Sunday, September 18, 2016

Movie Watch: Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman the best way -- by looking at his work


Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role of The Master (2012)
The great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had an uncanny ability to disappear into a role yet at the same time to invest his performances with such complexity, depth, and empathy that they always felt deeply personal. Drawn to playing highly flawed characters, he was able to seem at once larger than life and recognizably imperfect. In over 60 film performances, the boldness of his choices was always breathtaking. As he once said, “It’s all risk! Living a life is basically about you entering one situation after another that you may or may not want to enter. Everything has stakes, everything has meaning, everything has consequences.” A profound search for truth was at the core of his art, and his death in 2014 was a tremendous loss to the public and to the many actors, directors, and colleagues whose lives he touched so profoundly. The screenings will be accompanied by guest appearances, to be announced, and clips from his other films, to showcase his astonishing versatility.
by Ken

Sixteen films over three weeks, a large (and growing, as appearances are confirmed) number of them not just film screenings but also live events with post-screening discussions featuring key participants in the films -- that's's the retrospective The Master: Philip Seymour Hoffman, which began Friday night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, with Jack Goes Boating and continues through October 2.

As the museum's chief curator, David Schwartz, noted in his introductory remarks Friday night, Jack Goes Boating is hardly one of Hoffman's better-known films, but it was an obvious choice to begin the retrospective. It was the first (and, alas, only) film that he directed, and it was also a project that grew directly out of his great passion for theater. As a play, Jack Goes Boating had been written and produced as part of the ongoing work process of the LAByrinth Theater Company, which he co-directed with his friend John Ortiz (who's also prominently featured in Jack). As the name suggests, the company isn't just a repertory company but is a theater lab, and playwright-screenwriter Bob Glaudini was on hand Friday night to describe how the play had been developed over an extended period within the company, with actors on hand to try everything out. And the process continued with the film, in which most of the principals were playing the roles they'd done in the stage production.

David Schwartz had Bob Glaudini offer some introductory remarks explaining this process, and for the post-screening discussion he was joined by a throng of key people involved in the transformation to film: producer Peter Saraf, director of photography Mott Hupfel, production designer Therese DePrez, and editor Brian Kates. (There were in fact several additional participants scheduled!) Saraf explained that, while he's spent 25 years in film, his first love was theater, and seeing Jack onstage he had the much-rarer-than-we'd-think experience of thinking that you could make a movie of that. It turned out that not only did the idea appeal to Phil, but he found himself really interested in directing such a thing.

Lest we think that Phil's ego was getting away with him, we learned quickly that in fact he originally had no intention of re-creating the role of Jack, a sad-sack schlub whose life prospects, both career-wise and personal, seem hopelessly mired at approximately zero. He considered acting and directing both such enormous jobs that he couldn't possibly tackle both -- not to mention the impossibility of performing the two jobs simultaneously. It was then up to the company and everyone else involved in the film project to persuade him that not only could he play Jack while directing, but he had to. Who else, they asked him, could play the role anywhere near as well as he had?

Once Phil was finally persuaded to undertake it, Peter Saraf recalled, he warned that his acting process was so immersive that he wasn't likely to be pleasant to be around, not exactly what you're hoping for in a film director. In fact, he was likely to be an asshole, but nobody seems to recall that happening. With regard to directing, once he sank his teeth into it, he discovered that he loved it, and if he hadn't died so tragically in February 2014, at age 46, he would undoubtedly have directred more films -- he already had a project in development.


Yes, I realize that by the time you see this, at least the first week's worth of offerings will have happened, but I thought you might want to see what's included in the retrospective. (I'm crossing my fingers that it displays OK!) And again, note that additional offerings may be converted to "live events" as post-screening discussion participants are lined up. Check the current version of the retrospective page and the museum's online calendar.

The Master: Philip Seymour Hoffman

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