Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Man Out of Time



1977...




2000...



2000 again, this time covering U2...

Thirty years ago this December, Elvis Costello made a name for himself in the United States by "pulling a Lulu " on Saturday Night Live, stopping in the middle of "Less Than Zero," the song that had been rehearsed and blocked for the cameras, apologizing to the audience, and launching into the then-unheard new song, "Radio Radio." Different stories of why abound: one has it that Costello wanted to perform "Radio" in the first place, but was blocked by his record company, which wanted him to plug a known song for his major U.S. TV appearance. My own favorite version, told years later by Costello himself, is that Costello and the Attractions were the second choice of the show, after the Sex Pistols' various visa problems kept them out of the U.S., while Costello, in turn, thought that SNL was less-than-advertised: "Maybe something got lost in translation, but none of the humour seemed nearly as 'dangerous' or funny as they seemed to think it was, or perhaps they were just having a bad show," he sniffed, and he and the band hatched a plot to prove "we were just acting in the spirit of the third word of the show's title." Either way, Costello's legend was set: his actions "proved" was punk in spirit (even if he sounded more "new wave"), and supposedly banned him from SNL for twelve years.

It's a great story, and I don't doubt a lot of it is true. But look at the first video: Costello appears nervous, but this is hardly the wild spontaneity of legend, with Lorne Michaels running crazed through the studio trying to figure out how to shoot this act of madness (MADNESS!!!): it actually appears extremely well-blocked, and the cuts fit the tempo of the song and its quietly crazed energy really well (especially like the canted angles on the keyboard). Perhaps this is just a testament to the professionalism of the SNL cameramen, but it's not the cinema verite, "rush to get the shot" moment I'd always heard about.

Still, however smoothly it was captured, I'm willing to believe it was unexpected, spontaneous, what Robert Ray, in The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, calls "an event," defined as such precisely because it's unpredictable. So what do we do with the second clip, what Jeff might call the "remix"? It's brilliantly done, and very fun (and the Beasties are a surprisingly adept back-up band), but it's a restaging, a cover not only of a song, but an event. Can you restage an event whose legend relies on the supposed "danger" of a split-second decision? Do we need to know the backstory here, whether or not the Beastie Boys knew they'd be "interrupted" (I'm guessing they did)? Is it the music that counts here, or the gesture?

Finally-- the same year Costello spoofed himself on SNL, he showed up to cover someone else's song, someone else's legend. He's older, mellower, and much more audience-friendly. But he still chooses a relatively obscure song from Pop, arguably the least-popular album by the world's most popular band (a great, great album, too, by the way). In other words, he's still the punk, still grabbing the unexpected tune, instead of the hit single, still finding a way to subvert folkie earnestness (at a folk festival, no less). Bono's lyric ("You had to win, you couldn't just pass/The smartest ass, at the top of the class") is an apt description of Costello, a cousin to the earlier "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me/I wanna bite that hand sooo badly...," but notably, Costello misreads it here, singing "You had to lose, you couldn't just pass..." Another gesture of defiance? A Freudian slip? An acknowledgement of the fragility of backstories and legends in a media age? Or is it just, as Walter Benjamin said, that "These are days when no one should rely unduly on his 'competence.' Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed"?

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics VII



Text means Tissue; but whereas hitherto we have always taken this tissue as a product, a ready-made veil, behind which lies, more or less hidden, meaning (truth), we are now emphasizing, in the tissue, the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue—this texture—the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web.
--Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What Ever Happened To Katie Finneran?



So much of this blogge is inspired by listening to I-tunes as I type, and the other day it called up Andy Partridge's wonderfully bouncy theme for the short-lived Fox delight, Wonderfalls. Which causes me to ask: what ever happened to Katie Finneran?

Wonderfalls lasted a grand total of four episodes on the Fox Network in 2004, thus making it something of a survivor, actually, on a channel which often cancels anything that doesn't have "idol" or "fifth grader'"in its title. (What is it with Fox, anyway? Its production end has helped produce some of the best television of recent years-- Joss Whedon's programming, David Kelly and Steven Boccho's stuff, 24, etc. And yet, its broadcast end has a quicker trigger finger than Dick Cheney). The admittedly quirky show told the story of Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas), a Brown graduate who returns to her hometown of Wonderfalls, works in a tacky gift shop next to the falls, and lives in a trailer park. She is defiantly anti-career, much to the chagrin of her overachieving family, and seems to be living something of a purposeless existence until one day the animal figurines in the shop start talking to her.

Still reading? The figurines guide her to perform various altruistic acts for friends, family, and random townspeople/tourists. At least, that what's Jaye thinks they're telling her; the messages are so quirky and linguistically obtuse that she's often not sure what she should do, and sometimes causes as much harm as help (call her the anti-Roma Downey). Are the figurines a vehicle for God? Are they talking to her at all? Is Jaye completely nuts?

Still reading? Good, because the show is not nearly as portentous as its description suggests. In fact, it's downright ribald, as enjoyable a mixture of cynicism and romantic hope as one could find on post-Buffy TV, much more Preston Sturges than Left Behind.

That's due in large part to the folks behind the scenes: creators Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland and writer-producer Tim Minear (formerly of The X-Files and Angel/Firefly), who jumped on as show-runner after the pilot was sold, and who has since become a kind of patron saint of brilliant-but-cancelled TV (most recently, The Inside and Drive). But it's also because of the fabulous cast. Dhavernas was the star, and she's a great, great anchor (and has since gone on to very fine work in films like Breach, where she's almost unrecognizable), but for me, the heart of the show was always Finneran, as Sharon, Jaye's closeted lawyer sister.

Whether chain-smoking in an examination room while giving her sister up to the police ("OK, what do you want to know?"), using the local Republican party as what Jaye calls a "lesbian dating service," geeking out over her 4H experiences, or simply offering Jaye a very tentative hug, Finneran always found the right notes for her character. Sharon could so easily have been a cartoon-- she's very exaggerated, and the butt of a lot of early episode jokes-- but Finneran always keeps her grounded, using her dry alto as a kind of anchor; even when the world is spinning out of control, Sharon desperately wants to keep things together through sheer vocal power. She also does shoulder-slumping and withering looks very well, allowing us to see through gesture and facial expression how even this successful older sister feels out of place and emotionally adrift.



All of this makes Sharon oddly sympathetic, until by the end of the series (thoughtfully collected in its 13-episode, arc-resolving entireity on DVD) it is her journey that seems the most interesting and redemptive. Finneran's reward for all this good work was critical acclaim, cult status as a postive lesbian media image-- and quick cancellation.

Finneran was born in Chicago, raised in Miami, and moved to New York when she was 19, quickly finding work in films like the 1990 Night of the Living Dead and You've Got Mail. Guest appearances on Fraisier and Sex and the City followed, but it was onstage that Finneran made a big mark, starring opposite Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh, and winning a Tony for her role as Brooke Ashton in a revival of Noises Off in 2001. (For a funny interview with Finneran about her Broadway experiences, click here.) A short turn on the Alfred Molina sitcom flop Bram and Alice followed in 2002, then Wonderfalls.

She's since popped up in the aforementioned Drive and The Inside, and had small roles in movie flops like Chicken Little and Bewitched. Perhaps this trail of commercial failure makes Finneran seem like a bad-luck charm, but I'm convinced, Bram and Alice aside, that she could anchor a very successful sitcom-- she's got the comic timing and smarts to be another Candice Bergen, if someone would give her an opportunity. All she needs is a show that will "say" to her what Sharon yells at her lover midway through Wonderfalls's sole season: "Ravish me!!"

Chickens of the Sea




If you haven't read this post from Digby, do yourself a favor and follow her link to the NewsGroper parody. It's very funny, but the real story is in the NewsGroper comments section, which reveals that there are some very poor readers out there, and that anonymity can sometimes give vent to a lot of pent-up, racist emotional responses.

Personally, I'm just sad that Brett Favre isn't really doing this. I just know his dolphins would be tough and gritty "gamers."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Channel Surfing


Cultural commentary through serendipity: Watching Bob Schieffer talking about the agony and "traumatic" times the White House had gone through before Alberto Gonzales's resignation, I flip one channel up, and find The Godfather Part II playing on Bravo. Michael (Al Pacino) baits and interrogates Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) about whether or not he's staying with the family, or whether he'll take a job offer from a Vegas hotel/casino. "Are you going to be with me on these things I have to do," Michael whispers self-righteously, "Because if you're not, you can take your wife, and your family, and your mistress, and move them all to Vegas." The consigliere looks hurt at his patron's quiet rage, and says he's staying.

Good Reads That I've Been Reading


Just a few quick suggestions of how to best use your blog-surf time:

1) Over at "Edward Copeland on Film," there are two very good pieces:

-- a smart, deadpan takedown of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, which Copeland wrote as part of the "BIZARRO Blog-a-Thon," and which finally answers the question: who is that pretentious piece of work for, anyway?

--a lovely look back (by ECOF contributor Odienator) at one of the best teen comedies of the '80s, the Val Kilmer vehicle Real Genius.

2) Speaking of Copeland: he recently launched an online blogger/critic/academic/fan/etc. poll of the 25 Greatest "non-English language films" of all time. And you can vote! For those of you who long to be part of Oscar committees come February, or who pull out their hair every time the AFI polls come around, here's your shot at making a difference. Even more fun-- check out various bloggers' own lists, justifications and mea culpas for films they chose, and those they haven't seen (three particularly nice lists/posts: Self-Styled Siren's, SLIFR's, and Cinebeats'). And if you can't get enough o' those blog-a-thons, Copeland thoughtfully provides a nice calendar of those coming soon to a computer near you.

3) Speaking of foreign films (and, perhaps, foreign responses): the tireless Jim Emerson has been writing an interesting series of posts about how "old" films and foreign films are received by a variety of audiences, and how critical response itself might sometimes feel a little "old." As always at Scanners, it's a provocative, engaging set of arguments, and the real fun spills over into the comments sections.

4) Nice guy Jonathan Lapper continues a cool series on the Oscars. I only recently discovered Lapper's blog, but it looks like a lot of fun, and I'm a sucker for year-by-year awards analysis. If that doesn't give you a thrill, perhaps you'll enjoy his nice appreciation of Anton Walbrook.

5) And if you're utterly movied out (blasphemer!), mosey over to Salon, where Glenn Greenwald continues to prove his worth with a chilling analysis of potential coup plans in Iraq.

Vaya con Dios, bro!

Friday, August 24, 2007

All Politics Is Loco




I grew up in Michigan, and have always been proud of its rich and varied pop musical traditions:

Motown, of course. George Clinton. Iggy Pop. The White Stripes. Bob Seger. Del Shannon, Aaliyah, Was Not Was, Milt Jackson, Aretha Franklin (born in Memphis, but raised in Detroit), and on days when I'm feeling generous in my likes and dislikes, even Eminem.

Then, there are those Motor City Madmen you feel less happy about.

Ah, Ted, you Damn Yankee, you.

On the other hand, I was very pleased to discover that I wasn't the only one who thought Fred Thompson reminded him of Joe Don Baker.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Decompressing



The only great problem with cinema seems to me more and more with each film when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.
-- Jean-Luc Godard


Over at Bully's comics blog, there's an interesting discussion thread on the relative merits/demerits of "decompressed" comics, i.e., those which contain relatively little dialogue per page, stretch their narratives out across an arc of several issues, and use the space of a monthly "floppy" comic to only delineate a small amount of time passing. It's initially very tongue-in-cheek, but I think there's a more serious point underlying it, which is: what do we expect from our entertainment (or, indeed, any form of communication)? This really interests me because I'm teaching a course on comics in the fall, and I'm sure some of this will come up in one form or another. I jumped in on the thread to defend the notion of decompression, and the comic under discussion (Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's lovely Ultimate Spider-Man), and Bully, as is his wont, responded with a very articulate post that answered a lot of my initial questions, so I won't repeat any of that here (esp. since you should be bookmarking Bully's excellent site for daily fun reading, anyway: his is the only blog I know of that combines snarky comics commentary with fine appreciations of P.G. Wodehouse, and the only one written by a cute stuffed bull with a Jane Wiedlin crush).

For now, I am more interested in the larger questions of reading and enjoyment that Bully's post raises, and its intersections with questions of:

1) Literacy: Bully's initial post compares an old Stan Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man comic from the sixties with an Ultimate Spider-Man from the present, and the difference in the amount of dialogue in each is striking: Lee-Ditko's work is text-heavy, full of lengthy exchanges, and exposition-heavy thought balloons. And I do mean "heavy": the text balloons take up so much of the space of each panel that Peter Parker's thoughts literally seem to be weighing on him, or closing in around his legs, a wonderful, subtextual visualization of Marvel neurosis. The Bendis-Bagley USM pages, by contrast, are driven by the visuals: the panels are larger and more varied in shape, the dialogue is sparser, and less visually prominent, and there are no thought balloons-- indeed, as opposed to the complete sentences of Stan Lee, Bendis's dialogue is full of his patented pauses, stammers and cut-off sentences, as word and text combine to suggest how certain shocking situations are beyond articulation.

Neither approach is "bad"-- both work quite well to get at their narrative and thematic points in direct and indirect ways. One of the concerns on the comments thread is about declining literacy: as one poster worries, in a time when young people may already be reading less, are comics abandoning a certain responsibility/opportunity to create a "fun" form of reading? Or, as another notes, does Marvel undercut its trademark style by not having as much interiority to its characters' interactions, given the smaller amount of text? Interesting questions, both. But we might also ask: what kind of literacy? After all, Walter Benjamin said that the future would hold, not people illiterate of the word, but illiterate of the image: does the Bendis-Bagley Spider-Man merely reflect this shift, and as Jeff is fond of noting (in different contexts), not deny us "reading," but merely teach us a different way to read?

2) Economics: Another way to read decompression is through the economics of the comics industry, and here I do agree more with the anti-decompressors: there is a canniness to Marvel's USM strategy, in terms of how it keeps you reading six or seven-issue arcs instead of containing said stories in two or three issues (as it might have as recently as the 80s), thus guaranteeing they can be collected in a trade paperback with a thematic title (like "Power & Responsibility"). And given the rising cost of comics (2.50 or so per issue, as opposed to the 12 cents of Stan Lee' s day, or the 75 cents of when I collected as a teen), and the declining audience for "floppies," it's worth considering, as several in the coments thread do, the long-term effects of such a strategy on the future of the industry/form. There's also a concern expressed on the thread that you get "less bang for your buck" with such a strategy: "You can read them in five minutes" is a recurring complaint, and I get that.


On the other hand..."Decompression" has a longer history-- the thread cites Manga (see point #3), and I would also cite the influence of "indie" comics on Bendis's aesthetic (since that's where he got his start). But even within Marvel's traditional superheroes line, in the "good old days," you had narrative runs on titles like the X-Men, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four and indeed, Spider-Man, that would be stretched out over years of continuity; sure, within those issues there were other, non-arc plot threads that filled the space and kept you reading, but it seems to me that one of the joys of serialized narrative is following characters and their universes over several issues/films/television seasons, seeing how each new episode (and I use the term broadly) adds a riff to the overall song of the characters. The influence of other media can't be underestimated here, either: especially with the rise of Netflix and TV-on-DVD, the multi-part collection seems to be the new narrative model for a variety of forms, not just comics (it's clear that, in part, there's an ironic influence of comics themselves on the best examples of this storytelling, i.e., Buffy). It's also odd to me that we complain about the narrative spaciousness and "emptiness" (the "nothing happens") of comic narrative, while worrying less about the same "problem" in cinema: how many of the folks worried or annoyed about comics decompression enjoyed the cinematic version of 300, for example, a film where narrative is only the tenuous thread upon which beautiful battle mosaics and displays of technological, painterly prowess are staged? Again, that's not a complaint, just an inquiry into what we expect from different forms, and why.

I'm certainly not going to defend a mediocre monstrosity like Marvel's recent Civil War, a multi-title 'event' that seems to exist only to sell a dozen-plus trade collections, and offers little beyond a one-sentence thesis about "good" and "evil" (and a very muddled, adolescent thesis at that, appealing to the worst libertarian instincts of its readership). But that seems different to me than the digressions within an issue that you find in something like Ultimate Spider-Man, which feel less like the "vamp till ready" quality of Civil War, and more like the pleasures mapped out by Roland Barthes in Pleasure of the Text:

Why do some people, including myself, enjoy in certain novels, biographies, and historical works the representation of the “daily life” of an epoch, of a character? Why this curiosity about petty details: schedules, habits, meals, lodging, clothing, etc.? Is it the hallucinatory relish of “reality” (the very materiality of “that once existed”)? And is it not the fantasy itself which invokes the “detail,” the tiny private scene, in which I can easily take my place? …

Thus, impossible to imagine a more tenuous, a more insignificant notation than that of “today’s weather” (or yesterday’s); and yet, the other day, reading, trying to read Amiel, irritation that the well-meaning editor (another person foreclosing pleasure) had seen fit to omit from this Journal the everyday details, what the weather was like on the shores of Lake Geneva, and retain only insipid musing: yet it is this weather that had not aged, not Amiel’s philosophy (53-54).


3) Cross-Cultural Exchanges: What happens when Marvel meets Manga? When Spider-Man seems to be written by Adrian Tomine? Can action and adventure co-exist with the stammers and pauses of a Richard Linklater film (is Marvel doing "mumblecore")? What happens when a flagship title gets taken over by a guy like Bendis, who likes The Larry Sanders Show and Reds?

Marvel's great talent, like Classic Hollywood's, was its ability-- as mapped out beautifully in Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation-- to constantly assimilate other threads into its superhero structures (the romance comic, the advertising graphics of Jim Steranko, the counter-cultural angst of Steve Englehart, the slick, cinematic noir of Frank Miller, the journalistic "realism" of Denny O'Neil, etc.), using those new threads to rejuvanate itself while maintaining its overall stylistic and ideological principles. It is the Borg of comic book companies, for better and worse, and perhaps "decompression" is the latest manifestation of said quality. In a way, this takes us back to those questions of form and expectation: what counts as "real" or "value"? What happens when styles (or disciplines, or approaches) begin to mingle? And how much of our love for the text-heavy work of Stan Lee (work, I want to emphasize, that I really adore) relies on a nostalgia for what was, as much as a concern for what is, or will be?

4) The "Do Much": "With great power, comes great responsibility," we're told, so in the end, what's the responsibility of the comic? To its audience (and what is that audience?), to its creators, and to its form/industry? Again, with the nostalgia: what seemed radical in Stan Lee's day (heroes with problems! Text-heavy interiority! Witty, New Wave-like asides to the readers!) quickly became the norm (Barthes: "What happens when the stereotype moves left?"), suggesting that Borg-like tendencies are prevalent among readers as well as corporations. This tendency towards reproducibility, repetition (even, or perhaps especially, of seemingly "radical" deviations) has been noted as occuring across a lot of fields or disciplines, as has its inevitable response: the rise of counter-forms, mutations which often inspire a revulsion when first seen. Since I am a teacher, I am interested in how this response plays out in the classroom; once, struggling with a Barthesian writing assignment, a student wrote to me: "That [option-- they could choose among two or three] seems pretty, and interesting, but it doesn't do much." I've been thinking about that line ever since, as it encapsulates so many questions, challenges and opportunities to me, in terms of thinking about new forms of response to popular culture. I don't quote it to make fun of the student (oh, our students!), because I think you'd get a similar response from grad students or professors when faced with the mutation to the norm, and indeed, I'm not even sure it's not a brilliant observation. What do we want our texts to "do"? And what counts as "much"? Is the responsibility of an academic paper or a comic book similar: to offer text-heavy explication, step-by-step transitions through the already-familiar narratives and characters of our respective universes? Or could an academic paper also be a blog post (like a comic, a balance of text, image, and advertising (by linking to other sites)? In other words, where is the space to digress from the linear, "inevitable" throughline, to "decompress" in a more minute, fragmented way? How can we get our work to swing?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Quick Takes

Seen recently on DVD:

1) 300: To paraphrase a reference from Mark's recent column: how do you solve a problem like Frank Miller? How do you catch a cad and pin him down? This is a profoundly odd, yet interesting, piece of work. I didn't hate it like I did Sin City, as unpleasant, enervating and vaguely fascistic an experience as I've ever had in a theater; as opposed to the suffocating, adolscent nihilism of the Miller/Rodriguez film, where I felt enclosed by violence and macho preening of the imagery, the CGI artificiality of 300 took me out of the film, and made me see it as a surreally beautiful mosaic, as if Bunuel decided to make Spartacus. The idea that the film is somehow a propaganda piece (for either side of the war) falls a little flat: the work is so painted and inhuman, with its repetitious slo-mo battles and gleefully obtuse narration, that it became impossible for me to sympathize with or hate any of the characters: there are no "characters," only figures in motion, simulations of human interaction only slightly less robotic than Anne Hathaway. Doing his best poor man's Russell Crowe, Gerard Butler is fine as the Spartan leader (his past turn as the lead in Phantom of the Opera humorously shadowing all his lines about leading his men to a wonderously strange new world), posing in all the right ways and even getting some emotion expressed through haunted brown eyes and the occasional raised eyebrow. In many ways, it's an impressive achievement, but a strangely empty and uninvolving one: it's like the Rush of action movies, a prog-rock-cinema of visually striking and sophisticated technological wonder that in the end elicits more a shrug of admiration than any true affection (and like Rush, seems designed to appeal mostly to boyish tech-heads who judge quality by the size of the drum kit). Frank Miller is an often remarkable talent in comics (although less so in the last decade), where his work is an interesting play of different graphic traditions (including swipes from television and cinema), but I never get the sense he has much of a feel for movies (Joss Whedon is the opposite example: a born TV/movies guy influenced by comics, whose actual work in comics sometimes feels a little flat): is it enough that both Sin City and 300 have been acclaimed for their "faithfulness" (my netflix envelope even going so far as to highlight said faithfulness in its description)? Is translation simply a matter of slavish recreation? If so, why do we even need the film versions, when we can easily buy the comics at the shop? Or is the very flatness and distanced perspective of 300-- its odd mixture of rah-rah speechifying and bemused violence a reminder that, as Godard once said, what we see on the screen is "not blood, [but] red"--its own commentary on form and politics, our tendency to turn everything into a game?

2) Daredevil: Oddly enough, Miller remains (to my knowledge, anyway), uninvolved with the big-screen exploits of the hero through whom his initial reputation was made, despite the fact that those issues of Daredevil (158-191, 226-233) remain his single best body of work, the perfect balance of traditional superhero and noirish revisionism that he's been shooting for (to pardon the pun) ever since. As a colleague of mine said, that 1979-86 period (capped off with the magisterial Dark Knight Returns) was when Miller "still had an editor," and thus couldn't fully unleash the endless, increasingly empty sex 'n' violence fests that have dominated his more recent output. Daredevil, the movie, references Miller when it cheekily gives his last name over to one of characters in the film (other notable Daredevil writers and artists-- John Romita, Brian Michael Bendis-- get referenced in the same way, and it's the smartest thing in the film. Which tells you a lot about the film), but manages to miss the mark when it comes to getting his vision on the screen. This is not, in all honesty, a bad film-- there's a frantic feverishness to the visuals that works for this most tortured of Marvel heroes; it's fairly well-cast (more about that in a moment); it gets off a few good one-liners, and establishes some nice byplay between a few characters (with two rather glaring exceptions); and the action scenes are well-staged.

Its main problem is that it feels rushed, and heavily edited (the local DVD shop here in Cineville has only the theatrical version, although I'm told there's a longer, more interesting director's cut available), with characters gone just as they're introduced, key relationships (like that between Daredevil and Elektra) sketched in rather than fleshed out, and a resolution so sped through that it's as if director Mark Steven Johnson was told there was no more film stock left, and it was time to wrap things up.

The movie draws heavily on characters either created (Bullseye, Elektra) or heavily revised (Kingpin, Daredevil himself) by Miller during his two runs, but it lacks the operatic intensity-- the sense of a whole city quietly under siege by crime-- that was the heart and point of the stories; there's a fascinating series of dichotomies in this character (crimefighting vigilante/by-the-book lawyer, cynic/devout Catholic, devil/angel) that could make a great movie, and it's not really beyond the purview of a "comic book movie" to do so (Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films seem to manage the trick pretty well), but hardly any of that's here. In a way, the movie reminds me of the Catskills joke Alvy tells in Annie Hall: "The food here is terrible!" "Yes, and such small portions!"

Just a few words on the cast: Ben Affleck is fine. Not great, but better than I'd suspected (as he recently showed in Hollywoodland, he's got it in him to skillfully portray a man divided by a double life, if the movie lets him). Ditto Jennifer Garner, although she seems miscast as a Greek avenger. The movie does better by its supporting cast: Jon Favreau hits all the right notes of charm, loyalty and dorky humor as law partner Foggy Nelson; Joe Patoliano is counterintuitive casting for reporter Ben Urich, portrayed in the comics as much older, but he's fairly effective and always fun; and Colin Farrell is a delight as Bullseye, every bit the gleeful, insane bad-ass you could hope for. Michael Clarke Duncan is miscast as Kingpin: he never exudes the calm or menace, the sense of true power and grotesquerie that the character needs (he's too charming and likeable, and the film doesn't find a way to use those qualities ironically), but his final showdown with Daredevil is fun. Still, I wonder what would've happened if the original casting-- Edward Norton as Daredevil and Affleck as Bullseye-- would've gone through. Norton-- as shown in Primal Fear-- can play split personalities with ease, and Affleck might have been more comfortable with Bullseye's cocky antics and swaggering physicality. As it is, the movie's stuck in a cinematic purgatory-- neither good nor bad, just mediocre.

3) Breach: Fabulous. I was a big fan of Billy Ray's earlier film, Shattered Glass, and this new film doesn't quite measure up to that one (it's not as visually alive, for one thing: I know the muted grays are an effective metaphor for spying, but I missed the cluttered newsrooms and kinetic mise-en-scene of Glass), but it's still a very fine piece of work. Ray is a very, very good director of actors, eliciting strong performances from younger folk, in particular (Hayden Christiansen, Ryan Phillipe) who are often underwhelmingly wooden in other pictures. And he's superb with veterans like Laura Linney (a thankless role, but one she brings wistfulness and subtext to), Dennis Haysbert (gone from the screen far too quickly, but very winningly cynical when he's there) and especially, Chris Cooper. The trick of Cooper's performance is that he makes a reprhensible man almost sympathetic: the film might judge Robert Hanssen, but Cooper doesn't, simply playing him straight and with quiet calm and empathy, and forcing us to make our own decisions about his actions. This is a film about varieties of faith, including the cinematic form-- the bond or agreement between audience and text, and how that is expressed formally (in other words, who or what do you trust to get you through the next two hours?). Ray seems fascinated by process: how do things get put together, then slowly pulled apart? It's an almost clinical approach to melodramatic stories (massive plagarism, massive treason), but this underplaying makes the films, paradoxically, much more gripping and suspenseful than if they'd been done in a Michael Bay style: what other film's big "action" scene rests on which pocket to put a Palm Pilot in?

Finally-- no, I didn't see High School Musical 2 this weekend. Since I enjoyed the first one (no, I'm not being sarcastic), I will get to it eventually (and thanks to Boolise for the above link), as I am curious about the new exploits of Sharpay and Friends. What's that? It's really about Zac Effron and Vanessa Anne Hudgins? Nah-- eveyone knows the Cordelia is always more interesting than the Willow.

Recently Viewed: The Silence


On the screen objects that were a few moments ago sticks of furniture or books of cloakroom tickets are transformed to the point where they take on menacing or enigmatic meanings.
--Louis Aragon



R.I.P., Ingmar Bergman.

Last Man Standing



The imminent release of the third season of House on DVD, as well as the previews for the new season that ran over the weekend on Fox (new tv shows? Pre-season 'football'? It can't be that time already, can it?) are a grim reminder of the downside of starting a blog about pop culture in a moment like this: it feels like all the good tv shows are gone. Seriously, last season was a Saturday Night Massacre of quality programming: The Sopranos, Veronica Mars, The OC, Gilmore Girls, Studio 60 : all cancelled. Sure, we still have one more season of Battlestar Galactica, although given the jump-the-shark quality of that show's season finale (never has Jimi Hendrix been used to worse effect), I don't have high hopes. That leaves me with everyone's favorite, pill-popping MD, and it's hard to go wrong with Hugh Laurie and Co. (especially if, as the season finale suggested, we'll see less of the whiny, self-absorbed Cameron this year. Jennifer Morrison's a good actress, but I suspect the writers have written themselves into a wall with her character's development).

But I toss the question out to my readership of six: what shows should I add to my viewing schedule this year? Ugly Betty? Friday Night Lights? Is it too late to get caught up with Lost? And what new or returning shows are you most looking forward to?

She'll Eat Milo Ventimiglia Alive


Well, this is kind of interesting.

Maybe with her teen sleuth background, she'll be able to solve the mystery of Heroes' Rasputin-like hold on the nation's TV critics.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Try To Remember

Over at Yellow Dog, Jeff writes of the 25th anniversary of the CD, and has all kinds of interesting things to say about the cultural histories of technology and consumerism. I'm not nearly so deep, so my question comes more from insomnia: what would a blog look like that was organized around an I-Pod shuffle?



Last night, my I-Pod called up "She Likes Basketball," the deliriously ecstatic, wonderfully geeky declaration of love sung by Chuck (Jerry Orbach), the hero of the Broadway musical, Promises, Promises. Based on Billy Wilder's 1960, Oscar-winning classic, The Apartment, Promises, Promises is the sole musical written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. It was a smash, running for over three years, winning two Tony awards, and spinning off several hit singles (which were re-recorded for the pop charts by Bacharach-David's primary muse, Dionne Warwick), including "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" and "Knowing When To Leave." Bacharach's music was orchestrated by a young man named Jonathan Tunick, who would go on to perform the same role on a string of groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musicals in the 70s, and win the first Tony award for orchestrations (for Titanic, in 1997). Promises, Promises also launched the choreographic career of future Broadway legend Michael Bennett, whose work featured dancer Kelly (then Carole) Bishop, who would reunite with Orbach 20 years later on another musical, Dirty Dancing.

Despite the show's success, Bacharach never wrote for the stage again: a perfectionist and slight control freak, he became frustrated by the live, slightly improvisatory nature of the theater; Bacharach was used to the recording studio, where one could manipulate and freeze the finished product, and the potential for the songs to sound even slightly "different" (a tempo change, a singer getting slightly ahead of or behind the beat) was maddening. He eventually collapsed from pneumonia during Boston previews, and had to be hospitalized. "The impermanence of Broadway gets to you because everything shifts from night to night," Bacharach observed. "If you've got a great take on record, it's there, it's embedded forever."

"Everything shifts from night to night": To me, this is one of those turning points, where the movie freezes, and you think: what if things had turned out differently? What if Bacharach hadn't gotten pneumonia, if the technology had advanced to the point where he might have had more control over the translation of sounds from his head to the pit orchestra? Would he have written another show? Possibly. Would it have been a hit? Probably. And he would've owned Broadway in the 70s, the Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim's Richard Rodgers, with Kander and Ebb divvying up the rest. Bacharach's tunes for Promises are intensely melodic, well-matched by David's rueful-yet-witty, Brill-Building-meets-Lorenz-Hart lyrics ("So, at least, until tomorrow, I'll/never fall in love again") and gorgeously set in Tunick's modernist arrangements: this is the "rock-pop" musical Broadway searched in vain for in the 60s and 70s (despite Bacharach's constant refrain that he didn't write rock music), and so much more sophisticated and enjoyable than the travesties Andrew Lloyd Webber would soon unleash (and don't even get me started on Hair). It's kind of like a Broadway It's a Wonderful Life: if it wasn't for Bacharach's illness, we might have been spared Cats, and things would've been so much better.



Remakes: Jeff writes of the CD's propensity for getting "the consumer to own multiple versions of the same thing," a tendency towards "remakes" that the success of Promises no doubt hastened on Broadway; is there any show on that strip that isn't based on something else these days (Jason Robert Brown excepted)? Wicked, The Lion King, Legally Blonde, Rent, Grey Gardens...even Beauty and The Beast (another show with an Orbach connection). This isn't new-- Oklahoma was an adaptation, after all, and so was Show Boat, and those are generally the two shows credited with creating a more "sophisticated" musical play form that nearly everyone built on for 50 years. But those were shows adapted from novels or plays, more "acceptable" source material (ballet was, too) than something as jejune as the movies (if there was going to be borrowing going on, Broadway would be the courted-- On The Town, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows in the 50s, etc.-- rather than the courter). Promises was different: The Apartment was only eight years old at the time, very successful-- and rather dark. It's a romantic comedy, yes, and one with a relatively happy ending, but it's less Astaire-Rogers than, well, Billy Wilder: cynical, acidic, dialogue-driven, black-and-white (in all senses). How do you adapt that into a musical comedy? Or to borrow the language of the I-Pod, how do you "shuffle" it? What do you keep? Skip over? Speed through? How do you order the pieces?



In the comments section of an earlier post, Dave asked me about the relationship between image and text: "What would it mean if this image were actually in motion"? In my late-night, rambling way, I tried to offer some sort of response about caption and text acting in allusive tandem with one another, a kind of "choreography" across the blog. And I think that's what Promises is doing here: mapping out its movement across a public text (the film) in the same way that one writes on a web page, citing and linking ("Oh! I remember that scene!...But...wait...that's different") and engaging in a kind of dialogue with its predecessor without feeling beholden to it. The Apartment speaks, and speaks beautifully, but Promises has to sing and dance, and that, perhaps, is the difference between an article or a book and a blog post: to borrow Dave's phrase, Promises has to keep everything "in motion."

"A great take on record": Let's imagine Promises, then, like a web page: which hyperlink do you follow? Or, per I-Tunes, how do you structure your playlist? The producers/adaptors had to make these choices in restaging the film, and so do we, as we look back on it. As noted earlier, Promises is ground zero for a lot of important careers: follow "Michael Bennett," and you get to meet Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, Donna McKechnie, and Tommy Tune, and encounter such classic shows as Company, Follies, Dreamgirls, and A Chorus Line. "Jonathan Tunick" might take you on a similar path, and so would "Kelly Bishop" (like weblinks, these things intertwine, but the latter figure would also take you to Broadway drama, and Gilmore Girls, which is, in its own way, a musical).



So, what arrangement do you need? How do you get your memories in motion, make them sing?


For me, it starts and ends with Jerry Orbach, the original inspiration for this post. Perhaps best-known now as Det. Lennie Brisco on 12 seasons of Law & Order and its various spin-offs, Orbach had a long and successful film and television career as a character actor, but his true glory was on Broadway, where, just before his death in 2004, he held the record for most musical performances by an actor. He first found fame originating the role of El Gallo in the off-Broadway landmark The Fantasticks, in 1960, and followed that up with well-received turns in Carnival! (1961) and in mid-sixties revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls (for which he received his first Tony nomination). Promises won him a Tony, and solidified his stardom, and he would go on to originate the role of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere's part) in Chicago (1975) and play the tyrannical stage director with a heart of gold in the Broadway version of 42nd St.(1980). Little on film suggests his musical brilliance, except perhaps his sad, sweet performance as the father in Dirty Dancing, and his magnificent turn as "Lumiere," the singing candlestick in Beauty and the Beast


Chuck, Orbach's role in Promises, is, to quote Broadway historian Ethan Mordden, "a schnook hero," who must find the courage to face off against his philandering boss (who uses his apartment for his illicit rendezous). The talent of Jerry Orbach is that he could've played either the schnook hero or the evil boss, and been brilliant in both roles. Like David Thomson said of Cary Grant, Orbach's genius was his ability to show us the light and dark sides of a character simultaneously, to suggest both the sleazy and hopeful aspects of a given role (no wonder he was such an effective Bob Fosse anti-hero: you can see his delight in the clip above, smoking his cigar while beautiful women strip him of his clothes, and his false piety).

In a way, that's what makes "She Likes Basketball" such a delight every time it comes up on my I-Pod (especially if it follows, say, Radiohead in the shuffle): it's pure, unvarnished joy. Gone is the hangdog of L&O, or the sleazy lawyer of Chicago, or the sad Dad of Dirty Dancing: in their place is this 33-year-old guy totally geeked about getting a date to a Knicks game with the girl it's taken him months to work up the courage to ask. I couldn't find a clip online, but there's a DVD calledBroadway's Lost Treasures III, which collects various Tony Awards performances, and the 1969 show contains Orbach performing this number. Track it down, and watch Orbach spin and leap to Bennett's perfectly pitched choreography (not so graceful that it seems out of character, but not so goofy that he looks like he's just randomly moving: the perfect bodily expression of the schnook hero), totally giving himself over to the emotion of the moment. Failing that, download the song from I-Tunes, just to hear Orbach bite and yodel some of the lines, his enthusiasm bouncing off the microphone as he describes how his "jump-SHOT-was-reaaalllly-GREEAAATT!"

"It's embedded forever": It's very easy to rent The Apartment (and if you haven't, you really should), but it's much harder to "see" Promises, Promises, since B'way shows were not filmed/taped for posterity then with the same frequency they are today. You can listen to the cast album, of course, and "imagine" what the show might look like, or look at still photographs from the production, and you can see recreations on DVDs like the Lost Treasures series, and if you're lucky, the show might be revived, but even then it's not the "same" show as the one in 1968 (who would play Chuck today?).

To put it another way: scarcity, or what Jeff calls "Pleasure transformed into outdated, not what I really wanted, no longer needed." Or as Bacharach and David put it, "Knowing when to leave may be the hardest thing you ever have to learn: Go." In a way, for folks born after 1970 (like me), Broadway shows like Promises, Promises or, especially, Follies function as the stage versions of Benjamin's "Arcades Project": the unfinished text, the lost promises (promises), the fetish that beckons precisely beause we can never really "have" it. This wanting-not having/having-not wanting is the play's subject, in fact (perhaps the subject of every musical, in one way or another), both onstage and off (do you think Bacharach felt like Chuck after his promotion-- having the success, but wondering if it was worth getting sick over?), and the show's resolution foreshadows the famous ending of Annie Hall, when Alvy tells the old joke about the man and the chicken:

After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I... I realized what a terrific person she was, and... and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I... I, I thought of that old joke, y'know, the, this... this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs." Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs. .

Which raises the question, I guess: when I write about Promises, Promises, what exactly am I writing about (no, I'm not talking about my ideas, such as they are, but the thing itself): since I was too young to see the show in '68, is it really "Promises, Promises," or just this patchwork, post-hoc construct I've pieced together from listening to the album, reading liner notes and histories, looking at photos, etc? In his memoir, Ghost Light Frank Rich writes of being a kid and recreating scenes from that Orbach show, Carnival! in "shoebox theater" form, complete with miniature curtain drops, sets, and lighting provided by desk lamps, each scene, he admits, "a magic trick I was eager to re-create." Is this blog post my "magic trick"? Am I the brother who knows it's not "really" the show, but still needs the eggs? Or is it more important to, as the song suggests, figure out our historical threads, and just "follow, follow, follow"?

Family Affairs/Follow The Money




Give Tony Snow some credit: At least he was honest.

In the last few years, we've seen a lot of people slink away from the Bush Administration. Karen Hughes left, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family. Dan Bartlett left, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Most recently, Ralphie --er, Karl Rove--left, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Snow? He said what they were all thinking: he just wants to make more money.

Of course, as Stephen Colbert might say, this means Fox is going to have to search for a second WH correspondent...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Metaphysics of a Jazz Thing

Well, crap.


R.I.P., Max Roach.

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics VI


Is this a lasting treasure/Or just a moment's pleasure?
--The Shirelles, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow"

HmmBop



Two passages from today's Plain Dealer sports section that might only be puzzling to me:

1) (From an article about last night's Indians-Tigers game):
Fausto Carmona struck out a career-high 10 batters in eight innings to win his first game since July 25. He allowed two runs, one earned, on four hits.

The offense scored four runs on 17 hits for Carmona (14-7, 3.16 ERA) in his past four starts before Wednesday. He had a 2.17 ERA in those starts, but was only 1-3.

The Tribe's hitters didn't give him free use of their American Express gold cards Wednesday night, but they did score five runs on six hits. It's a start.


2) (From a column on fantasy football):
I love garlic. There, I said it. I’m glad that skeleton is finally out of the closet.

I like garlic on my steak, in pasta, on toast and even occasionally in my eggs. But every now and then, I take a bite of a dish — mind you, not one prepared by my lovely wife — that has way too much garlic in it. It’s nasty, overwhelming and thoroughly inedible.

Just as too much garlic can ruin an otherwise delicious meal, so too can an over-abundance of rookies weigh down a fantasy football roster. First-year players may look tasty on the draft-night menu, and selecting them invariably generates an approving nod from your fellow owners, but few will actually provide the longterm nourishment you crave.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Zac Effron, This Is Your Future



(Thanks to EW Popwatch for the original link)

Some quick thoughts:

1) First, congratulations, Clay, on finally getting off the plane.

2) This is, in its own way, kind of funny, but the look of smugness on Clay Aiken's face seems odd, since Justin Timberlake's persona has often suggested he's in on his own joke. Timberlake might not have as much in common with Prince as he'd like, but they do share an ability to make themselves both the heroes and butts of their own sexual dreams and paranoias (unlike, say, this guy). What does it mean, then, theoretically speaking, to be doing a parody (Aiken) of a xerox (Timberlake) of a persona (Prince) that's already loaded with homages, reconfigurations and even parodies of earlier musical pioneers?

3) I made a joke to a friend a couple of years ago that we would someday see a new VH1 reality show called Being Clay Aiken, but even I didn't think it would come this fast. There's an odd whiff of cultish desperation to this thing that suggests the road from potential teen idol to future Surreal Lifer has become even shorter in recent years. Even Scott Baio had a longer career.

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics V

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Web-Head



This bit of news is a few months old, but Mark's humorous post about superhero/villain names ending in "O" started me thinking about it again, and so did a meeting today with a student who wants to do an independent study about superheroes.

This is an idea that should hit all my sweet spots: I love musicals, Spider-Man is my favorite comic book character, and I really dig U2 (as long as they're not managed by Dean Kincaid). Julie Taymor's presence is interesting, too: as one of the illustrious graduates of the school where I teach, I see a banner with her face on it every morning when I walk to campus (no, this is not some oddly Stalinist gesture: Cineville High had students make painted banners honoring their favorite famous grads of Cineville College, including, strangely, this one). It's like all the threads of my imaginative web have come together in this project. And yet, it seems like a really bad idea to me, and I can't figure out why.

Is it the failure, as the article notes, of other superhero-themed musicals? The relative inexperience of Bono and the Edge at stage music? Do I think Spider-Man will suddenly start talking about the ravages of Northern Ireland, or battle a supervillain called The Debtor? It's not like U2 is completely unfamiliar with superheroes: indeed, the band was arguably at their most interesting when Bono threw off his po-faced self-seriousness in favor of a "secret identity," The Fly, which allowed him a far greater degree of freedom, wit, and sensuality. And a stage musical probably isn't that much different than a stadium show these days, anyway.

So why, to pardon the pun, is this buggin' me? Jeff at Yellow Dog talks of how one "situtates" oneself in relation to certain texts, how certain texts allow for this and others don't. "Situations, or networks," he writes, "are the result of intersections. For the sake of pedagogy, they don’t have to be assumed as random or treated as avant-garde methodology: shooting randomly into the crowd. Rather, guidance as to where to locate the intersection is encouraged..." Locating these moments, he suggests, working with "the here and now," is the process of invention that all good writing should work through. I think what bothers me is how this musical blocks my intersection, creating a kind of car crash of ideas and influences that ends up being less inventive than enervating; like the lists of article titles and topics Jeff notes, Spidey: The Musical is a text that won't let me in to sing my own song. It might just be the cheese factor, but all of these elements come together for me less as a spur to invention
(as they might individually, before they get tangled) than a web that keeps me trapped, intellectually paralyzed like, well, a Fly, as the Spider edges closer and closer.

I Think It Would Be Fun To Run A Blog...



Just a few quick notes on interesting reads around the blogosphere:

-- If you haven't checked it out yet, head over to Windmills of My Mind, where the fabulous Damian continues his 31 Days of Spielberg with a good post on the underrated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Too fast, too furious, and far too violent? That's up for debate, but at least Doom doesn't waste the wonderful Denholm Elliott, or turn Harrison Ford and Sean Connery into a middle-aged Judge Hardy and Son.

-- Salon's legal/media critic, Glenn Greenwald, continues an interesting series of posts about what constitutes "seriousness" among Beltway pundits and think-tankers. As always, Greenwald has done a lot of good research, and his larger points about obligation, etiquette and group-think have relevance beyond the issues he's discussing.

--Jeff at Yellow Dog continues his hot streak of great posts with this one about composition and "situating"; Jeff is one of the most creative and wonderfully counter-intuitive writers I know of, and his site should be bookmarked on your computer as a daily stop, if it's not already. He also has a funny cartoon about babies and blogging, and who doesn't like funny cartoons?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics IV





Often, when leaving a film that has set something off inside me, I sit down at the first cafe table I come to and write down, automatically, my impressions. Without searching for ideas or a logical sequence I fill page after page. Extremely curious relations are established between the film and myself...precise details are given about problems going beyond the film and my manifest life as well.
--Kyrou

Blue Monday



Via this EW column , I found out that Tony Wilson died Friday, at the age of 57, from kidney cancer. Wilson was a journalist, TV personality, and according to New Order's bassist, "Manchester's biggest cunt"; he was also the founder of Factory Records, the label that signed New Order (and its earlier incarnation, Joy Division), The Happy Mondays, and other seminal British bands of the 80s and 90s, and the first TV personality to put the Sex Pistols on television, in 1977. In 1982, he opened the Hacienda club, which would become a center of music, culture and rampant drug use, prompting this anecdote, which seems to encapsulate all the various accounts of WIlson's unique brilliance/stupidity ratio:

"Although it gained a worldwide reputation, Wilson's superclub also attracted the attention of unsavoury local gangs, and in 1991 "the Hac" was temporarily closed down following a spate of drug-related shootings.

The entrance was redesigned, and a £10,000 metal detector installed to guard against guns and knives being smuggled inside. Wilson recalled arriving for the reopening as "the metal detector was going mental, beep-beep-beeping constantly. It was then we realised that the Hacienda had metal floors."


Such tales are at the heart of 2002's 24-Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's brilliant mockumentary/history of the so-called "Madchester" scene, and Wilson's attempts to be its mogul. Comic/actor Steve Coogan plays Wilson with a winning blend of charm, slime, calculation and cluelessness, and Winterbottom knows that it's less important to "tell the truth" about what happened than to give a sense of the period's whimsy, idealism and madness. The result is a film that shakes and shimmers, not denying its affection for its subjects (its propulsively ramshackle, try-anything style seems to mimic the music's basslines: you're thrown from one comic moment to the next, but you feel energized, not annoyed), but also looking at them with clear eyes and a necessary amount of sarcasm and mockery. Between its plays with time, delight in tweaking form, and using those stylistic tics to explore the intersection of art, journalism, sex and commerce, 24-Hour Party People is kind of like Citizen Kane-- if Rosebud turned out to be a coke spoon, and Charles Foster Kane swallowed it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics III




The strongest image is the one that has the greatest degree of arbitrariness.
--Andre Breton

Friday, August 10, 2007

Image of the Day



(From the Chicago Tribune, via Doug-- thanks, Doug!)

Speaking of wieners-- after a busy week that saw stiff competition from Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Sam Brownback (scroll down), and perennial contender Chris Matthews (where Beavis roams, can Butthead be far behind?), it was a last-minute dark horse that snags Idiotic Comment of the Week. This may be the worst thing to come out of Philadelphia since Hall and Oates.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Chrome Domes

A bald cartoon man races across the country to save his family from the terroristic schemes of a government employee gone mad with power.



The plot of the new action epic, Live Free or Die Hard?

Sure, but also the same story behind this summer blockbuster .



Coincidentally both released by the same studio, 20th Century Fox, as summer tentpole attractions (and following on the heels of another "anti-terrorist" Fox product, the TV show 24), Live Free or Die Hard (from here on to be called Die Hard 4, because I'm too lazy to keep typing the whole title) and The Simpsons Movie have a surprising amount in common. Both franchises started in the late 80s (The first Die Hard in 1988, The Simpsons as a series of short cartoons on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987); both began with very low expectations (Bruce Willis was known primarily for his comedic chops on the wonderful TV show Moonlighting, and industry wags were aghast when this untested star got $5 million to be an action hero; Matt Groening had a cult following from the underground strip Life In Hell), but quickly redefined their respective genres of action movie and animated film; both franchises have now taken on the status of beloved institution; both have made their audiences wait a very long time for a big screen return/debut (the last Die Hard was released in the summer of 1995, around the same time that a Simpsons movie was rumored to be underway); and because of that weight, both now come freighted with very high expectations, which they can't possibly meet.

The Simpsons Movie is the relatively more successful of the two. Visually spectacular (the big screen really opens up the animators' imaginations, as the rich colors and expressive figuration remind you of what's lost in the stampede from hand-drawn to CGI animation), well-voiced, and full of heart, it starts with a comedic bang (I can never get enough of the socially awkward, utterly challenged Ralph), and finds enough funny moments along the way to keep the audience entertained. Some highlights: the introduction, post-credits, of the Simpsons as nothing but silhouettes against stained glass, their bickering about being late for church nearly overwhelmed by the sheer recognition of the iconographic familiarity of those shadows (like Jack Benny's whine on the radio or Ricky Gervais looking into the camera on The Office, we start to laugh before anything even really happens); Mrs. Krabappel flashing her chest at a Green Day concert, and Bart skating nekkid through the streets of Springfield; everything involving Grandpa; and Ned Flanders' parting line to his ginger-haired son, a reminder of the darkness that lies below all the 'goodness' of the Springfield denizens. I also liked the continuing development of Lisa-- Springfield's own Willow Rosenberg, but less whiny and self-absorbed-- and her crush on the Bono-like boy she meets.



The movie's largest problem is dealing with its new form, that of the feature-length film (I almost typed "show's largest problem" at the beginning of this sentence, a Freudian slip that probably reveals where I'm headed), which introduces two dilemmas: how do you remain timely (especially if your narrative is politically oriented, which this one is) and how do you expand the shape of your story without losing the wacked-out vibe of the sitcom? There are some good jokes about Al Gore and Green Day in the film, and about Bono's Jubilee work and Arnold Schwarzenegger's political career, but they all feel two or three years out of date, probably since there's so much downtime between when they began work on the film and when it was released. (Though the film's largest political joke, and its bleakest, is an implied one that never goes out of date-- that those who create the major problems are the only ones who get to escape them).

That's small potatoes, though-- the weirder thing to me was how the expanded running time created an oddly sentimental tone to the whole film. Sentiment has always been a part of The Simpsons, as early as the first Simpsons Christmas Special (the 1989 spinoff from Tracey Ullman that led to a regular show the following spring), but it's usually not as heavy-handed or occasionally treacly as it is here. The movie smooths out a lot of the more surreal impulses of the TV version, the way jokes suddenly come at you sideways, or flash on the screen in a moment of visual wit that just as quickly disappears, as if you imagined it. Like the dome that comes down over Springfield halfway through the film (an act of narrative suicide, as it cuts the "leads" off from the kinds of interactions with peripheral characters that give the TV show such flavor), everything in The Simpsons Movie-- as funny and elegant and inventive as it sometimes is-- feels too contained; ironically, Albert Brooks' maniacal EPA chief, with his desire for control, feels less like the film's villain than its creative muse.



Die Hard 4 has the opposite problem: everything's way too spread out. I'm hardly the first person to note that the first two Die Hards gained a lot of their suspense and excitement from their visual containment: Bruce WIllis in an office building, Bruce Willis at an airport (and in the best Die Hard pastiche, Steven Seagal on a boat): the audience knew the lay of the land, literally, and part of the fun was seeing how John McClane MacGuyvered his way out of tough situations. By the time Die Hard 3 rolled around in 1995, much of the spirit of the series-- Willis' humor, McClane's connection to his family, and that all-important claustrophobia-- had disappeared, as Willis and Samuel L. Jackson went on a wild goose chase around all of New York that was dull when it wasn't impossible to follow.



In light of all that's happened in recent American history, there's an eerie prescience to some of the recurring images of violence in the Die Hard series: a skyscraper exploding, planes held hostage in DC, NYC streets bombed by terrorists. But where those earlier films' images took on a post-hoc power, Die Hard 4 comes at us heavy-handedly, with constant references to 9/11, to religious fundamentalism, to computer shutdowns and everymen stepping up to fight. Perhaps this is an inevitable move, esp. post-24, but it makes the film a lot less interesting to watch than its predecessors, and it's a claimed "seriousness," not an earned one (a much better post-9/11 action film is the underrated Spike Lee movie Inside Man , which really gives the viewer the shape of a city under siege).

It's also a hard film to watch. I don't just mean its violence, its faux patriotism, or its sadistic, occasionally misogynist glee. I mean it's literally hard to watch: in what might be another thematic move, director Len Wiseman (auteur behind the similarly moronic Underworld films) casts everything in shadowy grays, and sets much of the action at night.


(Who knew this poster would be Len Wiseman's artistic high point?)

I love chiarascuro, and this isn't a terrible plan, but combined with the film's ritalin-happy edits, it means that the film is hard to get a visual grip on, and even the wittier moments (like a brief jab at the Terminator films) are lost because the audience is never given enough time to get settled into the joke. It also puts spectacular stunt work to waste: we're often given only glimpses of moments that look like they'd be really cool (cars flying into airplanes, folks falling down fireball-ridden elevator shafts), if the framing and cutting would've allowed us to appreciate them.


The effect is like a visual version of a friend describing the scene to you later: it sounds great, but you don't get to experience it. And all of this awkard framing and cutting means not just visual, but also narrative enervation: after awhile, it's just kind of hard to give a damn, even in a blockbuster way, for what's happening on the screen: the set-up is dark and confusing, the characters introduced are sketchy even for an action film, and there's such a hopscotching around by the characters (Die Hard 4 one-upping its immediate predecessor by taking whole swaths of the country as its playing field, to greatly diminished returns) that the whole enterprise feels one-note (and there's no Alan Rickman, who more and more feels like the patron saint of my site, around to give the film a swift kick in the ass. I blame the government).

Die Hard 4 does have one very large thing going for it, though, and that's Bruce Willis. By now, Willis is a grizzled old man of action cinema, and yet he still doesn't get his due as a performer. He's very, very good, at a lot of different things: comedy (Moonlighting, the amazing Nobody's Fool); suspense (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable); drama (Pulp Fiction), and of course, action. Here, he moves like a combination of Robert Ryan and Paul Newman, taking the former's hardboiled physicality and the latter's WTF charm and merging them in a very pleasing way. When the camera slows down a bit, one of the real pleasures of Die Hard 4 is simply watching Willis move, with a limping gait that looks like a gimpy John Wayne. Age suits him: his stubbly scarred face, shining dome and haunted, uncertain eyes give depth to what otherwise is a silly, one-note cartoon character at this point (for a better version of Die Hard 4's "two men on the run" story, check out the taut 16 Blocks, where Willis is paired with Mos Def against a corrupt NYC police environment). That Mac guy, Justin Long, is ok as his sidekick (although I think the filmmakers missed a bet not casting someone like Adam Brody or Shia Le Boeuf, who could do the geek thing but also keep up with Willis's one-liners; Long's sleepy-eyed vibe suggests a less-committed Keanu Reeves), but this is really Willis's show, and he strives mightily (if futilely) to make it worth your dollar. He may yet end up as our version of Robert Mitchum.


In the end, aside from their individual merits/demerits, what interests me about both films is precisely this sense I noted above, of how they respond to their form's challenges. We might think about like a jazz riff: how long can you sustain it, how successful are your improvisations, and what happens when the thread gets lost? The Simpsons' cutting contest centers around time-- can they craft a narrative/series of jokes & visual puns that sustain for 100 or so minutes-- while Die Hard 4's are about visual space: how much freedom to move do we give McClane before it feels like any other action movie? And what might this teach us about blogging, which offers other challenges to sustained interest (said in a post that ended up much longer than originally planned)?