Personal Faves: The Best of the Early ’70s on Film

This past year, I have seen roughly 200 films. As my job requires me to see a plethora of movies, a good chunk of them were new releases. But as I am a hermit on the weekends, many were older films I always meant to see but for some reason or another let slip between the cracks. For me, watching a film is always experiential; I love nothing more than the physical response to viewing a great film you’ve never seen and the cinematic high that follows. But I always look at my constant film watching as an education, leaving the theater or shutting off my computer as if I’ve just done a close reading of an important text, feeling as if I’ve gained insight into a time and a place in the world that I ever knew existed. And when it comes to Hollywood in the 1970s, that for me has always been the most enthralling and the most informative.

1. Zabriskie Point, Michaelangelo Antonioni (1970)

What lacks in dialogue is completely made up for in cinematography and sound thanks to Pink Floyd’s disjointed psychedlic meets ethereal soundtrack. The beginning scenes in Los Angeles with all the 1960s aggressive advertising juxtaposed with the bare desert and the final blowup/breakdown just killed me. Of course, Antonioni plus Sam Shepard would only naturally equal the dustiest choreographed orgy scene of bodies and sounds.

2. Alice in the Cities, Wim Wenders (1974)

I love everything about this movie, from the pacing to the polaroids and exterior driving shots (that reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s early photographs). Wenders’s films are filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find that thing or feeling they’ve never even been able to name. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive, and what could be more universal?

3. The Landlord, Hal Ashby (1970)

Here’s a really great 1970s New York race-relations film. It was endearing and funny while also being insightful and guttural. Hal had a really bizarre tone to all of his films and this one takes a little bit to get situated but when it does, it feels like how his others end up—living in this weird world between the absolutely ridiculous and extreme reality. Beau Bridges boyish face was the perfect canvas to project against this urban world.

4. Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson (1970)

If I could be reincarnated as anything it would be Jack Nicholson’s left eyebrow in 1970. His performance in really established his maniacal acting style that is just so good it makes me wonder if modern actors of this callibar even exist anymore. The film is brilliantly written and directed, showing a tragically ambivalent man’s existential crisis that leads down a road to nowhere in the style of New Wave art film.

5. Shampoo, Hal Ashby (1975)

A hazy satire of late ’60s sexual politics and great hair. It’s interesting to set a film as a period piece—seven years earlier—with a political backdrop that only keeps the mood light. If the script had fallen into another director’s hands with lesser actors, I’m sure a good deal of magic would have been lost, but this was wonderful. Warren Beatty’s haircut and Julie Christie’s backless sequined dress are really the other leads of the film.

6. Husbands, John Cassavetes (1970)

Troubled men, troubled world. This one is wonderfully shot, of course; Cassvetes is the master of holding the camera close to bodies and faces to expose interiors in a way that’s as haunting as it is aesthetically beautiful. The dynamic between Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara cannot be beat. Cassavetes’s maniacal laugh will be playing on repeat in my head for days. The film displays the immature idocy of men but also the knowledge that they recognize their ways and attempt to change—but is it only out of shame or guilt?

7. Sunday Blood Sunday, John Schlesinger (1971)

What the film does best is speak to the sentiment that we’re drawn to that which will never be fully attainable despite all our efforts. It’s not a film about what it is like to be a gay man in love or the struggles that coincide, but a film about what it’s like to be a person in love—male, female, whatever. If the film is still progressive to this day, it’s for the way in which it does not treat the homosexuality of the characters as something different or subversive. Both Daniel and Alex’s stories feel ultimately tragic because perhaps their desire for him was merely a projection.

8. The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula (1974)

Every film in his political paranoia trilogy is perfect. Gordon Willis’s cinematography kills me and is at its best when in these kinds of stories. So much inching tension and unrest. So psycholoigcally stimulating and well-acted. Sidenote: Is it a requirement for all the leads in this trilogy to have the same brunette haircut?

9. Performance, Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg (1970)

No one does out-of-focus, sparkling-chandelier-light haze reminiscent of fantastical winter nights of intoxication better than Roeg. Jesus, this movie is a fucking brilliant depiction of indentity and the power to transform oneself. As usual, sexuality and violence go hand in hand that seduces you with it’s lustful danger. And obviously, the music is half the pleasure.

10. The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman (1973)

Elliott Gould is perfect as the wisecracking and fumblingly adorable Marlowe. Altman’s version captures an essence of ’70s easy cool LA that’s breezy and charismatic yet haunted by it’s darkness lurking beneath the surface. Takes noir and makes it natural. Great sounds.

Watch ‘Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself’

There are few whose words I cherish more than that of Sam Shepard. And although last week we celebrated the birthday of the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock and roll jesus with a cowboy mouth, if that wasn’t enough to satisfy your craving for the haunted and dusty words and performances of Sam, you can now watch Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself, an autobiographical documentary that dives into the journey of an artist. We followed him on the act of writing his plays in a way that’s more intimate and candid than we’ve seen the director before—aside from Shepard & Darkwhich was filmed well after this had it’s premiere.

In the reflective and wonderful film we get a rare glimpse into his normally shielded life as we catch up with Sam at a “key stage along this route of self-discovery. In 1996, the Signature Theatre Company presented an entire season of his plays at the Public Theatre in New York. Spanning thirty years of writing, the season covered the one-acts of the Sixties, the rock and roll plays of the Seventies, the later works that feature Shepard’s recurrent preoccupation with the American family, and concluded with the premiere of his latest play.” Check out parts one through four below.

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Uncovering the Friendship of Sam Shepard & Johnny Dark in Treva Wurmfeld’s ‘Shepard & Dark’

“There are places where writing is acting and acting is writing,” Sam Shepard once said. “I’m not so interested in the divisions. I’m interested in the way things cross over.” And as an icon of the stage, the screen, and the literary world Shepard has spent the last half-century making his mark on the world, through the “seamless juxtaposition of his cowboy mouth and battered heart.” Whether it’s his plays, memoirs, or poetry, Shepard’s work evokes a very particular mental landscape, rooted in his endless search to understand the duality that lives inside man and all those faceless screams that live inside us.

Whether he’s writing about the existential questions that reside between men and women, the legacy of fathers and sons, or the aching desire to disappear into solitude, there’s a fluidity and physicality to his work that’s once both muscular and extremely tender. The themes of his work remain central to the emotional core of his being, while remaining transient in their nature—moving from the primitive starkness of reality, to a magical realism that exists in echoes of feeling and tone rather an words alone. But its his on-screen performances that helped solidify his legendary status, and continue to bring him closer into our purview.
 
But for all we’ve known about Shepard over the years, perhaps one of the most interesting relationships of his life as well as one of the biggest influences on his work resides in the friendship between he and Johnny Dark. After meeting in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, two became swift friends and eventually family, when Shepard married the daughter of Dark’s wife. And although Shepard went onto become one of he most profound and brilliant American writers, Dark’s life stayed closer to home. Residing in New Mexico, Dark remains hermetic—spending his time writing, working at a supermarket deli, and walking his dog. But for his reclusive nature and emotional distance from the rest of the world, he and Shepard’s friendship has endured, through even the roughest of times in their lives.
 
And in Treva Wurmfeld’s wonderful new documentary Shepard & Dark, we’re given an intimate portrait of their deeply moving relationship, as they begin the archival process of their decade-spanning correspondence. Through interviews, old photographs, super 8 footage, as well as witness their interaction, the film unfolds like something Shepard would have written had he not lived it himself. Playing out like a tale of opposite brothers whose own personal traumas and struggles still ache within them, the two look back on their past with mixture of sadness and joy as we begin to understand just how entwined their lives have been while they discover the own legacies they’ve created.
 
Earlier this week, I got the chance to speak with Wurmfeld about her introduction to Shepard, being the first person to unearth their story, and what she discovered along the way.
 
Can you tell me about your background as a filmmaker and what led you to Sam?
I actually have a background in fine art; I got my MFA in New York, focused in video art. While I was in graduate school I started making documentaries and that grew into an interest in interactive media and technology. So I had these video stills and I needed work, so I was able to do a behind the scenes documentary for a film called Jumper, and I got really inspired being on the set of a big film and decided to take a stab at writing and directing myself. I made a short film in 2007, which had a festival run, and then I ended preparing a Sam Shepard documentary in 2010. One of the main reasons why I had started that was because I did an  interview with him on the set of a film called Fair Game, another Doug Liman film. That interview with Sam had so little to do with Fair Game, because he had such a small role, so I just took advantage of that opportunity to interview Sam Shepard about everything I’d want to ask him and was able to channel that in raising money for feature film. 
 
Before that first interview, had you been an admirer of his work?
Yeah, absolutely. I hadn’t seen any of his original productions put on but I had seen his shows on college campuses and that sort of thing. I actually saw one out here in LA a few years ago as well. So I had read his plays and was familiar with Paris, Texas. That was definitely in the back of my mind. 
 
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How did you approach Sam about your initial concept for the documentary? Did you know about Johnny and how they’d begun their archival process?
Once I had the idea to make the doc, I wrote Sam a hand-written letter and got it to him through Michael Almereyda, who had worked with him on Hamlet and is still a very close friend of his. So I was able to get him this letter and a couple weeks later Sam called me and said he was doing some readings in Santa Fe and asked if I’d like to come film the reading. Then he said casually, “Oh I’m going down there to pick up these letters that I’ve been writing back and forth with my close friend Johnny, and I’m going to take them down to San Marcos, Texas.” He mentioned the project in passing, but I didn’t really know at the time who Johnny was and I didn’t what the project would be and how interesting it would be to focus on. So I went down to Santa Fe and filmed these readings, which, you can probably imagine a reading or a conference for documentaries is not the most compelling thing. I really just wanted to take the opportunity to go Santa Fe, and when I got down there and interviewed them, their entire backstory just poured out of Johnny in that very first interview and I really started to see how big a role Johnny played in Sam’s life and work.
 
Both Sam and Johnny are interesting subjects because they would appear to be very closed off in their own way. Johnny isn’t used to being in the spotlight and although Sam puts so much of himself into his writing, I would think he’d be more hesitant to really open up. But they were both so vulnerable and willing to show, so how did you go about building that open relationship with them?
It was pretty quick because I was familiar with having to get people to open up. Part of the job is having to get your subjects to feel comfortable on camera, and there’s a certain amount of trust for that to happen. So I made a conscious effort to approach both of them with that in mind, and I also picked up on the fact that they’re both very casual, laid back in their own way. I felt like I brought that in my process as well. I had a small crew there but it was generally just me filming, so there wasn’t a lot of orchestration. I went with their schedule, on their terms, and I think they responded positively to that.
 
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There’s so much complexity to the history of their friendship and as the film unfolds you see it’s really about the ebb and flow of that relationship. Was there anything you began to uncover about them that you were really surprised by?
You know, it’s hard to distinguish between how my impressions developed in real time while filming and how my understanding of my own film became more clear. It’s just getting to know someone. There was nothing that particularly surprised me about Sam, in terms of how he was going be with me on camera; I felt like he maintained a kind of guardedness and at the same time was very generous in giving me access and answering questions. But I also didn’t really push it; I felt like in time it would reveal itself. I was just generally surprised to learn of their particular history, because a lot of the things that ended up shaping the story, I didn’t go in with that knowledge. I wanted to film Sam and his friend and do a portrait of his life through other people and the present, but it was striking to come across Johnny and this archive and understand it all. But to actually be able to use these photographs and this incredible super 8 footage, it was amazing to me that I was the one that was able to have this opportunity to put it all together. I felt fortunate to be in that position and I didn’t expect that.
 
Their story really feels like something Sam would have shaped himself, it’s so reminiscent of the brotherly relationships in his work. How did you go about interacting with the two of them as director to let the story reveal itself?
I was trying to stay as neutral as possible and be understanding of both of them at all times. I think that was easier for me when they were together, in a way, because I didn’t have to get into the middle of this. But I think as you can tell in the film, there was part of their fallout over the book project that I was actually not able to be there in person for. There was a chapter where I was trying to piece it all together and wasn’t actually there for it. I had to play a role in it in order to get them both for the film to finish, which poses some interesting questions about documentary filmmaking sometimes—like how you get the subjects to go where you want them to. Obviously nothing they did was anything I fed them, but it was just playing this role of trying to get Johnny back in the headspace of thinking about their relationship when it wasn’t great. So that kind of thing was a challenge, but I generally feel like they both were surprisingly open to talking about their friendship, and even the “hiccup” in their friendship, as its called.
 
So much of Sam’s work is about legacy and the echoes left behind between fathers and sons and men and women as he and Johnny sift through their on archives and letters, it was as if they were discovering their own legacy for the first time. That was so interesting to see them relive these painful moments and just how reevaluating the past effected them so much in the present.
Yeah, it has a lot of parallels to True West and Paris, Texas and some of the brother characters in Sam’s work. But it was a vulnerable time for both of them because it was basically the year after Johnny’s wife has passed away—who he had lived with for as long as he’d known Sam. Obviously that was a tremendous loss in his life, and then for Sam having left Jessica. Also, he was approaching the age that his father was when was his father was killed, so there was this looming sense of outliving his father and his own mortality. I think that those factors also played a role in their friendship at this time and the way that looking back at their past was a challenge. 
 

Watch Meryl Streep, Benedict Cumberbatch, & Many More in the Trailer for ‘August: Osage County’

Well, any trailer that opens with narration by Sam Shepard whilst he tends to a boat, is aces in my book. And with the first trailer for August: Osage County, The Weinstein Company gives us the premiere look into the Weston family after a crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in.

Adapted from Tracy Lett’s play of the same title, John Wells takes the directorial helm to bring the dysfunctional story of a family dealing with the aftermath of death, confronting the past, and facing the future, to the screen. Starring Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, and Margo Martindale, August: Osage County is slated to premiere this November, just in time for awards season.

Check out the trailer below.

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Jeff Nichols Explores the Cycle of First Love and Masculinity in His New Film ‘Mud’

When it comes to experiences that bind us together, there are few things more universal than heartbreak. Everyone remembers the first time it happened—the earth-shattering sadness and the way that painful fire burnt inside you for the very first time. You look back on that initial taste of love and remember the sweetness, the overwhelming, almost suffocating sensation that came from finally understanding what it truly means to need another human being. But in the natural progression of life, eventually that love ends or fades, and although it hurts like hell, you survive. Wounds mend, you meet someone else, and, in time, you’re able to start the cycle all over again. With his third film, writer and director Jeff Nichols explores this "cycle of first love," told through a fourteen-year-old boy experiencing his first heartbreak, inside the larger tale of a man stuck in first love’s loop—never having been able to move beyond his first love. "It’s kind of like Lolita in a less gross way," says Nichols, whose new film Mud may look one way on the surface, but is moved along by a powerful and emotional undercurrent.

As the follow-up to 2011’s psychological drama Take Shelter, Nichols’ Mud explores a similar rural American landscape, filled with ordinary people dealing with extreme circumstances, living normal lives until something creeps its way in and shatters their foundations. Written in the summer of 2008, Nichols finished the script for Mud alongside Take Shelter, but says he had been thinking of the former since college. "I always had Mud on my mind," says Nichols. "I was building towards Mud."
 
You can see what he means. Since his first feature, Shotgun Stories, Nichols has been slowly evolving on a larger scale. Mud feels like his most ambitious and fully-realized work yet, packing not only a wonderfully-crafted narrative but the emotion and heart that separates it from stereotypical southern tropes. When asked if his Arkansas upbringing made a large impact on him as a filmmaker, Nichols claims that "It defines who I am."  Setting his films in the worlds he grew up in, the worlds that his memories are steeped in, is just another way the talented director has differentiated his work.
 
"It was just real comfortable and really easy to close my eyes and write in that voice and in those places," he explains. "I didn’t have to do copious amounts of research, I could just imagine it." With that sense of imagination, Nichols tells the thrilling, adventurous, and emotional tale of a 14-year-old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who happen upon a fugitive hiding out an an island in the middle of the Mississippi river near their home in Arkansas.
 
The boys meet the mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) after finding out that he’s been living in an abandoned boat in a tree that they’ve claimed as their own. The boys agree to help out Mud and bring him food while he’s on the lam, hiding from both the police and the shady men who are after him for a crime he’s committed. But all the while, he’s waiting to be reunited and run away with the woman he’s been in love with since he was a child, the woman with nightingales tattooed on her hands, Juniper ( Reese Witherspoon). It’s that romantic sentiment and commitment to his woman that Ellis connects with and admires in Mud as his own mother and father contemplate divorce and the future of their family, creating a bond between the young boy and the outlaw. Living across the river from Ellis is the old and wise Tom Blankenship, played by the wonderful Sam Shepard in one of his best roles in recent memory.
 
After discovering a book of black-and-white photos of people living and working on the Arkansas river,  Nichols says he realized that there was "a world in my backyard that I don’t know about." This idea sparked his vision of a guy hanging out on an island in the middle of Mississippi. "Little Rock is split in two by the river," he explains. "Whenever you drive over the bridge you see this little island in the middle of the river, and I always fantasized about playing out on that island." Nichols ruminated on the topic for a while, before deciding that the story was simply too good not to pursue. "When I said it out loud—a guy hanging out on an island in the middle of the river–it just felt like a good idea, like a big classic American movie idea." 
 
But not wanting to make a simple getaway film about a man on the run, Nichols thought about young boys finding Mud, and who those boys were. "A girl had broken up with me and I was feeling defeated and pained," he admits. "I started thinking, yeah, what if this kid’s going to get his heart broken and there’s this guy who always gets his heart broken, but for some reason always keeps coming back. All the sudden I had what ended up being the core of the story." And that core being love–first, unmerciful love. "A lot of the time we look down on that young love we had and think, oh wasn’t that cute or puppy love and all, but its kind of the fiercest love there is," he says. "You don’t have your hands up yet, which makes the fall so hard because you’re fully committed to it, you’re all in. And oh man, it hurts."
 
Having written the character of Mud for Matthew McConaughey without ever having met him, the challenge was finding the right actor for the role of Ellis. " I went in to meet him and he was just the physical manifestation of my character," says Nichols of Tye Sheridan, who, in his role, gives one of the most endearing and fearless performances of the year so far. "He looked like him, he sounded like him, he was from east Texas, he hunted and fished, did everything that I needed this kid to do." Sheridan had recently played the youngest son in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which turned out to be just the proper training for the young actor, who Nichols found out about through Jessica Chastain and his producer Sarah Green. "He’d been through this amazing experience of being on a Malick film," says Nichols. He’d had the experience of working with celebrities and getting to understand the mechanism of filmmaking and cameras. "He had just gone through this amazing improvisational bootcamp and came to me fully formed as a talent," he adds. "All I had to do was give him the script and get out of the way."
 
There’s a particular moment in the film in which Sheridan explodes on Mud. He runs into the scene bursting with emotion and delivers an incredibly well-acted and authentic moment that hits you straight in the gut—which elicited an audible gasp from the audience at Sunday’s premiere at MoMA. Nichols recalls showing up that day on set and asking Sheridan if he needed to talk about the upcoming scene. Sheridan replied "Give me a few minutes," and sat on a log for two to three. Then: "Bam!" Nichols snaps his fingers in repetition."Two, three takes, just like that. I was like, holy crap. McConaughey and I just looked at each other and were like, we’re gonna make it." 
 
But what rings true with all the male characters in the film is inverting standard ideas of masculinity. Nichols takes the southern male mentality and exposes its "endearing" weakness. "I wanted to make a romantic film about the male point of view of love, and I don’t think that happens a lot," he says. He takes these hard men, whether it’s Mud, an outlaw, or Blankenship, a reclusive older man, and shows their vulnerability and their devotion to love. "They might be men who don’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings but they have all those thoughts, they have all those feelings, and we treat them like humans, like the real people that they are, and we don’t need to fit them into a stereotype of masculinity."
 
The dynamic between men and women in the film feels akin to that of the works of Shepard himself—an almost antiquated and structured view of how one should be, with the intellect and insight to understand the confounding nature of love’s instability. As a huge admirer of Shepard himself, Nichols admits, "there were definitely days on set where I was like, I’m not worthy of being here." He also recalled "the greatest day ever" when he was sitting on the beach and Shepard, who had the day off, came over "just wanted to hang out." The two sat together on the beach eating lunch, talking about music and films and books. "I was like, this is the coolest thing that I’ve ever done in my life."
 
With its release this weekend, Nichols is finally able to sit back and reflect on the film that’s been living inside him for years. "Now that I’ve made Mud, I feel like I’m ready to move on to a second chapter," says Nichols. For the 34-year-old director, it may be the beginning of a long and exciting career. "I’ve had Mud with me so long as an idea, it feels like it’s the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. I just feel it."

Explore the Relationship Between Sam Shepard & His Best Friend Johnny Dark in ‘Shepard & Dark’

Upon reading anything Sam Shepard has written—whether it be his plays, memoirs, poetry, etc.—you can almost hear the faint whistle of the wind blowing in background or feel the heat of the sun casting its light on your skin. His words conjure up a very particular feeling, and your mind wanders to the vast plains of America, the sweeping vacant landscape of the southwest, and long, dark nights driving through the deser alone for miles on end. He brings you deep inside his tormented and beautiful state of mind—but it’s never bleak. It’s existential with the gentle touch and rough tongue of a man searching to understand the duality that lives within himself and the endless search for identity and meaning that plagues us all.

And although he’s expressed himself thoroughly throughout his work over the years, it’s his best friend Johnny Dark that knows him more deeply than probably anyone else ever will. After meeting in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, two became swift friends and eventually family when Sam married the daughter of Johnny’s wife. And although Sam went onto become one of he most profound and brilliant American writers, Johnny’s life remained closer to home. And with the new documentary Shepard & Dark that premiered at TIFF, director Treva Wurmfeld takes an intimate look at their decade-spanning friendship and the correspondence they’ve 

Filmed back in 2010, the film centers on a time when Sam & Johnny decided to publish their letters to one another—and the result looks absolutely remarkble. As if yesterday it was announced that Music Box Films had acquired the rights to the doc and hopefully, we’ll have more word on a theatrical release soon. 

So in the meantime, check out the trailer and if there’s  box of tissues handy, I suggest you grab that now.

Sam Shepard Joins New Discovery Channel Miniseries, Let’s Celebrate With a Look Back at His Life

Sam Shepard: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, seasoned actor of stage and screen, and rock n’ roll jesus with a cowboy mouth. There’s no one quite like Sam—no one. And in the last forty years he has graced us with his unique and true American voice, creating brilliant plays and films that break out hearts and ignite the fire that lives inside of every man and every women. Needless to say, I love him dearly and in my mind, any day warrants a little Sam appreciation.

However, today we learned that he will now be replacing Chris Cooper in the Discovery Channel’s first ever scripted project, the miniseries Klondike. Naturally, Sam will be playing Father Judge, a man who "has come to town to atone for his violent past on a mission to save souls." Well, Sam you’ve already saved mine. And thankfully, this year we’ll see no shortage of him—first with Jeff Nichols’ upcoming Mud, then John Well’s August: Osage County, and Klondike. So, let’s take a look at Sam through the years, from his role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, to his reading from recent years. Enjoy.

 

 

Sam as The Farmer in Days of Heaven

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Sam and Jessica Lange in Frances

Sam, 1971

Sam as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff

Paris, Texas‘ "I Knew These People" Scene

Sam and Patti Smith Performing Their Play Cowboy Mouth

Sam Shepard on His Family Plays (Parts 2, 3)

Sam Shepard Talks Days of Heaven

 

Sam being Sam

The Moth and the World Science Festival present Sam Shepard

Sam Reads From Day Out of Days

More Sam and Patti Smith 

 

Sam Reads at Trinity College Dublin

Matthew McConaughey Takes Center Stage in Jeff Nichols’s New Trailer for ‘Mud’

It took him almost an entire career of Wedding Planner(s) and Failure(s) to Launch, but Matthew McConaughey has finally found his place in cinema. The recent string of roles he has taken on make us wonder why he didn’t venture down this path in the first place? Perhaps it was an evovling sense of purpose as an actor or something that’s come with age, but in the last year he’s really seemed to hit his stride. With last year’s Killer Joe, The Paperboy, and even Magic Mike, McConaughey has come into his own—his own being a seedy, somewhat disturbed, southern (not so) gentleman on the fringe of the law. And with Jeff Nichols’s Mud, the follow-up to 2011’s paranoia-inducing Take Shelter, it appears McMonaughey is proving again that he’s not someone to take lightly. 

Mud tells the story of a two teenage boys who encounter a mysterious fugitive and form a pat to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trailer and to reunite him with his true love. Take Shelter was well-recieved by critics, garnering Nichols the attention he deserved from a film that was neither pure drama nor thriller, but a psychological study of a descent into madness that played on a mix of subtly and sheer power from its leading man, Michael Shannon—who also makes an appearance in Mud. In their Cannes review, The Film Stage claimed that Mud, "imperfect as it may be…marks a step forward for Nichols as a filmmaker capable of making big entertainment that retains some intelligence and a palpable message as well.” And if you aren’t sold already, Sam Shepard is also in the film and, let’s face it, that’s reason enough.

Check out the trailer below:

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Cinematic Panic: Longing Endlessly With Wim Wenders’ ‘Paris, Texas’

Welcome to Cinematic Panic, a new column in which I anxiously watch all of the Criterion Collection films that have either slipped under my radar or have fueled my film obsession and then share my personal rambling insights as to what makes them so damn good. This week, I take a look at Wim Wenders’s classic Paris, Texas.

There are some films that speak to your heart in ways that words fail to describe. You cannot always articulate just what speaks to you so deeply but when it hits, you know it’s there, and the film seeps into your soul and lingers. It satisfies those tender parts of yourself that you keep under lock and key for fear of vulnerability. But perhaps this inability to describe our undeniable love for these films says something about the greater sense that there are so many things we love and yearn for that don’t even have a face or a name in which to call them—a desperate hunger for something you’ve never tasted, the endless desire for a place you’ve never been, mourning the absence of something never to be regained. The Portuguese have name for it: “saudade,” or the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something.

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Andre Breton once said, “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.” And when I think of the films of beloved German auteur, Wim Wenders, that quote seems to resonate through all of his work. But for all his work—from the black and white existential road movie Alice in the Cities to last year’s 3D ode to his dear friend Pina Bausch, Pina—it’s his 1984 Palme d’Or winning exploration of the love-worn American psyche Paris, Texas that has remained my favorite. In the way that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opened up a part of my brain to an absurd world of psychological obsession and perversion that’s become a part of me, Paris, Texas immediately penetrated my heart and managed to capture something that I had always felt but never known. It also happened that around the time I initially saw the film: I was also traveling out west alone for the first time. Flying over the midwest, amidst my own battle with unrequited love, I sat and stared out the window with the Ry Cooder-scored soundtrack twanging away in my ears and couldn’t help understand what made this German man, who grew up amongst the wreckage of World War II, so fascinated with the myth of the American West. Speaking to his fascination with that part of the country, Wenders said, in an interview we did last year, “It was as sort of a utopian place compared to where I lived. All I ever wanted was getting there…there was rhythm and fun—the notion of fun was completely strange to me. Everything I really liked was from this mythical place called America.”

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It only makes sense that the story of Paris, Texas came from the greatest Pultizer Prize-winning tortured American playwright, Sam Shepard. And what makes the film so emotionally and cinematically rich is the juxtaposition between he and Wenders—the German with a fantastical pastiche obsession with Americana and the rough-tongued “rock and roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth” himself, whose words are engrained in the sprawling western landscape. The two have collaborated many times since, but this holds as by far their best work—creating something that speaks to the human condition so effortlessly in a way that few films have been able to. No one does melancholic American isolation like a misanthropic German. 

Paris, Texas is a heartbreaking character study of longing and lacerations of the heart. The film follows Travis (Harry Dean Stanton in the most profound performance of his career), a silent and weathered drifter who reemerges after a four year absence to reunite with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson), who has been in the care of his brother Walt (played by Dean Stockwell) in Los Angeles. Upon reconnecting with Hunter, Travis sets out to find his estranged wife, Jane (played with soft perfection by Nastassja Kinski). When it comes to Shepard’s writing, his world has always a bit hyper-realistic and things just happen—like Travis leaving for years without a trace and with no one chasing after him. But because of his command of narrative and language, the story unfolds in a way that feels extremely real and the emotion so raw and genuine that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to question it because you can feel it, and that’s so much more powerful.The plot is simple, stripped to bare elements of narrative, but in its sparseness lies a tale about the myth of the American family and opens questions about love’s ability to fix the void within us all.

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The most stirring moments of the film come when Travis and Jane finally reunite at the peepshow parlour that Janes has been working, where customers sit on the opposite side of a one-way mirror, observing the woman on the other side, instructing them via a telephone-intercom. Separated by glass, Travis can see Jane, while she remains unaware of who is watching her. Picking up the phone to speak with her, he begins to tell their story. “I knew these people,” he begins, and continues to deliver one of the most beautifully written monologues ever delivered on film. In this 8:41s monologue you gain more emotional insight into the characters and their relationship than you could possibly have gained from actually seeing these moments played out. Perhaps a lesser director would have taken these words and morphed them into montage or flashbacks, but Wenders’s brilliance lies in the way he’s directed the delivery of these speeches, intercut with shots of Jane’s face as she begins to realize who is speaking to her and the implications of that. When Travis returns the next day, it’s Jane’s turn to speak as she sits with her back to the wall and explains how she "used to make long speeches to you after [he] left." "I used to talk to you all the time, even though I was alone," she says. "I walked around for months talking to you.” This physical separation between the two speaks to the notion of feeling alone even in the presence of someone else, even in the presence of someone you love. Jane and Travis both feel an incredible sense of isolation yet long for connection and in finding one another that longing turned into a painful attachment. This reunion begins to rip them apart from the inside out. When Jane finally turns to Travis as they touch from opposing ends of the glass, his is relfected in hers—reminscent of the Ted Hughes line from "Lovesong": 

In their dreams their brains took each other hostage
In the morning they wore each other’s face.

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These scenes have no tricks, no cheap ploys for emotion. The shots are simple and the weight lies in the heaviness of their words and devastation that resides on their faces. The subtly of the acting creates such a natural essence to the scenes that make them even that much more painful to watch. Harry Dean Stanton once said, “The painful part, with Sam’s writing, was to understand how to do it. Because you don’t have to act his writing. Finally, Wim said, ‘Don’t act these lines. You just say them, like poetry, say it with a meter,’ and that’s what Natassja and I tried to do at the end, just say the lines. That’s the problem, I think, with people who do Sam’s plays. They try to act it, and his writing you don’t act. You don’t even have to motivate it if you can just be simple, because all that needs to be said is in the writing."

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What makes Paris, Texas and all of Wim’s work so special is that it is filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find what it is they’re looking for. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive. Some of them find it in others and then some of them realize even if they did—would it even make them feel better? Or are they destined to eternally feel that hole inside? Travis leaves Jane and Hunter in the end because he knows putting together the pieces of the past won’t put him back together. He’s ripped apart we’ll never know why. None of us do. Wenders’s also expressed that, “hotels room have a real magic because you feel yourself, who you are in a different way and in an anonymous hotel room than you would ever be able to at home.” His films all live in transient places like motels where everyone’s face changes from moment to moment—and in a way that’s more comforting than feeling sorrow in the comfort of stability. In the end, Travis isn’t escaping (as he and Jane once dreamed of doing), he’s relieving—finally freeing himself.

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