December 19, 2011

I love this time of year. There's a sharp thrill in the air. The holidays are here and people are full of anticipation and excitement. Everyone's putting their lists together. Not Christmas lists; I mean their 10 Best Lists.

Yes, this is the time of year when people help us figure out which were the best 10 films of the year. Not 9, not 11. There are only 10 which is still a lot and I for one am glad to have someone tell me which ones they are.

The Winners are glad too; the Losers less so. In fact, for the films that don't make the lists this is not a good time. It is a sad time. And for that reason we will stay away from them and link arms with the Winners for whom these are truly the Champagne Days; golden, sparkling and infinitely full of promise.

I experienced a bit of this thrill vicariously a few years ago. I was good friends with Shane Florian. I hope at least a few of you remember Shane.

Shane Florian & Tom DiCillo at Sundance 2009

He shot to fame with his very first film, Darker Than Black. I was on the subway with him when he got the idea. The train had stalled in between stations and all the lights went out. A drunk, white junkie at the end of the car yelled out, "It's darker than a cave at midnight in here!"

That's what Shane wanted to call his film; Cave At Midnight. I gave him the idea to call it Darker Than Black. It starred John Travolta whom Shane had snagged right before Pulp Fiction when Travolta was still on that long, slow, downward slide everyone in this business is so terrified of.

Shane told me straight out he wanted to make his first film "one for the critics." I was amazed at his foresight and felt like an imbecile having no career strategy like that of my own. In a brilliantly calculated move Shane took the production deep into a subterranean cavern in New Mexico and shot the whole film with the complete absence of light.

John Travolta in Shane Florian's Darker Than Black

And Shane was right; the critics adored his film. It made every 10 Best List in the country, consistently nesting around the 7 or 8 position. Praise for Travolta was equally strong. His performance was heralded as one of his most understated, brooding and mysterious.

Shane sent me copies of every review; that's how close we were then. Here are a few samples I saved.

"Visually stunning. Florian discovers new shades of shadow. A cinematic achievement no less astonishing than the total eclipse of the sun."  NY TIMES

"Thrillingly audacious. Florian flirts on the edge of the Seen and the Unseen with the skill of a master gymnast." WASHINGTON POST

"The darkness of Florian's vision is chilling in its absoluteness, yet mesmerizing in its emotional power. I saw the film with my father who is partially blind. The experience left us both shattered." Clive Levender, THE MIAMI HERALD

But the one that affected me the most was this from Menorra Kimble at the LA Times.

"Brilliantly, boldly, joyously--New. Any director who attempts to make a film using light after this cannot be considered anything more than hopelessly obsolete."

Propelled by these reviews Darker Than Black became a minor hit. Shane quickly got the money to make his next film, Beyond The Pale, with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Meg Ryan, Muhammad Ali and Dustin Hoffman. This time Shane took the entire production to the Arctic and shot on the frozen ice cap only between noon and 2pm on sunny days, using the most light sensitive film stock ever invented.

Some people thought this bold reversal was to counter some of the gentle criticism that his previous film might have lingered too lovingly in the realm of shadow. But Shane told me at the premiere of Beyond The Pale that his sole intent was to make a film "for the audiences."

Again, his foresight astonished me. Audiences flocked to the film. And, critics loved it too. Beyond The Pale made all the 10 Best lists, this time always bubbling near the 2 or 3 position. Praise for the performances was unanimous, particularly for Meg Ryan.

"Her character is drawn with such clarity and brilliance you can almost see right through her." HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

Meg Ryan & Dustin Hoffman in Shane Florian's Beyond The Pale

Praise for the film was equally rapturous.

"Luminous, almost blinding in its daring and beauty. A cinematic experience so starkly compelling it almost requires emotional sunglasses." CHICAGO SUN TIMES

"Dazzlingly original. Painstakingly detailed, with a searing emotional power that is both profoundly simple and simply profound." VARIETY

"Florian's film shimmers before the eyes in a stunning visual dance, dominated but not overwhelmed by every conceivable variation of white visible to the human eye." NEWSWEEK

Those were indeed the Champagne Days. Shane was flying high and moving at the speed of light. We became even closer. He offered to completely finance my next film, Double Whammy. But first he wanted to make what he knew was going to be his masterpiece. Late one night, at the end of the 10 thousandth party, he leaned into my ear in glorious, drunken exhaustion and whispered, "This one I'm going to make for myself."

He had no trouble getting an A-List cast lead by Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman. They all agreed to let Shane temporarily insert tiny hi-def cameras inside their chests. Shane felt this was the most intimate way to record the raw intensity of pure emotion. "Inside the human heart," he said to me, "everything is real. A heartbeat cannot be faked."

This third film was titled Crimson Tears. Its opening weekend broke every box office record in NY and LA. Initial critical response was thunderously positive.

"Rich in texture; blood stirring. Cinema at its purest." NY OBSERVER

"Shane Florian's most personal yet rapturously accessible film. The pounding emotional pulse will blow you away." TIME OUT

In anticipation of a huge national release the studio struck thousands of extra prints. Everything was set for Crimson Tears to be a massive critical and box office smash.

Natalie Portman & Ryan Gosling in Shane Dorian's Crimson Tears

And then the rumors started.

Someone, no one knows exactly who, suggested that the co-chief film critic for the NY Times visit the projection booths at several NY theaters. When he did, he claimed to have seen no film running through the projectors. Nervous projectionists confessed they'd been instructed to simply turn on their empty machines after placing a red filter in front of the bulb.

Needless to say, this revelation had an impact on attendance which dropped by almost a quarter in the second week.  Concerned critics took the opportunity to re-assess Crimson Tears and the first serious negative reviews began to appear.

"Florian no longer trusts his own vision. His use of color is overstated at best and at worst reeks of gimmickry." LA TIMES

"Gone is the hidden meaning, the subtle nuance of his previous master works. Instead we have the sad spectacle of a once-brilliant filmmaker either unable or unwilling to accept the obvious limitations of his talent." ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

"Shane Florian has sold out." NY POST

Attendance fell by another quarter. Shane laughed it off and told me he wasn't worried. He said the studio was still behind him and in two days Crimson Tears was set to open on 8,000 screens.

Then, somehow a frame from Darker Than Black was sent to the LA Times. Apparently, there was nothing on it. Closer inspection with an electron microscope revealed it was indeed completely black. Film journalists around the country began to speculate that Shane Florian's acclaimed first film was really nothing more than 103 minutes of black leader.

No one could believe it. Many refused to. Clive Levender from The Miami Herald wrote;

"I know what I saw. I can still feel my father's tears falling on my shoulder as we sobbed together during the press screening of Darker Than Black."

But, when similar investigation into prints of Beyond The Pale showed nothing but clear, completely transparent celluloid the awful truth could no longer be denied. Critics and audiences turned on Shane with a vengeance. In its 4th week box office for Crimson Tears fell by half. In a sad, ironic twist Beyond The Pale was nominated for an Oscar, for Best Editing which everyone admitted was seamless.

But that did nothing to stop the sharp crash of Shane's career. For the first time one of his films did not make a single Top 10 list. Shane was devastated. I knew how much when he shaved his goatee.

Tracey Gorlich at the Chicago Sun Times did include Crimson Tears in a list of 5 films she placed at the end of her Top Ten. These lonely five were presented in a smaller typeface with the explanation they'd "almost made the list." But, that didn't do Shane any good. What was he going to say, "I was on an Almost Made The Top Ten list?" No, he wasn't. There's no ALMOST in this business.

I lost touch with Shane after that. Of course he never helped me finance Double Whammy but I don't hold that against him. We had some good times together. Last I heard he was making promotional films for Spanx.

You’re an f’ing genius, Tom. I wish that I was a billionnaire … I would just finance film after film for you.
Delirious is truly one of my favorite films and to, me, one of the most beautiful, honest and pure stories every told. It was so simple and real… “friends is friends”… it don’t get much better than that.
I’ll keep playing the lottery hoping to win the jackpot in hopes of helping you make more amazing film… but until then, know that you’re one of the smartest, most honest, most talented and most visionary filmmakers to ever share human truth at it’s finest with your audiences. Please never give up the fight.
Hello Cheryl,
Thanks very much for writing in. It is impossible for me to acknowledge how much I appreciate your kind words without sounding like an ego-ridden jerk. But, sincerely, it does do me a lot of good to hear that one of my films has struck a chord with you.
And hey, if you happened to be a billionaire well, I wouldn’t hold that against you.
As far as re-editing the scene you refer to in The Real Blonde; that is unfortunately out of the question. I might be able to get a hold of the original material but the studio that controls the film would have to agree to spend a huge amount of money to re-release it, even on DVD. And, based on the way they released the film originally I have no illusions that would ever happen.
The main lesson I learned, and the most valuable one, is that the only thing that truly matters is how I feel about something. I should never have listened to those monkeys. They made me doubt my own eyes.
Never again. I promise.
Stuart Henderson
Hey Tom! Check this Clip out:D
Happy new year, everyone! Hope everyone has a great holiday 🙂
Those filmmaker comments were somewhat harsh in some cases, weren’t they? I’d heard the ones about Kevin Smith before, but hadn’t seen the others. Interesting.
Keep us posted on your films and music, Tom. Soooooo…will there be a Black & Blue Orkestre CD released in 2012?
Hey Elaine,
Thanks for the New Year’s wishes and the very best to you as well. I feel confident that 2012 will see something concrete come out of The Black & Blue Orkestre. We hit a snag with two of the songs because they were covers. It is disappointing that the publishers won’t grant us the rights to include our versions on a B&B release.
So, we’re coming up with more originals which are sounding quite cool if I may say so my own self.
And of course, I will be maintaining the constant, endless push to get another film off the ground.
Rai Mechem
Happy New Year to my favorite director and all the DiCillonians here!
lots of love
Glad you enjoyed those comments. Yeah that´s pretty much why I sent them to you, thought you´d get some kind of kick out of it.
Happy New Year! Keep making great movies, don´t ever stop!
That was great, Tom, I loved it. So true! Made me think of the glowing reviews for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I´m suspecting nothing but a grey filter in front of the bulb there. Critics do love that shit, very smart move by Tomas Alfredsson.
Oh, and: “A cinematic experience so starkly compelling it almost requires emotional sunglasses.” Hahaha!
Have you seen this, btw? I think the directors should be the ones writing the reviews, I just loved this, even if it´s a bit on the negative side:
Hey Sam,
glad you got a chokkle out of it.
Very intense link you sent on directors commenting on other directors. I know it may seem odd but somehow I appreciate all of the director’s comments, even the ones I disagree with. At least you get the sense they were made by people who have some idea what it takes, and means, to make a film. But, wow–some harsh words there.
Happy New Year.
Hey Tom!
Your wit is truly razor sharp and I love it! Great essay that says it all about Hollywood’s IT phenomenon…how soon the in become the out. The public’s attention span is very limited and exceedingly fickle so it’s a wonder that anyone could stay in the limelight for longer than it takes one to compile a Top 10 List!
Sending you and yours my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Rave on,
P.S. One of my closest friend’s last name is Florian. He’s Czech.
Hey Christine,
Thanks for your comment. I would only ask you to bear in mind our friend Shane’s contribution to his position: one film nothing but black leader, one nothing but clear leader and one literally nothing–a red filter in front of a projector bulb.
I send you my best for the holidays and the New Year. I saw Pina, Wim Wender documentary on German choreographer Pina Bausch and was deeply moved by it. The combination of music and human movement was sublime. Definitely worth checking out.
Stuart Henderson
Hi Tom,Just want to wish you and your family a very merry xmas when it comes,hope you all have a happy one.
Remember,dont let the naysayers of WYS get to you, you made a masterpiece and if “They” cant see that well…..that’s on them.
Keep up the great work tom:)
Thanks for the supporting words, Stuart. Great to hear from you. I am proud of WYS and I think you’re right; that’s really the most important thing. I wish you the best for the holidays.
Ah, Tom. Your twisted sense of humor brings a smile to my face this holiday season 🙂
You realize films like these could have tons of sequels and prequels, right? Maybe even combine w/music? Think of it – “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Purple Haze” – the possibilities are endless, are they not?!!?
Caught a bit of ‘Delirious’ on IFC today. Made me smile. Buscemi was amazing.
Great to hear from you, Elaine. I’ve been kind of immersed in distractions and contractions for the last few months. I just thought I’d go whacko for a change with this. But, is it too far from the truth? I wonder.
I agree; Buscemi is amazing in Delirious. And to think he at first said no. But, you know that whole story.
I hope your holiday goes simply and smoothly. Can’t really ask for more than that.
Wayne Byrne
Hey Tom,
I did two Top Ten lists myself before, when I was reviewing, but goddamn did I struggle to pick ten “best”. I ended up putting on films on which I held little value but had to in order to make it to ten. It felt dirty.
I guess the thing is with filmmakers like “Shane” is that critics love to hold dear the idea of a new auteur. I could be wrong but I think I recently read that James Mangold was writing/directing some new Spider/Iron/Bat/Ant/Fart-man movie; I’m sure there will be some critics disgusted that the man who made Heavy has so publicly “sold out”. I always thought critics would make great guidance counsellor, or hell, even filmmakers; because they seem to be privy to a secret formula for what makes great art.
I just hope “Shane” picks himself up and gets back on the scene. Maybe it could be his swansong, “The Brown Breeze”, for which critics could declare “Florian blows away all expectations with The Brown Breeze, an epic gust of genius and fine entry in his kaleidioscopic series”, or some such.
Viva Shane!
Great blog, sir! A good laugh was had. Dare we expect the Florian documentary too? 🙂
Hey Wayne,
Thanks for writing. I’m glad you enjoyed the essay. I just thought people would like to know more about Shane. By the way his name is not spelled with quotes around it and I sense he might be offended if he saw them.
Look, don’t get me wrong; I respect Shane. But “auteur”? I’m not sure he fits in that category. All I would suggest is looking a bit closer at the stills from his films. Let’s face it; not too much going on there. I think he was somebody just looking for a way in. And for a while he found it.
I was more interested in observing people’s reactions to Shane’s work; the way people will essentially see what they want to see no matter what is in front of them. Perhaps in Shane’s case the example is slightly exaggerated but as he said to me the last time I saw him, “Hey, I got an Oscar nomination for a film that was nothing but clear celluloid.”
I’m starting to miss him.
Wayne Byrne
My apologies to Shane, I didn’t mean to offend. I guess you could inject as much meaning into Shane’s film stills as you could from Citizen Kane. But I guess that is wherein the fun resides.You can apply any theory you want to a movie, Freudian, Lacanian, Sisklenian, Ebertian, psychoanalytic, psychosexualanalytic, feminist, you name it, people will apply it. And hey, if someone gets those goatees’ a-strokin’ and an Oscar nom, fair play.
It will indeed be interesting to gather people’s reactions to Shane’s work, and I wish him nothing but the best. Maybe one day I’ll get to write several thousand words on his debut, Darker Than Black, and see Crimson Tears retro-fitted and re-released in 3D. Either way I hope everything works out. God loves a tryer!

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