Grandeur Delusions: The Male Protagonists of the Films of Charlie Kaufman
A mild mannered NBC page goes from zero to hero, making hit shows and makings hits at the same time. A slightly schlubby puppeteer struggles both with his art, his lust for an elusive female co-worker, and his fascination with the portal into the head of another man. A self-aware introvert travels back through his most recent relationship and starts to understand the fallacy of his own romantic mind. These three characters do not share the actors who played them or even the directors who guided them, but they do share two things: a writer, named Charlie Kaufman, and a unique sense of delusion. As Freud would put it, a delusion of grandeur, to the extent where such delusions affect the way that each characters’ story is told, in terms of aesthetics and structure. In George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life where, by day, he’s producing shows like The Newlywed Game and by night he’s making hits for the CIA; but Barris’s story, told from his perspective, is so bizarre the audience is thrust into a hyper-stylized fantasy where one is not quite able to tell if he is telling the truth. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich presents “objectivity” as a deliberately absurdist comedy, playing the concept itself and deconstructing the romanticized “genius” in the form of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Lastly, in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is so deep set in his introversion, that when he finally is given the opportunity to explore his own memories, he is able to see them for what they are. These are tied together by Kaufman’s singular ability to tap into the cult of the genius and deconstruct what that entails through storytelling, as well as each respective director’s ability to channel those ideas through a visual format.
A Life to Live: My Top 10 Films of 2011
This list should have come about probably… um, six or seven months ago. But, I don’t get out often and my social life is more of a social networking life, so that generally prevents me from seeing a lot of films in the theater throughout the year. Personal ethics and the voices in my head prevent me from pirating or streaming generally, so I either end up seeing the film in the theater (I see an average of about… nine films in theater a year. I know, awesome) or I’ll catch the film on home video.
Anyways, last year was a pretty good year for film. I won’t say it was overly grand or abymal (I will, however, say, that the Oscars were abysmal), because how can you really compare a year to another just based on the films. I don’t even think if “more great films” were released on year than another would make it a “better year in film”. Aside from considering social/political/economic relevance, I don’t think the year matters as much anymore. That being said, the best films (to me) were the darkest ones. And they all, at least with regard to my list, had to do with life. Yes, you could argue that every film has to do with life, but the top ten films I chose from 2011 dealt with life in a particularly large magnitude. The ending of life on earth. The beginning of life on earth. The life of a man seeking redemption and meaning. What it means to live in your skin. What it means to grow up and live life as an adult. What it means to care and nurture for life. What it means for your life to be owned by someone else. What it means to consider the possibility of the end of all life. The ability to life as yourself and not as a lie. And what it means to live life in the present and reconcile nostalgia for the painful truth of now. And, in an honorable mention, what it means to give up your life for that of your bratty daughter. Yes, more than anything, I think the underlying theme of the best films of 2011 was about Life.
Which is ironic, because I don’t have one.
1. Melancholia | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
2. The Tree of Life | Directed by Terrence Malick
It seems far less important understanding or analyzing the film than it is simply basking in all of its beautiful, daring, and undoubtedly striking spell. At its core, the film may (or may not) be about a family in Texas, as a child begins to rebel against his strict father. But, throughout that story of man versus nature, Terrence Malick dares us to sit and watch as the universe comes together before our eyes. It can be a turn-off for some, but one has to admire his audacity and the sheer scope of the challenge. Brad Pitt’s fierce storm of acting and Jessica Chastain’s effervescent mother nature is a wonder to behold. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life certainly is a wonder.
3. Drive | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
What Nicolas Winding Refn often does is say a lot without saying a word. This is especially true of his minimalist, post-modern, nostalgic Drive, in which Ryan Gosling fleshes out an entire character, sans origin story, and still makes us care for his journey in search of self. It’s a credit to Gosling’s ability as an actor that he can convey so much with just a, shall we say, vacant and dreamy look in his eye. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
4. The Skin I Live In | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Although Pedro Almodóvar revisits his usual themes In The Skin I Live In, the approach is, well, rather different. Taking a page out of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, The Skin I Live In mixes horror, a little science fiction, and classic domestic drama for one of the most compelling thrillers of the year. With its production design that negates sterility with fruitful virility, the non-linear story, and superb cast, the film dances around decadent and painful themes of identity, sexuality, and masculinity. The story, though, retains a dark yet bubbly and soapy aspect, sure to please anyone who likes a good twist. Almodóvar’s experiment in horror examines what it means to live as who you are versus who you were meant to be.
5. Young Adult | Directed by Jason Reitman
I sure as hell hope that I don’t end up knowing, or turning into, Mavis from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s righteous and darkly hilarious Young Adult. Charlize Theron has the looks to have played a high school bitch, and she fits right into the role, almost as if she’d been playing it since birth. Cody’s razor sharp screenplay not only contains painfully funny dialogue, but even more painful examinations of disappointment and maturity, or lack thereof. She is as stuck in the past as one could ever be, manifesting her desires in her dying young adult book series. Joined by a stellar Patton Oswalt, maybe these guys should have paid attention during history, as they ended up being doomed and repeating it.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin | Directed by Lynne Ramsay
(I’ll have to review this in full later.) It isn’t what you think it is and the trailer does a good job misrepresenting it. I say that as a compliment, for nothing can prepare you for the thrilling rollercoaster that is We Need to Talk About Kevin. With its subjective, completely non-linear style, cracked, broken and fragmented like memories, Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller make the most out of sneers, looks of contempt, and a haunting score. The looks convey more volatility and pain than the dialogue, and director Lynne Ramsay is perfectly aware of that. This is acting and cinematography and direction that kills. For all of its title, once you reach the end of the film, you may be left completely speechless.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene | Directed by Sean Durkin
A part of me really, really wanted for Elizabeth Olsen to get an Oscar nod for this film. Actually, all of me did, as she would have completely deserved it. But, Olsen does what her sisters didn’t (or couldn’t, I don’t know) do: she challenged herself right off the bat. Playing a damaged girl returning home after escaping a cult, Olsen is effortlessly professional on screen, at once making you think that she’s been doing this for years yet still retaining the naiveté needed to make her character believable. Sean Durkin’s tale of a life owned and then a life trying to get a hold of itself once more is cynical, scary, but downright enthralling.
8. Take Shelter | Directed by Jeff Nichols
More like Apocalypse Wow, if you know what I mean. So many of the year’s best films were actor driven, and Take Shelter is no different. Led by Michael Shannon and his visions of the apocalypse, his descent into madness is arguably one of the most convincing ever on screen. It’s never over the top or hammy, and throughout his problem, there is always a sense of vulnerability that’s there. Jessica Chastain once again pops up and once again gives a superb performance as Shannon’s wife. It’s all about the world ending, and whose lives mean the most to him and how he intends on protecting them.
9. Beginners | Directed by Mike Mills
It may be a little quirky, but it is, above all, incredibly sincere. Beginners is about life, love, and relationship dynamics, but I’m sure you already knew that from the trailer. With its subjective, twee perspective, Ewan McGregor embarks on a new life with a new girl as he remembers when he and his father embarked on a new life when his father came out of the closet. Christopher Plummer is endearing and perfect, as is Melanie Laurents, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. Punctuated by different memories and cute storytelling elements, throughout its entirety, there’s never a false note. Its honesty is the most refreshing thing about it.
10. Midnight in Paris | Directed by Woody ALlen
If you know me or talk to me, you may be a tad surprised that a Woody Allen film, one that I raved and ranted about since its release, is this “low” on the list. Well, a) lists and rankings are essentially arbitrary and b) it’s not that my opinion has changed, it’s that I’ve restrained myself a little. Nevertheless Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
Honorable Mention: Mildred Pierce | Directed by Todd Haynes
Okay, technically, this appeared on HBO as a mini-series, but it also premiered at the Venice Film Festival as a five hour movie. Mildred Pierce, for all of its length, is the closest anyone will ever get to a transliteration of a novel, every word and scene from James M. Cain’s noirish domestic drama brought to life by Kate Winslet. Winslet continues to impress me, taking on the role of the thankless mother as she gives in to her willful daughter’s demands. It’s a sight for the eyes, with the glorious cinematography and production value once again showing off HBO’s good tastes. Todd Haynes classic techniques and attention to detail is to die for. Winslet, though, is clearly the star, and won’t take no for an answer.
Last, but Certainly Not Least: Rango | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard who, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
Come back in 12 months for my inevitable belated Top 10 of 2012!
2012 in Film: #86 – Mildred Pierce (2011)
2012 in Film: #86
Mildred Pierce (2011) | Directed by Todd Haynes
Thoughts: Mildred Pierce is the closest thing anyone will ever get to a transliteration of any novel. However, as surprising and refreshing as that is, the lead performances are what make the series so incredible. Kate Winslet is at her best playing Mildred, showing her off as both vulnerable and strong. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood portray Veda as the archetypal bitch, and so very well. Their clashing and individual lives intertwining like barbed wire makes the final episodes soapy and delicious. Though the pacing is slow at times, it is arguably one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. Astounding in every sense of the word, Mildred Pierce delivers.
Everything or Nothing: Mildred Pierce (2011)
If there is one thing that annoys me to no end, it is when people automatically, almost seemingly impulsive write off any film or movie that happens to be an adaptation of a book. “The book is always better than the movie.” ”Look at all the stuff the movie left out!” “They didn’t do so and so like the author.” However, I implore them with, “Accept the film as its own entity!” The thing they should realize is, film is a different medium. And with that medium, you have a lot of obstacles: creative input and running time, primarily. What audiences often look for are transliterations of their favorite books, something they will never get unless they want to sit for several hours in a theater. That will also never happen unless you find a production team willing to put that much effort into translating every scene and every piece of dialogue to the screen. Not for a theatrical feature at least. So, here I would like to commend the mini-series format! The format, which is roomier than a feature film but shorter than a series, is almost perfect for those purists unsatisfied with theatrical adaptations. (Also, people with patience.) Perhaps the most literal transliteration I have ever seen (and, granted, I have not seen many) is Todd Hayne’s Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain. This is the most thorough adaptation of a novel I have ever seen, using dialog verbatim from Cain’s novel and including nearly every scene from the novel. Clocking in at five episodes and almost five and a half hours, it is completely worth your time. Did I mention that Kate Winslet is superb in it?
James M. Cain, whose novels inspired the term noir and were themselves adapted as film noirs, was popular for writing respected hard boiled novels. From The Postman Always Rings Twice to Double Indemnity (whose screenplay would be written by fellow hardboiler Raymond Chandler), Cain knew exactly how to portray moral ambiguity and social class hypocrisies. With Mildred Pierce (published after Postman and before Indemnity), it is a bit of a different turn for Cain. No gangsters. No overt double crossing, in the noir sense. And no first person narrative. Nevertheless, Cain’s portrayal of a divorcee during the Depression trying to attain success and keep her prodigal daughter happy was a success, and was adapted into a film in 1945 by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), and featured an Academy Award-winning performance by Joan Crawford as the titular character.
Jump sixty-seven years later, and in the place of Crawford is Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, playing the strong, but somewhat damaged Mildred Pierce. In the first episode, in her cozy California home during the Great Depression, she throws her husband out of the house and is thus left alone to care for her two children, the contemptible Veda (Morgan Turner) and the precious Moiré/Ray. Mildred, now on her own, struggles with the dignity of taking a job as a waitress just to keep her girls happy. And, oh, the men. Handsome she is, and it would not be fair to call her promiscuous, but with her newly garnered title of “grass widow”, she can now do as she pleases. She is liberated, and her choices regarding whom she meets, which honestly are not very many, are not met with usually soap opera-esque judgment of neighbors. The story goes on, as Mildred raises her two girls, and in the meantime, she meets Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), she opens up her own restaurant, extends it as a chain, and concentrates her love on her dear Veda.
Mildred Pierce, as glorious as it can be, is work to watch, if only for its luxurious pacing. Its supine narrative style makes sense, given the subject matter. Really, how exciting can you really make a character study about a woman struggling and (kind of) overcoming the economic perils during the Depression, all the while dealing with her decidedly pretentious daughter? For what it is worth, it is handled with grace and style. Though there are moments torpid in style that may irk you, it allows the viewer to admire and observe the precision that both Haynes and Winslet have used when creating the character of Mildred Pierce. The series is a study of something not to be studied: a woman doing what she needs to do to get by. It may be the most gracious way of Haynes saying that women can be the best fighters, and will do anything for their children, and thus it is unnecessary and ultimately fruitless to overanalyze their motivations. (That, however, does not completely stop Haynes entirely. On the Blu-ray box set’s special features, each episode has a 4 minute heavy analysis of the episode and the characters.)
Even with the most prudish of viewer, it is hard to be disappointed by HBO’s attention to detail. Even with the distasteful Rome, one cannot deny how gorgeous, detailed, and designed the series was. (It was also incredibly expensive.) For Mildred Pierce, we are transported to late 1930’s – early 1940’s California. Not the patent California of most period pieces, so bright and so obviously manufactured, but a pleasantly natural look, as if the audience were really there. The costume design is gorgeous, the set design evokes the time period perfectly, and the look of the series is stunning. The cinematography has a sunny yellow about it that is reminiscent of the area. The picture is not drenched in browns and yellows, but it fits the time period and the setting of the series, and, like the general setting of the series, evokes a perfect feeling for the series. The cinematography, though, is the most marvelous thing about it. There is nary a scene that does not look good or is not expertly constructed, by both director Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Haynes’ Sirkian Far From Heaven). If it is drenched, it is drenched in the period, feeling completely naturalistic with the rest of the mise-en-scene.
Kate Winslet is perfection in the role. Without her, Mildred Pierce simply would not be as good as it is. Appearing in every single scene of the series, she plays the character with all of her facets, while still allowing Mildred to be enigmatic. Appearing in every scene in something is a lot of work, and it may call into question as to whether the story is told subjectively from Mildred’s point of view. On the contrary, much of the story is told omnisciently, with the camera looking at her often from others’ perspective. It may seem that the series is just as much about the perception of Mildred from the other people in her life as it is about Mildred herself. Winslet takes on the role, exposing the pathos and sensitivity of Mildred, as well as the character’s strength and survival mentality. Though, the performance does not look effortless. It really should not look that way. It should look like a woman doing what she can to provide for her family, as well as providing for herself. That being said, Winslet is, at times, beautifully restrained in her technique, never falling prey to overacting. She is the perfect Mildred Pierce, and embodies everything the character stands for.
Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood both play Veda, the former playing Veda as a child and the latter playing Veda as an “adult”. Veda is, in a word, a complete bitch. Every line is intentionally play acted with a stagey, Lawrence Olivier kind of tone, as if the child had memorized it from a script. Every apology, every word of admiration, and even every argument has such pretension, it can drive one insane. One gets the impression that young Veda is preparing for an audition worthy of Joan Crawford or Ann Blyth. Although you want to slap her every time you see her on screen, it is a great performance nonetheless. Both actresses are able to hone their bitchiness perfectly for the role.
The supporting cast is just as excellent, with Guy Pearce as Mildred’s main beau, Melissa Leo as Mildred’s best friend, and Mare Winningham as Mildred’s boss as her diner job. The acting is the highlight of the entire series, with each role carefully constructed to fit the time and era without feeling like something stagey or overacted. The performances are what make the series so enthralling, every minute of the way.
The relationship dynamic between Mildred and Veda is critical to the entire series. It is even more important than the dynamic between Mildred and her men. Veda is the ungrateful, prodigal daughter, almost never understanding the struggles her mother goes through to get what she wants. Director Haynes notes that the relationship is comparable to that of unrequited love. Mildred wants to do anything and everything for her daughter and will be loyal to her regardless of the terrible abuse from her daughter. The stupid, dogged loyalty is something that many people experience, both through the mediums of parenting as well as romantic relationships. She is willing to sacrifice everything, and yet get nothing in return.
Mildred Pierce is the closest thing anyone will ever get to a transliteration of any novel. However, as surprising and refreshing as that is, the lead performances are what make the series so incredible. Kate Winslet is at her best playing Mildred, showing her off as both vulnerable and strong. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood portray Veda as the archetypal bitch, and so very well. Their clashing and individual lives intertwining like barbed wire makes the final episodes soapy and delicious. Though the pacing is slow at times, it is arguably one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. Astounding in every sense of the word, Mildred Pierce delivers.
2012 in Film: #63 – The Holiday
2012 in Film: #63
The Holiday (2006) | Directed by Nancy Meyers
Thoughts: A lovely romantic comedy, where Kate Winslet plays against type (again, kind of) as the wallowy singleton, Cameron Diaz as the Type-A trailer editor, Jude Law as the Winslet’s brother with lots of baggage, and Jack Black as the charismatic and sweet composer. The house switching thing is cute. I wish I could do that.Thoroughly entertaining.