Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sean Penn Redux

With Sean Penn currently starring as Mickey Cohen in the new Gangster Squad, it seemed timely to revisit a 1996 interview with the star by Kevin Courrier about acting and directing which was posted in Critics at Large last fall.

The Pennultimate Challenge: Five Reasons Why Sean Penn Wanted to Give Up Acting and Become a Director (1996)

Sean Penn
Back in June, Mark Clamen wrote about a new Sean Penn film, This Must Be the Place, which had opened all over Europe, but had yet to have a theatrical release in North America. "This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common)," Mark wrote. "The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves." Mark finally gets his wish when this Italian/French co-production opens next month in North America. Of Penn's performance, Mark wrote that "Penn plays the character with a low-burning intensity...[his] performance ultimately reveals an eminently likable man, but it takes much of the movie to get to know him." That "low-burning intensity" of Sean Penn became the subject of a profile written by Kevin Courrier in 1996 when he spoke with him at a Toronto Film Festival round-table when the actor, promoting his second film as a director, The Crossing Guard, was considering abandoning acting for the director's chair. In the piece, Courrier takes five of Penn's reasons for the career shift and examines their merit.

When Sean Penn announced in 1990, after starring in the woefully feral drama State of Grace, that he was giving up acting to turn to directing, the first film he said he was going to make was a story based on a Bruce Springsteen song, "Highway Patrolman," from the singer's equally grim, yet arresting 1982 albumNebraska. The song and the subsequent movie dealt with the troubles of two siblings – one who becomes a lawman, and the other who spends his time breaking the law. It was called The Indian Runner and when it was released in 1991, despite the merits of the story, it didn't run away with anything.

David Morse being directed by Sean Penn in The Indian Runner

1) "Answers are by definition wrong. I always wanted to make a movie that ended with a question."

Four years after his directing debut, Penn remains content providing answers rather than posing questions about his reasons for moving behind the camera. The questions instead are coming from a group of us gathered around a table in the early morning while the actor nurses his coffee and defies the "No Smoking" signs by lighting up. Once again, he's defending his decision to make films that he finds more complex that the roles he's performed in other artists' work. "The barometer on whether or not I'm going to act is that I go down to my pool," he explains in a measured tone while dropping his arm towards the floor."And if I put my hand in there and it's not heated, I'm going to act." When Penn, one of his generation's most exciting performers, tells you again that he's giving the profession which has been his greatest asset an expedient shift, you can't help but wonder why. Unless you're Laurence Olivier (HamletRichard III), Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter), Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing), or Diane Keaton (Unstrung Heroes), the track record for actors – even great ones – directing good movies is pretty dim.

Marlon Brando gave us the fascinating, but muddled western, One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Paul Newman became horribly earnest in Rachel, Rachel (1968). Robert de Niro turned into a shockingly pale imitator of Martin Scorsese with the horribly derivative A Bronx Tale (1993). Even Morgan Freeman, one of our most commanding screen actors,  brought none of his electricity to bear on directing his dull polemic, Bopha!(1993). But Penn is unrepentant about the failings of The Indian Runner. His second film, titled The Crossing Guard (1995), also features two men in conflict with what life has dealt them. And when it opens later in the year, it would stiff just like his first effort.

Sean Penn as Spicoli in Fast Times
2) "My strength as a director is that I'm convinced I don't know anything about directing."

But would you call that a strength or a deficiency? Penn obviously believes it's an asset because it leaves him with no pretensions about being a recognized auteur. His chief concern, whether he directs or acts, is more about the examination of conflict rather than finding its resolution. You could even say that this goal has been the driving force in all his work (as well as in his personal life). At one time, it was the personal side that got all the press: the drunk driving, the moodiness and his failed marriages. But his acting side, brave and imaginative, deserved more reckoning than it often got. Sean Penn has been an exciting presence in movies since he first burst on the screen as a voice of reason in the military drama Taps (1981). Subsequent roles inFast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), where he played the amiable stoner Spicoli; and in Bad Boys (1983), as a juvenile offender who becomes filled with regret, established him as not only a highly skilled actor, but one who could convincingly slip into a wide range of diverse roles. Sometimes he would choose parts that demanded as much from the audience as he did from himself.

This was especially true in one of his strongest performances as Sgt. Meserve, a platoon sergeant during the Vietnam War who turns vindictive and instigates the kidnapping and gang rape of a Vietnamese girl in Brian de Palma's harrowing drama Casualties of War (1989). What makes his acting continually so arresting might be what Pauline Kael suggested when she wrote about Penn that "there's no residuum that carries from role to role." The most natural inclination for an actor known for leaving no residue behind might be to begin making movies that can do likewise. But there's a big difference between desire and execution.

Penn as Sgt. Meserve in Casualties of War
3) "[The Crossing Guard], to me, is about how two guys have crippled themselves. And, in the end, it's just two cripples. I'm interested in whether or not that can change."

If The Indian Runner posed questions about what an upstanding officer of the law is supposed to do when his own brother runs afoul of it, The Crossing Guard examines both sides of a hit-and-run tragedy where a young girl is killed, and the anguish of the perpetrator and the victim's father is equated. The idea of comparing the pain of John Booth (David Morse), who ran over the girl, and exits prison after serving six years, with the girl's father (Jack Nicholson), who hasn't felt alive since then, is perverse for some people who don't think they can be compared. But Penn emphatically disagrees.

"I do equate that. And I do care as much about one as the other," he insists. "If someone has a problem with that, then they have a problem. That's emotional politics. I care about both sides." Part of that dual empathy might come from Penn's own temperament, but it also may be informed by being a father as well. "Besides the nightmares that come with having a kid, something outside my own experience happened that inspired the film," Penn says soberly. "Just when I was getting an idea that I could run with, Eric Clapton's son Conor fell out of a window. And, I thought, how do you deal with that?"

Jack Nicholson in The Crossing Guard
4) "This is for better or worse a personal movie. You go through times where you wonder if you are totally alone in your thinking. I've talked to people who've hated the movie and I've talked to people who loved it. But they got it. So I figured my job was done."

As for what people actually got, it really depended on who you asked. Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weeklydescribed The Crossing Guard as "Death Wish directed by Antonioni." But some, like Janet Maslin in the New York Times, thought the film was "risky and heartfelt." There is no question of the sincerity of the work here. But I still don't believe that Penn got onto the screen all that he'd intended. Penn has no problem creating the atmosphere of psychological drama, but he can't translate the psychological dimensions of his acting talent into his directing. When Penn directs other actors, he actually leaves out the crucial steps of good acting – motivation, the shaping of a character, and intuitive judgement – something that he brings to most of his roles. Just consider what he did in Tim Robbins' problematic polemic Dead Man Walking. He plays Matthew Poncelet, a condemned killer of two teenagers. What's extraordinary about his performance is how gets at very simply what he strains for as a director in The Crossing Guard. In Dead Man Walking, Penn takes us beneath the bravado and the fa├žade of a vicious killer. We are then allowed to perceive the damaged soul of a man who no longer lays claim to having one. Penn wrestles here with the complex motivations of a psychopath (complexities not present in the theme of the film itself which blatantly spells out its sympathies on the issue of capital punishment). Within Penn's troubled interpretation, we empathize with Matthew Poncelet without losing sight of what makes him a mean, cold-blooded murderer.Dead Man Walking gives the largely liberal audience the safe comfort that its on that audience's side of the issue, while Penn's performance offers us no such comfort, no chance for the character's redemption, and no apologies, thus giving the lie to the pieties the picture lays on the audience.

Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking

5) "For me personally, directing is the more healthier experience because in acting you have to lock into things you've experienced or observed, and ride on it for the period of time the movie goes. Directing The Crossing Guard, I get to pick the subject. It's more peaceful and fun."

That may be true simply because it's easier to pick a good subject, especially if you're as smart as Penn is. But the intuition required by a great actor to provide clues to a character he plays is also hard work. It means that you have to risk touching on mysterious parts in yourself – something Penn might on occasion be reluctant to do, even though it's something he continues to do with such startling brilliance. As no more questions are forthcoming, Penn walks out of the room to his next interview. A trail of cigarette smoke lingers behind him, snaking through the air much like the dark, unresolved moods he divulges on the screen in The Crossing Guard. But, in a moment's time, like the movie itself, the smoke simply vanishes into thin air.

That's something you can say his acting never does. 

- originally published on September 13, 2012 in Critics at Large.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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