Jun 2 2017

Life Itself

maureen


Life Itself a biographical documentary about Roger Ebert’s unique contributions and cultural significance. It’s also a hopeful look at the combination of choices and happenstance that make up any life. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) shoots the film, based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, in the end stages of Ebert’s battle with cancer. Responding to James questions, Ebert appears on camera, missing the bottom part of his jaw, typing his thoughts into a computer that speaks for him. Ebert’s wife Chaz, family members, and friends help tell his story.

Ebert, with fellow critic Gene Siskel made film criticism entertainment for the masses. I might not be teaching film today if it hadn’t been for their PBS series Sneak Previews and later, At the Movies. They give insightful, intelligent analysis of films. They were the ones who made me think about movies in the same way my English teacher taught me to think about books. This isn’t a dry, academic mental exercise. It’s exciting to understand the elements of film and to see how each filmmaker creates something unique using those elements. Siskel and Ebert helped make film accessible as an art form.

Out of college Roger was hired by the Chicago Sun Times and eventually became the film critic because the film critic quit. This became his life’s work. He received the only Pulitzer Prize ever issued for film criticism. Ebert continued writing on his blog to the very end of his life. It’s a treasure trove of years and years of his past film criticism. A group of  critics continue to post to Roger Ebert.com.

As much as Life Itself  is a tribute to Ebert, it’s also a contemplation on life itself, as the title states. Some opportunities in life happen through developing gifts and talents. Some are about attitude. Some involve being in the seemingly random right place at the right time. Some happen through willingness to change and grow, to take risks, and to embrace the good that comes out of the bad.

The film takes Ebert from his cocky twenties with skewed priorities to the gracious maturity that knows that love is the best legacy. Much of the film focuses on Ebert’s relationships, especially with his wife Chaz who he met at AA. Roger was 50 when he married Chaz and gained a family. They were married 20 years. Her influence helped him develop deeper friendships with others in his life.

Roger Ebert died before filming was complete. Near the end of the film Chaz talks about Roger’s last moments.  She tells about the family surrounding him, holding hands, and the room filling with incredible peace. It is such a familiar and real story.

 

 

 

 


Feb 10 2017

La La Land: Conflicting Dreams

maureen


La La Land is about contrasts and choices. The film starts with lots of light, a bright color palate, and an energetic, upbeat a song and dance…hopes and dreams. The film ends in a dimly lit club, with bluesy jazz…regret and acceptance. The film communicates a contrast between the pure joy of developing a talent and engaging in art and the self-aggrandizing, greedy, prideful world that promotes and monetizes art. It juxtaposes homages to mid-20th century musicals with modern-day challenges of pursuing an artistic career in L.A. The story centers around relationship of an actress and a musician who meet and fall in love in L.A. and on the tension created as they try to balance their relationship with pursuing their separate career dreams. La La Land considers the difference between the romance of dreams pursued with the reality the dreams realized. Continue reading


Feb 8 2015

Birdman, Creativity, and Meta narrative film

maureen

Birdman leaves a lot open to individual interpretation and its ending has spawned multiple theories. SPOILERS in the link! It may require multiple viewings to solidify those theories. I think I need to see it again to decide.

Riggin, the aging star of superhero films is trying to make a comeback with a stage play by his personal muse Raymond Carver. He wants to create something great and is willing to sacrifice everything to make this play work. His relationship with his family is strained and his professional colleagues question his artistic decisions. Throughout the film he interacts with his superhero persona, Birdman who props up his sagging ego. Shot as one continuous take to reflect Riggin’s stream of consciousness throughout the story, Birdman takes the point of view of an unreliable narrator who may be delusional or may be possessed of supernatural powers. The film may or may not offer visual cues to help the audience distinguish reality from fantasy, if any of it is fantasy.

How it begins provides a more definitive perspective. Raymond Carver’s quote begins the film:

“And did you get what you wanted from this life?”
“I did.” “And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

This film raises some questions about the nature of creativity, ego, and recognition. What do human beings hope to get out of creativity? While creativity is a means of expression it is also a means of communication, how others respond  to what we’ve created matters, even when we pretend it doesn’t. Do we interpret how others receive and accept what we communicate through our creations as how they receive and accept us. Do we evaluate the worth of our creations by the responses of others, especially our creative peers and educated critics of our arts? How is the creation itself affected when the creator’s motives for making something becomes approval and adulation?

Birdman explores these questions but offers no definitive answers. Riggins struggles with what playing Birdman has made him in his own mind and in the eyes of the public. While it hasn’t gained him the respect or acclaim he craves, it did make him popular and beloved among audiences. Audience response is especially critical for performance artists. Without an audience there is no performance. And yet what is popular with an audience may not be popular with critics. Riggin wants so much to be respected for his art by his peers but being Birdman places him on a lower tier in the eyes of peers and critics.

Interestingly much of the critical commentary garnered by the film itself reflects this theme. The film is up for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, best supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. It’s already won awards in some of these categories. Director/Screenwriter Iñárritu is getting lots of well-deserved attention. Lubezki’s unique and challenging cinematography is mentioned in just about every review.  The acclaim former Batman star Michael Keaton has received for his performance is exactly what his character Riggin wants. It will be interesting to see what the Academy does with Birdman. Though his isn’t the only Oscar-worthy performance, I do think Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for this. 

Does this strange parallel make Birdman a meta-meta-narrative? Films like Birdman, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento and quite a few more, mostly produced in this century, represent a shift in film narrative. Stories are deliberately complex and non-linear.

Works and artists that represent innovation or transcendence, or those that mark transition from one era to the next, Beethoven and Impressionist art for example are the ones students study for generations to come. The rest are merely representative of a period or genre, albeit, some very good representations. These works are popular because they satisfy audience expectations and meet their aesthetic needs. Innovative works require more work from the audience and may even challenge existing aesthetics.

The audience must make a greater mental investment and may need multiple viewings to get what’s happening. The audience must not only suspend disbelief but also to surrender modern certainties for post-modern conceptualizations. And yet viewers of these films understand that they are watching a very deliberately crafted film that contains breadcrumbs from the creators of the film intended to lead both to discovering meaning but also to individual interpretation and theorizing. 

There’s no shame in going to the movie and enjoy a simple, emotionally satisfying narrative or just watch stuff blow up. There’s no shame in producing, directing, or acting in such a film. Perhaps the end of Birdman has something to do with embracing being part of creating higher art and being part of offering an audience a simple satisfying story or an inspiring hero even when it’s not considered high art.


May 31 2014

Searching for Sugarman encourages creativity

maureen


Searching for Sugarman is a story about one unique man, Rodriguez, but it is an encouragement for the rest of the observers and interpreters among us, the writers with a thousand posts and sixty followers, the musicians posting amazing songs with a couple of likes on Soundcloud, the artists whose gallery wall is Facebook, the creatives who work day jobs and create because they need to and want to even if they never get a check or an audience. Poets and philosophers write because they have something to say. not because they have something to gain. They have already gained, or they are in the process of gaining, some elusive but personally important thing that is the impetus for creating. When we cast our bread upon the water we have no idea when and how it might return. For Rodriguez it comes floating back nearly thirty years later. Continue reading