Tuesday, April 15, 2014


I love taking chances.

If I left it at that, you would think that proclaiming “I love taking chances” labels me an inveterate “chance taker”, although regular readers would have likely found sufficient evidence that I am actually not much of one.

More accurately, I should probably say I love “taking chances”, meaning that I love to see other people taking chances.

Which I suppose makes me a “taking chances” voyeur.

When people take chances in their movies, of course I marvel at their originality, an issue that could be the determining factor in this context, due to my inadequate amount of it.  On the other hand, anybody can be original – you doodle something on a scrap of paper, a picture, or a rough sketch for an invention.  The conventional next step for most people is to crumple such scraps of paper into a ball, deposit them harmlessly into a wastebasket and go back to being sheep. 

A few people, however – and there are not many of them, think,   

“I am going to do this.  And I will do it exactly my way.”

I find such unbending determination audaciously admirable, defining “audaciously admirable” as anything I might imagine doing but do not, because of an insufficiency of courage (“What if they hate it and I never work again and I have to go back to Canada in the winter?”)  And an insufficiency of tenacity (“Am I willing to risk it all for this undertaking?  Lemme think about it – ‘No’.”)

I go see movies where they go “all in” on their personal vision, and my, often symbolic, hat reflexively responds with a respectful and adulatory tip.  

I love those guys. 

And gals. 

Who take a chance.

It doesn’t even have to be good.  A filmmaker takes an audacious leap into the uncertain “who knows what”, and for that courageous step alone, I am unqualified supporter.  They took a shot.  You can tell that by the uncompromising uniqueness up there on the screen.  Somewhere, almost certainly, there is an agent worriedly shaking their uncomprehending head. 

“They are on top of the world.  What do they have to do this?”


Actor/songwriter Anthony Newley had hits on Broadway (Stop the World, I Want To Get Off) and in films (he co-wrote “The Candyman” for Willy Wonka.)  He then decides makes an outrageous and clearly personal movie called Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) and I’m watching it and I’m thinking, “This movie is a mess!”  But at the same time I’m thinking, “But God bless the guy.  He did it!

Anthony Newley took a chance.  (Yes, he was successful enough to have the opportunity to do so.  But in a way, that makes his accomplishment even more courageous.  A “nobody” taking a chance has absolutely nothing to lose.  This guy could lose everything – status, credibility, his all-important “career momentum” and he went for it anyway, leaving me up on my feet, cheering every glorious misstep.

(See Also In This Context:  Ron Shelton”s Tin Cup (1996), in which golfer Kevin Costner stubbornly plays the deciding shot “his way” and magnificently loses the National Open.)

“Uncompromising and disastrous” – for me, that is still “Way to go.” “Uncompromising and wonderful” – Now we’ve got something.

I could talk about Alexander Payne (Election, The Descendants, Nebraska) who over the past decade and a half has assembled a prodigious “nobody but him” body of work.  I could mention Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco) whose parenthesized trilogy reflects the pinnacle of a self-serving hair-splitting representative of an era.  (“I am not an addict; I am an habitual user.”)  Stillman’s insistent iconoclasm may explain his disappearance from the marketplace – “Be blisteringly ironic with somebody else’s money, Smart Guy.”  

(On the other hand, it may not.  Stillman may have just had certain movies he wanted to make and he made them, and then stopped.  Wow, how reasonable would that be!)

This brings me inevitably to Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) and his latest offering which I saw and was delighted by – The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Watching a Wes Anderson movie, from the first frame to the last you are aware that, like it or not, this fellow does things his own way.  In all its “control freak” specificity.  No, wait.  Calling him a  “control freak” is unjust. 

You do not call a painter a “control freak.”  Painters are expected to control every design swirl and color choice on the canvas.  Should a filmmaker be maligned for wielding the same creative omnipotence simply because they do not hold the boom microphone or sew the costumes themselves?  Doing everything in movies is a physical impossibility.  But that should not deprive the auteur of the right to have things entirely as they see them.

For ninety percent of The Grand Budapest Hotel – the portion that’s in “flashback” – Anderson narrows the traditional “wide screen” format to a square, shooting the scenes straight on (like they’re oil paintings) rather than from an angle.  Why?  I have no idea.  But he knew why.  And he insisted it be done that way. 

Selecting three from hundreds of example, I take note of Anderson’s selection of the shockingly red coloration for the venerable hotel’s elevator walls, the scrupulously accurate discoloration of the exposed molding behind a purloined painting, and the film’s “villain’s” remarkably bezippered leather jacket.

Listen also to this response, delivered by the persnickety-to-a-fare-thee-well Ralph Fiennes character when asked if he would like a drink.

“Chilled water, no ice.”

Man!  Is that specific (and reflective of the writer/director), or what?

Why am I enthralled by such uncompromising efforts?

A final example from The Grand Budapest Hotel:

There’s a somewhat odd young female character in the movie, whom Ralph Fiennes’s acolyte assistant is unabashedly smitten by.  Fiennes takes a moment to assess her appeal. 

(Note:  The following are not the exact words.  I did not know I’d be using them.)

“She’s flat as a board and has a birth mark the shape of Mexico covering half of her face.  But what you like about her, I think, is her purity.”
“Purity” may be exactly what I am talking about here.  I can shoot for it in this blog.  Because what are they going to do to me? 

“I’m sorry, Earl.  We are replacing you with a more compromising ‘you’.”

That’s not going to happen.  Primarily because there is no “they.”

But when I was working, unlike Wes Anderson and his courageous ilk, it was the “they” and their fearful authority that inevitably kept me in line.

Do I wish I’d been braver?  Regular readers are familiar with my oft-repeated explanation:

“You are what you are, and you do what you do.”

Rendering my hypothetical on this matter terminally irrelevant.

This, however, is not the same as “I do not think about it.”

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think it would be hard to be brave in the sense the filmmakers you mention are brave when you're working in television, where so much depends on others' approval. Especially now, when networks want to approve scripts, casting choices, etc. or you don't get on the air, and there's not a lot you can do if the story arc you want to revisit can't be done because the guest actors involved aren't available. (That said, certain people do get their visions on the air - we don't hear a lot about Matthew Weiner making compromises about his vision for MAD MEN.) Also, now that movie-making has dropped so substantially in price - I've seen wonderful movies made by two people for a few hundred thousand dollars, most of which was spent clearing rights to music or the original books - it's become even more possible for a filmmaker to stick adamantly to a particular vision no matter what anyone says. We will be seeing a lot more of it. (And a lot more of stuff not being bought by big distributors until they've seen and tested the results.)