A conference to re-imagine the next 50 years of Los Angeles Theater

To be held on June 19th, 2011

The Lost Studio
130 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

(Los Angeles, CA) (June 6, 2011)… THE UNINVITED Crashing the Party has been organized by Los Angeles theater artists as a counter-conference to the national Theater Communications Group conference being held in downtown Los Angeles this month.

Sponsored by longtime L.A. theater makers who have witnessed the vitality and viability of the city’s smaller, risk-taking companies and stages languish under the 50-year-old institutional model of regional theater being celebrated by TCG, the counter-conference will seek to send a message to the performing arts establishment that, in Los Angeles at least, there is little in theater to celebrate.

THE UNINVITED Crashing the Party is the first salvo in a dialogue of like-minded and similarly discontented members of the theater community that will imagine alternatives to the mediocrity prevailing at the region’s larger institutional theaters.  The gathering will address the concerns of the marginalized majority of Los Angeles artists who have been systematically excluded from the funding, visibility and public arts discourse dominated by the large, regional stages and their programs of conventional banalities and New York imports. Led by a panel including Travis Preston, John Steppling, Zombie Joe, Denise Devin, Matt McCray, Jay McAdams, Tina Kronis, Guy Zimmerman, Wes Walker and Murray Mednick, the counter-conference will address the proposition that the business of theater is not business or institutional self-preservation but rather the creation of a kind of art that should be innovative, transformative, socially revolutionary and at the center of L.A.’s cultural life.

The conference is: June 19, 1-4 p.m., $5 donation

THE UNINVITED Crashing the Party, a conference re-imagining the next 50 years of Los Angeles Theater convenes June 19th, 2011 at The Lost Studio at 130 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036 (between 1st St. & 2nd St.). Admission by donation is $5. Street parking on La Brea Ave.

Sponsored by The Lost Studio, Gunfighter Nation, and Padua Playwrights


The Lost Studio has been a teaching theater and one of L.A.’s leading acting schools for 20 years. Award-winning director Cinda Jackson offers intensive training and production workshops for actors, writers and directors. It is also home to the renowned children’s classical theater ensemble, Les Enfants Magiques. In 2000, Jackson launched The Lost Studio Pinter Project, an ongoing exploration of the body of plawright Harold Pinter’s work. The series began with Jackson’s productions of Night School, Victoria Station and A Night Out. John Pleshette then directed The Cartaker, No Man’s Land, Moonlight, and Old Times. The Caretaker won the LA Weekly Award for Best Revival for 2002.

Gunfighter Nation is a Los Angeles-based autonomous arts collective founded by John and Lex Steppling and named after Richard Slotkin’s book on the American West. Since 2010, the collective has produced four evenings of theater, including John Steppling’s LA-Weekly award winning play, Phantom Luck.  Their other stage work includes L.A. History Project: Pio Pico, Sam Yorty and the Secret Procession of Los Angeles and Alamo Project, productions aimed at rescuing events and places from the myth-making amnesia of America in her march forward.

Padua Playwrights began as an annual Festival and Workshop in 1978 when Murray Mednick invited five other playwrights, including Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes to join him on the old Padua Hills estate in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just east of Los Angeles. The playwrights, as well as playwriting students and actors, were given free reign to re-investigate their creativity, developing writing exercises for the morning, rehearsing in the afternoon, and presenting the results in he evening. Under Mednick’s artistic direction, the Festival became a model that, staged annually, had a lasting impact on American theater. Since 2001, under the artistic direction of playwright and director Guy Zimmerman, the company has been offering regular seasons of new work to critical acclaim. Among its prominent alumni are Henry David Hwang, John  Steppling, John O;Keefe, Jon Robin Batiz, Marlane Meyer, Julie Hebert, Kelly Stuart, Wesley Walker, Rita Valencia and Sharon Yablon.

True Grit, Social Network, and the Failure of Mythic Narrative

There is always something in the Coen Bros. movies that doesn’t congeal. Not even in No Country for Old Men, where they had the great advantage of working from a seminal text. With True Grit, they are remaking an originally bad film that only warrants notice for John Wayne’s Oscar performance (which was a belated Oscar for his majestic performance in Ford’s The Searchers, some fifteen years earlier.)

The examination of the American myth, as seen (almost entirely) from the perspective of the west (and western) remains a fascinating subject, and a durable one, and perhaps, even, today a highly resonant one. True Grit however is an overblown self important exercise in only filmic self reference. If Wayne came to embody several sides of the American character (simultaneously) then Jeff Bridges only serves as a single side — and that is best captured in the Coen Bros. best film, The Big Lebowski.

He hasn’t the basic mean spiritedness of Ethan Edwards — nor can he approach an Ahab like madness, nor anything proto — he  finally does not have that kind of gravitas. The fault in True Grit however, is not Bridges,  it is the basic lack of real artistic vision in the Coens.

Wayne was scary. Even at his most sentimental, one sensed a dark side. For True Grit to deliver us the ‘journey’ of young Maddie Rose, there needed to be a genuine fear of Rooster Cogburn. And Cogburn, because of exactly his darkness and ruthlessness, would be the man to take her across the river to the underworld that presages adulthood. The Coens seem not to have given any thought to this. Despite a good amount of dialogue about the “wildness” of the Indian territory they are crossing — one never feels a bit of unease. Matt Damon is the perfect wrong choice…..exactly the wrong actor to play the stalwart young Texas Ranger who has come for the killer of Maddie’s father, along with Rooster and Maddie. Damon continues to get cast in parts he is ill suited for….but none has been as egregiously wrong as this one.

The story itself has built in anti climaxes — and the Coens do nothing to counter this by way of delving more deeply into Cogburn and Maddie and the Ranger. There is only one brief moment…….when Damon suggests he contemplated stealing a kiss from the sleeping 14-year old Maddie, but chose against it because “she wasn’t attractive”, where one sits up and hopes we are about to go further into a dangerous place. Alas, we do not.

This is the first time Josh Brolin has bored me. And the final framing device is ill executed. The adult Maddie simply is not who we think the 14-year old would grow into. Its an odd coda to a very trite film.

Now, I link this film to The Social Network — a film I saw a month ago but have been unable to write about. I’m not sure why, but there is something slippery in the Fincher film that stops me from feeling I have any idea of exactly how good or bad it is, or even if this is quite a film in the ordinary sense. That alone might be enough to give it praise. “Might” be enough, but isn’t. The story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should contain enough political content — enough for even a rudimentary critique of everything from the institution of Harvard, to a culture of money that is linked to global finance and the remnants of Imperial conquest. Fincher seems to have chosen to steer clear of critique. A number of reviewers see this otherwise. And I won’t argue, because as I say, I don’t quite know what my emotional response was, let alone my intellectual one.

Harvard is a bastion of privilege, and the iconic University for the U.S. It is short hand for the best and brightest. Fincher does provide a creepy glimpse of education (institutional anyway) in hyper dysfunction — and his focus on odd details of daily life at the dorms is the best part of the film. The film has a taut neurotic quality, and the camera is placed in odd places, enough times anyway, to suggest Fincher was after something of a vertiginous quality. Maybe its the basic banality of the Facebook story that makes the narrative sort of evaporate. The fact that Zuckerberg is alive and still quite young may also be a contributing factor to the lack of depth — the lack of something — in the ‘story”. If we speak again of journey’s, we simply don’t have one. In 30 more years, the saga of Facebook will, no doubt, provide ample material. Right now it does not.

In both films, for different reasons, narrative is adumbrated and unable to carry its audience along to a place where inner questioning should take place. True Grit simply never thought about this, and the Coen Bros. are consistent in not caring about such things. They are facile and clever, but never visionary. The Fincher film is hard to evaluate in these terms. His best work — Zodiac, or his turn with the Alien franchise, are always smart and while emotionally distant somehow, they do create a sense of the American experience at bedrock level. The daily emptiness of lives buffeted by the culture of distraction and propaganda. The overworked and confused characters have been consistent. This seems not so in The Social Network. Now, I never saw Benjamin Button — I mean why? I assumed Zodiac made little money and Fincher needed a mainstream film to sustain his A-list status. In any event, it’s exactly the sort of film I avoid. This brings us back to narrative itself. The ever more porous storytelling of studio films. One could probably track the erosion of character in Hollywood film, from the 70s until now without a lot of effort. What we are left with is Bridges as Cogburn. Or the empty prestige films like Black Swan and The King’s Speech.

A Prophet

Still, it’s a year or two that saw films like A Prophet, Animal Kingdom and Winter’s Bone, so there is a response to this void. The mythic qualities of films like A Prophet or Animal Kingdom are there because, firstly, the stories have clear sociological and political underpinnings. That sense of fable comes only after a genuine positing of a world where the contradictions are not ignored. It’s probably, therefore, not an accident that the three films I just mentioned all deal with crime and social transgression. It is only from such recognition that a mythic dimension will find oxygen.

John Steppling

One Foot Out the Door

Grandpa John Steppling comes home, for a while

(This article originally appeared in the LA Weekly on September 9, 2010 and was written by Steve Leigh Morris)

In the comparatively heady days of the late 1980s — heady for local theater, at least — director Robert Egan over at the Mark Taper Forum took an almost proprietary interest in a young playwright whom critic Richard Stayton had dubbed L.A.’s only playwright. The fringe set of that era described John Steppling as the voice of the city, for creating inarticulate American-Pinter characters in such plays as his self-directed The Shaper, populated with surfboard builders and beach dwellers who glared at each other across emotional voids, and against riffs of electric guitar. His characters were from, and remain in, the margins of society, not unlike Steppling himself. (Steppling’s other plays include Teenage Wedding, The Dream Coast and Neck.) The Taper’s attempt to elevate Steppling to L.A.’s entry in the national playwright sweepstakes didn’t quite work out, the way it did, say, for Steppling’s peer, Jon Robin Baitz. Yet the Taper did produce Steppling’s The Thrill in one of its new-works festivals.

Steppling dabbled in film, having adapted Elmore Leonard‘s 52 Pickup for director John Frankenheimer. The 59-year-old also has been a director and an artistic director of playwright companies such as Heliogabalus and, currently, Gunfighter Nation. Today, after several years abroad, Steppling is back in L.A., making his home in the high desert’s Yucca Valley.

In a 1990 interview, Steppling recalled: “I remember driving through Ely, Nevada, early one morning. Newspapers were blowing on these empty streets and a couple of very spectral figures huddled in the doorway, and I thought, ‘Who are these people? These half-drunk cowboys at 10 a.m., playing penny slots in this incredibly bored fashion in a broken-down casino.’ … You learn more about society and the truth of the society you live in from those people. Having one foot out of society allows that person to be in a doorway, seeing the truth from the outside.”

It’s from the margins that Steppling remains an eloquent commentator on our own city, and the larger culture it represents. His most recent absence from Los Angeles was marked by an 11-year stint in Poland (where he taught screenwriting at the Polish National Film School in ód) and Norway — because his wife, Gunnhild Skrodal, is Norwegian.


Steppling and his Norwegian wife, Gunnhild Skrodal

Steppling and his Norwegian wife, Gunnhild Skrodal


He says, only somewhat facetiously, that he just can’t recount how many wives he’s had. He can, however, keep track of his children — one son, Alexis, whose mother is Natasha Mitchnick. Alexis is himself now a father, awaiting his second child, and Steppling is here to spend time with his grandchildren. But only for a year, maybe longer, he says. He’s made some commitments here, and he’ll see how things work out.

Among those commitments is his current leadership role in Gunfighter Nation, where Alexis is associate artistic director. Half the group consists of the elder Steppling’s peers from the 1980s — playwrights such as Rita Valencia, Wesley Walker, Guy Zimmerman and Harvey Perr. The other half consists of a younger generation brought in by Alexis, largely with a background in community organizing.

On September 17, the group opens its second in a series of short plays, this version at Hollywood’s Lost Studio and based on Los Angeles history, from 1830s governor Pio Pico to 1960s mayor Sam Yorty. And in late October, it opens Steppling’s new play, Phantom Luck.

The company’s youth, he explains, is bringing in a new audience that doesn’t go to the usual theaters.

“I said, I want you young people to read Peter Brook‘s The Empty Space [about the possibilities of where theater can occur] because that’s the best template for our times. We’re pitching site-specific works in Palm Springs, and [director-composer] O’Lan [Jones] talks about this at her company, Overtone Industries: Find an empty Circuit City, and get some backing and put up [a performance] there.”

The father-son bond has created a kind of community-based theater, not unlike L.A.’s heralded Cornerstone Theatre Company. “I want to do what Cornerstone is doing, without feeling that we’re social-engineering anything,” Steppling explains. “I think it should be about the art first. I think the art should contain this stuff of the social fabric, somehow. And I admire what Cornerstone has done in many ways. My son brings in the Latino communists, and suddenly we’re all talking about [19th-century California Governor] Pio Pico. One of our actors is right out of prison, never been onstage — he’s bringing a whole other experience.”

Steppling says he learns from them about life in other communities, “but we give them the art. I tell them to read Peter Brook, read Grotowski.”

Upon returning to California, Steppling was struck by the new economic realities. “It’s a strange time in the U.S. It’s like the Great Depression, it’s dire. You don’t get that feeling, just how acute the financial problem is, when you’re away. Out in the Yucca Valley, every weekend there are 50 garage sales —’must sell for food.’ It’s really startling. This extraordinary depression has also served to reveal what were the lurking pathologies of America, and it’s disturbing. It’s stuff that we always knew was there, these resentments. Now people are so put-upon, so desperate. If they have a job, they look to target the most powerless illegal immigrants, and drum up these absurd nonissues — gay marriage, illegal immigration — just an excuse to vent a lot of anger and resentment. The other thing that really strikes me, is how ubiquitous and partisan the media have become.”

Tethered to the economic decline is what Steppling views as the leaching out of theater and art from the culture. “Maybe it’s the way education has been eroded since Reagan. People that I formerly thought of as dedicated theater artists are either defeated and not working, or they’re just clamoring for the crumbs from Hollywood in an increasingly desperate way. … [Sociologist Theodor] Adorno said this thing I quote all the time: ‘The rise of fascism in Germany can be directly related to the end of education after World War I.’ So as you have an increasingly ignorant population, of course you have the ascent of Sarah Palin.

“But I see signs of optimism in a few places. It’s tough because it’s this postliterate culture — I had film students who only wanted to read technical manuals on lenses. After six months of watching Fassbinder, I saw them downloading obscure films by Bresson. You can’t just throw that at them. You have to provide historical context. That’s what’s not provided after the decimation of arts education. All we get is dueling reviewers. The template becomes the Academy Awards.”

Steppling sees reasons for hope, now that fine indie films such as Winter’s Bone and The Prophet are getting made and distributed. “I wish theater would catch up a bit. All these spaces are limping by, and the Taper does another production of The Glass Menagerie, and Burn This. And in the smaller theaters, do we really need another production of All My Sons right now? Or dinosaur renditions of Shakespeare showcasing actors for 47 people a night?”

(Steppling describes his own sliced-back adaptation of King Lear — with Goneril and Regan spoken in Norwegian and the other roles in either Polish or English as “fairly traditional.”)

“These tired old reactionary guys that run these theaters live in some fun-house fishbowl and they don’t see the world around them. The thing that strikes me, either they do not reflect on the madness that’s out there, or they do fake outreach, like the Taper, the identity-politics theater enough already, enough.”

Living in the desert, Steppling is talking to the city of Indio about the Date Festival grounds, “which is a kitsch wonder. What architectural hideousness has replaced what used to be this oasis of date trees,” he reflects. He’s pitching a site-specific work for the grounds, but doesn’t yet know if it’s going to be a film or a theater piece.

Don’t mistake Steppling’s harsh critique of our theater for despondency.

“I’m now almost 60,” he reflects. “I think if you just survive, you stop worrying about things. I just want to do something I enjoy doing, with people I enjoy doing it with. And the possibilities are there. I’m optimistic.”

LGrandpa John Steppling comes home, for a while

Part Two: Sentimentality and Wall Street redux

Shia LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps

I didn’t really get very far in talking about sentimentality last posting……so now after watching Money Never Sleeps, the latest Oliver Stone film, I think another opportunity presents itself to dig a tiny bit deeper in this concept.

The sentimental idealizes an object or scene for the sake of disproportionate emotional responses. Such a structural imperative tends to create a manipulative emotional effect — which is why so much advertising is sentimental. The emotional response is hence often in the service of mystifying the actual relationships being presented. It hides the deeper realities. In other words, the sentimental is essentially dishonest. It obscures the morality of the dynamics in play.

As I’ve said before, the sentimental in narrative can only occur (effectively) in a reduced landscape: a simplified world view that is without complexity. It is one dimensional.

In your Rhetoric 101 class the Sentimental Fallacy is usually presented as a figure of speech where the forces of nature are seen as having human intent, i.e. ‘the angry wind’, etc.

In poetry, it is useful to analyze the meter, where, for example, a strict anapest will strike on points already, probably, evoking an emotional response. It’s like cuing the violins in bad film–or these days, almost all film. It usually is combined with the signifiers of innocence: puppies and kittens, or the pure of heart, or any endless number of other images we have come to associate with the sentimental.  The traction sentimentality has for this culture probably has to do with an increasing need for reassurance. In today’s film world, the images have evolved in terms of sentimentality; and one often sees ruthlessness and “toughness” treated with the sentimental. This becomes a rather complex topic, but also I think a revealing one. In Magnificent Seven, there is a scene where Charles Bronson shares his candy (or gum or some fucking thing) with a young Mexican girl. It is the juxtaposition  of the tough with the innocent and pure that evokes our reaction. We have projected our trained assumptions about purity (in that case) onto a scene with almost no back story.

In all cases, the situation of the narrative and its characters, are treated dishonestly — are reductive. Otherwise the complexity of life we experience every day would erode the exaggerated moral reflex presented in this manipulative world created by the artist. The essential problem is that the emotional response to the sentimental is actually a very superficial one. It is fleeting and without much dimension. It massages our knee jerk reactions. It asks nothing.

What is most telling, however, is how the sentimental plays out in the narrative in an on-going way; how the tropes of sentimentality are embedded in ways that are effective because of the vast number of narratives modern audiences have consumed. There are the more obvious themes: reunion, religious awe, or the individual overcoming all odds to achieve his or her goal.  There are also a host of less obvious themes, and possibly any theme can be treated in a sentimentally dishonest way at this point.

Allow me to again quote Richard Brody:

“There does seem to be a great deal of research on the question of violence and of quantity of viewing; but very little, if any, on the subject of treacle. I do worry about the effect of violent films on children, but I worry just as much about the emotional debility, the sentimentalization of kids who watch only child-friendly works. In general, children watch much too much television and see far too many movies in which everyone smiles too much and talks as if they’re on sugar highs—or, simply, where there isn’t enough ambiguity or mystery. The oversimplification of life into tangy bite-sized morsels is as much of a danger, for individuals and generations, as stoked aggression.”

Now, this  brings me to Oliver Stone’s latest film, Money Never Sleeps, a sort of sequel to Wall St.  Stone is a director whom I want to like, for some reason. Maybe it’s that he made a great and very sympathetic documentary on Fidel Castro, I don’t know.  But the fact is that nearly all his films (at least the in the second half of his career) have been terrible, and Money Never Sleeps is no exception.  Stone’s basic failing is a failure of artistic intelligence. He has, for lack of a better description, no taste. Couple that, in the current case, to a deeply sentimental structural impulse and you get a film that actually is a sort of valentine to big business and Wall Street. Its probably too easy to pile on Shia Labeouf, but rarely has an actor of such limited ability managed to climb so high so fast. Perhaps at a later date a Shia-critique would be fun. For now, its best to just say he cannot sustain a film as a lead. Carey Milligan, the female lead, is equally boring, actually, though her pixie face — a somehwat proletarian Audrey Hepburn thing — has its charms. However, she also seems to posses only very surface emotions, and a limited range in all acting catagories. She has an unfortunate quality that lurks in her facial expressions and can be best described as conniving.  Michael Douglas seems to know he is in a bad film. He does his best I suppose. He is certainly more interesting than he used to be. Frank Langella and Eli Wallach are around to lend a kind of artistic legitimacy, but it doesn’t work.  The problem in narrative terms is that there is basically no narritive at all. Gordon Gekko is released from prison and embarks on a comeback. However, the audience is not really privy to how he is doing what he is doing, even with a surfiet of “authentic” detail. The fact is that one leaves the theatre feeling one knows LESS about how the stock market works. Gekko was always a faintly bullshit creation, and Stone coasts along on the audience’s knowledge of Gekko as an iconic character. There is no there there. The film treats poor Shia like he’s a boob, which is the one quality LeBeouf is good at projecting. A lot of dialogue about ‘hundreds of millions’ of dollars, and so on, doesnt really seem to gell into any sort of real vision of what those kinds of sums mean……on any level. Stone has always seemed, to me anyway, better suited to a career of Sam Fuller like genre material. Sort of an advanced thinking primitive. Natural Born Killers, for all its failings, still had a kind of anarchic energy, and  W was an amusing cartoon (that I recall defending at the time of its release). But to reflect on Platoon and Salvador — twenty years hence — is to see just how limited an artist Stone really is.

Sam Fuller

Sam Fuller

As for sentimentality, well, just think of the final credit sequence of Money Never Sleeps, and then think how, really, the entire film was about only this.

Here is an interesting link apropos of this discussion:

John Steppling

More Notes on Genre and the Virus of Sentimentality




It is an ongoing topic, the virus of sentimentality and how it intersects with narrative in today’s cultural output.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut of a couple years back was Gone Baby Gone, and it came as something of a shock in the sense that it was so good.  Based on the overrated Dennis Lehane  novel of the same name, Gone Baby Gone was a hard- edged piece of Boston noir and featured terrific performances from Ed Harris and Amy Ryan.  It was pure genre, in the sense that the architecture of plot was never upended and the conventions of such pulp storytelling were closely adhered to. Still, by casting Casey Affleck, an off-kilter sort of actor, and asking him to play against type (a topic to which I will return below) the film had a resonance and the sentimental tropes were forgiven because one felt they were oddly kept (purposely) in the background.  It also featured a very taught and smart script.

Affleck’s new film The Town, is also based on a pulp novel and also set in Boston. Why is it so inferior? First, instead of Casey, we have Ben.  Affleck as an actor has always seemed a tad slow-witted (which is why he was so funny in Shakespeare in Love) and a bit stilted.  But his performance is hardly a problem. The real problem is in the rest of the casting, which reads like a who’s who of industry heat at the moment (Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner). These are all “good” actors (well, not Lively) but to somehow stuff them all into what is designed as a modest noir crime film somehow tosses the whole thing out of balance. Lively may be terrible, but she is actually the least culpable of destroying this film.  She (or “Gossip Girl”) is simply doing what any agent would suggest to her….stretch and find something a bit more challenging.  So, voila, she plays an oxycontin /coke whore hoody chick…and shows cleavage and too much make-up and a decent enough Boston accent. She is bad, but not awful.  Still, one wonders if she can really transfer to the big screen. There is something too flat in her eyes, too blank – and she may end up the female Don Johnson of this era. In any event, Hamm is fine….though he isn’t asked to do much. In “Mad Men” his withholding of emotion and that sense of smarts buried beneath the surface is quite compelling and he has a certain grace and a huge dose of masculine gravitas. Here he plays the FBI guy chasing Affleck. Whatever. He is okay.

Renner (who was the ONLY thing I at all liked about Hurt Locker) is rather astonishingly good. He has a wired pent-up edge and a certain vertigo in all his movements that make us want to watch him more each time he appears.  He also is one of those actors blessed with preternatural timing. He is a bit like Cagney crossed with Joe Pesci.  But then we come to the deal breaker in terms of casting; Rebecca Hall. The RADA brit (now gal pal to Sam Mendes) simply has that snarky look buried behind those big moist eyes.  Whenever she and Affleck had a scene I felt like warning too dumb Ben, man, don’t trust this bitch. I don’t know if she can shed that quality, but her prettiness is mixed with an over-ripe squishy quality, and combined with this very mannered acting, the result is unsettling.  The performance is “good”; in the sense Meryl Streep is always good. But its not even for a nano second surprising.  Her face is always a made face. Her performance is never spontaneous and her sense of “common” is condescending.

The best few moments in the entire film belong to Chris Cooper as Affleck’s bank robber dad, now doing time in Walpole. It’s simply spellbinding.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking of any number of other films that questioned how genre works.  No Country for Old Men, Animal Kindgom, or even some of those post Vietnam noirs like Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop the Rain. And these reflections on genre led me to think on the way sentimentality creeps into almost all Hollywood studio films.

A film like Animal Kingdom (or A Prophet) could be categorized as genre, but really, they aren’t at all, by virtue of simply up-ending all the conventions.  No Country fails because, finally, Cormac McCarthy probably cant be translated to the screen, and what the Coen Bros. end up with is art house genre. Meaning, I think, just a dash too much pretentiousness.


Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson and Caroll O'Conner in John Boorman's Point Blank


Films such as Bellman and True, the much neglected British bank robbery film, remain pure genre….but of a highly elevated kind. Same could be said for Point Blank, the Boorman classic from the 70s with Lee Marvin. These are both films, that in different ways, work consciously with the conventions of “crime” stories and emerge as almost fable-like achievements.  It is worth pondering exactly how this happens. In Point Blank, the surface fetishism of the culture are so finely rendered that one begins to feel that marinated-in  quality that often is felt in daily life if stuck in dense traffic on Beverly Blvd or the 605 freeway.  Also, Lee Marvin by that point in his career was iconic and allowed himself to move through the proceedings less as an actor than as pure presence.  There is a political backdrop to Point Blank (and certainly more overtly in a film like Cutter’s Way) that has to do with the atomized alienation of the populace. In The Town there is, instead, a liberal sort of slumming that creeps into both the script, the performances (some of them) and in the mise en scene. Affleck simply isn’t an intuitive director. He is workmanlike, and it begs the question who the actual auteur of Gone Baby Gone really was.
A Fritz Lang, or a Billy Wilder, are always aware, acutely, of the authority structure. They distrust it and they fear it. Affleck one would suspect never even thinks about such things. In Animal Kingdom, there is never any doubt about the various ways the society exploits and chews up people – on both sides of the criminal fence. The Coen brothers are a bit like Affleck, in the sense that they distance themselves from these realities, and if asked (even by themselves) to render such realities, they do it without resorting to real sweat and blood and tears.  It’s that faux classicism that masks a deeply bourgeois mind set.
In Gone Baby Gone, the performance of Casey Affleck offsets such shortcomings. He establishes himself from the start as against not just the other characters, but against the director as well. He is the lightning rod that helps us position ourselves in terms of  tweezing apart what matters in this confused moral landscape. This moral complexity, however, is mostly of Casey Affleck’s making, rather than director Ben.  In The Town, the moral landscape is absent. It’s not another apologia for the police state, it’s simply that those questions are kept out of the film. And again, part of this is casting. The film turns sentimental not through plot so much as through rendering a reductive universe in which the real history of Boston’s working class neighborhoods is seen as if on display in  a Disney Theme park. IF the world that is given us is one dimensional – in social terms at least – sentimentalizing will occur because ANY emotion will be disproportionate.
The universe of Bellman and True or Point Blank is one of pure irrationality, and everyone is a victim of it.  There is no room for the sentimental. Same in Winter’s Bone, the narrative is tied so closely to the social reality of the specific region, that even the characters resonate with the shared pain of their collective history.
It is as if in The Town, the ensemble cast is caught up in a rip tide created by the marketing arm of the studio – of maybe of all studios – and only Cooper (and to smaller degree Renner) manage to step away from the undertow and look at the proceedings as we, the audience, do.  The role of actor in today’s film is being re-drawn somehow.  It may relate to a surveillance society in which everyone is always caught in the gaze of the camera, or perhaps its simply a reality TV conditioned psychology at work, where the effects I describe are as much my fault as the actors.  It’s likely that both these forces, and others, are at work in this.  This brings us to the notion of “character” in film and theater today. This is a huge topic that would of necessity lead us back to Dante and Shakespeare, if not Sophocles and Homer.  Film has always trafficked in various short hands and codes. In films such as The Town, we find ourselves running smack up against the outer walls that contain what is left of the notion of traditional definitions of character. Its not the simplistic short hand of cartoons like The Blind Side (or any other of fifty films in the last three years) but of something more elusive.  Jon Hamm’s FBI agent walks through the film as if on loan from his TV show….and so he is. It’s not a cliché role, so much as a non-role. It’s barely a mannequin that we see up there on the screen. It’s only the most fragile of signifiers at work, in context, that gives us any idea about what this “character” is supposed to be doing. These signifiers have been learned through decades, now, of TV (and film).  We know when this happens, then this will follow. This is what this “character” must do – for he IS this sort of character.
One wonders if such reactions on the part of an audience translate further into our social selves. I suspect they do.  An era of reductive texting passing as communication and of constant recording of “reality” by various kinds of cameras, means just the sheer rapidity of these images and sounds have given us, even if we don’t want them, an endless semi-conscious loop that plays 24 hours a day.  We dream in signifiers now, I’m guessing.
In any event, The Town fails horribly to capture any sense of the fatalistic – in the way a Cutter’s Way or Who’ll Stop The Rain (or even a Nightmoves does, or certainly an Out of the Past) manage. That fatalistic dimension, what directors like Lang and Siodmak and Wilder and even Ford used as daily currency for the narrative they spun is now all but impossible to put on the screen. With films like Animal Kingdom we come close, and also in Winter’s Bone, but it’s a diluted version. Those films compensate in other ways; but the pure existential dread of directors like Boetticher or Tourneur or Lang or even  Aldrich seems gone.
Watch Point Blank again, and watch Marvin walk purposefully down the empty corridor, and hear those wingtips echo off the floor….. and think if such a scene is any longer possible.

John Steppling
Yucca Valley

THE GRIND WHEEL: Animal Kingdom and The American

Animal Kingdom is a low budget Australian film from David Michod.  The American is the second feature from Anton Corbijin.  Both films skirt genre issues, but in the end Animal Kingdom simply transcends its crime setting, and becomes something much more than either a story of low rent criminals in Melbourne, or anything remotely like melodrama. The American, in the end, is defeated by George Clooney. But more on that in a minute.

Ben Mendalsohn in Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom may be the darkest film of the last twenty years, and that’s saying rather a lot. Halfway through I realized all sense of entertainment (whatever i think that may be) had been leeched out of the film, and I was just sitting contemplating the sheer emptiness and futility of the family before me. Nothing good, or even tolerable was going to come out of this — no amount of intervention or guidance counseling was going to help in the least. The Cody family was hurtling at excess speed toward the great abyss — and then they arrive there.

The basic story (and I wont use any spoilers) is that 17-year-old J. Cody’s  mother ODs, and he has to move in with his aunt….”Grandma Smurf” (the remarkable Jackie Weaver) and her ‘sons” — lifetime criminals all. The head of the “family” is Pope Cody — (a startling and deeply disturbing performance from Ben Mendelsohn) — a psychopath (Grandma at one point, gently urges him to “take his medication again”). The Pope is as frightening a figure as one can find in modern film. Guy Pierce is the vaguely honest cop, but still clueless in a way that is a credit to screenwriter Michod. Young J’s learning curve includes an understanding of the depravity of his own family as well as the utter corruption and expediency of the authority structure. The courtroom sequence….all one minute of it, is a masterpiece of what can be left out of narrative.

This is not a particularly artful film, in terms of mise en scene — and the cinematography is fine, but mostly it’s all about following the taut line of moral reasoning in the narrative. One almost doesn’t notice how good the screenplay actually is. Much like A Prophet, One Eyed Jacks, and The Searchers, one wonders at young J’s next move. Even his next day, as the credits roll.  In one sense it’s a bit like A Prophet, as it clears away superfluous surface bromides about right and wrong. And in each case there is a solid class basis for this paring away of the rationalizations of liberal society. There is no redemption and no hope. There is also nothing like anyone attractive in this film. It’s the least glamorous crime scene one could imagine.

In that final sense, Animal Kingdom is a deeper film than Winter’s Bone, where survival is tinged, however slightly, with the redemptive.  Not in Animal Kingdom. It’s a brutal lesson.

The American is worth a note because of Corbijin’s first film, Control, a sort of bio pic of Joy Division’s self destructive lead singer Ian Curtis. I saw it at Camerimage, the festival in Lodz and remember it as the only good film of that year.  All the more disappointing then, to come to The American. Now, one imagines Corbijin needing Clooney to get this made. So I imagine anyway, because Corbijin was smart enough to make Control — and therefore not stupid enough to use Clooney in a part in which he is on screen EVERY SECOND of the film essentially… unless it was the only way to finance it. The story is a sub category of the gangster’s one final score story. It’s worth comparing it to the much superior The Last Run, with George C. Scott, and directed by Richard Fleischer.  Or Stephen Frears The Hit, or even Antonioni’s The Passenger. They all play with the existential aura of sinner, alone, and seeking a last score (or usually good act) — (and here it occurs to me High Sierra is another related narrative) but finding such score will require sacrifice, and either succumbing to its inevitability or rising above it in some metaphysical way…. or both.

In any event, Clooney is not a stupid actor, and he knows the kind of performance he should give and he makes the correct “acting” choices — but his basic narcissism is simply too large a burden. That coupled to a sense of his basic trivial character. Consequently the film seems disciplined, and amazingly shot (Martin Ruhe) but still never quite becomes the Antonioni (or Bresson) take on the gangster genre. I find it fascinating, however, to ponder the appeal of characters like this. Because I find them amazingly appealing. Maybe it’s just the cut off itself, the ex-pat freedom of an aging single male — undomesticated (and when they choose domestication they usually die) and moving as figures in an existential landscape (note: food is a big part of The American…that small wheel of Pecorino made me hungry for several days).  The Last Run is the most successful of these films largely because of Scott, an actor who spent his career carving out a sense of existential ennui. Scott also was not a narcissist. Hence Fleisher could move along a simple narrative and still provide the deeper shadings the format asks. Corbijin could not. As a final note, one also found it irritating that the casting of the local young hooker went to a veritable fashion model…because correct me if I’m wrong, the prostitutes of villages in the Abruzzi, rarely look like Victoria’s Secret applicants… and look, if one wants to, and I don’t particularly, one could keep going (local auto mechanic just happens to have the right junk around to build a silencer…. it becomes art house McGyver).  Ah well, Corbijin is Dutch — and I wonder about the Dutch anyway. There is always lurking an odd hidden sort of sentimentality. But maybe that’s just me.

–John Steppling

Thoughts on Genre, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is not a film that anyone would ever call great, but  in these dire filmic times it’s a real achievement. It is a three-character piece with genuine claustrophobic intensity. Interestingly, it was not first a play, for it certainly feels like one. This is perhaps its greatest failing. For a film, the point at which the audience knows that no more characters will appear in the film is usually where diminishing returns set in. This is only partly true for ‘Creed. Still, that quality of existing in a closed universe finally does take a toll on the narrative. The last forty minutes begins to feel tedious, and the surprises not at all surprising.

This particular sub-phylum of the hostage genre is also so familiar at this point (and what isn’t familiar at this point?) that it works against the parts of this film that have real resonance. The acting is of a very high quality, assuming one can accept the RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) tendencies of all involved. Two ex-cons kidnap the daughter of wealthy man in order to extort two million pounds ransom. That’s the basic plot. The “surprises” remind one a bit too much of the Chris Nolan school of cleverness, but the characters have enough magnitude to more or less overcome this. The best parts of the film are the stretches without surprise or over-amped tension. The claustrophobia is the actual center of the film, and the small locked apartment where the hostage is kept has the existential ambiance of a Beckett play.

In any event, it’s not a film that is going to last over the years, and I doubt in ten years it will seem quite as good as it seems now. Gemma Arterton is certainly luminous in her slatternly way, and along with Eddie Marsden and Martin Compston, they all occupy the space given them with a kind of weird psychosexual pathology that makes the entire affair pretty fun to sit through.

But why is it that the film never manages to rise above its premise?

Since we have had a good deal of discussion about directors vis a vis Sarris’ American Cinema, it’s worth thinking about how this debut film of J. Blakeson fails, finally, to deliver the mise-en-scene that more rigorous directors of genre manage to do. The Val Lewton oeuvre, or even stylists like Sam Fuller or Otto Preminger, all think more deeply about the inherent poetics of film than does Mr. Blakeson. Not to say the film is badly made, quite the contrary. It’s just that it seems to find itself sinking to a level more in keeping with the failed promises of a John Huston or, indeed Chris Nolan. There is something lacking in the way the camera never finds a personal style, never expresses something beyond what the text suggests is appropriate for the scene. There is the sense that cleverness in plot devices must be given preference, and therefore the cumulative sense of poetics is stillborn. The claustrophobic room, for all its creepiness and existential anxiety, is somehow always a bit too pat, always just set dressing. This is a bit paradoxical, and I admit I cannot put my finger on the problem with any precision, because, as I’ve said, the atmosphere of the locked apartment is viscerally oppressive.

I recently watched Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton’s film from 1964, with a script by Harold Pinter. I’d not seen it in quite a while and what struck me the most was how bad, actually, Anne Bancroft was. This was a performance of fake humility. Bancroft was always a poor man’s Patricia Neal anyway. But it is Clayton for whom we can place blame for the film’s ultimate failure. James Mason and Peter Finch are magnificent, but Clayton seems too attached to this being a vehicle for Bancroft and even with a sublime script by Pinter, one cannot but help feel how many chances are missed to deliver a film that transcends its foundational status as melodrama. In ‘Creed, the same problem exists, but in another form. Blakeson cannot find the film language to step beyond the tired genre format. It is, in the end, the reason a Hawks or a Fassbinder or even an Aldrich, manage to express something that cannot be found outside cinema. In films like Crash…. the indifference of the camera placement makes for just pure ugliness, while even the most minor of Lewton’s films is always composed with a serene intelligence. The films of lesser stylists like Minnelli or Walsh are still imbued with a distinct sense of cinema. They cannot have been anything but film. Journeymen directors like John Sturgis, at his best in Bad Day At Black Rock, manage, even despite some self-conscious framing and angles, something far deeper than one gets in ‘Creed. And stepping up to the level of a Losey (compare his work with Pinter scripts!) or a major director such as Antonioni, the sense of purpose in each shot is tangible and so acute at times (in the case of Antonioni) that story is secondary to the revelations of each composition.

The Hill, 1965

It is no doubt overstating the obvious here that Blakeson is not of that caliber. He will, however, I’m sure, have a very successful career, and in short order. The very lack he demonstrates in ‘Creed is a lack that protects the film from ever really penetrating to the level of a disturbance of the soul that would be career ending in today’s studio climate. What I end up taking away from the experience of ‘Creed, is the sense of slight depression that comes from investing more in the watching than I receive from the film work itself. It borders on kitsch for that reason. It also reminds us why great directors, and great actors, are so singular. Even if Kazan or Lumet are not major film visionaries, their sensitivity for their actors provided enough (often anyway) to raise some of their work to the status of classic. The classic being a film that will continue to yield new meaning and evolve as the society itself evolves. In The Hill, my favorite Lumet film, the ensemble acting is of such a high level that the film becomes a mythic meditation on authority and a genuine anti-war film. Today there seems a readiness to embrace the surface style (think of the wildly overrated Hunger by Steve McQueen last year) that one can be assured Blakeson will emerge as the new Nolan or the new Boyle.

Even Huston was sharp enough to know what to do with a Bogart (usually) or a Sterling Hayden. When Huston failed (think Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, or Man Who Would Be King) it was a failure of hubris and of intelligence. Huston was never going to do Lowry right, nor O’Connor. He did best with genre material that edged just outside its formula (Fat City). The final problem with ‘Creed is that it doesn’t want to step outside that formula. It almost does, and the actors certainly strain to give something deeper, but the camera isn’t there to allow it. That said, in an era of actors like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and directors like Chris Nolan or Danny Boyle, or worse, the endless stream of Bruckheimer junk or Marvel comix flotsam, a work like ‘Creed is something close to truly satisfying.

John Steppling