The Last Waltz played four times at a local theater this past Sunday and Monday. A friend agreed to meet me there for the last showing on Monday evening. After a crazy day, I still left in plenty of time, then ran into some of the worst traffic I’ve ever encountered in Albuquerque. Because I knew I’d be late, I turned on my seldom-used cell phone. Almost immediately, I was notified of a voicemail message, which I assumed was from my friend.
The traffic was too insane for me to try to listen to it, so I continued on to my destination, preoccupied by traffic, being late, and the waiting voicemail message. When I arrived, I found a parking place and listened to the voicemail message, no easy task in complete darkness (my car’s inside light recently stopped working). It was from a friend who is traveling and decided, for unknown reasons, to wish me a Merry Christmas on my cell phone. It’s a fluke that I got it.
By then I was definitely late and also preoccupied with wondering why she had called my cell phone. I got out of the car and started crossing the street. The lighting for the side streets in Nob Hill leaves something to be desired. As I was about to step up onto the curb on the other side of the street, some commotion to my right caught my attention–and the much-higher-than-usual curb caught the toe of my right shoe. Splat! Down I went onto both knees.
[Expletive deleted.] I got up, dusted myself off, and continued to the theater, now preoccupied with visions of being sidelined from walking, dancing around my apartment, and my twice-a-week strength training workouts.
As it turned out, we had more than enough time to chat, get tickets, and find seats in the theater. Once the movie started, I was fully engrossed. I’ve seen The Last Waltz half a dozen times, but never in a theater. It was definitely worth the time, the traffic, and even the banged up knees to see it that way!
I wrote about The Band a while ago, but didn’t come across this video of Van Morrison doing Caravan until recently. It’s still my favorite performance, but there are no duds anywhere in this star-studded film. I tried to contain the bouncing around in my seat. I guess the benefit of watching it at home is that no one cares if I get up and dance.
When I got home afterward and was walking from my garage to my front door, I happened to glance up into the sky. There was Orion rising directly overhead with bright stars and planets studding the sky around it.
I stepped out into the street and just watched it for several minutes, awake and conscious.
The Band was part of the background music of my life for a while, but at the time I couldn’t have distinguished one musician from another. I wasn’t really paying attention until Robbie Robertson released his first solo album, Robbie Robertson, in 1987. Loved it the first time I heard the first track; love it still–especially the mesmerizing “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”
Much later I came to appreciate Rick Danko. His voice is the one in my head when I think of The Band. Danko recorded this beautiful acoustic version of “When You Awake” in 2009. It seems even more moving and powerful than The Band’s version.
One of the songs Levon Helm is best known for is “The Weight.” There are a lot of versions of this song, but this one from the documentary The Last Waltz is so good.
The Last Waltz has been called the best music documentary ever by some critics. I haven’t seen them all, but it’s definitely my favorite. All the music is fantastic, but the performance that tops the rest is Van Morrison doing “Caravan.” It’s worth watching the whole thing just to get to those five or six minutes. It’s too bad there’s no video available, but this audio gives a sense of the electricity in the auditorium. Turn it up! Little bit louder. Radio!
And then, of course, when we did “Caravan,” which was something that we really just wanted to play together, and I wanted to play some guitar on, and we wanted to do that. And we did this. And we had the horn section and the whole thing, and the way the song built and it built and it built. All of a sudden, at the end, when Van starts kicking his leg up in the air, we were like, “What’s happening here? This is the most wonderful out of control I’ve ever seen him.” And it was just magical, you know, just that whole song, and the performance of that. When we were finished playing that song, when I turned around, you know, to the other guys in the band, and I was like, “Okay,” you know? We were just feeling so good at that moment.
— Robbie Robertson, VH-1 interview on the making of The Last Waltz.
…heaven or hell? Every year on New Year’s Day, my friend Gayle and I see a movie and then have dinner afterward. This year, unlike some others, there wasn’t a clear favorite, so we settled on Les Miserables. Neither of us had seen any incarnation of the stage version, but it’s one of her favorite novels (which I admit to never having finished), and she had some trepidation about the potential trivialization of the story.
With neither the book nor the stage version to compare it to, I judged the movie on its own merits and found it to be a good production overall. I knew the vocals had been sung live and not in the studio, so I wasn’t expecting them to be perfect. (They weren’t “sweetened” in the studio afterward, either, a term I just learned.) The actors all seemed to inhabit their characters quite well and to do a decent job with the singing, with a few really outstanding performances (especially by Samantha Banks). But some characters seemed more human than others.
The person I was most impressed with was…Russell Crowe. So I was really surprised to discover all the Russell Crowe bashing taking place on the internet. “Epic fail,” claimed one headline. Had we seen different movies?
At dinner, Gayle said she realized the reason she likes opera but doesn’t generally like musicals, is that opera singers have trained voices and the actors in musicals often don’t. Philistine that I am, I do not like opera, so I don’t feel let down when the actors in musicals don’t measure up to opera singers. Yes, I was aware that Russell Crowe’s singing was not first rate. But I didn’t feel that it detracted from his performance–and maybe it even added to it.
He seemed very believable in a difficult role. He brought nuance to it. His inner struggle was something I could relate to. At times, he even moved me–more so than some instances where I was supposed to be moved. I haven’t seen him in very many movies, but he was great in one of my long-time favorites, L.A. Confidential, where he also played an officer of the law, a corrupt, head-bashing Hollywood cop who is redeemed by the love of Kim Basinger.
I’m definitely not the only one who thinks Crowe did well in the role of Javert. Here’s an excerpt from a post in the Hollywood Prospectus blog on Grantland, by Charles B. Pierce, In Defense of the Pub-Voiced Russell Crowe in Les Miserables.
[Crowe] doesn’t have the big moment that Anne Hathaway does — after, of course, she gets beaten to a pulp in the most extended filmic martyrdom since Mel Gibson got a hold of the Gospels — and he doesn’t have the ongoing halo that surrounds everything Hugh Jackman does, but, in a very strange way, and in a way I never did with Javert either in the novel or in the straight dramatic movies made out of it, I identified with his character because he seemed like the only ordinary bloke on the screen.
Javert is an impossible character, the most rigid person in literature except, possibly, for Ahab, who at least has a deep personal wrong to be avenged. But Crowe manages to humanize him and, because he does, Crowe’s the only real actor in the film. Everybody else — except the comic-opera Thenardiers, whose every appearance had me wishing for a general cholera outbreak — is a saint with celestial pipes.
I’d watch the movie again, if only to see if my original impressions hold up. Have you seen it? What do you think?
To do any kind of a comprehensive review of Cloud Atlas, I would have to have seen it more than once, which I haven’t. At least not yet. Other people all over the internet have tried their hands at interpreting and explaining it, dissecting it into bite-sized pieces to tease out all the hidden and not-so-hidden layers of meaning. The reviews range from the positively rhapsodic to the totally dismissive. As for me, I enjoyed the movie well enough that if I don’t get another chance to see it on the big screen, I’ll probably get the DVD. The extras are sure to be worth it.
Much of the detail of the book was still fresh in my mind when I saw the movie, so I was a bit preoccupied with comparing one to the other—and comparing my mental pictures with the directors’ pictures. Someone seeing the movie without having read the book would be spared those distractions. But they would not be spared the distraction of trying to figure out who was who (actor-wise), since each of the major players had roles in several different stories/time periods, sometimes made up and costumed to a fare-thee-well. I understand the intention behind this choice of casting, but it did interfere with my suspension of disbelief. I think I would find a second viewing more satisfying because it would be easier to focus on the storylines.
And the storylines are very good. All six stories are compelling, even more so in the movie. Part of the reason may be that so much material from the book had to be cut in order to make this three-hour movie. Editing is a boon to any kind of writing. Raymond Carver didn’t begin to gain notoriety until editor Gordon Lish slashed a collection of his stories to the bone. It’s an imperfect analogy, though, since the filmmakers did create a couple of scenes to either dramatize an element or to outright change an outcome .
I also thought interspersing the stories—which wasn’t really an option in the linear narrative of the book—worked much better to illustrate the themes of interconnectedness, oppression, and reincarnation. There was an awful lot going on, but it wasn’t difficult to keep track of.
As spectacle, the movie is a winner. The sets, costumes, writing, acting, and directing are all first rate. As mini-morality plays, each individual story is a winner, too. But the stories don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts, which the book and movie are both trying to convince us they do. Is it necessary that they do? I don’t think so.
The Wachowskis have directed a couple of movies I really enjoyed, 1996’s Bound and 1999’s The Matrix. But I haven’t quite forgiven them for V for Vendetta, which I thought was absurdly heavy handed and completely lacking in subtlety. Of course, it was adapted from a graphic novel, which was probably the right format for it. Cloud Atlas redeemed them, in my opinion. I hope the movie gains a following because it deserves to be appreciated for what it is, not for what it could be, should be, or has delusions of being.
Which do you choose? The question is asked by Clay Hammond, one of the characters in the movie The Words. In this story, itself a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, Hammond, played by Dennis Quaid, is the author of a novel about another author, Rory Jenson. Jenson, played by Bradley Cooper, is a struggling writer who, after a trip to Paris with his wife, accidentally comes across the find of his life: an unpublished manuscript, the quality of which far surpasses that of his own multiply rejected efforts.
At a low point in his attempt to get his writing career off the ground, Jenson decides to type the entire manuscript into his computer, just so he can feel the words and experience what it might have been like to write something that good. He has no ulterior motive in doing so. This might not seem believable to everyone in the audience, but writing out or typing passages from the works of great writers is an exercise often recommended to aspiring ones.
After some prodding from his wife, however, Jenson agrees to submit the book to a publisher who naturally falls in love with it. The book is published to great acclaim, and Jenson receives several prestigious awards. As time passes and he’s able to get one or two other novels published, Jenson begins to forget that he didn’t actually write that first book. That’s when the true author of the manuscript, referred to in Hammond’s book as “the old man,” shows up and tells Jensen his story, the story the novel is based on. The old man is played by a grizzled, down-and-out Jeremy Irons.
So Jenson faces a conundrum: what to do now? He wants to make things right, but will he?
There’s a lot to try to tie together here to make everything work and make sense—on the one hand—while sustaining an element of mystery on the other. But the screenwriters either didn’t have or didn’t take enough time to do a seamless job of it. [David Mitchell tackles a much more complex interweaving of multiple storylines in his 500+ page novel The Cloud Atlas. Can’t wait to see the movie version, which will be out later this year. ] As a result, The Words has a few gaps, some of which I was dimly aware of as I watched the movie; others opened up the day after. They weren’t enough to turn me against the movie, but the screenwriters could easily have fixed them. So why didn’t they?
The collective gaps were minor compared to my main problem with the movie, which is the casting of Jeremy Irons in the role of “the old man.” His acting was impeccable, but he wasn’t remotely believable as the aging version of his younger self, a role well-acted by Ben Barnes. Irons bothered me so much that I couldn’t suspend disbelief during any of his scenes. My movie-going companion had the same complaint, but it didn’t bother her to the extent it did me.
The women in The Words all necessarily played supporting roles. I thought the best of the three was Nora Arnezeder as Celia, the young Parisian wife.
On the plus side, it was gratifying to see a writer portrayed so accurately onscreen. That doesn’t always happen in movies about writers or writing. While there are plenty of movies about writers, there are not as many about the process of writing a particular book. Some I’ve enjoyed are Finding Neverland, Capote, and Adaptation. My all-time favorite, though, is Stranger than Fiction, which is in my permanent collection. [Stranger boasts a righteously eclectic cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhal, and Dustin Hoffman. If you’ve been put off by the majority of Will Ferrell’s movies, give this one a chance. Watch it for the rest of the cast, but I’ll bet Ferrell will surprise you.]
Back to the question: life or fiction? The old man chose life. What did Jenson choose? And what did Clay Hammond choose?
Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, directors and screenwriters
Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Jeremy Irons, Ben Barnes, Zoe Saldana, Nora Arnezeder, and Olivia Wilde
I give it an A for effort and good intentions, an A- for acting, and a C+ for overall execution.
Have you seen it? What did you think? What are your favorite movies about writers and/or the writing life?