Alan Jay Lerner: A man of the movies too.
Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) whom I got to know a little bit when I lived in New York was primarily known as a highly successful songwriter (lyricist) and playwright of musicals. And that is as it should be. After all he wrote such landmark works as My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon among several others. But what is hardly known, mentioned or fully appreciated is that he was a man of the movies as well. He wrote the screen adaptations to all of the movies filmed from his plays. But he wrote original screenplays as well. His script for An American in Paris (1951) won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In 1956 he won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Song for the movie Gigi, a film that he not only helped to produce but to edit as well. That’s three Academy Awards in five years. Not a bad score for a man of the theatre.
In the early 1950s he worked at MGM with the famous Freed Unit and became quite knowledgeable with both the creative and technical aspects of how motion pictures were made. He was quite fond of the medium and wanted to devote more of his time and energies to it. But just as his talents were beginning to mature the movie musical genre went out of style. So he switched his focus to the stage and remained there for the rest of his life except for the occasional foray into the world of movies when one of his plays was being adapted.
On stage he had a series of successful shows with his primary composer Frederick “Fritz” Lowe along with some not-so-successful shows and a few outright flops with other composers. And his last attempt at creating an original musical for the movies The Happy Prince (1973) was also a flop. But that didn’t discourage him. He still thought of film as a where one could be just as creative and in many instances more creative than on stage. He had many ideas he was anxious to try but didn’t live to see them realized.
Alan Jay Lerner was a hard worker on the stage and behind the cameras as well. In the 1956/57 season when he won both the Tony and Academy Awards for his work on both stage and screen a friend on seeing the announcement while visiting with his father said: “My goodness, have you seen this about your son? Isn’t he lucky?” To which his father replied (in writing) “It’s a funny thing with Alan. The harder he works the luckier he gets.”
It is sometime forgotten that he was a fine contributor that indigenous American art form the Hollywood musical. This is just a note to say that some of us do remember and are grateful.
Almodovar: A true auteur.
If I had to pick my favorite living film director of the moment I would have to say that it is Pedro Almodovar, Spain’s wunderkind maker of such films as: Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Bad Education (2004) And Broken Embraces (2009). I have just seen his latest release The Skin I Live in (2011). And although it is not my favorite of his works, Talk to her (2002 is, the film still possesses many of his wonders. An offbeat and unusual story, ravishing, sumptuous camera work, committed acting and the creation of yet another vest pocket view into what can be only called Almodovar’s world.
But the one aspect of his films that I am always awed by is the wonderful and all encompassing sweep of his narratives. They generally start out by taking you down a broad somewhat familiar looking highway but then as soon as you become sure of the journey you’re taken off onto a side road that is both unfamiliar and strange that could lead you into the mountains or the sea. But once you get to one or the other you’re suddenly whisked in another direction that takes you down a narrow dirt road past some heavy growth of underbrush that doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere. But then just by this time you’re sure that you’re lost the story will take you up a small hill that leads back to the main highway and home. I can’t think of any other living filmmaker/ director whose narratives can involve and confuse in such a satisfying manner. At the moment he is (to me) the only director whose films have the discursive complexity of a good novel. Most seriously made films today are primarily character driven and deal with a single idea or plot that is introduced, intensified and then resolved in one way or another. But with the works of Almodovar we get more than that. We get outrageous characters being true to themselves, a mise en scene that’s frequently quite insane and a narrative full of multiple arteries which more often than not take us to places we’ve never been before. Or takes us to a familiar place via an unusual route.
It is for this reason that I think of Almodovar as a literary director. But literary but in a cinematic way. His films are so visually conceived that they can be viewed without subtitles and the complexity of their stories is still manifest. This proves to me that they are true cinematic creations unto themselves because they are not so married to the written or spoken word that they would be lost or worst incomprehensible without them.
Another aspect of Almodovar’s work that I truly appreciate is the generosity of spirit and whole hearted compassion his films display toward social/sexual outsiders. In this he reminds me of Tennessee Williams’ whose works, despite their central plots, were directly and indirectly pleas for tolerance and acceptance of others whose personal orientations were/are different to ours. But mostly I appreciate Almodovar because he is a filmmaker with a vision that is uniquely his. You can’t look at an Almodovar film and think that you’re looking at the work of some other filmmaker. His DNA is too firmly imbedded in them. Added to that at the moment he is a confident, completely assured filmmaker working at the top of his powers, utilizing the tools of his medium in masterful ways. In other words he is a true auteur in the original sense of that often misused and misunderstood appellation.
If you’re seriously interested in cinema and you haven’t experienced a film by Almodovar this is the time to give one a try. I think that you will be happy you did.
Mike Figgis: Attention must be paid.
Mike Figgis is a director whose films I always look forward to seeing. And even when they don’t quite work I’m always fascinated by why they didn’t. He is a director whose failures to me are often more interesting than other filmmakers successes. Why? Because they dare more and he is always trying for something different in the way he presents his stories on screen. And the things he tries, even when they fail, I find both intriguing and artistically unique in all kinds of ways. Before becoming a filmmaker he was a musician and played keyboards with several groups in his native England. And the visual as well as the narrative pattern of his films seem to follow the form of a musical composition rather than a literary one. So that even when his films are adapted from literary sources (Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1999), The Browning Version (1994) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995) the musical underpinning is quite apparent. And I like it because it makes the film interestingly unpredictable and seductive too. Quite often he composes the background music for his films which makes the connection more direct.
The films of his that I think are the most successful include Stormy Monday (1988). This was his first film to get a wide international release. I was mesmerized by it but not for conventional reasons. I actually had to look at it several times to realize why I liked it so much. The main reason for me was the mood that it set and authentic feel milieu. The next is Internal Affairs (1990). That wasn’t hard to figure. It plays like a nifty cop thriller on one level but on a more sub-textural level it is a corrosive study of sexual manipulation and evil with thought provoking questioning of the male ego (machismo). Richard Gere’s performance in the central role of Dennis Peck is to me one of the great overlooked performances in contemporary cinema. He is ably supported and even challenged by Andy Garcia explosive performance as his professional and personal rival. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) is justifiably hailed as his best film with career high performances by Nicholas Cage for which he received the Academy Award as Best Actor, and Elizabeth Shue who forced everyone to reassess all their opinions of her as an actress with her turn as a troubled prostitute who falls in love with a self destructive alcoholic. It was a film that was made on a small budget by Hollywood standards. But Figgis does such terrific things with that limitation that this film could serve as a model to other directors who find themselves in a similar situation. Timecode (2000) is an experiment I wished had turned out better. Still I admire the attempt. Using digital technology he tried to tell four continuous stories all taking place at the same time. And rather than use cuts he divided the screen into four parts and shows them all unfolding simultaneously. But as I said, I don’t think that it quite worked. But I felt that it was the start of an interesting way to reconstruct the standard model of storytelling on screen. What I wished is that he had taken the experiment further in another film perhaps because with Timecode he had gotten so close. But so far he hasn’t. Still, who knows, maybe he will in the future. One Night Stand (1997) is another film I wish worked better than it does. But damn, I still like it. A) Because it gives Wesley Snipes and Natassja Kinski the best and most attractive roles in their careers. And B) because of what he was trying to do with the story, especially the end that doesn’t pay off dramatically the way it should. Still in its details I think that it is beautifully worked out but there’s just too much missing to make the whole dramatically satisfying. Liebestraum (1991) is another film I feel that way about. I like it but it misses in its intent. Still I’m glad I saw it. And that’s the way I feel about all Mike Figgis films. Because successful or not he is a director to whom attention must be paid if you’re at all interested in art of film.