The Parnassus Times

February 16, 2008

“I’ve Been A Nobody All My Life”. Andrew Dominik’s – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — cigarettesalesman @ 4:25 pm

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, US, 2007)

New Zealand native Andrew Dominik’s first and to date, only feature film, Chopper was made seven years ago it has taken almost one whole decade for him to bring his second film to the screen and when one sees it, it is not the greatest of surprises to see why. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is two hours and forty minutes long, it is a western in which a gun is hardly fired, no stand off’s at dawn, nothing in particular to link it to the golden era of American Westerns of the 40s and 50s .

It is a very long, slow moving film heading in a direction that we are made aware of from the very start. The slow burn ebb that is this films pace carries us on this journey towards this inevitable collision course with the mournful spirit of a funeral procession.

The film is not without its faults. The narrative voiceover, while beautifully poetic in the films prologue and epilogue is entirely superfluous, most of the time pointing out information that either serves no great purpose to the picture overall or in some places provides us with nothing more than a description of what is happening on screen. Here is that issue that so many filmmakers come upon in adaptations of literar works. To have such an appreciation for their source materials language that they feel the need to shoehorn as much of it in as is possible to the detriment of their own artistic achievement within their own medium.

One could make the argument that such films who give in to such straightforward page to screen adaptations with lumps of voiceover brimming throughout are serving as little more than promotional material for the story from which they are adapted. No film can include all that is in a book and hence through their complete lack of vision such filmmakers irrevocably surrender themselves up as being artists of a lesser medium.

Yet I digress, this is a beautiful film with a magnificent artistic vision. Andrew Dominik has crafted a melancholy, ponderous film in line with the works of Terrence Malick. The sort of film scarcely seen in American cinema since the death of auteur cinema in the wake of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980.

Perhaps the foremost artist in contributing to this poetic atmosphere is cinematographer Roger Deakins, veteran of such beautifully scoped pictures as The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun and The Village. Deakins work on this film may not be quite the visual storyteller that his work on No Country For Old Men was but its majestic nature is like few films that have come before it. Almost every shot throughout the film could have adorned the wall of an art gallery.

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave who composed the score, bring the same sparse, stripped down and eery compositions to this film as they brought to their similarly lyrical Western, The Proposition. The beautifully detailed costumes and production design help lend the film the romantic tones it strives for.

The cast is on magnificent form throughout. The continually underrated Sam Rockwell turns in another mighty fine supporting turn as Charley Ford, the good hearted, good natured, simple brother of the eponymous assassin. Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider all turn in differing degrees of fine work as the members of the James gang, all turning on one another, a self combusting unit of low lives.

Zooey Deschanel and Mary Louise Parker, two mighy fine actresses are restricted to little more than cameos yet, being the quality performers they are, both make the absolute most of their slight material. Parker as Jesse James’ wife, Zee is the conscience of her husband, the down to earth, homemaking wife who has little more than a gaze of mistrust for all the men in her husbands life, and her final scene by her husbands side is a mournful piece of work completely out of left field. Entirely putting in the shade other actresses this year that have grieved for dead husbands with all the creative ingenuity of a hack. Parker’s pitiful, restrained wails are of a woman who has long expected this moment to come, it’s a beautifully judged piece of work; as is Zooey Deschanel in her brief appearance as Robert Ford’s wife lights up the screen with her glances and gestures, the probing delivery of her dialogue, she reads the ‘coward’ and finally draws the truth out of him.

Yet when all is said and done this is the story of two men and they both carry it off with aplomb. Some have been critical of Brad Pitt’s casting, hoping that a ‘real’ actor could have had the chance to sink his teeth into the part, yet there are two very important and perfect reasons for his casting.

Firstly, this IS a very distinct sort of film – long, slow, with none of the stand offs and shoot outs one has come to expect from a Western; with a ten word title that is just as uncompromising as it’s tone. It was Pitt himself who had it stipulated in his contract that the title of the film could not be changed and one can only assume that where it not for the participation of a star of this magnitude, the film that reached the screen would have had to take a great deal more in the way artistic liberties to reach audiences.

Secondly this is essentially a portrait of societies obsession with celebrity, with a man attempting to bring down a superstar so that he may become one himself; who better to cast in such a part than one of the biggest movie star’s on the planet?

All this aside, Pitt plays the part beautifully. This is unquestionably the finest work of his career. He makes no apologies for the man he is playing, his Jesse James is utterly insane and he begins unfurling from the very start. A tortured, haunted man, coming apart at the seams, it’s pretty disturbing to watch and never at any point does he stray over the top.

Yet at heart this is Robert Ford’s story and Casey Affleck emerges out of obscurity with what is turning out to be one hell of a year, after his wonderfully hard edged, soft centred turn in Gone Baby, Gone he gives here the type of whiny, snivelling, shady performance that I would feel most comfortable comparing to something like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The low, whiny, voice that emerges from a half opened mouth, the hunched shoulders, this is a physical performance as much as anything else. Affleck presents Robert Ford to us as an incredibly thoughtful, confused, obsessive young man with no idea of his direction in the universe. A man willing to do anything to make a name for himself when the object of his lifelong obsession turns out to be nothing like he expected.

Andrew Dominik should be applauded for his efforts, the unneccessary overuse of the narration and a few subplots that could have been considered expendable aside, this is a beautiful work of artistry, another fine addition to the modern western, a melancholy stroll through obsession and misguided perceptions of the world. One can only hope that the director will not take 7 more years to get another film made, and that when it comes he can maintain the haunting vision of this one.

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February 10, 2008

I Want To Rule and Never, Ever Explain Myself.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — cigarettesalesman @ 3:26 pm

 

 

How many times has the tale been told? A shy introverted boy, a social outsider, the upper class son of a poet-laureate, half Jewish/half Irish, growing up in the tough streets of Greenwich, England. A figure of fun whose alienation from those around him leads to the hasty mastering of the local accent, local mannerisms. The first signs of convincing performance that would later help him to delve deeper than any before him had ever dared to go in the development of characters more wholly embodied than the medium had ever seen in its hundred year history.

 

“I came from the educated middle class but I identified with the working classes. Those were the people I looked up to. The lads whose fathers worked on the docks or in shipping yards or were shopkeepers. I knew that I wasn’t part of that world, but I was intrigued by it. They had a different way of communicating. People who delight in conversation are often using that as a means to not say what is on their minds. When I became interested in theater, the work I admired was being done by working-class writers. It was often about the inarticulate. I later saw that same thing in Robert DeNiro’s early work – it was the most sublime struggle of a man trying to express himself. There was such poetry in that for me”.

 

Daniel Day-Lewis was born rightwise to the world of cinema. Grandson of Sir Michael Balcon, one of the founding fathers of British cinema who could have denied the young mans right to enter the realms of celluloid? Yet growing up in the age of Olivier’s Gielgud’s, Redgrave’s and Jacobi’s, young English actors of the era were expected to ply their trade upon the stage, delving into the world of Shakespeare, a million miles from the world he dreamed of.

 

“I saw Taxi Driver five or six times in the first week, and I was astonished by its sheer visceral beauty. I just kept going back – I didn’t know America, but that was a glimpse of what America might be, and I realized that, contrary to expectation, I wanted to tell American stories.”

 

Over those formative years he played the title role in a stage production of Dracula, and took on the part of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a role he later came to detest, a character who he came to sum up as a “wanker”.

 

“Where I come from, it was a heresy to say you wanted to be in movies, leave alone American movies. We were all encouraged to believe that the classics of the theater were the fiery hoops through which you’d have to pass if you were going to have any self-esteem as a performer. It never occurred to me that that was the case. One of the great privileges of having grown up in a middle-class literary English household, but having gone to school in the front lines in Southeast London, was that I became half-street-urchin and half-good-boy at home. I knew that dichotomy was possible. England is obsessed with where you came from, and they are determined to keep you in that place, be it in a drawing room or in the gutter. The great tradition of liberalism in England is essentially a sponge that absorbs all possibility of change”.

 

It was around this time that his screen career began to take off; controversy was there from the start as he played one half of a gay, bi-racial couple in Stephen Frears small, gritty British flick, My Beautiful Launderette. That same year he performed at the other end of the spectrum, playing the snooty, upper class Cecil Vyse in Merchant-Ivory’s major production of E.M Forster’s A Room with a View. The former embodied the world he yearned to be a part of, the latter, the world he was a part of and sought to escape.

 

[on Five Easy Pieces] “Jack Nicholson is sublime in that film, just sublime. It’s the most stultifying portrait of middle-class life. You want to flee from that world and head anywhere less civilized. Which is, of course, the appeal of the West: It’s not tamed yet”.

 

“Why would I want to play middle-aged middle-class Englishmen”?

 

 It was two years later, in 1987 that the first signs began to emerge of the man we know today. On the set of Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Day-Lewis learned to speak Czech, and refused to break character for the entirety of the eight month shoot.

 

“It’s really about the sense of joy you have in having worked hard to imagine and discover and – one hopes – to create a world, an illusion of a world that other people might believe in because you believe in it yourself, a form of self-delusion. After achieving that, it seems far crazier to jump in and out of that world that you’ve gone to such pains to create. And it wouldn’t be my wish to do that, because I enjoy being in there”.

 

Then in 1989 came the breakthrough, playing Hamlet on stage at the National Theatre he collapsed on stage in the middle of the characters confrontation with the ghost of his father. Sobbing uncontrollably he walked from the stage and refused to return, some labeled it exhaustion, other more outlandish theories spoke of him having seen the ghost of his father. Whichever version of events one chooses to believe, the point we reach in the end is undeniably the same, here is a man who gives nothing less than 100% to every part he plays. Not since that night has Daniel Day-Lewis appeared on stage, and it is highly unlikely that he ever will again.

 

“For a few years at school I tried to play the roles they wanted me to play, but it became less and less interesting to ponce around the place. Even now, when I sometimes think of doing a play, I think of rehearsal rooms and people hugging and everyone talking over cups of coffee because they are nervous. It’s both very touching and it makes me a little nauseous and claustrophobic. Too much talk. I don’t rehearse at all in film if I can help it. In talking a character through, you define it. And if you define it, you kill it dead”.

 

Yet thanks to accomplishments that year Day-Lewis was put in a position where by he would never again have to return to the medium from which he had fled. Playing the part of Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot landed the 32 year old an Oscar. The pinnacle of screen acting had been reached, he had conquered the mountain and would never have to venture to realms of disinterest again. Day-Lewis’ process has gained him a great deal of notoriety. Refusing to leave his wheelchair on the set of My Left Foot, determined to experience all aspects of Christy Brown’s life, he broke two ribs from sitting hunched in the wheelchair for so many weeks.

 

For The Last of the Mohicans he underwent weight training, lived off the land his character inhabited, learned to track and skin animals, built a canoe, and perfected the use of the rifle he carried with him at all times.

 

The next year he re-teamed with Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father, losing a substantial amount of weight, spending time in a prison cell and insisting that crew members throw water at, and verbally abuse him.

 

For 1997’s The Boxer he trained for 2 years with former professional boxing champion, Barry McGuigan.

 

After a three year absence from the craft Day-Lewis returned with a monstrous performance in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, his preparation included working as an apprentice butcher, listening to Eminem each day on set to enter into his characters angry, self righteous frame of mind and refusing to wear warm clothing during cold weather due to his complete dedication to authenticity, an act that lead to him being diagnosed with pneumonia and having to seek medical treatment.

 

In 2004, during the filming of his wife’s film The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Day-Lewis lived separately from his family for the duration of the shoot in order to capture his characters isolation.

 

“The intention is always the same. To try to discover life in its entirety, or at least create for yourself the illusion that you have, which might give you some chance of convincing other people of it. It’s the same thing each time, but it requires totally different work in the process of achieving that. You are set on a path that’s strewn with obstacles, but getting over them is the joy of the work. So it’s impossible to think in terms of difficulty: it all seems utterly impossible, but the pleasure is in trying to forge ahead anyway”.

 

Day-Lewis has oft been criticized for his process, for taking things further than many believe they need to be taken. Yet acting at its heart is nothing more than the embodiment of a character and the only difference between Day-Lewis and his critics is the extent of that embodiment.

 

“I like to learn about things. It was just a great time trying to conceive of the impossibility of that thing. I didn’t know anything about mining at the turn of the century in America. My boarding school in Kent didn’t exactly teach that”.

 

Here is a man who commits entirely to his character for the entirety of his shoot. A man who does away with his natural self and literally morphs into another. Some actors begin performing at “action” and finish at “cut”, Day-Lewis is no different, only he refuses to break the illusion between takes. He is not so much an actor of movie roles as a creator of characters. A man who transforms into others so fully in order that he may fully comprehend who he is, and by extension allow his audience to understand the world in which he is existing.

 

“It’s not that I want to pull the shutters down. It’s just that people have such a misconception about what it is I do. They think the character comes from staying in the wheelchair or being locked in the jail or whatever extravagant thing they choose to focus their fantasies on. Somehow, it always seems to have a self-flagellatory aspect to it. But that’s just the superficial stuff. Most of the movies that I do are leading me toward a life that is utterly mysterious to me. My chief goal is to find a way to make that life meaningful to other people”.

 

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