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Friday, January 11, 2013

The Deep Blue Sea and Rachel Weisz Q&A

On Jan. 8th, I went to a screening at The Museum of the Moving Image to see a screening of The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terrence Davies, a drama that was hailed as one of the best films of 2012. I went because actress Rachel Weisz was going to be there for a Q&A after the film, and she is one of my favorite actresses. The Shape of Things, The Mummy, Constantine, Definitely, Maybe, and Stealing Beauty have been my favorite films of hers. So I went, and the film was unlike anything I had seen in recent years. The story itself is not new (a cheating wife takes up with her lover because she is bored in her marriage), but the film, set in London in 1950, deliberately looks like a drama from the 1950s, with music cues, filming techniques, and a romantic post-war story.

The film begins by a slow pan over an English house to the window where the heroine Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is standing, with sweeping orchestral music, and a grainy, soft cinematography that makes the film look like much more of a period piece than I've seen before. The film has a blue quality to it, mimicking the sad mood of Hester, as, after romantic flashbacks with her RAF pilot lover Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), she attempts suicide, trying to end what has been a complicated and upset life for her under a British repressed society.

The film takes great advantage of sound, with the absence of background music save for the opening score, highlighting the boredom and staleness of the stiff upper-crust society. A particular example of this is, while the clock continually ticks, when her mother in-law is put off by something Hester said, she just responds primly with "That was almost offensive."  Sound can also signify change. When Hester is caught by her husband declaring her love to Freddie over the phone, the bell ring of the phone back in its cradle is like a death knell on their marriage, if in name only.

The film takes its inspiration from 1940s dramas like The Heiress, Brief Encounter, and Now, Voyager, all centering on strong-willed, independent-minded women who are going through nearly insurmountable drama. The film also reminded me of Todd Haynes' film Far From Heaven, in which he paid homage to Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s with his color scheme, cinematography choices, and centering on an unhappy housewife who is repressing her full-bodied sexuality.

I do not want to analyze the film too much, because I know that it is well-worth seeing, peeling layers like an onion, with new revelations and tragic consequences of Hester's actions. One of the most incredible scenes in the film is a flashback that Hester has to the Blitz in London circa 1940, where Londoners are huddled together in a subway station as bombs come down on the city. They are joined together through wartime, and summoning up enough courage to sing the Irish anthem "Molly Malone" in unison. The camera pans from the train tunnel, where the singer belts out this song, to along the platform, with dozens of people seeking shelter from the hellfire above, and it is a tracking shot that I was holding my breath during, it was powerful to behold.

Rachel Weisz is an excellent actress, who disappears into her roles, and finds ways to play strong and determined women with emotional abandon and fearlessness, in films like The Constant Gardener, Agora, and The Whistleblower. But similarly amazing, and new to fame, is Tom Hiddleston, best known for playing Loki in Thor and The Avengers. He has an incredible emotional range, where Freddie's personality can go from being a likable and charming young man who regales his friends with stories of his bravery during WWII, to being absolutely distraught by Hester's attempted suicide and the reasoning behind it, to becoming a cold and hurtful man when faced with Hester's betrayal. He could bring more human frailty to the role, and playing it more as a theater actor (as the film was adapted from a play by Terrence Ratigan) than a movie role, which spoke volumes to the audience. His performance has to be seen to be believed, and any memories of him as the vampy villain Loki will be dashed upon this role.

After the film, Rachel Weisz came out to speak. She looked very cute in her matching brown dress and heels, and was a delightful personality, very intelligent, thoughtful, with at both a reserved and charming personality. She joked about Terrence, saying "He really hasn't seen any films in color," and is a big fan of old B&W films. He found Rachel from watching the film Swept by the Sea, and didn't know who she was. But since Rachel does have a romantic beauty to her combined with a fierce intelligence, she would fit well as a heroine for him.

She spoke about how Terrence loves symmetry, and in the scene where her husband discovers her infidelity, he directed her not to overact or have a big emotional scene, but to "just sit with your back to the camera, and just slightly turn your neck." It is incredibly precise, and the minute detail just draws out the uncomfortable silence of the moment.

Rachel described Hester as "fire being constrained," and that she tries to hold on to a love that she knows is impossible. In my opinion, Hester doesn't seem to know what she wants, and even when she has her romantic young lover after her marriage to her older husband is ruined, she still isn't happy, as if expecting more. She is a product of the times, raised to be obedient with few options in life, and explodes because she doesn't have a healthy outlet for her passions and desires.

The film didn't have a rehearsal, it was filmed in 25 days, with a passionate atmosphere about working with Terrence, that everybody wanted to be there. She spoke about how it is "more interesting to play someone passionate," and that Terrence's direction would lead her to "emotionally undress everyday." The setting of the film, and the stillness of the moments really allowed the film to capture the period of time, free of modern-day speeds or anachronistic sayings.

I didn't go into this film with any expectations, but was blown away by how stunning and sad it was. It was an excellent film that truly captured the period and society that it depicted, and I am happy that I got to see one of my favorite actresses in person. Hopefully I will get to attend more screenings and Q&As at Moving Image to see more artists who I admire.

Herb and Dorothy

Tonight I watched a wonderful documentary entitled Herb and Dorothy (2008), directed by Megumi Sasaki, about an elderly couple, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who amassed an incredible collection of contemporary art over 50 years in their marriage, while working ordinary jobs as an post office clerk and a librarian. They were very cute and sweet together, both short and unassuming in size, and I loved seeing a film that celebrated people who combined their frugal lifestyle with a love and appreciation for art and culture. Plus, Dorothy being a librarian reminded me of my dream of being an archivist, so I related to it a lot, imagining being that happy and content with a dream job and recording the arts of New York City.

They married in 1962, just a year after they met. They met at a dance, and Dorothy said that Herb later said he approached her because she "looked intelligent." She goes, "It wasn't because I was cute?" and he answers with a shrug, "Yeah, you had that on too." They initially took painting classes at NYU, before deciding that they were better at collecting art than creating it. They only bought art that they really liked, not based on investments, that it had to be affordable, and if they could carry it home on the subway or in a taxi to fit in their Upper East Side apartment. They lived modestly, living on Dorothy's salary and using Herb's salary for art, eschewing eating out at restaurants or vacations so they could buy art. They didn't have children, preferring to have pets. Their Persian cat was named Archie Vogel, which I thought was a very dignified name.

They had a great eye for art. They developed friendships with artists, and really took the time to study art and make an educated choice. When meeting with artist James Siena, he saw that what "distinguished them from art collectors on one level was that they wanted to see everything. I'd show them one thing, and they'd say, 'Let me see something like that.' I'd show them, and they'd be 'Let me see another thing like that.' And they had to create a sort of mini-survey of my development."

The art that they collected spanned to over 4,782 works. And they ended up having quite valuable artwork by artists like Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichenstein, and Richard Tuttle. The artwork was cramming their tiny one-bedroom apartment. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” Dorothy had said. They transferred their collection to the National Gallery of Art in 1992 because they don't charge admission, they don't sell donated work, and they felt, as they had worked as civil servants for the city and government, they wanted to give back, and allow the public to see their art collection. That was an incredibly giving gesture of them, and so wonderful to see. They ended up donating 2,500 art pieces to fifty art institutions across fifty states.

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are an inspiration to find happiness in the arts, to live modestly but rich in mind, and to enjoy and appreciate the small moments in life. Herb died in July 2012 at age 90, and seeing the two of them together, lightly bickering but being supportive of one another, I hope to have a relationship like that in my old age.

Monday, January 7, 2013


Dutch, directed by Peter Faiman, is an underrated film that is at both incredibly funny and shines with subtle dramatic moments. It was written by John Hughes, and bombed upon its release in 1991. Most likely because it has similarities to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, with a mismatched pair on the road home, running into obstacles that derail their transportation, meeting odd folks along the way, and coming to a mutual respect and understanding towards the end. But what makes it stand out is not only John Hughes' touch for small human moments that ring true to life, but Ed O'Neill's performance as an average working-class Joe, developing further beyond his Al Bundy typecasting at the time. It is also noted that Ethan Embry, then child actor Ethan Randall, showed a lot of acting talent in subtle mood changes that can be easily missed.

The film centers on Dutch (O'Neill), a successful working-class man whose girlfriend's ex-husband is a rich and callous man named Reed (Christopher McDonald, playing a jerk as always). He uses his wealth to screw over his ex-wife Natalie (JoBeth Williams) and his son Doyle (Ethan Embry), an pretentious, condescending prep school brat who has been raised to look down on lower-class people, the type who "was born on third and thinks he hit a triple," as Ann Richards once said about George W. Bush. It is clear that Natalie chose Dutch because he is not only a self-made man who retains his humbleness, but that he isn't afraid of anybody, telling Reed that "you hurt her and I'll hit you so fucking hard your dog will bleed, okay?", ending with a polite smile and Reed looking like he soiled himself.

Because Reed breaks a promise to take Doyle home from Georgia to his mother's house in Chicago for Thanksgiving, Dutch stands up and takes on the task. And Dutch, despite literally taking hits and kicks from Doyle upon arrival, just waves it off, because it isn't worth getting into an argument with a child. He just carries Doyle off, bound and gagged, away in the car, because, as he tells Doyle later, "he doesn't take any crap from kiddies."

Ethan Embry played Doyle like an awful brat, truly heinous, and pulling off some reprehensible acts that rightly nearly gets his ass kicked by Dutch. Yet his acting was more impressive whenever he showed conflicting emotions, torn between enjoying a moment with Dutch and wanting to keep his stubborn front up. For example, Dutch tells Doyle of his parents, a bricklayer and a seamstress, who worked labor jobs to keep the family afloat and strong. Doyle responds sarcastically with, "You must be very proud." Dutch answers sincerely, "I am." Doyle gets this look on his face where it's a combination of respect, for Dutch being proud of his working-class parents, and guilt, because his own father isn't anything to be proud of. It is a very brief moment, but it showed a lot of talent at a young age to play between those emotions at once.

Similarly, there is a scene where Dutch buys a whole mess of fireworks and sets them off to raise Doyle's spirits and have fun with him. While Dutch is outside shooting them off, Doyle remains in the car, refusing to join in the fun. Dutch isn't bothered by this, having his own fun with the fireworks. Doyle goes through mixed emotions as Dutch is playing with the fireworks, both wanting to have fun and be a kid, but also keep up his dislike of Dutch as not to let him "win." It's another example of Embry's talent as a child actor, showing more depth and innocence beyond the spoiled brat persona that Doyle carries like a shield.

There is something particularly special about this film. Even if it is predictable, it's incredibly enjoyable to watch. As mentioned, it's John Hughes' awareness of the little truths in life that makes things funny, as well as having developed characters who are more than their initial appearances. It's the quirks of being on the road, and connecting with people in brief moments, like a night spent in a homeless shelter, hitching a ride with two call girls, or ordering from the lunch menu in a sketchy diner.

As well, for all of Doyle's big talk about how his rich father will sue Dutch for "what he did to him," to telling him he "screams working class," Dutch can intimidate and scare Doyle into submission, just by stating simple truths that shut him up real fast. Like that he's lived longer and harder than Doyle ever has, that he never screwed over anyone to make money, and that Doyle is nothing but a speck to him, no matter how big he tries to act. It's really great to watch a film where the child doesn't keep out-smarting the adult, and is put in their place time and again. I never liked TV shows and movies where children acted like smart-mouth brats to their parents and got away with it, because I not only thought it was rude, but that I knew I'd never get away with acts like that. And Dutch shows a more realistic side of what happens when a child tries to talk big to an adult.

I am happy to see that Ed O'Neill has had a successful TV comeback with Modern Family, and is being appreciated for his talent beyond the Al Bundy character for which he became famous. And while Ethan Embry's career as an adult has been hit or miss, I recommend an episode of Masters of Horror, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, where he plays a survivalist husband who keeps forcing his wife to learn how to use weapons and defend herself, creepily obsessed with the idea that she will have to fight someone someday and save her own life. It is a disturbing episode, but his acting is strong in it. I recommend seeing Dutch, and enjoying a road movie that was just one of many of John Hughes' talented screenplays.