I Am Heath Ledger (2017)

I Am Heath Ledger wide

He felt life deeper than anyone I ever met. The first time I saw Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You I was stunned. A star was born, in his first film. He had started out without training in his native Australia, enjoyed what a friend terms ‘a sentimental education’ in his first serious relationship, with actress Lisa Zane when they co-starred in the TV series Roar, and bounded into an audition in Hollywood and got it first time out. He signed with an agent, Stephen Alexander, himself a newcomer to the industry and together they created his career. Acting is thinking about the world about you and the person you are. He was conscious of his lack of professional training and never went anywhere without a camera, shooting footage of himself prepping for roles and this documentary directed by Adrian Buitenhuis and Derik Murray demonstrates the extent to which Ledger taught himself and built characters, paying attention to how he looked, moved, spoke, interacted, responded. The film is replete with that personal footage and boasts a narration excerpted from interviews Ledger did. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity to star opposite his icon Mel Gibson on The Patriot but suffered a crisis of confidence: Mel taught him to come in and out of character. His face was plastered over billboards to publicise A Knight’s Tale, a rollicking mediaeval lark that sent itself up anachronistically and he couldn’t handle the publicity machine’s requirements. He wanted fame but then when he got it, he didn’t want it. By the time Brokeback Mountain came around, he was ready. The film changed his life. Director Ang Lee wasn’t sure he could do the role but he said Ledger’s mouth was like a clenched fist, people had the impression that he barely spoke when in fact he had the most lines in the film – he just delivered them in a way that made you think he hadn’t said a word. He met Michelle Williams on set and they became parents to baby daughter Matilda, whom he adored. His appetite for life was astonishing:  he had energy like nobody else, sensing his time on earth was limited. His favourite place was Burning Man. He brought his friends from Perth there and to his home in California. He was an enthusiast particularly for Nick Drake with whom he felt a kinship, along with other musicians who died young, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. He phoned and emailed at all hours of day and night; he turned up on people’s doorsteps for breakfast at five thirty and six AM;  he shot photos constantly and made music videos and surprised people with his ability to use cameras, to choreograph, to direct:  He had command of his vision. He was an artist first and foremost. He formed a company and intended directing features:  his first project was supposed to be The Queen’s Gambit –  he was so good at chess he was just a few points away from being a Grand Master. When he was offered the role of Joker in The Dark Knight he was fully confident. He had mastered the art of screen acting. He owned the part and he knew it. It would win him the Academy Award and many others, but they were posthumous. There are interviews with his friends, family, co-workers and those with musician Ben Harper and Naomi Watts are especially perceptive and emotional. Their hurt at his loss is palpable. His end was desperate:  he was working with Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus with his sister alongside him in London as his assistant. He became seriously ill with pneumonia in terrible conditions – he was exhausted from the damp and cold, being held upside down from a bridge with water being poured on him didn’t help. He said his sleeping meds weren’t working and he couldn’t stop his mind racing, as dialogue coach Gerry Grennell recalls. He returned to an apartment in New York and the guy who spent his life communicating with people night and day suddenly wasn’t answering the phone. He was found dead 22nd January 2008.  He was just twenty-eight years old. This is a tender and thoughtful account of a brilliant and uniquely gifted young man and his death was a tragic loss to cinema. What he achieved as a major screen actor in a decade is unforgettable. Life is so short and it seems like a blink of an eye since I sent a text message to people during The Dark Knight, YOU HAVE TO SEE HEATH LEDGER!!! Written by Hart Snider. He always said, I have a lot to do. I don’t feel I have a lot of time

Heath Ledger with camera

I Am Paul Walker (2018)

I Am Paul Walker.jpg

He was always known as The Vagrant. The horrific death of actor Paul Walker in a car crash in November 2013 shocked the world. How could this action movie star renowned for his own very careful piloting of vehicles have occurred? A friend was driving the Porsche Carrera and both were burned alive in a car park after crashing into a tree. A really good driver. Conscientious at all times. He was in the middle of filming Fast and Furious 7 at the time. This painful documentary departs from that story until the final sequence and is concerned with interviewing many people in Walker’s life, starting with his tightknit working class Mormon family, drawing on his background in Tujunga, California, and the fierce loyalty to his many friends whom he employed to keep himself sane in the wake of success. A picture emerges of a surfer dude whose mom had taken him to auditions as a young child and who impressed people like Michael Landon with his abilities. He didn’t want to continue acting as an adult and indulged his pleasures for a time. That guy made the best of every single moment. He grew up tall – six three – and liked a gnarly fun lifestyle and his surprise casting in Pleasantville led to an introduction to filmmaker Rob Cohen whose first film with him was not entirely a success but would lead to The Fast and the Furious franchise that made Walker a movie star. Uncomfortable with publicity, he had to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and worked hard to support his girlfriend’s desire to escape to Hawaii with their baby daughter Meadow in order to further her education. His fascination with marine conservation was all-consuming and his happiest times were spent tagging whales yet he had a certain legacy to deal with that informed his approach to life – his maternal grandfather was a WW2 veteran who set a landspeed record using a road car at Bonneville in the Fifties;  his paternal grandfather Paul Walker II was a famous boxer; and his own father (Paul Walker III) was a tough guy who served as a marine in Vietnam and was a crack shot. The picture of masculinity that emerges is powerful and deep-rooted. He liked to do exciting things. He wanted to stop making films but he felt overwhelming financial responsibility to his family members and those friends of his who were part of his entourage on each Fast production: kindness superseded his desire to escape to his off-grid home. Everyone would come to him with their problems, as one of the guys observes. Nobody has a bad word about this astonishingly handsome, nice, thoughtful action man who suffered such a brutal ending. Touching? That barely covers it. Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis using a huge variety of home movies, archive, newsreel and personal interviews but the horror of Walker’s senseless death overshadows the film in a way these words and pictures cannot overcome. Success to me is balance in life

 

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanours.jpg

Everybody got honourable mention who showed up. Opthamologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) wants to preserve his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), and his dangerous brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) comes up with what appears to be the only viable solution – murder. Initially he is plagued with guilt about his infidelity and confides in his Rabbi client Ben (Sam Waterston) whom he is treating for sight loss. However when he becomes certain that his neurotic and hysterical mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is about to tell his wife about their four-year long affair, Judah agrees to Jack’s plan. Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is a documentary maker whose films make no money and he spends his afternoons at the movies with his orphaned niece. His wife Jenny (Joanna Gleason) chides him for his failure and refuses to have sex with him but things seems to be resolved when her brother, horribly successful TV comedy producer Lester (Alan Alda) says he can make a film about him, which introduces him to associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow), who shares his love of movies Without the law it’s all darkness. A film of two halves in which Allen tries to unite the ideas of tragedy and comedy – happily Alda is at hand to illustrate it via Oedipus Rex using the hoary saying, Comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s a wholly ironic work in which Huston’s death should trigger guilt in Landau but he escapes scot-free while his rabbi advisor ends up with sight loss; and Allen’s character who wisely advises his orphaned niece about life through daily trips to the movies doesn’t see what’s clear to his wife – that the object of his affection Farrow is in lust with the obnoxious Alda. Meanwhile his philosophical hero Professor Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann) whose interviews form a Greek chorus of morality for a proposed film commits suicide. That the entire tragicomedy is concluded in a wedding is the greatest irony of all in a work which balances like the finest of high wire acts. God is a luxury I can’t afford

 

 

 

The Last Waltz (1978)

The last waltz.jpg

There’s not much really left that you can take from the road.  Criticised at the time for its apparent focus on (co-producer) Robbie Robertson, this is a record of Canadian-American rock group The Band’s farewell concert at promoter Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on 25th November 1976, the Thanksgiving holiday.  It marked 17 years since they had started out as the backing band for rockabilly cult hero Ronnie Hawkins and then toured with Bob Dylan. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, the documentary intersperses his interviews and frank exchanges about their history, influences and life on the road with Robertson and fellow group members Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. They perform standalone songs and others with guest artists Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Dr John and Muddy Waters, with a standout performance by Emmy Lou Harris. A long but worthwhile souvenir (if rather manipulated, by some accounts) of a time that seems long past with riveting and charismatic musicians giving their all. There are plenty of singalong opportunities in a production designed by Boris Leven against a backdrop of a recent opera set and it’s beautifully shot by a phalanx of cinematographers led by Michael Chapman with Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zigmond. From a treatment by Mardik Martin. It started as a concert. It became a celebration

Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019)

Mystify Michael Hutchencce.jpeg

Michael always had an aura about him. One of the saddest stories in rock music is the demise of Michael Hutchence, the awesomely charismatic and handsome frontman of  INXS, the first Australian band to conquer the US and beyond. Dead by his own hand at 37 in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997 while entrenched in a custody battle over lover Paula Yates’ children by her husband Bob Geldof, she was back in London where she was obliged to stay with their own baby daughter Tiger Lily as custody was being worked out and he made a series of desperate calls to friends and agents in his final hours, recollections of which form the soundtrack to the film’s conclusion. This followed a wounding battle conducted in the scuzzy pages of the British tabloid press which he described as ‘misogynistic’. His friend and one-time director (of cult movie Dogs in Space) Richard Lowenstein has assembled a fascinating montage of home movies, concert footage, photographs as well as audio recordings of interviews with Hutchence’s family, girlfriends, agents, manager and band mates. Hutchence came from a fractured background with a glamorous model and makeup artist mother Patricia Glassop who married Moet & Chandon agent Kell Hutchence when her own daughter Tina (who never met her father) was 11. Tina had been brought up her grandparents and says her mother and Kell weren’t prepared for a baby and she became Michael’s surrogate mother when she started living with them and he was the dream baby, smiling all the time. Unlike his two years younger brother, Rhett, whose first word was No. Michael and his mother fled the family home for the US when he was a young teen, Rhett turned to drugs (his nannies introduced him) and the eventual divorce created a void that Michael filled with his high school friends upon his return to Australia, spending a lot of time in particular with the Farriss brothers who formed the band with Garry Beers and Kirk Pengilly. They allowed Michael to be their singer because he had no talent for musical instruments. He acquired a love of words through an early relationship when he became infatuated with the Beats in particular. Together with Andrew Farriss, the band’s main composer, he found an outlet and a love of performing belied by his innate shyness. At the height of the band’s fame with the Kick album they were worked hard, too hard, and it took a toll.  A long-term relationship with Michele Bennett didn’t survive the band’s astonishing transatlantic success and Never Tear Us Apart was inspired by her but she was no longer in the picture. Other band members were horrified when Hutchence cut off his signature Byronic locks (Pengilly remembers telling his wife to put away the credit cards) and did an experimental album, Max Q. Fellow singer and his lover of two years Kylie Minogue shares home movies including of a trip on the Orient Express and clarifies what he gave to her – a love of pleasure, of all kinds. He was a sensualist who would try anything but his hedonism was balanced by his curiosity as they travelled the world together when their schedules permitted until the inevitable breakup. His next relationship with model Helena Christiansen saw the pivotal moment that would, over a period of five years, trigger a catastrophic deterioration. They were bicycling through her hometown of Copenhagen late at night and had stopped for pizza. Hutchence was in the way of an irate taxi driver who punched him, knocking him to the kerb where he hit his head and blood poured from his mouth and ear and she thought he was dead. He became aggressive when he woke up in hospital and barged out without being prevented from leaving by doctors. She describes him staying in bed in her apartment for a month where he refused food or assistance. Then he attended a neurologist in Paris whose scans revealed permanent destruction of his olfactory neurons – a horribly ironic situation for a man who had gifted Kylie with the novel Perfume. He relished scent and taste and it is suggested that it was central to his loss of self. Returning to work with the band he was confrontational and violent, ‘virtually bipolar’, as one of them has it. They were not a happy unit. He got together with TV presenter Yates and their affair was endlessly controversial as the British press had christened Geldof ‘Saint Bob.’ Hutchence was humiliated by Noel Gallagher at the Brit Awards, an incident that hurt him enormously and INXS’ intended comeback album Elegantly Wasted didn’t work. When Yates had baby Tiger people around him report having never seen him so happy and he was a devoted father. However a scandal involving opium found in their house by Geldof’s nanny [those in the know are aware that Geldof planted it in the custody war – allegedly, of course] caused havoc and a legal battle for Yates’ three daughters by Geldof. Hutchence – a sensitive and gentle man with a slight lisp who always craved a family of his own – was horrified that he could be breaking up anyone else’s family following his own awful upbringing – seems to have suddenly had everything go against him. He was in the middle of rehearsals for the band’s comeback tour in Australia when he died alone in a hotel room following a series of phone calls – including one to Geldof, which is not mentioned here. Ironically he and Yates wanted to split and he had moved on with a young American woman named Erin whose interview forms part of the concluding narration to this sorry tale. Hutchence’s autopsy would reveal two large areas of brain damage that he had concealed from everyone since the violent 1992 assault. It’s an utterly tragic and moving story of a sensational man who made millions of us devoted fans very happy but who finally couldn’t find the ingredients to make everything add up for himself with the unravelling Geldof marriage seemingly proving the final straw. A troubling, sad and beautifully constructed and deeply felt portrait that seems like it will be the final word on its legendary and complex subject even if it’s made in an act of friendship and doesn’t entirely demystify the essence of a greatly talented songwriter and performer partly because of the rights issues that only permitted half a dozen songs to be included, courtesy of Tiger Lily’s intervention. However it gets beyond the clichéd and dreadful stories conjured by British journos in their effort to take him down: they succeeded, in the most awful fashion.  We’ll never get old

Jonathan Miller 21st July 1934 – 27th November 2019

I’ve got this, I think, unjustified reputation for being grumpy. I’m angry or disappointed at the condescension which I encounter from people who are 30 years younger than I am and know 100 per cent less than I do. That’s all. The death has taken place of the sensationally gifted Jonathan Miller – writer, actor, humorist, director, who first came to prominence in that gifted generation who reinvented British comedy with the musical revue Beyond the Fringe. As a young director he was responsible for what remain two of the best films ever made by the BBC – an astonishing adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (probably the best ever) and Whistle And I’ll Come to You, a spooky tale by M.R. James regularly televised at Christmas. The star of that film would contribute years later to Miller’s groundbreaking medical series, The Body in Question. Another adaptation, this time of Kingsley Amis’s novel,  Take a Girl Like You, provided the material for his cinema debut, a sardonic take on romance. His theatre interests (the National, the Old Vic, Broadway) materialised on the small screen with the BBC Television Shakespeare project starting with King Lear and continuing with The Taming of the Shrew and Timon of Athens. His acclaimed stage productions garnered him several opportunities to direct opera including rocker Roger Daltrey in The Beggar’s Opera and he wrote many books particularly on neuropsychology. Supremely erudite, unbelievably witty and incredibly tall, this genial gentleman scholar belonged to an age sadly fast disappearing from view when the notion of the public intellectual recedes in significance. This giant of the culture shall be missed, never mind Private Eye. RIP. I have a simple formula as a director. It’s nothing more really than reminding singers of what they know already and have forgotten

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)

Stanley Kubrick A Life in Pictures.jpg

With commentary from Hollywood stars and narrated by Tom Cruise, who starred in Eyes Wide Shut, over outtakes from his movies and footage from his childhood in a happy New York family, this documentary looks at cinema master Stanley Kubrick’s life and films in 15-minute segments. Director Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long-time assistant, interviews heavyweights like Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack, who discuss his output from his debut Fear and Desire onward and explain the influence of acknowledged classics like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and how he absorbed visual clues from disposable culture such as television commercials. It’s a marvellous biographical and personal account with information previously unavailable and funny, telling home movies. Not so much about the working process but with sufficient on-set detail to satisfy the neophyte to his work and tantalising insights about his home life and interests. Born to a doctor father who liked making home movies the young Stanley hated school where he was clearly gifted but bored. He started taking photographs as a teenager and was only 16 when he sold a photo to Look magazine of a street vendor’s reaction to President Roosevelt’s death. He hustled chess games and sold more pictures, sometimes of movie stars like Montgomery Clift.

Perhaps the most intelligent person I ever met:  Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  

There’s still a part of Stanley that’s a great mystery to me:  Steven Spielberg, director of A.I.

Day of the Fight (1950) A boxing documentary that came from his love of taking photographs of boxers and led to his father funding his debut fiction feature after cashing in a life insurance policy. Fear and Desire (1953) He knew nothing about acting. It’s the intensity that impressed me:  Paul Mazursky. Killer’s Kiss (1955) was made while he was on unemployment cheques and brought him to the attention of producer James Harris and they set up a company, Harris-Kubrick.  The Killing (1956) Marie Windsor describes Kubrick’s tremendous confidence. He employed legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard and when Ballard ignored Kubrick’s precise lens and framing orders on the first day Kubrick threatened to fire him. Ballard stayed and never disobeyed him again:  Kubrick knew his cameras. Paths of Glory (1957) You cannot see it without weeping:  Martin Scorsese on the masterpiece Kubrick made when he was just 28 years old. Spielberg says Kubrick did the opposite to other filmmakers, painting obvious ideas in big brush strokes but then his attention to detail was meticulous beyond anyone else’s. It was on this production that Kubrick met Christiane (who sings the song to the troops) who moved to Hollywood with him, became his wife and the mother of his children. Spartacus (1960) He inherited it from Anthony Mann and was working again with star Kirk Douglas. The script for this epic production had no battle scenes. The film had to be re-cast. He had an extraordinary ability to see what is important: Christiane Kubrick. To make a film like without Jesus but with Kubrick is already an achievement [for Kirk Douglas]: Peter Ustinov. The narration then informs us, The process had taught him he had to have full control over his films. He moved to England and obtained the rights to a controversial book that he loved,  Lolita (1962) which Spielberg declares is much more about the human condition than the novel ever was. It had to be re-cut for release.  Dr Strangelove (1964) Everything wonderful about that movie is because of the way it was directed:  Woody Allen. 2001 (1968) After working for Stanley on 2001 I swore I would never work for anybody again… I think probably he had a hard time keeping up with his intellect:  Gary Trumbull. 241 people walked out of the first exhibitors screening. Kubrick was devastated and Christiane couldn’t find him to let him know the great reviews a few people were giving it.  It was one of the few times in life I realised the artist was much ahead of me:  Woody Allen who had to watch it three times before he could acknowledge its greatness. And the Napoleon project that remained forever unmade? Stanley was fascinated by the idea that somebody so intelligent and so talented made so many mistakes. With the failure of Waterloo, Warner Brothers didn’t want to fund a loss-maker.  A Clockwork Orange (1971) I never know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want, Kubrick told Malcolm McDowell.  He exploited these extreme subjects that you sometimes recoil from:  Sydney Pollack. Alex Cox now describes him as a film director who’s given up being influenced by others. The devastating impact that the negative press coverage had on the Kubrick family led the director to withdraw it after 61 weeks on release. Warner Brothers agreed, Terry Semel says, because globally 2001 was the second greatest moneymaker in their history after My Fair Lady. Having Stanley under contract for the rest of his life was more important to Warner Brothers. It was a unique relationship in the film business and although he took time over his films, they were low cost – when you walked onto a Kubrick set there was nobody hanging around eating donuts. There was only ever a handful of crew. Barry Lyndon (1975) I knew it was a costume picture … I hoped he was going to take it somewhere else. He took it back in time:  Scorsese. Critics were looking for something that wasn’t in the move:  Richard Schickel. Whatever movies Stanley made, what I love about them is that they are completely conscious:  Jack Nicholson. The Shining (1980) He recounts a very different experience of collaboration than that of Shelley Duvall with on-set footage of Kubrick shouting at her that makes for unpleasant viewing. There are things in The Shining that still wake me up at night:  John Calley.  When he was away from home for a couple of weeks he left one 15-page document alone on how to care for his cats. Anthony Frewin says, He was kind of the ultimate Jewish mother. He was never happier than being at home with wife, daughter, friends, animals. British journalists labelled him a weirdo and it bothered him but he didn’t engage with the press following the Clockwork Orange experience. He returned to filmmaking with Full Metal Jacket (1987) which he’d been working on for 7 years during which time several Vietnam movies had been released and he’d been overtaken. It seems so still and removed, comments writer Michael Herr. He doesn’t deal with traditional dramatic structure, which is good.  He keeps experimenting:  Scorsese.  He welcomed everyone’s ideas on the set. He’d try anything. There were many ways in which he was not controlling. He was fascinated by World War 2 and Goebbels and the Holocaust and was preparing to make The Aryan Papers from Louis Begley’s book but when Spielberg announced Schindler’s List he gave up. His wife was pleased, describing him as very depressed throughout the prep. He approached Spielberg to make A.I. from a Brian Aldiss story because I think this movie is closer to your sensibility than mine. He wanted to postpone production to wait for technology to keep up with the film’s ideas and of course Spielberg eventually made it (commenting elsewhere that everyone got it wrong, believing that Kubrick’s ideas were his and vice versa, again proving that critics know nothing). Eyes Wide Shut (1999) starred fabled husband and wife team Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and she says the great luxury that Kubrick had and gave them was time. His understanding of humans is that we are very bittersweet. The whole process of the film was a discovery.  It’s about relationships and it’s about New York but it’s about a dream of these subjects, shot in London, close to home in Hertfordshire. Who among us would be anything but envious about the way he set up his life:  Schickel. One thing people have a hard time with in the cinema is ambiguity. Ambiguity is great but in the cinema it’s almost verboten:  Alex Cox. He never gave an inch on anything: Sydney Pollack, whom Kubrick cast in the film and agreed he was done in two takes yet Pollack was still shooting his scene three weeks later. The film screened to a good reception in New York on 1 March 1999 and his wife said it had taken a toll, as though it had become a part of his physicality. He died 6 days later, aged 70. It was one man’s vision, and no one interfered with that vision:  Alan Parker.

Either you can or you don’t:  Stanley Kubrick. Respect.

Friedkin Uncut (2018)

Friedkin Uncut

That’s the beginning and end of a career – when you start to believe that you’re an artist. Francesco Zippel’s documentary about the director William Friedkin partly takes place against a travelling backdrop of three film festivals during 2017 (Lyon, Sitges, Venice) where his work was being celebrated, he was being honoured and he was screening a new documentary about a priest who carried out exorcisms.  The first subject for discussion with Friedkin himself and a variety of talking heads, from Wes Anderson to Edgar Wright, is The Exorcist, prompting an odd opening interview to camera in which he considers Hitler’s reputation versus what Jesus did but the context is then revealed to be the existence and interpretation of evil. He states that he made the film as a believer although brought up in the Jewish faith in Chicago by Ukrainian immigrant parents and he says if they’d been Catholic his mother would have been sainted. Quentin Tarantino says that 80% of a film’s success is dependent on casting and, aesthetics aside, he credits Friedkin with brilliance in that department. Full-time milkman, part-time actor (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season) Jason Miller was Friedkin’s choice for the priest after he saw him on stage and he then dumped first choice Stacy Keach and waited a week for Miller to travel to LA by train. Miller was right for the role and that was that. [Ironically years later when Miller came to bring that play to the screen he cast Keach]. Friedkin claims to be looking for spontaneity rather than perfection and cast members like Ellen Burstyn speak to what she describes as his Method directing – making a suggestion and allowing the actor to run with it, frequently doing just one take. She recalls Max von Sydow, an avowed atheist, the man Friedkin says was the best actor in the world at the time, being completely blocked on his lines in the notorious exorcism scene and says that Friedkin remarked of the 100 things that he imagined could have gone wrong on the set that was literally number 100. He’s a believer in professionalism, not artistry. His films do not aspire to or reach the transcendent, like Antonioni, Fellini, even Argento, he says, as he hugs the maestro at a festival gathering. After high school in Chicago, attended by fellow director Philip Kaufman, he started out in the mailroom of a TV broadcaster and worked his way up at a time when you learned on the job because there was no film school. He shot an extraordinary death row documentary The People Vs. Paul Crump and wound up saving the man from execution. Initially he had no idea about directing feature films – until he saw Citizen Kane and recognised the power of the medium to go beneath the surface of human life. I can’t remember Orson Welles ever saving anyone from hanging but it’s documentary which is the central motivation in Friedkin’s career and it’s this directness that attracts viewers:  Coppola says that he would have explored metaphor if he’d made The Exorcist, whereas Friedkin engaged in it and showed it:  He doesn’t philosophise about evil. He shows you evil. And it’s interesting that when Friedkin tries to extrapolate messages, as in the opening interview, he falters. The French Connection speaks to his background in NYC and his familiarity with gangsters and police detectives (and Randy Jurgensen provides great background in his interview) but also his commitment to cinema veritéNobody can top Buster Keaton. He shot the Brooklyn car chase (done without permits) himself because it was so dangerous and he had discovered the camera operator was married with children; but more than that extraordinary instance of consideration, bloodymindedness and the art of filmmaking (and he says the only great chases in cinema were done by Buster Keaton, one of the handful of cinema masters he extols) people talk about the world of New York City in that film, just as they talk about the recognisable world he visualises in To Live and Die in LA.  That was when he also cast two virtual unknowns, Willem Dafoe and William Petersen, both of whom talk here and we are reminded that the director did something viewed then by critics as utterly unconventional and wrong – killing off the hero three quarters of the way through. He also portrayed the process of currency forgery with such accuracy it attracted the ire of various Government agencies. However it’s Sorcerer he says he’d like to be remembered by, if at all. He and screenwriter Walon Green took the novel behind the H. G. Clouzot (another of his heroes) film The Wages of Fear and using the basic premise reinvented it completely (as he says, they don’t say you’re remaking Hamlet). Francis Ford Coppola reminds us that in those days, when he was also making Apocalypse Now, If you wanted to show something extraordinary, you had to do something extraordinary. And photograph it. And we are watching the bridge scene in which the actors could have died and we realise we are actually watching a documentary. Roy Scheider returned from Connection in the lead which some find problematic and it may be a reason that the film suffered terrible commercial consequences – but then it was released when Star Wars was out. He’s brave. He fights. He’s got balls that clank. Even though he was not part of the Movie Brat generation he formed a company that funded Coppola’s The Conversation and there’s an amusing letter from him warning Coppola not to go over budget.  The masculine nature of his projects is effaced by interviews with Juno Temple (Killer Joe) and Gina Gershon (Bug) who both praise him not just for stripping off in sympathy with them on set but also for creating dimensional female roles. Gershon felt terrible during production but found out in a phonecall afterwards that he treated her the way he did in order to get her to give her great performance and he thought the world of her. Friedkin’s wife was the one who told her. In the mid-Seventies Friedkin realised that Fritz Lang was still alive and well and living in Hollywood and approached him for an interview. After Lang found out what Friedkin had made, he agreed and the fantastic result, Conversation With Fritz Lang is excerpted here, in which the master denies the greatness of his German output and claims to prefer his American films. Perhaps it is the association with Nazism that bothers him. As far as Friedkin’s politics are concerned, he himself denies his work is political to the delight of other commentators. Cruising attracted huge critical odium from the gay community but it is recalled that privately Friedkin was delighted by the controversy (and presumably the ensuing publicity for a film starring Al Pacino). Tarantino says that in the mid-Nineties he screened it for the mostly gay crew of a Broadway play he was appearing in and they were surprised and pleased by it. It exposed a world of S&M clubs immediately prior to the AIDS era that was not only long gone, it had barely been known by a lot of gays at the time and Friedkin had obtained access to shoot in one through the owner, a mobster acquaintance. Critic Stanley Blumenfeld likens his latterday output to that of the Japanese artists Friedkin collects – quick brushstrokes, brief lines. Direct communication.  It’s not as the title suggests uncut unless you include the bits that Friedkin himself would have left out – comments about shots, about coffee. And it’s certainly not a perfect documentary (how ironic). But it is a rather fascinating portrait of one of the more extraordinary and unapologetic filmmakers who is still in our midst if rarely making films nowadays, who recognises at this stage of his life that being a professional is the only thing, art is a happy byproduct. He contentedly drinks his mugs of black coffee in the Hollywood home that he shares with his wife, the first ever woman studio boss, Sherry Lansing, whom he happily says is, like his late mother, a saint. If you want to make a film you need ambition, skill and the grace of God. And the most important thing is the grace of God  MM#2,500

Play It As It Lays (1972)

Play it as it Lays.jpg

I’ll tell you what I do. I try to live in the now. Burned-out B-movie actress Maria (Tuesday Weld), depressed and frustrated with her loveless marriage to an ambitious film director, Carter Lang (Adam Roarke) who would rather work on his career than on his relationship with her, numbs herself with drugs and sex with strangers. Only her friendship with a sensitive gay movie producer, B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), offers a semblance of solace. But even that relationship proves to be fleeting amidst the empty decadence of Hollywood as they both start to crack up ... How do you get to the desert? You drive there. Husband and wife screenwriting team Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne adapted Didion’s sensational novel of alienation and its transposition to the screen by director Frank Perry captures its existential sense of crisis. Weld is perfect as the model turned actress whose flashbacks are a faux-documentary and some biker movies she has made with her husband (and Roarke starred in some himself, of course). Her narrative is determined by movie business ghouls and Sidney Katz’s editing plays into her disjointed sense that she is losing control in a chilling world where her retarded daughter is locked away and she undergoes an illegal abortion.  Weld is teamed up again with Perkins after Pretty Poison and they work beautifully together – you really believe in their tender friendship. An overlooked gem which reminds us what a fine performer Weld is and also the fact that Charles Bukowski wrote about her in the poem the best way to get famous is to run away.  A cult classic. The fact is, when an actress walks off a picture people get the idea she doesn’t want to work