Archive for Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

Porn Again

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2018 by dcairns

Probably we’ll be revisiting a few Milos Forman films, in the wake of his passing, but the one I dropped in the player was THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT, mainly because we hadn’t seen it since it came out. It’s still very amusing and affecting — Courtney Love provides the untrained quality Forman admired as Althea Flynt, and Woody Harrelson brings the more actorly professionalism, creating the perfect blendship. It comes across as a genuinely sweet relationship between two filthy people in love. And Harrelson’s brother Brett is really good, he should do more.

Since then, screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski have brought us The People Versus O.J. Simpson on TV plus several more biopics of Great American Weirdos. including Forman’s follow-up MAN IN THE MOON. I think this is one of their most successful attempts at character portraiture in their specialised sub-genre, the one in which character is in constant flux and motivation is often inexplicable, two challenges which would derail most writers.

Away from the human element — the movie does pretty well with its mercurial madman hero — it’s a defence of free speech, and the movie is effective enough here, but sort of slanted.

Firstly, feminist criticism of porn doesn’t exist in this film, so Flynt’s legal opponents are bluenoses and creeps like Jerry Falwell. This is fair enough in narrative terms, since those guys threatened the real-life Flynt more than attacks by Andrea Dworkin. But it leaves out a whole aspect of the subject, which could potentially enrich the movie. Ed Norton — playing a composite of all Flynt’s actual lawyers through the tears — yet appearing in the end-of-film summary as if he were a real person — talks about finding Hustler magazine distasteful, and Harrelson’s Flynt himself says, “The most I’m guilty of is BAD TASTE!” — a good line — but might there have been room for a more nuanced consideration? The weird effect is that the movie seems to take place in an alternative version of the 60s, 70s and 80s in which feminism never happened.

You can make up your own pearl necklace joke, if you absolutely have to.

Secondly, that analysis of what’s actually in Hustler is limited by censorship — the movie can’t actually show a real centrefold from the magazine, because vaginas are bad. So it can get a lot of good comedy value out of showing prudes at a fundraiser gaping in horror at unseen images, but it can’t let the other audience, us, view those images and make up our own minds. In other circumstances, this could make us imagine that the skinzine contains images of UNIMAGINABLE HORROR, I suppose, but instead it’s more like a suggestion of “nothing to see here.”

I’m not completely sold on my own suggestion that an analysis of the feminist objections to Hustler would improve the movie. Storywise, it’s not certain that feminism ever posed a threat to, or otherwise impinged on the life of Mr. Flynt whatsoever. The movie also omits three of his marriages and five children, including the one who claims he sexually abused her. And in today’s climate, it’s easier to say he may well have done. Apart from the fact that most such accusations tend to be truthful, Flynt was, in his youth, obviously highly sexed and sexual, morally flexible, mentally somewhat unbalanced (not that any of that automatically makes you a rapist). He makes a good suspect. How does that suspicion make the film play? More uncomfortably, which may be a good thing. The movie is a little too sure of itself.

We have to factor in Forman’s Goyaesque side, too, even though he hadn’t made GOYA’S GHOSTS yet. In fairness, Flynt’s staffers are a carnivalesque bunch of freakazoids, with Forman fave Vincent Schiavelli vying with sleepy-eyed Crispin Glover for physiognomy first prize, but it’s the prosecutors attacking Flynt who get the really repulsive reaction shots. All this is complicated a bit more by Flynt’s own cameo as a biassed judge, his flat delivery and bulbous features making for a caricature that works against both himself and his opponents. The satirical laser bounces between two funhouse mirrors and ends up just making the room seem hot.

The tendency to slant things towards Flynt is maybe most apparent in the scene where Love’s character drowns in the bath — while Flynt is on the phone trying to get her more medical help for her AIDS and drug addiction. It’s a pat, inelegant construction in an otherwise very smart screenplay, because it seems to be trying to force sympathy out of us that we should be quite willing to give freely. I don’t know, maybe that’s exactly how it happened in real life, but real life can sometimes need a rewrite.

But! I’d missed the news that the guy who shot Flynt, paralysing him, had actually been caught and executed. And Flynt campaigned to save his life because he’s opposed to the death penalty. That is some serious Christian forgiveness from a proud atheist. (Maybe atheists are more Christian than the Christians? I can’t imagine Falwell doing that.)

 

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Damn You, Television!

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , on March 10, 2016 by dcairns

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Now we’re hooked on American Crime Story, AND we have a new series of Better Call Saul to contend with.

Sensibly diverging from the American Horror Story format, ACS benefits from a tighter focus — nothing is permitted which doesn’t further the basic story of the OJ Simpson trial, though as judge and jury discovered to their cost, that means that almost anything happening in twentieth century America can be ruled relevant. Even the future is included, since head writers Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander manage to shoehorn the Kardashian family in on the pretext that their dad was OJ’s friends and one of his lawyers. The kids’ glee at their fathers’ meaningless and distressing fame is either the Secret Origin of the Kardashian Family — how they learned the wrong lessons at a damagingly early age, or else it’s proof that the tendency to regard celebrity as equivalent to sainthood was already engendered. O.J.’s acquittal for murdering their mother’s friend would thus seem like ultimate proof of this value system, so that Kim K. can this week dismiss a thoughtful comment by Chloe Grace Moretz with the devastating rejoinder “nobody has heard of you.”

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It’s interesting to me how the show has seamlessly maintained a high standard of writing even when the head writers hand over duties to the B-team (The Knick was also good at this), though I do find the direction slightly more variable. Ryan Murphy favours propulsion, his vigorous camera movements rushing the story onwards. Anthony Hemingway, known for The Wire and whose RED TAILS I thought was really terrible, has a tendency towards slightly meaningless show-off shots, but I found by his second episode I was even enjoying these, The contrast in style between this and his feature film suggests he was really being heavily sat on by George Lucas and his cohorts. And then John Singleton contributes one episode executed in a slick, almost classical manner that looks admirably restrained by comparison.

The idea of cinematic TV is interesting — I wonder if any of these guys would find a natural home on the big screen. Singleton has had the most distinguished career, but it’s been very erratic. The tighter discipline of TV, where the director is more like a studio employee in the old days, choices confined to guiding the actors and placing the camera, may suit such filmmakers better than a medium where they’d be responsible for everything. Although not having George Lucas sitting on you must help too.

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The ensemble here is too good to pick favourites. John Travolta has taken some flack for his expressionist perf, and for looking “like haunted spam,” but I find his choices both bold and amusing. It’s true, he doesn’t quite look human anymore, and maybe he’s adapted to looking like an artfully-chewed pencil eraser by developing a manner of acting — all precise, prissy gestures and words bitten off delicately like umbilici — to suit his new, biomechanical instrument. We will see more of such post-human performances as the twenty-first century nears its apocalyptic climax, an event which will no doubt be documented by American Crime Story around about season 5.

Everybody’s Acrylic

Posted in FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by dcairns

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I liked BIG EYES but not as much as Fiona or as much as I expected to. It’s definitely an improvement on the awful ALICE IN WONDERLAND de-imagining, which caused me to skip out on DARK SHADOWS altogether. And it fits squarely into the oeuvre of screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, maybe the only writing team in America whose authorship trumps whoever’s directing. I mean, it’s recognizably a Burton movie, even without Helena Bonham-Carter, but it has more in common with MAN ON THE MOON or even AUTO-FOCUS (which they produced but didn’t write) than it does with SWEENEY TODD or the de-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES.

Adapting true stories of crazy people to the screen presents all kinds of problems — generally, it seems to help if the people are likable and have some kind of self-insight — Edward D. Wood Jnr. as written by this team, maybe have been delusional about his own talent, but he’s a clear-eyed American optimist in every other way (the real Wood, I would guess from reading and viewing, was more arrogant, sneaky and tortured than the fictional version). I guess it’s the reverse of fiction, where you try to figure out what yhe character would do — here, you know what they did but you have to discover or invent the WHY, then express it. The Keanes, at the centre of BIG EYES, present interesting difficulties.

Walter, played with ever-more-manic grin (and some hysterical chimp-like physical touches) by Christoph Waltz, lives in such a cloud of deceit that it’s hard to know how much self-insight he’s capable of. At times, he seems to know in his heart of hearts that he’s a fraud, but being an artist is so central to his conceit of himself that he can only survive without this fantasy for seconds at a time, before diving gratefully back into his goldfish bowl of delusion. Waltz plays this to the hilt, never much bothering to suggest the plausibility which would make someone fall for Walter’s stories or his charm.

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This choice, perfectly defensible in itself, puts more pressure on Amy Adams, who plays a woman who, despite walking out on one (unseen) husband at the film’s opening, allows herself to be dominated and steered for most of the movie. People in co-dependant relationships are tricky to dramatise, because in fiction as in life it’s easy to get frustrated with them for making bad choices, for being gullible, for being doormats. The movie does its best to stress Margaret Keane’s strengths, but that makes the story’s plausibility even shakier than history left it (knowing something is true doesn’t stop it being hard to believe at times). And since Margaret is still alive, and cooperated with the filmmakers, and shouldn’t be trashed after all she’s been through, there’s some particularly delicate footwork when she trades the domination of her crazy husband for the domination of the Jehovah’s Witness movement (after a flirtation with numerology).

Adams is a talented, versatile player, but holding the film together with such a passive character seemed a strain for her, or for the film. We go with her when she’s suckered in by Walter/Waltz, since the script cunningly conceals much of the truth about his background, so we’re quite prepared to accept him as a struggling minor landscape artist, like Hitler. Showing how he just sort of falls into claiming credit for her paintings doesn’t just soften his character a little, it makes it easier for us to accept her forgiving him and going along with it.

But actors like to feel positive about the people they’re playing — admirable qualities can be found even in an utter villain — and apparently being nice isn’t enough to make Margaret Keane worthy of Adams — she tries to make her smart, and strong, which I think Keane may be now with maturity and hindsight, but probably wasn’t at the time of these events. (Having her kick over a bottle of white spirits as her hubbie, gone full Jack Torrance, is shoving lit matches through the letterbox, doesn’t help convince us of her resourcefulness.)

My other problem is with the script, which has come in for near-universal praise, but which I felt was a bit talky, ploddy and expository. True, there’s nothing as bald and artless as the “As you know, I’m your father” type dialogue in HITCHCOCK and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, but a whole lot of scenes not involving our main characters, and a whole lot of characters without any meat on their bones, have to be invented to move the events along and explain them. And we have scenes that are just characters watching TV so we can meet Terence Stamp and see Perry Mason “for dramatic purposes” as Foreign Man puts it during the opening titles of MAN ON THE MOON. This eagerness to explain everything maybe helps the average viewer cope with the unexplainable actions of the protagonists, which is what is interesting about them, but to me they felt mechanical, like the unnecessary VO and the one-note cartoonery of Jon Polito and Jason Schwartzman (Krysten Ritter pulls this off best). Although speaking personally, I was cheered to see a movie in which an art critic gets to be bad-ass. Burton obviously likes Margaret Keane’s terrible paintings the same way he likes Ed Wood’s terrible films (I prefer Wood to Keane, myself), but it was important to have SOMEONE in the film who can make the necessary point that just because Keane’s paintings are sincere, doesn’t make them any good.

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Real artists NEVER look at what they’re doing.

Side-note — I have a pet hate in movies, which is the unconvincing painter/artist. It’s great in NEW YORK STORIES when we see Nick Nolte getting slathered in coloured goop the way real painters do, but he has it easy, playing an abstract impressionist. Most actors seem terrified to make a mark on paper or canvas, and we see them scratching away at a line in tiny increments, when any competent draughtsman would have swept the pencil across the paper in a single unbroken arc. In RENOIR we see huge closeups of Michel Bouquet’s hand, elaborately made-up with a callous the size a second thumb, but what he’s actually doing with his pencil and brush is farcical. The shot doesn’t require him to do anything we can assess as good or bad, he just needs to MAKE A DISCERNIBLE MARK, and he’s evidently scared stiff of doing so. (What happens to most kids that makes them stop drawing as they learn to read? And become humiliated by the very notion of sketching?)

As Margaret Keane, Adams has a key scene which is all about her executing a painting under the watchful eyes of an audience, so it’s a shame this couldn’t have been handled more convincingly. (James Cameron hand-doubling for Leo in TITANIC works fine, except he draws like a 90s storyboard artist, all Jack Kirby cheekbones, and not like anybody ever drew in the period the movie’s set in — different eras have different bad habits.) Still, to some extent her incompetence can be explained as in keeping with the character’s lack of skill, and she’s slightly more convincing with a brush than a pencil. Though the whole thing makes me wonder if Burton ever really drew those cartoons of his. Maybe it was Lisa Marie?

I see the Keanes as a classic folie a deux. He couldn’t have perpetrated his fraud without her incredible compliance, and nor could his business acumen, such as it was, have found an outlet with the Unique Selling Point of her bulbous-eyed waifs. His own work, if it ever was his, had nothing to distinguish it. But since her paintings are not GOOD, we have to allow him his share of the credit for popularizing them.

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As with Ed Wood, the amount of narrative and talk does slightly limit Burton’s ability to be the visual stylist he’s known as, but at least it gets him away from stripes and curls and the film’s settings are gorgeous: the painterly depiction of period San Francisco is a constant delight (proving, as I trust the Wachowskis would concede, that San Francisco makes a better San Francisco onscreen than Glasgow does). The night scenes at the Keane’s lavish modern home are sumptuously coloured, evoking both three-strip Technicolor and Mario Bava, but landing in their own sweet, supersaturated spot. But only in the hallucinatory visit to a supermarket where Margaret’s subjects come to life and haunt her, does the film really come alive as pure cinema — a proper sequence! I wanted that bit to last three times as long.