RoboCop”]. But look, we’re playing with genres with this show, we’re doing exactly what we wanted to do. And none of this is a surprise. I’m excited for everyone to watch the rest of the show.
Here’s a related question: Over the past few years you keep doing all these things to make yourself ugly, between the busted nose and the blood in your mouth for the “After Hours” look and the bloated face in the later phases of it —
And the old man face! [for the “Dawn FM” cover].
And the creepy mask at the beginning of the concerts —
Yes, that’s like the Phantom [of the Opera], gladiator inspired, of course, and Dr. Doom and then [the late, masked rapper-producer] MF Doom.
… and Tedros’ rat tail. What is it in you that makes you want to make yourself ugly?
This is just make-believe. It’s make-believe!
I guess you did the sexed-up and debauched image before? Not being really a sex symbol but —
I don’t think I’ve ever been a sex symbol.
You don’t think so?
No, definitely not. (Laughing)
OK fine. Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to say?
No, I’m just enjoying this tour and I’m excited to challenge myself and see how we can how we can change the game with the concert films.
“Films”? Are there plans to document the next two phases of the tour?
(Long pause) We’re shooting the inception of something now, which… which I feel like I haven’t been able to do before. So whatever we’re doing now, we’re capturing the genesis of it. So it’ll be an interesting documentary. Is that too vague?
Not for you!
Friday, March 20, 2020'DRESSED TO KILL' - THE WEEKND'S CURRENT OBSESSION
ALSO, 'TROUBLE EVERY DAY', 'THE COLOR OF MONEY', 'DER FAN'
CR Men's Tiana Reid posted a story today about The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye), which mentions a few films the pop star is currently obsessed with:In 2019, Tesfaye went back to his early days, playing the Trilogy-era version of himself in the Safdie brothers’ film Uncut Gems. “I’ve been following the Safdies for years,” he says, a committed cinephile whose current obsessions include Claire Denis’ carnal thriller Trouble Every Day (2001), Brian De Palma’s neo-noir slasher Dressed to Kill (1980), Eckhart Schmidt’s West German, ’80s horror flick Der Fan, and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986).
On the big screen, he plays it douchey, “a kind of almost satirical version of myself,” he says. His fictitious double refuses to sing unless he’s in black light. He performs “The Morning” and does lines with a white girl (Julia Fox) who comments on his erection. “He’s going to be major—even though he’s from Canada,” Julia says earlier in the film. The line is played for laughs.
That “even though” is a bigger deal than it seems. Tesfaye was born to Ethiopian immigrant parents and raised in Scarborough, a region east of downtown Toronto, before he dropped out of high school, moving out to Parkdale in Toronto’s west side. For many of the young, black, brown, and poor people in Canada’s most-populous city, Toronto lacks industry connections of all kinds, affordable housing, and creative infrastructures, especially when compared to cities in the United States. In response to his upbringing, along with La Mar Taylor, Ahmed Ismail, and Joachim Johnson, the Weeknd now runs the nonprofit HXOUSE, a “Toronto-based, globally focused think-center” that works with young artists of many disciplines. Global capital obviously floods Toronto through real estate, technology, and development, but in an exorbitantly expensive rental housing market, the lofts of “Lost Music” are unaffordable. A condo company in Tesfaye’s old neighborhood of Parkdale, a 14-story new development, is eerily called XO Condos. Five-hundred-square-foot boxes, currently unbuilt, are being sold for upwards of $600,000 dollars. XO is, of course, also the name of the Weeknd’s record label, which includes Canadian hip hop acts Nav, Belly, and 88Glam.
Today, ostensibly, he’s made it. "I feel confident with where I’m taking this [new] record,” he reveals. “There’s also a very committed vision and character being portrayed and I get to explore a different side of me that my fans have never seen.” He says that the first drop, the anti-romance song called “Heartless,” follows where My Dear Melancholy left off. “It was the first song I wrote after that album, so it felt fitting for me to put it out,” he says. “I play a character in the video who becomes compromised and then overcompensates with all the sins that Vegas provides. It’s a great introduction to the next chapter of my life.” In the music video for “Heartless,” set in Las Vegas, this new character, with his Lionel Richie mustache, Herbie Hancock glasses, and a slappy grin, was in fact inspired by Sammy Davis, Jr. in the 1973 film Poor Devil. In one scene, he licks a frog. It’s an all-knowing corniness that can be a bit of a one-note gimmick, its arc to be determined by the forthcoming album.
In the final scene of the video for “Blinding Lights,” which premiered in January, this new jittery nouveau-riche character stares into the camera but also beyond it, blood between his teeth. The look is a mix of Joker and Béatrice Dalle in that aforementioned Claire Denis film he loves so much, Trouble Every Day. After a journey through a hall of mirrors, a good high, a good ass-whooping, it’s hard to tell whether he’s laughing or crying. There’s something funny and something tragic in that ambivalence. This sense that we play characters both louche and garish feels like where we are at the turn of this decade, after years when it seemed no one had a self.
Phantom Of The Paradise
Dressed To Kill
The Principal Archivist at The Swan Archives lists, in this order, Phantom Of The Paradise, Casualties Of War, Carrie, Carlito's Way, and Femme Fatale. More and more, especially after a recent rewatch, I keep thinking I should elevate Casualties into my top 5. Way back around the year 2000 or 2001, the consensus among De Palma fans had the top two films as Blow Out and Carlito's Way.
What are your top five De Palma films?
Here's a portion from Eric Kohn's interview with Wes Anderson at IndieWire:
Earlier you mentioned how ’70s American cinema inspired you. Many of the filmmakers you’ve cited as your favorites from that period are still working today. What do you make of their evolution as you consider your own evolving body of work?
People are sort of obligated to compete with themselves and everything they do is compared to their earlier work. There’s a certain view that people do their best work as movie directors in their 30s or 40s and 50s, not really their 60s or 70s. They don’t say that about conductors. But with this group, there has been a lot of especially good work from them in their 70s. Martin Scorsese is over 80 and he’s got a big movie coming out. I haven’t seen “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and I wouldn’t say that “Wolf of Wall Street” has the kind of blast of originality and inspiration that gives us “Goodfellas,” but it used all these kind of tools and techniques that he sort of invented. He was working with actors in a way he hadn’t in years, in an improvisational way that he’s so great at it. He made this great, huge movie that’s endlessly entertaining.
Now we see Paul Schrader with a whole set of later movies that are sort of Bressonian, where he’s taken a sort of focus and taken back something for himself. Spielberg’s collaborations with Tony Kushner have produced such interesting work and it’s all later period stuff. Even Frances Coppola who hasn’t made a movie in some time is now making something gigantic. He’s taking on a tremendously personal project he’s been wanting to do all these years. It’s a twist on the whole that’s been interesting and surprising. But I’d say each one has a different kind of virtuosity that’s totally unique to them.
Brian De Palma has given you a lot of guidance over the years. How much has he inspired the way you approach filmmaking?
You could always say that De Palma follows Hitchcock’s path, but a lot of people have followed De Palma’s path. His point of departure from Hitchcock’s influence is so strong. I have tried to do bits like a De Palma scene, setting up a sequence like De Palma would, but it’s almost impossible for me to do. Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have done scenes where they set things up like De Palma and do it well. Not me. I had to find other things in his work. There are certain things he does that I certainly steal but others that I can’t steal, because I’m not capable of it.
Do you think of yourself as having a distinctive “style?” Or does considering it in that way interfere with the creative process?
I think about how I want to stage a scene, and I might have some ideas about what we’re going to go for, for this particular movie, but that’s probably not the thing you’re talking about. You’re talking about the thing that’s the same, or at least is recognizable—which is to say, “I think I know who might have done this one” [laughs]. That is maybe something I’m in control of, but I’m not in control of what I want. I’m not in control of the way I’d like to do it.
At a certain point, I began to realize, I have a recognizable handwriting that’s beginning to take shape in these movies, and it’s happening because I’m learning something here, and finding something I like to do, and it’s many different things mixed together. It changes, but it’s still somehow [similar].
Is it difficult to stay true to yourself in that way?
I say to myself, do I want to do this? Do I want to force myself to do things in a way that I don’t want to do, or am I OK with making my movies in my way, and accepting this idiosyncrasy of my own voice? I felt like it was right for my stories and the way I was doing them. This is the way I want to do them. It’s not something I deliberately choose to continue. It’s just me doing what I want.
I think the more someone develops a voice, the more it becomes natural, and spontaneous.
I would say I’m aware of some of my own parameters that I like. And I’m aware of the stuff that I don’t want to do. I’m aware of maybe a way that I could shoot something that would be almost unnoticeable. And then there’s my way of shooting, where you say, “Oh, I see, we’re doing it like this. OK.” [laughs] I’m aware of it, but it’s just what I’m actually drawn to for some reason. I’m sure one day, they’ll be able to do some neural analysis and say, here's why you like to do it like that.
Given the homogeneity of so much mainstream American cinema, does being unique pose a challenge, professionally speaking? Or is it still a benefit, since there’s only one you?
It doesn’t do you a lot of good to absorb criticism of your own work unless you’re going to use it. If you’re not really going to use it—if you have your thing that you’re going to do—then it’s not. But I’m definitely aware of, for instance, the idea that a movie director should be able to do things in all different kinds of ways. Why do you work in just this lane? Why don’t you do Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder, and do one that’s a mystery and one that’s a comedy?
Well, for me, every time I start a movie, I feel like I’m doing something completely different. I’ve not made a movie like this before, to me. But people see the continuation of some thread. To me, I think—why do you need me to do the other stuff? You’ve got loads of people! You’ve got so many to choose from! [laughs]
I wish there were more people who were just as strange in their approach as my approach, and that were doing completely different things than me, and also developed their approach like a painter who might have a very recognizable path—this period he’s working in this way, and maybe it shifts a bit, and then maybe it goes elsewhere—but it isn’t like, each step of the way there are things going in all different directions. In cinema, it’s more expected to play in that manner.
There are exceptions, though—right?
Brian De Palma, for example– his body of work, like Hitchcock, really does rely on a certain kind of filmmaking.
There have been a few recent AI-generated trailers that imagine classic movies (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dune) in “your” style. Have you seen them?
I’ve only been exposed to it verbally. I haven’t seen any of it. Obviously, it’s easy for me to go to the right web page and see it. I choose not to really engage. I guess it’s because I don’t want to get distracted by that. It’s a bit like if you’re told, “Your friend does a great version of you.” Maybe you say, I’d really like to see it, and maybe you say, I don’t want to see a version of me, even if it’s good. It can be like, “Is that me?” That’s not necessarily the thing you want.
At some point, I’m sure I’ll go in there and see. But I’ve never seen a TikTok, for instance, of anything. I’m not going to start with me. [laughs]
And you directed the first and last episode of ‘Based on a True Story’?
I directed the pilot and the finale, and I was the directing producer of it—so I was there on set the whole time helping the other directors just to make sure that they understood what the tone of the show was, and visually what we were trying to do. And just to make sure that Craig’s vision for the show was actually happening and that the show didn’t accidentally stray away from it, because he had a really strong vision for it…I was there to just help him make sure that that’s the show that we were making at all times.
What were some of those conversations that you had with Craig when discussing the vision for the series?
When I first met with Craig—it’s funny, he’s Australian and from Melbourne, and my wife happens to be from Melbourne. Weirdly, her parents knew his parents and they worked together, so there was this weird immediate very loose connection. But we bonded a little bit, and then we sort of bonded further just talking about the kinds of films and things that we’re interested in.
We both shared a love of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma and Sam Raimi, and how the [Coen] Brothers or Tarantino or sort of newer filmmakers reinterpret that Hitchcock suspense. I could tell he was really kind of going for Hitchcock in his script, and he and I spent a lot of time talking about what’s the right tone to strike? How Hitchcock is it? Hitchcock has been done a bit in television and it can also feel a little dated, so [it’s more], what can we pull from that visual style?
Then when we talk about Brian De Palma or Sam Raimi, what does that mean to you and what are the sort of visual or the subtextual cues that you can pull from those filmmakers that we love so much?
What visually do we see from those styles then in ‘Based on a True Story’?
I kind of came in pitching a color story for the show. I felt the aspirational world of the show could be told through greens and blues, and Craig had already written in tennis courts and the ocean in the west side and Malibu and all these things that just reminded me of that color scheme.
The other end of the spectrum was a yellower mustards and pinks and a little more colorless. We’ve talked about using the color red as this very strong, controlled [color] and we use it less so that it’s more meaningful. Conceptually the idea—we called it a sunshine noir, [or] a California noir that would be outdoors, but we could still take some of the hard shadows in the contrast and make it cinematic and be purposeful with the camera and think about composition. So, building a set of rules helped the other directors understand really quickly.
Let’s clear this up: there are killings and there are aspiring podcasters at the centre of Based on a True Story, but it’s not a Los Angeles transplant of Only Murders in the Building. A comic-thriller both bloody and scathingly satirical about the true crime-industrial complex, the show has none of the giddy joy or daffy camaraderie of Steve Martin’s hit series. It’s about the comic pulsebeat of panic and opportunism, and how satisfying them can open you up to all kinds of unforeseen risks.
It starts with wealth: married couple Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan Bartlett (Chris Messina) see it everywhere, but can’t grasp it. She’s a real estate agent trying to graduate from two-bedroom apartments to luxury homes, he’s the tennis pro at a privileged country club. Ava’s pregnant, but their marriage is adrift on wayward hormones and Nathan’s regrets over a professional tennis career prematurely ended by injury. Her consolation is true-crime podcasts, which Ava devours with forensic dedication.
It’s also Ava who quickly deduces that Matt Pierce (Tom Bateman), the friendly plumber who Nathan is giving lessons to in exchange for much-needed discounted work, is the Westside Ripper, a stab-happy serial killer whose murders get the lurid Brian De Palma treatment. And with money issues looming, it’s Ava who convinces Nathan to threaten Matt with exposure if he doesn’t agree to be the anonymous subject of a tell-all podcast, a proposition both cuckoo and convincing. They should get in first, Ava theorises, before “the girl from Serial turns up!”
Suspension of disbelief is a highwire act in Based on a True Story, but the show benefits from the couple’s risky, short-sighted instincts and some delicious twists – is Matt playing along until he can strike, or committed to the process? When the killer tradie starts demanding creative input the stakes get a blackly absurd charge. That’s exacerbated by the storytelling exploring the commercialised world of true crime podcasts, where successful hosts are quick to profess that they’re doing it for the victims, but also spruik their new merch line.
The show’s Australian creator, Craig Rosenberg (The Boys), can’t always keep the ragged stitching in the plot from showing, but he’s terrific in catching the audience out with unexpected dynamics. Nathan and Matt, for example, actually make for good friends, while Ava pushing Matt reverses the usual idiot husband and cautious wife set-up. “Pressure is a privilege,” she reminds him, before sending him off to an interview session with Matt. Prepping for a serial killer sit-down with a Billie Jean King quote sums up this series.
More from Croll's article:
“I wanted to do something a bit more mature, but without being unnecessarily violent or graphic,” Périn explains. “Selfishly, I asked myself what I wanted to see, and those questions led to this type of storytelling with more adult subjects and aesthetic expressions, but not ‘adult’ in the sense of throwing sex and super violence in every direction.”
“This is a world where the robots look ever-more human, and the human characters can access computer interfaces with their eyes,” the director continues. “So I wanted to embed this confrontation between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ within the very mise-en-scene, to blur those codes by mixing in the rules and conventions of live action.”
To translate those impulses into animation, Périn adhered to a live-action visual language, recreating split diopter shots, allowing liquid to drip down the ‘lens,’ and staging shots with wide depths of field and visual distortions in order to play into larger thematic concerns.
When thinking about this sci-fi landscape, Périn drew as much inspiration from Brian De Palma’s work as from the touchstone adult-skewing films from Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Rintaro. If anything, Périn saw clear continuity between both forms.
“Japanese animators brought staging and framing into the mix,” says Périn.
“Historically, to compensate for more limited budgets, the Japanese opted for a slightly more limited animation style, instead focusing on the layout of their shots, creating impactful images that needed less movement to be striking. They accented camera work, made changes in focus and depth of field, tilted the frames and introduced superzooms, [and by doing so] gave world animation greater vocabulary.”
Of course, by way of continuity, the “Mars Express” director sees his film as part of a pop-culture continuum that dates further back than 1988’s “Akira.”
“All those filmmakers were themselves nourished by the particular sci-fi culture that sprung from ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine,” Périn says. “I see the flow from Moebius to Katsuhiro Otomo. They both influenced me, and they in turn looked to earlier aesthetics from other countries, before contributing their own cultural versions of these worlds.”
De Palma's monologue in the Baumbach/Paltrow documentary De Palma was filmed when De Palma was 69 years old. Here's what he says near the end of the movie:
Having studied a lot of directors and having lived now to practically being 70, you see that your creative periods are in – most directors who are in their 30’s, their 40’s, and their 50’s. And obviously, they can go on and make another twenty movies or ten movies. But you’ll probably only be talking about those movies they made in their 30’s, their 40’s, and their 50’s. You know, and I’ve always thought Hitchcock was a great example. Because, you know, after Vertigo, and Psycho – and you can talk about The Birds all you want, and all the other movies he made after that, and then of course the critical establishment finally caught up with him and started to write about what a genius he was – except those movies aren’t as good as the ones he made in his 30’s, his 40’s, and his 50’s. You’ve got to be a strong, physical person to do it. It physically wears you down. There’s no question about it. I think William Wyler said, you know, “When you can’t walk anymore, you’ve got to stop.” The thing about making movies is, every mistake you made is up there on the screen – everything you didn’t solve, every shortcut you made, you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.
- FLASHBACK -
Posted October 11 2003
BAUER: STONE WROTE IT, DE PALMA SAID:
'OK, so we need a chainsaw and we need a prosthetic arm'
While talking to The Age about the original premiere of Scarface in 1983, Steven Bauer began to tear up, telling the interviewer, "Forgive me, I get emotional about it." After regaining his composure, Bauer relayed a story about the premiere screening of the film: "At the premiere Martin Scorsese turned around in the middle of the film, and he said, 'You guys are great - but be prepared, because they're going to hate it in Hollywood.' He said that to me and he didn't know me from Adam. And I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because it's about them.'" Bauer talked about the expectations and anxieties he had about making his feature debut with Al Pacino: "I would go back into the trailer with Al and I'd say to Al - in an accent, because we always talked that way - I'd say to him, 'What are people going to think when they see this? We're the protagonists of this film and we're these wild guys. Are people going to be repulsed?' And he'd say, 'Don't worry about it. It's something new. They've never seen anything like it and probably never will again.'" Bauer feels vindicated by the success of the film over time, after it was villified upon its initial release. He said that fans stop him daily on the street to talk about their love of Scarface. Even fans such as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck stopped him at an Oscars after party last year: "They came up to me and they launch into a scene, knew all the words, between Tony and Manny." Bauer talked about Brian De Palma's matter-of-fact approach to the violence in the film. Talking about the chainsaw scene, Bauer said, "[Oliver Stone] wrote it and Brian said, 'OK, so we need a chainsaw and we need a prosthetic arm. Build me an arm, we gotta have the blood. We'll shoot his face, but we've got to see the saw going into his arm.'" Recalling a sense of dark humor on the set while filming these violent scenes, Bauer said, "Oh, yeah, absolutely, but Brian De Palma is very matter-of-fact about it. His art is very, very important to him, but he doesn't belabour it. It's like, 'OK, we're shooting an arm getting cut off. Guys, can we get it right so we can go to lunch?'" Canada's National Post has an additional interview with Bauer in which he talks a little more about Scarface, as well as his marriage to Melanie Griffith, including a matter-of-fact discussion of the couples' drug usage.