Monday, May 25, 2015

Ben Stiller Does Not Remember Me

Ben Stiller, circa 1976

Ben Stiller’s mother, actress and comedian Anne Meara died on Saturday, the day after the 25th anniversary the death of Anne Greenberg, my mother.

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows that Ben Stiller is the biggest name I can drop, having been cabin mates at a Maine summer camp in 1976. He was a bit of a ball of energy. I remember him laying in his bunk, belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” but, more than anything that summer, I remember when his mother came to visit.

At 11, I was already well into what would become a pretty long geek phase — yes, my glasses did break that summer and yes, I did bind them back together with a thick wad of masking tape. But I was also deeply in love with movies and just beginning to recognize my calling as a writer.

I wrote movie reviews for the camp newspaper. On parent’s weekend, Ben Stiller pulled his mother over to me and said “Mom, mom, this is the guy who wrote the movie reviews!” She smiled at me and said “You’re good.” That’s it, two words but, when you’re young and impressionable, two words can make a difference. It wasn’t because she was a celebrity, it was more that she was an adult, a stranger and unmistakably genuine.

Obviously, I remember the moment, nearly 40 years later and not merely because it involved famous people. I remember the moment in 4th grade that two teachers told me that I should be be in the advanced creative writing workshop that was reserved exclusively for 5th and 6th graders.

My mother was my English and Drama teacher in high school. I remember when she really liked a story that I had put a lot of hard work into. I remember the writers she introduced me to — Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, Tom Stoppard  — they are my biggest influences.

Ben Stiller doesn’t remember me. Why should he? But today, I am thinking of him, remembering his mother and mine.    

Monday, May 18, 2015

Advice From Ultron

At one point in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular Ultron, a sort of artificial intelligence bad guy, says “In order to survive, we must evolve.” He could be talking about movies. 
Back in the late 50’s, during the Golden Age of Television, people were staying away from the movies in droves because they could sit at home and be entertained. Of course, it didn’t help matters that, at that point, movies had settled into a groove, gotten stale and boring. To combat TV, movies became bigger, epic, offering cinemascope spectacles that could not be contained on the little boxes in the living room.
Today, it’s happening all over again, with countless networks and streaming services series offering high quality shows, movies are, once again responding by being big, loud, long and, much of the time, less about showing human beings on screen and more about technical artists creating worlds, creatures and events with software.
Of course, I have been watching drawings on screen since I was little, fascinated by Bugs Bunny and Speed Racer as well as the matte paintings that made up so much of King Kong and the like but this stuff is different, new and represents something I have mixed feelings about.

Filmmaking is no longer about film, it’s about mouse-clicks and it has been for quite awhile now. I am not an anti-technology Luddite. The digital revolution made movie-making democratic. Almost everybody has access to enough technology to make something we, for some reason, still call a film.  I think that’s great but I also think that, just because you have everything you need to make a film doesn’t necessarily mean that you know everything you need to know in order to make a film. Making cool stuff appear onscreen is not the same thing as telling a story. 

The art of cinema is about getting an audience to believe in what they are watching whether it is a car commercial, a documentary or a sci-fi extravaganza. Special Effects have been around since the beginning of film. Georges Melies was in the audience that night in Paris when the Lumière brothers screened their films for the first time and, since then, the question has been there “What are movies for, spectacle or reality?” Melies, a magician, crafted wild images on film and used them as part of his act.

It’s been said that nearly 80% of the shots in Citizen Kane involved a special visual effect of some kind. Welles was actively involved with the process, pushing the team at RKO past the limits of what the optical printer could do, taking it into new territory. Nobody comes out of Kane talking about the special effects. What was special was that they had the effect of serving the story, making the audience believe they were seeing something that they were not actually seeing and drawing them into the film.

If you come out of a movie and say “The special effects were amazing,” then they weren’t, they took you out of the movie, disengaged you from the story to the point where you were captivated by pixels moving around on a screen. That’s not why we go to the movies.

Every movie trailer ahead of the Avengers was another CGI-fest and, by the time the film started, I had already had enough, Don’t get me wrong, I love super-hero movies — at least I did but I couldn’t escape this question of “Is this what movies have become?” I sat there, unable to figure out what Age of Ultron was even about much less even care. I was watching computerized drawings.

Yes, movies have to survive the battle for our attention when there are always so many other options pulling at us. I don’t blame movies. I just found Age of Ultron so empty, soulless and, if I can presume, it was like they didn’t even care about writing a story; plot is just downtime between big action sequences. Any dialogue is there to set up a snarky line - who knew superheroes could be so sarcastic or bawdy? 

The question about what a film is or should be is also near the surface of While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach’s new film about a middle-aged couple going through an identity crisis after befriending a younger couple and becoming seduced by their lifestyle.