Cinema snob? Me? Please. I’m a huge fan of TV. (You’re the one who doesn’t even have his television plugged in.)
In fact, I’m such a huge fan of TV that instead of crafting a thoughtful, elegant response to your last blog post, I’ve watched an hour of Bringing Up Baby on TCM. And now I’m gonna watch the debate. And then I’m gonna watch the Project Runwayfinale.
But that’s not the kind of TV you meant, now is it?
Watch this space. I’ll have something to say soon enough. Read More | Comment »
Not to draw an undue parallel between the national economic crisis and the local gaming industry but haven't we learned anything about the rabid dogs of capitalism during the Bush years of unbridled deregulation? Just as folks go transferring their funds from banks to safer investments like their mattresses, Austin gets a double dose of corporate behemoths snatching local office space and businesses.
First comes the news that local indie stalwart Gamecock Media (see our cover story "Betting the Farm" for some prescient journalism on that game publisher, if I do say so myself) is acquired by SouthPeak Games. There is a proper press release that tells you everything on the record. Mike Wilson of Gamecock said that it was merely a matter of trading their anonymous backers (tossed off by the bucking stock market no doubt) in Washington, D.C., for bigger backers in Virginia. What this means for their ability to put out cool but decidedly unsexy titles like Mushroom Men in the future? We'll have to wait and see. Read More | Comment »
Alright, you should be arriving back at the office soon, imbued with the spirit of disenchanted melancholy and existential malaise one can only experience after watch Synecdoche, NY, so I figured I'd have a challenge waiting for you.
Based on our lists of 21-century screenwriters, I got to thinking about movies and television and about how there's been this tectonic shift in the landscape over the past 10 in the industry, a shift that's, for the first time since the days of the Philco Television Playhouse (which featured works directed by the likes of Arthur Penn, written by the likes of Paddy Chayefsky, and performed by the likes of Eva Marie Saint and Walter Matthau), tipped the balance of power and influence away from movies and toward television.
The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lost, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office (UK), Homicide: Life on the Street. I would put these shows in the ring with any movie that's come out in the last decade. The Wire might even come close to topping the list.
And the great thing about these shows is they are writer-heavy. Though they look great as well, they don't have the budgets or the time or the big-screen availability to concentrate too much on pyrotechnics or grand sweeping visions. They're smaller, more personal, and most importantly, more immersive experiences than movies are.
Not to keep bringing up The Wire, but I want to bring up The Wire when I say that The Wire offers an inside view of an entire working (or, rather, not-working) American city. Baltimore. From the docks to the streets to the jails to the suburbs to the newspapers. From the cops to the gangsters to the junkies to the whores to the kids to the teachers to the journalists. What movie can claim to do that? Sheeeeeeeeeeeeiiiit, The Wire's even got Snoop:
It also has some of the greatest crime novelists of the age working for it. George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane. Add in series creators David Simon and Ed Burns, and you've got a writer's room to rival Sid Caesar's.
So, you cinema snob, what's your take on television? Is it taking over the movies?
Because I think it might be. Read More | Comment »
I'm sticking with my snotty pronouncement that Charlie Kaufman is the greatest screenwriter of the 21st century... but I did enjoy your exercise in alternatives. I've got a few, too.
Lisa Cholodenko and Tamara Jenkins might have been contenders, if they made more than a movie every decade (the former has been working mostly in TV, and the latter got stuck in development hell). Noah Baumbach's great – and why did everybody hate so much on Margot at the Wedding? – but his films don't seem big enough. Mike White could have made the B team if it weren't for Year of the Dog, a movie that makes me clench my jaw just remembering it. And Nicole Holofcener – well, she's fantastic, and I don't know why more people don't know who she is. Stop what you're doing and go rent Lovely & Amazing right now.
I'm gonna think on this some more, though, because most of those writers are also directors (all, in fact, although Year of the Dog was White's first), and at some point I want to talk about the writers who don't direct.
I've got to duck out for a few hours – I'm going to see Synecdoche, New York again. It's not going to be open until November, but if you live in Austin, you might be able to catch it when it plays at the Austin Film Festival (with Kaufman in attendance).
Here's the trailer.
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I need to go to sleep, but I think you’re onto something with this whole Odets business. So I’ll just write this real quick before I say my prayers, swallow a horse tranquilizer, and crawl into bed:
You’re absolutely right about the Marx Brothers, and George S. Kaufman as well. They did anti-authoritarian irony better than anybody, but to look to them for depth of characterization or complexity of motivation – for contradictory pulls - would be like looking for … FUCKING ANALOGIES! I’ve got nothing! It would be like looking for … ah, fuck it!
That being (almost) said, I believe the best way to look at Groucho is as pure id, as an avatar of unfettered indulgence, as Falstaff without a Hal to break his heart (as Falstaff without a heart, come to think of it), as an antidote to that indecision, second-guessing, and regret you spoke of. We’re all racked by the memories of our failures and the pain of our unrealized ambition, but that doesn’t mean we need to be reminded of it every time we turn on a movie. Sometimes it’s good to remember the things we’re capable of if we just exert the will necessary to revel in our deficiencies and inconsistencies, rather than drown in them. And that’s where a good Marx Brothers movie comes in handy. (A bad Marx Brothers movie, on the other hand, comes in handy only as a distraction from bombing raids or as a way to torture people you don’t like.)
The self-help gurus have it all wrong: We don’t become better, happier people by improving ourselves or working through our issues; we become better, happier people by giving in to all our competing, contradictory impulses - consecutively, contiguously, contemporaneously, convivially, cantankerously, consumptively, concurrently, or all at the same time.
And with that … I must be going:
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"But Charlie Kaufman, your Charlie Kaufman, wrote his best movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with two other people."
Please. He hashed out the bullet points over dinner with two of his pals.
"You ever been fucked by love?"
"Tell me more. And since we're up, who feels like calamari?"
That sounds an awful lot like like my standing Wednesday night wine night with the girls. You don't see me giving them any credit for the good stuff, do you?
Dammit. I really am going to bed now. Read More | Comment »
So Charlie Kaufman is the best screenwriter of the 21st century, eh? Compared to whom, exactly?
Not to get too nostalgic here (can a man be nostalgic for a time he wasn’t around for? My soul cries out for a dictionary.), but let’s face it; it’s not like Kaufman is competing with Paddy Chayefsky or Orson Welles or Budd Schulberg. (Writers in the Movies side dispute: Should we condemn Schulberg’s On the Waterfront script for being a defense of his naming of names during the HUAC trials, or should we just accept that human beings are fallible, dastardly, shameful, self-serving, approval-craving beasts and judge their work exclusively on its own merits? Please phrase your answer in the form of a musical number.) What I’m saying is that the competition isn’t quite what it was 30, 40, 50, or 60 years ago.
Getting back to your best-21-century-screenwriter claim: Who else would be in the running? Let’s see: Wes Anderson hasn’t written a good script in nearly 10 years, not since Rushmore. Every movie he’s made since has been an elaborate but empty exercise in interior decorating, quirky emotional detachment, verbal preciousness, and soundtrack sequencing. In fact, I think the real mastermind behind those early great Anderson movies – Rushmore and Bottle Rocket – must have been Owen Wilson. I remember reading somewhere (could have been Entertainment Weekly, could have been my sister’s diary, could have been the back of a box of Golden Grahams) that though Wilson was credited as one of the writers of The Royal Tenenbaums, he actually left most of the work to Anderson. Apparently he was too busy making millions of dollars and having cocaine-fueled orgies with daughters of Middle Eastern oil barons to find the time to write. A conflict I understand only too well. Read More | Comment »
I think I’ve been fumbling a bit, trying to pinpoint exactly what my problem is with the Marx Brothers and Kaufman combined. I’m not so thick-headed as to not be swayed at least a little by your arguments, and not so humorless as to be unmoved by Groucho’s gift for the gab. He’s funny. I get it. And there’s more going on there than a bit of verbal trickery. And yet—
There’s a Clifford Odets quote I used to have pinned on my wall. Odets was a “man of the people” playwright – not much read these days, but he was the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. The quote (nabbed from a terrific New Yorker profile from a couple years’ back):
“There are contradictory pulls—one to live with tightened discipline, sharp, hard and cold; the other to go hotly and passionately to hell as fast and as fully as possible.”
Order and anarchy. Two contradictory ways of living. I think, Josh, we danced around this idea tonight, when we grabbed a drink at Rio Rita to talk shop. (In typing that, I feel almost like we’ve cheated on you, dear reader. Yup, the fight continues even when you’re not around.) Read More | Comment »
It's still not too late to purchase tickets for the Austin Film Festival annual Film & Food Gala Wednesday evening at the historic Driskill Hotel (5th & Brazos) in Downtown Austin. The best chefs from more than 20 Austin restaurants and catering companies will be serving up signature dishes, there will be delectable cocktails, plus an exciting silent auction. Tickets are $70 for festival registrants and members and $85 for the public. Proceeds from the event will benefit AFF's Young Filmmaker Program. For more information or to purchase tickets online, go to www.austinfilmfestival.com/new/film_food Wednesday evening, October 15th, 7-10pm Read More | Comment »
Don't think I didn't hear the deep sigh in your "Oh, Kim." Listen, Josh, it's not like I've closed the book on the Marxes. I had a good chuckle at your Duck Soup clip. It's just how I like the Marx Brothers – in three-minute bits.
I'm all for class warfare, and gender warfare, too. I'd just rather watch Preston Sturges do it.
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It’s one thing to like Funny Farm; it’s quite another not to like the Marx Brothers. That’s beyond my comprehension. I can understand going to bed early. I can see why people get married and listen to country music and vote Republican and eat vegetables and go to church. I can get my head around not smoking and not drinking and not sleeping around. I can even concede that not everyone is capable of smoking and drinking while they’re sleeping around. But I will never in a thousand years understand how someone could not love Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (Zeppo you can feel free not to love).
In our dreary age of ossified political opinion, lifeless pabulum gussied up to pass for social commentary, moribund TV moralists spouting off all the time about God and country and evolution, and “humorists” who mistake cultural references for wit and impersonation for satire, we could all learn a lesson from the Marx Brothers and George S. Kaufman. Read More | Comment »
I know you're fond of sweeping declarations, ergo: Charlie Kaufman is the greatest screenwriter of the 21st century.
I'm not saying his every film is perfect – I know you're just champing at the bit to get at Human Nature, and, for me, Being John Malkovich (which was '99, actually) is the one that's most distancing. But when you line them all up in a row, it's an astonishingly good and still getting better body of work: ever-inventive, challenging, heady, but also – and here's where I think you'll balk – heartfelt.
Because he has such a distinctive voice, and because he wrote "himself" into a script (Adaptation), I think it's considered cool to kiss off Charlie Kaufman – as a nut, a neurotic, a scattershot talent who's all smoke and mirrors. Bah. Those "pyrotechnics" – a word he's used himself, and not necessarily as a pat on his own back – are a fundamental part of what makes a Charlie Kaufman script so very Charlie Kaufman. But the existence of pyrotechnics doesn't equal an absence of heart. At worst, those plot acrobatics are a distraction; at best, a brand-new way of seeing the world.
Maybe I don't mean heart – I mean humanism. Kaufman's movies – which are Big Idea kind of movies – are all about what it means to be human, and to be human is to be self-absorbed and cowardly, to be loved not enough or not at all, to be a disappointment to yourself and to others. Not a pretty picture. Read More | Comment »
In championing Charlie Kaufman, I’m hardly defending the era in which, by dint of birth, he’s destined to labor in. I mean, if we're getting to pick here, I might sign up for George S.’s era, too – I always wanted to be a rat-a-tat-tat-talking newspaper gal à la Rosalind Russell. Great hats, too. But great hats have about as much relevance in a discussion about the merits of George as do “dick jokes” and W. with Charlie – which is to say, none at all. (And let’s not rose-color the Age of George, either – tell me you didn't cringe when that braying goblin Jimmy Durante crated Rita Hayworth in a mummy’s tomb and carted her off to Nova Scotia [whaaa?]. On second thought, screw the hats – I’ll happily stick with the aughts.)
So what we’re talking about here are two screenwriters – one of whom is stylistically and staggeringly innovative and easily skips from genre, subject, and director while still maintaining his own authorial voice … and one of whom is actually only credited with one original work written for the screen (Night at the Opera).
Now you’ve repeatedly assured me that even though others were called in to adapt Kaufman’s source plays – and, oh, yeah, Kaufman himself had a collaborator on most of those plays – the adaptations are faithful representations of his work. And that’s fine. I’ll take your word for it. Regardless, the roots are showing: In each one of the adaptations I’ve seen, they’ve felt largely stagebound – overlong, hyper-verbal, and aesthetically underwhelming. What happens in a movie outside of the dialogue is just as significant a part of the screenwriter’s work, and nothing in a George Kaufman picture comes close to the vision of a Charlie Kaufman one. And it doesn't matter if it's Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry or George Clooney in the director's seat – when you're watching a movie written by Charlie Kaufman, you know it.
For all my grumbling, I really do like George. He’s a terrific writer (“you have the touch of a love-starved cobra”) and an ace at corralling chaos. But there’s a casual cruelty in his writing that doesn’t jibe at all with all your Saint Georgedness – and I find that cruelty far more off-putting than the supposedly clever and cold Charlie Kaufman. But more about that later.
I might as well as fess up to this now, since you'll out me anyway – and do you see how I’m going to bury this after the jump? Crafty, no? ... Read More | 1 Comment »
Hey gang. Sorry for going silent – Josh and I had a press screening this morning. But hold tight: I'll be chiming in soon, and I've got a lot to say. Starting with, Josh, did you seriously just dangle the Greatest Generation argument in your defense?
(Rolls eyes dramatically.)
Back in a flash. Read More | Comment »
The ladies have left the building The aGLIFF building. Programming Director Lisa Kasalek and Festival Director Ajae Clearway have both moved on to greener pastures, this even after they were recently named Gay Place Crush of the Week!?! Kasalek left to pursue personal projects and Clearway is now a staff member at the prestigious 1080.
This is worrying, the fact that I'm a nervous nelly notwithstanding.
Under Kasalek and Clearway aGLIFF chose to explore a more expansive and meaningful festival program. This past year's aGLIFF gave viewers films in which the gay characters loved, suffered, and made morally ambiguous decisions like the rest of us. There were also transgender oriented films (the number of transgendered films will only grow in years to come). I know that sex sells, and that it's easier to market Naked Boys Singing to a randy group of gay men.
But let's hope that their departure doesn't signal a reactionary step backwards for aGLIFF. At this point in the festival's life, everything is on the line. Building an audience for a film festival chock full of internationally acclaimed films doesn't happen over the course of a year, or even a few years, it happens gradually.
Dear aGLIFF: Don't hedge your bets with gay fluff, continue to build the internationally acclaimed LGBTQ film festival Austin deserves! Read More | Comment »
Glad to hear you’re starting to feel your fighting spirit coming back, Kim. I knew all along that it would only take your reading a few of my mean-spirited, antagonizing, disrespectful, misogynistic, hate-filled, spot-on, totally correct, elegantly worded, brilliantly argued entries before you were overcome with the desire to punch back. I look forward to a solid four days of reading slanderous comments about my family and my religion.
Now, on to day two.
For the next 24 hours, Kim and I will be arguing the relative virtues of the great old-school playwright and screenwriter George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Night at the Opera) vs. those of the decidedly new-school screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the soon-to-play-at-the-Austin-Film-Festival Synecdoche, NY). I will be defending George; Kim will fight for Charlie. I will stand on the side of the Greatest Generation; Kim will slouch to wallow in the mire of our own. I will argue the virtues of a time defined by self-sacrifice, high wit, narrative sophistication, and Franklin D. Roosevelt; Kim will try her best to defend a time defined by dick jokes, methamphetamine use, global terrorism, and George W. Bush.
So, since you’re in a fighting mood, Kim, I believe I’ll come out swinging:
The films of Charlie Kaufman are willfully obtuse, painfully clever exercises in narrative incomprehensibility, designed to confuse viewers with flashy intellectual pyrotechnics and time-bending trickery in order to distract them from the fact that his world is a cold, cerebral place where characters aren’t humans but rather pieces in an elaborate puzzle no one can understand.
George S. Kaufman, on the other hand, is the warmest, most human of comedy writers, constructing dialogue and scenarios that manage to speak to both the best and worst tendencies of the human species (well, maybe not the absolute worst; you’d be hard-pressed to find drug-abuse or child-molestation subplots in Animal Crackers) while never shying away from the philosophy that stories are, first and foremost, designed to entertain. They are rapid-fire, quick-witted trifles on the surface, but they’re filled with social concern and moral ambivalence for those who choose to look deeper. In other words, they are perfect for the pictures.
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Near as I can tell – at 1:30 on a Tuesday morning - there is one fundamental problem with human beings: We are either unwilling or unable to believe that the sordid tendencies of others might actually be beneficial to them. Oh, we accept those tendencies, usually; we tolerate them; we even celebrate them in a sort of amused, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kind of way. But acceptance only goes so far. It allows us to live in a state of tenuous peace with our neighbors. But it doesn’t get us inside their sinister little heads.
That's what's so great about movies about writers who have substance-abuse problems: They’re the only opportunity most of us have to drop our moral and aesthetic guard completely and revel in the idea that maybe – just maybe – there are people out there for whom destructive self-indulgence is the source of creativity, of inspiration, of power and identity. For some, I'm saying, squalor is the key to the kingdom.
I don't see this as an act of romanticizing, as you do, but rather as a celebration of the great, vast, unending variety of human personality. I admit I went though a William S. Burroughs phase in high school (I may have actually been recording secretary in our school's fan club, but who can remember that far back?), and I'll gladly admit now that part of my affection for the man was born out of my romantic fascination with the junkie lifestyle (that and a reverence for his indifference to the rules of grammar, a reverence born, I think, out of a desire to rebel against the strict proper-usage regime I had been raised under). But fascination only gets you so far. Real works of art are explorations of the human condition, whether that condition is something you can accept or not, and the great writer/addict movies are the ones that don't downplay the role degradation can - can - play in the creative act. Read More | Comment »
I told you earlier tonight that I was having some trouble with this Film Fight – that I was having some trouble finding the fight in me.
I think I just found it.
With all this poetry talk, I got to thinking about Bukowski – and I hate thinking about Bukowski. But the cult of Bukowski has everything to do with what I hate about junkie movies. I hate – and jaysus, there’s a lot of hate going around (just wait until tomorrow, it’ll be nothing but sunshine and blue skies and mash notes to our favorite writers, I swear it) – I hate junkie movies because, by and large, even as they’re gumming at the scummiest parts of man, they’re romanticizing them, too. Read More | 1 Comment »
“Writing and writer’s block are very particular kinds of experiences, and not necessarily ones that translate to the human experience.”
I’d actually argue that being at a loss for words is a far more universal experience than losing your life to the monkey on your back.
But I do agree that the writers-in-movies genre is an inherently clubby one. So I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re going to devote an entire movie to the ins and outs and the insularness of the writer and his process, then for goodness sake, make it funny. Or make it scary. (I’m speaking of course of The Shining, but I know you haven’t seen it, and honestly, it’s nearing the witching hour and simply typing the words has guaranteed that tonight I will sleep with the lights on. So let’s move on.)
Right, so if you’re gonna make a whole movie about how fucked up writers are, then at least make us laugh. Block is bad, but it can comically bad. Heroin is just bad bad, and tedious to watch.
We are all, as you say, grasping blindly for something to give our lives a little meaning, a little hope, a little poetry. But poetry in a bottle is obvious. Now, poetry in physics-defying communion with one’s own literary creation (Stranger Than Fiction)? Poetry in confronting one’s own personal and professional burnout in a pink fuzzy bathrobe while carting around the upstart writer who's gonna knock you off your throne (Wonder Boys)? That is something unexpected and harder-earned – and infinitely more rewarding for the viewer. At least a viewer like me. Read More | Comment »