Tuesday, April 07, 2009

An IMteresting Conversation With: Sam Wasson, Author

Hold on to your hats and glasses folks, cuz this blog's the wildest ride in the internets!

I'd like to introduce you to a new feature here at Impudent Ways, IMteresting Conversations, wherein I interview my friends like they're famous over IM (GET IT!?) Some of them might be a little famous or more, and a lot of them won't be famous at all, but the goal is to talk to interesting people who do interesting things.

Hopefully, you'll be able to check in here every Tuesday for a new interview. I've thought about it, and Tuesday has nothing going for it -- it's not even the hump day -- so I thought this would be a good day to start.

Our inaugural interview is with Sam Wasson, author and cinefile, whose book A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies Of Blake Edwards will be available in September 2009 from Wesleyan University Press.


EA Hanks: Firstly, what is your name and what do you do?

Sam Wasson: My name is Sam Wasson and I'm a writer. Are we done yet?

EA: Nearly.

SW: Okay.

EA: What sort of writing do you do? Have long have you been doing it?

SW: Right now I'm writing books about the movies I've been writing casually - well, not really casually - about the movies for a long time, but then...

EA: What projects are you working on now?

SW: A book about Breakfast at Tiffany's. The history of... The production...The incredible legacy...

EA: A book about a movie based on a book.

SW: You got it. It's a massive phenomenon.

EA: What came first for you, movies or writing (about movies)?

SW: Writing! But before that Movies! So I guess my answer is: First, movies. Then, writing. Then writing for the movies. Then writing about the movies.
Got it?It's confusing, but those were confusing times.

EA: What do you like about movies? What about the medium appeals to you? Do you like the cultural phenomenon around them, or the substance of the art itself, or a mixture of both?

SW: Mostly the art. I love that movies combine all the arts, at their best, I mean: sound, picture, literature, visuals. And time and space can be transcended.
The cut is a beautiful thing! As is the close up! These are two things that you don't have in theater, but you have them in film.

And emotion - let's not forget that. Because, honestly, nothing moves an audience like a movie.

EA: Do you think that's what the masses are attracted to in movies -- transcendence, in however they understand it? Because of all the arts, there's a huge argument to be made that movies are the most popular.

SW: They are the most popular! I think, yes, sometimes, but they don't always call it that.

EA: What do they they call it? Escapism?

SW: Escapism is a kind of transcendence -- some people go into the movies to shut off.
I tend not to like those kinds of movies, but then I'm accused of being a snob.

There is another escapism, though, that takes you out of your head and into - for lack of a better organ - your heart. That's the kind of escapism I like to write about
because that's the kind I see in my favorite movies. But that isn't specific to Fellini or Antonioni or Bergman -- it happens in popular movies too
Like The Naked Gun! That to me is pure transcendent bliss!

EA: You've mentioned the difference, or the space between, the phenomenon around film, and the films themselves. In terms of Breakfast at Tiffany's, how do you see that playing out?

SW: It's trickier. With BAT, you're talking about a less tangible kind of excellence.
It's not as much about aesthetics as it is about nailing the zeitgeist -- in other words, why people love the movie, I think.

EA: Has the movie has earned that love, by its quality?

SW: I don't think so, no. It has less to do with its artistic components than its progressive attitudes. That is, I think it's more about the meaning of Audrey -- a new kind of Audrey, one that has SEX, and lives ALONE, and wears PROVOCATIVE clothing, none of which were the custom of 1961.

EA: The public had only really seen her in films like Roman Holiday, fawnish and innocent.

SW: That's right. Suddenly, the princess has a night life. And young women across the country are going, "What the--Hey, wait a second! That looks fun!"I want that!"They're thinking, if Audrey does it, it's kinda okay.

EA: I remember telling a friend in high school that Holly is a prostitute, and she refused to believe me until I explain "$50 for the powder room."

SW: Exactly. You're talking about a message so well coded, even girls today miss it.
But that's proof of how progressive it was.

EA: Do men like this movie? Do you think Audrey has sexual draw for men's tastes today?

SW: Audrey was not as sexual draw, no. Not in the way that Marilyn was. That's not to say that people didn't find Audrey sexy, but that she was not [cast] with sex in mind. That's another reason she appeals more to heterosexual girls and women.

EA: Do you think that the fact that Audrey wasn't an overtly "sexy" actress was part of why the movie could get away with what it got away with?

SW: Yes! You know, Marilyn was an early casting choice. But imagine the movie with Monroe as Holly!She loses her intelligent hold on men. Marilyn's hold was purely erotic, and a little pathetic. You wanted to take her to bed, and then, when you saw how mushy she was, you wanted to cradle her like a baby. That's a male fantasy.

EA: And Audrey?

SW: Audrey is different! You want to BE Audrey.
Because she conforms to no one and nothing. In the fifties, there was no one that looked like her. In this era of pervasive commonality, she was saying, "I can be me, and far from being strange, it's actually fun!" James Dean was dangerous in his rebellion.Audrey was polite.But subversively polite.

EA: This is where I have to ask about Mickey Rooney in that movie: "What the fuck is with Rooney in that movie?"

SW: Haha! You're in Blake Edwards' world, don't forget.That means you're never far from a pratfall.

EA: Do you think the movie sacrifices subversion of race to push the boundaries of sex?

SW: No. Casting The Mick as Mr Yunioshi was a move Blake regrets.He fucked up. He did.
But let's not forget: Rooney's damn funny. Those two things need to be kept separate

EA: You've mentioned close ups. Let's talk about this in terms of what it does for the whole medium. What does it do, for story, for the art of cinema?

SW: The job of the director is to tell the story in pictures. And close-ups can tell you that story by showing you what a character is thinking. Either by showing that character's face or hand or some body part that carries emotion, or by showing you what he's looking at, like a point of view shot. Theater can't do that, and neither can books.

EA: Can you think of some of your most favorite close ups, and why they're so near and dear to you?

Sammy: Well, one that comes to mind: Ingmar Bergman's movie Autumn Sonata...With Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman.

EA: Talk us through it.

SW: Mother and daughter, full of resentment for one another. They have it out in the living room in the middle of night. Bergman cross-cuts these close ups that put us right in their faces -- he NEVER lets us look away. Rather, instead throws us into the middle of their hurt. It's one of the most visceral experiences I've ever had in a movie. Of course, Bergman has been holding back on close-ups until this point. Mostly, the movie is shot wide: open spaces, furniture.And then WHAM! It's like he grabs you by the fucking neck, and shoves you into it.

EA: I like in Bringing Up Baby, Hawks waits until Hepburn realizes she's got a window of time wherein she can lure Grant out of his engagement and into her arms. Hawks slams the camera in, gets right into the flat planes of her face, framed by the car window. And you get a whole sense of how tenacious and ludicrous this woman is going to be. The close up is a device that works in both drama and comedy.

SW: That's one of my favorite movies -- I remember that. Exactly.

EA: You went to Wesleyan for undergraduate. What did you study?

SW: Film and English.

EA: And then you went to USC for post-graduate work in film as well. Did you find it worth your while?

SW: Yes, I did. The only way to learn how to make movies is to make movies.

EA: You've been writing about film professionally (in that you have two books coming out) -- do you think you'll go back to making films yourself?

SW: 3 books!

EA: Well fuck my soul.

SW: HAHAHAHAHA! Can I HAHAHA in an interview? ... Yes, I do think I'll go back to making films.

EA: All the films you mentioned (...with the exception of the Naked Gun) have been older. What do you think about current cinema?

SW: Hollywood? It's a poop show. How's that for insightful analysis?

EA: Thrilling. What makes it bad?

SW: Oh so many things make it bad. But, at risk of oversimplifying, one thing in particular: it isn't run by showmen -- it's run by suits.

EA: Go on.

SW: Money has always been the bottom line - as it should be - but guys like Mayer, Selznick, and Thalberg before dreamt of good pictures, too. Bucks were half of it.
Quality was the other half.

EA: When did things change?

SW: End of the 50's

EA: A lot of people hail the 70s as the last real heyday of moviemaking

SW: Oh it was! Definitely! And I would add: the real independent scene of the 90's.

EA: With such films as?

SW: Metropolitan!

EA: I have a theory

SW: Lets have it.

EA: That something else that has change significantly is that in the "golden" years of films, there was no real difference between high caliber actors, and "Stars" -- whereas now, there are two definite groups, with maybe one or two crossovers.

SW: Well, there were always stars, but they were employees.Now they're running the show.

EA: Do you think celebrity culture helps film or kills it?

SW: Depends. There was always celebrity culture in Hollywood.The problem now is that celebrities make the movies.

EA: Go on. What are the direct consequences?

SW: Often, that is not a problem. Many celebrities make great movies! But too often there is a casualty.

EA: In that they become star vehicles?

SW: Yes, but idiotic ones. Don't get me wrong - a movie star is a wonderful thing!
But with power comes responsibility. And when they make decisions, sometimes story goes out the window.

EA: Have actors always been paid more than actresses?

SW: For the most part, yes.

EA: Why do you think that is?

SW: That's a really good question. Well, I don't think it's very clear.
I just think it depends on the market. There's no limit to how much a studio will pay for talent. Liz Taylor was the first actor or actress to get a million for a movie.
Carole Lombard was once the highest paid actor at Paramount. But the biggest star in the world is Will Smith, so he can demand the highest fee. If Jada became bigger, she'd get more money.

EA: You live in LA, which IS Hollywood, and vice versa. Do you like living there?

SW: Yes. I love it.

EA: What about it do you love?

SW: That's a huge question! LA has the highest concentration of creative people anywhere in the world. It's like Paris in the 20s - but always. That's what I love.
And Hollywood is not evil.It's not a sinister place. It's a business like any other.
But it's my favorite business because when it's good, it doesn't make cars, or canned goods, or diapers, it makes great entertainment. And sometimes art. That's my kinda town.