Category Archives: Film & Television

Kurt Cobain: Beauty Born of Pain

Originally published in April 2015.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.

The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.

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Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.

Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.

It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.

I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later  see him  barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.

I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared

While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.

A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.

This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.

He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun

David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”

I agree.

I’m a Creep

I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.

But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.

I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.

Hmm.

I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.

Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.

Uh-oh.

It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.

Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,”  “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.

As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.

Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.

Carrie Fisher: Actress, Writer, Freedom Fighter

carrie

 

We all know that the witty, insightful actress and writer Carrie Fisher, who died today at age 60, began her career as an actress in the 1970s. She became a Hollywood star at age 20 when Star Wars was released in 1977. While many know that she went on to write books, screenplays and stage shows, far fewer people know that she was also a sought-after Hollywood script doctor. During the 1990s, she was frequently hired to repair weak screenplays, working on such movies as Hook, Sister Act, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Wedding Singer. The work was lucrative, but she was never credited by name as a writer for any of the films whose scripts she saved. (She is said to have been one of the script doctors who tried but failed to bring life to all three of the Star Wars prequel scripts, too.)
 

Fisher’s writing talents are evident from her memoirs, in her one-woman theatrical show, Wishful Drinking, and in the screenplay based on her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In late 2001, when the nation was deeply shaken after the September 11 attacks and frightened lawmakers began urging each other to limit Americans’ freedoms, Carrie Fisher donated an autographed copy of the screenplay for Postcards from the Edge to an auction of celebrity artifacts to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. I was the winner of that auction, and my Carrie Fisher-autographed script is one of my prized possessions.

Fisher grew up as Hollywood royalty, the child of popular singer Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, and was later the stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor and wife of musician Paul Simon. Despite such privilege, she also grew up seeing the seedy side of fame: her parents’ scandalous and very public divorce (her father left Debbie for Elizabeth); her father’s addiction to speed; and her mother’s financial catastrophes brought on by marriages to faithless gamblers who stole her money, diverted Debbie’s savings to their mistresses and brought prostitutes into their home.

In Fisher’s first big film role (in Warren Beatty’s film Shampoo,) she  played a jaded teenager who propositions the much older character played by Beatty.  Her character’s world-weary attitude and hard-edged directness in Shampoo show up again in her portrayals of Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films. By her twenties, she was self-medicating and addicted to drugs. It was only when she learned that she had bipolar disorder that the reasons for her mood swings, depressions and hunger for intoxicants became clear to her. She sought to wean herself from her addictions and began to divert her insecurities and keen observations into her writing.

To the benefit of her readers, she shared her stories of her own depression, self-loathing, addictions and mental disorders, first through her art, then through memoirs and interviews. Fisher fought to destigmatize mental illness and encouraged people to be honest with themselves and others, to get help and to accept themselves as imperfect but worthy of love and understanding. For a woman who had grown up believing that putting on a perfect façade and never letting the world see her sweat was of paramount importance, her journey toward self-acceptance and her willingness to tell the world of her flaws and illness and her ultimate freedom from addiction was a brave one.

From her earliest days, Fisher had a steely confidence on screen and spoke in an authoritative voice that didn’t jibe with her fresh, youthful beauty. Her world-weary delivery and seeming steeliness made her a compelling Leia Organa. On screen she was a princess and the leader of a galactic rebellion, but behind her seeming confidence was enormous self-doubt. While her insecurities led her to dangerously self-defeating impulses in her youth, they also brought her to  deep insights which she used to fuel the raw, honest, hilarious but brutally true stories she wrote of her life. She showed us how smart, beautiful, rich and talented people could be just as fearful, self-defeating and confused as the rest of us.

Carrie Fisher was a woman who spent her life creating fictions through her acting and writing, but she lived her own life as fiercely and honestly as she was able. She laid herself bare in her writings, one-woman shows and interviews, including her recent discussion of her life and work with NPR’s Terry Gross. She laughed at herself before anyone else had a chance to, and let us know that it was okay to fail, to fear, to fall. Even a Hollywood princess is only human.

Just this year, the Harvard Humanist Hub gave Fisher the Outstanding Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, saying that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”

In Carrie Fisher’s memory, I’m making a donation to the ACLU today, because the leader of the rebel alliance would want us to keep up the good fight against the demagogues who hope to round us up, wall us off and shut us up. Carrie Fisher was, after all, the woman who embodied Princess Leia Organa, leader of the rebellion against the ruthless Empire. Making a donation to keep civil liberties safe seems like a small but meaningful thing to do to honor someone who spoke her mind, made us laugh and brought us so much joy through her work. Won’t you join me?

Eight Days a Week: On Tour with The Beatles

Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about  directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.

As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.

The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.

Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)

To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.

The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.

Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.

If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.

During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.

While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.

The Revenant: Revelatory and Remarkable

revenant

At the core of this grim film about pain, loss and revenge,  The Revenant is a story about steel-cored adventurers whose every day is full of extreme but self-imposed hardships. This film, a fictionalized account of the story of actual 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, shows better than any other the brutal conditions under which fur trappers lived on North America’s frontier. Nature is a living, breathing, bloody-clawed character in this film, as much a part of the cast as Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hardy. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning: he captures both nature’s grandeur and man’s brutality in this film.

Stories in which characters face extreme adversity allow actors to emote more dramatically, showing not only their acting ability but also their willingness to suffer for their art. When an epic is directed, shot, acted and edited this masterfully, the arc of the story, the flow of action, the building of character and the depth of each loss all reverberate more intensely within the viewer’s heart.

The Revenant overflows with evident extremes: constant cold (which left the actors courting hypothermia and frostbite more than once); bloody brutality; heaving, spitting, screaming vengeance; terrifying physical danger; a highly protective mother bear; hand-to-hand combat between invading white trackers and indigenous Native Americans; horses undergoing the worst possible disasters; even creatures seeking respite in the dead bodies of other creatures. It is to the great credit of the cast, and DiCaprio and Hardy in particular, that these characters feel not like strutting caricatures of good and evil but like actual human beings.

The scenes involving closeups that show flickers of the subtlest emotions are as thrilling as those involving CGI bears, horses or eviscerations. Hardy is almost unrecognizable, not only because of the facial hair and prosthetic scalped pate but also because of his quirky accent with its unexpected twangs and turns. His character is thoroughly unlikable, but also so uneasy that we can never trust ourselves to know him or anticipate his next move. Despicable as his actions may be, his motivations are clear, yet he leaves us perpetually off our guard. This keeps this long, intense movie from sinking under the weight of his character’s badness. In a year that also saw him give laudable performances in Mad Max: Fury Road and in Legend, the brutal but entertaining story of London’s deranged mobsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Hardy’s stunning portrayal of brooding, bloody John Fitzgerald in The Revenant is a career highlight.

After giving so many fine performances in his long career, Leonardo DiCaprio truly earned his Oscar for The Revenant. I was first moved by him when he was a talented teen giving stunning performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy’s Life.  With the exception of Titanic, which I thought elicited some of his and Kate Winslet’s worst performances, I’ve watched his career unfold with great pleasure. His role in The Revenant has all the Oscar-friendly elements—the physical hardship, extremes of pain, fear, loss and vengeance—but it also requires that we utterly believe in the living, breathing reality of his character’s plight, and that we want to stay with him through each new horror despite our own great discomfort.

If the story were just about a wronged man seeking vengeance, we might grow tired of the chase or grow to hate the man who seeks revenge, but this long saga, which focuses heavily on DiCaprio during long solitary scenes, lets us feel and sympathize with the reasons behind his vengeance. We sense his great pain, his loss and his essential decency because Leo insists that we do. DiCaprio’s character must impress us with his fortitude and his ability to surmount the nearly insurmountable, time and time again, but in order to care about him we must be constantly reminded of his vulnerability, and no actor today is better able to display alternating vulnerability and quick-on-his-feet mental resourcefulness than Leonardo DiCaprio.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s treatment of the story incorporates scenes of silent, lyrical natural beauty in the sweeping manner of director Terrence Malick. The two share the ability to step back from an engrossing, intense situation and remind us of the environment in which it takes place, allowing the audience to breathe. They let us rebalance ourselves to better evaluate the mental states of the characters to whom we feel so closely drawn. These directors share a penchant for magical realism and sensual naturalism, something that was evident in Iñárritu’s award-winning direction of the fantastical (and Oscar-winning) film The Birdman. That film was alternately claustrophobic and expansive, with the most explosive and off-putting scenes taking place within the confines of a theater, and the true expression of the main character taking place during bursts of real or imagined flight. In The Birdman, Iñárritu allows us to believe that a man can feel trapped and caged while alone in a barren landscape or free to fly while sitting cross-legged in a tiny theater dressing room, his mind miles away from his levitating body.

The Birdman threatened always to drift away into the realms of the irrational while simultaneously forcing the audience and the characters to face life’s real limitations and gravitational pull. The Revenant explores what it’s like to be bound to earth by pain, determination and oppressive nature while being urged forward by elements of the indomitable human spirit that are eternal, ineffable and stronger than gravity: one human being’s love for another, and a determination that even death might be conquered in order to honor and hold onto the spirits of those whom we have loved and lost.

Dangerous Gems: The Subversive Music of Thomas Newman

Some film score composers have styles so distinctive that one can tell from hearing just a few measures of one of their compositions exactly who wrote it. Danny Elfman’s bold, busy, occasionally bombastic scores for Tim Burton’s movies have a particular power and energy, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s films without Bernard Herrman‘s sweeping, urgent orchestral pieces. Randy Newman’s scores usually have a bit of his trademark ragtime shuffle somewhere, and sometimes a touch of Aaron Copland to them, and Randy’s cousin, the fellow film-score-composer Thomas Newman, has his own compositional quirks that often make his work especially compelling and recognizable. His penchant for odd instruments, time signatures and percussion make his compositions unlike anyone else’s.

The scores of Thomas Newman are distinctive in their use of unusual time signatures, heavily percussive instrumentation and unrecognizable sounds created by his collection of rare instruments, all layered together in rich and unexpected ways. His scores have included the sounds of the zither, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery and hammered dulcimer, aboriginal chants, and even the chirping of cicadas. He weaves synthesizers and lush string arrangements in among the more organic sounds, and alters his sonic findings to create aural oddities that nobody has heard before.

Newman’s theme to the groundbreaking HBO television series Six Feet Under was created primarily with recognizable instruments—strings and reeds, for example—that are overlaid with washes of dissonant, shimmering, zithery sounds that remind one of harp glissandi but aren’t. They are then warmed by melodic oboe lines and set off by strange background sounds similar to the low squeaks one accidentally makes when rubbing wet wine glasses in a tub of suds. For the film WALL•E, Newman collaborated with Peter Gabriel to create the Oscar-nominated song “Down to Earth,” a perfect melding of synthesized, metallic, otherworldly sounds and rich, earthy, very human voices. The song sounds at once very much like Newman while being perfectly in sync with Gabriel’s body of work, and is a delicious auditory morsel that’s quite an appropriate accompaniment to the story of the film.

Newman has worked extensively with the innovative director Sam Mendes, and his haunting and anxiety-provoking scores provide powerful backdrops for all but one of Mendes’s angst-filled films. These include Spectre, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall and Jarhead. It is also hard to imagine the moody and intense Frank Darabont films The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile without the oppressive sonic blankets that Newman created to press down on us and make us feel the fear and claustrophobia inherent to prison life.

Often Newman draws out discordant musical phrases and refuses to resolve them, leaving us feeling perplexed, nervous and worried. His theme to Revolutionary Road is a simple, repetitive piano tune layered with cymbals and repeating string lines that serves to build a deep reservoir of pain that cannot be released, just as the film does. Hopeful woodwinds peek up among the swirling strings at times, like a drowning swimmer trying to rise up for air before sinking below the surface one last time. The piece “Road to Chicago” from the intense and underrated Sam Mendes film Road to Perdition also begins with a simple piano motif, but then it hums with danger as washes of strings begin to press down on the piano tune. We wait for the chords to resolve but they only recede, pulling us far down a lonesome road, fading like the lights on a car driving into a dark, cold night.

The score for Jarhead brims with the intensity and violence of war, jolting the audience to attention with discordant Middle Eastern-sounding motifs played on stringed instruments mingled with synthesizers and insistent percussion, the unrecognizably altered sounds stirring fear in our hearts and melting our brains like waves of heat in the deserts of the Persian Gulf.

Born in 1955, Newman is the son of legendary composer and conductor Alfred Newman, who was the composer of scores for over 200 films and the winner of nine Oscars, an achievement that no other film composer has ever matched. Thomas has himself been nominated for (but not won) twelve Oscars and has won two BAFTAs, six Grammys and an Emmy. While he is best known for his film work, he was first interested in musical theater, just as his father had been, and while he was at Yale young Thomas was mentored by Stephen Sondheim. He then moved to Hollywood to follow in the footsteps of his father and his celebrated uncle Lionel Newman, another major player in Hollywood history who himself composed scores for over 200 films as well as a number of classic TV show theme songs. Another uncle, Emil Newman, was also an accomplished Hollywood conductor of long standing.

Newman’s work, like that of his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes, is as unsettling as it is beautiful. Both are intended to push us out of our comfort zones, nudging us to see something stylish and beautiful among the shadows and ruins. Mendes’s work uncovers the sinister forces lurking near us and sometimes within us, and his films ask us to stare uncomfortably at the black cracks in our own psyches. Newman’s music is like the dark music that rises from those cracks—haunting, frightening, altogether new yet somehow familiar. His music and Mendes’s films also present to us a painful yearning and loneliness that can seemingly never be filled. That hollow, empty quality is what makes their darkest works so frightening yet so brilliant, so recognizable and unfathomable all at once. They are dark masters and their creations are dangerous gems.

 

Child of the Sixties

Laura in GG Park, March 1969

The author in Golden Gate Park in the late 1960s

Among my childhood photo albums are pictures of me wearing daisy chains and sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park. I have vivid memories of spending time with my father and his friends in the park and in the adjoining Haight-Ashbury district when I was a very little girl. I was tiny, but I remember San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, during 1967’s legendary Summer of Love and in the years thereafter.

Though I grew up in the suburbs, I often visited what people in the Bay Area refer to simply as The City. All my life I have felt a special pride in my connection to San Francisco. My mom gave birth to me there, in a hospital just a few blocks’ walk from the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. My dad (whom I only lived with for the first few months of my life, and only saw occasionally from babyhood onward) brought me to various hippie happenings there during his visits with me from the time I was about three years old. He hoped to make up for what he saw as the soulless bourgeois childhood I was supposedly experiencing in the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs.

The PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love shows a San Francisco very much as I remember it during that time, albeit from about three feet off the ground. As a young child, I found San Francisco’s hippies often scary and off-putting. Even as a very little girl I had a sense of the importance of personal space and a desire that things be done safely, with purpose and according to plan. I was much more of a cautious goody-goody than even my mother, a high school teacher whom my father denigrated for being too suburban. I followed rules; my father and his friends generally did not. My dad hated authority, rules and The Man, so he and his friends would take joy in challenging the establishment whether or not I was with them.

I was always the only child present on visits with my father, and was usually ignored, so I spent a lot of time in watchful anxiousness, hoping not to be put in harm’s way. I was frightened by his and his hippie friends’ lack of concern with their actions or with me; they were lackadaisical, careless, loudly vulgar and sometimes stoned, so I felt ill at ease and unprotected with them.

People often talk about how loving and peaceful hippies were, but I saw also an enormous amount of anger directed by them toward rules, history and authority. That anti-establishment anger was often channeled for good in such campaigns as the fight for full and equal rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans and homosexuals, among other downtrodden groups. The often strident and unpleasant but necessary challenges to the entrenched establishment gave young people in particular the courage to question the wisdom of their leaders and force their government to justify its wars. They gave the populace the courage to stand against unjust laws and corrupt political practices. It was this movement that eventually gave journalists the courage and necessary establishment backing to bring down a powerful sitting president during the Watergate scandal just a few years later.

While the nation often benefited from the outspoken challenges of those who had felt stifled by government, big business and the limiting social mores left over from the 1950s, there was also an upsurge in more generalized antisocial behavior. The rise of the hippies led not only to social activism, peace and love, but also to huge numbers of (mostly) young people breaking rules just for the hell of it. Many wrapped their destructive or selfish behavior in a cloak of righteousness. Some took advantage of the new social openness to examine their psyches and motivations honestly and to try to relate to others in more direct and healthy ways; others just found this newly socially acceptable preoccupation with self an excuse for narcissistic behavior.

The ensuing decade of the 1970s was dubbed “The Me Decade” with reason. During the 1960s, modesty had lost favor while self-regard and constant awareness of one’s own needs and desires became viewed as positive things. Exuberant self-expression and in-your-face sexuality went from being shocking in the early 1960s to being surprisingly common within a decade. In the early 1970s, when I visited the high school where my mother taught (and which I would later attend), obvious bralessness was very common not only among the students but even among teachers. Some of the younger teachers wore hot pants to school. Overt sexuality was, however, considerably less evident in high school teachers’ fashions by the time I myself entered high school later in the seventies.

To be fair to those who were part of the laissez-faire San Francisco hippie culture of the 1960s, I saw plenty of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement even among more establishmentarian suburbanites during that time and in the decade that followed. Social boundaries were not well respected in general in the late 1960s; millions of people (not just hippies) were sharing their formerly private thoughts (not to mention their bodies and lots of adult-themed talk and media) with great abandon and carelessness, and we kids were often exposed to too much knowledge too soon. Those of us who appreciated having some boundaries in our lives were often ignored or denigrated by people who felt superior because of their mod, carefree sensibilities. Some, like my father, mistook the desires of others (like his young daughter) to follow laws, keep order or avoid conflict or offense as being necessarily conservative traits. They are not.

There was a middle ground in which people challenged the status quo more gently; they didn’t want social anarchy but still believed strongly in the promise of liberalism. Yes, many San Franciscans, hippies included, sought peaceful, meaningful, respectful social change and worked hard for it. But from my own perspective, as a very young person, I saw measured, realistic and inclusive social activism in the suburbs, too, even among those whom my dad and his friends found so hopelessly square.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Since I learned that Benedict Cumberbatch would play the title role in Britain’s National Theatre production of Hamlet this autumn, I’ve sought a way to justify another trip to London to see him on the stage. Happily, this week I was able to do the next best thing: I attended a special video presentation beamed from the Barbican Theatre in London to 1,400 sites around the world. The production wasn’t strictly live—I saw it delayed by a few hours to accommodate the time difference between London and Seattle—but it was exciting to know that it was a very fresh and special event.

The National Theatre’s staging of Shakespeare’s most popular play been a hugely successful one thanks to the justified popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch, who attained superstar status for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s exceptional Sherlock series, shown in the US as part of PBS’s Mystery series. This week’s initial showing of Hamlet in cinemas around the world drew the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live history;  more than 225,000 people around the world saw the production in cinemas on the first day. More showings had already been scheduled in cinemas over the coming two weeks, but the first showing was so extraordinarily popular that more cinema presentations will be added during November.

I quite enjoyed the production, which also featured the compelling, charismatic Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones; Julius Caesar in HBO’s ROME; Captain Wentworth in the splendid 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion) as Hamlet’s uncle/step-father, Claudius. The video created and shared around the world this past week will be repeated in several Seattle cinemas over the next two weeks as well as in other locations around the world, so if you don’t mind sitting for 3-1/2 hours (including a 20-minute intermission) in a cinema, this is a beautiful production, well filmed.

There are quirks in this production that are entertaining or interesting to watch, but can be distracting in their oddness. Benedict Cumberbatch dressed like a soldier and playing at being at war in his oversized dollhouse flanked by giant toy soldiers is an unexpectedly lighthearted moment, and is fun to watch. Yet it is strange, and it feels not only out of character but like a maneuver meant to distance the audience from the action—this production has many anachronisms and bits of folderol meant to throw the audience off guard and to play up the staginess of the production instead of allowing us to enter Hamlet’s world and even his head, as productions of this play tend to do. It is the most introspective of Shakespeare’s plays, so to play it in a way that constantly underlines its very falseness and inauthenticity is at odds with the desires of the productions we are used to. But being shaken out of our complacency and surprised by theatrical antics is one of the things that live theater does best, so there is room for a production of this old chestnut that leaves us a bit confused and off-center. Hamlet is himself imbued with many awkward and uncomfortable traits, after all, so it makes some sense that his story should be similarly discomforting and confusing.

When Hamlet’s murderous step-father, Claudius, connives and justifies planning Hamlet’s destruction in Act IV, windows and doors blow in and the entire set becomes covered in what look like black flecks of decay, or leaves, or even shredded tires—who can say? There is no explanation, and the black bits overtake Hamlet’s world and remain on the stage for the rest of the play, in every setting, inside and out, with only small sections of stage swept clean at various points during the ensuing drama to create pathways or patches of light.

As the production wound down, Cumberbatch arose from the ground for his curtain call, bits of the mysterious dark schmutz still clinging to his face, neck and clothes. Did the particles symbolize doom, or Claudius’s corruption (and perhaps Hamlet’s, since he takes an innocent life and leads others toward death), or general decay? Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, but what exactly it is that overtakes the land is not clear.

Of all the strange and original conceits incorporated into this production, the willful and inconsistently applied anachronisms are the most noticeable and, to me, off-putting. Shakespeare’s plays are often adapted to take place in other time periods than the Elizabethan era, and such variations can be very effective. My favorite case in point is the excellent film adaptation of Richard III starring a stunningly malevolent Ian McKellen which took place in an alternate version of 1930s Britain overseen by fascist dictatorial rulers. In that case, setting the story in a historical period which is so recent and freighted with so much fascistic horror and menace made it feel particularly vivid, real and emotionally accessible.

This version of Hamlet is the first Shakespearean production I have seen that sticks to no particular time period but instead chooses to be willfully and inconsistently anachronistic, beginning with Hamlet listening to Nat King Cole’s haunting “Nature Boy” (which was recorded in 1948) on a record player in what seems to be the late 1940s or early 1950s. Hamlet is greeted by a modern hipster version of Horatio, complete with backpack, pegged jeans and body-covering tattoos; his clothes and glasses seem like they could possibly be contemporary with the Nat King Cole music, but the backpack and tattoos take him to the modern realm. Ophelia in her slouchy sweatshirts and high-waisted pants seems to be dressing in clothes from the 1980s or 1990s, while Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and her new husband (and former brother-in-law) Claudius are clothed in garb contemporary with the song by which Hamlet is captivated (and the strains of which return repeatedly during the production, acting almost as a theme song). The acting troupe to whom Hamlet gives acting lessons are dressed in 1970s gear, and Hamlet himself is often in more timeless, neutral clothing, except for his David Bowie “Aladdin Sane” T-shirt and a handpainted punk overcoat.

The anachronisms delighted my daughter, who felt they underscored the timelessness of the story and emphasized the point that Hamlet as we have come to know him is a man out of time. I see her point, yet I found that the anachronisms often jarred me out of being able to suspend my disbelief, which is something I crave in theatrical experiences, so I found it less immersive than I would have liked. Aside from that, however, I found Cumberbatch very skilled at making me feel that he was in the moment and experiencing life as Hamlet, and the sets, direction and music were very effective.

If you enjoy Cumberbatch, Hines or Hamlet, this is a worthy and thought-provoking production.

Tom Hardy Is Right: Celebrities Have a Right to Privacy

Photo by Fred Thornhill, Reuters

Photo by Fred Thornhill, Reuters

The big buzz around talented and ever-modest movie star Tom Hardy this week centers on his refusal to be bullied into talking about his private life by pushy interviewers. An excellent interview in The Daily Beast titled “Even Celebrities Have a Right to Privacy” touches on that, but it goes far beyond that contretemps.

As Hardy himself said in the Daily Beat interview, “What  [Daily Xtra reporter Graeme Coleman] had to talk about was actually interesting, but how he did it was so inelegant. And I appreciate that I could probably have more grace as a human being, but I’m just a bloke. I’m just a man. And I’m just a man doing a job. I’m not a role model for anyone, and you’re asking me something about my private life in a room full of people. I don’t want to discuss my private life with you. I don’t know you! Why would I share that with a billion people? Also, if you felt it was so important for people to feel confident to talk about their sexuality, why would you put somebody on the spot in a room full of people and decide that was the time for them to open up about their sexual ambiguity? There’s also nothing ambiguous about my sexuality, anyway. I know who I am. But what does that have to do with you? And why am I a part of something now that, however legitimate, I haven’t offered my services for? It’s not about what he and his publication stands for, none of that is offensive, and on the contrary, it’s very admirable, and an important issue. But how I was asked was incredibly inelegant, and I just thought it was disrespectful and counterproductive to what he stands for.”

Hardy is a thoughtful, articulate, well-spoken man who often plays taciturn, difficult or broken people. (See (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Legend” for examples.) In the Daily Beast interview, Hardy expresses beautifully how frustrated he was to be grilled about his sexuality in what he called an “inelegant” fashion because he sees nothing wrong with people embracing who they are and sharing their truth about their sexuality in their own time and in their own way, but only if and when they wish to. Mr. Hardy felt the interviewer who pushed his own agenda undermined his own worthy cause by refusing to recognize actors’ rights to privacy. I agree with him.

The interview is full of fun tidbits, such as Hardy’s love of dogs’ sincerity and stories about going to drama school with Michael Fassbender. Hardy is a feminist and supporter of strong roles for women in film, and is also a noted animal lover and anti-poaching advocate, and the interview touches on these aspects of his personality briefly.

Despite Hardy’s huge success in film and on stage, he seems surprisingly humble when comparing himself to other actors with whom he has worked and studied. upcoming dual roles as London’s notoriously murderous twin brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray in “Legend”  and as Elton John in a biopic about the musical icon both promise to be exciting. I look forward to watching his career continue to bloom.