Thursday, December 24, 2009

Head Trips

Is it a coincidence? I mean, really. What are the chances? Two of the most anticipated films of the Christmas release season focus on the lives of a filmmaker. Not just any filmmaker, mind you, but filmmakers who are major talents.

Because each film focuses on the creative process that drives an artist to keep working, it's important to see how each artist's artistic style mirrors his lifestyle. In one film the phenomenal organization and memory of a meticulous filmmaker help to rescue a masterpiece that had been destroyed by a jealous villain. In another, an artist's sloppy, scatter-shot approach to life is reflected in his art.

In each film, however, the artist has a support network that is so fiercely devoted to him that its members will do almost anything to clear away potential obstacles that could prevent the artist from tapping into his creative juices. Is it mere coincidence that the lusty, torrid Penélope Cruz has a key role in each of these movies? Or should audiences be scrutinizing the large number of coincidences that lie at the heart of each film?

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Let's start off by examining Rob Marshall's deliciously overblown cinematic treatment of Nine. As most people know, Marshall has been evolving as a double-edged artistic strongman (choreographer and director) through his work on the following productions:
For his work on Chicago, Marshall received the award for Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and an award for Outstanding Directing from the Directors Guild of America. He received those awards the old-fashioned way. He earned them.

Now let's look at a curious set of coincidences linked to what is now known as the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street.
  • In May 1982, Nine opened at the same theatre and ran for 729 performances. With a book by Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti, Nine starred Raul Julia as Guido Contini and marked the Broadway debut of songwriter Maury Yeston. Based on Federico Fellini's autobiographical film 8-1/2, the show was directed by Tommy Tune and choreographed by his long-time associate, Thommie Walsh. Like Chicago, Nine was very much a "concept" (as opposed to a "book") show in which a single male was surrounded by 24 actresses representing every facet of a woman's beauty, strength, and power.
The original stage productions of Chicago and Nine sprang from the artistic vision of two great director/choreographers: Bob Fosse and Tommy Tune. A third, equally formidable director/choreographer has successfully transformed both of these Broadway shows into powerful movie musicals. Despite a lot of pissing and moaning from film pundits about how disappointed they are with the movie Marshall made from Nine, several facts remain crystal clear:
  • As a dancer, choreographer, and director, Marshall knows his way around the vocabulary and literature of the Broadway musical.
  • Unlike traditional book musicals (My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music), Chicago and Nine were highly stylized stage productions closely identified with the directorial styles of their creators.
  • In the film versions of Chicago and Nine, Marshall used a lot of quick cuts to move the action along in a way that was simply not possible in the original stage version of each show.
  • Marshall also succeeded in transforming carefully choreographed stage numbers to the screen by drenching them in as much wretched excess they could stand. As Mae West used to purr: "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."
Judi Dench performs Lilli's Folies Bergere fantasy
  • In the process of moving each stage musical to the screen, Marshall was able to clarify a lot of moments for the audience, broaden the visual range of the story, and heighten the level of excitement.
  • Last, but certainly not least: Many of today's entertainment pundits did not see the original Broadway productions of Chicago and Nine.
What was merely dazzling in the film version of Chicago is, by the nature of the stage property, a necessary part of the storytelling in the movie of Nine. Why? Because what the audience is seeing are the inner workings of an oversexed, overtired, and overly adored Italian man who is a world famous creative artist as well as an incurable narcissist. All of the film's musical numbers are essentially taking place inside the massive sound stage that is Guido Contini's overly fertile imagination. Charlotte Chandler, who wrote Fellini's biography (I, Fellini) recalls the filmmaker telling her that:
"No one ever perceives the real world. Each person simply calls private, personal fantasies The Truth. Dreams are the only reality. My films are often based on my dreams. When I wake up, I put them down as funny little drawings. The difference is that I know I live in a fantasy world. I prefer it that way and resent anything that disturbs my vision.

For me, making films is making love. I’m most alive when I’m directing. But before I started making , something happened to me which I always feared could happen. And when it did, it was more terrible that I could ever have imagined. I suffered my greatest fear: director’s block. Director’s block is like writer’s block, except that it’s public rather than private. My crew called me ‘the magician,’ but the film I was going to make had fled from me. I considered abandoning it, but I could not let all of those people down who believed I was a magician. It came to me that I should make a film about a director who has director’s block."

Composer Maury Yeston, who revised his original Broadway score for the film version, makes some interesting observations about the process:

"Working on Nine with Rob Marshall and John DeLuca was the most life-giving, inspiring, and welcoming experience of my creative life. They are meticulous, they are brilliant and they simply inspire changes for the better.

The original song for Guido’s mother in the stage version is a quintessentially high soprano song. Sophia Loren is not a soprano, so the song would not have the same effect. My goal was to write a song for Sophia that would still have the same lyrical and musical function but that would respond to her vocal range and, even more so, the very essence of this extraordinary woman whose DNA is part of the fabric of Italian cinema. I took some very haunting music from the song 'Waltz from Nine' in the stage show and transformed that into this song.

Kate Hudson has a spectacular voice and is a great dancer, so we wanted an up-tempo number rich with dancing and singing for her. 'Cinema Italiano' turned out to be a great idea for reasons that weren’t immediately apparent. It became a witty, entertaining way to show audiences of today how, back in 1965, Italian movies were the new wave of excitement and the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. It was also a way to reveal how Italian movies not only gave the world a new film style but a new fashion style as this realm of skinny ties and speedy sports cars became a lifestyle to which people everywhere aspired. Kate took all that and hit it out of the park.”
In the long run, however, it's all about Guido. Whatever Guido wants, Guido gets. And when Guido can't get it up artistically, there is an army of fans, lovers, and coworkers eager to help him rub out another film. Most notable among these are:
  • Guido's wife, Luisa Contini (Marion Cotillard), a woman who has grown tired of her husband's extramarital affairs. Even though she worships his talent, Luisa's patience has been exhausted by Guido's endless lies, deceptions, and denials.
  • Guido's mother (Sophia Loren) is, of course, the beautiful Italian woman who can do no wrong.
  • Guido's mistress, Carla (Penélope Cruz) oozes sex, is frighteningly insecure, and extremely moody.
Carla (Penélope Cruz) in one of Guido's fantasies
  • Guido's confidante, Lilli (Judi Dench) doesn't mince words. Eager for him to break through his director's block, she tells Guido that it's time to shit or get off the pot.
  • Guido's fan, Stephanie (Kate Hudson) is an American journalist who is obsessed with Guido Contini. She desperately wishes to have sex with him.
  • Guido's first sexual experience, Saraghina (Fergie) is the earthiest of Italian whores.
  • Guido's manager, Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) will move mountains to help his friend create a new piece of art.
  • Guido's muse, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman) is aloof, distant, and surprisingly unsympathetic to his needs.
Nicole Kidman as Claudia, Guido's muse.

My personal recollection of the original Broadway production of Nine (which won the Tony award for Best Musical) was that it was surprisingly boring. Marshall's resuscitation has transformed the work into a far more exciting musical whose visual and musical riches are dazzling.

At the center of it all is Daniel Day-Lewis as a slithery, serpentine, chain-smoking Guido who drives around Rome in a pale blue Fiat Alfa Spider. Constantly racing between women while trying to avoid the media, Daniel Day-Lewis's Guido starts out looking emotionally drained but finishes the movie with the ghost of his younger self beside him, ready to start work on another film.

Nine offers audiences a cinematic journey that resembles a cornucopia bursting to the seams with jealous women and lush visuals. Marshall's treatment of the material puts him solidly in the same playing field as Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, and Gene Kelly. Watch this Anatomy of a Scene in which he explains how he built Lilli's Folies Bergere number for Judi Dench. As the film's producer, Marc E. Platt, explains:
"In each of these extraordinary actors there was always the ability to sing and dance. The key was to allow them to feel safe and have the confidence to give bravura performances that I think will be revelatory for audiences. The skill of Rob Marshall, John De Luca and their terrific team of associate choreographers and vocal coaches allowed each of our cast members to realize their full potential. Rob has a unique background for this story in that he came from the world of the theatre as a dancer and choreographer, made the leap into directing for the theater, and then became a film director.

Fergie as Saraghina (Guido's first whore)

Nine is a film about a filmmaker, about cinema, and about creating. Rob is a creator, so it was personal for him. He’s a man who understands cinema, its history, its academics, the technical aspects of directing a film, and the aesthetics. He also comes from the world of musicals (he grew up in that world). He understands how music moves narrative along. He understands how to seamlessly integrate the elements of music and dance, storytelling, and design. In that sense, the movie Nine is the perfect marriage of director to material."
If you're smart, you'll ignore all the naysayers and allow yourself to wallow in Nine's abundance of riches (you won't regret a moment of Marshall's excesses). You'll probably even find yourself looking forward to a second viewing. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
Where Nine focuses on a filmmaker whose creativity is being smothered by his fame and identity, Pedro Aldomovar's newest movie, Broken Embraces, is all about a filmmaker who has had his art stolen from him by a cruel twist of fate. Once upon a time, Mateo Blanco was a successful filmmaker who liked to call himself Harry Caine. A horrible automobile accident left him blind and unable to work as an artist.

As the film opens, "Harry Caine" has unbelievably managed to seduce a young woman who helped him cross the street. When his assistant, Judit (Blanca Portillo), enters, she is not pleased by what she finds.

The audience soon learns that "Harry Caine" used to be the famous filmmaker, Mateo Blanco. However, once he lost his sight -- and his ability to create art -- he decided it was better to declare Mateo dead.

Soon, news arrives that Ernesto Martel, Sr. (José Luis Gomez), the boorish businessman who ruined Harry and Judit's lives, has died. His son, Ernesto Martel, Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano). wants to speak to "Harry" about helping the younger Martel exact vengeance on his father's legacy.

Lena (Penélope Cruz) and Matteo (Lluis Homar)

After Judit's son, Diego, ends up in the hospital following an accidental overdose, it is Mateo who keeps him company until Judit can return to town. When Diego asks how Mateo lost his vision, he finally learns about the tragedy his mother has kept secret for most of Diego's life.

From that point onward, Aldomovar's film accelerates from what seemed like a rather ordinary drama about a blind man into a riveting tale of sex, love, humiliation, and revenge. As the filmmaker explains:
"When Lena falls into Ernesto Martel’s clutches she has all the attributes of the femme fatale: dark, ambitious beauty, a humble past, a family in a precarious situation, as well as the intelligence not to resign herself and to take risks. But she has too many scruples and lacks cynicism. Her love for Mateo precipitates her tragedy, even though she would have eventually left the tycoon (Martel) and he wouldn’t have allowed it.

Penélope Cruz as Lena

But Lena isn’t a femme fatale. She’s condemned to misfortune. Mateo, Lena, and Ernesto Sr. make up a typical film noir trio. The three love fiercely. One of them is very powerful, violent, and unscrupulous. Combustion is served. The trio is flanked by Judit García, who brings treachery, a secret son, and a guilt complex to the group (ingredients that will make the relationship between the four even thicker).

Film noir is one of my favourite genres. I’d already moved in that direction in Live Flesh and Bad Education. I’ve done so again in Broken Embraces. The scene of Ernesto Sr.’s feet, walking up to and then away from the door of the room where Lena is, followed by the scene on the staircase, are definitely 'noir.' After an hour’s narrative, the scene on the staircase reveals the genre to which the film belongs. That sensation of blackness doesn’t leave us until the end."
There are many joys to be found in Broken Embraces, not the least of which is Aldomovar's encyclopedic knowledge of film history and his incredible skill as a storyteller. With Judit no longer able to hide from the truth, a curious turn of circumstances allows Mateo to regain control of his lost masterpiece.

As the film ends, the audience learns how an artist's incredible organizational strengths can rescue a work in crisis. Part of Aldomovar's revelation is how a blind filmmaker (who has lost his sense of vision) can restore a lost work to its original artistic vision.

There is no fat on this film, only microscopic layers of hints, motivations, and betrayal that build to a stunning climax. As Aldomovar explains:
"Editing is in the origin of the narrative (it is the cinematic narrative, strictly speaking). The plot of Broken Embraces dramatizes the importance of editing, its direct relationship with the director, and the fragility of the film if someone gets between the editing and the director. Although you can make a living from it, filmmaking is not only a profession. It also an irrational passion."
It's no secret that Aldomovar has an uncanny way of making love to his female stars with his camera. As he did so spectacularly in Volver, he uses Penélope Cruz as a tragic figure, a fashion model, a gifted comic, and an object of overwhelming desire and sensitivity. Throughout the film she is a woman of exquisite beauty, jaw-dropping sensuality, and remarkable vulnerability.

Penélope Cruz as Lena.

As powerful a figure onscreen as she is, Cruz must nonetheless keep pace with Blanca Portillo's portrait of the frustrated Judit, Lluis Homar's restrained Mateo, and the two highly dysfunctional Martels. Tamar Novas offers a poignant portrayal of Judit's openly gay son, Diego.

Diego (Tamar Novas) and his mother, Judit (Blanca Portillo)

A joy from start to finish, Broken Embraces is all about the craft of making film (Aldomovar's craft as well as Mateo's). The art direction is phenomenal, the plot twists jaw-dropping, the sense of sensuality enough to make your skin crawl, and the acting superb. Although Cruz is radiant throughout, this film is so much more than the sum of its parts. Here's the trailer:

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