28 December 2009 – 2 January 2010
Okay – obviously (see recent posts) I’ve been looking at a lot of movies lately. Well, as they say (in L.A. anyway), ‘tis the season. (I think the Oscar nomination ballots went out a couple of days ago.) Academy members are already receiving packages of screeners, scripts, notes and other “for your consideration” promotions, touting this or that writer, director, actor or actress or just the film itself for Academy Award nomination. I’m not an Academy member, but I know a lot of people who are and occasionally go to Academy screenings at AMPAS’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre – which is one of the best if not the best screen in town. I no longer have the movie-going/viewing habits I once had (when it seemed as if I looked at a new (to me anyway) film at least every other day; sometimes every day or more than once a day for extended periods); but sometimes I’ll just arbitrarily pick a film or two to compare and contrast on one basis or another – most frequently writing or cinematography and editing, but occasionally on somewhat more ‘incidental’ (not that anything in movies is really incidental) grounds. And so, over the last week or so, I picked a pair in the ‘art direction/production design category’. I could have used other criteria, of course; but (1) everyone knows Nancy Meyers is obsessed with art direction in a peculiarly L.A. Westside way; and (2) Tom Ford – who sleeked up and all but re-branded Gucci, before moving on to – sacre dieu! – the house of Yves Saint Laurent – promised to be a new and very wild card in a business that – setting aside award ceremony red carpets – was worlds apart from couture and boutique fashion. I did not necessarily have high expectations either way. Nancy Meyers (with or without Charles Shyer) has never exactly given me a lot to chew on (though she’s a perfectly capable maker of filmed entertainment); and – well, Christopher Isherwood seemed a pretty ambitious undertaking for someone I viewed first and foremost as a fashion designer and merchandising wiz. But the advance word on the Ford movie was surprisingly good and – well, if the script was good; and we certainly might count on Ford’s eye for the film’s overall look – who could really tell? As for Meyers, Manohla Dargis, had already given It’s Complicated – let’s just call it a very ‘gentle’ review – and, at worst I thought it might go down like a milkshake, with a giggle or two about the Westside women’s world that I only know from some (increasingly rare) parties I’ve been to where they preside.
Before I really get into it – just a word about ambition. What I thought interesting and very smart about Ford’s approach to the Isherwood material was that he didn’t push too hard. It’s not necessarily a soft-sell, soft-focus sort of thing – quite the opposite; in Ford’s hands, very crisply told, with almost every frame deliberately composed and sharply focused. (In some sense, you can see the fashion-photography and merchandising sensitive hand a bit here: the precise lighting of each framed image, the balance of lights and darks in each frame, the pacing and articulation itself balanced in the sequencing of alternately light and darker chiaroscuro-laden shots.) But Isherwood’s story is allowed to play out more or less in its original judiciously articulated, well- (but not funereally) paced, nuanced, gently inflected (as opposed to ‘soft’) voice. Here in this sunlit Santa Monica (actually Glendale stands in for some of Santa Monica here – by way of the John Lautner designed Schaffer House) setting – at moments seemingly a suburban idyll – Isherwood’s tale of a real paradise lost – Isherwood’s tale of the mortal struggle for connection against the double barrier of depression and an isolation reinforced by social stigmatizationt unfolds over a single day and night broken by haunted memories, flashbacks, and epihanal moments that mark a kind of spiritual progress towards a transcendence that seems at first beyond reach. Colin Firth plays the English professor who, devastated by the catastrophic death, eight months past, of his long-standing lover, by early morning has determined that the day will be his last. He goes about his scheduled routine with stoic deliberation,