Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Musing Pictures: Unforgiven

It is interesting to look at "Unforgiven" and to see two sides of Clint Eastwood in deep, internal conflict.

The film hit theaters in 1992, roughly in the middle of his remarkable second career as a director, but before his most critically acclaimed work ("Mystic River", "Million Dollar Baby", "Flags of Our Fathers" and its companion film, "Letters from Iwo Jima")

The film also comes at the end of Eastwood's legendary acting career (though he has played in films since then, none of his performances have the legendary stature of his turns in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" or "Dirty Harry")

As I watched his performance and his direction take hold of one another, it occurred to me that "Unforgiven" gives a fascinating glimpse in to the mind of the actor and of the filmmaker. Particularly, the point of intersection between Eastwood's two roles sheds light on the secrets behind his acting success, and behind his filmmaking prowess.

Although his famous stoic performances seem to be the epitome of flatness, a careful look reveals a very calculated, often masked sense of depth -- there is always more underneath an Eastwood character than the actor overtly displays. This is true of his performance in "Unforgiven", just as much as it's true in his earlier acting work. It is fascinating to note how much this has affected his directorial style, as well -- Eastwood's films tend to focus heavily on their characters. Despite the fights, the shoot-outs, and the action, his films tend to be very mellow, very conversational, drawing us in to a small circle of personalities and quirks that are to become our companions for two hours. As a filmmaker, Eastwood does not rely on his camera (like Spielberg or Hitchcock) or on the structure of his narrative, or on eye-popping content, but rather, on complex characters with numerous hidden layers.

In "Unforgiven", this strategy is at play in both the direction of the film and in the performance of its leading actor. Taking a broader view of Eastwood's work, the strategy appears consistently in all of his major productions, from his stoic but layered performance in the Spaghetti Westerns, to his unraveling of Angelina Jolie's character in "Changeling" (2008)

It's inspiring to me that an artist who sticks his neck out as both an actor and as a director has such a strong vision for what matters in a story that both his performances and his direction clearly reflect that vision. It demonstrates an artistic integrity that is hard to find in most major productions.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Third Man

I have to say, I found this one to be a very strange and interesting piece of work.
With all the deep shadows, dutch angles, whole segments in German, the film maintains a steady, constant sense of imbalance. It's a sort of suspense that I haven't seen in a while, and that strikes me as almost unique to the Film Noir era, of which this film is a part. Most movies today rely much more on what they can show, not on what they can hide.

To me, the most striking element of "The Third Man" was the balance it struck between selfish motivations (which are prominent in film noir) and selfless motivations (more common to WWII-era films, such as "Casablanca"). The film's hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), vacillates constantly between higher and lower ambitions, between being a civic hero and a friend, between being a lover and a fighter. Interestingly, the film's intiial 'bad guy' shifts in his archtypal role as well, never comfortably fitting as an ally or enemy. Perhaps this is one of the film's triumphs (aside from the amazing way the camera is employed to twist one's mind). It is a remarkably mature look at the complexities of alleigance, loyalty, friendship and love. Perhaps even more striking is the film's historical context, with the nation on the verge of McCarthyism, and questions of loyalty at the forefront of the public consciousness.

On a side note, I imagine stories from the set must be quite wild. This is one of David O. Selznick's last films as a producer (he is not even credited, although the film was made by his company), and it stars Orson Welles at a time when Hollywood had yet to fully recognize his genius. Both men were known to be larger-than-life, with egos to match their talent, with fiery tempers, and with very clear and firm artistic visions. I wonder if they got along, and I wonder how milder personalities like Cotten and the film's director, Carol Reed, counterbalanced the dynamic personalities.


Friday, July 03, 2009

musing pictures: UP

A brief musing on this latest Pixar/Disney collaboration.

The American Dream used to be for the young. The message was clear: here, in this land of opportunity, there is hope for any young, ambitious, hard-working individual to achieve the greatest of dreams. If you build it, they will come. That train engine from that popular children's story thinks he can, and indeed he does. With your life ahead of you, you are encouraged to charge forward, follow your dreams, wish upon that star!

But what does this American Dream become when you've spent forty five years hard at work, when what used to be a lifetime is now the duration of your upcoming "golden years"? The new Disney/Pixar feature, "UP", revises the American Dream for the retiring Boomer generation, and it does it so cleanly and effectively, you could miss the switch if you blink.

Disney films are often about transitions; from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from the pre-romantic to the romantic stages of life. Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella find their princes-Charming, Pinnochio and Dumbo learn to fill their own shoes (a real boy, a flying elephant), Belle learns to see past the frightful mask of the Beast. The young characters have dreams, and they learn to achieve them. By the time the characters begin their adult lives, they have reached their cruising altitude. "Happily Ever After" is a shorthand for the stable, static years of middle-life, years which are devoid of turmoil and free from challenge.

"UP" is very much a story in this vein. The main character has his own dream, he achieves it in a way, and lives happily ever after. Here's the difference: This man's dream is not achieved in the dawn of his adult life, but at the height of his sunset. It's a dream from childhood, and a dream that he and his wife pursue for their entire long life together, but by the time she passes away, the dream is still unfulfilled. Now an old man, our crotchety hero has lived through the promised "happily ever after" years without the dream coming any closer. Perhaps this is the boomer's worst fear: to work and work for years and years, only to retire no closer to the goal, or too frail or too tired to enjoy it. The new vision for the American Dream outlined so elegantly in "UP" provides the same uplifting hope, the same motivational message as the old version: the dream can still live on, the elderly can still do great things, there is meaning in being old, there is life to be lived in the final act of our days.

Although "UP" is the first mainstream film to lay this message out so clearly (and so much in parallel with the old American Dream of earlier Disney films), other recent Hollywood pictures have addressed the same themes. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" did so by presenting an old man growing young, showing by metaphor a lively, adventurous option for a retiree's life. Benjamin Button is physically young, but has the life experience of decades. He sees the world as an elderly man, but fulfills the dream of many aging people by being young, by getting younger. Much like the old man in "UP", Button has his most youthful adventures at the end of his life, when most people tend to slow down.

As the Baby Boomer generation grows older, it is interesting to watch Hollywood's message shift. I'm certain that for the next decade or two, there will be a massive shift in the kinds of stories Hollywood tells, and in the kinds of heroes Hollywood invents. they will be older, wiser, and probably just retiring when these new stories begin. I'm very curious to see how this unfolds.