Old MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Tip the Bulls: 'Brick' Breaks Through

One thing that can be said about a quixotic is that for all his delusion and drama, a very real vision motivates his work. This is the paradox driving Rian Johnson’s Brick, a high-school-detective noir inflated with conceits, characters and convolutions that defy the slightest glint of rational belief: A hard-boiled teenage gumshoe. A sinister, suburban heroin overlord. Fistfights twice-removed from comic books. A dead ex-girlfriend in the middle of it all.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left) picks The Brain (Matt O’Leary) in Rian Johnson’s high-school noir, Brick (Photos: Focus Features)

Fortunately for Johnson (and for us), however, film is not a rational medium, and Brick not only tilts at windmills but smashes them. It is the type of film that owes everything it has to antecedents like Dashiell Hammett novels, B-noirs and even Chinatown, yet thanks each of them by recasting their archetypes as kids. And if Brick evolves as the cult stand-by I think it will become, we are basically talking about destabilizing myths for an entire generation. Does it confuse? Occasionally. Does it explain? Sort of. Does it apologize? Fuck no.
Moreover, does Brick entertain? Does it emphasize precision–the exactitude of its language and imagery–over the genre conventions that influenced it? Does it risk its legitimacy and its director’s reputation in the name of single-minded innovation? Yes, yes and yes. I already whistled its praises once during last year’s CMJ Film Fest: Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a brooding high-school loner whose ex-girlfriend goes missing before going murdered. He enlists his myopic chum The Brain (Matt O’Leary) in decoding the places and names instrumental to discovering her killer, but nothing is quite that straightforward: Ulterior and anterior motives implicate femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner), wife-beatered tough guy Tugger (Noah Fleiss) and cane-wielding drug dealer The Pin (a brilliantly droll Lukas Haas), while assistant vice principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree) negotiates conditions for Brendan to come and go as a suspect himself.
Johnson piles plots on subplots and jams in more jargon per square inch than a truck driver. “I’m not heeling you to hook you,” Brendan tells Laura at one point, basically meaning he is not playing hard-to-get to seduce her (a two-page glossary appends the press notes). At least one colleague of mine insisted she may have appreciated the film more had it been “written in English,” but the dialogue is essential to Brick‘s parallel noir universe. Obviously it sounds different, but particularly in the context of Johnson’s wide-lensed camera, it explodes inside the frame and pulls identity from inertia.

(L-R) Tugger (Noah Fleiss), The Pin (Lukas Haas) and a vintage poultry pitcher share a philosophical moment

The eight years Johnson spent raising funds for Brick served as the testing ground for the film’s visual momentum. “My cinematographer Steve Yedlin is one of my best friends since film school,” he told me during a recent visit to New York. “He was the first person to read the script. While we were being frustrated by trying to find money for all those years, we were also talking about the movie and sitting down and planning it. We knew shot for shot what were going for when we showed up to the set because we had all those years to talk about it. And we needed it; we had a 20-day shooting schedule, so we needed to know exactly how we were going to do it when we sat down to do it.”
And while most independent filmmakers plan, it takes an especially smart, confident filmmaker to craft. That ethos suffuses Brick; it is challenging art, but eminently watchable challenging art. “I remember one lunch,” Gordon-Levitt told The Reeler. “No one really talked about this while we were making the movie, but at one lunch, someone brought it up to Rian: ‘So what’s going to happen with this movie when we’re done with it?’ And Rian said, ‘I don’t know. I just want to make a really good movie. ‘ And the extraordinary thing is that I believed him. Because everybody says that, but they’re lying. They actually have their Oscar speech written in the back pocket. But Rian really, really was somehow able to just ignore all the labelmakers and all the kind of trendwatchers and just do what he believed in and make a movie that he would love for himself. And it’s really hard to do, and it’s very rare to find.”
As far as box-office prospects go, Focus Features was equally intelligent to pick up a film that not only deserves re-viewing but kind of demands it. Johnson observed that teenagers appreciate Brick because of its disinclination to bow at the altar of that other crusty genre, the teen movie. I predict the Weinsteins will maneuver their own revisionist noir, Lucky Number Slevin, into best screenplay Oscar consideration before Focus can snag a nod for Brick, but maybe that is for the best. At any rate, brilliance endures. This Johnson kid is not going anywhere.

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One Response to “Tip the Bulls: 'Brick' Breaks Through”

  1. muckster says:

    Well said. I’ve been surprised by the way a lot of critics missed the boat on this movie.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon