Thursday, April 29, 2021

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Directed by George Clooney

Written by Charlie Kaufman

George Clooney's directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has the rhythm of an episodic television episode and the retro cinematic style of 1970s New Hollywood. Based on Chuck Barris's "memoir" that created an urban legend: he led a double life as an assassin for the CIA. With a script by Charlie Kaufman, Clooney admittedly attempted to imitate the directorial style of the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh. The result is a postmodern fastball about ephemeral post-war pop culture and Cold War lore with a fractured narrative style and speculative representation of history viewed through a lens of distortion and uncertainty. 

Sam Rockwell was cast as Barris after hundreds of actors were considered. Barris's book had been a hot property since the 1980s with many directors expressing interest in the project. Kaufman's script was later modified by Clooney who thought it was too experimental for a major studio release leading to acrimony between the writer and director. Drew Barrymore was cast Barris's long time girlfriend Penny and Julia Roberts as a nefarious assassin. Clooney cast himself as Barris's CIA handler Jim. Real life figures who worked with Barris appear in interview segments reminiscent of Warren Beatty's Reds. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon also made cameo appearances. Whether one believes the story or not is irrelevant, the narrative possibilities are paramount.  

The film depicts Barris as an anti-social young man only interested in chasing women and getting into the nascent television industry. He wrote the 1962 pop song "Palisades Park" and eventually produced game shows like the The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. The Gong Show only emboldened his critics who viewed him as the epitome of junk culture. Much of the disposable reality TV of the 21st Century owes a debt to those shows. Clooney also had a familiarity with the era since his father Nick Clooney worked in TV news, giving the film a Network vibe at times.

The contrasting worlds of television and cold war espionage create a mash up of 70s movies like paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula - Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men. Dark humor is especially present during his undercover missions, all those trips to West Berlin and Vienna with couples from The Dating Game chaperoned by Barris were allegedly cover for hit jobs. He never knew the reasons behind any of his jobs other than his targets were considered enemies of the government or even which side of the government he was working for; the lines continue to blur as paranoia takes over the story. As the espionage and TV worlds begin to merge the film comes close to channeling the woozy mindset of the era. 

By far Clooney's most adventurous film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind benefits from its retro sense of the surreal. Clooney's more conventional approach and Kaufman's script are in conflict and create something of a compromise. More of a curio than a classic, it's best to watch sometime after 2am.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan
proved to be another cultural touchstone in Steven Spielberg's epic career by launching a conversation on the legacy of the Second World War and "the greatest generation" phenomenon. An overpowering film and groundbreaking in its recreation of the Omaha Beach landings, it looked and felt like no WWII film made up to that point in time.

WWII has enamored Spielberg throughout his career. There was the USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws, the 1979 flop comedy 1941, and the Indiana Jones trilogy. Empire of the Sun from 1987 looked at the war from a child's perspective that was based on the J.G. Ballard novel. Schindler's List portrayed the Holocaust like no film before or since. Arnold Spielberg, Steven's father, had served in the Army Air Force in the China-Burma-India theatre. When asked why the Second World War looms so large in his films Spielberg answered: 

I think that WWII is the most significant event of the last 100 years; the fate of the baby boomers and even Generation X was linked to the outcome. (208)

Robert Rodat wrote the screenplay, a fictional story inspired by a real-life anecdote he read in Stephen Ambrose 1995 bestseller D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II. The story involved a squad of soldiers sent behind enemy lines to locate a lost soldier who unbeknownst to him had lost all his brothers in combat. Rodat's script found its way into Spielberg's orbit, an ideal project for him since he had always wanted to make a film about WWII combat, plus the story of a behind the enemy lines mission to save a family especially appealed to his sensibility. 

The cast of the film featured some of the finest young talent in Hollywood. Tom Hanks, easing into his role as America's dad at this point, was a natural as Captain Miller, the "citizen soldier" leader of the squad assigned to find the lost soldier. Matt Damon earned the title role as Private Ryan. Other members of the squad included Tom Sizemore as battle hardened Sgt. Horvath, indie filmmaker Edward Burns as Private Rieben, Barry Pepper as the sniper Jackson, Adam Goldberg as Jewish-American Private Mellish, Giovanni Ribisi as the medic Wade, Jeremy Davies playing the interpreter Upham, and Vin Diesel as the gregarious Private Caparzo. 

Recreating the Omaha Beach landing remains the most memorable sequence. The sound design and visual style provide both the scope and horror of the battle. A feat of filmmaking unsurpassed - but not without controversy. Some have pointed out that it downplays the contributions of all the Allied Forces at Normandy and that it glorifies warfare.Francois Truffaut famously stated that it's impossible to make an anti-war movie since any depiction of battle will look exciting no matter how awful. Others have accused Spielberg of glorifying war crimes when American troops are shown shooting German troops after they surrendered. 

To the last point, Captain Miller looks on with disapproval when he witnesses the killing of the prisoners. The issue comes up again when they capture the German soldier who killed Wade. After debating whether killing him in retribution they decide to let him go (only to have him return and kill Miller, Mellish, and Horvath at the Remelle battle). Perhaps the point was to show the absurdities and cruel nature of war (not endorsing war crimes).

Once Allied forces secured Omaha and the other landing sites, the grueling drive to liberate France began. The long middle section of Private Ryan is another point of contention, one which I find even more baffling. Spielberg allows to get to know the soldiers and their personalities. Unlike all the soldiers who perished on the beaches, just a pile of nameless typed sympathy letters, we feel the loss when someone gets killed in the squad. It reminds us that the loss of all soldiers on all sides was a shattering loss to their loved ones, a void that never goes away. Spielberg fans always point out that a great strength of Jaws is the screen time devoted to character development, we get to know the men on the Orca. Granted the middle section lacks the pure cinematic force of the opening, but it develops character in a series of effective sequences.

Quiet moments of the men reflecting on their experiences late at night or the tense moments before battle provide a humanity. At the French village an interaction with civilians leads to the death of Private Caparzo, shot by a sniper while trying to comfort a terrified little girl. Spielberg lets the camera linger on him forcing the audience to ponder the loss. The men also debate the logic of their mission, resenting the idea of their lives being sacrificed to save a fellow soldier, the implication being Ryan's life is worth more than their own. Once the squad locates Ryan they remind him of their losses they suffered in order to save him, but they eventually come to respect him as a soldier. 

The climactic battle at Remelle is more in the classically cinematic mode with Spielberg pulling out all the stops with long shots, close ups, tracking shots, a far more personalized than the Normandy sequence. A sense of desperation and intensity are the primary tone, but it's also a textbook action sequence heightened by the personal drama. 

The bookend sequences, with an older Ryan revisiting Normandy with his family, also elicits conflicting reactions. When Ryan asked his wife if he was a good person, it feels overly sentimental. From a narrative perspective, it does provide a proper ending to the story. Though part of me is more interested in a film where we don't know the fate of Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan continues to influence war movies with its dedication to realism and kinetic style. Tom Hanks's quiet but determined performance as Miller offered an everyday type of heroism free of the over the top bombast of the John Wayne movies. While there are still so many stories to be told about the war and its ongoing meaning in American and World history, Saving Private Ryan opened new possibilities. 

Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Ed, Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm. Jackson: UPM, 2000.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Boogie Nights (1997) ****

If Hard Eight was a throwback the days of New Hollywood in the tradition of Scarecrow or California Split, Boogie Nights takes a more epic approach. Spanning the late 1970s from the early 1980s, the story follows various figures in the adult film industry gathered around charismatic director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It would be easy to blurb Boogie Nights as the ultimate synthesis of Altman and Scorsese, while that's not completely wrong, Paul Thomas Anderson continued to develop themes he would return to again and again, specifically alternate family structures and an identification with  the outsider.

In a star making role, Mark Wahlberg is Eddie Adams who becomes pornstar Dirk Diggler. The story opens with Eddie working as a busboy at a nightclub where adult film stars frequent, Horner discovers Eddie's physical gift that will make him famous. In one of many memorable sequences, Eddie's introduced to Horner's world at a never ending poolside party. Cocaine and beautiful people are everywhere with "Spill the Wine" playing in the background. The fantastical world of the 1970s adult film industry is countered by Eddie's dull middle class life and a mother who rejects him outright. Wahlberg convincingly portrays an innocent who develops an inflated ego destined to bring about an epic downfall.

Other luminaries in the cast included Julianne Moore as starlet Amber Waves, John C. Reilly as Dirk's sidekick Reed Rothchild, Don Cheadle as Buck Swope, and Heather Graham as Rollergirl. Anderson also highlights the era of filmmaking by also making the crew supporting characters including William H. Macy as Little Bill, Ricky Jay as editor, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sound operator. The ensemble cast manages to create an enduring tapestry. 

Anderson loves his characters and that's part of the enduring power of the film. It's not a jokey picture about the adult film industry or the people who work within it. There's empathy in every frame. Nine years before Boogie Nights, Anderson directed a mockumentary shot on video entititled The Dirk Diggler Story, which takes a satirical approach to the subject matter, I suspect was inspired by trashy news magazine shows of the era. When Scotty J makes a sexual advance on Diggler while drunk the moment plays as awkward and tragic, Anderson lets the camera linger on Scotty as he weeps in the car. The entire cast does a great job of fostering the empathy - Julianne Moore at a custody hearing or Don Cheadle in the middle of a hold up. Even the now famous "Jessie's Girl" scene towards the end with Alfred Molina devolves into tragicomic violence that's both heartbreaking and terrifying in its own unique way.

Boogie Nights also suggests some of the larger themes Anderson would explore in the future, an interest in systems and the mysterious forces that move them. As Horner explains to Diggler, the movies are all about making money. The organized crime funding the films is alluded to but peripheral to the story. The changing technology from film to video allows the films to be made quicker and cheaper. There's also the idea of being outside of society - the thrill and cost of it. 

Visually impressive , funny and tragic, while moving at a kinetic pace Boogie Nights has aged well.