Serious-minded pics steer clear of gloss and contrivance
Way up on the Manhattan Bridge, during a scene for “Blue Valentine” that was shooting last year, Ryan Gosling’s character was trying to get Michelle Williams’ character to tell him a secret. She wouldn’t tell. He got upset. She remained adamant. He threatened to jump. She refused to give in. So Gosling climbed over the side of the bridge, putting nothing between himself and the East River except 140 feet of open space.
It was unscripted. And slightly unhinged.
“My producer ran on set and shut us down,” said helmer Derek Cianfrance. “But we had that moment.”
It was not the kind of spontaneous (and uninsured) moment one finds in most studio films, but neither is the content of “Blue Valentine,” a seesawing narrative about love-so-right and love-gone-bad. By taking such an unblinking look at modern life and cracked romance, the film shares a certain artistic kinship with a number of movies that have captured the attention of Cianfrance’s peers and other influential tastemakers.
Among them: Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give,” Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Biutiful” and “Conviction,” directed by Tony Goldwyn from a script by Pam Grey.
“Real movies about real people,” says David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole” — about a couple who’ve lost a child — for director John Cameron Mitchell and his star-producer, Nicole Kidman.
Every year, along with the melancholy of autumn, comes Serious Season — when pictures poised for awards pop up like mushrooms, because of that well-founded assumption that voters reward both the earnest and the high-brow. Instead of, say, “The Expendables.”
For some directors, lumping films together just because they’re not, say, in 3D is imprecise.
“Are my films naturalistic?” asks Leigh hypothetically. “I would have said not. I’d say they were realist, and that naturalism is exactly what they’re not. Naturalism just records the surface texture of the real, but I hope my films get to the essence of things in a way that realism should.”
Leighs says “Another Year” — about a stable London couple (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen) and their unstable acquaintances (including a lonely divorcee played by buzzed-about actress Lesley Manville) — is similar to something like “Winter’s Bone” only “in one very narrow sense, in that we’re dealing with real people in the real world. I think it’s a very good film. But it is eons away from what I do, which is heightened, comic, tragic, verbal, with very high-to-low contrasts — much more symphonic, with different kinds of movements and different rhythms.”
Leigh’s brand of realism always emerges out of lengthy workshops with his actors, a process that continues through the shooting itself. Through this, the director and his cast develop their story, characters and subtexts — one of which, in “Another Year,” is fear, both of literal and extistential loneliness. It’s this germ of fear, more than anything else, that links “Another Year” to its 2010 contemporaries.
“When I was a student at Julliard,” recalls Lindsay-Abaire, “Marsha Norman, one of my teachers, said, ‘If you want to write a really great play, think of the thing that frightens you most in the world and write about it.’ I was in my early 20s, and I honestly didn’t know what that was. But a few years later, I became a dad, and heard stories about friends of friends whose children had died. I thought to myself, ‘Now I think I know what Marsha was talking about.’?”
Cianfrance says it’s the responsibility of filmmakers to go into the places they’re scared of (Gosling, he notes, is afraid of heights). “It’s important for artists to confront their fears and the things that are dark to them,” he says. “I felt I had to delve into this subject matter and try to do it as honestly as I possibly could. The kind of love tragedy I see portrayed all the time is the ‘Romeo & Juliet’ thing, where they die in each other’s arms. And yet I’ve never met anyone in my real life who’s actually done that.”
The difference between contrived and realistic may be rooted in a director’s personal investment in the story he/she is telling. Mitchell says he lost a brother the same age as the child who dies pre-“Rabbit Hole’s” dramatic action; Cianfrance admits to having had two childhood fears: nuclear war and his parents’ divorcing (which they did).
Granik, whose “Down to the Bone” debut featured Vera Farmiga as a junkie — and whose “Winter’s Bone” concerns crystal-meth abuse in the Ozarks — says that many journalists, writers and filmmakers purposely “go looking for the subject that scares them the most. For me, it’s addiction, a subject with no simple, or single answer. Maybe that’s why it’s so fertile.”
Certain subjects are always fertile — love, loss, need, desire — but times change, as do definitions.
“It’s funny how dramas are now considered art films,” says Mitchell, who adds that his often somber “Rabbit Hole” is really audience-friendly “in that Hollywood way of a few decades ago. You used to have a lot of films like this — big Hollywood films, at least in terms of box office: ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ the films of Robert Benton and Norman Jewison, those masters of the personal and the family.”
If somber translates to “artistic” for many, a more cynical view often emerges from all the grimness, especially when the so-called awards season kicks into high gear as the days grow shorter and a certain climactic chill sets in.
“I think that the last 10 weeks of any year bring a variety of serious, if not outright glum, pictures,” says Stephen Whitty, critic for Newhouse Newspapers. “But I wouldn’t say they were unconcerned with commercial considerations — in many cases, I think the people behind them still have their eyes on the gold, or at least on golden statues.”
Maybe some more than others: “As a point of comparison,” says Melissa Anderson, of the Village Voice/LA Weekly, “you can take something like ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Conviction,’ which is so obviously a bid for awards-season honors, this very cynical formula based on a true story: Hilary Swank, again, in working-class, regionally accented drag.”
It’s an amazing saga, Anderson concedes — about Betty Ann Waters, who put herself though law school to get her brother out of prison — but the New York Film Critics Circle member objects to, in her view, a certain calculation that’s “so overly processed that there’s no emotional resonance.”
“I’m not a huge fan of ‘Winter’s Bone,’?” she adds, “but Debra Granik and her actress Jennifer Lawrence are doing much more exciting things.”
(To be fair, “Conviction” touts plenty of supporters, with the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, for one, expressing the direct opposite view of Anderson, calling the film “an inspirational true story worried less about turning dramatic screws than earning its feeling through character.”)
“A film like ‘Winter’s Bone,’ its strength — and it sounds negative and I don’t mean it as such — is its monotony,” says Leigh. “It’s not tragic-comedy; it doesn’t have its roots, as my films do, in vaudeville and circus and theater and strip cartoons.”
These kinds of inspirations might apply more to Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” than anything resembling “Another Year,” and most of Leigh’s oeuvre for that matter. The last time audiences were exposed to this level of naturalism, according to Movieline’s Stephanie Zacharek, was during the ’70s, another era of deep recession.
“There were lots of sort-of gritty or at least realistic-seeming stories and characters,” she says, “and it often seemed that most movies didn’t have happy endings. But there was also a sens
e that even movies that didn’t end happily still had the ‘right’ ending.”
Take ‘Rocky,’ she said — “not exactly naturalistic, I guess, and certainly designed to be a crowd-pleaser. But even if the ending of that movie isn’t exactly tidy and triumphant, audiences loved it because it seemed ‘right.’?”
What “Winter’s Bone,” “Another Year,” “Rabbit Hole” and “Blue Valentine” share is a kind of ghettoization in the great scheme of things — this from a community that tends to categorize films into neat, clean genres and types, where sex is risque and violence is acceptable for mass consumption. (“Blue Valentine” is currently embroiled in a dispute over its NC-17 rating, which — coming from a body that gave “The Killer Inside Me” an R, just for example — seems inexplicable.)
Then there’s the spiritual payoff of making movies for reasons other than cash and statues.
“There s no financial gain for any of us — and I don’t know if there ever will be, because it’s such a delicate film,” Mitchell said of “Rabbit Hole.” “But it’s an emotional annuity for everyone involved.”