Friday, February 24, 2006

Elegy to the People in White Gloves

I've been thinking a lot about the digital revolution in films these days. When I started film school way back in the late 1990s, digital video was not even a consumer product. Video-- SVHS no less-- was seen as a cheap way to screw up until we were ready for film. Toward the end of film school, as I was doing my short films, DV was starting to take hold, but there was still a certain snobbery towards it. It was simply cheap; there was no aesthetic value to it. But, now films like Personal Velocity and, more recently, Bubble (incidentally, Soderbergh's initial attempt at digital, Full Frontal, was a disaster) show that digital offers an immediacy particular to its medium.

But, of course, the biggest thing about the digital revolution is the way it has democratized the production process. There is no longer a major financial barrier to making a feature film. And now exhibition is catching the digital wave. The day-and-date release of Bubble offers an alternative to the traditional studio model and video-on-demand could emerge as a viable alternative for indie filmmakers (not to link to myself, but I wrote about this in MovieMaker).

But, of course with revolution comes destruction. When I was going through post-production on my films, I would always have to go to the negative cutter-- the person who actually cuts and splices the negative together to conform to your editing decisions. These folks-- with their little razors and white gloves-- connected my film to all others, from Citizen Kane to Just One of the Guys. These people weren't glamorous-- they were tucked into grubby corners of film labs-- but you couldn't make a film without them. But now, with so many movies made on digital, films using a digital intermediary in their post-production process and theaters using digital projection (or starting to), the negative cutters are struggling to survive. Look, the digital revolution is not going to stop for the sake of the people with the white gloves and the razor blades (that makes them sound strangely like terrorists), but if they become extinct like dinosaurs, filmmaking will lose a tiny, obscure, but still romantic part of its history. But, that's revolution, isn't it?

The Gervais Report

At the risk of sounding like an obsessive fan-ziner, I offer the latest on The Ricky Gervais Show.

Fortunately there will be no waiting period before the next group of episodes. Follow the directions on Ricky's Web site to find out how to get the latest set of shows (they should be available on iTunes as well). The show will no longer be free, but the cost appears to be nominal-- $7 for four episodes, I think. Considering how often I wind up laughing out loud on the the subway or in the gym (people must think I'm insane), it seems worth it.

The last episode of the first group offered shocking news-- Karl has put an end to Monkey News. Actually, I think it's a good idea. Comapred to the freshness and off-the-cuffness (what the hell, let's make up a word) of the rest of the show, this segment had grown a bit stale. Karl seemed to be losing his zest for the chimp tales and Ricky and Steve would spend the whole time trying to prove his stories false-- which we know already. I'm looking forward to seeing what else they can come up with to go along with Karl's Diary.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Pilkington Effect

In my previous post about The Ricky Gervais Show, I gave short shrift to the phenomenon that is Karl Pilkington.

The show has developed a huge following, becoming the world’s most downloaded podcast, according to the folks at Guinness. In the process, Pilkington has become a global cult figure of sorts.

In episode three, during a discussion about a reality show where contestants had to eat an animal’s penis, Pilkington said he couldn’t eat an animal’s shlong first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, but, “I could eat a knob at night.” Gervais then called for DJs to loop that quote into a house mix. DJs answered the call, sending in their creations to the show and according to Reuters the quote has become a Google sensation. To top that off, Pilkington paraphernalia is taking off, so buy your T-shirt, mug or wall clock with the world’s most famous perfectly round, bald head on it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Awe-Inspiring Drivel of the Ricky Gervais Show

The Ricky Gervais Show offers the steadiest stream of belly laughs I’ve had since, well, The Office. The podcast consists of Gervais and Stephen Merchant (his co-creator from The Office and Extras) abusing their bizarre producer Karl Pilkington as he offers his bizarre observations on Chinese homeless people, elephants vs. mammoths and population control. Recurring segments include Monkey News (Karl’s “embellished” bits of monkey history and current events) and excerpts from Karl’s diary. But, really Ricky and Steve just like to make fun of Karl and his perfectly round, bald head.

But, the show is more than just drivel about monkeys (thought that is worth its weight in gold). Gervais and Merchant use the podcast format, which is closer to ham radio than structured, formal broadcast, to give listeners an inside look inside their creative process. The show has an off-the-cuff vibe, the opposite of their meticulously crafted TV work. Often they will riff on a news item a listener has emailed them, for example, a bit about a Serbian scientist who wants women to test out his sex machine. Within seconds Gervais and Merchant had crafted a brilliant comic scenario around a sex-crazed doctor who was using the machine to hide the fact that he was really having sex with his subjects. These moments have a fly-on-the-wall feel, as if you are overhearing the two of them at work brainstorming a new idea.

Sadly the first 12-episode season of the show is almost finished. But, they’ll be back with new episodes once Gervais and Merchant finish the second season of Extras. Go to Ricky’s Web site for updates.

Soderbergh Plays with Dolls

Steven Soderbergh has taken full advantage of the much-documented experimental release of his new film Bubble to create something that would not have seen the light of day if forced to go through the traditional studio channels. The multi-platform strategy creates a national release for what is essentially a specialty product, allowing the film to build an audience in much the way a blog or viral video would on the Internet. As such Soderbergh’s partnership with Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures—there are five more of these films to come—marks an attempt to find a cost-efficient way to allow filmmakers to explore new subjects and methods of storytelling.

The film offers a window into the lives of three people working in a primitive doll factory in a bleak Ohio town. The movie takes some getting used to; the flat, unpolished performances and mundane, seemingly aimless dialogue are not the stuff of slick Hollywood. But, ultimately that is what draws you into this world. The locations like the doll factory, the trailer homes, etc. and the closely observed details—the doll making scenes are strangely riveting—give the story a real grit and specificity.

Some critics have accused Soderbergh of being condescending
to his characters and this community. But, I think that is just a knee jerk response to a high profile director exploring a world outside the mainstream. The film’s attitude is neither hip nor ironic and it doesn’t look down on its characters. Soderbergh treats them all with sympathy and gives them room to emerge as well-rounded people, beyond the stock “working class” characterizations that Hollywood typically offers. Soderbergh casts aside what has becomes his signature visual style—handheld camera, jump cuts, etc.—in favor of simple, static setups. On the DVD commentary he says that took this approach because he wanted, as much as possible, for his non-professional actors to forget that they were in a movie. The strategy pays off, as each character offers revealing moments of humanity that allows us to connect with them. The detective (Decker Moody, a real, detective, by the way) has compassion; he is not just a gumshoe. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) is perhaps the film’s most sympathetic figure, emerging as decent woman for whom an act of rudeness is the last straw. He realization of her crime at the end of film is heartbreaking, as it shatters her sense of self.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Forgotten Beauty of The Constant Gardener

I’m no awards maven, but the Academy (and most other official awards bestowers) missed the boat by overlooking The Constant Gardener. The film dares to talk about politics—poverty in Africa and the exploitation of the people by the drug companies. Unlike Crash, it isn’t simply congratulating itself on its liberal beliefs (I’ll comment no further on this, instead I’ll let David Edelstein be my mouthpiece). Fernando Meirelles brings a passion to the story—he’s said that the situation in Kenya parallels the poverty in his native Brazil—and his handheld camera, roving through the streets with Tessa (Rachel Weisz) and later with Justin Quale (Ralph Fiennes), as he navigates the line at a health clinic, help humanize the tragedy. Unlike Syriana, The Constant Gardener is able to marry the political and the personal. The film’s uncovering of the misery in Kenya is inextricably linked to Fiennes’ efforts to learn the truth about his wife, and ultimately, to his discovering his political conscience (at the expense of his life). If we were not engaged emotionally, the film would be little more than an intellectual exercise or political windbaggery.

While we’re at it, a word on Ralph Fiennes. Maybe it’s because the guy is so damned good at playing emotionally constipated (see The English Patient) that people like the folks at the Academy simply take him for granted. Maybe he doesn’t get more attention because he simply doesn’t know how to show off. His performance in Gardener is one of brilliantly calibrated understatement. Fiennes’ reaction when he is interrupted from his gardening by Sandy (Danny Huston), who tells him that his wife has been killed is the type of transcendent moment about which critics love to write (in fact the New York Times did just that). In a closeup, Fiennes wordlessly absorbs this devastating news, his heart breaking. Then, his good breeding kicks in and he thanks his friend, saying, “That can’t have been easy.”

Woody: Alive and Kicking

I finally saw Match Point this week. Leading up to the movie, all I had been hearing from people was that this was the least Woody Allen-ish movie in years. And this was meant as a compliment. It’s a sign of how far he has fallen—that even his dyed in the wool fans were desperate for him to try something new.

While the movie fits thematically with Woody’s other films (the idea that there is no governing principle or moral order to life is straight out of Crimes and Misdemeanors), as a filmmaker he has finally busted out of the tired mannerisms that had been plaguing his work for at least ten years. There is a merciful absence of nebbishness, no doubt due to the British cast, none of whom try to ape the Wood-man. Gone are the long takes for their own sake. The shots and editing have a rhythm that fits the story. The characters are well drawn and the performances are top-notch. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers makes Chris a compelling figure, even as we grow to revile him. His clumsy commission of his crimes shows a humanity that still exists beneath his cold-bloodedness, making the murders that much more disturbing. Matthew Goode brings a caddish, self-involved charm to the young socialite that Chris longs to be. Scarlett Johansson’s character, Nola, is his most finely drawn female character in years. Where the women in Woody’s recent movies seemed to be there simply as projections of the male characters’ fantasies and nightmares, she is a three-dimensional, flesh in blood figure—sexy, neurotic, passionate, unhinged. The layered, detailed writing, coupled Johansson’s sensual, raw performance (the scene where she berates Chris outside his apartment has real power) makes you forget the staleness of Woody’s recent female creations.

That is not to say the film ranks among Woody’s greater achievements (it is not in the same league as Crimes). It drags in spots—there are too may scenes of Nola and Chris arguing about her pregnancy and of her calling him on his cell phone. As the story moves toward its resolution, there was never really any doubt as to what would happen (granted, Maureen Dowd offhandedly revealed the murder in a parentheses in that day’s column. I supposed I shouldn’t be pissed; the movie had been out a while. But still!)

The scene where Chris kills Nola, while it works, could have been more powerful, more disturbing. What is missing from the scene is Nola’s reaction. When Chris calls to her, I longed to see a close-up of her, as her expression turns from joy to horror as she sees him pointing a shotgun at her. Then he should have cut back to Chris as he fires. Nola is such a vibrant character that not showing her reaction is a glaring omission. To that point, Woody had gone through such pains to make her character one who exists on her own terms, but this little moment undermined all that. And it would have made it more palpable exactly what Chris is doing—killing a woman he loves to preserve his lifestyle.

Of course, this is all nitpicky. And when is the last time that Woody Allen made a film that was even worth nitpicking?