What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2019)

What She Said The Art of Pauline Kael

People don’t tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts. Film critic Pauline Kael had an unimaginable influence in the world of thumbs up, thumbs down reviewing and accumulated acolytes and rivals as she cultivated what she believed was an expressive art form. She was a failed playwright from California who moved to New York City, had an illegitimate daughter by experimental filmmaker James Broughton and returned to Berkeley where she started talking about movies on a radio show. What she failed at in her theatre writing she achieved in reviewing. Something just clicked, as one interviewee recalls. She loved Shoeshine, damned Limelight and got herself in print with a book called I Lost it at the Movies which made her a name. And that title underwrites everything about a woman who regarded every movie as a date. She worked at McCalls’ until she was asked to leave because she did not sit on the fence and was not in tune with the mainstream. She crucified some films, like Hiroshima, mon amour and Lawrence of Arabia. She deplored American cinema at the time. Bonnie and Clyde is the review that made her famous in the wake of Bosley Crowther’s famously damning criticism. Her review was rejected by The New Republic and when The New Yorker published it it was a sensation and she got a job there on a six-month on, six-month off contract.  Robert Towne, who consulted on the film, describes how it helped the film. She loved movies and famously wrote Trash, Art and the Movies where she delineates the difference between the good and the bad as she saw it. She experienced sexism, as she stated on a 1973 TV show:  It is very difficult for men to accept that women can argue reasonably. She had her favourites – Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty among them. Camille Paglia shudders and says she can’t understand why she went to the mat for Last Tango in Paris:  she bought her own ticket at the New York Film Festival and stole the march on her rivals, giving it a rave that weekend. Mean Streets she loved and Scorsese was one filmmaker who benefitted from her cheerleading. She crucified films she thought were phony – she described Shoah as having a lack of moral complexity and summed up Apocalypse Now as white man – he devil. She would not be intimidated. She hated horror movies – she lived in New York City and said she had a hard enough time living in such a scary place without having to contend with The Exorcist and its ilk. There’s an excerpt of a TV interview with author William Peter Blatty saying that Kael’s reviews are full of personal poison. She got herself a great big house in Massachusetts and would spend a week at a time in New York at screenings. She enhanced some careers,  damaged others. She had her camp followers and encouraged Paulettes like Paul Schrader who would take on a job on the LA Weekly and then jump on the bandwagon for a particular film at her request. She had a rivalry with auteurist critic Andrew Sarris whom she castigates in her essay Circles and Squares. His widow Molly Haskell says of Kael, No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline. While this is quite good on context it never really nails the nitty gritty of what it is to be a journalist and to go out on a limb giving the only viciously – and presumptively – perceptive account of a film that other critics are afraid to give what she would call a con. Her famous book about Citizen Kane‘s authorship rehabilitated the reputation of forgotten screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his role in creating that masterpiece.  But just as Beatty sought to keep her quiet by giving her a job in Hollywood it showed she had blind spots and was perhaps rather naive:  she had come to believe her own publicity much as she professed to scorn the studios’: She was a virgin who was very willing to be seduced. Those six months made her bid a hasty retreat to the rather safer confines of critcism. When she loved something, you knew it:  she came out in a big way for Casualties of War. After 24 years and suffering from Parkinson’s she retired from The New Yorker. Readings from letters and telegrams that celebrities wrote to her capture some of the devastation she wrought including one from Gregory Peck:  You may have cost me good roles in the most productive phase of my career. Her review of Blade Runner was so damaging that director Ridley Scott hasn’t read a review since. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg wrote, 1000 reviews later you are the only writer who really understood Jaws.  It is interesting  – and impossible to credit in the democratised, non-edited non-hierarchical space and era of social media and the internet in which nobody has any particular importance – that one critic could have held such sway over popular opinion in a world where limited opening dominated. For Pauline Kael everything was a conversation. There are a lot of interviews here but their content feels circumstantial rather than deep or meaningful. It’s something of an irony. Written and directed by Rob Garver.  The movies needed her

 

Grey Gardens (2009) (TVM)

Grey Gardens 2009

Everyone thinks and feels differently as the years pass by. Long Island, the mid-70s. The documentary filmmakers Albert (Arye Gross) and David Maysles (Justin Louis) are showing some of the footage they’ve shot about former members of NYC high society 79-year old Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange), the sister of Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter 57-year old Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) to the pair. The women are living in a decrepit dirty house in East Hampton filled with cats and other stray animals and we learn how they wound up in poverty without electricity and running water, starting in the Thirties when Little Edie refused to marry any pig-headed momma’s boys bachelors and wanted a career on the stage. When her father Phelan (Ken Howard) divorces her mother she lives in the city and tries out for shows and models and falls into an adulterous relationship with Julius ‘Cap’ Krug (Daniel Baldwin) a married member of Truman’s administration. Her father tries to end it but it’s Cap who finishes with Edie and she retires to the beach house effectively replacing the attentions of her mother’s former lover, children’s tutor Gould (Malcolm Gets) and never leaves …  I don’t think you see yourself as others see you. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles released their eponymous documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin and people were horrified. It was deemed tasteless and exploitative, its stars clearly not fully compos mentis and their sad lives in a state of utter disarray and poverty. What it lacked was context and that sin of omission is repaired here as we enjoy a series of flashbacks starting in 1936 when Little Edie is such a loser on the husband-hunting trail that would settle her for life while her parents’ marriage falls apart – a situation that would eventually leave her mother and herself penniless and isolated. It’s rare to see a TV movie made with such care and complexity; the word apoplectic appears at key points and has a different resonance on each occasion. Perhaps the makers understood the term palimpsest. This certainly fills the gaps the initial documentary leaves but it also restages certain scenes from Grey Gardens (1975) and the framing story as the women watch clips of their lives unspooling on the wall of the decaying house elicits some priceless reactions by the mother and daughter. This is really a story of women who are left behind and the limited options available even to the supposedly fortunate daughters of the very wealthy:  a priest reporting to Phelan Beale about Little Edie’s behaviour at a party sets the ball rolling disastrously. It’s a deeply felt film about performance on several levels and Barrymore is quite astonishing playing Little Edie in different phases of her life. Her failed debutante, girl about town and finally recluse are brilliantly developed. Her devastation and consequent alopecia when Krug tells her she has naïvely mistaken their sexual escapades for a special relationship is heartbreaking. The possibilities for misunderstandings multiply over the decades and Barrymore masters that flat affectless Boston brahmin drawl, offsetting the emotions in counter intuitive fashion. The final performance for a gay crowd at a NYC club before she leaves the State for good is good natured. Maybe she was in on the joke – at last. Throughout she seems to drift in and out of different kinds of consciousness. We know she definitely can’t stand another winter in the freezing cold of Long Island. She is matched in a different register by Lange whose role requires quite a different set of nuances not to mention a love of cats. There’s a very enlightening sequence when the newspapers break the shocking story about Jackie O’s sad cousins living in squalor and the woman herself visits and promises to have the place redecorated. Little Edie delights in lying to her that she should have been First Lady instead if Joe Kennedy Jr had lived despite having only seen him once at a party. Jackie sadly agrees:  not the anticipated reaction. The Edies enjoy the deceit, setting the scene for their final reconciliation when they finally forgive each other for the destruction of their lives. Perhaps justice is finally done for these eccentrics whose destinies were dictated by men. Written by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy. Grey Gardens is my home. It’s the only place where I feel completely myself

Good Posture (2019)

Good Posture

I’m not much of a reader. Lilian (Grace Van Patten) is a budding filmmaker living in New York City after her father Neil (Norbert Leo Butz) abruptly moved to Paris with his girlfriend. When her boyfriend Nate (Gary Richardson) dumps her for being immature, she moves in with family friends who she last saw when she was a baby. While musician Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is welcoming and friendly his wife Julia (Emily Mortimer), a famous and reclusive British novelist, immediately clashes with lazy Lilian and it appears she bullies her husband. Lilian smokes marijuana with Don which leads to his having a fight with Julia and he promptly leaves the house. Julia sequesters herself in her room and begins communicating with Lilian through messages in Lilian’s private journal.  After running into Nate and his co-worker, filmmaker Laura (Condola Rashad), whom Lilian works out he is seeing, Lilian pretends she is working on a documentary about Julia to make herself look good. Rather than ask Julia for permission, Lilian begins scouting for cameramen and settles on Simon aka ‘Sol’ (John Early) and uses her father’s connections to contact famous writers and interview them about Julia.She finds out from Jonathan Ames that her father is back in New York and his girlfriend is pregnant. She also realises that Julia is using her as possible writing inspiration and has used her as inspiration before, when she was a child. Then Julia finds out about Lilian’s documentary when Lilian is late to meet Sol, and he enthusiastically tells Julia everything. Julia cuts off all communication with Lilian. Depressed, Lilian makes a move on Julia’s reclusive dog walker George (Timm Sharp) who rebuffs her. Then she reconciles with her father and meets his girlfriend Celeste (Emmanuelle Martin, the film’s costume designer) and they don’t even tell her what she already knows about their future plans … Tell Miss Havisham I’m on it. It’s difficult to tell what age our heroine Lillian might be even though when we meet her she is clearly (formerly) involved with an adult male but she wears pigtails, is parented by phone from Paris and also does drugs. She’s tricksy, unlikable and a bit ungrateful. Likewise her authoress host is prickly as a porcupine, sour and not exactly pleased to see her. A bit like real life then. A writer who doesn’t write, a musician husband who hasn’t made a record lately, a house guest of indeterminate duration who doesn’t read yet wants to make documentaries but admits that she has ‘never sat through one’ and fixes on making one about the woman she refers to as Miss Havisham whose books she doesn’t know. Yet we find out Lilian’s mother abandoned her (she died) and Julia lost a baby. It’s a film about people in the mass media who don’t know how to communicate with each other. Information is passed like contraband behind people’s backs. Julia writes in Lilian’s diary and uses it for a new novel. We find out about the story from the songs composed for the soundtrack by Heather Christian. It’s also about how the children of well known people coast through life using their parents’ contacts and money. It’s about how bereavement plays out for years and years.  It’s about how people can’t see what’s staring them in the face. It’s about the millennial generation’s sense of entitlement.  It’s replete with contradictions and human comedy and the film within a film boasts cameos from novelists Zadie Smith and Jonathan Ames who play along gamely with the witty script but leave it to Martin Amis (who is gleefully credited as ‘Self’) to deliver the zinger that is both dramatic and comically relevant: It’s not an intellectual stimulus, being happy. On the contrary. The performances are perfect. Mortimer is an underrated actress. She looks so harmless but one remark can hit right below the belt and power several scenes ahead when she’s nowhere to be seen. She has one employee solely to care for her dog whom he walks and cooks for yet she bullies her own husband out of the family home. Van Patten has a tough role and plays it excellently – spiky, spiteful, irritating and manipulative, eventually developing a degree of self-awareness. The epistolary nature of her relationship with Mortimer reminds us of nineteenth century literature. Low-key, writerly, amusing and ironic with an unpredictably clever romcom happy ending plot-engineered by master puppeteer Mortimer: I would expect no less from writer/director Dolly Wells, Mortimer’s co-star in the cherishable TV series Doll & Em, similarly set in Brooklyn.  Let’s keep it happy

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Steve McQueen The Man and Le Mans

We had the star, we had the drivers. We had an incredible array of technical support, we had everything. Except a script. The story behind the making of Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s dream project – a realistic film about motor racing set around the great 24-hour endurance race in 1970. He planned a documentary-style production starring himself and made by his own company Solar in collaboration with Cinema Center Films, but it went over budget and schedule. He disagreed with and fired Thomas Crown Affair/Bullitt writer Alan Trustman (who he says in an audio recording knew him like nobody did); and he also fell out with his Magnificent Seven/Great Escape director John Sturges, who walked out; then Cinema Center tried to replace McQueen – on his own film!- with Robert Redford. McQueen agreed to a pay cut. I don’t think there’s any racing drive who can tell you why he races. But he can show you. The film was plagued by crashes, the worst involving David Piper, whose leg was amputated. Charles Manson was on his killing spree at the time and McQueen discovered he was on his hit list and became paranoid, taking to carrying a handgun. His marriage to wife Neile broke up when he found out she had finally paid him back for his multiple infidelities with one of her own. He crashed a car late at night with his young Swedish mistress actress Louise Edlind and blamed it on a 21-year old set assistant who was on his first day at work on the film. McQueen didn’t bear a scratch from the incident. When the film came out in 1971 it received ‘mixed’ reviews … We were winging it. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s film tells an inglorious tale of ego, hubris and racing too close to the sun, a paradoxical move for the coolest man to ever walk the earth. You better believe in what you;re doing. I believe in what I do. It’s stylishly directed, with a plethora of remarkably beautiful clips retrieved from private collections and unfinished on-set documentary footage as well as boasting terrific new interviews (and some from the previous 2001 doc Filming at Speed) which suggest that this was a devastating experience for McQueen, a turning point from which he may never have truly recovered. With Trustman and Sturges on board it was the dream team but McQueen was both stunningly indecisive and doctrinaire. He felt responsible for the racers, above all, but never visited Piper following an accident that only occurred because a scene was shot twice owing to the absence of a script. They never met again. The film reveals to Piper that McQueen had written to the powers that be to release the premiere’s takings to Piper for his medical treatment – they did not; but Piper is pleased at the revelation. He had something hidden. McQueen’s long business relationship and friendship with Bob Relyea was sundered. He was trying to capitalise on his stardom but clashed with the studio ethic of storytelling in the classical style in an ironic bid to strip away filmmaking tricks and falling victim to excess. When he wanted to give back Hollywood wasn’t there for him. Essentially he wanted to build his own empire while also attempting to obtain creative control. Instead he wound up skipping the premiere and quitting racing for good. Yet it’s the film he had shipped to Mexico a decade later when he was receiving treatment for the cancer that would kill him, showing it to fellow patients. It transpires that the asbestos that caused his cancer is the type used in racing suits in the Sixties. In many ways it seems this film was the time when McQueen’s luck finally ran out. This is a visceral experience for the viewer, almost tactile in its power. Smell the fumes and feel the need for speed. Gripping.  I am too old and too rich to be putting up with this type of shit

This Changes Everything (2019)

This Changes Everything 2019

Women are virtually excluded from the directing profession. This recent documentary about the lack of representation of women in front of and behind the cameras is quietly shocking, sometimes by the truisms expressed that all women already know; and sometimes by the gruesome statistics that are sprinkled like so much arsenic throughout the on-camera interviews, featuring women directors (mostly unemployed), actresses and activists (ie former directors who couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood due to their gender).

We have been Other-ized by men really to allow men to give birth to their own subjectivity:  Jill Soloway.

Hollywood is our storytelling machine.

There is an assumption that men are going to be authoritative.

If Starbucks had 93% male staff there would be a problem:  Rose McGowan.

When half of the filmmakers and writers are allowed in our cultural life will change. Issues of ‘cultural curating’ are addressed when Julie Dash talks about her gorgeous film Daughters of the Dust only having 13 prints on release for her hit movie – the curators preferred black male narratives like Boyz n the Hood. Kimberly Pierce didn’t direct for 9 years after Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry and when she was making Carrie (the remake) with Chloë Grace Moretz they both describe how the mostly male crew presumed to know what it was like for a girl to be shocked by her first period. For women, the arrival of TV show runner Shonda Rimes has been a game-changer, not just because Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy goes out and gets drunk and has a one-night stand before her first day on the job, which apparently baffled studio heads at the first screening. And it’s on episodic TV that we now find some of those women directors cast aside by the movie studios: we all recognise the names.  Hollywood has never had a mechanism to regulate discrimination. When Title VII (Employment Equality) was used to take a case against the studios in 1969 it didn’t work. Nixon’s government wasn’t having it and the black lawyer taking the case was stigmatised so bowed out. One of the revelations is a 1985 legal case against the Directors Guild taken by The Six (six gifted, award-winning but out of work women directors, one of whom deadpans, What we figured out we really needed was a penis.) They went to the  Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and studied the period from 1949-1979 going through every industry publication to make their case, finding that one half of one per cent of all Hollywood productions in thirty years were directed by women. Their case was thrown out by a woman judge on the grounds that the DGA was self-discriminating:  (male) directors didn’t hire women ADs, ADs didn’t hire women 2nd ADs and so on. So the Guild itself was misogynistic. She wasn’t wrong. That’s when they needed to go to the ACLU. That happened following an increase in female hires to 1995 when it fell off a cliff again. And the decision that the DGA was ‘gagging’ and ‘red-flagging’ as one contributor puts it. The woman behind contemporary activism on this front is Maria Giese, a director and screenwriter who made her feature debut with a British film, When Saturday Comes, in the mid-90s, was courted by Hollywood and then … never worked again. Now a mother, she has campaigned so that her daughter will never have to endure her failure. Misogyny is part of Hollywood. It wasn’t always that way, as we are reminded that the Steven Spielberg of early Hollywood was Lois Weber. Then the money men came in, Wall Street got involved, sound arrived and by the 1930s only Dorothy Arzner was helming films. This is not happening naturally on its own. Sharon Stone recalls being asked to take direction by sitting on directors’ laps and asking them, Do you ask Tom Hanks to do this? Meryl Streep remembers on Kramer Vs. Kramer [the Ur-film of contemporary screen post-feminist paternity:  read Hannah Hamad’s book on the subject] all the men scratching their heads and wondering why her character might be acting the way she is. Her input was not appreciated.  As she diplomatically frames it, this was being told from a male perspective. What is being done to turn things around? John Landgraf of TV channel FX, that’s what. Or who. A rare CEO who decided to up the game and hire talented people regardless of gender. But then it transpires that women are simply low on agency lists, if at all – it’s staggering to see one agent’s list of directors and find Kathryn Bigelow …. way, way down. Kathryn Bigelow. Not a single film studio head would agree to participate in this film which says it all. The venerable Reese Witherspoon discusses a meeting she had with one or more of them a decade ago when they admitted they currently had no leading roles for women but one had a male role that could be rewritten for a woman:  that’s when she started her own company, acquired options on books and started making films and TV shows – thanks to her we have, among other productions, the water-cooler show of our time, Big Little Lies. What has changed in the culture? One thing. The release of a recording of TV star and hotelier Donald Trump declaring he can grab ’em by the pussy. Even then he was voted in as President of the United States. And then came the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which explained the enforced disappearing from our screens of fabulous women like Ashley Judd and Annabella Sciorra, whose brutal testimony has since been disparaged because she didn’t have the ‘correct’ response to being raped by one of the biggest, ugliest and most powerful men alive who had the ear of liberal darlings the Clintons and the Obamas. Film when it was born was not gender-specific. How I would love to declare that this was written, directed and produced by women. It wasn’t. How horribly ironic.  It was directed by Tom Donahue, presumably hired by one or all of the Executive Producers, including Geena Davis, extensively featured here,  who has done so much through her Institute on Gender in Media but clearly is tone-deaf to the argument about brilliant unemployed women filmmakers that this proposes – albeit she is the engine for this particular production and many of those figures and facts flashing up like a psychiatric treatment administered to the hard of thinking. Isn’t that ironic, etc. Sheesh. In the week that we have been reliably informed that 90% of the world’s population hates us (was this news to anyone female?!), Happy International Women’s Day. Every day is Women’s Day in my house. What’s good for women is good for everyone

S is for Stanley (2015)

S is for Stanley

Aka S is for Stanley – 30 Years Behind the Wheel for Stanley Kubrick, S Is for Stanley – Trent’anni dietro al volante per Stanley Kubrick. He was fast. Filmmaker Alex Infascelli came across Emilio D’Allesandro upon the publication of his memoir, Stanley Kubrick E Me and decided to make a documentary about the man who was the auteur’s driver and assistant for more than a quarter of a century. Emilio relates to camera and over montages and home movies his story of emigration – he took the train from Italy to London in 1960 and made a splash driving at Brand’s Hatch but needed to make money for his new family with English wife Janette and became a taxi driver. One night in 1970 when the firm couldn’t get anyone else to take ‘an object’ to a house outside London he was the only driver brave enough to go in a snowstorm. He was greeted at the front door by Kubrick who had a newspaper cutting about him in his pocket and asked if he was the same man who had driven at the famous racetrack and whether he drove that quickly on normal roads. Emilio said, no, he did not drive fast outside races and started working for Kubrick the following day, using his own car. He found that his new employer loved cars as much as he did and particularly Mercedes because he believed the German marque was the safest. He asked Emilio if he could drive an imposing truck constructed to withstand immersion in water. Emilio said if it had a steering wheel and four wheels he’d give it a try. There was a house move, from Abbots Mead (owned by Simon Cowell’s father!) near Elstree Studios to Childwickbury Manor, a huge country house ten minutes away that had enough stables to serve as production offices and vast lands for rescue animals to roam. The place was a zoo, Emilio sighs and photos show him on the back of a poor sad donkey. The documentary is a feast of information, with Kubrick’s many notes and letters narrated by Clive Riche, and they are a marvellous insight into his working method and his home life with wife Christiane and their three daughters. He believed in labels and lists  – one of which dominated the house:  Basic Training. It starts, If you open it, close it. There are 11 further lessons to live by. The meticulous approach, as detailed by Emilio, and some of which is catalogued in the many archive boxes in his own garage filled with memorabilia, is known to Kubrick’s fans but its application domestically, including pet care – he took in all the dogs and cats that came into his purview and housed them and took care of them and left particular notes on each of their needs – demonstrates the mindset that was above all utterly practical. The first production Emilio was directly involved in was Barry Lyndon, to be shot in Ireland. He would fly from London to Dublin as many as four times a day, back and forth, with highly confidential items. He recalls being asked to find a candle manufacturer that could produce candles for three years straight:  he would discover later that Kubrick planned on shooting the film by candlelight. Emilio had a run-in with Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shining and when he told Kubrick, I would like to stay away from him, the director understood and it was not a problem.  His home telephone always rang at meal times. When Emilio said it wasn’t fair to Janette, Kubrick asked if it would be alright to install a separate line for his calls at their home. Emilio recalls having call Federico Fellini on Kubrick’s behalf to find out how he achieved a certain effect. Kubrick’s calls were lengthy, and even Fellini finally had to make his excuses and hang up. Why did they do this to me? asked Kubrick in the wake of his daughter Anya’s marriage and the other two girls moved to London. He was a gregarious sort, a devoted spouse, father and family man and he felt abandoned. Emilio declares bemusedly that only Christiane and all those animals were left at the house. While Emilio and he were driving one day Kubrick spotted an abandoned gasworks that would serve as the main location for Full Metal Jacket and Emilio was like another father to Matthew Modine, the star. In 1991 when Emilio was turning 50 and his parents were ageing and infirm he wanted to return to Italy. He gave Kubrick three years’ notice, during which his father died. On the eve of departure, Kubrick asked him to stay two more weeks. He and Janette suffered when their racer son had to have his leg amputated following a crash and Kubrick sent them to the best doctors, taking care of the bills. What do you do during the day? Kubrick asked Emilio when he had finally gone home to Italy. Emilio remembers, I started watching the films and that was when I realised what a genius he was. Kubrick asked him to return to England for a fortnight. Janette believed it was a trick to get Emilio back working again but knew her husband was happier working with Kubrick. When he and Janette went for afternoon tea he asked the director about his current film and Kubrick responded he couldn’t do it without him. If you tell me you’ll come back I’ll do it. Emilio and Janette stayed in England and Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut half an hour away from home, at Pinewood Studios, where Greenwich Village was reproduced. He made the film partly in tribute to Emilio – he had him in the film at a news stand where Tom Cruise buys a paper;  and a café is named for him (Caffé Da Emilio); he found every possible way to include him. Love, Stanley.  After editing the film Emilio found Kubrick in need of assistance one day as he tried but failed to break a tablet in two for one of his pet cats. Kubrick regularly needed oxygen and was exhausted from the film. His beard had turned white and he was utterly drained. He died that night, one week after a screening for Warner Brothers in New York. In the present day, Infascelli drives Emilio back to Childwickbury, where a Private sign hangs on the closed gate. Emilio doesn’t want to enter. (Kubrick is interred there, along with Anya).  It’s a gentle and touching recollection of things past, a lovely personal account of a long-lasting friendship and working relationship told across the background of four major films made by one of the cinema’s most astonishing filmmakers. For a man who ironically disliked being photographed, some of the happiest pictures here of Kubrick are from the home movie of the party he held for Emilio when he was leaving for Italy in the early 90s.  I still think when the phone rings it might be him

Whitney (2018)

Whitney 2018

Her parents were preparing her for legacy music. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about Whitney Houston was made with the co-operation of her family and is executive produced by her agent Nicole David, one of several associates interviewed here, and he has access to the music, so it’s a different creature to Nick Broomfield’s film on the subject, Whitney:  Can I Be Me. Macdonald admirably makes this a story of a time and place by dint of regular montages placing us in a year – culturally, socially, politically – with news and current affairs footage and symbols giving a firm context. And it’s jarring to hear Houston’s brother tell us how she got her name – their mother, the famous backing singer Cissy Houston, liked ‘a white sitcom’ on TV so named her for the actress Whitney Blake. Racism of all kinds looms large in this story. Newsreel footage of the Newark riots and the bodies of black men killed by the police remind us of what life was like for black people in New Jersey in the Sixties. Her father John is called both a dealmaker and a hustler, a man who gained powerful status in local circles, and he nicknamed their light-skinned daughter ‘Nippy’ because she was a beautiful but tricky child, and she was bullied in the neighbourhood. She sang in the church choir and sometimes sang backup for her mother who was trying to launch a solo career that didn’t take off. When her parents divorced following her mother’s affair with their church pastor, Whitney left home as soon as possible and moved in with her friend Robyn Crawford who she had met aged 16. Her brothers were aware that Robyn was a Lesbian. One interviewee says that these days Whitney’s sexuality would be designated ‘fluid’ while her longtime hairdresser and friend Ellin Lavar says Houston loved sex, with both men and women and discussed it with her to an embarrassing degree. Whitney modelled but soon sang on her own and two big labels courted her and she signed with Arista’s Clive Davis. He announced her to the world on the Merv Griffin Show and the footage of her singing Home from The Wiz is spinetingling. It is used on the audio track later in a different context in the film, to chilling effect. One contributor talks about the issue of ‘double consciousness’ – the problem that a black entertainer has in having to satisfy a white country and a black world, but in this context it could also refer to Houston’s sexuality and the difference between being Nippy and being Whitney, a stage character. Macdonald does not shirk from the role of the black community – divided on colour lines of its own – and the pressure it exerted on Houston directly or otherwise. In the Eighties, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of her venues with signs calling her ‘Whitey’ Houston (ironically his TV condolences are aired when her death is announced); and of course there is the infamous incident at the 1989  Soul Train awards when the audience booed her – presumably for not being black enough, for having sold out, for singing pop and being brilliant at it. She was asked in an interview why she thought it might have happened – and she claimed she didn’t know. It was the kind of bullying that had provoked her parents into sending her to a private Catholic school in the first place. That was the night she met bad boy (and acceptably black soul singer) Bobby Brown – the ghetto type the Houstons had wanted to keep her away from – and the conclusion is that the couple who would marry and have a child were mutually co-dependent. As her star rose with The Bodyguard, his could never hope to meet it, a year after she had performed The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, an appearance that still stuns the viewer and nailed her ability and popularity simultaneously when the US was at peak patriotism following the Gulf War. Her Bodyguard co-star, Kevin Costner, was proud of the fact that their interracial kiss was such a significant shot in the film – pointing out the 180 degree camera move, replayed here. (How odd that thirty-plus years after Island in the Sun this should still be a contentious point [and odder still that when he gave a eulogy at her funeral his entrance was greeted with booing by the black attendees – not something mentioned here]. Odder still to a white viewer is Lavar saying that she and Houston were afraid of making the film because they were so outnumbered in the middle of ‘all these white people’:  racism is a beat constantly underpinning the narrative.) She was a good actress. I always used to tell them, Whitney’s in there somewhere. But she’s trapped. That film and the theme song I Will Always Love You (written by Dolly Parton) made her a global superstar:  she is shown being comforted by Nelson Mandela when she gave the first concerts in South Africa after he came to power.  She could find nuance in songs that even the writers didn’t know was there. That record got a British woman gaoled for a week when she drove her neighbours nuts playing it 24/7. An Arab version played endlessly on his campaign trail propelled Saddam Hussein to power. When Brown is asked directly by Macdonald about Houston’s drug use he refuses to discuss it – and perhaps given that it was her own brothers (two full, more half-) who admit introducing her to drugs when she was still a child, he has a point, despite the tabloid headlines about their married lifestyle and on-camera evidence produced here about their home lives (which they eagerly broadcast in their horrifying reality TV show). About two-thirds of the way through the film is the big revelation: her brother Michael volunteers the idea that it’s something in a person’s childhood that drives them to drug use and declares that as a boy he was abused by a female relative. Then Whitney’s aunt says the singer revealed her own experience to her of abuse by the same woman when they were discussing their daughters – this is supposedly why Whitney was afraid to leave Bobbi Kristina (called Krissie) at home while she toured:  the same female relative was her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s sister, another singer). Dee Dee is shown in TV clips from the Sixties, a dour-looking heavy-browed character. Bizarrely, Houston is pictured in one home movie lying on a bed under a huge photo of the sinister woman. For all her concerns about her own daughter, Krissie was an unstable cocaine addict by 18 and in and out of rehab, unsurprisingly given what family and friends say she was growing up around [and her own dreadful death, replicating her mother’s, is recounted here]. Houston made a lot of magazine headlines (the National Enquirer alone was running almost weekly updates for a decade) for her drug use; and many more complications arose from 1999 onwards when she signed a $100 million contract for new recordings. By that point she knew her father and accountant had been robbing her blind and her father then sued her – for $100 million. Once her father had taken over managing her there were many members of her family riding the gravy train, other than her mother and Robyn, who was invited to tender her resignation, a decision Whitney endorsed, despite the fact that Robyn had been doing her best to protect her from the sharks throughout her career. I don’t think she knew the layers being created by others. After an excruciating performance in honour of fellow fame victim Michael Jackson, a car crash interview with Diane Sawyer did not help. She had to quit rehab after 8 months because the money ran out. Then there was appalling evidence of her drug-ravaged singing voice in mobile phone footage of one of her last concerts, with one concert goer offering that a dead rat would have performed better. Years were spent pointlessly attempting to record new music, recalled with tragic diplomacy by the producer Joseph Arbagey, who remembers her disappearing for weeks at a time behind her hotel room door and returning emaciated.  Many millions of dollars were expended on the fruitless project. No longer fit to perform, she was given a lifeline in a remake of the movie Sparkle, a lodestone film from her childhood that had starred Irene Cara. She played the mother. Her agent says that Whitney had been clean throughout the production and didn’t go home for three or four days after the job was done but at the time she wasn’t aware of it until her driver told her Whitney simply didn’t board the flight and eventually asked him to drive her cross-country to her home. Her agent refers to it as ‘that hole’ in Atlanta.  We don’t need to be told what followed. Despite the access, the film still feels curiously incomplete, as if the dots have not been joined: sex abuse, parental ambition and divorce, drugs, Lesbianism, being a light-skinned black in a community divided, being a black singer performing pop songs better than anyone ever had. Cause and effect are not entirely or convincingly linked. Perhaps because this is the official version, unlike Broomfield’s, who talked to Robyn. Or perhaps because the person at its centre had stopped doing what she was good at long before her incredible demise in a bathtub in a Hollywood hotel while her aunt went out to get her donuts with sprinkles and found her dead when she returned just thirty minutes later, as she tells us. The camera enters the hotel room and tracks into the bathroom where Houston was discovered face down in the water. Graced with the voice of an angel in the body of a beautiful black woman exploited by all the people she trusted most in a divided industry produced in a divided country, this biography is a tale of total tragedy, something that regularly occurs in the music business but it’s a story that shows absolutely nobody in a good light, not even Houston herself. It was in every sense a life half-lived. Whitney Houston died 11 February 2012. I’m pissed off. And people think that it’s so damn easy

Terry Jones 1st February 1942 – 21st January 2020

The death has taken place of one of the greatest screen comics and writers we have been blessed to enjoy. Terry Jones started writing with Michael Palin after they graduated from Cambridge and they made their names on British TV as joke writers for people like John Bird and David Frost before collaborating with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to create the landmark series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where Jones’ penchant for absurdity, satire and surrealism blended with his historical interests and a slight case of anarchy. Jones came into his own as a director of their frequently controversial films and directed other material as well as continuing a separate writing career as a mediaevalist, poet and children’s author. For most of us, though, he will be remembered as the immortal Mandy Cohen, mother of a very naughty boy. Goodnight Terry, you only went and revolutionised comedy while you were with us. It’s probably time for a rest.

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