Clint Abides: TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE

Clint Abides: TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE

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In one of his great essays about baseball, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti famously called the game “our best invention to stay change.” Giamatti (who, besides being president of Yale University, was briefly commissioner of Major League Baseball) added, “I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

The ragtag group of has-beens and hopefuls in Trouble with the Curve would likely share Giamatti’s sentiment. No matter what illnesses or impediments come their way, they cannot let go of the sound of the bat hitting the ball. Seventy-something Atlanta Braves scout Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood) is going blind, relying on his wits and a magnifying glass to hang onto his job, while former MLB pitcher Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake) seeks to rebrand himself as a broadcaster for the Boston Red Sox after an injury. It is hard to dislike a movie that makes an odd couple out of stars as disparate as Eastwood and Timberlake—Dirty Harry and Sean Parker—and the incongruous pairing is one of the freshest touches in the debut of director Robert Lorenz (a longtime producer for Eastwood).

In Randy Brown’s so-so script, characters of all ages are scrambling for security and status, including Gus’s ambitious lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), who is hoping to be made a junior partner at her firm. One of the film’s strengths is its willingness to let Gus, Johnny, and Mickey appear weak or desperate. In the Braves’ front office, peopled largely by callow jocks who lean on computer programs rather than firsthand observation to evaluate talent, Gus is mocked as outmoded. Even his old friend Pete (an amiable, mustachioed John Goodman) wonders if something is wrong when he stops by Gus’s house one morning and observes him mistakenly paying the pizza delivery boy with a $50 bill instead of a $20. The look on Goodman’s face suggests he fears something far worse than failing vision: is Gus going senile? When Pete recruits Mickey to look out for her father out on an important scouting trip in North Carolina, his request has all of the subtlety of an intervention.

The pleasure of Trouble with the Curve is not only that Gus will prove the doubters wrong but that he does not care how he is perceived. If he really is not as far gone as Pete and Mickey suspect, what is the harm in their thinking he is? He will get the last laugh, but in the meantime he has no patience for keeping up appearances, unashamed even when he wrecks his car. (Asked the next morning why he has a conspicuous bandage on his cheek, he says with a straight face that he cut himself shaving.) Eastwood’s remarkably open performance (one scene features him tenderly singing “You Are My Sunshine” a capella) suggests that he shares Gus’s wily indifference to others’ opinions, as does his shrug of a response to the humorless criticism he received following his charming, personal speech at the Republican National Convention.

In fact, Trouble with the Curve reflects its star’s gently libertarian disposition. When Mickey tries to mother Gus—helping him with the keys to his motel room or throwing out a hamburger patty he has overcooked—he recoils, all but saying, “Don’t tread on me.” Gus is affronted, too, when the Braves, having learned of his vision problem, suggest he retire and begin drawing a pension. Such gestures are meant to be helpful, but they are bathed in condescension. At the same time, Gus accepts Mickey’s assistance in scouting the presumptive top draft pick because she acts like she’s just . . . chipping in. The film’s politics, such as they are, are not doctrinaire.

Lorenz inherited most of his boss’s usual crew, including cinematographer Tom Stern and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach, and the result is an unusually well-produced first film. Lorenz has a sure sense of comedy, too, eliciting amusing supporting performances from the reptilian Matthew Lillard (as a go-getting Braves scout) and Joe Massingill (as the draft pick, a misogynistic, self-regarding oaf who calls to mind the wrestler Gorgeous George).

As with several recent Eastwood projects, the biggest liability is the screenplay. Novice screenwriter Randy Brown is simply no James Bridges or William Goldman (authors of two of Eastwood’s best films of the nineties, White Hunter Black Heart and Absolute Power, respectively). His characters lack consistency. Mickey moans about Gus’s uncommunicative manner, implausibly claiming that his emotional distance has driven her to therapy, yet she seems pert and well-adjusted for the most part. What’s more, she has inherited many of her father’s best traits—not just his eye for the game, but his go-it-alone stubbornness and prickly attitude toward co-workers. Was Gus really such a bad dad, to produce such a nice kid? She is not the only one who vacillates. One minute Johnny gladly risks his new career with the Red Sox by taking a counterintuitive piece of advice from Gus and the next he is furious at him for doing just that.

Through it all, though, Eastwood stands firm. Gus gets what he wants, winning a new contract with the Braves with his methods unchanged. He even orchestrates the romance between Mickey and Johnny, like a craggy, cigar-chewing matchmaker. Ever stalwart, Eastwood is, like baseball itself, proof that there is “something abiding,” as A. Bartlett Giamatti would say. 

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi.

PETER TONGUETTE: An extremely misunderstood, incredibly moving 9/11 drama

PETER TONGUETTE: An extremely misunderstood, incredibly moving 9/11 drama

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At what point do you start to wonder if a particular day might be the worst of your life? Maybe you realize it gradually over the course of an especially sour afternoon as things just keep going wrong. That is what happens in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and when the Kate Winslet character says at the end that it has been the worst day of her life, what she means is that the day and its accumulation of indignities has finally worn her down.

On the other hand, sometimes it only takes a split-second for a fine, normal, nothing day to become “the worst day.” That is what Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close calls it: “the worst day.” September 11. The day that his father, Thomas, is killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. We should never, ever forget what Joan Didion says: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”

nullOskar is a wise child. Why do I think to describe him that way? Well, to start with, the Glass children in the stories of J.D. Salinger appeared on a game show called It’s a Wise Child, and Oskar is very much like them. The critic Walter Kirn described Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel (which I have not read) as “a conscious homage to the Gotham wise-child genre.” So is the movie. In fact, the actor who plays Oskar, Thomas Horn, was cast after the moviemakers saw him on Jeopardy! This irony aside, Horn gives his character the right bossy demeanor— Oskar is used to getting his way. His curiosity is indulged by his father (played by Tom Hanks in a series of short memories), who devises quests for him, such as finding New York’s “sixth borough.”

After his father dies, Oskar comes up with an excuse for one more “reconnaissance mission.” It starts with a key of unknown origin
(discovered by Oskar by accident when he tips over and shatters a blue vase) and it ends… well, we do not know when or where or if it will end. Oskar has a gift for sleuthing, but he does not kid himself into thinking that solving the puzzle behind the key is important in itself. What is important is that as long as he is searching, he is thinking of his father.

nullDuring Oskar’s journey, a great many people (most of them with the surname “Black”) come into his orbit, including a hulking, silent Swede (Max von Sydow) who might be his grandfather and is certainly a kindred spirit. Oskar also sees his glorious city from every angle. As filmed by director Stephen Daldry and cameraman Chris Menges, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is one of the great New York movies. It resembles The World of Henry Orient, with precocious young New Yorkers darting around the city unencumbered by adult supervision.

Daldry directs like a master—he is unafraid to go for bold effects, such as the montage sequence illustrating the many things Oskar is “panicky” about since the tragedy. The director is conscious of his predecessors. The freeze frame of Oskar at the end of the picture is meant, I think, to evoke the last shot of The 400 Blows. And when Oskar retreats to underneath his parents’ bed on “the worst day,” we are reminded of the beginning of Fanny and Alexander—another movie about a son losing a father too, too soon.

The movie gets the more pedestrian aspects of childhood right, too. Daldry captures what it is like to crack open your door late at night, let in a ray of light from the hall, and overhear the murmurings of grownups who think you are fast asleep. An only child, Oskar does a lot of eavesdropping on his parents (his mother, Linda, is played by Sandra Bullock), but he has an uncommon comprehension of what he overhears and a gift for remembering it. At one point, more than a year after September 11, he tells his mother something his father
said to him about her: “I really love your mother. She’s such a good girl.” It is unbearably moving that Oskar recalls the precise words his father used. A more average kid—a less wise child—would have misremembered the remark. It would have become something treacly like, “I love mom.”

I wonder if there is anything more meaningful than to tell someone you love that someone they lost loved them.

Throughout the movie, I worried that Sandra Bullock was being forgotten. There was so much about Oskar and Thomas and the cagey Swede, but relatively little about Linda. I found myself asking why Oskar was spending more time with strangers than with her or why he didn’t tell her about the key he found. She might, after all, know something about it.

Linda is, plainly, less of a pal to Oskar than Thomas was, but the simple truth is that Sandra Bullock gives the movie its pulse. After Oskar’s journey ends, amounting to a lot of sound and fury and signifying nothing (as far as he is concerned), his mother is there waiting for him, and the feeling is much as it is at the end of, say, Meet Me in St. Louis, when the family decides to stay there. It is home, sweet home. But it turns out that she has been with Oskar all along. She is no Tiger Mother, but she checked out every place he planned to visit and every person he planned to see. “Did you think I would ever let you out of my sights?” she asks, and we feel ashamed for wondering if she had.

nullIt is a great portrait of motherhood. The movie may seem all gilded surfaces, but the truths it contains are straightforward, and so many of them spring from Bullock’s quiet, easy performance. You want to cry softly when she whispers that what she misses most about her husband is his voice. It is a simple thing to miss, but any bereaved person can relate. I do not think Sandra Bullock has given a more natural or unaffected performance since Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love.

I mentioned that I have not read the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. So, of course, I do not know how close Eric Roth’s adaptation is. Maybe the things I like best about the movie are from the book—or maybe they aren’t. What I know is this: the movies have the power to make stories seem extremely loud and incredibly close in ways that often elude the written word, and that is especially true of so much contemporary fiction. Give me instead the look on Max von Sydow’s face and the sadness in Sandra Bullock’s voice.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

INTERVIEW: What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2

INTERVIEW: What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 2

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: A much-shortened version of this article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 60, Issue 1, First Quarter 2010, under the title, “The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante: A Symposium.”]

My conversation with Joe Dante, Tina Hirsch, and Marshall Harvey continues with a discussion of the director’s most famous film—Gremlins—and several later productions with more challenging post-production circumstances.–Peter Tonguette.

Tina Hirsch: Joe was so worried about the gremlins. He just thought the puppets were completely phony and nobody was going to believe them.

Joe Dante: This was a giant Muppet movie. When you make a picture like this, the question always is, “Are people going to buy this?”

nullTH: It comes to the end of shooting and he was supposed to stay away and give me a week to finish cutting all of the material. But he came in the next Monday or Tuesday, soon after wrap, and I said, “Joe, you look awful.” [Laughs.] We hadn’t shot all of the puppet stuff yet. They were going to take a break for a month and figure out what they needed to shoot. He said, “They’re so phony and awful.” I said, “Joe, they’re not. I believe them. I’m the audience! I’ll tell you what: I’m not completely finished, but I have 95% of the picture finished. How about we have a screening?” We go in, we look at the film, and he comes out and says, “Well, it’s not a disaster.”

JD: Our job was to try to take this puppet footage, of which there was an immense amount, and hone it down to the parts that were the most believable. A lot of times, that came down to which reaction shot of the character we used. I’m a firm believer that even a great special effect is going to look lousy if the reaction shot doesn’t convince you. The real trick was to make the audience believe that the characters on screen believe that the puppets are real.

TH: To cap it off, he got hate mail from people about how cruel he was to these gremlins! [Laughs.] It was exactly how I felt. I said, “I buy that they’re real. You know they’re not, but to me they’re real. Look at the dog! The dog believes they’re real!” That was the smartest thing they could have done, to have a dog at the beginning of the movie react to Gizmo.

JD: It was the best dog that I ever worked with. His name was Mushroom. I actually met him years later and he remembered me. This dog was incredibly
expressive and fascinated by the puppets. He was seemed to think they were real. We found that the more we cut to the dog, the more people bought it!
[Laughs.]

Peter Tonguette: I understand that Explorers was a difficult film from a post-production standpoint.

JD: The script wasn’t finished when we started filming and they had a release date in mind. The other problem was that the studio changed hands during the
post-production and the new people said, “This picture is coming out two months too late. We’ve got to have it two months earlier.” So we were basically told to stop work on it at a certain point, just finish it.

Movies get found in the editing room. The movie that you make is not always necessarily the movie that comes out of the editing room. The trick is to perfect
the movie that you have and make it the best version of what you’ve shot, regardless of what the intent may have been. In this case, we were still finding
the movie. The script we shot didn’t have an ending, so we made up a lot of stuff. Here we were, sifting through all this material, trying to focus it, and suddenly it’s, “Okay, all done.” And there it went, out to the public in the rough cut.

nullTH: Had they only given us another two weeks. A scene was written for the end of the picture which would have been with Dick Miller’s character. It would really have summed up the picture. There was no button at the end of the picture. It just kind of dropped off a cliff. It could have been done really cheaply, with one set, so it’s really sad. But the new studio just didn’t care.

JD: The basic conceptual problem with the movie is that it’s the opposite of E.T. (1982). The first half of the movie is Spielbergian and the second half of the movie is the opposite of that. The kids believe that they are going to find the meaning of life and God in space and they find only a reflection of themselves as distorted through pop culture. That didn’t turn out to be that popular! [Laughs.]

PT: Dave Kehr has written appreciatively about that very aspect of Explorers, noting that the film “perfectly mimics the nocturnal, nostalgic tone of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind until the moment [it] explodes into the unrestrained delirium of a Bob Clampett cartoon.”

JD: I’m a firm believer that a movie can come out a year later or a year earlier and be successful or not depending on what the Zeitgeist is at the moment. But right then, that was not what people wanted to hear! [Laughs.]

PT: Starting with the segments you directed for Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), and then The ‘burbs shortly thereafter, you’ve worked extensively with Marshall Harvey.

nullJD: I had known Marshall since the Roger days and I’d seen a lot of the exploitation pictures he had cut. We just had a rapport. We liked the same movies and we had the same background.

Marshall Harvey: Joe and I have always gotten along together probably because we share a very similar sense of humor.

JD: The 'burbs was a particularly difficult movie because we shot it in sequence and we ad-libbed most of it.

MH: It was shot during the writers’ strike which meant there was no writer on the set. There were problems with the script, particularly in the third act. It was a great premise, which I think gives the movie its longevity. A lot of the funniest lines were ad-libs that the actors came up with. Joe would just let the camera run and let people improvise at the end of takes.

JD: We were trying to hone in on the good the parts and get rid of the bad parts. The rough cut was two-and-a-half hours and completely different than the
released movie. I’d say he really pulled that out and so the further I went on, Marshall was my go-to guy.

MH: He’s always been the best director in the editing room, partially because he started as an editor. He understands editing and he understands film history. If something isn’t working editorially, he understands why.

PT: Does he like to be in the cutting room?

MH: He likes to be there, which is helpful for the editor. Sometimes you want to try something and then you discover you don’t have the right footage to make that kind of cut. I’ve worked with directors who give their notes and go play golf and you realize, “Oh, geez, this idea is not going to work.” Then they come back and go, “What?” Whereas Joe is right there all the time and he can see immediately that it won’t work. “Why don’t we try this instead?”

At the time we were making The ‘burbs, Joe was pooh-poohing it. “This isn’t exactly my magnum opus!” Yet I’m with him at these events and people come up and the first thing out of their mouths is, “Oh, we love The ‘burbs!” There are web sites dedicated to the movie. We can’t quite believe it has such a following and a longevity to it.

nullPT: What were some of the difficulties in making Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)?

JD: From about 1997 on, the atmosphere in town about making movies has changed. It has become more corporate, there are more cooks in the kitchen than there have ever been, and the effort to get your idea of what the movie should be through has become like plodding through quicksand.

There were twenty-five writers on Looney Tunes, and that’s too many writers for a movie. It was being changed up until the minute that it was shown. It took a year-and-a-half and it was an extremely depressing experience. It pretty much soured me on the whole studio set-up.

MH: The only reason he took on that project, I think, was to preserve the Looney Tunes heritage. He knew Chuck Jones. If you go to Joe’s house, he has a big framed, signed thing from Chuck Jones. He disliked Space Jam (1996) and thought it was kind of a travesty to those characters.

JD: Chuck had just passed away. I thought, “I owe this to Chuck.” I owe him to not have the characters do hip-hop. They need to be true to themselves. My
mission in the movie, and [animation director] Eric Goldberg’s mission, was to try to make sure that these characters emerged intact.

MH: He sent me the script and I thought, “This is not very good.” But if we could make it like a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road picture, with Daffy Duck as Bob Hope and Bugs as Bing Crosby, I thought it could be fun. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t quite see it that way and insisted on cutting out all of those kinds of things. The fact that the movie still ends up preserving the Looney Tunes sensibility is kind of a miracle, really.

PT: Coming on the heels of Looney Tunes, it must have been a relief to make your Masters of Horror episodes, Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution.

JD: They were a blessing for all of us. Directors who are used to battling the studio over everything are suddenly given carte blanche to do whatever they
want provided they could do it in ten days and for not much money. There was absolutely no interference on any level on that show. I was very proud and happy about the two episodes I did that I could never have done anywhere else. They were just too weird, dark, and controversial.

MH: Mick Garris, who created the show, is a director himself. The whole idea was that it was a director-oriented television series.

PT: Tell me about your current project, The Hole.

JD: It’s a small picture with a small cast and not a lot of locations. It’s basically a psychological horror film. It’s a little old-fashioned and it’s a movie that’s suitable to take kids to.

nullIt’s a movie that I went in on. I’m sure they were talking to twelve other guys, but for whatever reason, they liked my take. I went back and I said, “I think there’s one thing that would improve this movie. I don’t know if you’ll go for it or not, but I think this would be a good 3-D movie.” After a couple of days thought and some research, they said, “We think you’re right and we’re going to add a couple of bucks to the budget to pay for the 3-D.” That was great for me because I love 3-D.

PT: What are the challenges of editing a 3-D film in this day and age?

MH: It’s a lot easier than you would think. First of all, we don’t cut it in 3-D. It’s really no different for me than doing a regular movie, except you have to keep in mind that, when it is in 3-D, how certain things will be affected. The Hole doesn’t have a lot of gimmicky throwing things at the audience stuff in it. He took more of the Alfred Hitchcock approach to 3-D in how he staged it, giving depth to each shot.

The most difficult thing about it is that, because I wasn’t able to see the dailies in 3-D, a lot of the shots I’ve never seen in 3-D. Some of the visual effects
shots I’ve now seen in 3-D and I’m going, “Wow! That looks a lot different than I thought it would!” [Laughs.] If there’s something in the foreground, you don’t
really pay any attention to it in a normal movie, but when you see it in 3-D, it’s a totally different experience. You’ve locked the picture and now you’re seeing it in 3-D. “That’s really cool! I wish we could have stayed on that shot longer!”

Joe’s great with child actors and all three leads in it are quite good, particularly Nathan Gamble, who played Commissioner Gordon’s son in The Dark Knight
(2008). He plays the younger brother in this and he’s really good. For a guy who doesn’t have kids, Joe really connects to child actors.

nullPT: How does Joe work with young actors?

TH: Well, I think he’s one of them. [Laughs.] It’s very natural for him to be with young actors because he has not lost the six-year-old boy. That person is still inside him. I remember one time going on the set of Explorers and he was with the three guys [Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Pressen]. He was telling them to do something and then they did the scene and it didn’t happen. And then he didn’t get it a second time. I thought, “Oh, boy.” But he just said, “Okay, we got it, let’s move on.” He realized, “This is all I’m going to get.” He had a day to make and he had kids he was dealing with. They can only do what they can do. He felt, “This is good enough.” To me, that’s a very sane way to work.

PT: You’ve worked with many of the same editors again and again, notably Marshall, Tina, and Kent Beyda. Do you find that to be beneficial?

JD: I find it beneficial in every category: the composer, the DP, the art director. You do form a cadre of people that you trust and who are good at their jobs and who know you and what your quirks and foibles are. It makes making movies very collegial and a lot more fun.

MH: In my experience, Joe is the most loyal person in the film industry. There aren’t that many people that are so loyal to stick with the same group of people.

PT: Do you think you are a better director for having been an editor?

JD: Unquestionably. I think that anybody that wants to direct, particularly writers, should spend some time in an editing room, whether it’s a film of theirs or someone else’s, or shoot their own picture on video and cut it. There’s a way of thinking that comes with being an editor that is incredibly useful on the set.
People who don’t have that sometimes find themselves getting into trouble. It’s not just a vocabulary thing or a right-to-left thing or script supervisor stuff. It’s a way of thinking about the film and the shots and the way they fit together—what you need and what you don’t need, and what you can get away with if you have to.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 1

What You Can Get Away With: The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante, Part 1

[EDITOR'S NOTE: A much-shortened version of this article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 60, Issue 1, First Quarter 2010, under the title, “The Collegial Cutting Room Collaborators of Joe Dante: A Symposium.]

Like so many children of the eighties, I grew up with Joe Dante’s films, and knew even the less heralded ones—like Explorers (1985) or Innerspace (1987)—by heart. When I decided to write about his work, I spent a long time searching for an angle or hook before I asked myself a very simple question: How many directors began their professional careers by editing trailers for Roger Corman?

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Joe Dante did. If I wanted to tell the story of his films, I had to tell it through the editors he worked with, starting with himself. With Mark Goldblatt, Dante co-edited his first two features—Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981). He would later work with a succession of devoted editors. Tina Hirsch edited Dante’s biggest successes, like Gremlins (1984) and his acclaimed segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), while Marshall Harvey has been with him on most of his projects since the late-eighties, including The ‘burbs (1989) and Matinee (1993).

In the summer of 2009, I interviewed Dante, Hirsch, and Harvey, and I started where I felt I had to: with the director in the cutting room.

Joe Dante: I began as a film editor on The Movie Orgy (1968), which was a 16 mm compilation film that was patched together by me and Jon Davison when we were in college. It’s seven hours of stuff. We kept changing it around and a beer company gave us money to take it to college campuses. We didn’t have the rights to anything, but it was an exercise in editing, basically. And it’s pretty much where I learned how to edit, on a 16 mm print with optical track and one splicer.

Peter Tonguette: Did you want to become an editor or did you see this as a way to eventually become a director?

nullJD: I think I wanted to be a director, but I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to have something to do with the movies. I was a film critic and I had some expertise. When Jon Davison came out here to work for Roger Corman and asked me to come to edit a trailer, I thought, “Well, why not? I’ll see if this is something that I’m good at.” I was having some family issues at the time. My mother was passing away. It was a time of real turmoil, and they often say that’s the time when you change the direction of your life.

So I came out here and did a trailer for Roger for The Student Teachers (1973). George Van Noy cut it and I sort of supervised it and wrote the copy. It was way, way too long. [Laughs.] It was three times as long as a trailer should be. I came back home and the picture came out and made money. Somehow my name was associated with the trailer and when it came time to replace the piecemeal editors that Corman had been hiring with a “department”—consisting of two people—I was asked to come back. I did a couple more trailers and then was joined by Allan Arkush. We became the trailer “department.”

PT: How did this lead to you and Arkush co-directing your first feature, Hollywood Boulevard (1976)?

JD: We were very familiar with the contents of the various New World pictures because we had done the trailers. Of course, we both wanted to direct. The idea came to us that what if we tried to put together a really, really cheap movie. And we’re talking really cheap because this is New World Pictures.

Roger didn’t really want to let us go away from the trailers because he needed continuity. So his deal was, “I’ll let you guys do this movie. But it’s the cheapest movie we’ve ever made, you’ve only got ten days, and you’ve got to do trailers at night.” So we figured out a way to do a very cheap movie with all the action scenes being inserted from other pictures. We never could have afforded to stage any of those. The only concept that we could come up with that made any sense to use all of this disparate footage was a movie company making a bunch of different kinds of movies. So Hollywood Boulevard was born.

It was a very educational experience. I learned that I liked directing. Editing is kind of a solitary job. But then I found on my first day on the set that I really enjoyed the electricity and the camaraderie and the ability to discuss and get ideas.

PT: You and Arkush edited Hollywood Boulevard yourselves, along with Amy Jones.

nullJD: We had cut our own movie and cut our own footage, which I recommend to directors. If you sit down and are forced to confront the mistakes that you made, and try to figure out a way around them, then those are lessons that you are going to carry with you. A lot of people at New World would do the picture and then go away and let the editor cut it and then come back and declare themselves a genius! But, in fact, many, many tricks had been employed to make the footage usable. And so they would make the same mistakes on their next picture. Well, we didn’t do that. We were very scrupulous about making sure that we knew why things didn’t work. It was film school where your movie was actually going to play in drive-ins.

PT: Hollywood Boulevard was made before you edited Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1977), so did you initially go back to editing?

JD: We went back to trailers. Hollywood Boulevard was not exactly the biggest success in the world! In fact, it only played for two days on 42nd Street and was pulled.

The idea of directing still burned, more than ever now, but we needed a job and Roger had kind of a little family there. This was when the foreign trailers began to come in, the Fellinis and Truffauts. That was a lot of fun because we got to meet them.

Then two projects came down the pike: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and Piranha (1978). Allan really, really, really wanted to do Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I didn’t particularly think Piranha was a great idea because it was a Jaws rip-off too many years later. But Allan got Rock ‘n’ Roll and I got stuck with the fish! 

In the meantime, Ron Howard had asked us both to work on Grand Theft Auto because we had meet him while doing the trailers for Eat My Dust (1976), which he was in. His deal with Roger was that if he starred in Eat My Dust, Roger would let him direct the next picture that he starred in. So I cut it and Allan did second-unit.

It was my first and pretty much only stab at editing somebody else’s picture.

PT: How did you find working with Ron Howard?

JD: Working with Ron was great. He was a really nice guy and he knew his craft. He’d been studying during all of the movies that he’d been in. He’d been confabbing with the directors about how they did things. He worked with a lot of really good people. He took those lessons to heart and he knew exactly what he was doing. The footage cut together beautifully.

The only problem I had was that in those days Roger printed all of the film in black-and-white, even if the film was in color, because it was cheaper. We wouldn’t see the picture in color until it was finished. Well, I don’t drive, so I couldn’t tell the back end of a Chevy from the front end of a Buick. There were all these demolition derby scenes where I couldn’t tell which cars were which! So I had to make educated guesses. Later, Allan Arkush said it was the only car movie he ever saw where there were no shots of anybody shifting. [Laughs.]

PT: On Piranha, you’re credited as co-editor with Mark Goldblatt.

nullJD: One of the reasons that I joined the Editors Guild eventually was that I wanted to edit my own films. But unfortunately that’s kind of frowned upon or at least it was at that time. It’s a lot of power to give the director to edit his own stuff. It’s also a time thing: you don’t want to have to wait for the guy to finish shooting before he starts editing.

When I was shooting Piranha, Mark was cutting. Then I would come back and do what a director would do. I’d look at the edit, except in this case I’d take it over and go into a room and do it myself. Then the later scenes we’d just split up. He would do half of them and I would do the other half. Ultimately, once we had gotten the picture to a certain point, I started to go through it and make immense changes. I was so sure the picture was a disaster that I didn’t go to the wrap party. I thought that every second that I spent editing the movie was important. I lived in the editing room. I have memories of people coming in and I would look up from my stupor and I didn’t know who they were. [Laughs.] “Is it better if the piranhas are eight frames long? Is it better if they’re three frames long? Is it better if they’re sped up? Is it better if they’re slowed down?”

It was the first picture Roger had printed in color. In those days, the film stock was such that if you made a tape splice and pulled the tape off, it would pull off the emulsion, so there would be a big green blotch on the print. You could always tell what I had second-guessed because when you would run the work print there would be these green blotches!

It turned out that the picture worked very well. It made a lot of money and all of a sudden I was not working for Roger anymore. People were asking me to do other films.

PT: Your next film was The Howling (1981), which you again co-edited with Mark Goldblatt. You mentioned earlier that you tried as a director to not make the same mistakes twice. Were you quite as obsessive on The Howling as you were on Piranha?

JD: I don’t think I was quite as obsessive because I didn’t have the bad feeling about it that I did about Piranha. I had always wanted to do a werewolf film. I was not the original director on the film. My friend Mike Finnell, who had worked on the previous two pictures, was one of the producers and when the original director was let go, he called me while I was on another movie called Jaws 3, People 0, which never got made, and said, “I’ve got this werewolf movie and they’re looking for somebody.”

I came in and I re-worked it quite a bit by bringing in first Terry Winkless and then John Sayles. It turned out quite well.

nullPT: You next directed an episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). Tina Hirsch was the editor and it was the first of three films you made together, followed by Gremlins and Explorers. This was the first time that you weren’t editing one of your own films.

JD: Now I’m working for a studio. New World and Avco Embassy were one thing. Now I’m in the Directors Guild, now I’m working on a major film, and there was no way that I was going to be able to cut it. I had known Tina since we had shared editing rooms at Roger’s. I was doing trailers and she was doing features.

Tina Hirsch: It was the most joyous time [at New World]. We were young and just in love with movies. That’s all we ever talked about. Joe would cut the trailers of the movies that I cut. He said to me one day, “You know what you always do? You always cut when the person leaving the scene is still in frame!” I said, “Oh, I do? I didn’t know that.” Then and now, the truth is I’m aware after the fact, but while I’m working I’m in some kind of strange alpha place. I don’t have a conscious attitude about what I’m doing.

JD: I asked her to do Twilight Zone, she said yes, and we got along great.

TH: He called me when he got the job, but I was in New York on another movie. I was so disappointed because I really wanted to work with him. Then the next week they cancelled the movie. The first thing I did was call him and I said, “They cancelled the movie! I can do it!” Then the next day, the unfortunate Twilight Zone accident happened. We thought the film wasn’t going to happen, but it did.

JD: They left us completely alone because of the fallout of the accident that had happened. The movie, which went ahead anyway, to my surprise, was pretty much done in a vacuum. It was a studio picture and there was studio money and care and craft, but there wasn’t a lot of oversight because nobody really wanted to be responsible for the movie. It had a kind of cloud over it. Here we are going through all of these Warner Bros. cartoon tracks and doing all of this crazy stuff with this fairly straightforward Twilight Zone adaptation that had been done before for television very well. But we were taking it in a completely different direction and nobody said anything. I got the erroneous impression that that’s how studio movies were made!

TH: There was a scene in Twilight Zone that we called “Nowhere.” It’s after Anthony [Jeremy Licht] wishes up all these demons and the teacher [Kathleen Quinlan] whom he’s brought home to his house says, “Wish it away, Anthony. Wish it away.” He thought he was giving her the greatest gift ever of these crazy puppet things. He says, “I wish it away. I wish it all away.” As planned, we were going to dissolve to a totally white stage that was supposed to be nowhere. There was nothing in it at all. The boy who was playing Anthony was seven-years-old. A seven-year-old boy tends to be a little ADD, even in those days. Little boys have a lot of energy and not a lot of focus.

I think Joe printed three takes of a one-er. He choreographed the scene where the teacher and the boy kind of walk around each other. In a way, it’s a little bit like a dance. It was really quite lovely. It was well-imagined and well-designed because they start out apart and in the end they come together. He also shot coverage for safety, but I didn’t even look at the coverage. The scene had to play in one big master.

The third printed master was the best of all of them. However, it started tight on the boy’s face and his eyelids are flapping in the breeze. In various parts of the scenes, he wasn’t looking at her. He’d look at her and then he’d look over at Joe and then he’d look at the camera! After I ran the scene with Joe, I said, “God, it would be so great if we could just put something over it.” He said, “Okay, why don’t you try?” I said, “You mean I’ll just take another take and put it on top?” He said, “Yeah, let’s just look at it.” It takes a lot of courage to do that. I would say most of the people I’ve worked with would say, “That’s a stupid idea. We can’t do that. Let’s just cut it up in pieces.”

Anyway, I took take nine, which was the second best, I stripped the track out of it, and I just put it in the picture head on top of the other one, just arbitrarily. We start running it. You could only hear the one track of the main piece, but you could see that the timing was off just enough to be really interesting. It was completely magical. We came to the end, I put on the break, and I said, “What’d you think?” He said, “That was pretty good!” In walked our optical effects guy. I said, “Shall we have him do a test?” He said, “Yeah.” I literally took it, went back to the head, paper-clipped it together the way we had just looked at it—the one time only—and ordered it. And it lives that way in the film today.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

PETER TONGUETTE: EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU is a stealthy Christmas classic

PETER TONGUETTE: EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU is a stealthy Christmas classic

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1.

In Stardust Memories, as we all know, Woody Allen plays a movie director. At one point, a studio executive (a brilliant little cameo role by Laraine Newman) says to him, “This is an Easter film. We don’t need a movie by an atheist.”

But what about a Christmas film by an atheist?

2.

By the time I saw Woody Allen’s Christmas movie Everyone Says I Love You, Christmas was over, and so was New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t until some dreary day in the middle of something like February that the film reached us, weeks after the tree had been taken out to the curb and the confetti swept away. That day, Christmas seemed very far away.

It wasn’t just that the season had passed. It was where I was calling from, as Raymond Carver might put it, that was the problem. Everyone Says I Love You was a musical comedy set in Manhattan, Venice, and Paris, and it was the last city that served as the backdrop for the film’s richly evoked Christmas scenes. Well, I had never been to any of those cities, and it was hard not to feel out of the loop when gawking at them from Slidell, Louisiana, the city north of New Orleans where for all intents and purposes I grew up.

In my thirteen-year-old mind, it wasn’t a difficult choice: La Tour Eiffel or the Superdome? Please.

I was besotted with the offhand glamour of the Christmas section of Everyone Says I Love. For example, the way the story’s narrator D.J. (Natasha Lyonne) says that her family (mother Goldie Hawn, father Woody Allen, stepfather AlannullAlda, and assorted siblings and step-siblings) doesn’t go for the usual Christmas things, like singing carols or hangings stockings. “What we do do is we head right for Paris,” she says, “and we spend our Christmas holiday at the Ritz.” Woody Allen must have directed Natasha Lyonne to deliver that line—among the wittiest he has ever written—in as deadpan a manner as possible. It’s charming how this lifestyle is, for D.J., routine.

Allen had her same nonchalant tone when he talked to interviewer Eric Lax about some of the challenges he faced in making Everyone Says I Love You. One problem was that he wanted to film the scene where Edward Norton picks out an engagement ring for D.J.’s older sister (played by Drew Barrymore) at Tiffany’s. “[B]ut they didn’t want us to dance on the glass countertops. We said we’d put in our own glass and protect everything but they just didn’t want dancing on them. They said we could dance in the aisles and take over the place but we went over to Harry Winston and they gave us complete cooperation and it was fresher.”

I would have gladly traded problems with Woody Allen.

3.

At the same time, if I really searched my memory, I could find things in my life that were comparable to the stylishness of the family who spends Christmas at the Ritz. My favorite scene in Everyone Says I Love You comes when Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn go to a Groucho Marx-themed Christmas Eve party. Everyone there has dressed up like the comedian. There was something about the party’s improbable combination of elegance and silliness that I could relate to.

nullYou see, around this time our family was friends with a family who lived in uptown New Orleans on a street called Audubon Place. The Christmas before I saw Everyone Says I Love You, we went to a party they threw at their grand house, which was probably not even the grandest on their street. I couldn’t tell you because the only time I ever saw it was in the cover of night at parties like this one. But really: I knew. Whenever I entered their house—three stories, with a spiral staircase and an elevator—I thought of April Wheeler’s line in the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road: “I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere…”

I always felt like telling April Wheeler that the people she is talking about live on Audubon Place.

The wife had an enormous collection of hats. I don’t mean that she had ten hats. There were at least fifty, but there could have easily been 100 or more. There was shelf after shelf of hats, protected by glass, illuminated by what was presumably special lighting. Their variety was almost cartoon-like. That’s what reminded me of the Groucho Marx party in Everyone Says I Love You; the hats looked as silly faux greasepaint moustaches do in the context of a luxe party.

And yet there was something terrific about them, too. Woody Allen would recognize this truth. He saw Everyone Says I Love You as a fond valentine to the Upper East Side—in all of its over-the-top splendor. “I look around and I see rich kids going to these private schools and their chauffeurs take them,” he told Time magazine, “and I see husbands and wives come down at night, and he’s got a tux on and she’s got a gown, and they go out—it’s a wonderful, romantic neighborhood. These people have money, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

I came to share Woody Allen’s benevolent view of wretched excess. People collect butterflies. Why not hats?

4.


Maybe, then, I shouldn’t have felt so excluded from the world of Everyone Says I Love You. A few days after Christmas that year, my father and I went to the Brooks Brothers on Canal Street, hoping to find a good sale. I had been looking for an overcoat. I remember my father telling Stephanie, the clerk who usually helped us, that I was looking for the sort of overcoat “that Jules Feiffer might wear.”

You see, in my mind Christmas and the New York intelligentsia and having nice things were all rolled up into one tangly ball. These associations made perfect sense to me. My father got where I was coming from, but at the time I privately thought to myself, “I wonder if Stephanie has even heard of Jules Feiffer?” I might have also thought, “When in the hell will Everyone Says I Love You open down here?”

Then again, is shopping for a Jules Feiffer-style overcoat at Brooks Brothers a few days after Christmas so much more déclassé, or any less unconventional, than spending Christmas at the Ritz?

nullI say “Woody Allen’s Christmas movie,” but of course only a small portion of Everyone Says I Love You takes place during the holiday season. Yet when you watch the movie for the second or third time (I have seen it perhaps 10 times by now), it feels like the whole story is building to those scenes. There is a lot to enjoy in the scenes set in the spring, summer, and fall, but they don’t have the same magical pull. By the time we get to Halloween, we’re antsy, and so is our director. Woody Allen can’t wait for Christmas. He’s like a seven-year-old that way.

So many of the movies I think of as Christmas movies have very little to do with the holiday per se. I think of them as Christmas movies only because I saw them on or near Christmas. I’m talking about films like Marnie, Love Streams, Sleepy Hollow, Slacker, The Trial, The Talented Mr. Ripley. So it still really bothers me that I wasn’t able to see an actual Christmas movie like Everyone Says I Love You until February of the following year. I think I would have better grasped the connections between the fantasy on the screen and the reality of my own life if the hat collection on Audubon Place had been fresh in my mind as I watched the party where everyone looked like Groucho Marx.

The most famous scene in Everyone Says I Love You comes when Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn leave the Groucho Marx party and go for a stroll beside the River Seine. The stroll turns into a dance number and after it is over, Woody and Goldie talk about their former life together and their current life apart. It seems like they begin every sentence with “Do you remember when…?” Is there a better way to spend Christmas Eve than reconciling yourself to your past?

It was this scene that prompted Roger Ebert (the movie’s best and most persistent champion) to wonder if “perhaps Everyone Says I Love You is the best film Woody Allen has ever made.”

All I can say is this: there is nothing like leaving a fancy party early and facing the bite of the cold night air. Especially if you’re with a pretty companion. Especially if you’re going over old times with her. Especially if it’s Christmastime and you’re in Paris. I’ve had a few experiences not unlike these. I hope to have a few more.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

PETER TONGUETTE: Director Steven Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn: a life long partnership

PETER TONGUETTE: Director Steven Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn: a life long partnership

[Editor's Note: It's Steven Spielberg weekend here at Press Play. We are publishing our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire called Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work. A different version of the following article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 61, Issue 1, First Quarter 2011, under the title, "Michael Kahn, A.C.E.: A Beginner's Mind, A Professional's Craft." If you would like to watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. If you would like to view Magic and Light Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 3, go here. ]

nullI was the sort of kid who paid attention to movie credits, even if I didn’t comprehend them, so from an early age I was familiar with the name of Michael Kahn. There it was, appearing again and again at the start of some of my favorite movies as a child: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun. It was always preceded by words like “Film Editor” or “Edited By.”

Years later, I had the opportunity to write for CinemaEditor magazine, the official periodical of the American Cinema Editors (ACE), an honorary society. I wrote for the magazine for five years, diligently filing story after story about editor after editor, but all the while I dreamed of speaking with one editor in particular. The editor whose name I remembered from my childhood.

The day came when it was announced that Michael Kahn would receive the ACE Career Achievement Award in February 2011, and I was asked to profile him for CinemaEditor. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as excited about an interview.

But even his closest collaborator, Steven Spielberg, manages to still get excited about working with the man. When Spielberg accepted the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1995, he singled out two of his longtime collaborators. Audiences watching the special at home that night would probably have seen the first one—John Williams—coming a mile away. But the second name Spielberg mentioned would be unfamiliar to many. “And, wherever you are, my lifelong editor, Michael Kahn, I wouldn’t be standing up here without you,” Spielberg said. (That video appears below)


“Wherever you are”? Michael Kahn really was elusive, but—as I was to discover—not in a Greta Garbo sort of way. He was so modest that when I called him up last November to ask him about the award, it was difficult to get him to talk very much about it. “I’ve gone to a lot of these events and I’ve seen all of these fellas get these awards,” he told me. “I never thought that it fit me to get one. I was delighted that my peers think me good enough to get the award. It was very surprising to me. I’m happy and thrilled that I belong in that category.”

Maybe Kahn was surprised that his career had taken him to this point. After all, it was a career that unfolded as if by accident. Born and raised in New York City, he told me he never had any thought of going into film or television in any capacity. “My parents didn’t encourage me to do this,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I got out of high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”


nullThat isn’t to say that Kahn didn’t go to the movies a lot. It was a weekend ritual for him as a teenager. “I’d go Saturday, I’d go Sunday. I’d see anything that was playing,” he recalled. For an editor who would later make films like Poltergeist and Jurassic Park, Kahn’s youthful response to horror films is surprising: “If there was a scary picture on, I’d throw the coat over my head! Even today, I can edit a horror movie, but I can’t watch one! When I was a kid, I was very impressionable and it was extremely scary to me.”

He remembered going to double features. “So you went to see one and then you got the other one. I wanted to see a Western, so there was a Western, and then I got the other one. And if the other was too scary, I’d chew on my Hershey’s chocolate bar! I’d buy a big chocolate bar that had the little blocks of H-E-R-S-H-E-Y-S. I’d chew off a block and by the time the movie was over I’d finished the whole bar! I was probably as high as a kite by that time!”

Another accident: Kahn got a job at a New York ad agency that made commercials in California. “They had clients like Pepsi-Cola and Phillip Morris,” he said. “So they sent my boss out there. I was just a flunky, you know? They said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I came out to the coast. I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even know what editing was, honest to God. They did a series of commercials and I said, ‘Gee, can I stay?’ They said, ‘Sure, if you want to.’”

nullKahn stayed and got a job at Desilu. It was there that he came into contact with Dann Cahn, Desilu’s editorial supervisor. “Danny was very nice to me,” Kahn said. “I was his assistant in the office. He said, ‘Listen, if you want to get ahead in this business, you’d better get into a union.’ So he got me into the editors union.”



Do you get the theme here? “And it was an accident that Danny liked me,” Kahn laughed. “He didn’t have to like me, but he did and there I was. He said, ‘I’m going to have to put you in the editing room.’ He put me in the editing room as an assistant to John Woodcock. I assisted him and I started learning about what an editor did.”

It was through osmosis that Kahn learned the art of editing. Besides Cahn and Woodcock, he absorbed the knowledge and expertise of such editors as Harry Harris (later an acclaimed director) and Bud Molin. It was Jerry London, another Desilu alum, who took Kahn from assistant editor to editor. London was editing Hogan’s Heroes when he decided to give directing a try. “We were friends, our wives were friends, we went out together,” Kahn remembered. “He said, ‘I’m starting a new show called Hogan’s Heroes for Bing Crosby Productions. If you come on as my assistant, the fifth or sixth show, I’ll make you an editor, so that I can go ahead and direct.’ Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened….

“I learned how to edit on Hogan’s Heroes. I did it for five or six years. You had a lot of different directors. They all had different styles. I learned how to make things work. By the time I was through with him Hogan’s Heroes, I was a regular cowboy, you know?”

He graduated to features with George C. Scott’s Rage in 1972. In the five years between it and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (his first film with Steven Spielberg), Kahn edited twelve films. He found something to take away from each experience. “It wouldn’t matter what film it was,” he said. “Whatever came up, I did. I did a lot of low-budget pictures and had nothing but fun.” He had just done a film for Irvin Kershner—The Return of a Man Called Horse—when he was up for Close Encounters. “Kershner knew Steven, and so did [cinematographer] Owen Roizman, and Steven respected them,” Kahn said. “They recommended me. They gave him my name and I went in for an interview with Steven. It was a fast interview, but he told me to meet him in Devils Tower, Wyoming, and I met him there and we did Close Encounters. We got along well. It all went beautifully.”

nullTwenty-three films later, it is still going beautifully. “It just worked out that way,” Kahn said. “What did the old guy say? ‘It was meant to be!’… I’ve worked with Steven for so many years and I’m amazed at how he’s advanced. He wasn’t what he used to be. He’s better. You become a sidekick. You become a partner. I’m very comfortable with him. We spend a lot of time together in the editing room.”

Since Kahn edits as Spielberg is filming, a rough cut is usually ready in a week or less after production ends. “I edit right behind him,” he said. “I mount the show and I put it together. And at least he’s not going to be shocked when he sees the scenes because he’s seen them all. That saves a lot of time.”

During the filming of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg repeatedly visited the editing room to look at the opening D-Day landing sequence, which had already been cut. As Kahn recalled, “I said, ‘How come you’re looking at it so much?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t want the ending to be similar to the beginning. I want to keep it all fresh. And the beginning inspires me.’ He kept looking at it.” The scene couldn’t have provided Spielberg with inspiration had the film not been assembled according to Kahn’s method of cutting as shooting progresses.

Spielberg’s versatility has meant that Kahn has worked in virtually every genre, from science-fiction (Close Encounters) to adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark), from historical drama (Empire of the Sun) to comedy (The Terminal). “There are some directors that do one genre,” he observed. “They stay with what they know. Steven is more adventurous. He’ll go and try different things. We were in Poland doing Schindler’s List and from ILM, in a big saucer, we’d be getting shots in from Jurassic Park. We’d be looking at them in Poland. I had my work print with me, so I would cut those shots in as they came in. We’re doing two shows at the same time, but it was fun.”

Even if he has worked in a particular genre before (as he has in the three Indiana Jones sequels), Kahn does his best to approach each film with a fresh set of eyes. “I try to forget what I have done in the past and drop it, so I’m not taking any baggage with me,” he said. “I don’t differentiate between one thing or another. The next thing I’m going to is like the first time I’m doing it. I find it fresh and new. There’s a phrase that I always use. It’s called ‘beginner’s mind.’ I come in with beginner’s mind, like it’s the first time I’ve done something and it’s brand new…. Each time I do a show, I try to forget everything that happened on the previous project. I come in with an open, free mind, like I haven’t edited before. I’m open to the director’s ideas because that’s the one you’re working with. With directors, I don’t talk too much. I listen. By listening and watching, that’s how I learn how to put it together and [understand] what the director had in mind.”

nullKahn didn’t mince words in explaining why his collaboration with Spielberg has been so successful: “After all, let’s be frank, I’m working with the best. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t say that because I’m with him. If I wasn’t with him, I’d say it. His memory is unbelievable. I feel I have a great memory, but he doesn’t forget. He likes me to put in temp music from other scores. He remembers the temps I put in years ago! It blows my mind. He’ll remember something. ‘Oh, you used that before!’ ‘Yeah, but it was ten years ago!’”

I got a scoop as my interview with Michael Kahn was coming to a close. Going in, I knew that all of the films he made with Spielberg had been cut on film, but then Kahn told me something as we were talking a bit about War Horse: “I’m doing a film with him now and it’s the first time that we’re working on the Avid. He decided that he’d like to try it. I was already experienced on the Avid.”

Spielberg is famous for cutting on film—“Steven likes the smell of it, the feel of it, the history of it,” Kahn told me—so this was a startling revelation, but in a way it made sense. It’s a testament to what Kahn called Spielberg’s adventurousness. He doesn’t stay settled in one genre or in one manner of working, even if he’s been working that way for a very long time.

This doesn’t daunt Kahn, though, who was similarly unflappable when talking about the challenges of editing The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Spielberg’s first animated film and also his first in 3-D. “It’s all the same, no matter what they do technologically,” Kahn said. “What I do is the same. Being on the right angle at the right time and trying to help the story editorially. It doesn’t change, no matter if it’s 3-D, 4-D or 10-D!”

I could hear the enthusiasm in Michael Kahn’s voice as he talked to me about his craft. “When I was coming up as an editor,” he said, “editing was a transitory stage. [Editors] wanted to be directors. I was one of the few who was happy as an editor. I just wanted to be the best that I could be at it.” His suggestion to young editors who are just beginning? “I would say to see as many motion pictures as you can. How are you going to grow unless you see styles and see what people are doing?” In a way, it’s not unlike his own unwitting preparation for the job, watching all of those double features as a teenager in New York.

“To tell you the truth,” he laughed, “I can’t even find a big Hershey’s bar anymore!”

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.
 

PICTURES OF LOSS: A SOLDIER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES, directed by James Ivory

PICTURES OF LOSS: A SOLDIERS DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES, directed by James Ivory

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don't Leave, click here. — Matt Zoller Seitz

1.

This last one is going to be hard to explain. Bear with me. It all goes back to a book of short stories by Gordon Lish called What I Know So Far, and the question, “Why do I think so often about What I Know So Far?”

I’ve never read the book. I’ve never read anything else by Lish. Yet it has a hold on my imagination.

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Of course, I know why. My father gave me a copy of What I Know So Far for Christmas when I was thirteen. I asked for a lot of books that Christmas, and this was one of the few I received that I hadn’t requested. I wondered then, and now, why he selected Lish’s book, but I never asked him. I thought about it every so often. I suppose I always imagined that the title appealed to him. What I Know So Far. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I imagined the title appealed to him for me. I mean: He would want me to read a book with a title that was about imparting knowledge.

In my youth, I was always asking my father to get books for me for Christmas or my birthday or just on his way home from work any old average Tuesday. But he was always trying to augment my choices with books he felt would mean something to me, even if I did not see it at the time. I remember when I asked him to buy me a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. When he came home and I looked inside the sack, I saw not only the blue trade paperback, but also a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he had purchased along with it. I hadn’t yet read The Catcher in the Rye and he briefly explained that he thought I would like it more than the book I had asked for. After skimming the first three or four pages of Infinite Jest, I could see that he was right.

I wish I had read What I Know So Far. Maybe the title was what turned me off. What did Gordon Lish know that I didn’t? I thought I knew everything, but it wouldn’t be until I was 26—the age I was when my father died—that I realized I knew nothing.

There were many books like What I Know So Far and The Catcher in the Rye, books that
my father liked the idea of my reading. This Side of Paradise comes to mind, as does
Slaughterhouse-Five and anything by the Beats.

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Given that he was first an officer in the Air Force and later a banker, my father’s love of literature—this kind of literature—might sound unlikely. But I grew up with it. I was probably the only twelve-year-old who, on seeing Annie Hall for the first time, knew who Marshall McLuhan was. It sticks in my mind that I saw Annie Hall primarily because

Marshall McLuhan was in it! I knew who he was because my father referenced him so often when he gave speeches or was interviewed by the press or wrote articles.

The Medium is the Massage is another book he gave me without my asking for it.

2.

If I didn’t explain some of this, I don’t think my enthusiasm for James Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries would make a lot of sense. You see, my family is nothing like the family in the movie—the expatriate novelist Bill Willis, his freethinking wife Marcella, and their children Channe and Billy—but I see us all over it. And I see my father in Bill Willis, a character that Kaylie Jones (from whose novel the film was adapted) based on James Jones—her father.

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The differences between Bill Willis and my father are too obvious to bother listing. After all, my father was a banker, not a novelist, and when I was a teenager, we moved from New Orleans back to Columbus, Ohio, not from Paris back to America, as happens in the movie. Yet Bill Willis is just like my father. Some of it must have to do with the fact they had both been in the military; my father could get firm, like Bill Willis does when, as a young girl, Channe is caught forging his signature. Some of it has to do, too, with the love of books I was talking about. What other banker has even heard of Marshall McLuhan, let alone Gordon Lish?

In one of my favorite scenes in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the Willises are having dinner together, sipping soup and saying nothing in particular, when Channe asks if her unconventional best friend from school, Francis (Anthony Roth Costanzo), can sleep over. There is some back-and-forth between Channe and Billy about where Francis will sleep, which Bill finds so funny that he cannot contain his laughter. He leans back in the Louis Treize chair he is seated in, which Marcella warns him not to break. As Channe finalizes Francis’s sleeping arrangements—“Can we put the cot close to my bed so that he won’t feel so far away?”—Billy gives his father a wild-eyed look, almost as though he is egging him on. Bill again laughs uproariously, utterly bemused by his children and their little quarrels.

When Billy turns from his father and asks his mother to pass the bread, he has a satisfied grin on his face. He got his father to laugh, yet what they just shared was even more profound.

How many times my father laughed in similar circumstances. This is how he was with us. He often said that the four of us were all we needed, and the film presents an us-against the-world attitude about family that I find very pleasant. In Marcella, a certain militancy comes across when her family is imperiled. Billy was adopted in France, and when there are some rumblings about the adoption’s legality, Marcella says she’ll go straight to the president—not de Gaulle, but Eisenhower. A friend protests, “I thought you were this big principled pacifist.” She replies, “Not when it comes to my kids I’m not.”

Midway through A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, Bill decides it is time to leave Paris and return to America. Channe, who has grown up overseas, wonders why. He says that his last checkup wasn’t so good, and that he wants to be home “when—if—something goes wrong.” Channe understands. Before the family departs, there is a shot of Channe walking through one of the narrow corridors of her family’s Paris apartment. It looks empty—we can imagine crates of furniture and boxes of books in adjacent rooms—and Channe asks, to whoever might be listening, “No one’s home?” The film then dissolves to a shot of the same corridor, years earlier, the camera cocked at an angle to indicate the shift in time, as young Billy and young Channe ride their bikes on the well-worn wood floors. I can’t think of two images that express as succinctly what it feels like to say
goodbye to a place you love.

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It turns out that Bill Willis had a ghastly premonition: once home, his health goes south. In the hospital, as he dictates the novel he is working on to Channe at the typewriter, he admonishes her that a soldier’s daughter never cries. She violently disagrees: “I’m a writer’s daughter!” That’s how I feel: I’m not an Air Force officer’s son or a banker’s son, but the son of someone who loved the arts and encouraged his son to go into them.
 

3.

One of my favorite things is Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide. After I first listened to it, I found myself returning to the final song “Make Our Garden Grow.” One line above all others bewitched me: “And let us try before we die / To make some sense of life.” I thought of it whenever I faced a big decision or found myself in a jam. I’m reminded of the manic-depressive character in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, who says he once took as a mantra the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”

I thought “Make Our Garden Grow” was that for me—a mantra—but of course I hardly needed one. I can’t even remember what big decisions I might have faced or what jams
I might have found myself in. They really were that trivial. Everything is different now, and I’ve started to listen to “Make Our Garden Grow” again.

This is the lesson I have learned: to try to allow art about loss—whether a movie or a novel or an operetta—to enter your life. Don’t do it for art’s sake—do it for your sake. A number of years ago, my friend Bilge Ebiri said something that startled me: “Get ready for the day when movies themselves seem less interesting than they used to. It’ll happen, to some degree or another.” At the time, I dismissed this notion without a second’s thought. Needless to say, it turned out to be so absolutely true. But I would revise Bilge’s words as follows: As life goes on, and we lose people, most movies do become less interesting, but certain ones become more interesting than we could ever have imagined.

4.

After their father dies, Channe asks Billy if he can remember the last thing Daddy said to him. He does. I do, too, and there’s no way I could forget it. The agony of losing him means I have tried to commit so much to memory, and there is so much more I want to

say. I feel like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote, “Listen, little Elia: draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.”

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

PICTURES OF LOSS: MEN DON’T LEAVE, directed by Paul Brickman

PICTURES OF LOSS: MEN DON’T LEAVE, directed by Paul Brickman

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here.— Matt Zoller Seitz

It would seem that what I want are movies about the art of losing, as Elizabeth Bishop might say. But some of those same movies are also about the art of finding.

Take Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a film that made a deep impression on me when I first saw it at the precocious age of eight. While young Jamie Graham is separated from his mother and father in Shanghai during World War II, in the end the family is brought back together. The loss is temporary. The loss is remedied. When he sees his mother for the first time since he let go unthinkingly let go of her hand on the fateful day, he almost can’t believe it. He reaches for her face and hands, as if to verify the miracle that she is back. (For some reason, it always struck me that Jamie’s mother wore red nail polish when they were separated, but she doesn’t when they are reunited—after a war, everyone looks worse for the wear, not just Jamie.)

What I am trying to say is that the reunion stays in the mind far longer than the separation.

That isn’t the case in Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave. In Bishop’s parlance, the actual losing is skipped—we don’t see the accident that kills John Macauley, wife to Beth, father to Chris and Matt—and, of course, there is no finding to be had. Unlike Jamie’s parents, John doesn’t—can’t—return.
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Before John dies, Brickman gives Beth (brilliantly played by Jessica Lange) a privileged moment. Standing in the driveway of their beautiful, if unfinished house in suburban Maryland, she looks inside their kitchen window and sees Tom playing with their youngest son Matt (Charlie Korsmo), carrying him around on his shoulders. Beth and John had just had a mild row over something unimportant, a raunchy comedy John had taken Matt and his older brother Chris (Chris O’Donnell) to see, prompting Matt to ask his mother questions like, “What does it mean when a girl says, ‘I’m late’? I don’t get it. ‘I’m late.’” The dialogue by Brickman and co-writer Barbara Benedek (also the author
of the superb Immediate Family, directed by Jonathan Kaplan) is consistently witty.

Tom half-heartedly defends his cinematic taste to Beth: “There were prostitutes in this movie, but it wasn’t about prostitutes. It was about guys and coming of age and growing up…” Just parenthetically, I’ve sometimes thought that the movie Tom is talking about just might be Risky Business, which was written and directed by a fellow named Paul Brickman. At least one other critic, Edward Copeland, spotted the reference, too.

Yet all of this is quickly forgotten as Beth peacefully watches her husband and son through the glass, the wind gently displacing her hair. She seems aware of the terrible fragility of a happy life—and maybe even prepared, in a way, for what is to come.

That’s the thing: anyone could have predicted that their lives would fall apart without John, and that’s exactly what happens. The night of his father’s funeral, Chris sits next to Beth on a sofa and tells it like it is. “No one can run what he does,” he says earnestly. “It’s like he’s in charge of everything. He runs everything. How can you get by without him?”

A friend tells Beth, “Buy yourself something—something really expensive. You’d be surprised.” It isn’t terrible advice, actually, except that it doesn’t apply to Beth’s circumstances. She is bewildered by Tom’s substantial business debts. Who can blame her? As she rightly protests to Chris, “It’s all mine… The car, the truck, the house, the bills, the debt, you and Matt. He left it all to me.” In a moment as misguided as the one in Lost in America when Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty plot their future and find it consists of a motor home and a nest egg, Beth tells her sons that she thinks they should move so she can get a better job (she has been checking groceries to help with the bills).
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She saves what she is careful to call “the best part” for last: “You know where I think we should move? Baltimore.” No one likes the idea, and no one likes the reality any better. The apartment is small. The water is brown. The bikes are stored in the living room,
along with everything else. (“Great box collection,” someone comments.) There are too many locks on the door. And B is as miserable in her new job as in her old one.

Dorothy Parker’s line feels appropriate: “What fresh hell is this?”

I hope native Baltimoreans will forgive me if I can empathize with the Macauleys’ dismay. I never lived in Baltimore, but for about 10 months I lived in a suburb in Montgomery County, Maryland, somewhere not too far from Baltimore. We had been in Ohio for some years when my father was offered a position in Washington, D.C., that took us there, but the minute we crossed the state line I was childishly homesick. I felt the way Matt must when he naively suggests to his mother that maybe she can make so much money at her new job in Baltimore that they can return to their old house.

I was game at first, as Beth is when she talks herself into a job at a gourmet food shop. “I
am interested in food. I love food. I know food,” she says to her disinterested prospective
boss, played with aplomb by Kathy Bates. Yet forced enthusiasm only got me so far. Everything seemed to go wrong in Maryland, even the most basic of things, like trying to see a movie. The first time we went out to do so, we ended up getting lost in the side streets of Georgetown. When I learned that our arrival coincided with that of swarms of cicadas—emerging for the first time in the area in 17 years!—I could only think that it was fitting.

When the running of the Preakness Stakes is shown on TV each spring, my first instinct
is to change the channel when the song “Maryland, My Maryland” is played.
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We left Maryland soon enough, but the Macauleys are stuck in Baltimore forever. I don’t mean the city itself. Perhaps they will move. Perhaps things will turn out well enough so that they can get a better apartment or a house like the one they used to have. But they
will always be in Baltimore because Baltimore represents life without their husband and father. Baltimore is what life would have been like for Jamie Graham in Empire of the Sun if his parents hadn’t reappeared.

No other film shows the frustrations and depressions that accompany loss as well as this one. C.S. Lewis famously wrote about “the laziness of grief,” wherein “not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth?” Somewhere in the middle of Men Don’t Leave, Beth gets fired from her job and, with Chris and Matt drifting away from her, she loses heart. She stays in bed for five days, only rousing herself to prepare a peanut butter sandwich for Matt, served with a glass of water (their supplies of milk and juice have been exhausted).

C.S. Lewis would have loved the scene for its truthfulness. Of course, it is a particularly low point, and Beth does get better—but she and Chris and Matt are still in Baltimore.

Some people have wondered why Paul Brickman has not directed anything since making Men Don’t Leave in 1990. Dave Kehr—one of the few major critics to write appreciatively of the film when it came out—is one of them. “He just got disgusted with the whole system,” Kehr told The Village Voice recently, in response to a question about Brickman. “And there was some expression—I definitely remember some interviews with him saying he just can’t work in this system anymore, it’s just too stifling.” Or maybe after grappling with the enormous themes and tones of Men Don’t Leave, Brickman felt he had said it all.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

PICTURES OF LOSS: RUNNING ON EMPTY, directed by Sidney Lumet

PICTURES OF LOSS: RUNNING ON EMPTY, directed by Sidney Lumet

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don't Leave, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here.— Matt Zoller Seitz

If I told you I was writing about movies that have meant something to me after my father died, you probably wouldn’t blink if I said that Hereafter and The Darjeeling Limited were among my choices. You might have even thought of them yourself. But Running on Empty? Don’t humor me—you wouldn’t have thought of it in a million years.

After all, no one dies (on screen) in Running on Empty. The film does not take bereavement as its subject as the other two do. And yet every time I watch it now it reminds me of my father.

It began when Sidney Lumet died in April. What a great, great director he was. When I stopped to consider his career, I thought of his towering legal dramas, like 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and his brilliant filmed plays, like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Equus. I thought of the key scenes from Dog Day Afternoon and Network (released just a year apart). I thought of the unique way he shot and framed and edited, which Peter Bogdanovich paid tribute to in his chapter on the director in Who the Devil Made It: “Sidney ‘cuts in the camera.’ Which means he knows before he shoots exactly how each scene or sequence is going to be edited and therefore films only what he needs to accomplish this…”
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In 2006, as he was finishing his first feature film in nearly seven years—the unfairly neglected Find Me Guilty—I even had the nerve to call him up out of the blue and ask for an interview. To my astonishment, he answered the phone himself. He begged off my request, saying he was in the midst of mixing Find Me Guilty and that I should arrange an interview with him when the movie came out. He was very nice, though, and when I mentioned that I’d interviewed his friend Peter Bogdanovich rather extensively in the past, I remember him saying, rather amiably, “Peter’s a lovely fellow.”

I never did interview Sidney Lumet, but in many ways he had already answered most of my questions. Despite the great variety of films he directed, his obsessions are obvious. Those who know his terrific book Making Movies will remember the section where he gives us what amount to log lines for a number of his best movies. He asks the question, “What is the movie about?” and then gives us his answers. The striking thing is that a couple of answers are repeated. For example, “the machines are winning” is the stated theme of not just Fail-Safe, but also The Anderson Tapes and Network. Daniel and Running on Empty also share a theme. “Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents?” Lumet writes. “They do, but so do the children, who never choose those passions and commitments.”  

Lumet was not coy about the fact that the concerns of those movies overlapped. “See, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this publicly,” he told Joanna E. Rapf in a 2003 interview, “but I’ve done three movies, Daniel, Running on Empty, and Family Business, that are thematically the same thing—the cost that others pay for one’s passions—and I only recognized this afterwards…. Any deep emotional commitment on the part of the parents is going to cost something… not just to the parents but also almost always to the children.”
 
It so happens that I loved Running on Empty long before I embraced Lumet’s other movies. Naomi Foner’s screenplay is about a married couple named Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti). They were radicals in the sixties, since 1971 pursued by the FBI for the bombing of a military research lab, but they have spent the seventies and eighties attempting to raise their children while on the lam. The crushing truth of the movie is that it is impossible to do so.
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When Lumet talks about the burden the children bear for their parents’ passions and commitments, I see what he means. But I also see something else. However imperfect the lives of Danny (River Phoenix) and his younger brother Harry (Jonas Abry) are, however unfair their birthright is, with the incessant moving, switching of schools, changing of names, they still have their parents. Early in the film, Danny comments sarcastically, “It’s wonderful having a new name every six month.” But consider the person he’s complaining to: his mother, who loves him, listens to him, cares about him. (Perhaps I am especially attuned to this because Annie is played by Christine Lahti, who just a year before Running on Empty starred as Aunt Sylvie in Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, a great film about loss.) It could be worse—it could be so much worse. We need only to look to Daniel—the film Lumet was forever grouping with Running on Empty—to see how much worse. It tells the story of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson (loosely based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), and of the two children they leave behind when they are convicted of conspiracy to commit treason during the McCarthy years and executed.

At the conclusion of Running on Empty, as the Popes prepare to flee yet another town to begin again, the father allows Danny, a gifted pianist, to stay behind, to be with his lovely girlfriend (Martha Plimpton), to go to Julliard, where he has given a triumphant audition and where he expects to receive a scholarship. At first glance, it is all terribly hopeful. Danny is losing his parents, but gaining a life. Yet I ask myself now: Will Danny ever think back to his father’s earnest plea, as Danny starts to make noises about leaving home and going to college, “A unit is only as good as its weakest link and we are a unit”? Arthur wants to hang on to Danny not because he is controlling or possessive but because he loves him. Will Danny come to realize that success and happiness just aren’t much good without the most important people in your life to share it with? When Danny graduates from Julliard, will he look out into the crowd of proud parents and wonder where his are? Will he remember who is missing?
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“We’ll see you again,” Arthur says to Danny in that last scene. “You can be sure.” But can he really? Danny is a smart kid and he knows his fugitive parents are one false move away from being caught. Even if they live for another fifty years, this moment must feel like a final goodbye to son and father both. As far as I’m concerned, the grief-stricken look on River Phoenix’s face after his parents have driven off, leaving him behind, is no different than if he was standing at their graves. Like the children of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson do at the end of Daniel, after their parents have been killed. As a young adult, daughter Susan (Amanda Plummer) drifts in and out of mental hospitals, but as her brother Daniel (Timothy Hutton) reasonably asks, “What if she’s not ill? What if she’s inconsolable?”

That’s what Danny in Running on Empty looks like: inconsolable.

At this point, you may be asking how I ever managed to twist Running on Empty into a story of loss. In my grief, I am reading something into it that isn’t there. Yet I cannot concede that, even though I recognize no one else sees what I see in the movie. I’m reminded of a powerful passage in Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (which I first read not long after Lumet died) in which she writes about the cold spring that followed her mother’s death: “A bitter rain came down for days on end, as if the gods knew my sorrow.” O’Rourke explains that the literary term for this is “‘pathetic fallacy,’ coined by the art critic John Ruskin to describe the attribution of human emotions to nature and inanimate objects; the harsh, angry moors in Wuthering Heights mirror the characters’ lives.”

When I watch Running on Empty now, it feels like Sidney Lumet “knew my sorrow,” even though he couldn’t have, and like we’re doing that interview after all, even though he can’t.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

PICTURES OF LOSS: THE DARJEELING LIMITED, directed by Wes Anderson

PICTURES OF LOSS: The Darjeeling Limited

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don't Leave, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here. Matt Zoller Seitz

About a year-and-a-half after my father died, I was at the Ohio Theatre (a former Loew’s movie palace in Columbus, Ohio) waiting for a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird to begin when I mindlessly reached for my inside jacket pocket. I seldom wear the navy blue blazer I had on, and I suppose I was curious to see what old to-do list or movie program I might find stuffed in it. What I found instead was some unused Kleenex tissue, neatly folded in the shape of a square. “What was that doing there?” I thought at first.

Then I remembered one of the last times I had worn this jacket.
nullWhen my father was buried at Dayton National Cemetery (he was an officer in the Air Force before going into banking), I tried to go prepared. I wanted to absorb what was said at the service. I wanted to take in the physical surroundings where my father would be laid to rest, as unimaginable as it is for me to write those words, even now. More than anything, I wanted to anticipate what my own reaction to all of this might be. I did not think I would break down, but I knew enough to know that I could not be sure.

So, in lieu of a handkerchief, I must have placed the folded Kleenex tissue in my inside jacket pocket. I had forgotten all about it until eighteen months later, as To Kill a Mockingbird was about to begin.

When I went to see the movie that ordinary Sunday afternoon in June, it was just another thing to do. I loved Harper Lee’s story and Robert Mulligan’s direction. I wondered what Gregory Peck’s courtroom speeches would sound like in a big theatre. But I was not thinking that I would relive my grief. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to find that Kleenex either.

I realized that day that I would never be able to see an old favorite the same way again. When I revisit certain films now, the magic has dissipated. I’ll always remember how genuinely hilarious I thought Bringing Up Baby was when I saw it for the first time at age sixteen. My reaction was not unlike Peter Bogdanovich’s during his first viewing: “I screamed with laughter, but also with amazement: they had done this!” When I saw the movie again this summer—this second summer without my father—I admired it as much as ever, but something was missing. Missing in me. Bringing Up Baby should be laughed at, not “admired.”

When I decided to have a look at Wes Anderson’s films for the first time since my father’s death, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my mind’s eye, I pictured nothing but the joyous derring-do of Anderson’s protagonists, like Max Fischer leaving a case of bees in Herman Blume’s hotel room or Raleigh St. Clair listening to a private investigator’s report on his wife Margot Tenenbaum’s extramarital activities. As far as I was concerned, these movies represented the same thing Bringing Up Baby did: a happier time, now lost.
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The movies, however, told a different story. A decade ago, in his seminal Film Comment essay on Anderson, Kent Jones identified Max Fischer’s “profound anger and sadness over his mother’s death” as the source of the character’s iconoclastic behavior. In his films since Rushmore, Anderson has become even more preoccupied with mortality. It seems to have been his raison d’être in making The Royal Tenenbaums: “I was trying to make a movie in which there was the possibility that people could die,” he told Film Comment’s Gavin Smith. In that film, of course, the eponymous patriarch does die, and it is the death of, respectively, a beloved friend and a beloved father in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited that inspire the quests that occupy the main characters of those wonderful movies.

Until The Darjeeling Limited, I think much of this was lost on me. When Max Fischer sat beside his mother’s grave in a smoky cemetery, I know I liked the shot (which, the director says, was influenced by the great final shot of Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller), but I don’t remember connecting with the emotion. As for the funeral that concludes The Royal Tenenbaums, I think I saw it mostly in dramatic terms—a satisfying grace note to end with. I certainly wasn’t thinking about my own father.

But by the time The Darjeeling Limited came out, I was older. So was my father. The three brothers in the film—Peter (Adrien Brody), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman)—seemed roughly my age. And their father (who has recently died as the film opens) seemed roughly my father’s age.

The movie struck a chord.

In a dozen superficial ways, The Darjeeling Limited got under my skin as no other Anderson film had before. I related most of all to the middle brother, Peter. Let’s start with his first name. For as long as I could remember, my parents had instilled in me a sense of pride in my given name. They liked it and so did I. Growing up, I never knew another Peter, but that didn’t bother me—to the contrary, it made me feel even more special. Oddly enough, I associate my name with the British movies my mother took me to as a child. She would invariably point out the many Peters among the cast and crewmembers listed in the end credits of films produced in England.

Now, all of these years later, there was a Peter in The Darjeeling Limited. It meant something that he was called that rather than Dignan or Max or Royal or Steve Zissou.
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In the film’s opening scene, Peter sees the apparition of his father (Bill Murray), who is racing to catch a train somewhere in India. At the last moment, Peter, who is supposed to be on the same train, runs past him, but not before doing a double take. After Peter hops on board, he pauses to take a long look back at the ghost of the man he’s left behind. He seems disbelieving for a moment—could it be him? He lifts up the pair of sunglasses he’s wearing—which turn out to be his father’s—to seemingly get a better view. But then reality sets in—whoever it is back there, he isn’t going on any train trip—and Peter turns away, his eyes downcast, his lips pursed.

As I’ve said, I saw a great deal of Peter in myself. I felt I shared his thoughtful, serious manner—not for me, the whimsy of Max Fischer. I admired his sense of style, too, especially the trim Louis Vuitton suit he wears throughout the film. I liked the insouciance with which he lit a cigarette, even though I myself didn’t (and don’t) smoke. As one who suffers from migraines, I even related to his headaches, which seemed so much like my own (if his perpetual massaging of his temples was any indication). My point is that I think my identification with Peter allowed me to comprehend his stoic grief in the scene I just described. “That could be me,” I thought to myself. “That is how I might look or act if I experienced a death in the family.” I would have been quick to add, “And thank God I haven’t.”

But now I have.
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Watching the film again, I seized on the scenes that dealt directly with the brothers’ grief. As Meghan O’Rourke writes in her memoir The Long Goodbye, “I was hungry for death scenes.” It reminds me of the way Peter, seated for dinner with his brothers on The Darjeeling Limited, keeps returning to the short story Jack has written about the day of their father’s funeral (“He had been killed suddenly, struck by a cab while crossing the street”), in spite of the distractions—Francis’s odd behavior and appearance, the two German ladies seated across from them—that surround him. Later, he excuses himself to re-read a portion of the story in the men’s room on the train. He does so by himself because he finds he is moved to tears and doesn’t want to cry in front of others.

Wes Anderson gets it: We let so few see how we really feel.

I have become convinced that Anderson was wrong when he told Gavin Smith that in his earlier films “one thing you knew is that none of these characters could die.” If that is the case, then why, in Rushmore, do I think of Max’s mother every time Max is on screen? And Edward Appleby every time Miss Cross is on screen?

Of course, this is a recent development for me. When I have watched Rushmore in the past, I always looked forward to one especially lovely moment. It comes during the montage sequence set to Cat Stevens’s “Here Comes My Baby,” after Max has asked Miss Cross for them to remain friends “in a strictly platonic way” and has agreed to her request to “make a go of it and settle down at Grover Cleveland.” It’s a very quick shot: at a game of tennis, Mr. Blume and Miss Cross are resting until Max enters the frame and shoos Mr. Blume back onto the court. So that Max can sit next to Miss Cross. Max flashes her a broad smile, which she sweetly returns.

This moment always reminded me of the terrifically romantic first line of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus: “The first time I saw Brenda, she asked me to hold her glasses.” Maybe it’s because both scenes are set at country clubs.

In that exchange of looks between Max and Miss Cross, I always thought I was watching a hopelessly smitten kid and a beautiful, carefree young woman. But now I see an orphan—and a widow. I am as surprised by this reaction as I was by what I found when I reached for my inside jacket pocket.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.