Every time I get up and leave one of the Park City theatres, one of the ushers always turns on a little flashlight. The light is either stationery or aimed at my feet. A courtesy, of course. Mainly for the sake of older people whose eyes don’t adjust as well to the dark as they used to so they need to see the light to avoid stumbling or banging into something. But I don’t want the damn flashlight, you see, no offense. My eyes are fine in the dark. And I always seethe a bit when I see that beam. I always whisper to the usher “thanks but please turn it off…no light, thanks.”
I truly loathe this kind of plastic twist-the-dial shower device. The outer smaller wheel is for turning the water on and off…fine. And you have to turn the larger inner wheel to the left to get the warm or hot water, but you have to keep turning it and turning it before anything happens. One revolution, two revolutions, etc. And it sticks. This morning I turned the crap out of it and I never felt any seriously hot water at all, and then I turned it some more and the water turned tepid and then cold.
Is this invention a nouveau riche Utah thing? Remember the old days when you had two metal-chrome controls, one for hot water, another for cold and a third for switching between shower and bath water?
I’ve seen this sickening TaxAct Hero commercial on MSNBC five or six times now, and I’ve come to despise it way, way beyond the conventional understanding of the word “despise.” The agency that thought this up needs to be identified and blackballed in all major markets. The actors, I feel, also need to be outed and shunned. Those blue choral outfits! Those haircuts! I almost want to hit someone. Or myself.
Earlier today I caught almost 80% of Freida Mock‘s Anita, a decent-enough doc about the trials of Anita Hill, the Oklahoma-born attorney who testified in 1991 about having endured sexual harassment from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. I was reminded how ugly the questioning of Hill was, particularly from Senators Alan Simpson, Arlan Specter and Orrin Hatch. Anita is at least partly a perspective doc as one concludes that kind of sexist bellligerence could never be voiced today at a Congressional hearing…or could it?
And then I slipped into the first half of Freddy Camalier‘s Muscle Shoals, which was also pleasant and affectionate. The part I saw was about Rick Hall‘s FAME Studios, which is where the all-white-guy rhythm section called The Swampers first assembled and played on Percy Sledge‘s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” Wilson Pickett‘s “Funky Broadway,” Aretha Franklin ‘s “I Never Loved A Man Like I Love You,” etc.
The part I didn’t see presumably covered the decision by the Swampers to break off from Hall and start their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. This is where the Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” in early December 1969. Other big songs recorded there included the Staple Singers‘ “I’ll Take You There,” Paul Simon‘s “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like A Rock,” and several Bob Seger classics including “Night Moves”, “Katmandu” and “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
I left because I told myself I needed to write more than watch Muscle Shoals. So I stepped out into the Holiday Cinemas parking lot and looked at the p & i and public screening schedules and…I don’t know, man, but I just kind of lost interest at that very moment in doing the festival at all today. Nothing appealed to me at all. The sky was gray and bleak and the pavement was damp fro the melting ice and snow, and I just didn’t want to do anything except sit indoors and plotz. To hell with it.
So I went over to Fresh Farms and bought some detergent and humped it back to the Park Regency and started a wash and ate a salad and tried to write. Nothing came out so I watched MSNBC and read. Before I knew it it was 6 pm and then 7 pm. Maybe I’ll be able to write tonight and maybe not. I don’t care either way. Okay, I care but not that much.
I’ve got lots more to file regarding yesterday’s screenings, but I have to make an 11:30 am p & i screening of Freida Mock‘s Anita. Immediately after that I’ll see Freddy Camalier‘s Muscle Shoals doc, and then a press screening of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash‘s The Way, Way Back at 3:30 pm. And then a couple of hours of writing and then…I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.
Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color is the only Sundance film I’ve seen thus far that totally jettisons narrative in favor of an impressionist, oddly spooky, catch-as-catch-can paint-splatter whatever experience. It’s very cool and commanding and climatorial. I became an instant fan. You’re free to piece together all the fragments and good luck with that, but Upstream Color has something to do with 21st Century anxiety, malevolent micro-manipulation, love, bodily invasions, Ridley Scott-like worms and definitely pigs. Lots and lots of little pigs.
You don’t want to hear what I think it all amounts to. Whatever I might write would just get in the way or feel like a mosquito. It’s entirely between you and Upstream Color.
Director-writer-producer Carruth is self-distributing Upstream Color on April 5th. HE readers are advised to grapple with the experience. All serious cineastes, I mean. I honestly don’t think you’ll be able to call yourself a man if you don’t.
It’s certainly worth catching for Amy Seimetz‘s mesmerizing lead performance. And Carruth’s costarring one, come to think. They play lovers (named Chris and Jeff) who may have been invaded/afflicted by the same William S. Burroughs-ian bad guys, and Carruth is cool — a fascinating actor in that he doesn’t seem to “act” much but is indisputably interesting. His intense eyes especially. But Semetz (an indie actress-director who strongly resembles early Juliette Binoche) is the shit. She’s the primary victim, the person who struggles with weird micro-aggression and malevolence that makes no real “sense,” who tries to hold on, who bears the burden and somehow muddles through. Seimetz has been around for years, but this is the first time I’ve sat up and said “wow.”
(I was amazed, incidentally, that a publicist actually disputed my impression that Seimetz resembles Binoche as she looked when she made Louis Malle‘s Damage, only with lighter hair.)
I was told last night by a publicist that Carruth is in Park City but isn’t doing Sundance interviews, only interviews geared to the 4.5 release. “He’s not approachable at all?,” I asked. Oh, he’s around, she said, but he’s avoiding the spotlight and hanging with old friends. A friend/colleague of the publicist suggested Carruth was following the reclusive Terrence Malick playbook. “Oh, I get it,” I said. “He’s one of those. A mysterian, an artful dodger.” I asked if Carruth risks going to restaurants and ordering the occasional hamburger or salad. Does he have a driver’s license, or is that too much of an exposure, giving his personal information to “them”? Who are the 2013 brain police? Are they watching me also?
An hour later I tweeted the following: “J.D. Salinger, Glenn Gould, Thomas Pynchon, Terrence Malick…Shane Carruth!”
I’ve just re-read my 11.8.12 review of Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln. Since that date I’ve been characterized as an unregenerate hater, but I’ve never changed my mind about the basic cinematic value of this film. I’ve simply maintained all along that it’s not good enough to take the Best Picture Oscar. Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor? Of course. Tony Kushner‘s script for Best Adapted Screenplay? Okay. Tommy Lee Jones for Best Supporting Actor? I’m a Robert De Niro-in- SLP guy but no argument. But not Lincoln itself.
Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln (Disney, 11.9) is a somewhat authentic, deliberately paced, honorably acted, highly thoughtful History Channel movie that mostly concentrates on Abraham Lincoln‘s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment (i.e, the abolishment of slavery) in Congress. Spielberg’s approach to the material — an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s “Team of Rivals” by Tony Kushner — is appropriately reverent, sturdy and subdued. It feels like a history lesson, and plays like a musty political procedural literally happening in the mid 1860s. It seems to unfold at the horse-drawn pace of that era.
In other words it’s a highly literate, passionately performed and very thoughtful bore, and for all the right reasons.
I myself was never bored, mind — I love history and period realism — but I would argue that the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment is an interesting saga with some great dialogue (Tommy Lee Jones‘ anger moments might be the best thing about it), but it’s not a riveting one. It’s not really movie material, certainly by today’s standards. It’s Showtime or PBS or History Channel material writ large by the Spielberg brand and the soulful skills of Daniel Day Lewis. Anyone who cares about doing this kind of thing correctly will understand and respect what Spielberg has tried to do, and in many ways has succeeded at.
But they will also admit to themselves that there’s something grindingly dutiful and a bit plodding about Lincoln, and that it gives you the feeling that you’re trudging through the narrative mud like a foot soldier in Grant’s Army. In some ways Lincoln is not that tonally different from Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator. And you know what that means.
It opens with a crassly calculated, totally bullshit scene in which Lincoln shares quiet words with four Union soldiers (two white, two black) under the cloak of night, and it’s amazing how phony it feels when one of the black soldiers, played by David Oyelowo, politely tells President Lincoln that he’s irked and disappointed that men of color aren’t allowed to become officers. And then he recites a portion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and he walks away from Lincoln as he continues to recite, withdrawing like a member of a chorus in an early 1950s stage production of Brigadoon.
Yes, DDL’s titular performance is quietly arresting. A little recessive and self-regarding, perhaps, but he seems to have genuinely captured the A. Lincoln that I’ve been reading about for decades — the folksy but sly politician, the low-key, self-amused teller of jokes and cracker-barrel tales, the rigorously thoughtful and perceptive lawmaker, patient and wise but dogged by melancholia and a wife who provided little peace. It’s all there. His performance is never quite kicky or adrenalized enough — it’s largely about stillness and speaking softly and stoic restraint — to make you sit up in your seat and go “wow!” And yet it gains upon reflection. I left the theatre thinking this is certainly among the year’s best, and yet I’m not sure I need to savor his performance again. I think I’ve absorbed all there is. Same with Lincoln itself. I have a chance to see it again tonight, and I’m thinking “Eh…maybe not.”
Largely because I was tremendously irritated by dp Janusz Kaminski having gone with that same milky, bleachy lighting style that he’s used in so many Spielberg films. All those desaturated grays and browns and pallid complexions and interior, gas-lit shadows fit into the milieu, of course. They define the tone and mood of the film. But this is a Kaminski signature that we’ve seen time and again (Minority Report, Munich, A.I., The Terminal) so his work on Lincoln doesn’t feel like he’s tried to illuminate a specific story or theme or whatever. It’s Janusz in default mode.
There is so much milky, bleachy light pouring through the windows of the Lincoln White House that you’d think aliens from Close Encounters (the ones who hovered over Richard Dreyfuss‘s pickup truck and gave him a sunburn) have landed on the South Lawn.
Other things about Lincoln disappointed or pissed me off.
Did you know that the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives inside the Capitol building, which looks almost exactly the same today as it did in 1865, has several large windows, and that milky, bleachy light pours through during daylight hours? You didn’t know that? The chamber has no windows, you say? Well, you’d better check with Janusz Kaminski, my friend!
I didn’t believe that the 16th President travelled around without security protection of any kind. Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln never causes any kind of commotion when he shows up here or there. Nobody goes “whoa…it’s the President!” Instead they all go “oh, hey there, Mr. President…how goes it?” He just walks or roams around like any guy, riding in a carriage like some middle-aged tailor or accountant or physician. No oolah-boolah or “stand back!” vibe of any kind.
White House during the Lincoln administration, perhaps in 1862 or 1863.
Below is a photograph (or daguerrotype) of the White House during the Lincoln administration. Looks pretty nice, doesn’t it? A clean shot of the same place but without the fountain. How hard would it have been for Spielberg to create a CG image of the entire structure? Too hard, apparently. There isn’t a single establishing shot of the White House or the U.S. Capitol (the huge dome of which had recently been completed in early 1865) in the entire film. No images of how the White House South Lawn or Pennsylvania Avenue or the Treasury building or the Potomac might have looked. Lincoln never goes for the big wow shot because, I’m guessing, it would have been too costly given the expected modest revenues. But they’ll spend the bucks on big CG compositions when Spielberg shoots Robopocalypse.
In short, the outdoor capturings in Lincoln don’t look like 1860s Washington. They look like period-dressed Petersburg, Virginia, where the film was mostly shot, and other areas in Virginia (including Richmond).
Lincoln‘s interior sets, minimally lighted when those trademark Kaminski floodlights are absent, have been expertly littered with the clutter of papers and ink bottles and leather gloves and snuff boxes, but Lincoln is almost entirely composed of medium shots of shadowy interiors, medium shots of shadowy interiors and, just to break up the monotony, medium shots of shadowy interiors. And 90% of the time containing four or five or more middle-aged men arguing about politics and horse-trading and votes and whatnot. And the occasional young man (or small groups of young men) looking on in wonderment or admiration.
I was half-joking when I said I wished that Lincoln had been shot in Aroma-rama or Smellovision, but I was half serious also. I wrote that I was hoping for an atmospheric bathroom scene with maybe an insert shot of an 1860s toilet or a bathtub or whatever, and of course there isn’t. That was understood from the get-go, but it would have been cool.
Spielberg doesn’t show Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s theatre, but his decision to go with an alternate way of conveying this event struck me as highly unimaginative.
And if you know your Lincoln history the bed he was placed upon at the Peterson rooming house wasn’t big enough for his tall frame, so he was laid down diagonally, corner to corner. This is ignored in Lincoln. The bed that DDL lies on has plenty of room.
Pretty much every performance has conviction and panache — Sally Field‘s Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s Robert Todd Lincoln, Gulliver McGrath‘s Tad Lincoln (except for the scene when he learns of his father’s death), David Strathairn‘s William Seward, Jackie Earle Haley‘s Alexander H. Stephens, Bruce McGill‘s Edwin Stanton, Gloria Reuben‘s Elizabeth Keckley, Jared Harris‘s Ulysses S. Grant, James Spader‘s William N. Bilboe, John Hawkes‘ Colonel Robert Latham, Hal Holbrook‘s Francis Preston Blair, etc.
The bottom line? Lincoln is a good film, deserving of respect and worth seeing, but it happens at an emotional distance and feels like an educational slog.