Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Inspirations and Holy Encounters

Maybe it's the onset of cold or the early darkness of autumn evenings, or maybe it's all the tremors of terrible news coming from the Fed and from Wall Street, or maybe it's every single article in the newspaper: for whatever reason, I keep talking to close friends about seeking inspiration and about how we're all keeping ourselves going amid busy jobs and worries about money and anxieties about how to find the time for the relationships, hobbies, and down time that do inspire us. I'm struggling as much as anyone to keep up with what I need to do and what I want to do, and to do it all without neglecting the people who are important to me. Amidst all of this, I've been lucky to stumble upon some unexpected jolts of pure inspiration lately, and if you'll pardon me, I'd like to write about them so I can hold onto them and also share them—and to invite you to share what inspires you, either lately or perpetually.

It warms my heart that a living genius like playwright Adrienne Kennedy is enjoying a revival in New York City, and that Charles Isherwood reviewed it so lovingly. I don't live close enough to New York anymore to see it, but knowing that it's happening and reading this review inspires me.

It warms my heart that another living genius, Todd Haynes, is rolling out his new film to such a rich and ardent reception by critics and early audiences, the kind of reception that should have greeted his last musical-fantasia masterpiece. This article about Haynes from the New York Sun, written by a good friend of mine from college, enlivens me both because of Haynes' candor and eloquence within the piece and because of the eager support and articulate admiration that the article extends to him. I'm Not There opens in Chicago a week from today, and I simply cannot wait.

In an added and wonderful wrinkle, which began as a frustrating wrinkle, I had to work during the Chicago preview screening that happened last week, where Haynes appeared in person for an audience Q&A. Thankfully, the work itself was invigorating that evening—I am lucky to have a job that gratifies and inspires me—but I was still feeling sorry for myself about missing a one-to-one encounter with a personal hero. So, calling on my inner Eve Harrington, I took a bus after work to the cinema where he was finishing his Q&A, bought a ticket for a movie I wasn't going to see so I could get past the usher, planted myself outside Auditorium #9 as people started filing out, and totally cornered him at the escalator, long enough to tell him that he is a personal hero to me, that I teach queer cinema classes at a university, and that my students invariably love Dottie Gets Spanked and Safe and Velvet Goldmine and Superstar and admire his hard work in creating them. The ensuing handshake was maybe my favorite handshake in my whole life. (And afterward, because I am a cheap rat, I got my unused ticket refunded. Sorry, Michael Clayton.)

A few weeks ago, as the Chicago Film Festival wound down, I had comparable luck (and comparable Eve-ishness) and managed to introduce myself to (The Lovely) Laura Linney at the closing-night screening of The Savages. I was initially so caught-off guard by my good fortune that I couldn't think of anything to say to her, though I did geek out and realized a dream of double-hand waving at her in the same way she does to Mark Ruffalo from inside the restaurant at the beginning of You Can Count on Me. If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean. She was wonderfully cordial and approachable—she even started the conversation, since I was so obviously unable, and she signed my DVD!—but I was even more moved by her response to a question I put to her during the post-screening Q&A. I prefaced to her, so I'll preface to you: I am so touched and gratified by how devotedly this actress commits herself to stories about unique, complicated, reorganized, fractious but tender families that aren't the families we typically see on screen—in You Can Count on Me, in The Squid and the Whale, in Jindabyne, and now in The Savages—and by how adept and precise she is at communicating entire and unbelievably specific histories with her screen siblings and children and relatives. I truly don't understand how she conveys all this depth of information, these lifetimes of mutual knowledge and bonding, so I asked her whether she prefers to spend more rehearsal time than normal with actors to whom she will have to relate persuasively as family, or whether she likes instead to be surprised by these actors (since her screen families do tend to be full of surprises). I also wanted to know whether she likes to collaborate with the actors or the screenwriter or director on forming articulated, comprehensive backstories for these characters or if it's more creatively exciting for her to go only on the evidence of the script, to hold in mind whatever makes sense to her about the characters' histories, and to assume that her fellow actors are doing the same thing. Here's what she said, and I love it:

I do think some actors have a particular process that they prefer to use and that works for them on every project. I don't. I like that each piece of work is different. Sometimes, my process is completely textual, and I can do the exciting job of sitting down with every line and every action and saying, 'Okay, why this? Why does that make sense? How does that fit?' And as you probably know, sometimes the answer is in another line, but it might also be in an action the character takes earlier or later in the script, or it might be somewhere else between the lines. Sometimes the process is textual because it's all you've got; I've been on projects where maybe I haven't liked the actor so much who I have to have a family relationship with, but it's okay, because the writing has enough to go on. [Ed.: !] But at other times, things do happen collaboratively or spontaneously on the set, or you engage in a different back and forth process based on the people you're working with and the mood of what you're doing.

Because you mentioned those movies, I do want to tell you that I am very, very lucky, because my two fictional brothers [Mark Ruffalo and Philip Seymour Hoffman] truly are two of my favorite people in the whole world, and if you knew them you would see why. And now I feel like you do in a family, like you have a sort of invisible string connecting you to that person wherever you are and whatever you're doing. And I love that audiences for those films think of us that way, too. It can actually be dangerous for the acting: I felt like they were my brothers, and you can sort of fall into that easy relationship and just relate with them as people instead of keeping it about who you're playing. So you need to be vigilant.

And really, despite what I said earlier, all of those four movies you named were wonderful experiences for me, and the scripts were so great that I'm sure that's why everyone chose to do those projects, including this one [The Savages]. So – thank you!

Of course I was thrilled to be "talking" with her, even across a stage/house divide and from within a huge public audience, but I was also inspired by the generous length and detail of her answer; by the idea that people I admire really do interact and take care of each other with the kind of sensitivity and mutual joy that I feel when I watch those movies; and, too, by her willingness to take each experience as it comes and bend her own rules rather than sticking to comfort zones or insisting on A Way To Do Things. It's a lesson I've thought about a lot in the weeks since, and I'd love to emulate the flexibility and adventure of her work life as well as her personal grace and the evident blend of seriousness, responsibility, playfulness, and passion that she brings to what she does.

This is as gushy and fanboyish as it gets around Nick's Flick Picks, but like I said, 'tis the season when a little gush won't hurt anybody. In response to another recent conversation, I don't agree with the conventional wisdom that critiquing movies or artworks entails a contempt for them or an air of superiority toward them; I think if you love movies, you take it personally when they're shoddy or misused, and more than being entertained, you are grateful and rejuvenated when they're good, and you want to be able to say why, specifically, this is so. Still, having said that, it's true that I don't always make the time (and do any of us?) to express that feeling of giddiness and awe and eager impressionability that we feel in front of our role models or in front of work that stirs up our spirits.

Setting aside, then, what's been "good" or "bad" in the movies lately, when have you felt encouraged, gratified, enthused, appeased? Who has said something, in print or on air or in person, or stuck with a project, or nailed a role, or challenged themselves in a way that resonated with you and made you glad, gave you energy? Who or what do you read for this kind of inspiration? (For example, the abundance and detail and inclusiveness of the posts at GreenCine are a constant spark to me to learn more, see more, think more carefully, and share more broadly.)

Chime in below: we can all use the tips. And go see The Savages! And be there for I'm Not There, though I expect I'm preaching to the converted on both points.

(Photos © 2007 New York Times/Gerry Goodstein; © 2003 WireImage/Jason Nevader; and personal archive)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

But Nick......what of White Chalk?

3:01 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

<Quiet voice> I wasn't so completely hugely inspired by White Chalk. Don't tell PJ!<Qv>

<Less quiet voice> It's not that I don't like the album; in fact, I haven't even formed a real opinion about it yet. But I didn't listen to it for almost two weeks after it came out, because of the film festival. Even PJ, it turns out, can be totally scooped. When I did listen to it, I had a total personal-taste reaction. I.e., PJ's upper range isn't my favorite aspect of her voice, and I like being surprised by her big instrumentation shifts from track to track, which WC obviously isn't designed to allow. "Human kindness" is an amazing enigma of a stand-alone lyric, though, and "When Under Ether" is sort of a fascinating song. And given that I haven't heard the other tracks nearly as often—AMC theaters were piping "Ether" into the hallways for a few weeks, right during the festival—I'm reserving critical judgment till I've given them all a fairer shake.

Whatever happens, I'm almost certainly more of a 4-Track/To Bring You My Love guy. But it does inspire me to see her tackle a whole new instrument and test herself in such a new direction with this album. Who cares if I don't love it. Yet.

3:14 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

What a wonderful post, Nick. YOU give me inspiration. Seriously! More than anyone.

I had a great Tsai Ming-liang double bill last Friday which wasn't bad either.

Personally, I like White Chalk much more than Uh Huh Her, but mainly for the first few tracks. Thereafter it gets a bit breathy and yodelly. The vocal leaps in "Grow Grow Grom" are pure PJ gold though...

4:06 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Catherine said...

(jumping in on the PJ discussion): I haven't exactly become enamoured with White Chalk yet, but I haven't given it a proper chance yet. I bought the vinyl of "Under the Ether" though, sounds lovely.

That was a great post. I'm impressed, and somewhat relieved, that Linney gave such a thoughtful and detailed response to your question. I always worry that famous people I admire will turn out to be rude or ineloquent in real life. I was thinking about The Squid and the Whale last night actually (listening to the soundtrack in bed), feeling that I really need to see it again.

The last thing that inspired me? Well, after a long day at school, an arduous choir practice and three hours of homework, it was such a relief to lie under the duvet, listen to "Sketches of Spain" and laugh myself sick at Rupert Everett's book "Red Carpts and Other Banana Skins".

4:17 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger par3182 said...

but did you remember to tell her i love her..?

4:18 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: <Back to quiet voice>You hush with that, or people will think I am fishing for compliments! Though you are obviously a doll to say something so kind</qv> Which Tsai Ming-liang? I haven't even gotten started with him, and I hear that I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, which barely got released here in the early summer, was pretty great.

@Catherine: You and I are on the very same White Chalk wavelength, then. What is "Sketches of Spain"?

@Par3182: I am not going to lie to you: it was a huge temptation to explain (remind her of?) your site and your brilliance and your devoted hagiography of her. But somehow I thought it wouldn't all come out coherently. I still told her, but in a silent transmission, with my eyes.

4:29 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Catherine said...

"Sketches of Spain" is a Miles Davis album. So, jazz. But according to Wiki, it's the most accessible of his albums... All I know that it sounds romantic and beautiful and good.

4:36 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger par3182 said...

i knew i could count on you

4:44 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

Yeah, it was Sleep Alone and The Wayward Cloud, the latter of which I first saw back at Berlin 2005, and which remains one of the most outright demented art movies ever filmed. You need to see what they do with watermelons in this movie. It is quite extravagantly rude. And there are big musical numbers too. It's like Matthew Barney crossed with Dancer in the Dark crossed with Catherine Breillat or something. A heady brew, to say the least.

"Sketches of Spain" is gorgeous, you're bound to have heard snatches of it in movies here and there. It's Davis doing Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez". Derek would probably be able to tell you more...

Oops with the compliment thing. I always forget I'm embarrassing you, sorry!

5:41 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

If you were anywhere near here, I would tell you in a silent transmission, with my eyes, that I love you. But you're not. So, I'll have to tell you in a silent transmission, with your blog's comment section.

5:42 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

It really doesn't surprise me that Laura Linney managed such an extensive answer. She always seems so wise and dedicated. I love her. I'm so jealous. It sounds wonderful :-)

6:29 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger J.D. said...

Laura Linney might as well be God, she's that incredible. [jellin']

6:43 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Oh, don't worry, you know I love the compliments. As for the Tsai, what would one give to have sat down with the Academy's committee of dowagers and Tom Hankses who pick the Foreign-Language Film nominees and watch The Wayward Cloud with them? Or, this year, Taxidermia? Delicious thought.

@Dr S: That's what I'm silently transmitting to you all the time, Jedi sister. "Somehow, I've always known..."

@Cal: I'm not surprised, either, but she surpassed even my own expectations. I find myself worrying much less than I otherwise might that the "sometimes I've had to play family members of people I didn't like so much" comment is about My Sean (Mystic River), who somehow implicitly announces his candidacy as the referent for that story. But I don't even want to go there. She didn't, and the whole point is her generosity and inspiration.

@J.D.: Wait, I thought Julianne Moore was God.

8:28 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger J.D. said...

Cinemapolytheism, baby. Works itself out.

10:52 PM, November 14, 2007  
Blogger John T said...

I figured she was talking about Jeff Daniels, myself, rather than your Sean.

5:28 AM, November 15, 2007  
Blogger lylee said...

Nick, I'm so jealous of your meeting my Very Favorite Actress! I'm still kicking myself for not trying harder to see her at the AFI Fest screening of "The Savages" last week.

She sounds as awesome as I hoped she'd be. And your questions to her were excellent.

12:05 PM, November 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, I don't think the double-wave intro was lost on Linney at all. Fitting preface to your Q&A exchange.

I'll pipe up, in case you're unaware of your own gifts: i've observed you forward questions in times past. you texture your prefaces w/ details that (i believe) let the respondent know how thoroughly and devotedly *you* considered their work.

i never think of you as an opportunist hand-waving Q&A attention hog... instead, you manage to produce the rarest public intimacy - professional. of course.

to me, your method of the preface (acknowledgements of the work that brought you two to that Q+A moment ) moves the listener in all senses of the word. i'm not surprised Linney cared to match your thoughtful question with an equally thoughtful answer.

and i *heart* that she uses the term "fictional brothers" to describe ruffalo and hoffman.


10:07 PM, November 18, 2007  

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