The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


The Kids Are All Right

It seems an accepted truism that family secrets need to be explored, especially if it involves children tracking down biological or estranged parents. No one ever considers that there might be negative consequences – a proverbial monster lurking in the closet, so to speak. In Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, fifteen-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) talks his eighteen-year-old half-sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), into contacting the sperm donor for their lesbian parents. Joni is about to go off to college and expresses reluctance, but all it takes to change her mind is for Laser to tell her, “I never ask you for anything.” Joni makes the phone call and the two secretly meet their sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a handsome restaurant owner and organic gardener. The initial verdict: Joni thinks he’s pretty cool, while Laser has some reservations, especially because Paul seems to be “a little into himself.”

The film’s hook is not only the quest to meet the sperm donor, but its exploration of a family with lesbian parents. Nic (Annette Bening), a successful doctor, is married to Jules (Julianne Moore), an airhead underachiever, who has decided to start a landscape design business. She’s already bought the truck, even though she doesn’t have any clients, which immediately becomes a source of friction. The bread winner/ piggy-backer dynamic will fuel their long-simmering conflict throughout the film. When they speak, the two often ask each other, “What do you mean?” It’s an odd question for a long-time couple to ask, but they clearly have issues to work out, as evidenced by Jules’s spotty employment record and Nic’s growing problems with alcohol.

Both Nic and Jules worry about their kids, and want them to be perfect, lest it reflect upon their lifestyle. Nic, for instance, insists that Joni write “Thank you” cards and Laser write a “Get well” card to a relative, reflecting her middle-class values. They’re concerned about Laser, however, who is hanging out with a psycho skateboarder named Clay (Eddie Hassell) and (unbeknownst to them) also snorting coke. Jules asks Laser, “What do you get from that relationship?” Male companionship might be one answer, but when Laser enviously watches Clay wrestle with his dad, we understand that there’s even more to it.

Nic and Jules actually think that Laser might be gay. And when they catch him and Clay viewing one of their own male porn videos one day, they interrogate him. Laser wants to know why they are into male rather than lesbian porn, but Jules insists, “It’s counter-intuitive.” Laser inadvertently spills the beans about the fact that he and Joni have met their sperm donor. The revelation sends his moms reeling. After Joni expresses the desire to see Paul again, Nic insists that she and Jules need to meet him first. At the arranged family meeting, Paul drives up on a motorcycle – shades of Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

Nic grills Paul about being in the “food services industry,” especially because his current interests – he turns out to be a college dropout – don’t appear to match the essay about himself he wrote years earlier. Nic wants to get rid of him pronto, but Paul hires Jules to do some landscape design work at his house. Once Jules starts working there, she can’t help but notice, “I see my kids’ expression in your face.” We suddenly know where this is heading. Paul has become smitten by the two kids for the very same reason. He spends time with Laser, who asks him why he donated sperm, which Joni earlier acknowledges is “pretty weird.” Paul answers that it was “more fun than donating blood,” then gives a more altruistic reason, and finally hedges. Laser asks him how much he got paid – a pittance – but Paul, staring at the results, insists that he’s glad he did it.

Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) wrote the script for The Kids Are All Right with Stuart Blumberg over a five-year period. For her, it was an attempt to write something more mainstream than her previous indie films. Blumberg’s influence is in making the film more blatantly funny and having a more conventional structure. Indeed, the film initially feels like a comedy – not a broad comedy like the Duplass bothers’ Cyrus – but a comedy nonetheless. Much of The Kids Are All Right is indeed hilarious, especially Nic’s drunken anti-New Age rant about “heirloom tomatoes” and “composting” at a restaurant with friends, as she says things like “I like my wine! Okay! So fucking sue me!”

What I find most intriguing about The Kids Are All Right, however, is the undercurrent of melancholy that permeates the first two acts. The key scene occurs at a dinner at Paul’s house, where Nic, after some detective work in the bathroom and bedroom, figures out what’s been going on between Jules and Paul. The camera focuses on Nic’s face as she drinks a glass of wine, while the dinner conversation recedes and turns into a grating sound. The subsequent fight between the parents causes the kids to learn about the affair as well. The third act switches from comedy into melodrama, largely because it focuses on the effect that the revelation has on Joni and Laser.

Given its controversial sexual politics, The Kids Are All Right doesn’t take the easy way out. If the film sets out to answer the right-wing criticism of the effects of gay marriages on children, then the answer is the kids are fine. It’s the parents who aren’t. Like all long-term relationships, they are plagued by problems. Jules, in fact, gives an apologetic speech about marriage, in which, consciously or not, Moore seems to be channeling Carol White at Wrenwood in Safe, only she’s more articulate in this instance, as she tells the rest of them, “Marriage is fucking hard!”

The two screenwriters attempt to depict lesbian couples as being no different than straight ones, so The Kids Are All Right ends up being a defense of the nuclear family, warts and all. The parents might not love each other every minute, but they love their kids. But the kids might not love the parents nearly as much. When Nic and Jules demand hugs from Laser, he suggests they hug each other instead. At college, Joni, who still seems very sad and crushed by events, embraces Laser and remarks, “I’m sorry to leave you with them.” The moms then smother her and cry like babies, as we watch Joni’s bewildered and embarrassed response.

For Cholodenko, who is openly gay and raising a young child with her partner, and Blumberg, who had the experience of being a sperm donor while in college, there’s an autobiographical element to the film. The genesis of the script stemmed from Cholodenko’s fears that the biological father of her child might some day turn up unexpectedly. The Kids Are All Right, ends up casting Paul in the role of the repressed monster, who wreaks havoc of the family. Whether he deserves to be or not, he must nevertheless be villainized and expunged.

The Kids Are All Right is a well-made film pitched to the mainstream. I don’t have a problem with that, especially because, at least in the interviews I’ve read, Cholodenko hasn’t tried to suggest that the film is really “indie at heart” or any of those other disingenuous deceptions indie filmmakers use when they deliberately make something more commercial. The Kids Are All Right has a terrific cast: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mark Ruffalo. But, for me, Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska often steal the focus away from the stars through their subtle reactions and more understated and naturalistic style of acting.

Posted 25 July, 2010

Journal of Screenwriting #2

In the most recent issue of The Journal of Screenwriting (which unfortunately isn’t available online), Kathryn Millard has written a really terrific review of Paul Wells’s screenwriting book Basic Animation: Scripting. In her review, she also cites my book Me and You and Memento and Fargo. Kathryn Millard is a noted filmmaker, writer, scholar, and screen theorist based in Sydney, Australia. She writes:

“[Paul Wells’s] Basic Animation: Scriptwriting was designed to assist writers to initiate, develop and refine screen animation ideas. It does that admirably. More than that, though, together with J.J. Murphy’s insightful look at American independent screenwriting Me and You and ‘Memento’ and ‘Fargo’: How Independent Screenplays Work (Murphy 2007), this is one of the best books about screenwriting to have been published in recent years. Yet the two books could not be more different in style and approach. Murphy focuses on independent cinema in clear, engaging prose, tracking how a series of seminal independent features were developed and written and his case studies include scripts and films by Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Allison Anders, Miranda July, David Lynch and Gus Van Sant. Wells focuses on animation and a wide range of scripts and films. What the two books share is a depth of research and scholarship, an attention to the creative process of screenwriters and film-makers that goes far beyond the tired old clichés about beginnings, middles and ends and ‘Story’ being hardwired into humans trotted out in manual after manual, and at self-help and infotainment seminars around the globe. Both Murphy’s and Wells’s books suggest a rich vein of work on the art of writing for the screen that has barely begun to be mined.”

– Kathryn Millard, Journal of Screenwriting 1, 2 (May 2010).

In the same issue of The Journal of Screenwriting, Steven Price has an article about last year’s “Rethinking the Screenplay” conference in Helsinki, which drew 120 scholars from five continents, and was a very enriching event. I gave a paper on the collaboration between the writer Jon Raymond and filmmaker Kelly Reichardt in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Price writes:

“What was particularly impressive was the degree to which participants from such differing backgrounds could consistently engage in productive and friendly debate about the validity and parameters of the field. Torban Grodal of the University of Copenhagen, as the opening keynote speaker, shared his work on the appeal of certain film genres and film narrative s due to a common ‘cognitive DNA’ of audiences due to generations of experiences and teachings. David Howard of the University of Southern California provided another keynote address concentrating on classic story structure. From Gary Lyons’s inside account of dramatized television documentaries and J. J. Murphy’s similarly detailed discussion of collaboration in contemporary feature film to Paul Wells’s entertaining exposition of the role of the screenplay in animation and Bridget Conor’s critique of screenwriting manuals, this was a conference in which connections between widely differing disciplines could be posited, interrogated and explored in the kind of cooperative and supportive environment that has until now been lacking in a field that rarely receives the institutional recognition it deserves.”

I expanded my paper into a book chapter that will appear in Jill Nelmes’s upcoming anthology, Analysing the Screenplay (Routledge, 2010).

Analysing the Screenplay is scheduled to be unveiled at this year’s Screenwriting Research: History, Theory and Practice conference, September 9–11 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference is sponsored by the University of Copenhagen.

I will be giving a paper entitled “Less is More: In Praise of the Underwritten Screenplay” on a panel with Ian Macdonald of the University of Leeds and screenwriter Howard Rodman (Savage Grace) who teaches at USC. I’m also chairing a panel on “creative collaboration” with papers by Bridget Conor, Mats Björkin, Eva Novrup Redvall (one of the conference organizers), and Miranda Banks. There will be keynote addresses by Mette Hjort, Steven Maras, and Janet Staiger.

In other personal news, Mike Everleth over at Bad Lit: The Journal of Underground Film also happened to write a lengthy and very thoughtful review of Me and You and Memento and Fargo last week. It is always a good feeling when someone connects with what you’re doing.

If you don’t know Bad Lit or his Underground Film Guide, you’re really missing out. I check out Bad Lit all the time. Since Mike restarted his weekly “Underground Film Links” again, it’s the first thing I look at every Sunday morning. What I love about Bad Lit is Mike’s total passion for alternative cinema. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the site, I highly recommend this informative blog.

Posted 21 July, 2010

Notes on Marie Menken

As a child I lived only a block from Marie Menken, so that might explain why I always have had a tender spot in my heart for this major pioneer of American avant-garde cinema. Marie and her husband Willard Maas lived in a penthouse apartment at 62 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. Menken is the subject of Martina Kudláček’s documentary, Notes on Marie Menken (2006), a biographical portrait of this largely neglected figure. The film is now available on DVD.

Marie Menken was an extremely tall and imposing woman. There’s a famous photo of her dancing with Tennessee Williams, in which she towers over him. Like Jonas Mekas, she was also from Lithuania. Menken was married to the poet/filmmaker Willard Maas, who was gay. They met at the artist’s colony Yaddo and married in 1937 – it was his second marriage. In Film at Wit’s End, Brakhage tells the story of first meeting the two of them, in which Maas gets into a fistfight with his lover, Ben Moore, and ends up a bloody mess in the snow.

Marie and Willard had a very difficult life together. As a couple of interviewees note in Kudláček’s film, they are reported to be the model for Edward Albee’s well-known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – after he had occasion to observe their constant fighting. The couple lost a child and proceeded to torture each other over it for the rest of their lives. Marie was accepting of Willard’s gayness and befriended his many lovers. Together they started Gryphon Films. Brakhage, Charles Boultenhouse, and Gregory Markopoulos were associated with Gryphon, which represented an important early attempt at cooperative filmmaking. Marie supported herself for thirty years by working the graveyard shift at Time Magazine.

Marie was the camerawoman for Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943). She was the technical person, not Maas, which was the opposite situation of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. Her first film was Visual Variation on Noguchi (1945), but she didn’t make another, Glimpse of the Garden (1957), for another twelve years. Menken made small, highly personal and lyrical films. Among them are: Hurry, Hurry (1957, Dwightiana (1959) Eye Music in Red Major (1961), Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961) Bagatelle for Willard Maas (1961), Mood Mondrian (1961), Notebook (1962-63), Go Go Go (1962-64) Wrestling (1964), Lights (1965) and Andy Warhol (1965). Many of them are interspersed throughout Kudláček’s richly evocative portrait of Menken.

Menken exerted a major influence on other avant-garde filmmakers. Brakhage acknowledged that he owed her an tremendous debt and claimed she gave him the courage to be completely free with the camera. Menken was overshadowed by Maas (who is now forgotten), even in the early issue of Filmwise devoted to them. Maas apparently ridiculed her filmmaking efforts. She didn’t appear in the first edition of P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film – an oversight he later corrected. Even Maya Deren reportedly only respected Marie as a painter, but not as a filmmaker. Although Menken never received the credit she deserved during he lifetime, her work is included as part of the permanent collection of Anthology Film Archives, which is where I first saw her magnificent films.

Why was she ignored? One reason no doubt has to do with sexism. At the time Menken worked, there were less than a handful of women filmmakers. The heavily symbolic “trance” films were very much in vogue. In the context of the high seriousness of a more literary poetic cinema, Menken’s more playful and painterly films were simply an anomaly. In Notes, Jonas Mekas, who gave Menken her first film show at the Charles Theatre, observes that they contained “no big action, nothing spectacular, no unusual content.” Menken’s work is visually poetic. She pioneered the autobiographical diary film – a tradition that includes such filmmakers as Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Peter Hutton, Warren Sonbert, Andrew Noren, Nathaniel Dorsky, Madeleine Gekiere, as well as a host of others.

Menken was also a painter. She had a one-person show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949, but we learn from Alfred Leslie in Notes that John Bernard Myers later regretted giving her a show at Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1951 because her work “lacked edge.” According to Roger Jacoby in an old issue of Film Culture, all or most of her work was destroyed by a flood at her loft on Baltic Street, and by theft. Menken and Maas knew all the artists, the beautiful people, including Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright, and Truman Capote. Menken and Maas were notorious for their parties. They would invite all the celebrities, so it’s easy to see why Menken would connect with the Warhol crowd.

In POPism, Warhol says he met Marie Menken and Willard Maas through the surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford, who was a close friend of Parker Tyler, the film critic, who edited View magazine in the 1940s. Ford is the one who suggested Gerard Malanga as an assistant to Andy Warhol. Malanga’s high school English teacher was the poet Daisy Aldan. Through Aldan, Malanga was invited to a party, where he first met Maas, who taught at Wagner College in Staten Island, where, not coincidentally, Malanga wound up a student. At the very end, Marie and Willard were hopeless alcoholics. Marie and Willard died within days of each other.

Both Willard and Marie appeared in Warhol’s films. Willard’s major part was offscreen. He is rumored to be the guy giving head to DeVerne Bookwalter in Warhol’s infamous Blow Job (1964). Marie played Fidel’s rebellious sister, Juana, in the Warhol-Tavel collaboration, The Life of Juanita Castro (1965), in which cold war politics are portrayed as stemming from family squabbles and incidents from childhood. Marie becomes inebriated during the course of the film, which causes her to rebel against her brother Fidel and having to repeat Tavel’s dialogue verbatim. Menken is absolutely wonderful, as she butchers Tavel’s language, makes snide asides, and manages to epitomize the contrarian personality of Fidel’s sister. Marie also played Gerard Malanga’s mother in a scene in The Chelsea Girls (1966), where Marie puts on a frightening and sadistic display, as she rails against her son, while cracking a whip.

Martina Kudláček’s portrait isn’t really an in-depth scholarly documentary that has unearthed a lot of new facts and information on Menken. It’s more like a primer on her life and films in a similar manner to Jennifer M. Kroot’s homage to George and Mike Kuchar, It Came from Kuchar. Kudláček’s approach actually fits her subject matter in employing its own quiet poetry, such as when she focuses on the peeling paint of the rusty radiator in Alfred Leslie’s loft.

Kudláček has assembled a noted group of prominent individuals to talk about Marie Menken’s life and work. We hear Brakhage lecturing about Menken’s aesthetic in his booming voice. Peter Kubelka demonstrates her technique as reflecting the inherent properties of a Bolex camera in Go Go Go, which he demonstrates for us, complete with sound effects. Kenneth Anger tells about assisting Menken in making the film that became Arabesque for Kenneth Anger. He talks about her uncanny ability to edit in-camera as she filmed, noting that “she had a feeling for movement and rhythm that was like a dancer.” Anger indicates that Menken had a “halo around her head.” Anger also points out that if it wasn’t for staying at her place in Brooklyn, he would have never made his underground classic Scorpio Rising (1964). Billy Name (Linich) compares Marie to the legendary Tugboat Annie.

Gerard Malanga discovers new footage of Marie Menken and Andy Warhol  in which the two of them have a duel with Bolex cameras. The filmmaker and secret archivist in me cringes as Malanga opens an old rusty film can found in storage and uses hand rewinds to run the original footage through an old Moviescope viewer. What could be any harder on such priceless historical footage? Gerard later playfully criticizes Marie for underexposing some footage by not using a light meter.

Malanga is given considerable time in Notes for Marie Menken. He and Kudláček take a field trip out to visit Gerard’s estranged father’s vault and Marie’s grave. Gerard discusses the fact that Menken wanted to adopt him as a son, except that he already had a living mother. Malanga is unsure whether he really wanted Maas as his surrogate father. Kudláček also interviews Mary Woronov, who exudes her usual enthusiasm as she describes the harrowing scene with Marie in The Chelsea Girls, in which Mary plays Gerard’s sullen girlfriend.

The most poignant scene in Kudláček’s film, however, involves Jonas Mekas. To the credit of Kudláček and her editor Henry Hills, they keep the most riveting footage for the end. What’s fascinating is that Jonas, who’s appears to be a bit tipsy from drinking, decides to tell a remarkable story about Marie. First off, he addresses and toasts the filmmaker, Martina, by name. Jonas rubs his mouth, snorts several times, clears his throat, and waves his arms, upsetting the camera placement and framing before he shifts into “interview mode.”

In his heavy accent, Jonas begins, “I do not remember how I met Marie and Willard.” He hesitates, then remarks, “Her films were like . . . about nothing . . . little feeling, little emotion, little image.” He talks about pre-Christian Lithuanians being pantheists. Mekas suggests that Marie Menken’s work conveys a sense of nature – “flowers and trees and moon and the sun.” Jonas talks about how initially he didn’t know Menken’s ethnic origin, but one day he heard her singing a Lithuanian children’s song. Although the lower part of his face is cut off by the framing, Jonas sings the actual song for us.

Jonas then attempts to explain the lyrics. Haltingly, he translates: “Little girl, I’m like a little rose, like a lily in the flower garden.” He rubs his mussed hair and sweaty face, and rocks forward and backward in the frame He comments, “It’s another variation of how to attract [he moves his fingers] a young man.” Jonas suddenly sings in English, “I must know, I must know how to attract a young man. I must know, I must know, how to attract a young man.” Jonas laughs and remarks, “That’s a funny song, no?” As Jonas indicates it’s been a hard day and tries to regain his composure, Kudláček cuts to a shot of lily pads. Jonas laments, “There was so much love there. Poetry, and love, and cinema.” Sadly, he toasts, “Oh, Marie.”

The film cuts to scene where Marie’s nephew plays audio tape of her singing boisterously over footage of a performance involving people with umbrellas on the boardwalk. A hand rewinds Marie’s film footage, leaving the blank white screen of a Moviescope. Most documentaries depend on creating some type of intense dramatic conflict, but Kudláček’s portrait of Marie Menken is rooted in something far more basic. Like Menken’s films, Notes on Marie Menken is infused with intense love for its subject. “Oh, Marie . . .”

Posted 2 July, 2010