September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
By Mike Gillis
The New York Times recently acknowledged the 40th anniversary this year of James Dickey’s novel “Deliverance,” a book that catapulted Dickey to fame. That celebrity was well deserved: Dickey’s novel leans on the linguistic mechanics of poetry, of which Dickey was a master, and weaves a brutal tale of four men who navigate away from the city to the backwoods of Appalachia for a respite, and, perhaps, a smattering of soul-searching. Instead, they stir up primal fear and death, and none leave the woods unchanged, if alive.
Dickey’s celebrity wrecked his family, according to a memoir he and his son, Christopher, penned, “The Summer of Deliverance.” It diluted his writing, too, he admits in the book.
It did, though, two years after its publication in 1970, lend itself to a rare phenomenon: a movie that rivals its source material.
Directed by John Boorman in 1972, the film version of “Deliverance” stars Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Burt Reynolds. All four deliver remarkable performances — one wonders how the film’s tenor may have changed with Lee Marvin and Marlon Brando, who opted out because of the rigorous shoot — and it remains Reynolds’ best, even though his character, a machismo outdoorsman and bow hunter in a dated wetsuit, may show the only real sign of weathering over nearly 40 years.
I recently had a chance to watch “Deliverance” in its original form. Several versions of the picture exist, including an early print that features synthesizers on the soundtrack, as well as subsequent versions “edited for television.” (The notorious “squeal like a pig” scene — which too many people associate with the picture, whether they’ve seen it or not — was shot twice to accommodate the burgeoning television market.)
“Deliverance” is a sparse film, threaded with exceptional dialogue and long stretches of disquiet. The four men — Ed (Voight), a soft-spoken and somewhat passive businessman; Lewis (Reynolds); Bobby (Beatty), a doughy insurance salesman softened by life; and Drew (Cox), a quiet, guitar-toting introvert — are already on their way into the woods at the beginning of the movie. The credits rolling over dialogue from the city and images of the Georgia landscape. Boorman has no need, nor do we, to see these men depart from the city. We know what the city is and we know the four men quickly enough.
Our familiarity with the men and the world, or what we think the world is in modern times, is what powers “Deliverance” — the thin line between civilization and barbarism can be crossed quickly. On the other side of that line, the informed world is at the mercy of the fiends who ignore it.
Tackling that theme can easily fail, and Boorman seems to know this. His film, a horror film for sure, needs no special effects nor artificial music cues to signal his audience. The fear, anguish, anxiety and survival of four men are crystal clear. It’s on their faces and voices. That is what makes “Deliverance” a triumph of filmmaking and continues to earn it a place among movies still worth watching.
(Worth saving, too: In 2008, the picture was chosen for preservation by the United States National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance.)
December 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
By Mike Gillis
We’ve commented before on the growing and aggravating trend in Hollywood to remake perfectly good movies, sometimes for no other reason than to shift from black and white to color (“Psycho?”). Movies from a few years to a few deacdes old now get the makeover regularly.
Two recent entries into what I like to call the repeat genre remind me how barren the well of creativity in Hollywood has become. What’s more, both remakes are themselves based on works hundreds of years old. And in both cases, I suspect, they serve no other purpose but to road test new and improved digital effects.
Bryan Singer, who leveraged the critical success of “The Usual Suspects” to carve out a career as a mediocre, big budget director, is now tackling a remake of John Boorman’s “Excalibur.”
It’s odd for a host of reasons, not least of which is that “Excalibur” was based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” if not in scope, certainly in mood (excepting a bit of explicit sex stripped from the PG version for schools). And I don’t think one needs to buy the rights, since Mallory has been dead for five centuries. So, I’m guessing Singer and Warner Brothers bought a name more than a story.
What’s worse, though, is that “Excalibur” is actually a fine movie. It may suffer a bit from the lingering hippie prism of the 70s (the film was released in 1981) but it’s a showcase of solid acting (a young Gabriel Byrne and a mesmerizing Helen Mirren) and thoughful and calculated directing. Better than that, it’s a movie built from the ground up, without heavy-handed special effects or digitally enhanced set pieces. The locations are real, and as in the original story, presented as characters. There are no sweeping battles between legions of computer generated soldiers here, only the brutality of medieval melee. (The battle scenes owe some gratitude to Orson Welles and “Chimes at Midnight”; see our review of ‘Chimes’ here.)
It’s a shame that Boorman even shopped it around, if that’s the case, and that we’ll likely end up with X-Men go medieval.
Another remake, already complete and ready to hit theaters is “Clash of the Titans” (see the trailer below). I guess this one at least makes some sense. Personally, I’m a childhood fan of the original, which featured the stop-motion magic of Ray Harryhausen. Stop-motion animation, of course, has long since been supplanted by digital FX, but I have yet to be convinced, for all the advances in digital cinema wizardry, that we’re closer to lifelike illusion. And, no, I don’t think James Cameron’s “Avatar” gets us there, either.
But at least “Clash of the Titans” is simple mythology — well, an amalgamation — and no matter how it’s wrapped up, it’s still an old story that’s told again and again. The remake, which again seems to be only an attempt to commandeer a popular title, is aiming for a new generation of computer gamers and VFX aficionados. The original may have been campy, but it was slick camp that pushed some technical boundaries. The remake? Not so much.
If you don’t agree with me on these, how about these remakes in the works?
“Creature from the Black Lagoon”
“Last Tango in Paris”
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”
“The Dirty Dozen”
“Conan the Barbarian”
See the trailer for “Clash of the Titans” here:
The Redemptive Power Of The Theater: Simon Russell Beale, Ethan Hawke, Rebecca Hall and Sinead Cusack Bring Us To Life
March 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Here was, on the stage, a genuine movie star, or at least as close of an approximation of one gets to a movie star these days, and his name was Ethan Hawke. Hawke barely seems to register on the screen, his performances at their best and worst are banal, which is a miserable fate for a screen actor. Hawke also causes paroxysms of fury by writing novels; the condemnation comes streaming down from the ranks of those who believe that kind of thing is best left to the professionals, whoever those professionals may be.
But there he was, surrounded by the artfully decrepit interior of the Harvey Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, barefoot and strumming a guitar. This was in Shakespeare’s extravaganza known as “The Winter’s Tale”, which, if records were kept of such things, must have been written in haste or on a bet. Shakespeare threw everything into this weird play except character development, but there are plenty of jokes.
Some of these jokes are said by Autolycus, played by Hawke, in a fey, lovely, and easy-going turn in the Sam Mendes production of this play which just closed on March 8 in Brooklyn.
If Hawke’s performance is a cobbling together of mannerisms, that is not his fault. It is faint criticism to call an actor in “The Winter’s Tale” unfocused, because the same criticism that Ezra Pound leveled at James Joyce’s “Ulysses” — that there was no need for a new style for each chapter — could be used to describe each act of this vaudeville. It’s a tragedy and then a comedy and then a fantasy and then a ghost story. “Oh, what the hell,” Shakespeare probably said when writing it. “I’m being paid good money and I need a new bed!”
So Hawke, strumming a guitar with authority and grace, comes strolling out on the Harvey’s beautiful wood stage and one might think that New York theater audiences would apply the same snobbishness to Hawke being on the stage as literary critics did to Hawke writing his books. But no. He had them right away, and as well he should. He was acting Shakespeare, and he was great.
Sinead Cusack should easily command the same concoction of worldwide respect and sensual appeal that her contemporary Helen Mirren receives, but Cusack has not had the same kind of commercial movie success that Mirren has had. You may know her as Naomi Watts’ mother in “Eastern Promises”, and a few of us were lucky enough to have caught her in John Boorman’s Irish mystery “The Tiger’s Tale” at the New Hampshire Film Festival last October, which as far as I know was not released in this country. But she is an inspiring actor, a great actor, and she brought to the stage the kind of grace and loveliness that only the truly great can bring. You can imagine that Sinead Cusack would invite audience fervor no matter what age she happened to appear in.
This production of “The Winter’s Tale” is part of a project called “The Bridge Project”, which is providing an opportunity for audiences to see the stage work of both American and English actors. So this production, which was lyrical but minor, was playing in repertory with Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and the actors were able to play parts in both plays that demonstrated their range. The project is a co-production of The Old Vic (headed up by Kevin Spacey), the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Neal Street Productions. The two plays were directed by Mendes and the Chekhov play was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard, who added his contrarian flair to the English translation of Chekhov’s lines.
There is a scene in “The Cherry Orchard” when Simon Russell Beale is attempting to express his affection for Ranevskaya (played by Cusack), the eternally grieving owner of the cherry orchard that soon must be sold to pay off old debts. Cusack, as Ranevskaya, looks so deeply and understandingly into Beale’s eyes that I wondered if they were in love in real life. (Cusack is married to Jeremy Irons.) It was heartbreaking to watch, and I was later moved when she talked about the memories she had of the house they would soon have to abandon.
My friend Mike Keating, who wrote so well about Joe Strummer here on Roundtable Pictures last year, has been talking about Simon Russell Beale for years. He kept saying I needed to see him, and when I witnessed Beale’s fussy, fuzzed, and fritzed out Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” I had that rare reaction that I was watching an actor trying to figure out his way through a part. What this means is that I thought I saw someone who was truly confused, as opposed to someone who was playing someone who was confused. It was laugh-out loud funny. And I loved Beale’s head-scratchy, hand-gesturing interpretation precisely because it seemed so un-king-like. It may not have been what Shakespeare wanted, but it suits these modern times.
What Mike and I marveled at were seeing actors able to memorize and then embody two different characters in utterly different plays just hours apart. We saw “The Winter’s Tale” at a 2 p.m. matinee and then “The Cherry Orchard” later at 7:30 p.m. I’m not saying that Beale was stretched too much between his interpretation of Leontes and Lopakhin, the successful businessman in the Chekhov play. But what was evident was the depth of feeling that he brought to the stage, and how he, and Cusack, and Hawke and all the other actors in “The Cherry Orchard” were able to bring the play to its undeniably emotional conclusion.
One other actor deserves mention here, and that is Rebecca Hall. She was the Vicky in “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” Her power is undeniable. There is a scene in “The Winter’s Tale” when she defends herself against the charges of adultery that have been lodged against her by Leontes that is unbearable to watch because you are watching a tortured human being expose her soul.
Imagine an actor speaking the lines of Shakespeare that makes you forget you are hearing the measured beats of poetry and convince you that are hearing the thoughts of a tortured human being. That was Rebecca Hall. And then she was the dedicated and unwanted Varya in “The Cherry Orchard.” She was transformed from the sexually desired queen Hermione to the homely, unprepossessing housekeeper in Chekhov’s play in just hours. And she was beautiful as both.
The redemptive power of the theater is in full swing. Actors dissatisfied with the emptiness of film scripts are returning to the stage. Stage actors like Beale seem content not to make the leap to movie screen. We seem to have entered a new age when actors can once again claim the moniker of “Broadway actor” or “stage actor.” Think Kristin Chenoweth, or Nathan Lane or Patti LuPone or Norbert Leo Butz — or Simon Russell Beale.
The entertainment business landscape is also changing. Tentpole movies thrive because they appeal to the movie geek who appreciates only the spectacle and none of the nuance that film used to provide.
And independent movies fail because they rarely — really quite rarely — capture the delicacy and revelatory power of human emotion that is ostensibly their reason for existing in the first place. Instead we get quirkiness that is supposed to be translatable to our everyday lives. Instead we see movies that have nothing to offer except the underdeveloped sensibility of the moviemaker, and that has increasingly felt utterly unsatisfying.
Just as we are trying to return to the produce of the family farm, or the hospitality of the local store, or the charms of the low-powered FM radio station in our neighborhoods, the theater may reveal to us the charms of just why we wanted to be entertained in the first place.
Entertainment is meant to deliver us from our daily travails, but it is also meant to make our imaginations percolate. The movies, to a very large extant, have made us stop thinking, and their influence islimited almost exclusively to the two hours we spend watching the movie in the theater or in front of the DVD. They have no life almost at all beyond that.
Mike Keating and I, as well as the other theater-goers who left the Harvey Theater on that unseasonably warm late winter night, continued to talk about the plays, and the actors. I was thinking about Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke, and of course Rebecca Hall, and I remembered that at the end of “The Cherry Orchard” a bubble of sadness leapt up out of my chest and into my throat because I felt slightly wounded, just as the very real human beings before me had meant me to feel.