The Financial Times once defined Pinteresque dialogue as ”full of dark hints and pregnant suggestions, with the audience left uncertain as to what to conclude.” That’s not bad, but I’ve always defined it with seven words: (a) spare, (b) precise, (c) cutting and (d) sometimes a bit cruel. That leaves out opaque, terse, witty, chilly and all the other applicable terms, but however you slice it the man who created this form of expression — playwright Harold Pinter — died yesterday in London at age 78.
I’ve seen The Birthday Party and The Homecoming on-stage once each, and some of the films Pinter wrote screenplays for — The Servant (’63), The Go-Between (’70), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (’81), The Trial (’93) and Sleuth (’07). But being a bit of a Pinter plebe, my favorite is Betrayal, which has been called his most accessible work.
I’m queer for Betrayal because of its reverse chronology, the fascinating game it plays (i.e., what does he/she know, and when does he/she know it?), for the constant expert lying that goes on between the three main characters, and because it happens in a carefully mannered, flush and somewhat shallow middle-class milieu (which provides a form of comfort to me because I’ve lived in this world and feel I know what it is), and because it fulfills my definition of Pinter’s signature style — crisp, knowing and acrid in a less-is-more vein.
“I’ve always liked Jerry,” the cuckolded Robert says to his unfaithful wife about her longtime lover who’s also been his longtime friend. “To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. I should have had an affair with him myself.”
I saw Betrayal on the New York stage twice (with Roy Scheider, Raul Julia and Blythe Danner in ’80 or thereabouts, and again in a 2000 revival with Juliette Binoche, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery ), as well as that superb 1983 film adaptation with Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge, directed by David Jones .
Originally released by 20th Century Fox, Jones’ Betrayal came out on VHS in ’84 but that was 24 years ago, for heaven’s sake. I’ve written this seventeen or eighteen times over the last ten years, but will be rights-holder please, please cut a deal with someone to put it out on DVD or Blu-ray? It’s been out of circulation for so long it looks like up to me.
Can anyone imagine any half-savvy online journalist or news site running a December 2008 story titled “VHS Era Is Winding Down”? I can’t. At the same time I shrugged when I read Geoff Bouncher‘s story with this title in the 12.22 L.A. Times because this is the kind of “duhh” story that the LAT sometimes likes to run. It’s about a low-rent, bottom of the barrel VHS distributor named Ryan J. Kugler who’s finally decided to pack it in as far as this format is concerned. Whatever. It’s the Be Kind Rewind of video-format trend stories.
My 11.25 review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, reposted with David Fincher’s film opening today: Will viewers be willing to let Button be Button and put aside whatever high falutin’ expectations they may bring to it? It could all work out if they do, but it didn’t quite work for me because I couldn’t. I enjoyed and was even heartened by this dreamy-sad glide through time and memory and the textures and aromas of 20th Century America, but I can’t say I’m as hungry for a second immersion as I was when I first saw Fincher’s Zodiac some eighteen or nineteen months ago.
Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton
Zodiac is a legendary art film — a deeper, fuller thing every time I re-view it because of how it never tries to overtly persuade its audience that it’s anything more than a whipsmart policier about a legendary cold case. Because the theme of obsession is simultaneously dramatized and embodied by the obsessive nature of the film itself. Because it’s settled and confident in its own skin and lets the story tell itself while Fincher, remarkably, builds it into something more than the sum of its parts.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on the other hand, feels very caught up from the start in its attempts to mesmerize and create a burnished good-old-days atmosphere. And it works like a champ in this respect. I’ll never forget the ripe vibe this movie casts. And yet I’m not sure if I really know what it’s saying, or it’s really “saying” anything other than that life is an adventure to be savored and lived to the fullest. That’s a good thing to express in any fashion or medium, but I was saying to myself as I watched it unfold, “Yeah, yeah, I agree, yes….and?”
The basic idea behind the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story basically says that the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst part at the end, and what would a man feel and learn if the journey was reversed?
Like Forrest Gump, which was authored by Button screenwriter Eric Roth, Fincher’s langorous tale is about a passive, good-natured fellow — Brad Pitt‘s Benjamin Button — who lives a kind of charmed (and at the same time somewhat cursed) life that’s rooted in the New Orleans but involves much travel, traverses decades and nurses a lifelong, never-waning love for a beautiful spirited woman — Cate Blanchett‘s Daisy.
It starts with old-baby Pitt — a withered, carcassy, white-haired infant — being born in World War I-era New Orleans, and then watches him de-age and gain strength, enjoying the lusciousness of living more and more, as he moves through the ’20s and ’30s and into World War II as an old and then an older middle-aged man.
And then as he gradually becomes a progressively younger and hunkier guy who looks cool and likes to ride a motorcycle and whose blissful sensual peak comes at the height of youth and vigor in his early 40s, 30s and 20s, which manifest 40, 50 and 60 years after his old-man birth (and happily coincides with Blanchett’s normal-progression trajectory). And then he’s a teenager, a kid, a toddler and a baby.
The renderings of Pitt’s and Blanchett’s various age-states are just about perfect. Face-pasting, makeup, prosthetics, digital-wrinkle removing — all or most of it as exquisite as the wizardry of new and emerging digital technology can miraculously provide.
But you get used to all this. Pitt’s reverse-aging is endlessly absorbing, but it loses its wow-ness after a while, and once it levels off you’re basically left with a story about a guy just living a life. And his journey has little in the way of story tension and the rooting interest isn’t really there because all he’s trying to do is be with the love of his life, Daisy. Well, that happens finally when they’re both young and close in age. But then time pulls them apart, and then they’re together again and true-heart Daisy becomes his care-giver when he can no longer fend for himself.
Like I said earlier, it’s not that you don’t care for Pitt’s Button but he’s a watcher, an observer, an eternal quiet man. He’s there to absorb and experience and love and savor, but he’s nothing like a take-charge doer with any kind of primal goal or need.
We’re witness to the unfolding and passage of decades here, and the movie is basically a Gump thing — a leisurely cruise on a slow riverboat down a pastoral but mostly rapid-free river. Many intense and eye-filling things happen. The randomness of life, the give-and-take, the eternals all bleed into the whole. But the story is basically a journey of chapters — this happens, that happens, shit happens.
Button is filled, yes,with all kinds of touching meditations and observational riches and a constant awareness of the here-today, gone-tomorrow thing. It is a moving film to sit through, but it provides only as much warmth and emotionalism as director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth felt was right and true and appropriate.
Benjamin Button is a dream — rapturous, essential, eternal filmmaking. And with a heart that is kindly, charitable, gentle, open. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, it’s bold…and I’m not at all sure that it’s going to reign supreme as a Best Picture candidate. Nor am I persuaded that it’s going to make any kind of real money. It’s a fascinating, very brave and half-wonderful film, but it’ll be a real challenge selling it to the stooges out there, particularly the under-30s.
I agree with Variety‘s Anne Thompson that it’s “an historic achievement, a masterful piece of cinema, and a moving treatise on death, loss, loneliness and love” and that “it may pack a more powerful punch the older you are and the more people you have lost.”
But it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture slam-dunker — no to me anyway, for reasons stated above and before.
A nicely written piece by Christopher Durang about catching repeat viewings of Alistair Sim‘s A Christmas Carol on WOR-TV’s “Million Dollar Movie” way back when, and why the film still sinks in emotionally like few others.
“Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with nor ears to hear with all these years?”
Directed by Brad Silberling, Land of the Lost (Universal, 6.9.09) is…there’s no point in saying anything smart-ass about this. Night at the Museum meets Jurassic Park and Jumanji. A klutzy but likable forest ranger Will Ferrell and his two kids “inadvertently stumble into a mysterious land populated by dinosaurs and other creatures, including the mysterious and dangerous race of Sleestak,” etc.
N.Y. Times guy Michael Cieply reported today that a federal judge in Los Angeles intends to grant 20th Century Fox’s claim that it owns a copyright interest in Zack Snyder‘s Watchmen, which has been funded/produced by Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures and set for release on 3.6.09.
“Fox owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture,” the ruling said. The judge, Gary A. Feess of the United States District Court for Central California, “said he would provide a more detailed order soon,” Cieply wrote.
What will happen from this, presuming that the expected challenges and whatnot don’t change the Feess ruling? WB, I would imagine, is going to have to fork over a significant chunk of the forthcoming Watchmen revenues….right? I mean, WB isn’t going to actually hand over the distribution of this much-anticipated film, lock, stock and barrel…are they?
“Before killing something, I always talk to it. An animal that’s been caressed before it’s killed dies peacefully, and its muscles don’t contract with adrenalin. If an animal is slaughtered in a stress-free way, it tastes better.” — Gerard Depardieu quoted today on contactmusic.com.
Except an animal can always tell when he/she/it is about to die. All living things can. They can smell the intent to slaughter like a lie-detector machine can read tension and anxiety. Knowing you’re about to lose your head jacks up your sensitivity levels. (Say whatever you want, but I imagined this once when I was 19 years old and tripping on mescaline, and I’ve never forgotten it.) How does the quote go? “The clarity of mind that comes to a man standing on the gallows is wonderful.” So spare us your b.s., Depardieu. No animal dies unaware of the coming of the blade.
Bonus question: “This little piggy went to the market / as meek and mild as a lamb / but he stopped in his tracks when they gave him the axe / because he knew he’d turn out to be Wham.” What film is this rhyme from?
In a 12.23 Film Threat interview to promote The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love (De Capo), co-author John Anderson is asked to differentiate between A-List and B-List movie journo-blogger-critics.
“Can we boil it down to pros vs. wankers?,” Anderson replies. “There are a lot of alleged critics out there trying to prove that the internet was created to unleash the untalented, untaught and probably unwashed” — the leading voice in this camp is Time‘s Richard Schickel — “but those people exist in print too. The most marked difference, I have learned, between what’s in ‘the B List’ and what’s generally available on blogs is the quality of the writing. There’s no comparison. Some of these NSFC people are scarily good at what they do.”
As long as Anderson has brought it up, can we see some reader selections for those journo-blogger-critics who squarely belong on the pro or wanker lists? I would put Anderson at the top of any pro list, but not that’s not a very ballsy call, is it? The more I think about it, the fewer people I can think of who really deserve to be called wankers. It’s very hard work to bang good stuff out every day. I’m inclined to give anyone a pass as long as they’re coming from a place of passion and commitment and the use of spell check.