A Remembrance of Paul Sylbert (1928-2016)

“How do you expect to make films if you don’t really look at the world around you? That’s the core of design and art direction, folks.”
    -Paul Sylbert, to his students

No movie brings me to tears like Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D, the story of a destitute old man and his best friend, the dog he can no longer afford to keep. But perhaps the strangest movie to turn me into Niagara Falls is Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Indeed, I’ve never met another person for which this holds true. (Am I the only one who cries at the end of Fahrenheit 451?)

In the third act, Oskar Werner has come to live among the Book People, a group of literary flame-keepers exiled from a dystopic society where books are burned and the written word is outlawed. The duty of each of these exiles is to memorize the whole of an individual text. In the poignant final sequence, a young boy “inherits” his own book, anxiously mastering its last few verses while the elder who instructs him takes his dying breaths.

As this elder shuffles off the mortal coil, the book in question barely, but indeed triumphantly, survives for at least one more generation.  Composer Bernard Herrmann's string section mourns the human loss, but instills hope that endangered flames flicker on if we care to tend them.

For me, the ending of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 bespeaks and compounds the meaning in lessons that aged mentors in the film industry have imparted to me. They survive when their wisdom and their stories are told in the days beyond their passing. Time, memory, and record are fragile, and I’ve made a point of collecting everything I can. Like any branch of history, where we come from dictates where we’re going, and this is not untrue with cinema, on or off the screen.

The man I credit as my first mentor in the film industry, Paul Sylbert, had a hell of a resumé, and an Oscar to show for it: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Mikey and Nicky (1976), Blow Out (1981), The Prince of Tides (1991), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), The Wrong Man (1956), Ishtar (1987), and many others.

He was also a regular on the sets of films like The Graduate (1967), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), and Reds (1981), all of which his brother Dick designed.

Above: Paul Sylbert receives his Oscar for Heaven Can Wait in 1979

I remember hearing, as a sophomore film student at Temple University, that an Academy Award-winning production designer had recently taken a teaching post. Word spread fast that this man had worked under both Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan. Paul Sylbert quickly became a reputed "big cheese" even among the more oblivious underclassmen. I've long been an obsessive for the cinematic era in which Sylbert made his fortune, so I was excited to eventually meet and talk to him. My rare old VHS copy of The Steagle (1971), a film Sylbert had written and directed, was waiting for his autograph. (Yes, I'm that kind of nerd.)

On the day I met him, back in 2004, I gravitated to him somewhat automatically, purely on a hunch. Leisurely pacing around the Annenberg Hall atrium, the heart of Temple’s media-arts hub, he was a tall, slender figure with a baseball cap and the type of khaki jacket that seemed just perfect for, say, a retired film director.   I know not what possessed me to approach and spark an interaction, as it’s really unlike me.  I just felt confident, I guess. "Pardon me, but are you Paul Sylbert?" I asked.  Jauntily turning his wiry frame to face me, he replied, "Yep, 'tis I!"  I proceeded to tell him about my video copy of The Steagle, and how, as the chief programmer of my university film series, Film Fridays, I was requesting he present the film and answer questions about it afterwards. Clearly stupefied, he laughed and informed me that the making of The Steagle had been traumatic for him…so traumatic in fact that he wrote a whole book about its undoing, at the hands of studio head/impresario Joseph E. Levine. (The book is entitled Final Cut: The Making and Breaking of a Film.)

I recounted the many things I admired about The Steagle. Seemingly touched by the sincerity with which I named its merits, he told me he would consider my proposition. “I haven't seen the thing since they butchered it. It might be interesting to see it again after all these years. I've got a masochistic streak in me.” We then sat down and discussed the rest of his career, mostly as a production designer, but also as the other half of a Hollywood power-duo formed with his twin brother, Dick Sylbert. They worked together as a team early in their career.

I quickly made a habit of sneaking into Paul's classes, even though I didn't register for them. Paul would stand before a crowd of fresh-faced kids, their eyes full of hope for a future in the movie industry, and recount his own often tumultuous (sometimes even melodramatic) behind-the-scenes stories and struggles. Paul idolized Ingmar Bergman, and would often screen Vilgot Sjöman’s 1963 documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie for his classes, as an example of what was possible in cinema. Incidentally, his favorite Bergman film was Sawdust and Tinsel (1953). As if to make a juxtaposition, his syllabus would surround this 2½-hour documentary with showings of the more misbegotten films on his CV -- works spoiled by indecisive visions, egos on parade, power trips, and executive decisions reached on casting couches.

His witty classroom rejoinders to the poor directorial choices that were on display en flagrante delicto were often quite hilarious. His unvarnished candor was the source of much of his charm. One of my favorite quips involved the ostentatious opening long take in Lili Fini Zanuck’s Rush (1991): “Why the hell put the gun in the safe and keep the wad of cash in the desk drawer? You open the whole damn movie on such a stupid mistake?”

As for working with Barbra Streisand on The Prince of Tides, he had few kind words (the strain between them on set actually made headlines): “When she wasn’t nominated for Best Director, Oscar host Billy Crystal got up there and sang, ‘Seven nominations on the shelf. Did this film direct itself?’ I couldn’t resist and, loud enough for the next row to hear, I answered, ‘Yes, it did!’”

On One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “That set was bedlam! Pure bedlam! Three people were directing that movie: Milos [Forman], Haskell [Wexler], and Jack [Nicholson]…mostly Jack.”

On Kramer vs. Kramer: “It’s pure kitsch. The ending is bullshit. But! But! ...the movie works.” [He was armed and ready with Xeroxes of Milan Kundera's writings on the subject of kitsch when he screened this film.]

On The Wrong Man: “Hitch spoke to us about Italian neorealists in regard to The Wrong Man. He also scolded me that there’s only one way to shoot a piano: from the side.”

On Rosewood: “They made it into a spaghetti western!”

On Mikey and Nicky: “When the movie shut down in the middle of shooting, I remember walking in to a dark room at the studio and seeing John on the floor shooting up at Peter Falk. He was clearing getting odd shots to show Elaine when she came back, to possibly put in the movie. I said, ‘John, what the hell are you doing?’ He just looked up at me and said, ‘You know me, I’m crazy!’”

On the Blacklist: "People were being busted for having gone to just one Communist Party meeting.  In those days, I was redder than a lobster, no joke."  [He once told me the complex story of how he continued working in that era, but I forget the precise details.]

After his classes, he would lead a posse of students to the Draught Horse, a campus watering hole. He loved his young’ns, as I once quipped to a friend who remembers well those Draught Horse powwows. Sometimes, Paul and I would convene one-on-one. I would invite him into the editing room to get advice on my first feature (Sophisticated Acquaintance, a picture I didn’t finally finish until this past year). Never one to mince words, he would always tell me straight-out what I really needed to work on as a filmmaker. Needless to say, this was invaluable as a learning experience.

After a few months of imploring, and planning in spite of it all, Paul finally agreed to screen The Steagle for the film series. As we projected the film on VHS, I sat a couple rows behind him occasionally glancing to catch anything that seemed like a reaction. When the film ended, he rose and ambled to the front of the auditorium to proclaim, “It’s better than I remember it being, that’s for sure.” He proceeded to recap some of the stories accounted in his book about the production of The Steagle, then imparted some wisdom: “In life and in the arts, it’s so easy to get locked into your own ideas about the way things are, or the way things were. The thing is to, yes, have your own ideas, but also wait for them to be transcended.”  I've lived by that as a credo, motto and mantra in my career as a filmmaker.

The friendship between Paul and myself only solidified after that night, so much so that he asked me to be his teaching assistant (a work-study position). This job basically entailed operating anything technical (mostly running the DVDs he wished to screen), circulating the occasional handout, and officiating the handing-in and handing-back of assignments. The bonus was that it allowed me more time to schmooze with Paul, before and after class. By the time I reached senior year, and my senior thesis film loomed on the horizon, I wanted to be bold and shoot a whole feature-length production on 16mm film. I figured, “This might be the last chance to shoot a whole film on real film, before the video revolution completely takes over.”

I had the gumption to ask Paul if he would design the film. He had effectively ended his lengthy movie career in 2001 with To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland, and felt no need to fish out his drafting kit again. At first, he demured, but then instructed me to find a student designer he would advise. While our film program was light on design students, I did find an aspiring art director who jumped at the opportunity.

Paul’s method rested in concept. For example, his contribution to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out was in the use of primary colors, mainly reds and blues, to suggest an election year. In Rush, he designed sets to emulate the swirling colors one sees in oil spetters and gas station puddles.  In Conspiracy Theory, it was all about shadows (“Inside Mel Gibson’s lair, there couldn’t be any shadows. It had to be a paranoiac’s safe place.”) In Heaven Can Wait, he fought the studio over a heaven set lit completely from below (“They were thinking of the flashlight around the campfire thing. I had to actually show them that it would work by building the thing.”)

For my movie, shot in black-and-white, it was all about gray. “Use white as little as possible. All the sets should be gradations of gray and black.” When we showed him the white walls at one of the film’s key locations, an otherwise perfect set for what I wanted, he admonished, “We gotta do something about those walls. No white is allowed in this movie!” To achieve Paul's vision, coffee grounds were splattered all over the white-tiled walls.

When I told Paul that the title of the film, A Trip to Swadades, was based on the untranslatable Portuguese word “saudades” (the closest interpretation is “intense nostalgia or longing”), he got excited and took up full production designer duties. To my surprise, Paul was fluent in the Portuguese language (he could also speak Greek) and his favorite word in any language just happened to be "saudades." A happy coincidence, to say the least. He assumed the credit of production designer with the student credited beside him as art director. He took the job very seriously, more than anyone of his stature would have treated a student film, and he was proud of the final product. “As a final career credit for me, you done good, Dan,” he told me.

I followed up A Trip to Swadades with a 28-minute comedic short entitled A Collection of Chemicals. The night of the premiere, Paul slipped, fell, and gouged his head while entering the building. Blood was actually dripping down his face. Many, including myself, implored him to go to the hospital; one of the attendees offered to accompany him. He refused, declaring sternly, “I’m here to see a movie and I’m damn well going to see it.” The next day, after a visit to the hospital, he emailed to tell me everything problematic with the film. “After A Trip to Swadades, why did you decide to go silly?” He was right; A Collection of Chemicals is very much a “what I did on my summer vacation” short, made out of boredom and creative animus. I think I just wanted a change of pace after the relatively somber Swadades. But Paul was still so absolutely determined to see it the night it premiered, blood or no blood, and respected me and took me seriously enough to put it to me straight.

I continued as his teaching assistant, and made a habit of going out to dinner with him after class, with longtime friends Andrei Litvinov and Alena Kruchkova. Andrei, a cultivated foodie, always picked the best restaurants for the occasion.

My favorite Paul Sylbert story involves my addiction to ketchup. For years, Paul would watch as I drowned whatever food I ordered in ketchup, and he would invariably comment on it with a laugh. One night, Andrei took us to a Turkish restaurant, located in a dark alley off Philly's South Street. You had to knock on a nondescript door for a man wearing a turban to open up, greet you and seat you. When we entered, the place looked to us like pure old-time Ottoman Empire Istanbul, with no expense spared in decor. As we admired the ravishing decorations that gave the place its mighty dose of atmosphere, Paul turned to the man in the turban, pointed to me and exclaimed, “Get this guy some ketchup!”  His longtime friend, genius comedienne Elaine May, couldn't have timed a delivery better.  For the rest of the evening, he regaled us with Stories Stories Stories (yes, that's three capital S's) from his fifty-year career -- tales that made our movie-mad brains chirp with endorphins.

When I moved to New York, Paul and I stayed in touch via our regular, epic phone conversations, which ranged in subject from his Oscar votes of any given year, to politics, to classical music or opera, to old acquaintances of his I would randomly encounter (I was able to reconnect him with an old friend, producer Michael Hausman), and beyond.  Every conversation began with, "Hey Dan! How you doing, kid?"  He would still challenge me in ways that the best teachers and mentors do; the conversations were very heavy, intellectual, and some of the most fascinating I've had in my lifetime.  He read many scripts and treatments for films I was prepping.  Some got made, others didn't, but he always remembered each project and inquired as to the progress of each.  When they were good, Paul cheered me.  When they needed work, we would discuss in depth (and often at great length) what needed to change.

And he would often call me for a sympathetic ear.  It discouraged him when something or someone was forgotten in any instance.  I remember when he lamented that a given film scholar or instructor he met had never heard of Irving Thalberg.  "Time passes everyone by, sadly, but for someone to call himself a film historian and to never have even heard of Thalberg, it boggles the mind."  Needless to say, I've dealt with similar frustrations and he knew I would empathize.

When I visited Philadelphia on the odd weekend, we would get together and schmooze over breakfast or lunch.  At each juncture, I was grateful for such a friendship.  My career in film is one that he got behind, encouraged, and pushed very early on.  He was the first person in the film industry who convinced me that I could do it, that I could make a career making films my way.

When I moved to San Francisco in March 2015, he spoke fondly of working there on Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979).  I sat on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park and listened as he recalled his adventures with Schrader and his then-apprentice (now high-powered designer) Jeannine Oppewall in the Haight Ashbury.  With a whole continent now between us, it became much harder to arrange face-to-face meetings when I did manage to travel back east.  This past February, when I presented him with a hardback copy of my first book, at what was our last face-to-face meeting (photo below), he acted very much like a proud father.  "I always knew you'd make good, Dan," he told me.  I noticed that he looked a bit more frail than I remembered, but he sure hadn't lost any of his marbles.  He was, as always, sharp as a tack.

I never really got to say goodbye to Paul before he passed away at his home near Philadelphia this past weekend.  Although he was 88 years old, his death nonetheless came as a great shock to me.  I might very well have believed that he would live on and on, despite how I couldn't help but notice how his particularly nagging cough had gotten worse and worse over the last few months.  I certainly wasn't ready to forgo this month's phone conversation, or any of the ones to follow.  There was so much I wanted to discuss with him (not least of which was the recent election of Trump).

But, for this lack of a proper farewell, I am reminded that the elder at the end of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 likewise never uttered the word "goodbye" to the young charge seated beside him at the moment of passing.  The elder's exit goes deeper than just saying a word we expect: the elder's goodbye was in what he bequeathed to that young charge -- the strength to carry with him the wisdom and knowledge that had been transmitted.

For Paul, for touching so many young lives in his years as a teacher, heaven not only can wait, it does wait.  Rest in peace, my dear friend and teacher.  I'll carry your flame with overwhelming pride and great warmth.

Going Back to Going Back: Rescuing Another Lost Sidney J. Furie Film

Another lost-and-found discovery has graced my ongoing research into the life and work of filmmaker Sidney J. Furie. (I hope to one day publish an updated version of my book on Mr. Furie, so the digging continues.) And when I say "another" discovery, I'm also referring to my three-year effort to find and rescue Sidney's sophomore feature A Cool Sound from Hell (1959), which is detailed here.

And check out my new Keyframe article "Canada Lost and Found" which covers the Toronto Film Festival premiere of A Cool Sound from Hell, published September 28, 2016.

Recently, editor Saul Pincus succeeded in digging up the 149-minute director's cut of Sidney's 2001 Canadian feature Going Back, a film about a traumatized group of Vietnam veterans who return to Saigon in the nineties with a television documentary crew.  Sidney and his writer Greg Mellott based Going Back on a "Nightline" special they had caught when broadcast around that time.

In the United States, the film emerged with forty minutes missing, under the dubiously more "commercial" direct-to-video action title Under Heavy Fire. To add insult to injury, the film had also been severely cropped and panned-and-scanned from 2.35:1 to 1.33:1, with chronic interlace "combing" issues prevalent throughout. And there was another ingredient in this migraine-inducing cocktail: video and audio were also a full four frames off-synch through the whole film. This was a hatchet-job, and a heartbreaking experience for its creators, who invested an inordinate amount of time and effort in this particular project. It took years to engineer a working script (nearly 400 pages), then acquire the resources to actually shoot in Vietnam (it allegedly was the first production to do so following the American intervention into Vietnam).

When the film was mutilated, everyone involved, including its cinematographer and editor, rallied unsuccessfully to rescue it from its fate.  Says Saul Pincus, "I took the initiative and met with the distributor Alliance/Atlantis and told them we wanted to do a special edition, and release the long version in 2.35:1. I also insisted that we approve the encode, and to that end, enlisted a house to do the work. It was gratis because we didn’t have a budget. I collected the electronic press kit, now long lost, and did new video interviews with Sid, [producer] Gary [Howsam], and a small number of principal crew.  In the end, the encoding house dropped out and we never did get the work completed"

A feature-length group commentary track was even privately arranged. The film, of course, never secured the better release its makers sought for it, and the commentary track festered for years on one of the editor's old RAID drives. Saul recently found that too, thankfully.

There were about nine 35mm anamorphic Dolby Digital prints made of the long version in May 2001. Those prints went off to the Cannes Film Festival market, among other destinations, and were never to be seen again. After the short 112-minute version was cut, the post supervisor elected to have the only anamorphic internegative cut to match the short version edit. In summary, the negative for the director's cut was destroyed.

A handful of release prints were struck from this for the Toronto International Film Festival screening in 2001, plus a brief Canadian theatrical release in fall 2001. This is why all versions of Going Back/Under Heavy Fire are compositionally a nightmare – the anamorphic interneg, and not the flat, Super 35 interpositive, was the source.

As the director's biographer, and an admitted fan, I was understandably less than impressed with the film in the butchered American DVD version, finding much to call subpar, especially in terms of visual quality. The narrative also felt rushed, and occasionally too much like a sizzle reel, with the character development backgrounded in favor of stringing its action scenes together more efficiently. In everyday parlance, it was rather “meh,” but with a few moments of brilliance.

I upgraded to a now out-of-print Canadian DVD, a widescreen, de-interlaced iteration of the same shortened version. Although this greatly improved my experience of seeing the film (it is amazing what much-improved video quality can do) and I wound up rating the film higher on this second viewing, something still felt missing. I expressed this to Sidney at the time. He avoided imparting the film's sob story for fear it would become a too-familiar preachy sermon about a director cheated. (I later got that scoop out of Saul the editor.)

In the newly resurrected 149-minute version (seen only privately and not available commercially, at least yet), it has become, for me, one of Sidney's masterpieces. When I saw it and raved about it, Sidney exclaimed one day over the phone to me, "Weren't we robbed?!" I had to say yes, unequivocally. Allegedly, they had enough for a five to six hour miniseries. One day...maybe one day, people will see it the way it was intended.

Eminent film scholar Gerald Pratley noted having seen this original 149-minute cut of Going Back. In his book, A Century of Canadian Cinema, Pratley calls it “a striking, powerful and penetrating war film set in Vietnam. This must have been a very difficult film to make, but Furie pulls it off ably. It is bound to stir up controversy in its depiction of a debatable war.” He then observed that its opening during the inception of Bush Jr.'s Iraq War would stir needed discussion about a fresh brewing political crisis. In my view, Going Back's rugged sensitivity in rendering a story about the plight of war veterans calls to mind one of the greatest American films to do so: William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Stay tuned for further developments!

Now In Production: I Forgive Swissvale

   As production continues on Precious Wheels Above, Daniel Kremer is also in the midst of shooting and editing an essay documentary entitled I Forgive Swissvale.  Started approximately 3-4 years ago, I Forgive Swissvale is a medidation on how memories of lost places, in all their fragility, harden the shell of one's identity in ways we can never escape.  In a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood called Swissvale, Kremer grew up on Woodstock Avenue, the same street where his mother's family had lived since the 1900's. The filmmaker returns from his current city San Francisco to revisit his old neighborhood, specifically the now abandoned, boarded-up house where he spent his childhood. Between unfortunately rare visits with his last remaining grandparent (now stricken with Alzheimer's), fond reminiscences of Woodstock Avenue as it once was, and a memorably hilarious dinner table debate about the sanctity of Heinz ketchup, Kremer meditates on how his childhood neighborhood crystallized his intense cinephilia and shaped his life's work.  The film will also include the participation of Tony Buba, the Pittsburgh filmmaker renowned for his films about Braddock, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh neighborhood that borders Swissvale.

Voluptuous Immobility: Death and Legacy in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black

To Martin Brest, who "left us" much too early, despite laying a very large egg. 

"All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, a wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is…for death again.”
   -Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963)

    I finally got around to a belated viewing of Martin Brest's now infamous Gigli (2003) a full decade after its doomed theatrical release. I approached the film with the naïve hope and an arrogant confidence that the hullabaloo of negative press and critical rancor that surrounded it amounted simply to much-ado-about-nothing. "The hoi polloi is so often wrong and their cruel dismissals so often unwarranted," I pep-talked myself.  Basically, I was hoping for a Heaven’s Gate kind of situation. (Yes, despite its still dubious reputation, I am a staunch defender of Heaven’s Gate, and have cheered its recent reappraisals with a big gloating bellow of "I toldja so!") But with director Martin Brest behind the camera on Gigli, how bad could it be? This is what I asked myself before showtime. After all, this is the same Martin Brest who gave us the mischievous but compassionate Going in Style (1979), the skillfully orchestrated Beverly Hills Cop (1984), the uncommonly witty Midnight Run (1988), and the flawed but likable Scent of a Woman (1992). I’m not mentioning his Meet Joe Black (1998) now, but I’ll get to that shortly.

   I watched maybe about an hour before I just couldn’t bear it anymore. It is rare for me to not finish a picture once I start it. In all candor, it stands right, left and bloody center as a towering monument to bad taste; I frankly found myself dumbstruck by its singular, near indescribable awfulness. I also felt stupid looking back at my earlier hope and confidence. So alas, it was indeed good reason that dictated critics being sent into paroxysms of rage and indignation, and their poison pens being sent blazing into the art of the insult with gleeful abandon. And their invective was nothing if not colorful. Unfortunately, it also sent Brest into "Salinger-esque" retreat and early retirement. An excellent December 2014 Playboy article by Matt Patches attempts unsuccessfully (but no less intriguingly) to trace Brest after his disappearing act. The apoplectic response to his movie was perhaps too much to handle, though it was also reported that Brest had the movie taken away from him and re-edited. As much as I’d like giving him the benefit of the doubt, I find it hard to imagine that anyone or anything could improve upon the woeful material on display in the release version. (Sorry, Marty, wherever you are.)

   Brest, like Michael Cimino in his day, became a poster boy for the perils of Hollywood largesse. The worst side-effect of the Gigli fallout, however, was that it gave newly minted Brest skeptics and detractors license to further deride his previous effort, Meet Joe Black, the film I would surely call his most elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and outright beautiful. It might not be fashionable to lavish it with such praise, but I'm laying my cards on the table. The ravishing Meet Joe Black is one of my “crusade pictures,” that is, the misunderstood or outright dismissed films that I defend to the bitter end. It is also one that I have recommended to people, especially those who know it only by reputation. Without shame, I have repeatedly proclaimed it a film maudit (literally "cursed film," but beyond that, one worthy of re-evaluation).

Just as much a reinterpretation and extrapolation of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) as it is a remake and re-envisioning of Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934), its purported source, the three-hour Meet Joe Black was of course accused of prolixity across the board -- mostly because it more than doubled the length of Leisen’s "original," adding a number of subplots, thematic threads, unexpected narrative detours, and skillfully protracted dramatic moments and movements.

   The math works out just fine however, as Meet Joe Black is just one-half Death Takes a Holiday, no more and no less.  Needless to say, romantic director Mitchell Leisen's story, a genteel high-concept farce, is much more streamlined.

   With its $90 million pricetag and the expected starpower that comes with all those zeroes -- boasting Brad Pitt at his most "beefcake" in the lead role -- it has become habit and de rigueur to overlook Meet Joe Black as a piece of filmmaking and to simply accept it as just another Big Bad Studio Film, and a flop at that. At this juncture, it is apropos to note vis a vis that the film did go into profit, thanks to the predictably discerning European audience. Stateside, it made back about half its negative cost, whereas it made double that across the pond. To me, one of the reasons for this is clear.

   The film's relative intimacy suggests a perceived imbalance in the expected reciprocity between a movie's length and its flair for spectacle. On the latter front, Brest finds spectacle in Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti's exquisite design, and the “saffron glow” of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's rendering of that design. The European audience has never been discomfited by epics of pure intimacy, as Americans have. On the contrary, they have lauded them. I can name many such titles whose lengths belie their intimate scale: Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), Werner Schroeter’s Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980), Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005), Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2011), most anything by Jacques Rivette. Key to understand here is that these films, along with Meet Joe Black, protract the drama rather than distend it. Distension implies strain, whereas protraction implies premeditation -- and in this case, careful premeditation. American studios and American audiences traditionally reject such alternative, daresay subversive, treatment of cinematic duration.

   The European epic to which I most compare Meet Joe Black does indeed offer that traditional historical epic sweep typical of three-hour length. Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is based on Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s posthumously published saga of Italy’s Resorgimento (literally “Resurgence”), during which Giuseppe Garibaldi and his “redshirts” battled the royalist army for the unification of a fractured Italy in 1860. The novel and the film tell the story of Sicilian aristocrat Don Fabrizio Corbera, the prince of Salina, who simultaneously resists and, in good conscience, welcomes the political groundswell that sweeps the land. He also realizes with great sadness, however, that he will have no place within the new society it births. When the prince’s firebrand nephew Tancredi, previously a redshirt, intends to marry Angelica, the daughter of a nouveau riche beneficiary of the revolution, the film culminates in a nearly hour-long dress ball sequence during which she is introduced to the local aristocracy.

   The dress ball is symbolic of the end of an era, the last gasp of decadence, the viking funeral given a newly irrelevant man’s deflated dignity. The prince is a “leopard,” the member of a mournful dying breed who can neither take comfort or refuge in denial, nor bargain his way out of the new, bitter reality. This dress ball is, of course, perfectly analogous to the 45-minute birthday ball that caps off Meet Joe Black.

   Both Visconti’s and Brest’s films are pristine portraits of opulence and privilege, and conspicuously so. Both are about the nature of legacy, and both are about fear -- specifically, fear of the calamitous loss of that legacy, opulence and privilege. Both Burt Lancaster’s Sicilian prince and Anthony Hopkins’s communications magnate William Parrish are gray ghosts, the tragically irrelevant men of their age. (Al Pacino’s character in Scent of a Woman is also a “gray ghost,” as are the trio in Going in Style, but this subject is best reserved for another essay.) While The Leopard climaxes in the lengthy dress ball sequence, Meet Joe Black culminates in the 65th birthday gala thrown in the Hopkins character’s honor. Hopkins, the recently defrocked and humiliated chairman of the board of his own communications empire, knows that his death awaits at party’s end.  It has been agreed upon by both parties: himself and the handsome grim reaper who has breezed into his charmed life.

   At an earlier point in the movie, Hopkins’s wordly, dyspeptic William Parrish angrily laments, “I don’t want anybody buying up my life’s work, turning it into something it wasn’t meant to be. A man wants to leave something behind, and he wants it left behind the way he made it, with a sense of honor, of dedication, of truth. Okay?” One can certainly see how The Leopard’s Prince of Salina could relate to Parrish’s dilemma. And beyond that, the Joe Black/Angel of Death character is the prince’s death dream (and death wish) manifest. About midway through The Leopard, the prince launches into a soliloquy about death: “Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep…that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage.”

   The prince speaks of the desire for “voluptuous immobility,” in other words, the luxury of a dirt nap. As an aristocrat who knows only the best of everything, the Prince understands and can perceive the ultimate “luxury” left unspoken and unconsidered. “All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, a wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is…for death again.”

   Both the prince and William Parrish find their final respite in dances with respective young women: for the former, his nephew’s fiancee (Claudia Cardinale); for the latter, his youngest daughter (Claire Forlani). The women’s respective romantic partners could be argued as analogous. If William Parrish daughter Susan is smitten with Brad Pitt’s Joe Black, is the Alain Delon character in The Leopard, Tancredi Falconeri the Garibaldini, an angel of death in some figurative sense? Perhaps, yes. The prince’s acceptance of Garibaldi’s revolution takes on a certain whimsical dimension due to Tancredi. He covets Tancredi's youthful idealism, just as much as he is amused and dismayed by it. Tancredi’s now oft-quoted line “If things are to stay as they are, they must change” is met with a quiet, acquiescing grimace on the prince’s part; there is an inconvenient truth in his nephew’s nifty slogan. The whimsicality and callowness of the Joe Black character conforms with how the prince sees Tancredi, who is the usher of the inevitable, just as Joe Black is for Parrish.

"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."  ("Now and in the hour of our death. Amen.")
    -the opening of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa's novel The Leopard

"Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust."
    -the closing of the novel The Leopard
       (translation: Archibald Colquhoun)

   Many Visconti scholars have argued the emotional and psychological proximity that the filmmaker shared with his protagonist in The Leopard.  He knew what the prince's calamitous loss meant in a very direct sense, despite his own loss being self-imposed.  Born an aristocrat himself, and a descendant of Milan's ruling dynasty, Visconti renounced these roots to align himself with the Italian Communist Party.  Indeed, his breakthrough film La Terra Trema (1948) is a neorealist documentary-drama anthem to the residents of a poor fishing village in rural Sicily.  Though remained a cultivated, urbane individual, renowned and even notorious for directing lavishly designed operas (and discovering legendary opera diva Maria Callas), he remained politically committed, and this is appreciable in his films up to and including his classic Rocco and His Brothers (1960), likewise an epic of supreme intimacy.  With The Leopard, he makes a leap towards the more formally epic, and all an epic entails, with visual extravagance in surplus.  At the time of release and its subsequent winning of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, this leap was perceived as a curious but glorious left turn.  The Damned (Il Caduta Degli Dei) (1969), the saga of a German industrial dynasty during the rise of Nazism, and Ludwig (1973), a biopic of Bavaria's mad king and builder of extravagant dream castles, both saw him continue down the path of directing films that indicted decadence while simultaneously putting it on unfettered display.

   On a personal note, Visconti is my favorite Italian director.  I count many of his films, including La Terra Trema, Senso (1954), Rocco and His Brothers, and The Leopard as favorites.  I find that I connect with him most on an emotional level, as his films not only consider the aforementioned loss but transfer its associated feelings onto the viewer.  There is no more powerful film, in this regard, than The Leopard. His ability to do so is matched and indeed augmented and poeticized by his abilities as a technician and craftsman.

   Beyond The Leopard's various narrative parallels to Meet Joe Black, there exist clear stylistic and visual ones as well. Shallow focus, diaphanous lighting, and sure, steady camera movement, all especially present in the climactic set pieces, speak to a refined sense of decoupage in both films. I would even venture to guess that Brest consciously takes cues from Visconti in his own film. Admittedly, Brest appropriates Visconti tropes for an unmistakably Hollywood-engineered and financed film produced for mass consumption, but his aesthetic approach is scrupulously tasteful in ways that few other pieces of Hollywood product are.

   How many Martin Brests do we really have left in today’s mainstream Hollywood machine? Most of the auteurs working today succeed in spite of the system, but seldom within it. Within only lies the safety of anonymity. This is why I cannot countenance any digs made against Meet Joe Black, clearly one of the most personal and profoundly cinema-literate big budget efforts of its time or any time. I love it as much as I love the arguably more sophisticated The Leopard. Gigli or no Gigli, Martin Brest unabashedly gets my support, for his individuality and his precision. The problem is that when he had to go, he didn’t go in style, and as evidenced in his work, that’s not like him.