A Cold Day in Los Angeles

A Cold Day in Los Angeles

Today’s topic: grief. In a world where technology is prevailing, online communities are winning, face-to-face interaction is fading, surprisingly we’re still able to mourn, and better yet talk about grief. It’s a hard process, a long one. Sometimes it takes a year or two, sometimes a whole lifetime. In film, grief has been used as a subject for deep character studies in movies like The Three Colors: Blue, Ordinary People and even the action packed The Gladiator, where the main character becomes a bloodthirsty fighter in order to avenge his family’s death. As depressing as it is, grief is also one of the most fascinating subject matters, because only by talking about it do we realize what’s really inside of us. Tom Ford’s A Single Man  is what I consider a film driven by incredible subtlety and real emotions, a film that speaks for us all in a very quiet, distinct way.

The story of George (Colin Firth at his best), a middle-aged English college professor who struggles at coping with his lover’s death and facing the daily routine of Los Angeles in the 1960s, may seem as a simple one. That’s the point. It’s simple but beautiful. George’s lover, Jim, died in a car accident eight months prior to the day we witness. Now George has to learn to live without Jim. Live in his big mansion, all by himself. Live in Los Angeles all by himself. Since Jim passed away, George hates waking up because every time he does so, he’s reminded of the fact that he’s still here. He’s still breathing, and why? If every breath is painful then why breath at all. On the day we meet George, George decides to kill himself. Either he discovers the real reason for living or he commits suicide. It’s one or the other. Living in someone else’s skin is pure torture, real pain that has gotten more and more familiar with George. In fact, ‘George’ is a cover-up: it’s someone who doesn’t exist, it’s the person people want to look at when they look at George. It’s what the world expects from him: clean, neat, intelligent, well-mannered. Gentleman. Good looking guy. Elegant intellectual. Enough of that.

A single man in a single world.
A single man in a single world.

The daily routine of our protagonist: wake up, try to defrost the frozen bread, go to the bathroom and spy on neighbors from the bathroom window, go to school, talk about inspiration and motivating young students to aim higher, smoke a pack of cigarettes, go home. That is what usually happens in George’s life, over and over again. Yet, the day of his planned suicide turns out to be oddly different. His neighbors seem happier than usual. George finally sees a family that doesn’t act like a family, but is a family. The mother smiles to her daughter not because she wants to pretend she’s happy, but because she is happy. The husband and wife kiss not because the whole neighborhood is watching, but because they are in love in a place  where finding real love is almost impossible. It’s an unexpected moment of truth and clarity for the college professor sitting on the toilet, spying. It’s a reminder of all the good that still does exist in this world. We may not see it on a daily basis, but sometimes all there is to do is to spy more accurately, like George. Then he goes on to school and for the first time he doesn’t talk about literature, he doesn’t bore his students by talking about Byron or Hawthorne, he finally talks about something that really matters: the unnoticed minorities. The poor and weak. The ones we do not care about. The ones who do not carry ‘etiquettes’ around. It’s something George has had in mind since the day Jim died. It’s something he had to put out there, for someone to listen and understand, and care.

An unexpected connection is made later on in the day, nearby a liquor store, when George accidentally stumbles into a handsome Spanish man, Carlos. Carlos is young, handsome and smart, everything George used to be before age kicked in. Carlos is the symbol of innocence. A young immigrant who finds himself cornered in a metropolis like Los Angeles. A man who finds answers in self prostitution. A child who’s not ready for this big world yet. They both understand each other. Carlos understands George’s grief as they share a cigarette and look into each other’s eyes. They talk about home, their parents, the scary future and the even more terrifying past. “Lovers are like buses. You just have to wait a little while and another one comes along.” says Carlos. George chuckles, but he damn well knows that Jim was one of a kind. Carlos understands. They leave but what they’ve created in those few minutes of conversation is what most of us will never achieve in a lifetime. An instant bond that ends like it began.

When the city shines at its brightest, that's when you should shine too.
When the city shines at its brightest, that’s when you should shine too.

Many of you may wonder, Tom Ford? Isn’t he that huge fashion designer whose perfumes I buy? Well, Ford is indeed that. But he’s much more than a simple fashion designer. He’s a gay director with an incredible eye for human emotions. Why do I mention he’s gay? Because in all honesty, I think that only a gay director could have captured the troubled emotions of the mourning homosexual Englishman as well as he did. There needs to be a connection between the director and what’s on screen and here you can feel it. Feel it in your bones. The lighting, the camera work, the subtle movements and cold cinematography. Like Chodolenko’s The Kids Are All Right, in which the story of a lesbian couple is unraveled by a lesbian director, here the story of a gay man living his last few hours trying to find out more about himself is perfectly told by a gay director that actually knows how to make an impact with simple moments of silence, delicate kisses and innocent looks. It’s the vibrating emotions that are all over the screen because the man who directed it, knew what he was talking about. Ford gives us a glimpse at what it feels to be someone who doesn’t want to be himself anymore. Someone who wants to escape.

George does escape. On a cold day in Los Angeles.

A long awaited goodbye.
A long awaited goodbye.

No Heroes

No Heroes

Today’s topic: the end of an era in The Wild Bunch (1969). A lot of people consider the Western genre to be boring nowadays. My own generation, the youngsters, seem to be repulsed by the boring scenery, outdated dialogue and predictable action. Sure, Westerns are predictable; the good guy wins, the bad guy dies. The special effects sure look like nothing compared to today’s fast paced action blockbusters and yet, to all the non-Western-watchers, you’re missing out. Westerns were made to enjoy, to make audiences root for the hero who who would always come out victorious, to make them boo at the ferocious indians and ugly bandits, to make them laugh whenever the clumsy old sheriff’s sidekick would come up on the screen. Western set laws that didn’t apply to any other genre in the 1940s Hollywood. As movies they always followed a certain scheme, a plan that had a prepared route of what will follow. And yes, many times Westerns would get repetitive, tackling the same subject matter – that of a glorious Wild West, a land so rich and so beautiful that only the rightful hero can have. But then again, exceptions are made. The exception here was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that managed to destroy the myth of the good Old West.

William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.
William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.

As some of the more seasoned movie fans may know, Peckinpah was famous for his head-on, no-brakes concept of violence (Straw Dogs, from 1971, being the prime example), which in some way revolutionized the way audiences started to adapt themselves to the violent imagery depicted in movies. Until that time, most directors chose not to show blood on screen. Blood was considered a dirty element in the golden industry of Hollywood. However, Sam Peckinpah did not care. He was a true visionary who looked at film with his own eyes and mind. The Wild Bunch was his way of depicting the reality of what people considered a fairy tale. The very Wild but pretty West. Peckinpah does not talk about a good sheriff, or a handsome rider; he does the opposite – his movie is about the cruel passing of time. Time ignores the fact if you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever. Time is time and in The Wild Bunch, it’s ruthless. Our main protagonists are no kids; they’re seasoned veterans, real filthy bandits who in the past have killed, raped, robbed and drank every little penny they had. Their best days are way behind them. Maybe they never had them. They’re not as quick at pulling the trigger anymore, and their only reason to live is the love they have for crime. That’s their addiction, something they can’t stop themselves from doing. Time is killing them. What they once considered an easy two minute job becomes a bloodbath of a robbery. The authorities begin to outnumber them and in no time out of a whole gang, only six of them remain alive and loyal. Running.

Where are the horses? Long gone.
Where are the horses? Long gone.

As the movie progresses we notice how Peckinpah plays with time; in the shootout sequences, which for 1969 were something out of this world, he tackles time by making the most out of slow motion and fast paced intercuts. When a bounty hunter is shot dead and falls down to the ground from the top of a building, as he slowly reaches the ground, the director intercuts with the wild motions of galloping horses, symbol of progress and immediate change. Right after the bloodshed that took place in the street of a peaceful border town, Peckinpah dissolves to an image of a scorpion being eaten by thousands of ants. What happens next? Children set the insects on fire, and Peckinpah keeps the camera rolling as the flames devour what seconds before was devouring a mighty predator. We get the message. It’s time for the old timers to step away. If they stay, time will swallow them up. Even technology is subject to change and here too, the director makes the most out of the available props. Revolvers are replaced by semi-automatic pistols, bolt action rifles are left off in exchange for modern shotguns, and horses can’t outrun an automobile. It’s these simple things that make the biggest change in the gangbangers’ lives. The Wild West is filled to the brim with criminals much more skilled than these six poor old sobs.  This is no country for old men. Old men must go, but before they do, Peckinpah leads the gang into a brothel, just to show us that there is no class in being a bandit. It’s a simple reminder that makes us think about all those times we saw the hero prepare himself for his final battle by praying in a church or cleaning his weapon in a quiet hotel room. Not in this case. In this case, the brothel is the sanctuary. The holy temple.

Fairy tales do not exist.
Fairy tales do not exist.

As I mentioned before, what is so revolutionary about this movie is the use of epic violence: corpses riddled by bullets, a machine gun that rips bodies apart and grenades that destroy entire buildings. The final shootout is an example of a virtuoso working against a whole world of viewers by challenging the way they’d watch Westerns. This is a war movie. The remaining five bandits face a squadron of angry Mexican soldiers. It’s the scorpion being eaten by the never ending masses of ants. It’s five men against the inevitable passing of time. It’s the Wild West against the approaching twentieth century. It’s the beloved traditions against the modern age. The bullet-spraying machine gun, in this case, is seen as the last door to knock at. Each one of the wild bunch tries to hold the weapon for as long as he can, but in the end, they all let go, crippled by the enemy fire. Crippled by their dark past. Their mistakes. Time sinks its teeth into their lives, ending them once and for all. It’s never been about gold, silver or any of that. It was about living the fearless life no one would get to live anymore after that.

The dying breed of a dying era.

Their last walk.
Their last walk.

Stanley’s Bastards

Stanley’s Bastards

Today’s topic: the controversial Kubrick. Whenever you wonder about the great figures of cinema, there is always one name that keeps coming up in many different departments; from directing and writing credits, to sound and visual effects, to cinematography and camera work. The name is always the same: Stanley Kubrick. His contribution to film is immaculate, and as Scorsese himself has said it: ” One of his films… is equivalent to ten of somebody else’s. Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountain top. You look up and wonder, “How could anyone have climbed that high?”. He’s the mountain everyone aims for but no one can achieve. Is it the perfect structure and shot composition? Is it his great vision? Is it the movement on screen? Is it the pulsating cinematography and production design? Many have asked themselves these questions, and the answer will remain forever unknown. However, for me there’s always been something else that stood out in Kubrick’s pictures: the courage. It takes a lot of it to direct movies like Lolita, A Clockwork Orange or The Shining. In my opinion, every movie of his was too ahead of its time and most of them still are to this day. He often spoke out against our common beliefs, traditions, laws, and still managed to let this protest be beautiful and impactful. No matter what was on screen it was always somehow fascinating to watch like the violent rape scene in The Clockwork Orange or the obscene cult sequences in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s frames always speak to the viewer and most importantly; they make him feel. That’s why I think Kubrick has made an impact on how we view cinema: he introduced controversy.

It's no glory,glory, hallelujah.
It’s no glory, glory, hallelujah.

While analyzing this particular topic, I decided to pick one of the director’s most controversial and yet, lesser known films; Full Metal Jacket. Sure, it’s probably quoted in many  best war movies’ lists, but most people today don’t know what’s so special about it other than the perfectly depicted gore and violence. Kubrick introduced a new way of approaching documentary-like filmmaking by tackling the subject of the Vietnam War when the wound was still fresh. 1987, the Cold War is slowly coming to an end, and people can definitely feel it, not only in the US but all across the world. Change is coming, and hopefully for the better. However, Kubrick doesn’t like the idea of people getting on a high horse. Full Metal Jacket is a painful reminder of what happened when the world started to believe in fairy tales. It’s a warning. That’s why it looks so real, like a documentary, because Kubrick wants us to experience the useless pain and suffering of every soldier that goes fighting a no man’s war. There is no idealization, no glory in this film. There are no medals, no speeches. There is no honor. It comes to the point where a US Marine plays with the corpse of a dead Vietcong operative. He plays with the dead man’s hands, laughing. Laugh at the horror, says Kubrick. Cry later.

No man's land.
No man’s land.

It’s all about the way the director presents the material, that’s when the movie acquires a voice. Here, Kubrick chooses to use the television-box-like aspect ratio instead of the typical widescreen because this way he creates an atmosphere that creeps into every home, emphasizing the role of television in transmitting the images of the Vietnam War to the American public. It’s called portraying the truth rather than fiction. We don’t have main characters in this movie. Yes, we have some that stay with us until the very end, but we never focus on any of them. We focus on the whole concept of a military squad. We can’t tell who dies and who doesn’t. When a character is too “visible” for us, Kubrick eliminates him. From boot camp to the destroyed cement jungle of Hue City, we follow these guys until the very end, until the moment when even we, the viewers, can’t tell the difference between what’s right and wrong anymore. With Kubrick not even boot camp is a safe place. Like many documentaries filmed in the 1980s (Anybody’s Son Will Do), Kubrick’s opening scenes are first of all meant to show us the tough environment and the cold welcoming recruits usually get. But Kubrick takes it to a whole other level when he depicts the real damage boot camp can inflict on a recruit’s mental state; that of getting to the point where one of the many jarheads shoots the drill Sergeant and then proceeds to shoot himself right in front of his only friend (or enemy?). That scene was something out of the ordinary when first shown to audiences: aren’t boot caps supposed to make men out of hippie crazed teenagers? No, you’re all blind and deaf, says Kubrick. See evil. Hear evil.

You thought you could make a change? Forget about change.
You thought you could make a change? Forget about change.

Are there friendly faces among the Marines we follow? Kubrick writes the way he directs: straightforward, harsh but all wrapped up in a blanket of beauty. He says, stop believing in characters that don’t exist. The soldiers who came down with an objective, lost sight of it after a few days. Joker, who was supposed to be the squad’s reporter doesn’t care anymore if he takes the right photograph of a mass grave and the right description or not. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Violence creates violent people. Marines and other fellow soldiers become animals with no compassion, no empathy, no dreams, no feelings. They shoot for the fun of it. They fight ghosts in a ghost town, that of a post-bombing Hue City. They chase what can’t be chased. And ultimately they play out a battle against one single enemy – an entire squad of Marines against one sniper, hidden in one of the many abandoned buildings. What’s the twist? The sniper is a little girl. Now, the controversy (if not yet visible) is this: in movies like Sands of Iwo Jima  or Lawrence of Arabia we witnessed epic battles that always showed two equally strong sides fighting over a piece of land, usually a mountain, a forest, a hill, or even the desert. Here, an entire squad is shooting up a set of ruined buildings just to smoke out one small mouse: in this case, a twelve year old  holding a sniper rifle. And when finally, after many unnecessary casualties, the Marines manage to kill the girl, they walk over to her and stand, gazing at the child’s blood. They can’t feel anything. They’re animals gazing at their prey.

Lions scouting a rabbit.
Lions scouting a rabbit.

Maybe now, that we live in an era filled with extravaganza, obscenities and everything “going viral”, this may not seem like anything exceptionally controversial. But Kubrick was a master at defining each decade with one single film. And I’m sure that if he was still alive, he would sum up our present reality with a major eye-popper.

When Kubrick does it, it hurts. Beautifully.

By the end, it's all flames.
By the end, it’s all flames.

Time Bomb

Time Bomb

Today’s topic: the hidden anger in The Social Network. Upon my third viewing of the Oscar winning (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Editing) picture directed by (again) mastermind David Fincher, I realized it was more than just the story of how Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, became who he is today and all the people he hurt and betrayed on his way to the top. Sure, it’s a shivering achievement that will always rank among the best character studies of all time, but the real spirit, what drives this film is the presence of a feeling we all know – anger. What motivates the beeping score, the steady camera work and the dynamite characters is not solely Fincher directing the scenes, not even screenwriter Aaron Sorkin with his fist-fight-like screenplay, but the feeling of anger, buried under layers and layers of excellent filmmaking.

It all comes down to a simple conversation.
It all comes down to a simple conversation.

If we look closer, we sense it every second of the running time because without  it there wouldn’t be no Social Network. During the very same opening scene, Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara) are sitting in a bar, drinking. She’s there knowing she’s only doing it out of pity for a 19 year old genius who spends his days in front of his laptop doing God knows what. It’s a simple set up. In every movie there is the typical face-to-face conversation at some point. Here we have it at the beginning, because the whole dialogue and the setting is a huge establishing shot for what will follow for the rest of the film. The two start arguing about final clubs, since Mark wants to enter one and become part of the most prestigious class of people in Harvard, and Fincher quick cuts the explosive comebacks with fast shots that start to make our heads hurt. Don’t gag. It’s just a warm-up. The conversation ends with Mark making fun of Erica’s level of education and causing her to leave. There he is alone. Angry. Furious. Sitting in the dark corner of a bar. Maybe he didn’t want to insult her, maybe it’s just the way Mark knows how to  talk to people, especially to girls. And what comes next? A peaceful but very meaningful title sequence of Mark walking to his dorm through Harvard campus. Now, it’s not just a simple title sequence. It shows who we are following as the main character. Who is leading us into this discovery. He’s larger than what we think of him. He’s larger than Harvard. He’s larger than the US. But not in the way we think. He walks with his head lowered, unnoticed, wearing flip-flops and jeans, he doesn’t smile nor does he exchange looks with anyone. He’s one of a kind, and during that very moment the world can’t touch him because of how angry he is. A walking dynamite. What we first think of as a peaceful scene turns out to be the definition of anger: quiet, insecure, kept in a small cage, but when it finally gets out, oh boy. It’s Zuckerberg time. Hacking and other obscenities will follow.

This is Mark.
This is Mark.

Why did this movie win for Best Editing? Because with the use of extremely fast paced cuts, inserts and supertitles it creates the atmosphere that only a pulsating fire-ball could create. Tension. Tension, therefore anger. Mark screams in exasperation but no one can hear him, because he doesn’t want to let it out, he’s too afraid. In fact, that’s why Facebook was founded for those who still believe in fairy tales. It was founded because a computer genius at the age of 19  couldn’t make friends. It was founded as a way of telling the whole world how he felt about people: primitive, simple minded, ignorant and naive. It’s not about entering final clubs and prestigious societies anymore, it’s not about feeling appreciated or achieving something grand in the name of Harvard. For Mark that’s “elementary bullshit”. Facebook is for him. It’s a website with his name on every header of every page. It’s a signature ‘screw all of you, I don’t need you.’ But deep down he does. Eduardo (a powerhouse Andrew Garfield)  is Mark’s only friend and co-founder of Facebook. It’s also the one who rightfully files a lawsuit against Mark for depriving him of Facebook rights. Because that’s what Zuckerberg did. He cut off the only real friendship he ever had in his entire life. That’s when Fincher’s directing skills kick in. What’s the best way to show someone’s loss? Cut right in the middle of a conversation to a shot of an empty chair, a chair in which Eduardo sat a few seconds before. No more. It’s empty now. Just like Mark’s life in that very same instant. It’s too late for apologies, the chair will stay empty.

Even a genius can feel cornered.
Even a genius can feel cornered.

Anger is the silent betrayer. It sneaks up on not only Mark’s friends and enemies, it sneaks up on him too. When Mark lies to Eduardo about Facebook’s future, Eduardo freezes all the bank accounts, cutting off the website’s funds. It’s deadly. It hurts. And it’s also when Mark decides to eliminate Eduardo from the team. Eye for an eye. A conflict between friends that is much stronger and much more exhausting than the one Mark leads with his enemies. That’s when the score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross comes into play, especially the theme song Hands Cover Bruise. The skipping, consistent, distorted violins and a few piano notes build up the enormous pumping energy that grows inside of every character, but mainly Mark. It focuses on his loneliness, originality and the gift of his indisputable genius. It’s a score that separates him from the rest of the world, alienating his ideas and motivations, and the scarred feelings he’s always kept to himself. It’s a score that ticks like a time bomb, waiting for the the final ‘tick’. It’s a fuming volcano that someday will have to erupt and nobody will be able to stop it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is anger in its purest form. Capturing it is like  riding a bull, you hold on for a few seconds and then you just let go.

A young woman tells Mark at very end of the movie: “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”

A rare moment of joy. Soon to be gone.
A rare moment of joy. Soon to be gone.

Double Standards

Double Standards

Today’s topic: dual personality. Every once in awhile we come across the concept of having multiple personalities, especially in cinema with movies like Fight ClubEnemy or even with the character of Smeagol in The Lord of The Rings franchise. However, the subject matter is often understood and categorized as a kind of sickness, a mental disorder, which of course gives the writers an interesting idea to develop quirky plots and mind bending storylines. That’s why today I want to write about the 1982 gem of a comedy Tootsie. It’s a movie that has shaped the genre of comedy and managed to touch some serious subjects like the role of women in today’s society, the way we look at women in the film and TV industry, and what it feels like to live in someone else’s skin. It’s a movie that, in my opinion, is still ahead of its time, and that’s why I want to go deep and see why.

For those who don’t know, Michael Dorsey (played by an incredible, post-Graduate-post-Midnight Cowboy Dustin Hoffman) is a New York actor. He loves acting and he loves the smell of the theatre. What’s wrong with him? He’s a perfectionist, or what we call today, an asshole. Nobody wants him because he just doesn’t fit anywhere. Michael drives everybody mad. He teaches a few of his friends and students some basics for the perfect “Michael acting”. That’s when at a party, he learns of a soap opera part that pays good money but with only one problem – it’s a female character. Who, cares. He goes for it. Meet Dorothy Michaels, a tough woman who can literally act her ass off in front of the cameras. What should have been a short term job becomes the only job Michael has. It’s a great job, maybe too great. And that’s when the real questions come into play. It’s when this acting job becomes a real journey, an eye-opening experience.

It gets scary when you can't tell the difference.
It gets scary when you can’t tell the difference.

The character of Dorothy Michaels is strong, loud, and when it comes to facing someone or something, Dorothy always comes out as the winner. That’s why Michael gets the part in the first place; he creates a masculine character, that aside from making us laugh to tears, makes us reflect on the current idea and perception of the woman we had in the 80s and probably still have today. It’s that masculinity, that grit that makes the show’s director change his mind and make an offer to Michael, because he sees what he rarely sees in a woman. A woman is supposed to be delicate, sweet, sensitive. Dorothy is a whole other animal. She’s a predator. Michael creates the ideal of what he considers to be a great person. Outside the Dorothy costume, he’s still an asshole that always begs his friends for money and advice, forgets about his date, doesn’t pay attention to his flatmate in need, and well, is a huge egomaniac. But with Dorothy he becomes someone else. He enters a new world, a world where he can start a whole new story and get to live it. As Dorothy he makes new friends, and especially with a fellow actress and castmate, Julie. Julie brings out a feeling that Michael had forgotten about; the feeling when you fall in love with someone. For real. But, as Dorothy he cannot show it. So now, the new skin becomes a trap that makes it impossible for Michael to demonstrate who he really is.

Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.
Sometimes too far is in fact, too far.

Maybe, it’s for the better. Because only as Dorothy is he capable of forming a true friendship, a real meaningful bond, one where two people got each other’s back no matter what situation comes up. It’s love that isn’t love. It’s not about having those discussions and arguments couples have, it’s something different. Something that Michael has never tasted before. The days go by, and Michael feels less and less comfortable as his own self: he tries a dress at his girlfriend’s place, he pays more attention to the amount of hair he shaves everyday than the amount of food he consumes, he watches his hips and ankles, he comments on other women’s appearance and overall, starts thinking like a woman. Perhaps it’s the frustration and anger against a world that has never appreciated him for who he is as a man, as a male actor, or perhaps it’s the wish of the inner child to finally get to live the life he always wanted to live: the one of a famous, respected, well paid soap opera star. Maybe that’s the real dream that Michael has always chased. Or maybe not. Soon the fans overwhelm him and his life, the publicity makes him lose track of the real objective and gets in the way of his feelings toward Julie, and after a while he realizes that he’s not living the life that was given to him as Michael. Being Dorothy Michaels was supposed to be a short term job, that would help him get back on his feet and direct the play he always wanted to. The love for Julie is by now, too strong to hide.

A not so perfect kiss.
A not so perfect kiss.

We get to see what it feels like to live two separate lives: it’s fun and it gives a lot of satisfaction but we, as humans, can’t deal with it for too long. Maybe some do. But Michael can’t. Life as Dorothy proves to be exhausting and it’s more of an educational adventure: Michael understands that you need other people to feel fulfilled, you need to give to receive, and a love that’s mutual and feels real does exist. It’s no fairy tale. It’s real life. There are important values in life, and sure, there’s more than the usual nights spent in front of the TV with a couple of beers and an over worked script on your lap. Now Michael has to learn to be Dorothy Michaels without actually being her, is that possible?

Tootsie’s one of a kind, so yeah. It is.

An adventure that keeps on going.
An adventure that keeps on going.

Middle Man

Middle Man

Today’s topic: the raw realism of Goodfellas. The gangster genre is one that has been popular since the early 1930s, with the original Scarface and Public Enemy, and it went on to be recognized as one of the most well received genres of cinema. In the early 70s, the world and history met the grandeur of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, two films that are today known as the finest filmmaking achievements of all time. Then we had Scarface (1983), Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, A Bronx Tale and Donnie Brasco. In the last decade or so we’ve met other contributions such as Road To Perdition and The Departed. It seems as if the lifestyle led by gangsters and no-do-gooders is something that appeals to audiences and sucks them right in. And we always hear people saying: “The Godfather is the best film ever made”  or “Scarface is so cool and so violent”, and of course they are great examples of a Hollywood way of making films that is slowly vanishing. However, I feel like we tend to get stuck in time. We love these movies because they show a world of gangsters that are noble, know how to respect the rules, murders are clean, and where there is no such thing as “get dirty”. It was back when the idea of the American dream was it its most powerful, most visible. What I intend to do is try and look at what is so mind blowing and refreshing about Martin Scorsese’s epic, Goodfellas. 

It all starts out with a bang!
It all starts out with a bang!

Wait, not epic. It’s not. Epic would mean that it’s a colossal hit that everyone knows and loves, just like The Godfather. It’s impossible not to like it, right? That’s why I prefer Goodfellas. I love it because it’s thought provoking and still is more innovative than what comes out of Hollywood these days. It’s a shocking portrayal of what seemed to many as the perfect way to live – money, women, cars, easy life – well no. Goodfellas denies the romantic qualities of the previous gangster movies. It’s like rock’ n ‘roll; it’s fast, loud, dirty and it smashes you over the head. It’s unexpected. Henry Hill’s story, that of a gangster who’s been the middle man in a large family for over twenty years and finally turned into witness protection after pointing out the bosses to the FBI, is a true story that is still looked upon as one of the most fascinating experiences ever told on film. And who would be better at directing it than the one and only, Martin Scorsese? Scorsese. Someone who’s seen it with his own eyes. Someone who lived surrounded by those kind of people. Someone who breathed the same air as they did. The director is the energy. The actors the power. The combination is deadly.

Enjoying freedom to the fullest.
Enjoying freedom to the fullest.

You can’t compare Goodfellas to anything. Not even Scorsese’s later gangster biopic, Casino (1995). It’s unlike any contribution to cinema. The groundbreaking direction is part of the unnerving realism; look at the role played by the tracking shots — when Henry hears about his girlfriend being disrespected by some hood, he parks his car in the driveway, sees the guy in the rearview mirror, packs his gun and exits the car. He walks toward the hood with fury burning in his eyes and how does Scorsese capture it? In one single tracking shot. He shoots Henry walking up to the guy and bashing his skull in with the butt of his gun, and then going back to his girlfriend’s house in one take. Would it have made a difference if it was filmed with many single takes? Yes, it would have been the typical beat-up scene we find in almost every movie and TV show. Yet here, Scorsese decided to film it as if we were witnessing the scene from next door, leaving us with our mouths open, cringing. Even the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, has said in an interview that the particular scene I just mentioned was the hardest job he’s ever done – he’d close his eyes every time Ray Liotta’s character hit the hood’s forehead with the butt of his revolver, ruining the whole take. That’s what I call riveting filmmaking. To make an impression and leave it there forever. Leave an unwashable stain that will haunt us for days to come.

Watch out, he's coming.
Watch out, he’s coming.

On the other hand, what strikes me the most about this mad classic is the way it refuses to follow any conventions. It doesn’t obey any rules, any laws. It’s pure improvisation of the best kind. Almost everyone has heard of the “How am I funny?” scene (if not, youtube it , or better yet, watch the movie). To think that it was unscripted, 100% improvised on the spot is something that we hardly comprehend in a world where movies are played out word by word, sentence by sentence. What’s really funny about that scene is that it’s true. For a fact, Pesci (playing the character of Tommy) was a waiter in a Little Italy bar and happened to get caught in this kind of situation, when laughing at a wise guy’s joke and then having to face what was an unpredictable reaction that could have ended in a brawl or even a shoot-out. It’s unpredictability that counts here. There are no domino effects. It’s real life on the screen. Beating up a union boss, burying him in the woods and then, after six months, having to dig up the stinking body again. The only rule is: get dirty and survive.

Lovely dinner.
Lovely dinner.

The characters, another plus. Sure, The Godfather’s Clemenza or Luca Brasi, Carlito’s Way Pachanga, Donnie Brasco’s Sonny Black are all interesting, tasty characters but they don’t feel real. They are either the typical behind-the-back-sneaky  or the good-friend type of characters. Goodfellas, being a true story, spices everything up by reminding us how everyone can go to hell in the matter of a second. Not even the madman Tommy can hide. We are immediately introduced to this big family, again in one long POV tracking shot of Henry entering the restaurant. It’s a rite of passage for the viewer. We meet Frankie Carbone, Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Freddy No-nose, Nicky Eyes, Mickey Francese, Jimmy Two Times, and the list goes on. In the matter of a one minute long single take we greet a whole world of different characters that together form one big cruel family that well, unfortunately, we get attached to. Yes, we grow fond of them. At least I do. Because it’s a memorable vision of a world that I can almost touch. It’s out there, Scorsese reminds us. And it’s real because it can easily disappear. When it comes to eliminating any possible witness, there is no mercy. Family members are all treated the same. A bullet into the back of your head, a car explosion, a quick stabbing, whatever. It always comes down to dead bodies.

Listening to fascinating stories told by the clown, Tommy.
Listening to fascinating stories told by the clown, Tommy.

And to make it short , it’s also how music is used to impact the viewing and increase the storytelling drive. We start off with 1950’s tunes such as Rags To Riches or Sincerely and go at full speed through Mannish Boy and Layla, increasing the horsepower and smashing into the wall with the furious Rolling Stones and crazy Sid Vicious. The music IS the movie. It’s the engine that roars and doesn’t stop. It introduces us to characters, situations and events. We slow down whenever there is a wedding or a romantic kiss and jump right back in when mobsters kick the hell out of a poor sob or when we enter a truck where among the hanging frozen ribs there is the body of a frozen Frankie Carbone. The music is the soul of Goodfellas that craps on our heads whenever we try to predict what’s next. The helicopter paranoia scene at the end of the movie is what it is thanks to the brilliant use of editing and an excellent song choice. It makes us believe what we see, it makes us feel what Henry feels; the paranoia of a scared, coked out mobster. He is coked out. We are coked out.

Is that helicopter following me?
Is that helicopter following me?

Don’t obey the standards. Don’t listen to the past. Be inventive. Look at it differently. Push yourself to the edge. That’s what Scorsese says. That’s why I love him. That’s why we all love him. He’s not afraid of his ideas.

Push yourself to the edge and beyond, you funny guy.

It all ends with a bang!
It all ends with a bang!

Shirtless

Shirtless

Today’s topic: a troubled generation. Troubled youth has been known for years and years as one of the main subjects of cinema in films like Juno, The Basketball Diaries, Kids, Palo Alto, and even the flashy Bling Ring. However, don’t think that the subject matter of teenagers having to face everyday struggle is one that began to exist in the late 90s and developed only recently. It didn’t. Already in 1955, Hollywood had released one of the most epic dramas that is still recognized as a milestone in cinematic history. Rebel Without a Cause; not only did it introduce the groundbreaking icon – James Dean – it also introduced a new way of looking at the part of society that up until then was ignored by the people and government. The 1940s and 50s were a time of rebuilding the country’s economy, men were coming back from the war and sent out to fight another one in Korea, women were busy taking care of the house while their husbands were on their way to the office. The tension between the US and USSR was heightening by the minute, and nobody had time to look down at the running teenagers. They were free to do whatever they wanted to do. Sometimes this freedom overwhelmed them and in some cases it still does. However, Rebel Without a Cause proved that there had to be a change. Everyone needs attention. Kids too.

A helpless dialogue. Cornered.
A helpless dialogue. Cornered.

James Dean had a certain manner that fitted his, unfortunately, few characters perfectly. He would come onto the screen and let his swagger take over. His laid back voice and the untamed lion inside of him were something out of this world for those times. He was different, and that mattered the most. It was a breath of fresh air for a Hollywood industry that was serving the same dish over and over again. That’s why James Dean is Jim Stark, the protagonist, because Stark is different. He is new in Los Angeles, he moves along with his parents all the time and he’s not a bully. He’s not a yo-yo. He’s a thinker, a true rebel that doesn’t want trouble. Trouble was the only answer teenagers would come up with to solve their problems, and in those times it often resulted in a knife fight, which we witness later on in the movie. A knife fight is personal, it’s a challenge where two boys stay close to each other and watch each other’s steps. It proves who’s stronger, who’s the leader. Stark gets into one of these fights, cornered, unwilling  to respond. He doesn’t want to fight back. And that’s when during that scene, on the planetarium, we see the City of Angels in all its majesty thanks to the Cinemascope camera; a beautiful, humongous city that traps the youth’s emotions and passions. The youth is cornered along with Jim.

Los Angeles with no answers.
Los Angeles with no answers.

The boys are inspired by figures like Hitler, MacArthur and Eisenhower. Neo-nazism is becoming more and more popular throughout the sunny streets of LA, creating an environment of insecurity and danger. Insecurity in showing what you really feel deep inside of yourself, insecurity that eats you up and finally, breaks you into pieces. “You are tearing me apart!!!” it’s  not only what Jim yells out against his parents but what his whole generation of misunderstood young men and women does too. Every day. School doesn’t teach them life values. School subjects are school subjects. There is no discovery. It’s same old, same old. Alcohol is a discovery, drugs too. The very opening scene is composed of Jim lying on the sidewalk, stone drunk, playing with a toy. Because teenagers are children. Children who want to be men but simply cannot. Something’s pulling them down. Perhaps it’s the need to prove themselves in front of their peers, or the fear of having to face the adult world and the adult life. Birds that can’t fly. Parents that don’t know when to stop and when to act, what to say and what not to say. Of course, it’s a tricky game for both sides, and Rebel Without a Cause explores their relationship. The father who wants his son to carry the family name, behave just like he did when he was his age. The mother, quiet, afraid to speak up, looks at Jim with no hope for a better answer in her eyes. It’s the electrical misunderstanding. There is no connection, no ties. If we think about it, not much has changed. Things may have even gotten worse. We’ve entered the online community, we look for advice on google, we find pleasure in pornography, we have long conversations with people we know nothing about, we watch videos depicting sickening acts of violence and laugh. We do this because we feel abandoned, helpless and forgotten. It’s typical. You’ve all heard this before and you’ll hear about it again.

A crawling child.
A crawling child.

It’s a world of Jim Starks. It’s a world of Chicken Runs. For those who don’t know, the Chicken Run is a scene in the movie where James Dean’s character duels with a local bully by both driving their cars at full speed toward a cliff. The one who jumps first is a chicken. The challenge ends with a tragedy. A tragedy that speaks for all of us. We all know Chicken Runs. We’ve all done them. We’ve all faced our enemies in schoolyard or in the street. We’ve all looked at them with disgust, deep down gathering all the anger and the pain they’ve been inflicting on us since day one.

Each one of us is part of a troubled generation. No matter what date we were born to. We’re all a disconnected community, and we’re all fighting to re-connect. We sign petitions, we create societies and join festivals and events. We want to be part of something.

Like Jim, we want to walk the streets not drunk, but smiling, carrying the books of the girl we love.

The eyes of truth.
The eyes of truth.