A tale of two road trips

Recently I watched two different road trip movies. Both were intended to combine action, humor, and romance. Both were done with sizable budgets and excellent actors. Both were written by respected, successful, scriptwriters. Both are meant to be fun, with lots of action, humor, and romance. Both are meant to celebrate music, and use long stretches of pop songs as almost another character in the story. Both enjoyed some critical acclaim, though I’ll never understand why movie B was as well received as it was.

Movie A is Bandits, directed by Barry Levinson.

Movie B is Elizabethtown, directed by Cameron Crowe.

Why is Bandits a blast, and Elizabethtown an eye-roller? Because the one director had an ear for authenticity, and the other didn’t.

Barry Levison and Cameron Crowe both have the credentials. They both can write, and they both can direct. Based on Levinson’s body of work, however, I’d have to say that Barry has a much better ear for authentic dialog. Case in point, the Stagecoach dialog scene in Avalon. (The movie is worth the rental just for that minute of dialog). He’s also a lot more disciplined as a director, with an eye for simplicity and elegance in the shooting. Case in point, the hospital scene when Aidan Quinn is walking with his son, and saying how strange it was to be a child… doors were too big, toilets were too big, and no one ever dies… So simple, and yet so full of dramatic tension and the wonder of childhood.

The big moment in Elizabethtown seems to be the pyrotechnics in the dance hall near the end. Never mind that they look cheesy. What’s amazing is the amount of screen time and the number of shots expended to introduce a plot device. Bandits has plot devices and pyrotechnics, too, but though they may be just as audacious and improbable, they work because they reveal more about the characters, and further the story in a way that feels authentic because it fits with what we have learned about the characters up till now. Besides, it’s downright fun. As I complete this reflection months after I began it, I can’t even remember what purpose the exploding chandelier had in the Elizabethtown story. I just know it was not fun. It took me out of the story (as did every musical interlude throughout the movie). As I watched it in slowmo from multiple angles, it struck me as gratuitous and contrived… as though the director said, “by golly, we paid for these special effects and we’re going to USE them!”

Rent both movies and watch them back to back. I suggest you watch Elizabethtown first…. so the evening ends on a happy note. And then write to tell me if you agree that Bandits, for all its hijinks and hyperbole, is still a story that feels authentic because of the characters that play out on the screen!

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Inspiration – I

I used my days of travel to gather some inspiration.

An old photography textbook in our room at Haley’s Hotel offered a quaint perspective:

“The essence of art is only partially concerned with materials and processes … brush, paint, crayon… are merely media of art. They can give no guaranty of art success any more than T square and triangle can produce architectural excellence…. So it is with the camera…. No amount of technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and care can make the camera produce art when it is guided by a nonartist. The camera, then, is a sensitive tool that responds to the thinking of the person who operates it.” (italics theirs)

(from Photographic Composition by Ben Clements and David Rosenfeld)

“The thinking of the person who operates”… Yes, everything in the cinematic arts hinges on the thinking of the artist, or newsman, or journalist, who controls the camera. Which lens? Which angle? Whose reaction?

A good case in point for me recently came while watching The Truman Show. Near the end of the movie, when Truman hits the sky-wall, Peter Weir (who gave us Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless) chose to show the moment of anguish as a medium shot, from behind. Without seeing his face, we are left with only his body language, his fruitless attempts to break out of his prison with fists and body slams. When Jim Carrey finally spins around to reveal the agony in his face, it is all the more moving and poignant. This is directorial thought at its best.

Another example is in the movie Sleepers. Jason Patric’s character finally reveals to the priest, Father Bobby (played by Robert De Niro), the dark secrets that the boys have been living with since their incarceration for a childish prank. Barry Levinson directs that instead of playing Patric’s face and hearing his actual dialogue, we lock on a closeup of De Niro. For something like 30 seconds (and it feels like minutes) the audio goes into “hyper-reality” — the sound of words without the intelligibility — and we read the pain in a sympathetic face, as De Niro comes to grips with the horror the boy experienced in jail. It’s a master stroke. Levinson, like Weir, is a director who thinks about the truth, about the complexities and nuances of human reality. In this case it’s about how it could be more “moral” for a priest to lie under oath than to put the murder of a soulless man higher than the murder of a boy’s soul.

The best of cinematic storytelling occurs when thought is paramount…. when the goal is not to scintillate (explosions, car chases, skin) but to ruminate. With excellent actors, the thinking occurs when they and the director invest time in the back-story, developing the inner motivation and character dynamics that make each moment of word and action “realistic”. In documentary-style story-telling, the thinking occurs during shooting and editing, when the cameraman senses what is relevant or transcendant in what is unfolding, and chooses to focus on the decisive moment. Like a miner panning for gold, he looks for the glittering nuggets, and then swirls them in the pan until the mud clears away. And then, in the editing process, he thinks carefully about how to sequence, juxtapose, and set the best moments into a story that breathes with life and authenticity.

We’ve all seen boring documentaries. We’ve all seen bad movies. And the term “college video” has earned its own category of disregard. It is in the thinking, not the production values, that the fault can be found. In fact, I think that people will forgive bad production values if the story is authentic and the thinking quality is evident.

“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Which is why all the talk about cameras and formats among “video guys” is so meaningless and beside-the-point. What matters is the thinking of the cameraman and the editor. Period. To use Cartier-Bresson’s self-description, the successful communicator of an institutional ethos needs “the velvet hand, the hawk’s eye”. It’s not a skill as much as a state of mind that I aspire to … the mind of a painter of birds. Patient, observant, unobtrusive, in love with his subject. Those are the kinds of artistry that inspire me.