mortality and some really nice choreography

Charlie Kaufman is one of only a very few celebrity screenwriters: you could include Diablo Cody and perhaps Harmony Korine in this club, but to find more examples you’d probably have to go back to William Goldman and Robert Towne. In the past decade he’s had a remarkable run of fruitful collaborations with music video directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry: Being John Malkovich (an astonishing gamble for a first feature), Human Nature, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. These films, especially the last, have been bizarrely popular given their ruthlessly avant-garde approach to storytelling and generally unheroic characters. Kaufman brings the fluid, subjective time of Celine and Julie Go Boating and Last Year at Marienbad to romantic Hollywood drama, and to great effect.

Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is his first outing as director, but I think he shows remarkable assurance with what is probably his most complicated narrative to date. As in all Kaufman’s scripts, doubling of the self, recursive systems, and the unreliability of memory are prominent themes. Synecdoche is the story of a theatre director simultaneously coming to grips with his own mortality and attempting to stage a gargantuan experimental production that recreates, essentially, the world. Of course, this means casting the people from his life, including himself, and as time goes on and the play comes to mirror reality more and more, as Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) begins casting people to play the actors playing the people from his life, and so on. Meanwhile, he begins to masquerade as a cleaning woman in order to gain access to his ex-wife’s apartment, and eventually an actress hired to portray the cleaning woman in the play begins to change places with him.

This could easily become cute, but it never does, thanks to a phenomenal cast, all of whom seem to grasp what’s going on at every level of this story. Seriously, just the cast list is reason enough to see it:

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Samantha Morton
Emily Watson
Catherine Keener
Tom Noonan
Michelle Williams
Hope Davis
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jerry Adler
Robin Weigert
Dianne Wiest

I mean, damn.

There were moments when I wished for the string-and-papier-mache whimsy of former Kaufman director Michel Gondry’s recent solo films, The Science of Sleep and Be Kind, Rewind. Gondry’s gentleness, his tolerance for self-deception and his appreciation for the power of fantasy, especially in the latter film, are frankly more appealing to me than Kaufman’s continual suggestion that creativity is almost always an act of egotism. But Kaufman’s own imagination is so fecund and so generous that it’s hard to stay mad at him, even when he nakedly indulges in a bit of Russ Meyer fetishism with his actresses. His own ego seems vast, true, but he’s brutal and uncompromising about mocking it in his onscreen surrogates, and he does so in ways that are delightful and unexpected even as they serve to elaborate the sense of human waste and universal loneliness.

Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) drew nearly a full house at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, just one reason I really love living in L.A. At three-and-a-half hours, it’s a bit of a test, and watching it is easier if you know the history of Garibaldi’s failed revolution in Italy, which I didn’t. Also, watching Burt Lancaster and hearing some Italian guy’s dubbed-in voice is unbelievably distracting. For all that, it’s a cracking good historical epic — lushly produced, with great battle scenes, exquisite costumes and art direction, and all the other truffles that make these films so much fun. But Visconti’s purpose is singular, and he never wavers from it: telling the story of a proud and noble-hearted aristocrat bowed by the forces of history and eventually made to hand the keys of power over to small-minded merchants. Visconti was apparently a Marxist, and I suppose this contributes to his clear-eyed skepticism about the bourgeois merchants who began to usurp the position of the aristocracy in the 19th century. But the Prince of Salina (Lancaster), not the working class, is the uncontested hero of the film, a figure of colossal dignity and grace who will not be changed by a world that changes around him.

Roger Ebert neatly summarizes the three phases of this movie in his lovely and well-researched review:

We have grown to know the prince’s personality and his ideas, and now we enter, almost unaware, into his emotions.

The first third of the film shows us everything about the prince as a man, from how he shaves to how he reacts to the rising tide of a revolution against his own class. The second third, dealing with the practical consequences of the revolution, gives us insight into how the prince thinks, as he deals skillfully, cynically, but honestly with the new power class, lending it certain kinds of legitimacy, but refusing to become part of its supposedly more “democratic” government. The final third, chronicling a single night at a ball, brings the political back to the realm of the personal, as the passing of the aristocracy is reflected in intimations of the prince’s own mortality. Nearly twenty minutes are spent just on the prince’s decision to dance with his nephew’s beautiful young fiancee, and every minute tells us volumes about the waning of this great man’s powers and his fast-approaching end. Beautiful, fluid, moving but unsentimental, and surprisingly upbeat, it’s an emotional tour-de-force. It’s also a technically virtuosic sequence, but this is something one notices not at all in the moment; technique here is utterly subordinated to the refinement of feeling, and the feeling is, astonishingly, one of grace.

Technique is hardly hidden in Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, shown at the Aero recently in 70mm to a packed house. From the oft-parodied dance-fight choreography between the Sharks and the Jets to the gorgeous use of color in the sets and especially the costumes to Leonard Bernstein’s ostentatiously orchestrated scores, the movie is packed to the rafters with egregious displays of talent and professional skill.

But what surprised me, revisiting the film after a twelve- or fifteen-year hiatus, was how cannily the script sets up the economic thrust of the rivalry between the poor whites and the recently emigrated Puerto Ricans. Far from positing simple racism or ignorance as the root conflict between the street gangs, the film goes to some pains to establish that the working-class Poles and Italians, barely a generation removed from their own immigrant roots, are terrified of losing the little ground they’ve gained to the next wave of newcomers. This is spelled out by a series of gorgeous aerial shots that open the film; the camera starts near Wall Street, in South Manhattan, and moves from the skyscrapers of super-wealthy to spacious middle-class boulevards into the projects and the decaying brownstones of the working poor. Overall, the themes here are worthy of The Wire — especially its second season — even if the presentation is utterly melodramatic and overwrought.

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