Monday, May 04, 2009

Book Worms

The last couple of weeks I’d been spending my spare time reading about movies rather than watching them, which worked out quite well. The session started with Final Cut, Steven Bach’s intimate chronicle of the making of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, continued with Peter Biskin’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and then carried on to Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, which I’m only part way through.

The impetus to go back to Final Cut after all these years was reading of the recent, untimely death of its author, the one time Head of East Coast and European Production at United Artists who saw his career derailed by Cimino’s train wreck of a movie. Although everyone, not least the studio, was brought down by the director’s hubris and megalomania, and there’s no doubt that Cimino is a total cock, I was interested to be reminded how it came apart so spectacularly.

Having found The Deer Hunter, however celebrated, to be one of the most tedious movies I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch, I have to admit I did enjoy Heaven’s Gate when it was eventually released, in its original 219-minute uncut version, in London sometime in the mid 1980s. Not to sound like an old softie, but when the final title card announcing “What one loves about life are the things that fade” appeared, I was a complete mess. I suppose I should get hold the vanilla-disc DVD to see if it still holds up. I suspect there’s no point holding out for a special-edition set.

Back when I first read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, as entertaining as it was, I figured it was best to take Biskind’s account with a pinch of salt. After all, to drive home his point required ignoring not just a vast portion of what was happening in Hollywood, with directors who had flourished during the days of the old studio system still churning out masterpieces, but the emerging filmmakers who still made great movies without acting like complete cocks. Then again, it’s always the fuck-ups that provide the best copy.

Although set in the business, it’s really a morality play about how a bunch of young upstarts acted appallingly and got their just desserts. The book’s subtitle, How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, still confused me a second time around. Maybe I missed something but how did they “save Hollywood” exactly? Most of these fuckwits behaved so badly and flushed away so much money on their useless vanity projects that by the 1980s the producers had taken charge, leading to the sort of nonsense that gets released nowadays.

While I’ve talked about all the great films of the 1970s that I miss due to their unavailability on disc and non-appearance on television, most of them aren’t covered in Biskind’s book. It may be sacrilege to say this but I couldn’t stand Easy Rider when I saw it at a late night screening during my art school foundation year. I’d have been quite happy for the shotgun-toting rednecks to turn up in the first couple of minutes and blow the arseholes away so I could have gone home and got a few extra hours of sleep.

When it comes to Robert Altman, while I love The Long Goodbye, MASH, and even Brewster McCloud, Nashville, which is regarded as his masterpiece, just leaves me utterly cold because the characters are just fucking annoying. If only the obligatory mad gunman had turned up earlier, with automatic weapons, and flamethrowers, in a tank, with air support. That aside, if he was the monumental arsehole that Biskind depicts in the book, he still managed to make a better fist of it than the likes of Bogdanovich and Billy Friedkin.

Even when it comes to the survivors of the decade, as lauded as Scorsese is, by the time I caught Bringing Out the Dead in a small cinema in the northeast corner of Key West, having ducked out of scuba classes, I’d had my fill. Having dutifully gone to see every new release, including the god awful New York Stories but barring Kundun, and caught up on the earlier films at repertory cinemas or on tape, however technically accomplished they films were, I’d more than had enough of investing in thoroughly repellent characters that I simply didn’t want to see again.

Reaching for The Devil’s Candy, which was the next book on the shelf , reminded me that I had been in New York all through the filming of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Every time I left the apartment and headed past a newsstand the Post was usually trumpeting some story about the madness involved in the making of the picture. Ultimately the movie was a diabolic mess that simply didn’t work when they tried to redeem the central characters, but you have to admire the optimism of Brian De Palma who, thinking he had a big hit on his hands, allowed a journalist from The Wall Street Journal unrestricted access to the production.

Whereas a more manageable tabloid hack might have stayed on the set getting all doe-eyed over the leads, Salamon spent more time roaming the production offices to discover how bad decisions and compromises brought the film down, especially once the press got the scent of blood in the water. At a Coro Foundation where Spike Lee and Tom Wolfe were featured speakers, the filmmaker mentioned to the author that the latest script draft rewrote the end of his book, giving the newspapers another field day. I loved how Salamon described Lucy Fisher, the Executive Vice President of Production at Warner Bros dealt with the situation, which basically says it all about the Hollywood game:

When she finally got through to Wolfe, the issue was settled with a brief, polite exchange. Spike Lee, however, was another matter altogether. He wasn’t an outsider like Wolfe. No matter how hard he worked at posing as the last angry black man, he made his films with Hollywood money. That made him part of the community and subject to its rules.

“How would you like it if you had a movie and someone else got up and started talking about the end of the movie and it was in the paper?” Fisher snapped at Lee. “How would you like that?”

Lee’s apology was sufficiently deferential to Wolfe, De Palma and Warner Bros,. though Fisher wasn’t entirely satisfied. She would have liked to yell at Lee a little more, but she hoped someday to work with him and didn’t want to press her luck.

Oddly enough, when I came back to the UK I found myself working for a producer who was ex-BBC Pebble Mill and therefore thought she was God's gift to television. Having dealt with Lee in some capacity when he had been interviewed for some damn programme she was involved with, she had described him as an insufferably arrogant prick. Given the histrionics and bad behaviour of both herself and her husband, that was saying something.

Between all the reading, the one programme I did make a point of catching was The South Bank Show profile of William Goldman. It’s been a while since I’ve seen an episode of ITV’s flagship/only arts programme and as bad as it used to be, it seemed to have gone rapidly downhill since. Goldman should be interesting, right? Instead it seemed to have been cobbled together from two interviews that covered the same ground that rather boringly stuck to the highlights and even allowed Goldman to almost contradict himself at one point.

It had all the depth of a saucer of water that had been left out in the sun for a few hours. While I could understand why Sir Richard Attenborough, who had directed both A Bridge Too Far and Magic, was invited to reflect on the man, along with Robert McKee who was there to comment on Goldman’s scripts, but why the fuck had Hugh Grant been brought along to contribute? I would have thought The Princess Bride would have got a look in. Having struggled to read Goldman’s absolutely appalling adaptation of Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, mention of his failures might have been as interesting as recycling the oft repeated anecdotes regarding the successes.

Then on Saturday evening I put the book aside and sat down to watch Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. As I mentioned previously, I thought Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children were great pieces of cinema and Alien Resurrection an absolute mess. I’d missed Amélie even though everyone had said how brilliant it was, so with Channel 4 screening it, I figured I ought to make the effort to watch.

As a big fan of the great Ealing comedies and the Powell & Pressburger classics, I’m not adverse to whimsy, but after watching forty minutes of this utter nonsense I was overwhelmed with an urge to hurl a blunt object through the television screen. It actually made me want to slip in the DVD of Armageddon solely for the scene where the asteroid splinter creams Paris. Two days later, and having gone right back to the books, I’m still trying to figure out whether Amélie is the most irritating film ever made.


At 1:09 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

In a similar vein I can recommend HELLO, HE LIED (subtitled "& other truths from the Hollywood trenches") by Lynda Obst; published in '96 and probably OOP by now, but it's an entertaining, right-on-the nail insider memoir full of professional detail.

And I don't know how easy it is to get hold of -- I got my copy in the US and I've never seen it on sale over here -- but OUTRAGEOUS CONDUCT by Stephen Farber and Marc Green dissects the causes and consequences of the TWILIGHT ZONE on-set disaster. Not quite so well-written as the best of the others, but forensic stuff.

At 5:39 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I’ve seen Hello, He Lied around but never got around to it. I checked out the first couple of pages on Amazon and felt a little wary that Ms Obst wouldn’t mention Arnold Kopelson or Paul Attanasio by name. My first thought was that this is someone who wants to write about the industry but still wants to work in the industry, therefore is going to err on the side of caution so as not to upset the applecart.

I always thought one of the first rules as a Hollywood producer was never get Robert Redford attached to a script because he’ll never commit to anything. Whether it’s because he simply can’t decide what to do or because he just likes to fuck with people to show off his power is debatable. Shame really, because I would have preferred to have seen Ridley Scott’s The Hot Zone rather than that stupid Outbreak.

Actually it’s Outrageous Conduct that appears to be OOP. I read the book review on The New York Times’ website. I think reading the book would want to make me buy a ticket to LA and take a bat to those people. Especially Landis. As the review says:

In their new book, they dramatically evoke the events leading up to the tragedy of “Twilight Zone - The Movie.” Their pithy character studies of the volatile Mr. Landis, the Pollyannaish Mr. Spielberg and those starstruck studio heads who granted these blockbuster directors unchecked freedom make for a startling group portrait. These are people who confuse the reel with the real and box-office success with art. Little wonder Mr. Landis had the chutzpah to eulogize Vic Morrow by saying, in essence, if he had to die, at least he died heroically while making a great film. For the record, critics almost unanimously reviled Mr. Landis's “Twilight Zone” episode, making the tragedy doubly obscene.I remember reading somewhere that when Landis was acquitted he signed autographs for the jury. What a scumbag. And a rather talentless scumbag at that. I don’t know whether it’s in the book but another review mentioned that he pretty much gatecrashed Vic Morrow’s funeral and came out with his own eulogy that sounded more like a promotion for the movie which upset the family no end. When people get up to this sort of behaviour and get away with it, it makes you wonder why they stuck Charlie Manson in jail rather than give him a three picture deal.

Finishing The Devil’s Candy, I went right into Bill Carter’s The Late Shift covering all the shenanigans over the battle for The Tonight Show once Carson decided to step down. Having all these hardbacks brought back from LA – which usually meant ditching clothes so the books would fit in the suitcase – I figured I had to read them again. The great thing with The Late Shift was that it provided so much farcical material for The Larry Sanders Show.

I did have the notion to read Wolfe’s novel again but it seemed like too much hard work at the moment. I thought about seeing the film again after all these years but I couldn’t find a copy. One interesting thing in Salamon’s book is she quotes Spielberg saying that The Bonfire of the Vanities wasn’t a Brian De Palma film but a film directed by Brian De Palma. It could just as easily have been directed by Pollack or Lumet or whoever else may have signed on to it.

When there’s a big budget involved – and when the execs fume over the budget heading north of $40 million it seems quite quaint – it becomes the studio’s film more than the director’s film when he can’t put his own individual stamp on it. As much as I hated Bringing Out The Dead, that probably was the last true Scorsese film. As the budgets on the next pictures ballooned obviously producers started to have their say and compromises were met.

I bought The Departed in the ongoing HMV sale and wasn’t that impressed. It looked like anyone could have been directed it.

At 3:44 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

The part of DEVIL'S CANDY that sticks in my mind is the side-story of Eric Schwab's obsessive planning of "the Concord shot".

There are multo copies of OUTRAGEOUS CONDUCT on Abebooks for a dollar and up, should you ever feel the urge to be suitably outraged.


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