O. So Divided

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So, last week I did a stupid thing. I started a twelve part series. So far so good, but now I have to do the other eleven parts. Why do I keep doing this to myself?

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It’s alright. I do it because I like it…and because I have a lot of time to kill. And because I’m hoping that someone out there will find a kinship with my taste in movies. Everyone who’s a real cinephile will know that their favourite moments in life consist of someone saying “I’ve never seen that”, to which your response is always “What?! Sit down, we are watching it now!”. It’s self contradictory behaviour, of course. Being forced to watch something will automatically make you like it less. Humans hate having their free will robbed from them. That’s why I’m trying my best to cultivate a passion in you, rather than just order you around. I’m hoping to seduce, not command. Is it working yet?

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Hopefully you spent this last week trying to source and watch as many Alexander Payne films as you could. I’m telling you, if you haven’t then you’re missing out…

…I mean, whatever, it’s your decision, take it or leave it…but you should really take it! Damn it, this is too hard! Alright, forget it, I’m a Nazi giving you orders. But I’m an entertainment Nazi!

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So I have your best interests at heart, you know? “Schnell!” We march on with…

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I started with Alexander Payne because I felt like he was the most accessible auteur. Ergo, his style would appeal to a majority of the public. David O. Russell is also fairly accessible, but part of his catalogue will only satisfy a few. He is also a controversial figure, someone whose behaviour I struggle with at times. He is notorious for treating his cast and crew terribly, shouting at them and tearing up the set when he gets angry. He even got into a fistfight with George Clooney that resulted in a headlock. Temper tantrums are just the beginning. One of his film projects, Nailed, became indefinitely suspended and eventually shut down altogether because he couldn’t be bothered to pay his crew.

On the other hand…his films are really good!

Russell’s stories are like dense dramatic literature rewritten by a comedian. He can’t help but be funny, even though he’s clearly interested in larger ideas about identity and personal crisis.

His first film was a small creepy comedy called Spanking the Monkey.

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I say “creepy” because it’s about a young man who’s inability to successfully masturbate leads him to begin a sexual relationship with his mother. Sorry to spoil it for you, but…did you really want to stumble upon that on your own? Yeah, it’s really that weird.

The film was a success, both artistically and financially, so it must be doing something right. I suppose shock value is a necessary ingredient in any directorial debut, otherwise no one will bother talking about it. I don’t fault Russell for exploiting this, it obviously worked for him and he’s never gone back to the well of comedic perversion since, but I just don’t enjoy Spanking the Monkey. I mean, you know…the film.

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David O. Russell’s funniest film, easily, is Flirting With Disaster. It’s a stellar screwball comedy, as fast as it is funny, concerning a neurotic middle aged man who drags his family and acquaintances on a journey to find his birth parents. The cast is great, with Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Alan Alda, and more. It’s the O. Russell masterpiece that I recommend above all others, and yet most people don’t even know about it.

After some initial success, Russell was given the opportunity to write and direct a big budget studio picture. He conceived of something that few others could have, a black comedy heist film set during the Gulf War.

…Actually, he stole the idea from another writer.

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I told you, he’s controversial! The original script was called Spoils of War. Russell read it, rewrote it, and renamed it Three Kings. After a contentious back and forth, the original writer, John Ridley, ended up with a ‘story’ credit. Hey, it’s better than nothing.

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Three Kings was the first David O. Russell film that I ever saw. I remember liking it, even at a time when I mostly watched lowbrow action films. It has a an unusual visual style, which was achieved by shooting the film on something called Ektachrome film stock. This particular photochemical choice mimics the look of actual Gulf War photography, with a high contrast and a striking clash of cloudless sky blue with scorching pale yellow.

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There’s no other movie that looks quite like Three Kings, which makes it rather special. Not all of you will like it. The humour is sometimes clunky and at other times too subtle. The moral pivot of the main characters also feels a little unearned. I’ve re-watched the film in recent years, and it didn’t hold up as well as I thought it would. Perhaps I mostly have a nostalgic connection to it. Oh well, it’s worth watching at least once.

Then…there’s I Heart Huckabees

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This is not only the worst David O. Russell film, by quite some distance, it’s one of the worst films ever made! What’s it about? Great question! Ask David, because I’ve seen it and discussed it in my film theory class and I still can’t figure it out.

As far as I can tell, I Heart Huckabees is about existentialism. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play existential detectives(don’t bother asking), who are hired to help Jason Schwartzman solve large questions about the meaning of existence. There are philosophical debates, awfully executed green screen fantasy sequences, and even a mud orgy scene. I think David thinks it’s a profound plot, but I was counting down the minutes till it was over. None of it makes any sense, and on top of it all it’s not even funny or entertaining.

The worst part about I Heart Huckabees, though, has to be what transpired on set. Footage was leaked onto the internet of David O. Russell going absolutely mental during a spat with Lily Tomlin.

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It’s a deplorable example of inexcusable behaviour…which you can watch here. Who am I kidding? It’s hilarious – but also enraging. A man getting payed a lot of money to do whatever he wants should not be acting violently towards the people who are all there to help him realise his vision! Plus, it’s not even worth it. The film is dog shit.

There was some discussion after the controversy of Huckabees about whether David O. Russell would ever work again. Sure enough, he struggled to get films made for the next six years, but as the saying goes, “when it rains, it pours”.

Russell has had a positive resurgence in the last several years due to the award winning success of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy.

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While The Fighter and Joy (especially) are flawed pieces of work, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are tremendous achievements. The former is a romantic comedy that tackles bipolar disorder (a disease that Russell’s own son suffers from) while the latter posits the wacky semi-historical foiling of an art heist in the 70’s.

They all vary in many ways, but there’s a recognisable Scorsese influence that binds them. The characters are often unhinged, sometimes suffering from mental disease, addiction, or just general eccentricity.

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Their intense nature is exaggerated through the cinematography, too. Quick whip pans, zooms, and choppy editing, combined with close tracking shots and narration helps to shape a story told through a kinetic point of view.

Russell’s movies are almost never boring (I Heart Huckabees being an exception). He slavishly keeps his pacing up tempo. That’s particularly evident in American Hustle, where some scenes contain blatant jump cuts (cuts that don’t vary the camera angle more than fifteen degrees). It’s the mark of a director who will sacrifice content for timing during the finishing stages of production, and that’s enormously important. He will kill his darlings in order to keep you entertained.

The problem with jump cut editing is that it implies that the director is not planning ahead during production. Someone like Steven Spielberg, for example, always “cuts in camera”, meaning that he plans every shot and every scene down to the second. The editing process, therefore, should rarely consist of more than slotting the clips into place. David O. Russell clearly doesn’t do this, preferring to let the films best moments arise organically. An enormous gamble, sure, but on the up side you get things like this…

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…which are all improvised moments pushed to their hilarious extremes. Louis C. K. has even spoken about how his character’s main contribution to the plot, a childhood story about ice fishing, was never even part of the script. The development of these films is fluid and whimsical, but on the whole what you get seems to work.

David O. Russell’s career is as unpredictable as his temper. He’s currently slated to oversee an untitled mysterious TV series. Beyond that it’s anybody’s guess. Can he be a bastard? Yes. Would I want to have lunch with him? Probably not. Can the man make great films? Abso-fuckin’-lutely.

I completely understand if the above information makes you want to skip over this guy, but the dilemma of Russell is that you simply can’t afford to. He has an innate genius, which at times tips over the fine line into madness. You do have to suffer a lot of missteps and shenanigans in order to remain a fan, I admit. It’s a bit like being a sports fan, where every week there’s a new story about your favourite footballer’s shocking weekend behaviour.

Thankfully, though, he hasn’t had a blow up in a while (as far as we know), and I’m therefore recommending this artist to you. I vouch for his works, deviations fully declared. Here’s my guide to help you test him out:

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Give it a go. See if he’s for you. If not, there’ll be a new artist next week.

-Rant Over!

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