Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playground: Two New Films and One Old One

You want busy? I’ll give you busy.

First, check out the absolutely fascinating entry in yesterday’s CinemaTech blog from Scott Kirsner. It’s a précis (with link) of a piece in Variety about the ways that digital shooting has changed actors’ working methods. This, I’m sure, was completely unexpected and, as an amateur social historian I find it quite interesting. Granted, Mel Gibson and Tony Bill are hardly the directors I would choose as a template for the industry, but the changes are real.

If you don’t think so, take a look at Red Road, an impressive feature debut for Andrea Arnold, which opened yesterday. In fact, I don’t believe Red Road was shot on video (although these days I can’t tell anymore), but it is a film in which video screens are an almost constant presence, another character as it were. Jackie (Kate Dickie, who is almost never off-screen and is first among equals in a brilliant cast) works for the Glasgow city government as a closed-circuit TVoperator and monitor, watching the streets for signs of emergencies-in-the-making, particularly criminal activity. One day she sees a startlingly familiar face, a paroled criminal named Clyde (Tony Curran), whose relationship to Jackie is only revealed about two-thirds of the way through the film. What is clear is that Jackie has payback in mind and she slowly searches for a way into his life.

Arnold, who also wrote the film, takes the seemingly routine revenge film into some highly unexpected territory, and the result is entirely successful as a genre piece, but her ambitions, which I think she realizes quite well, are for something more. What I found riveting throughout the film is the way in which she manipulates her mise-en-scene to give the film some of the same look as the video monitors that surround Jackie at work. We are given the same series of restricted views of the characters and their motivations that Jackie has when she spies on her fellow Glaswegians, and the sense that one never has enough information – visual or psychological – gives Red Road a great deal of its forcefulness.

What troubled me while I was watching the film is something fundamental to my own aesthetics, something Red Road challenges quite intelligently, i.e., the primacy I have always given to long takes as a vehicle for exploring psychology unfolding in “real” time. Arnold has made a carefully calculated choice, eschewing long takes (although the film is not cut as fast on the eye as, say, something by Michael Bay or someone else of his ilk), and breaking up key emotional scenes. It’s a choice that, as I say, pays off brilliantly. But I admit that I was sitting there thinking, “But this shouldn’t work, should it?” Yeah, like the shower scene in Psycho or the final gunfight in Madigan shouldn’t work. (Red Road is playing here and here in New York.)

Sometimes you can be too closely wedded (or should that be “welded”) to your favorite ideas.


I suppose one might say the same thing of Alain Resnais, whose new film Private Fears in Public Places also opened yesterday. Private Fears is another of Resnais’s studies of theatricality, albeit much subtler and infinitely more satisfying than Not on the Lips (a film whose ostensible charms are lost on me). Working from a play by Alan Ayckbourn, who is one of those farceurs whose crackling timing hides a deep melancholy, Resnais comes up with something more deeply felt, more pained than anything of his since Providence, and that’s a while ago.

The film has one of those complicated plots interweaving six people, three men and three women, who are interwoven in a dizzying series of near-algebraic permutations, some romantic, some not, circling around themes as familiar in Paris as they are in New York: real estate, sexual attraction, loneliness and the fear of dying alone. These are no longer the young and elegant characters of Resnais’s early films, swapping gnomic bon mots and smoldering glances while his camera glides warily around them. The emotions in Private Fears are quite real and very intense. Resnais’s camera is still graceful but perhaps less wary; the sets are still as theatrical as they were in Marienbad and Providence, yet there is a discernible real-life Paris in the film, constantly shrouded in a steady snowfall that is so pervasive it even appears on screen during the dissolves that mark the end of each sequence. The result is a beautiful, but overwhelmingly extraordinarily sad film that lingers in the memory, as Resnais’s best work always does. (Private Fears in Public Places is playing here and here in NYC.)


Finally, allow me to share the fruits of one of my other lines of work that briefly touches on the world of film. I was interviewing the magnificent Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase and the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem for a Jewish Week story yesterday morning. She is participating in a concert that includes the April 22 world premiere of a new piece by Debra Kaye based on two of Aleichem’s marvelous short stories (go here for more information). At the end of the interview Kaufman, who is a very, very spry 95, asked me if I didn’t have more questions. So I asked her what it was like working with the Alan J.Pakula-Robert Mulligan team on the film version of her book.

“It was very strange you know,” she said. “The film was shot during the summer in a New York school, which was completely empty otherwise. Here are all these people bustling about. Why? Because one day I sat down at a typewriter with a blank piece of paper. And all this happened because of that. It was a strange sense of power.”

She also recalled with amusement the wrap party at the end of shooting. It was held in the school gym and set up to look like a high school graduation with purple-and-gold decorations to match the fictional color scheme of the school and a stirring rendition of the school’s alma mater. So stirring, in fact, that Kaufman said that she suddenly felt tears running down her cheeks as she sang along.

“Wasn’t that silly,” she said with a chuckle. “After all, I had invented the purple-and-gold and wrote the alma mater myself.”

As for the film, she pronounced herself more pleased than not with the result. “It was my baby but this baby was had blond hair and mine had brown hair,” she said, referring to Sandy Dennis who played the character based on Kaufman in the 1967 film. “And she was prettier than my baby, too. I pleased that they didn’t vulgarize it, which is always a danger with Hollywood. They treated it with respect.”

Not something you hear from authors every day of the week.


Daniel said…
Your blog is so interesting that i will ask all of my friends on to read this one because i think they are so free.
George said…
I'm very flattered.
I think.