Martin Brest is a film director and a film writer, but he isn't a film buff. "I like making movies more than seeing them," he says. "As a task, it's fascinating -- a terrific combination of elemnts and excitements."
Brest's latest picture is the bittersweet comedy "Going in Style" with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. On the surface, it's the story of three elderly gents who escape the boredom of their lives by robbing a bank. Below the surface, it's a study of men on the margin of American life, thrown together by a society that no longer has much use for them.
"I feel a lot for old people," the director said during a recent interview. "My parents are rather old, and my neighborhood in the Bronx had an unusually old population. I'm attracted to any story where the main characters have some kind of handicap, and have to struggle just to stay even."
Yet according to Brest, who is still in his late 20s, the picture "isn't really about old age. In fact, old age isn't even mentioned. It so happens that the characters are old, but they could have been bored college kid just as easily. Or anybody else. It's a human adventure, not tied to any particular age."
Still, Brest confesses chagrin toward the way many young people think of their elders. "Most young people don't realize what old people are like," he says. "They think old people were always like that -- just old. They don't realize what the person really is: a younger person who's been around longer. This seems an obvious thing to say, but most young people seem to miss it. They look at old people as if they were a different race."
In "Going in Style," Brest treated his elderly characters in a timeless way. It's a quiet story, told with less flashy camera work quiet story, told with less flashy camera work and less obtrusive editing than are founf in most contemporary hits. "The drama doesn't lie in the events," says Brest. "It lies in the behavior of the characters. You see it behind their eyes."
At times, Brest worried that his movie would be too quiet for audience to take. As he pointed out, a great deal of story takes place around a kitschen table, or on a park bench, or strolling down a city street. But he chose against "jazzing it up" in any way. "That would have made the characters and situations less authentic," he maintains. "I knew I had to be truthful to the men and their behavior. I knew the film would have to work on thatm level. After all, the movie is about the way those guys think and talk."
When it comes to style, many of today's filmmakers are a lot less restrained than Brest -- think of the visual pyrotechnics in such pictures as "Star Wars" and its like. The way Brest sees it, "People often judge a director by his shots. But that's only one part of the director's craft. Script decisions come first. After that, casting choices are the most important thing. I was lucky because I got three megatalents to work with: Burns, Carney, and Strasberg. Without them I could have directed my head off, and it still wouldn't have been so stunning."
"Going in Style" had an unusual genesis. It originated as a short story by a New York carpenter named Edward Cannon, who read the tale into a tape recorder. According to Brest, Cannon "was not a writer or an deucated man. He just had a gift for gab, an understanding of people, compassion, and humor." Brest never met Cannon, who died before the movie was produced. But when he heard the story on it scratchy, nearly inaudible tape cassette, he knew it would make a great picture. He convinced Warner Bros., wrote the screenplay, and came up with a first-rate film.
"Going in Style" is Brest's first "commercial" project. Before launching it, he followed a familiar route for would-be filmmakers. He studied film at New York University and then decided to further his training at the American Film Institute.
At first, he was disappointed by what he found at the AFI. "I thought I was going to the Bauhaus of film," he recalls with a smile. "I expected it to be like Paris in 1920, full of great minds arguing new concepts in cinema. But it was more like a school for insurance salesmen."
Brest lost interest, and wound up on academic probation. As he recalls it, "I didn't care about the classes. I just wanted to use their equipment to make a movie. But their philosophy was: We don't make films, we make filmmakers. They thought they could turn out a generation of directors without getting their hands dirty."
Today Brest feels more friendly toward the AFI, acknowledging that "their purpose and their goals are tremendously important." In any event, his sojourn there had a happy ending. He got to make his first movie after all -- a brilliant and bizarre comedy called "Hot Tomorrows.c
To this day, Brest is amazed that "Hot Tomorrows" ever got off the ground. Along with David Lynch's "Eraserhead," it is among the most unconventional films ever produced at the AFI. The main characters are a pair of displaced New Yorkers in California. One of them spends his time mooning about the impermanence of human existence. Eventually his friend is killed in an accident , only to come bouncing back to life in a Busby Berkeley/Charles Addams musical number accompanied by the song "Forty-Second Street."
In order to get this unusual screenplay into production. Brest submitted a short "dummy" script for AFI approval. The movie itself was written "backwards." Brest began with the ending, then "worked out a story that could come in front of it." The idea was to make a film "where the irreversible happened, and was then reversed. I wanted to plant images throughout the picture that would pay off in an emotional and intellectual way. I wanted a transition from normality -- a film that would crack over into another dimension." The result was a unique motion picture that was promptly shown at the New York Film Festival (though AFI contractual agreements prevent its appearance on regular theatrical programs).
As a budding moviemaker, Brest would have been "safer" with a more ordinary project that showed off his talents in a comfortably "commercial" framework. In a sense, "Going in Style" is a continuation of "Hot Tomorrows" -- with its themes of loneliness and impermanence -- in a thoroughly commercial setting. It proves that Brest can adapt quickly and easily to the necessities of the moment. Thus it consolidates his promise as a potentially major Hollywood director.
For the past couple of years, Brest has lived in California for professional reasons. "I knew it would take 25 years to become a filmmaker in New York," says the native New Yorker, "and I knew that madness would set in long before this career goal was accomplished. So I went west on a mission: to give my career a kamikazi try. I always knew I'd come back east. Now I look forward to the time when my career can be independent of my residence."
Brest feels California is a poor setting for artistic activity. "I don't read a lot, or see a lot of films," he says. "I draw on what I see and experience in my life. But in Los angeles, your creative output exceeds your input. You end up cannibalizing yourself, and using up all the stuff that happened before you came to L.A. Out in California, my neighborhood is empty of life -- it looks like one of those cities they used to build for atom-bomb tests. It's difficult, if you enjoy the kind of madness you experience in a city like New York."
Among the films that have exercised some influence on Brest, he lists "Dr. Strangelove," Chaplin's "City Lights," Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," and "husbands" by John Cassavetes. He also expresses awe over a little-seen Czech movie by Jurai herz, variously called "The Cremator" and "Carnival of Heretics." He says this is one of the greatest movies ever made, and admits that he has drawn on it freely.
For all the restraint of "Going in Style," Brest clearly has strong tastes in film, and has already developed a strong technical expertise. So far his features number only two -- including "Hot Tomorrows," which he labels "a big practical joke" -- but his future looks bright.
His credo? He doesn't really have one, except that he wants to take us "to a weird, dreamy reality you'd never see on the street. That's one of the most exciting things a movie can do. . . ." 00:10000000173:
Once, long ago, when pigs had wings and dragons breathed fire -- well, perhaps a year or two later -- someone cam up with the idea that children were born ignorant, and so Education was invented. Round about the same time, children got hold of the notion that cince they were ignorant, obviously there was some good reason for it. It was two or three weeks after that they realized (they were a bit slow, not having been educated much yet) that this new process called Education was designed to rob them of their ignorance. Next day (they were speeding up) they decided that ignorance was not merely an inheritance, but a right. They thus set about protecting their right to remain ignorant, and opposed Education with a native energy and skill that lasted well into the nineteenth century.
But since then, as everyone knows, children have, without exception, become increasingly keen on education. They cycle jubilantly to school and rush to their desks eagerly, and sit there like nestlings ready to swallow each worm of knowledge and each factual insect. Things have got entirely out-of-hand. Even adults are wanting to learn, and dolphins and chimpanzees are determined not to be left out (though dolphis have always been in schools).
The time has clearly come for us to reestablish ignorance on a solid foundation. My friends: ignorance is a right. Education is eroding one of the few democratic freedoms remaining to us. This must stop. There is -- let's proclaim it -- an Alternative to Education. This is not an alternative formm of education; the world is already full of such enthusiastic experiments. No, no. The only solution now is unremitting, radical, total commitment to ignorance with a capital I.
It is high time we made a concerted effort to return to the days when the pedagogues felt forced to write "In Defense of Learning." We take it unquestioningly for granted. Who today attacks learning, or needs to defend it? We have forgotten that at one time education was considered a privilege rather than a right, exception rather than rule. Education was for the "poor" and the "apt" -- for those who had no better opportunities. It was certainly not for gentlemen, not much anyway; it was considered anti-social, or even downright dangerous. Someone once described Eton and Winchester as "conspiracies." Lord Say, in one of Shakespeare's obscurer history plays, was to be beheaded "for most traitorously (corrupting) th youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school." Quite right, too.
What has gone wrong, of course, is that schools are basically concerned with instilling technique and knowledge, and not, as was originally intended, with that good old-fashioned commodity, "wisdom." In the first English Queen Elizabeth's reign, Oxford and Cambridge students were taught such a small number of subjects that you can count them on the fingers of two or three hands. The aim was wisdom. In the reign of Elizabeth the Second a recent news item noted that employers in England and Wales are complaining they have no clear idea what students are studying because there are something like 30,000 different courses available to them.
Maybe that mother wasn't so stupid who asked her eleven-year-old son't headmaster: "As he is near his scholarship examination, could he have your permission to drop History and Geography and take intelligence instead?"
Oh, education, what crimes have been committee in thy name! One historian argues that compulsory education and Britain brought city-trained teachers into the countryside who taught rural children things completely irrelevant to life in the country, and so greatly hastened the fatal exodus into the cities. A good illustration is the teacher who brought a sheep into class and asked her little rustics: "Now, children, what is this?"m They thought and thought. She began to think that children who didn't recognize a sheep were duller than she could have imagined. After ten minutes, one of them put up his hand and hazarded: "'appen it's a cross between a Herdwick Blue-Faced Stunt-Horn or a Leicester Long Tailed Blacked Shag Foot. . . ."
All the equipment we really need consists of two or three basic weights and measures, five or six proverbs learned by rote, a sufficient number of words to play "Scrabble," a pocket calculator and a pat on the back. About two school years at a suitable age would see to these necessities and then we should be apprenticed or articled or trained or taken on by some craftsman or professional who is notably bad at his work. Someone who needs our help. In this way our native abilities would early be put to genuine use, our inborn intelligence exercised to some purpose, and, who knows, we might even arrive at a modicum of . . . wisdomm before the age of a hundred and five.