Saturday, 7 May 2016

BY SIDNEY LUMET - Review By Greg Klymkiw - AllLumetAllaTime@TorontoJewishFilmFestival(TJFF 2016)

By Sidney Lumet (2015)
Dir. Nancy Buirski

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Though By Sidney Lumet might not have the Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow ultra-geek imprimatur at its helm like De Palma did, director Nancy Buirski holds her own quite artfully with an extended interview shot three years before its subject's death in 2011. She crafts a sterling documentary portrait of the late American master-filmmaker who gave the world Network, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, Serpico, 12 Angry Men, The Hill, The Pawnbroker, Prince of the City, Daniel, Long Day's Journey Into Night and some 60+ other movie and television productions.

Like De Palma, By Sidney Lumet has only one voice. Buirski's terrific film is ALL Lumet, ALL the time and what a marvellous gift that she (and Lumet) have bestowed upon the world. And Lumet, like De Palma, talks straight to the camera.

Father and Son: Lives in the theatre
Fathers and Sons: Recurring theme in Lumet's Films

In a series of warmly lit and sumptuously, evocatively composed head and shoulders shots (accompanied by archival film, photos and film clips) he delivers fascinating biographical details of his life before the movies, a narrative of his family's involvement in Yiddish theatre in New York, Lumet's career as a successful child actor, his expulsion from the Actors' Studio after one day and then, a series of blow-by-blow reminiscences about many of his pictures.

There's no denying the appeal of Lumet's early days. His father, Baruch Lumet was a successful working actor in Yiddish theatre. Lumet recounts that his first exposure to William Shakespeare was in Yiddish. Baruch was lucky enough to land a radio drama which he wrote, directed and starred in (along with young Sidney and his Mother). The program was so popular that the $35 per week it paid was more than enough to allow the family to survive throughout the depression. Baruch even rented huge theatres and mounted live theatrical adaptations of his radio show which, more often than not, packed the house.

When Yiddish theatre began to dry up, Baruch introduced Sidney to a few leading lights on Broadway and he became one of the most successful child actors on New York's Great White Way, appearing in 14 Broadway shows including Sidney Kingsley's immortal "Dead End" (the precursor to a number of Bogart/Cagney gangster and juvenile delinquent pictures at Warner Bros as well as the long running comedy movie franchises of The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys).

The film brilliantly follows Lumet's philosophies of both life and art - alternating between subtlety and on-pointedness when either approach is most necessary to the film's narrative and pedagogical journey. This is no mere anecdotal exploration of his life and work, but rather, a vitally practical one. The generous clips from his top-drawer pictures not only remind us of just how great a filmmaker Lumet was, but are always rooted in the narrative he provides, which Buirski and her creative team follow religiously, but with deft variations to never instil sameness to the proceedings.

Especially poignant are Lumet's memories of his father and their special relationship. These memories are hammered home with clips from Lumet's later films which dealt with father-son relationships like Long Day's Journey Into Night, Daniel, Running On Empty and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead.

Lumet and Fonda: To do the right thing. Or not.
Buirski wisely chooses to begin the film proper with the great scene from 12 Angry Men wherein a seemingly privileged, well-to-do all-White male jury quickly dispenses with their first vote in a murder trial in which a guilty verdict will bring an automatic death sentence to the accused, a young man from the deepest, darkest, dirtiest slums of New York. Only one man, Henry Fonda ('natch) adheres to the basic principles of the law and votes not guilty as he believes there is reasonable doubt. Buirski ends the clip on a haunting image of Fonda, with one of the eeriest half-smiles of benevolence any actor has ever had to deliver, which she freezes, then fades to black.

We then find ourselves on Sidney Lumet, deep in reflection. He begins to recount the horrific story about something he witnessed in a post-war Calcutta train station. A 12-year-old girl on the platform is dragged into a train compartment by a burly American G.I. Lumet is stunned by this and can't even believe it's just happened in plain view and ignored by the throngs.

He musters enough fortitude, marches to the compartment and knocks on the door. When it opens, he realizes the G.I. has taken on the role of a pimp and is charging other soldiers an entrance fee for the pleasure of fucking the little girl. It's clear they're tossing her between them like a rag doll, viciously, callously, greedily pulling train on this child. The soldier asks Lumet if he wants a piece of the action, for a price, of course. He refuses to partake.

It is at this moment when he is seriously faced with a dilemma that's clearly haunted him his whole life. Does he say something, do something, do anything to stop this gang-rape upon a child by his fellow American soldiers?

The aforementioned clip from 12 Angry Men, so infused with the question of doing the right thing and linked to this shocking real-life situation in Lumet's own life, is what informs the rest of the picture, as well as laying out both the structure and mise en scène of the documentary itself.

"I'm not directing the moral message," Lumet offers after this harrowing introduction. He then becomes especially succinct and emphatic on his statement: "I'm directing that piece and those people. If I do it well, the moral message will come through . . . you say it's a conscious choice, I say it's an unconscious choice."

"Guess who got shot? Serpico."
"You think a cop did it?"
"I know six cops who said they'd like to."

Choices, of the "unconscious" variety comprise a great deal of Lumet's analyses of his own work and it all appears to be rooted in his childhood memories of growing up poor. To his way of thinking, being poor and having fun were not mutually exclusive because of the fact that as a kid, he only knew one way of life. It was just the way it was. As the documentary progresses, it becomes apparent just how rooted Lumet's films actually were because of the reality of his childhood - growing up in New York in cramped apartments, neighbourhoods boxed in by multi-tenant dwellings and the sheer vibrancy of always being surrounded by throngs of people.

This brilliantly explains how Lumet had a genuinely distinctive voice as a filmmaker. He seemed to always go out of his way to set films or to shoot scenes in the most constricted locations and, of course his love affair with the grime and boxed-in qualities of living in New York. He even admits how in life and his art, being anywhere but New York caused him a great deal of anxiety.

That the documentary places huge emphasis upon the seeming constrictions of Lumet's long career as a television director is especially telling. In the clips and in Lumet's own words, we experience how he was able to move quickly and effectively, bringing an innate cinematic eye to his television drama and continuing on a larger scale with feature films.

And film after film, By Sidnet Lumet charts a world of humanity and vibrancy within world which, for the most part, are closed in. If anything, Sidney Lumet thrived on claustrophobia. Furthermore, it was this sense of claustrophobia which resulted in cinematic two-by-fours to one's senses whenever his pictures exploded fro within tight confines into the wider world. Network, with its boardrooms and television control rooms are always vibrant, but whenever he whips us out of doors - think Peter Finch in closeup in the TV studio delivering his "mad as Hell" speech, juxtaposed with smash cuts to the outside world as people fling open the windows upon the streets to do the mad news-anchor's bidding, screaming out to the world, "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

This incredible mise en scène in film after film is what tantalizes us, excites us, presents the moral message and, in many cases, elicits huge laughs and feelings of elation on our part. Who will ever forget the hot, sweaty confines of a bank under siege, juxtaposed with Al Pacino leaping onto the streets screaming: "Attica! Attica! Attica!"

We also get a sense of how Lumet's cinematic renderings of words, dialogue and monologue continually flew in the face of what had become common wisdom in film. One picture after another has characters dominating scenes they're in with some of the most astonishing, heart-wrenching monologues. His adaptations of theatre were especially brave as he sought to not "open-up" the properties, just for the sake of moving us out of the "stage bound" settings. In Lumet's deft hands, the phrase "stage bound" never existed. All he cared about was creating drama on film, placing his subjects directly in the eye of the storm of his eyes.

Most of all, the nice thing about Buirski's film is that she never lets's us forget any moments of Lumet's filmmaking genius. They're inextricably linked to Lumet's words and both are proof that sometimes, silence is not golden.


By Sidney Lumet can be seen at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF 2016).