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.

Becoming a Movie Person

Before 2013, I never would have considered myself a “movie person.” I used to say I’d rather watch the same ten movies on repeat than try something new. Movies seemed like such a big time commitment. Two hours?! At least with a TV show, you could quickly move on to something else if you didn’t like it. You had a beginning, middle and end in less than 30 minutes. Movies seemed to drag.

But over the past year and a half, I’ve come to love them. I think a lot of that has to do with Roger Ebert’s reviews, which have become my favorite pieces of writing because they approach movies as agents for unpacking truths about people and how the world works. Sometimes I wonder if Ebert uncovered subtleties in a performance, or nuances to a film’s meaning, that not even its own actors and directors noticed or intended.

The review that sparked my Ebert obsession was his piece on Lost in TranslationAfter seeing it for the first time, I knew I liked it, but didn’t completely understand it. I couldn’t articulate why I liked it. It turns out all the reasons were sitting in that review. I remember reading a sentence about the special bond strangers share and thinking, Yes. This is exactly how real life works: “We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.” That is a beautiful way to phrase a spot-on observation of the way humans operate. 

His second piece on the film, from 2010 when he named it a “Great Movie,” is even better. It makes the movie make sense. And, it opened my eyes to the brilliance of Bill Murray: “Without [Murray’s acting], the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away.” I knew Bill Murray was good, but this piece made me realize how good, and how his performance was essential to the success of Lost in Translation (which I’ve now probably watched about 50 times, and have grown more in awe of with each viewing). 

While I have tons of movies to see before I can reasonably be considered knowledgeable about film, I am consciously trying to become a smarter movie-watcher. Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled “Advice to Young Critics” that I’m now using as a guide for watching films critically and understanding how to write about them.

The article could really be titled “Advice to Writers in General,” but it talks about writing in the context of film criticism. His most convicting piece of advice? “Write for at least two hours a day, even if you don’t publish what you write.” He explains, “If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don’t really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.” 

The more warm-and-fuzzy advice was to voraciously consume movies and TV (or media of any kind), and to write down any thought you have while watching a movie. You never know what trail of thought it will lead to, or what inspiration it will spark.

My attitude toward movies has changed from “ugh why do I have to watch this can’t I just watch four 30 Rock episodes instead” to “this could be good, maybe great, and at the very least, I’m broadening my pop culture horizons.” At this point, there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I’m watching. My typical movie-watching strategy is to work my way through an actor’s catalogue after I randomly become obsessed with him (right now, the actor is Jack Nicholson), and watch only his works until I develop a new obsession. I should probably conquer some type of “best-ever” list, with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, et al, but right now I’m just trying to take away as much as I can from any films that cross my path.

Obligatory New Year’s Post

One of my perennial New Year’s resolutions is to “blog more.” I never make it specific enough to really get motivated, so my goal for 2014 is to develop more of the thoughts I have for posts and stop leaving so many in my drafts folder. Ideas spring to mind at all hours of the day, and I want to get better at acting on that motivation.

I did leave a ton of half-formed “end-of-2013” posts sitting as drafts, but in the spirit of writing more and wrapping up the last 365 days, here’s a quick look back at some of the highlights and notable obsessions.

I’ll start with the most recent event: A ten-day trip home to Portland for Christmas. I’ve been back in New York for a couple days now, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how that trip helped me hit the restart button. It was rejuvenating to step out of the everyday routine, have a change of scenery, and rekindle friendships that are hard to maintain when living on the other side of the country.

Looking at the year as a whole, I’ve now completed my first full year of life after college – and my first one settled in a full-time job. I had a lot to learn about the post-college world in general, and specifically about the post-college world in New York City, but definitely feel like I’ve found my feet in a way I hadn’t thought possible when I first moved here.

On a lighter note, I’ve discovered and indulged a few new passions/obsessions this year, including movies and movie criticism. I’d never been much of a movie person before, but discovered a love for watching movies and reading reviews that place the film and its message in the larger context of society. This is due in large part to rediscovering Roger Ebert’s brilliance (I’m sad to say it took his death in April for me to remember how much I love his writing), and listening to Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday‘s weekly review segments on the Tony Kornheiser Show. Of the films I saw for the first time in 2013 (both brand-new releases in theaters and new-to-me films on Netflix/DVD), favorites include American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, Fargo, Up in the Air and The Royal Tenenbaums. 

Staying in the media vein, I discovered The West Wing this year, which changed my life a little. I don’t even care if that sounds dramatic! It’s the best show I’ve ever seen and it helped me understand a lot about the American political process. Educational value aside, it’s brilliantly written and structured, with deep character development that leads you to love even the most insufferable characters (except Mandy – she’s unlovable). I have fallen especially hard for Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications director, who proved with this rant that he is my spirit animal.

It was also wonderful having my sister in NYC over the summer, and I loved traveling to Philadelphia, Boston, Orlando and Portland over the course of the year. So many of the moments that made 2013 great would seem silly if I tried to explain them, but little things like a great night out with new friends or a funny text from an old friend gave the year even more character.

As far as 2014 goes, I have a few resolutions – but again, nothing really specific. I’d like to travel abroad (hopefully to London) and milk even more out of my time living in NYC. I’ve also been saying for years that my dream is to write a novel. At the moment, I’m pretty thin on ideas, but maybe I’ll start piecing it together in the next twelve months. 

Who knows where the next 365 days will lead, but here’s to a fresh start.

Hey, Beantown

This past weekend, I finally made it up to Boston to visit one of my good friends from the UO, Kate, and her husband, TJ. Kate and TJ moved to Boston not long after they were married last March and I had yet to visit and see their place. Semi-spontaneously, I left after work on Friday, and we spent the weekend exploring New England, walking all over Boston, shopping at outlet malls, eating cupcakes and watching Arrested Development.

rockport massTheir apartment is in Everett, a northern suburb of Boston. They live five minutes from a station on the Orange line of the T, but also have their car, which we took advantage of on Saturday. We wound our way up the Massachusetts coast (stopping in Cape Ann, Rockport, Newburyport, and a couple other beaches whose names I don’t remember) to New Hampshire and Maine.

Setting foot in all 50 states has been a longtime goal of mine, so I loved getting to check two more off the list, especially two that seemed unattainable while living in Oregon.

New state, New Hampshire

New state, New Hampshire

We didn’t go too far into Maine, only stopping at an outlet mall in Kittery, but we made it! Driving back directly from Kittery to Everett only took about an hour.

On Sunday, after spending the morning in our pajamas and spending some quality time with the Bluth family, Kate and I went into downtown Boston and visited the Harvard campus (including the Harvard Coop bookstore, my new favorite place in the world), the Beacon Hill neighborhood, the Boston Public Garden and shops on Newbury Street.

It was a treat to have my friend as my tour guide, and her ability to show me around a city she’d known for less than a year was a testament to how much she’d embraced the change of pace from Eugene and Portland. In the past year, Kate and I have both moved our lives completely across the country, and I cannot describe how much I valued the chance to talk about that transition with someone who not only moved from the West Coast to the East Coast (I’ve met plenty of people who’ve done that), but who understood the nuances of that transition. We were roommates my freshman year of college and lived in the same co-op house for another two years after that. Kate knew exactly what I left to move to New York, exactly what people I missed and exactly how those people and places shaped my view of New York City, my career and my future. To hear her perspective on her move and process of establishing her life in Boston was encouraging.

I returned feeling grateful for the time spent with my friends. Just a couple days away from my normal pace of life gave a chance to look at that life with a fresh perspective.

Two more assorted items I wanted to write about:

1) I came to appreciate Roger Ebert’s gift for writing, analysis and criticism in the past year, so here’s my small tribute: He wrote one of the most beautiful, striking piece I’ve read in my life: A blog post reflecting on 20 years of marriage to his wife, Chaz. Other recommended reading: His review of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s NightDavid Carr of the New York Times on Ebert as a digital innovator and pioneer of personal branding; Ebert interviewing Paul McCartney in 1984 (they were both born on June 18, 1942); Chris Jones’ tremendous Esquire profile of Ebert from 2010. 

2) Speaking of Ebert, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to expand my cinematic horizons and make a dent in watching the films on his “Great Movies” list. With that goal in mind, and coming off an obsession with Netflix’s House of Cards series and its star, Kevin Spacey, I rented and watched L.A. Confidential on the bus ride back to NYC. Wow. I want to watch it again, because I feel there were bits and pieces of plot that I missed, but it was terrific. Part of it was the 1950s setting, drenched in jazz standards, showcasing the glitz and the gossip of a waning Golden Age. Part of it was the slick dialogue and delivery. A lot of it was the look on Kevin Spacey’s face when he tells Guy Pearce’s character, “That is Lana Turner.” A great movie indeed.

*Editor’s Note: Post title stolen from a made-up song featured in a 2009 episode of “30 Rock.”

Siskel and Ebert

Saturday would have been film critic Gene Siskel’s birthday (he passed away in 1999 after succumbing to a brain tumor), so his longtime co-host and friend Roger Ebert spent the entire day tweeting tributes to him. I haven’t gone through all of them but did see a few pop up in my timeline throughout the day, and I enjoyed learning more about their work together (plus, you could do worse than having a writer as terrific as Roger Ebert composing tributes and obituaries for you).

In February 2009, to mark the tenth anniversary of Siskel’s death, Ebert wrote this column, “Remembering Gene.” While I always had some awareness of Siskel and Ebert – the men and the TV program – the column made me feel like I really understood who they were, what they did and how they became film critics. I love when a piece of writing reveals so much. Gene Siskel was a Chicago Bulls fan and masterful poker player who grew up in “a Sun-Times family” but wound up becoming the Tribune‘s film critic. He’s not just “that guy who was on the movie review show” to me anymore. It’s a touching tribute and a pleasure to read.

Ebert also tweeted a link to the obituary he wrote for Siskel in 1999. Ebert makes it another great read, but what I really loved about it was this quote from Siskel:

When [Gene] saw a movie he hated, he liked to suggest that filmmakers ask themselves this question: “Is my film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?”

How many movies have you seen that should have been documentaries of the actors having lunch together? My guess is quite a few. I love that perspective on bad movies: He wasn’t ripping the film to shreds, but giving the filmmakers something fairly pedestrian to measure up against. Schooling them a little.

If you asked me who Gene Siskel was before today, I definitely could have given you the correct answer. Now, though, I understand a little more about him and am glad I do.

Lincoln, Perception and Storytelling

After months of anticipation, my sister and I saw Lincoln this past weekend, taking advantage of the movie’s early release in New York City theaters. While I’ve always taken a particular interest in the Civil War when it comes to studying American history, Hope is the real Civil War buff and had been beside herself with excitement for weeks at the idea of seeing her favorite time period gloriously displayed on screen.

To our surprise, she was underwhelmed, while I absolutely loved it. Sure, it dragged a bit at the end, and I found the opening scene (in which Union soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln during his visit to a battlefield) to be a little cheesy, but I just couldn’t (actually, still can’t) get over Daniel Day-Lewis’ tremendous performance as the president. Not to go all Roger Ebert here, but I have never been so convinced that an actor really was the person he was portraying. Obviously, there is no way of knowing whether he’s doing a spot-on impression of Lincoln’s voice, gait and mannerisms. But assuming tremendous research went into making it as accurate as possible, I don’t know how someone couldn’t be blown away by how real it seems.

Prior to seeing the movie, I decided to start reading Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book upon which much of Lincoln‘s plot is drawn. I still have a ways to go with it, but I’m glad I read a little before seeing the movie (for, say, some background knowledge on characters like William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and am finding it easier to digest with some mental image (albeit not the “real” thing) of characters and places described in the book.

I’m on page 142 of 754 so there’s still a lot to digest, but I have been struck by two facets of Lincoln I never knew existed:

  1. Master storyteller. If nothing else, Lincoln is worth  it for the scene in which the president tells a story about Ethan Allen and a George Washington portrait in an outhouse (just trust me). It’s not just worth it because the story is laugh-out-loud funny; the way Daniel Day-Lewis delivers (and, I want to believe, Lincoln delivered) it – timing, emphasis, everything – is riveting. And as I read the book, I’m intrigued by all the mentions of Lincoln as a masterful storyteller. He grew up listening to his father regale friends, neighbors and travelers who boarded at their Kentucky home, carefully remembering every detail and re-telling the stories for his own friends the next day. Goodwin called it a “passion for rendering experience into powerful language.” From what I can tell so far, nearly everyone who made contact with Lincoln was smitten by his stories and the way his face lit up as he told them. I suppose I always thought of Lincoln as a no-nonsense, serious man, but I like knowing he was much more than a stoic face looking back at me from a Mathew Brady portrait.
  2. Savvy PR man. Lincoln believed you only are that which you are perceived to be. No matter what’s on the inside, people will like or dislike you (or vote for or against you) based on who they think you are, not who you think yourself to be. To me, this is a huge part of why companies invest in public relations: They want to control how they are perceived. To Lincoln, it was a driving factor in his political pursuits, primarily because he desperately wanted history to remember his name (mission accomplished), and knew that wouldn’t happen unless he made a name for himself in modern times. He seemed to believe, writes Goodwin, that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” I love that quote. Whether or not that’s how it should be, that’s how it is, and Lincoln played the political game with that in mind. I really don’t have much interest in modern-day politics, but I’m eager to learn more about how Lincoln’s rise to the top was aided by his deep understanding of perception’s importance.

My copy of Team of Rivals is already littered with highlighter marks and Post-it notes as I organize my thoughts, but I might turn here in the coming days and weeks in order to archive and consider them more fully.

And just for kicks: The Lincoln trailer, if you haven’t already seen it; background on how Lincoln came to life in the movie, from Diane Sawyer’s interview with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis; and if you need to be convinced that this movie is worthy of your time, Ebert’s review.