Sunday, February 22, 2009

Random Readings Vol. 7

This installment of Random Readings is from Act III of Cormac McCarthy's play THE STONEMASON. The play follows a family of black stonemasons, the Telfairs, over a three-year period in the early 1970s. Though Ben Telfair, the narrator, is ostensibly talking about his father's craft during this scene, it strikes me that McCarthy is really talking about writing, or any other serious immersive endeavor:

"The work is everything, and whatever is learned is learned in the doing. ... And if it is true that laying stone can teach you reverence of God and tolerance of your neighbor and love for your family it is also true that this knowledge is instilled in you through the work and not through any contemplation of the work.

"... It's not the mortar that holds the work together. What holds the stone trues the wall as well and I've seen him check his fourfoot wooden level with a plumb bob and then break the level over the wall and call for a new one. Not in anger, but only to safeguard the true. To safeguard it everywhere. He says that to a man who's never laid a stone that there's nothing you can tell him. Even the truth would be wrong. The calculations necessary to the right placement of stone are not performed in the mind but in the blood."

Monday, February 16, 2009

On the road ...

... for the next three weeks, so not much blogging. Regular schedule will resume Sunday March 8 (the day Daylight Savings Time resumes, a sure sign of spring).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"The Wrestler"

A lot has been written about Darren Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER lately. Most of it has focused, rightly so, on Mickey Rourke's Oscar-nominated performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a battered-but-not-quite-beaten '80s wrestling star. I finally caught up with the film this week and it's really stuck with me the last few days. Some quick notes:

+ Excellent and evocative use of New Jersey locations. As bleak and depressing as they appear in this winterset drama, they're immediately recognizable to anyone who's spent much time in the state. A handful of scenes were shot on the Asbury Park boardwalk (see photo above) and neighboring streets. Due to redevelopment efforts, the area looks a lot better now than it did when the film was shot, though that's not saying much (there's also a scene inside the gutted structure that was once the Casino's carousel house). You see a lot of Garfield, Elizabeth, Linden and Rahway as well - not exactly the most attractive spots of the Garden State, but perfect for the film. When the Ram gets out of the hospital after his heart attack early in the film, it's Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. Aronofsky's from Brooklyn, but you wouldn't know it. He chose his Jersey locations like a native.

+ An authentic feel to the backstage scenes among the wrestlers, many of whom are played by actual pros. One of the wonderful things movies can do is take you behind the scenes into worlds you wouldn't normally have access to, and THE WRESTLER is one of the best examples of this. The camaraderie among the wrestlers, the respect they show each other as fellow performers, even in the dingiest of venues, feels real.

+ There is not a second in the film when you doubt Rourke's performance. He brings a lot of life experience to the role and it shows. From the pumped-up physique to his battered and distorted face, Rourke has clearly gone the distance for this. Cliches aside, it is the role of lifetime. And if he doesn't take home the Oscar for it, there is no justice in the world.

+ The unnaturally pale Evan Rachel Wood (seen above), as the Ram's estranged daughter Stephanie, doesn't have a lot of screen time, but she goes toe-to-toe in her scenes with Rourke and meets the challenge every time. She shifts from dismissive coldness to second-thought skepticism to grudging affection to vulnerability in a way that never seems forced. And she brings it all home in a display of white-hot female anger that's almost frightening.

+ Which brings us to the other main female role, Marisa Tomei as a stripper and single mom with the stage name of "Cassidy." Complex, charming, troubled, sexy and conflicted as they come, Tomei's Cassidy is possibly the most true-to-life representation of a stripper in a major film ever. She works hard in the role, and she looks great doing it (the strip club scenes, filmed at Cheeques in Linden, are also dead-on accurate). To judge from some of her other recent films, such as FACTOTUM and BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, Tomei, at 44, has no qualms about getting naked on screen physically as well as emotionally. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

+ And of course, there's the Bruce Springsteen song which plays over the closing credits, and which you can hear in the trailer below.

In its last 30 minutes, THE WRESTLER almost seems like it's going to turn into a hokey sports movie. And then it doesn't. Its slightly ambiguous ending may bother some, but in retrospect it feels like the only way it could have ended. This film - and those characters - linger in your mind long after you've left the theater.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Big Apple Time Capsule Pt. 3: SHAFT

The third in an occasional series of posts about New York City in the 1970s as seen through the prism of that decade's shot-on-location crime dramas ...

SHAFT (1971) isn't a great film by any means. Its reputation rests mostly on the fact it was one of the earliest entries in the 1970s blaxploitation cycle and that, quality-wise, it's miles above the films that followed it. Based on Ernest Tidyman's 1970 novel, SHAFT is really a straightforward private eye/action film, albeit one featuring an aggressive African-American hero (Richard Roundtree in a tentative but star-making performance) facing down white villains, with black militants and Harlem gangsters as secondary characters (Tidyman was white, as was the film's co-writer, John D.F. Black). The direction, by Gordon Parks Sr., is inconsistent, the film's pacing erratic, and a lot of the performances aren't quite up to par. It's also marred by what was obviously a limited budget. What it does have, of course, is Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning score and some great New York locations circa 1970.

These begin with the film's opening credits, which play out over a crane shot of Times Square that then pans down 42nd Street, past movie marquees (THE SCALPHUNTERS and LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSEY are two of the films advertised) and picks up John Shaft (Roundtree) as he comes up the stairs from the subway. He then casually strolls into the middle of the intersection, dodging cabs and flipping drivers the bird. It's a wintry New York (January 1971 according to a calendar we see), as shot by cinematographer Urs Furrer, and Shaft's breath clouds in front of him as he makes his way to his office off Times Square (46th and Sixth in the novel, above "the offices of second-rate lawyers, small show-business types (and) a couple of novelty-merchandise jobbers"). Along the way, he passes posters for Broadway's HAIR and LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS, and a movie theater showing BARBARELLA. Later in the film, he buys roasted chestnuts from a vendor outside the Victoria Theatre at Broadway and 46th, showing a double-bill of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS. A cab ride takes him past marquees for GET CARTER and a double-feature of PATTON and M*A*S*H.

The action eventually moves uptown, after a gangboss (Moses Gunn) hires Shaft to find his kidnapped daughter. Shaft walks the Harlem streets accompanied by Hayes' bluesy "Soulsville," and passes under the Apollo Theatre marquee on 125th Street, this time advertising a performance by Edwin Starr. There's even a cameo by Antonio Fargas as a street informant named "Bunky."

It isn't until about halfway through the film that we get to see Shaft's West Village digs. His bachelor pad is an airy, book-lined studio on Jane Street, complete with hardwood floors, spiral staircase and fine art on the walls. It's across from the now-defunct No Name Bar on Hudson Street, Shaft's hangout, where he outwits a pair of gangsters on his trail. We also get a walking tour of the neighborhood that includes Cafe Wha?, the recently closed Minetta Tavern and the still-operating Cafe Reggio on MacDougal Street, where Shaft sips espresso.

SHAFT does have other pleasures. In addition to Hayes' score (which, beyond the classic title theme, is quite extensive and jazzy), it has great supporting performances by Gunn as Bumpy Jonas ("Knocks Persons" in the novel) - yet another movie character based on real-life Harlem mobster Bumpy Johnson - and Drew Bundini Brown, then best known as Muhammad Ali's cornerman, as Jonas' sidekick, Willy.

Like all cinematic time capsules, SHAFT sometimes feels painfully dated. And though Tidyman went on to win an Oscar for writing THE FRENCH CONNECTION (and pen six more Shaft novels), the screenplay feels choppy. Part of this is probably due to the rewrite process, during which, according to Tidyman's son Nathaniel Rayle, Black was brought in to embroider the script with "white Hollywood's concept of black dialect." Either way, the film was a huge hit and spawned two sequels, the first of which found Shaft battling for survival in a dangerous and alien world rarely seen on the big screen - Queens.  

NEXT TIME: "Shaft's Big Score"

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Thought for the day ...

... from an unlikely source.

"You have to create your life. You have to carve it, like a sculpture."

- William Shatner, quoted in Esquire, Feb. 2006