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Monday, February 25, 2008

How Will the Coen's Handle Mainstream Success?

Just months before Joel and Ethan Coen released BLOOD SIMPLE in January of 1985 I attended a indie film conference in Los Angeles in conjunction with AFI/Filmex Festival. On the panel was Steven Spielberg who made the comment "I would love to make a low budget indie film but for me that is impossible."

The Coen's first film caused the TIME magazine critic Richard Corliss to rave BLOOD SIMPLE was the greatest directorial debut since Orson Wells. A comparison drawn to the fiercely independent Wells was not only for Joel and Ethan's original vision but also the outsider status the Coen's would come to represent in the film world. As time passed the Coen's remained isolated from the comings and goings of Hollywood studio bosses both with their productions as well with the releases of their films. Much of their recognition and film awards came from France.

Spielberg's envy of indie film and desire to make one was brought on by the ability to make decisions outside the controlling mechanisms of Hollywood studios. Despite the success and million upon millions Spielberg had earned by then on films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T. and JAWS it hadn't given the Hollywood autuer the freedom or independence, instead only a bigger burden to make the type of movie on a scale that arrested control away from him. Or so the father of mega-mulitplex blockbuster movies claimed.

Now, after last night's Oscars and 3 more statues, Hollywood insiders embraced the two decade long outsiders -- the storied indie rebel Coen Brothers. The question now becomes, how will success effect the Coen Brothers and their future filmmaking?

Many like to point to Martin Scorsese as a former New York outsider who in his later years sought to be accepted and embraced by inside Hollywood. Before the former film teacher at NYU where Joel and Ethan went to school, hovered closer to the L.A. orbit, Scorsese made hard edged films like TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, KING OF COMEDY, THE LAST WALTZ, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS. In these early focused New York films Scorsese bent, stretched and often redefined the rules of intelligent filmmaking. RAGING BULL came to be considered one of the greatest films of all times.

Then, fever struck Scorsese and he started making mainstream movies and epic multi-million dollar projects like GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR that many criticized as compromised, inferior, and that pandered to the Hollywood insider aesthetic.

THE AVIATOR was called vast but ultimately emotionally empty by critics. Film enthusiasts took it as a direct attempt to win an Oscar either for directing and/or best picture and GANGS OF NEW YORK also received a lurk-warm welcome only to be hyped by the Weinstein Brothers who staked their reputation as Oscar forgers on the film release. Although GANGS was nominated for 10 Oscars in 2002 it was shut out and this seemed only to intensify Scorsese's desire to fit in to the Hollywood mainstream.

Others have sited another outer borough born New Yorker, Woody Allen's career and his temperament to avoid disapproving critics and adulating awards equally. When Hollywood tried to pull Allen into its orbit after ANNIE HALL, the Manhattanite pulled away and avoided the trappings big finance can bring. Allen remained steadfastly in New York, continued to work with his regular crew, wrote scripts for specific actors and actresses, and refused to accept the high flung acclaim of Hollywood as reality. Allen kept making small films aimed at an art house audience.

How will the Coen's be affected by becoming Hollywood's most celebrated directors and producers? Time will tell.

Coen Brothers Photo by Sam Javanrouh at the Toronto International Film Festival used under Creative Commons limited license

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Doing Workshop

A great advantage to doing workshop production in the Twin Cities is the opportunity to see the wealth of acting talent we have "north of ordinary."

A lot of people I speak with like to say, "Diablo Cody wasn't born here or go to one of our renown colleges and universities." Brooke Busey went to college at the University of Iowa, "the writers' University" that has produced a number of great writers from Bi Feiyu to Robert Penn Warren and Ann Patchett among many others. But Cody did come to Minnesota to reach her artistic maturity as she pointed out at her Walker Art Center debut screening of JUNO.

Talent comes to the Twin Cities from all over the region and it is important that as an artistic community there are mechanisms for those talented and coming-of-age have the places to develop their craft and skills whether they be writers, producers and directors, actors working in collaboration.

The clear fact is if you wish to be a filmmaker or writer you just have to do it and see your scripts thru to completion. You have to keep working with others to make it happen.

And by that I do not mean, writing proposals, promoting your image, networking with the bigwig suits, writing ad copy or playing the ego-centric celebrity chasing game -- I mean working on and developing your vision, skills, and talent. I find it often shocking in many art schools today, that more emphasis is place on honing the "professional skills" and grooming their students for the world of foundation funding and grants writing and less specific classes in artistic development.

Over the last decades there have been those places where talent gathers like the Playwright's Horizons in New York, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in the rockies, even those incubators of talent and ideas like Second City first in Chicago and then later in Toronto that have become a focal point for the emergence of new talent.

The best place to synthesis those skills is in a space where other artists of equal talent come together to share. Its called workshop. Workshop, for lack of better analogy, is the place after college and during everyday life to further incubate talent. It is a place where creative artists and performers possessing all different types of skills, varying aesthetic perspectives and high levels of passion come together to lend their skills and share a vision.

More important to the process of workshop collaboration is the experience of having to work with other talents and at reconciling differences in points of view. All too often, creative people get bound in and ego driven tunnel of self-obsession and stop listening, stop being open to new ideas and this leads to stagnation. It is not hard to see this even in some of our most talented filmmakers and they need to change gears and innovate.

We need to do our work here but also bring the highest level talent and new faces of cinema to Minnesota to work with us on our scripts, ideas, and vision. Next week, at the Guthrie Theater you will have an opportunity to see great local actors, new fresh faces in the national cinema and Minnesota producers, directors and script read in the Dowling Studio. If you are serious about film and storytelling in this medium you will participate.

"Discussing the script" above photo by Jon Wiley

Monday, February 11, 2008

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days

4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile by Cristian Mungiu

When Walker Art Center film curator Sheryl Mousley talks about Cristian Mungiu's astonishing film, she describes a generation of Romanian filmmakers, born in the late 60s and early 70s who had a very particular experience growing up under Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. To a first generation to come-of-age at the time of the dictators demise and have began to embrace new freedoms while still cautiously aware of the tenuous nature of being a filmmaker in a country devastated by brutal dictatorship.

Another brilliant Romanian director from this new generation of filmmakers was Cristian Nemescu who made the 2007 Cannes Un Certain Regard award winning California Dreamin' (Endless). Nemescu died tragically when his car was struck by a speeding Landrover in Bucharest that had run a red light, cutting short a career that would certainly have made a huge contribution to cinema.

While there is something truly refreshing in seeing this new generation of Romanian filmmakers, there is also a retro quality to their films. Mungiu said it himself that because he was limited in the kinds of films he could see, his influences in cinema came from a period before our present day movies, pre-millennium cinematic languages and tradition of cinema verite as well as the French New Wave.

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days all takes place inside one 24 hour period and the camera follows closely our lead character Otilia played pitch perfect by an incredible Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca who now lives in London. Mungiu's choice to follow Otilia, as opposed to the more obvious, Gabriela whose plight has dramatic arc of the story is brilliant.

Otilia sets off out in the morning on the clandestine mission to help her student roomate Gabita as she is affectionately called, obtain an illegal abortion. There are many scenes in this film where the camera literally follows, almost in real time, Otilia's march through the minefield she is trying to navigate. The filmmakers are careful not to take sides, instead to tell the story without moral or political proselytizing.

Probably the most upsetting but rich aspect of the story is that Otilia puts it all on the line for Gabita. She holds back absolutely nothing in her aid to her friend. There is something deeply abiding in Otilia's commitment to Gabita and yet this duty and protection is not reciprocated and, in fact, abrogated in return.

I have named this film one of the best films of 2007 and far and away better than JUNO or most the the heralded award winning films of the year. As we left the cinema, however, as brilliant as this film is, it cannot and will not fair well with the Academy Awards, Golden Globes or even BAFTA awards. 4 / 3 / 2 is far too stark, too real, too intelligent, and too bracing to ever fall into the commercial morass these awards bring out.

But that's okay, we can live with the knowledge that the Oscar and Globes and all the rest are not the judges of the realm or the indicator of greatness.