One of my favorite films of the summer is “Cold Souls.” Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who is anxious and depressed as he prepares to play Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. When he reads in the New Yorker about a place that stores souls, he decides to try it. The immensely inventive writer-director Sophie Barthes has concocted a world just slightly off-register from the one we know and Giamatti’s literal and spiritual journey is funny and provocative and always surprising. So was talking to Barthes.
I have some bigger questions, but I want to start with one small one. We see Paul Giamatti rehearsing “Uncle Vanya” under very different conditions — with his own soul, with a borrowed soul of a Russian poet, and without any soul at all. How did you and he work together to create three very different versions of Vanya?
That was the trickiest part of the film in terms of acting but we were nervous for different reasons. He thought he could act badly but not play Vanya well. I could certainly imagine him playing it well but thought it would fall flat to play it badly. It shows you how modest and humble he is. We had both seen [Louis Malle’s acclaimed] “Vanya on 42nd Street,” and he knew his version would not be like Wallace Shawn’s. He doesn’t like rehearsal much. He is very intuitive. But when it came time to do it badly, for those we took time and rehearsed them. I said, “Let’s not make it robotic, but let’s be the opposite of whatever is called for. Confidence is something Vanya doesn’t have, so show confidence. Take directions very literally.” On the DVD extras we will have some other versions. In one he starts to mimic the wind, taking the direction he is given very literally. The one he does with Elena, he did unconsciously a William Shatner interpretation.
That is the beauty of working with such a talented actor. He is not someone to talk about technique and method. You roll the camera and he delivers and he is excellent — in a different way — in the first three takes.
I read an interview where he says he is always being asked to play the anxious man.
Directors keep asking him to play the anxious man because he is so good with it, so vulnerable, such a sad sack, so funny. Jerry Lewis says that comedy is a man in trouble. That’s what Paul is. He always looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is very human and vulnerable and has the skills of a comedian. He can go from total slapstick to very melancholic. As a film-maker he is like a grand piano. You can play any note and he gives you this performance. We didn’t know how to choose from the takes. They were all interesting in a different way. He can do deadpan and ultra-emotional.
One of your other actors, David Straithairn, who plays the man in charge of the soul storage, was in a role that was quite different from his usual characters.
David was a bit anxious. He has not done much comedy and this is a melancholic kind of comedy. How much larger than life should this doctor be? It was very different from “Good Night and Good Luck.” But he and Paul had played in a Chekov play together and had chemistry like old buddies on set, very playful.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Paul looks into his own soul. One of the images he sees is of a toddler, walking and crying.
It is a completely absurd moment and it came about by accident. We had a part in the movie that was a dream I had a long time ago about a baby factory where babies are manufactured. I’m going to put that in another film because it did not work out this time. When the casting agency came with the babies I was expecting four or five month old babies. But they brought toddlers who could walk, so we gave up on the factory idea and used the set next door with the white space.
Tell me about shooting in St. Petersburg.
Russia was a very surprising and pleasant experience. We had heard it was tough but from a logistical point of view the crews were super-professional and we never had a problem. Aesthetically, we decided not to shoot it as a postcard and turned the camera the other way.
Now a bigger question, maybe the biggest. Paul Giamatti is very distressed in the film to find that his soul looks like a chick pea. What would your soul look like?
My soul would change every day, maybe liquid. I go through all those moods.
Kids, don’t try this at home.
3D is X-treme film-making and thus well suited to the X Games, hyper-intense, hyper-dangerous, hyper-what are they thinking? sports that are closer to stunts. Young men compete on skateboard, snowboard, and on dirt bikes and motocross to defy the laws of physics. One of them says he feels about gravity the way some people feel about evolution: “It’s just a theory.”
Adolescent testosterone-friendly sponsors like Play Station, Taco Bell, Red Bull, and the Navy have helped make the X Games into an enormous and high-stakes event. Some of its most stunning images are of the homes these young men have purchased with the money they make breaking their bones to do these tricks.
And X can also stand for something else. At one point, a selection of one competitor’s past x-rays of injuries flash on the screen.
The stunts are astonishing and the 3D effects are so intense that you will feel like wiping the dirt kicked up by the motocross bike off your face. But there is more to the film. It has some important lessons about passion, commitment, being willing to ask “what if it is possible?” and being willing to fail in order to achieve ultimate success. The climax of the film comes in a three-way competition that includes one man coming back from a wipe-out the year before and one who is badly injured early on and insists on continuing to compete. The respect and affection between the competitors is genuinely touching and the way they ride their boards back and forth to the medical facility to check on the injured athlete is affecting. They are barely aware of how organic their attachment to the boards has become.
It has been one of popular culture’s most enduring conundrums: Betty or Veronica?
Archie Andrews, after seven decades as a teenager, has all of a sudden grown up. Archie and his friends have made only the smallest concessions to the passage of time. Moose used to be dumb; now he has a learning disability. The Riverdale kids may send texts now, but the punchlines are the same, as are the featherweight story-lines. And the eternal triangle with Archie being pursued by both rich glamor girl Veronica and wholesome girl-next-door Betty seemed as unchangeable as Archie’s immovable red hair.
It is almost impossible to imagine now but there were similar cultural shockwaves when Li’l Abner married Daisy Mae and Dagwood married Blondie. Both comics thrived and became even more popular as their “merry war” bloomed into usually-gentle domestic conflicts. But in those cases, while there was a question about whether they would get married, there was no question about who the couple was. The essence of Archie’s storyline has been the rivalry between the brunette and blonde who were pursuing him — in a high school setting. If he is going to grow up, get married and even, as news reports have noted, have children, is there any Archie-ness left?
It may be that this is a plan to reboot the venerable series. While many people will react to this news by being surprised he is marrying Veronica, many more may be surprised that Archie is still publishing new comics. This put them on the front pages of newspapers across the country. I suspect that there may an accelerated storyline ahead that within a very short time will find the children of Archie and Veronica in high school with the children of Jughead and Ethel, Moose and Midge, and Betty and Reggie (well, if anyone can straighten Reggie out, it has to be Betty). And that the jokes will still be, reassuringly, exactly the same.
I am really looking forward to the new version of “Fame” and one reason is the talented Kay Panabaker. Her work on television series like “Gray’s Anatomy” and “Boston Legal” has been very impressive and it looks like “Fame” will give her a chance to show much more of what she can do. I love this clip, especially when she explains that she is completely comfortable making a fool of herself!