Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Almost every day since Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, over two weeks ago, I have considered writing about him here but I always managed to fall short of actually doing it. At this point almost everyone has weighed in, offering insights into his impressive body of work and opinions about his tragic, gone-before-his-time demise and I can't possibly hope to contribute anything new. But since I love movies and Hoffman was one of our very finest actors (and a personal favorite of mine) I feel like his passing cannot be overlooked on this blog. I only hope that I can convey, in some small, imperfect way, the impact that he had on me as a moviegoer.

The first Philip Seymour Hoffman performance I ever saw was in Scent of a Woman. He had a small but crucial role as a wealthy prep-school hooligan and his arrogance and sense of entitlement practically radiated off the screen. Every time I watched that movie my reaction to his George Willis, Jr. was one of visceral loathing. He would portray an older version of a similar character years later, as Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, another spoiled and lazy child of privilege. The fact that Freddie was, to a degree, a heroic character did little to diffuse the fact that he was generally bombastic and unpleasant. That didn't stop Hoffman from being a truly compelling and memorable presence in both films, despite the fact that his screen time was so limited.

It would've been impressive enough if Hoffman had made a career out of being a scene-stealing jerk but the thing that made his body of work so incredible was its astonishing versatility. For every George Willis, Jr. and Freddie Miles in his repertoire there's also a Scotty J. and a Phil Parma. Hoffman could play creeps and bullies to perfection but he was equally adept at playing emotionally fragile and empathetic characters. His turn as the lovesick, tragically awkward Scotty J. in Boogie Nights is so raw and sad and pitiful that it's painful to watch. I'm not sure I've ever been more embarrassed for a character in a movie. It would be easier to loathe him because he's so pathetic but Hoffman forces us to connect with the character's loneliness and vulnerability in such a palpable way that it's impossible to look away. I not only found myself sympathizing with Scotty J. but identifying with him as well, despite how uncomfortable that made me feel. As Phil Parma, the hospice nurse in Magnolia, Hoffman is the self-sacrificing, compassionate center to a movie that is largely populated by incredibly angry, selfish and damaged people. His patience and kindness in the face of so much bitterness and hostility is truly heroic.

I don't know how I could ever choose a favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance but I certainly count his Oscar winning portrayal of Truman Capote among my favorites. In the hands of a less capable actor the titular Capote role could've easily come across as little more than parody. Capote's distinctive voice and mannerisms are immediately recognizable and could readily lend themselves to mindless mimicry. But not with Hoffman at the helm. It's true that he captures the voice and and the other superficial flourishes perfectly but he also conveys Capote's rich, complex interior struggle. The writer's brilliance, his arrogance, his selfishness, as well as his sensitivity and vulnerability are all on full display. It's a performance that encapsulates Hoffman's amazing range and versatility; his Truman Capote is multi-faceted, engrossing and fully alive. If there is one commonality amongst all his roles it's that Hoffman always created characters that felt fully alive.

I'm barely scratching at the surface of Hoffman's film career. I can't think of a single performance of his that I have seen that was forgettable. They are all memorable, for one reason or another. Even when he had minimal screen time he always made an impression. Every time Hoffman showed up in a movie I got excited because I knew he was going to give us something worth seeing. He always dug deep, forcing us to connect with his characters and feel what they were feeling even if what they were feeling was ugly or unpleasant or painful. As an artist he was truly fearless. And he never disappointed. I am so very sorry that I never had a chance to see him on the stage and I know my knowledge of his career will forever be incomplete because of that. And there are many Hoffman film performances that I have yet to see. I intend to get around to all of them, eventually, but I think I'll take my time. I like that I still have new work to look forward to from him and I dread the day when that will no longer be the case.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snow! Snow! Snow!

Last week, just before Valentine's Day, we had a great big snow. Well, great big by recent Knoxville standards, at least. Between five and six inches, which is massive for us. It was a heavy, wet snow and every single flake stuck to whatever shrub, leaf or branch it happened to hit. It started coming down in earnest after dark on the evening of the twelfth and, even though a lot of it had melted away by the following afternoon, it was perfectly wondrous and beautiful for several hours. Like being in Narnia.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fallon and the Birdman

Not only is Nick Fallon back in Salem, he is front and center at the moment on Days of Our Lives. Blake Berris appeared in every episode of the show last week and was back again yesterday. I love seeing Nick get so much airtime and I'm very curious about where his story's headed. In fact, I've been enjoying Days so much lately that I've decided to try and go spoiler-free. I still see speculation and little snippets here and there on message boards and social media but I try to stay in the dark as much as possible. I had no idea, for example, that Percy "Birdman" Ruggles was going to pop up again at the end of last Friday's episode. I think Percy is incredibly amusing and, so far, I've been enjoying his involvement in the Nick non-murder mystery. It's fun to see Percy finally interacting with Nick and it's got me wondering what the real story is with this odd couple. 

My assumption all along has been that Percy knows exactly what went down between Nick and the ladies that night at the river. He either witnessed it firsthand or he fished Nick out of the water, patched him up and got the full story from his after the fact. I liked the idea of Percy being an ally to Nick, because I needed to believe that someone was looking out for the Fallonator in the aftermath of those violent and chaotic events. But Nick's incredibly odd behavior (odd even by his standards) and Kate's speculation yesterday that Percy may be the one calling the shots has me second guessing "Mr. Greetings."

We know next to nothing about Percy Ruggles, aside from the fact that he's a birding enthusiast and he makes a decent Santa Clause. If he found Nick after he'd been dumped in the river why wouldn't he take him to a hospital or notify the authorities? Was it Percy's decision to keep the crime a secret or was it Nick's idea (like he told Hope and Julie)? And if Percy stayed silent at Nick's request what possible motivation could he have had for doing so? Is Nick paying him for his allegiance? Or, as Kate suggested, is Nick truly unsure about what happened to him that night; and is Percy using Nick as a pawn for his own purposes? Since Percy himself is a mystery it's not beyond the realm of possibility that he has his own enemies in Salem. Could he be using the brilliant but damaged Nick to exact his own revenge? Is it too far out there to think that this story is gonna go full on loop-de-loop, culminating in the shocking revelation that Nick did in fact die that night in the river and the Nick we're seeing now is a clone or a robot? Days hasn't gone askew like that for ages but what's to say they won't? I just found out the other day that Ian Patrick Williams, who plays Percy, was the Swiss scientist at the beginning of Re-Animator. Perhaps that realization is what's causing my mind to entertain weird, mad scientist scenarios. 

I'm sure more will be revealed once Nick and Percy have had a chance to share more scenes one on one. As of yesterday all we'd gotten was a brief moment with the two of them, in the park, looking up at some turkey vultures in the sky. It was a weird, creepy scene. I liked it. And, so far, I like this storyline. It's odd and it has a darkly humorous undercurrent that I find refreshing. I just hope there's more going on than meets the eye. Almost everyone in Salem thinks Nick is being disingenuous and, much as I love the little scoundrel, I can see for once where they're coming from. Something about Nick is off in a really obvious way. He's too calm, too quiet, too detached and aloof. Even at his most infuriating I think Blake Berris played Nick with passion. That fire has been replaced with a coolness that's not so much frightening as it is perplexing. Like he's been entirely re-wired. It's hard for me to put into words. I just have a strange feeling about my guy. Like he's not, in some way, my guy any more. Has his desire for revenge completely overwhelmed his humanity? Or is his brain broken in some fundamental way as a result of the trauma he endured that night by the river? Both? Neither?

I have no idea but I really am looking forward to seeing how this strange tale unfolds.