What do you see when you look at me?
Based on Arthur Miller's 1945 novel of the same name is Focus. The film stars William H. Macy (Magnolia) and Laura Dern (October Sky), and marks the directing debut of photographer Neal Slavin. This tale of anti-Semitism in 1940s America is timely, fresh, and moving, if a little overly earnest. Focus arrives on DVD via Paramount, so we all know what that means: a good looking disc that has little in the way of features and carrying a hefty price tag.
Facts of the Case
Lawrence Newman (Macy) is an ordinary man who leads an ordinary life. He owns a house, he takes care of his mother, and is friends with his neighbors. Still, it is the simple things that change lives, and such is the case for Newman. His eyesight failing, Newman purchases a pair of glasses. All of a sudden, people around Newman begin to view at him differently. The world finally notices Lawrence Newman. Suddenly, this man who valued his stability so dearly is out of work and wondering just what has happened to him. This newfound ability to see clearly pushes Newman on a journey that will bring him danger, love, and a realization that never would have been possible before.
The works of Arthur Miller are littered with instances of cruel irony, and that is certainly the case with the Lawrence Newman character at the center of Focus. Newman is a bland man who has lead a bland existence. He moves from day to day, going through his little routines blissfully unaware of the tensions that swirl around his life. It is only with the advent of his glasses that the world begins to take notice of this little man and in response, he begins to see the sharpened images of what was once the fuzzy exterior in which he moved. The irony being, that now he is able to see more clearly with his eyes, he is able to see more clearly with his soul. The bright and perfect neighborhood that once stood outside his house is now brought into focus as a hotbed of anger and religious bias. The people he associated with that he once thought of in strictly black and white terms are now surrounded by shades of gray. A woman that he would have normally ignored now captivates his imagination. Through being able to see clearly, Newman is finally allowed to live. It is through the living that he discovers just how messy, ugly, and joyous life can really be.
It is through the writing and the marvelous performance of William H. Macy that the film drives one of its greatest points home: We as individuals need to define ourselves and not allow others to do it for us. Another point underscores this: If we are to truly live, we must not simply exist and follow. We must get our hands dirty and push ahead. I realize this is all pretty weighty stuff, and reading it the general reaction might well be, "Ugh! Art film!" Believe me when I say that all this exists, but it works within the context of a fairly tight little movie.
Focus often feels like a thriller, and I'm of the belief that the best thrillers are filled with characters we care about, that we know the truth about even if the people around them don't. This cinematic structure causes Focus to resemble the films of Alfred Hitchcock. We know that Macy's character is really not Jewish and that everything that befalls him is doubly wrong. This construct is very much the "wronged man" syndrome that Hitch would use to great advantage in movies like North By Northwest and, of course, The Wrong Man. This device instantly plugs an audience into a character's plight. Thus, we fear for Newman's safety by the hands of people who hate him because of what they assume him to be. It also helps the film shows that Newman is not a perfect man. His initial rejection of Gertrude Hart, the Dern character, because her name sounded "too Jewish" is a perfect example of this. Yet, his ability to move beyond this rejection makes him a stronger character. Writer Kendrew Lascelles uses this development of the core personalities to make Focus sing. Granted, he does whitewash the bad guys to a point where a fine actor like Meat Loaf Aday (Fight Club) is left with little to be play but straight evil guy next door. But what Lascelles does do well is put a face on the people we are supposed to care about. It is rare to find a movie where the lead character really does begin at point A and by the time the film ends, has worked his way to point M. Lascelles lays out this development for Newman in his writing, and Macy runs with.
Every time I see William H. Macy I always ask myself the same question; is there a better working American actor out there today? I always give myself the same answer: If there is, I have not seen him. I do know that there is no better actor than Macy for showing emotion through his eyes and through a subtle glance or gesture. In his hands, the trials of Lawrence Newman spring to life. Every moment of pain, fear, joy, anger, loss, and realization is there in a way that is real and in the moment. No one out there today puts as big a stamp on his roles the way Macy does. If he needs to make a Jurassic Park III every year to support his work in movies like this or Panic, then so be it.
If Macy's character needs to take a journey then his role needs someone to act as guide. In that regard, Laura Dern is as integral a part to the movie as is Macy. Again, one of the most consistent talents out there, Dern matches Macy step-for-step. There is a beauty and a grace to Laura Dern that is much more than surface level. She brings fire and intelligence to all her roles, and this combination of silk and steel allows not only Newman to grow, but her character as well. She carries with her a world weary elegance that very much latches on to the stability she thinks she sees in Newman. She may not love Newman when they first become married, but the love (and respect) comes in time. It's a wonderful and subtle performance and with Macy, she carries the film.
I mentioned earlier that Focus marks the feature film debut of photographer Neal Slavin, and for the most part its an impressive first turn. As to be expected Slavin, along with cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia (Glengarry Glen Ross), paints a pretty picture of wartime New York, but it goes deeper than that. There is a sense that the camera is exactly where it needs to be as it highlights the actors and the space they occupy. Unlike a great many first time directors, Slavin also shows a good feeling for the pace of the film. It may not possess the heart pounding excitement of a state-of-the-art thriller, but as the film briskly moves along it does raise the stakes in a clearly discernible fashion. If there is any down side to his direction, it is his tendency to hit the audience over the head with the images that remind us that racism and bias are a Bad Thing. It may be that he lingers for a second or two too long on a "Caucasians only" sign, and it puts a slight drag on the movie. It's an understandable excess and it's not too much of a problem, but it is there. Still, it's a fine first effort and I can only hope for more film work from Slavin.
The disc is a fairly cookie cutter effort from Paramount. The disc has a pretty anamorphic transfer that features well saturated colors, solid blacks with good shadow detail, and little in the way of edge enhancement. Sound is a front driven 5.1 surround mix. It's effective and pleasant sounding with little in the way of audio bells and whistles.
The extras are pretty slight. There is a brief electronic press kit that features equally brief interview snippets from all the principles, including Arthur Miller. I would love to say there were more, like a commentary track with Slavin and Miller, or a more in-depth documentary, but it is not to be. Paramount has even refused to include a trailer for the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problems I have with the movie proper are addressed above, which leaves me with the problems I have with the disc. As is usually the case with Paramount, I am left wanting more. I know Focus made barely a ripple at the box office, but this film raises very important issues and questions that cannot be answered by an all-too-brief electronic press kit featurette. Not to make Focus more important than it really is, but to me it raises the question of what we should expect when we buy a DVD. To my mind, there are two ways to look at the DVD format: Should it be strictly a format where films can find their best audio and video presentation for home theaters, or should it be the all-inclusive documentation of what a film is about and what went into making it? Just a movie on a platter, or a presentation of everything we'd ever want to know about said movie? Something co-opted into the VHS business model, or something more complete? I take the view that a DVD release should be presented with as much care and passion as with which the movie itself was made. In the end, some movie, no matter how obscure or little seen is bound to be someone's favorite. A quality DVD release should make this person feel like the shiny disc in their hands was produced with their love and passion in mind. Is this an idealistic viewpoint? To a certain degree, probably. Does my idealism make it any less valid a request? I would argue no.
The second discussion the DVD release of Focus raises to me is the sticky one of price. Why in the world does Paramount expect someone to drop $30 down for a bare bones disc when companies like New Line, Warner, MGM, Fox, and Anchor Bay release fully loaded, special edition discs for 10 to 15 bucks less? If DVD has done anything, it has shown that the American consumer is more than willing to buy a movie in a format that they know is going to last. It would also appear that there is a hard-core segment of that buying block that is more than willing to pay for quality. The sheer volume of players sold and the amount of movies that are purchased drive that point home. We are looking at the first true revolution in home video since the early '80s and the advent of the VCR. Other studios have seen and continue to cultivate the future, while Paramount sits on the sidelines watching the race pass them by. I can only speak for myself, but there are many Paramount titles that I would love to own but choose not to because I'm unwilling to spend that much money on a movie that has just been thrown out there with so little regard to the fans of that film.
Okay. Exiting soapbox.
Sometimes a piece of art or a piece of entertainment comes along at just the right time and shows us something we need to see or that remind of us of a lesson we may have forgotten. If you look back to the days of World War II, you see a country that put Asian-American citizens into interment camps simply because of their ancestral history. This country also pushed to the side and discriminated against people of Jewish faith, ironically enough while at the same time our soldiers were fighting to free them in Europe. So, you may ask, what has this got to do with the disc on today's docket? In this post 9/11 age it is important to remember the mistakes we made as a country years before. One of the lasting strengths of Focus is that it puts into chilling perspective just how easy it is to slip into a mindset of hatred and bias.
So, Focus is a movie I think people should very much see. I just don't think people should spend $30 to do so. It's a very strong rental and if it's from an independently owned video store, so much the better.
As a film, Focus is acquitted of all charges. As a disc, Paramount is sentenced to six months hard labor. That Tomb Raider got more respect than this film did is an outrage to film lovers everywhere. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Production Featurette
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