Movie Meditations from a TIFF Newbie

The moment I caught “festival fever” at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend came Saturday at 8:00pm. My boyfriend and I darted out of a 6:00 showing of I, Tonya to start a 15-minute sprint through downtown to line up for an 8:45 screening of Lady Bird, my most anticipated movie of the festival. We knew we were cutting it close; we’d make it by 8:45, but with first-come, first-served seating, we weren’t setting ourselves up for the best seat in the house.

Of course, I anticipated a line. We’d been queued up for I, Tonya, but were only waiting at the corner of the block the theater was on. We stood in a long line earlier in the day for Downsizing, but had reserved seats that time. When we arrived at the Elgin Theatre for Lady Bird, we had our first taste of the true magnitude of the festival. The line stretched up a block, then over a couple more, then up again. Festival volunteers stood in crosswalks to ensure safe everyone’s safe passage.

That’s when the magic sunk in. This line might go on forever. But it’s filled entirely with people who love movies. People who think it’s kind of amazing to be among the first to see Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. People who probably think about Frances Ha as many times a day as I do. People who care whether Laurie Metcalf might get an Oscar nomination for this movie. And we’re all right here, under city lights, experiencing it together.

Lady Bird may not have ended up being my favorite film from the weekend (though I still loved it), but running through downtown Toronto, chasing down the end of the line, will be the memory that encapsulates this TIFF experience.

The TIFF experience began on something of a whim, when the lineup was released in late July and I saw lots of films on the schedule that I’d already heard some buzz about. I knew nothing about the logistics of attending the festival or how accessible it was for the everyday viewer, but did a little Googling and discovered the festival offered a back-half package which allowed you to see any six films in the final days of the festival for $100 Canadian dollars ($85 U.S.!). That ended up being the perfect option. The first weekend, I figured, would be more crowded and more expensive; going later also fit more comfortably with my work schedule this time of year.

It was surprisingly easy to talk Timmy into going with me (this also perfectly coincided with his discovery of the Letterboxd app, which has turned him into quite the movie fan), so we found an Airbnb that seemed close to the action and bit the bullet. A friend’s roommate also tipped us off to Porter airlines, which flies smaller planes from Newark to Billy Bishop Airport, which exists on an island that’s just minutes from Toronto’s downtown. The novelty (and convenience) factor of this urban airport has not worn off for me. And Porter has a really cute raccoon logo.

Back to the movies.

Our window for selecting movies came at the end of August. We decided to select four in advance, meaning we left two of our tickets as “vouchers” that we could exchange for tickets once we got to Toronto – allowing us a little wiggle room with our schedule, and the chance to capitalize on any last-minute screenings that might be added.

We pre-selected Downsizing, the new Alexander Payne movie starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig; I, Tonya, the Tonya Harding biopic with Margot Robbie in the title role; Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and many others who will pop up on screen and make you go “oh yeah, I love him/her”; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s new film starring Frances McDormand.

Saturday morning, upon the recommendation of a local podcaster we struck up conversation with, we added Sheikh Jackson, directed by Amr Salama and just recently named Egypt’s official submission for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. So we ended up seeing five of our possible six films, and gifted our vouchers to a couple guys sitting near us at our Saturday screenings, hoping they could use them Sunday.

Though I enjoyed some of our selections more than others, I can honestly say we did not see one bad film. All five of them were entertaining in their own ways, and I’d recommend all of them to any adventurous moviegoer.

I’ll leave the full reviews to the real critics, but I certainly walked away with impressions. I, Tonya wins my award for most engaging – not to say I was bored by the other movies, but that one had me locked in the whole time. Part of that was its being set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (I never expected to hear the words “Clackamas County” spoken in a TIFF movie), and Tonya Harding having been something of a local figure throughout my childhood. So there was a base layer of familiarity. But more than that, it was Margot Robbie. Her performance was committed and captivating. I could never tell if I was rooting for or against Tonya Harding, which says to me that Robbie made her a real person – sympathetic in one moment, exasperating in the next, complicated all the time. She really shone in the skating competition sequences. The shot of Tonya as she lands the triple axel jump, her arms open wide in victory and adrenaline, was gorgeous. I’d pay to see the movie in theaters just to watch that again.

I’ve been more down on Lady Bird as the days have gone on, but that’s unfair of me. I wanted it to be the next Frances Ha or Mistress America – movies that resonated with me deeply and that reflect life as a young adult in New York so beautifully. But Lady Bird isn’t about an adult in New York; it’s about a high school senior in Sacramento. And it tells an equally beautiful story about how complicated family relationships can be. I also thought it did a great job of capturing the specific weirdness of “senior year,” knowing it’s the last few months under your parents’ roof, in your own room, and among faces you’ve known your whole life.

The more I’ve thought about the movie, something I think it captured perfectly was the way family members don’t (or can’t, or don’t want to) address issues with each other head-on. In order to figure out her mom, Ronan’s character goes through her dad (Metcalf and Letts were aces as her parents). It’s her brother who has to tell her that mom’s disappointed she chose to go to her boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t pick up on that as I watched the film, but that dynamic added a layer of truth and believability to the portrayal of a middle-class American family.

While the mother-daughter relationship in Lady Bird resonated with me, Timmy connected with the father-son dynamic in Sheikh Jackson, which focused heavily on an Egyptian imam’s trying relationship with his dad during his teenage years (told largely through flashbacks). We starting drawing these connections on Sunday afternoon, when we walked through Toronto’s downtown entertainment district to Lake Ontario, between the Sheik Jackson and Three Billboards showings. Having that space to reflect on the films, to talk through more than just our snap judgments, was something I loved about our TIFF experience. At home, it’s easy to see a movie just for something to do, or we see one and rush off to dinner afterwards. Movies were our primary reason for being in Toronto in the first place, so we enjoyed being able to discuss each one in-depth, and view them all in light of each other.

Just a couple hours before we saw Three Billboards, it was named the winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award. Eight of the last nine winners have gone on to be Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and I predict this one will make it nine out of ten. It tells such a compelling, original story, and is chock-full of indelible performance. Frances McDormand stars in a role that echoes – but doesn’t imitate – Marge Gunderson from Fargo; Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination for his part as a cop who squares off with McDormand; and Peter Dinklage, though I think his role is too small for major awards consideration, delivered a line that had me (and the entire theater) howling and that still makes me smile while thinking about it a week later.

I loved Three Billboards because it’s one of those movies that keeps getting better as it goes on. At the beginning, you’re intrigued. As it progresses, it still holds your attention. And then somewhere in the middle, you realize. Oh, this is great. These are completely new characters in a completely new story, I’m invested in everyone’s fate, and the plot makes sense but I can’t tell where it’s going. I think this one will get a lot of attention in its wide release.

TIFF was a unique experience and one I hope to repeat next year and in years to come. It reminded me why I love movies – and why so many thousands of others love them, too. And since TIFF unofficially marks the beginning of fall moviegoing and awards season, I’m ready to catch up on the buzzy films I missed at the festival and start seeing the movies we’ll be talking about for the next five months during the Oscar race. There’s so much to be seen, and I can’t wait to start.

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In The Presence of an Icon (Or, “That Night I Waited Five Hours for Tickets to See Bette Midler on Broadway”)

At 4am Saturday, my alarm rang. By 4:45, I (along with my boyfriend, a saint) was sitting in Shubert Alley with the seven others already in line. Our mission? Secure standing room tickets to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! that night.

At 10am, the box office opened. We each walked away with two SRO tickets.

At 8pm, the overture began. At 8:10 or so, Bette Midler appeared onstage, and one of the greatest nights of theater I’ve ever experienced took off.

Some background on why this was such an early wakeup call:

Months ago, I came to terms with the fact that I was only going to see Hello, Dolly! by a great stroke of luck or by suddenly coming into wealth. Once the Tony nominations were announced Tuesday and the show racked up ten nods, my determination to see the show was renewed and I took luck into my own hands. I researched the cheap ticket situation (no rush or lottery, but $47 for SRO). Going off the advice of a kind stranger on Twitter (whose tweets appeared when I searched “hello dolly standing room”), I decided to wake up (very) early Saturday, head down to the box office, and see what I could do.

A brief aside to sing the praises of my boyfriend: Not only did he wake up at 4am and sit with me for every minute of our 5-hour wait for the box office to open – he also brought camping chairs so we each had a real seat. But that’s not all. Since each person can purchase up to two SRO tickets, he snagged a pair, but instead of going to the show himself, he bequeathed them to my theater-obsessed coworkers (my roommate took the fourth ticket). Yes, I know, he’s the best person ever.

Seven people were already in line when we arrived, but given what my Twitter friend had told me (he assumed 15-18 SRO per show), and knowing they would be selling for both matinee and evening, I felt good about our chances. Five hours later, we emerged victorious.

Ok, now for Bette.

I honestly had no idea what I was in for. I mean, I kind of did, because it’s an icon in an iconic musical role. But what I didn’t understand until reading the Playbill is that she really hasn’t been on Broadway much (before 2013, it had been 40 years), and that this is her first huge, headlining musical on Broadway ever.

The first time she appears onstage, she’s disguised; she and two other actresses ride out on a carriage, their faces buried in newspapers. One by one, they drop the papers into their laps, and when you see that third face is Bette Midler’s, some crazy musical theater reflex is activated and you start clapping without even realizing it.

The clapping never really stops. Actually, it even goes beyond clapping; in some cases, it was full-on arm-waving, as if the person expected her to notice, stop and point, and proclaim, “Yes, I love you, too.” She may as well have done just that; the electricity in that audience never waned. David Rooney’s review in The Hollywood Reporter puts it perfectly: “Midler soaks [the enthusiasm] up like a heat-seeking beacon and then beams it right back out into the house.”

If simply being in Bette Midler’s presence was the best part, I still would have walked away happy. But more than that, she was also fantastic in the role. I loved hearing her sing, watching her dance and ham it up for the audience.

Every other element of the production was fantastic, too. It reminded me why I love classic musicals. As I’ve become a more knowledgeable theatergoer, I’ve discovered the joy of those that are more outside the box, too – Dear Evan Hansen, or, yes, even Hamilton – but seeing Hello, Dolly!, with its stage awash in colorful costumes, its songs catchy and classic, the whole thing borderline cheesy, I was reminded why I love standard musicals. I didn’t grow up with much attachment to Hello, Dolly! in particular, but it reminded me of the shows that first drew me to a love of musical theater.

I will admit to being bummed when we learned David Hyde Pierce’s understudy would be on that night as Horace Vandergelder. Next to Bette, he was a big reason I wanted to see the show (because, Niles Crane, hello). But Michael McCormick, who performed that night, didn’t seem to miss a beat, and played Vandergelder as the character I knew him to be; he had a gruffness that I almost couldn’t imagine in David Hyde Pierce.

The man standing next to me during the show had also seen the show a few nights earlier, with Pierce. He said he was also terrific, but McCormick wasn’t leaving anything to be desired. (And for the record, this man I spoke with was visiting NYC, had purchased his earlier tickets well in advance, but loved the show so much that he decided to tough it out in the standing room line for another chance.)

Gavin Creel, who played Vandergelder’s employee, Cornelius Hackl, was the great discovery for me. He’s been in tons of shows, but I’d never seen him before, and I absolutely loved him. It was when he started singing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” that I realized there was much more to this show than just Bette Midler.

And yet, there still was Bette Midler. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, I’m kind of excited to thumb through my old Playbills someday and think about how lucky I was to collide with this show, with that star.

Then I’ll remember I only secured the tickets because I spent five hours in the middle of the night waiting in line. So I wasn’t just lucky; I had to work for I, too. I hesitate to say I’d do it again, because Saturday night was such a purely lovely theater experience (and because no one should lose that much sleep on a weekend). But I’m so glad I did it once.

“Brooklyn” and Reinvention

In keeping with my previously stated goal of keeping better track of all that inspires me in 2016, I’m sitting here to meditate on a beautiful piece of writing I encountered today: “Bronx, Brooklyn, Broadway: Saoirse Ronan’s New York,” by Colm Tóibín, who also authored Brooklyn, the novel upon which the Ronan-starring film is based. The piece is the cover story for the current issue of New York magazine, its annual spring fashion issue. I love Saoirse Ronan, but it wasn’t her as the subject that made me love this; it was Tóibín’s turns of phrase, his perfect articulation of what it’s like to reinvent yourself, and his understanding of why you’d want to in the first place.

One of my favorite elements of the movie Brooklyn, which I saw a couple weekends ago, was that it understood homesickness in a very real way. I have not moved between countries, but I moved from Oregon to New York at a key transitional point in life – right after I graduated from college and entered the quote-unquote real world – and I identified so strongly with Ronan’s character, Eilis, as she left Ireland for Brooklyn and began a new life. I have cried like Eilis cried in the movie, felt the same hopelessness and wondered why I ever did this. But I’ve also made friends, started a career and built a life in this new place, and felt with unshakeable certainty that this is where I am meant to exist right now.

In the article, Tóibín describes Ronan (in comparison with her Brooklyn character) “as someone familiar with rural Ireland who was also intensely glamorous and ready to be transformed.” That phrase “ready to be transformed” leapt out at me. My transformation has been less a physical transformation than one of attitude, one of thought. I have changed since moving to New York in ways I did not expect, but the more I thought about Tóibín’s words, the more they rang true. The expectation of some kind of transformation was inherent in my longstanding desire to move to New York.

The strangest parts of being home are those subtle moments when I realize how much I’ve changed. I’ll notice moments when I say something, or react to a comment, or take an action that makes so much perfect sense to me now, that I only realize later how out-of-character that would have been for the pre-New York me.

I left the theater after Brooklyn concentrated on one shot: Eilis, briefly back in Ireland following a family tragedy, running errands around her sleepy town in a bright dress and sunglasses. It embodied the transformation she’d undergone in Brooklyn; not just that she now wore sunglasses, but that it was only natural for her to wear them in public, even in rural Ireland.

saoirse ronan brooklyn sunglasses

I’ve thought about that shot for days. In the context of the film, it says more about homesickness and reinvention than I ever could with words, and I grinned when I got to the end of Tóibín’s New York magazine story and saw he referenced it:

Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank…ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.

I’m still working on the literal style part of my transformation (I do think I dress better than I did in college, though when I made this observation to some friends I visited at home over Christmas, I realized I was wearing a plaid Gap button-down technically made for men) but in the broader sense, this is exactly what I experience any time I’m home, or when I’m in New York and stop to think about how I am different because of this city.

The Tóibín piece can be enjoyed apart from deep reflection on self-reinvention, though. His turns of phrase alone are a joy to read. A few of my favorite parts:

On observing people like a childhood neighbor in Ireland, who emigrated to America but would come back to visit: “They had white teeth and good suntans. They thought life was short.”

On the specific childhood neighbor, compared with her sister who moved from Ireland to England: “The American sister, on the other hand, was all glitter and fascinating talk.”

On the realization Irish immigrants to America had when fully understanding their freedom in the new country – no family members to bump into on the street, etc.: “You could invent yourself here, even if the term self-invention was not yet understood by you.”

On Saoirse Ronan in this moment: “She has come home to a place that is neither Brooklyn nor Ireland but rather a place that she herself has imagined and embodies.”

And more on Saoirse: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

Read the whole thing yourself, and enjoy. And see Brooklyn while you’re at it.

Multi-Movie Weekend – Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor

Thanks to a vicious head cold, I left work early on Friday and spent the next, say, 53 hours on my couch or on my bed, consuming a steady diet of chicken broth, television, Sudafed, and movies. The movies were especially enjoyable; I watched three, all connected in a way, and they gave me my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Early this summer, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Anderson, which was released in January of this year when he was promoting Inherent Vice. At the time I was intrigued by Inherent Vice (still haven’t seen it) and as far as Anderson’s works go, had only seen part of The Master. But the interview was fascinating. Anderson seemed cool, smart, and thoughtful, and was really open about his movies, his process and his inspirations.

My first Anderson movie of the weekend was Magnolia. I wish I could remember the first time I heard of Magnolia but I can’t; I’m guessing it was on Jason Robards’ Wikipedia page. I remember thinking, though, that I had never even heard of this movie, yet Ebert named it to his “Great Movies” list, and it featured tons of actors I love, and it was Robards’ last film. Those all felt like reasons to see it someday.

I can’t say I am putting it on my personal Top 10, but there was something about Magnolia I really appreciated. It was different from any movie I’ve ever seen, and it was a story told honestly. The characters – and in turn, the performances – are great. It’s interesting to watch with hindsight and know it was Robards’ final role. Honestly, I probably need to process it more before I make any serious judgments or interpretations, but I at least like knowing that I have finally seen this film.

One of the great performances in Magnolia is by Philip Baker Hall, and he inspired my next movie choice: Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. Hall stars in it. In his first scene in Magnolia, I wasn’t sure who he was, but his voice instantly caught me. He has a great voice; fitting for his character, who’s a TV game show host. I searched his name and remembered Anderson talking about him in the Maron podcast. He knew after seeing him in Secret Honor (spoiler alert: the third movie I watched this weekend) that he loved him as an actor and wanted to write something for him.

Like Magnolia, this one is all about the characters. Sydney, Hall’s character, is magnetic. You wonder about him, and root for him, and love listening to him talk. I think he’s especially great in scenes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s fantastic in this movie as a waitress at a casino Sydney frequents.

Hard Eight contained a whole bunch of elements I am prone to love – fabulous characters and performances, a plot that is about something but the movie’s not really about that, lights (the fact that I love cool use of lights in movies actually dawned on me during this film; like Michael Keaton walking into the liquor store in Birdman, and The Big Lebowski‘s bowling alley stars – in Hard Eight I loved the glimmer of slot machines), and music that fit perfectly. And, the dialogue – John C. Reilly especially had some lines that made his character clear to me. “I know three types of karate, ok? Jiu-jitsu, Akido, and regular karate.”

And the last movie, Secret Honor. It’s a Robert Altman movie from 1984, with Philip Baker Hall in a solo performance as Richard Nixon. I mean, come on! It’s the movie Anderson mentioned as one in which he saw Hall and knew he was for him. He had to make something for him, and he wrote the Sydney character in Hard Eight specifically with him in mind.

Secret Honor is Hall, as Nixon, walking around his study, drinking scotch, ranting about everything from JFK to Kissinger to his mother. It’s wacky. Hall gives an incredible performance, and not just because he carries a 90-minute one man show and keeps it interesting the whole time. From what I’ve read about Nixon, he gets the mannerisms down perfectly; one moment early on, he pours a glass of scotch, but starts walking off with the bottle instead of the glass, absentmindedly. That’s one small example, but it showed he knew the character.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film – or rather, the overarching reason I found it so fascinating – was a screen before the title, a disclaimer of sorts, explaining the film did not depict an actual scene from Nixon’s life, but was “a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” The film doesn’t spare Nixon, exactly, but it comes from a sympathetic place. Altman and the writers didn’t make anything up in an attempt to indict Nixon; they just wanted to understand him better, and this film and this performance seem an appropriate way to do so.

MagnoliaHard Eight, and Secret Honor – I recommend them all. And hope you watch them in good health.

Movie Appreciation: Amadeus

I guess I’m kind of revealing my own personal Internet secret here, but for over two years now, I’ve had a tumblr that I use expressly for my pop culture obsessions. It started as a home for pictures of New York and the Beatles but morphed into something more when I started caring about movies. I didn’t want to put my name on it and a 49ers game was on TV when I decided to make it, so I threw “harbaugh” in the username, and added 71 because 7/1 is my birthday.

The posts are mostly expressions of whatever’s in my head, an overflow of the moments and quotes and scenes that fill my mind. Looking at the first page of my tumblr this morning, I thought the three most recent posts were an especially good representation of three movies that have lately had an affect on me: Silver Linings Playbook (I’m pretty much always watching that movie but I went to Philadelphia yesterday and had it playing in my mind all day), Amadeus, and Some Like it Hot. And because it’s Sunday and I want nothing more than to sit on my bed with a cup of coffee and write while looking out my window across a sunny New York City, I’m just going to start writing appreciations of those three movies. First, Amadeus.

Amadeus floated to the top of my mind because it was just added to Netflix. When I wanted to watch it for the first time a couple months ago, I ended up buying it on iTunes because, to my knowledge, it wasn’t streamable or rentable. But somehow watching a movie on Netflix seems easier and more accessible than watching a movie I already own.

It quickly became one of those easy-to-watch movies for me, where you just know and love it so well that you can pick up at any place, have it on in the background while doing other stuff and not miss anything (actually, Silver Linings Playbook and Some Like it Hot are like that for me, too, which is probably why I feel the urge to write about them).

I started retracing my steps to remember how I decided to watch it in the first place. It started in January, when I re-watched The Grand Budapest Hotel in preparation for awards season. I like that movie a lot, and who doesn’t love Ralph Fiennes, but the whole beginning part, set in the 60s with Jude Law as the young author, is my favorite part. And I’d forgotten that the whole movie is basically presented as a story told by F. Murray Abraham’s character.

He doesn’t have much screen time, but there was something I liked about Abraham in the film, so I went down my usual Google/IMDb rabbit trail and found that he had won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985 for his performance in Amadeus. At that point, the only way I knew about Amadeus was from a 30 Rock joke – when Tracy briefly lives with Liz and she gets mad at him for charging pay-per-view adult movies to her cable bill, she asks about a movie called “I’ma Do Us” and Tracy replies, “It’s a pun on Amadeus, dummy!” I knew that was a movie and I guess I assumed it was about Mozart, but truly – that was the only way Amadeus ever entered my consciousness before a couple months ago.

[SIDE NOTE: I just Googled “30 Rock Amadeus” to confirm that line, and learned there is AN ENTIRE AMADEUS SUBPLOT in the episode “Succession,” from season 2. So of course I just sat here and watched the whole episode. Fitting for a Tracy and Frank storyline, it again involves adult films, with Tracy as Mozart and Frank as Salieri as they attempt to create a pornographic video game. I’d never watched that episode with the context of Amadeus, so obviously the parody was completely lost on me until now. Just another layer of that show’s brilliance.]

Where was I? Oh, the actual movie. I watched it after learning F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his performance, and I loved it right away. It was totally different from what I expected, and totally unlike anything else I’d seen. I assumed it was a boring biography movie. I wasn’t expecting Mozart to be portrayed as a disruptive, punk-ish revolutionary who wore pink wigs and had a ridiculous laugh.

But that’s what I love about it. In this movie, Mozart is the Beatles, basically. No one knows what to do with him, or how to accept this totally revolutionary force. He doesn’t act like anyone else and he doesn’t make music like anyone else. He is completely original and effortlessly brilliant.(Roger Ebert named this to his “Great Movies” list, and the Jordan-to-Barkley, Kennedy-to-Nixon comparisons he makes with Mozart and Salieri really helped me understand Mozart’s creative power.)

I think this scene, from early in the film, is a perfect illustration:

 

I didn’t really think much of it in my first viewing, but I’ve been watching pieces on Netflix over the last couple days and am now head-over-heels in love with the colorful wigs. Mozart’s, of course:

mozart pink wig

But also Constanze, his wife, who – and maybe it’s just the way it looks with her outfit – wears a colorful look of her own.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.04.54 PM

F. Murray Abraham won the Oscar, and I wholeheartedly think he deserved it, but Tom Hulce was nominated as Mozart, and his performance is probably my favorite of the two. Well, actually, it’s probably more that Mozart is my favorite character. They’re both insane performances. Watching Amadeus is probably the first time I’d consciously realized that the film was great because the performances were great. With any other actors, it would have been different, and…less great.

At the height of my obsession with the film, I watched a feature called “The Making of Amadeus.” Typical DVD bonus stuff, like behind-the-scenes photos, interviews with Milos Forman, the actors, etc. The most interesting part is the discussion of casting, especially when Forman talks about casting the smaller roles, and how it was important for all those actors to be distinct. He said it drove him crazy when you couldn’t tell minor characters apart in a film. I totally agree. (Other best part of that feature: Forman talking about his decision to shoot in Prague, saying it was perfect because the city still looked exactly the way it did in Mozart’s time thanks to “communist inefficiency.”)

One other major thing I love about this movie is how the characters speak in totally modern, Americanized English, using contractions and phrases like “they shit marble.” Of course they didn’t actually speak like that, but who cares? It’s the best way to convey the essence of the characters and their time.

There are a million other aspects to this movie I adore, but a lot of them are subtleties in performance that are hard to put into words. It should also go without saying that the music is fantastic, too. The whole thing is big, colorful, perfectly acted, and a pure joy to watch.

Feeling Sad About Robin Williams

I didn’t expect to feel like this, but the news of Robin Williams’ death has gutted me. I still can’t exactly put my finger on why. It’s partly because everyone knows him. (At some point in your life, you’ve laughed at something Robin Williams did. And now he’s gone. No new laughs.) It’s partly because someone who made us all laugh was, at the same time, facing such a scary set of demons.

The root of my sadness, though, might be my realization that Robin Williams’ genius and talent was wasted on me. I’ve been reading and watching a lot about Williams in the last 24 hours, and nothing has articulated my feelings better than this Deadspin piece by film critic Tim Grierson – well, maybe it didn’t so much articulate what I felt as it did expose the true reason I was heartbroken.

Grierson’s larger point was that he regretted ever being disappointed in Williams for doing movies like Flubber and Patch Adams, and that he didn’t appreciate until after the actor died how “different audiences loved him for different things.” “Now,” he says, “I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.” Perhaps my personal disappointment stems more from the fact that I never paid Robin Williams much attention at all – though he was one of those actors who always lurk in the back of your mind, who are present enough that you never see them and wonder, “huh, wonder where he’s been for 10 years” – and that now I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be anything else. I never appreciated the genius at the height of his craft.

But even though I hadn’t seen enough of his movies or watched much of his stand-up, I (and everyone else) knew Robin Williams was a thing. He was famous. He was important. He was not a niche celebrity. The piece I’ve read since his death that best articulates his cultural importance is comedian Chris Gethard’s story about doing improv with Williams one night at UCB. He makes the most perfect illustrations and comparisons to describe what Robin Williams meant to this world.

He talked about how he and his friends would pretend to sleep while their parents watched Williams do stand-up. “…and we laughed even though we didn’t know why he sweated so much or moved so fast or referenced a thing called cocaine so often.”

I know it wasn’t Robin Williams stand-up, but I have a very specific memory of doing the exact same thing once when my parents were watching Letterman – we were in a hotel room on vacation, I was probably ten years old, and had my eyes closed while trying to stifle laughs about jokes I didn’t really get but still knew were hilarious. That illustration made sense to me. Robin Williams was that funny.

This analogy – Robin Williams is to comedy as Chuck Berry is to rock and roll – struck a chord with me, too (pardon the French):

To a crowd that loves improv, Robin Williams is like Chuck Berry. For a lot of them he is a little dated, or a guy their parents liked, or someone that they’ve heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best — but when you listen to his solos and his spirit and his energy, there is no denying that he is rock and fucking roll.

 

Robin Williams is comedy, but he is also, in his own shy way, rock and fucking roll.

“Heard the legend of but maybe never knew at his best.” I know Robin Williams fifty times better today than I did when I first heard of his death. It all makes me sad. But I’m grateful for the words of others who articulated why losing him hurts so badly.