Thursday, June 7, 2012

You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory

I had the most incredible spring semester interning at Sikelia Productions, and I am so excited to continue working there over the summer for my lifetime hero, Martin Scorsese - not to mention his legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and the rest of the gracious and wonderful people at the office. After heading back to Austin for a few days in late May, I am now back in New York City and currently jumping into pre-production on my next film, which I am planning to shoot in late July.

Here's a quick wrap-up of my spring semester, leading into my plans for an exciting and productive summer. In mid-April, my roommate Bobb Barito and I signed a lease on our first-ever apartment in New York City, along with our friend Adam Boese. We are now the proud occupants of an excellent three-bedroom apartment in the Lower East Side - I have included a few pictures of my room throughout this post. Over the summer, in addition to working three days a week as an intern at Sikelia Productions, I will also continue working as a Technical Assistant at Tisch's Post-Production Center.

This past Spring Break, I was lucky enough to have two of my best friends from Austin High School - Cora Walters, who is currently attending Reed College in Portland, Oregon; and Bolton Eckert, who just recently started studying at the Art Institute of Los Angeles - visit me in New York City. It was excellent having them both as guests. Bolton, Bobb and I celebrated Saint Patrick's Day at Shades of Green Pub & Restaurant, where we somehow became fast friends with a very friendly Irish family, as well as members of the Irish rock band The Saw Doctors, who were just returning from a concert. It was great fun.

There are two movies that I've seen this year that I believe deserve extraordinary praise. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – the director’s first film since the should-have-been-Oscar-winning animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – is the movie event of the summer. This is a poignant and hilarious picture, and on a personal level, I haven’t been so deeply affected by one of Anderson’s films since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), one of the last films I saw with my father before he passed away. In a New England community in the 1960s, twelve year-old outcasts Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) run away from home together, convinced beyond any doubt that they are in love (once on the adventure, they are aided by Sam’s considerable skills as a Khaki Scout). Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Harvey Keitel are among the adults and parents leading a search-and-rescue mission to find Sam and Suzy. Willis and Norton, in particular, do some of their best work in years.

In this film, Anderson beautifully expresses both the joy and melancholy of first love. Even though Moonrise Kingdom does end on a positive note, there’s still a hint of a dissatisfied adulthood waiting for our protagonists by the end of their adventure. Whether Suzy and Sam end up together in the long run is irrelevant – their love will never feel as real and as powerful as it does in their memory. Their utopian ‘moonrise kingdom’ is something the adults have long since abandoned, and soon enough, it will exist only in Suzy and Sam’s memories. Moonrise Kingdom is the only movie I’ve seen this year where a packed audience erupted in applause when the film ended. I would have joined them, but I was busy wiping tears from my eyes. After seeing the film, I got a little wild at Regal Union Square's Rock of Ages booth - here's a link to a truly astonishing video.

On Saturday, April 28th, I saw Bernie, the new film from Austin's own Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset), at the Angelika Film Center. In this endlessly funny and sometimes achingly sad true story of small-town murder, actual locals from Carthage, Texas recount the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a beloved small-town mortician on trial for murdering a disliked elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine). East Texas is an area that hasn't received much cinematic attention (and an area that I hold close to my heart, having spent quite a bit of my childhood in Hallsville and Longview), and it comes to vivid life as a loving and warped environment in Linklater’s film.

After the screening, Linklater held a Q&A with the audience. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Linklater both during the Q&A and after the screening, and he remains the quintessential Texas filmmaker. We talked briefly about East Texas, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, and when I first met him back in 2004 at the Criterion DVD signing of his film Slacker (1991) at Austin's Waterloo Video (see the comparison picture to the right, of Linklater and me through the years). He is such a nice person, and one of the best filmmakers out there. Bernie, which also features career-best performances from Black and Matthew McConaughey, is a testament to Linklater’s enduring genius.

Earlier in April, I served as Assistant Director for my friend Jordan Fein's Intermediate Narrative film White Carpet. It was one of the most ambitious film sets on which I've had the privilege of working - after four days of shooting in Sleepy Hollow, New York, the entire crew was exhausted, but we were proud to have worked so hard on a large-scale student film. In early May, I also served as Assistant Director for a music video directed by my friend Ben Dewey.

The Tisch Dean's Scholars program once again provided me with some extraordinary opportunities this semester. In addition to seeing the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (which I wrote about in my last blog entry), we toured the outstanding Harlem School of the Arts in late March, and for our final event of the semester, we went bowling at Bowlmor Lanes on University Place. As always, I was surrounded by incredible students and the most supportive professors and administrators at Tisch.

On Friday, June 1st, I was lucky enough to see Once on Broadway, the new musical based on the 2007 film. Once is nominated for eleven Tony Awards, and I'd say it deserves just about every one of them. The play manages to capture both the intimacy of the film (which is essentially a two-person movie) while effortlessly transitioning into rousing musical numbers by a talented ensemble of musicians-actors-dancers.

As far as classes are concerned, it was quite a whirlwind to finish everything by mid-May. For my last Developing the Screenplay class, I read the first fifty pages of my feature screenplay in class, and I wrote two final essays for my History of Modern Ireland and Introduction to Performance Studies courses. Finally, for my Intermediate Editing Workshop class, I finished editing my friend Ben Dewey's Intermediate Narrative film Quitting. Now, whether I like it or not, I have to start referring to myself as a senior.

I am very sad to report that the Tisch School of the Arts' Steenbeck Lab, where for decades film students have edited their 16MM Sight and Sound: Film projects by hand, has been dismantled, to be replaced by a computer lab for digital editing in the fall. As far as I know, Intermediate and Advanced Production students will still have access to film equipment for their projects, but all future sophomore classes will not have the opportunity to shoot on black-and-white 16MM film and then edit their pictures by hand, as students have done for over forty years. NYU was one of the last film schools to actively use Steenbecks, and it was only a matter of time before the powers-that-be decided that the machines be discontinued. Despite the fact that most of my larger projects have been shot digitally (mainly for cost reasons), I am a firm believer in the power and importance of film, and my heart sinks when I now pass that eerily empty Steenbeck room. Learning how to use that machine and edit five of my own black-and-white Sight and Sound: Film projects on the Steenbeck was one of the most valuable things I've learned in film school, and I feel fortunate to have been a part of the second-to-last class to take this extraordinary course in its purest form. In honor of the Steenbeck machines, here's my favorite of the five films I made in Sight and Sound: Film, Heart of Gold - shot on 16MM and edited by hand on a Steenbeck.

Heart of Gold from Jack Kyser on Vimeo.

Although Moonrise Kingdom and Bernie stand above the rest of this year's theatrical releases, there have been a few other excellent pictures. Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea has the sad power of a fading memory, with a rich, melancholic atmosphere and an extraordinary performance from Rachel Weisz. Mark and Jay Duplass' Jeff, Who Lives at Home doesn't have a cynical bone in its body - the performances are so engaging, the actors so likable and the writing so good, that it's hard to imagine the film not winning someone over. Joss Whedon's The Avengers is a summer superhero thrill-ride with outstanding performances from two of the best working actors, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. (there was a certain satisfaction in seeing a mini-reunion between the two actors, after their memorable pairing in David Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac). Nicholas Stoller's The Five-Year Engagement is a very honest and heartfelt romantic comedy, and another home-run for Stoller, Jason Segel and Judd Apatow (I particularly enjoyed the steady stream of Van Morrison tunes).

In addition, I saw the restoration of Jean Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion (1937) at Film Forum this week, and it was an absolutely astonishing print of the picture (as I was heading out of Film Forum, John Turturro and his family were heading in to see Django). And a recent viewing of Elia Kazan's devastatingly powerful and hauntingly beautiful East of Eden (1955) confirmed that, much like John Steinbeck's novel of the same name, the film is a kind of reflection of my values and beliefs as a person.

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