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.

The Magical Magician Méliès

georges-melies

So here’s the skinny on this blog…

Initially, I designed it as a venue to share movie reviews and research. While I enjoyed creating these well researched articles, turning one out every week or two became tedious and, as you can well see, eventually failed to happen at all. On the other hand, when I turned to writing only reviews, I found myself bored. So back to the research it is. This year, I will turn out two long form articles on an aspect of a film, filmmaker, or topic in film history — no deadlines, just the knowledge that there must be at least two. But where to begin?

After contemplating several topics of interest, I reminded myself of two adages, “Write what you know,” and “Talk about what you love.” Thus, I begin with a silent filmmaker who captured my interest even as a teenager. From the moment I saw “A Trip to the Moon” for the first time, to two nights ago when I began watching his complete collection of films, the magnificent Georges Méliès has held my imagination in check. Through my research on Méliès (talk about what you love), I will inspect the rise (and I will argue) fall of special effects in cinema (write what you know). I’ll occasionally post my general impressions about what I’ve watched, read, or thought here, and hopefully share a completed essay sometime in the next 6 months. My topic may change along the way, and that’s okay, but Méliès is the key.

To understand why this silent filmmaker matters to me, you must hear our history. I was a Junior in High School, and somehow convinced my friends that our History Day project should be about film — my obsession, not theirs. Despite our grand efforts to showcase in a video the broad topic, “Lights, Camera, Action: How the Movies Began,” the project was a failure with the judges. There was no research, no focused topic — all we did was regurgitate known facts. I share this, because somewhere between the last-minute dash to finish the video (VHS, by the way), the frowns from the judges, and a lack of research with substance, I found George Méliès’, and I never forgot him. Somehow, this seemingly random High School project actually mattered.

In college we talked more about Méliès, and watched the full version of “A Trip to the Moon.” I remember reading about his glass studio, mechanical devices, and multiple exposures with awe. I watched many of his films after college, and always wanted to know more — more about this strange man with his magic; and it was magic. Think about it, while the Lumière brothers and Edison were showing us things we could see for ourselves — a train, a baby eating, a boxing match, Méliès was creating worlds unknown. Watching a Méliès film must’ve been more like watching a stage play, or better yet a magic act, but on film it must’ve seemed so real. I would love to be one of his original audience members, soaking in the fantasy, and wondering what else might be possible. Was this world Méliès created as real to an audience as the cattle running through Edison’s latest picture? Did anyone wonder if he really visited the moon? Did they simply ask, “How’d he do that?” Did his multiple heads and dancing creatures frighten or amaze? I want to know.

A few years ago, as I cracked open Hugo by Brian Selznick for the first time my heart jumped with nervous joy. Hugo features a fictional account of Méliès in his old age. Could this book due him justice? Part of me was jealous — I wanted to keep my little Méliès secret. The other part of me was thrilled — the world would finally know his name, and watch his films. They’d watch is films! When I first became fascinated with him, our library didn’t even own a copy of his work. This was disappointing, and I hoped Hugo would change this. It did.

Last night, I began a DVD set that contains 173 original films, as well as a “documentary” on Méliès by George Franju, which features re-enactments by Méliès’ son, and cameos by his wife. I’m giddy! 173 short films! Wow!

Did you know Méliès burned most of his original pieces? Can you imagine? Artists have a love/hate relationship with their work, this is true, and there are many projects of mine which I hope I never see again, but to burn them takes a different kind of hatred. The documentary by Franju suggests that because so many people copied and showed Méliès’ work without giving him credit or any profits, eventually the joy he once felt towards film turned to anger. After World War I, he stopped making movies entirely, and that’s when he burned what remained. I’m interested to research this story more fully. Certainly, Hugo also suggests this sad tale. If the criminals who copied his work, and showed it without permission hadn’t done so, there may be even fewer Méliès films around today. Then again, if they hadn’t stolen his films, perhaps he wouldn’t have burned what he had. Perhaps, he would’ve kept making movies and who knows what masterpieces he would’ve created. Life is full of what ifs, though, so for now, I’ll focus on the 173 films that remain and have been put so beautifully to DVD.

Welcome to the world of Méliès and the inner-windings of my own mind.

“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.