Saturday, September 25, 2010

Emails With my Editor: George Clooney

When I think of a blog, I think of someone writing about what he or she is thinking/feeling/doing, in a conversational style that invites comments. In my favorite blogs the line between reader and writer is blurred, with reader comments enriching the original post by building on or arguing with it.

I started Girls Can Play mainly because I wanted someplace to park the reviews and interviews I do for the publications I write for, but I also hoped the blog format would invite readers to leave their own thoughts. A few of you have commented (and earned my eternal gratitude), but on the whole, this has remained a parking lot for my opinions.

I’d like to turn this parking lot into a living room, a place where there’s always an interesting conversation going on. (Actually, I guess what I have in mind is a salon, but that’s taken.) I know you have it in you; I just don’t know quite how to bring it out. So I’m trying something new.

Anthony Stoeckert, my editor at TimeOFF, also loves movies and writes about them when he can for his own blog. He’s a smart guy and a good writer with a conversational, welcoming writing style, so I've always enjoyed "talking" movies with him via email (we've never met – or even talked on the phone). We thought some of our exchanges might work as blog posts, starting with this one.

This is a lightly edited conversation (we pruned it back some after going off on too many tangents) that started with some speculation about The American. That part contains some spoilers, so skip to Anthony’s second comment if you plan to see The American and haven’t yet.

I’d love to hear what you think: about Clooney, about his movies, about why you do or don't like leaving comments on blogs? About something one of us said? And what about the idea of running more chats like this between me and Anthony. Would you like to see more or not?

ANTHONY: I saw The American yesterday and loved it. I had a discussion with my wife's uncle, he didn't like it much, and I noticed the New Yorker reviewer didn't care for it, so it's nice to see I'm not alone.

I have a question: When the woman tries to shoot Clooney at the end, did her gun backfire or did Pavel shoot her? I thought the gun backfired (and that perhaps Jack rigged it that way, knowing he was Pavel’s target). But my wife's uncle thought Pavel shot her. I had no doubts that the gun backfired, but now I'm wondering, what was Pavel doing there if he didn't plan on killing both of them?

ELISE: I was wondering the same thing – or a variation on it.

I have to say, I just assumed that Pavel shot her. But now that you mention it, Jack did hesitate before delivering the gun -- he took it out of its case, remember? I wondered what that was about, though I didn't think about it for long. Now you have me wondering again. The part of her face that was destroyed was the eye over the eyepiece, which might jibe with a backfire -- as if I really know what a backfire injury would look like. I like your theory, though.

Since I assume Pavel did it, I was trying to figure out why Pavel he shot her – or rather, why he shot her before she shot Jack. You would think, if he were wanted her and Jack dead, that he would just wait until she shot Jack and then shoot her, grab the gun, and go.

The theory I came up with was that Pavel had always intended to kill both her and Jack – and probably the woman who came out to test the gun with the flower target, too – so there would be no one left who could trace this very expensive hand-made gun to him. I mean, why spend thousands of dollars (what they paid Jack plus his living expenses plus the two women’s time and travel expenses) for something as easy to come by as a gun, unless it’s crucial that it be totally untraceable? But the shooter messed up Pavel's plan by waiting for such a public occasion to target Jack. Pavel didn't want to risk people rushing up after hearing her shot and before he could get away -- they might see him fleeing. So he took her out before she could shoot, knowing that Jack would follow and he could get him then. That could be totally off base, of course, but I need to come up with something that might make sense of that scene.

I actually found it interesting that I had to mull it over that way. It shows how much faith the filmmakers had earned -- I felt sure they had a good reason for what happened, though they didn't spell it out any more than they did any of the who-what-why of the stalking of Jack that was going on throughout the movie.

P.S. I'm glad you liked it too. I saw it with my husband, who didn't like it at all. He and I have very similar taste in movies, but we really disagreed on this one. He thought it was just a string of clich├ęs -- the whore with a heart of gold, the hero who dies just as he's finally about to break free, etc. But I think the truism that what matters is not what story a movie tells but how it tells it is particularly true of genre movies, and I thought this one portrayed those familiar elements creatively enough to make them feel fresh.

ANTHONY: I'm finding myself loving George Clooney movies lately. I didn't think much of things like Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton. And at the risk of sounding dopey, I just didn't understand a minute of Syriana.

Now with Burn After Reading, Up in the Air and The American (not to mention The Fantastic Mr. Fox), I think he's on a roll. He's a rare movie star who just demands my attention, I can't take my eyes off him (OK, maybe my eyes swayed during some of the scenes with Violante Placido).

Speaking of which, this is also the first movie I've seen in a while that is genuinely sexy. The main characters are ridiculously attractive — the most attractive assassins ever, and the most beautiful prostitute in history — but all of the aesthetics of the movie are beautiful.

ELISE: I like George Clooney a lot too. Was just watching him on a Roseanne rerun last night and thinking how frustrating it must have been for him to be cast as a callow pretty boy.

His career is a lot like Warren Beatty's, in the way they've both transcended their looks (while using them in a smart way) and taken control of their careers early on by becoming producers and directors. They've both done stuff that reflected their politics, too. And they're both very smart, savvy guys who have made some really good movies. I think Clooney generally chooses his roles well and makes interesting movies as a director -- though I hated Leatherheads.

I liked Good Night, and Good Luck when I saw it, since I was hungry for a liberal parable at the time, but I don't have any desire to see it again. Michael Clayton holds up better in my memory -- I'd happily see that again. I remember it as an smartly done, beautifully shot genre film -- not unlike The American in that sense, and with Clooney playing a similarly trapped/frustrated character. What did you not like about it?

ANTHONY: What I didn't like about Good Night, and Good Luck was that it just seemed to re-enact events, especially Murrow's broadcasts. I'm no expert on Murrow, but I didn't learn anything new about him, or McCarthyism, because of the movie. Gene Siskel had a test for movies based on real-life events: Is it more insightful or interesting than a documentary about the topic would be? I'd say Good Night, and Good Luck failed that test. It did, however, lead to one of my all-time favorite Oscar jokes, when Jon Stewart said that, coincidentally, "Good Night, and Good Luck" are also the words uses Clooney to end all his dates.

I should see Michael Clayton again, I don't remember it enough to be fair about it. But I recall thinking it was a pretty standard story, not as layered or as much of a statement about the times we're living in as a lot of reviews led me to believe it would be.

About The American: A lot of people just hate it. Someone left a biting comment on your review, and's review of it was hateful, as were all of the comments left under it. I hate to sound all smart and superior - and as with almost every movie, I'm sure there's an argument to make against it - but I wonder if people just aren't patient enough these days to watch a deliberate, quiet character study. I've read a few jibes at the scenes where Clooney builds the gun, I loved those scenes: I liked watching the character's competence, and the way he used those elements to build the gun.

ELISE: Interesting point about fiction films needing to be better than documentaries about the same subject. That makes me think about Milk, since I liked The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary about him, much better than the fiction film. In my review for you guys, I said it takes a great fictionalized film to beat a good doc if you’re telling a real person’s life story, since the impact of seeing the actual person gives the documentary an edge. Maybe a documentary that covered the same ground as Good Night, and Good Luck would have been better, but I liked what Clooney was doing with the look and the mood of it enough to think it worked as fiction. I also liked how Clooney used actual footage of McCarthy rather than having an actor impersonate him -- which was blending documentary with fictionalized reenactment, come to think of it. And what I liked best about the film was the choice Clooney made to focus on what happened behind the scenes -- how hard it was to get that interview on the air and how close it came to being squelched. Like you, I didn’t learn anything new about what McCarthy was doing or how Murrow showed him up in that interview, but I saw that as just the background for the real story, which was how journalists can beat back demagogues and change the political landscape if they do their job right and stick to their guns.

But ironically, the message that made me like that movie so much is exactly what makes me not so interested in seeing it again. I was really frustrated at the time with how our media had amplified the lies the Bush Administration was putting out about WMDs to justify going into Iraq, so I felt this urgent need for a reminder about the role reporters are supposed to play in a democracy. I still feel that need, but not so urgently at the moment.

That's probably why message movies usually have a short shelf life: Something that seems important when it comes out can quickly feel irrelevant or dated or overly familiar. I think Good Night, and Good Luck will hold up a lot better than, say, Gentleman's Agreement, though. I guess the people who made that one thought audiences needed to be reminded that Jews are people too, in the wake of the Holocaust, and maybe they were right. But geez, could that screenplay have been any more painfully obvious and sanctimonious? Clooney’s movies -- even the ones he just acts in -- are almost always intelligently made, even when they’re just okay.


  1. I like it, but as you know I am the cerebral type. It seems long and text-heavy -- one has to take the time to read it, and that isn't necessarily what the Internet is all about. The blogs I look at that have a lot of comments are always short and to the point. For example, look at It seems to me that the items that get a lot of comments are the ones that people can read in about 30 seconds. A sad commentary, I know, but there you are ...

  2. We love going to the movies, and thanks to the Optimum Rewards card which gives us free movies on Tuesdays at Clearview Theatres, we rarely miss a Tuesday movie outing! We always go with our friends and the four of us, using a rating scale of 1 - 10, rate and avidly discuss all the films we see. Last week we saw THE AMERICAN, a film which we were not in a rush to see due to the mixed reviews. The film provoked a longer discussion that any film we've seen in the last several weeks. The main issue was also whether Clooney's character had rigged the gun, or whether Pavel shot her. Three of us decided the gun was rigged, and the more I think about it, the more sense that makes. Initially I was a bit annoyed at the lack of clarity on that issue, but maybe that was the very point. Although I agree with Steve that there were an abundance of cliches in the film, George Clooney gave a truly nuanced performance that made it all acceptable. The four of us liked the film much more than we had anticipated.

  3. I love the Roseanne clip from YouTube--that's a great addition. Is this back and forth between you Anthony more interesting than reading postings from various people? For it to be more interesting it has to edited and very crisp and less agreement, i.e. less dwelling on how good Clooney has become as an actor.

    How can this format be made meaningful and add to a blog format? Perhaps one way is if you were to both analyze a masterpiece, i.e Fritz Lang--"M" or Haneke's "The White Ribbon." Alternatively, if you take a more popular/accessible film and disagree. But I think short and crisp editing is always a must or people will stop reading.

  4. I truly like all of your stuff, but I'll admit that I only skimmed this one. I agree with the comment that it's very long and also agree that it's a sad commentary.

    Now, you know I love long conversations -- I can't recall us ever talking for minutes, only hours. :) I do love the concept for this - a living room. But I think you need to condense the conversation.