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Archive for November, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

The New York Times review called it a movie one might expect from the celebrated director. Well, it’s not what I expected.

When my friend Dave Darrow recommends a film, I generally take notice. Hugo jumped to the top of my list. He also included a spoiler alert. “The less you know about this one, the more you’ll enjoy it,” he said.

So, in that spirit, I will suggest here that you stop reading until you’ve seen it – except to add that you ought to buy a 3D ticket. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks. OK. Stop here.

Unless, like me, the more you know, the more you see. These days, serious movies pack significance into every frame. A casual run-through means you probably missed a lot. Another friend, Brandon Cesmat, professor of cinema at the State University in San Marcos, advises his students that any film worth watching at all is worth watching twice. He recommends that the first time you include sub-titles, then watch it again without. (Sadly, this can’t be done in the theater.)

The first surprise, that Martin Scorsese would make a film suitable for children (PG) is followed by the second – that it would have a happy ending (there’s the first spoiler – more to come). For me, great films are not about the surprises, the twists or the sudden shocks that trigger an adrenaline burst. Great films are not predictable either – but are, instead, soul food. They speak to human longing. They capture emotion. They articulate our questions. Our fears. Our hopes and dreams. Our tragedies. Our triumphs. They teach. They lead to discoveries; reveal secrets; bring insight. That silver screen transports us to worlds we would otherwise never know. Some imagined. Some real. Great movies are a process; from beginning to end. Keats said it in poetry: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Some films are just plain beautiful.

Hugo is Scorsese’s tribute to the birth of cinema. Both adults and kids will get it. As the director’s career has matured, he has devoted considerable time and resource to the restoration of otherwise lost film. No surprise, then, that he took special note of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 2007 book by Brian Selznick (cousin to David O., who directed Gone with the Wind in 1939). It is a sort of historical novel that traces the evolution of film making all the way back to one of the most notable cinematic pioneers, Georges Méliès. A Parisian magician, Méliès, fascinated by one of the first projectors invented in 1895, employed his own silent movie creations in his magic act. He developed some of the first “special effects.” You may recall the grainy, jerky, quirky space flight sequence. A missile (that resembles a man-sized bullet) containing a half dozen science wizards is launched from a giant cannon aimed directly at a full moon. As a stunned audience watches from earth, the spacecraft strikes the smiling man in the moon in the eye – a direct hit. It is a lunar landing imagined over a hundred years ago. Some call it the first sci-fi flick. That was Georges Méliès, 1902.

The Great War (WWI) decimated a good portion of Europe, but also Méliès’ entertainment business. Weary of the bloodshed and the devastating ruins, Parisian crowds had little interest in magicians or comedy, much less the shadowy, farcical images projected on a screen in a darkened room. George went bust. His back lot, which once was the scene of wild imagination and intrigue, costuming and outrageous adventure, demons and dragons, mermaids and Greek mythology all went the way of the rubble still smoldering in the battlefield. Demoralized and broke, Méliès set the place ablaze, all the props and costumes and sets lit the night sky in a bonfire that sent his life’s work up in smoke. In the searing heat of the flames, in a tragic moment of deep despair, with the dramatic flair he had once captured on film, he tossed in those old celluloid reels, too.

With what remaining resources he had left, he purchased a little toyshop at the fabled train station at Montparnasse in the heart of Paris. There, he repaired and sold little mechanical toys until, one fateful day, he encountered young Hugo Cabret, whom he recognized immediately as a no-good little thief – a street urchin who, if in London, would have been a main character in a Dickens novel. Hugo, a boy orphaned by his father’s accidental death, worked all the mechanical clocks in the huge turn-of-the-century station, where steam engines transported Parisians all over France and beyond.

Accusing him of theft, and at the same time recognizing his mechanical gift, he forces the boy to work in his shop in exchange for the value of the stolen goods. There, he meets George’s adopted daughter, young Isabelle. She is smart, too. Hugo, street wise, loves to fix things, complicated things. He has an eye for gears and wheels and springs and pulleys and weights and chains, large and small. He finds adventure in the tunnels and on catwalks and the secret hideaways of the train station, watching the world through slots in the clock faces. Isabelle, a couple of years older, is book smart. She finds her adventures in the library and the piled up books that line the shelves – Charles Dickens and John Burrows (The Adventures of Robin Hood). She employs unlikely words like “reprobate” and “clandestine” and “your covert lair.” Too charming.

Their adventure becomes ours. There are chases and train wrecks and nightmares and an ever-foreboding gendarme (the Inspector) who, in spite of his knee brace, must be avoided at every turn. But the centerpiece of the story is an automaton, a mechanical human with a metal face whose innards are a complex combination of music box and clockworks. The steel manikin plays a role, too. He writes with a fountain pen.

The heart-shaped key will be all the explanation you need.

Scorsese may well identify with Méliès who arrives at his latter years – when one reflects on a lifetime of work and wonders, what did it all mean? Who cares? What is really important, after all?

The answer is in Hugo’s eyes. And the brass key in the shape of a heart.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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Monday, November 7, 2011

I was twenty-eight years of age when I first explored Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus, Apocalypse Now.  Intrigued by the filmmaker’s attempt to elucidate the dark nuances emanating from the nightmare many of my contemporaries knew from personal experience, the Vietnam War, I studied the writer/director’s retelling of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness.  Martin Sheen was thirty-six then, only eight years my senior.  Great actors morph themselves into their characters, Sheen so effectively that when the cameras rolled, he became the deeply disturbed Captain Benjamin L. Willard.  The complete emotional, psychological breakdown written into the script took down the actor, too, in real life, complete with cardiac arrest.  It nearly killed him, right there on the set in Southeast Asia back in the late seventies.  That celebrated performance set a standard for actors to come.  But mainly, it underscored the terror, no, the horror of a war that leaves its imprint to this very day.

Sheen remains eight years my senior.  But Apocalypse Now was a long time ago.  This weekend, I was introduced to a very different version of Martin Sheen.  We have all changed since those turbulent pre-Reagan days.

There have been lots of roles for Sheen since.  Many of us think of him as President Josiah Bartlett, of The West Wing.  Most recently, Sheen appears as Dr. Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist in a film written and directed by the other son, Emilio Estevez (who did not take his father’s screen name, as did Charlie).  Charlie had no role in this project.  He’s been busy.

If Martin Sheen is the Prodigal Father who had two sons, one would be Charlie, the other Emilio.  While Charlie may readily seem the younger profligate brother in the biblical parable, Emilio doesn’t really fit as the indignant older brother, mainly because of the complete absence of resentment.  On the contrary, Emilio is the good son who has presented his dad with a priceless gift: a role consistent with the father Martin Sheen has been in real life.  (Martin Sheen’s birth name is Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez.)  When Henry Fonda took his final bow as an actor in On Golden Pond, he and Jane reconciled as father and daughter on the big screen for us all to see.  Here, Emilio handed a script and a storyline to his dad, one that would cement his legacy in our minds.   Perhaps it would put that bedroom scene from Apocalypse Now (in which he breaks a Freudian mirror and collapses in a heap of existential angst) in some sort of distant, thespian context.  Here, he might emerge as the curmudgeonly but likeable, distant dad who, after all, really does care about his family.

At age fourteen, back in Vietnam, Emilio was there on location along with the Sheen family.  The boy battled his alcohol and drug drenched father, as his mother and three siblings watched.  Not long afterwards, Martin, terrified by his capacity to self-destruct, sought out treatment, and cleaned up his life.  He and Janet not only stayed together (they were married in 1961).  They built a life.  This year, they celebrate their fiftieth anniversary.

Now a seasoned actor and director himself, Emilio produced a film that stars his father in the leading role.  He calls it The Way.  For a thousand years, pilgrims have trekked the five hundred mile route from France through northern Spain to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela near the rocky Atlantic seacoast – the Camino de Santiago.  In the new film, Dr. Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) drives his son Daniel to the airport.  As they drive, Daniel describes his plan to trace the ancient pilgrimage.  Tom clearly considers the exercise a waste of time and money.  Daniel pleads with his overworked, distracted father to join him.  Tom turns down the offer.  The son grows impatient.  He lectures his father, berating him for his truncated, predictable, comfortable ways.

“That’s life,” says Tom with a shrug.

Daniel replies, “There’s the life we live, and then there is the life we choose.”  It’s a line that will come to haunt the good doctor.

On the golf course, Tom gets an unexpected call from France.  “It’s your son, Daniel. He was caught in a terrible storm in the Pyrenees on the most treacherous stretch of the Camino de Santiago.  He was found dead, too late,” a voice reports with a heavy French accent.

Tom, a recent widower, flies to France to identify and recover his son’s body.  As an uncharacteristically impulsive move to honor his dead son, he determines to complete the impossible trek on his own.  And thus, he proceeds on The Way, toting his boy’s backpack and a silver box containing Daniel’s ashes.

Engulfed by his grief and regret, he has no interest in the others who crowd the ancient pathway.  But something like the Wizard of Oz, three others eventually join him and form an unlikely pack.  It is said that everyone who chooses to leave home and country to pursue pilgrimage has a reason – each unique.  So it is with Tom’s three improbable companions.  One, a gregarious Dutchman named Joost, who just wants to loose weight.  An emotionally wounded Canadian woman, Sarah, joins them, too, claiming that the pilgrimage is her way to quit smoking.  A philosopher, historian, novelist, and Irishman named Jack hopes this journey will cure writer’s block and provide grist for a new book.

We watched a screening of the film on a college campus that overlooks the Getty Museum in Brentwood and then listened in as Martin Sheen, his son Emilio Estevez and several others, including my friend Scott Young, discussed the filming and the script that took us all on that Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.  Scott sees this as a coming of age for the man who came undone in the making of Apocalypse Now and now emerges with some semblance of wholeness in The Way.  We learn that this transcendent journey means much more than losing weight, quitting bad habits like smoking, curing writers block or, for that matter, bringing a lost loved one back.

It is about something else.  Something much more profound.

Don’t take my word for it.  Check it out.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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