#0032 - THE LITTLE PEOPLE - On a film set, there are two basic classes: the stars, director, various levels of producers, and sometimes even the cinematographer are known as "above the line" workers, and get paid anywhere from what a medium-level executive makes in a year to a hundred times that, for what amounts on the outside to three or four months' work. Everyone else - extras, bit players, character actors, technicians, productions assistants, stunt people, costumers and dressers - is known as "below the line", and they make anything from fifty bucks a day to over a hundred grand a year, if they can manage to get three or four film jobs in a row.
Now, it's not like these people are being exploited as heartlessly as, say, children working in rug-weaving workshops in Afghanistan or young women in sneaker factories in Malaysia, so this piece in the Christian Science Monitor isn't going to prompt early-morning t.v. charity appeals from Susan Sarandon. It's a must-read, however, if you've ever sat through the seemingly endless credit roll at the end of a film waiting for the blooper reel or to find out who did the tune they played in the background of the bar scene, wondering just who all those people were.
It seems that the wage gap on film sets - already as impressive as that at corporations with "star" CEOs and McKinsey & Co. management practices (like Enron) - is actually growing, as film executives try to squeeze as much profit margin out of the famously volatile business as possible. Costume designers are being asked not to design costumes, but to get free clothing from designers for screen credit, and "runaway productions" (to Canada and Prague) have made work scarcer in Southern California. Wages have remained static for three years while movie profits have been on the rise, which brings joy to someone concerned with shareholder value but cold comfort to the thousands of freelancers who rely on the industry for a living. Which means that Hollywood is starting to look a lot like the steel and auto industries twenty or thirty years ago.
Needless to say, you can always rely on the stars to say something utterly clueless about economics as well as politics, and the article features a relatively successful gaffer who'll never see another Bruce Willis film again:
"Willis, who commands millions of dollars a film, upset most of Hollywood's below-the-line workers a few years back when he claimed on a talk show that the reason filmmaking was so expensive was because film technicians make too much money."
Which seems like a good enough reason for anyone else to avoid a Willis film, if you entertain even a vestigial ounce of Bolshie workingman's animus against boobs who dress like dockworkers and talk like analysts at the American Enterprise Institute.
Elsewhere, the LA Times has a piece about a crisis at the Screen Actors Guild, where unpaid residual cheques to bit players and struggling actors have gone unpaid for years:
"Millions of dollars' worth of residuals due to actors are stashed in a walk-in closet on the seventh floor at the SAG offices on Wilshire Boulevard. Some, like the ones for the late Nacho Galindo, have gone unclaimed since he died in 1973. Others sit in a backlog of SAG bureaucracy for months at a time."
SAG, it seems, still hasn't computerized their payout system, and hand-processing means that cheques arrive months late, rough treatment for dues-paying members for whom residuals are relied on as much as part-time jobs. It's a good deal for SAG, who can collect interest on the money owed to Nacho Galindo as well as "members who do one thing and then decide not to act anymore, and the movie is shelved and at some point shown, although they don't know it." (posted 1:05pm EST | 07.17.02)
#0031 - ASTRONAUT JONES - The Adventures of Pluto Nash, an Eddie Murphy detective comedy set in space, is apparently tipped as the turkey of the summer, according to a piece by Michael Cieply in the NY Times. How bad could it be? Well, it seems that the Tracey Morgan SNL skit named at the top of this paragraph might have been a better bet as a feature.
On Aintitcoolnews.com, Harry Knowles points out, in a preface to a pan from a Pasadena test screening, that the script "from the combined talents of NORTH, MR BASEBALL, LITTLE BIG LEAGUE and HOCUS POCUS" doesn't exactly promise much. I don't normally take Knowles seriously, but the Times piece details how the aintitcool.com pan ended up as "a major link in a Rube Goldberg sequence that ultimately put Pluto in a tough spot." The Pasadena screening yielded poor results, and the aintitcool.com piece ended up being quoted in Time magazine. Knowles "laughed off the notion that a five-paragraph review by his unnamed critic can really have damaged a potentially good film."
Which seems a bit rich, since Knowles is also quoted comparing Pluto Nash to Rollerball, a film that Knowles is credited with personally torpedoing before it fizzled out with a US$19 million box office take. It's impossible to tell, at least at this point in time, whether online buzz actually harms a film's potential, but it's obvious that studios are taking it seriously. Even more tragically, Warners is reacting with what looks like injured pride, deciding against a quiet death in a few theatres followed by a ghostly half-life on video, in favour of a full release with a US$30 million advertising budget on top of the US$100 million the film has come to cost them so far, after expensive L.A. re-shoots inflated what was supposed to be a relatively modest project. (Pluto Nash was originally shot up here in Canada, the Singapore sweatshop of Hollywood filmmaking.)
The best part of the Times piece is the list of other, as yet unreleased, potential summer stinkers: Detox with Sylvester Stallone, who hasn't been worth his wages in a decade; Knockaraound Guys with John Malkovich, who's a lot of things but no sure opening weekend lucky charm; something called Killing Me Softly with Heather Graham and Jospeh Fiennes, two actors who've been in hits but can hardly be considered responsible for them. (Actually, it's the director - Chen Kaige - who's the most interesting thing about the film. The director of Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon, he's the first serious mainland Chinese director to "go Hollywood". The omens aren't promising.)
Of course, the biggest potential turkey on the Times list is The Gangs of New York, a film whose trailer alone has been the cause of uncontrollable wincing, moaning, guffaws and head-shaking whenever I've seen it in a theatre. Scorsese might have finally managed a film worse than Kundun.
Sometimes it's hard to figure out why a film bombs, and there have been dozens of great films that got buried when they were released, but sometimes it's just too easy. Studio executives and agents assume that getting a star at the peak of their career is as close to a sure thing as the gods will allow, but those people need to have Kevin Costner's face - preferable in a still from Waterworld - in front of them at all times. As for Eddie Murphy, he's years from his period of grace, and it appears that he's already left Pluto Nash behind, opting not to do press. The really entertaining spectacle at this point is watching the Time Warner/AOL execs push the accelerator down and steer headlong for the cliff. It would make a great movie. (posted 10:35pm EST | 07.15.02)
#0030 - ASS-DRAGON - I did not, as promised, head off to the first matinee of Road to Perdition on Friday. The day began with a 10am screening of a really awful Thai melodrama, and I just didn't have the necessary reserve of spirit for what every review I'd read had promised was probably worse than I'd anticipated. I wanted something big and loud and dumb and so I headed off to the 1:20pm of Reign of Fire. It's a good thing I didn't read any of those reviews.
It was truly, truly terrible, but it did make me forget about the Thai film. Andrew O'Hehir at Salon pegged it from the start as a "big, stupid, recklessly misconceived action film", which will probably be improved in its ultimate, video game form. "Maybe somebody pitched this movie in a studio meeting as Jesse Ventura vs. Ted Hughes in a remake of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Plus dragons. And minus that awesome theme song by Tina Turner." He does divine the single promising moment, a scrap of the film it could have been, when the besieged survivors holed up in a Northumberland castle entertain their children with a candlelit pantomime of the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. "It's a witty glimpse of the truth that pop culture remains close to myth, and that myth will find a way to survive as long as human society does." Sometimes you wish it were possible, even in this over-litigious world, to sue directors and producers for managing these brief moments of inspiration then squandering them so wastefully.
I have a friend - though I've barely seen him twice in the last five years - that I've known since high school. He goes by the name of Cadillac Bill, and cultivates a kind of Texan psychobilly persona even though he's the cousin of the current Duke of Norfolk and probably something like 763rd in line for the British throne, provided Parliament is forced to allow a Catholic (who wears Cadillac belt buckles and worships Lux Interior) to be king again for the first time in over three hundred years. But I digress.
Bill is an eccentric, and among his obsessions - UFOs, bog bodies, Gary Glitter - is a belief that dragons were real. Of course it's unscientific nonsense, but I would have liked for someone with Bill's strange monomania to have had a hand in Reign of Fire, if only to save it from the fatigued mechanical action film torpor that afflicts the film. Granted everyone in the film wants to kill the dragons, but wouldn't it be interesting - and inevitable, from what we know of the human mind - if some of the characters were fascinated by the dragons, in thrall to them much the way western leftists were fixated on the Soviet Union and, later, Mao and Che Guevara? Another film, perhaps, for another time.
Elsewhere, Steven den Beste wonders whether it's remotely possible that dragons could have survived military attack long enough to decimate the world, and comes to the conclusion that it could only happen with the help of wildlife conservationists. (posted 08:28pm EST | 07.15.02)
#0029 - P.S. I HATE YOU - This blog gets its first ever review, from a precocious 17-year old UK blogger:
"The first blog I've seen about films. Except that it uses the term "movie", criticises American Beauty in a way guaranteed to annoy me (in practice, that probably includes any way possible) and is somewhat badly written, in an exceptionally American way."
To which I have to respond, in order: whatever, whatever, whatever (why I oughta...), and hold it there, Sonny Jim, I'm a Canadian, so watch your mouth, and learn yourself to speak more respeckfully to your elders, darnit.
The great thing about youth is that it's such a profoundly, necessarily, temporary state. (posted 05:50pm EST | 07.15.02)
#0028 - SIN LIGHTLY - Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition is tipped as the summer's "quality blockbuster", the kind of film that's usually released closer to Christmas and Oscar nomination time, but which stands out among summer fare like a five-star restaurant in a mini-mall. For me, there's a lot more riding on the film than just Sam Mendes' reputation. Just how well a gloomy period piece about a penitent hired killer on the lam with his son will fare in the harsh summer sun remains to be seen. But I don't care about the box office - I'm curious to see how confidently Mendes' and writer David Self handle what's an explicitly Catholic story about mortal sin and redemption.
If American Beauty was anything to go by, I shouldn't hold my breath; Mendes has all the hallmarks of a classic middlebrow director in the mold of Anthony Minghella and latter-day Spielberg - a smart craftsman with a gift for pretty pictures but no follow-through on the "heavy" issues he evokes as a kind of moral ballast. Lynn Hirschberg's profile of Mendes in this weekend's Sunday NY Times Magazine - slyly, slightingly titled "Just High-Enough Art" - certainly insinuates as much. Hirschberg compares American Beauty with Election, a surprisingly dark political satire starring Reese Witherspoon, that was also released in 1999 but never found the same audience as Mendes' debut feature:
"By the end of Election, the hero's life is completely wrecked. Mendes would have softened the fall. There's a kind of downward spiral in American Beauty too, but it involves more acceptable midlife crisis tropes ... and is easier for the average audience member to identify with. And there's there is always that floating plastic bag to provide aesthetic pleasure. Election offers no such palliative."
(Another overlooked and underrated political satire released in 1999, Andrew Fleming's Dick, also starred teen-market ingenues - Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams - and fooled critics and audiences alike while suffering from half-hearted, misleading marketing. It's inevitable in retrospect that, when the Hollywood a-list is filled with a sometimes indistinguishable throng of nubiles and youngsters, a few talented people would find something interesting to do with them besides self-referential slasher flicks that get deemed postmodern by easily suggestible critics. But I digress.)
Another preview piece in the L.A. Times is much more explicit about the spiritual themes in Mendes' new film. "I think the Catholicism in the film is crucial," says Mendes, "because it gives these people a structure that tells them it's still possible to be saved." Which is fine if it didn't suggest that Mendes might have used Catholicism as just that: "structure", a ready-made motivation for remorse in killers, instant character depth. Or perhaps I'm just being cynical.
Less promising is a remark made by screenwriter David Self about Michael Sullivan, the haunted gunman played by Tom Hanks. "There's a very strong Catholic sensibility there ... Michael Sullivan is a man haunted by his religion." It would probably be more accurate to say that Sullivan is haunted by his sins - killing being pretty much at the top of the list of mortal sins - and that his religion, far from haunting him, provides him with his only chance of hope. The logical inference of Self's remark is that, in the absence of faith, Sullivan might be able to kill without regret. I'm sure that's not what he means, but it's the kind of offhanded sentiment that speaks volumes about mainstream Hollywood's moral calculus.
David Denby's review in the New Yorker suggests that religion makes little more than a cosmetic impression on the finished film, a thematic context for some really foul and consistent downpours:
"...I haven't seen rain come down quite this strenuously since the noir movies of the forties and fifties. Precipitation of such intensity is not really a form of weather; it's closer to a spiritual condition, a portent of sin and violence in a fallen world."
Of course, Catholics and indeed most Christians do believe that the world is a fallen one, and not just as a setting for overused cinematic metaphor. Whether Mendes' film manages to convey some sense of this profound, inescapable tragedy of life - so vital to the worldview of its Catholic characters - rather than seeking escape through mere cinematic catharsis, remains to be seen. Certainly, there's nothing in the director's previous work that holds out the promise of hope, but I'll be there at Friday's first matinee. (posted 12:20am EST | 07.11.02)