Friday, January 27, 2023

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022)—An Evening Class Question For Guillermo del Toro & Mark Gustafson

As I approached the Christmas season this past December, I became curious about painterly representations of the Annunciation and discovered James Tissot’s version of the Biblical event, which depicts a blue multi-winged Gabriel. At approximately the same time, I caught the Netflix broadcast of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), currently nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Animated Feature Film. I was taken by how similar the Wood Sprite in Pinocchio resembled Tissot’s annunciatory angel. I wanted so much to be able to ask Del Toro if this was coincidental or an acknowledged influence? 

My Christmas wish was granted when The Guardian announced an online live conversation with Del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson on Friday, January 27, 2023. My question was relayed to Del Toro by event moderator Ellen E. Jones. 

* * *  

Michael Guillén: How you envision the Wood Sprite is wondrous. It reminded me of the angels in the paintings of James Tissot, particularly “The Annunciation” (1886). [Guillermo del Toro mimes applause.] Is this a coincidence? Or did Tissot influence your vision of the Wood Sprite? 

Guillermo del Toro: No, I like Tissot. I do like him. And I like the PreRaphaelites, the Symbolists. I like Odilon Redon who also used feathers with eyes, y’know? That’s one of his main symbols. I utilize a very varied vocabulary that I get from the history of art. I have a very good dialogue with art directors and production designers through that. 

In Mesopotamian art the wings are carved in a certain way on the Mesopotamian sculptures so we wanted to give it a pagan / more-than-natural, uncanny, cosmic feeling to those figures, so we made the wings like that. There are arrangements of wings that are different in seraphim, cherubs, archangels and in many of those cases each of the feathers has an eye, representing a human soul, depending on the culture. In Mexican culture the seraphims have six wings and have eyes on every feather. There’s a little bit of chimera that is very Mexican on death. 

When we were planning this, the way to echo the pine cone was on the tail of Death. The way to echo the two sisters was in the silver mask. They are both emotionless. What it tells you is that they’re not natural. The metal mask tells you these are not natural beings. And, funny, I don’t think we thought about Mark Twain but we have a character with a mask. 

Mark Gustafson: Yeah, there’s the mysterious stranger. He doesn’t even have a head. He literally is holding a mask in the air and it’s very unnerving because I think—and this worked for us in the film—we look at people’s faces, we look at their eyes, to get any kind of cue: “Are they telling the truth? Are they being sincere?” When none of that information exists, you’re back on your heels. 

Del Toro: It’s supernatural and then the voice and the text that Tilda Swinton delivers shows more compassion. When we were watching a clip today at the BFI of Talos [from Jason and the Argonauts (1963), animated by Ray Harryhausen], I thought, “Oh my God, Talos’s face is a mask! That’s what makes him so terrifying. Even when Harryhausen wants to show him feeling pain, he does a gesture with his hands, almost like John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) [del Toro mimes clutching his throat as if he’s choking]; but, he doesn’t change his face. It stays unflappable. That’s what death and life are: they’re unflappable in the face of human plight. 

But to finish the answer to this important question: when I talk to students or young directors, I say, “Please, please, make your vocabulary visually much more than film. And much more than just pop culture illustration, more than comics, more than illustration, more than fine art, more than architecture, more than sculpture, all of it. The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain used to say, is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning. I think it’s the same with visual work. If your vocabulary is not accurate and you are short of your goal with the visual design of a thing, you’re short. It doesn’t matter if you miss the leap by one foot or one millimeter. You missed the leap. 

01/30/23 UPDATE: 03/17/23 UPDATE: My heartfelt congratulations to Guillermo and Mark for their well-deserved win.

Thursday, January 19, 2023


With his first directorial feature David Crosby: Remember My Name (2019) emerging as a Sundance darling picked up by Sony Pictures for theatrical distribution, I was touched by A.J. Eaton's invitation to moderate the Q&A after the film's premiere at The Flicks in Boise, Idaho. Evidencing "a large dimension to small actions", as diarist Anaïs Nin once wrote, it was with genuine pleasure and satisfaction that I accepted the invitation. It was great to know that A.J. was still the affable, accessible young man I met so many years previously when Bruce Fletcher invited me up from the Bay Area to the Idaho International Film Festival where Eaton’s short film The Mix-Up (2007) stood out as singularly accomplished. 

There is a double momentum informing David Crosby's revelatory presence in David Crosby: Remember My Name: sometimes it is only in looking back that we can actually look to move forward. I had no doubt that A.J. would eventually create a document like David Crosby: Remember My Name. Each time we conversed over the years, he leapt forward in experience and know-how. When we sat down at the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival to discuss the theme of cinematic disruption, he was already displaying major growth through his experiences in the industry. 

Without question, David Crosby’s music champions itself, a self-possessed body of work that has evolved into a tight weave with the evolving psyches of his fans and admirers. That Eaton has created a filmic valentine honoring the man and his music joins the global outpouring of felt loss with Crosby’s death at the age of 81. We each have our memories. For me, listening to the Crosby, Stills and Nash album for the first time, along with smoking my first joint. Many years later seeing him in concert here in Boise, Idaho, and being stunned by his rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” Then of course, my friend A.J.’s David Crosby: Remember My Name and the welcome opportunity to talk to him and his brother Marcus after its local premiere. 

This Throwback Thursday is for you, Croz, and many future listenings, looking back in time, looking forward in time, here in the present everlasting moment that music and film provide. 

 * * *  

A.J. Eaton (Photo: Unknown)
Michael Guillén: I presume this film is as much a mirror for you as it was for me. I’ve been monitoring A.J.’s career since he started as a young man, so I’m delighted to bring him back on stage to talk with you. I’ll have a couple of questions for him and then we’ll open it up to the audience. 

A.J. came to me about ten years ago, telling me that his brother Marcus had become involved with David Crosby. At the time I thought, “Wow, that would be an incredible film, wouldn’t it?” Eight years later, here’s the film, a Sundance darling, picked up by Sony Pictures. Could we talk about that inception? About Marcus coming to you with this friendship he had developed with Crosby and your realization that it needed to be chronicled? 

A.J. Eaton: Sure. Marcus and I met Dave when he was 69 years old. Marcus had attracted the attention of David because of his incredible guitar work. Marcus and David met and they hit it off. Having been around musicians my entire life, our entire life, there are a lot of people who will say things like, “Hey, I’m friends with Harrison Ford. You should meet Harrison Ford.” “Well, how do you know Harrison?” “I built his fireplace.” That’s not going to work. (That’s a true story, by the way.) 

When someone offers to make an introduction and the introduction goes as well: the minute I met David after Marcus said, “You should come over to the studio and hear what we’re doing.” Having grown up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was expecting him to be a drug burnout. I knew he had abused his body. The only thing I knew about him were the headlines. I walked into the studio and I heard some of the music that they were doing—a song that they did called “Slice of Time” and a song that they did called “Radio”, which were on this album called “Croz” (2014) that they were working on, which was indeed his first solo album in 20 years. I was floored and blown away. 

I said to David and Marcus, “God, I really love these changes and I love what you’re doing.” And David, he likes to have engaging conversations that are about the future. He describes it as “his antennae are up”. He immediately said to me, “You like that, huh?” So we became unlikely friends. Marcus, he and I were friends. Soon after that I realized that he was indeed in his third act renaissance and so I proposed the idea, “We should shoot some footage of you doing this.” I kind of had a hunch and had a number of people encouraging me to do so. 

So I brought my crew one day and set the camera and just watched them working. The hunch paid off. He’s really great on camera. He loves to tell stories. He’s a damn good raconteur. Then I said to him, “We ought to do a documentary.” He said, “Well, okay, I don’t have any money so figure it out.” And I did! For a couple of years I was out borrowing money and trying to shoot as much footage as I could because the truth of the matter is that this guy has nine stints in his heart now, he’s had a liver transplant and most of those only last six years; he’s going on twenty years. He’s living on borrowed time and he’s trying to do as much with that borrowed time as he can. He’s made four albums in the last five years and he’s halfway through his fifth now. Some of Marcus’ music is working with that. If Marcus chooses to, he can do more music with him. The invitation’s open. 

 I got to a point where I was literally going to lose my apartment in L.A. I had paid a crew and hadn’t paid my rent because there were some shots in there that were worth it. I got to a point where I approached a number of agencies and proposed the idea and they were like, “Wow, you’ve got Crosby’s permission?!” One agency said, “Yeah, we’ll finance it but you would have to include a bunch of our hiphop artists that we represent.” That wasn’t going to happen. Other people were saying, “He’s a has-been.” And I was like, “Au contraire.” Basically I got to a point where I was going to set this footage aside and I was going to work on some of my other film projects that were not getting attention: screenwriting, prepping another movie. 

 I went to see a wonderful lady named Jill Mazurksy, the daughter of Paul Mazursky, the director of Down and Out In Beverly Hills (1986), one of my favorite films, Scenes From A Mall (1991), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), an Oscar® winner, and she and J.J. Abrams—just a little name of a guy in Hollywood who’s directing a little film that he hopes makes it right now—she and J.J. wrote their first screenplays together. She has an office at Bad Robot, which is his production company, and—after one of these weird really bad meetings—she said she had produced a movie called Keep On Keepin’ On (2014), one of the best music docs I’ve ever seen. I was blown away because I just love that movie so much. She kept saying, “What’s going on with your Crosby movie? Let’s do something.” 

A.J. Eaton, David Crosby, Cameron Crowe (Photo: © Henry Diltz)
I went back to Bad Robot to basically spill the news, “Basically, I don’t think the doc’s going to work. I’ve shot all this footage and I’ll sell it later.” Cameron Crowe was there working on a show called Roadies (2016) that he was doing for Showtime. That was like the lightning strike moment. I said, “Cameron’s the guy! That’s it!” And Jill said, “I’ll go talk to him. That’s a really great idea. That’s a fantastic idea.” So she went and advocated on my behalf and he said, “I’ll meet with you” the next day. 

I went back to Bad Robot and I remember he was wearing shorts and he was tapping on his yellow steno pad. He has this iconic handwriting which is like the thought for Jerry Maguire (1996). He said, “You’ve got Crosby’s permission? That’s wild!” So we just had this epic brainstorm session right there. He said, “I can’t produce anything right now. I’ve got this show. But I tell you what, why don’t you let me do an interview for you”—because he could tell that Crosby was ready to talk and I was, of course, like, “Yeah, I think that would be rad!!” 

The minute they sat down on a Saturday morning at Groupmasters Studio, which is Jackson Browne’s studio in Santa Monica, I had my cameras set up and everything, Crosby sat down and said, “Ah, Cameron, good to see you, man.” They’d been talking for 40 years. Cameron is the kid in Almost Famous (2000) who was 15 years old and Crosby, Stills and Nash is the band that Almost Famous is loosely inspired by. So I realized that I was tapping into something that was far beyond me. They had a rapport. I mean, Crosby and I are friends, but Crosby and Cameron are 42 year friends. 

One of the first questions Cameron asked was, “When did you lose your virginity?” I was like, “We’re getting places fast!” I said to the camera crew, “Get more film, get more data cards, because we’re in for a wild ride.”  

Roadies didn’t get renewed for a second season. There’s a longer story. I wasn’t even sure that this was going to happen, to be honest, but there was so much serendipity surrounding it all that I was convinced it had to happen—the move was willed to happen. I called BMG, the company that financed the film, and it turned out that Cathy Dong—who is the head of their film finance department—she said, “I worked for Cameron on Almost Famous. I’m going to call him up.” So she went and advocated on my behalf. After a number of conference calls and me pitching about how I wanted to do it, and how Cameron and I had brainstormed and decided we didn’t want to do the cliché rock doc with talking heads and famous people or people who maybe didn’t know him at all saying “He was so great; I love listening to his albums.” We decided, “He’s such a good storyteller. Let’s let him tell his own story. Let’s let him be almost the singular narrator for his own life, like he’s writing a long-lost letter to a friend.” 

But, again, I’m walking around town like, “This is never going to happen.” I called BMG one day ready to make a deal that was going to be terrifying, like selling my soul to the devil or giving my liver to the movie, and they were like, “We’re so excited! Cameron Crowe called and he’s so excited to be working with you and he’s on board!” and I’m literally the last person in Hollywood to know. Maybe it was Crosby messing with me? Because he does that. Anyway, we sat down and did a number of shoots and the more me and Crosby and Cameron, the more we shot, the deeper he was ready to go. That shot of him on the couch at his house where he has this great Coltrane story that Marcus and I remembered from one of our great epic hangs in the studio, him telling that story, he did that and then five minutes later he said, “Finally, I’m free to die.” When someone tells you that, it’s pretty revealing.  

Guillén: The engine of this movie—what elevates it above just being a rock documentary (because it is much more than just a rock documentary)—is that it has a double pull. He’s looking back at the same time as he’s looking forward, which has an incredible momentum. What elevates this film is that you captured that. It could have collapsed into a documentary about drugs and all that but it’s actually more about what he’s doing now and his looking into the future. Can you talk about how you maneuvered that? 

A.J. Eaton: Sure. Well, first off, when I met Crosby he was working on these albums and I could see that these albums were indeed like his getting ideas and thoughts off of his chest after being latent for 20 years. I mean, he was always writing solo material; but, this was his first solo album in 20 years. The next album that he did was called “Lighthouse” (2016), which had no drums, no percussion, just singers singing harmony. I think he went back to the Laurel Canyon era. But there were lyrics in that album that talked about Christine, the girlfriend that he lost. And it seemed that even though he was going forward in his momentum, that he was reconnecting and getting these ideas and thoughts out of his head, trying to make up for lost time. When we started constructing the documentary, I was like, “Look, it needs to come off just like that, where we start present day and we know what the stakes are. Like we were constructing a screenplay. By page 15 or 15 minutes in, I should be able to pause and say, “I have to know what happens to this character when we get to the end of this movie. Is he going to come back a changed person? Or is he going to come back at all?” Rather than go chronological, we found in the editing that we could go present, past, present, past, present, past, then come to the end. 

We had an awesome Italian editor, Elisa Bonara, and of course I’m half-Italian and have a legacy of working with Italian editors, and we had some really great arguments. It was wonderful. “Why would you want to dramatize the Croz? Let him talk!!”  

“We are!!” 

She has a European sensibility. There’s some footage of him on the boat where there’s nudity, but even more nudity, and she says, “That’s great! I love it!” 

“Let’s just stick with R.” 

It was really fun because I’m a former editor and we were able to take some chances that way.  

Guillén: A quick editing question and then we’ll open it up to the audience. The animations in the film are intriguing to me, prefacing his flights away to the boat. Can you talk about that decision? 

A.J. Eaton: Sure. It’s surprising to me that his dad [Floyd Crosby]—being an Oscar®-winning cinematographer—that there isn’t a lot of footage that his dad shot of him. I actually think that’s kind of a crime. 

We found that there were certain places where he was talking that were key points—being fired from the Byrds, escaping to the Mayan—those were places that photos were not going to be taken. But there were other parts that were remarkable so Cameron was like, “We could do animation!” Again, that was like the two of us totally on the same wavelength, playing in the same key, and working in harmony like a good band. “Let’s do it.” So we found this guy, Billy Woodward, who had done work for Rolling Stone and had captured Crosby’s persona. He presented this wild idea and I got to direct it, which was fun, because of this guy’s work. You can move the camera wherever you want to. There were no limitations. We found those two scenes were where we needed the animation. 

* * *  

At this juncture I opened it for questions from the audience. Carole Skinner asked about the fact that the musicians Crosby used to work with—Graham Nash, Stephen Stills—are not talking to him anymore and if Remember My Name might not reverse that? 

A.J. Eaton: Often people ask, “Do you think this film is a way to wave a flag to get them back together?” Crosby said he didn’t agree to do the film for that; but, I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to reconstruct the story where hopefully they might see it or other people might see it and say, “Y’know, I’m gonna call my friend that I haven’t talked to in 20 years, and whatever we did to stop talking is bullshit and we should call and make music together.” That’s what I hope for.  

An audience member asked if Crosby had learned his lesson about friendship? Is he lonely? Does he want to make amends? 

A.J. Eaton: That’s for you as an audience to decide. I don’t think that he’s lonely. I think he has a pretty strong constitution and decided that, “Well, those guys aren’t going to talk to me so I’m going to make music with a bunch of younger people. I’m going to keep on making music because—if I wait around for that conversation to happen—perhaps it won’t.”  

Guillén: He actually provides that in context. When he’s talking about this, he says, “I do have friends.” That’s what I love. That’s this double momentum I’m talking about. He addresses the past but is interacting with young musicians right now so I agree, he’s not lonely. I don’t see him as a lonely man at all. 

A.J. Eaton: One of the songs on one of the new albums has a line—“Why must we be eternally alone?”—so I think he’s connecting with that and trying to grapple with the idea that maybe that’s it.  

[At this juncture Marcus Eaton joined me and A.J. on stage.] 

A.J. Eaton: This is a really big thing for Marcus because he was playing in Crosby’s band and then not playing in Crosby’s band because he’s a guy distracted by bright shiny objects, but Marcus was constant. Often times my producers were saying, “Oh, well you can just use Crosby’s music”; but, I went, “Wait a minute. I’m an old score guy and we’re going to get to a point where we’re going to need to delve deep into Crosby’s subconscious. He’s heavily influenced by jazz music and nothing symphonic would work." It came to me early on that Marcus was going to have to do the score.  

Bill Laurance is the lead keyboard player in a group called Snarky Puppy. He’s a big jazz musician. Marcus and Bill worked together to create the score. Bill channeled these ethereal moody jazz things—like when Croz is talking about his father leaving—and then Marcus made these great instrumental musical pieces, especially at the end when Crosby says, “All my friends won’t talk to me.” I think that’s the most beautiful piece in the movie. Also, Marcus has never worked for someone else, so it’s kind of a big thing for him to work for someone else, and then his boss is his brother. So he’s really come a long way.  

Guillén: Marcus, one element about the scoring that I think is very interesting here is that you’re referencing other musicians, like in the Joni Mitchell sequence, you definitely use some of her tunings and her chords. Can you speak about how you go about doing that? 

Marcus Eaton: Oh boy, I was not prepared. In the stylings of other people? 

Guillén: Yes. 

Marcus Eaton: Well, Crosby was pretty simple because we had six years of playing together. I would go up to his house and spend the night, stay on his couch, wake up in the morning and we would play our guitars most of the day. I’d be showing him tunings and we’d just vett off of each other. When A.J. showed me this film, actually my first impression was that it should be just guitar because that’s him, that’s his soul speaking to you. So after learning his tunings, that was pretty simple for me because it was easy for me to channel into it: “Okay, I know the emotion but this will be a little bit more cinematic.” 

On the Joni section, I went into her catalog and checked out some of her tunings, some of her changes, and I got to just, y’know, play around with the pieces and of course I had to run it by the boss to make sure it was okay. We were good, right? It didn’t take too long to get there. I was surprised; but, he pushed me. A.J. pushed me. 

A.J. Eaton: That’s what a director does

Marcus Eaton: I was going to tell A.J. to tell you about the Hammer footage. 

A.J. Eaton: Hammer footage. Really quick story again. One of those serendipitous pieces. So you see this footage of them on the hammock. Then you see the scratchy 16mm footage of him sail. There was a guy named Bobby Hammer who was one of Crosby’s closest friends and he had a 16mm camera with him often. A lot of those film photos of Christine on the beach were taken by Bobby Hammer. I knew that footage was out there. Crosby had told me a little bit. I kept asking, “Crosby, can you put me in touch with Bobby? Are you still in touch with Bobby?” Finally, on Facebook I found him. 

One day I got this instant message and I said, “Bobby, I need to talk to you right now! I know that you have that footage and I would love to take a look at it and, I tell you what, I will have the best people in Hollywood treat it well.” He said, “Well, I’ll have to talk to Crosby. I’ll get back to you.” Click. A couple of weeks later I got this mysterious phone call from Monterey: “A.J., it’s Bobby Hammer. I’ve talked to Croz and we’ve had a gentleman’s agreement for 45-50 years about this footage, that I couldn’t let it go because it’s very personal.” They were sailing with women and there was nude sunbathing on the Mayan. He goes, “But, Crosby called me and said you’re the guy to have it.” So I said, “Where is it?” At that point, he says, “It’s in my garage in Monterey.” 

We had this real cool associate producer Gabe [Caste] who was working for us. I said, “We have a mission.” So we rented him a car and he drove five hours to Monterey. Bobby Hammer is much older than Crosby, he’s in his 80s and not well, he fell down and broke his leg, he’s in a wheelchair and getting better, but…. 

So Gabe was going through this guy’s garage that has like 50 years worth of shit, pulling out all these boxes, and Bobby says, “There it is! There’s the footage. That’s where it is.” Gabe sees there’s all of these film tins. If you know anything about film, you don’t keep film in your garage, even in a cool, dry place. There were carousels of slides (which are in the movie) and then there’s one last manila envelope and it says “The Box” on it. There was this avant-garde film he made that consisted of shots of Crosby, Stills and Nash rehearsing. He had put together this footage and put it in this envelope. The edits were put together with scotch tape. Anyone who knows anything about film, that’s so many no-nos!! 

We took it to Fotokem and Technicolor and they just finished restoring the Orson Welles footage. The film got the white glove treatment and I have footage of them unwinding this film and we got one last play on that film. It if would have stayed in that garage for two more weeks, it would have been bonded together and you couldn’t have played it. That’s the footage of them rehearsing; him on the hammock and Stephen Stills going, “You son of a bitch.” That’s all of that footage. Time’s the final currency.  

An audience member wondered if the connection between Crosby and the two Eaton brothers had to do with the fact that they are sons of another artist, jazz musician Steve Eaton? 

A.J. Eaton: Absolutely. My whole connection to this movie is that. I fell in love with making movies by watching my dad write a song for a documentary. I fell in love with the idea of merging moving image and music together. I tried to work as a composer but didn’t do a very good job, but I did it for a while. I had shown Crosby some other things, some other cuts of this and he could see how I treat music with respect. After the movie has come out, I realized how tremendous and crazy the responsibility has been because his music means so much to so many people. People come up to me after seeing this movie, crying, saying “Crosby, Stills and Nash is the first album that I ever bought.” We paid homage to the big ones, but we also went for some B-tracks. That was also Cameron and I working in tandem. 

The other thing is Jan Crosby. This is the first time she’s gone on camera, to my knowledge, and spilled the beans on this stuff that’s not easy for her to talk about. And have a film crew come into her house. But she knew that I’m the son of a songwriter and she knew that I’m not here to be TMZ. I’m here to tell a truthful story because music is the truth. When things were not in harmony in their personal life, the music was great.  

An audience member asked what were the greatest lessons A.J. had learned from Crosby, not only as a director, but as a person. 

A.J.: That’s a hard one for me to encapsulate in what would be an hour-long conversation. Throughout this process, I’ve learned more about myself as a filmmaker and I’ve also learned, y’know, it’s not black and white with people. Crosby, himself, I see him as a human Rorschach test. Some people look at him and say, “Well, he’s a guy who’s trying.” Other people look at him and say, “He’s a jerk.” I’ve learned to appreciate certain things about him and I see some of his trying. I didn’t want to just do a movie about a guy. We wanted to do a movie about ideas and friendship and harmony and hope. 

As friendship goes, Graham Nash was there for Crosby when he got released from jail. They went out and had a steak dinner. There’s other stories about that legendary steak dinner, but I wonder if these days such as on Facebook with people friending and unfriending if true friendship is lost? And I wonder if the true spirit of musicmaking like they made is lost in today’s autotune world?  

An audience member asked A.J. what went through his mind as a director when Crosby, responding to a question, would take a long long pause before answering. 

A.J. Eaton: The trendy way of editing would be to cut those long pauses down. But we found a lot of times that when he would say something you could watch his eyes and they would go places. He would say, “Christine. Miss her.” Long pause. That would say everything. Finally, we found our groove. That’s how these films work. You start cutting and you go back and show it to a couple of friends, then you cut it again. Cutting away from his open moments to anything else is manipulating the truth.  

Guillén: And there is an old saying that cinema is thought. That the best films actually show thought. That’s what you’re looking at. That’s what you’re seeing. I think those long pauses speak to Cameron’s relationship with David. When you’re with a real, true friend and you’re talking, that’s often the case, that’s the way it works. 

Another audience member thanked A.J. for making the film, saying that so many scenes took him back into his youth. I quipped, “Were you smoking a doobie?” Laughter. He then asked how they came up with the title Remember My Name for the film? 

A.J. Eaton: That came from a conversation that was between Cameron Crowe and myself. One of the first days that I met Cameron he had in his backpack what he said was one of his all-time favorite Crosby albums, which was “If I Could Only Remember My Name.” We felt he had come full circle. It was not “if” I could remember my name, but remember my name. It also gives a sense of sincerity and, again, going to that idea of writing a letter to a long-lost friend.  

Guillén: We need to wrap up. I want to thank you, Marcus, for the friendship you developed with Crosby that you then brought to your brother, and A.J., I just have to commend you on your tenacity and persistence. We’ll leave you with the bottom line review in The Hollywood Reporter, which said: “This film teaches its children well.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

REVIEW: IKIRU (1952) / LIVING (2022)

In the program notes for the California premiere of Living (2022) at the 45th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival, David Riedel synopsized: “This beautiful drama, written by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and directed by Oliver Hermanus (Moffie), poses a question: How does a repressed and ineffectual bureaucrat respond when he learns he has only six months to live? Mr. Williams is the most buttoned-up of individuals, but he decides that the time has arrived to assert himself, change a few lives, and inspire a few others—quietly, of course. As played by the incomparable Bill Nighy, Mr. Williams’ every muted tic, soft breath, and forlorn expression says more than words can convey. This is someone filled with regret for a life not lived and a future he won’t have. With stunning camera work, wonderful performances, and a beautiful sadness that is never morose, Living examines what happens when a man realizes he has long avoided the very things that give his life meaning.” 

When I was a full scholar with the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco, I learned about Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and the role that archetypes played in predisposing one’s attitudes towards life. There are, of course, a certain number of archetypes laid out in his postulation of archetypal psychology, but among them there is only one hyphenated pairing: that joining the archetype of the puer, or eternal child, and the senex, the old man. James Hillman went so far as to propose that this dyadic archetype was the most important of all the archetypes. The puer-senex dyad has certainly been the most important archetype governing my life, reflected in how I got along best with those older than me when I was young and—now that I am old—my increasing reliance on the company of the young. An energy passes between these stations in life that defines the energy of life itself. That archetypal energy thrums beautifully throughout Living (2022), a Sony Pictures release that opens today at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, San Francisco, and rolls out in other Bay Area locations in following weeks throughout January. Living opens at The Flicks in Boise, Idaho on January 27, 2023. 

Oliver Hermanus, the South African director whose previous efforts include Shirley Adams (2009), Beauty (2011), The Endless River (2015) and Moffie (2019) has skillfully directed an adaption by Kazuo Ishiguro of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), which in turn was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich

With regret being the illumination that comes too late (if not just in time), the “incomparable” Bill Nighy delivers an achingly nuanced portrayal of a repressed and ineffectual bureaucrat who learns he has only six months to live. As Williams, Nighy matches Takashi Nimura’s original portrayal of the timid and mannered Kanji Watanabe in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. It’s, in fact, a stroke of scriptural genius to align British propriety with Japanese etiquette. Both are complacent, overly-mannered and traditionally-postured systems of social behavior that serve a conservative conformity while leaving little room for personal fulfillment. D.H. Lawrence once generally described the British as being “dead from the neck down”, whereas the usual malignment is “dead from the neck up”, which signifies that someone can be very smart and intellectual and know nothing about life. Which is exactly the case with Williams in Living and Watanabe in Ikiru. Given six months to live, both have to admit they don’t know how. Through the influence of younger co-workers, both reach back to childhood’s resilience in an effort to redeem their wasted lives and—by doing so—change the lives of those younger. The puer-senex dyad in its full glory. 

Again leaning into Jungian theory—albeit in, admittedly, an inexact way—Living particularly depicts a character in something of a “psychoid” state; i.e., his relationship to his memories is palpable, present, immediate, particularly right after Williams has received his diagnosis and is struggling to process the fact of his impending death. It’s not that he’s thinking about his past; he’s experiencing it directly, not just remembering but reliving it, relating to it, turning to face it as if it is sitting next to him, or walking towards him, or talking directly to him. His reactions are appropriately startled. His body is forcing him into a physical reckoning of his past, particularly in relation to when he was happy as a boy and young man; when happiness in and of itself was his purpose. 

Cinematically, by way of Jamie Ramsay’s camerawork, the energy of life is understood through tonalities of color. The film begins in black and blue shades, with bowler hats, dark suits, and black umbrellas, a nearly funereal procession of functionaries waiting for a train, or—as one of those functionaries states it—as somber as going to church. Black, like silence, is the great equalizer that negates identity under the pressure of personal and professional propriety. 

The first introduction of color is Williams’ purchase of a new hat after his dark bowler is stolen by a prostitute. He’s encouraged to buy the hat by Sutherland (Tom Burke), the young man with whom Williams spends a festive evening learning how to live again. This lightly-colored hat insinuates a new attitudinal disposition and is commented frequently upon in the film as being uncharacteristic (but welcome) in Williams’ appearance. The courtship of Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) and Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) likewise introduces a world enlivened by color, not only in the landscape, but in their costuming. This use of color to connote change is a cinematic option that Kurosawa couldn’t indulge as Ikiru was shot in black and white, though no less lustrously by cinematographer Asakazu Nakai who referenced liveliness in reflected patterns of neon lights on windowshields. One uses the vibrancy of color to register liveliness; the other dynamic textures and patterning. 

Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch unexpectedly offsets the dampening of emotional affect with lush, romantic scoring and arrangements of such standards as “Yesterdays” (whose lyrics add poignance to the protagonist’s plight), “Alone Together”, “Coffee Time”, “Fascination” and “When Lights Are Low”, all strategically placed to further the narrative. But nothing packs quite the punch of Nighy drunkenly singing the old Scottish ballad “The Rowan Tree” which fills him with so much emotion over all he has lost and forsaken that he simply can’t continue. It’s heartbreaking and painful and instils in Sutherland, Williams’ young guide into the nightlife of London, that perhaps he too needs to take stock of his life and not throw it away. One senses that he has learned a painful lesson from Williams about not mistaking diversion or duty for purpose and meaning. 

And as placement goes, I did appreciate the visual pun of the Oliver Bookstore in the background of one of the scenes. Hermanus’ tip of the hat to Hitchcock’s insertion of himself into his films, perhaps? 

It was intriguing for me to watch Living and Ikiru back-to-back and—as much as Living was faithful to Ikiru’s narrative—Ishiguro’s adaptation is streamlined for more immediate emotional impact, reducing Ikiru’s two and a half hour playing time by 45 minutes. This afforded time to insert into Living two powerful scenes absent in Ikiru. First, the scene where Williams’ son Michael (Barney Fishwick) gleans from Margaret Harris that his father knew he was dying and told her, but not him, expresses the anguish of a son who realizes his selfishness has failed his father and who will from then on carry that burden of shame. The second is the closing conversation between Wakeling and the police officer at the playground site where Wakeling absolves the officer’s guilt for not encouraging Williams to get out of the cold and go home by confirming that the officer was correct in granting Williams his one moment of happiness. 

Those scenes were welcome additions to the narrative, replacing the lengthy (almost comic) scene in Ikiru where Watanabe is in the doctor’s waiting room anxious to hear his prognosis, and being warned by a fellow patient to not believe the doctor’s double-speak. There’s no beating around the bush in Living. Williams is informed swiftly, almost mercilessly, that he has little time left to live. An economy that allows expansion elsewhere. In Ikuru’s wake scene Watanabe’s workmates proceed to get drunk and pontificate on the noticeable changes in his behavior and who should take claim for getting the children’s playground completed. Living reduces all that to a curtailed conversation in a train booth, which leads to the necessary question of what is this story actually trying to say? Is it really about being admired for what is left behind, for an accomplishment? In his farewell note to Wakeling, Williams makes it clear that what they have accomplished by building a children’s playground to replace a cesspool is a small modest thing that time will erase. So perhaps it's not so much about what’s left behind as what you do while you’re living, no matter how small or modest. Life must happen in order to be life. 

There’s that lovely pivotal moment when Williams has admitted to Margaret Harris that he’s dying and expresses concern that like children on a playground where mothers have called them in from play, they have a right to be contrary and not want to come in. Whereas he simply sat in the corner of a playground, neither happy nor sad, just waiting for his mother to call him in. In that moment he discerned not only the happiness he had never felt as a child in a playground but the potential happiness he could feel by helping to build a playground for future children. What could be more tragic than to leave life never feeling that you had experienced a moment of happiness within it? Living feels triumphant—indeed hopeful—for allowing its protagonist that fleeting happiness, and thereby a life that isn’t completely meaningless. You can see this in William’s eagerness to finally do something and be part of life when he lifts his heels before stepping out into the rain to investigate the work site. 

The structure of both Ikiru and Living has long fascinated me. Watanabe and Williams both come to the realization of what they must do before they can die. In the next scene they’re dead and being mourned by the living. But not only mourned. Questioned as well. Motivations scrutinized. The superiors want to take credit for getting the project done and resent that the people whose lives the playground impacted single Watanabe / Williams out as their hero. The higher-ups want to regale the efficiency of bureaucracy and not the passion of an individual. But as passion fueled by impending death becomes understood as the motivation, it become obvious that it was really Watanabe / Williams who got the playground constructed, working through channels of bureaucracy, yet despite them. 

The spring to Williams’ step as he ventures out into the rain to investigate the potential playground site demarcates an old life for a new one, no matter how brief. As his co-workers come to the realization that he knew he was dying and was inspired to act in the time left to him, they become inflated with a forced positivity of his example. They promise themselves that within a system that basically values not getting anything done, they will buck the system and do what they can. But, of course, their hypocrisy surfaces at the first opportunity they have to follow Williams’ example. Why should they? They’re not dying. There’s no pressure to do the right thing when it is much more expedient not to. 

The recognition of death, Joseph Campbell once told me, is what adds resonance to life. Without that recognition, you’re waking, working, sleeping, but not really living. Watanabe and Williams wasted most of their lives killing time with duty and responsibility, but each died knowing they had one true and genuine moment of life and imparting—in the saliency of their age—an informing energy to those younger. Margaret Harris and Wakeling, especially, have had their lives transformed by the old man’s vision, as much as he was able to find himself, through the example of their youthful vigor. 

In cinematic history there are indelible images that survive across time and in both Ikiru and Living it is the image of an old man swinging in a children’s playground in the dead of winter singing a childhood tune to himself. A man doomed to die with snowflakes falling onto his new hat.