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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

New DVD: Down to the Bone (2004, ***)

ONE OF THE REGRETTABLE THINGS about not having the luxury to write only about one film or two films a week is the lack of time to consider what truly constitutes “acting” in movies. vera_farmiga1.jpg
It’s one of the most mysterious components of the alchemy of filmmaking. Pauline Kael, for one example, was terrific at finding zingy one-liners to describe the physicality of a performer. “There are things you just can’t write, like the way an actor will look at another actor,” Oliver Stone once told an interviewer. “And these little things are everything in a movie. So I think that as filmmakers, we don’t truly have control over everything.”
Made on the most modest of budgets on digital video, Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, (Hart Sharp, $20) which won two prizes at Sundance 2004, including for actress Vera Farmiga’s “outstanding performance” is a powerful mix of control and fearlessness, of observation and contemplation.

Set in the drearier reaches of economically failing upstate New York, Bone is the story of Irene (Farmiga), a young mother with a child to raise and a cocaine addiction as well. Working in a dead-end job as a grocery cashier, Irene’s life is one urge at a time more than one day at a time.
Granik’s work as a writer and director, drawn from research for a documentary she did not make, has the felicity of nonfiction filmmaking, but the grace of Farmiga’s fearlessness. Even if you choose just to stare into the center of the screen at this marvel of an actress, you cannot help but admire the authenticity of each moment as it plays out. Irene is wearied from drugs but also from work: it’s a double-edged situation, with the lower-working-class milieu as inescapable as a bad habit yet likely more permanent.
“Do you have an advantage card?… I don’t either,” is Irene’s potentially condescending opening line to a customer at the grocery, yet in Farmiga’s delivery, wry grin and body language, the movie opens out like an vulnerable smile. Irene isn’t a histrionic audition piece for a Steppenwolf try-out: much of the pain stays simmering within. There’s casual authenticity in verbal and gestural exchanges, which could be summed up by a post-rehab pal of Irene’s offering the shrug of “I just feel more comfortable high.”
Down to the Bone failed to get a distributor after its Sundance awards, and after being picked up by a small start-up, opened in Los Angeles in late 2005, to almost no response, except critical raves and a Los Angeles Film Critics’ award for best actress. The subject matter may be off-putting in outline—woman-kids-junk-uplift-downfall like too many recent Sundance dramatic entries—but to deny oneself the chance to see Farmiga’s performance is a more painful prospect. (The promise of a non-romanticized working class milieu may also be alienating to audiences, from those who don’t want to see such things because it doesn’t speak to them to those who don’t want to see such things because they’ve escaped (or hope to escape) it themselves.
The only movies that are “downers” for me are ones that are badly mad or poorly observed, and while dealing with hopelessness and haplessness, Down to the Bone is uplifting for its minor-key yet majestic feats of empathy. (And Michael McDonough’s digital cinematography is lyrical without straining.) Granik’s movie is a feat of listening, and a feat of watching as well.
There are theories to hatch and cases to be made about what constitutes the best of screen acting, but as in Down With the Bone, start with the human face. And in Farmiga’s face, you will see one of the most powerful performances of recent years.

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One Response to “New DVD: Down to the Bone (2004, ***)”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s one of the most mysterious components of the alchemy of filmmaking. Pauline Kael

Movie City Indie

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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