Midnight Cowboy

John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) is one of those movies that can never be talked about enough. Having the chance to see it again today reminds me that some movies have the power to exceed every expectation and improve with every viewing.

For me the most important part of the movie is the beginning, the first two shots that establish everything we need to know about Joe Buck (Jon Voight). Shot one: the big, empty canvas of the white movie screen at the long-deserted Big Tex Drive-In, where we hear the ghosts of Westerns past along with the sight and sound of Joe singing “Git Along, Little Dogies.” The optimistic tune carries over to shot number two: the camera traveling up the length of Joe’s body as he warbles his Texas tune in the shower. Joe is as blank a slate as the movie screen, and what’s more his ideas about how to present himself in the real world have been shaped by the images of masculinity presented in Westerns like Hud and the films of John Wayne. The mythic persona of the cowboy as seen in Hollywood productions combined with Joe’s complicated understanding of sexuality and sexual interactions (referenced in flashbacks throughout the film) makes this second shot all the more crucial; the viewer is introduced to Joe with the sight of his naked body because the value that other characters place on him throughout the narrative – as well as how he values himself – is formulated based on the commodification of his body. His physique, and therefore his self-worth, is measured in terms of monetary transaction. If the shower scene were really just a shower scene, all we would have seen was Jon Voight’s face, and you can see that for the next two hours anyway.

As easy as it would be to wax poetic about Joe Buck as an ideally-proportioned Hellenic statue brought to life, the aesthetics of Jon Voight’s physicality are secondary to the most complex aspect of his performance, namely the emotional bond formed between the Joe and Rico “Ratso” Rizzo characters. I can’t imagine how many essays written in the last forty-five years have been inspired by Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso and the questions of how many different layers exist in his friendship with Joe. (“Confronting the Conflict” and something including “American Masculinity” would probably be part of my own title for such a piece.) Ratso never openly addresses how he feels about Joe, remaining repressed to an exponential degree, so it is up to the viewer to determine the subtext of subtle actions. The scene in the stairway before Joe and Ratso go up to the Warhol Factory-filled party is the most absolutely heartbreaking moment in the whole film. Joe’s mind goes as far as the surface of how he helps Ratso – using his own shirt to wipe his friend’s fevered brow – but those brief seconds when Joe takes the time to care for Ratso, who in turn wears an indescribable (yet undeniable) facial expression as he holds onto Joe’s body for support, show the audience an entirely different story. Simultaneous narratives: Joe eager and happy to administer platonic care vs. Ratso’s feelings that he could never put into words. When so much meaning can be gained from a single scene or even a single frame, that’s when you know you are watching more than mere entertainment (not that that’s a bad thing!). But Midnight Cowboy has an impact far stronger than just being a “good movie”: every time I see it I know I’m going to see something new that I never noticed or thought about before. That is the definition of what makes a film a classic after decades.

2015 Academy Awards: Final Predictions

Best Picture: Boyhood

Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay: Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game

Best Animated Feature Film: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida

Best Cinematography: Birdman

Best Editing: Whiplash

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Song: “Glory” (Selma)

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Best Documentary (Feature): Citizenfour

Best Documentary Short Film: Joanna

Best Short Film, Live Action: Aya

Best Short Film, Animated: Feast

Finally, Here It Is: Ranking the Films of 2014

In time for the Oscars, I am now – finally – going to rank the films I have seen which were theatrically released in 2014. (I snuck one more film in last night, Gone Girl on DVD.) I still have to see many more films from the past year, particularly Oscar nominees like American Sniper, Ida, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Mr. Turner, Selma, Still Alice, Timbuktu, Unbroken, Whiplash and Wild, but for now here is how I have decided to rank what I have seen. It’s always a difficult process, this attempt to juggle quality and structure and emotional impact and whatnot, but here’s what I came up with. You may also notice that Girlhood and What We Do in the Shadows are not on the list; to be clear, even though those films were made in 2014, they were not theatrically released in the US until more recently in 2015.

  1. 20,000 Days on Earth – dirs. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard
  2. The Babadook – dir. Jennifer Kent
  3. The Salt of the Earth – dirs. Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders
  4. Only Lovers Left Alive – dir. Jim Jarmusch
  5. Interstellar – dir. Christopher Nolan
  6. Guardians of the Galaxy – dir. James Gunn
  7. Two Days, One Night – dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
  8. Land Ho! – dirs. Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens
  9. Gone Girl – dir. David Fincher
  10. Miss Meadows – dir. Karen Leigh Hopkins
  11. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – dirs. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
  12. Frank – dir. Lenny Abrahamson
  13. Maleficent – dir. Robert Stromberg
  14. The Grand Budapest Hotel – dir. Wes Anderson
  15. Non-Stop – dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
  16. Boyhood – dir. Richard Linklater
  17. The Theory of Everything – dir. James Marsh
  18. The Lego Movie – dirs. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
  19. Chef – dir. Jon Favreau
  20. Birdman – dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
  21. St. Vincent – dir. Theodore Melfi
  22. The Rover – dir. David Michôd
  23. Obvious Child – dir. Gillian Robespierre
  24. In Secret – dir. Charlie Stratton
  25. Foxcatcher – dir. Bennett Miller
  26. Snowpiercer – dir. Joon-ho Bong
  27. The Giver – dir. Phillip Noyce

Saturday Night Spotlight #21: Margaret Conneely

Today’s Spotlight shines on a woman director so obscure by today’s film-and-media standards that she does not have an IMDb page for her career: Margaret Conneely (1914 or 1915-2007), an amateur filmmaker with a small but memorable body of work. Referred to as “Chicago’s First Lady of Amateur Film,” all of her films are shorts in the 16mm (“home movie”-type) format. I might never have heard of her had I not attended the screening of Nancy Savoca’s film Dogfight (1991) at MoMA last Friday. The feature was proceeded by Conneely’s 1959 short film Mister E, which I really enjoyed. Although Conneely did not make any feature-length films, her shorts in both the fiction and nonfiction genres have a style distinct to her. The actors in her films do not have the luxury of a synchronized soundtrack; instead, there is either narration to represent the characters’ points of view or there is asynchronous dialogue that never exactly matches the actors’ mouth movements. Still, the technique is charming, especially given the pronounced Chicago accents in many of the voices used in the recordings. Mister E has been restored thanks to the Women’s Film Preservation Fund run by the organization New York Women & Film in Television (NYWIFT) and the entirety of Conneely’s film oeuvre has been saved and preserved by the Chicago Film Archives. For more information: a CFA page analyzing three of her films, more CFA information on their Margaret Conneely collection here and here and a local article about the archive here. I implore you to click the links provided for the full versions of Conneely’s short films as well. All of her films can be found here after searching “Margaret Conneely Collection” on YouTube.

Fairy Princess (1956) – Conneely’s niece stars in this seven-minute fantasy about a little girl whose Christmas prayer, to get a fairy princess doll, comes true. Telling the story through both the acting and the voiceover narration (possibly Conneely herself – I’m not sure), the director employs stop-motion animation to show the doll’s magical movements when it moves on its own. The film won Conneely both local acclaim and awards, including an honor as one of the Photographic Society of America’s “Ten Best” films of 1956. (You may see the film here and read more about it here.)

Mister E (1959) – In this weird but wonderful twelve-minute masterpiece, a fed-up housewife teaches her husband some lessons about spending too much time out of the house on boys’ nights out, thanks to a helpful, human-sized dummy cleverly named “Mister E,” designed to cause suspicion and jealousy in the husband when he mistakes the doll for a real guy from afar. Confusion and a man-on-mannequin “murder” follow, but all eventually rights itself in the end. (You may see the film here.)

The “45” (1961) – In only eight minutes, Conneely establishes a tense and intriguing story: what’s a woman to do when a man barges into her home, toting a gun and demanding to see her husband? Fears of violent crime pervade her mind, of course, and as the minutes tick by we wonder how the narrative will play out. The main actor has a very all-American look, but there is something very French-crime-thriller-esque about the leading lady. (You may watch the film here.)

Chicago: The City to See in ’63 (1962) – A travelogue that pays tribute to her hometown, this thirteen-minute film takes the viewer on a trip through Chicago with a narrator along for the journey. There are two versions available on YouTube: this one uploaded to the site in 2012, with more vibrant colors, and this new video transfer uploaded only a few weeks ago, with a cleaned-up soundtrack but more muted hues in the cinematography.

2014: Part 5

Birdman. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. For all the hype that Birdman has received during this awards season, the film falls short of deserving such widespread acclaim. When a movie is so highly praised across the board, you really want to like it more than you do and maybe you throw the word “masterpiece” around a few times, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I got tired of the self-satisfied gimmickry of it almost immediately. Looking back, I suppose there were some positive aspects of Birdman: Edward Norton’s performance (an excellent Method actor portrays an excellent Method actor… excellently!), Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis (better work than I expected from either of them, particularly Stone), Lindsay Duncan as an extra vicious theater critic (not a surprise; she’s always a pro). I guess Michael Keaton gave a good performance – certainly a layered one, given the play-within-the-film and the “Birdman” figure from the character’s past – and it has been nice to see him back in the spotlight, but come this Sunday I would be more comfortable with Eddie Redmayne winning the Oscar. Keaton has an inherent likeability that makes me want to root for him, but I don’t think it’s quite enough for the #1 spot in the competition. And I would not give Birdman any reward for the screenplay, which has dialogue that sounds far too “written” (especially coming from Andrea Riseborough, whose character felt very stilted to me) and a story that feels like All About Eve for dummies. I’m guessing that most people who think Birdman is so “amazing” and “original” just haven’t seen the great film stories that made the same points first, only better. (An actor trying to make a comeback after many years might be neurotic? Gee, what a surprise.) One must wonder: where oh where is our George Sanders today?

Girlhood. Directed by Céline Sciamma. This drama about the difficult lives led by black teenage girls in the suburbs of Paris has very fine performances by the protagonist and her three friends (the excellent Karidja Touré as Marieme/”Vic” and Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh and Mariétou Touré) and some really good cinematography by Crystel Fournier. The standout scene is, as many other reviewers will note, the cathartic “Diamonds” scene, in which Marieme lets loose and dances with her friends. The film’s soundtrack makes terrific use of pop music, another example being the use of Brooklyn synthpop duo Light Asylum’s song “Dark Allies” in the film’s opening scene. I would point out, though, that the film feels too long. Sciamma makes a habit out of using ellipses, and there are a couple of times in the last third of the film when I wondered whether the black screen separating two scenes actually meant it was the end. Girlhood is very good and it brings up issues about race, sex/gender and class that ought to be made mainstream. If there had been a tighter script (I’ve read that Sciamma likes improvisation) and maybe fewer plot points, the film could have been more successful. You should still see Girlhood, though. There are probably very few – if any – other films like it.

The Rover. Directed by David Michôd. If you thought Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was unpleasant, wait until you get a load of this nasty story set in a post-apocalypse version of the Australian outback. There is very little to like here. Guy Pearce has one of his better leading roles in recent years as a man on a bloody and desperate mission to have his stolen car returned to him, but other than that and some interesting cinematography by Natasha Braier, I don’t recommend the film. Every now and then there’s some good acting by female characters (Gillian Jones, Susan Prior) but they leave the picture as quickly as they enter it. Robert Pattinson was tolerable – considering the usual standard of his acting – as the slow-witted brother of one of the guys who absconded with Pearce’s vehicle. There’s one really amusing moment when Pattinson is sitting in another car (not Pearce’s) and listening to a pop song (“Pretty Girl Rock” by Keri Hilson), a seemingly random and endearing scene, but otherwise the movie is just too relentlessly dreary for me. I have no intentions of ever seeing it again.

Two Days, One Night. Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. I already had a little bit of familiarity with the Dardenne brothers’ style since I watched part of La Promesse (1996) in a class I took last spring. I find their documentary-like style intriguing and they get a great, emotionally-charged performance out of Marion Cotillard, recent recipient of an Oscar nomination for her work here as a woman fighting to keep her job. It is a performance which completely anchors the film; the other actors are good, and Fabrizio Rongione is decent as Cotillard’s husband, but it’s unquestionably Cotillard’s show all the way. The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas audience was weird during the film screening – two men rambling on before the film like the snob from Annie Hall, a woman afterward complaining that “that was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” – but I say it is absolutely worth seeing for Cotillard’s performance. I like the realism and the slice-of-life element. Two Days, One Night is not as loud or in-your-face as some of the other big movies of 2014, but I think Cotillard’s performance resonates, especially for those (particularly women) who have had to deal with depression.

What We Do in the Shadows. Directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. This is a likeable and funny take on the vampire genre, though slight on story and development, perhaps owing to the improvised nature of the film’s production. I have appreciated Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s work for many years, ever since June 2007 (the debut of “Flight of the Conchords” on HBO and the theatrical release of Waititi’s film Eagle vs Shark, which stars Clement) and I enjoyed both of their performances here. Even better, however, were the performances by Jonathan Brugh as Deacon, another of the vampires living in their house, and Stuart Rutherford as Stu, a human who becomes a part of the immortals’ small circle of friends. Rhys Darby also appears as Anton, a local werewolf, but he doesn’t have much to do. Maybe with fewer main characters there could have been a greater emphasis on character development. Overall I felt that Clement’s character didn’t have enough to do or perhaps the things he got to do weren’t substantial enough, not living up to the potential of the character. I like the ending of the film, but it doesn’t make up for the way the film loses steam at the anticlimactic “Unholy Masquerade” ball for Wellington’s undead community. Still, if you’re a fan of Clement, Waititi or New Zealand filmmaking in general, you should check out the film. You’ll get at least a few chuckles out of it – a warning to the squeamish, though: it’s got a few very bloody scenes – and thanks to crowdfunding website Kickstarter, the film is going to be opening at select theaters all over the US of A.

The Expected “Virtue” of Ignorance

I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this afternoon to see Birdman. I’ll reserve my review for a later time – although I will say, in short, that I didn’t feel anything for the characters and I feel far more feelings at learning that Lesley Gore (of whom I am a big fan) has passed away – but what’s currently on my mind is something that happened in the theater prior to the start of the film. BAM shows movie-trivia quizzes on the screen and the theater’s audience demographic, which is downtown-Brooklynites ages 25-35, is often vocal in the attempts to solve the questions. Today was no different, but two such examples of quizzing led to unfortunate revelations about the moviegoers.

1. “Who described Marilyn Monroe as ‘an endless puzzle without any solution’?” (I knew that the answer was Billy Wilder.) A woman approximately thirty years old, sitting behind me with some friends of about the same age, guessed Billy Wilder. After getting the answer right, she admitted, “I don’t know who that is.” She and her friends laughed it off and seemed to come to the conclusion that whoever it was, he wasn’t anyone interesting. (I recall the word “whatever” in particular.)

2. “Which of these actresses was born on July 4?” I knew it was Eva Marie Saint (7/4/1924) and not Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. The same woman from before said, “I’m going to guess Bette Davis.” Answer revealed. “Eva Marie Saint? Huuuuh? Never heard of her.” Cue raucous laughter and agreement that this name must be a random nonentity in the movie business. This response was more expected to me; I figured that Ms. Saint, who is one of my favorite actresses, is probably not as famous a name for recent generations, even though films of hers like On the Waterfront and North by Northwest might ring a bell for even the least aware culture-consumer.

When Birdman began and the opening credits announced the subtitle of the film, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, I had to sigh a little. Ignorance is, sad to say, all too expected and actually congratulated. This is not de rigueur for all movie houses; the Film Forum and MoMA expect a bit more out of their customers, particularly the older moviegoers who like to test each other’s knowledge on directors and actors (from memory, sans screen-quiz) while waiting for the movie to start. There is nothing wrong with not knowing movie history, but it is in poor form to applaud the lack of cognizance. Given the current state of our technology, any of the adults sitting behind me could have taken a phone out and Googled “Eva Marie Saint,” but it is a mark of where we are at today that we have more information than ever at our fingertips and yet, more often than should be the case, people don’t care to find out more than what they already know.

Saturday Night Spotlight #20: Nancy Savoca

Bronx-born director Nancy Savoca (b. 1959) has cut her own path through the independent film world for the last couple of decades. After attending Queens College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Savoca directed her first full-length film, the romantic comedy True Love, in 1989. Telling the story of a wedding taking place in the Bronx, the film stars Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard, is written by Savoca and husband Richard Guay and has cinematography by Lisa Rinzler. True Love was the recipient of the Grand Prize for Best Feature at the Sundance Film Festival and it got three nominations for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards, establishing Savoca’s career. She continued to make her mark with three films in the 1990s, three more films made between 2002 and 2011, directorial work done on TV shows (“Murder One,” “Third Watch,” “The Mind of the Married Man”) and, perhaps her greatest success, two of the three segments in the 1996 made-for-TV movie If These Walls Could Talk (the other segment being directed by Cher), ultimately nominated for three Emmys including Outstanding Made for Television Movie. Savoca’s film and TV work has tackled women’s issues and told stories from the unique perspectives of feminists of every age and background. Her next project is for the Lifetime (“Television for Women”) network, If There Be Thorns, the third installment of the popular series starring Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham, based on novels by V.C. Andrews (following Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind).

Dogfight (1991) – The golden gem of Savoca’s résumé, I first saw Dogfight (written by Bob Comfort) at some point during high school, thanks to Netflix, instantly falling in love with the film; I then saw the first third of it again in a film class taken last year, reminding of just how good a director Savoca is. I finally saw the film in its entirety again last night at the Museum of Modern Art, the final screening in a series called “Carte Blanche: Women’s Film Preservation Fund—Women Writing the Language of Cinema.” (Savoca was actually scheduled to introduce the film but when I got to MoMA there was a sign saying that she would not be there, I’m guessing maybe because of the extremely cold weather and impending weekend snow.) Dogfight was even better than I remembered, telling the wonderfully romantic and bittersweet tale of a Marine about to ship out to Vietnam (River Phoenix in one of his most nuanced performances) and Lili Taylor as the shy, folk music-loving waitress (a highlight of her long career as “Queen of the Independent Cinema”). Phoenix and Taylor start off on the wrong foot when he makes the cruel mistake of inviting her to his buddies’ “dogfight” (a party where the Marine with the ugliest girl date “wins”), but they eventually move past the incident and get to know one another as the night progresses. Phoenix’s Marine pals are played by Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark and Mitchell Whitfield, while Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily has a couple of great scenes as the toothless prostitute whom Panebianco hires for the party and folk-singer-songwriter Holly Near has a small role playing Lili Taylor’s mother. The soundtrack is indeed rich with folk songs – Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, John Fahey and others are all heard.

Household Saints (1993) – One of Savoca’s best-known films, this dramedy based on the novel of the same name by Francine Prose (adapted for the screen by Savoca and Richard Guay) tells the saga of multiple generations of Italian-American women – like Savoca’s own ethnic history – in the Falconetti and Santangelo families, some of whom are played by Tracey Ullman, Lili Taylor, Judith Malina, Illeana Douglas and Elizabeth Bracco. Impressive male actors appear too, including Vincent D’Onofrio, Michael Rispoli, Victor Argo, Michael Imperioli and Leonardo Cimino. Again I emphasize Savoca’s collaborations with women behind the scenes, including film editor Elizabeth Kling, production designer Kalina Ivanov, set decorator Karin Wiesel, costume designer Eugenie Bafaloukos, production supervisor Shell Hecht, second assistant director Mary-Jane April and second “second assistant director” Sheila Waldron. At the 1994 Independent Spirit Awards, Lili Taylor won for Best Supporting Female; Vincent D’Onofrio was nominated for Best Male Lead and the team of Savoca and Guay received a nod for Best Screenplay.

The 24 Hour Woman (1999) – Rosie Perez stars as a woman attempting to balance the duties and challenges of being both a mother and a TV producer in this comedy written by Savoca and Richard Guay. The cast includes many strong actresses of various races and ethnicities: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Patti LuPone, Karen Duffy, Melissa Leo, Aida Turturro (who had made her film debut in Savoca’s True Love ten years earlier), Rosanna DeSoto and Reno (a New York comedienne whom Savoca would later document in Reno: Rebel Without a Pause in 2002). Technical work on the film includes cinematography by Teresa Medina, editing by Camilla Toniolo, casting by Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, art direction by Sarah Frank, set decoration by Caroline Ghertler, costume design by Kathleen Mobley, production manager Debra Kent and second assistant director Alison C. Rosa. Savoca’s direction and Rosie Perez’s performance were both nominated by the ALMA Awards, which recognize achievements in American Latino representation on film and in other media.

Union Square (2011) – Savoca’s most recent theatrical release is a drama telling a story about Bronx-born sisters: Lucy, played by Mira Sorvino, and Jenny, played by Tammy Blanchard. The cast also includes Patti LuPone, Michael Rispoli, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Mike Doyle and Christopher Backus (the real-life husband of Mira Sorvino). With a screenplay by Savoca and Mary Tobler, cinematography by Lisa Leone (who had previously shot Savoca’s film Dirt in 2003), editing by Jennifer Lee, production design by Sarah Frank, costume design by Liz Prince and hair/makeup by Shannon Dollison, the film is very much the product of a female point of view.