Jason's 'rules' for filmmakers in the 21st century

February 10, 2000

Here, a set of rules - more suggestive than instructive - for filmmakers, including myself, to follow in the 21st century:

1. Tangents are good.

As you've probably learned from my writing, I enjoy asides. Last fall, I wrote about tangential cinema, championing the visual and narrative styles I saw in "Run Lola Run," last year's best German film, and "Three Kings," last year's best American film. Subsequently, I have noticed similar styles in "The Limey" - a magnificent film, with a dozen shanky smiles from Peter Fonda, and the best performance Terence Stamp will ever give - and "Fight Club" - a terrible movie, with bloody-faced Edward Norton and Brad Pitt and smug writing.

Editing styles and cinematography will continue to grow more fractured and frenetic, but it will be fine if directors like David O. Russell ("Three Kings") and Steven Soderbergh ("The Limey," "Out of Sight") fill the fractures with wit and meaning.


2. Silence is golden.

"The Insider" is two hours and 45 minutes long, but I bet if you read all the dialogue in it straight through, it wouldn't even take you an hour. That leaves director Michael Mann plenty of time to investigate the quiet, which is sometimes eerie and unsettling, as when Russell Crowe - who, by the way, gives the best performance of the year - walks through his back yard, looking for evidence of sabotage by the tobacco company he is about to blow the whistle on. It is sometimes majestic and ennobling, as when Al Pacino - who, by the way, gives the second best performance of the year - stands in an emerald sea of grass, waiting for his prize catch to be interviewed by Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, in the third best performance of the year).

3. When making a costume drama, make sure you get the costumes right.

There is a delicious scene in "Topsy Turvy," Mike Leigh's improbable masterpiece about Gilbert and Sullivan, in which a costume designer informs an actor that he will not sacrifice the authenticity of the apparel for the modesty of the actor - he tiffs that his pants will reveal too much of his legs. Everything in this rich, brilliant film about the artistic process is accurate - the upholstery on the seats of the Savoy Theater, the use of the telephone at the turn of the last century, the emotional dissolution between Gilbert (Jim Broadbent, boisterous and perfect), and his wife. Who knew a "period" film could be profound and FUN? I don't know if "The Winslow Boy," set some 30 years after "Topsy Turvy," exactly is fun, but it surely is profound, and it is David Mamet's best film yet. Which is a wonder on both counts, since it is about the alleged theft of a $2 postal order. Nigel Hawthorne could lend magisterial gravity to an episode of "Beverly Hills 90210," but as the patriarch of a family trying both to cling to aristocracy and order and usher into the modern world, he is so good it is heartbreaking. On him, a slight nod seems like a rhetorical masterstroke.

In these two films, Britain's purveyor of middle-class squabbles and squalor and America's investigator of tough talk and machismo go back in time and find such grace and wisdom in worlds on the cusp of great transition that it leaves you to hope that 80 years from now, somebody will film a tone poem for America in the 1990s.

4. Open up a little bit, especially at the end.

"Boys Don't Cry" could have been a made-for-TV movie about the perils and quandaries of switching sex. It's straight-from-the-headlines story of transsexuality and murder would seem the perfect match for bleeding-heart liberals.

Director Kimberley Pierce, however, gets the camera's eye, clear and luminous, right next to Brandon Teena/Tina Brandon's. Hilary Swank, as the sexually ambivalent Brandon, has a clean, pretty face with cheekbones that cut out like trap doors, and she makes you feel every thrill and fear her character falls through. As Brandon befriends a group of derelict men and women from Lincoln, Neb., the line between survival and fatality grows so reed-thin you almost can hear it whizzing on the screen.

As the film ends and the camera swirls down the highway to the tune of "Blue Sky over Wichita," you feel ready to fly, despite the tragic results of Brandon's quest for identity.

A similar ending benefits "The Dreamlife of Angels," which follows its two female protagonists so loosely you worry the camera might just leave you in some Parisian cafe. But the casualness of tone actually allows you to get so close to Marie (Natacha Regnier) and Isa (Elodie Bouchez), that you feel you've been sharing an apartment with them for years. And as the camera leaves Isa at the end, to meet some of her fellow factory workers, I feel a mixture of sadness and hope - I've lost a good friend, but there are so many more waiting.

Likewise, I suspect the coming century will bring us many new cinematic friends, if only certain rules are followed ... and some broken.

Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a sophomore at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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