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The Last Days of Edward Gorey Captured: An Interview with Chatham Filmmaker Chris Seufert

If you don’t know who Edward Gorey was, you’re missing out. The eccentric illustrator, who authored numerous books, illustrated many others, and lent his imaginative drawings to several publications, including The New Yorker, lived on the Cape for the last portion of his life. He died in 2000, the year I arrived here, also a New Yorker in exile, but thanks to the work of Chatham documentary filmmaker Christopher Seufert, I am now able to glimpse Gorey’s Cape Cod life. Seufert had been making a documentary about Gorey when we first met, but it had been put on hold. Now, after a decade-long hiatus, Seufert is back on track and he’s bringing his work-in-progress to various venues around the Cape and Islands to regain the momentum he lost in the aftermath of Gorey’s death. He took a few minutes to chat with me about this film as he prepared for his next screening/fundraiser at the Chatham Orpheum Theater on Saturday, April 26th at 10 a.m., where he will be joined by Gorey’s cousin Ken Morton.

Cape Cod Film Society: When did you begin this project?
Christopher Seufert: In the summer of 1996 in my late twenties; I’d just moved back to the Cape after living on the West Coast and then in Australia. I kept meeting people that summer who, when hearing I was a documentary maker, would mention that there was this eccentric, reclusive artist in Yarmouth who would make a great documentary [subject]. I’d never heard his name and was not familiar with his work so the idea kept falling flat with me. Finally… I went to a local book store and checked out his work. I didn’t understand it particularly, but I did see that he was a significant and prolific artist. So, I sent him a letter, thinking, if nothing else, that I’d at least to be able to put the idea to rest when he never responded.
To my surprise he responded within the week. He said he’d be open to the idea but that he had some of his plays being performed and he’d like to hire me to document them. I told him not to pay me, that we’d consider documenting the plays test footage for a possible documentary. He agreed and I shot his next plays, Wallpaper and Heads Will Roll, at Theater on the Bay in Bourne, to his specs.

CCFS: How did you come to meet Edward Gorey for the first time?
CS:I met Edward at the Theater on the Bay in Bourne in September of 1996. His collaborator Carol Verburg, introduced us. She was very enthusiastic that I was there to shoot a documentary and wanted to do anything she could to get the two of us to do this. She said, “Thank god you’re here. He has prostate cancer, heart problems, and diabetes. You need to move on this.” In April of 2000, three and a half years later, Edward died of a heart attack. I had gotten about sixty hours of footage but was really shooting to get about two hundred, a typical amount for a verite-style feature length documentary.

CCFS: What made you get back to it now so many years later?
CS:After he died, I decided that whatever I edited would be too sentimental and that I’d be better off getting some distance. I decided to put my energy and money into documentaries with musician Suzanne Vega and filmmaker Albert Maysles, in addition to a project-for-hire with veteran journalist Walter Cronkite. Editing a feature length documentary and then releasing it takes time and money and I wanted to put all that into new projects and figure out the details of releasing a documentary where the subject died midway through later.

CCFS: In the intervening years, you’ve done other projects; why didn’t you finish this one first before moving onto other films?
CS:In 2007 I was married and my son was born. In that year also the economy tanked. So there was a perfect storm there that shifted my priorities. I gave up all personal projects in favor of projects for hire. Now our youngest is three and the economy is really rolling back, so I’m getting more expansive again and giving some priority to my personal projects, in whatever state they’re in. I’ve got several documentaries on the shelf waiting to be edited and rolled out and things have changed for the better for independent filmmakers in some ways. Social networking combined with the grassroots fundraising possibilities at places like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is an element that didn’t exist ten years ago.

CCFS: What was the most surprising thing about Edward Gorey?
CS:My documentary is about Edward himself and not his work, so that’s the heart of the documentary, the parallels and discrepancies between he and his work. His work is often described as macabre, and there wasn’t anything like that about him personally. He was an eccentric to the highest degree but not dark and gothic and forbidding; he was friendly. That’s the big surprise here. Like many artists, he wasn’t huge on talking about his work but he’d go on and on about anyone else’s artwork with little prompting: films, books, music. He loved conversation.

CCFS: What’s your favorite Edward Gorey moment that you captured on video?
CS: There are some private moments that can’t see the light of day that I like simply because of the access he gave me and the level of trust. As soon as I’d see him I’d slap a wireless microphone on him and start recording. Sometimes I wouldn’t shoot and would go to a DAT [digital audio tape] recorder tucked away somewhere. The best moment for me was capturing his ritual in front of Jack’s Outback in Yarmouth, counting the frogs in the goldfish pond as he left. This one particular day he was thrilled to count five frogs and as he walked away from me he said, to no one in particular, “It’s a five frog day, wow! Keep up the good work frogs.” Probably the ending of the documentary.

CCFS: In general, how do you select your topics for documentaries?
CS: Like most documentarians I’m always looking for the untold story. Of course it also has to be a story that other people are interested in. My background is in anthropological filmmaking, an idealistic form of documentary making where the director gets out of the way and communicates the subject’s point of view. Usually it’s a filmmaker documenting some disappearing way of life such as a tribe in the Amazon rainforest. I try to bring this approach to mainstream subjects in America. The Maysles brothers were the first pioneers here and Albert Maysles is still out there doing it. He cares about his subjects, loves them, and everything flows from that. For me Edward was the last of a dying race and I was the only one there with a camera. In the 14 years since his death, no one else has come forth with footage taken so close up, so I’m excited to bring this to the world.

CCFS: When are you hoping to have the Gorey film completed?
CS: I’m [running] a Kickstarter campaign for the next month to raise $38,000 and there will be a great reward ladder with private, unreleased footage, interview CDs and transcripts, etc. Then, for the next six months I’m screening the rough cut in its ongoing forms at places like the Cotuit Center for the Arts, Nantucket Dreamland Theatre, Chatham Orpheum, the Gloucester Community Theater, and I’m also working with the Woods Hole Film Festival to do a special event this summer. Stay tuned on that. In September I’ll submit to Sundance and then I have a letter of support from WGBH to broadcast when I deliver on my proposal to them.

CCFS: What else are you working on in terms of filmmaking?
CS: I have two other feature documentaries that are in the same unreleased state, waiting for the same attention from me. A documentary shot with alterna-folk musician Suzanne Vega at her home and on tour from 2002 to 2005, and a short documentary shot with the legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles about his journey through the Czech Republic in 2005. I’m also doing a documentary-for-hire about the writer Henry Beston and the role of his book The Outermost House in the creation of the National Seashore. This is the brainchild of producer Don Wilding with beautiful acting by local actor Chris Kolb that is in a rough cut state currently. After this clears I can give myself the privilege of starting ideas. So fun on the first day of shooting a new idea. Where else can you get such permission to enter a new world and have such close up relationships with people in their own element. I love the camraderie of the small documentary crew as well- shooting all day and then a great Mexican meal with margaritas at midnight.

For tickets and information about the Exclusive rough cut screening and fundraiser, visit the Chatham Orpheum Theater online or in person: 637 Main St., Chatham, MA, or visit the film’s official website.

Bergman on the Big Screen

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Victor Sjostrom as Dr. Isak Bork in Ingrid Bergman’s 1957 classic “Wild Strawberries.”

I don’t remember exactly when I first saw Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), but I do know how deeply it moved me despite the fact that I was far too young to truly connect with the film’s ideas about death, regret, and the passage of time. I was almost certainly a teenager, and it is testament to Bergman’s skill as a writer and as a director that he was able to elicit such a strong response from me at that age with this story about a 78-year-old Swedish doctor.
Early in the film, just after the credits roll in fact, we enter a dream. In it the dreamer, Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom), stumbles through a city with no people. We hear nothing but the sound of his heart beating, at first. Borg looks up and sees a clock with no hands; he checks his watch, also without hands. He sees a horse-drawn hearse speed by; it crashes into a lamppost and a coffin falls out. From inside the coffin, a man’s hand reaches out. Borg peers over the edge of the coffin only to find that it the man inside is actually himself. Each image, every sound, the rhythm of the scene: all are deliberate and expertly crafted to mimic dream language.
Striking imagery, the use of sound, and representation of complex intellectual and psychological problems are the hallmarks of Bergman’s work. But while some of his films require more work to fully understand, Wild Strawberries is very accessible. It was a major success for him in the U.S. and it’s easy to see why.
More a character study than the traditional narrative story, Wild Strawberries follows the thoughts of Dr. Borg on the day he is to receive high honors from Lund University for his lifetime of work. It begins with this dream, and goes on to include reveries, memories, and another dream as he travels with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) and a range of symbolic characters who join them on their journey. While the film is not action-oriented and the character’s introspection is its main subject, Wild Strawberries is not remote and coldly intellectual. The most clearly influenced by Surrealism of Bergman’s work, Wild Strawberries draws us in viscerally, making use of the cinematic medium to evoke the subconscious and unconscious workings of the human mind. As such, we are able to relate to Dr. Borg on a human level, regardless of our age, cultural background, or experience.
Bergman’s work requires active viewership, a participation in developing the meaning of his films. His direction guides us, but the viewer who brings nothing to the film or who refuses to be actively engaged with it, will in turn get nothing from the film.

Bergman’s films are deeply absorbing if you let them in.

The chance to see one in a theatrical setting is rare on the Cape, so the Cape Cod Community College’s inclusion of this film in its Foreign Film Series is a great opportunity. If you’ve never seen a Bergman film, Wild Strawberries is a good one to start with, and if you’re already a fan, you will enjoy seeing it with an audience on a large screen. The screening is on Tuesday, April 1 at 3:30 p.m. on campus at CCCC, 2240 Iyanough Rd., West Barnstable.
After you’ve seen it, come back here and share your comments.

The Heroine’s Journey in Divergent

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Neil Burger's "Divergent"

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Neil Burger’s “Divergent”

I will begin this review by saying that I have never read any of the books in the Divergent series upon which the film Divergent (and presumably its sequels) is based. For one thing, the series is for a young adult audience and sadly I am not a “young” adult. But I don’t think my familiarity with the property upon which Divergent the movie is based actually matters; films that are based on books should stand on their own, referencing the original, but never duplicating it. Furthermore, the filmmakers have no obligation to give us the book in movie form. On the contrary, they have an obligation to make a film that is a creative work on its own, despite its original concept coming from another medium. So, anyone who is looking for me to compare/contrast with the book should move on at this point.

Divergent is one of numerous stories in the adolescent coming of age in a post-apocalyptic world subgenre that has emerged over the past few years. Part science fiction, part heroine’s journey, Divergent centers on Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), a young woman who has come of age in a future world where society is broken up into factions: Erudite (the smarty pants set); Abnegation (the do-gooders); Dauntless (the free, wild, risk takers); Amity (peaceful farmers); Candor (those who value honesty and truth above all – curiously made up of lawyers in this film); and the factionless (those who don’t belong anywhere). As Beatrice considers whether to stay in the faction of her parents, Abnegation, she is given an aptitude test that shows she is “divergent”– she can fit into any of the five factions and is therefore a threat to the powers that be. Renaming herself “Triss,” Beatrice chooses to join Dauntless, the faction to which she is most drawn, but she keeps her divergence a secret until it must reveal itself.

Woodley gives a compelling performance here. I’m not sure what to expect from her in the future, but I saw a degree of subtlety and depth in her that could grow into a meaningful career if she chooses her roles carefully. She’s beautiful, but in a dark, intelligent way and she seems to understand how to use her physical presence in a role like this. I look forward to seeing her in something outside of the teen movie phase of her career.

It is no wonder that this film is more popular with audiences than critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes); it is, after all, a fairly standard heroine’s journey, with a strong female teenager finding herself through a host of physical and psychological challenges thrown at her by a society run by power-mad intellectuals. David Edelstein, in his review on Vulture.com, tells us to ignore the underlying message of the film (that intellectuals are ruining the world) in order to enjoy the film, which he agrees is an entertaining one with a very good performance by Woodley, as well as her stunningly handsome costar Theo James, with whom she has great Hollywood chemistry. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite faction leader who is busy tracking down divergents to kill them because they threaten the order of the system, which in turn protects us all from human nature (a major weakness in her eyes). She plays this role as a stiff, unemotional, and condescending woman, and as I watched this movie, I knew that would be a point of contention for those of us who enjoy looking at subtext, who value education and intellect, and who know that in the real world, the lack of intellectualism is the problem. But at the same time, Winslet’s Jeanine rang true for me. I have worked in academia for over 15 years and I swear, I have met this woman! But more importantly, I don’t think that subtext supercedes the other, more generic one, which tells the audience (presumed to be young adults and teens) to find out who they really are and then be that person no matter what society tells them. It’s standard YA novel/coming of age movie messaging, but it is to this reviewer much more clearly articulated than the anti-intellectualism, especially considering the intended audience.

But even if you do take Edelstein’s advice and shield yourself from the aspects that seem more conservative and even reactionary, Divergent is not bad. Director Neil Burger has a strong visual sense and the dystopian world he creates is delightfully dark. The film’s editing and sound design work well with the neo-Surrealist imagery in a number of sequences involving the unconscious mind as characters face their darkest fears. It all adds up to an overall entertaining, if not particularly groundbreaking, movie.

Do Not Avert Your Eyes

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

It has taken me a while to write about 12 Years a Slave, which I saw several months ago, because so much has already been written about it. But with the film now back in theaters on the Cape, now is as good a time as any to weigh in. But also, as I hear more and more from people who have avoided it for fear of being too deeply affected  by it, I want to encourage you to see this film in a movie theater, while you still can. Although it is already available on-demand and probably will soon be on Netflix, the theater affords us a dedicated space for connecting with the characters and with the past that is not easily duplicated at home.

When I was 11 years old, my father took me and my brother to see Alan J. Pakula’s devastating Sophie’s Choice. While the horror of the Holocaust had already been brought to my attention by my Jewish grandmother (only in passing, like when a movie about it might have been on TV), and the film itself did make an impression on me, my deepest memory of this movie is of my father uncontrollably sobbing in the car afterward. He tried to explain to us why the choice Sophie had to make broke him down like that (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you – go see it and then read this), and I think we got it on some level, but not completely. His reaction is testament to the power of the film, and it may be one of the things that drew me to study film later, in fact.

Sometimes movies are extremely difficult experiences and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

As you probably know by now, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a real-life African-American from New York State who, despite having been born a free man, spent 12 years as a slave in the South after being kidnapped. The film shows us his journey from freedom through slavery and back again, with some of the most wrenching, magnificent moments coming at the very end when Northrup finally does return home.

The film, while widely praised, has had some detractors who found the director’s choice to not allow us to look away (by cutting or moving the camera to a safer angle) too extreme for the violence and degradation represented here. But for me, the scenes in question are necessary and as uncomfortable and difficult as they need to be. They are not the most devastating of McQueen’s choices.

Much critical attention has been paid to a particularly violent scene in which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced to beat a fellow slave, Patsey (Nupita Nyong’o) because her slave master (Michael Fassbender) is unable to do it himself. Yes, this scene is very hard to watch, but for me it is the more subtle scenes that are the most affecting. For example, there is an absolutely breathtaking scene where Northup is strung up to be lynched, but is saved at the last minute. While he waits to be cut down–his neck still in the noose, but feet lightly grazing the ground, enough to stay conscious–McQueen gives us a long-shot so we can see the other slaves, many of whom are children, going about their business as though nothing out of the ordinary is dangling from a tree. It is like a dream, but not. No one flinches, no one cries or screams, no one is surprised. The sounds of daily life, mixed with the birds chirping and sounds of an otherwise pleasant day, go on. It isn’t that McQueen is trying to show that these people don’t care about each other, it’s that this is the routine humiliation and violence of everyday life for them. That moment saddened me so deeply; it was more powerful a statement than anything I’ve seen on film in recent memory–certainly with regard to slavery.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Ejiofor’s powerful, subtle performance drew me in, and made me not only think about, but really feel, as a free person, what it would have been like to suddenly lose my freedom with no real hope of returning to my family and my life. And at the same time, while I did not identify with the white plantation owners/slave masters, I also saw greater depth in them than I had before. The direction is powerful and the editing choices, deliberate, painful, and beautiful in a way. And that is my point: something can be horrific and revolting to watch and yet profoundly beautiful in its embrace of the cinematic potential.

In some respects, it resembles Roman Polanski’s brilliant 2002 Holocaust film The Pianist, also based on the records of a survivor. In that film, Adrien Brody, (who plays the lead character) slowly descends from being an attractive, talented, middle-class young man to a half-dead, starving fugitive from the Nazis. Again, this is a painful film, but I can’t imagine a more cinematic and beautiful telling of Wladislaw Szpilman’s true ordeal. And yet, portrayals of Holocaust suffering–as devastating as they are in many, many films–seem to have obtained a level of acceptance that we still do not have, at least in the U.S., for slave stories. Perhaps Americans can’t stomach our own past, preferring to look at the atrocities of other cultures from a safe distance across the ocean, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we just haven’t been offered the opportunities to revisit this aspect of American history because we don’t have a lot of writers and directors interested in pursuing it. It’s taken a British director to bring this point home and he does so with great skill.

What do we want out of our movies? Is it only an entertaining escape, a good story, a pleasant evening with a friend? Why are our expectations–no, our demands–so low when it comes to this art form. When you’re at the movies, in the dark, looking up at that screen, you should be given an experience to take with you. And whether it is a thrilling, tightly constructed cinematic adventure like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (especially so in 3D), or a piece of our history that we haven’t truly come to terms with even 150 years later, we should be made to feel something substantial. Filmmaker Werner Herzog has said, “the poet must not avert his eyes,” and neither should the  audience.

What’s Old is New at the Chatham Orpheum

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.”

I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain (1952) numerous times; sometimes I watched pieces of the film on television on Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house, another time on video for a film course. It is one of just a handful of exceptions to my general anti-musical genre tastes. So when I saw that the Chatham Orpheum Theater was showing the film last week, I made sure I went. My only regret is that I didn’t bring my 10-year-old son to see it with me; what an introduction to film history it would have been.

The role of the repertory cinema is one that’s all but forgotten for most people. Once home video had saturated the American market, even urban cinephiles abandoned these noble institutions in favor of curating their own home libraries, complete with DVD sets including marvelous extras like behind-the-scenes documentaries and director’s commentaries. But as much as I value DVDs for their extra resources and as much as I understand the appeal of curling up on the couch to watch Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) or Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), there is no way to really feel the magic of these movies without going to see them in a dark theater with no reminders of your real life at home and only the occasional interruption from the sound of a neighboring filmgoer coughing in the dark. And for young people, it is truly the best way to appreciate films from the pre-video era, as they were meant to be seen.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is a great example because it’s a film made over 60 years ago about the conversion from silent to sound cinema, a time that is nearly 90 years ago now. I had always been drawn to this film and I always knew it was specifically because of Gene Kelly, but it was only looking up at the screen last week, focusing completely on the movie, that I truly understood Kelly’s choreography, the somewhat surreal “Gotta Dance”/”Broadway Melodies” section, and the way Kelly’s movements differ so strongly from those of his co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. Of course, all three can dance, but if you just watch the “Good Morning” dance scene, Kelly’s connection to the music and the rhythm of the piece runs so deep that it appears completely effortless, as though the music and his body are physically connected in a way that Reynolds and O’Connor are just not capable of. On the small screen, it appears as silly but entertaining, but larger than life on the big screen, the fluid beauty is marvelous.

This is why I am so thrilled that finally someone on Cape Cod gets it! The Chatham Orpheum will be showing old movies in special screenings throughout the year. Singin’ in the Rain was this past week, but coming up is another one of my favorites, Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who have to perform in drag in order to get a gig with an all-girl traveling band that includes Marilyn Monroe as a sexy ukulele player. I’ve seen this movie easily 25 times, but you can bet I will be there to see it on the big screen next week. (It’s showing on March 13 and 15).

On March 27 and 29, the Orpheum moves ahead to something more recent, Howard’s End (1992). Like most Merchant-Ivory films, this one is sure to benefit from the focused atmosphere of the movie theater, allowing the atmosphere of the period (it takes place in England at the turn of the 20th century) to seamlessly take over our suspended notion of time and place. Then, on April 10 and 12, the Orpheum brings another film from the classic era, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), which I also can’t wait to revisit. This Academy Award winning film features Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a screwball comedy with fantastic, fast-paced dialogue and zany antics that made that genre so endearing.

Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s brilliant “North By Northwest” (1959)

The last revival on the schedule so far is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Cary Grant starrer, North By Northwest (1959). What a great film to take my son to as an introduction to the brilliance of Hitchcock. This is a film whose very design demands the large screen and the experience of watching something with others who care about great movies and don’t mind leaving their email inboxes, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updating until long after the lights come up and we all return to our “senses.”

For complete details on these special screenings, visit the Chatham Orpheum Theater or give them a call at 508.945.0874.

A Little Local Flavor

James Cosmo in The Golden Scallop (2013, J. Laraja)

James Cosmo in The Golden Scallop (2013, J. Laraja)

This Saturday, March 1, the Woods Hole Film Festival‘s “Dinner & a Movie” screening series features the film The Golden Scallop, a mockumentary made by and about Cape Cod people. This past summer, I interviewed Cape Cod’s own director Joseph Laraja about the film for a feature in Provincetown Magazine. Here is that article reprinted below, which you can also find on the Magazine’s website here.

It’s not often that films are shot on Cape Cod. Rarer still are those that actually deal with some aspect of the reality of living here, as opposed to the fantasy. This past June, The Provincetown International Film Festival brought us one such film, By Way of Home, which beautifully tackled the problem of youth feeling stuck here. That dark reality is being screened for audiences at the Woods Hole Film Festival this year, but another film screening there looks at the more comic side of life on the Cape.

The Golden Scallop was shot on the Cape, largely in Wellfleet, a town that has its fair share of fried clam shacks, particularly along Route 6. Additional footage was also shot in Brewster and Orleans. The premise of the film is that every year for the past 40 years, there has been a Golden Scallop Competition for the best fried fish on the Cape. Three establishments enter the competition: The Caped Cod, a restaurant owned by a husband and wife who seem more focused on customer service offered by young girls in skimpy uniforms than they are in their food; The Happy Hooker, whose owner is a previous champion but now relies on his beleaguered daughter and the cook who’s secretly in love with her to compete; and a pair of brothers who sell their fried seafood out of a parking lot. It is shot in the mockumentary style of The Office or any one of Christopher Guest’s films (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc.)

“We’re definitely not poking fun at, but rather celebrating,” director Joseph Laraja says when asked if the characters in the film are a response to any behind-the-scenes experiences he’s had at Cape restaurants. “It’s definitely an inspiration, but not any exact characters,” he says, adding that all three filmmakers worked at a lot of places and enjoyed their work for the most part. He even names one restaurant he particularly enjoyed working at, The Friendly Fisherman in Eastham, where he says you can still get the best lobster roll on the Cape.

“All summer jobs leave a lasting impression because of all the tourists that come to the Cape,” Laraja says. But from his teenage years on he always wanted to make movies. He even worked for a time at one the Cape’s very few production companies, Paraclete Video Productions in Brewster.

The cast and crew are largely made up of up and comers, anchored by veteran character actor James Cosmo who starred in Trainspotting, Narnia, Braveheart, and numerous other films and television programs.

Laraja directed The Golden Scallop with two fellow Cape Codders, Michael Boisvert (producer) and Kevin Harrigan (writer) under the auspices of their production company Grandview Productions. All three had their fair share of experiences working in restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses while growing up here. And while the Cape may not exactly be Hollywood East, the production found a swell of support here, raising almost their entire budget locally.

This is not the trio’s first foray into filmmaking, although it is their first feature. At the 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival, their short film Come on Down, about the employees of a bait and tackle shop, won the HBO Audience Award. Laraja says they are continuing to work together in Los Angeles and while their next project is not specifically set on the Cape, they are considering shooting it here because of the incredible support of the Cape Cod community.

“We’re really proud of this, our first feature,” Laraja says. “We couldn’t have done it without all the support from home, from the people of Cape Cod.”

For screening details, visit the Woods Hole Film Festival or check out its entry in the Upcoming Events on the right side of this page.

A Different Kind of Romance

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013)

In Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which he wrote and directed, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a depressed professional letter writer living in the not so distant future. In the midst of a breakup with his wife, Theodore’s life is in flux. His apartment features lots of space and empty shelves; he kills time playing videogames featuring foul-mouthed characters who berate him; and he mopes about in a state of apathy, simply going through the motions of life. Then he updates his computer to a new operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and they fall in love.

Much has been made of this uncanny romance between a man and his computer system, but while Jonze’s plot is ripe for opening up a discussion about the limits of human beings vs. the limits of technology, or about the dilemma we now face as a society overly dependent upon technology, it would be a real stretch to say that’s what Her is ultimately about. In Jonze’s hands, this is a story about what it means–and what it has always meant–to be human.

The near-future world in which Her takes place is very much like today, and there isn’t any scathing critique of our tech-obsessed culture. It is merely the setting. In fact, when Theodore makes a great reveal about his relationship with Samantha to his friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), she barely bats an eye, having developed her own deep friendship with her OS since leaving her husband. It’s as though dating and falling in love with your computer’s operating system is only a slight deviation from the norm, neither perverse nor even eccentric. Theodore and Samantha even go on double dates with Theodore’s boss (Chris Pratt) and his live girlfriend. The more provocative issue is about how human beings continue to struggle with expressing ourselves to each other. We can and often do share intimate details with the great void of the Internet via so-called “social networking” sites, but how do we communicate offline? We’re still stuck in the same human-to-human dynamic that Jonze has always shown as awkward and difficult.

This point is made marvelously clear in Theodore’s profession as a personal letter writer, writing beautiful love letters, congratulatory notes, and familial communiques for the less creative masses who no longer even know how to write a letter to their wives, grandmothers, or children. Like in Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, our hero is a writer, sensitive and capable of revealing emotions through the written word. But where Adaptation, which was written by Charlie Kaufman, has a distinctly misanthropic undertone (as does their other collaboration, Being John Malkovich), Jonze’s own scripts are more hopeful, with leads who are outsiders, not totally comfortable with who they are, but also considerate to a fault–people who just mean well. Theodore is doing the best that he can, as is Samantha, who, in her own computerized way, is just learning how to be more human.

What makes Jonze so unique and singular as a writer/director is his attention to the ways in which human beings communicate. It’s easy to get carried away with the quirkiness factor and discuss Her as unique for the human/computer love affair at the center of the plot, but to do so is to miss the overriding themes of this, and I’d argue all of Jonze’s feature films so far: the ways in which love causes us excruciating joy and devastating pain in equal measure; and the awkward process of growing (up) as human beings, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Other Jonzian touches evident here are in the way he gives us characters who, as offbeat as they are, appear almost mundane against the even greater absurdity of the people and society surrounding them. For example, in Her, Theodore calls a service that connects people for an intimate phone-sex encounter. As their dirty talk progresses, the woman on the other end reveals a fetish involving dead cats, making Theodore seem incredibly normal by contrast.

I am a great admirer of Jonze as a director, and everything about Her maintains those feelings, but I am even more impressed with him as a writer with each film he writes. Although widely misunderstood as a badly made children’s film, his previous film Where the Wild Things Are was perhaps the best written film about the experience of childhood, written for adults. This is why Maurice Sendak fully endorsed the film even as it took major liberties with his sparsely written original children’s story. Her is a continuation of this type of work for Jonze, exploring the vulnerabilities of the human experience in a fresh, compassionate way.

Oscar Thoughts: This is my pick for Best Original Screenplay.

Revisiting Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, a Sony Pictures Classics release

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, a Sony Pictures Classics release

I just wanted to post here a review I wrote for Provincetown Magazine when Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine came out last year. My Oscar Thoughts on this one? Cate Blanchett deserves the Best Actress award.

Enjoy (or visit the original review here)….

For many fans of Woody Allen, each new film brings with it the promise of his past brilliance and the threat of his resting on his laurels, as he has on occasion. A filmmaker as prolific as Allen simply cannot always make a masterpiece. But with his latest effort, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, and Andrew Dice Clay, Allen gives us another insightful, character-driven film.

Blanchett turns in a powerful, at times very funny portrayal of Jasmine, a woman who once had everything money could buy and lost it when her wealthy husband Hal (Baldwin) was charged with unspecified financial crimes à la Bernie Madoff. She decides to reinvent herself by calling on her sister Ginger (Hawkins), who lives a working-class life in San Francisco that is the antithesis of everything Jasmine values. When Jasmine moves in, she disrupts her sister’s plans to marry local mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), telling her she deserves better than the “losers” she’s attracted to. Meanwhile, Jasmine struggles to find herself in the absence of a man to take care of her.

As with most Allen films, Blue Jasmine features a great ensemble cast (also including Peter Sarsgaard and Louis C.K., among others), but it is Blanchett’s performance that really makes the film, along with the incredible lines Allen has written for her. She embodies the desperation all of the characters feel to some degree, while also managing to deliver hilarious lines with the complete lack of self-awareness that is intrinsic to this character.

As always, Allen excels here at giving us terribly flawed characters whom we want to follow as they try to work their ways out of the holes they’ve dug themselves into. Jasmine is a snob, an elitist, and someone who is not honest with herself, but she is also fragile–given to talking to herself, addicted to Xanax, and an alcoholic. Her whole world has crumbled in the wake of her husband’s misdeeds. (In this way, the film deals with the terrible consequences of so-called white-collar crime, as well.) But as the film progresses, we see that she also suffers from tremendous guilt for the role she may have played in hurting the people around her. In a strange way, we want her to find her way out of this darkness, even though we know she probably won’t.

Blue Jasmine is another creative success for Allen, with its darkly humorous writing and a startlingly moving performance from Blanchett.

The Biopic Syndrome

dallasbuyersclub

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Since the beginning of cinema, the relationship between movies and truth has been a complicated but essential one. One of the earliest impulses the inventors of the medium had was to document reality for the sake of documentation–the Lumiere Brothers’ actualités are prime examples: Workers Leaving a Factory, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, etc. These films were novel because they captured something on film for an audience who wasn’t actually present at the time these minor events took place.

Jump forward several years and Hollywood’s love of movies that are “based on a true story” or that center on a beloved real-life celebrity or an infamous dictator, etc., is well known. One of the latest to emerge from this style is Jean-Marc Valée’s Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas man who contracted HIV in 1985 and turned his misfortune into a crusade, opening a “buyers club” for others with HIV who were eager to try experimental treatments not yet approved by the FDA. A profile of Woodroof was written in 1992 for Dallas Life Magazine, if you want the facts of this incredible story, but the film adds additional components and removes others in order to make a more specific point about the AIDS epidemic and the homophobia that existed at that time, as well as examining the widely held idea that the FDA’s caution at the time was for nefarious reasons having to do with drug company profits as opposed to concern for Americans suffering from AIDS.

One of the film’s most successful embellishments is the addition of the transgender character Rayon, played by Jared Leto. A major point of the film is that Woodroof is not gay and is in fact homophobic himself until he meets Rayon and other HIV-postiive gay and transgender people. This part of the film’s overall strategy, demonstrating Woodroof’s machismo and homophobia, feels a little overdone, but it is mitigated by Leto’s incredible performance. I only wish the filmmakers had spent more time with Rayon. In fact, one of the most moving scenes in the film is when Rayon goes to visit her father. The interaction is painful, tense, and says more about the insidious homophobia that infects people–so much that they disown their children– than anything else in the movie. At the same time, the scene is also an example of where Dallas Buyers Club and many true-to-life films fail…in the editing.

In that scene, there is no time to feel for Rayon and her father and the loss they each experience because it immediately cuts back to the main action. This is something that I have often noticed about films that are “based on a true story”; there is an insipid need to cram all of the important details in, making the editing choices more about efficient use of time and less about crafting the temporal space of the movie. Many biopics use this same editing strategy: Ray, W., Milk, and Frost/Nixon are all good examples. The problem arises when the script calls for too much reality to be compressed into a reasonable length of time for a movie. You simply cannot tell a life story in its entirety in 120 minutes or less, and even trying to tell a large part of a particularly active life in that time frame is an impossibility. Let me revise that – you can tell such stories in that time frame, but you shouldn’t.

Life is not a narrative arc. It happens over a series of moments that are only interrelated in a complex web constructed over the years, these connections rarely apparent until seen in hindsight. The connections are not singular either. No one’s life has just one meaning and the meaning of one’s life is neither simple nor compact enough to be summarized. It’s a better strategy to look at a moment in a life or one thread than to aim for comprehensiveness.

Perhaps with the recent  spate of excellence on the small screen, we may start to see biopic serials; just as we respond to fictional life stories with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, we might just be ready for real life stories (dramatically embellished of course), told episodically, the way life is actually structured.

Oscar Thoughts: Dallas Buyers Club is nominated for four Academy Awards. It’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor, Jared Leto.

People Believe What They Want to Believe

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner; Jennifer Lawrence

Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.

It took me a while to get around to seeing David O. Russell’s Academy Award nominated film American Hustle. I hesitated because the ad campaign looked like the film would just be another “let’s laugh at 70s hairstyles” movie and I just find that silly and overdone. I knew I would eventually see it, and that day came a few days ago when I went to the Chatham Orpheum Theater to check it out.

It begins with Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld creating the illusion of a full head of hair with a very elaborate arrangement of his own hair combed over a rug, resulting in a hairstyle that is neither pleasing to the eye nor an accurate recreation of anyone’s natural hair. At first, this sequence seems to confirm my initial concerns that American Hustle was nothing more than a comic sendup of 1970s era fashion, but over time, it reveals itself to be an element of the film’s form that, combined with other equally small elements, points to its overarching theme. As Irving’s partner Edith Greensleeves (Amy Adams) puts it, “people believe what they want to believe.” And Iriving’s attempt at having hair both helps him believe what he wants to believe–that he is in control–and gives the impression of confidence to the marks he and Edith will be conning.

Irving and Edith, who are lovers, partner in a scam to get phony loans for desperate people. In exchange for $5,000, the pair promise to use Edith’s London banking connections to get each mark $50,000 to pay off nefarious existing debts. Since everyone involved is doing something illegal, the scam works, at least for a little while. One day, Edith brings in a propsective customer, Richie (Bradley Cooper) who seems suspicious to Irving. As it turns out, he is in fact an FBI agent and Edith is arrested. In order to get her out of prison, Irving and Edith must pledge to work for the FBI and nab four other criminals. But their commitment turns into something much bigger when Richie’s ego gets in the way and he sets his sights higher –much higher. Amid all of this, Richie and Edith begin an affair, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (played marvelously by Jennifer Lawrence) becomes a liability, Richie’s ambitions lead to foolish mistakes, and mafia boss Victor Tellegio (Robert DeNiro, of course, in an uncredited performance) puts Irving way out of his small-time criminal league. The only thing left to do is for everyone to try to outsmart everyone else, and I found that final 25 -30 minutes of the film quite satisfying.

The performances in American Hustle are excellent. Bale’s portrayal of the Bronx-born Irving struck this native New Yorker as spot-on and his ability to garner our sympathies while everyone around him appears morally bankrupt is a credit to the script as well as to Bale, whose character is actually quite immoral. Lawrence is perhaps the most underrated member of the cast with her manipulative Rosalyn who is smart, but not as smart as she thinks, ultimately. Her lines are hilarious, but they are delivered with great sincerity.

Although the early character development depends a lot (perhaps too much) on verbal narration describing Edith’s and Irving’s backgrounds, the script is very good and actually quite funny, even as its greater concerns with moral ambiguity run deep. In addition, the film is edited so well that you barely notice it (the highest compliment for an editor) until after the movie’s over and you replay it in your mind. With 10 Oscar nominations, certainly, its a strong contender for Best Film Editing, Best Actor (Bale), Best Supporting Actress (Lawrence), and Best Original Screenplay (director Russell and Eric Singer).

Before the first sequence I described above, there is a title that says, “Some of this actually happened.” Elements of the plot are based on the real-life Abscam scandal that featured fake Arab sheikhs, FBI entrapment tactics, and ultimately a number of arrests, but according to those in the know, much of this story is pure fiction. This opening title gives us fair warning, so I am not particularly concerned with whether or not these exact characters existed or which scenes, if any, are “authentic.” For me, American Hustle takes an essential lesson of the real Abscam case and explores the human dimensions of it. American Hustle is about entrapment, the fallacy of believing in good versus evil, and the idea that the desire to be smarter than everyone else is a human weakness that afflicts FBI agents as well as con men, and everyone in between.

Morality is so often skewed to meet our own desires.

I won’t spoil it for the few out there who have not yet seen it, but no matter how you slice it, in the end, the question remains: when entrapment is used as a law enforcement tactic, who is more guilty, those on the “right” side of the law, or those who’ve been entrapped? While the real life conman from the Abscam scandal, Mel Weinberg, was undoubtedly a piece of work who probably doesn’t deserve much sympathy, the hero of American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld struggles with his conscience as he tries to maintain control of a situation he did not create. He is a guilty man, on a lot of counts, but he’s still a human being and this movie’s great accomplishment is its ability to put that on the screen. Factual inaccuracies are silly to debate in a fiction film. What comes through here is a stronger truth that transcends the nitty gritty of factual details.

Oscar Thoughts: American Hustle is nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It’s my pick for Best Film Editing (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten)