Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fame Must Be Raw

I tried to see the 2009 remake of Fame, about New York students of the performing arts. But it didn't grab me, not at all. It was just a bunch of scenes. The film makers might have watched the 1980 original, but they didn't learn from it.

The characters were bland and the dramas they went through were PG at the most. The whole thing had been turned into a polished middle class banality. Nothing to make you care.

The 1980 version was much more daring and extreme. The characters were distinctly chiseled and their interaction wild, as if all the animals in a zoo had been put in one cage. Of course, the stories told through them also had a real bite.

What went wrong in 2009? Well, apart from the director Kevin Tancharoen and script writer Allison Burnett being completely clueless or they just couldn't be bothered, the film chickened out from the most important ingredient: raw. It needed to be raw.

I mean, assemble hundreds of extremely expressive teenagers with spectacular dreams – that's not going to be Sunday school. They're not going to keep neat hairdos and speak softly about personal shortcomings.

Fame of the 1980's was directed by Alan Parker, who knew the above very well and didn't hesitate to indulge in it. He stripped the young actors bare and whipped them. Great drama ensued.

The plot is a difficult one to complete in a tantalizing way, because the protagonist – the one learning and growing from the experience, realizing something vastly important at the end of it – is the whole class of students. They both enter and exit the adventure simultaneously, changing from naive and insecure adolescents to scarred but confident adults. It's the classical coming of age thing, but as a collective experience. Mahayana, so to speak.

Without very fragile characters struck by very dramatic events in this process, the film is nothing but a collage of song and dance routines.

It's difficult but far from impossible to have a big group as the protagonist of a drama. It's been done, also by the grand master himself.

In Romeo and Juliet, the whole town of Verona is the protagonist. All its inhabitants, including both families of Montague and Capulet, need to realize the error of their way, regret and reform. The young lovers Romeo and Juliet are the heroes showing them the way and dying for it – because the couple can't solve the problem for the whole town.

At the end of the play, the prince is the one to tell the families what they needed blood and death to see:

“Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.”

Fame doesn't contain a comparable bloodbath, so it would have needed to do as much as possible with what it had. Heightening the stake, tightening the garrote, increasing the noise. Alan Parker certainly did. That's why his version will live, while the 2009 one will soon be swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Here's the 1980 film on DVD at Amazon.
Here's the 2009 film on DVD at Amazon.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Actors Interruptus

I've become addicted to Inside the Actors Studio, the TV show where James Lipton interviews famous movie stars at length. Like any addiction, it's a combination of delight and agony.

I have no other acting experience than some childhood moments of bewilderment mixed with horror, leading me instead to the illusion of safety in holding the pen. Still, what impresses me the most with Inside the Actors Studio is how candid and generous the actors are, sharing their experiences without any concern for what it might do to their persona or reputation.

That shows devotion to the art and to the fellow artists – the aspiring actors in the auditorium. It's sweet to witness.

I've seen a bundle of the interviews and all the actors impress me. Some more than others, of course. For example, Angelina Jolie, one of the far too few women invited to the show, was refreshingly uninhibited and smiled with amusement while watching everything as if being in the audience.

Sean Penn said so many wise things – mostly about bigger issues than mere acting – that I gladly ponder for years. Billy Bob Thornton did sort of the same, with an attitude similar to the 18th century idea of the sauvage savant, the wise savage.

Alec Baldwin was quite frank about the business, although still affectionate about the art struggling within it. Tom Cruise worked hard at giving the students as much as he ever could, mentioning Scientology just briefly and humbly.

Dustin Hoffman gave some instant demonstrations of virtuoso acting. Ricky Gervais did the same by improvised comedy that he could go on with forever. Not to mention Robin Williams, but everybody knew that already. And so on. Delightful.

My agony, then, is the editing. Each interview actually goes on for several hours, but is cut down to one, sometimes two. Thereby the answers mostly become as brief as the questions, although it's evident that the actors have so much more to say – and say it to the audience present. I want to hear all of it!

You know how it is with an addiction - there's never enough.

The shortened show is too much of a rhapsody of movies and the awards they brought. At the latter, the actors are usually embarrassed and eager to move on. Rightly so. Awards are rarely to be trusted as indicators of splendid craftsmanship. Instead, the actors prove that by describing their work process and their motivations.

Nor do I care much for how James Lipton always ends his interviews: with the ten questions he got from the French TV host Bernard Pivot, allegedly of Marcel Proust origin. The questions are so trite, I didn't believe for a moment that they were of Proust origin.

They are not. He just happened to write down answers to questions in English confession albums, in his very own way, when he was an adolescent. They were not even the same questions Lipton uses, but sort of along that line. Read more about it here: Proust Questionnaire.

James Lipton's ten questions are rather childish – favorite and least favorite words, ditto sounds and professions, turn-on and turn-off, and favorite curse word. The last question is: “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”

But Lipton, dean at the Actors Studio, should know mythology better: God's not the one waiting at the pearly gates. Saint Peter is.

Here are some of the shows on DVD at Amazon

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Time Flies


One more year ends, a new one starts.
They say that time flies.
It sure does. Fast. High.
I want it to land.
Walk with me.
Step by step, in a slow pace.

As a child, I flew with it, shared its wings, urged it on.
Go fast, go high!
Watch out for what you wish.
I got my will – when I gave it up.

That's of what time is made:
Grief of days locked in the past, hope for days to come, and fear of the day that is.
None more real, none less so.
You must be winged to bear it.

Time is a beast, too.
It chews on you.
Bit by bit, it eats you up.
Spits you out.
Leaves you in the waste, as it takes off to find new prey.
There is prey.

But then, time is joy as well.
That of a tale we love to be told.
From here to there, through a land that's not the same twice.
Not once.
Still, we know it when we see it.
It's called life.
From birth to death, it would not be if there were no time for it.
So, we've got time.
And we want it.
More of it.

This is a syllable poem, by which I mean a poem composed only of one-syllable words. Check my website for more of them: