Thoughts on “Listen to Me Marlon”

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime, 2015.

“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime Films, 2015.

Last month I broke my own rule – only comment on storytelling that moves me in some positive way –  to write about what I see as a dangerous trend in documentary filmmaking: when unprecedented access to a subject veers into exploitation.  Just because filmmakers have “never before seen” footage, it doesn’t mean that they need to use all of it.  Exercising a little restraint is not only respectful of the subject matter, it makes for better storytelling.

In the case of “Montage of Heck” and “Amy,” documentaries about the downward spirals of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse respectively, I felt both films were irresponsible in their capitalization of tragedy.  With “Amy” in particular, the use of very disturbing self portraits left on Winehouse’s personal computer, crossed a line, in my opinion.  As I wrote earlier, I highly doubt that Winehouse would have wanted to share those private photos with anyone, much less the public at large. By including them, it was an invasion of her privacy, and it made me as an audience member complicit in that invasion.  I mention it now as a segue to another recent biographical film with unprecedented access that actually gets it right.

Listen to Me Marlon” is a biography of Marlon Brando, one of the most influential film actors of all time, as told uniquely in his own words.  Commissioned by Brando’s estate, director Stevan Riley had access to over 300 hours of audio tapes recorded by Brando himself over the course of his life.  Musings on his childhood, his conflicted feeling about acting and the business of Hollywood, his involvement in civil rights during the sixties, and later his desire to remove himself from the spotlight are woven together to create an intimate and layered portrait of the enigmatic man.  Though it’s not a perfect film, it is wildly creative with its use of animation, giving the effect of the actor speaking beyond the grave.  Brando recorded these audio tapes for the purpose of a future biography, so in a sense, this film, which was blessed by the family, is posthumously authorized.

“Listen to Me Marlon” is being shown now in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles and will air on Showtime after its theatrical run.

Thoughts on “Montage of Heck” and “Amy”

Kurt Cobain  (Kevin Mazur/WireImage).         Amy Winehouse  (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Kurt Cobain (WireImage/Kevin Mazur). Amy Winehouse (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).

Let me begin by saying that music docs are my favorite form of story telling when they explore the creative process, the complicated dynamics among talented people, and how life influences the music.  “Some Kind of Monster” is a remarkable look at the inner workings of Metallica as the aging band records a new album and struggles with the pressure to exceed the expectations of their fans.  “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicles the making of the band Wilco’s fourth album and the subsequent break up of two long-time collaborators.  In my favorite film of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” the audience rides along with the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour and is not only privy to intimate moments in the studio with the band but also bears witness to the exact moment the free-loving hippie sixties ended.

That said, I’m having a problem with the alarming trend of posthumous documentaries about troubled artists.  Last week I watched both “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” from director Brett Morgen and “Amy” from director Asif Kapadia (who also did the terrific “Senna” doc in 2010) about Amy Winehouse.  Watching these films back-to-back, the paths of the two subjects are undeniably similar.  Both Cobain and Winehouse were extremely talented young artists who wrote songs that were intensely personal.  Both defined success as being able to play music for a living, and both shunned the media machine that thrust them in the spotlight.  Both suffered troubled childhoods and addictive personalities, and as a result, neither had the tools to properly insulate themselves from the stress of celebrity.  They both slid into the depths of drug abuse as a way to escape the clutches of public eye.  Tragically, both died at the age of 27.

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Betty (January Jones), Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), Mad Men, AMC.

Betty (January Jones), Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks), Mad Men, AMC.

The cultural phenomenon Mad Men ends its seven season run tonight May 17 on AMC.
 
Last week the creator, Matthew Weiner, talked about the end of the series on the Nerdist podcast.   For him, at the crux of Mad Men is the idea that everyone wants the life that was promised in the ads – the idyllic expectation of life that is based on a cultural fiction that we’ve all agreed upon.  “In America in particular, the heroic myth is always a myth.”
 
Over the course of the series, one of the most blatant cultural fictions that the women of Mad Men have confronted is the American dream itself.  Hard work both at home and at the office very rarely pays off in the sexist era of the 1960s.  My favorite character by far is also the one I find most tragic: Joan, who bought into the ethos that betrayed her.  Modeling herself on the Marilyn Monroe archetype and attaining the top position in the secretary pool, Joan thought she had her own trajectory figured out, and for as long as the 50s lasted, she did.  

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Birdman (2014) Fox Searchlight Pictures

Birdman (2014) Fox Searchlight Pictures

In cinema, the Long Take is one long uninterrupted shot lasting several minutes and usually requiring careful and complicated choreography.  It’s a technique that is almost as old as film itself, yet over the years the technical aspects of the long take have evolved as directors and cinematographers rise to the challenge of pulling off even bigger and better “oners.”

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, which won an Oscar for best film this year, is a recent example of a long take – in fact the entire movie is intended to have the effect of one long tracking shot.  But this is nothing new.  Alfred Hitchcock employed same device with his 1948 film, Rope.  Hitchcock was limited by the technology of the time. Because reels of film were only 10 minutes long, the director was required to hide the cuts; many of the takes ended on a nondescript surface so the next roll of film could pick up right where the last one left off.

The use of the long take is often a spectacular display of technical acumen, but it also risks breaking the film’s spell with a flashy moment for the filmmaker to shout “look at me!” when it doesn’t serve the story.  It is most successfully executed when we don’t realize that it’s happening.

While this is by no means comprehensive, check out a select list of my favorites: Read More

United Airlines & the March of Dimes

Long-time United employee Elise Jackson, her son Elijah and husband Todd are representing the March of Dimes as the 2015 National Ambassador Family.

Long-time United employee Elise Jackson, her son Elijah and husband Todd are representing the March of Dimes as the 2015 National Ambassador Family.

I’m thrilled to announce that for the month of March, United Airlines is celebrating their 10 year commitment to the March of Dimes by running a PSA that I directed on all its flights.  I’m honored to be able to tell the story of the valuable partnership between these two organizations with a socially responsible goal.  What’s not to love?

Meeting the current March of Dimes ambassador family, the Jacksons, and learning their story was an inspiration.  You could tell that the folks from United were so proud to contribute to this cause, which made for an especially compassionate shoot.

I had another great crew thanks to MAKE.  Rockstar-DPs Bob Richman and Bill Winters both contributed to the look and feel of the piece, which was shot at United headquarters in the Willis Tower (nee Sears Tower) in Chicago.  The local crew was undeterred by snowy, wintery weather, and we got the whole thing done in a day.

Check back soon for an update with the inflight video.

United's Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer John Rainey is serving as the 2015 March for Babies National Chairman.

United’s Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer John Rainey is serving as the 2015 March for Babies National Chairman.

The Walking Dead in Alexandria

Season 5 cast members of The Walking Dead - source: thetellybible.co.uk

Season 5 cast members of The Walking Dead – photo source: thetellybible.co.uk

The Walking Dead returned this month to AMC with new cast members and a new location.  And that means, new behind-the-scenes footage from yours truly!  This trip to Georgia in November was so top-secret that I didn’t even know what we were filming until I got there.  I love this job!

Stay tuned to Talking Dead with Chris Hardwick on Sundays following The Walking Dead to learn more.

In the meantime, please enjoy these promos from AMC’s Dead, White, and Blue Weekend special this summer.

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Friday Night Tykes Season 2 begins January 20.

Jennifer Whitney for The New York Times

Jennifer Whitney for The New York Times

They’re back!  Big hits, unruly parents, grandstanding coaches.  Season two of Friday Night Tykes, as 11 and 12 year olds, the kids are a year older, but the game is the same.  In the wake of two coaches being suspended last year for bad behavior, this season continues to ask the big question in youth sports: should the focus be on winning above all else?
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Tune in to Esquire Network Tuesdays at 9pm ET for this 10-part series.
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