Sunday, November 11, 2018

'First Man': Neil Armstrong as the Last Roman?


First Man
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Scr: Josh Singer, from the biography by James R. Hansen
Phot: Linus Sandgren
Premiere: September 28, 1919
141 min.

 Who am I to argue with an Oscar-winning director? My usual little old miscreant self.

This two-and-a-half-hour epic on the life of the colorless yet accomplished Everyman, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, feels longer. With the best intentions, the result is a faithful, plodding hagiography of a secular saint, a modern man of steel with a heart of sentimental mush. It’s a Gary Cooper movie.

Given the chance to watch it from the front row of the theater, a mistake I haven’t made since Raging Bull, it was odd to see the film as the epic it was touted to be. It seemed as though most of the action consisted of talking heads and reaction shots, much more of a TV aesthetic. Lots and lots of close-ups. Neil Armstrong staring and staring and staring . . .  until finally I felt like the subject of an unsuccessful hypnotist.

Of course, the subject cries out for film treatment. I am a child of the Space Age, and “our” astronauts were the ultimate heroes and role models. We drank Tang, a sugar and-orange-flavored-and-colored powder, because “the astronauts drank it.” We ate Space Food Sticks. As is always the case with a movie that wants to be taken as gospel, the makers of First Man got a lot of ink about their attention to period detail. I was born in 1960, the same year as the daughter Armstrong and his wife lost to a tumor only two years later, an event which haunts his character in flashback throughout the film. I can testify that, visually, they nailed the period details. However, at the heart of the film is a lie so maudlin that it clanks like a cowbell.

Armstrong is aptly played by the most Sphinxlike actor in Hollywood today, Ryan Gosling, a performer so enigmatic he makes Garbo look like Jerry Lewis. Gosling and Chazelle hit paydirt with La La Land, a Minnelli-esque musical-tragedy pastiche. Now First Man weighs in like the second film in a trilogy about the travails of white people, a movie that insists that momentous occasions in history are always laden with emotional freight, that resurrects the strong, silent type and valorizes it (if only everyone would just leave Neil alone everything would be fine!). It’s as if Chazelle’s Armstrong is the Last Roman, the final and ultimate noble incarnation of American goodness. He is a closed-mouthed knight in civilian clothes.

Gosling is the master of poker-faced underplaying, working at a low emotional temperature throughout, interspersed with clench-toothed moments of subdued anguish beneath the placid yet unblinking visage Armstrong presents to the world. Actors who play heroes often have a blank, negative capacity to their personas that allows us to identify with them and project our feelings onto theirs. But Chazelle and Gosling go so far in quest of absolute zero that their Armstrong is a not just a cipher, but an uninteresting one. (I have Goslingphobia, brought on by Drive.)

Neil Armstrong was a regular guy, albeit intensely intelligent and focused. In the words of Hollywood, he had no redemptive arc. He did his job, lived his life, and was a very private man. He shunned the spotlight. So, how do you make a movie about him? Now, I’m sure that he was devastated and affected by his daughter’s early death. It gives the title character an emotional hook, something with which to work.

So (SPOILER ALERT) they threw in the bit near the end of the film about him throwing his dead daughter’s bracelet into a crater on the Moon and crying. It rings hollow because it’s so shamelessly speculative, or as I’m sure it was pitched, “emotionally true” if not something Neil Armstrong would ever do. It gives the lead character an emotional center and weight, it gives closure; it ties the story together. And we slaughter truth on the altar of the cheap epiphany.

Meanwhile, this 12 Years a Caucasian plods on. And what was so great about being repressed, anyway? The marriage of Neil and Janet Armstrong is presented as being typical of the time — everyone lodged in their traditional roles, not communicating. This is misrepresented in the film as the kind of Stoicism that made America great, not as the kind of problem that led to huge numbers of couples getting divorced, from the ‘70s on (including the Armstrongs).

So strip away the false, and what do you have? Another paean to man’s ingenuity, with the usual pumped-up special-effects sequences you might expect. The real story of the mission to the Moon isn’t a stirring, romantic adventure. It was accumulation of tiny moments, of the contributions of thousands, coordinated and assembled with audacious frenzy. That’s a story worth filming. That was Hidden Figures.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The case for FilmStruck

On October 26, WarnerMedia announced that it intended to shut down FilmStruck, the streaming service for classic and world cinema, as of November 29.

I can’t argue the dollars and cents of it. Money is a language that is deaf to all others, and that overrules them all. Nor can I argue that is a fledgling cultural institution that “must” be sustained, like some precocious cripple.

Instead, as a subscriber since Day One, let me tell you what FilmStruck does. It gathers in one place some of the best, most interesting, and most challenging films ever made. It’s a window into other worlds. It’s a history of film in and of itself. It is a cultural nexus, a node of activity, a resource that stimulates thought, feeling, and community. SIGN THE PETITION TO PRESERVE IT HERE!

It’s the best kind of receptacle for an art form. It’s efficiently and elegantly designed, expertly curated, with just enough information to educate and contextualize the film the viewer is about to see — or see for the 100th time. The mix of movies presented in stately rotation to date range from popular greats such as Singin’ in the Rain to challenges such as Kobayashi’s taxing The Human Condition, or Klimov’s brutal Come and See. (Besides, how else can I, in an idle moment, watch a beautifully sharp Seven Samurai on my Android phone, any time of the day or night? This is much more spiritually important to me than you might imagine.)

 As a film writer, I have used the service as the basis for for numerous stories and much valuable research. Oddly, the loss of FilmStruck would affect me less than most. I have spent years ferreting out obscure films of all kinds, and I know all the tricks of the trade. I can dig and scour and find what I need.

But for most film-lovers, access is the key to their enjoyment and their development of knowledge. The early promise of a wide-ranging, accessible cornucopia of film online withered and died under the conservative dictates of commerce. Potential customers must deal with a profusion of competing streaming platforms and archives, each with its own menu of films ranging from mediocre to awful.

Without FilmStruck, streaming movies become just another commodity, a lowest-common-denominator passel of mind-numbing time-wasters, the Criterion titles and other gems scattered far beyond the reach of most. Without FilmStruck, another art form vanishes from sight, the past disappears, and the culture disintegrates because the collective memory and the concept of quality are gone.

The genie is already out of the bottle. We know that a FilmStruck is possible, and that it’s as fine an artistic and entertainment endeavor as has come down the pike in many a day. These people know what they are doing, and I heard some of them took this on in addition to their regular jobs. You cannot buy that ind of dedication  it comes from the heart.

Already site maintenance has been discontinued, and I run up against film choices that reveal "no content available." I can only urge that the service continue in some form or other. Hey — you got a guy standing here with money in his hand, willing to pay for it. Powers that be, this revenue stream has only begun to flow. Let’s make some money, watch some movies, and do the world some good. Long live FilmStruck!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

NFR Project 53: 'The Dragon Painter' (1919)

The Dragon Painter
Dir: William Worthington
Prod: not listed
Scr: Richard Schayer, from the novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa
Phot: Frank D. Williams
Premiere: September 28, 1919
53 min.

The Dragon Painter makes an excellent companion piece to the previously reviewed Broken Blossoms, a vastly more popular film featuring an Asian character made the same year. In sharp contrast to the “yellowface” performance of Richard Barthelmess, Dragon Painter is an attempt to create an alternative, non-stereotyped kind of cinema from an Asian-American perspective.

This film was the product of the Haworth Pictures Corporation, founded and funded by the first Japanese film star, Sessue Hayakawa, who had achieved fame and fortune thanks to his performance in only his second film, The Cheat (1915). He was an international star, but could only find roles in mainstream films as a suave villain or an exotic heartthrob, or both simultaneously. As a legitimate actor, Hayakawa wanted to be treated like one. So he went ahead and took care of it himself.

In March, 1918, Hayakawa formed the independent Haworth Pictures Corporation. The Dragon Painter is the ninth of 22 Haworth films that served as popular starring vehicles for him over a span of five years. These productions were a relief for audiences who wanted to see three-dimensional Asian characters conveying a full range of adult emotions.

The Dragon Painter’s story is set in a mythic, rural Japan (a pristine Yosemite Valley substitutes for the real thing). Here, Hayakawa plays Tatsuo, a tortured artist. A magnificent wielder of the brush, he believes that the divinity of the mountain changed his love, a princess, into a dragon, 1,000 years ago, and that he is doomed to include the dragon, unseen but ever-present, in all his paintings. He is a classic rebel: a “wild man,” a truth-teller who has no truck with the fancy and false ways of civilization.

Meanwhile, an older master Kano, who has no son, seeks a protégé to pass his craft to, as well as a spouse for his daughter Ume-ko (Tsuru Aoki, a fine actress and Hayakawa’s wife). Kano summons Tatsuo, telling him his daughter is the princess he seeks. Tatsu and Ume-ko do fall in love, and Kano takes him into the family.

Only — Tatsuo stops painting. “What use is it to paint you now that I’ve found you?” he asks. “I destroyed the divine gift you possessed,” she responds. In a Shakespearian move, she feigns suicide. His inspiration returns — the intertitle proclaims that “sorrow gave back to Tatsuo the mystery that love had taken”. In strong contrast to Hollywood’s typical overwrought ending, Ume-ko simply reappears one day, and Tatsuo realizes that he must integrate art and life. “Now that sorrow has returned your genius, and you have learned that Love must be Art’s servant, I can take my place at your side again without remorse,” she says, and the film ends with him working, her hand on his shoulder. It’s a refreshingly mature outcome for any commercial film, no matter what era.

Even in this attempt to get the cultural integrity “right,” there are contradictions. The film story was taken form a novel written by white American southern woman who was enamored of the East and who traveled extensively there with her second and third husbands. Father figure Kano is played by a Caucasian actor in yellowface, the prolific Edward Peil, Sr. (ironically, he is the only actor to be in the casts of both this and Broken Blossoms). American audiences praised it for its authenticity, but Japanese critics were quick to point out its unconvincing flaws.

Still, it’s a well-acted, well-thought-out piece, complete with magnificent outdoor cinematography from cameraman Frank D. Williams. The pace is crisp, yet the movie takes pleasure in the landscapes Tatsuo tries to capture.

Hayakawa’s life was a thrill ride from the word go. He had already tried suicide after being disqualified from joining the Japanese Navy due to a burst eardrum. He studied political economics at the University of Chicago, where he was a star quarterback. He became an actor by chance; he later turned to a career as an artist (fighting the Nazis in the French Resistance for a time as well). He came back to acting long enough to win praise in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), then became a Zen priest.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: the Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection.