The Parnassus Times

April 17, 2008

The List is Life: #80

80.

The Dame;

Marcia Cross.

Acting since her early 20s, Marcia Cross spent the first decade of her career working mainly bit parts on television before establishing herself on Melrose Place in 1992. After 5 years on the show she departed and returned back to the point she had been at before, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, Spin City, Ally McBeal and King of Queens, before in 2004 she landed the role that put her on the map in a whole new way. For her role in Desperate Housewives, Cross has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Though often overlooked in favour of her more  actorly, kookier or aestherically pleasing co-stars, Cross has proved from the very start that she is on a different planet all together. Balancing the comedic and the dramatic in perfect equilibrium, she stole the shows first season out from under the noses of everybody around her, with her pitch perfect delivery of every line and the extreme emotive powers of those enchanting eyes. For 20 years she paid her dues, and finally she’s making it count, embedding her Bree Van de Kamp upon the minds of all that bear witness to her.

The Dude;

James Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini began acting in his late 20s, his first screen role coming in 1987. The first decade of his screen career seemed to be generally built around his look, he spent most of his time playing heavies in films like True Romance and Get Shorty. His most substantial film roles both came in 2001 with supporting work in The Mexican in which he straight up stole the whole show from the two A-list superstars at the films heart with his heartfelt turn as a gay hitman. That same year he also worked with the Coen brothers in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for the first time playing a man more concerned with business than brawling and played the character with a slightly lecherous, but whole heartedly enthusiastic vigour. Yet there is no denying that what he is most known for is as the head of one of the most popular television shows in history. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini rocked audiences as he took the character from one level to the next, charming, loving, amiable, astute, amoral, vicous, conniving. He was the loving father, the ruthless businessman, the venomous gangster and the troubled middle aged man. Serving as a figure of identification for working men everywhere, Gandolfini managed to portray both the human that we all know, and the monster that we are enraptured by, both with absolute sincerity. Over the shows 8 year run he embedded that into the publics conscience, where it will never be forgotten. He was an everyman, but he was something more, and thats what made him unforgettable.

The Director;

Arthur Penn.

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a television director, Arthur Penn moved into movies with The Left Handed Gun, an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, a Billy the Kid picture starring Paul Newman, portraying the notorious outlaw as the  emotionally troubled youth that he was. 4 years later came the adapting of another play, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, chronicling teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen Keller. The film was, as its tagline stated “An emotional earthquake”, it landed Academy Awards for both it’s leading ladies, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After this great success he took a 180 degree turn in taking the helm of the surreal, nouvelle-vague influenced Mickey One, a darkly atmospheric, dream-like tale of paranoia. The next year he got topical with The Chase, a state of the nation piece, dealing with the issues of violence, racism and corruption, running through American society. However it was the next year that he put his name on the map once and for all, with Bonnie & Clyde, as with his last two pictures this was influenced once more by the French new wave and more than anything dealt with the countries disenchanted youth. Set during the depression of the 30s but dealing with the issues of the counterculture age that was sweeping the nation. Bonnie & Clyde was the sparkplug that set off the reformation of American cinema and it was Arthur Penn, his European influences reinvigorating American film and with a finger on the pulse of the nation, concerned with its problems and with giving a voice to its youth, that stood of the forefront of that movement and solidified his place in history.

The Picture;

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)

If there is one word to describe this film, it’s American, if there is another, it’s fairytale. Rocky is an American fable, and in a decade that had been almost entirely dominated by a new kind of cynicism and bitter venom flowing through the veins of American cinema, it’s coming on the 200 year anniversary of its nations independence was a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is nothing more than a male take on the Cinderella story; of a down on his luck nobody, mixed up with the wrong people, and his one shot at something grander. It is a portrayal of that much talked of American dream, of a mans determination to make it, and the lengths he goes to and the obstacles that he overcomes to get to where he needs to be. Rocky is a character very much of his time, a symbol of the changing world, hulking yet simple and uncertain of his place in the world. Sylvester Stallone creates an icon in the centre of it all, quiet and good at heart, but capable of brutality when need be, a man seemingly at peace with his place in the world yet always dreaming of something more. Not only does Stallone create a beautifully simplistic character on screen (displaying thespian abilities, that make one mourn what could have been, had Hollywood superstardom not come calling), but as writer of the film he brings the working class neighbourhood vividly and romantically to life. In this film (marred somewhat by its sequels) the message is straightforward and simple as it’s titular character; a man with little in the way of prospects yearns to prove himself, a man looked down on by all those around him, seeks to show just what he’s made of, to all the world, on the grandest stage of them all. Winning is never his aim, it’s all in the name of pride.

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March 1, 2008

“I Am the Third Revelation”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s – There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Anderson, US, 2007)

If you were trying to comprehend a monster, trying to boil it all down to it’s core, you could say that Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature film is at heart about the struggle between capitalism and religion, wealth and faith. Yet here is a story of greed, of the corrupting influence of power; a film about the lengths that men will go to in order to succeed and just what that will cost them. There Will Be Blood is a grand epic in the tradition of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Welles’ Citizen Kane, Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre you’ll find hints of George Stevens’ Giant, a dash of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, slivers of Once Upon a Time in the West. The style of the film calls to mind the majestic ambition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, take all of these films into account and you may begin to understand just what you are in store for with this one.

The opening scene is a grandiose statement of ambition. Introduced into our world with a near deafening drone from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s incredibly unique and ambitious score we are faced with the shadowed spectre of Daniel Plainview, a pickaxe in hand, hammering away at the rockface, feiry sparks spitting away on impact. Faced with with such brooding images one cannot help but ponder the idea of a man at the gates of hell, hammering at the entrance in search of his destiny. This scene and the few that follow are punctuated by almost complete silence, hardly a word of dialogue spoken, these are men of the Earth, workers, labourers. They are men of action, not of words; watching them at action is all one need do to understand their world.

A baby baptised with a drop of the blood of the Earth in these early moments sets the tone for the new world that emerges throughout. Oil seeping from the ground brings the fortune that is sought after and as it makes its finder wealthy so speeches and monologuing comes into play.

Now dressed in the fine attire his discovery affords him, Plainview makes pleas to smalltown folk, urging them to accept him and his company. No longer the simple man, hammering at the Earth, now a man of words, a man of complications. A monstrously powerful entity begging to be let in with promises of hope and prosperity, and this is how the film continues on, father and son, side by side, preying on the weak, the seemingly helpless.

Living such a life is as difficult as it sounds and the pain, anguish and fury of an existence of ambition, solitude and determination is etched across the face of this monstrous man. Robert Elswit’s cinematography takes in both these searing close up’s of its stars face plunging in to the shrouded darkness of his tormented soul as well as those grand landscapes of the Western frontier, encompassing the sun parched blaze of his unstoppable desire. The use of shadow throughout the film, draped around and across Plainview from scene to scene, tells its audience a story through visuals for which dialogue is simply not necessary.

Jack Fisk, veteran production designer of similarly beautiful pictures as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Straight Story and The New World brings his gloriously intricate work to the fore once more. The vast majority of the films running time allows Fisk to wander in the same realm in which he has made his name, sparse, minimal locations, set in isolation against a backdrop of monumentally grand landscapes.

Then comes that unquestionably bizarre final act; the grand landscape remains in a more reduced form, the sparse heart at its centre is one single, solitary man. A man driven into complete isolation in the heart of his grandiose kingdom. There Will Be Blood is based upon Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil! Sinclair was a lifelong, socialist and as one watches this film, the capitalist hatred at its stories heart shines forth, loud and clear. Fisk designs this world with intricate detail, filling each corner with great nothings, a cold world, densely populated, but empty; surrounding the untouchable, detached man at its heart.

The film is edited with a great deal of care, not showy or over the top, not calling attention to itself. In an age of films with a cut every 2 seconds here is a piece of work that switches back and forth as is required; many scenes shot almost entirely in one take, many others cutting back and forth between those grand vistas and the close-ups of the actors faces. It is a film that makes each cut matter, helping to create a film that is, in turn, both epic and intimate.

Mark Bridges costume design work is another mighty fine achievement that adds a great deal to the films visual narrative. The world worn rags of the films opening scenes, covered in the dirt of the Earth, work in perfect contrast to the perfectly authentic high class attire that all too quickly replaces it.

To go back once more to that wholly unique score, in deciding not to hire one of the plethora of great film composers, but rather the guitarist of Radiohead, the British alternative rock band (a tag that hardly does their avant-garde experimentalist nature justice) Anderson immediately signalled a very strange intent. When one hears just what Jonny Greenwood has done, it all seems to make a great deal of sense.

Thinking back to previous films in a similar mold to this one, it is tough to precisely nail down the type of score that would befit such a piece of work, however electronic synth wails and tribal drums would more than likely come somewhere near the bottom of the list. While there are deep droning epic horns factoring in to lend ominous gravitas, this is a score that can generally be described as little else but bizarre.

The theme plays in the background throughout many of the films key moments and it lends proceedings a nightmarish, hellish tone; working almost as a character in itself, it is a standout piece of work that gives troubling insights into the characters mindsets. That it is somewhat strange is without question, and many will, and have, found it alienating and out of place, but if you can embrace it as the rich work of leftfield innovation that it is, then it can be incredibly rewarding and symphonically improve the viewing experience.

Keeping in line with basically everything else in his film, Anderson’s screenplay is nothing short of inspired. While the novel from which it takes its inspiration is a socialist parable revolving around the son of the oil man and his sympathies with the workers. Paul Thomas Anderson has taken little more than that novels opening act and turned it into one of the most searing pieces of social commentary ever put on film. Taking us 100 years into the past the 37 year old has shone a very bright and very damning light upon the way of the world, as it is today. Honing in on obsession, greed, that neverending quest for power, on isolation and faith, on Gods, old and new; Anderson has created a deep and thoughtful work that lingers in the brain long after its conclusion and provides its audience with almost unending routes for thought.

As a director his work is no less astounding; the film is almost impossible to describe. It shares that unique artistic vision that only the very greatest directors in the mediums history have achieved. While it’s themes and nature is inherently classical, epic and grandiose, it is directed with creative flourishes that put in the realms of innovative artistry with such names as Kubrick, Leone and Malick. It is unlike practically all that has come before it and along with the previous film in its directors canon, the similarly unique Punch-Drunk Love, it tempts the viewer with the possibility of a genuinly new cinematic voice.

Finally, on to the cast, and though the headlines have been dominated by one man, there are numerous fine supporting turns populating this movie.

Dillon Freasier as the young H.W Plainview gives a very fine, subtle and mature performance. As a worldly child who has seen and learnt more than anybody of his age would normally be expected to, the young boy in his screen debut gives a very knowing turn. Little looks and subtle glances convey his internal confusion and hesistance to follow what he’s been taught, a great deal of anger boils beneath the surface and the child actor captures that internal angst without ever resorting to over the top theatrics.

Kevin J. O’Connor plays the mysterious long lost brother in the films second act. Perhaps to date best known for his role as Beni, the annoying, whiny sidekick in The Mummy; O’Connor here reigns his turn in, playing a quiet man who never gives too much away, always wary, always careful of each word he says, working his way, with innocent simplicity, closer and closer into the nearly impossible realm that is Plainview’s inner circle, into a position of trust.

Paul Dano, as the twin Sunday brothers Eli and Paul, gives performances of complete contrast. His Paul is simple, intelligent, knowing, and of the world. He doesn’t say a great deal and refuses to be outsmarted when engaging Plainview and his assistant (the sadly underused Ciaran Hinds) in a probing war of words. His hunched shoulders and soft spoken nature exude a shyness, his eyes display nothing but confidence; Paul Sunday is an enigma at the heart of this film, and a fascinating character; so simple yet so complex.

In the much larger role of Eli, Dano is let loose of the restraints that shackle his twin brother. Here is a young man so utterly convinced of every word he says that it is difficult to tell if he is genuinely assured of his words, utterly insane or perhaps simply the worlds greatest liar. Dano plays the part with a quiet, cocky intensity that from time to time lets rip in fiery bursts of passion that put on display for all to see the entrancing charisma of so many of his ilk. His snide air of righteousness helps establish himself as a genuine opposition to the dark monster at the films heart, a monster he encircles and plays throughout the films running time.

Then there is the monster itself. Daniel Plainview towers over this world like an all conquering superpower. He is a monstrously ferocious man and, as is to be expected when you cast Daniel Day-Lewis in your lead role, he is fully embodied and filled with ferocious life. Day-Lewis’ turn has not been without its critics, many condemning it to be nothing more than a phoning-in of his similarly towering turn as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. The Butcher was a simple and straightforward man, he was a relic of an ancient world, single minded in what he wanted and entirely old school in the way he went about achieving it. He gave no quarter, he showed no mercy; he was a charismatic monster of a man who could make even his enemies fall in love with him, could charm anybody and who all cowered before. Day-Lewis in turn played him with broad, giant brushstrokes, larger than life, utterly unflinching in his infallibility.

Plainview is almost the exact opposite, here is nothing more than the most modern and thoughtful of men. Daniel Plainview is not a tyrant defending his kingdom, he is a conqueror with an unquenchable desire for more. He is not a brute, not a butcher, he is a businessman, an unreadable, slithering snake. The sort of person that is willing to do whatever he has to do to get what he wants, including kneeling before his enemy. He will cast off the weak, discard those he cannot trust, he shares with the Butcher only the absolute single minded nature with which he pursues his ultimate goal.

Day-Lewis turns in what is arguably his finest turn to date, certainly his most complex. This is a performance of nuance, made up of the slightest gestures, of small glances, played from the eyes; eyes that give a small window into that beast. Plainview is never totally knowable, while he thirsts for absolute power, while he detests and does away with weakness, he gives hints, small glimpses of true feeling beneath the monstrousity. His son, his brother, a photograph he comes across from childhood, a forced confession of sin, all reveal depths of humanity inside, all threaten to crack the shell of the tyrant in his journey towards a neverending roof.

In those early scenes of human simplicity the two-time Oscar winner displays his primal human spirit, as he goes forth in search of further conquests he displays a well spoken, even at times caring and inspiring man, a man capable of sweet talking whoever need be sweet talked if it will help him achieve his aims. Then comes that final scene and monstrously bizarre is a term that only partly does it justice. Plainview comes flying off the wheels and Day-Lewis fills his lungs with absolute hatred, spitting venom from his mouth with a smile, from icy cool to hotter than hell he displays rage and disdain like rarely before seen. Vengeance is his aim and vengeance is his goal, reason seems to have gone out the window, all is abandoned save the unstoppable desire to destroy his enemy. Here is a brief and blazing portrait of the absolute madness behind the insane quest to conquer all, and Day-Lewis and Anderson, innovative as ever, play it with the absurdly pitch black comedy that it deserves.

This is a masterpiece of a motion picture, almost without fault, and endlessly ponderous. Repeat viewings will be incredibly rewarding and topics of conversation will be multiple and broad. Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a film both classical and modern, an era defining epic that shall without question be remembered as the work of a genius in the years and decades to come; shining at the heart, Daniel Day-Lewis is the beacon of fire, the searing soul of this work of absolute majesty.

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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