Wednesday, August 21, 2013
There’s a deep, profound sadness during this time of transition. It’s about that time when regrets start bubbling up in my mind, although, for me, they never seem to really leave, and my days are spent recounting and reliving the social errors and faux-pas I made over the past four years.
What behavior do other people remember? I think that my latest film, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, deals with this question a little bit. Is it possible to act like a buffoon in front of a large group of people, but still manage to salvage your reputation and retain some pride for the next day? Is everyone thinking mostly about their own moral failings, their own insecurities and disappointments? I know that I’m guilty of overanalyzing my own behavior, but I also know that I’m able to sometimes behave on autopilot, unaware of what my words might mean or suggest to someone else.
What structure remains now? There will be the weekly Wednesday evening meetings with my Advanced Production class, where we screen rough cuts of our advanced films and, ideally, screen feature-length films afterwards. The class is made up of people who I love dearly, and perhaps it’s because I love them all so dearly that I fear my excitement in seeing them each week will result in the kind of behavior I long to end. I’ll talk too much, I’ll get started on a rant about films, or perhaps a political issue about which I know far too little, and when the evening is over, I’ll take a look at myself and promise to do better the next week. But this is one of the only surviving structures in which there is the luxury of having a next week. And it won’t last for long.
But When We Get to the End, He Wants to Start All Over Again
That’s right, so many of the structures and institutions that give direction to my life are disappearing before my eyes. The Dean’s Scholars group, the classes, the internship, Tisch New Theatre – all have come to an end.
But for the past four years, every night was a chance to look back at the day behind me, review the possible mistakes I made and try to reinvent myself for the next day. I’m not sure there were very many days where I took that opportunity.
That’s what graduation feels like.
It’s late at night when I get the most anxious – when I realize that all of the plans and dreams I had for a given day did not come to fruition, that I accomplished very little and that, frankly, I regressed in many ways. And then I fight against the night to fix what I can before I run out of steam and energy. When I wake up in the morning, the world seems so full of opportunity and promise again. Energized by the potential of the day, I get a little giddy, and I goof around, leaving the work for just a little bit later, and I goof around some more – until it’s nighttime, and I realize that I let all of that opportunity and promise slip away. But that’s okay, because the next morning –
It’s true that there are wonderful things that await me. I get to live with two of my dearest friends this summer. I will continue working on my advanced film, a project I’m very proud of, and I will be faced with a few more opportunities, perhaps, to better my behavior in front of people I respect and admire.
Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Schmidt has planted nothing with his family – after his wife dies, he’s left to fend alone against his daughter and her fiancé. By the end of the film, Schmidt is alone. He has nobody left, and he has failed. His daughter marries the imbecile he so strongly urges her not to, and after the wedding, she’s gone, out of reach.
His wife is gone, too. He is mostly forgotten by his co-workers from his insurance office. “Relatively soon, I will die,” Schmidt writes to Ndugu. “Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.”
Yemane asked us to remember, as we go forward in life, that if we plant something small and expect nothing from it, it could very well end up being our salvation. You never know what is going to end up saving you, and it may very well come from the place you least expect.
The graduation speech I needed came from Yemane Demissie. But it also made me wonder, where or what is my Ndugu? I worry and struggle through so many strained relationships, but which are the ones that will come through in the end?
How many times I have felt just like Schmidt – my last-ditch ambitions foiled, forced to return home, disappointed and defeated, only to have my spirits lifted by the smallest and most unexpected source. However deluded my happiness – or Schmidt’s – might be, it’s what keeps me going.
And so I move forward into a world of uncertainty and anxiety. My expectations are unrealistically high, and hopefully I won’t be crushed with disappointment. I only wish I knew the identity of my Ndugu, so that I can keep my eyes open and my heart ready for whatever ends up being my salvation.
Monday, August 5, 2013
On Wednesday, February 13th, we started the new semester by celebrating Chinese New Year at Jing Fong restaurant in Chinatown. Only a few weeks later, on Wednesday, February 27th, we were invited to see Tisch alumnus Rajiv Joseph's excellent new play The North Pool with Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell at the Vineyard Theatre. Two years ago, our Scholars group saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway, starring Robin Williams, which was also written by Mr. Joseph. After the wonderful performance of The North Pool, we were treated to an excellent talkback with Mr. Joseph and the play's director, Giovanna Sardelli.
The Talent Identification Process is a process by which the Tisch School of the Arts seeks out high school students from all over the country who have excelled in the arts, but who may not have the financial means to attend Tisch.
The senior Dean's Scholars were invited because, as Cohen Scholarship recipients, our class was the first group of students to receive these scholarships through the Talent Identification Process. In this sense, we are the founding class of the Tisch Dean's Scholars program. Dean Campbell invited us to join her during her speech at the cocktail reception, which was such an honor. My friend Nicole Cobb prepared a wonderful speech about many of the outstanding aspects of the Dean's Scholars program, not the least of which was making it possible for all of us to attend NYU in the first place.
Over Spring Break, the Dean's Scholars took our first-ever out-of-town trip to Washington D.C. On Saturday, March 16th, we took the train from Grand Central Station to Washington's Union Station, where we had lunch together as a group. Soon after, we checked into our hotel rooms at the Westin, and I shared a room with Terrence Crawford, a fellow film student and good friend. In the afternoon, the Scholars group toured the NYU Washington D.C. campus, and then we enjoyed dinner at a great Thai restaurant.
On Monday, we went on a tour of the United States Capitol, which was really something else. Although I've visited Washington a few times, I had never visited many of these historic buildings, so I was very happy to be a bit of a tourist. After some quality time at the Capitol, we headed back to the Westin to pack our things, and then we were off to Union Station to return to Manhattan.
When we saw Death of a Salesman last year on Broadway, our administrators had said that we would likely get to have a talkback about the performance at some point with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who graduated from Tisch in 1989. We were very lucky to have that opportunity on Monday, April 22nd, which happened to fall right near the end of my senior thesis film shoot.
After a fantastic sixth day of shooting my advanced film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, the Tisch Dean's Scholars had an amazing talk with Mr. Hoffman. I asked Mr. Hoffman about what kind of adjustments are most helpful for him in between takes on a film set, and his answers to all of our questions - ranging from his working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson to his days as a student at NYU - were really honest and helpful for our group of young artists. His candid talk with us was one of the highlights of the past four years.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Blue Jasmine is writer/director Woody Allen’s best film since his incredible Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, this new film is closer to tragedy than comedy. Allen has made some extraordinary films in the past few years, including Midnight in Paris (for which he won an Academy Award), Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Blue Jasmine is the crowning achievement of his recent work.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, in one of the finest performances of the year) has lost everything – her husband (Alec Baldwin), an investment banker arrested for fraud; her wealth, including her Park Avenue mansion, taken by the government in the aftermath of the scandal; and her sanity. She arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, also amazing), telling a million lies to everyone in sight. The film hauntingly intercuts Jasmine in present-day San Francisco attempting to rebuild her life with scenes from her life as a wealthy New Yorker, almost as if we’re reliving her past with her.
At the same time, Jasmine is responsible for nearly everything that ends up destroying her, and watching her lose her mind, muttering to herself and reenacting moments from her past, is pretty devastating – especially since Allen gives us such a vivid sense of the darkness that consumed her perfect life in Manhattan. In a film full of characters who delude themselves into happiness, Jasmine is the least successful of them all.
The Spectacular Now features two of the most complex teenage characters I've ever seen in a film, played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in two of the year's best and most natural performances. Filmed largely in unbroken two-shots, which allow for performances built by posture and body language as much as they are by close-ups, this is a film full of scene after scene that does everything right – there isn’t a moment in the film that rings false.
Sutter (Miles Teller) is a semi-alcoholic underachiever who is the life of every high school party. His longtime girlfriend, the beautiful and popular Cassidy (Brie Larson), breaks up with him near the beginning of the film, and, drinking his sorrows away, Sutter wakes up one morning on the front lawn of wallflower Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The two start spending time together, despite not being part of the same crowd.
There’s a scene early on in the film in which Sutter takes Aimee to an outdoor party, attended by what you might call the more popular crowd (when offered a beer, Aimee says she doesn’t drink, and it’s clear that she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with this crowd at first).
As soon as they arrive at the party, Sutter looks across the crowd and sees Cassidy talking to her friends. As he instigates a conversation between Aimee and a few other people, his attention is focused squarely on Cassidy, who he still hopes to win back. Once Aimee is comfortably engaged in a conversation with the others, Sutter has done his job, so to speak, and he heads over to Cassidy, knowing from their online chat the previous evening that she’s still interested in him. Sutter and Cassidy talk and flirt a little bit, as Sutter seems certain that he is the master of his domain – he has not one but two potential romantic conquests at the party, and, for the time being, he can leave Aimee aside and focus on Cassidy.
Suddenly, Cassidy’s new boyfriend walks up to them, and asks her to leave the party. As Cassidy leaves with this new guy, Sutter is devastated. But he thinks, okay, no worries – I’ll just go to my back-up girl. But when he finds Aimee, she’s hitting it off with another young man! Sutter interrupts their conversation and asks Aimee to walk away with him.
His assumption – that Aimee is a fish out-of-water and will be lost at this party without him as her guide – backfires quickly. There is such an amazing power shift that occurs so naturally in this scene. Sutter feels that he has the power to pick and choose between his multiple romantic conquests, only to realize that he was deluding himself with his first option. So, he scrambles to the “back-up” girl – only to see that she has become engaged with someone else in the interim. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen scenes that understand the whims and anxieties of young people in ordinary but often overwhelmingly painful social settings so well.
There are many scenes in The Spectacular Now that similarly moved me. At their high-school graduation, Sutter and Cassidy have a conversation in the bleachers that evokes an indescribable kind of sadness. She’s not mad at him after their break-up and subsequent almost-getting-back-together – in fact, she jokes that he will always be her favorite ex-boyfriend. For Sutter, though, you almost get the sense that it would be less painful and easier for him to move on from Cassidy if she simply never wanted to speak to him again, and that would be it. But instead, it’s something a little more melancholy. She’ll remember him as kind of a joke – Oh, Sutter, that guy I once dated, he’s funny – and move forward with her life. As she leaves him standing alone in the bleachers, his graduation robe open, I felt an immense amount of sadness for these characters.
The film defies every expectation, never once following the expected path. In a lesser film, for instance, Aimee would try to get Sutter to stop drinking and perfect his behavior, but here, she actually starts drinking, too. She develops a dependency on alcohol and gets “worse,” in a sense (and, ultimately, Sutter realizes this and wants her to stay away from him, knowing that he’s bad news for her).
There’s also the expectation that Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will be tested by Sutter cheating on Aimee with Cassidy. Wrong again. The film instead presents a real impulse – at first, maybe Sutter does want to get back together with Cassidy, and Aimee is simply a temporary rebound relationship. We aren’t meant to judge Sutter because of that – the film presents this in an honest and understanding way. If he had his way in the beginning of the movie, he probably would forget about Aimee entirely and get back together with Cassidy. But the fact of the matter is, he can’t win her back. And, once he accepts that, he ends up falling in love with Aimee. You can think what you want about him, but, like an actual human being, Sutter is complex and has contradictory feelings about multiple people (The Spectacular Now allows every one of its characters to exist with these kinds of contradictions, just like this year’s Frances Ha and Before Midnight).
In perhaps the most powerful scene of the film, Sutter’s boss – who loves him as dearly as anyone else and turns a blind eye to his drinking habit – meets with Sutter in his office. The boss says he can only keep one employee at his store, and he wants Sutter to be his main employee. However, he asks Sutter to promise that he will not come to work under the influence of alcohol ever again. Sutter honestly tells him that he cannot make that promise, and you watch as the boss, who cares and loves Sutter deeply, wants to tell him to get it together, but he can’t – he’s not the young man’s father, and ultimately, he almost admires Sutter for his honesty. This is a tough scene. My heart breaks for both of these characters.
What works so well about all of these scenes is that we’re able to read the intentions and desires of each of these young people so clearly, as they try so hard to appear cool and act natural. The not-always-obvious social violence and exclusion that happens right before our eyes is articulated with such grace and complexity, and the oversimplification of social ostracization that occurs in even the best recent coming-of-age films (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is completely absent from this film.
I’m not mentioning the wonderful passages of the film that involve Sutter visiting his father (the great Kyle Chandler), but suffice to say that The Spectacular Now never missteps. The director is James Ponsoldt, and I'll be first in line for his next film.