Thursday, December 10, 2009

What A Piece of Work Is Man

Some men make such an impression that there is simply no forgetting them. Think of all the torch songs that have been written about that one special man who never can and never will be replaced by another.

One of my favorite torch songs was composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Bob Merrill and sung in the original version of Funny Girl in 1964 by Barbra Streisand. Here is Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, doing a magnificent job of singing "The Music That Makes Me Dance."

While exceptional men can hardly be ignored, sometimes an ordinary man who is exceptional in his own way can leave just as indelible an impression. Each, in his own right, can be a singular sensation. Curiously, once such men move on (whether due to career, celebrity, divorce, or death), they remain a part of us forever.

Two new films depict the thrill of meeting and knowing a very special man -- as well as the well of loneliness, the chaos of confusion, and the enigma of emptiness that can be left in his wake following his departure. Both films are period pieces that focus on key moments in the 20th century. While each is an artistic triumph in its own right, much of each film's success is due to the artistic vision of its creators and how that vision has been realized onscreen.

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Anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of American theatre won't want to miss Richard Linklater's beautifully realized film, Me and Orson Welles. Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, the movie fictionalizes an encounter Kaplow envisioned while doing some research in the basement of the Rutgers University library. As he explains:
"I was looking through a copy of Theatre Arts Monthly from 1937. There was a photograph from the Welles production of Julius Caesar which featured Welles in a dark coat and black gloves, sitting at the edge of the stage. Next to him was a young man playing a ukulele tricked up to look like a lute. My first thought was that the real story here is the kid. What does this moment feel like from the kid's point of view -- to bear witness to a celebrity creating himself right in front of your eyes? Investigating the history of this theatrical moment, I discovered the young actor from 1937, Arthur Anderson, was alive and living in New York. He was an invaluable source and he still has the ukulele, which he played for me at his kitchen table in a remarkable moment that felt as if I were melting through time."
Orson Welles (Christian McKay) and Richard (Zac Efron)

Linklater cast Zac Efron as the young man (naming the character Richard Samuels and having him play the part of Lucius in Shakespeare's tragedy). Although the plot begins and ends with Samuels meeting a young girl (Zoe Kazan) in the library who has high hopes of getting her short story published in The New Yorker Magazine, he ends up having a brief fling with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), an ambitious young female assistant to Orson Welles.

Richard (Zac Efron) and Sonja (Claire Danes)

The main focus of attention (assuming you're not a teenage girl) is Christian McKay, who confessed that "I must be the only actor who had to lose weight to play Orson Welles." For theatre buffs who have only heard about Welles and his spectacular triumph in the Mercury Theatre's production of Julius Caesar (but have seen few photographs of the production), Linklater's film is major treat.

Filled with much more than the usual backstage intrigue and neuroses, Me and Orson Welles recreates parts of the legendary production using sets and costumes based on the historic 1937 staging. As the director notes:
"You rarely get the opportunity to recreate theatrical lighting. With most films, even a stylized period piece, you bend a little towards naturalism. But when you are recreating the exact lighting of this highly dramatic, very theatrical stage show, it's just fun. Supposedly, the great cinematographer Gregg Toland saw this production of Julius Caesar and, when he heard that Welles was going to Hollywood to make Citizen Kane, told him he wanted to work with him because of the lighting he had done for the play."
Christian McKay as Orson Welles as Brutus

In addition to giving viewers a full taste of Welles's monstrous ego and the usual worries about whether or not an opening night will be a success, we get to watch Richard's sudden growth as Welles picks him out of nowhere, drops him in a hot frying pan for a week's worth of backstage melodrama (as well as a fully-staged Shakespearean tragedy), and gives him an up=close lesson about how things really work when someone is dealing with the one and only Orson Welles.

Throughout the film, one sees actors portraying actors who are acting in a Shakespearean play. Ben Chaplin delivers a magnificent portrayal of actor George Coulouris (who takes on the role of Mark Antony) while Eddie Marsan lends support as the legendary John Houseman. As Marsan notes:
"I'd like people to get a growing awareness of theatre in this period, because it was fascinating, and it actually informed acting. The people of this period became the acting teachers for people like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Benicio del Toro. All the great acting schools in New York and Los Angeles came from these theatre projects, which were publicly funded at this time. I want people to realize the genius of Orson Welles, which is underappreciated. I also want people to realize what it was like to be around someone so creative. Sometimes they can be so compassionate that you can fall in love with them, but they also can be so brutal."
A great deal of effort went into recreating New York in 1937. One of the first things audiences will notice is the large number of actors who have not had nose jobs. By a curious set of circumstances, the film was shot far from New York (the production company is based on the Isle of Man).

"For the exterior of the Mercury Theatre we found a single photograph taken in the early 1900s when the building (then the Comedy Theatre) was putting on its first production," explains Linklater. "We took a little bit of license here and there, but it's great to see that original picture and then to be able to look at our street -- it's quite thrilling to do something like that.

The restored Gaiety Theatre in the capital city of Douglas turned out to be almost an exact contemporary of the Mercury Theatre. A restoration program launched in 1990 was completed in 2000, with the famous Corsican Trap (the only known original version of this classic stage effect) one of the last elements to be restored. As Linklater recalls:
"I really fell in love with the place. It was almost too nice, too ornate, but I thought if we brought it down a little bit and didn't look up at the beautiful domed cathedral-like setting, it had similar proportions to the Mercury Theater in seats and size. The stage was about the same size and the below stage area and its trap door arrangement with locks and pulleys was far more complex and interesting than you would ever be able to realize if you were building your own stage.
Me and Orson Welles is chock full of wonderful performances that create a great sense of the moment. While Zac Efron shows much promise, Claire Danes and Ben Chaplin almost steal the film out from underneath Christian McKay. Others in the cast include Kelly Reilly as Muriel Brassler (the actress who plays Portia), James Tupper as Joseph Cotten, Al Weaver as Sam Leve, and Imogen Poots as Lorelei Lathrop.

Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) and Welles (Christian McKay)

There will, of course, be plenty of people who could care less about Orson Welles. Those who thought Dumb and Dumber was a great film should stand warned: Linklater's film is the polar opposite (it could easily be titled Smart and Smarter).

You'll get more out of this film if you know your Shakespeare, but don't let any high school memories of reading Julius Caesar stop you from having a grand old time watching Linklater's indie gem. Plus there is the added attraction of filming upstage, backstage, and under the stage of the Gaiety Theatre. Here's the trailer:

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Some filmmakers make an impressive debut with their first feature. Few hit it out of the ballpark with quite the precision, cinematic strength, emotional depth, and artistic vision of Tom Ford (who will probably be hailed as Superman at the 25th Spirit Awards celebrating independent film on March 5, 2010).

Ford's debut feature, A Single Man, is based on Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel of the same name. The book has long held a peculiar fascination for Ford, who spent most of his adult professional life in the world of fashion design. In his director's statement, he recalls that:
"I first read the book in the early 1980s and was moved by the honesty and simplicity of the story. At that time, I was in my early twenties. Three years ago, after searching for the right project to develop as my first film, it occurred to me that I often thought of this novel and its protagonist, George.

I picked it up and read it again. Now in my late forties, the book resonated with me in an entirely different way. It is a deeply spiritual story of one day in the life of a man who cannot see his future. It is a universal tale of coming to terms with the isolation that we all feel, and of the importance of living in the present and understanding that the small things in life are really the big things in life."
Jim (Matthew Goode) and George (Colin Firth)

Ford has crafted the experience so magnificently that one immediately wants to watch the film again in order to spend more time with specific moments. This is, after all, a story about lost love, loneliness, despair, and desperation. It is a film in which a character's inner thoughts are readily made apparent to the audience as the protagonist stumbles through a day in November 1962, intent on committing suicide. The main characters are:
  • George Falconer (Colin Firth), a 52-year-old British-born professor who has been teaching English literature to students at a small college in Los Angeles. Despondent over the loss of his lover of nearly 13 years (and becoming increasingly depressed by the doom-and-gloom news reports about bomb shelters and the Cuban missile crisis), George has decided to end his life. According to Ford, “The incredible thing about Colin [Firth] is his ability to telegraph what he’s thinking through his eyes, almost without moving his face and certainly without saying a line.”
  • Jim (Matthew Goode) is George's ex-lover who died in an automobile accident while visiting his family in Denver. Although they had been living together since Jim got out of the military, his conservative family never really approved of his relationship with George. Upon learning of Jim's death during a late night phone call from one of Jim's more sympathetic relatives, George is informed that the funeral service for his deceased lover will be strictly for family members.
  • Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) is a hustler who has arrived in Los Angeles from Europe and modeled himself after James Dean. Ford describes Carlos as "a human flower…at this point in our story George is stunned by the beauty he encounters. When he spots Carlos he is mesmerized. His attraction to him is not sexual -- he simply wants to gaze at Carlos’s absolute beauty. In the end, he has a very human conversation with Carlos and then goes on his way.”
  • Charley (Julianne Moore) is George's old friend from London. Now 48, divorced, and struggling to hold onto her beauty, Charley has never felt the kind of love George had for Jim. Although deeply devoted to George, she resents the fact that (by being a "poofter") he has somehow cheated her out of the emotional and sexual fulfillment they might have enjoyed as a couple.
  • Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) is one of George's students. A handsome young man who is just starting to get in touch with his sexual orientation, Kenny has an unusual level of interest in George and great instincts as a stalker. A questioning teen, he has a surprisingly protective streak with regard to his professor.
Nicholas Hoult as Kenny

Because he sensed that Isherwood's style of interior monologue would not work well on the screen, Ford invented a series of chance encounters to help illustrate George's increasingly desperate sense of isolation. He also added George's obsessive/compulsive (and sometimes hilarious) plans to commit suicide at the end of the day.
“George has been living in the past. He cannot see his future, cannot shake a deep depression, and so he decides to end his life. Thinking that he is seeing things for the last time, he begins to view the world differently and finds himself -- for the first time in years -- living in the present and confronted with the beauty of the world. This is a timely subject, I believe, as it is now more important than ever for us to all appreciate the gifts that we have in our lives. The use of color plays an important part in the film. In the book, we are inside George’s head, so we know what emotions he is feeling at any given time. I needed a way to help convey George’s mood externally to the audience.
At the beginning of the day, when George is at his lowest, our color is desaturated and our light is flat (George is so depressed that life for him is literally colorless). As George begins to experience moments of beauty during the day, the color on our screen amps up to reflect George’s heightened mood. This really begins to kick in when George encounters Jennifer Strunk in the bank. George, in his dark state of mind, usually thinks of this girl as an annoying and irritating child. When he encounters her in the bank, he sees her finally for what she is: a lovely, fresh beautiful young girl and he has an engaging conversation with her. By the time we get to the evening -- and the beauty of life is pulling at George -- he is living almost entirely in technicolor.”
Jim (Matthew Goode) and George (Colin Firth)

With superb production design by Dan Bishop and set direction by Amy Wells (two of the designers who brought such authenticity to television's Mad Men), Ford's film does a beautiful job of capturing the early 1960s. Isherwood's lover, Don Bachardy, served as a consultant on the film and, if you look closely, you'll notice one of his framed sketches in George's study.

There are two factors, however, which make Ford's film a class act. First and foremost is the stunning cinematography by Eduard Grau, which helps to reveal Ford as much more than a fashion designer. This is a powerful storytelling talent who does not just follow a narrative, but communicates inner conflict, dramatic texture, and innocent wonder with an amazing grace. Consider the setup for this shot (a perfect exercise in the iconography of Los Angeles) as a mere appetizer for A Single Man's innumerable riches.

The score for this film is almost as important as some of its lead characters. Ford managed to get Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi (who wrote the theme song for In The Mood For Love)
to write three themes for the film which could capture George's character and frame of mind. The rest of the score, composed by Abel Korzeniowski often feels like it was written for a masterpiece of film noir (listen to Music for Carlos and Stillness of the Mind).

George (Colin Firth) and Charley (Julianne Moore)

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore deliver brilliant performances that will easily pick up Oscar nominations. However, to my mind, young Nicholas Hoult (who appeared with Hugh Grant in 2002's About A Boy) is the real talent to watch.

This is a richly rewarding film experience in which the creative team's magnificent craft almost triumphs the poignancy of Isherwood's story. You won't want to miss it. Here's the trailer:

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