Friday, September 29, 2006

A Killer Read

I had a Season-One-of-Project Runway experience with Christine Vachon's new memoir A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond. That is to say, I sat down with the book on the evening I bought it and read every page until I was finished, at around 3:30am. Granted, A Killer Life is hardly A Suitable Boy, and nor is Christine Vachon aiming to be Marcel Proust, so gobbling this book in one go is hardly a feat of readerly stamina. Rather, it's a testament to the absorbing way in which Vachon—the co-founder, leading shepherd, and most public face of Killer Films—conveys two decades' worth of professional experience as well as her own forthright, principled, occasionally abrasive, utterly unprecious view of what matters in a movie, and of how the American independent film scene should and does operate (which, predictably enough, amount to two very different things).

Vachon, working with a co-writer named Austin Bunn, shows the same helpful and lucid grasp of her book's audience that she has demonstrated in her stewardship and remarkably successful marketing of 32 feature films since 1991; she presumes the film literacy of her readers without pandering, but also without any alienating veils of insider posturing or untranslated industryspeak. As proud as she obviously is of her work, she doesn't expect the titles of her films to speak for themselves, even though several of them do: if the Killer Films imprimatur doesn't mean much to you, consider the phenomenal track-record contained within Vachon's 15-year portfolio, including not just some of the most seminal films of contemporary queer cinema (Go Fish, I Shot Andy Warhol, Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and all of Todd Haynes' films) but also some white-hot provocations (Larry Clark's Kids, Todd Solondz's Happiness), one midsized commercial breakthrough (Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo), and one late-career effort by a canonized auteur (Robert Altman's The Company).

These films don't get equal airtime in Vachon's account, and in a few cases, such as Hedwig and The Company, I was eager to hear a little more about the mechanics and vicissitudes of working with a floridly ambitious tyro like John Cameron Mitchell or a notoriously free-form marionette like Altman, whose films hardly radiate the queer angles and empathies that mark so many of Vachon's projects. Still, notwithstanding the inevitable omissions, Vachon is a frank and generous raconteur, and though the book is clearly being marketed as a "tell-all," she isn't being coy in asserting that her overriding interest is in clarifying the tough, frugal, extremely heterogeneous, but artistically rewarding tasks of being an artist-friendly independent film producer. She knows that even many film aficionados have a shakier grasp on a producer's duties than they do on other behind-the-scenes work, and this is for a reason:

"With every other credit in a film, you know exactly what it means; the production designer on Camp did exactly the same job as the production designer on Cold Mountain. But 'producer' is a catchall. In the morning, I could be talking to David Schwimmer about potential parts in our movies, because he got into the business to be De Niro, not 'Ross' from Friends. By the afternoon, I might be negotiating with a big composer's agent to do the score for One Hour Photo (and when he laughs at what we can afford to pay, we spin the Rolodex and go elsewhere). By the afternoon, I could be on a plane up to Toronto to support Glenn Close on set, who is having a hard time with her character and is nervous about working with a whip-smart but slightly overwhelmed director."

That last allusion is surely to Rose Troche's interesting but oddly stifled movie The Safety of Objects, which apparently tested through the roof but gained zero traction on the critical or commercial markets. Though Vachon tends to be terse about these sorts of misfires, probably because it's impossible to say for certain why The Grey Zone or Storytelling passed with nary a blip, she doesn't skew the book too grossly toward her roundest successes. You leave with a candid sense of why Kids was a horrendous shoot, despite yielding a satisfying product; of where and how A Home at the End of the World got unlatched from newbie director Michael Mayer's vision for the project, though Vachon seems as surprised as anyone that she wavered in this case on her usual policy of staunch director advocacy; of how a promising script with generous development momentum like The Shaggs, a story about folk-singing sisters that was intended as Kirsten Dunst's next project just as Spider-Man hit, suddenly gets scuttled despite every good intention; of how the unnamed but transparently designated Crime + Punishment in Suburbia unraveled into Killer's largest lapse in collective judgment.

To a naïve outsider like me, who has logged zero hours on a film-set or in a production office, one of the most valuable lessons built into A Killer Life is just how fine the line can be between triumph and fiasco; even the most unified artistic visions have often survived the kind of peril and disagreement that one tends to imagine as the exclusive property of flops and vanity projects. Vachon spends a good deal of time, for example, illuminating the disastrous corporate takeover of Far from Heaven, which was briefly indentured to its bond company. Vachon, who would later accept her first Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature for this movie, couldn't even access its bank account for several days and was routinely shamed by bookkeepers and insurance types for failing to regulate the budget. The Boys Don't Cry set was riven by several fractious confrontations between Ivy League director Kimberly Peirce and linchpin star Hilary Swank over their very different reads on Brandon Teena, and though Killer managed to trump a competing project at 20th-Cenutry Fox (which ultimately quashed its own movie and distributed Boys Don't Cry through its Fox Searchlight speciality division), karma is now biting back fiercely as Vachon's Infamous is trotting into limited release as the "other" Truman Capote movie:

"With Boys Don't Cry, I never spent a second thinking about what Fox Searchlight and [star/producer] Drew Barrymore were feeling when we scooped them, rendering their project irrelevant. We had the upper hand. Now I know what they were feeling: That sense that your passion and dedication isn't always enough. That the world is chaotic and you can't control everything. It's a lesson I have to keep relearning."

A Killer Life brims with enough production anecdotes that fans of Vachon's movies are assured of a good time. The book doesn't really promise an intimate glimpse of Vachon herself, though her persona emerges in ways that are both intended and not. It's refreshing to read a movieland memoir by someone as intellectually inclined as Vachon, who name-drops Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" essay and speaks with fondness about her training in semioitics at Brown, but is just as transparently mad about movies. At the same time, she can be a tad uncouth and susceptible to hubris: it's a little dismaying to hear her cop to some gladhanding praise of Agnieszka Holland in a business meeting, expressing love for Holland's Washington Square even though she hasn't actually seen it, which she says "doesn't matter"—probably true from a brokerage and etiquette standpoint, but discordant, surely, with the proud cinephilia Vachon elsewhere professes. This blend of bracing honesty and curt impolitesse crops up in a few more personal anecdotes, too, as in Vachon's memory of the endless funerals for victims of AIDS that she attended in the 1980s. One of these was the burial of her friend and temporary mentor Bill Sherwood (Parting Glances):

"I can't really recall Bill Sherwood's funeral because I attended so many around the same time. It reminds me of an observation in John Weir's book The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, set in the mid to late 1980s, about how all the memorial services became indistinct because all these gay men were kind of the same: they all liked show tunes, they all liked going to brunch, they all liked to talk on the phone. Since few of them were from New York, you'd attend a memorial service in the Village someplace—where the family didn't show—and you'd be like, Is this Larry's, or is this Robert's? Or Bill's?"

Is it sentimental of me to want a heroic artist like Vachon, a paragon in her field and a tremendous burr in the straight-boy oligopoly of most Hollywood production, to sound a little less tetchy or unmoved on a subject like this? It's immaterial, really, to the provenance of her book, and maybe it's why this kind of autobiographical element becomes increasingly scarce as the book proceeds: Vachon really walks the walk in asking to be judged on her work. In the same spirit, she doesn't exactly hold back from characterizing colleagues and Hollywoodland acquaintances in whatever better or worse countenance they have presented to her—Cate Blanchett, Steven Soderbergh, and, surprisingly, Jerry Bruckheimer will be proud of their depictions, Jeff Bridges and Sandy Powell rather less so, and Julianne Moore is something of a split decision—but all of them appear for the value and nature of their involvements with Killer Films, not to gussy up the book with gratuitous star cameos and salacious whispers. Even the requisite anecdote about Julia Roberts is evocative and germane (she expressed interest in the Harper Lee role in Infamous before pregnancy ruled her ineligible).

The best-showcased supporting roles in A Killer Life are filled not by celebrities but by executives, agents, directors, and producing partners, who interpolate their own memories of working with Killer and helming their own projects as satisfying aperitifs between Vachon's chapters. (Killer co-partner Pam Koffler writes an especially tasty one about screening Mrs. Harris for the real Jean Harris and The Notorious Bettie Page for Bettie herself.) Anyone who thinks they will enjoy A Killer Life almost certainly will. Anyone who is skeptical about learning anything practical from this book should be nicely surprised, though Vachon's earlier volume, Shooting to Kill, is probably a more helpful nitty-gritty primer for aspiring producers who are just getting started. A Killer Life offers generous and earnest points of entry for film students, cineastes, starfuckers, and anyone interested in the complex sociologies of an industry as obviously personal and political as independent film production. Vachon is proud of the fact that her brave, thorny, and unlikely movies tend to split their viewers into devotés and detractors, but A Killer Life may wind up doing something very un-Killer: that is, making all of its readers feel equally invited and equally well rewarded.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Back in the High Life Again

If you've been wondering where I suddenly disappeared to after a relatively prolific August, I've just been gearing up for my first teaching term at my new job at Northwestern University. My Fall Quarter course, which meets for the first time this afternoon, is called Gender Studies 231: Introducing Queer Cinema, and it's a lecture-scale reworking of a seminar I offered last year at Trinity College and even earlier at Queering the Apparatus (a blog that is no doubt also feeling the excitement and the pinch of a new academic year, as are this one and this one!).

Anyway, thanks to all you regulars for being patient with me while I figure out where and how this blog will continue fitting in to the vida loca of a new assistant professor. My plan is for the pendulum of energy to swing back toward the main website, and maybe even to integrate the blog more directly as a scrollable frame within the website homepage. At the very least, I'd like to be writing more full reviews. Anyway, I'll be brainstorming for a while, so don't be shy about posting recommendations of things to keep, purge, or change. In the meantime, at least two book reviews and two film reviews coming up soon... plus the next entry on the Favorites countdown, which contends that you really can go home again, though you may not always want to.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Flowers among the Weeds

For long stretches of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, virtually nothing blooms. Dante Ferretti's art direction and Jenny Beavan's costumes are never less than consummate, but there's no heart beating inside the film, or rather, it beats in such odd, narrow, unexpected places that you wonder whether the director is even interested in the central content of his film. Ultimately, he is enormously interested, but only if you concede that the four major protagonists and the dented, convoluted adaptation of James Ellroy's plot are not the focal points they appear to be.

Instead, focus your attention on Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia" herself, and on Fiona Shaw in the third-tier role of Ramona Linscott. Trust me, it won't be hard. In fact, you won't be able to look away. Days later, you may find yourself revisiting this stunted and often foolish film with an almost haunted interest—exactly the sort of gravitational pull on both memory and conscience that the film means to describe, and which, despite being something of a mangled corpse itself, the movie powerfully recreates. Click here for my full review, and by all means, post your comments. This movie exists to be argued about.

(Image © 2006 Universal Pictures)


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Picked Flick #39: The Hours

The Hours, both Michael Cunningham's novel and Stephen Daldry's film, continue to frustrate and upset me, in ways that are at this point indistinguishable from fascination. Sometimes that fascination is purer, more awed. At other times, both the book and the movie emanate a powerful mediocrity, a distinct aroma of cliché, of unmet ambitions. I often furrow my brow at the relentless lyricism of Cunningham's prose, which, in this book as in others, strives rather arduously for showy, synesthetic images where more modest narration would happily suffice. He writes as though with each paragraph he hopes to secure our vote, some badge of our readerly devotion, even though the heady conceptions of his books sometimes trip over all the stylistic filigrees. And yet, Cunningham broaches subjects and themes that are difficult to articulate, or even to acknowledge, and he is capable of real astuteness in how he treats them: the ways in which death can feel impolite, just as caretaking can be officious and desperate; the worrying, thin line between liking someone enormously and loving them merely adequately, and how a shift from one to the other can be more painful than any dislike or hatred; the ways in which people look to art, especially books and music and movies, for telepathic prompts for their own life-choices.

The movie version of The Hours shares the arresting ambitions and the psychological acuity of the book, as well as its prosaic and vaguely elitist excesses. To my mind, in recent popular cinema, American Beauty is the movie's closest cousin, both of them built atop scripts that can seem courageously lucid and dismayingly glib within single scenes or transitions, both directed in a glossy, theatrical, actor-friendly style that serves and also sabotages the material by playing up the artifice. You can hold your ear up to American Beauty or The Hours and hear a worrying howl from deep within the upper bourgeoisie, demanding and deserving to be taken seriously, but you can also somehow hear the production teams slapping their own backs about the casts they've hooked, the certainty of prizes, the Big Issues they broach. However, while the moods and structures of American Beauty, for all of its technical audacity, feel smaller and more market-tested as the years go by, The Hours totally engrosses me. I keep sitting before it, open-minded, sometimes open-mouthed. It becomes clearer, for one thing, that the movie has darkened the book considerably. Disapproval of Richard Brown's esoteric, self-obsessed novel is more general. Vanessa Bell is more unhinged, almost repulsed, by the ravenous loneliness of her sister Virginia Woolf. Laura Brown already intends suicide as she drops her son with an indifferent neighbor. Clarissa Vaughan lets slip a major, unwitting insult to her daughter, and instead of nursing a fond, fumbling reminiscence with Louis Waters on her comfy living room couch, she erupts and nearly dissolves in her cold kitchen, where the light is the color of frost, the faucets detonate for no reason, and Louis looks on, agitated and annoyed, from practically a mile away across the countertop. This last scene is my favorite in the movie: its scary unraveling of Meryl Streep, usually so composed and sometimes to a fault, encapsulates the wholly credible and almost lymphatic unease beneath the film's mannered language, the roiling score, the sometimes precious match-cuts.

I suppose it's no mystery that such a disciple of modern film actresses as myself would get swept up in this movie. I have been known to listen to the Kidman-Moore-Streep commentary track on the DVD while I clean or cook. Still, The Hours collects so many disparate, exciting actors into such a range of parts that it's almost hard to get a bead on the performances: secondary players like Miranda Richardson and Eileen Atkins grow more interesting over time; my regard for all three star turns cycles up and down; and character approaches that click well in one scene, or against one particular co-star, feel subtly wrong in or against another. In some ways, the movie cuts more to the point of Cunningham's novel than his own prose really can: the whole piece activates such complex, elliptical relationships among notions of acting, essence, ritual, privilege, performance, gender, art, sex, and death that it somehow deepens the themes to see the bodies, scrutinize the faces, smell the money, feel the flatness of the screen. A major concern of The Hours is the ambivalence of love, the working out of conflicted emotions over time, even over generations. Fitting, then, that I keep wrestling with this book and this movie, frowning at their shortcuts and platitudes, hooking onto their sublime moments, assigning both texts in course after course, wondering where our attachments to art really come from, how fraught they can be with disapproval as well as wonder. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2002 Miramax Films and Paramount Pictures.

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