SIFF, Week Two: A Tribute to Edward Norton (including a screening of Leaves of Grass)

It’s been raining a lot lately.  When I got on the bus to see A Tribute to Edward Norton, it had started drizzling.

But then Edward Norton cameth, and the clouds disperseth, and the sun shone….

I wish.

By the time I got to the movie theater, it was pouring outside.  As you can see, though, that didn’t dissuade the crowd: 
Even getting there early, however, didn’t guarantee us of a good seat, since the ENTIRE MIDDLE SECTION was reserved seating, for those folks who had shelled out $125 for the meet-and-greet before the film.  We peons, who had paid a measly $35 for the event ($25 for SIFF members), either had to sit on the sides, or in the balcony.
Now, as an assistant organizer for the Seattle Cinema Club, I had posted this event as a meetup.  Only two people responded in the affirmative (the tickets sold out sometime last week), but I never found out if they came, or where they sat if they did.  As for meeting up afterwards, the Q & A session took a wee bit longer than I had expected it to.
More on that later.  I found a seat on the side, next to the aisle seat.  A mother and daughter sat to my left (both quite a bit older than me, but I’d guess the daughter to be ten to twenty years younger than my mom).  When the daughter got up to go to the concession stand and offered to get the other people in the row something, I asked for water, thinking that maybe there were cups and pitchers somewhere (like at the Neptune Theatre) that I hadn’t seen.  Instead, she came back with a bottle of water, which was fine by me.  I asked how much it was.
“Four dollars.”

Four dollars for water!  We both thought that was ridiculously high.

I only had three ones and one large bill.  She told me three dollars would do.  I figure the movie information I supplied them with later, and the words that I heard that they missed hearing that I passed on to them, made up the difference.  Just in case it doesn’t, I plan on donating a dollar to charity.
Anyway, the SIFF preview started up right away, without any introduction.  I thought that maybe the movie would start up immediately afterwards.  Instead, the curtains closed, and this guy came out on stage:
He introduced himself as the director of the festival, and apparently is so important that I can’t find his name anywhere on their website (or any of the other staff names, for that matter).  Anyway, he introduced the Edward Norton montage video, followed by the presentation of the Golden Space Needle Award to Edward Norton (don’t worry, I have a better photo of him later, from the Q & A):

Upon receiving his award, Norton mentioned that it didn’t look like the Space Needle at all.  The director told him that it was an artistic interpretation of the Space Needle.  And while Norton was very gracious about receiving the award, he realizes that he is merely “a conduit for something that already exists out there.”  For each role, he tries to channel something specific, but what he’s channeling is not within, but without.

Also, he doesn’t make movies to receive awards.  He does it for the relationships that movies form with their audiences.  Years after a film is made, it’s “still out there, forming a relationship with people.”

He then quoted C.S. Lewis: “We read to know we’re not alone.”  In relation to film, he does films because it makes him feel connected with others, through a relationship that grows and continues to grow between movies and their audiences.

Tim Blake Nelson was supposed to be at the tribute, too, but he’s stuck in New Orleans, acting in a film.  He was going to throw a fit about not being able to go, but then he was reminded that he is a character actor, and so is needed on the set.

Norton did not want to talk too much about the film ahead of time, but he did say that Leaves of Grass was shot in 35 days, and the money used to make the picture was borrowed from a friend.  Like with David Fincher and Fight Club, and Spike Lee and 25th Hour, he felt that Nelson was the perfect director for this film.  Before the lights dimmed and the movie began, Norton told us that the movie is “one man’s [Nelson’s] crazy life splattered schizophrenically over the screen.”

Leaves of Grass (United States, 2009, 105 mins)

Seeing as there was an actress in the film called Maggie Siff, this movie was destined to play here.  It mixes comedy with tragedy, philosophy with pot-growing.
It stars Edward Norton in a dual role, playing twin brothers Bill and Brady Kincaid.  Bill is a philosophy professor at an Ivy League University (Brown, according to Ebert’s review).  Brady is a pot grower in a part of Oklahoma known as “Little Dixie.”  Both brothers are brilliant, and the movie starts off with Bill giving a lecture on Socrates and Plato, concluding with the idea that “the balance needed to lead a happy life is illusory.”
The plot: Bill gets word that his brother has been murdered by crossbow (“It’s quite common where I come from,” he explains to his secretary).  He flies down to Oklahoma and meets a very annoying Jewish orthodontist (Josh Pais) on the plane ride down.  At the airport, he is met by Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson), Brady’s best friend and pot-growing partner, who drives him the rest of the way to Little Dixie.  Once there, he finds out that news of his brother’s death may have been exaggerated (with a nod to Mark Twain).
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, but I will talk about the structure of the movie.  In the Q & A that followed, Norton mentioned that Nelson is obsessed with classical comedic and tragic forms.  In addition, he knows all of the Greek and Roman plays that deal with twins (one of those plays, The Twin Menaechmi, is mentioned in the movie), and the film follows classical dramatic form.  There is one aspect of Greek drama that Nelson seems to follow at the beginning of the movie, but doesn’t follow as the movie progresses, which I’ll leave to you to figure out (hint: Shakespeare only followed it in extreme cases).
Shakespeare’s plays and ancient Greek dramas have a five act structure in which the climax occurs in the third act (whereas this review follows Wagnerian operatic structure, which is in three acts).  Since this film follows that structure, the climax occurs in the middle of the film.  Traditionally, too, the climax irrevocably changes what comes afterwards, as it does in this case.  Unfortunately, as in some of Shakespeare’s early plays, the events following the climax can be less exciting than what happened before.  Nelson provides tension through Act IV, but Act V seems oddly detached from the rest of the film, and isn’t as brilliant as the preceding acts.
Since Nelson is also familiar with plays about twins, several of those conventions are followed, as well, including mistaken identities and parallelism (I counted three parallel themes or events, but in order not to spoil the movie for you, I’ll merely mention that one of them involves Jews in Tulsa).
Finally, Nelson has derived the idea of a fatal flaw from Shakespeare, but whether or not this leads to as tragic results as they do in his plays, I will leave for you to discover.
4 out of 5 (mainly because of that last act, where things seem to happen too quickly, since the rest of the film is a 5), but definitely worth seeing, especially for some of the smartest dialogue that I’ve ever heard in a film, and for the fact that Edward Norton is phenomenal in both roles.
There was a ten-minute break between the film and the Q & A that followed.  I took that opportunity to take some photos:
As you can see, the award (in the center) doesn’t quite look like Seattle’s most famous landmark

The inside of the Egyptian Theatre
For the Q & A session, critic Tom Tangney interviewed Norton.  Tangney writes for and is a contributor on Cairo Radio.

Tangney started by asking Norton about his life.  Norton replied that he doesn’t think “anybody’s enjoyment of a film is in any way enhanced by knowing anything about” the actors on the screen. In fact, he believes that one’s biography “gets in the way” of one’s enjoyment of a film.  Tangney then mentioned that Norton graduated Yale with a degree in history and is fluent in several languages, and wondered if that approach (instead of majoring in theatre) has helped his acting.  Norton’s response was that acting is rooted in empathy.
“Not sympathy,” he noted.
He also admitted that there’s a craft to it, and there are techniques to learn, talking about outside-in versus inside-out methods of acting.  Outside-in is a cerebral way of looking at a role, whereas inside-out is an emotional way of looking at it (though, in his opinion, you use both).  He takes issue, however, with actors who are called “naturals” (inside-out actors), as opposed to “cerebral” (outside-in) actors, mentioning that Robert De Niro is one of the most cerebral actors that he knows.
Clips were then shown from Primal Fear and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
For the former film, Norton saw his character as “just a guy putting on an act.”  From the latter film, he learned one of his most important lessons about directing.
Milos Foreman is one of the great directors, yet also one of the least controlling.  Norton said that he would do multiple takes without giving his actors any feedback.  When Norton asked him what he was looking for in those takes, he said he was waiting for an “unrepeatable moment” (which Norton did in Foreman’s voice).  In fact, in his own performances, Norton wishes to “create the sense that something is happening extemporaneously.”  That is why he obsesses over tiny indicators in his performances.
The discussion then came back to Leaves of Grass, in which Norton said he’d play Brady first in scenes which included both brothers.  To play Bill, he’d have a listening device inside his ear playing Brady’s previously recorded dialogue.  He also said it wasn’t difficult playing both brothers, as most people (including himself) are scripting in their heads all the time, anyway.  For example, if you’re about to have a meeting with your boss, you’ll script out the conversation in your head of what you’re going to say and what he or she is going to say  to you.  The difference between that day-to-day scripting in your head and Norton playing twin brothers is that, as Norton put it, “I found a way to get paid for it.”
One fun fact: Since doing The People vs. Larry Flynt, Woody Harrelson and Norton will call each other up pretending to be Larry Flynt.

My best photo of Tangney and Norton, and of a human ear

Next was a clip from Down in the Valley, which Tangney believes is Norton’s “Travis Bickle” (the mother next to me didn’t know who that was, so I mentioned to her that he was in Taxi Driver.  This is when I believe she asked me if I could always sit next to them during movies).  It’s a movie about the Western myth meeting the reality of what the West has become.  Norton said that even the rough draft of the screenplay had “great kernels in it.”  He says it shows “the way that fantasy can be an escape, but taken too far can become a terrible trap.”
After clips were shown from American History X and Fight Club, Tangney asked Norton why he was snickering during the clips.  Referencing the lines spoken in American History X, right before his character and his Nazi Skinhead friends are about to rob a store, he said, “Take these things out of context, it starts sounding like the Arizona legislature.”
Big laugh from the audience.
Another laugh came when Tangney asked if Norton thought of switching roles in the film Fight Club, with Norton playing the idealized version of Brad Pitt.  All Norton had to do was repeat that thought to get a laugh.
One thing Tangney noticed is that Norton tends to play marginalized men.  Down in the Valley, American History X, and Fight Club all deal with men marginalized by society.  About Fight Club, Norton said that the book dealt with “what everyone’s getting cocooned in and neutered by.”  He also said that he’s particularly proud of that movie, as he considers it his generation’s The Graduate.  Just as his father loved that movie, but his grandfather’s generation didn’t, so Norton’s generation loved this movie, but his father’s generation didn’t.  In fact, when he heard that his father hated Fight Club, Norton thought, “Yes!”
“When things polarize people, you must be doing something right, ” he said.
He also pointed out that the year in which Fight Club came out was a great year for filmmakers of his generation.  Besides Fight Club, Spike Jonze came out with Being John Malkovich, David Russell came out with Three Kings, and the Wachowski brothers came out with The Matrix.
Norton’s directorial debut came the following year, with Keeping the Faith.  When asked why he decided to direct a comedy, he mentioned the Philadelphia Story quality to the film.  Also, other directors told him not to get too precious about the first film he directed.  Or, as David Fincher put it, “Do you think Alien 3 was my heart’s desire?”
One funny story from filming is that Ben Stiller’s mother would bring out sandwiches for the crew (when they were at the Stillers’ house for some scenes), which would embarrass Ben (they had catered food, after all).
Shown with a clip from Keeping the Faith was a scene from The Painted Veil.  Norton mentioned that if the audience thought that movie looked bleak, they should check out John Curran’s previous film, We Don’t Live Here Anymore.  Of the director, Norton added, “I think he’s super talented.”

Questions from the audience followed.  Index cards were passed out before the show began (allegedly) and during the ten minute intermission.  I had no idea what to ask Norton without sounding cliched, so I did not take one.

The first question dealt with luck versus hard work.  Norton admits that one has to be extremely lucky to make it in films, and he never takes his luck for granted, as he knows many actors and actresses who are just as talented as he, but have not gotten his breaks.

The next question was about rumors of him starring in The Avengers movie.  He said it’s not up to him.

When asked about his worst film experience, he said it’s difficult to say.  For example, he loved working on Fight Club, but thought he was going to die from exhaustion during certain parts of that shoot.  He does believe that his best film experiences, however, have come from passionate arguments.  Or, as he put it, “Harmony doesn’t necessarily make the best film.”

The caveat is that the arguments concern the creative aspect of the film, and don’t devolve into personal attacks.

He also answered questions about crowdwise, which is a website he designed to help people use personal websites (like Facebook and MySpace) to help raise private funds; what he would do if he lost his job in films (he’s not sure); and what he wished they had done differently while making Leaves of Grass (not much, since he’s really proud of the film, but he would have liked a little more time).  Another question dealt with when he would direct Mother of the People (he’ll get to it, eventually, but it may not be his next project).

In addition, he was asked who he most admires, living or dead (difficult to say, but had just seen Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences on Broadway, for which he had “no words”), how the Coen brothers were involved in Leaves of Grass (they’re “Tim’s friends,” but didn’t really work on the film), which brother he loved the best from that movie (loves both of them, as they are both aspects of Tim), and the most important thing he’s learned about himself through film (how to better balance “an impulse to control the creative process” with not controlling it).

When I review 25th Hour, I’ll talk more about how Do the Right Thing was a life-changing film for Norton, but I’ll leave you with an image from my bus ride home, where I sat behind a colorful character with alcohol-stained breath, who wanted some money to buy some cigarettes, and stared at all of the pretty women who came on the bus.  Yep, Seattle is quite an interesting place.

9 thoughts on “SIFF, Week Two: A Tribute to Edward Norton (including a screening of Leaves of Grass)

  1. Edward Norton is one of the very few actors my emotional involvement with whom starts anew every film.If that makes any sense.Btw, what exactly didn't you like about the last act of Leaves of Grass? I thought it was the best part of the film, like an impromptu gain of balance. And where do you start the last act?

  2. Yes, it makes sense.[SPOILER ALERT] I start Act V when Bill tries to sell his brother's pot-dealing equipment to the competition. Nice use of parallelism in that scene (with the crossbow), but it just felt strange and rushed. This movie, however, is worth a second viewing, as I believe anything that is new and different in art must be experienced several times before its full effect can be felt.

  3. Yes, watching it again is a good idea. Like, first I thought the first scene was a standard theme announcement, but when I watched it (just the first scene, I used it as a cinematic quote for a friend) again, I realised it was deeper than that.I liked the rushed feeling because… I'm not sure, I know it's something to do with balance. It's as if the movie's been ambling along at its own pace till then and suddenly it decides its too slow and starts running for its life, with absolutely no idea where on earth its life is.I see you've discovered David Bordwell. That much the better for you.

  4. It was nice of the lady to let off that dollar. Here too they charge exorbitantly for food in theatres because they are captive "tummmies". You seem to be writing overtime, furiously, if you don't object to the word.

  5. @ RonakYes, Bordwell's dissection of Metropolis is when I decided to follow instead of just bookmarking his blog/webpage. I think his influence is seeping into my reviews, too (which isn't a bad thing).@ S MI think the lady was just as shocked as I was at how expensive the water was. She even shared popcorn with me (I only took a handful)! Some people are just like that, and the world is better for them.Also, "furiously" is the right word for how I've been writing, so no, I don't object to its usage at all. 🙂

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