Three films by Edward Burns
My favorite kind of movie reviews to write are about good but flawed films. You get to mix analysis, enthusiastic description, and completely subjective opinionizing in ways that usually come out sounding trenchant, fair, and even knowledgeable. Plus, you might convince people to take a look at a film they might not have heard of or have given the skip on the first go-round.
Reviewing a bad movie is easy but it's not a lot of fun and you're always at risk of just sounding mean.
Writing about a very good movie takes the most work. You don't want to gush but you don't want your critique to turn into criticism in which the things you liked about the movie get downplayed or even lost in the discussion.
Hardest for me to write about are movies I loved. This is why I haven't gotten around to a post about Little Miss Sunshine.
But I've been on an Edward Burns kick this past week, having watched three of his movies, Looking for Kitty, The Groomsmen, and Sidewalks of New York, and since Burns makes good but flawed movies, I know exactly what I want to say about them and pretty much how to say it, and that's what Iâ'm going to do this weekend, write about them.
Burns' first film, The Brothers McMullen, was the kind of independently-financed, low-budget, character-driven, realistic films that nowdays are the staple of the Sundance Festival and often win their directors positive critical attention and a Hollywood contract to make big-budget, star-driven, high-concept comedies or action movies. Since The Brothers McMullen Burns has made a handful of low-budget, character-driven, realistic films.
I'm guessing that at some point the Hollywood contract was on the table but for some reason never got signed, and, judging by his movies, I'd bet that it was because Burns decided he wanted to keep making the kinds of movies he's been making.
His apparent influences are John Cassavetes, without the edge, Paul Mazursky, without the whimsy and polish, and Woody Allen, without the neurotic-obsession with his own neurotic obsessions and without Allenâs limiting class-consciousness. Except for parts of Annie Hall and all of Radio Days, Allen has kept his focus on a very narrow sliver of society---life among the upper middle class of New York's intellegensia. Burns turns his camera on the lower strata of the middle class, that part of society where the blue and white collars meet, and since that's where most of America happens to live, he has a wider variety of character types to play with and a greater range of voices to give us to listen to and more neighborhoods he can carry his camera and us into.
This isn't something he's got over Allen. I don't think Burns has learned how to portray his characters and render his cityscapes with a unique ear and eye yet. He's too willing to trust his camera to do the work. He's like a newspaper photographer who runs through three or four rolls of film (or a couple of memory sticks) without taking time to compose a shot because he knows that somewhere in there heâll have captured the perfect picture. Burns isn't careless or wasteful. Just a little complacent.
I don't know how good a filmmaker Burns will turn out to be. He's 38, old for a Hollywood hack, but young for an artist, and I think he's ambitious the way artists and writers are, the way most movie makers are not allowed to be because too much is on the line with any one film---he looks at each work as a necessary step to the next one. He's learning as he goes. Great geniuses learn in leaps and bounds, but most artists are slow learners and it's not until they're well into middle-age, even old age, that they really know what they're doing.
We'll see what Burns is up to when he's fifty. I have a feeling his movies won't look much different. He seems to have a certain kind of writer's sensibility---Chekhov being the best example---in that he sees himself as at work on one long story that will take him his whole career to tell.
In the end, I think Burns will be content to be judged on the body of his work rather than on the excellence of individual movies and he appears confident that the judgment will tell in his favor. Woody Allen is doing the same thing, by the way, and criticisms of his movies should take this into account, looking at each one not in comparison to his past masterpieces but as pieces in the larger puzzle he's been assembling around those great movies.
Burns hasn't yet produced a film as good as Allen's best, or even some of Allen's only pretty good movies, but, remember, Allen's a genius, and he didn't make Annie Hall until he was in his forties.
I wouldn't put money on Burns turning out to be as good as Allen at his best, but I can see him besting his other influences, Mazursky and Cassevetes. Whether or not he becomes an important American filmmaker in the future, however, he does have an importance to American filmmaking now.
He's a reminder that American movies don't have to be about blowing things up or about how beautiful movie stars are when they cry or about...well...anything. They don't have to have plots.
Plots being something different than stories. Plots are to stories what a firefighter's turnout coat is to a raincoat.
I mentioned Allen, Mazursky, and Cassevetes as Burns' most obvious influences. Americans and New Yorkers all. Burns has also been influenced by foreign films, as they were. But I think Burns has also learned from a lot about what he wants to do from writers like Chekhov and Dickens.
There's a scene in Looking for Kitty in which the private detective Burns is playing is lectured by a very foolish and pathetically boyish middle-aged rock star about how superior comic books are to novels. The rock star is specifically contemptuous of Dickens.
What does Dickens know about real life, the rock star sneers. Comic books, that's where the truth about life is to be found, that's where to look for raw life, that's where to go to find real emotion.
It's a bit heavy-handed and too transparent. Burns might as well have had his characters debate the merits of Sin City versus Looking for Kitty. Hollywood, Burns is reminding us, would rather he made filmed comic books than the short stories he prefers.
In using Dickens as a stand-in for himself in that exchange, Burns was making an analogy not a boast. But I don't think he'd have been out of line if he was drawing specific comparisons.
There's a Dickensian quality to Burns' view of life. While he doesn't share Dickens' love of the grotesque and, for budgetary and artistic reasons, he doesnât go in for elaborate and fantastical plots, like Dickens he sees people as lost, lonely, and isolated eccentrics, knocked around and beaten down by social and economic forces they only vaguely understand, generally irrelevent and even disposable as far as the great financial and political doings of the world and the people who run it are concerned, desperate to connect with others, and finding solace and some safety, if not salvation, in forming makeshift families based on love and need rather than genes and legal ties.
So this is what I plan to be up to over the next couple of days, writing my three reviews. I'll be posting them below this one. I have an order planned for their placement but I'll be writing them out of that order, working my way from the easiest to write about to the most difficult (see above), so expect my review of The Groomsmen first.