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.

Advertisements

My September of Gerwig-Baumbach Movies

I have found a new spirit animal, and it is Greta Gerwig from this scene in Greenberg, the first of a trio of Gerwig-Noah Baumbach (all starring and sometimes co-written by her, and all directed by him) movies I have seen and loved in the month of September:

Because who among us has not danced and sung along to a Wings song while alone in her apartment.

Actually, the circumstances surrounding the Admiral Halsey dance are a little melancholy, and of the three films I’m thinking of (the other two being Mistress America and Frances Ha), Gerwig’s character in Greenberg is the one I saw the least of myself in. And yet, the film as a whole still fascinates me. All three of these films seem to have met me in perfect timing over the past few weeks.

I saw Mistress America first of the three, at the picture-perfect Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. I remember first seeing a preview for it when I saw Love and Mercy in June, and at the time I remember enjoying a couple of the lines and realizing, oh, that’s Greta Gerwig, the girl from Frances Ha and the forgotten How I Met Your Mother spin-off. Frances Ha came less than a week later. It was Sunday of Labor Day.

Together, those movies represented my current life phase better than any movies ever had. Never had two films spoken so articulately to the phase in which I found myself at the time of viewing them – Mistress America in a broad sense, and Frances Ha more in the specifics.

Since I saw Mistress America in theaters, I haven’t been able to go back and recall the exact wording of several lines that made my eyes widen in recognition. I’m stuck with the lines I typed furiously in a note on my phone as I left the theater, and with what I’ve been able to dig up from tumblr and trailers. But the overall feeling, of being a young person trying to figure it out in New York, resonated to my core. Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has a line (maybe several and I’m only remembering it as one) about how she loves so much, but none of what she loves or seems to be good at is something that the world, at least from a work perspective, finds valuable. I also identified with the characters of Tracy and Tony, two college freshmen, who realize they’re kind of the worst right now and just want to grow up, fit in, and be good at something.

And Brooke’s New York is the New York I think a lot of people glimpse and have in the back of their mind every time they dream of moving here. She lives in Times Square and gets by purely on her commitment to her artsy ideas. There’s a shot of Brooke and Tracy in the middle of Times Square one morning, parting for the day as any friends might outside an apartment building, and that image is stuck in my mind because it’s exactly how I first envisioned living here. Even the mundane things, like heading out for a morning gym class, happen against the big, bright backdrop of the city. As Brooke, and everyone else in New York eventually learns, this does not retain its glamour.

I’m making it sound like Mistress America drove me to an existential criss, but much of the film is great just because it’s enjoyable. Lines like, “If you live in suburbia, you really have to love your house,” (said by Tracy) simply made me laugh because that’s an idea that has crossed my mind as I’ve schlepped stuff from one apartment to the next in New York City. (In The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward.”)

A few days after seeing Mistress America, I decided to watch Frances Ha. I’d been meaning to watch it for months, since I knew it had been well-received, and I’d heard rave reviews from a movie-loving friend. Mistress America made me even more willing to dive in.

If I’m judging a movie based on how well it delivers what I most want out of a film, Frances Ha is as perfect as they come. Shot in black-and-white, set in New York City, insanely well-cast, highlighting people who are a little bit aimless…it’s all there.

It’s almost hard to find words for how well this movie depicts New York life in a specific way. I didn’t have quite the same ahhhh what am I even doing here?  feelings as I did with Mistress America, but had more moments of, oh, yes, I have experienced exactly that crappy or amazing thing while living in this city. Like waiting an eternity on the subway platform before realizing that line isn’t running this weekend. Or having your eyes bug out with excitement the instant you realize your tax rebate has come.

Greta Gerwig is from Sacramento, and the movie features a whole montage depicting Frances’ trip home for Christmas (her real-life parents play Frances’ parents). I have never seen the spirit of a holiday trip home from New York City shown in such a lovely way on film. Joy, family, fun, Christmas decorations, walks around the neighborhood, twinges of melancholy. I’m finding I want to end every sentence I write about this film with sigh, it’s perfect.

In the past year (and some change) in which I would say I’ve become legitimately interested in film, I’ve basically just followed movies from one to the next, going after whatever directors or actors or styles hold my obsession that moment. I can’t even remember why I first stumbled upon Greenberg, but something in my movie knowledge quest led me to it on Netflix awhile ago. I didn’t actually watch it until last week, completing my September Gerwig-Baumbach trifecta. This is actually the oldest of the three films I watched, and the only one set in Los Angeles. What I loved about it was less about how it connected to me – since I noticed fewer similarities between its characters and myself – and more about the movie as a whole and its specific performances. Like the aforementioned dancing to Admiral Halsey.

There’s an underlying uncomfortableness to it since Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s character, is so unpleasant. Even Greta Gerwig’s Florence has her difficult moments. But there’s a scene where she and Greenberg are talking in her apartment, and she’s describing a time she and her friend went out and pretended to be slutty girls at a bar, and Greta Gerwig in that scene just blew me away. (I came across this piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, written at the time of Greenberg‘s release, which eloquently describes the scene and the heart of Gerwig’s greatness in it.) It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Gerwig’s acting in the other two films, but in this one, it’s just more apparent, or at least it’s the element that most resonated with me.

It’s the end of September now, but not the end of my quest to see more of the Gerwig-Baumbach catalogue. I’ll have to shift to movies they did separately; I’m most excited to watch earlier Gerwig performances, and Baumbach’s While We’re Young (bonus points for even more Wings music in the trailer). But these three they did together have been added to heavy rotation in my movie world.

“Boy, Those Were the Days, Huh?”

Thanks to the @sorkinese Twitter account – one of the best there is – I learned today is the 15th anniversary of The West Wing’s premiere. Sam, Toby, CJ, Leo, Josh, Bartlet, et al entered America’s living rooms on September 22, 1999. The show has only been part of my world for the last 18 months, but nonetheless, I celebrate its beginnings because I like thinking of people watching the show in real time, in an age when Toby’s airplane phone and Sam’s pager were actually technological marvels.

I know anniversaries are completely arbitrary, and why should we celebrate the 15th over the 14th or the 9th or the 37th or whatever. But since basically any day is an excuse for me to celebrate this show, I’ll do it today, too.

As someone with plenty of TV/movie/culture obsessions, I think a lot about what makes something an obsession versus just something I simply enjoy. I enjoy How I Met Your Mother. I am obsessed with The West Wing. Why is that? Sometimes I can barely make it through the first episode of something. Other times, I can just feel it, five minutes in. I am going to spend a lot of time with these characters.

It may not have been five minutes in for me with The West Wing, but I remember watching the pilot for the first time and when the President makes his entrance…I just knew. What was this show! He comes in with just a few minutes left in the episode. The whole time, you’ve been hearing about him – POTUS in bicycle accident? – but you don’t see him until much later. And the thing is, you don’t even notice! You’ve been swept away by all sorts of other stories. And then…oh, yeah. The President.

And it all comes together. This would not be the last impassioned Bartlet speech that brings the rest of his staff to its senses. It would not be his last cry against religious fanaticism. But it was his first entrance, and it was a great one.

As I went deeper into the show, characters other than President Bartlet became my favorite, but in my mind, that first episode is all about him (though Toby delivers some of his finest shouting in that first episode).

So happy birthday, West Wing. I do The Jackal in your honor.