Sunday, May 9, 2021
Thursday, May 6, 2021
Saturday, May 1, 2021
At some point in my relationship with Wes Anderson, his films, and his critics, I was moved to look up the word “twee,” that I might remind myself what, exactly, it means. This is the definition: affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint. The word is “chiefly British,” as well. Possibly more than any other word in the English language, “twee” has been applied, pejoratively, to the films of Wes Anderson by his many, and quite loud, detractors. Anderson’s films, they insist (usually just before a new one is about to come out, after months or years of simmering dormancy) are fussy, cute, visually over-designed, emotionless dollhouses that are exceedingly repetitive from one to the next, never serious, never about anything. This is all happening again in the lead-up to the release of The French Dispatch, Anderson’s latest, and, as with every past example, it’s a deeply frustrating thing to witness, because the perception of Anderson’s films, as they’re described by his critics, does not jibe in the least with what his films actually are, according to, I’m tempted to come right out and say, those who have actually watched the fucking things.
On the occasion of Anderson's birthday, I'm moved to revisit all of this. A year or so ago, this piece by Matthew Klee imploring Wes Anderson to “get a new gimmick,” kicked off another round of this silliness. Klee begins by praising Anderson’s first three films for being “sweet and prickly,” before going on to bemoan that 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a step back for being “aggressively twee” (there, you see?). So. Bottle Rocket — Anderson’s debut film from 1996 about a sweetly mentally unstable man (Luke Wilson) who takes straight-shooting advice from his pre-teen sister and gets involved in the heist of a bookstore with his goofily serious best friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) while also falling in love with a motel maid (Lumi Cavazos) — is “sweet and prickly,” while The Life Aquatic — which is about Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a negligent, aggressive, mean, and very American version of Jacques Cousteau, setting out to avenge the violent death of his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassell) during an attack by the elusive jaguar shark, a journey that will include Zissou pulling a gun on a pregnant woman, a pirate attack involving fatal neck wounds, tragic helicopter crashes, deep, endless grief, and bottomless regret — is the one that’s “aggressively twee.” Not Bottle Rocket.
What, exactly, is going on here?
Late in the article, after he accuses Wes Anderson of being from Texas, Klee writes this astonishing sentence: “It’s a schtick [sic] so severe, you won’t need to see his name at the end of a trailer for The French Dispatch to know he made it.” A film director having an instantly recognizable style is, evidently, a bad thing. Filmmaking, Klee implies, should be indistinct, unnoticeable, a matter simply of pointing the camera at actors speaking dialogue. The image within the frame should not be designed, or thought about in any way — to do so would be “fussy,” that terrible thing. Or, at minimum, if a director must have a style, he or she should, at least, change it up from film to film, creating a new personality every time so that, ideally, in the great mélange of cinema there will finally be no way of knowing who made what, save for IMDb. It is in this environment that a perfectly pleasant, entirely bland film such as The Big Sick becomes a Great Film.
And what, dare I ask, is this shtick that Anderson desperately needs to move on from? It can only be that dreaded style. Of course, it’s this that leads Anderson’s critics (or anyway, those who criticize in bad faith; surely there are some who can make intelligent points against these films) to act as though his career has been spent making the same film over and over again. On top of that, it can only be the surface of that aesthetic: Anderson’s penchant for inventing books for his characters to read (or to have written); to run wild with the set design; to write dialogue and narration that is almost hyper-literate (at least compared to most); to give his characters unique professions and hobbies, such as aquatic explorer and falconry. But to claim that the mountains of detail that can be found in each film all amount to the same thing, one mountain indistinguishable from the next, is to do nothing but reveal an inability to pay attention. The peak of this very specific kind of blindness can be found in an inexplicably popular Saturday Night Live sketch, which imagines what The Strangers would be like if it was directed by Wes Anderson, but only manages to show what such a sketch would be like if the person who wrote it had only seen The Royal Tenenbaums. One of the “jokes” is, quite literally “It’s Danny Glover!” as if Glover does nothing but appear in Anderson films, rather than just the one.
Which is another thing. In 2007, Anderson released what must count as his most controversial film, The Darjeeling Limited, about three brothers (played by Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody) on a trip through India following the death of their father. Upon its release, Jonah Weiner, writing for Slate, published an article detailing what he perceived as Anderson’s many racial sins. He gets things wrong almost immediately by describing the film’s Indian characters as “foils” to the white protagonists. However, since foils are meant to emphasize the qualities of other characters, and The Darjeeling Limited is a chronicle of the weaknesses shared by its three leads, I can’t quite see where Weiner is getting this from. But going after Anderson for supposedly problematic racial politics is a fairly popular pastime, and if you get him going both ways — “Cast more people of color in your films but under no circumstances make a film about them” — so much the better. By now, it’s taken as a given that Anderson’s 2018 animated film Isle of Dogs misused Japan and its culture, treating them as nothing more than shallow exotic spice, even though there is strong evidence that Anderson went to great lengths to be so specific about the country that Japanese audiences would likely get more out of the film than anyone.
Anyway, among the sins Weiner accuses Anderson of committing in The Darjeeling Limited is treating Rita, played by Amara Karan (curiously, Weiner chooses not to name any of the non-white actors in Anderson’s films when writing about their characters), the stewardess Jason Schwartzman’s Jack has an affair with on the titular train, as a “type,” a “mysterious dark-skinned beauty,” rather than as a person. He writes: “Jack hardly exchanges a word with her, but, reeling from a bad breakup, he begins pestering her to break up with her Sikh boyfriend [played by Waris Ahluwalia, incidentally], convinced for no good reason that she can turn his life around.” What Weiner crucially leaves out of this is that she actually does not do this, and by the end of their time together finds Jack to be foolish. Also ignored by Weiner is that “convinced for no good reason” is actually the whole idea. That’s not your thought; that was Anderson’s thought.
These sorts of critiques often have a smug, weirdly personal vibe to them that can be infuriating, but their most notable feature is their thoughtlessness (Weiner tosses off Owen Wilson’s 2007 suicide attempt as “his recent personal ordeal,” while discussing, it must be noted, the Wes Anderson film in which Wilson portrays a man who has recently survived a suicide attempt, a detail Weiner apparently found as insignificant as the names of the non-white actors). Former child actor and current writer Mara Wilson recently tweeted, “Every time I finish watching almost any Wes Anderson movie I feel like I just hung out with a very beautiful man for two hours: I enjoyed looking but retained nothing that was said or done,” suggesting that, for one thing, her memory problem was his fault, but also that there is nothing beyond the visuals worth remembering in a Wes Anderson picture. That The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film about the death of Europe at the hands of fascism and the inevitably of death and lost time, has nothing going on underneath the bright colors and precise framing. That Moonrise Kingdom, for all its heartfelt exploration of loneliness, marital strife, and the miracle of falling in love (constructed in a way to mirror the YA fiction favored by the young female protagonist), only has a few cute costumes going for it. That one of the most consistently surprising American filmmakers working today is good for nothing beyond his extraordinary visual imagination.
That’s all. How twee.
Sunday, April 25, 2021
In 1992, Al Pacino, one of the most beloved and respected American actors of the 1970s and '80s, appeared in a film written by Bo Goldman and directed by Martin Brest called Scent of a Woman. In that film, Pacino, who would go on to win the Best Actor Oscar for this performance playing a retired Lieutenant Colonel named Frank Slade, makes this noise more than once: “Hoo-ah!” Those two syllables have been used to parody Al Pacino from Scent of a Woman until now to such an extent that anyone who hasn’t seen the film might believe that’s all he says during the course of its entire 156 minutes. In fact, it could be argued that since 1990’s The Godfather Part III, film critics, to some extent, and the film-going public almost completely, stopped taking Pacino seriously. There have certainly been films and performances that were embraced — as Vincent Hannah in Michael Mann’s Heat, Lefty Ruggiero in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco and Lowell Bergman in The Insider, again for Mann, and most recently his remarkable turn as Jimmy Hoffa in Scorsese's The Irishman — but the popular perception of Al Pacino is that he’s a once-great actor who has either sold out or gone insane or given up nuance; whatever the case, he’s no longer any good. Or at best, he’s a formerly great actor who is now a silly goofball.
However, on the occasion of Al Pacino’s 81st birthday, I must insist that the truth is this: Since 1971, when he starred as a heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, and right up until today, Al Pacino has never stopped being one of the greatest screen actors this country has ever produced. It’s worth mentioning that The Panic in Needle Park was Pacino’s second film appearance. The Godfather was his third.
My great frustration has been that those who slag Pacino seem to be aware of only a fraction of his recent work. So with that in mind, please allow me to recommend a few of his most underrated, or under-seen (likely both) Al Pacino performances, all of them post-Scent. And so, to begin!
Any Given Sunday (1999): I’m about to write the nicest thing I will ever write or say about Oliver Stone, and it is this: For this film (actually my favorite thing Stone has ever done) the director, who I believe has the worst taste of any major filmmaker, appears to have trusted Al Pacino to know what the hell he was doing and didn’t direct him into the ground. As pro football coach Tony D’Amato, Pacino looks and sounds every bit the weathered, passionate, cynical and exhausted man who senses that he is about to age out of the job he has dominated for decades. The big scene is, as you would imagine, a grandiose locker-room speech before the biggest game of the season. Admittedly, it doesn’t hurt that Stone wrote a pretty good speech, but watch how Pacino builds from a resigned world-weariness (the way he throws away “We’re in Hell, gentlemen,” making what would be an otherwise rather dramatic line sound like a verbal slump) into a genuinely inspiring roar. You can watch the speech here.
Chinese Coffee (2000): Most people don’t realize that Pacino has directed a handful of films. They are small, independent affairs, beginning with 1996’s Looking for Richard, a documentary about staging Richard III, and followed up four years later by this drama based on a play by Ira Lewis. It’s essentially a two-hander with Pacino starring opposite Jerry Orbach as a pair of terrifically unsuccessful writers. The two butt heads for 90-some minutes about debts, their poverty, their pasts, shared and otherwise, their love affairs and their writing. As a director, Pacino adds a few too many unnecessary flourishes, but his performance is excellent (as is Orbach’s). The film climaxes with its best scene when Orbach confesses to Pacino that, despite what he said earlier in the film, he did in fact read the manuscript for Pacino’s new novel, and he hated it. A lot unfolds from there, but what’s most striking for me is how Pacino plays his side of it, at times patiently defending his book, at other times becoming angry, but never slipping into the expected arrogance that would have turned the scene into a lazy “how interesting that they’re both wrong” ambiguity that is much easier to do, and I suspect, easier to act. You can watch most of that scene here, or you can just go here and watch the whole thing.
Merchant of Venice (2004): Perhaps the most towering performance Pacino has given in the past 20 years. Michael Radford’s divisive adaptation of Shakespeare’s most controversial play features Pacino as Shylock, the Jewish merchant and villain of the piece, who both embodies certain anti-Semitic stereotypes while raging powerfully against anti-Semitism. It’s always a shock to remember this is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, especially judging from this movie, which dampens all the comedic scenes as a way of amping up Pacino’s furious performance. Click over here to see Pacino’s take on the “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech.
Phil Spector (2013): David Mamet’s 2013 HBO film posits the theory that Phil Spector did not in fact murder Lana Clarkson, the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison in 2009, but rather it was a freak accident. To be blunt, and despite my deep admiration for the work of Mamet, I think this is complete horseshit. But Phil Spector isn’t the only film to feature a central moral idea with which I have disagreed and still managed to enjoy, so I’m not too worked up about that. And either way, the whole film could be trash and Pacino’s raving mania as Spector would still come off as a crazy kind of genius. How appropriate. He plays Spector as insane when we first see him and then slowly disintegrates from there. Here’s a sample.
Manglehorn (2014): This is possibly my favorite film on the list. David Gordon Green’s modest comedy-drama stars Pacino as a quiet, lonely, cat-loving locksmith who wants to pull himself out of his solitary rut. As basic as that sounds, the film has a strange, almost ethereal quality to it (driven home most directly by the last shot). It’s a wonderful mix of unexpected humor and a character study of a man on the brink of a personal apocalypse (“I’m losing hope in tomorrow”). This scene (with Pacino playing opposite Harmony Korine, of all people) should give you a good idea of the tone of the thing. But best of all, as always, is Pacino. As you can see from that clip, however bizarre and unexpected the humor is, it’s mostly happening around Pacino, who just sits there, making keys and fixing locks and taking care of his sick cat. For anyone obsessed with the idea that all Pacino knows how to do anymore is yell, maybe Manglehorn will finally shut them up. And also, there’s a simple little scene between Pacino and his cat that is one of the truest and most honestly happy moments I’ve seen in ages.
So there you have it. Al Pacino has been making movies for 50 years, and despite what some people would have you believe, he has been turning in brilliant performances for just as long (this, by the way, is to say nothing of his equally long and distinguished stage career). He has not stopped. He has changed, perhaps, but who would wish him to do otherwise? And if you don’t believe me that Al Pacino is just as good as he ever was — that he is, in fact, our greatest living American actor — then check out the above films. All of them are easy to get your hands, or anyway your eyes, on (even Chinese Coffee, which Pacino himself wouldn’t release for seven years after it played festivals). There are other good ones, too, such as Danny Collins, and even interesting misfires like The Local Stigmatic (I myself am undecided about how successful or unsuccessful it is, but you can check it out for yourself here). It’s almost all worthwhile, on some level.
All of which is to say: If your first thought when considering Pacino’s work from the mid-'90s to now is “Hoo-ah!” you should try to branch out a little. He’s not the problem. You might be.
(Incidentally, he’s also quite good in Scent of a Woman.)