Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married - Reality Blurs at the Venice Film Festival

(Venice, Italy) I predict the Academy will have a difficult time deciding who is the Best Actress next year. I am seeing such amazing performances here at the Venice Film Festival, and incredible roles for women... finally.

Rachel Getting Married is a real Tri-State area kind of film, and if you are from the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), you'll know what I mean. The general buzz is that it's a winner. Written by first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet, director Jonathan Demme said he was busy with documentary work when Sidney Lumet asked him to read his daughter's script. It's kind of like a home movie, if you happen to have folks at home like Jonathan Demme, Jenny Lumet, Debra Winger, Anne Hathaway, etc., along with a bunch of talented musicians.

Since I am SO FAR out of the loop, I didn't know Debra Winger had exiled herself from Hollywood for a while, or that Jonathan Demme had been making documentaries. I didn't know who Anne Hathaway was, and I've never heard of Rosemarie DeWitt -- who I thought was Debra Winger the entire movie! Now, of COURSE she couldn't have been Debra Winger because that is Debra Winger up there on the left, who played the mother, but the last time I saw Debra Winger's image, she looked like Rosemarie DeWitt, over there on the right.

The movie is about a dysfunctional family coming together for a wedding. One journalist -- I think he was Italian -- but he was definitely not American -- asked if the movie was an accurate portrait of America today. Ha! It was an accurate portrait of America thirty years ago as well! What was a bit surreal for me is that the last time I had seen Jonathan Demme was many years ago at a Bar Mitzvah in Los Angeles, so watching the movie about this family event, and then going to the press conference was sort of like a reality blur for me -- actually living in Venice, being yanked into Connecticut during the film, then yanked again to the present to the press conference in Venice to listen to Americans from the East Coast. Plus, it turns out that Anne Hathaway is from New Jersey (where I grew up), and that she studied at the Paper Mill Playhouse, which is where I saw my very first play as a child. It felt sort of like when I saw The Merchant of Venice while I was in New York City in 2005, but the other way around. You come out of the movie and sort of lose your sense of time and place -- it's jarring.

In his director's statement, Jonathan Demme says (he is intentionally not using capitalization): "because i wanted to present the possibility of a really wonderful wedding, there was very little 'extras casting' for the movie -- basically, we created a guest list of people i knew -- actors and civilians -- that seemed to fit with the couple, and proceeded to let the weekend unfold on film, with everybody getting to know each other as we filmed, in the way people actually become a momentary community at 'real-life' special events."

It mostly worked, although I did think it got bogged down a bit during the wedding itself with too much music, and we lost the protagonist, Kym, Anne Hathaway's character.

Since I don't know her work, I read up a bit on Anne Hathaway, and learned that she has a "squeaky clean" image. You can be sure she has shattered that image with this movie, and that is an understatement. From the production notes: "I love Kym's almost compulsive need for honesty," says Hathaway, "and how direct she is. Her timing may not be appropriate, but she's trying so hard to get across the chasm of tragedy that separates her from her family, trying to acknowledge and atone in her own way. At the end, maybe her sister Rachel understands her journey, and that acceptance is crucial."

During the movie, I thought, where is the mother in all this? And that is the beauty of Jenny Lumet's screenplay. Kym is the one who everyone is blaming, but, to me, I thought, where the hell is the mother? And just as I was thinking that came one of the most powerful scenes in the film between Debra Winger and Anne Hathaway.

Here is a little production note trivia that will make sense to you after you see the film. It is such a great moment, it's interesting to know Anne Hathaway was improvising: "At one point," says Demme, "Anne Hathaway was trying to act out a very intense scene while the musicians noodled around outside. She was distracted and the assistant director came to me and said that she was having trouble, so I said: 'Tell her to do something about it, then.' That's when Kym yells at them to shut up -- all unplanned and improvised but completely in character."

I was encouraged to hear that Jonathan Demme is also having problems with distribution companies -- I was beginning to think the ineptitude was personal! He completely blasted distribution, saying they don't do their job. He said the reason he worked with Sony Pictures Classics was because they were the only distributor he knew that worked as hard as everyone else on a picture. I guess films and books are not much different these days when it comes to the job of capturing the attention of people who want/need/appreciate the product.

Another journalist asked if the movie reflected America itself coming together again, as well as this fictional family. Jenny Lumet said she hadn't thought of it before, but yes, she felt as if America is trying to come together again.

I feel it, too. I know there is a lot of grumbling about what is wrong with the International Venice Film Festival, but from my point of view as an American who completely dropped out during the Bush years -- not only physically from the country, but also from news, television, films -- everything except music videos -- the festival gives me great hope. As I've said, I am attending the festival from a very particular point of view. When the festival began last week, I was exhausted just from being American, always on the defense here in Europe -- not with everyone, of course, but with enough people who are either too ignorant or lazy to differentiate between individuals. Like everything, people appreciate things more if they are gone.

Everyone seemed so happy to see Natalie Portman and Charlize Theron, and Jonathan Demme. Everyone seemed so happy to see familiar faces like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, who gave no interviews except at the press conference, but appeared briefly like gods and then vanished again.

I am so pleased with the quality of the American films and the demeanor of the representatives from my country that I feel like waving the flag:)

Ciao from Venice,

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