What Matters? – The Death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and The Ripple Effect

“Acting is so difficult for me that, unless the work is of a certain stature in my mind, unless I reach the expectations I have of myself, I’m unhappy. Then it’s a miserable existence. I’m putting a piece of myself out there. If it doesn’t do anything, I feel so ashamed. I’m afraid I’ll be the kind of actor who thought he would make a difference and didn’t. Right now, though, I feel like I made a little bit of difference.” (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, imdb.com)

Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

I know he’s a celebrity. I know I don’t know him. He might’ve been a good person, or perhaps not. With his death, comes a great sadness, though. The writer and director in me had him on the short list of brilliant actors I dreamed of working with. The film lover in me wishes he’d be around to win just a few more awards — to play the lead in just a few more films. The horrid shock of knowing we’ll never get to see him in a new film ever is devastating. My only consolation is the realization that there are so many of his films I’ve only “meant” to see, and through them he gets a few new roles — at least for a little while.

After several hours of reflection behind me, I realize why this death affects me more than other celebrity deaths have. Yes, he was an amazing actor — the type that makes you see a movie just because he’s in it, but that’s not it. This death brings tears to my eyes, because he mattered to me. He mattered because in my world Capote mattered. It changed me, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman was Truman Capote, and that mattered.

As I pondered why Capote, of all random films, means something to me, I started thinking about other films (not necessarily my favorites) that truly effected me in some way. Why did they stand out amongst so many? When I started thinking about it, it was actually easy to focus on a select few. This list, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is inspired by you:

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Beginning in the summer of 2004, I worked the overnight shift at a TV station during the week. I watched a lot of movies during that time, often early in the morning, or in the middle of the night on weekends when the world was asleep. My mind shifted and became addled by a reverse sleep cycle, and I only remember that I might have maybe watched this or that during that time. There’s one film I remember vividly, though.

Before Sunrise

As Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke bantered about in Before Sunrise,  I remember thinking that never before had I seen a film that had so much dialogue. How had this one pulled it off with such great success? They beat into our brains in film school that films should show not tell, that less is more when it comes to dialogue. Yet, here was a film that broke those rules. Nothing really happened, and it was beautiful. It was fascinating. The conversation was brilliant. The characters were real. I loved it. I love it. It has, had, and continues to impact and inspire me. Thank you Richard Linklater. Thank you Julie Delpy. Thank you Ethan Hawke.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Before college I hadn’t been exposed to many silent films. When I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it enthralled me. The peculiar scenery, the bizarre characterizations — the horror of it all. This film made me love silent films. It made me see that the world didn’t need to look like the world, to feel like the world. It taught me what a somnambulist is for goodness sakes! Caligari has inspired Hitchcock and Tim Burton, and any number of others. I didn’t know any of this when I first saw it, though. All I knew is it was amazing!

Walk the Line

In addition to leading me onto the straight and narrow path of being smitten with the music of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, simply put, made me believe in love again. It had one thing that separated it from every other love story I’d ever seen or read — one detail that made it stand out. It was  true.

Harry Potter

Okay, this is a weird one in comparison to the others. Hear me out, though. Before seeing  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I hadn’t read any of the books. After seeing it, I immediately read every single one that was out at the time. I bought the remaining novels on their opening days year-after-year. I won a 2nd place Colorado Broadcaster’s Association award for a news piece I did on the final book release. This fantasy world matters to me. Watching Harry Potter marked the first time since L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, that I was fully transported into another world — it brought magic to my life. I wanted to be in those books. I wanted that fantasy to be real. Because of all that followed, this first film mattered.

The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside is about assisted suicide. It should be a depressing film, but it’s not. I left the film feeling more alive. It was an emotional journey, and of course I cried, but it was not sad. I gained a new love for Spanish cinema after seeing this film. My heart grew fond of Javier Bardem long before he joined forces with The Coen Brothers or James Bond. Mostly, though, I was moved in a way I’d never expected or known before. This one sat with me for a long time.

The Sensation of Sight

David Strathairn starred in Good Night and Good Luck. In any other year he would have had-an Oscar winning performance. This isn’t about that film, though. About a year later, I went to see a film starring Strathairn at the Starz Denver Film Festival called The Sensation of Sight. I had no idea David would be there, but when the Q&A began, there he was  with Ian Somerhalder from Lost. What? My heart began to race — literally. Standing in this tiny theatre in Denver, and it truly was a tiny theatre, was an actor I had grown to love. Those days when I sat in the audience at Starz were some of the days I felt most alive during my stint working at a news station. I sat there film after film, and I knew I belonged. It was one of the only places that made me feel that way. Seeing David Strathairn there in my world, close enough that I actually could have talked to him had I thought of something to say, gave me more hope than I even realized at the time.

This brings us back around to Capote, which came out the same year as Goodnight and Good Luck. Any other year, Strathairn may have won the Oscar, or perhaps it would’ve been Heath Ledger. It was neither. It was… who?

Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Capote

This was, as it happens, the second year I’d had an Oscar party — the second year in which I made a grand effort to see as many films as possible. This was the year, I opened my mind to movies I wouldn’t normally see. It was one of the most memorable years in film for me to date. Perhaps, it was the impact of the films that year, or maybe it was just that I’d spent so much time in theatres alone in awe. It’s hard to say. In any case, I didn’t know much about Truman Capote. I’d never read In Cold Blood. I still haven’t. The film Capote blew me away, though. I’m sure I’d seen shocking endings before, but something about Hoffman’s performance — something about the way in which that character behaved — something about the cold, heartless ending — it mattered. It shocked me, and it changed the way I looked at film. It changed the way I measured an amazing performance.

You see, Phillip Seymour Hoffman will forever be Capote to me. He will always matter. Mr. Hoffman sir, you did make a difference. You did the only thing you ever set out to do. There is no shame in the roles you played, or the lives you changed. You’ve created a great ripple.

Goodnight Mr. Hoffman, and good luck.

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So an Insurance Guy Walks into a Femme Fatale’s House: Double Indemnity, in review

“Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlor and says, “Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long?
One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?” – Walter Neff –

doubleIndemnityGrocery

In Summary:

Double Indemnity is a film noir about an insurance man, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who falls mistakenly in love with the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while trying to sell her insurance. The two conspire to remove Phyllis’ ill-tempered husband from the picture, so they can be together. In what is almost the perfect murder and insurance fraud scheme, director Billy Wilder places Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) into the position of the voice of reason. The question is, will Keyes figure out what Walter and Phyllis have done before it’s too late.

Why I watched this one:
As it turns out, I’ve watched very few film noir pieces. I’m not sure why. I wanted and needed to watch more, and Double Indemnity has long been on my list.  Also, I enjoy Fred MacMurray, and was interested to see his performance in this particular film.

So what is a noir? Variety describes the genre this way:

“Between the Great Depression and the start of the
Cold War, Hollywood went noir, reflecting the worldly, weary, wised-up under
current of mid-century America. In classics such as Laura, Sweet Smell of
Success, and Double Indemnity, where the shadows of L.A. and New York
pulse with
killers, corpses, and perilous romance, failure is not only a logical option but a smart-talking seduction.” – Vanity Fair March 2007 –

Who isn’t drawn in by the idea that the shadows of L.A. and New York “pulse” with peril. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. Honestly, though, if I wasn’t reading this quote as a description of film noir, I might mistake it for that of a mobster movie — Dick Tracy, The Godfather, The Sopranos, and The Departed immediately pop to mind.  Filmnoir.net takes a different approach when describing the film noir.

“The great films noir had both popular appeal and artistic merit because their themes address the human condition and the frailty of normal lives, which at any moment can be plunged into the chasm of chaos,
t
hrough chance or individual action – innocent or otherwise.
How moral ambivalence, lust, love and greed can destroy lives was
explored outside the closed romantic realism of mainstream movies.”

I was always taught to believe they required this formula:

1. A femme fatale (always a femme fatale) — which means never trust the women in these films. Never.
2. Someone with some loose morals
3. A detective, or a crime
4. High contrast cinematography and lighting (big shadows, light vs. dark, black blacks and white whites — you get it)

Double Indemnity meets all of these film noir requirements,  so no wonder it’s marked as one of the greats. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1945, including Best Picture, but lost to the Bing Crosby film Going My Way.

My Review & Verdict — in Claps:

“Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong.
It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me.
I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
– Water Neff –

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I enjoyed this film. Why?

Every character with the exception of Barton Keyes was pretty much a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, or a murderer. Of course, by “every character” I simply mean those played by MacMurray and Stanwyck. Perhaps, it was that bit of redemption at the end as Walter Neff comes clean about his crime that makes me like it. Perhaps, it was the intrigue throughout as I wondered how they’d commit their murder, and if dear Phyllis Dietrichson was really in love with Neff or simply playing him for a fool. Even though I know the woman is always deceptive in the noir, I always want to believe it isn’t true. I want a good guy. I want a happy ending. But then, Wilder began with the end and then had Walter tell the story from the beginning. I knew immediately there was no happy ending to be had, but I still enjoyed this film.

For the third time  Billy Wilder has graced this blog, and he’s definitely becoming one of my favorites. Once more he’s created likeable unlikable characters who represent the good and bad in all of us. This time he did it in the acceptable form of film noir. Every director could learn a thing or two about character development and an interesting plot line from Mr. Wilder.

Thus it is, that you may clap in high contrast, with big scary shadow puppet hands, for Double Indemnity.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman –
and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
– Water Neff –

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“Do NOT call me a Dink.” — This is a bit off topic.

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Hey! Alright, so you’re probably wondering where my movie reviews are (or maybe not), but they will rise again. This is for sure. In the meantime, I made a short film called “Dink.” It’s in post-production right now and you can follow it here:

https://www.facebook.com/Dinkmovie

It’s going to be a super fun Facebook site full of exclusive videos, and updates from the P.O.V. of one of the characters. It’d be super cool if you’d like the page. 🙂 There’s a Groucho Marx reference in the film, so it’s still got that old movie shout out.

More old movie blogs soon! 🙂 I have big plans for film noir.