Feature Friday: “Mikey and Nicky” (1976)

I’ve already happily linked to online copies of two Elaine May films on Feature Friday—The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and A New Leaf (1971), both still up at YouTube. Now I’m happy to link to a third; I like Elaine May that much.

May directed Mikey and Nicky immediately after her first two films, in 1973. She shot a tremendous amount of footage—supposedly 3x more than was shot for Gone With the Wind—oftentimes letting multiple cameras role while she let stars John Cassavetes and Peter Falk improvise (which included, on at least one occasion, their leaving the set; May kept rolling). This (and the fact that production went way, way over budget) invoked the wrath of her producers, who tried to take the film away in editing. (Reportedly, May held some of the negative footage hostage, essentially blackmailing her way back into post-production.) A slapped-together version of the film was given a token release in late 1976, then finished by May in the following years. The result is a complex study of betrayal and guilt that would seem at least partially autobiographical—for one thing, May apparently named it after the world’s other fastest human, Mike Nichols.

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A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class.

A D: Much like how you hated The Tree of Life, Jeremy, I hated Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films. Hated them!

Jeremy: What, seriously? They made you physically ill?

Yes, seriously, ill. I would have gnawed my own arm off to escape, if it hadn’t meant forfeiting my malt balls.
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Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle (or, The Princess Bride vs. Inception)

"Have fun watching Inception, Adam!" "You think he'll like it?" "It would take a miracle."

In my recent criticism of Inception, I took Mr. Nolan to task for his inelegant use of screenwriting devices, such as his endless reliance on (often irrelevant) exposition. Some took objection to this. (See the comment thread here, also.)

To clarify: the problem is not the device, but the clumsy, bare-boned way in which it’s executed. A friend of mine said—and I wholeheartedly agree—that Nolan is simply shameless. This is what I mean when I call him artless. As Viktor Shklovsky put it in his great essay “Art as Device”:

There is indeed such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the rhythm of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” They represent today’s task in the theory of rhythm. We have good reasons to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.

In other words: Yes, art proceeds by means of familiar conventions and devices (otherwise we wouldn’t understand it). However, each time, those conventions and devices must be made to feel new and fresh—otherwise, we won’t be having an artistic experience. The challenge confronting the artist is how to reinvigorate what so many others have already done. (And you can’t just make a list of ways to do that, because then those techniques would lose their power.)

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Cassavetes, for the Spirit and Dialogue

John Cassavetes is still better known for being in The Dirty Dozen in 1967, Rosemary’s Baby the following year. But he used his acting fees from those movies to make his own. He wrote and directed nine films from 1959-1984 so fearless and individual (he is credited with three others but they were not from scripts of his), it is a wonder they were ever made, it is a wonder they are still around (many had been unavailable for several years and two-Minnie and Moskowitz and Love Streams-are still not available on DVD), finally,  it is a wonder for the viewer, who craving something different gets something extraordinary.

The films feel improvised but actually they are not, the dialogue was already in the script. The cinematography is gittery and Cassavetes even pushed his cameraman while shooting a scene to give it a broken look. They were countless hours of rehearsals and takes. Like Ingmar Bergman before him, he developed a stock company of actors. Gena Rowlands (his wife), Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazarra, himself, his mother, his mother-in-law and his children all make regular appearances. The films concern working class people, mothers, fathers, friends, strangers. There are no special effects, no murder/mystery, just raw emotion-people grappling with how to love, with what happiness is.

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