Monday, June 28, 2010

Composer Swap Series: Artificial Education

by Steven Boone

AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) is one of Steven Spielberg's misunderstood masterpieces, a Stanley Kubrick dream project that he took on after Kubrick's death, to a worldwide chorus of groans. The fear was that populist Spielberg would mangle intellectual Kubrick's vision beyond recognition. Instead, he fused many of Kubrick's signature visual motifs with his own genius for scene choreography. Spielberg's A.I. becomes a Pinocchio fable of a cast-off boy robot whose search for his "mother" becomes a metaphor for the human condition.

The Education of Sonny Carson (1974) is a raw, poetic dirge for the 'hood's lost children. The titular character, based on Brooklyn activist Carson's autobiography, is like another "Sonny," the one sketched in James Baldwin's short story Sonny's Blues:

These streets hadn't changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. . . . boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air, and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind.

What do these two films have in common? I will the let the composers of both films' emotionally charged musical scores answer that question-- by having them swap movies.

But first, here's my two cents:

There are some basic affinities in the way each director frames his lost boys with extraordinary empathy. Both tend a watchful, patient camera that holds its ground in dynamic tension with the taut editing and sometimes frenetic action. Studio pros Harry Howard and Edward Warschilka (The Landlord) cut Sonny Carson; Spielberg's longtime ace, Michael Kahn, could have just as easily ended up working on it, because, at that time, he was a blaxploitation/counterculture film workhorse. Both films show a respect for the frame and the movement/relationship/disposition of subjects within it as the prime consideration for making a cut. How quaint.

In terms of mise en scene, Sonny Carson director Michael Campus will never be mistaken for Spielberg, but his steady frame lends itself to Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's eclectic score the way Spielberg's accommodates John Williams' restless, searching, despairing cues.

And Campus, showing great ingenuity with a small budget, draws natural performances from his non-professional child actors; Spielberg, with all the resources of Ho'wood at his beck and call, pulls some eerie, unguarded moments out of professional Creepy Kid Haley Joel Osment. (It's the adult actors in both films that make them seem stiff and maudlin in places. Sonny's and the robot boy David's parents emote in ways that crudely underline some of each film's more melodramatic moments.)

While Pixote and Los Olvidados remain the gold standards among films about lost boys trying to either find their way home or simply survive in a world that's out to dispose of them, A.I. and The Education of Sonny Carson are powerhouse contenders, and spiritual cousins across Ho'wood's socio-economic divide. Watch what happens when prince and pauper trade coats:

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

FUNNY GAME: Messing around with the makers of CONTACT

Interview by Steven Boone

Like any good thing, Jeremiah Kipp's disturbing short film CONTACT is destined to be compared to other, more famous good things-- in this case, the collected "body horror" films of David Cronenberg. I can see the marquee blurb now: "CRONENBERG ON CRACK!"

But Mr. Kipp has his own vision, his own seductive style, and they're in full force for the duration of CONTACT. For one thing, I wonder if even Cronenberg has dared to create a film with such a steep ratio of visual to verbal content, stockpiling tensions steadily through precise actions (not studied dialogue), then toppling that pile over your head.

For another thing, this little movie shows something even rarer and more provocative than Cronenberg's gruesome orifices and eroticized wounds. You'll just have to watch the film to see what I mean by that, then read through a little game I played below with Kipp and his two stars, Zoë Daelman Chlanda and Robb Leigh Davis.

STEVE: Hello, CONTACT people. You've done the drugs. Now let's play SHOEHORN.

Each of you gets two quotes that you must read and respond to by making it relate, in whatever way, at whatever level, to CONTACT and your work in/on it. Be as terse or verbose as you please.


"What I remember myself from films, and what I love about films, is specific scenes and characters."-Harmony Korine

You have two characters, a married couple, in a scene together waiting for their daughter to come home. You cast actors in these roles and work with them in the rehearsal room to discover the relationship between each other, and between them and this daughter. You show them photographs and discuss their wardrobe, you talk about how much money these characters earn, what they do for a living, whether or not they drink alcohol with their dinner, and you listen to them. When you arrive on the set, you block out the scene with them, you observe their actions as they play them out, you respond. You suggest that they play the scene as if a bomb is ready to fall on them any second, or notice the little bit of business they employ with a piece of silverware and decide to highlight it in the frame. There is a knock at the door, and everything changes. This is a credit to the actors, Tom Reid and Katherine O’Sullivan, who play the parents in CONTACT. This is also a credit to Zoë Daelman Chlanda, who plays their daughter, Koreen, and worked with them in the rehearsal room. When her character encounters the parents at the climax, there is a gesture portrayed onscreen; it is specific. It was born out of developing characters with the actors; it was a gesture found by the actors as a result of the process. It felt correct to all of us. No discussion was necessary when we found it, because we simply knew. These gestures are moments in time, and the gestures form into incidents, and hopefully this string of incidents causes the audience to wonder what is going to happen next. This creates tension in the spectator. Then the movie no longer belongs to me, or the actors, but instead it belongs to the audience.

"Basically, I`m afraid of everything in life, except filmmaking."
-Lars von Trier

What a person is afraid to do, he does when possessed. This is the beauty of acting and writing. I was working with a writer not so long ago (let’s call him The Colonel) encouraging him to write from his subconscious. I felt like if he quickly jotted down some material without thinking about it too much, it would provide an X-Ray into his mind, which is a dark and unnerving place, filled with a kind of sad romantic yearning and a struggle with personal body image. The Colonel wrote a short script very quickly, and the central character is a woman, but it’s very much a portrait of himself -- uncomfortably so, but also very brave. He is afraid of many things in his life; he is not afraid of baring it on paper. I found the material repulsive and fascinating, certainly insightful and personal. His other movies, since he is a filmmaker, are kind of like this. He taps into a kind of sticky and unnerving, creepy adolescent place, and there’s a value in that. Movies allow us this opportunity, to tap into the demons and share them. When we watch such movies and connect with them, we feel less alone inside, or we recognize something we might not care to admit about who and what we are.

Filmmaking for me, though, is almost always a joyous celebratory experience; you’re free to explore all of the possibilities. Since it’s basically playtime, you throw yourself into a project with a kind of artistic, reckless abandon. When getting ready for a scene, sometimes I have actors jump up and down until their knees touch the ceiling, and this gets them very far outside of their heads, puts them more in touch with their bodies and the room, and more observant. It helps me too. This is a strange paradox, because my movies, which are really fun and loving experiences for cast and crew, are about situations where the characters are dealing with something you don’t want to have happen to you, or to someone you love. Movies are poetry, a way of placing a frame around life, which is in fact very dangerous, mysterious, threatening, beautiful and unpredictable. We never know what is right around the corner, which gives us very good reason to be afraid in our lives, but also excited by what can happen. We are slowly moving towards our own death, which is scary, but along the way we can feel wonderful things. I got mugged earlier this year, which was traumatic, but that led me to be bold and fearless since every moment is precious, and I fell madly in love with someone. Maybe my next film after CONTACT will have more hope for relationships, and yet there is hope somewhere buried in this film. Robb Leigh Davis, who plays Koreen’s boyfriend Westy, is searching for her in the final beats of their scene together, and Robb promised his character will never stop searching. Maybe someday he will find her.

"Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision." - St. Augustine

You decide what YOU can live with. Koreen couldn’t overcome her fear. Her bravest moment was what you saw in
CONTACT. She had left home and was exploring all that life had to offer. She was madly in love. It was magical...  A bad drug trip scared the life out of her, quite literally. She went back home -- where her story was figured out for her. No adventure, nothing unexpected, nothing out of order. No magic. A life not lived. Poor Koreen.

“Well, people got attatched. Once you cut the umbilical cord they attatched to the other things. Sight, sound, sex, money, mirages, mothers, masturbation, murder, and Monday morning hangovers.”-Charles Bukowski

Life is grand! What can I say?  Okay, so we get attatched. The trick is being smart and lucky. If you can make a few really good decisions and get a little bit of luck, perhaps you’ll find yourself attatched to something wonderful. Koreen was close. She made a good decision getting attatched to Westy [the character played by Robb Leigh Davis]. He was a prince. I might go so far to say experimenting with drugs doesn’t have to be a bad decision. Risky, yes. But some come away unscathed. Others die, some quickly, some slowly, but always taking pieces of other people’s hearts with them. Scary stuff. Horrific and heart breaking. But I dare say, and I do so knowing that it is irresponsible, drugs can be a lot of fun. At their best. Is it worth the risk? It certainly wasn’t for Koreen. She’s broken as a result of that decision. Perhaps for life.

"Your ethnic or sexual identity, what region of the country you're from, what your class is - those aspects of your identity are not the same as your aesthetic identity."-Stanley Crouch

At his core, what Westy believes in most is freedom. Freedom to love, freedom to experiment, freedom to be whatever it is that the world he was originally born into told him he couldn't or shouldn't be. It's his ability to find comfort in any situation that I most appreciate. To me he's someone who made a conscious decision that no one but him was going to dictate how he lives his life. And he does it without arrogance, or machismo -- just a subtle confidence that if you stay true to yourself, everything's going to work out just fine.

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."-Judge
Leon Bazile (before sentencing an interracial couple to a year's prison term for miscegenation in Virginia, 1959)

For me personally, love is love. If two consenting adults make a connection, and their only commitment is to each other's happiness, then who gives a shit what anyone else has to say. I think life is too short to concern yourself with what other people say about your love, or the expression of it. It's another aspect of CONTACT that I loved, and why I appreciated working with both Zoë and Jeremiah. I think in many other director's hands, this could've become a story about the slick Black guy and the unsuspecting white girl in all of its stereotypicalness. But instead, it's a story about two people on a journey; still a Black guy, and a white girl, but simply two people who made a connection, and want to share all the experiences of life together. And though Koreen retreated back to where she came from, I think she has a bigger understanding of the world, and the diversity of the people who inhabit it. And I believe she'll go back out in search of Westy one day. True love always finds its way back.