Envy is one of the least useful emotions we have. I try to avoid it whenever I can, because part of coveting something I don't have is that second part, I don't have it. Why, then, piss and moan about something which—from a strictly subjective standpoint—is not real? Because envy goes back far enough that if cavemen had resumes, they'd look like this:
Work experience: killing mastodons, making sharp sticks.
Education: University of Altamira, major: fine arts/cave painting, minor: mastodon killing training.
Special skills: killing mastodons, making sharp sticks, cave painting, getting pissy because Zog in the next cave killed two mastodons the other day and impressed the cavechicks.
One of the most annoying recurring themes in my life is that self-awareness doesn't make everything better, it just gives you a front row seat watching yourself act like an asshole. So yes, I fall victim to envy. Constantly. And I can only roll my eyes at myself and think, you silly bastard . . .
So, then, a list of movies I wish I could have made:
Bound (1996)--dir. The Wachowski Bros.
The worst part about this one is that someday I'm not going to be able to help myself and I'm going to make this one anyway. It's almost unfair how awesome this movie is. The premise is so elegantly simple—the standard noir story about a down-on-his-luck John Garfield type, just out of the slammer, trying to make ends meet, only to be seduced by a femme fatale with a scheme that needs a fall guy. Good solid noir template, that. What makes Bound one of the classics of the 90s is, the John Garfield part is played by Gina Gershon.
So, that means that she's seduced by an homme fatale, right . . .? Please, bitch. It's the 90s. Look at the poster. Within about thirty seconds of the movie starting, Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly are giving each other the eye and feeling a little fidgety. And, to the Wachowskis' credit, that arousal is palpable. Through sheer technique, they bring the audience to the level of almost uncontrollable desire, and they do it without being gratuitous.
Although the premise is Noir 101, the greatest strength this movie has is its skillful ability to just barely subvert genre conventions. John Garfield is a woman. The femme fatale's psycho mobster boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano, doing the weirdest Chicago accent in the history of cinema) menaces in bursts, not all the time. Little things like that. It never gets dumb. It never lags. And unlike pulp-era lesbian noir, the ladies don't have to “pay” for their sins, and unlike pulp-era hetero noir, no one has to be taught that crime doesn't pay. So Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly get away with it. In Gina Gershon's new fire-engine red pickup truck. Fuckin' Wachowskis. Why did you assholes have to make this when I was still in high school? Give me 10-15 years to learn my shit, goddammit.
Reason I wish I'd made it: Lesbians? Noir? Hello . . .
Watchmen (2009) dir. Zack Snyder.
I had been casting this one in my head for 20+ years. I re-read Watchmen so many times I literally had three different copies of it fall apart on me (number four's been holding strong for awhile; maybe other people were having the same problem and that reprint was a little sturdier). Part of me was holding out hope that I would manage to get my own film career to the point where I could get hired to direct Watchmen, or at the very least write it.
Every single attempt at a screenplay did something stupid like reset it in the 2000s (one of David Hayter's early versions) or rewrite Rorschach to make him indistinguishable from The Thing (Batman hack fuck-knuckle Sam Hamm's 80s version), and even the ones that weren't so bad (David Hayter's later versions, Alex Tse's drafts) still had the inevitable problem of trying to condense a massive, epic-length narrative told in another medium that existed as a projection of the conventions of that medium into as close to a two-hour movie as possible. I'm not saying it can't be done. Just not by those guys.
So then the news comes down the grapevine that Zack Snyder's going to direct. So I checked out 300. Thought to myself, “Well, now I've seen sepia-tinted CGI gay war porn.” (Note: I rather enjoyed it). I kept my fingers crossed. The trailers certainly looked good. When it came out, my girlfriend at the time and I saw it in IMAX, which was an experience. A while later, though, when I was thinking about the Watchmen movie I couldn't help but think maybe I needed to watch it without the enormous screen and the deafening sound system overloading my senses. And I Netflixed it, watched it again, and realized, fuck . . . this really isn't very good at all.
Zack Snyder is a very skilled director at making a certain kind of picture. 300, for one, is—despite its appeal to nekulturny frat boy types—a work of great skill. The difference between it and Watchmen is that Frank Miller (the author of 300), with his inimitable “13 year old boy experimenting with angel dust and Viagra” style, is a natural for someone like Zack Snyder, with his precocious skill for visceral cinema. Alan Moore is a lot more cerebral, a lot subtler a thrill, and he writes comics because they're his medium of choice. Watchmen was a comic by, for, and of the comics. Zack Snyder, poor bastard, saw a story about people who dress up in costumes. I'm not saying he's dumb. I'm not saying he's an asshole. I'm not even calling him a hack. I've never been mad at him for taking my favorite comic and making a shitty movie out of it. I'm just disappointed.
I had the idea, a few years ago, that as Watchmen the comic was a comic about comics, that a Watchmen movie would have to be a superhero movie about superhero movies. This presented the problem of making something so long, slow, self-reflexive, and intellectual as concise, well-paced, and accessible as possible. Of course, since the movie rights to Watchmen were owned by some studio or other—that was still when Fox and Warners were suing each other over who was going to make it—I didn't devote an enormous amount of time to it, since I knew that if they still hadn't made a movie of it by the time I was a hotshot screenwriter and/or director, the chances of it being made would be nil. But watching Zack Snyder's version . . . much sighing ensued.
Reason I wish I'd made it: Give me two years and a nine-figure budget and I'd have cracked it.
The Squid and the Whale (2005) dir. Noah Baumbach
I have a long-standing grudge—that like all grudges is kind of stupid and petty—against Noah Baumbach, going back to when I saw Kicking and Screaming back in the day. The 90s were an innocent time, when pretty people in their 20s could whine about not knowing what they were going to do with their lives and get movie and record deals. Kicking and Screaming, more than Reality Bites or early Pearl Jam, finally made me realize just how annoying, and how worthy of ridicule, was angst. I turned to the friend I'd watched Kicking and Screaming with and said, “This motherfucker has so much angst, he needs an umlaut.” And thus have I spelled it “ängst” ever since.
So when I found out that Noah Baumbach (who's only a couple years older than me) grew up in Park Slope, and his well-educated parents had divorced in the 80s, and that he had made a movie about it, I immediately began using curse words. Because I grew up in Park Slope in the 80s. My well-educated parents got divorced. There goes my autobiographical auteur picture. Fuck you, Noah Baumbach.
I finally watched The Squid and the Whale and I realized, well . . . his experience was enough different from mine that I can still make my movie. But there's going to be one douchebag critic—and I would not be at all surprised if it's Armond White—who's going to lead his/her review by going, “Bowes' coming-of-age tale, a stale retread of Noah Baumbach's excellent The Squid and the Whale . . .” and I'm going to have to drink large amounts of Jamesons, and my friends will be so thoroughly annoyed at my accompanying four-hour diatribe about how Noah Baumbach has ruined my life, that an untoward amount of unhappiness will be unleashed upon the world. Fucking prick.
Reason I wish I'd made it: “Noah Baumbach's coming of age tale, a stale retread of Danny Bowes' excellent The Downward Slope . . .” Doesn't that sound better?
The Good German (2006) dir. Steven Soderbergh
This was a lay up. The book, by Joseph Kanon, was one of those well-written, intelligent mainstream novels that Hollywood has been turning into good movies since there have been movies. It's about a war reporter who goes back to Berlin after the war to try and find his old girlfriend. Of course, because that's the way things are, she's married, so he's also trying to find her husband, a scientist who reluctantly worked for the Nazis. Some kid soldier gets killed, and the reporter looks into his death and finds all kinds of military misbehavior, and in the end we have one of those moments where the hero can stand there, having gotten the girl, and muse cynically about how right and wrong is a matter of where you're standing, but in a way that's simple enough that if you put him in a nice widescreen shot and have some wind blowing his and the girl's hair, the audience will walk out nodding solemnly and Oscars and box office success are foretold.
So Steven Soderbergh gets the rights. He casts George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. I'm saying “fuck yes.” But then I hear Steve's planning to shoot the whole thing on the Universal backlot with 1940s equipment. Hmm. I start reading quotes saying stuff like, I want to recreate a 1940s style movie but with bad language and nudity. Hmmmmmm. Didn't really seem to be the point of the book, but oh well.
I went to see the movie a week or so after it opened. A quick (prejudicial) look at the audience revealed that I was the youngest person there and the only one with a sense of humor. (Note: the author was in a shitty mood that day.) The movie unspooled, and it sure was shot with 1940s equipment. Steve threw in a ton of artsy camera angles that undermined his frequently-stated “I'm making a Michael Curtiz movie” intentions, but meh, whatever. The bigger issue was that when I walked out of the theater, the first thing that popped into my head was “wow . . . there sure was a lot of gratuitous foul language and nudity. . .” Now think for a second. Read some of the other entries in this blog. Bear in mind that I'm the guy who staged an homage to the Madison scene in Bande a Part with me and two girls, naked. I own the motherfucking patent on gratuitous foul language and nudity. If someone curses so much and so unnecessarily that it bugs me . . . and if I, for fuck's sake, think you have too many naked people in your movie . . . I couldn't even remember what the movie was about, and I'd read the book and been looking forward to the movie for a year. All I could remember was that Tobey Maguire cursed too much and smoked unfiltered cigarettes and spit loose tobacco.
Alas. As much as I champion auteurs, and don't think that literary adaptations need to be direct transcriptions of the source material, and certainly support the fine institutions of saying fuck and showing tits, I've only once been more disappointed in a movie than I was in The Good German. (Number one's coming up next). I think that, with a more conventionally commercial approach, and a “happy” ending (hero gets the girl, and while some shady dudes get away with it, the hero's moral superiority is established), The Good German would have been wonderful. Goddammit, here I am advocating Hollywood being unsubtle and emotionally manipulative. Fuck, Steve, I hope you're proud of yourself.
Reason I wish I'd made it: I wanted to have a widescreen shot of George Clooney kissing Cate Blanchett at the end with a John Williams/James Horner/whoever score soaring to the heavens. Sure, I'm square, but if I'd directed that picture I'd be a rich square, so na na na na na na.
The Long Goodbye (1973) dir. Robert Altman.
I'm pretty forgiving about who gets to be a Great Director. You don't have to be awesome every time. You can miss the target every now and again. You're even allowed to make a giant, steaming pile of shit once in a while; maybe you need rent money, maybe the hookers and cocaine are distracting you, maybe that notoriously difficult actor you hired because he was talented added to his notoriety by being difficult and the talent was nowhere to be seen. Maybe you don't have anyone around to tell you no, because you've already made a couple great pictures and everyone calls you a genius all day long. So, all that being said, Robert Altman was a great director. Top 5 all-time, American-born directors category. Why not? He made a handful of terrific movies: MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park (yes, Gosford Park is great). His influence was vast, and even though he occasionally jerked actors around they all walked away speaking worshipfully about him.
But make no mistake, when Robert Altman fucked up he fucked up. For reasons that have never been altogether clear, in the early 70s Altman decided to make a movie of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. A little bit changed between '53, when Chandler released the book, and '73, when Altman released the movie, and a lot of Chandler's social commentary about the idle rich was a bit dated, but the bits about the corruptibility of absolute wealth and power are timeless. Philip Marlowe never gets old either, because even in the time Chandler was writing, Marlowe was a man out of step with his time, clinging to outmoded notions of honor, of their being such a thing as right and wrong. But all in all, The Long Goodbye was probably not the hardest Chandler to update to the 1970s, or if Altman wanted to go MASH-style, to ostensibly set it in the '50s but really be about the modern day.
But rather than adapt Chandler, Altman and writer Leigh Brackett decided to dig him up and piss on his corpse. Brackett—probably still shellshocked from trying to turn Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, into something coherent in the 40s—came up with the idea, egged on by Altman, to:
---satirize the book, noir, and the painfully unhip pre-60s world in general
---set it in the present day
---turn Philip Marlowe into a shlubby pussy
---have the writer character commit suicide instead of being murdered, when his murder was essential to the plot of the novel
---change the Mexican gangster into a batshit crazy Jew for no apparent reason
---have Marlowe kill Terry Lennox at the end
This would have made sense if Leigh Brackett had been Chandler's ex-wife or something, but no. Altman's maverick renegade image was quite romantic, and frequently his rebellion against the traditional way of doing things resulted in great cinema. But those were the fights he had to fight. This was not one of those times. The Long Goodbye had just been sitting there, not bothering anyone. Other Hollywood New Wave writers and directors were experimenting with noir—Chinatown was a terrific example of updating Chandler, with Robert Towne and Roman Polanski (reluctantly) working together to turn a massive, unwieldy script into the most-cited script in “how it's done” lectures people like Syd Field give aspiring screenwriters. Altman, though, just decided to throw a tantrum and film it.
Ironically, this was one case where the maverick renegade fuck you motherfucker guy could have stood listening to the suits a bit: the suits wanted Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. Mitchum went on to do a couple not-half-bad Chandler adaptations in England, playing Marlowe, but Altman said, no, give me Elliott Gould, he hasn't been severely miscast yet, it's time he broke his cherry. Mitchum had the advantage of both being quite like the Marlowe Chandler wrote, and having a connection to the classic age of film noir (having starred in some of the best ones, i.e. Out of the Past). But no, the suits are always wrong.
One of Altman's stunt casting middle-fingers actually kind of backfired: TV sportscaster Jim Bouton (also the author of one of the best books ever written about baseball, Ball Four) was pretty good as Terry Lennox, and would have been better if his scenes weren't so fucking terribly written.
In the end, one giant sigh. Instead of dwelling on this or letting Altman being an asshole bug me, I prefer to put on one of his good movies. And in short order, all is once again well.
Reason I wish I'd made it: Because I want to see The Long Goodbye set in the 50s, in, if not a completely faithful adaptation, at least a respectful one.
That's it for today. Now that I'm back in functioning shape, there'll be more to discuss. And remember, envy is stupid.