Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sidney Lumet RIP

A moment of silence for a film legend....

... Okay had it, let's move on.

How do you define a 'film legend'?  Well, I usually look at the work ethic and the work produced.  In 50 years the man made... I don't know how many films, maybe 40, maybe more or less, but Woody Allen numbers really.  And he was always working, even if the films weren't that great (and to be fair he had a few true stinkers, one of which was one of my first exposures to him, the unnecessary remake of Cassavetes' Gloria starring Sharon Stone in 1999).  And how good was his work ethic?  Well, he wrote a book- nay one of THE essential movie books, in history:

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.  What about his accomplishments, what was it that he 'did' that would make me so riled up to rush to blog about it on a Saturday morning (now afternoon)?

Okay, here's a short-list of the *real* familiar ones: 12 Angry MenDog Day AfternoonNetworkMurder on the Orient Express (which, actually, I haven't seen yet...).  Motherfucking Serpico!.  The Pawnbroker (my personal favorite, despite how depressing it is).  The Verdict.  And his last film, the after-the-fact-ironically titled Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.  Classics.  Hard to dispute.

And he made other notable movies you might have heard of:  an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (just review on the Cinetarium back in... I think it was February).  Fail-SafeFind me Guilty (yes, the Vin Diesel can actually act movie).  The Wiz (yes, the goddamn Wiz, haha).  Equus, an underrated adaptation of the play with Richard Burton.  The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani(!)  Prince of the City, and Running on Empty, which gave River Phoenix his one Oscar nomination. 

And some you probably didn't hear of, and I've some of: The Anderson TapesThe OffenceThe Hill (or any really underrated acting jobs by Sean Connery).  Power.  Q&A (good lord).  Daniel (which... has anyone seen it?)  Family Business.  Chekhov's The Seagull The Morning After (reviewed, though certainly not loved, during the Netflix-a-Thon back in January).  And many more, like Night Falls on Manhattan.  I could go on, but shit, maybe I have gone on too long.  Here's his filmography for more.

"Hi Al, what was it like before you became a parody of yourself?"  ;)

What made his work so good?  Was it just the professionalism?  Sure, it was that, and that book up above is strong example of how dedicated he was to film craft and artistry.  And he didn't take quite every project offered to him, but he took enough that he had the variety in his work that he couldn't be totally pegged.  That's something that I responded to very much, though of course certain things - courtroom dramas especially - were a specialty he had after that first film, which was actually a behind-closed-doors chamber piece with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb at each others throats.

He had real versatility, and tried a lot of things, especially in the 70's: he went from a police morality play (Serpico) to a whodunit on a train set in old-time garb and Hollywood stars and character actors (Express) to maybe the quintessential bank robbery-hostage-WTF movie (Dog-Day), to a film that is so prevalent in current discourse that it seems tame by comparison (Network), to a really weird and surreal but affecting horse-obsessive drama (Equus) to... Diana Ross and Michael Jackson prancing around a huge set singing Ease-on down the Road (The Wiz).

Perhaps that too was a little of his problem, that he wasn't exactly consistent in the way other great directors are.  He has some films some people just haven't seen, and won't see unless they seek them out, and some like The Seagull that are lost in time except for the very rare retrospective screening in a major city's art-house.  But his films carry such great moments, certainly for its actors.  People like Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Sean Connery, and even Albert Finney had some of their brightest spots in their whole careers working under him, sometimes for only one film or more.  He had that work ethic also carried over from working in theater (also, I must to mention, being an actor in the Actor's Studio, as a child and then a little later too) AND live TV, the early days of the format, where he learned his craft of working with the camera and with actors little by little so that by the time he got to 12 Angry Men he was ready, and could have a career like that.

Sean Connery, *acting*!

But what also impresses me so much and pulls be back to his films is the obvious passion I can sense in what he's doing, how much he embraces melodrama head on (just look at his last film, maybe I'll find a link and post it at the bottom here, to show that) while also rejecting the usual sentimentality of films... usually (look away, Gloria, nothing to see here).  So many of the best moments of his films have that struggle of the human experience, to be good or be sane or figure shit out of how to live, that makes things so wonderful. 

Or when things are so bleak like with The Pawnbroker, a film that has a special place for me for first being introduced to me directly by my mother and then later, when it played at a retrospective of his career a few years back, was the film that before it started (ah, the Film Forum, tearing up a little as I write this) I proposed to my future wife for marriage.  I mean, hey, let's not get too excited about our lives together, I thought, there's worse things out there... like THE HOLOCAUST! He-he.

Seriously though, if you want to understand how great his work could be as a director challenging himself with shooting and editing, watch that film.  You see so much of his soul pour out in a story that is full of anguish and self-discovery (or rather self-WTF-ness of Rod Steiger's character, who also gives arguably his best performance in that film).  And sure, it's rough.  But in an odd way not as rough as the residue left from Network, which he and Paddy Chayefsky made into perhaps THE American comment of the 20th and into the 21st century.  I mean, Peter Finch in that film, and even moreso William Holden in a subtler way, they do such work that hits a nerve and doesn't quit.  And his choice to get brighter, just little by little, from a dark 70's look at the start to something "cheery" and "TV'-like by near the end of film was extraordinary.  Put that on a double-bill, by all means, and... don't be near any sharp objects by the time it ends.  Lol.

I'm sure that for years I'll still be discovering films he made, and rediscovering what I loved about the other ones.  Things like the opening of Dog Day Afternoon with its montage Elton John-scored opening of a hot a listless day in Brooklyn that turns into a tense pot-boiler with real heart and human beings later on.  Or that one sequence, for those two or three who've seen it, in his underrated The Hill with Sean Connery where soldiers in a prison have to go back and forth up a very steep hill over and over again, and done in a mostly unbroken shot(!) 

He's the kind of director that could have a frenetic pacing, or just leave a shot going for a while and see how the actor moves or reacts in it, like Paul Newman's monologue to the jury in The Verdict (he does so much and yet stays in the same spot) or how Philip Seymour Hoffman moves around in his drug dealer's apartment in 'Devil'.  Even some of the shit in his flawed work like The Morning After provides unexpected wonders from Jane Fonda.

One of the first directors to get a really great performance AND nudity out of Marisa Tomei. 

And, again, that book that I mentioned.  If you go into the film business, or just have a general interest in it, at least peruse the book if not devour it to the point of making the pages go all crease-like.  It details how a film should go from start to finish, it's making, the writing of it, and so on.  Admittedly the focus is on one of his (from what I've read) lesser efforts, A Stranger Among Us, but he writes about so much of what his career was like up until that point in the early 90's when he'd already accomplished so much.

Or, if you're too antsy for that, seek out some of his interviews from the 'Devil' tour, where he talks very lucidly about what HD can provide that film can't, a transition that he came to at the very end of his life like Bergman with Saraband.  The guy knew his shit as a director, how to try different things with the camera that might work great, or might not work, but at least they were attempted, and he found some wonderful stories along the way.

As I still ponder today things in his career that were so wonderful, moments and full films that made his work resonate so much and how he tries different dramas, comedies, even action and suspense and a 'soul' remake of the Wizard of Oz musical and remake of a John Cassavetes movie, I'll try and check out some films of his I've yet to see, like Fail Safe or Prince of the City or (yeah, sorry to admit) Murder on the Orient Express.  Being a film fan is one of the great adventures of my life, and Sidney Lumet is one of those people who made the second half of the twentieth century so interesting and entertaining.


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