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August 09, 2005

DVD Journal: "Abandon"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I wonder if a new category of film is emerging: the film that isn't all that fabulous in its own right, but whose DVD package makes for a rewarding experience. So far, I've run across three examples.

I blogged some time ago about "Scarlet Diva," a low-budget, DV, autobiographical fantasia by the cult actress Asia Argento. I liked the film-by-itself well enough. It's nothing if not outrageous, campy, vain, sexy, and far-out. But the film viewed conventionally and then viewed with Argento's commentary track over it is far, far more satisfying. In fact, Argento's commentary so enhances the experience that it delivers what the film promises: the full dose of narcissism; the canniness of borderline insanity; the shameless exhibitionism; the completely amoral and self-centered determination to be found fascinating � Gadzooks. "Scarlet Diva" with the commentary track on is like a compilation of best-of moments from Warhol's Factory films.

Michael Radford's strip-club drama "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" is another such DVD package -- one that's far more interesting than the film viewed on its own is. (I reviewed "Iguana," along with some other movies, here.)

The film itself is passably enjoyable, at least for those with a fondness for acting-workshop-style marathons. It's also intriguing as a filmmaking experiment. The film was made semi-improvisationally, in Mike Leigh fashion. Radford brought his performers together for three months; he had his actresses do research and take part in epic acting exercises. They worked characters and situations up from what emerged from their improvs; Radford and his cinematographer recorded much of these explorations on video. Radford then let the team scatter, disappeared back to England, edited the video footage into a two-hour-long sketch, then gathered his team together again and -- using the edited videotape as a kind of script -- put the movie together on 35 mm film. A genuinely interesting way to generate a movie, as well as an inspired way to incorporate digital and video technology into a creative filmmaking process.

The movie has a lot of atmosphere and a lot of immensely-committed acting. It's like a Cassavetes film, only with a mostly-girls cast and a lot of nudity: Sandra Oh, Daryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly, Sheila Kelley and Charlotte Ayanna all give it up for their art. Too bad that the film is also almost storyfree, and is often grueling and tedious. Confrontations go on forever; performers spend agonizingly long periods of time searching for words, motivations, and feelings � As a creative process, working on the film must have been very satisfying. But the film is more a record of that process than it is a snappy story picture in its own right. Cassavetes fans -- as well as people who have spent a lot of time in acting classes -- should have a field day, but those who don't share these tastes will probably suffer.

(Before anyone is tempted to Go Political on the rest of us, let it be known that no one was forced at gunpoint to appear in this film; that in fact many bigname actresses were dying to win roles in the film; that Daryl Hannah still speaks of the film as the most artistically satisfying and emotionally wrenching film she has ever made; and that, since the film, Sheila Kelley has opened a cardio-striptease exercise parlor in L.A. "I accidentally discovered my sexual power and a fit body while researching and preparing for a role in the film 'Dancing at the Blue Iguana'," she writes on her homepage. "My life was changed forever. And now I want to share this extraordinary journey with other women." Actresses, gotta love 'em.)

What makes the DVD of "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" worth exploring is the whole package of it: the film-plus-its-extras. Daryl Hannah made a documentary about the making of the film; it's semi-interesting. But the two commentary tracks are mindblowingly entertaining, if in mostly-inadvertent (but it doesn't matter) ways.

On one, Radford talks about his film. He's intelligent, serious, appreciative of his actresses and crew -- and completely straightfaced. How does he do it?

Let me back up for a sec. It's hard as a redblooded straight guy to watch "Dancing at the Blue Iguana" and not spend a lot of time thinking, "This director got to spend three months working intensely with a bunch of talented actress-babes on a film about strippers? What's he got that I don't got?"

Part of the answer may be that Radford has a seductive line of baloney about creativity, tragedy, emotional nakedness, "the process," "the work," "truth," touching something genuine, going really far with "the moment," etc.-- and that he delivers it beautifully. The mid-American kid in me listens to Radford's line giggling madly: How can he keep a straight face? But another part of me buys Radford's line completely. Really, truly: sex, art, meaning, poetry, religion, nudity, creativity -- well, they do all go together, no? Why else do we love the arts? And performers embody all this more nakedly and daringly than do any other artists, no? Now, if I can just learn how to talk about all this with a straight face, maybe I'll get to spend months hanging out with gifted, semi-nude actresses too. In any case, boys: Listen and learn.

Fun to hear about the way Jennifer Tilly took her strip act. Tilly -- admired not just for her Betty Boop voice but for her cartoonishly vavavoom figure -- has by and large avoided nudity in her career. Radford had to coax her into doing her striptease number for "Blue Iguana" -- but, once it was over, Tilly announced that it represented the best acting work she'd ever done. Radford relates that, when he showed Tilly the edited film, his reluctant-to-do-nudity actress asked him peevishly why he'd used so little of her strip number.

Actresses, gotta love 'em. On the film's other commentary track, a few of the film's other actresses chatter away. Sheila Kelley, we learn, wrote a script years ago that was the project's taking-off point; you can sense some annoyance in her voice about the fact that her outline wasn't followed more closely. (She seethes when the film opens on images of the beautiful young Charlotte Ayanna.) Sandra Oh mollifies and humors Kelley, then talks about how hard it was for her to do her own nude scenes. Needless to say, Oh doesn't express any displeasure about how great she looks in them. The film plus its two commentary tracks is an irresistable giggle about how sexed-up, ridiculous, and pretentious theatrical artists can be -- but it's also a moving and beautiful document about exactly the same thing.

My third nominee for this category is a little psychological thriller The Wife and I watched last night entitled "Abandon." I don't believe it was ever released theatrically; I bought a used copy of the DVD for $6.95. As a film, "Abandon" is a nonthrilling thriller that has some non-trivial virtues. The film is set at an Ivy-ish college that we're meant to take as "Harvard or Yale," and its subject is the disappearance of a boy-wonder student. It centers on a cop (played by Benjamin Bratt) investigating the boy's disappearance, and on the boy's former girlfriend, a brainiac student played by Katie Holmes.

The film's portrait of the overachieving Ivy type is spectacularly good. It's like a dark-toned look at Tracy Flick, the Reese Witherspoon character who was portrayed satirically in "Election." As the film's thriller elements pile up, this academic goldengirl starts to unravel, and we get to witness her many sides.

Katie Holmes gives a -- believe it or not -- ultra-fab performance. Holmes is an astounding little actress, with an amazing ability to reincarnate as different people while never losing the thread that runs through them all. She's an insipid cutiepie; she's a banshee who has been crossed; she's a snippily self-confident young winner; she's a child whose dreams have been crushed. She's self-important; she's neurotic; she's bossily dynamic; she's stressed-out; she doesn't know who she is � You root for her, then you hate her. You're touched by her, then you want to slap her around. It's a sensational portrayal of the kind of outta-my-way, vain girl who's always in a hurry to get to where she feels she deserves -- and needs -- to be.

Also terrific is the film's evocation of the high-powered, Tomorrow's-Winners-Today, Ivy atmosphere -- all gloom, tension, desperation, vanity, grandiosity, and emotional precariousness.

But the film has two major problems. One is that its thriller elements aren't done with conviction or flair. The Wife and I were content to sit through the film, but it was the film's psychological and sociological sides that kept us alert. The second major problem is that the film simply isn't well-directed, or, in fact, much directed at all. "Abandon" is a classic example of a film made by a screenwriter: It's a script that has been put on film, not a film that has been directed. Real directors have real directing ideas, and when the elements fall in place, films that are made by real directors have a feeling of flow and elation that sweeps you along. Watching such film is a genuine art high -- in fact, this is the high that filmbuffs get addicted to: that special something that takes over when a film is really cookin'.

"Abandon" -- though it has real script, cast, design, and cinematography virtues -- has none of this high. Zippo. Steve Gaghan, the screenwriter whose first film as a director this was, went into the project with no directing experience whatsoever. He had never been to film school, he had never made short movies or videos, and he had never put together theater productions. But he had won the Oscar for his screenplay for "Traffic," and he thereby earned a chance to direct his first film. He went into the project, in other words, knowing a lot about movies, but with zero experience of the job of a director.

What makes the "Abandon" DVD package really remarkable -- and one that I suspect many people interested in movies will enjoy -- are a few of the package's extras. In a short making-of documentary and on his commentary track, Steve Gaghan discusses his movie as a dud. He makes this quite clear: He wants to discuss his film "from the point of view of what doesn't quite work."

I've never seen or heard anything like it: a filmmaker talking frankly about his shortcomings and inadequacies as his film rolls by. Gaghan is generous in his appreciation for his actors and collaborators, and he's boyishly likable and smart about his own goofs and mistakes.

He doesn't distance himself from his film, or carry on campily. He clearly loved the project and did his best to make a serious and entertaining picture. How serious? Well, during preparation, he and his cinematographer, the very talented Matthew Libatique, discussed Bertolucci, Wong Kar-Wai, and Francis Bacon. (Libatique plays second banana on Gaghan's commentary track, volunteering info about his strategies with color and light, and poking a few friendly needles at Gaghan.) Gaghan did what he could, he just didn�t know what he was doing. Some of his remarks:

* "Now that is a bad idea."

* "I give myself a B-minus for directing that scene."

* "That was two weeks of time-waste."

There's nothing grandstanding about Gaghan's attitude. He isn't being show-offily self-lacerating. Instead, he's being helpful and rueful. As his movie ends, he sums it up this way: "Live and learn."

Part of what makes Gaghan's commentary track rewarding is that his criticisms of his own performance as a director seem right on the money. He sees his film and his work on it very clearly. (Film students often find that they learn a lot more from figuring out why film misfires don't work than they do from examining great films that do work.) For instance, Gaghan decided to let the investigator figure be mostly reactive. "And the fact is that the investigator figure in these films needs to drive the action," says Gaghan, a little sorrowfully. Benjamin Bratt's snoozy passivity in the film wasn't a goof in the sense of being an oversight, in other words. It was a genuine choice. But it was a genuine choice that didn't work.

Another problem with the film, Gaghan confesses, is his own attitude towards genre stories. Gaghan is one of those guys who resents the requirements of genre; he doesn't love the idea of selling the genre goods. Instead, he's turned-on by ideas about rawness, art, and truth. So be it: that's who he is. Yet here he was making a thriller -- with every cell in him wanting to avoid nailing the expected story points. "You'll notice an absence of the usual turns a thriller usually takes," he says at one point. "I wanted to see if you could -- if every time you expected a thrill you went to a character moment instead. I wanted to see if you could build a film that way. I'm not sure you can, truthfully."

Early on, Gaghan announces proudly that he worked super-hard on his screenplay right up until the day filming began. Later he confesses that this was yet another dumb mistake. He should have set the script aside far earlier, and given himself many weeks before shooting to turn to what needed attending-to as a director. The consequence of this mistake in procedure was that Gaghan often showed up on his set without a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish as a director. "I showed up that day, but I didn't show up," he moans about one especially static scene. Interesting to hear Gaghan report that the experience of making "Abandon" has made him think -- as a writer -- more visually, dynamically, and texturally than he once did.

Which reminds me that "Abandon" belongs in another DVD category too: the DVD that helps you learn what filmmaking is all about. I blogged here about Jonathan Kaplan's "Unlawful Entry," a fabulous little domestic thriller with a wonderful commentary track. On it, Kaplan doesn't deliver carry-away lessons in filmmaking so much as take you into the way a filmmaker thinks. What real directors are concerned with are such matters as rhythm, identification and sympathy, shocks, tension, tonal shifts, lighting and cutting strategies, how and when to parcel out narrative information and character dimensions ... It's a mind-opening pleasure to accompany Kaplan's filmmaker-mind as he discusses his film.

It's just mind-opening to listen to Gaghan. There's one big difference. Kaplan is an experienced and skillful director discussing a film that he put together like a chess pro. Gaghan discusses the filmmaking process as someone who threw himself into the deep end, flailed, and barely made it to the pool's side. It's a distinctive and enlightening p-o-v on what filmmaking is: reflections about filmmaking from a guy who has had some experience, yet who knows that he has so far only half-figured it out for himself. Listening to Gaghan is like sitting down with an old high school buddy; discovering that he has had the chance to make a movie; asking him what it was like; and having him not be a full-of-himself Hollywood player-type, but be your old bud instead, and be honest and amusing about what the experience was like for him.

Incidentally, the Wife found Gaghan's commentary track as intriguing as I did.

Has anyone else been through DVDs whose commentary-track-plus-film was far better than the film viewed all on its own was? Come to think of it, I wonder what the DVD of Vincent Gallo's "Brown Bunny" will be like. What will Gallo come up with to say during the film's notorious blowjob scene? We'll be able to find out on August 16th. I reviewed the film's blowjob scene here.

I see on IMDB that Steve Gaghan has swung himself another directing gig. I'll be curious to check the results out -- though I'm probably going to wait to see the film on DVD.



posted by Michael at August 9, 2005


Do you think Gaghan has any future as a director, or will he be one of those writers who ultimately runs away from directing, horrified?

Question: you write that directors worry about a number of factors, including: and when to parcel out narrative information and character dimensions...

Isn't that sort of attributing to the director the function of the screenwriter? I mean, isn't that parceling largely a function of the script? Or am I missing the point somehow?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 9, 2005 11:36 AM

The commentary on "Primer" by Shane Carruth, the writer, director, scorer, and the star, would qualify as what you're looking for. He talks about his struggles to finance it, how he did the one special effect in the film, how he messed up the sound at the beginning but also became a color-correction guru. I turned it on after I watched the film, intending to listen to maybe 10 minutes before going to bed and ended up staying up too late for a work night to finish it.

These don't count towards what you're looking for, because the movies themselves were great, but Ron Howard's commentary on "Apollo 13" is like a mini film school, and John Carpenter and Kurt Russell's commentary on "The Thing" is a hoot, particularly the part where they handed Kurt a real stick of dynamite and had him throw it. He was so stunned by the blast (you can see him bounce off the building behind him) they had to stop filming for the day.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 9, 2005 11:46 AM

At the risk of exposing my philistinism, I actually enjoyed viewing Tokyo Story with Desser's commentary and Grand Illusion with Cowie's commentary more than the straight runs through those films. I suppose I kind of bliss out in a meta-filmic way, with the experience weirdly enhanced by the ghostly filtering of things through a consciousness higher up the aesthetic ladder than my own.

Sometimes it doesn't work out like this: Ikiru is something to savor without intrusion; every naked moment of it is a raw and welcome blending into the limited condition of my soul.

Posted by: Tim B. on August 9, 2005 12:31 PM

In the theater i was moderately impressed with the big screen "Series of Unfortunate Events" but felt it was lacking, somehow. The DVD not only allowed me to watch the fantastic end credits sequence over and over again, but also went much further than Lemony Snicket has gone yet in crystallizing Count Olaf's monumental egotism; the deleted scenes were mostly of his theater troupe doing pointless dramatic exercises and the complete "Marvelous Marriage" play, and Jim Carrey et al. gave the troupe real depth of feeling. (that the feeling was pompous self-delusion is a comedic bonus.) So the DVD package as adding layers of meaning -- yes, i can get behind that.

Posted by: MDS Chill on August 9, 2005 12:50 PM

fwiw, jennifer tilly won a bracelet in the world series of poker :D


Posted by: georgio on August 9, 2005 5:02 PM

"Abandon" was released theatrically, but in like January or February, if I remember correctly. It came and went pretty fast.

Posted by: Bryan on August 9, 2005 7:26 PM

I've heard, that the audio commentary to "Dude, Where's My Car" uplifts a mediocre movie to a fabulous one: you listen to the actors and director getting drunker and drunker making cracks at the film.

Posted by: azad on August 9, 2005 9:09 PM

It sounds like Gaghan is a lot better at getting women to take off their clothes than he is at directing movies. Which means, in the hierarchy-of-needs of most men, he's got his priorities straight. He should stop pretending he really cares about being a good director, though. That incompetence thing gets un-sexy after awhile.

Posted by: annette on August 10, 2005 11:44 AM

FvB -- Gaghan's youngish, smart and enthusiastic, and he's gone on to make a second movie, so maybe he'll stick with it for a while. God only knows why. The more I learn about contempo studio filmmaking, the less appealing it seems. As for the directing/screenwriting division, as far as I can tell, directors who aren't purely hired guns almost always get involved in working and re-working the scripts they shoot. The cases where a script is simply written, bought, and then produced as written are few and far-between.

What makes the jaw drop listening to Gaghan's commentary track on "Abandon" is that the company releasing the film allowed it at all. Most commentary tracks that I've sampled have been jokey, or gossipy, or glitzy -- they've been part of the process of selling the film. Gaghan's commentary seems completely frank.

Thanks to all for suggestions! I'm eager to check 'em out.

Hey, then there's the opposite: commentary tracks which really stink, or which even make you think less of the film they're meant to enhance. I wonder what some nominees here might be ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 10, 2005 1:01 PM

The Onion has a feature called "Commentary Tracks of the Damned" which summarizes the more laughably egotistical, ploddingly dull, or just plain stupid examples of the genre. The archive is here:

Posted by: Bryan on August 10, 2005 2:40 PM

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