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A LETTER TO RIAN JOHNSON

by Dennis Cozzalio Dec 16, 2017

It feels a little bit like Christmas morning around the house this morning, even though we’ve still got a week and change to go before the actual day, and that’s undoubtedly because all the women here are rousing themselves a bit early to get ready for what amounts to Christmas 2017, Hollywood style. (The cats have been up for some time already, and they too are very excited, but you know, that’s just their way.) You see, in a couple hours we’re all piling into the car and making the pilgrimage up the hill to Universal City to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When it comes to buying advance tickets for a big movie for the whole family to see together my dear wife knows no restraints, and if the movie is prefixed with the words “Star Wars,” then all bets are most assuredly off. So, today’s show will come enhanced with the very best in IMAX and 3D, just so we won’t feel gypped in any way. Merry Christmas, kids!

The Cozzalio women would see Star Wars: The Last Jedi no matter what, of course, regardless of whether Alec Guinness himself reappeared as a hologram next to their morning bacon, eggs and cinnamon rolls (now warming in the oven!) and warned them that the Force was definitely not with this one and that this was not the movie we were looking for. But this Force agnostic has been very encouraged by enthusiastic advance word pretty much across the board, especially from the likes of the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang and New York magazine’s David Edelstein.

And what’s more, the new movie has been directed not by talented serial copycat JJ Abrams, but instead one Rian Johnson, who has been, with his three previous features, nothing if not all about tracing his own path. His first movie was the bizarrely captivating Brick, in which he imagines a world where echoes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler infuse not only the atmosphere but also the attitudes and even the style of everyday speech as a disaffected high school student attempts to piece together the circumstances surrounding a murder among the student body.  Johnson followed Brick with The Brothers Bloom, a quirky comedy of deception and romance starring Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. And most recently, Johnson offered up Looper, a mind-bending science fiction thriller in which a time-traveling assassin (Brick’s Joseph Gordon Levitt) finds out his latest target is the aged version of himself (Bruce Willis). Surely the dexterous and dynamic Looper played a big role in convincing the powers that be at Disney of Johnson’s ability to successful take the conn of their biggest interstellar cash machine.

The combination of all the good notices, plus the involvement of a good, strong-willed director in the Star Wars franchise, for the first time since Irvin Kershner made magic with The Empire Strikes Back, has indeed made me feel a little like it’s Christmas morning too. And if the movie is as good as advertised, it won’t be the first time Rian Johnson has delighted my family on a very personal level. You see, way back in 2009, just before her ninth birthday, I took my oldest daughter Emma to see a double feature of The Lady Eve and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a strange double bill you might think, as I did at first. But there was an overriding intelligence behind the pairing. The program was curated by Rian Johnson as part of a brief series he hosted at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles called “Rian Johnson’s Festival of Fakery,” and I’m sure you can now see the connection Johnson drew between the two ostensibly mismatched films by placing them together in this context. Johnson not only introduced the films, he did magic tricks, enthused about Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology, and even showed some mind-boggling George Méliès shorts. It was a superb night out for us, and it really helped to seal Emma’s fate as a true appreciator of the fantastic and the classic elements of movie history. I was so happy about being able to attend, and about what the evening meant both for her and for me, that I wrote Johnson a letter thanking him for the experience. He sent me a personal response (very nice!) which I’ve kept for myself and Emma. And it really helped to seal Emma’s fate as a appreciator of the fantastic and the classic elements of movie history. I was so happy about being able to attend that I wrote Johnson a letter about it, which I turned into an SLIFR post. He sent me a personal response (very nice!), which I kept for myself and Emma. But if you want to read the letter I sent, an account of our evening with Rian Johnson’s Festival of Fakery, it’s available right here. But in anticipation of seeing his new movie, I’d like to share with you the letter I wrote to Johnson.

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Mr. Johnson,

There are many occasions we have as moviegoers to experience regret, about as many as there are opportunities to opt for special, even once-in-a-lifetime screenings over the average multiplex fare, because we most certainly can never see all there is to see on any given night, especially in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle or anywhere else a moviegoer might be tempted. I can say with certainty that I regret having had to miss the recent “Festival of Fakery” you programmed at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles, a series of films all thematically linked by the notion of cons and fraud and the familiar idea of things not being what they seem. The festival was a clever way to prepare your audience for your upcoming movie The Brothers Bloom, but more importantly within this theme you were able to introduce other films and continue what has fast become a bit of a tradition at the New Beverly– turning over the calendar to a filmmaker who can now share a love of films not only through the ones he or she makes, but also by programming and talking about the ones that formed his or her sensibility as a creative artist.

The movies in your “Festival of Fakery” series that I regret having missed included Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Spanish Prisoner, The Sting, The Man Who Would Be King, 8½ and F for Fake, all of which were undoubtedly made even more vivid and rich on the big screen through your introductions. But I cannot fully mourn missing the festival, because I did indeed make it out for the first night of the closing program, a delightful double feature of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a pairing I can’t imagine would have been likely to have come up in any other context. It was the pairing, however, and not the festival that brought me and my oldest daughter to the New Beverly last Friday. I wanted her to experience the giddy joy of Preston Sturges’ very best movie at my side and open up to her a new element of classic Hollywood—the screwball comedy—to ride shotgun with her burgeoning appreciation of westerns like Bend of the River and Buchanan Rides Alone. And I knew she would dig the demented dioramas and perverse gigantism of Gilliam’s movie—I’d shown her the first 20 minutes on DVD and so when we saw it would be playing at the New Beverly it instantly became a must-see event. I expected that she would find two new films to love that night.

What I didn’t expect was that you would treat my daughter to not only these great movies, but also to what was surely the most elaborate and well-thought-out presentation in the short history of these New Bev filmmaker series. The essential ambience of the evening’s musical accompaniment was performed on pedal steel guitar instead of house organ, and it was a real treat. My daughter and I were sitting four rows from the front and had a great view of the card trick you performed (with the help of New Bev institution Clu Gulager) to warm up the crowd before the first film, and the look of amazement on her face, even so early on in the evening’s entertainment, was alone worth the price of admission. Nor did I expect that, perfectly in tune with another shot at exposing my daughter to classic cinema, you would essentially be putting on for the lucky audience a brief film school lecture, complete with projected slide show, anecdotes and directorial history, to lay the groundwork for seeing The Lady Eve. My daughter listened with great interest as you explained a little background on Preston Sturges and his position in the food chain of the studio system of 1940s Hollywood. She was even more fascinated when talk turned to Gilliam’s movie, its history, and even your experience viewing it for the first time. (I added my own little dimension of fascination when I revealed to her that Munchausen was, in fact, the very first movie her mother and I saw together, on the night we first met back in 1988, at the old Century Plaza Cinemas on the night the movie opened.) Again, the slide presentation really opened up what could have been a dry little talk and helped make it sing with your own enthusiasm.

And in between films I was caught up with a bit of emotion when you unexpectedly screened the two George Méliès shorts, which so clearly demonstrated Méliès’ fascination with motion picture photography and the endless possibilities for cinema trickery. Some of the tricks he employed in the first short, The Wizard, were precisely the same stunts my friends and I concocted on Super 8 back in the ‘70s, with minimal awareness of Méliès or his significance. (The visual magic on display in Méliès’ Four Heads, which you also screened, was and ever remained far more sophisticated, with its hilarious self-decapitations, than anything we could have ever come up with.) I was struck by that connection between Méliès and young filmmakers feeling their way through this new (to them) medium, how we movie-geek kids were funneling creativity in our own way, virtually unaware that the same tricks had been discovered nearly a century earlier by a pioneer of film who was in his way as seduced by the movies as we were. I thrilled to the opportunity to explain why these old films were so important, and she laughed her head off at the crude, eye-popping slapstick, a fresh audience for hundred-year-old tricks who looked at them as if they’d never been seen before.

Finally, I couldn’t have appreciated more your sidebar discussion of those Renaissance cabinets of curiosity whose tradition is carried on by The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a funky museum of oddities and wonders that my daughter found very mysterious and fascinating from your description. We are planning our first excursion there very soon, and we will be thinking of you during our tour, to be sure.

All this for the very reasonable price of a New Beverly ticket and no expectation other than the enjoyment of the two grand movies we initially came to see. We both are very thankful that we were treated to so much more, courtesy of your genial and informative presentation, which made a simple night out at the movies for dad and daughter into what will certainly be one of the most memorable and enjoyable outings for us to the movies this year. I look forward to attending The Brothers Bloom during its theatrical run at the Arclight Cinemas here in Los Angeles beginning May 15. And right now, after I post this, I’m going to return to Brick. I tried seeing it last night, on about two and a half hours sleep, and I became mystified by the dialogue after about an hour—I literally couldn’t keep up with what the characters were saying in this strange but rewarding mystery where everyone in high school speaks Dashiell Hammett instead of John Hughes. I look forward to rejoining the movie tonight with a fresh set of ears and eyeballs. And I look forward to anything else you might have up your sleeve in the future as well. But most of all, I will always hold dear the memory of being in your New Beverly Cinema film class last Friday night with my daughter. If she develops a serious interest in the movies you will surely have played an important part in that, and even if she doesn’t she still laughed at your tricks, and at Henry Fonda’s elegant pratfalls, and Barbara Stanwyck’s supernatural turns of phrase, and the King of the Moon (head only) chasing Baron Munchausen around the Sea of Tranquility. For that you have my utmost appreciation and my best wishes for all the stories you choose to tell.

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Back to the future, in 2017, I hope Rian Johnson has more stories to tell than just those of a galaxy far, far away. It would be a shame to see him absorbed by the star(wars)-making machinery. But in the meantime, a tip of the cap to this gifted and enthusiastic young director who might just be the guy to expand the many worlds of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Rey, Poe, Finn and the grandiose and galactic emo-osity of Kylo Ren into genuine fun and surprise once again. And now, it’s show time!

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About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.