Jason Schwartzman on ‘The Overnight’

BY ANDREW FISH

Jason Schwartzman in The Overnight
Jason Schwartzman in the Overnight
I remember in my early years in Los Angeles, sitting in a West-side coffee shop and watching a guy politely ask a pregnant woman he’d never met before if he could touch her belly. “Sure!” she said with a grin. I was shocked and wondered what was wrong with people in this town. I held onto that feeling for some time. But when I think back on it over a decade later, I see two strangers bonding. I still consider the guy’s inquiry to be inappropriate and would side with her if she’d given him the cold shoulder or a harsh word, but how can I begrudge them a moment they both enjoyed?

I thought of that when I saw The Overnight, which peers into the depths of L.A. oddness with a gentle heart. The film follows a pair of college sweethearts (Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott) — now married with a kid and new to Los Angeles — who meet a fellow parent (Jason Schwartzman) who takes an instant shine to them. He’s a little quirky, but they accept his hospitality at face value when he and his wife (Judith Godrèche) invite them over for dinner. As the night progresses, the film expands into a deft and often hilarious exploration of honesty, openness and fidelity.

“I love that line in the movie where Adam says, ‘Maybe this is how dinner parties are in LA!'” noted Schwartzman at a recent press event with The Overnight cast in Beverly Hills. “I just think that line is so funny. I’m from [Los Angeles], but I’ve never been at a party where it felt that I was in a situation like this. I’ve never been in a swingy situation — or maybe I have and I just didn’t realize it.”

It’s Schwartzman’s unguarded demeanor that’s made him one of my favorite actors since his breakout in Rushmore, and it’s that very vibe which keeps you from turning against his character in The Overnight, even as he’s clumsily trying to manipulate his guests into taking their clothes off.

“I felt like this is new to them, and that’s what I really loved about it ” he said, when asked if he thinks this is the first time the fictional duo is attempting to seduce another couple. “That we’re the hosts, Judith and I, and it’s like, ‘Get the wine — we’re trying to keep them happy. Don’t let them go! Don’t let the momentum or the centrifugal force stop. Keep going!” But we are very gregarious and coming on kind of strong, and it falls apart. We’re not good at it.”

From a lovelorn lothario in The Darjeeling Limited to a spot-on portrayal of smugness in Listen Up Philip to a crime-fighting Jonathan Ames on Bored to Death, Schwartzman’s characters radiate a certain vulnerability, even when they’re up to no good — so it was interesting to hear that even as drummer for the indie-rock outfit Phantom Planet, he never developed a taste for the insanity laid before him.

“I’m not a real party person,” he said. “I was in a band at a young age, and I was uncomfortable at any type of party with lots of girls. In many ways, I’ve got to say [to myself], ‘Whoa, grow up and move on past your high school experience! How long can it scar you for?’ But everyone in my band was, like, really tall and really handsome, and I was always pretending to fall into the pool — with my clothes on, instead of taking off my shirt. [I was] more awkward, so I didn’t go to a lot of parties. I would just go play our shows and then usually go for soup somewhere.”

At this point, Godrèche, who was sitting beside him, interjected. “That’s the kind of guy that girls fall in love with. That’s totally the kind of guy that girls are seeking,” she said. To which Schwartzman wryly replied, “Not then they weren’t!”

It was a moment of honesty and reassurance that recalled the film itself, which looks affectionately and without judgment at its characters and their needs, whatever they may be. As it wasn’t so much what each character wanted in The Overnight, but that they all had such longing for it. Married with children of his own, Schwartzman offered some insight.

“One of the things that I take away from the movie,” he said, “is when you’re in a long-term relationship, you fuse as two people, and you are growing together. But just as it’s important that you grow as a couple, it can be overlooked that you’re continuing your individual growth and interests, and that you’re constantly bringing something back to the relationship. When you start to move too much as a unit and only a unit, what happens? And then what happens if one person questions something, or grows in some way? Immediately, it’s asking [of] the other person, and they have a choice to discuss that and go with that, or to walk away from it. [The characters in The Overnight are] all out of alignment, like a spine, and sometimes these moments — like a crack — adjust you.”

The Overnight, directed by Patrick Brice and shot by John Guleserian, is now in theaters. Season one of Mozart in the Jungle, co-created by Schwartzman, is available for streaming on Amazon.

Kristen Stewart on ‘Still Alice’

Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart (photo by Gage Skidmore*)
BY ANDREW FISH
It’s a figure of speech to talk about losing one’s mind, but the idea takes on new and awful meaning when it actually happens — when language and concepts and sense of where and who you are begin to deteriorate and you slowly lose the faculties you’ve always taken for granted. I have a terrible fear of this happening to me, and as I settled into a screening of Still Alice, my anxiety level rose. Why do I keep getting stuck with a word on the tip of my tongue? Why have I always walked into rooms and forgotten what I’ve come there to do? Yet as the film progressed, the realism it brought to bear far overshadowed my panic. My pounding chest calmed, then turned to heartbreak with the unfolding of the story of a family whose bonds are tested by the ravages of a neurodegenerative disease.

Still Alice offers an intimate narrative of a 50-year-old woman still in her prime who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her story is told from a deeply personal perspective, getting the audience about as close to a first-person experience as possible. Julianne Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor who one day forgets the word “lexicon” in the midst of a lecture. It’s a far more significant moment than she thinks, ultimately symbolizing the imminent loss of her entire store of knowledge.

Alice’s youngest daughter, played by Kristen Stewart, is a struggling actress. First seen butting heads with her mother at a restaurant, Lydia appears stubborn, rebellious and adamant that she’s making the right decisions. And as we get to know the whole family — including Alice’s other two children (Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) and husband (Alec Baldwin) — it becomes clear that Lydia is much more than the rough-edged black sheep.

Stewart’s character is the only one who can face her mother, illness and all, head-on with love, sympathy and the innate decency not to treat her any differently. Alice’s relationship with Lydia is the tie that truly binds.

Speaking about her role in Still Alice at a press event in Beverly Hills, Stewart expresses a feeling of kinship with Lydia — from her character’s need for artistic fulfillment to her free-form outlook that’s open to uncertain situations.

“I think it is easier for a person who lives and indulges in the ambiguity of life,” she suggests of Lydia’s adapting to her mother’s circumstance. “And I think that it’s easier for a child [like that], looking at a mother with something that is so indefinable; it’s easier for [her] to appreciate and live in the moments. And just because you can’t have a final answer in terms of how it’s all going to work out, or you can’t call it by a name, it’s still worth living in that potentially wonderful moment, [as opposed to] somebody who wants to map it all out, and if they can’t solve it like an equation then they just can’t have it in their lives. I can relate to my character in that I definitely don’t have the answers and that’s not even what I’m looking for. I’m not the type of person who’s like, ‘I just need to feel concrete. I just need to feel like nothing is going to change.’ I revel in the change, and it’s not that [Lydia is] more apt or has the tools to be more emotional — she’s not emotionally stronger. It’s not strength; it’s just the way people are. I think within this story and within anyone’s realities that might be similar, I hope to God they have someone who doesn’t need the answer, and who’s just willing to sit there and forget every other sentence and still enjoy the afternoon.”

When asked how she can relate to Lydia’s life as a struggling actress when Stewart herself is already a “mega-star,” she suggests that the search for artistic fulfillment doesn’t end, even when you’re at the top. “One of the greatest struggles as someone is becoming an adult is figuring out what they want to do, what makes them happy. I feel like Lydia actually figured it out quite early. The courageous thing is to stick with it, and see it through, and see if you are correct.”

She admires the tenacity of her friends who are still working to achieve their goals, and that even with her own success, she knows what it’s like to seek avenues for self-expression. “If I stopped working tomorrow, I would still have these impulses, these feelings to get out,” says Stewart. “These questions and desires to explore — I still can completely relate. I feel that way every time [I take on] a responsibility as great as saying that I’m good enough to be in your movie. It’s a huge statement to make and every time I do it, I think — is this the right choice?”

Though she hasn’t experienced a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s, Stewart describes a childhood memory of sharing an emotional moment with an elderly woman and later witnessing her isolation even when surrounded by family at the dinner table. “Her soul is singing and she’s definitely not being heard,” she recalls. “And I remembered that for a long time.” Stewart suggests that though knowledge and memories fade, the essence of someone afflicted with the illness remains. “If anything,” she opines, “you see a truer side of somebody who is so stripped and showing only their bare bones. There’s no affectation; there’s no pretense. You can almost see a version that is clearer.”

Introspective, playfully sarcastic and uncomfortable with praise, Stewart has the respect of her colleagues whether she wants to hear it or not. As co-writer/co-director Richard Glatzer — who speaks with the aid of an iPad due to his own battle with ALS — notes, “She doubts herself constantly and is the last person to recognize how great she really is.”

Writing this piece, my anxiety spiked once again as I began to hyper-focus on the limits of my cognition and wonder if any of my findings indicate a downward spiral looming ahead. Yet as I plunged back into my recollections of Still Alice, the cataclysmic scenarios my brain was cooking up gave way to the truth and emotion of the film. Powerful stories and powerhouse performances blast away superficialities and draw attention to what’s actually important.

Still Alice was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and based on the novel by Lisa Genova. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post


*Photo by Gage Skidmore, March 2012, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photo depicted remains under this license.

Jake Gyllenhaal on ‘Nightcrawler’

BY ANDREW FISH

Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal (Photo by Siebbi*)
Every time I tune in to the local news, I end up subjected to an onslaught of personal tragedies exploited to portray a city overrun with random acts of violence — a frightening place proven to provide the maximum audience draw in its time slot. When I watched Jake Gyllenhaal’s inspired performance in Nightcrawler, I got that familiar queasy feeling, which to me signaled success for a film that aims at full immersion into this particular, sordid world.

With a disturbing mix of frenetic entrepreneurship and clinical detachment, Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, trolls the airwaves with his police scanner, tracking down bloody incidents occurring in the right economic bracket, and records the aftermath to sell to a local news station. The budding crime-scene videographer serves as the audience’s inside man, revealing a system that broadcasts images calculated to trigger the fear, empathy and morbid fascination that keep eyes on the TV and the ad dollars rolling in.

“I feel like [Lou] is our creation,” Gyllenhaal says at a recent press event in Los Angeles. Referring to society as a whole, he suggests that it’s “our desperation for information of all sorts, in a world where unimportant information is now important, and important information [is] now unimportant” that creates an environment where “people like Lou can thrive.”

Writer/director Dan Gilroy cast his wife, Rene Russo, in the role of quietly captivating Nina Romina, a local-news producer who recognizes Lou’s eye for the gruesome money shot. Gyllenhaal points out that Lou “is enabled by Nina, Rene’s character, and Nina is enabled by the guys [who are] the heads of the station, and they are enabled by us! There’s a world where we maybe could live, where someone like Lou wouldn’t end up a head of a huge, major network, but I feel like in the world we live in now, he probably would.”

Making clear his respect for journalism, Gyllenhaal submits, “It’s important to know, to be informed, and to make choices based on … a number of different sources, not just one.” He adds that his feelings about news coverage are far from black-and-white: “I have been moved by the media, emotionally. My heart has swelled as a result of stories I’ve read, and I’ve been disgusted at the same time [by] different stories I’ve read.”

Gyllenhaal plays Bloom as a mercurial self-starter with a hunger for both gainful employment and a sense of fulfillment. He’s also a thief and a manipulator with a distinct, albeit creepy charm. Barring duress or necessity, he’s shockingly honest, routinely telling peers and colleagues — like those played to a T by Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed — exactly where he stands. And he’s surprisingly, almost obsessively interested in the give-and-take of communication.

In embodying this intense personality, Gyllenhaal took on a markedly different look, in his posture, his mannerisms and especially his face. Gaunt and sunken-eyed, starving and on the prowl, Lou emanates a wily desperation. The actor praises the diligent and subtle work of makeup artist Donald Mowat, and describes his own transformation as mental as well as physical. “I was running through Griffith Park all the time,” he says, “like 8 to 15 miles a day, and picturing myself as a coyote with all the [other] coyotes. And then my face just changed. I don’t think I was even aware. I really wasn’t aware until a few months ago, when we were going through all the cuts.”

Nightcrawler‘s unusually authentic depiction of the landscape of Los Angeles, featuring the deft camera work of cinematographer Robert Elswit, eschews go-to landmarks in favor of locations that offer a genuine look at life in Southern California — while serving to accentuate Lou’s feral nature. “There’s the green grass and the lawns that we create, that are all man-made,” says Gyllenhaal of L.A., “and outside of that is wilderness and the animal kingdom, and wild. And these animals come in at night.”

The New York transplant, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, poses a playfully ominous question, specifically to this gathering of West Coast journalists: “Who lives in L.A. … [and] hasn’t been ‘eye-fucked’ by a coyote? They are not intimidated by you at all. In fact, they’re looking for the most vulnerable aspect of you. And they’re a beautiful animal. I’ve grown to love them because I did so much research, and felt like I was one of them for so long, playing this character. They are ruthless — because they are also starving.”

Nightcrawler is now in theaters.


*Photo by Siebbi, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

J.K. Simmons on ‘Whiplash’

BY ANDREW FISH

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
We’re wired to feel a vicarious thrill as we watch a young protagonist become the hero he was meant to be. Whiplash hacks into this quirk of brain chemistry and gets you rooting for all the wrong things. Music student Andrew Neyman aches to earn a place in the pantheon of great jazz drummers. Terence Fletcher is respected and feared as the iron-fisted instructor who handpicks the school’s top talent and leads the jazz ensemble to competitive victory. He teases Neyman with a fleeting interest, then belittles him and withdraws. Neyman yearns for the golden ticket that Fletcher has the potential to give, and when it’s finally handed to him, we share his elation despite every indication that it will lead to very bad things.

Tapped to push Neyman — played by gifted up-and-comer Miles Teller — well beyond the breaking point is journeyman actor J.K. Simmons. As Fletcher, he’s Neyman’s perfect dysfunctional complement. Obsessed with finding the next Charlie Parker, he’s happy to torture the full potential out of the right willing candidate.

You might not know him by name, but one look at Simmons’ face sparks a sense of familiarity and respect from just about everyone who’s watched TV or movies for the past 15 years. Adept at channeling brutal, compassionate and everything in between, he’s played a complex and vicious neo-Nazi on Oz, a loving and insightful father in Juno, an ever-exasperated assistant police chief on The Closer, and a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson. And with his fierce performance in Whiplash, the Oscar buzz has begun — an especially satisfying development for longtime Simmons fans like me.

When I attended a Whiplash press event in Beverly Hills recently, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Simmons’ take on the project — a film which will likely bring him the attention and accolades he’s deserved for over a decade.

Simmons submits that Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle’s point was “to inspire discussion and debate and not decide — are we happy for Andrew Neyman or are we lamenting his loss of humanity? I think, based on the reception and the discussions that we’ve been involved in so far, that’s exactly what he achieved. Plus, it’s just awesomely entertaining. The end of the movie with a 10-minute drum solo!”

Neyman sloughs off all possible distractions, including his budding romance with Nicole (a charming Melissa Benoist) by letting her know that she doesn’t even rank on his list of priorities. It’s a moment of heartlessness emblematic of his single-minded symbiosis with Fletcher. “The debate I love,” Simmons says, “is how far is too far? How much is too much? Is it worth it? This kind of relentless abuse might be necessary and appropriate if you’re training Navy Seals, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in a music school. But it’s there, and it can be productive; there’s no denying that. From my own perspective, I’d rather have a pretty girlfriend than go work with this guy and have my hands bleed all the time. I would have made a different choice.”

With 19 days to shoot, opportunities for rehearsal were apparently off the table, which was perfectly fine for Simmons. “I actually prefer to work that way,” he says. “Whatever the role is, if you’re working on an accent or a dialect or a specific skill set that your character has that you don’t necessarily have, like playing the piano, then that’s the kind of preparation that I find absolutely necessary. For me, if the words are good on the page, the rest of it just comes from spending some time with the script. Not [in terms of] learning lines, but absorbing what the script has to offer.”

Noting that “collaborative” is his “favorite word in moviemaking,” Simmons is particularly appreciative that the flexible dynamic on the Whiplash set offered opportunities for improvisation. “The freedom to occasionally depart from the page a little bit and just throw the ball back and forth, and throw each other a curveball, was an added part of the fun,” he says. “And the fact that Damien is self-confident enough to not get his ego damaged by, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You didn’t put that comma in that sentence, or you said “perhaps” instead of “maybe.”‘ That’s always a beautiful amount of freedom to have as an actor.”

One of the things that’s always drawn me to Simmons’ work is his ability to bring his singular brand of charisma and humor to such a wide spectrum of personalities — from the warm and kind to the downright despicable. As he explains, it’s been a conscious decision to maintain his impressively varied portfolio.

“I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had,” Simmons enthuses. “If somebody asked me to play a Terence Fletcher-esque character next week, I would be reticent to do so. Part of the joy of doing what we [screen actors] are all fortunate enough to do here, is you get to do something different every time out. I learned that at the very beginning; I’ve been doing theater for 20 years, but when I first started doing camera acting, really, Oz was my first big thing that a lot of people saw. And I knew going into that, that it was a potential trap — that I could be playing the Nazi of the week on TV for the rest of my life. And from nowhere, all of a sudden Law and Order called and said, ‘Hey, would you like to play the shrink on Law and Order?’ — and it was like this perfect yin-yang that I had at the very beginning, so that I was perceived as a guy who could do a variety of things. That’s what we all want to do. We all want to not repeat ourselves constantly, and explore the limits of our capabilities. So, I just want to do something different than whatever I just got done doing.”

Aubrey Plaza on the Healing Power of Zombies

BY ANDREW FISH

Aubrey Plaza | Life After Beth | Parks and Recreation
Aubrey Plaza (photo by David Shankbone*)

In addition to analyzing my every social interaction and meticulously outlining how each of my decisions will end in catastrophe, I also maintain an ongoing concern that a zombie horde will inevitably begin its slow, trudging march directly toward my apartment, their decayed psyches convinced that mine will be the tastiest brain of all. I’d like to have the fantasy where zombies are after everyone and I join up with a ragtag band of reluctant heroes to save humanity. But no, the zombies are just after me.

Only self-centered people can be paranoid, and it’s that piece of hard truth that makes me determined to get out of my own head — which is one of the many reasons I enjoyed what the inimitable Aubrey Plaza had to say about the free-form nature of zombie narratives at a recent press event in West Hollywood. She was discussing her latest film, Life After Beth, a bittersweet romp into darkness that follows a young woman’s mysterious resurrection and slow descent into demonic decomposition. Featuring a cherry-picked collection of talent including co-star Dane DeHaan, as well as John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines and Matthew Gray Gubler, the film offers Plaza and co. an unusual amount of artistic freedom.

“I really like how when you do a zombie movie, you can come up with your own rules about what your zombies are like because there’s no set thing, and it’s anyone’s interpretation,” she says. “There are things that people think of when they [picture] zombies, but you could really just make up whatever you wanted. I thought the script was really clever in coming up with some rules that we haven’t seen before — like zombies love smooth jazz! I’ve never seen that in a zombie movie before and I thought that was kind of a fun characteristic. And I also really liked the idea of seeing someone slowly transform into a zombie. Normally, they burst out of the grave and they’re immediately a zombie, but this was cool because it was like a slow burn.”

Plaza, best known for her role as April Ludgate-Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, has amassed an adoring legion of fans with her elevation of sardonic deadpan to high art. She doesn’t paint by numbers, she’ll say what she darn pleases and she gets away with it with a bat of her big brown eyes. She was the perfect person to remind me that nothing — not even a long-held sense of personal, zombie-fueled doom — is set in stone. I also enjoyed hearing how she practiced her zombie moves in private.

“I did do that a couple of times by myself in the bathroom,” she recalls, and continues with a laugh, “I would look at myself and freak out — and I’d be like, ‘That was a great freak-out! I could use that tomorrow.’ Or I would do it at red lights just to freak people out.” When asked what her parents would do if she ever actually became a zombie, she replies, “I think my mom would probably cut off her fingers and let me eat them. I think any mom would! My dad would probably just shoot me in the head.”

In her signature style, Plaza steers the conversation toward an oddly calming place when asked if she would recommend zombie roles to her peers. She replies, “Yes, I would recommend them, I think they’re great and fun and very therapeutic. You don’t always get to play a physical role where you get to act like a lunatic and grunt and make weird noises and attack people. So if you feel like you are holding anger, or anything, inside, it’s a really great way to let it all go.”

So not only do I have free rein to change the unhealthy narrative in my head, but even if the zombies do come knocking, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. And as the vibe gets decidedly tranquil, Plaza is positively Zen when she reveals what she does to relax. “I’m pretty good at just staring at a wall and going into nothingness,” she says. “Nothingness calms me down the most.”

I felt a glimmer of peace, though even in a moment of ease, worries don’t disappear entirely. But they can be tucked out of sight with just the right encouragement, and Plaza serves it up. How would she do in a real zombie apocalypse? She grins. “I think I would be great in it because I’m a really good shot and I’m not scared of anything — so bring it!”

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth is now in theaters.


*Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

How Moby Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse

BY ANDREW FISH

Moby
Moby (photo copyright Eleanor Stills)

In the midst of working on a top-secret photo album for my girlfriend’s birthday, I noticed the time and sped off to a 7pm screening of the new Jake Gyllenhaal art-house film, Enemy. It was a jarring transition to leave my half-built microcosm of love, memories and pink polka dots for an aggressively puzzling universe of dualities, enigmatic motivations, and the demise of everything as embodied by a big, creeping tarantula. A familiar ball of angst began to grow in my chest after the credits rolled, as I headed back to the office for a frenzy of late-night, heartfelt scrapbooking. When my girlfriend texted me to come home I couldn’t tell her what I was working on, nor did I know quite how to explain the visions of spiders now haunting my thoughts.

I got back before midnight and we snuggled up to watch the Olympics on DVR. My arachnid ruminations began to wane. The following day I drove into the hills to retrieve my medical records from my retired doctor and ended up spending an hour trying to help him fix the Wi-Fi connection on a computer nestled below a display of fossilized horseshoe crabs. I failed as tech support and was now officially late, navigating rush-hour traffic to get home and prep myself for opening night of Moby’s art show, a photo exhibit called Innocents, a companion piece to his 2013 album of the same name. There was the possibility of interviewing him. Thirty minutes later I was on the couch with my laptop, reconnecting with the sounds and images of the symphonic maestro, breathing deep to mantric repetitions, the words and notes layered and revisited. The spell broke as an email popped up from a scientist friend, a link to an article about the impending collapse of the California almond industry, and the doom that awaits the unsustainable agricultural system we’ve built in a desert. With frightening ease, my mind circled back to looming disasters colossal and small. What if I’d broken my doctor’s computer? The spiders were back.

I tamped it down the best I could as my girlfriend and I donned our finest rocker duds and drove to Project Gallery in Hollywood, where the exhibition surprisingly mirrored my state of mind. Moby’s photographs were a compelling homage to the apocalypse: dark clouds over Los Angeles, people in unsettling masks posed serenely against a backdrop of society’s end. Moby gets it, I thought. We’re barreling toward catastrophe.

After posing for cameras, Moby mingled with the growing crowd. I saw an opening and reluctantly approached. I’ve never liked guerrilla interviewing and I was sure this would blow up in my face. I pulled out my recorder and inquired if I could ask him a question or two. Moby looked at me like he’d just had a great idea. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t we go in the back and talk?” And just like that, I was in a small, darkened storage space with the global superstar of electronic music. He told me we were there both because he likes talking to people and he really wanted to get out of that loud room. I was his excuse for solace, which I was more than happy to use as an opportunity to talk with him about the end of the world.

My first question was about finding beauty in the apocalypse and I learned that his outlook was far brighter than the gloom I’d projected onto his work. “There’s a conventional Judeo-Christian pejorative judgment of the apocalypse,” he said, and explained that the “connotations of destruction and death” were constructs added after the fact, and that “etymologically in ancient Greek, ‘apocalypse’ just means a revelation.” He offered the theory that over the past 200 years or so, the greatest threats to humanity have shifted from “big scary things that were out of our control, like bears or dental problems” to “problems that humans have created for themselves. So my hope for the apocalypse is that we start being less stupid and stop creating so many problems for ourselves. It seems like it’s so easily within our grasp.”

Offering specifics, he said, “Should we get our energy from the sun, which is free and ubiquitous? Or go a few miles underground, dredge up black sludge, refine it and make toxic byproducts and then burn it? I’m not a crazy hippie, but one seems sane and the other seems insane.”

He told me that after tearing his rotator cuff, he began to compare the apocalypse to “going to the chiropractor’s. Day after day, year after year, you get your posture out of whack and stuff isn’t working that well, and it takes movement to readjust everything, like a tectonic shift, and that’s what I hope is happening with our apocalypse.”

“Think of our culture now,” he suggested. “We have an African-American, progressive president who listened to punk rock in college, we can get healthy, organic food almost everywhere, and most countries are not at war with each other, which they were 50 to 100 years ago. Gay marriage is being legalized. The atrocities in the Ukraine are being documented immediately, with immediate repercussions; stuff that would have been done in obscurity 50 years ago and now people are shining the light of day on it with social media. I feel like we’re generally moving in a more rational, benign direction. So that’s my theory, that there is this change. It’s almost like humanity, at this point, can be broken down into the people who are accepting this change and then the people who are very attached to the atavistic status quo of the way things have been …”

He had me at “my hope for the apocalypse.” The tempering of my worries led me to ask about the calming nature of his music, and why he tends toward repeating lyrics and patterns that seem like a meditation.

“Part of it is, subjectively, I find repetition to be quite comforting,” he replied. “Maybe it’s why I gravitated toward a lot of electronic music; electronic music does tend to be repetitive. Also, when I was really young I studied classical music and I had a music teacher who only liked very complicated music, and he hated repetition. So when I was, like, 13 or 14, part of my rebellion against him was loving simplicity like Neil Young and John Lee Hooker and the Ramones, and also loving repetition. Other people are driven crazy by repetition but a repetitive piece of music or repetitive motif within an art show, I don’t know why, it’s very soothing to me.”

I told him that I find it mantric, to which he said that his understanding of a mantra, “at least according to the TM people, is to liberate the tight grip of consciousness, and so maybe intuitively, unintentionally, that’s what I’m doing.”

I had more to ask, like whether he experiences the same emotional trip when he’s creating his music as his listeners do when they hear it, but someone was knocking at the door. I fell back on my standard final question. “What do you love about what you do?” I inquired. He answered that his “favorite thing about music or art or literature is it’s a way to express things in a nonlinear — or at times nonlinear — way that helps me to better understand the world in which we live, and my experience of it, if that makes any sense. I honestly don’t know how I could exist in our world with some degree of perspective and sanity if I wasn’t able to express myself.” And, he added, he enjoys figuring out “how to turn weird, exhaustion-addled perception into something that someone else might like.”

I thanked him and departed, feeling an awful lot better. Maybe everything isn’t a catastrophe waiting to happen. The birthday scrapbook was a rousing success, I still haven’t received a phone call telling me I owe someone a new Dell, and Moby was perfectly happy to answer my questions. And though the California drought might be the catalyst for a downward spiral and all manner of disasters may lie ahead, it’s also simultaneously possible that I could run alongside one of those spiders I think is chasing me, grab hold, and ride it Slim Pickens-style straight into the business end of the apocalypse and be the better for it.

The exhibit runs at Project Gallery through March 30th. For Innocents photographs, music and videos, visit www.innocents.co.

System of a Down’s Serj Tankian: Upgrading the Dynamic of Art and Audience

BY ANDREW FISH

Serj Tankian | Orca | Jazz-iz Christ | System of a Down
Serj Tankian (Photo by Robert Sebree)
I’m still running iOS 5, which means I have ad-free YouTube, native Google Maps, and a smartphone experience that’s more like playing with bubbles than sifting through index cards — which would you rather do? It also means my outdated phone isn’t compatible with many of the latest apps and I wasn’t going to be able to use it at Serj Tankian’s multimedia exhibit, Disarming Time, last month, which required iOS 6 or higher to experience his latest piece of innovation: an art show where each painting is intertwined with a piece of music. Though I refused to budge on my increasingly irrational anti-update stance, I was determined to fully experience the event that had gathered this eclectic crowd. You know something interesting is going on when Tom Morello, Moby, and Richard Dekmejian, a world expert on the history of genocide, are all in the same room.

So I promised my friend an enormous sandwich at Fat Sal’s if he would forego the full-immersion element of the show and lend me his iPhone (that was no longer compatible with his snap-on charger since his iOS 7 upgrade, which, I felt, further validated my decision to live in the past). Upon our arrival at the bustling Project Gallery in Hollywood, however, he’d realized he had forgotten his new iTunes password and sat down to figure it out. Luckily, I’d brought a backup friend. This one had a rickety Android with 20% battery life that couldn’t handle multimedia texts, which he handed to me with a gracious, hopeless smile. I downloaded the app, plugged my iPhone headset into the foreign device, and with childlike faith aimed the camera at a painting.

A sound crept in, smooth and low, and the clamor of 100 conversations melted away until all that remained was the painting, the music, and me. The back-up friend was definitely getting the sandwich. Once “Space Clock (Green)” — a burst of emerald shades, quicksand-like enveloping a handless clock — had taken me with a softly wandering beat, I moved on to “Space Clock (Blue),” which mirrored the previous with the addition of what I can only describe as audible snowflakes, or maybe stars. Nearly all of the 22 multimedia pieces featured deconstructed clocks surrounded by color and abstract shape, with companion musical compositions that varied as wildly as the moods and hues of the respective paintings. “Timeless” and “Self Portrait” were fast and fun, “Grieving Banner” evoked a jarring sadness, and I found myself at their mercy. Continue reading

A Reflection of Modern Times: An Insider’s Take on The Knick

We’re progressing so fast that the technology of a decade ago seems laughably quaint. We can’t imagine living in the dark ages of 15 years back, and the immediate future is an expanse of exponentially unfolding possibilities so broad that it feels like anything can happen — a great leap in evolution or maybe the end of everything. The steady build of excitement and dread emblematic of our modern age is likely how our forebears felt at the turn of the 20th century, which is why now is the perfect time to revisit 1900, a similar age of ingenuity overdrive.

The Cinemax series The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh, explores the achievements, exploits and improprieties in and around a fictionalized version of New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the dawn of the surgical revolution. Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) has just taken over as chief surgeon after the suicide of his mentor, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), and faces the jarring reality that Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) — a black man with an M.D. from Harvard and European training — will be the new assistant chief surgeon. The show takes the opportunity to investigate this period of great upheaval, when innovation was mushrooming and a move toward racial and gender equality was quietly and slowly beginning.

“We are living through a time of great technological change,” notes Steven Katz, supervising producer and a writer for The Knick, during our recent chat. “Like our ancestors — they didn’t know where X-rays and things like that were going to lead, and we don’t really know where things like the Internet and social media and all these other cutting-edge technologies are going to take us.”

The turn of the century was the heyday of the Wright Brothers and Einstein and saw the invention of the first motion-picture camera. Germ theory had been formally proven by the likes of Louis Pasteur just a few decades earlier, and along with Joseph Lister’s pioneering of antiseptic surgery, it was possible for “an infinite variety of surgeries to take place that were not possible before,” says Katz. “Most people probably thought of a visit to the hospital as a death sentence, but this actually made it possible to do some really radical things. As Thackery says in the pilot, more discoveries were made [during] the turn of the century than in the previous 500 years.”

The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, begins with a failed experimental placenta previa surgery presented in graphic detail. The subsequent pursuit of perfecting that technique reveals a dark side of the medical progress of the day. Surgeons depended on human subjects with terminal conditions, most of whom died as they provided data for the next attempt. “It does seem like you probably could expect to be treated a little bit like a lab rat when you went into a hospital at the time,” confirms Katz, yet the cold truth was that patients with no hope of survival provided essential learning opportunities.

With Soderbergh’s handheld shots and dimly lit sets instilling a prevailing sense of apprehension, the show takes on racial issues as well. Thackery at first dismisses the idea of accepting Edwards as an equal. He is infuriated upon discovering that Edwards has converted the hospital’s basement into a clinic and operating room for African-Americans who are institutionally denied treatment at the Knick, yet he starts to come around when he sees the groundbreaking work that Edwards is doing — like the development of an electric suction device and a silver-wire suture technique for a new hernia procedure.

“I think [Thackery is] the kind of person who admires talent and brains first and foremost,” Katz suggests. He explains that in the original drafts of the episodes he wrote, Thackery was more of an abjectly racist character, yet “one of the interesting things during the course of the production has been watching Thackery develop, especially under Clive’s interpretation of the character. What you see now is a far more complicated character with definitely racist attitudes — but are they especially virulent, or are they simply a reflection of the times? It’s hard to tell. Clive is a very smart actor and he’s made the character seem so intelligent, and it seems like this is something the character is actually wrestling with as we watch him develop.”

Katz is quick to note the parallels to the current day, pointing out that “the country is still going through it. Turn on the TV. It’s shocking that all these years after the Civil War, we’re still wrestling with these racial issues. The thing that really strikes me about this stuff is that it has so many echoes now — to use [historian and author] Barbara Tuchman’s phrase — it’s like a ‘distant mirror.’ It’s a little bit spooky. One of the things [that happened] at the end of the Gilded Age was everybody felt pretty good about themselves, but there was a lurking fear that something bad was going to happen. And something bad did happen — World War I. I think you get that sense now in the world.”

Having pursued several historical New York City projects through the years, Katz is thrilled to be working on The Knick. “It’s great to see an early 20th-century New York project actually exist,” he enthuses. “I’ve worked on a lot that didn’t come to fruition; it’s not a cheap period to evoke [on screen]. I love this period; I love the city of New York. I’ve lived here 30 years. It’s also an incredible pleasure to be working with Steven Soderbergh and sitting in a room and having script discussions with him, and watching him shoot. I used to play this game whenever we were shooting, to try to predict how he would shoot a scene, and I never got it right. It shows you how unexpected [his work can be] and what an extraordinary visual imagination he has.”

Everybody Loves John Goodman

BY ANDREW FISH

John Goodman
John Goodman (photo by Tom Sorensen*)
Interview conducted for Venice Magazine

John Goodman is a fixture in contemporary American cinema and television. Beloved for his rough-edged tenderness on “Roseanne” and idolized for his tyrannical loyalty in The Big Lebowski, he has a knack for cultivating hilarity in the darkest places and jubilance in righteous anger. He’s a master of the jovial veneer that thinly veils a percolating menace, and simply unrivaled at flying off the handle. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor’s body of work is prolific to the point of common knowledge, as one would be hard pressed to find someone unfamiliar with him, and equally challenged to find a moviegoer who isn’t a fan.

Goodman’s role as Dan Conner on “Roseanne” served as the rock upon which he built his towering reputation and his alliance with the Coen brothers made him larger than life. A rare example of a character actor who rose to the heights of Hollywood luminary, Goodman bounded his way up with such turns as the jail-breaking Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona (1987); an unlikely monarch in King Ralph (1991); Charlie Meadows (aka Karl “Madman” Mundt) in Barton Fink (1991); the savior of 1920s baseball in The Babe (1992); the epic Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998); the cyclopean, turncoat Bible salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000); the deftly exploited Detective Dehling in One Night at McCool’s (2001); and even as stone-aged family man, Fred Flintstone, in The Flintstones (1994). Always game for a laugh, Goodman became a “Saturday Night Live” favorite as he dolled himself up as Linda Tripp multiple times during the Clinton scandal. He also lent his talent to “The West Wing” as Acting President Glenallen Walken; the German historical drama, Pope Joan (Die Päpstin, 2009), as Pope Sergius; and “Waiting for Godot” as Pozzo on Broadway.

Goodman’s ability to illuminate the bright side of hardship, while playfully reminding us how deep in the gutter we’re capable of going, has earned him his place in the pantheon of screen legends. The venerated performer gave us a call from his adopted home of New Orleans on a Monday afternoon. The following interview took place in March 2010.

Your character in “Treme” seems to parallel your own life, in that he’s someone who wants to get the truth out about the events in New Orleans after Katrina.

John Goodman: Yes, the impotent rage that resides in me. [laughs] Snap a rubber on that and put it right!

Potential energy becoming kinetic. You’re getting it all out there.

Yeah, some of those speeches were fun to say.

How did you first become involved with the project?

I was doing a TV movie in New York last fall with Al Pacino, a famous Italian actor.

I think I’ve heard of him.

David Simon and Eric [Overmyer] came down one day, and they had an idea; they had shot a pilot for this, and I’d heard of it already. I was all for it because they’ve done such good work, and I thought, “Maybe somebody will do a good piece about New Orleans.” So they had this character and they wanted to go and re-shoot some stuff, and they offered it to me. And I said, “Yeah, whatever.” It was one of those deals where I was trying to act like I was holding three aces and not grinning from ear to ear. [laughs] They offered it to me and it worked out.
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David Cronenberg on Freud, Jung, and A Dangerous Method

BY ANDREW FISH

David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg (photo by Alan Langford*)

Probing the secrets that thrive beneath the surface, David Cronenberg excels at exposing the hidden and repressed. Though often frightening in the light, the psyche’s inner workings are at the root of human behavior, and the director’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, delves into the lives of the scientists who first revealed them to the world. A great leap took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the idea that we’re only partially aware of what our minds are doing, and that our reactions, emotions, and decisions are the result of an interplay between what we know and what our brains have been brewing behind the scenes. Sigmund Freud’s theories of unconscious thought and its investigation through psychoanalysis provided a new way to treat the emotionally unstable as well as a broader understanding of humanity as a whole.

In 1904, a young Swiss psychiatrist named Carl Jung, who had been following Freud’s work, decided to try out the Austrian neurologist’s “talking cure” on Sabina Spielrein, an 18-year-old Russian patient at the Burghölzli hospital. Diagnosed with hysteria, Spielrein was nearly uncontrollable, yet when Jung sat with her and asked simple questions, she divulged the underlying causes of her ailment. As her emotions began to balance out, she revealed her own interest in psychiatry and Jung took her on as a research assistant. Graduating medical school in Zurich, she became a pioneer in the field and a prominent psychoanalyst, herself. Jung’s treatment of Spielrein was the reason he began corresponding with Freud, which brought the two men together as friends and collaborators. For several years Freud groomed Jung as his intellectual heir, until things went sour. Jung had grown close to Spielrein — with strong evidence pointing to a romantic involvement — and their turbulent relationship led to Jung’s dishonesty with Freud. This tension, combined with Jung’s resentment of Freud’s perceived arrogance and Freud’s disappointment with Jung’s introduction of spirituality into treatment methods, resulted in their acrimonious split in 1912.

The methods of Freud and Jung, the respective fathers of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, have been practiced, debated, supported, denounced, and expanded upon to this day, while Spielrein’s accomplishments have remained in the shadows. She did groundbreaking work in child psychology and was a key player in bringing psychoanalysis to Russia. Her theory of sexuality as both a destructive and transformative impulse was a profound influence on Freud’s study of innate self-destructive tendencies, and her relationship with Jung was instrumental in shaping the mystically minded doctor’s concept of the soul. Her life ended at the hands of SS soldiers who killed Spielrein and her two daughters in 1942.

Keira Knightley channels Spielrein as the frenetic turmoil of her adolescence gives way to passion, grit, and noble ambition. Michael Fassbender presents Jung as a married man conflicted in his love and lust for Spielrein, and equally burdened by his need to leave Freud’s nest. As radical psychoanalyst Otto Gross, Vincent Cassel thumbs his nose at the idea that urges should ever be repressed and counsels Jung to do the same. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is cautious in his alliances and places the integrity of his field and his colleagues above all else.

Based on the book A Most Dangerous Method (1994) by John Kerr, the film was written by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his play, “The Talking Cure.” A Dangerous Method is right along the continuum of Cronenberg’s work in the dark reaches of the mind. The parasites that pared down the psyche to basest instincts in Shivers (1975), the psychiatric treatment that brought emotional trauma to the surface as body deformity in The Brood (1979), the anger and greed that could reach out and kill in Scanners (1981), the melding of perversity with technology in Videodrome (1983), and the devolution of a man in The Fly (1986), each represented the forbidden rising up and taking shape. And when examined, Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), all dipped into the mess of secrets, delusions, and impulses that define the human condition. We meet with the Canadian filmmaker to discuss Freud, Jung, Spielrein, and the historic first steps in the study of the unconscious.

In your film, Jung’s story is all about ego, id, superego, and reality, with Jung’s conflicted ego, Otto Gross as the unrepressed id, Freud as the superego father figure, and the reality of Sabina.

That’s right. Very Freudian. In fact, someone said, “You’ve used Freudian methods to analyze Jung.” [laughs] And I think there’s some truth in that.

Is that where you began when putting the story together?

First of all, it’s Christopher Hampton’s play. We have to give him credit for distilling a very complex era, the birth of psychoanalysis, down to about five characters, because there was a cast of hundreds of characters, really. But I noticed from doing panels with Christopher, and talking to him, that I don’t think he would have used a scheme like that. That’s great to analyze after the fact and it’s not that it’s inaccurate, but creatively it would hamper you, I think, rather than release you. It’s not something that you use creatively.

So that dynamic is something that emerged by simply telling the story?

Yes, because you’re trying to be faithful to these people, the reality of them, because they are so well known — at least two of them, and then two are obscure, Otto and Sabina — but we have endless documentation. They were obsessive about letter writing and they were obsessively detailed in their descriptions of their thoughts and their feelings and what they ate and what their dreams were. So we have tons of stuff, and for me the process was one of resurrection; I wanted them to be brought back to life. I wanted to see them and hear them, as close to what they would have been as artistically possible. So that means that you’re not coming with an agenda — pro-Freud or pro-Jung or anti-Jung or whatever — and you’re not really imposing a schematic structure on them. You’re imposing a dramatic structure, yes, but the drama was there in their lives anyway, so you’re kind of taking away all the peripheral stuff and some of the complexity to reveal this dramatic structure. But it was there, in reality. All of those things, really, were pretty much as they happened, as outlined in the letters. Otto Gross really did say those things to Jung, and Jung really did say [Otto is] very seductive and makes you think that he’s right and you’re wrong. All of those things happened, so you have to say it’s kind of an amazing coincidence that it has a perfect Freudian structure, because it is historically accurate. It’s not like we forced it into some scheme, but what you say is not inaccurate, either.
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