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

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

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Nobody knows the fuck who I am any more. In Los Angeles 1969 fading TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered a job on an Italian western by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) while his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) assists him in every area of his life including driving him after he’s lost his licence for DUI and gofering around home on Cielo Drive where Rick occupies the gate house next to the rental where Roman Polanski (Rafal Zuwierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in. One day at Burbank Cliff picks up a hippie hitch hiker Pussycat (Margot Qualley) who wants a ride out to the Spahn Movie Ranch where he used to work and it appears owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being held hostage by a bunch of scary hippies led by an absent guy called Charlie and personally attended to by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff tees off the hippies by punishing one of their number for slicing a whitewall tyre on Rick’s car. Meanwhile, Rick confronts his acting demons doing yet another guest villain on a TV episode with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and considers spending 6 months in Italy, after which the guys return in August 1969 while next door a heavily pregnant Tate suffers the hottest night of the year and the Spahn Ranch hippies are checking out the residents on Cielo Drive … When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell. How much did you want to see this? And talk about repaying fan faith. What a huge ensemble cast, to start with, and with so many pleasant surprises:  Bruce Dern as George Spahn, the owner of the fabled ranch where Manson holed up;  Clu Gulager (!) as a bookseller (with a Maltese Falcon on his counter); Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet; Michael Madsen (remember him?) as the Sheriff on the Bounty Law TV show; Kurt Russell as a TV director (and more besides) with Zoë Bell as his kick-ass wife; and Luke Perry in his last role; and so many more, a ridiculous spread of talent that emphasises the story’s epic nature. It’s a pint-size take on Tarantino’s feelings about the decline of Hollywood, a hallucinatory haunted house of nostalgia, an incision into that frenzied moment in August 1969 that symbolically sheared open the viscera lying close to that fabled town’s surface. It’s about movies and mythology and TV shows and music and what it’s like to spend half your day driving around LA and hearing all the new hit songs on the radio. It’s about business meetings at Musso & Frank’s (I recommend the scallops); and appointment TV; and it’s about acting:  one of the best sequences is when Rick is guest-starring opposite an eight-year old Method actress (Julia Butters) who doesn’t eat lunch because it makes her sluggish and she expounds on her preference at being called an Actor and talks him into giving a great performance. All of which is a sock in the jaw to critics about Tarantino’s treatment of women, even if there’s an array of gorgeously costumed pulchritude here, much of which deservedly gets a dose of his proverbial violence (directed by and towards, with justification), among a selection of his trademark tropes. It’s likely about Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman turned director Hal Needham or that of Steve McQueen (played here by Damian Lewis, I can even forgive that) and James ‘Bud’ Ekins. It’s about an anachronistic TV actor whose star has crested but who wants to upgrade to movies after a couple of outings – and there’s an amazing sequence about The Great Escape and what might have been and actors called George. But it’s more than that. It’s about a town dedicated to formulating and recalibrating itself for the times and it’s about the joys of moviegoing. Watching Robbie watch herself (actually the real Sharon) on screen is so delightful. She’s a little-known starlet and her joy at her own role in The Wrecking Crew is confirmed by the audience’s laughter when she wins a fight scene. Robbie is totally charismatic in a role that has scant dialogue but she fills the film with her presence: a beautiful woman kicks her shoes off and enjoys watching herself – take that! The detail is stunning, the production design by Barbara Klinger just awe-inspiring. This is a film that’s made on film and cut on film (Super 8, 16, 35) and intended for the cinema. It’s shot by Robert Richardson and it looks simply jaw-dropping. It’s about friendship and loyalty and DiCaprio is very good as a kind of buttery hard-drinking self-doubting star; his co-dependent buddy Pitt is even better (it’s probably Pitt’s greatest performance) as the guy with a lethal legend attached to his name (maybe he did, maybe he didn’t) who doesn’t do much stunt work any more and some people don’t like his scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on The Green Hornet but it’s laugh out loud hilarious. This is leisurely, exhilarating, chilling, kind and wise and funny and veering towards tragedy. It’s a fantasy, a what-might-have-been and what we wish had been and the twist ending left me with feelings of profound sorrow.  As we approach the end of another decade it seems a very long fifty years since Easy Rider formulated the carefully curated soundtrack that Tarantino has made one of his major signifiers, and it’s exactly fifty years since Sharon Tate and her unborn son and her friends were slaughtered mercilessly by the Manson Family. People started locking their doors when they realised what the Summer of Love had rained down, and not just in Hollywood. Tarantino is the single most important filmmaker of my adult life and this is his statement about being a cinéphile, a movie-lover, a nerd, a geek, a fan, and it’s about death – the death of optimism, the death of cinema, the death of Hollywood. It’s also about second chances and being in the right place at the right time. Just as Tarantino reclaimed actors and genres and trash and presented them back to Generation X as our beloved childhood trophies, Rick’s fans remember he was once the watercooler TV cowboy and give him back his mojo. This film is where reality crosses over with the movies and the outcome is murderous. The scene at the Spahn Ranch is straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook.  Practically Chekhovian in structure, this reminds us that if there’s a flamethrower in the first act, it must go off in the third. Tarantino is telling us that this is what movies can be. It could only be better if it were a musical, but, hey, it practically is. I thought I’d been waiting for this film for a year, truth is I’d been waiting for it half my life. Everybody don’t need a stuntman

True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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The new Tarantino movie was controversial long before it was made:  the script was leaked by persons unknown and the director threatened not to make it as a result. However, here it is, in all its inglourious variety. This is definitely a film of two halves and it is really perplexing trying to figure out why it had to be shot on Panavision 70mm – after the initial ride through the snowy mountains it’s set for the most part in a log cabin while a blizzard rages outside. Admittedly seeing the digital transfer courtesy of Odeon is not the way it was intended. The second half really gets going however as everyone tries to kill off everyone else and the connections between the parties are revealed and sundered in the goriest way imaginable. It is basically Ten Little Niggers/And Then There Were None relocated to the Wild West, including the only woman getting a hanging in the concluding scenes. Boo, hiss etc. It always takes two viewings to understand this man’s films (I will  make an honourable exception or three for Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. That’s half his films, to be fair). And they go faster the second time. However the intermission was wasted where I saw it – rendering the second half voiceover by QT redundant if not outright puzzling… It’s as if Martin McDonagh was given a camera and not a stage. Strange. QT is really writing plays, isn’t he?