In Theaters: The Tree of Life

I'm still processing The Tree of Life - still turning over its many ingredients, layers, and moments. The fact that it's been two weeks since the screening and my brain is still stewing means that the film is special and unusual. Yet I don't think I wholly enjoyed Terrence Malick's Palm d'Or-winning sixth feature.

The Tree of Life is everything and nothing - a moving masterpiece and a magisterial mess, gloppy with pretension yet riddled with some of the most jarring and memorable imagery ever committed to film. Good performances and bad dialogue live side by side in Terrence Malick's sixth and most maddening film, as do profound beauty and incoherent editorial choices. The crux of the movie's soulful confusion is that it is both a visionary cosmic statement and an apologia for suburban averageness. The overarching concept here - that religious meaning and spiritual enlightenment can be found on the most unlikely and unexpected city block - is not new, nor is it alien to depiction on film. But the details are divided into two prongs - one that is dramatic and specific, and another that is abstract and impressionistic. In the case of The Tree of Life, this bifurcation is hampered by excessive cutting and, ultimately, a glut of imagery that, despite its high quality, results in a sense of visual over-stimulation and a muddying of the film's thematic waters. Malick's ambition is rare and impressive. But his editorial eye continues to suffer from benign but distracting spasms.

The Tree of Life is a mosaic. Its non-linear narrative is spiked with sequences that somewhat abstractly depict the formation of the solar system and the beginnings of life on earth. The narrative portion of the film (which accounts for the majority of its screen time) concerns the lives of a five-person nuclear family, the O'Briens, who live in the suburbs of west Texas. The close-knit family consists of Mom (Jessica Chastain), Dad (Brad Pitt), and three young boys. The oldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), is the key figure in the film. A troubled boy, Jack is torn by his love of his parents - the unconditional kind for his mother, and a conflicted love/hate for his domineering but affectionate father.

Pitt's performance is outstanding. His role is wide-ranging and emotional, and the actor brings an authentic sense of character and period to the part. It is a performance of incredible depth and breadth, truly one of the best from any leading Hollywood star in some time. As Mom, Chastain is the object of her son's love and worship - and at the same time a second-class citizen in terms of her dynamic with Pitt's character. Put-upon, and occasionally abused by her husband, Chastain is physically vulnerable and morally inviolate. Pitt's character is very much the opposite - a pillar of physical strength with an occasionally expedient attitude toward morality.

Malick indulges in two of his favorite cinematic devices: a reliance on vague, lyrical voice-over to solidify the film's themes, and a preference for classical music on the soundtrack. Malick's other films, I think, benefit from these devices, whereas The Tree of Life does not. The film's striking imagery and subtle themes don't require the storytelling crutch of narration to sustain them. In fact, the voice-over is distracting rather than additive. On the subject of music, Malick has a well-known knack for nimbly inserting classical pieces in his films that help create an immediate mood and connection to the story: Days of Heaven uses Saint-Saëns' "Aquarium" from The Carnival of the Animals to beautiful and creepy effect, and the opening of The New World features the "Vorspiel" from Wagner's Das Rheingold as the spine-tingling sound of the first meeting between the English and Native Americans. The Tree of Life, on the other hand, feels as if it is cut to the musical selections. At times, there is a feeling that Malick is more interested in creating mini-films around the music than in making a cohesive larger work.

I say that because, in the end, The Tree of Life is not cohesive. It not feel complete. It feels like it is missing pieces here and there, and it feels redundant in other areas. We spend too long milling around in outer space and in the oceans of the early Earth. We spend too long in the O'Brien household, watching the same sets of family dynamics play out over and over again. That Terrence Malick has made a messy film is not a surprise or a disappointment, for Malick's last three films plainly flirt with disaster - they are chunky, disordered, and unpredictable. But The Tree of Life misses the mark because Malick does not seem to have gone far enough in terms of the film's conception: the cosmic inferno and the scenes of early animal life are memorable, but those sequences do not sufficiently interact with the common travails of a single and seemingly isolated family in 1950s west Texas, despite the fact that I enjoyed watching most of what was on the screen - especially the dinosaurs.


On DVD: Deep Red

Deep Red might the most beautifully shot horror film ever made. The whole movie floats amid an array of rich color, sweeping camera movements, and lovingly designed sets that recall scenes from the devil's version of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Deep Red is hardly the only film by Dario Argento to share these qualities, but it might be the most confident and seamlessly executed. For all his visual gifts, Argento's films often suffer from uncomfortable editorial quirks and overly-jarring musical stings - things that take us out of an otherwise hermetic environment that only a visual perfectionist could have created. But Deep Red captivates from frame one, and I was never jostled out of the film's world by technical imperfections. The mood is consistently engaging, and although as a horror film it's not a terribly horrifying one, Argento's standard obsessions - innocent heroes, faceless sources of terror, washes of light, and, of course, flesh being stabbed and slashed by sharp things - are on full display.

A woman who claims to have extrasensory abilities is murdered in her apartment in Rome, while her neighbor, pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), witnesses the attack from the street below. He proceeds to investigate the murder with the help of his gay friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) and a reporter named Gianna (Daria Nicolodi). Clues pile up - a creepy children's song, a missing painting from the dead psychic's apartment - leading Marcus to an old mansion that holds the key to the killer's identity and motive.

Hemmings is a brilliant casting choice. The heartless photographer turned tenacious detective from Blow-Up is re-cast here as an over-his-head musician with no aptitude for the supernatural - or for the rigors of a dangerous investigation, for that matter. Hemmings has the blank-faced intensity of the single-minded and, although he was famously accused by the Monty Python gang of being "a block of wood," his performance here is appropriately unflashy. But Marcus is driven - obsessed, even, by some of the same ideas with which Argento himself is preoccupied.

A telling - and very funny - scene in which Marcus angrily challenges Gianna to an arm-wrestling match tweaks the nose of the very English interest in following sets of pre-established rules at the same time that it reveals something about Argento's view of women and perhaps something about his proclivity for stories with female protagonists. Another regular Argento theme that runs through Deep Red is the notion of children and adolescents who witness something horrific at an impressionable age and the damage that it does to them over time - an idea present in Suspiria and others, but which relates directly to Deep Red's climax.

Argento's penchant for irregular pacing is not as evident in Deep Red, with the story unfolding at a relatively consistent rate, with set pieces spaced evenly - and, importantly, with enough exposition in between so that the plot feels cohesive. That is to say, Deep Red is more conventional in form than some of Argento's other films - for better or worse, it lacks that dream-state sensation that Argento excels at. The movie is generally rooted to its story. We never feel like we are floating away from it into a netherrealm only to learn that the story really never mattered in the first place. As such, Deep Red might make a good introduction to those who are new to the director's work. 

Whatever one's assessment of the plot, which by itself is not particularly unique, Deep Red succeeds because of its visual accomplishments. Argento creates an alternate Rome where everyone speaks English - well, it's not Rome at all, really, but a bizarre Anglo-pean hybrid movieworld where things work as they do because Argento wants them to. But we see beyond the contrivances because Argento's vision is so unique and his imagery so memorable and convincing.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Cop Hater (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

The clingy heat of a New York summer hovers over the characters in Cop Hater with the same oppressive quality as the paranoia that grips their Manhattan precinct as a killer stalks its officers. Adapted by producer-director William Berke - an extraordinarily prolific and largely forgotten specialist in low-budget quickies - this B-grade adaptation of Ed McBain's first novel of the 87th Precinct (a series that would span dozens of volumes over nearly half a century) succeeds thanks to good performances and the authenticity of its setting.

Robert Loggia plays Steve Carelli, a detective investigating a series of cop murders with his partner Mike Maguire (Gerald S. O'Loughlin). With few leads, the pressure mounts as the killings continue. Carelli and Maguire's case - and their information - is pursued by a tenacious reporter (Gene Miller), who winds up indirectly endangering Carelli's deaf-mute bride-to-be (Ellen Parker). 

Unambitious visual choices and pragmatic editing allow Berke to zero in on maintaining suspense and staying true to McBain's characters. The cramped precinct rooms are sweaty with summer heat and the palpable, top-down pressure applied by police superiors on the detectives working the case - in addition to that applied by their fellow cops, who are ravenous for justice as their own continue to be hunted down on city streets.

But Berke was also plainly interested in the exploitative aspects of filmmaking, and knew that sex and violence sells tickets. There are a handful of scenes that might not have made it past the censors in 1958 had this been a major studio picture (it was released theatrically by UA). These include a sequence involving Carelli's fiancée emerging from a shower and being threatened with rape. Additionally, there are a handful of moderately racy moments provided by Shirley Ballard as Maguire's aloof glam-queen wife.

Loggia is excellent, exuding great if restrained charisma as Carelli. The supporting actors are all fine, with O'Loughlin particularly convincing as a weary blue-collar kind of guy (if anything, Loggia is almost too handsome for the role). Keep an eye out for terrific early appearances by Jerry Orbach as a street tough, and Vincent Gardenia as a hopheaded informant. 

Read the full review here

On DVD: Soldier in the Rain (Warner Archive Collection)

Steve McQueen was not a good comedian, and I've always thought Jackie Gleason was more threatening than funny. They were co-billed as the stars of 1963's Solider in the Rain, the title of which certainly doesn't evoke smiles. Nonetheless, it is a comedy, with a screenplay by Maurice Richlin and Blake Edwards from an early novel by William Goldman. The movie struggles against low production values and pat TV-friendly material that doesn't invite either actor to inhabit their characters beyond the level of overly-familiar types.

McQueen is supply Sergeant Eustis Clay, a happy-go-lucky schemer in league with Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter (Gleason). Slaughter lives the good life in his well-appointed peacetime office, thanks in part to the machinations of Clay, who helps Slaughter gain access to the newest and most sought-after goods coming through the base. Slaughter is a career officer, but Clay, who can hardly wait to get out of the Army, tries to lure the older man into civilian life so they can go into business together. Slaughter regularly extracts Clay from one jam or another, and in return, Clay sets Slaughter up with a blonde chippy less than half his age named Bobbi Jo Pepperdine (Tuesday Weld). However, the next time Slaughter comes to Clay's rescue, it has unexpected consequences that lead to the film's rather mawkish conclusion.

Tone is a problem in Soldier in the Rain, which has dramatic pretensions that come off as forced. But the "comedy" is problematic, too. The movie just isn't funny. Gleason has a handful of decent moments, but I keep thinking he's going to hit someone - which is ridiculous, because the character he is playing is a sweetheart. McQueen is horrible - mugging idiotically and putting on a completely made-up "hick" accent. He plays Eustis Clay as a "dimwit," but for those of us paying attention, Clay isn't actually that dim as written - so what's with McQueen's performance? Watching Soldier in the Rain has made me re-assess other McQueen roles - roles that I've never bothered giving much thought - and I'm realizing that there may be a gross falseness to everything the actor ever did. Even worse, however, is Tony Bill who, as the resident goofball, tries to channel Jerry Lewis and fails spectacularly.

Soldier in the Rain could have been a funny, acerbic take on the complacency of the US Army in the 1950s and 1960s - on the ridiculous wastefulness of the biggest and best-armed military force in the history of the world, its men and women spending their days daydreaming and cooking up prison-like schemes to trade surplus mattresses for electric fans. But satirical angles are wholly ignored; in fact, the movie takes time out to honor the military establishment. There's nothing wrong with that, except that there's nothing very honorable about the film's characters. They are layabouts and scatterbrains, and they would have been more at home in a military satire as opposed to a straight comedy.

Director Ralph Nelson adds nothing visual to the film, shooting it as one might a live television play. The plot moves along quickly enough (the movie only runs 87 minutes), but there are no ups or downs - the story and tone are flat to the extent that scenes become indistinguishable from one another in the memory. 

Read the full review here


On DVD: The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday is an Only in the '70s kind of experience, from the elongated title down to the crappy film stock on which it was shot. A ribald, anarchic comedy that wants to be more edge and politically savvy than it actually is, the movie is ultimately let down by a lack of imagination at the conceptual level and the blind eye that director Don Taylor casts over matters visual.

The "great scout" of the title is Sam Longwood (Lee Marvin), a former Army scout and now a has-been frontiersman. He and his half-breed partner Joe Knox (Oliver Reed), are out to recover money stolen from them by former mining colleague (and current rail magnate and gubernatorial candidate) Jack Colby (Robert Culp). A chance encounter between the old partners spurs Longwood and Knox to chase Colby across the West as Colby stumps for presidential candidate William Howard Taft. Along for the ride are a disenchanted young prostitute known as Thursday (Kay Lenz) and filthy old souse Billy (Strother Martin).

Great Scout's screenplay, by Richard Shapiro, strives to embrace the radically shifting racial and sexual politics that were dominant in the 1970s, but can't quite keep up. Reed does manage to have a lot of fun with the character of the half-breed, Knox, handling him as a kind of split personality - an educated white man with traditional values that conflict with a delusional self-identification as a wild Indian given to scalping and rape - although he has never done either. It's a well-written role that addresses the schizophrenic, bifurcated white perception of Native Americans as exemplified by the idea of the "noble savage."

Beyond the character of Knox, the script stumbles on other important points, particularly in the areas of pacing and jokes. Great Scout is a slow film that resorts to truly ridiculous slapstick to get itself out of narrative jams. An early cameo appearance by a fire hose gives us a taste of things to come.

Sadly, the movie is unable to provide its terrific cast with enough to do. Marvin is wasted, reduced to pratfalls. Lenz looks cute but is forced to whine and flail helplessly about. Strother Martin plays a one-note lecher. There are "jokes" about rape (another Only in the '70s ingredient). There are "jokes" about scalping. There are "jokes" about lesbianism. They're not necessarily offensive - although some might say otherwise. Mainly, they just aren't funny.

On top of this mucky stew of undeveloped characters and situations is a dreary layer of visual gruel that reflects a total lack of interest in the western United States of the 1900s. The sets and costumes look like leftovers from Petticoat Junction. The buildings look like they could be easily collapsed at the end of the day and stored in a warehouse someplace. There's not a shot in the movie that looks like anyone made a single step toward any kind of authenticity - even if that authenticity is just based on visual cohesion. Visually, the movie is a zero. 

Read the full review here


How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford is known for her highly distinctive, painfully funny, and uncompromisingly personal stand-up comedy. Though often cited for her mimicry of family members and various regional “types,” Bamford’s “voices” are anything but a gimmick. She uses her vocal skills to satirize common experience and social maladies in ways that are impossible to compare with any other comic. (To wit: her well-known bit in which she adopts the persona of a certain type of female comic who will, in exchange for shoes and chocolate, allow her date to “go through the back door.” Bamford’s characterization is flat-out funny, but the joke itself challenges audiences to ask themselves what they find funny and why.)

Bamford has raised her profile significantly over the last half-decade. Her recent live album, “Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome,” appeared on a slew of top ten lists. Constantly touring far and wide, she remains furiously active in the L.A. comedy scene, starred in her own web series (“The Maria Bamford Show”), and made multiple guest appearances on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!” and its spin-off, “Check it Out! with Steve Brule.” All of which is to say nothing about her robust career as a voice actor, which has included regular featured work on “Sit Down Shut Up,” “Kick Buttowski,” “Adventure Time,” and “Ugly Americans.” In 2009 and 2010, an even wider audience saw her in a series of well-received television commercials for Target, in which she played a tightly-wound suburban holiday shopper.

In her stand-up act, Bamford describes her voice as “high and child-like,” but over the phone, the main thing that comes across is that she is – as advertised on her website – a “nice lady.” She’s so immediately personable that I instinctively want to refer to her by her first name instead of the more journalistic “Bamford.” She speaks of her youth and early career as a performer with direct, eye-opening frankness. Far from being a self-mythologizer, she is an incredibly productive, forward-thinking artist who is not content to rest on her laurels.
So, how did she do it? In discussing her career and life, Bamford is matter-of-face about her history with depression and the role it continues to play in her life, as well as the paramount importance of the creative moment (easily beating out public reception and prestige). I started our conversation by asking Maria to give me a picture of herself as a kid – how she expressed herself and what early creative activities she was exposed to:
MB: My dad always brought home stacks of blank paper because I liked to draw and make stuff. My dad was always very supportive: “Oh, what are you doing?”*  And I went to a lot of gifted children’s arts programs in the summer that were given by the public school. You’d do a play or something. And my parents put me in a Suzuki violin program when I was three. Now that I look back, of course, I realize how lucky I was to get a lot of support to be creative. But there was also a production aspect to it. My family are very much “producers,” so they like to ask you what you’ve been doing and you’ve got to show what you’ve been working on. I’m real grateful for all those things. I didn’t realize that those things were sort of luxuries.
CB: So you’re at a very young age here. All of this stuff was being set up for you by your parents.
MB: For music camp, for sure. The weird thing about it is I did not enjoy it that much, but I was a pretty obedient kid – it’s hard not to be obedient when you’re three – and later the peer pressure kicks in. It’s so funny because I didn’t see the violin stuff as very artistic. It was very prestige-oriented or about accomplishing something. I don’t remember enjoying it and losing myself in the music – that type of thing.
CB: How long did the violin lessons go on?
MB: Ohhh, till I was 21! I quit for the last year of high school, and then guiltily tried to re-up myself over and over again over the years, and then finally about ten years ago... I let it go.
CB: When did you start doing your own thing – whether it was an interest in acting or comedy? When did that start to kick in?
MB: I think in high school and junior high. I liked to run for office. I liked the idea of doing a speech, or plays. And that was very self-motivated – like, nobody really cared that I was doing that, and I think that was a good thing. That was really great. I went to a very tiny school, which was good for me too, because I wonder if I would have fallen through some sort of crack. You look back and you think “Thank God…” Or thank somebody. Maybe I should thank my parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
CB: So, did you know in high school that you wanted to be a performer? Or did that come later?
MB: No, I didn’t know that. I did acting in high school, and it was fun and exciting, but it wasn’t something I thought about. If someone said, “You can be an actress,” I would have been, like, “Uh… I don’t… ummm… huh?” I was terrified, in high school, of what was supposed happen next.
CB: You mean of post-high school life?
MB: Oh yeah. I was absolutely terrified. I remember going to college and feeling like, “What am I doing?”
CB: I read that you attended three colleges. Where did you end up graduating?
MB: From the University of Minnesota. I went to Bates College for two years. It was small, and I got to participate in a lot of things. Then I went on a junior year abroad to the University of Edinburgh. I transferred out of Bates because I was having real problems with depression, and an eating disorderrrr. I ended up going through an outpatient treatment program at the University of Minnesota while finishing my degree there, which was awesome possum.

CB: What did you end up getting your degree in?
MB: Creative writing. It was kind of murky. I remember going, “Uh… If I do this, can I get a degree?” Like, “If I write this thinly-veiled autobiographical play, would that count as something?” And they were like, “Sure!” I don’t remember being super-organized or focused about it. It was more like: get ‘er done.
CB: If you were frightened of post-high school life, what about post-college?
MB: It’s hard to say. I’ve had depression throughout my life. From the age of ten, I really started having some issues with enjoyment in life. So it’s hard to say what ups and downs are really caused by. But I did a lot of shows in Minneapolis and felt very goal-oriented and motivated to do things creatively. And just as I was stopping feeling motivated, I auditioned for this thing to go out to California and be a “Star Trek” character tour guide.
CB: Had you developed more interest in performing while you were still in college?
MB: I just wanted to finish my degree... I started to get more focused on what exactly I wanted to do and having some specific vision when I was kind of depressed and I was talking to this mentor-comedian Frank Conniff. He’s in Los Angeles, but was living in Minneapolis at the time. (And I think that’s important: to have mentors. You know, people who are ahead.) He said to read this very hippy skippy dippy book called “The Artist’s Way,” and I totally grabbed onto that. That book changed my life. Sometimes people will hand me a book and say, “This book changed my life,” and I’ll be like, “Really? Oh, that’s weird.” But it totally helped me focus and gave me this courage to believe in myself. I think I was 22 or 23 when I got my hands on that delightful thing and it provided me with the idea that it’s okay for me to say I’m a comedian, even if no one else thinks I am. Everyone else can be on the fence – but at least I’m on board.
CB: So you moved out to LA to take the “Star Trek” tour guide job.
MB: Yeah – which was very uncertain. It didn’t go on for that long. And I really didn’t have life skills – how to pay bills, how to hold down a job. I had always lived in these hippy cooperatives, and even then didn’t do very well. Like, I didn’t pay rent for a year once! And the rent was only $140 a month. And the hippy cooperative leader (or the guy who had been there the longest), he was like, “Hey, man, listen, uh… You gotta, kinda… C’mon!” And I was like, “God! You’re so uptight!” I think in smaller cities and artistic communities you can kind of keep scraping along and do okay – especially in Minneapolis, where there are more social services. And being young, maybe it was okay to be poor. But then I moved to Los Angeles, and not only was it super isolating, but it’s sort of terrifying to not have any money here, or family. So I went through a couple of hard years, realizing I needed some help. There was a hippy cooperative I could have moved into when I came out here, but part of me had that, “Come on! Bootstraps!” thing. And I think part of it was like The American Success Story: I Can Do It on My Own! And I think that’s kind of mythological, because you can grow more isolated that way.
CB: So you’re in LA, and you had the tour guide job, and maybe things weren’t going great for a couple of years. What marked a turning point? Was it a particular job? Or a change in your approach? 

MB: I got a ton of outside help. Support groups. 12-step groups. I have gotten and continue to get help there. I know not everybody’s into them, and I’m not into them half the time. But they’re free and it’s a bunch of people who have been in the same situation or are in the same situation.
CB: Like free group therapy?
MB: Some of it’s not therapy. It’s what you get from any community. Like, “Oh, you haven’t taken care of getting your teeth cleaned in three years? Let’s call each other and see if we can get that done.” I read an article in “The Week” that made me feel good because sometimes it feels like these groups can be cultish. But the article said that there was scientific study that this works – that any group helps people. Mental health-wise, people benefit from being a member of a group. So, I got a lot of help with how to have a job, how to keep showing up for a job… And you can get that through programs with the government and stuff, but I found it through these 12-step groups. Super, super helpful.
CB: What kind of jobs did you have while you were trying to build up a career as a comic?
MB: I always worked food service jobs, which was interesting, because I’d had an eating disorder, so that was sort of a poor job choice. But I did not have the confidence to say, “Hey Maria, you can type 70 words per minute and you have a degree. Why wouldn’t you try to get any job that would pay better than $6.00 an hour loading trucks at night?” That’s where I needed some sort of community to help me say, “Hey, you can do this.” For some reason, I didn’t even think I could answer the phones places, which sounds cuckooberry, but I was really scared that people knew how to do things and I didn’t. I had very remedial life skills.
CB: Those confidence problems must have impacted your pursuit of a show business career.
MB: My parents cut me off, which is probably one of the greatest things they’ve ever done. Because then I had the opportunity to say, “Oh, I can do this. I can earn enough money and take care of myself.” And I can’t imagine that that didn’t help me creatively to feel like I could take care of myself.
CB: Plus it frees your brain energy, right? Once you know you can handle practical stuff.
MB: Yeah. But with mental illness, it doesn’t matter if you have money or prestige. It’s devastating no matter what. People have killed themselves at the top of their careers, with loved ones all around. I don’t know if achievements always make a difference in people’s self-esteem or state of mind.
CB: One of your first credits was writing for “The Martin Short Show.”
MB: Yes.
CB: Had you written for anyone else prior to that?
MB: No. I think I just got that job because of some weird buzz. I was a young lady and they thought I was funny. It was like some mystical thing. Frankly, it wasn’t a great experience for me because I wasn’t very good at interpersonal relationships and group dynamics, interestingly enough.

CB: That “room full of writers” thing?
MB: Yeah. Because it’s working with others and I didn’t always do that very well. So I got fired. But I did give it my 100% shot!
CB: What did you want to follow first and foremost? Was it acting or writing or stand-up? Or all of them?
MB: I kept being driven to do stand-up in the way I was doing it, which was more of a “one person show” or performance art kind of thing. It didn’t always go super well in comedy clubs – and still doesn’t! Unless people know what they’re coming to see, I don’t always do well in front of a crowd of people who are just there to see “comedy.” I just wanted to do what I was enjoying, and I’m not sure I even had a name for it.
CB: Right, which is what this interview series is about: people who are doing something they are compelled to do even though there might not be a name for it. And how you can make it work.
MB: You just do it and do it and do it. And maybe somebody takes notice. And maybe they don’t. But at least you’re doing it. And that’s the victory. Because the most important thing is this moment. If I’m not creating something today – that act of creativity and the joy from that is the one thing that stays steady. That’s the only reason for doing it. Prestige, and looking back on what you’ve done isn’t really that satisfying. I’m excited about my jokes now. I don’t really care about stuff I’ve already done. I want to say, “What about this joke? Have you heard this one?” Because you always have the freedom to create things – whether or not people are interested!
CB: Do you set aside a time to develop new material, or is that something you’re constantly doing?
MB: I try to force myself to do it. Sometimes it’s hard to get myself to do it. As I’m talking to you right now, I’m thinking, “Oh God. I should go write something down…” I don’t know if it’s a workaholic thing. I always thought I would feel rested, like, “Okay, I did that. Now I can coast.” I never feel that, or I feel that for maybe a minute. Did you watch that Joan Rivers documentary? It’s just her rushing around going, “Okay, where’s my next gig? What’s the next thing?” That’s where the joy and excitement is – it’s in the thing you’re doing now. She’s this icon and I’ve looked up to her forever, and she’s like, “I’m busy. I’ve got to do this now. See you later!”
CB: Are there specific things you would still like to do that you haven’t gotten to yet?
MB: Yes! I made a pilot, and I’m gonna try to sell it. And I’m always excited about a new thing. I have an idea for a live show I want to do weekly, but I can’t talk about it because then I might not do it. And there are always new jokes, new dreams, new visions. And as far as success and affirmation: If you have a critical mind, those things don’t make a difference in the end. My brain has made it a magical trick for me where instead of using my success as a feeling of, “Oh, you’re great at what you do!” my brain makes it into pressure – added pressure. “You’ve got to keep producing.” So, uh, just enjoy the day, is what I’m trying say. (Laughs) It doesn’t get better up ahead, just different.
* Italics indicate where Bamford switched over to one of her many alternate voices; often enough, she uses a different voice even when impersonating herself.


How Did You Do It? A Conversation with Tom Shadyac

Tom Shadyac is known for directing blockbuster comedies featuring some of the biggest names in show business. From his (and Jim Carrey’s) breakout movie, 1994’s low-budget “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” Shadyac went on to direct a string of enormous hits including “Liar, Liar” and “Bruce Almighty” with Carrey, and the remake of “The Nutty Professor” starring Eddie Murphy. Shadyac's most recent feature was “Evan Almighty” starring Steve Carell, the most expensive comedy ever made.

But in the fall of 2007, Shadyac suffered injuries in a bicycling accident including a concussion and a broken arm. The after-effects lingered for many months, rendering Shadyac virtually inert with intense headaches and an extreme sensitivity to light and sound. In his new documentary “I Am,” Shadyac recalls being resigned to death during his agonizing convalescence.

Yet he recovered, at length, with a renewed desire to investigate the world's ills - and his own. Shadyac's discoveries - all of which are documented in “I Am” via interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, poets, members of the clergy, and historians - resulted in personal transformation. Not only did he have his health back, he also sold his palatial Pasadena estate, gave away much of his own wealth, and adopted a minimal lifestyle. He also became committed to beginning and sustaining an ongoing public dialogue around the two main questions asked in “I Am”: What’s wrong with the world? What can we do about it?

“I Am” represents a major change for Shadyac, not just in terms of subject matter, but in terms of the way he perceives the world, himself, and his life’s purpose. I spoke to him recently in San Francisco. After a short exchange about the reading material he had with him (Rumi and Emerson), I began by asking him about his early days.

CB: How long did it take you to get to Hollywood and a show business career in the first place? Let’s say, starting after college – what were the steps you took?

TS: I got to show business fairly quickly. During my fifth year at the University of Virginia (I had to go back for one last class), I started writing jokes for Bob Hope. He responded, and I started working for him. So I got to show business fairly early. But, for eleven years, I was adrift. I wasn’t fulfilled by joke writing – it didn’t seem like “it” for me. I tried a little bit of everything, experimentally: stand-up comedy, acting, I taught acting, I wrote sitcoms, I wrote screenplays. Eventually, I went back to school to direct at UCLA’s grad school. And that’s when heavens parted. But what I had to grow into was a freer, less fear-based self. My personal journey was about learning to stand with my own authentic creative self, regardless of what the energy in a room was. Often times, I felt a fear that I would be rejected for expressing myself. So, I was living under someone else’s vision, and not my own. When I finally threw all that out, after years of therapy, I was no longer seeking approval but simply authenticity. And then, it was about a New York minute before I got my first big break, which was “Ace Ventura.”

CB: And how long after the grad program was this?
TS: About two or three years. I went to grad school in ’88 or ’89, and I got “Ace” in ’91 or ’92. But I had done a lot of preparation to be ready when that opportunity presented itself.
CB: And the grad program helped confirm that you wanted to zero in on directing?

TS: Yeah. It was that “knowing” – like Spielberg might have had when he was 8. I had it when I was 28. But then it was another several years before that knowing was realized in terms of employment. I did a lot of observing of sitcom directors. I would go anywhere I could potentially learn something. I would sit in rooms like this and hear them talk about story problems. And I would have what I thought was a wonderful idea or fix. But I wasn’t able to express myself because it wasn’t my time. But then, because I had much more fearlessness – having moved through whatever fear I had – that’s how I got “Ace Ventura.” I told them very strongly what the script needed. I came up with very specific ideas. I still remember the meeting I had with the Morgan Creek people: I handed them ten pages of a rewrite, and they said, “We’ve been in business twenty years and we’ve never had anybody do work for free. It’s our first meeting and you’re handing us ten pages.” All the work before that was preparation for being tossed into the flames.

CB: So the script had already been in development for some period of time?
TS: Years.
CB: With others, before Jim Carrey?
TS: Jim was perceived as a stretch as a choice – other directors had considered him, but many people simply thought of him as a television star, even though he’d done several movies before. I eventually said, “This is who I really believe in – if we can get him, it’ll be a blazing, blinding light.” Jim had to actually audition for Morgan Creek. And I remember he acted out part of the movie in a Hamburger Hamlet up on Sunset Boulevard, to convince people that not only was he the guy, but that this could really be something.
CB: Hard to imagine him being asked to audition now.
TS: Yeah – hindsight! I called some very good friends who were writers and very creative, and I said, “I’m thinking of hiring Jim Carrey.” And everybody knew him from “In Living Color.” And I often got, “He’s a TV star. He’s not a film guy.” I had to listen to my own intuition, which was, “No, I think if we tap into this guy, he could be amazing.”

CB: Now, when did the injury happen?

TS: September of 2007.
CB: And “Evan Almighty” had been released?
TS: Yes, “Evan Almighty” came out in June that summer. I hurt myself in September.
CB: Making strong, principled, philosophical statements like “I Am” doesn’t seem to happen often in Hollywood. How has your relationship with the industry changed – if at all – since this all took place?
TS: Lots of people haven’t seen it. But the few who have, have been very supportive. My agency, which may run on the current economic system that I have questions about, have been incredibly supportive. Artists who have seen the film – The Black-Eyed Peas, Peter Gabriel – gave us songs at incredible discount rates. Artists are good people, with big hearts. They’re on a journey just like I’m on a journey. They’ve been raised in a culture just like I was raised in a culture. And, I do think that films do speak about moral issues, whether they’re aware of it or not. Although this is a very direct examination.
CB: Yes, this is a very direct statement, with a very particular way of looking at things and asking particular questions.
TS: And it’s not just show business; our culture doesn’t encourage this kind of conversation. We tend to look at things symptomatically. I was just reading a Rumi poem that says, “You don’t want to hear, yet, about the reality that’s underneath, whether you call it God or life or the divine spark.” Basically, he’s saying, “So turn the news on, ‘cause that’s what you want to hear.” And that’s sort of what we encourage. I wanted the freedom to express what I had been feeling and seeing and intuiting for years and years and years, and that accident is what compelled me to do it. I had to face my own death to get over the fear that kept me from doing it before.
CB: Going back to the idea of “So turn the news on” – what is it about bad news? There are a lot of documentaries out there about –
TS: Bad news.
CB: – social and cultural ills, whether it’s war or the economy or whatever. But they’re always about the badness of those things and revealing what the badness is, as opposed to being constructive or offering alternatives or just asking questions as your film does. Why do you think that is?
TS: I think we’re young. And this vision that we have of the world is not that old. The human species has been around for 175,000 years, and this particular vision – call it the “Consumer Vision” or the “Me First Vision” – is only about 10,000 years old. And that’s really young, especially when you look at the history of life on this planet, which is 4 billion years old. I think there’s a place for, as you said, the identification of the bad. But I think we’re hungry for something new. We know the bad. We know something’s happening with the environment. We know that war after war is happening. We know that greed has surfaced in many forms. But I think it’s the challenge of each of us to heal the internal greed that we have, which is what our movie talks about. So I think it’s easier to say that the greed exists on the outside. That’s one step. But the step that we need is the one that says, “Before I heal the greed on the outside, I need to deal with my own greed, my own internal violence, my own internal anger. And emanate that.” Listen, I know these films are valuable, but I got very depressed and frustrated with this style that’s 85 minutes of the problem and two minutes of, “You can go to this website,” or whatever.
CB: How much of what ended up in “I Am” was a discovery for you in the process of making the movie?
TS: Much of it. The connective idea of unity and interconnection – I was well aware of that and felt strongly about it as a truth. But all the flesh, all the muscle on that skeletal structure was new to me. Like Heartmath. I had no idea that there was science now – fringe science, but still science – that was emerging to tell us that intuition may actually be measurable. That the heart may be the source of that intuition. That it may be able to predict the future. That the heart has an electromagnetic field that extends ten to fifteen feet from the body. Elizabeth Satoris is an evolutionary biologist who told me about the history of cells. And Rupert Sheldrake – his work wasn’t in the movie – his ideas, like, “When does your dog know when you’re coming home?” It’s when you make the decision to go home that the dog moves to the door. So all that stuff, all that evidence, that confirmed the intuition and the kind of philosophical, spiritual, and moral principles that I had been awake to through Emerson and others – that was what was really fun on the journey. To be able to say, “Wow, there’s all this cool work being done to confirm this.”
CB: Did you have personal connections to the people you talked to? How did you wind up coming to everyone you interviewed?
TS: The journey started with people I wanted to speak to who had moved me in some way. So I had read their work, or seen them in a documentary, or heard them speak. So that would be Coleman Barks, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky. And then often one thing led to another. We were turned on to certain people by some of the interviewees. And Harold [Mintz, Shadyac’s friend and the film’s publicist] turned me on to Mark Ian Barasch. There are many people I wanted to interview that we didn’t get to. I tried to talk to the Dalai Lama. Mary Oliver is a friend; she’s the best-selling poet in America. She was my first request, and she politely said, “My poetry speaks for itself. My poetry articulates what I believe.”
CB: How long did you shoot?
TS: We shot for two years, and there was a good solid year and a half in the editing room. Documentaries – you gotta write in the editing room, so it’s a long time.
CB: As far as the changes you’ve made in your own life since completing the film – selling your property, changing your whole lifestyle – how do view your pre-2007 self? When you look back at your career and your success, how do you view it now?

TS: The bike accident didn’t so much change my perspective as make me talk about it. But if I can step outside a bit, I would hope to have empathy for the person that I was. I had always walked with the intention of wanting to be a part of the healing, wanting to be a part of making our world better. And I simply wasn’t aware that, with my right hand, I was helping to heal the world, and with my left hand, I was helping the world continue exactly the model that was so destructive in many ways. Eventually, I was able to see that there were many hypocrisies and tensions in my life that I wasn’t comfortable with. There are still hypocrisies and tensions in my life that I need to examine. So on the one hand, I would have said I love the Sermon on the Mount: “Don’t store up treasures on Earth, where moth and rust destroy…” Yet, I was comfortable storing up treasures. I was giving money away, but I was still participating in a philosophy that was very destructive, that you don’t see reflected in nature.
CB: Where do you see things going now? How have your recent experiences changed your interest in filmmaking?
TS: I hope to go deeper and deeper into whatever this idea is that animates me. The more I read these cats [indicates nearby copies of the works of Rumi and Emerson], the more I feel at home. I’ve often wanted to walk as an ascetic – just leave it all. But somehow I think the world is calling for a reasonable path, so that we can continue with this celebration, this creative art we call life – but to find a reasonable to path to walk with each other and with the natural world. I just hope I go deeper.
CB: Do you see additional documentaries, potentially, about related subjects?
TS: There are a thousand subjects that have surfaced that I’d love to explore in terms of documentary. I personally think that what’s most needed now is an ongoing conversation about the ideas and themes that this film provokes. I’ve got a talk show that I’m probably going to host – I may do it with the Oprah Winfrey network – to continue this conversation and to take people’s questions and frustrations and share them. Years ago, I started waking up to the hypocrisies that I was a part of and that our culture accepts, and it took me a long time to get here – to get to the film that you see. I had to ask a lot of questions, and I didn’t have a lot of help in terms of places I could go with those questions. So I think it may be important to provide a place where some of those questions can be aired. But I will do films. I have two films that are in development right now that are real close to getting made, with stars. And we just got one financed!
CB: Is there anything you’d like to add about what you are communicating with “I Am” – which addresses big problems in a hopeful way?
TS: I think what people forget is that we rail against all these negative stories that are out there because they are the aberration. The way we behave with each other, by and large, is the collective story of humanity. We’re kind to each other, we’re compassionate with each other, we want have fun and explore… The larger story of humanity gets ignored because somebody will steal a car today, and that will make the news. But the thousands and millions of people in this city and others who engage in cooperative behavior will not be reported. The aberration is reported simply because it’s the aberration, and we’ve accepted the aberration as who we are and we’ve crafted our society around that. The other day, I was checking into a hotel and they literally had me sign – I couldn’t believe it, it was like I was buying a house. They said, “We have to protect ourselves. Our rooms are non-smoking, and we had a guy who smoked in one of the rooms.” They’ll have thousands of visitors this year, but one person who smoked in a room – that’s their story. And that’s a fear-based idea. We’re deluded. You’re a writer, I’m a writer. Why would it hurt me if I was able in some way to help you become the best writer you could be? And why would it hurt you, if you were to help me in some way to become the best writer I could be? Because we’ve both been deluded into thinking that if you’re a better writer than me, I’m not gonna eat.

New Interview Series: How Did You Do It?

After too many weeks of hemming and hawing, I am finally launching my new interview series, here on the site.

The title of the series is "How Did You Do It?" and the intent is to present a series of case studies on how careers in the arts and entertainment are built.

As as person with creative goals of my own, I want to demystify the cliched, perfunctory career "advice" usually offered to those who want to make a living by following their creative or expressive instincts.  This series will provide real, working knowledge of
how successful early- to mid-career artists have developed and elevated their careers.  We all know that hard work, luck, and talent play a part; but how they play a part varies wildly because artists are forced to find innovative ways of pursuing and achieving their dreams.

My interview subjects will range across all creative disciplines in the world of the arts and entertainment in the hope that variety will not only maintain reader interest, but will result in interesting parallels among the different approaches and tactics used by those who forge their own paths in life.

I'll be posting the full-length version of an interview I did with film director Tom Shadyac shortly, a truncated version of which was recently run over at DVDTalk. And tomorrow, I'll post an interview I did with comedian Maria Bamford.

More to come!