Tuesday, June 28, 2011

You May Say That We Ain't Free, But It Don't Worry Me

Starting in July, I have an internship with Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas - the creative home of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who I have long admired (particularly because of his ability to not only write, direct and produce his movies, but also to edit, shoot and score many of them, as well). Until my internship starts, I have been wrapping up post-production work on With Love, Marty (my friend Jonah Greenstein is writing the score to the film), as well as working on a new film project with my friends Brian Schwartz and Catherine Schwartz, two extremely talented people with whom I went to Austin High School (Brian and I were in quite a few plays together as Red Dragon Players). I've also been reminiscing about some of my great New York City experiences this past semester that I've neglected to mention in my earlier blog posts.

I wrote in length about my immense love for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris in earlier posts - two films that I have no doubt will place very highly on my year-end top ten list (I'll add a third to that list - Mike Mills' wonderful Beginners, with Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent giving memorable performances in a moving love story). In particular, The Tree of Life is a movie that continues to live with me - I mean it sincerely when I say that, watching the film, I felt inspired to someday attempt to make something as personal and philosophical as Malick's movie - that is, of course, if I have the benefit of being a filmmaker many years from now. The Tree of Life is such an artful piece of personal filmmaking, and it's the kind of movie that gives me the hope that, one day, I can make a film that furiously and passionately grasps at the lingering questions from my childhood, the death of my father and the story of my youth. Just don't expect a fraction of the cinematic poetry and grace that Malick brings to The Tree of Life.

As I'm slowly catching up with things after the whirlwind of last semester, I wanted to post some films made by my friends from over the past year. Below is a link to my good friend Alexander Fofonoff's third Sight and Sound: Film project The Sailor of Tomorrow, in which I appear as a disgruntled dock worker (Alex and I were in the same Sight and Sound: Film crew, which also included my great friends Jonah Greenstein and Benjamin Dewey). Here's the film:

In January, my roommate Bobb Barito and I saw Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore starring Olympia Dukakis on Broadway. This incredible production was directed by Michael Wilson, who, along with Tony-nominated actress Hallie Foote (daughter of the late playwright Horton Foote), will hopefully be speaking about the actor-director relationship at one of Tisch New Theatre's Master Classes in the fall (I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mrs. Foote over the years through my friend Bolton Eckert, starting back in 2006, when I attended Mr. Foote's 90th birthday party with Bolton and his family in New York City).

In March, my good friend and collaborator Benjamin Dewey and I saw the newly restored 35MM print of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) at New York's historic Film Forum, which was just a breathtaking experience. I've seen the film countless times (dating back to when I was eleven years old and just beginning my life-long obsession with Scorsese's work), but it's never looked as beautiful as it did at Film Forum. I've seen beautiful prints of Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) before in theaters - not to mention seeing Scorsese's incredible output in the 2000s upon their original theatrical releases (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shine A Light, Shutter Island) - but never Taxi Driver. And, I'll tell you, there's a haunting power in watching that film and living in New York City. I look at the picture a little differently now - it takes on an entirely different meaning and context (not that the New York City of the 1970s resembles the New York City in which I live in 2011 at all, really - but still, there's an added resonance).

The past few months - both in New York and in Austin - I've been able to watch some great new releases worth seeking out in cinemas, including Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, a gorgeously filmed, immersive mood piece that seems destined to become an art-house classic; Dan Rush's Everything Must Go, a wonderful, moving portrait of an alcoholic, with a lead performance from Will Ferrell that should do for him what Punch-Drunk Love (2002) did for Adam Sandler; Submarine, a wonderful coming-of-age movie with the heart of Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) and the style of a French New Wave classic; Joe Wright's strangely hypnotic Hanna, which features one-take action sequences that put the heavily-edited, incomprehensible action scenes from most Hollywood movies to shame; Jodie Foster's The Beaver, worth seeking out for Mel Gibson's extraordinary performance; J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a wonderful throwback to a better kind of summer blockbuster; and Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a fascinating, meditative documentary exploring the inside of the Chauvet Cave in France, which features prehistoric cave drawings more than 30,000 years old. Did I mention that the film is in 3D? Leave it to Werner Herzog to make extraordinary use of 3D technology.

Since I've been in Austin, I've been catching up on re-watching some old favorites and some films I've overlooked through the years, including Niehls Mueller's
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), a great film that proves that Sean Penn is unquestionably the best working actor today (together with his work in Mystic River and 21 Grams, his performance in this film represents the best output in the span of one year of any actor I can recall); Martin Scorsese's thrillingly entertaining The Color of Money (1986), where Paul Newman has never looked so cool; Robert Altman's revisionist western
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), starring Warren Beatty as the kind of brash 1970s antihero that makes me love that decade's cinema so much; and Joel and Ethan Coen's debut film Blood Simple (1984), a movie that demonstrates that these brothers knew how to make a movie better than anyone else around right from the start.

I have to spotlight two recent Scorsese viewings that just left me floored. I re-watched his first feature film, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1969), which started out as his senior thesis film at New York University, and developed over the years until its theatrical release in 1969. The movie is full of the same raw energy and kinetic liveliness as Mean Streets (1973). Everything is here in his first feature - the thrilling use of pop music, the Catholicism, the guilt, the male awkwardness, the social discomfort, New York City, a wonderful performance from Harvey Keitel - in other words, it's the kind of movie I live for! It's full of the immediacy that has always drawn me to Scorsese - his uncontrollable need to tell you this story right now, because it's so personal, so close to his heart, and if he doesn't get it out there - well, then, how else can he get you to experience what he experiences?

The second Scorsese film is last year's documentary A Letter to Elia, Scorsese's loving tribute to Elia Kazan, the filmmaker who inspired Scorsese more than any other. The film is especially powerful because of Scorsese's close, personal connection to Kazan's pictures, if not Kazan the man. Watching the film, I couldn't help but recognize Scorsese's loving adoration and respect for Kazan as the same adoration and respect I feel so strongly for Scorsese. There are many quotes from the film that haunt me, particularly the following one, in which Scorsese describes his friendship with Kazan:

"There was a kind of understanding between us. I mean, I never tried to tell him how much his films meant to me -- I don't think it would've been fair. When somebody's work has touched you that deeply, you can never expect them to understand how much they mean to you. It had to stay between me and the pictures. Those pictures mean so much to me that I can't imagine where I'd be without them. And when the lights dimmed, I was standing in the wings and I looked at the images from his tribute reel. It was an overwhelming feeling. It was as if I was seeing layers of my own experience, my own life, unfolding right there up on the screen. So, Elia, it always had to stay between me and the movies, and the only way I could tell you how much you meant to me was by making movies.”

I may never know Martin Scorsese personally, but if I ever do have the chance to know him, I think I will feel the same way. Scorsese's work has touched me so deeply and defined every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember. I don't think he will ever understand how much he means to me - he is a sort-of father, a father I've never met, but one who understands me. And so, if I am lucky enough to make pictures for a living, it will be my way of telling Martin Scorsese how much he meant to me and how his films are like a piece of my own personal history, embedded in my mind like my own experiences. And perhaps, one day, I can make A Letter to Marty. But, you know, even an hour-long documentary of the sort couldn't ever really hint at how he's shaped my life and the way I look at the world.

In honor of Scorsese, here's my Vocalization sound project from my Fall 2009 Sound Image class at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts - in which I provide all of the voice work. After years of listening to Scorsese talk about his films, I've had time to work on a Scorsese impersonation:

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