Raging Bull (#110 of 10)

Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

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Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor
Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

Art-making is too often discussed in terms that implicitly liken it to magic, thusly neglecting the truth that it involves work that resembles the day-by-day toils of many other ostensibly plainer occupations. With Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, film critic Glenn Kenny quietly pushes against that mythology. A compassionate, pragmatic anti-sentimentality, or an attempt at one, serves as the through line for his examination of one the most mythologized of all screen actors. In his introduction, Kenny writes of “De Niro's reluctance to do interviews, and his seeming stumbling while doing them, his famous taciturnity in contrast to his preternaturally vivid presence on screen, created a mythology that itself spawned a counter-mythology. It made De Niro as famous for being an enigma, a code that a journalist or critic with just the right amount of persistence and perspicacity could crack. But what if the answer is right in front of our faces, and always has been?” The author follows that with a quote in which director Elia Kazan (who worked with De Niro on The Last Tycoon) claims that the actor is among the hardest working that he's collaborated with, and the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays.

In other words, Kenny brings De Niro down to earth as a working artist, which serves to somewhat ironically reawaken your awe for the actor and the profound emotional nakedness that he once achieved reliably in one performance after another. Reading this, one wonders, not why De Niro drifted toward less immersive a-job's-a-job roles, but how he plumbed himself as deeply as long as he did. The author emphasizes detail, connecting physical gestures from one role, sometimes mercilessly, to their repetition in another film (such as the reappearance of a “shoo” motion from Goodfellas in Awakenings.) He paints De Niro unsurprisingly as a master craftsman who's intensely devoted to analysis and rehearsal, which he, somewhat, ineffably fuses with his personality and his soul. (I'm indulging my own mythology.) Following the familiar Cahiers du Cinéma “Anatomy of an Actor” template, Kenny discusses 10 “iconic roles” in De Niro's canon that serve to shape the actor's career as he evolved from galvanic acting titan to controversial “sell-out” to an inevitably mellower character actor who's still capable, nevertheless, of imbuing a questionable project or under-respected performer with a bit of prestige by association.

Summer of ‘89: Dead Poet’s Society...Do the Wrong Thing

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Dead Poet’s Society</em>...Do the Wrong Thing
Summer of ‘89: <em>Dead Poet’s Society</em>...Do the Wrong Thing

Dead Poets Society purports to be about the bravery of following one's own path. This is a bright, shining lie, one the film is ballsy enough to tell to your face. It makes examples of those who march to the beat of a different drummer by crushing them with the drum kit. Those who stay in line get to cover their asses before making empty gestures of sympathy toward the people they helped destroy. A more conformist, less inspirational piece of cinema would be hard to find.

And yet, this was perceived as “inspirational” by the audiences that made it a hit in 1989; by the Academy, which nominated it for Best Picture; and by the AFI, which lists the film at #52 on its list of the 100 most inspiring movies of all time. That's higher than A Raisin in the Sun, Sergeant York, Sounder, Shane, and two far better examples of its own inspirational-teacher genre, Fame and Stand and Deliver.

Dead Poets Society takes place in 1959 at Welton Academy, one of those enormous, stuffy prep schools beloved by old Hollywood, British people, and Academy voters. The students are as white as the snow that falls every winter, and just as cold and blasé. Into their standard, almost militaristic existence comes replacement English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams), an alumnus whose claim to fame was creating the titular institute. Keating, like all stereotypical move teachers, is a bit looser than his predecessor: He calls bullshit on the standard way of teaching poetry, takes the kids outside for lessons and, during his first day of class, utters the one of the AFI's top-100 greatest movie quotes:

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

And how do these boys carpe their diem? By resurrecting Keating's Dead Poets Society. There's no mention of why this is a radical idea, because none exists. Any high school kid will tell you poetry is evil. The Dead Poets Society is a group of kids who sneak out into the woods to quote Thoreau and read poetry that isn't assigned by their teacher. In other words, they're doing extra credit work! What school would be against this? Welton Academy, of course, and the school's objections lead, in most convoluted fashion, to the ouster of our beloved teacher.

Box Office Rap Insidious: Chapter 2 and the Twitter Index

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Box Office Rap: Insidious: Chapter 2 and the Twitter Index
Box Office Rap: Insidious: Chapter 2 and the Twitter Index

I imagine that predicting box-office grosses on a weekly basis in a pre-social media, pre-Internet environment would not only have been difficult, but virtually impossible to register with any accuracy, unless said prognosticator held a position of some esteem within the film industry. Let's give this pre-era a concrete date—say, roughly 1999. I choose this year not because of Y2K or the neat temporal markers brought about by a new millennium, but because that year introduced Brandon Grey's website Box Office Mojo, which specializes not just in forums meant for box-office speak, but seeks to function as a comprehensive, online database for the domestic and international grosses of every film released in North American theaters within the modern era. Now, 14 years later, the site offers such information dating back to 1980, a year significant to film history for many reasons, though more because it's a year that symbolizes the death of New Hollywood filmmaking and the full-on emergence of a blockbuster mentality within the studio system. The Empire Strikes Back was the highest-grossing film of the year; Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate was met with devastating financial and critical failure, to the extent that United Artists went bankrupt. Moreover, Peter Bogdanovich has suggested that contemporary film students possess no conception of film history prior to Raging Bull—also released in 1980.

Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ

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Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—<em>The Last Temptation of Christ</em>
Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—<em>The Last Temptation of Christ</em>

I. Spreading the Word

I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think he's too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what he's saying, but we can't figure out how he's saying it”). He'll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think you've got him, whereby he'll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharek's description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.

5 for the Day: Fight Scenes

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5 for the Day: Fight Scenes
5 for the Day: Fight Scenes

Since the whole point of a fight scene is visceral impact, I won't waste time mucking about with a thumbnail history of onscreen battery, much less try to parse the difference between justified and gratiuitous violence. I'll only lay down a couple of ground rules up front.

First, for purposes of this list, I define a fight scene as a violent confrontation in which one (or preferably both) combatants go into the showdown unarmed; in other words, barroom brawls, martial arts showdowns, boxing matches and schoolyard dust-ups, yes; swordfights, knife fights, gunfights, lightsaber duels, no. It's OK if one or both combatants acquire weapons at some point during the fight (a knife, a chair, a beer bottle, etc.) as long as specific weaponry doesn't define the character of the fight. For example, two TV fights that almost made the cut were the showdown beween Dan and Captain Turner in Season Three of Deadwood (which concluded with a coup de grace by hickory stick) and the kitchen brawl between Tony Soprano and Ralphie Cifaretto in Season Four of The Sopranos, which used every object the men could get their bloody hands on. But I would not include the final swordfight from Rob Roy or the various telekinetic faceoffs in Scanners because, Jesus, come on.

Second, this list is not meant to represent the ““best” movie fight scenes of all time—because I wouldn't presume such encyclopedic recall, because fight scenes are so inherently arresting that even a pedestrian one can jolt you, and because certain directors and actors are so skilled at giving and receiving punishment that you could devote entire 5 for the Days to their work alone. (How does one choose the best John Wayne or Bruce Lee or Jet Li or Buster Keaton fight, much less elevate one above the rest? It's apples and oranges and mangoes and kiwis.) The following entries, then, are representative samples of certain types of movie fight scenes, distinguished only by their irrefutable excellence.

Yeah, you read that right. I said irrefutable. You got a problem with that, slick? Wanna take it outside?

Okay, then. Roll up your sleeves and let's do it.

Last Call for Worst Lists

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Last Call for Worst Lists
Last Call for Worst Lists

For weeks now, my esteemed colleague Edward Copeland of Edward Copeland on Film has been soliciting ballots for his poll of the worst Best Picture Oscar winners of all time. Be a dear and help him out, won't you?

All you have to do is look through the list of Best Picture winners (Copeland helpfully provides one on his own web site; click here to see it) and then list the ten worst movies on that list, with 1 being the worst; then email your ballot to Mr. Copeland at eddiesworst@yahoo.com. You needn't have watched every Best Picture winner to vote; just assess what you've seen. Final deadline is midnight on Friday, March 31, after which point he'll begin tabulating the results.

You can read my ballot, followed by a whopping comments thread, by clicking here. Other posted ballots include:

Steadi’s Daddy

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Steadi’s Daddy
Steadi’s Daddy

[Author's Note: Since the Steadicam discussion seems to be flowering into something more than an argument about a piece of equipment, rather than change the subject with a totally different post, I'll stay the course. What follows is reprint of an article I wrote about the history and aesthetics of the Steadicam, built around an interview with the device's creator, Garrett Brown. It was originally published in the Winter 2005 issue of Film Festival Reporter magazine, which is edited by my friend Scott Bayer, a journalist and filmmaker.]

Garrett Brown might be the most influential filmmaker that the moviegoing public hasn't heard of. Throughout his long career, the 62-year old Philadelphian has been a mostly behind-the-scenes presence in the industry, working as cinematographer, cameraman, inventor and teacher. Yet his impact has been as profound as that of any auteur, star or studio executive, thanks to his greatest invention: the Steadicam, a combination camera and body harness that merged the improvisational freedom of the handheld shot with the elegance of the dolly, and expanded the frontiers of cinema.

In the 30 years since the camera made its debut in director Hal Ashby's Woody Guthrie biography Bound for Glory—in a still-dazzling shot that began atop a high crane, drifted to earth and then wove through a camp full of migrant workers—the Steadicam has become a star player in some of the most visually and dramatically memorable sequences of the past three decades, sequences that advance the narrative while subtly commenting on the meaning and uses of movie language.