Thursday, December 18, 2014

Power - and all its horrors

Foxcatcher, the latest film from director Bennett Miller, is an absorbing examination into how often power can represent nothing more than fools' gold. Beautifully directed, with engrossing performances from the three lead actors, this is one of the most troubling as well as one of the richest film experiences of recent years.

The film is based on the true story of the Schultz brothers, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both of whom won gold medals at the 1984 Olympics wrestling competition. The film focuses more on the plight of Mark, who despite his personal success, has played second fiddle to his brother Dave, who is happily married with children and is being wooed by the USA wrestling federation to be a national coach. Mark, meanwhile, is not married and is a loner, training in isolation and living on meager wages. The opening shot of him in practice with a dummy, is a marvelous cinematic moment that introduces us to the sparseness of his life.

One day, Mark receives a phone call, asking that he come to meet John du Pont (Steve Carell) at his expansive estate in Delaware. Du Pont, a member of the famed family that made a fortune in chemicals, is an avid wrestling fan and has built a state of the art training facility; he woos Mark with this as well as a generous paycheck and wants him to train there in order to win the upcoming World Championships as well as a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. For Mark, this is an opportunity he cannot pass up; not only will it help him focus more on his training, it will reward him with the chance to have a father figure in his life (his parents died when he was a young boy).

This is all based on a true story, one that is known to many people. I won't give away the conclusion of this film, if only for people that don't know all the juicy details, but one can tell watching the film that there are many problems that will arise in the relationship between du Pont and the Schultz brothers. While Mark is initially more than happy to be appreciated for his talents, his feelings about du Pont soon change, given du Pont's strange behavior. Dave, who at first turns down the chance to move into du Pont's facility - named Foxcatcher Farms, for the hunting grounds his mother owns - eventually does move in; the results will be tragic for him.

All three of these principal characters are well defined. Mark is the loner, looking for self-pride, hungry for appreciation. Dave is much more self-confident; indeed, he is the most normal of the three. Happily married and given the gift of being able to coach other wrestlers, he relates extremely well to others and can serve as a problem solver between Mark and du Pont. Du Pont himself is an obsessive, spoiled rich brat who believes that his wealth can buy him power, if not friendship.

The three leads are first-rate. Ruffalo has been delivering understated performances for years now; given the subtleties of his craft, he has been sadly under appreciated as an actor. Here he lends a calming voice to this stormy situation and it's fascinating to watch Ruffalo move from quiet satisfaction over his lot in life - he usually has smile on his face and a cheerful greeting for others in his early scenes - to a sad reservation that he is in the middle of a nightmare. In one scene, he is asked by du Pont's documentarian to say something nice about his boss. Ruffalo has trouble coming up with the words and can barely even look at the camera. He's great in this brief scene.

As Mark Schultz, Channing Tatum is a standout. He has the physical presence (he put on weight for this role) and he also delivers on an emotional front. His character is out of his comfort zone almost from the start of this story and Tatum is able to show us the frustrations and confusion of Mark Schultz as his world starts to spin out of control. Despite his successes on the wrestling mat, he remains confused about the larger world; his speech patterns are that of a man who lacks confidence, especially as he has no idea about the consequences of his decision to work with du Pont (at one point in a meeting with his brother Dave and du Pont, Mark can barely speak; Tatum psychically withdraws into himself at this moment, afraid to speak his mind; it's a marvelous scene). Given his work in previous films such as 21 Jump Street and White House Down, I must admit I wondered if Tatum would be right for this role; boy, is he ever!

As John du Pont, Steve Carell turns in a performance that is 180 degrees from his comic turns in The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Anchorman 2 (or his most famous role as the boss on television's The Office). His physical transformation is stunning, as he wears a prosthetic nose and carries his head high, at a slightly tilted angle, to show his imagined power. He speaks in monosyllabic phrases, saying only what needs to be said, as though his words were instruments of power, as much as his money. Even the way he walks is creepy, gently stepping across a wrestling mat, as though every step was a momentous decision. Carell gives us a sad, troubled man who must dominate his world if he is to continue having meaning in his life. His performance is the centerpiece of this story and Carell is unforgettable.

Having now made three absorbing films, all about obsessive (or borderline obsessive) behavior of three men in America - Truman Capote in Capote (2005), Billy Beane in Moneyball (2011) and now John du Pont in this film - director Bennet Miller must be considered one of the most important filmmakers in America, if only for the subjects of his movies. Yet there is much more to his craft than the actions of his characters; Miller continually creates a small world that is moody and atmospheric, one in which his characters function amidst chaos. Miller is fascinated by individuals who take on challenges, intelligent men who fight until the end for their quest, be it the truth in a murder investigation or the right way to go about putting together a baseball team or a wrestling squad. There is great drama in these situations and Miller treats these stories with insight that offers us not only the visions of these men, but also the reactions of others who treat them as inferior or warped. It's not a pretty world in much of Miller's work, but it's one that is fascinating, especially in its questioning of how far these individuals can and will go to conquer their demons. I wrote that Miller must be considered one of the most important filmmakers in this country; I believe he is also one of our finest directors.

Foxcatcher is a layered film that thankfully is handled with great intelligence by Miller and his screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Here is a film that could have been preachy or melodramatic, given the story's grim details. Yet, this film, in the final analysis, is a study in character relationships; the three principals are so well defined on paper and in the flesh by these fine actors. John du Pont, Mark and Dave Schultz are more than players in a bizarre true story; they are indeed power brokers who become lost in glory. For filmgoers that want to experience the work of a director that scrutinizes human behavior and shows all the warts, Foxcatcher is a must see.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Documenting the Life and Work of a Genius

"I didn't know what you couldn't do. I didn't deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, why not?" - Orson Welles, speaking about Citizen Kane.

At the 1971 Academy Awards, John Huston, accepting the Honorary Oscar for Orson Welles, said that "Genius is a word that must be used very sparingly, especially in this world of films." Quite true, but everyone agrees Orson Welles was an artist who truly deserved the title of genius; his body of work is clear evidence of that. In a new documentary by Chuck Workman titled Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, we are treated to an in-depth look at the incredible path that Welles took en route to becoming arguably the most creative genius of American cinema - perhaps world cinema - during the 20th century.

Workman, an Oscar-winner, who is best known for his short films (he made a new one each year for more than two decades for the annual Oscar telecast), has crafted a painstakingly detailed work that denotes the special moments in Welles' life, from his schooling in Woodstock, Illinois as a youth to his work for the Federal Theater in the 1930s all the way through his final films in the 1960s and 1970s. Welles would constantly amaze those who worked with him; fellow actor Norman Lloyd recalls at one point in this film that when you were present at a play directed by Welles, "you had an experience in the theater you never had anywhere else."

Every famous moment in Welles' career is highlighted here, especially his memorable War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, one that scared thousands of people from coast to coast. We read excerpts of letters to Welles about this event, some of them quite positive in their praise for his storytelling, others written in a pejorative tone ("inhuman" is the term used by one angry individual). There are clips of Welles himself being interviewed about the public's reaction; he was quite surprised to learn of the controversy he created. He recalls that there were police in the studio while the broadcast was going on looking for the proper person to arrest.

While this moment made Welles a household name across America, it was his work in films that cemented his reputation, as a true original, one who "freed the camera," as Martin Scorsese mentions in one clip. Workman has a good deal in the film about Citizen Kane, but he also devotes much time to his other films, especially works such as The Trial and Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. Given that these two films are rarely seen works, this is a wise decision on Workman's part.

Workman also devotes time to several of Welles' unfinished films such as Don QuixoteThe Deep, The Dreamers and The Merchant of Venice. What's fascinating about this section of the documentary is being able to watch scenes from these films, as we are reminded that Welles actually shot sections of these works, unlike other famous directors who also had unfinished projects. Unfortunately, Welles had so many of these unfinished movies - for reasons ranging from financial problems to personal ones - that his reputation suffered from this facet of his life. One illuminating clip has director Henry Jaglom recalling that while so many in Hollywood wanted to meet Welles and have lunch with him, too many people were worried that "he was not predictable." Welles himself says in one of this film's clips, "Do you know that I always liked Hollywood very much? It just wasn't reciprocated."

What I love most about this documentary is that Workman keeps the talking heads aspect to a minimum; there are insightful interviews with writers - especially Simon Callow, who wrote the most authoritative biography of Welles - as well as with a few directors - there is a hilarious moment of Paul Mazursky recalling his first meeting with Welles - that are entertaining and informative. But it is the inclusion of so many clips of Welles himself offering up his thoughts on one of his films or his struggles to complete a film that make this documentary so entertaining (in an interview with Workman, he told me that he was fortunate in this aspect, as Welles made so many television and industry appearances in his career, so he had much to choose from).

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is highly recommended not only because it is a complete look at the work of this genius; it also delivers great insight into the contradictions that were at the heart of Orson Welles' life. As with any great artist, the troubling moments in his career defined him just as much as the celebrated triumphs.

Here is the link to my interview with Chuck Workman about this film. I spoke with him at the Chicago International Film Festival this past October. His insights are a valuable companion piece to his documentary.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Finding Answers amidst Despair

This time of year, a good number of films that have numerous things to say about inner strength premiere on screens across the country. Many of these works are properly noble, with stories of courage in the face of brutality; these are often big studio projects crafted to catch the attention of the Academy for Oscar glory.

Then you have a film such as The Homesman. Set in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, this is a film that is strikingly original in many ways. It's not a Western and it's certainly not a revisionist Western, though it has some of the trappings as such. Rather, it's a character study of two lonesome people, brought together by pure fate, who take on a difficult task, all the while trying to find meaning in their immediate lot in lives - as well as in their relationship with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones directed, co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the film; clearly his dedication and love for this project is heartfelt. Working together with the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Babel), Jones' direction is assured, as he takes his time with each scene, showing the absurdity along with the reality of this strange journey. At times reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' True Grit, at times displaying influences of Night of the Hunter, Jones directs with one eye on the past and one looking at a highly original vision of the heartland. The compositions are arresting, with Jones and Prieto shooting with long lenses, often showing the wagon that is at the center of this tale dwarfed by the wide-open prairie.

The story - one of the most unusual I've encountered in recent years - is how a strong, independent woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) must travel from her home in Nebraska in a covered wagon containing three young local women who have recently gone mad. Their husbands cannot handle them - one of the women cannot even speak - so it falls to Cuddy to take these poor souls to Iowa where a minister and his wife will care for them.

Shortly after her journey begins, she happens to see George Briggs (Jones) sitting upon his horse under a huge tree with a noose around his neck. If the horse moves too far, Briggs will hang, so he begs Cuddy for his life. She cuts him down, but only after he agrees to help her with her demanding task.

The film plays out on two levels: the physical and mental difficulties of transporting these three women hundreds of miles across the plains and secondly, the ongoing bond between Cuddy and Briggs. She is a God-fearing, hard-working woman who is not married; her plain looks and strong will have scared off her would-be suitors (as we see in early on in the film). He is independent, living only day to day, in search of a warm place to sleep, a decent meal and a drink or two of whisky. Their conversations rarely amount to much, but they do proceed from single syllables to at least a few words now and then, as each needs the other, if only to survive the trip.

He hates this job, but there's some good money for him at the end of the trail, while for her, it's a journey that is a self-examination of her soul. Will she pause long enough to consider how others view her? She is single-minded, which makes her an ideal choice for this journey, but she suffers from a lack of inner pride; perhaps Griggs can help her overcome that.

About thirty minutes before the conclusion, a plot twist brings Briggs to a new awareness of how cruel and unfair life can be; Jones is particularly good on screen at this moment. While there are times his performance seems like many others he has given in previous films, his portrayal of Griggs as a man wandering through a maze is excellent. Likewise for Swank, who has the steely presence to make her character come alive.

I mentioned director of photography Prieto before; the man is clearly at the top of his game. His use of light is magnificent in this film, from the flames of a fire in a cave late at night to the bright blues and muted whites of a bleak, cloud-filled winter's sky. He even slightly overexposes the prairie images a few times in the film; the effect is subtle, but perfect in keeping with the film's tone of nature overwhelming these individuals.

I previously wrote that late fall and winter is the time of year we get "important" films from Hollywood. This is not one of those sincere, uplifting films that takes itself seriously. Rather, The Homesman, thanks to its intelligent screenplay, beautiful direction by Jones, arresting photography by Prieto, and two notable performances by its leads, is a film of constant wonder at the role humans play in life. We may be insignificant in the large picture, but we can do good for others, even if we don't realize exactly how we need to go about it. The Homesman does not give us easy answers, but rather asks some tough questions and for that, it's a work that is at once haunting and at the same time, mysterious.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Hitchcock's 20 Best Films

Like most film lovers- serious or casual - I am a fan of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. For many of us, it's been an affair that has lasted decades; I first saw one of his films back in the 1970s in my teens and I was immediately hooked. I honestly can't remember which was the first of his movies I saw; I'm sure some of that comes from a blurring of memory with time. But this is also a credit to a phenomenal body of work; Hitchcock made 53 feature films in his life and I have seen 50 of them (one film, The Mountain Eagle, from 1926, has been lost forever except for a few stills). Of these 50, I am partial to more than 40 of them, but even in his lesser films - a relative term if there ever was one - I find moments of cinematic wonder.

Above all, Hitchcock was a master story teller, one of the best who ever made movies. On the surface level, there was the drama itself; the public knew and loved Hitchcock's work with greater zeal than almost any other director before or since. The stories were captivating, especially when the theme was that of the innocent man - here was an individual with whom we could identify.

The public also loved Hitchcock's style, as he could move us in ways that kept us riveted to what we were seeing on the screen. He was a visual director of the highest order, and many of his finest sound films can almost be watched with the soundtracks turned off, as the images were what grabbed us and shook up our emotions.Who didn't love the chase on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest or watching Jimmy Stewart's character frantically yelling at Grace Kelly's character to get out of that apartment in Rear Window? These were edge-of-your-seat moments and no one did them any better than Hitchcock.

But what separates Alfred Hitchcock from other story tellers was his probe into human behavior, be it a man obsessing over a woman or a criminal planning and carrying out every last detail in some lurid deed? The fact that most of the characters who were the focus of his films were "normal" on the surface level, only made the viewer identify with them more and realize that the story they were watching could play out in their own lives - or their neighbors'.

I could go on all day about what made Hitchcock's films resonate so much with me, but instead, let me give you my list of his greatest films. Any list is a reason for debate and I'm sure there were be many who read this and disagree with me as the specific order or even why a particular film was even listed while another was not included. That's fine - as with any great artist, passion is a personal thing that cannot be explained easily.

1) Vertigo (1958) - Although not the most typical of his films, this was Hitchcock's most personal work. The story of a police detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he saw kill herself, Vertigo takes us along a heartbreaking journey of love than cannot succeed. Powerful performances from James Stewart and Kim Novak (she was never better) along with a complex, at times, exceptional screenplay by Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel, combined with typical emotionally beautiful cinematography by Robert Burks and a haunting score by Bernard Herrmann.

There are several magnificently directed passages in the film, most notably the opening rooftop chase sequence along with the scene in the forest near the Pacific Ocean at Monterey, as well as the poignant episode at the Golden Gate Bridge when Stewart saves Novak. Above all, Vertigo is part dream, part nightmare and an unanswered question about our deepest desires and fantasies. Do we love someone for who they are or whom we want them to be? A highly original, deeply troubling work, this is an unforgettable film.

2) Notorious (1946) - A brilliant film on several levels, Notorious gives filmgoers a captivating mystery, exotic locations, romance and marvelous performances by its leading man and lady. If that isn't enough, this is also a look at the inner demons that trouble these two, a government agent (played by Cary Grant, in arguably his best performance) and a despondent woman (Ingrid Bergman, also outstanding) who seem destined for each other, yet must battle serious doubts about their life - will they ever be content with themselves or with each other? Excellent supporting work by Claude Rains and Leopoldine Konstantin, striking black-and-white photography by Ted Tetzlaff, and remarkably fluid direction from Hitchock (the crane shot that concludes with the shot of the wine cellar key in Bergman's hands is famous, but watch the final scene and how Hitchcock films the descent down the staircase and out of the house - just perfect!). One of the most notable combinations of a great story line imbued with the director's insight into the unbounded limits of love.

3) Rear Window (1954) - The purest of Hitchcock's treatments of pure cinema, Rear Window is perhaps the director's most satisfying suspense film. A photojournalist (James Stewart), who is laid up in his home thanks to a broken leg, entertains himself by watching the world outside through his camera lens. He spies on his neighbors day and night, much to the despair of his beautiful fiancée (Grace Kelly).

Transference of guilt was a favorite theme of Hitchcock and here it is explored as Kelly, in order to win Stewart's love, aids him in his adventure of voyeurism, as she puts herself in great personal harm. It is only then that Stewart sees her the full measure of her devotion for him. This sequence, when we the audience, watch through the eyes of Stewart (who is in turn, watching not with his own eyes, but through a lens) is primal in its emotional power as well as in its study of a relationship's unequal balance - he cannot appreciate her until she morphs her behavior into his. Tautly directed by Hitchcock, this is a thrilling to watch time and time again.

4) Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Reportedly the director's favorite of his own works, this is a study of "twos" - a theme that would appear in many of Hitchcock's films. The pair at the center of this film are Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), suspected of murder, and his delightful niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). He has returned home to middle class America to be with his family, as this should provide a safe haven from the detectives that are pursuing him. Each Charlie admires the other, but their feelings change, once the truth is discovered.

Hitchcock succeeded in grabbing our attention in many of his films by featuring a villain, who instead of being ghoulish in appearance, was instead suave and quite charming; Uncle Charlie is one of the most prototypical of these characters and Cotten delivers a cool and refined performance. Imagine yourself being one of the members of his family - you wouldn't think for a second that he is capable of any wrongdoing.

Filmed on location in Santa Rosa, California, Shadow of a Doubt has a warm, comforting look to it at first, as this seems to be the all-American town where everyone is happy. It is in locales such as these - often in the brightness of the day - where evil can strike. Tapping into this fear was one of Hitchcock's most powerful themes; it's handled here in such a subtle fashion. This film, as with almost all of the director's works, is timeless in its message.

5) Strangers on a Train (1946) - Another study of "twos" as well as transference of guilt, this is classic Hitchcock. An idle playboy named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and a tennis player named Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meet by chance on a train; Anthony discusses murder and dreams up a scenario where each will kill someone in the other's life; he believes this the perfect crime, as there would be no apparent motive for the murders. Haines at first laughs this off, but soon realizes that Anthony is serious and must deal with the crazed wishes of this lunatic.

Featuring some of Hitchcock's most famous set pieces - the cross cutting between the tennis match and Anthony trying to retrieve a lighter, along with the merry-go-round sequence (both dazzling moments) - make for a highly entertaining film; you get the idea that Hitchcock thoroughly enjoyed making this movie. Expert editing by William Ziegler and a delightful script by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde ("I may be old fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law.") as well as a superb performance by Walker, as charismatic a villain as there ever was in Hitchcock's (or anyone's) films. Equally captivating for its unusual story as well as its troubling message of how easy it is to murder someone, this is a great film.

6) The Birds (1963) - I realize that some readers will wonder why I have rated this film so highly on my list, while others will question its inclusion at all. It is one of my favorite of Hitchcock's films and I think it is one of his most frightening - and at the same time - most hopeful films.

Technically brilliant - Donald Spoto in his exhaustive work The Art of Alfred Hitchock writes that the film featured 1400 shots, roughly twice what was normal for the director - this is a visual treat. The scene with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) sitting by the school playground, not realizing that slowly hundreds of birds are sitting on a jungle gym (how menacing Hitchcock makes a "playground" seem!) truly takes your breath away. Other unforgettable images include the terrible shot of a farmer who has had his eyes pecked out by birds who found their way into his home, and my favorite, the shot of various birds from above looking down on the havoc they have wreaked in the small town of Bodega Bay - literally a birds' eye view! (George Tomasini's editing throughout this film deserves a special mention.)

Sound is also of great importance in this eerie tale, as we hear the caws of birds on the attack as well as electronic reproductions of bird screeches. Two superb instances of the aural terror of this film happen during the attack on the school children, and the scene in the Brenner house at night when the power suddenly goes out and Melanie, Mitch, his young sister Cathy and his mother huddle together in darkness, forced to endure the terrible shrieks of the unseen birds just outside.

Hitchcock and his screenwriter Evan Hunter were smart not to give a reason as to why the birds were acting in such fashion - any explanation would lessen the overall effect. "It's the end of the world" utters one character at a restaurant in town and it may as well be for these characters, as the bird attacks are unpredictable. 

The answer then is for humans to turn to each other. Melanie and Mitch distrust each other as the film begins, but by the end, they will survive only if they care for each other and their loved ones. The ambiguity of the final image as they drive away from a landscape filled with thousands of birds is one of the most remarkable and innovative of any Hitchcock film.

7) I Confess (1952) - Arguably Hitch's most underrated film, it is sadly also one of his least known and certainly one of his least critically analyzed. A priest hears the confession of a man who admits to murder; in the Catholic Church, a priest cannot divulge what he has heard in the confessional, so he cannot help the police, who ironically, believe the priest is himself a suspect. Beautifully photographed in shimmering black-and-white hues by Robert Burks - I think this is one of the most beauitful jobs of black and white cinematography of all time, not only in terms of light and dark, but also in terms of the visual mood that is achieved. 

Hitchcock once again used the innocent man theme in this work, blending it with his insight into his Catholic upbringing. A moody, moving performance by Montgomery Clift as the priest - he is believable in every scene and an excellent supporting turn from Karl Malden as a police detective. The flashback sequence with Anne Baxter is a key to the background of this tale (Hitchcock mastered this story telling device a few years later in Vertigo); the slow-motion shot of Baxter walking down to meet Clift is remarkable.

8) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - There seems to be a wide split on which version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is the better film - this one or the original 1934 work. I enjoy that film as well, but in almost every way, the remake is a far superior work, not only on a technical level, but also for its insight into the troubling relationship of the main couple, portrayed by James Stewart and Doris Day (Day was never better - certainly Hitchcock was able to tap into her insecurities, as she delivers a remarkable performance).

The couple's young son is kidnapped while on an overseas vacation, so the urgency of them rescuing their child has us on the edge of our seats, but the director delves further into their marital problems; the scene where Stewart informs Day that their son has been abducted has all of the emotional punch you would expect, thanks to both performers (Day is especially brilliant in this short scene) as well as Hitchcock's direction, which for much of the scene does not show both actors in the same shot, isolating their personal differences and emotional needs.

The famous 12-minue Albert Hall concert sequence is justifiably one of Hitchcock's most famous treatments of suspense - we hear the cantata performed by the orchestra, but there is no dialogue. The cross-cutting between Day, the assassins, the cymbal player who will sound the note that will trigger the assassination attempt and the closeups of the notes on the printed score is simply unforgettable and is a master class in how to drain every drop of emotion from the audience. Hitchcock was famous for remarking that suspense was not about a frenzied pace, but rather "slowing things down"; here he slows the action down to an agonizing pace that gives the viewer goosebumps on goosebumps. (The same sequence in the 1934 version is well done, but does not grip us, as it does in the remake.) This is a film that rewards you with repeated viewings, as it is so rich on many levels.

9) Psycho (1960) - Many will place this at a higher position on their own personal list of Hitchcock films; regardless, this is the most famous horror film of all time. There is, in reality, little I can add to the volumes written about this relatively inexpensive production - $800,000 as opposed to $4.3 million for his previous film, North by Northwest. 

There are so many of Hitchcock's themes that are explored in Psycho, especially transference of guilt as well as - in a strange way - the innocent man. Shocking - who can forget the moment when we first see the face of mother? - this is a descent into one particular hell for the characters as well as the audience.

10) Young and Innocent (1937) - So far, I have only listed Hitchcock's American films, but I do enjoy several of his British works. This is, to the surprise of some, my favorite of his British films. This is an early work that deals with many of the themes that Hitchcock would become familiar for in later years, such as the innocent man, bird imagery, random fortune (good and bad) as well as witty and sometimes dark dialogue at the dinner table. Co-stars Derrick de Marney and Nova Pilbeam have great chemistry together and there are some marvelous set pieces, especially the perilous happenings at an abandoned mine. The crane shot near the end of the film, which takes us from a wide shot of a ballroom up to the eyes of a drummer in a band is simply astounding. A similar shot would be implemented by Hitchcock in Notorious about a decade later; this shot is just as brilliant. Two years earlier, the director made The 39 Steps, which has received considerable praise. I find that Young and Innocent, which also has a plot device of a man and woman from opposite ends of the spectrum having to travel together to unravel the truth is a superior work.

11) The Lady Vanishes (1937) - One of the reference points of Hitchcock's British era, this is a marvelously entertaining film, briskly paced and loaded with fun. The director would make several films where the action was primarily limited to one small area, as with Lifeboat (1943) and Rope (1948); here much of the story takes place on a passenger train. There is great charm throughout much of the film, especially in the scene that takes place in the luggage car, as the couple looking for the missing lady discovers all sorts of surprises, good and bad. There are no deep messages here, only a beautifully crafted tale that delivers on its title - why and where did the lady vanish?

12) The Wrong Man (1957) - Arguably Hitchcock's bleakest film and certainly one of his most disturbing, this work takes the innocent man theme to its limits. A jazz musician named Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda, perfectly cast) is accused of a crime he did not commit. Yet as the story unwinds, there are several individuals that name him as the guilty party. At the same time, his wife, troubled by these developments, is slowly losing her grip on reality. Robert Burks' black and white photography is appropriately somber, while Hitchcock's direction is understated, emphasizing the little details that are adding up to create chaos in one couple. The theme of randomness in Hitchcock's works - Balestrero is in this predicament thanks in great part to his physical resemblance to the real criminal - has rarely been better explored.

13) Rebecca (1940) - Although Hitchcock was somewhat hemmed in on this film by famed producer David O. Selznick, who was in post-production mode at the time on Gone With the Wind, the director turned in an engaging tale, full of the repression of a couple in love that do not really understand each other. The character of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, in a striking performance) is one of the most psychologically troubled of any in the director's films; Hitchcock often filmed her from low angles to give her a more dominating and threatening appearance. The director also brought out a stellar turn from Joan Fontaine (the second Mrs. de Winter); these two actresses represent the emotional weight of the story and truly carry the film. (Certainly these two performances are in contrast to the widely-believed theory that Hitchcock disdained actors, particularly women). 

Excellent production design led by Lyle Wheeler (the ocean cottage is particularly detailed and appropriately styled) along with affecting black-and-white photography from George Barnes. He would win an Academy Award for his work and the film itself was named as Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but Hitchcock was snubbed for the Oscar as Best Director, as the academy opted for John Ford for his work on The Grapes of Wrath. (Hitchcock would never win an Oscar as Best Director; the Academy finally gave Hitch an Oscar in 1968 - the Irving Thalberg Award, as sort of a lifetime achievement nod. Hitch famously accepted the award on stage, uttering two words, "Thank you," before walking off.)

14) The Lodger (aka: A Story of the London Fog) (1926) - Hitchock's strongest silent film and arguably the beginning of "the Hitchcock style" - emotionally and visually. This was his third feature film and in it, he kept the story simple, focusing on a lodger at a boarding house who is feared to be a serial murderer. There are several neat visual touches, most notably the use of a glass panel the Lodger walks on in one scene, emphasizing the sound of his footsteps to the his landlords below, giving him a more notorious edge. The innocent man theme is played out beautifully here and the final sequence is quite grand. Made more than 80 years ago, the film has held up beautifully.

15) North by Northwest (1959) - A superbly entertaining film with all sorts of Hitchcock themes, from the innocent man to the cool blonde to evil appearing in broad daylight. This is one of the best screenplays Hitchcock ever worked with - it was penned by Ernest Lehman - and he played this cross-country yarn to the hilt, taking us from the busy streets of New York City and Chicago to the wide-open prairies. One beautifully realized sequence after another from the amusing art auction to the crop-dusting scene to the unforgettable climax on Mount Rushmore - Cary Grant saving Eva Marie Saint by reaching out his hand, as she is ready to fall to her death, is a classic Hitchcock moment (and one he had used in films such as Young and Innocent and Saboteur). Great fun, classy production and perfectly toned Hitchcockian performances by many, especially Grant, Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau. For this work, Hitchock was in the midst of one of his strongest creative periods of his life - this film was preceded by Vertigo and followed by Psycho and then The Birds and his self-assurance was clearly sky high.

16) Frenzy (1970) - After the disappointments of Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), Hitch returned to peak form with this story of a crazed killer who strangles women with his tie. The film was the director's return to England after thirty years and the experience must have lifted his spirits, as he turned in a dazzling film, worthy of his best work in the 1940s and '50s. Again the innocent man is a major theme in this work, but here, that individual is not particularly sympathetic; rather the killer is a charming man, one with wit and flair (a la the character of Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train). Although most of the violence is off-screen, a common approach with Hitchcock, he did show us one murder in brutal detail (resulting in volumes of text by dozens of authors about Hitchcock's supposed misogynist traits). An excellent screenplay by playwright Anthony Shaffer with one of the best final lines in any film; "Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie."

17) Sabotage (1936) - A story of emerging from the dark into the light - finding the good amidst the evil in our lives. The plot revolves around a theater owner who has somewhat ruefully agreed to join in a conspiracy to cripple the British government - will his wife learn the truth about her husband and what will she do to stop him? The theme of darkness is explored in great detail; from the opening blackout to the final ugly murder. The sequence of the young boy unknowingly carrying a bomb set to detonate aboard a crowded public bus is extremely well directed and edited, although Hitchcock forever apologized about letting the child be killed. Notable performances by Silvia Sidney, who personifies common sense and Oscar Homolka, a simple man who is tripped up by his greed. The unusual ending - a murder is forgiven through a series of circumstances - was quite daring for its time.

18) Marnie (1964) - A highly debated Hitchock effort, as many find it a troubled film, while others (myself included) think this is an excellent work on several levels. A young woman (Tippi Hedren in the title role) is a kleptomaniac who also has a great fear of emotional contact with men. A wealthy businessman named Mark Rutland (Sean Connery in a typically charming and relaxed performance), falls in love with her, despite knowing that she robbed his company's funds. He desperately wants to cure her of her problems, even going so far as to marrying her, clearly against her wishes. 

Pschyoanalysis is used to explain Marnie's behavior; in visual terms, Hitchcock uses red dots or patterns that fill the screen, representing her troubling memories of a childhood incident. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen fashioned two long dialogue sequences between Mark and Marnie in order for him to try and find a solution for her anxieties. The free association scene on the boat during their honeymoon is very well written, as we learn how troubled Marnie clearly is in the company of a man ("Oh God, somebody please help me!," she screams.)

While the film does suffer from a long, drawn-out conclusion as well as some rather sloppy rear projection work (watch the scene of Marnie riding her horse late in the film), Hitchcock does deliver with many beautifully directed sequences, most notably the one when Marnie comes into Mark's office to work on a Saturday; the moment the tree crashes through the window is a highly charged one. The brief safe robbery, told with no dialogue and largely no sound, is textbook Hitchcock.

While slightly flawed, this is one of Hitchcock's most passionate films, one in which Tippi Hedren delivers a remarkable performance that was somewhat unexpected after her rather mannered debut in The Birds. Robert Burks, in his final film for Hitchock, turned in his usual superior job, instilling the film with deeply saturated hues, while at other times using filters to convey the troubled emotional state of the title character.

19) Blackmail (1929) - In this film, the first sound picture from Hitchcock, the director displayed marvelous creativity in both aural and visual terms. A young woman has a disagreement with her boyfriend, a detective, at a restaurant; she leaves with another man, who takes her up to his apartment. He then forces himself upon her; in self-defense, she kills the man with a knife. Hitchcock cleverly shows us her state of mind the next few hours, as she is deeply haunted by her experience. In one of the film's most famous moments, he alters the soundtrack in a brief scene the next morning, so that the woman only seems to hear the word "knife" in another woman's monologue. The young woman is clearly shaken up and drops the knife she has in her hand to cut a loaf of bread. 

The director also displayed his German expressionist approach, often filming the woman and the detective in shadow; other images have them making their way alongside shadow-covered walls. The overall effect is rather chilling and even if the filmmaking is not as technically sharp as later films from Hitchcock, his story telling is first-rate. 

20) Foreign Correspondent (1940) - While the first 25 minutes of this film are a pleasant, if rather ordinary introduction to the principal characters and the plot, things really get going after that, beginning with the murder of the diplomat on the rainy streets of Amsterdam and the pursuit amidst dozens of onlookers holding umbrellas (a visually stunning moment). The chase takes us to the windmill sequence, eerily troubling in its simplicity, as the main character, an American reporter (Joel McCrea) notices one of the windmills turning an opposite direction than the others.

This is more of a mystery than a typical suspense film for Hitchcock and it is a bit of a propaganda effort for the American government for the upcoming war (especially the epilogue, complete with "The Star Spangled Banner"), but the director glides us through this rousing tale with great finesse and charm. The airplane sequence near the end of the film, is a technical and emotional triumph.


Other recommended films:

Rope (1948) - Hitchcock's famous experiment in long takes. The director filmed this story, based on a stage play, in ten-minutes takes - ten minutes being the length of a reel of film at that time. Thus no editing in this film, except at the end of a reel, when the camera focused on a wall or the back of a man's suit and then cut to the same shot to start the new reel. This approach was contrary to Hitchcock's belief in editing and while there are certainly a few scenes that would have been better with some cross-cutting, this is still a very effective film, especially in the tone of this somber work (the story is about a thrill-killing along the lines of Leopold and Loeb). Very fine work from James Stewart and Farley Granger and an especially graceful performance from John Dall as one of the killers.

Under Capricorn (1949) - Immediately after Rope, Hitchcock continued his fascination with long takes in this film; the most beautiful of these is near the opening when Adare (Michael Wilding) enters the house of Flusky (Joseph Cotten); the seven-minute shot takes us through several rooms of the house and into the dining room and is remarkably fluid. 

The scene near the end of the film where Bergman uncovers a deadly secret in her bedroom is beautifully handled by Hitchcock, both with the camera as well as on the soundtrack, as we learn of the ugly truth amidst a powerful thunderstorm. Although a bit slow moving at times, this is a fascinating work, better than Hitchcock and many critics give it credit for.

The Paradine Case (1947) - Hitchcock was famously unhappy with the final result of this film, which was the last time he worked with producer David O. Selznick (when Hitchcock was asked what the "O" in Selznick's name stood for, he replied, "Nothing"). The film is a bit talky, yet the director handled the lengthy courtroom sequence beautifully, emphasizing the strict, harsh geometry of the British trial setting and how the victim is put in an isolated position in the courtroom. Gregory Peck as the defending attorney is quite good throughout the film, especially in the scene when he admits his shortcomings in dealing with his client. There are also some fine acting turns from Charles Laughton, Ethel Barrymore and Leo G. Carroll, while Alida Valli as Mrs. Paradine was fine as a mysterious woman who may or may not have killed her husband.

Spellbound (1945) - The thought process of why someone committed a crime was often at the heart of Hitchcock's films; this is his most overt look at how psychology (Freudian in this instance) examines someone's behavior. Gregory Peck portrays a doctor who falls in love with a fellow physician at a mental hospital. But all is not as it seems - a typical Hitchcock theme - as Peck's character is, in reality, not a doctor, but someone with a hidden secret from his past. Although uneven and not entirely successful (the unveiling of the plot takes too much time), this is a very watchable and thoughtful film; the dream sequence created by Salvador Dali is a nice touch, though not as intriguing as one might expect (apparently some of the sequence was deleted - perhaps it was too extreme in its vision). Nice supporting performances from Leo G. Carroll as the head of the asylum and Michael Chekov as the charming elderly doctor.

Topaz (1969) - This has been roundly criticized as a failure, and it is ultimately a disappointment from Hitchock. Yet a good deal of the film is very well done, especially the sequences in New York City at the hotel and at the florist shop. The image of Juanita (Karin Dor) falling to the floor, as she is murdered by her Cuban military lover Parra (John Vernon), is one of the director's most visually creative moments. The first and last twenty minutes of this film are a bit sub-par and there is much too much explanatory dialogue, but Hitchcock does treat us to some memorable images.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Connquering Your Inner Demons

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the latest film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is for anyone who's had to to tackle their inner demons at one point or another in their life (I think that includes just about everybody). At times very funny, at times introspective, the film features an excellent screenplay, first-rate work by the entire ensemble cast as well as imaginative and remarkable direction and cinematography. It's as original a film as I've seen in some time.

The film deals with an actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who is looking to shed his super-hero film image (he was the fictional Birdman in several films more than a decade before this story begins) and take on the Broadway stage. He's adapted a short story by Raymond Carver and is starring and directing in it as well. I love the way the story opens in media res, as we see him in his tiny dressing room, trying to sort out the craziness of a rehearsal, balancing his time and efforts among the other performers as well as his press agent Jake (Zach Galifianikis, in a nicely tuned low-key performance). Even now with his dream project about to take off, reporters still want to ask him about his Birdman days, though Thompson clearly wants to rid his psyche of that period in his life.

The rehearsal and prevue performances are wonderfully handled in a very matter-of-fact style by Iñárritu. His camera tracks and flows across the stage and through the tiny corridors of the theater passageways, giving us a personal feel to what's going on, both for the audience as well as in Thompson's mind. That remarkable camerawork is that of Emmanuel Lubezki, who is one of today's most gifted and imaginative cinematographers (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men). 

The film is presented as one long take and unless you are properly trained in this, it's very difficult to see any cuts (I only noticed two and hard to look hard for them). The setups for each sequence must have been incredibly painstaking, but the results are spectacular. There's one sequence on stage where we follow Thompson, who walks downstage to address the audience; at the same time his wife in the play is in bed with someone else. The camera moves with Thompson, but effortlessly and without a cut, the next moment, the camera is under the sheets, hovering over the characters in bed. It's just one example of the work turned in by Lubezki on this film; it's not simply a bag of tricks, it's innovative work that seems natural and heightens the emotional turmoil of Thompson's character.

There are several excellent performances, most notably Edward Norton playing a vain, eccentric actor (a parody to some extent of his real-life persona?) and Naomi Watts, as a actress with a sweet naiveté about the acting business; this is among her finest performances. But the star here (literally and figuratively) is Keaton as Riggan Thompson. He just can't seem to get the past out of his mind; indeed we hear the voice of the Birdman character several times in the film telling Riggan that he's a bit crazy to take on his new endeavor, especially given the fact that he's still well recognized for his superhero film roles. Keaton has a balancing act in the film, moving back and forth between the present and the past, trying to convince himself that he's not entirely crazy, and yes, he is a good man who just happened to make a few mistakes along the way in regards to his daughter and wife. It's a roller coster ride of emotions and Keaton delivers in brilliant fashion.

Without giving away too much of the last section of the film, Birdman poses the belief that you can conquer your demons by literally soaring above your problems. It's a message that resonated with me and made this a memorable work. It's the best film for Iñárritu since his captivating Amores Perros (2000). Highly recommended!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Favorites from the Chicago International Film Festival

The President
Winner of the Gold Hugo as best Film of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival wrapped up its two-week run a few days ago and it was a smashing success! I attended the fest at the beautiful AMC River East theater complex and was amazed at the crowds on the weekend of October 17-19; the organizers were quite right in making the theme of this year's fest "Everybody Loves Movies," as thousands turned out to see the latest in world cinema. Founder and artistic director Michael Kutza and his team have made the Chicago Film Festival undoubtedly one of the finest in the United States.

There are so many films shown during the two weeks, that's it's impossible to see everything. Please keep that in mind as I write about my personal favorites from the fest, as I realize I missed out on some films that were highly praised. But I did try and make an effort to see many different types of films, be they dramas, comedies, shorts and documentaries.


The President (Georgia, France, U.K., Germany) - directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. This film was awarded the Gold Hugo as the Best Film of this year's festival; bravo to the jury for selecting such an original, provocative film! In an unnamed country (perhaps Georgia or a neighboring land), a dictator must flee for his life after the military overthrows his government. The president sees his wife and daughters off to the airport in the nick of time, but stays to fight for his regime along with his five-year old young grandson. At times funny, but mostly chilling, the film focuses on the desperate measures the former ruler must go through just to survive from one day to the next, as soldiers are out to capture him, dead or alive, for a large ransom. 

Director Makhmalabaf masterfully brings an immediacy to the story, beautifully capturing small moments so well, as when the president and his grandson must pass themselves off as street musicians, with the young boy wearing a cardboard box while performing an impromptu dance. I have not seen other films by Makhamalabaf, but based on this single work, it is clear that he is an extremely talented director, one who understands the spatial boundaries of the screen (his compositions are at once beautiful and sadly heartbreaking). He has been called one of the leaders of the Iranian New Wave; this movie along with A Separation (director, Asghar Farhadi), which was awarded an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film in 2012, offer proof that some of today's most remarkable films are being made by directors from Iran.

Stockholm (Spain) - directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen - A look at a chance affair at a bar between a young man and woman that turns into much more than a one-night stand. A very intelligent screenplay by Isabel Peña and Sogoyen that offers three dimensional characters who each practice their own particular dance; he (Javier Periera) will do anything to impress this woman, while she (Aura Garrido) is quite unsure of herself as well as his motives, yet feels drawn to him. This is such an impressive study of a male-female relationship that is only rarely seen in Hollywood; this is not a "meet cute" film that major studios routinely produce. Great work by the two principal performers, especially Garrido.

Human Capital (Italy) - directed by Paolo Virzi (review here). A look at the excesses of the rich in northern Italy, set in the current day economic crisis of the country. The film is told in four chapters, as there are multiple viewpoints of a tragic roadside accident that sets the story in motion. Each chapter also provides insight into the emotions of the various characters, most of whom are not happy with their current lot in life. Beautifully written, directed and acted (the entire cast is first-rate), the film has received numerous awards in Italy; I believe it can also be a critical success in America (and perhaps even relatively popular at the box office).

Fearless (United States) - directed by Ted Kotcheff - A splendid short film (26 minutes) that deals directly with the question of the quality of life. An aging actress sees a young man outside her estate who is ready to kill himself; she challenges him and invites him in for tea, provoking him with questions about why he would do this. During their time together, we discover that she also has problems with her current existence; clearly her glorious past as a movie star is a thing of the past. An engaging performance by Fionnula Flangan; sensitive direction by the 83-year old Kotcheff and an insightful script by his daughter Alexandra. In its brief running time, the film treats serious questions about life and death with greater complexity than many feature films. Highly recommended.

Sand Dollars (Dominican Republic, Mexico) - directed by Israel Cardenas and Amelia Guzman. A dream-like film about the relationship of two women, one a young native of the Dominican Republic and the other a European in her 70s. The older woman (an outstanding performance by Geraldine Chaplin, who is not afraid to display her 70 year-old appearance) feels alive again with the tenderness shown to her by her young lover, while the young woman is attracted to her older companion, if only for the fact that she has money. This is a film of wishes and hopes, and while some of these desires are dashed, the characters have an eternal outlook that things will work out for them. Chaplin was awarded the Silver Hugo as Best Actress in this year's festival.

Human Voice -La Voce Humana - (Italy) - directed by Edoardo Ponti. Another short film (25 minutes), this a magnificently filmed telling of the Jean Cocteau eponymous short story in which an elderly woman (Sophia Loren) talks to her lover on the phone one final time, painfully realizing that she will never see him again. Loren, who was 79 years old when this was filmed (she recently turned 80) is brilliant in this role - you'd have to say that this ranks among the finest works of her career. There is an urgency in her voice and such primal emotions on display- she takes your breath away with this performance! Her son Edoardo tenderly directs this tale, while the brilliant cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto, who is one of the finest directors of photography working today (recent credits include Argo, Babel and The Wolf of Wall Street). His deeply saturated blues and reds in the apartment scenes add irony to the film's plot and his compositions of the actors set against the Napoli seaside is stunning. I can't imagine the Academy nominating a short film for cinematography, but it would be a worthwhile nomination; I don't know if I'll see a more beautiful and professional job of cinematography this year (note, this was shot on film stock, not digitally). But perhaps the film will be nominated for an Oscar in the Short Film category; I would love that, as it would allow a good-sized audience to see this gorgeous film!

The Look of Silence (Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland, UK) - directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. This is Oppenheimer's companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, which told the story of a select few of the individuals that committed brutal government-approved murders in Indonesia in the 1960s. While that film recreated the deeds of those individuals, The Look of Silence concerns itself with the story of the brother of a young man who was one of the victims. He confronts the murderers and asks them if they feel any remorse. Like the first film on this topic by Oppenheimer, this is a devastating film. One final note: many of the end credits - especially for assistant directors - read "anonymous"; clearly many of Indonesia's citizens are reluctant to talk about this terrible period in their recent history.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (United States) - directed by Chuck Workman. An excellent documentary about a true genius of cinema, this film is a great introduction to the work of Welles - theater as well as film - and will be appreciated by devotees of Welles. My full review will appear in December when the film hits theaters, for now, you can read my interview with Workman about this film here.

Birdman (United States) - directed by Alejandro Iñarritu. A highly original movie about an actor who has left his superhero days behind and is now tackling his first Broadway work, adapting, directing and starring in a dramatic play. He asks himself often in the film if he is crazy to do this; his life complicated by several others in his immediate family and in the play. (I'll write a full review in a few days.) Great lead performance by Michael Keaton, who was awarded the Founder's Award from the festival for his work in this film. 

I've Seen the Unicorn (Canada) - directed by Vincent Toi (full review here). A film for the dreamer in all of us set amidst the world of thoroughbred horse racing in the small nation island of Mauritius. We follow the trials of an owner and a jockey who desperately want to win the country's biggest race; we also learn the story of a young boy who will do whatever it takes to become a jockey in a few years. A delightful film - only 60 minutes in length - full of simple pleasures as well as exciting race scenes.

Algren (United States) - directed by Michael Caplan (full review here). A heartfelt tribute to the famous Chicago writer, the champion of the dispossessed. Beautiful photos from the 1940s, '50s and '60 shot by Art Shay illustrate the life and times of Nelson Algren. There are many wonderful stories in this documentary, told by famous writers and directors such as William Friedkin, John Sayles and Philip Kaufman.

Other films I enjoyed included: 

Maestro (France) - directed by Lea Fazer
Joy of Man's Desiring (Canada) - directed by Denis Coté
The 100 year old man who jumped out the window and disappeared (Sweden) - dir. Felix Herngren
The Divide (United States, short film) - directed by Ashley Monti
Tir (Italy) - directed by Alberto Fasulo

I would think the Chicago Film Festival team would have a difficult time topping themselves next year, but I'm quite confident they'll be up to the task. Here's to the 51st Chicago International Film Festival in 2015!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chuck Workman on Orson Welles - A tribute to a "Magician"

Chuck Workman (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Chuck Workman offers his thoughts about his new documentary on Orson Welles, the greatest American directors, and the first film he ever saw.

Academy Award winning director Chuck Workman was in Chicago the other day to premiere his latest documentary. Titled Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, the film is a marvelous study of this complicated, extraordinary man, who revolutionized cinema in America and around the world.

Due to an agreement with the film's distributor, I'm not allowed to review the film until its release date of December 12, but I can tell you know that it is a first-rate work, one that will please devoted fans of Welles as well as film lovers who only know of his reputation. I think it's a cinch to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but even if it doesn't (one never knows about these things), it's a highly entertaining film, one in which Workman succeeded brilliantly in his pursuit to tell the remarkable story of Orson Welles.

Workman is best known as a director of short films, the most famous of which is Precious Images from 1986, which was honored with an Oscar as Best Short Film (Live Action). The director produced a short film for the Academy Awards for twenty or so years; these films were gems and displayed the love of cinema that in my opinion has been missing in recent years' ceremonies. He has also directed several feature documentaries including Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990) and What is Cinema? (2014).

Workman agreed to a brief interview with me shortly before the premiere of Magician.

Tom Hyland:  I know you from all the short films you made for Academy Awards, which I loved. One of those that really stands out for me was the film about famous actors and directors recalling the first film they ever saw. I remember Michael Douglas stating that for him it was Lili and that he saw it eighteen or nineteen times…

Chuck Workman: Oh, that’s one of my favorites. I love that film. That’s the one with Katherine Hepburn at the end?

TH: Yes, and Gerard Depardieu mentioning Burt Lancaster and “the little bird” (Birdman of Alcatraz). So with that in mind, what was the first film you ever saw?

CW: Meet Me in St. Louis. I remember that my parents told me that when they sang “The Trolley Song” - they must have had a record that they played, because I got up on a seat at a very young age and sang it with them.

TH: How old were you at the time?

CW: I don’t know. Maybe four- I guess I was four. I was born in the mid 1940s, but MGM used to rerelease these films, so I can’t remember exactly. Sometimes I see the year of a movie that I remember seeing and I say, “Wait a minute, I wasn’t even born then!”

But apparently they rereleased more than they were making. They would just start all over again. Funny thing was, I did trailers many years later for rereleases for MGM of a lot of movies, so it’s kind of ironic.

TH: Do you have any ideas how many movies you’ve seen? I imagine it must be in the thousands.

CW: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think as many as Martin Scorsese! Lately, I don’t go to that many movies.

TH: Is that because of work or because the movies today aren’t what they used to be?

CW: I think that I get bored pretty quickly. I don’t stay. I’m in the Academy, so they send me a DVD of every movie, but I don’t generally watch them. There are major movies that I don’t get around to seeing. They’re basically entertainment films; I’m more interested in the art of cinema these days. I don’t try and catch up on every pop movie.

I did it for so long. Growing up, I knew all these movies. I’m much more interested – and still am – in foreign films, in art films, not in Hollywood films.

TH: When did the idea for a Welles documentary first germinate for you?

CW: Over twenty years ago when I made “Precious Images.” I opened (that film) with Citizen Kane and used it over and over. When Turner had owned the film at its 50th anniversary in the early ‘90s…

TH: They threatened to colorize it.

CW: They threatened to colorize it. I was there when he talked about it at Paramount and I even filmed the little reception at Paramount for the 50th anniversary with the idea, “maybe I’ll make a documentary about Orson Welles someday”, and then I never did anything, I lost that film – I don’t know where it is. I was given the opportunity when somebody asked me, “well, what are you interested in doing?” I said this (an Orson Welles film).

Over the years, I worked with present RKO on some of their films and I was always pitching it, but just never got a chance to do it. I’m glad that it took this long because I think I know more about film and important things in cinema that Welles was doing.

TH: In this documentary, you’re not treating Welles like a star, you’re treating him as the genius he was.

CW: I believe so. I often say that there are three great American filmmakers; it’s Kubrick, Robert Altman and Orson Welles. I have great respect for John Ford, etc., but I think they’re making genre films. These other guys were looking at film as a certain kind of art form.

TH: What’s the biggest thing that surprised you about Orson Welles while you were doing the research for this film?

CW: What happened on this film was I showed every single film. I tried to anyway, but there were a few that got away that were not finished, but every finished film. How good they were, the depth of artfulness in all the films. The filmmaking, the greatness of filmmaking in the most minor of films.

Another thing that occurred to me was chronologically how Welles would respond to one form or another of filmmaking and kind of learn that on a film and incorporate that into what he was doing. He never did much editing until his third or fourth film and then he suddenly became a really phenomenal editor. I think things like that. It’s like he would say, “Oh, I can do that,” and then he would do it. So I did get an education there.

Also, I didn’t know myself about all his unfinished films. I knew there were a bunch of them, but I didn’t know there were that many.

TH: If we could ever imagine that someone as talented and as innovative as Welles existed today, could that person even succeed in Hollywood today?

CW: Well, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that Welles was an independent filmmaker, like Wes Anderson, like Richard Linklater. So he would have probably done that, but one of the things I think he would have done today, because of the influence of Brando and other actors, he might have taken his acting much more seriously. Even though he kind of rose to the challenge on various occasions.

TH: I think his role in Compulsion, especially in the courtroom scene, is tremendous. I wish you could have played a few more seconds of that in your film.

CW: Yes, that’s a particularly good one. He took his acting seriously. He would be a first class actor/director now, actually more than that. He would have taken the acting more seriously today than he did.

TH: I love Charlton Heston’s quote in the film about how Welles was a great filmmaker, but seemed to always want to alienate the people who had the money. You can’t do that in Hollywood.

CW: You can’t. You have to suffer fools and there are a lot of them, they all want to help you with your movies. So everybody has the same problem and some people are just better at it. I used to always ask well known directors, “what do you do?” Mel Brooks used to say, “Oh, I tell then anything, because they don’t remember anyway.”

Fred Zinneman once told me he’s European so he’s always very polite and they remember that. So now you get notes and written pages and pages of notes and you have some junior executive that’s following all those things for you. But often the hired executive doesn’t worry about it- they understand what you’re doing, so it’s not that bad.

TH: Finally, in this documentary, I thought your storytelling differed over the film. The first half was excellent, but very straightforward, while the latter part of the film was more Wellesian, if you will, as you told his story in a more innovative way.

CW: Well it's a documentary and you have to find a way to keep people in their seats. After all, there's no plot!