Monday, January 19, 2009

Film School Tuition: $8.50

I actually met a "producer" who told me she had never seen "The Sting". She was one of the "creatives" at a production company (now defunct for reasons which will be self evident) and had button-holded me at a film festival I'd won for screenwriting.

"Yeah, "The Sting" was made before I was born and I knew that since everyone already knows the plot, why waste my time with a movie that'll never be remade?"

I have a tendency to fall silent when I think I've dropped a verb, so she comes back with, "Know what I mean? It's not relevant. The actors aren't relevant anymore. The shooting technology isn't relevant anymore. The plot can't be redone again. It's just sooo not relevant to modern filmmaking."

I told her I was feeling a little light-headed because of all the excitement and thought I might throw up.  On her.  Any second.  Maybe I should go to bathroom while you go text somebody. My best guess is that after her production company went down she would have graduated at the top of her barista class. 

You try to put people like her out of your head because there are plenty of stereotypes in Hollywood and there's no reason to beat up on blondes anymore than you have to.  But after seeing "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" I'd kinda like to get her take on it.

So let me put the record straight before I get off on a rant: I think "Benjamin Button" is a spectacular movie, and I'll be astonished if it's not a multiple nominee: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, spring quickly to mind.

And yet, I get the impression that my "Stingless" producer may been writing movie reviews between her Starbuck's shifts given some of the comments I've seen in the trades.

The one that got me onto this soapbox was a well respected critic who observed that the "Benjamin Button storyline just isn't the way life plays out." Or, "the plot was so contrived...." Really? Life doesn't play out in reverse? A movie about the metaphors of life is contrived? WOW – SNAP – dude, like... NFW.

Much easier to grasp that Dinosaurs can be reconstituted from an 80 million-year-old DEAD mosquito; that aliens would attack and kill off 85% of us before Will Smith flies an alien spacecraft to the mother ship to upload a computer virus to it; or how about this one: that a sitting US President would go on national TV to say he's prepared to go door-to-door to "get the guns" WHILE running for a second term.  Yeah, that's gonna happen.  Let's get down on this Skippy: ALL movies are contrived – there, I said it – go get the nails and cross. They have a name for movies that aren't contrived – they're called newspaper articles.

But let's get to the rave part: "Benjamin Button" is really not best described at all – it's a movie that has to be seen to be appreciated, on any level. Civilians may or may not enjoy it – it can be a downer if you don't get past the top level of the story – but filmmakers have to see this in the same way they had to see "Jurassic Park". It's a game changer.  It may not change the way you look at films, but it will change what you think you can do as a filmmaker.

The game changer here is the cinematography in concert with the lighting. It's just breathtaking. Most filmmakers sit in the audience, smug in their own arrogance, "I could do that if I had their money."  I sat there completely blown away wondering, out loud: "How the hell'd they do THAT?" Rule: your wife will move away from you in a crowded theater, and take her popcorn with her.

Yeah there was some minor vignetting and the CGI really pulled the premise together, but so what? The camera work and lighting support were like paint brushes in the hands of a modern impressionist.  In fact, I'm not at all certain that isn't what I saw, a modern impressionist at work. The framing – especially in the Russian sequences – is a study in how to do it. You can go to film school or buy the books and read about dissecting the image into thirds, then sixths. OR you could go through the house looking for loose change, put $8.50 down at the box office and get a cheap seminar in how it's supposed to be done.

And poor Brad Pitt. First he's sleeping with Jennifer Aniston and hanging out with Clooney et al, and now he's sleeping with Angelina Jolie and has become the modern Steve McQueen. The guy can't buy a break.

No matter what you thought of Pitt's chops before this movie (and I thought he was fine in action-comedy and comedies), he now owns the title as the new dramatic minimalist.  Jason Bourne is fine when he's masquerading as Matt Damon (not a typo), but Pitt's depth is simply astounding. What directors worship about McQueen, they have in spades with Pitt: he speaks with his body – he gives you another level of performance beyond what you get with dialogue.  Suddenly you've got character definition that's both horizontal in scope and vertical in depth.

With a lot actors – movie stars especially – what you often get is someone pretending to be the character – and let's not talk method vs. technique here, just the net effect of what winds up on the screen.  What Pitt gives in "Benjamin Button" is a full-on portrayal of a character that isn't Pitt-like in carriage, manner or legacy.  As Pitt regresses in age, it is astonishing to see his mannerisms regress to an earlier age as well; like it or not, a guy carries himself differently at 50 than at 30 than at 15. And Pitt nails those differences as though he WERE those ages, not merely pretending to be them.  

The new McQueen is subtle, nuanced, and powerful – just like the old one.  Pitt is one of those rare Hollywood leading men that have made a seamless transition from movie star to actor – and I can't wait for hell to freeze over so I can work with him.

"Benjamin Button" is a movie about life and it's expectations and how they slam up against the reality of your own situations.  And whether you are at a point in your life where this film has resonance, if you are a filmmaker you need to see it. I'm not asking you to like it because most filmmakers don't like any film – we often get lost in the minutia and lose the journey of the film.

But if filmmaking is anything, it's subjective and self-centered: you don't make films so other people will like them or you, you make them because you have something to say and don't much give a damn what others think.

Which is why "Button" is a must-see for filmmakers: the movie stands for the proposition that life is subjective, live it as you will, live it as you can. And the film itself is such a study of the art of filmmaking it is difficult to imagine we all can't steal --- errr – learn from it.



    Of course, I didn't se Forrest Gump, either.

  2. Did you like the movie? I can't tell... :)E

  3. Yeah, there are obvious similarities, but they're very different movies. "The Magnificent Seven", "The Dirty Dozen", "Galaxy Quest", blah blah blah all come from Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai", but that doesn't diminish their originality. The biggest similarity between "Gump" and "Button" (IMO) is thematic: a disability doesn't have to be a disadvantage. But whether you call one a fantasy and the other a fable – doesn't matter which is which – "Gump" won six Oscars – all of which include the nominations I'm expecting "Button" to pick up.