Saturday, February 14, 2004

Happy Valentine's Day

Friday, February 13, 2004

One (More) From the Heart

If I had a choice in the matter, I'd probably live like the kids in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers: hanging out with gorgeous revolutionaries, watching old movies, and having nearly nonstop sex. But gorgeous revolutionaries never gave me the time of day, there aren't any repertory cinemas for a hundred miles in any direction, and sex is rare as hen's teeth. (Plus, I have to eat.) Nowadays, a cinephile is nothing more than a pretentious video geek, defined by solitary viewing rather than shared experience. You can't help but feel disappointment, watching the beautiful butterflies of your own dreams turn to lowly caterpillars.

Which brings me, alas, to the new "director's cut" of Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart, now available on DVD. In a previous post I noted that I saw the film in college, over a decade ago, on a rather crummy VHS tape. The visual style washed over me then, and left me starry-eyed and dreaming. So why, I wondered, did the re-release leave me so cold?

At first I feared that over the years my memory had gone bad, that I remembered this film as being much better than it really was. It's a pardonable offense from a college student, I suppose; much of what I liked back then proved mediocre and derivative. But on further reflection I noticed that some scenes I remembered fondly were missing. Further examination of an old, worn VHS copy confirmed my worst suspicions. One From the Heart had been changed, even mutilated -- but it was no longer the same film. Alas, the culprit was none other than Francis Coppola himself.

Some of Coppola's changes affect his characters' basic motivations. In the first scene of the original cut, Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) complain separately that they're getting older and tired of each other. Coppola has eliminated the expository dialogue and focused primarily on Frannie, so that we don't see Hank until much later, and we don't understand that Hank is undergoing the same midlife crisis Frannie is. Hank and Frannie's first fight has also been completely excised, leaving a gaping visual discontinuity in the first act. Unlike the original cut, which foregrounded the main characters' unhappiness to the point that many viewers found them unlikable (which was exactly the idea, I would say), Coppola's new version makes Hank and Frannie seem like a reasonably happy, well-adjusted couple -- not perfect, but generally all right. When these two finally leave each other and seek new partners, their decision seems to come out of nowhere. And because Frannie is much less repressed and tight-lipped in this new version, it's far less of a surprise when she cuts loose in a big dance number.

Other, less vital elements are also missing from the new version. Coppola's original cut foregrounded the location and ambience of his studio-lot Vegas, as well as the musical score. He included several shots of musicians (including a cameo by the film's composer, Tom Waits, who fingers a trumpet in an unconvincing manner), performing the score as if they -- and we -- were in a nightclub. All of this has been deleted. Coppola also cut down on the use of theatrical scrims, and deleted a few shots that wound their way through his mammoth studio sets. Vittorio Storaro's candy-colored cinematography has been relegated to a background role; most of his best work for the film has been dropped.

All this retinkering has made One From the Heart into a slightly shorter, leaner film, but also a smaller and clumsier one. It may even be a bit meaner; Coppola has re-edited a few scenes so that the characters of Hank and Frannie undergo more obvious humiliation. More to the point, the lush visuals that tempered the film's occasionally squalid domestic drama have been cut, so that the pas de quatre between the working-class couple and their working-class lovers has assumed a visual and narrative prominence it was never meant to possess. Long shots have been replaced by flatter mediums and close-ups, the sort of photography one might find in a standard TV movie (appropriate, I suppose, since this version will find its audience on television). The revised Heart no longer gives the characters' dreams, or its own ravishing images, their due. It's become a bit heartless.

That said, the new cut offers one minor compensation: a second chance to appreciate the performers, all of whom were grossly underrated at the time. Teri Garr is luminous as Frannie, an overworked drone approaching middle age, yet still game for a night on the town or a tropical vacation. But Frederic Forrest does the film's heavy lifting as Hank, a character who can neither dance nor sing, yet finds himself in the middle of a musical comedy. Most critics complained that Forrest was miscast in this role and seemed uncomfortable onscreen. They seemed not to understand that Hank is supposed to be uncomfortable, and Forrest plays his discomfort in a far more accomplished manner than I remembered. Through his character, the film affectionately deconstructs musical comedy, turning its conventions inside out without snickering at them.

Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski provide flamboyant support as exotic lovers. Julia uses all his Broadway panache for an appropriately hammy performance. Meanwhile, Kinski transcends the limits of her underwritten character, a "circus girl" named Leila, to find a core of unexpected, genuine pathos. The film hints that Leila may be nothing more than Hank's fantasy, though Kinski's performance gives the impression that she would like to be (or at least feel like) a real woman. Perhaps her character best embodies the spirit of One From the Heart -- which is obviously a fantasy and a fake, but which desperately desires to make itself true, or true enough, through style and strength of feeling.

Although the strategy doesn't work for Leila, it very nearly works for the film ... at least, in its original form. The "Francis Ford Coppola" who made Heart was so in love with cinema that he was willing to impale himself on a wild, stylistic experiment (and sadly, that's just what he did). But the mere "Francis Coppola" who recut the film twenty years later seems to have fallen out of love, so to speak: He's all business, and he's trimmed that other director's more glorious excesses. Call it Heart surgery, if you will. But his tinkering spirit, which worked so well for Apocalypse Now Redux (making a long, grand film much longer and -- to my mind at least -- much grander), has failed here: This particular Heart would have been better left alone.

The new DVD of One From the Heart features only the 2003 version, but you can still find old laserdiscs and VHS cassettes with Coppola's original theatrical cut. Here's hoping Coppola releases the real McCoy on DVD in the near future.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Terror Alert: News from Iraq

I'm not a warblogger by any means, but this story unnerved me. In a particularly nasty "October surprise," our troops in Iraq may not have any money to continue operations. The shortfall is expected to last three months, which could provide a nice window of opportunity for terrorists to do some real damage over there.

Meanwhile, we're slowly reintroducing sha'ria law to Iraq, and bringing traditional Islamic jurisprudence to the new "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan." The mullahs in the nearby "Islamic Republic of Iran" must be happy; they're officially celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary today. As we speak.

If you thought the Middle East was fun with one Iran, wait'll you see what it's like with three of them. What could George W. Bush possibly be thinking?

Democratic Deathwatch: The Generalissimo says goodbye ...

After massive defeats in his beloved South, weaselly Wesley Clark throws in the towel at last. Not even Michael Moore and Madonna could save him from the indifference of the electorate.

A few readers have suggested that My Stupid Dog may have played some small role in his downfall. But they're giving me too much credit. Clark was always his own worst enemy, which probably means he'll start clusterbombing himself next week.

Goodbye, Wes, and good riddance.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

My Stupid Oscar Column

Getting back into culture blogging isn't easy with all these distractions.

For film buffs, the Oscars are like the weather: Everybody complains, but nobody does anything about it. Fortunately, this year's nominees are much better than usual. Since I've seen most of the nominated films, I can at least tell you who I think ought to win in a few major categories:

Best Adapted Screenplay: Seabiscuit is the whitest of white elephants; as long as it doesn't win anything, I'll be satisfied. If I were handing out Oscars, I'd give this one to American Splendor, the most defiantly unclassifiable movie of the past year. Co-writers Robert Pulcini and Shari Berman broke all the rules for a standard screenplay and got away with it. Here's hoping more writers can do the same. Runner-up: Brian Helgeland offers impeccable craftsmanship in his screenplay for Mystic River. How can this be the same guy who gave us A Knight's Tale and The Order?

Best Original Screenplay: Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation was, to my mind, the best-written film of the year, if only because Coppola knew what to leave unspoken (or unheard). This screenplay can stand with the best of Harold Pinter's work for the screen. Could someone please publish it so the rest of us can learn? Missing in action: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's Bad Santa is a perfectly plotted film that manages to turn every shopworn Christmas cliche inside out -- sometimes hilariously, sometimes eerily. We need more films like Bad Santa.

Best Editing: I thought City of God was technically a 2002 film, but better late than never. Its non-linear narrative could have been confusing, but thanks to crisp editing always remained clear. Missing in action: Mystic River -- a model of craftsmanship in this respect as in all others -- and Alejandro Inarritu's film 21 Grams, another case of potentially confusing storytelling salvaged by an editor's firm hand.

Best Visual Effects: This one's a toss-up, but I think I'd give it to Return of the King. Peter Jackson's WETA workshop has raised the bar for CGI, literally creating a new world through film. Runner-up: Master and Commander, which re-creates an old world through film. Both deliver stunning eye candy in service of a strong story. Missing in action: Matrix: Reloaded also had some of the best effects of the year.

Best Song: "Triplets of Belleville" is the catchiest, funniest, bounciest tune I heard all year, in or out of the cinema. Kudos to the Academy for noticing it. The other nominees are awful beyond belief, except for "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" from A Mighty Wind. I wouldn't say it's the best song in the film (that honor goes to the folk patter-song "Old Joe's Place"), but it's good enough. Most welcome omission: None of Phil Collins's songs for Disney's Brother Bear were nominated, even though they were better than his work on Tarzan four years earlier.

Best Score: Another award for Return of the King. Howard Shore's music has been the most consistently underrated aspect of Peter Jackson's trilogy. Perhaps that's because it's a throwback to an older style of film music (which itself was a throwback to Wagnerian opera), in which each character possesses a clearly identifiable leitmotif. In Return, Shore's music not only sets the mood and underlines key emotional moments, but also helps tell the story. That he manages not to overwhelm the images (as I think John Williams frequently did in Star Wars) only adds to the achievement; Shore's effects are generally subtle, but unmistakable. Missing in action: Clint Eastwood's simple, haunting score for Mystic River proved that sometimes, less is more.

Best Cinematography: I didn't like Cold Mountain much, and I liked Seabiscuit less. The gauzily nostalgic, isn't-this-respectable, nominate-me-now photography may have had something to do with my reaction. Girl with a Pearl Earring strikes me as a bit slavish in its replication of Dutch painting. To my mind, the real contest is between the new school of Mereilles's City of God, and the old school of Weir's Master and Commander. The photography of City of God is gritty, ugly and dynamic -- much like the neighborhoods the film depicts -- and it makes excellent use of low-rent digital video technology. Master and Commander shows much tighter control and craftsmanship, using superior analog technology. If either one wins, I'll be satisfied -- but I'm rooting for City of God. Missing in action: Why was Mystic River not nominated in this category? Frame for frame, it featured the best cinematography of last year. Meanwhile, Lost in Translation and Patti Jenkins's Monster both achieved the impossible; one made downtown Tokyo look beautiful, while the other made south Florida look ugly.

Best Foreign Language Film: We don't get foreign-language films in Charlottesville, unless you count all that Elvish in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is a college town, so there are plenty of pretentious sots around here (myself included) who would turn out to see some alternative fare. Could some theater owner please do something about this? Missing in Action: City of God, which Brazil tried -- and failed -- to nominate last year. It's no longer part of the foreign-film ghetto.

Best Animated Film: Sylvain Chomet's Triplets of Belleville wins, hands down. Belleville is a double-fudge chocolate sundae, far tastier than the synthetic Finding Nemo or the saccharine Brother Bear. Missing in action: With all those CGI effects, couldn't Return of the King have been nominated in this category?

Best Supporting Actress: The best performance I saw last year -- male or female, lead or supporting -- belonged to Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog. Of the five characters at the center of this melodrama, her character is the most complicated. Yet Aghdashloo strikes not a single false note in her portrayal, and she frequently had me in tears near the end. Missing in action: Maria Bello gave a fearless, flawless performance in Wayne Kramer's The Cooler, while Christina Ricci easily eclipsed Charlize Theron in Monster. Right actress, wrong movie: Patricia Clarkson deserved her Oscar nod for The Station Agent, not Pieces of April. (Clarkson may also receive a nomination next year for Lars von Trier's Dogville, in a role so different from these two that American audiences may not even recognize her.)

Best Supporting Actor: I'd love to see Alec Baldwin win for The Cooler. This film has two marvelous lead performances, some of the steamiest sex scenes in recent memory, and cinematic style to burn. Yet everyone who sees this film always mentions Baldwin first and foremost. It takes some doing to steal a show that good. Close runners-up: Benicio del Toro might not quite be a "supporting actor" in Inarritu's 21 Grams, but he does give the film's best performance. I suspect it's even better than his work in Soderbergh's Traffic, though the screenplay gives him a bit less to work with. Tim Robbins also gave the performance of his career in Mystic River, as one of three male leads. Missing in action: Return of the King featured so many excellent supporting performances that Academy voters were probably bewildered. But they should have at least nominated Sean Astin, who as an unexpectedly wise hobbit practically carries this blockbuster on his shoulders.

Best Actress: Not a strong category this year (or almost any year). Of late, the Oscar for Best Actress has consistently gone to some pretty face who gets her hands very dirty in a low-budget indie film. Since Charlize Theron has taken this principle to its logical extreme by playing a Lesbian prostitute serial killer, it's all but given that she'll win for Monster, whether she deserves to or not. To be fair, Theron gives an excellent (if occasionally strained) performance in the title role, although co-star Ricci acts rings around her without breaking a sweat. I only wish someone better were in this category. Move along, nothing to see here: After winning accolades for her nervous breakdown in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., Naomi Watts has yet another nervous breakdown in Inarritu's 21 Grams. She can play crazy well enough, but can she do comedy? Missing in action: Scarlett Johannsen gave not one, but two great lead performances last year -- one for Lost in Translation and one for Girl with a Pearl Earring. That probably cost her a well-deserved Oscar nod, and I'll bet she won't make the same mistake twice. Jennifer Connelly's performance in House of Sand and Fog suffered in comparison to her co-stars, but it was also one of the year's best.

Best Actor: In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray took thirty years of classic comic schtick, turned it inside out, and crafted a forlorn soul who can break your heart with a sideways glance. It's a once-in-a-lifetime performance for him, and perhaps for us, too. File under "pleasant surprise": Johnny Depp gets his first Oscar nomination for almost making Pirates of the Caribbean worth seeing. Missing in action: Kevin Bacon's performance in Mystic River may have been less showy than Sean Penn's, but it was more believable on the whole. Paul Giamatti deserved at least a nod for American Splendor, as did Peter Dinklage for The Station Agent (another brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime performance). And in Master and Commander, Russell Crowe finally earned that Oscar he won for Gladiator.

Best Direction: Peter Weir is a great director, and Master and Commander shows him at nearly the top of his game. Mystic River, an American masterpiece, firmly establishes Clint Eastwood as the heir apparent to Kurosawa. Peter Jackson will probably win his long-overdue Oscar for Return of the King, a mammoth undertaking that commands respect if not love. Still, novice director Sofia Coppola outshone everyone with her luminous, poetic Lost in Translation. As a craftsman -- or rather, craftsperson -- Coppola may be a bit rougher than the guys, but she's more than earned this year's award.

Best Picture: Lost in Translation. Close runners-up: Return of the King and Mystic River. Missing in action: City of God.

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