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Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Marlon Brando died ten years ago this year. Back when all the Brando memorials came out, the acting legend was lauded for a handful of movies he made. That’s all it was, though; just a handful, and there’s a reason for that: Brando’s choices of film roles left a lot to be desired. Many people rightfully single out the handful of truly iconic movies he was in, because he did manage to get his name atop the marquee of some great ones: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now. That there is a Criterion Collection of filmmaking excellence. But does anyone remember The Nightcomers? How about Burn, in which Brando wrote in his autobiography he believed he gave his best-ever performance? A Countess from Hong Kong? Sayonara, which fell out of remembrance in pure spite of receiving an incredible ten Oscar nominations – including Best Actor for Brando – winning five? Yeah, looking at Brando’s total film list, he comes off as less an actor who thought carefully about how good the scripts were and more like someone who just threw until something hit.

While Marlon Brando made a few good movies, he’s best known for his cultural influence, but even more so for what I’m debating now: His acting influence. Brando was the original poster boy of Method acting, which threw movie performances for a loop. For an enormous chunk of the 20th Century, it was common for filmmakers to nab their stars right from the stage, which is why performances from earlier movies are so much different. The Method relied on emotional memory, in which an actor focuses inward to basically bring out the character, in extreme cases turning the actor into a whole different person. Brando’s performances unleashed a beastly wave of actors who perfected what he started, and into this wave during the renegade period of filmmaking – late 60’s through the 70’s – entered maybe the two greatest movie stars of all time: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The 70’s released any number of screen legends – Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman are arguably the most notable among them – but it’s Pacino and De Niro who are scratched into the stars as Brando’s immediate torch-carriers. Before them, there was never a pair of actors who combined such presence, versatility, iconoclasm, and charisma to such a high level of consistency and memorability. Both actors are in their 70’s now, and with the “After Them” period sadly approaching, I’m still not sure we’ve found anyone on Earth who could so much as meet them halfway. Yes, the candidates are out there, but they all lack in one area or another. 

That being the case, it’s still Pacino and De Niro who dominate all the film school best actor ever conversations. Now, it might be unfair to compare two different actors, but Pacino and De Niro have also had such incredible career parallels that Pacino vs. De Niro became a 90’s debate before anyone knew just what the hell a 90’s debate was. Both are native New Yorkers who were taught by Method legends; De Niro learned his craft under Stella Adler (who taught Brando himself) while Pacino makes the case for Adler’s fierce rival, Lee Strasberg. Both performed to acclaim onstage before being noticed by critics in indie movies – Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly. Both rose to stardom in the 70’s in a series of iconic roles from classic movies. Both are popular for their parts in gangster movies. Both hit the skids during the 80’s before hitting their apexes in the 90’s. Both are in paycheck-cashing periods now. (Though De Niro seems to be undergoing a mini-resurrection.) Most importantly, both are among those people who force fans who favor one to bolster the other as much as possible while still defending their choice. So let’s do this! Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro. One day, I’ll learn. 

Style
It’s tempting to say both actors use the same style, but when you take a real look at their performances, you start to notice just how different they are. De Niro tends to understate a lot of his roles, bringing the common idea of quiet strength. Pacino is a lot more explosive, and its given rise to the concept of “Shouty Al,” scenes in which Pacino starts hamming it up and goes over the top. This isn’t to say that Pacino breaks character. He just appears to have a knack for picking roles which give him good five-minute power speeches, and when the final delivery comes in his movies, you know exactly when he’s going to start spouting all the best lines – the ones you’re going to be remembering and quoting for the next decade. It’s fairly safe to say Pacino has the better presence of the two of them, but what De Niro doesn’t use in presence, he makes up with his sheer versatility. When De Niro steals a scene, you can’t help but get the impression sometimes that he’s doing it by accident, and that’s he’s trying to come off as more of a compliment to the movie’s other actors rather than as the marquee star in his own right. 
Winner
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….. De Niro by about a hair. Lord knows this isn’t a knock against Pacino, but rather a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that there seems to come times in many of Pacino’s flicks when Al starts to slightly crack under intensity and he needs to let everything out. The reason “Shouty Al” is such a popular idea is because he always seems to include that single scene in a movie which is wrapped up and sent right to the Oscar committee immediately after it gets shot. You know these scenes when you see them, and can easily hear Pacino tacking an “I’M AL FUCKING PACINO!” right onto the end of it. De Niro can be small. Pacino not so much, even when he tries.

Breakthrough Performances
Okay, everyone can pinpoint Pacino’s breakthrough performance: A bit part playing a character named Michael Corleone in a small indie flick called The Godfather. I know, blink and you’ll miss it completely, right? De Niro’s big breakthrough is a little bit harder to spot, but most people are willing to credit the movie which also put director Martin Scorsese on the map: Mean Streets. With Pacino, you have to take into consideration the fact that he was playing what turned out to be an ego-check role, acting against a cast that also included James Caan and Robert Duvall. Marlon Brando gave the movie a major coup, a real marquee name to attract viewers and a small piece of prestige to go with it. It was Pacino who played the main role as Michael, though, and when Mario Puzo – the author of the book The Godfather was based on – learned that, he was pissed off and went around denouncing the movie until it was released. He changed his mind about Pacino immediately after seeing it. Mean Streets didn’t have nearly so much going for it. The cast and director were all basically unknowns, and during that part of his career, Martin Scorsese had done his only major movie, Who’s that Knocking at My Door?, with his Mean Streets star, Harvey Keitel. When Mean Streets came out a year after The Godfather, Scorsese was absolutely convinced that Keitel was going to be his guy, the big name marquee actor who would soon be bringing name recognition to Scorsese’s pictures. He kept on believing it even after the National Society of Film Critics gave De Niro the award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Johnny Boy, and still believed it until he started making Taxi Driver.
Winner
This goes to Pacino. Great as De Niro played his role as Johnny Boy, all of the gravitas from Mean Streets was dropped onto Harvey Keitel’s head, and he did justice to the movie. Had Johnny Boy been removed, the movie would be different, but not by much, and it’s pretty easy to imagine Keitel moving on to take up the mantle that De Niro eventually picked up – it isn’t like Keitel is lacking for talent, after all. Pacino not only had to convincingly play the center of gravity in an epic drama, he had to play a very tricky role which required him to subtly shift from a sort of offhand, low-key family oddball into the cold, calculating, domineering head honcho crime boss while also getting an audience to think his character believes in his heart of hearts that he didn’t change at all. Pacino screws that up, one of the great, defining masterpieces of American cinema is totally ruined.

Popular, Acclaimed, and Iconic Roles
Oh god, where to begin? I guess the logical starting point would be The Godfather movies, because both Pacino and De Niro played parts which defined their characters. Pacino, of course, was Michael Corleone. Michael’s father, Vito, is the only movie character in history for whom two Oscars have been awarded to two different actors for playing him. Brando won Best Actor in 1972 for playing classic Vito, while it was De Niro who took home the 1974 Best Supporting Actor prize for playing a younger version of Vito in The Godfather Part II – a role for which De Niro barely spoke a single word in English! After The Godfather Part II, Pacino and De Niro spent the entire rest of the 70’s going head to head in an incredible iconoclast contest, playing meaty role after meaty role in a damn near flawless string of movies. Pacino went on to Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and …And Justice for All, all of which he received numerous award nominations for. He even made a movie during the time called Bobby Deerfield which netted him a Golden Globe nomination, even though most people forgot the thing existed. De Niro ran through a highly successful stretch as well, which included Oscar nominations for Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. After speedbumping through the 80’s, they both hit highs again during the 90’s, Pacino in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, and Any Given Sunday while also reprising his old role as Michael Corleone one more time. De Niro also returned to his gangster guns in the 90’s with Goodfellas and Casino, but also making Cape Fear, Awakenings, A Bronx Tale, and Jackie Brown, and keep in mind I haven’t even scratched the surface with either of them. Smack in the center of the 90’s, they collaborated in the ultimate robbery movie, Heat, probably the greatest unheralded movie ever made when it was released, and now properly revered in hindsight. They also both portrayed brilliant parodies of the gangster characters that made them popular in the 90’s: In 1990, Pacino played Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, the main villain in Dick Tracy, while De Niro waited until the other end of the decade before playing Paul Vitti in Analyze This! And for all we know about their nadirs in the 80’s, both actors still managed to carve out niches. Pacino played Tony Montana, one of the decades true icons and a guy who summarized everything both right and wrong about the country’s mindset during the decade; and playing the lead in an understated but well-liked low-key comedy called Author! Author! De Niro’s 80’s started with a bang: He won his very deserved Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. Although it wasn’t a sign for his 80’s, he still managed to do a few things very few other actors ever would have attempted: Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s supremely odd The King of Comedy; Sergio Leone’s massive four-hour fucker of a gangstar epic Once Upon a Time in America (which I’ve seen, but never in its entirety); and Terry Gilliam’s surrealist and fantastical Brazil before his work in 1987’s Midnight Run and The Untouchables signaled a real return to form.
Winner
I’d be a complete moron to try to pick this one. Michael Corleone against Jimmy Conway? Frank Serpico vs. Travis Bickle? Max Cady vs. Frank Slade? I know what my personal preference is, but trying to choose one on empirical evidence is way too difficult to judge. You pick them. Then I’ll commend you for your excellent taste.

Role that Shouldn’t have Worked but did Anyway
You could probably think of a few candidates for both actors – Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for De Niro, Ivan Travalian in Author! Author! for Pacino, Max Cady in Cape Fear for De Niro, Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross for Pacino. But I’m just going to stick with the two that really stick out: De Niro played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. You would expect a movie called The King of Comedy in which Jerry Lewis is one of the stars to be a laff riot, but the movie is instead a very dark comedy coupled with a weird form of thriller with a little bit of drama mixed in. You would expect the lead of a movie like this to try to lighten the mood as much as possible, but trying to play a role directly for laughs means trying to emphasize some moments harder than others and sometimes dialing back the other nuances and intricacies of the character in order to do it right. De Niro, however, usually isn’t the kind of actor who half-asses a character to punctuate particular scenes, so he plays Pupkin straight, and it results in a performance of a character who comes off creepy and a little angry. Pacino’s usual suspect in this category is much better known because it sticks out like a sore thumb: Tony Montana from Scarface. Although Scarface looks like a regular old gangster flick from the outside with little nuances thrown in by screenwriter Oliver Stone clearly making this sucker the typical gangster morality tale, the movie’s entire point flew about three atmospheres over everyone’s head. Instead of seeing a theme about greed doing in a sick bastard of a human being – which was the theme, make no mistake – people saw a story of a man rising up and living the American Dream to an extreme excess, basically reinterpreting the movie. And Pacino’s dynamo of a performance was probably the defining factor. Although Pacino playing Montana should never, ever be mistaken for a good movie performance, it was booming, charismatic, and cutthroat in ways which made an otherwise high-powered cast look puny next to Pacino. 
Winner
Pacino. He’s the reason Scarface managed to transcend its medium and why its true meaning has been sapped away in favor of a strict Reaganist interpretation. De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy, while very effective, also didn’t have any real sign of De Niro trying to hoist the entire movie; in fact, De Niro appeared to be acting perfectly in synch with director Martin Scorsese, who appeared to be making the kind of movie The King of Comedy turned out to be. Scarface ended up crossing a thematic line by freak accident because of Pacino, and it didn’t look like Scarface’s director, Brian De Palma, had much of an interest in rectifying what was happening or directing it to any vision of his own. In fact, it looks like De Palma was barely involved at all, and that he directed mostly by mailing in his daily stage notes from whatever vacation spot he happened to be sipping mai thais from.

Down Periods
General wisdom regarding both actors: Even periods are lean, odd periods are awesome. The truth is somewhere in between. The early nadir for both actors is generally considered the 80’s, but that’s a little hard on them from a more revisionist point. Pacino didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the 80’s being a movie star. Pacino made only five movies during the decade: Cruising, Author! Author!, Scarface, Revolution, and Sea of Love. Cruising was roundly bashed by critics and also by gay rights groups who believed it was homophobic. The reception warmed somewhat over the years, but never really thawed. Author! Author! and Scarface were also beat up, but years have been kind to both. Revolution was completely forgotten, and at that point, Pacino took the apparent hint and ducked out of movies for the next four years before finally returning to form with Sea of Love in 1989. De Niro made a lot more movies during the time. He started the decade with Raging Bull, which many consider the crowning performance of his career. While he did make forgettables like The Mission and Angel Heart during the time, he also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s strange movie about love and happiness in a clockwork world, Brazil; and in Sergio Leone’s ambitious epic Once Upon a Time in America; he also played one of his more popular roles, Al Capone in The Untouchables, before his big return in 1988’s Midnight Run. Came the millennium, both appeared to get a little less choosy about their roles as well, so their dreck started to trickle in: Simone, Showtime, The Recruit, Gigli, 88 Minutes, New Year’s Eve, Last Vegas, Jack and Jill…. It’s a list that might have been unfathomable 20 years ago, but it’s happening. 
Winner
Let’s see. Who’s down period movies would I rather watch? De Niro’s. Near the end of his career, Pacino can’t seem to help but keep being Al Pacino. While De Niro isn’t exactly testing his range either, he does seem to be having a lot more fun lately. We give De Niro a lot of shit for making more comedies now, but he’s been a sort of stealth comedy guy since Midnight Run in 1988, or 1983 if you count The King of Comedy (I don’t). I actually enjoyed The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and got a kick out of De Niro Yankovic-ing his role from Taxi Driver in that movie, and lampooning his own gangster roles in Analyze This! and Analyze That! He’s proven bankable as a screwball comedy star, and his career is lately rising again: He earned acclaim for Being Flynn, played an uncredited role in American Hustle, and was granted an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, Pacino seems to be on an upward trajectory too, having won a lot of acclaim for playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector in TV movies with the TV industry booming like never before. There are rumors of De Niro and Pacino teaming up for another movie which will be helmed by Martin Scorsese. I hope to god that’s true. 

Underrated Movies
Wow…. For Pacino, it takes work to think of a particular movie I think is completely underrated. Do I go with his screen-winking redefinition of the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate? His disgustingly overlooked …And Justice for All? The Insider? One of my very favorite Pacino movies is Carlito’s Way, a Brian De Palma thriller about a reformed drug dealer trying to go straight. It’s a gangster movie that holds up against anything else either Pacino or De Niro has ever done. De Palma is in top form, there’s a fantastic supporting performance from Sean Penn – who plays the lawyer responsible for leading Pacino’s character, Carlito Brigante, back onto the path he tried so hard to escape – and while Pacino is never small, he nicely understates himself and gives a true heart to his character. In a fashion, Carlito’s Way is a sort of reverse gangster movie. Instead of the head gangster starting with ambiguous morality being taken further across the moral event horizon, Carlito’s Way introduces a gangster who saw the light and is dragged away from it kicking and screaming. Many of the more sympathetic gangster characters want redemption. Carlito already found redemption; what he wants is his ticket out. I’m sure Midnight Run is a popular candidate for De Niro, but that movie has the benefit of hindsight now, and most seem to believe it’s a solid comedy that holds up well, with De Niro playing perfectly into character. The one that really stands out to me, is Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 movie Jackie Brown. Tarantino, at the time, was looking like the direct successor to Martin Scorsese while also being a wholly original screenwriter. Jackie Brown is an adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and one of the few Leonard adaptations that worked the way it’s supposed to. Instead of merely giving us an ordinary story stylistically directed and written (which, let’s face it, was what Pulp Fiction and the grossly overrated Reservoir Dogs both were), Jackie Brown focuses a lot more on creating rounded characters and relationships – so much so that the movie was attacked by some for its slow pace. De Niro plays Louis Gara, a dimwit pothead fresh off a prison stint, who simply goes along with his old cellmate’s idea just because he seems to be bored. It’s one of his last truly great performances in one of the most underrated movies ever released.
Winner
Pacino. Great as Jackie Brown is, and great as De Niro is in it, there’s not a single reason to hand this one to De Niro. He’s a supporting character in a movie defined by Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster, and it’s entirely possible a more casual moviegoer or less knowledgeable in the nuances of good film acting would write him off. Pacino, just as he did in his earlier collaboration with De Palma (which happened to be Scarface), carried Carlito’s Way and gave it its beating soul. 

Playing Against Type
Despite the prominence of their movies, this is actually a little harder to think of than you would expect because they’ve both created brands on playing gritty tough guy characters. For Pacino, certainly Scent of a Woman makes an argument, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is a disremembered 1991 romance called Frankie and Johnny. Pacino plays the titular Johnny, trying to woo a woman named Frankie, and that line sums up the whole movie. It’s an odd movie in large part due to its very existence – it’s not a snarky romantic comedy where the characters are either teenagers or twentysomethings with wealth, professional accomplishments, and reputations well beyond their years. Both characters are rutted, in the middle of their lives in which they’re merely existing and searching for some sort of purpose. It might be the sweetest role Pacino ever played, and the movie doesn’t try to spice itself up with any tricks – it’s earnest and straightforward. There’s more playing against type in De Niro’s body of work, since he was the busier and more experimental of the two. Do I go with Flawless? Awakenings? The biting political comedy Wag the Dog? Off-kilter as those were for De Niro, what I’m really going to go with is Brazil. Terry Gilliam’s vicious satire against bureaucracy and high-level incompetence has De Niro in one of his more comedic forms playing Harry Tuttle, a rebel leader and renegade air conditioning specialist who helps Jonathan Pryce’s main character, Sam Lowry, escape a pair of Central Services workers who are actually there to serve a much nastier purpose than their humble service titles imply. For all the actual comedies De Niro made, he was probably used most effectively as Tuttle, who is more or less a caricature of a fast-talking salesman but is able to do the job, along with showing Pryce that his feelings toward the oppressive Central Services are spot-on.
Winner
De Niro. Both Pacino and De Niro do drama all the time, and they both excel at it. So while Pacino’s role in Frankie and Johnny is notable in its tenderness, Johnny does tend to come off sometimes as the post-prison Sonny Wortzik (Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon). Although not necessarily a comic role, De Niro’s Harry Tuttle was played rather comedically, and we got a sense of what De Niro could do when he wasn’t losing his temper or brooding. Although De Niro’s appearance in Brazil was little more than a cameo, it certainly left an impression on filmgoers. As for my own personal biases, I’m ever a romantic at heart, but romance isn’t something I enjoy as an entertainment genre. Brazil, meanwhile, is one of my all-time favorite movies, a funny but brutal shot at the idea of bureaucratic control of society. There was never a movie like Brazil before, and we may never find one like it again; this is the kind of movie studios live in abject fear of, because it goes against every ethos Hollywood movies push, and it’s way too elaborate to be made independently. It takes place in a strange fantasy world with little semblance of sanity to start with, and it gradually loses what little ground it was standing on in the first place, culminating in an ending which spirals away from any control or sense, taking you on a path which makes you wonder whether you should be cheering, laughing, or just gaping in amazement…. Before ultimately swiping the rug and absolutely crushing your heart.

Oscar Roles
This one is simple: De Niro won his first Oscar in 1974, the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. He won his second in 1980 – Best Actor for playing Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Pacino won his only Oscar in 1992 for Best Actor, playing Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Winner
Honestly, it’s sad that this popularity contest gets so much attention at all, and looking over this category, it’s easy to see why. De Niro got an award for which he not only performed almost entirely in a language that wasn’t his, but which was already portrayed two years earlier by Marlon fucking Brando, who also won an Oscar playing it! His second Oscar was the result of an all-time great performance, for which he had to quickly put on a dangerous amount of weight for two scenes which didn’t last a collective total of ten minutes. Pacino was awesome in Scent of a Woman, yes; he even managed to trick many people into thinking Chris O’Donnell was a good actor for awhile. But Frank Slade had none of the manic intensity of Pacino’s early Oscar-nom roles, and it’s generally accepted fact that the Academy was throwing the lifetime achievement Oscar at him. This category belongs to De Niro.

Gangsters
Although gangster and crime roles actually make up very little of the filmographies of both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both of them are indelibly weaved into the image, defining and redefining the common gangster in much the ways of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney before them. Both actors broke through playing gangsters; Pacino played Michael Corleone, a straight man who eventually became the personification of evil. De Niro played Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, a nutty trench gangster with grand delusions of hitting the organized crime bigtime. When Pacino returned as the Corleone patriarch two years later, he brought De Niro with him to play a younger version of his pop, and ever since I first saw The Godfather Part II, I always thought young Vito’s story was the more engaging of the two. Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana was like a steroid-addled cartoon, while De Niro’s supporting role as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas tricked a lot of people into thinking Jimmy was the center of the movie; a hell of a trick, considering how great Ray Liotta was as main character Henry Hill. De Niro was the reigning overlord of Tangiers in Casino, a cold, calculating, strategy-oriented businessman whose control just didn’t extend quite as far as he thought it did. Pacino was the world’s only gangster with a heart in the sorely underrated Carlito’s Way, and later played Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco – the character De Niro’s Johnny Boy might have become had he lived longer. De Niro was the very face of all-time gangster-dom in The Untouchables as Al Capone, a wisecracking and dominating villain who, in all honesty, is the only reason to watch the movie. Pacino parodied his gangster characters in Dick Tracy, while De Niro made fun of his image in Analyze This! and Analyze That!
Winner
I know there are people who are automatically going to throw this at Pacino just because he was The Godfather, but that’s a huge disservice to De Niro which requires forgetting that De Niro also played The Godfather. Fuck this. You choose, and I’ll commend you on having excellent taste.

Wow. Close. So close. If you want to state your defense for Al Pacino, I totally understand, but Robert De Niro wins this sucker.

The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Life on a Movie Set

The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Life on a Movie Set

It’s the dream of every movie nut who ever lived to be able to get a job in movies by impressing the interviewer with a fiery analysis of a movie. Well, in March, I sat in a small library being interviewed by the director of a locally-produced independent movie for a job as a screenwriter. He told me to tell him about the last movie I saw, and what I thought of it. Now, every film nut who ever lived has a strict set of deep analysis of well-known classic movies he’s just dying to unleash on the first poor, unsuspecting listener who brings up the subject. I’m no different. I could have lied and launched into my prepared attack on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo with real gusto. But I like to be honest, and the last movie I had seen at the time wasn’t a heralded staple of film classes. It was Premium Rush, a silly action flick with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a bicycle messenger, and it was fresh on my mind. So I launched into a high-powered, half-hour long dissection of a silly, bad movie. It got me the job.

My first day on the job was the following Monday, when I sat, read, and re-read the script for a movie for eight straight hours, correcting little details I happened to notice. I started the day with an outline, which I threw out after the first page and a half because the outline was for a version of the script that was so early, it came straight from the jurassic era. My doctoring the script eventually involved re-writing one of the characters so he would come off as a little bit angrier, and I touched up a handful of scenes so they weren’t so generic. My official credit for the movie eventually became Production Assistant and Still Photographer, though, because the truth about my writing contributions is that they were a light dusting at best. Proofreading here, small changes there, slight editing at the other. I spent more time at lunch than I did screenwriting.

Anyone who has ever taken a serious filmmaking class knows the process isn’t exactly a cakewalk. In college, I once spent two hours sitting around in a cardboard box painted up to look like Spongebob Squarepants while the film crew that wasn’t playing a real role in the student flick diddled around with the light riggings. Even after that, we weren’t prepared. Our eight-minute student production took close to three hours to film. We took three or four takes, and our actors missed cues, screwed up dialogue, and forgot everything by magnificent margins. Our best take involved the actor who was playing The Count (yes, THAT Count) getting confused, standing up from his talk show chair, and wondering exactly what he was supposed to be doing. We did, however, get a great performance from our Casper, who sounded like a stoner; thus, we inadvertently learned why Casper was so friendly.

Even being crammed in that box didn’t prepare me for the marathon days of pre-production. These were not fun or interesting marathons, either. Through most of them, I was stuck in front of the computer, writing out new shooting schedules or promotional letters. It was the kind of work which makes it hard to stay awake through the whole thing, and I did catch severe fatigue a couple of times, no matter how much coffee I pumped into my arteries or how much sleep I got the previous night. For the initial month before shooting began, I went into the production office twice a week to assist the director by writing out organized lists of props and scenes as he made phone calls for filmmakers’ insurance. The most trying day was one on which I had to recall my telemarketer skills to make cold calls in the hopes of getting free or reduced-price catering. After about four hours of phone calls, I remembered exactly what I had hated about telemarketing in the first place. It was the director and me in the office for my first month and a half of involvement. I would go in, work at the computer, eat lunch, sometimes discuss basketball – the director turned out to be an avid NBA fan – and leave when the time came.

It was weeks before I met anyone else involved with the production. The first person I met who would be working on the movie was one of the actresses, who dropped by the office to meet with the director briefly on a day I happened to be there. My own chat with her didn’t go very far beyond a hello before I turned back to my assignment, but she exuded a glow like a light bulb. She actually reminded me a little bit of Leslie, the singer I had been acquainted with in Chicago. (The actress turned out to also be a singer.) After she left, I was told that she had a powerful energy he thought matched the character, and that’s why she was given the part. About two weeks before filming began, our sound engineer started becoming a common presence at the office.

I had to miss the first two weeks of filming. My first day on set was at a location where we were shooting a series of scenes from characters’ apartments. That was the first day I was introduced to most of the people I would be working with. Before shooting began, I asked the director about letting me photograph the set in order to keep from getting bored during the long setup times, and he was nice enough to agree to it. Just my luck that my camera finished eating up my batteries on that first day after the first hour or so, but I made up for that misfortune by suggesting a finish to a scene in which the actors both felt like they were left hanging: I suggested that, after a pivotal conversation, they just sit on the couch and watch TV. They did a brilliant job improvising their dialogue.

The movie was conceived as a short, but it wound up swelling into a feature. Due to the movie’s plot, there was a lot of mall filming at some of the local malls in the Buffalo area. Due to transportation issues, I was only able to put in a couple of days at one of them. The other was closer and a lot more convenient to my father’s schedule, and I suddenly found myself spending more time there than I ever had in my entire collective life before.

Most of my duties revolved around whatever I was needed for at any given moment, which meant that most of my work was photography for the movie’s Facebook page. Generally, I was the the guy who served to do whatever was necessary. On various occasions, I was the one on clap board duty; the one pushing equipment around; and the one standing guard for the equipment at times we couldn’t move it. During the times I wasn’t needed, there wasn’t a lot to do to amuse myself, so I got in everyone’s way trying to get good angles on my photographs. In a small capacity, I also got to play actor on extra duty. In one scene, I mock the main character by throwing small paperballs at him. Our lead actor seemed genuinely surprised by that, mostly because, for authenticity, I had neglected to tell him I was going to do it. Being a pro, though, he worked with it. In another scene, I’m in the background of a local restaurant, talking with another extra.

It wasn’t until the mall shoots that I met our main cameraman. I liked him immediately – he helped keep spirits on the set high and told entertaining stories. In a way, he was also our Mr. Hollywood guy. He had worked on big-time movies; he was on set for several bigger movies. I learned more watching him than anyone else on the set. Getting good shots at the malls was difficult because we didn’t have permission to use many of the stores or money to throw at lawyers if they sued us if we did it anyway.

Filming is a long and difficult process, and without a Hollywood budget, we had to be creative. At one point, to keep shoppers from tripping over the camera track, we turned butterfly nets into warning signs. New extra footage was created on the fly as it was dreamed up. There was one point where we filmed the lead doing push-ups as stock footage, something which the crew was inspired to do when he began doing them to warm up for a scene. There was another time when the lead actress grabbed all the shampoo bottles from a store display and ran off for no other reason than hey, why not? Her method of doing it added a cartoonish zing to the scene, so an offhand improvised act she dreamed up for fun was kept in every remaining take. It became one of our best scenes, and turned into one of my best photos. The mall security team were sports about letting us use their property. They added a couple of extras themselves, and let us invade and make over a kiosk right in the center of the mall for a series of scenes.

About a week before filming was supposed to end, the crew caught a bad break when one of the actresses was forced out of the production by personal issues. It says a lot about the temperament of the crew that no one seemed mad or upset at her despite the fact that the timing was monumentally bad and she was playing one of the leads. After learning of her departure, I joked that, if asked, I could write in a quick scene addressing the sudden, tragic death of her character. It probably wouldn’t have been too difficult for me to do, because this particular actress was the single cast member I never met. But as much as we joked about it, the character’s story was too important to the movie to leave any real options except a complete recasting of the part. Less than a week later, our new cast member came in for her first day of work, and she formed a quick rapport with everyone on the set and integrated with the cast and crew so seamlessly, it was like she had been there all along.

I had to phase out most of the locations from my own personal schedule because they were too far away to reach at a moment’s notice. The one time I was able to get to a place that wasn’t either a mall or an apartment scene was when filming was at one of the local strip malls, in a women’s clothing store. The lack of scenery changes made creative photography a little bit difficult for me, because it’s hard to be original in a location you’ve already shot a million times. My last two days of filming were for the reshoots of many of the apartment scenes. I didn’t make it all the way through the first day because the shoot ran until midnight. It was due mainly to an argument with two of the performers having problems with the way one particular scene was written. After hours of back and forth debate, I made a basic suggestion of how the scene should go that helped get things moving again.

If I ever make it big in filmmaking, I’ll always look back on this experience as where it all started. Maybe someday it’ll catapult me into a career in a big studio bureaucracy, and I’ll find myself reminding one of my co-workers from it of the good old days, blurring out the names of major chain stores, trying to direct mall traffic away from the camera, taking pictures, and sitting down whenever possible to keep my feet from cramping too much. No, we weren’t working with Hollywood cash, but there was something pure about making a film with pennies and unassailable belief in the project and in the people bringing it to life.

Really Bad Movies: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

There are times when the true, awe-inspiring stupidity and insipidness of mass media works never really strikes you until the thought hits: THIS. WAS. WRITTEN. By people who presumably have normally functioning human brains. Sometimes by more than one of those said people. For every work of art in which you are keen on finding out who the artist is in order to praise him, there are many others so bad you put them out of your head, forgetting completely that people were behind them making them work. Elevator muzak, for example, was printed out on paper, then recorded by real musicians with real instruments in recording studios. The lame jokes dominating family sitcoms such as Full House were also written.

That feeling hit me once again when I watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s true we don’t expect a whole lot of depth from a Michael Bay movie, but Revenge of the Fallen takes hormonal teenage guy visual candy to an unprecedented level. Although Bay doesn’t use his seizure-inducing flash cut style to his usual extent in this movie, it does contain all of the mean-spirited drunken frat boy in your face attitude that also defines his films. One of the opening jokes features main character Sam Witwicky’s pet dogs humping each other, another features his mother eating pot brownies, and it culminates with one of Sam’s friends being put down with a freaking taser because he won’t shut up! Meanwhile, the romantic subplot revolves around Sam’s apparent inability to say the three magic romance words to Mikayla. People, somebody wrote all this!

Part of the problem is pretty generic; this is a movie which is trying to center a plot about giant transforming robots trying to destroy each other around humans. The main characters are Sam Witwicky and his girlfriend Mikayla, both returning from the first Transformers movie. Sam is off to college, but he begins speaking jibberish in class. He is seeing symbols which he apparently picked up when the all spark from the last movie went kablooey, and this makes him the only source of the history of Cybertron. Everyone is after him. Ultimately there’s something about a group of Transformers called the Fallen, and another something about some kind of doomsday device.

It isn’t that I didn’t want to pay attention or didn’t try. It’s just that trying to pay attention is a chore. Michael Bay directed Revenge of the Fallen with the completely wrong idea of the proper way of holding the audience’s attention at any and all cost. He doesn’t do it through good storytelling, but with female curves and explodey things. Normally, things like that make for a very fun action movie, but the problem is that your brain can only take so much visual candy before it tunes out. Revenge of the Fallen is two and a half hours long, which is an awful long time to watch mindless action candy no matter how much you love it. By the end, my brain was so numb that it felt like it was drizzling out of my ears.

Revenge of the Fallen plays out like one giant action sequence without any of the wit needed to make it bearable. The plot thread about Sam’s symbols wears out before the halfway point, and the rest of the movie blends together from there. Stuff happens, matter explodes, and many of the robots talk in the most annoying voices possible. Everyone just forgets everything the movie is supposed to be about, which is usually acceptable for brain candy. But this feels different because of the length – it feels like everyone had a base need or desire to replace the story with as much gratuitous action as possible.

The movie isn’t served very well by its mythology. Yes, the movie tries to push a mystical, mythological background onto us to make it interesting. To my utter lack of surprise, this fails. The big problem is that Michael Bay doesn’t know when to lay off his accelerator. In order to tell a good story epic, the story has to remain strong. The Lord of the Rings and Avatar had stories and themes. I would blame the writers for being blind rats, but the three-person writing crew includes Ehren Kruger (The Ring) and two of the writers of the awesome 2009 Star Trek reboot. Let’s chalk this up to executive interference. Anyway, Bay hits the gas and drives this movie right over the canyon. The difference between him and James Cameron is that Cameron knows to let up at times to let the story go in whatever natural direction it’s turning in.

The advice of Timothy Leary applies when you shove Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into your disc tray. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Worse than being a shiny thing that doesn’t realize it’s a shiny thing, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen DOES know it’s a shiny thing and it takes every available opportunity to remind you of that until you hate it. Kind of like a diva.

Really Great Movies: The Social Network

I take back every bad thing I ever said about Justin Timberlake. It’s that he came riding in on the back of a popular boy band, and we all know how that usually turns out, right? Well, if you were among the many, many Timberlake bashers, you may take heart in the fact that his singing hasn’t really changed one bit. However, he has proven to be a great pop music innovator, but what really surprised me is his acting ability. In The Social Network, he plays Napster founder Sean Parker, the charismatic machine gun-talking salesman who leads Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg down the path to success, but at the cost of Zuckerberg’s soul.

How do you make a good movie about the formation of a website? Well, hiring David Fincher to direct is a good start. It’s pretty odd that a project like this would come from Fincher. The Social Network is, after all, a movie which is giving acknowledgement to the beginnings of one of the most dominant corporations in the world. One of Fincher’s other indisputable classics (he’s building an impressive resume of them) was Fight Club, a roaring primal scream from one person in a materialistic, corporate world wondering where the line between his gussied up material character and his real self is drawn. Also on the staff of The Social Network is the great screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men, The American President, and created TV’s The West Wing. The Social Network, as a result, is written and directed in a very engaging manner.

The Social Network’s universe revolves around Mark Zuckerberg, a young Harvard student first seen mouthing off to his girlfriend with the cold bluntness and efficiency one might hear in someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She finally ditches him with equivocal coldness and efficiency, sending The Zuck back to his dorm to get drunk and badmouth the girl in his blog before setting up a hot-or-not site called Facemash, which crashes parts of the Harvard network. It also brings him to the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who have an idea for a Harvard alumi dating site and and thing The Zuck is the perfect guy to get it online. Zuckerberg likes the idea and uses it to create a whole new social network for people to stay in touch.

Long story short: It gets big. It expands in a way no one has ever seen before. Mark gets rich and inadvertently screws everyone over.

Mark Zuckerberg the way The Social Network portrays him is a tangled mass of contradictions. He is a genius who is easily led on by a very good snake oil salesman. He is a stone, thick and impenetrable for most people but he has an excellent idea of what makes people tick. He is a faithful friend to his friend and business partner, Eduardo, but doesn’t seem to care that Eduardo was screwed over by Sean Parker. Zuckerberg has a personality set to the robot position for the entirety of The Social Network. He seems alienated from the real world most of the time, but is a creative innovator who is able to make billions by analyzing the base desires of humanity.

Zuckerberg likes the idea of a universal connections network, so he takes his inspiration from the Winklevoss twins and a grand from Eduardo for his startup fee. When two girls at a Bill Gates lecture tell Mark and Eduardo to Facebook them, they know they’re on to something, and Sean Parker enters the picture as something of an advisor to Facebook. He has two things Mark and Eduardo need: The first is an excess of charisma shooting from every pore in his body at the speed of sound. The second and more important thing is connections, which Eduardo come in handy when Eduardo tries to make them himself in New York City and fails. Parker definitely plays a role in the success of Facebook, but he also turns into a wedge when he correctly calculates the respective reactions of Mark and Eduardo to him when they first meet. Mark, shooting for the stars, likes Sean. Eduardo, who doesn’t like him, prefers a more conservative approach. Sean, acting like the average kid after doing something which results in his folks playing the good parent/bad parent routine, snuggles up to Mark and uses him as a shield.

The Social Network is set around a pair of lawsuits Zuckerberg faces from the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo. They are all suing Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss twins because they believe he committed intellectual property theft by using their idea to form Facebook and Eduardo because he came back for a slice of the Facebook stock which Sean Parker slickly tricked him out of. The story is told in flashbacks, but they are mostly unbroken so the interruptions to the boardroom scenes are kept at a minimum.

There is a little bit of a Shakespearean element to The Social Network. No one dies, of course, but Mark seems to be made into some shade of Hamlet. Lawsuits are used as vengeance killings once Mark wipes his formerly solid relationships with his friends right off the face of the Earth. Like Hamlet, The Zuck seems lost and uncaring in his own little world at times, much to the detraction of everything that isn’t taking place in his head. The Social Network ends not with a massacre, but with a bitter irony: His Facebook site now has over a million members, but Mark Zuckerberg has no one left in his corner to help him fight his battles. The final scene is Mark, having the kind of money which society deifies, sitting pathetically in an empty boardroom, attempting to friend his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

It’s possible that by making Mark Zuckerberg such an alienated character even a the best of times, Fincher was turning The Social Network into an other social commentary about where the tricky location of a blurry line between materialism and reality, where the accumulation of things ends and the actual person is formed. If that’s the case, maybe The Social Network has something in common with Fight Club after all.

Leftworld

There was a small-time store for left-handers I used to support. I had its page liked on Facebook, which is something I rarely do even for small businesses I really DO like that much. One day, I noticed that I stopped getting its feed. I visited their page and noticed that not only had they not updated anything since 2010, but their information had been reduced. I looked up the place on Google and spotted its Twitter feed, which has been dormant for over a year. My natural conclusion was that it had shut down.

There’s a need for stores that cater exclusively to lefties. Left-handed people are fairly common, but not so common that we’re taken into consideration about the small material products that get created. There are small little courtesy products like scissors and can openers that make it easier to be a southpaw in a world where people were once burned at the stake because of a few misunderstood Bible passages glorifying the right hand of the lord. For the most part, however, we’re stuck fighting through a right-handed world with even a lot of everyday activities. We don’t find pants with flies for left-handed people. All the cameras and video game controllers I’ve ever owned were designed with easier right-handed use in mind. And while it’s possible to learn how to play the guitar left-handed, it’s so tricky that a lot of the most prominent left-handed guitarists who ever lived learned to play right-handed, straight.

If the whole world was to suddenly convert to left-handedness tomorrow, and every product was for lefties when I woke up in the morning, I have to say I don’t know how well I’d make the adjustment. I spent my life fighting with right-handed things that make life difficult for not only lefties, but people like me who are lefties by necessity of birth defect on their right arm.

I’m so used to living in that world that I wouldn’t know where to begin if the world made an overnight shift to left-handers. More to the point is that I’ve spent a lifetime learning to use so many things right-handed that, in spite of my left being my dominant hand, I would have to go about re-training and reprogramming my head to use left-handed devices properly. Learning to use something meant to be used by a dominant hand that isn’t our own gives us the patience and persistence necessary to learn to use our right hands as compliments to our left hands, and over the course of time we begin to take our ambidexterity for granted. The difference is that while a right-hander keeps a left arm hanging around uselessly, southpaws are trained by modern instincts to have some extent of use for our right arms as well. Waking up in a left-handed world would deprive us of that because instead of using two hands to make up for the right-handedness we lack, we would suddenly be forced to adjust to barely needing our right arms to do anything.

I’ve learned to do several difficult things right-handed. When I try to play the few guitar notes I’ve learned in my life, I do it right-handed. I know how to shoot a bow and arrow right-handed, though I use firearms left-handed. I drive right-handed, but it isn’t like I have a choice in that matter.

Being left-handed is a blessing in that it makes lefties more ambidextrous. Right-handers don’t have this luxury – the world caters almost exclusively to their needs. But being left-handed means learning to use right-handed devices because the left-handed devices aren’t around as often as we would like.

A Tribute to Tony Scott

I doubt there’s a single person of my generation who didn’t feel almost legally obligated to spend a couple of hours a day playing Top Gun, pretending to be Maverick, or Goose, or Iceman. Top Gun was the first movie that I could ever legitimately call a favorite movie, and a neighbor had a copy of it on a blank video which I watched a lot, up to the scene where the prize is handed out at the ceremony; that’s where the copy cut off. Of course, it wasn’t until later that I began to realize the absurdity of the entire movie. In real life, Maverick would have had his ass court-martialed for probably five or six of the little stunts he had pulled throughout the movie, assuming they had let a guy with his temperament and mentality become a fighter pilot in the first place. Even though the Navy’s most effective recruiting video was almost entirely fraudulent, though, Top Gun was a fun little fantasy, and it held its impact on me far more than any other movie of the time with the possible exceptions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET: The Extraterrestrial, or Batman.

God bless the director of Top Gun, Tony Scott. Scott received word recently of the fact that he was developing a form of inoperable brain cancer. As a director known mainly for his action movies, Scott did something which was as fitting as it was sad and tragic: Instead of letting his cancer slowly eat him, he went the way of a lot of tragic action heroes and jumped off a bridge near the Los Angeles area. More philosophical types can probably find ways to argue the nobility of this gesture; however, in this case there was no being a real hero. No one was burning in a building or about to get blown up. It was just Scott taking what I guess was an easier way out, at least in his mind.

It’s often Tony Scott’s older brother, Ridley, whom all the attention and critical acclaim gets lavished on. It was Ridley, after all, who redefined science fiction in 1978 when he directed Alien, and again in 1982 with Blade Runner. It was Ridley’s movie, Gladiator, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2001. There are few film buffs who will argue against the idea of Ridley being the more talented of the two. Tony’s trademark style was a lot more frenetic than Ridley’s, and it was unfortunately brought to lows through constant usage by Michael Bay. But while Ridley’s boosters mainly seem to be people who are film buffs, it was Tony who captured the heart of the average moviegoer. Yes, Tony might have had the worse directorial style, and his acumen in picking out decent scripts was questionable. There are movies he made in which he came off as desperate to turn a scene without any real substance into an image that could keep an audience’s interest (The Fan, ahem). But it was always Tony who had the touch necessary to connect with those who see movies for the pure escapism and joy of the movies themselves.

Although I can admit my guilt in the Tony-bashing role, the truth is he always did receive something of a bum rap. His 1993 masterpiece, True Romance, is considered a legitimate classic and a thought-provoker. His 1998 chase festival, Enemy of the State, was written off as masturbation for conspiracy theorists when it was released, but in the social media age, it’s looking more and more eerily prophetic by the year. Crimson Tide made an exciting movie out of a communications mishap which would be very silly and absurd in real life and, like in the case of Top Gun, would probably result in someone getting booted from the Navy. Speaking of Top Gun, that was one of three movies in Tony’s output which are considered exciting action movies which aren’t completely reliant on direct man-to-man violence. There’s a little bit of hostility between characters, and the American pilots enter a dogfight with some Russian pilots in the end, but the crux of Top Gun’s action is a bunch of training sequences. Days of Thunder is seen as an action movie but, since it’s about race car drivers, could very easily be written up as a sports movie. Unstoppable is about a train full of chemicals that needs to be slowed. I’m not certain about that last one since I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard there’s no actual violence it in.

It’s a classic case of people concentrating so hard on what a director can’t do that we forget just what he can do. Tony Scott was deprived of critical acclaim because he was so good at tracking down the popcorn scripts. Movies rarely go both ways. Everyone knows the last Best Picture Oscar was taken by The Artist, but how many people would honestly know that movie even existed if it didn’t receive attention from the Academy? Iron Man 2 was forgotten about in short order because it was the worse sequel to a good movie, even though it got a huge release and had a brilliant actor playing the titular role. Occasionally, we get movies which somehow travel down both roads; Inception and The Dark Knight Rises are both great examples. Those, however, are the kinds of scripts that just have to be lucked into.

In all, Tony Scott knew he was an entertainer, first and forever. Unlike a lot of other directors, he didn’t give second mind to allegorical depth and metaphor. He never tried to twist a script into a kind of theme glove which he would try to then fit over a meaningless piece of popcorn entertainment in an attempt to ambush movie audiences. Even when a little bit of reflective examination might have helped a script, he held back and let screenwriters do their jobs.

Tony Scott’s greatest achievement was probably the fact that, in spite of the fact that so many of his movies were popcorn flicks, people remember them and still enjoy them, long after they should have faded out of the spotlight.

The Fan: A Tony Scott Film

I didn’t want to spend a tone of time today finding the right words to talk about the recent suicide of director Tony Scott. So for now, this is a re-posting of a review I wrote about one of his movies, The Fan, for my blog Lit Bases. I’ll give Scott his props in another day or two, because I want to say something more instead of merely re-posting a negative review I gave to a bad movie he made.

I’m not sure how I’m thought of by my readers. This blog is about baseball books, so it’s probably easy to type the web address into the search bar, visit Lit Bases, and wonder how obsessed I am with baseball. But if anyone has been reading my personal blog, The Windy Nickel, they might be starting to realize that I have a legion of interests that have nothing to do with baseball. I’m also into writing (so yes, I really am this good when I write about other subjects too; I originally created my name online by reviewing video games, which I did for a respected independent site for seven years), bicycling, photography and filmmaking, and I was deeply involved in political activism for awhile before learning that being politically active requires keeping one’s mouth shut and his head up his ass. I travel when I can and have been a volunteer for a number of organizations. Baseball isn’t even my primary reading interest; I started reading baseball books as intellectual downtime between books that are harder for my head to digest, and Lit Bases came about because I see baseball books as a comfy niche. If you’ve been REALLY paying attention to my posts in this blog, in fact, you know baseball isn’t even my favorite sport – that would be hockey.

Baseball is, however, a big part of my life because watching and following it helped me interact with people when I began trying to shed my status as a social outcast a decade ago. It was a big sport in my school; big subjects for student debate included abortion rights, which are never really far from the frontline; the war on terror, which began during my second semester; and whether or not MLB should have a salary cap. I began watching Saturday baseball – the Yankees on Fox and the Mets on the WB – and so whenever I heard people nearby discussing Jason Giambi’s ability to crush every ball in sight or Roger Clemens make competent batters flail gracelessly, I was able to interject with my own opinion and was welcomed into conversations I would have ignored before.

I’m saying this because after watching The Fan, I felt a need to say something about how baseball has been a positive contributor to the person I am now. It helped make me from a guarded social outcast who snapped at people who said anything to me into a more outgoing person who can hold his own in a crowd. The Fan would have you believe that all people with any interest in baseball are pathetic nutcases who morph into ranting pack hunters at the ballpark. Even exempting Robert De Niro’s character, Gil Renard, nearly everyone shown in the ballpark crowd scenes is there to unleash their inner beast.

A certain story about sports fandom always stuck out in my head: I once read that a fan of the Houston Oilers killed himself after the famous Miracle Comeback game, in which the Oilers ran up a 32-point lead by the third quarter and managed to lose the game anyway. This is clearly an effect of a more negative kind of fandom, and I think The Fan is trying to come off as a bit of an examination of this kind of fandom. In this respect, it fails epically because Gil is established as a real wackjob from the get go. Watching him is akin to watching Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining: There’s always a bit of a psychotic glimmer in his eye and so trying to establish him as the ordinary guy who flips out simply doesn’t work. You would have to be out of your own mind yourself in order to believe Gil is simply an ordinary guy with a slight excess of love for his favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. Even the people who follow their teams the closest usually have a sense of proper priorities and perspective. Gil skips an important work meeting for opening day, calls into the local radio show regularly to rant, and is issued a restraining order early in the movie for not bringing his son back to his home with his mother in time. Now really, how many baseball fans do you know have gotten issued restraining orders?

Gil also works as a hunting knife salesman. You can guess where this is going.

The Giants in The Fan are going to have a special season because they just signed a $40 million player named Bobby Rayburn. Rayburn is Gil’s favorite player, and Gil constantly calls into the local sports talk show to talk about why Rayburn is worth so much. Rayburn has to give up his number 11 to another player, Juan Primo, and he isn’t happy about it. Rayburn is supposed to be the good guy in The Fan, but he comes off as spoiled and a whiner who is unconcerned with anyone but himself, so most people aren’t going to relate to him, either. So to reiterate the basic fact: Your two main characters can’t be related to and are unlikable.

The only way the script tries to create a connection between the audience and the main characters is to give them both children. The relationship between Gil and his kid is something the script apparently doesn’t care to decipher. I couldn’t tell if there was any mutual love between the two or if it was an unreciprocated affection by the father for the son. There are times when the son appears to get along just fine with Gil, but others – before the restraining order – in which he appears to be afraid of Gil. Rayburn gets along with his son, Sean, just fine. One of the pivotal plot points in The Fan revolves around Gil kidnapping Sean and Sean appears at first to be trying to befriend Gil. Sean doesn’t appear to have his danger detector on until Gil takes him to visit his old friend Coop.

Anyway, Rayburn goes into the worst slump of his career while Primo picks up Rayburn’s slack and leads the team. Gil, long an admirer of Rayburn, hates that and takes matters into his own hands to get Rayburn to wear his original number 11 again. He tries to reason with Primo, and when that doesn’t work out, he kills Primo. The killing scene is director Tony Scott at his worst, slow motion and quick cross cuts as a way of covering up the fact that there really isn’t that much substance to the scene. Scott can hardly be blamed a whole lot, though, and given the way The Fan plays out I’m tempted to place more blame at the feet of Peter Abrahams – who wrote the book The Fan was based on – and Phoef Sutton. Maybe Sutton was being asked to stretch a bit much, because most of his screenwriting work takes place on TV.

As if that wasn’t enough, the climactic scenes destroy any sense of disbelief and plausibility The Fan might have carried. The weak source material means poor Tony Scott, who can be a solid action director given the right material (his best known movies are probably Top Gun and Enemy of the State), is stuck trying to use a deluge rain as the movie’s pivotal moment of suspense. This isn’t a light, misty rain here; this is a full-on drenching that might drown a fish. And there is a baseball game being played right in the middle of it! We’re also asked to believe this despite the fact that the local law enforcement – which knows full well that Sean has been kidnapped and might be killed if the game is delayed – has neglected to fill in the details to the umpires or the other team. The pitcher in that climactic game is also not pitching to Rayburn, and this is important because Gil want Rayburn to hit a home run for him, or else he’ll kill Sean. It’s certainly easy to understand that Rayburn needs to be pitched to so he can hit that home run and save Sean, it’s also tough to not place yourself in the shoes of the pitcher who thinks Rayburn is just an egomaniac looking to inflate his numbers Barry Bonds style.

I can’t let off Scott that lightly, though, because his musical choices for the score are interesting to say the least. Suspenseful, slow melodramatic pieces combined with Rolling Stones songs. Seriously.

There’s no sufficient explanation as to just why Gil is so obsessed with Rayburn. The movie sort of lets him descend into his madness – as much as an already overtly obsessed person can descend into madness, anyway – but the montage that closes out The Fan shows that Gil has been cutting out articles about Rayburn and hanging them on his wall, interspersed with a handful of articles about his own little league baseball heroics. The little league articles explain why he tracked down his old friend Coop, at least to a point, but Gil’s little league dominance really flies out of left field. Since the connection between that and his obsession with Rayburn is not explained, well, Gil still just comes of as a psycho.

Is this what we get for letting an Englishman direct a movie revolving around baseball? We could call it a small measure of revenge – baseball does, after all, have its roots in the English games of Rounders and Cricket, and we did bastardize it, as those in England frequently point out to Americans who broach the subject. I’m not sure I would call The Fan one of the worst movies of all time, but you could probably place it in the bottom ten percent of the worst. It is most certainly one of the worst movies about sports I’ve ever seen.