THB #245 : Ted Hope & The Evocation Of Art
I was just wandering through my Twitter timeline this morning when I ran into this…
I responded to the tweets…
As I drove my kid to school a few hours later, I thought to myself…
Who should make the decisions about what is “the best thing for the film?” The answer is always, “Me.” Not David/Me. Whoever is answering the question.
My take is a bit beyond the scope of what I think Ted was speaking about. (If you don’t know Ted by name, I am a little surprised you are reading me, unless you are under 30. He is long-time veteran indie producer with an amazing list of credits, time as a festival runner, history as the Amazon Movies launcher and more.)
But what struck me is the idea of “if you had someone to go to… who could tell you” the secret meaning, the subtext, the impact, the strings that people would pull from the movie you are making or about to make, etc.
I have long held the unproven - though not disagreed with by some who were involved - theory that Kubrick’s habit of reshooting, particularly on Eyes Wide Shut on which he re-shot almost the entire movie, was about him finding what he really wanted to say in the midst of production and affording himself the freedom to correct the work that was already, seemingly, done.
If you read Frederic Raphael’s book about the experience of co-writing Eyes Wide Shut, it is clear that he had no idea what Kubrick was after. And I don’t think Kubrick was playing games with him. I just think he didn’t know himself, even after years of working on the material. I don’t want to make this an entire column about EWS, but I think the movie, which is a bit of a puzzle, must have gotten simpler as Kubrick got to the core idea - should he cheat on his wife? - and weaved the theme into every scene in a way he hadn’t the first time around. It came to him as he put it on its feet.
Now… who the hell am I to tell Frederic Raphael, credited co-screenwriter, what his movie is really about?
Just me. If my arguments land with you, great. If not, you have your own idea. That is the nature of all of this. There is no single answer when chewing on quality work.
Junk, even good junk, is different.
The argument between Martin Scorsese and Marvel fans has a lot more to do with managing the insult than really engaging in the conversation. Marvel, objectively, is a different kind of movie than what Scorsese regards as “CINEMA!” But I don’t consider that an insult at all. Of course it is different.
Things get very personal when the word “better” or “worse” gets bounced around. Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame is, objectively, a 5 hour, 30 minute epic as remarkable in what it is as Abel Gance’s Napoleon or Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind or Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia are in what they are.
Is it as good? That is a matter of taste, not objective analysis.
Taste varies, but even more critically, taste changes. The notion of what subtext is, as Ted called it, “the meta of what we are saying with our narratives” changes.
I am not the first or the millionth person to note that the meta of Shakespeare’s women all being played by men when they were first performed was different in the late 1500s and early 1600s than it is now.
An all-female version of the stage musical 1776 is now on Broadway, in many ways a response to the 1969 all-male show. (I believe there are 2 opposite gender roles of 2 spouses to the Congressmen.) I don’t consider that a statement on the current culture, so much as a statement about the culture of America’s founding.
Was DW Griffith a racist? Almost certainly. But what did that mean in 1914 when he made Birth of a Nation? The meta of all of his racist tropes in the film was different from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. This is not an excuse for any of it. But even the most fundamental ideas are constantly being kicked around.
Kanye West is vomiting up anti-Semitic tropes that have been around in society for 2000 years. And in the most insidious turn, when he is rejected for shouting this stuff out in every form of media, he claims that that rejection is not because he is wrong, it is because he is being victimized in the way he claims Jews do.
TED: “…what your project said about the world, how it both supported & overturned convention + stereotypes?”
The question takes aim at a moving target that even the biggest brain and the best intentions cannot slow down.
I remember well when A Serious Man, the Coen Bros film, landed in award season and many older Jews who I knew felt it was anti-semitism or the self-loathing type.
By the end of that season, it was nominated for Best Picture and almost everyone I knew who had a sour reaction at first had fallen in love with the film.
The movie Tár lands in theaters today. Is it a movie about a person who has lost perspective and become a monster or about a woman who is mirroring the culture she grew up in, a victim of a singularly sexist segment of the world conflicting with her drive to express her truth, or is it about “Cancel Culture” and how an imperfect person can be destroyed by falsified rumors that hit close enough to home to stick or is simply about a personal vendetta carried out by people who see themselves as victims?
It may be all 4 of those things… and more. Todd Field is a very thoughtful guy and this is a very complex movie and character who can be read many different ways. I’m pretty sure that us how he wants it to play for audiences.
Thing is, everyone feels they can define convention and stereotype for themselves and everyone around them. But the devil is in the challenges to those beliefs. Because who watches the watchers?
There are some objective standards. But most standards are built on the perspective of the person feeling this way or that way about those standards.
And more to the point, in the process of making art, who really knows what the meaning, the “secret meaning” or the point of inflection that will be chosen by audiences might be?
If Sacheen Littlefeather was, indeed, a non-Native-American, as her sisters have claimed, who should The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences apologize to next? Or should “they” be applauded for unexpectedly making a bigger point than they intended back when “they” decided to apologize to her based on claims that many felt, even before the recent exposure after her passing, were wildly overstated and manipulative.
Really, the face-plant of making a giant, publicized show of apologizing to Ms. Littlefeather and then finding out that everything we knew about her in the context of The Academy might be based on a fraud, is art. It is the well-intended action that exposes a bigger truth that the “artists” ever even considered that is the soul of art. Not every single time, no. But so very often.
Forty-four years after John Carpenter took $350,000 of Moustapha Akkad’s money and put his voiceless killer in an inside-out William Shatner mask to kill the slutty teens of Haddonfield, IL, unable to conquer only the virginal, but super-hot Laurie Strode, we’re still making Halloween movies!
Who knows anything? Are we pretending that Halloween Ends is a feminist film because Jamie Lee Curtis is a passionate and effective feminist? (SPOILER SENTENCE COMING!!!!!) She let David Gordon Green have her grandkid in the film have an intimate relationship with a serial killer. I enjoyed the bold stroke by David Gordon Green and his collaborators, but what does that say about young women, 44 years after they were being killed for having sex?
It’s a silly conversation. But it’s not silly.
TED: “What if you had someone to go to, who could tell you what the secret meaning is?”
If you has that someone, you would be letting someone else do the work… work that even you may not understand yourself until long after you have done it… maybe not even then.
I am 100% in agreement with a respect for boundaries… other people’s boundaries. Great work often happens within them.
But breaking boundaries is not neccessarily disrespecting boundaries. It often is. And you should get as pissed as you want when someone does something shitty just to get attention, for themselves or their work. But there are artists breaking boundaries and exploring and working without listening to anyone telling them to rein it in or how it is going to make others feel. Do we really want to kill that in the name of protecting hurt feelings?
Sometimes, you get The Human Centipede. It’s true. You don’t have to be sewn ass-to-mouth to know what a piece of shit the movie it.
But sometimes you get great art.
More often, you get work that stretches beyond reasonable boundaries and then, in the proccess itself, it returns to a form that isn’t just trying to piss people off. The filmmaker finds something closer to what they are really trying to say. And most often, the overall works fails. But most artistic work, overall, fails… so that’s no excuse.
I love movies that make me or allow me to feel something… something great… something complex… something unexpected. It can be sophomoric and silly or challenging and intellectually overwhelming.
Truth is, most film artists have someone or many, many someones in their ears. So I won’t over-romanticize. The way a filmmaker filters or doesn’t filter that input is a big part of what comes out. And I don’t have any more specific answer as to what the best way to do that is either.
There are people who know more than me about making movies. But I know quite a bit. And it’s still a magic trick. Like surprised 8-year-old when a quarter comes out of their ear. Every time the magician has made it works. Still. No answer.
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