Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lois Maxwell, 1927-2007

I honestly wasn't going to post again today, but as a dyed-in-the-wool Bond fan, I couldn't let this news go by without acknowledging it.

R.I.P., Lois Maxwell.

Snapshots Of A Cineville Weekend

Better Days

The great and powerful Shamus has been doing some nice stuff about Bruce Springsteen this week, including one brilliant post about the Boss's cinephiliac tendencies. Now, as if to prove his point, today's New York Times has a great article about Springsteen written, not by a music reporter, but by estimable film critic A.O. Scott. I suppose there's some pun about letting your screen door slam and revving up your engines to get on over to the site, but I'll spare you my deathless Springsteen pastiche (I was born in Jersey, after all), and just encourage you to mosey over to Scott and Shamus's pieces for good reads (perhaps with Tunnel of Love in the background).

Achilles Heel: Iron Man, Part One

All the publicity around the upcoming Iron Man movie has caused me, over the last several months, to re-read much of my Iron Man collection. Iron Man and his alter ego, millionaire/billionaire (depending on which period you're reading) playboy/inventor/political figure Tony Stark, have gotten a bad rap from fans, writers, and even Marvel Comics in recent years; as one comics blogger put it, "Why can't anyone write Iron Man anymore?" Recent stories have seen Tony develop an "extremis" power that transforms him into a kind of cyborg; have expanded his always-present egomania to absurd, anvilicious lengths; and worst of all, for some fans, have thrust him into the middle of a heavy-handed political allegory called "Civil War," in which a "superhero registration" bill (Marvel's version of the Patriot Act) divides the costumed community into pro- and anti-registration forces, with Iron Man leading the former group against old friend Captain America. Warren Ellis wrote some interesting IM tales for awhile, but scheduling snafus and deadline troubles lead to his departure from the book, and no one since has quite been able to get a handle on this most difficult of Marvel heroes.

And that's a shame, because Tony Stark is arguably the most fascinating character in the Marvel Universe, precisely because he seems so outside of it, and because his complex combination of power, wealth, political savvy, arrogance, addiction, and emotional flaws make him a strikingly contemporary figure. As a student of mine put it, he's difficult to sympathize with in the way that we easily sympathize with outcast Peter Parker: with his billions of dollars and Establishment credentials, he's much more a figure out of DC's universe than Marvel's, distant and unfamiliar, and unrelateable for much of the comics audience. But that's just it: Spider-Man, when written well, is the perfect allegorical embodiment of what it means to be a teenager: confused, angry, torn between selfishness and responsibility, full of power but uncertain of how to use it, wanting to improve the world, but lacking the emotional maturity to pull it off. Iron Man, on the other hand, is the perfect allegory for what it means to be an adult: no longer young, weighted by pressures and accepting responsibilities, trying to do good without creating more problems in the process, negotiating compromises and realizing that being a hero means transcending your own (often selfish) desires and ego complexes for the good of the group, and the long-term future. In this moment, Marvel doesn't seem interested in this sort of figure, preferring the easy (if psychotic, when you think about it) libertarianism of Captain America, the reliable badassness of Wolverine, the brooding vigilantism of Daredevil, and eternal adolescence (whatever their actual ages) of Spider-Man and the X-groups. But it wasn't always this way: for a brief period (roughly 1978-1989), a series of talented writer-artist teams found a way to tell intelligent, ambitious Iron Man stories that placed him at the center of that fictional universe's events.

Origin Stories
But before we get to that, perhaps a bit of background might be helpful...Introduced in 1963 as a Cold War industrialist/inventor, Anthony Stark travels to Vietnam to personally test a new weapon he's designed for the U.S. forces fighting there. Moving through the jungle with a platoon, he steps on a landmine which knocks him unconscious, and leaves several bits of life-threatening shrapnel in his body. He discovers this while a prisoner in a Communist military camp, and with the help of a fellow scientist imprisoned there, designs a suit of armor that keeps him alive through a chestplate, which prevents the shrapnel pieces from reaching his heart. Since this is a superhero comic, the armor also has various weapons that allow Tony to free himself from his Communist captors (the elderly scientist who helped him dies in the melee).

Taking up roughly half of Tales of Suspense #39, Iron Man's origin story is a classic example of writer Stan Lee's ironic pathos: the handsome, wealthy playboy beloved by millions, trapped in a suit of armor that has transformed him into a monster, and that he's encased in because of the wars his own weapons help to propogate. Wandering into the jungle, the tale might have ended there, a kind of superheroic Twilight Zone story. But this was, of course, the Mighty Marvel Age (The Amazing Spider-Man also debuted that year, and so did The Avengers, both following on the heels of previous hits like The Fantastic Four and The Hulk) and no good character could go to waste as a one-shot. Iron Man would run for another sixty issues in Tales of Suspense, eventually sharing the book with fellow Avenger Captain America, in those great sixties two-for-one books whose half-book narratives tied them to a long tradition of cliffhanging, serialized adventure tales.

Over the course of that five-year run, Iron Man-- now officially Stark's "bodyguard"--would change his armor several times (going from gray to gold to various versions of the red-and-gold look that defines him to this day), gain a soap-worthy supporting cast (driver/best friend Happy Hogan, secretary/unrequited love interest Pepper Potts), develop a visually striking (if emotionally underdeveloped) rogues gallery (many of whom-- the Mandarin, the Titanium Man--had Communist affiliations, reminding the reader that Iron Man was one of Marvel's most political heroes), and always be plagued by his achilles heel-- the chest plate he always wore to keep his heart beating, and to keep the shrapnel away. It meant he couldn't have long-term relationships for fear he might die at any second (and of course, could never let anyone know he was Iron Man, meaning he had to be even more frivolous a playboy than before, to keep up appearances). It was an effective riff on the Batman archetype of the fop/hero split personality (itself derived from antecdents like the Scarlet Pimpernel, The Shadow and Superman), and a clever enough way to delay any resolutions to the Tony/Happy/Pepper triangle (although I always wondered-- how can Tony be the legendary lover-man the books made him out to be in the 60s, while also always wearing that damn chest plate?). As long as Iron Man's tales ran only half-a-book (hurtling you from twist to twist) or he appeared surrounded by other heroes (as in the Avengers), it was easy to enjoy his striking appearance and cool powers, without noticing that the character was a bit one-note, less a character in fact than a neat concept (James Bond playboy as the modern Knight in Shining Armor). When Iron Man got his own book in 1968, that became a little harder to overlook.

Seven years of Iron Man stories followed. I will admit I have not read all of these (I like as much as the next collector, but I was born years after these tales were originally published, and I am not as wealthy, after all, as Tony Stark). Those I've read are enjoyable but unspectacular. The narrative model writers Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Archie Goodwin had establshed on Tales-- the mixture of super-action, corporate intrigue, beautiful women and unresolved love-- continues, new characters are introduced,

and Iron Man gains and loses a mask-nose. He also loses some of his supporting cast-- Happy and Pepper eventually get married and leave Tony's employ. Tony falls for Madame Masque, the scarred daughter of a crime syndicate boss, and literally loses his heart-- the old wounded ticker giving way to a new synthetic heart that resolves at least one tired plotline. A lot happens, but there's still the sense of extremely talented writers and artists bumping up against a glass (iron?) door that seemed to surround the characters-- whatever happened to Tony and his friends, and whatever villains Iron Man faced, nothing got through the shell of archetype. Iron Man seemed destined to remain a second-tier figure, fun and visually striking, but lacking the emotional complexity of such landmark heroes as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

The first sign of a crack in the armor came in 1975, with Iron Man #78, and a story called "Long Time Gone." Written by Bill Mantlo, who would soon take over regular writing chores on the book, and drawn by Geoge Tuska, the issue was an attempt to come to grips with the intertwined legacies of Iron Man and U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. As this uncredited comics historian notes:

Iron Man, a wealthy patriot with a war injury, might have reminded some readers of John F. Kennedy, whose inauguration in1961 had infused the United States with a feeling of adventurous optimism. Stan Lee has never compared J.F.K. to Iron Man, but he has speculated that the Kennedy era's spirit provided the ideal atmosphere for the introduction of new super heroes. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 ended the era all too quickly, and signaled the advent of the turmoil that would characterize the rest of the decade. Kennedy had encouraged the buildup of American troops in Vietnam, and as the war there became more deadly and more divisive, Iron Man began to look even more like a symbol of The United States: he went halfway around the world to fight for what he thought was right, and he came home with a wound that seemed as if it would never heal.

In his brilliant book-length study, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture In America, Bradford W. Wright notes that this tale was one of many written by a second wave of fans-turned-writers/artists, who'd come out of the tumult of the sixties, and wanted to use genre to say something different and "relevant" about the world around them. The most famous examples were Steve Englehart's "Secret Empire" run on Captain America, where the character confronts a government conspiracy with a thinly-veiled Richard Nixon at the center (the book was published around the time of Watergate) and stops being Captain America for several months, utterly disillusioned with the role of "hero"; and Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' riff on Green Lantern and Green Arrow, which took the characters on an Easy Rider-style journey across America, and confronted issues like racism and drug abuse while questioning the limits of power and justice. I don't make the Easy Rider reference offhandedly-- I think there's a very clear comparison to be made between what was happening in Hollywood in the late sixties and early seventies (as a new generation of film directors entered the business and wanted to use genre to say something new about contemporary life: Altman, Scorcese, Cassavettes, Coppola, Hopper, etc.) and what was happening in comic books at roughly the same period. What are the social, narrative and ideological possibilities and limitations of mainstream, popular genres, and can they speak something new?

Again, Iron Man is a fascinating vehicle for that idea precisely because he's such a counter-intuitive choice (although no more counter-intutitive than Captain America, I suppose): he's wealthy, politically connected, and is part of the very Establishment that the counterculture was fighting against. But that's what gives "Long Time Gone" its poignancy: here's this war profiteer forced into a crisis of conscience about what he's done, and about the split life he's been living as both fighter against, and economic beneficiary of injustice. Here's Wright's thoughtful description:

Iron Man began his superhero crusade as a self-assured champion of Communist containment, but it is a far more reflective and troubled superhero who ponders the meaning of Vietnam in 1975. The poignant story...opens with Iron Man sitting alone in his office, engaged in conversation with himself. He recalls how he "beat the Commies for democracy without ever questioning" the wisdom of his leaders. Now, thinking of Vietnam, he wonders, "what right had we to be there in the first place?" He flashes back to an incident in Vietnam, where he witnessed American weaponry of his own design lay waste to an entire village, killing enemy and innocent alike. Moved to tears by the carnage, Iron had buried the dead in a mass grave and marked it with the searching epitaph, "WHY?"

Heavy-handed? Absolutely, and Mantlo's cause isn't helped by Tuska's art, with its sub-Kirby wide-cheeked faces and page-boy haircuts (for a playboy, Tony isn't much of a fashion icon in this period) and sparse backgrounds. It's safe to say the artists' reach exceeeded their grasps, but the act of reaching itself seemed to free the character: in confronting head-on the emotional stakes of his origins (in the same year that Saigon fell and an incendiary documentary about why we got into Vietnam, Hearts and Minds, was released), Iron Man's creative team had pulled off a fairly effective bit of retconning, which used a revised origin to launch the character into some new places. When Mantlo took over the book full-time a few issues later, he was the first writer in awhile to probe Tony's emotions, as he temporarily loses control of his company, reveals his secret identity to Madame Masque, and recommits himself to being a hero for a more contemporary age (which includes no longer manufacturing weapons for the military). It was a really good start (enhanced by new artist Keith Pollard's slicker, shinier style), but just a sketch for what would come in 1978, when new editor-in-chief Jim Shooter handed the book over to a writer/artist team that consisted of one huge fan, and one guy who'd never really read the book.

Writer/co-plotter David Michelinie (the newbie) and Artist/co-plotter Bob Layton (the huge fan), took over Iron Man with issue #116. In an interview with writer Mike Benson, Layton said, "When David Michelinie and I took over the series in the late 70’s, it was one of Marvel's poorest selling titles. As I recall, there were three books offered to us and Iron Man was one of them. All three books were at the bottom of the sales ladder at the time—including Iron Man. I think that's why they pretty much gave us Carte Blanche to do whatever we wanted with the series."

Both men have stated in numerous interviews that they see themselves as craftsmen at the service of the characters, and that they want readers to become absorbed in the storylines, rather than thinking about the creators behind the scenes. Fine, but their own landmark work on this title belies that modesty. Simply put, what was needed was not a new heart, or new armor, or a big-time supervillain, but two artists alert to the possibilities buried within the title, and especially the title character. Mantlo had sensed those possibilities, but it was Michelinie and Layton who really brought them out. For all intents and purposes, they re-invented Tony Stark/Iron Man, and gave Marvel a whole new hero to play with.

M&L's solution to the riddle that had bedeviled even Stan Lee was remarkably simple: what if we really took this guy seriously, and tried to tell some realistic stories about him? What if we made him a real character-- funny, fleshed-out, full of strengths and ego and very deep flaws-- and tested his grace under pressure? What if we surrounded him with a top-notch supporting cast? What if we gave him a real girlfriend, instead of the Harlequin robots that had populated the book in the past? What if we really explored what it meant to be a Cold Warrior, to think about the ethics and unforseen consequences of your actions and inventions? In other words, what if we emphasized the "man" in the title, rather than the "iron"?

What resulted was a run of 42 issues (#116-157, although Layton left after #153) that offered a gripping and very human arc, respecting the genre conventions of the superhero tale (the costumes, the action sequences, the patented marvel hero crossovers) while also asking them to grow up. This wasn't new to Marvel, but it was new to Iron Man, and M&L's run on the title heralded a renaissance at a company that had been in a downward creative spiral for the previous half-decade: in the wake of M&L would come Frank Miller's Daredevil, John Byrne and Chris Claremont's X-Men (and Byrne's even-better five-year run on the Fantastic Four), Walt Simonson's mythic look at Thor, and the classic Hobgoblin arc in The Amazing Spider-Man (it's not a coincidence that these books followed editorial and business-side shake-ups that would lead to better conditions for writers and artists, and draw some of the best talent to the company. After all, treating people like human beings shouldn't only apply to fictional characters).

Of course, the most famous event on Michelinie and Layton's first run on the book (they would return in the mid-1980s) was the revelation of Tony Stark's alcoholism. It was a groundbreaking move, not the first time alcoholism had been seen in comics, but one of the most dramatic uses of addiction done in a superhero comic; Denny O'Neil had done a story about drug addiction in Green Lantern and Green Arrow, but it was a supporting character, not the central characters of the book, who had suffered from the problem. What did it mean to suddenly have a hero-- a wealthy, politically powerful, emotionally mercurial hero, flying around in a suit that can decimate mountains-- with the potential to go on a bender? And where would the character go after the problem had been raised? This was a lot more dramatic than a heart condition, and far more character-driven.

In a 1980 interview with Comics Feature magazine, Michelinie and Layton spoke of the plot thread as one driven by character and logic as much as an kind of melodramatic or pedagogical impulse:

FEATURE: Was that [alcohol] story written from the standpoint of a social responsibility, or...

MICHELINIE: I thought it would be a good story. that's the reason I did it. When I took over the book, Tony Stark's girlfriend had left him, his company was being taken just struck me that that this guy...either put him on ABC at 1:30 in the afternoon in his own soap opera, or what would really happen to this guy? He'd go out and get plowed. He's got all these problems; he's got to escape somehow. It seemd logical these days that the way he would escape would be getting into the bottle...

(Later in the interview)
LAYTON: Iron Man was Tony's release. He sits up in his ivory tower and all these people underneath him are vying for power, and the only release he really had was to become Iron Man. Suddenly, he puts this helmet on and becomes anonymous...He gets his release that way. When [industrial rival] Justin Hammer took away his ability to change into Iron Man, his release was gone. And that's the thing that pushed him over the edge...

MICHELINIE: The villain of the whole thing was Tony Stark.

This suggests the thoughtfulness with which they approached both character and problem, and the ways in which a talented team could use Stark/Iron Man as a prime example of Marvel's storytelling style, its desires for a greater realism, for characters with flaws, for finding the perfect intersection between the melodrama of the romance genre and the high adventure of the superhero tale. They're speaking here, not as hacks or social commentators, but almost as Method actors, probing the character's psychology, giving him a backstory, using that to find the emotional points on a page (in an interview, Denny O'Neil once spoke of an editor's job as being like a director's: "I cast the right people," he said, meaning writers and artists). As prime authors within what's sometimes termed the "Bronze Age" of comics (roughly 1973-the mid-1980s), Michelinie and Layton are the third wave of writer-artists: in Hollywood terms, if Bill Mantlo and Steve Englehart are the late-sixties realists, Michelinie and Layton are more disco-era Steven Spielberg, supreme craftsmen who offer slick and gripping action stories with a human heart.

The trick of the alcohol storyline M&L introduce (as opposed to some of the later uses of this addiction in the title) is its subtlety. In re-reading the tales, it's clear they are dropping hints-- an early-morning pick-me-up here, a third martini there (before superhero battle, no less)--but they are so good at the more conventional aspects of the superhero tale (the bad guys, the one-liners, the multi-page action sequences), and are so aware that their audience is not expecting anything else, that the "social problems" angle flies under the radar. As with so many past and future Iron Man stories, the metallic heroics intersect with corporate intrigue (a mysterious takeover of Stark International, government interference in Tony's business) and romantic disarray (a new girlfriend, Bethany Cabe, a much more emotionally developed and capable heroine than we've seen in the book before, fully capable of kicking ass as a high-priced bodyguard), but Michelinie and Layton ruthlessly follow it to its logical end, intertwining it with a tale of armor malfunction and tampering that, as a friend of mine noted, nicely dovetails with Tony's loss of control over his drinking.

As you might imagine, Tony does recover: in the end, whatever problems Michelinie and Layton introduce (and they find a lot of fun tight spots to put the character in), they are optimists, and the point is not to have Tony's alcoholism break him, but to use it to illuminate his grace under pressure. By the time the drinking comes to a head, Michelinie and Layton have not only revamped their title character, but introduced a strong supporting cast, the strongest the book would ever have: the aforementioned Bethany Cabe; the firm-but-loveable administrative assistant Mrs. Arbogast; the stuffy PR head, Mr. Pithins; electronics engineer Scott Lang (who is also the superhero Ant-Man); Bethany's friend and partner in bodyguarding, Ling; and James Rhodes, Tony's private pilot and best friend, who will come to be the most important supporting character in the history of the title. In fact, M&L do such a good job re-inventing the series that they haunt every creative team that followed them on the book. By the time they depart in early 1982, they've had Iron Man face off against Dr. Doom; watched him ward off a couple of corporate takeovers; introduced several new armors (Layton was a devoted reader of science journals); and once again made Tony a loser at love, as Bethany Cabe slips out of his life. The stories aren't any busier than those of earlier runs on the title, but they are endowed with richer feeling, a sense that there are actual stakes to the character's actions, and that the point of the action is the character-- that the former is there to tell us more about the latter.

Michelinie leaves after issue #157, "Spores," a dumb story that one comics blogger has declared one of the worst comics ever written (Michelinie didn't plot it, just wrote the dialogue, which seems to spoof and slyly comment on the idiocy of the plot it's working out). Layton departs four issues before his partner in crime, but he continues to do the covers for the book, his final one coming with Iron Man #158:

Like "Spores," the cover is better than the story inside, which wastes an eerie, E.C.-style villain on a twice-told tale about Tony's insecurities. But the quality of the story is less important than the name of the writer: Denny O'Neil, a legendary writer and editor then in the process of guiding Frank Miller's first run on Daredevil. O'Neil was best known for those aforementioned Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories in the early seventies, and for revamping three of DC's biggest heroes-- Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman-- in that same early-seventies period. He helped rediscover Batman's Dark Knight heart after campy 60s TV seemingly lost it forever; he shoved Superman into the modern age after years of benign neglect; and he did a controversial, power-stripping run on Wonder Woman that earned him the ire of Gloria Steinem (even though he'd meant it as a feminist storyline). In short, having dealt with superpowered and non-superpowered heroes, wealthy playboys with dark hearts, and insecure geeks with split identities, he was a fascinating choice for Iron Man. His run would actually last a few months longer than Michelinie and Layton's, and would be the most ambitious and controversial storyline that the title had seen to that point. Even to this day, people either love it or hate it. Except me-- I love it and hate it. Or to put it more precisely, I'm haunted by it.

Next Time: The Stephen Sondheim of comic book writers takes over the adventures of everyone's favorite millionaire superhero, and reminds us of the benefits and drawbacks of a thesis-driven comic book epic.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested at all in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.
-- Francois Truffaut

Friday, September 28, 2007

Imagined Film: The Birthday Edition

What if we were to organize a film shoot strictly around who was born on a certain day-- today, for instance?

Here's a list of candidates who share Sept. 28 as their birthday (according to IMDb):

Naomi Watts...

Jeffrey Jones...

Hilary Duff...

Janeane Garofalo...

Mira Sorvino...

And writer-director John Sayles...

What kind of film might these talents share? A postmodern, conspiracy theory bubblegum musical? A romantic comedy involvng marital strife and talking ducks? A Bogosian-style tale of a radio DJ with split personalities, who desperately wants to star in a movie with Chad Michael Murray? To pardon the astrological pun, what do their star personas bring to the proceedings? What would it mean to organize moviemaking around chance, cosmology and the accidents of birth?

Ideas For Future Lectures

(Click on cartoon for larger image)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Second-Run Theater: Superbad

Cineville's only in-town theater (as opposed to the two multiplexes in nearby Illyria) is the Apollo, a second-run space, getting blockbusters and flops alike a month or so after they debut in larger cities (it also has a display window of "coming attractions" flyers whose contents change constantly, so one never knows if one's actually going to see Ratatouille, or Rush Hour 3). I like it: it's an old, one- theater space built in the 30s, complete with ornate interior design, rickety cushion seats, an atmospheric little lobby, and a big red curtain that opens to display the film. With an old-style, bulb-covered marquee (added to the theater in the 1950s), the whole place feels like you've stepped into The Last Picture Show, like you should be watching Red River instead of The Simpsons Movie. Plus, it's hard to beat $2 screenings on Tuesday night.

This week's offering was Superbad. As this film has been around and well-covered for a month or two now, I'll forego a full review and instead just offer a few quick impressions:

--First, a special thanks to the Ya-Yas who came in late and chose to sit behind my friends and me. I heard a series of loud giggle and guffaws, thinking, "Aw man, why do loud high school kids always sit near me?," only to turn around and see a trio of boisterous, "what-do-you-mean-I'm-not-in-my-living-room??" fortysomethings, who chose to keep up a loud Stadler & Waldorf routine through much of the movie. I'll admit it added a surround-sound layer of irony to the adolescent antics onscreen, and sometimes caused unintentional humor-- "Oh, lord, why did they have to show THAT??...Man, to be a teen again...," etc. I also really liked the guys a few rows back on our left who moaned salaciously at key moments in the film. Good times, good times.

-- As Judd Apatow projects go, this one is closer in spirit to Freaks and Geeks than Ricky Bobby, which is a very good thing. Dennis made some interesting comparisons awhile back to Dazed and Confused, and I think what both films have in common is a tremendous spirit of generosity: with the exception of a token bully in each film, both Dazed and Superbad exude a good-natured charm and love of their characters that makes the viewer feel like he's entering into a welcoming community, a place where even the most abject will have their epiphanies and moments of glory (I'd always thought Freaks and Geeks felt like Dazed and Confused in extended television form). That was a defining characteristic of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Anchorman, too, but it got lost on the Apatow-produced Talladega Nights, where with the exception of the wonderfully funny Sacha Baron Choen, everything felt like an unironic ESPN long-form commercial, full of that network's offputting combination of macho belligerence, jingoistic sentimentality, and endless celebration of the dumbass. I didn't see Knocked Up, but heard it suffered from a similar mix of unstable elements.

Superbad is much more fun. In addition to Apatow, the behind-the-scenes talent includes director Greg Mottola, a veteran of TV cult comedies like Undeclared and Arrested Development, and the writer-director of the lost indie classic The Daytrippers (which contains brilliant work from Hope Davis, Parker Posey Stanley Tucci, and Liev Schrieber, and which, like Superbad, uses the one-day "road trip" form to say something both hilarious and poignant about family). Toss in screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (doing double-duty in the film as incompetent cops), and you have a creative team well-balanced between the wry and the gross, who understand that dick jokes and true love are not mutually exclusive. As in Freaks and Geeks, Apatow & Co. are throwing a party, and everyone-- and every comedic style-- is invited to dance.

--About those dick jokes: as Judi Dench might say, "Good Lord!" In my wildest thoughts, I never would've imagined that there were so many visual permutations, so many verbal riffs, so many ways one could draw a penis on a page. More than any other element of the film, it's a prime example of Superbad 's aesthetic of "sincerity through excess": it's funny, then it's too much, then it's funny again, all in the space of about three seconds. What ultimately makes the constant scatology funny and, yes, heartwarming, is its matter-of-factness. There were moments when it felt like a Kevin Smith movie; but unlike that soon-to-be-center-square auteur's characters, the kids in Superbad don't take a "nudge nudge wink wink" ironic distance to the material; there's nothing that's meant to feel arch or distancing or shocking. Instead, it's just how they talk, and it flows from their mouths so undramatically that it gives the language a realism (because 18-year old boys often do just talk and talk about this stuff in the most explicit of ways) that makes it oddly empathetic and naturalized. And once that stylistic/possibly moralistic hurdle is crossed, it makes identifying with the lead trio and their various friends and companions much easier.

--The teens are extremely well-cast, and kudows to Mottola and Apatow for getting actors close in age to their characters (only Jonah Hill, as the deliriously abrasive Seth, is 24). Hill is like a human version of Cartman, choosing to not filter between brain and mouth, and finding endless ways to rope his friends into his schemes. Michael Cera is quite loveable with the thankless role of Evan-- other than a serenade to cokeheads at a party, he's generally the Richie Cunningham figure here, the stable center amidst the craziness, but Cera holds that center well-enough to make the later, richer emotional turns of narrative really pay off. And what can be said about Christopher Mintz-Plasse? Playing a nerd stereotype is hard, but he embodies the truly geeky Vogel/McLovin' with a sense of hard-earned cool. The nice twist is that McLovin' is not a put-upon outcast, a Willow, the way he might be in other films-- he genuinely believes he's a bad-ass, and all evidence to the contrary won't stop him from making the scene. It's a wonderful spin on the type that Mintz-Plasse nails, and it happily drains the film of treacly sentimentality. As objects of affection, Matha MacIssac and Emma Stone have less screentime than the boys, but they are both very good, like Mintz-Plasse hitting unexpected, jazzy notes in their characters, and fleshing out what might have been dopey caricatures; while I wish they had more to do, I did appreciate the moments that suggested, as in Virgin and Geeks, that the women here are far smarter and savvier than their well-intended boyfriends.

--The next day, watching scenes from Shoot The Piano Player with my students in class (the scenes in the car between the gangsters and Charlie and Lena), I was suddenly struck by how much they reminded me of the scenes in the police car in Superbad. This is partially just a similarity of framing, but I think it also speaks to the juggling of tones both films share, and the generosity of spirit, both within the narrative and in the ways the film plays with genre-- there are no true "bad guys" in Superbad, no real divisions between jocks and nerds and brains as in other teen-centric films (and thankfully no Chad Michael Murray). All that's really needed to overcome those false divisions, the film suggests, is confidence, honesty, friendship, and love (plus a fake ID, a cannister of laundry detergent, sympathetic police officers, and pizza bagels).

Sliding Down The Surface of Things

The four members of U2 go into the big room, pick up their instruments, and start playing. Producer Brian Eno stands near them swigging Elixir Vitae. The song they are working on is called (at least for today) "Big City, Bright Lights." As they jam on it, Bono makes up lyrics about coffee stains, ghosts, streets.

At the mixing console in the control room a little red light goes off in the head of the man called Flood, another producer of this project.
Streets is one of the words on Flood's lists of forbidden rock cliches, along with, for example, night, magic and secret. Flood figures fresh thinking starts with the little things.

-- From Bill Flanagan's essential book on the band, U2 At The End Of The World

Imaginary assignments, based on Floodology:

--Write a film paper without using the words gaze, audience, interpellation, movement, fetish, or lens. Only two genres, one historical period, and three directors can be mentioned, but you must name six key grips.

-- Write a biography of an imaginary film producer. It must consist of five discrete anecdotes, with each anecdote doubling the length of the previous one. We should get a sense of the producer's aesthetic, but none of the anecdotes can actually be about making any of the imaginary producer's films. The producer's sex life is also off-limits.

--You've discovered, at the UCLA archive, a lost film from director John Ford. Unsurprisingly, the film appears to be a western. I say "appears," because there are clearly several scenes missing from the old, battered reels: there are jumps in continuity from scene to scene, and even within scenes. John Wayne appears for a single tracking shot, dressed in a sailor's outfit, and is then replaced by Montgomery Clift, playing the same character. At one, point (this is clearly a work print), Ford storms in front of the camera, waving his well-chewed hankerchief in the air, and calling Wayne a "no-talent jock who's afraid of horses!"

The assignment: describe what you are wearing the day you discovered this film, and why.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics X

One might call "poetic" (without value judgment) any discourse in which the word leads the idea.
--Roland Barthes

What might we learn from the Vogue Sept. edition-- aka, the "fall fashion week issue"-- still available on your local newsstands? Perusing it this week, I was reminded again of the fashion magazine's unique ability to reverse the usual relationship between content and advertisement: here, it is the articles that seem like the interruption of the primary narrative of the ads, all that text something we just have to sit through or skip over in order to return to the elaborate, unfolding bliss on the other pages. Replace "word" with "image" in the Barthes quote above, and you have the logic of this text. That's not to say there aren't good articles in the magazine, including this month's interviews with Sienna Miller and Michelle Obama (it's meant to be a joke in the fascinatingly conflicted film version of The Devil Wears Prada when Anne Hathaway's character defends her job by noting that the Vogue-like magazine she works for "publishes really good stories," but it's true: like its doppleganger, Playboy, it does attract smart journalists and writers, who pursue interesting ideas amidst the pictorial splendor; that the film won't accept this sophisticated rebuke to its fantasies of brown rice authenticity merely confirms that Prada doesn't comprehend the fetishistic pleasures of cinema); it only means that the articles pale in size and importance to the ads, which offer their own stories, asides, intertextual references, jokes and critiques of culture-- only some of which are explicitly made. Is this the "literacy of the image" that Walter Benjamin said would be the challenge for educators and theorists of the future?

Roland Barthes famously wrote about some of these issues in a book called The Fashion System, noting the difference between "clothing" (image) and "garment" (word), the codes through which we understand the items and icons around us. This is one of the Barthes books I haven't yet read, that I know only by summary, paraphrase, reference and reputation; but I'm thinking I should add it to my list, because I'd be fascinated to know what my favorite theorist might say about some of these issues. Does language really "freeze" our understanding of the image? Does "garment" always trump "clothing"? Because the layout of Vogue suggests otherwise: that image overpowers the word, that writing through these images-- making words another hem on the garment (think of the many ways in which the two languages intersect on the word "line")-- offers another sort of opportunity. Benjamin again: "The eternal is in every case far more the ruffle on a dress than an idea.”

Monday, September 24, 2007

Don't Haze Me, Bro

Just saw this on SportsCenter. Some brief thoughts:

--For the record, since Coach Gundy chose to lambast the column without reading or quoting from it, here's the dastardly piece in its entireity. I don't particularly think it's a great column-- I think its insistence on finding a kind of oedipal truth in the quarterback's relationship with his mother is tiresome, poorly thought out, and unbearably macho; I also think it's pretty par for the course in the way football is covered on both the pro and college levels. If you're going to make "toughness" the key criteria and definition of what it means to "be a man" (hell, if you're going to rabidly link football and 'manliness' in the first place), you shouldn't be surprised if it blows back on you.

-- "This article embarrasses me to be involved with college athletics" and "I think this article's worth readin' " v. "I didn't read it" and "This is why I don't read newspapers": Way to trumpet your aliteracy on television, Coach Gundy.

--Ambiguous use of false statistics: although he hasn't read the article, Gundy can make the mathematically precise declaration that the article is "3/4 inaccurate", which begs the question: which 1/4 of it is true?

--Misleading use of false anecdotes: Gundy makes reference to a mythical child being picked on because he's fat, or being criticized for dropping a pass, leaving the implication that Carlson made these remarks in her column. She didn't, and Gundy's shameless play on his audience's emotions (I mean, I'd feel bad for that mythical kid) really blurs the coverage here. It's the equivalent in political reporting of the "some people say...", which allows reporters and pundits to make things up and parrot party talking points while claiming to speak for the will of the people. Also, if Gundy wants the reporting to center on "what happens on the field" (as he says more than once in this tirade), wouldn't dropping a pass count as that?

-- I love the way his shirt blends into the OSU backdrop: L'etat, c'est moi.

--"If you have a child someday," Gundy sneered, "you'll understand how it feels. But you obviously don't have a child": Jenni Carlson, if the column above is any indication, is a terrible writer whose work is a slew of macho cliches, but I do wonder if Gundy would've made that remark to a male columnist. It seems to tap into a stream of resentment and cultural expectation constructed around gender lines that remains an ugly black mark in college football (hello, Garry Barnett!) (also, in a continuing series of "how sensitive is he, really?" head-scratchers, Mike follows up this "concerned parent" bit with the lovely wish that Carlson's future, hypothetical child suffer slings and arrows of criticism and put-downs, although he does stop short of wishing that her future children sport gills).

--This article documents the aftermath of Gundy's tirade, and also quotes Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Nebraska's Bill Callahan, Colorado's Dan Hawkins (who not only wants restricted media criticism, but also thinks fans shouldn't boo-- wow, what confidence he must radiate to his team), and Texas's Mack Brown about how horrible it is that newspapers don't act as boosters for their local sports programs (hmm, mabye I shouldn't use the words "booster" and Oklahoma in the same sentence...). Do you think there's any link between the antipathy these men feel and the fact that their programs have all been involved in highly publicized, self-inflicted, off-the-field scandal in the last fifteen years? I know the SI reporter was just interviewing Gundy's fellow Big 12 coaches, but that's like a Murderer's Row of College Football Outrage, which makes their "woe is me" defense of student "innocence" more than a little disingenuous.

--I'm of two minds on whether or not to criticize college athletes.

On the one hand, yes-- they are younger, and possibly less emotionally developed than their NFL counterparts (although the early entry of many into the NFL means that age gap is shrinking). My sister was a D-1 college athlete, and I know how heavy their schedules can be, how hard they work, and how fragile their psyches can get in the middle of a season. I think Gundy became a nutjob in the middle of his rant, but I respect the underlying principle of a coach defending his team. And in the end, it's just a game, right?

On the other hand...This is D-1, not D-III, and it's (as Gundy himself proclaimed) "Big 12" D-1, not the Ivy League. And it's football, the King of College Athletics, not a relatively uncovered sport like volleyball or lacrosse, where press coverage might be lighter, and therefore more shocking if highly critical. Football is a huge event in Oklahoma: when Boone Pickens gave $165 million to OK State last year, he didn't give it to the school's academic program: he specifically earmarked it for the athletics department, saying at the time, "What I keep coming back to is we're in the Big 12 and it's a tough conference. I want us to be competitive." The players specifically come to schools of that size and athletic caliber, not just to get an education, but to get media attention, to position themselves for the draft, and to win championships. All of which is great-- I attended two D-1 schools myself. But, to paraphrase Michael in The Godfather Part II, let's not kid ourselves: we're all part of the same hypocrisy. If bigtime football players reap the benefits of being BMOCs, the trade-off is scrutiny, and a silly column in the local paper is hardly the worst thing that could happen to them. And is this distinction between NFL and college players really an ethically logical argument, anyway? If it's "mean" and "wrong" in one case, is it really, to pardon the pun, OK in the other? The argument Gundy and ESPN commentators like former Gator Jesse Palmer seem to be making is that NFL players get paid, so they should be able to withstand it. But this is an unfair argument: it's the NCAA and the various conferences that have vociferously blocked attemtps to pay college football and basketball players for their efforts, preferring to reap the sizable economic benefits of their free labor through alumni donations, ticket sales, television deals, paraphernaila, etc. (and the NFL says nothing because college is a free farm system for them). When confronted with the gross hypocrisy in their rhetoric about it being "just a game," defenders of this system point to scholarships, free room and board, etc., that the players receive (one could also say the players reap, in a delayed fashion, the economic benefits of all the interest, sales and PR they generate down the line in their respective pro drafts). Fine, but aren't you admitting, then, this is a form of "payment", which might open the players up to the kind of criticism you say shouldn't befall an "amateur" athlete? Do the ethics shift on a sliding scale of salary? "He's not a professional athlete," Gundy raged, "and he doesn't deserve to be kicked when he's down"-- so, you do deserve it if you are a pro athlete? Perhaps unwittingly, Gundy seems to be opening up a recurring debate about the real nature of the student-athlete, and the role he plays in the public consciousness.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Alice Ghostley, 1926-2007

Alice Ghostley, star of stage, screen and television, passed away Friday after what the AP is describing as "a long battle with colon cancer and a series of strokes."

Ghostley was perhaps best-known to contemporary audiences as Esmerelda, the housekeeper on Bewitched, or as ditzy Bernice on Designing Women.

But before her late-career, Emmy-nominated success on sitcoms, she had a long and very colorful career as a brilliant comedic actress. She debuted in the revue show "Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952," and three years later was cast in the Leonard Bernstein show "Trouble In Tahiti". She was nominated for a Tony for her role in 1963's "The Beauty Part," and finally won two years later playing opposite Rita Moreno in Lorraine Hansberry's “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” Her film credits included Grease and To Kill A Mockingbird.

For me, however, she will always be the loveable-in-spite-of-herself stepsister Joy, in the 1957 television production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella. Sadly, YouTube lacked clips of Ghostley's performance in this show, but it's available on DVD, and it's worth tracking down. The show was R&H's first original show for television, written specifically for Julie Andrews, then hot from her success in the original Broadway production of "My Fair Lady." It was seen by 107 million people when broadcast on March 31, done live (which leads to two amusing flubs) and captured on kinetescope. Andrews is marvelous, of course, as is Edie Adams as the fairy godmother, but I think Ghostley and her partner in crime, Kaye Ballard (as stepsister Portia) steal the show. Ghostley is wonderfully dry-- for those who know her only from Designing Women, it might be a surprise to see her as the slightly smarter of the two sisters, looking askance at Portia's rather oafish attempts to seduce the prince. But she's only slightly smarter: Ghostley's gift is to convey an exaggerated sense of her own savviness, floating in a bubble of cynicism that occasionally gets popped, and allows us glimpses of the insecurity behind her mask of bravado. Too heavy an analysis for the stepsisters? Perhaps, and I would also be remiss if I didn't mention her superb physical comedy, and willingness to take pratfalls and be the butt of jokes. Still, it's a measure of R&H's supreme generosity towards their characters-- which, Ethan Mordden rightly notes in his book on the duo, is their most lasting contribution to musical theater narrative--that the supposedly "evil" stepsisters are rather goofy and appealing here. The Great Performances description (upon the discovery and broadcast of the kinetescope in 2004) is dead-on:

Hammerstein's script is a marvelous piece of romanticism. He downplays the fantasy elements of the old story (this godmother seems more like a caring relative than a fairy) and goes for the honesty of the characters, never talking down to his audience even in the context of a children's story. He also avoids stock villains, turning the Stepmother and Stepsisters into funny, self-absorbed brats rather than vicious antagonists. Hammerstein gives the Prince, always the least interesting character in the tale, a sincere and thoughtful persona. This Cinderella is not a weepy, put-upon girl but a forthright and level-headed heroine, and Andrews plays her with nonsensical charm. The cast is superb, down to the most minor role, and the unfussy direction gives the show a straightforward and matter-of-fact confidence that most family entertainment lacks.

If Hammerstein's book enhances the stepsisters through dialogue, the score is where R&H's true affection is revealed: the wonderful "Stepsisters' Lament," sung into the camera as if to a mirror, while powdering their noses at the ball, at once gives voice to their brattiness while also slyly calling into question the underlying myths of the fairy-tale form:

Why would a fellow want a girl like her,
A frail and fluffy beauty?
Why can't a fellow ever once prefer
A solid girl like me?

She's a frothy little bubble
With a flimsy kind of charm.
And with very little trouble
I could break her little arm

Why would a fellow want a girl like her,
So obviously unusual?
What can't a fellow ever once prefer
A usual girl like me?

Her cheeks are a pretty shade of pink

But not any pinker than a rose is

Her skin may be delicate and soft

But not any softer than a doe's is

Her neck is no whiter than a swan

She's only dainty as a daisy

She's only as graceful as a bird

So why is the fellow going crazy?

Oh, why would a fellow want a girl like her,
A girl who's merely lovely?
Why can't a fellow ever once prefer
A girl who's merely me?

Not only do the stepsisters get the best song in the show (a show overflowing with great tunes), but Rodgers signals his allegiance by making the song's melody the heart of the overture, as if to suggest this is less a tale about "Cinderella" than a show about dreams and hopes in general-- "Impossible things are happening every day," the fairy godmother sings, and that belief in the power of the imagination, which Mordden notes runs through nearly all their shows, finds its best, most humanist expression here. This, in the end, is why R&H's Cinderella is the most valuable of all the cinematic/televisual versions of that tale: it allows every character a voice, a personality, and to paraphrase Jean Renoir, makes sure "everybody has their reasons," even the ironically-named Joy. Ghostley herself once expressed a very Joy-like attitude towards her career possibilities:

"The best job I had then was as a theater usher," she said in a 1990 Boston Globe interview. "I saw the plays for free. What I saw before me was a visualization of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be."

She was well aware of the types of roles she should pursue.

"I knew I didn't look like an ingenue," she told The Globe. "My nose was too long. I had crooked teeth. I wasn't blond. I knew I looked like a character actress.

"But I also knew I'd find a way," she added.

Indeed. R.I.P., Alice Ghostley.

UPDATE (7:34 p.m.): The excellent Edward Copeland has also posted a nice tribute to Ms. Ghostley, with a more complete listing of her credits. Mosey on over to his site and stay awhile-- there are a lot of great reads there.

15 Minutes of Lame: The Remixes

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quote of the Day

From A.O. Scott's NY Times review of Good Luck Chuck (and special thanks to Dave for passing the link along!):

I’ve occasionally heard Dane Cook, one of the stars of “Good Luck Chuck,” described as a comedian. I find this confusing, since my understanding is that comedians are people who say and do things that are funny. Perhaps Mr. Cook is some new kind of conceptual satirist whose shtick is to behave in the manner of a person attempting to be funny without actually being, you know, funny. Or maybe he answered an ad in the back of a magazine and sent away for a mail-order license to practice comedy.

War Stories

Ken Burns is on the re-run of Keith Olbermann right now, promoting his new PBS mini-series on World War II. Burns' pitch is very studied, loaded with talking points, anecdotes and statistics that he's clearly been polishing for a long time. He sounds like a politician who's spent a lot of time on Prairie Home Companion. He's receiving a slightly overblown fan's welcome from history buff Olbermann. For god's sake, he's a Red Sox fan.

I don't care. When his seven-part series begins Sunday night, I'm so there.

As with so many television programs I've ended up loving (Buffy, House, The Prisoner), I came late to the Ken Burns party, not really appreciating his aesthetic until I finally caught up with Baseball three summers ago. I was watching a friend's house, and dodging her neurotic, nippy, sickly cat. It was hot, and there was kitty hair all over the furniture, and I knew there was more productive work I could be doing. But I'd rented the first couple of videotapes from the library, and was immediately sucked in. Baseball remains, I think, Burns' masterpiece: unlike Jazz, baseball is something Burns knows a lot about, and has a clear personal passion for; unlike the otherwise informative film on Jack Johnson (which is only two parts), Baseball's longer length allows for a leisurely and layered approach to its subject; and unlike the otherwise masterful Civil War, Baseball is fun-- its stories, heroes, and historical footage hurtle you forward with a sense of joy and anticipation, wanting to know what will happen next. To steal Ted Williams' description of the perfect hit, Baseball is Burns' sweet spot.

And "happening next" is Burns' real talent. By now, his style has become a target of parody (most brilliantly in 1995's Nick at Nite special Brady: An American Chronicle, which used voiceovers, still photos, talking heads and seriously noted dates-- "Jan Brady, March 5, 1970"--to detail the rise and fall of America's favorite sitcom family) and it's true that it doesn't work for all subjects: I like Jazz as as source of stories, music and photos, but it doesn't swing as much as it should, and doesn't have much to say about anything that happens in the music after about 1959. But Burns has a love of country that feels genuine, deep and diverse-- it's not an easy, knee-jerk patriotism, but a truly felt desire to celebrate American life precisely by looking at those moments and issues (war, race, sport, art) that have the power to both unite and divide. Those moments are most strongly felt through the anecdote. Those who know me know I am fascinated by this form, and its power to encapsulate, explore and vibrate the larger narratives of cultural history. That's what the stories in Burns' best work do, and all the advance reviews I've read suggest The War is among his best films (and, perhaps, his most timely). I hope he can find a way to illuminate this most analyzed of wars, honoring its veterans while avoiding Brokaw-style cliches.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ducking the Question

Imagine my surprise to open today's Plain Dealer (whose syndicate picks up columns a day or two after original publication), and see that David Broder had words of praise for Newt Gingrich, and longed for him to make a presidential run. At this point, the supposed "Dean" of Beltway reporters (as big an honor as being, say, "the best reality show," or the smartest panelist on Around the Horn) more or less resembles "Ned," the know-nothing in the FedEx ad who, in the words of his co-worker, is "always...wrong." In the through-the-looking-glass world of Washington journalism, no one is more Red Queen than Broder, as he proves again in a column remarkable for its hot air and lack of substance. Seriously, this thing could've been written by Gingrich himself-- only the brevity suggests otherwise. While he hasn't eaten quail at Gingrich's table, Broder has "learned that it's wise to take Newt Gingrich seriously....If there is any politician of the current generation that has earned the label 'visionary' it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House" (the Carpetbagger Report helpfully reminds us of some of Gingrich's loopier visions).

To continue: Gingrich is a maverick (and we all know how well that's worked out lately): "The fact that he is prepared to say plainly that Republicans, if they are to have a prayer of electing George Bush's successor, must offer a 'clean break' from Bush's policies sets Gingrich apart" (although this really doesn't). Earlier in the piece: "He probably would not win, but his presence in the field would raise the bar for everyone else, improve the content of the debates and change the dynamic of the race" (yes, the way these helpful statements raised the discourse a decade or so ago, or the way these remarks did more recently).

But poor Newt-- "his personal history and the scars he bears from leading the 1994 revolution thast brought the Republicans to power in Congress for a dozen years would make it hard for him to mobilize the money and support needed in an already crowded field" (yes, the poor, gentle, Pip-like soul). But fear not!-- he's already primed for a comeback, scheming to wait five years, then enter race in 2012 (a perfectly acceptable, if bald-faced, bit of strategizing which undercuts Broder's whole myth of the reluctant, "nonpartisan" hero. But then, political calculation is something, to paraprhase Bob Somerby, that only Democrats do).

That Broder and Gingrich-- peas in a pod back in 1998, when both longed to see Bill Clinton run out of town-- would bond is not surprising. What is fascinating about the article is its utter cognitive dissonance: in a piece that praises Gingrich precisely for his intellectual bravery and "visionary" policy stances ("Gingrich is brimming with ideas," Broder writes), there's not a single example, a single policy idea, a single mention of just how to "break" with Bush. There's a brief shoutout to "American Solutions for Winning the Future," a policy group Gingrich is a part of, and a mention at the end that he's been giving speeches around the country, but there's nothing about how this policy group differs from others, why it's "nonpartisan," or what those various speeches really said. Gingrich is a visionary, just like McCain is a "straight talker", and once the brand is set, all that matters is the brand. My seven readers should have guessed by now that my politics are different from Newt's (I'll always remember Garry Trudeau's priceless description of him in a 1984 Doonesbury strip as having a name "that sounds like a creature from Dune "), but even if I were more conservative-- in fact, especially if I were--I'd want to get some details here. Why is this my guy? How does he shift the argument? What alternatives does he offer me as a primary voter? How will he save my party?

Asking David Broder to explore that might be like asking Carrot Top to be funny. But this seems like what Jeff recently described as hype: "Sometimes," he writes, "discussion is avoidance. One can be so excited or so afraid that engagement never occurs." This is not rare in politics, but as Digby reminds us, this sort of "kabuki" rhetoric does have a mounting cost, and in the case of Gingrich, the cost is the loss of precisely the sort of "third way"/"third meaning" ideas and formulations that might actually generate a real event.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Curling Up With A Good Blog

A decade in the sun means that, since I moved to Cineville last year, I've had to adjust again to the passive-aggressiveness of Midwestern weather, its unknowability from moment to moment (one layers and one sweats; pull off a pull-over, and the wind returns; it's the Lucy Van Pelt of American regions).

So, as Fall's official start rapidly approaches, it's impossible to overestimate the comfort of a good, solid blog post to soothe one's shivering nerves. Here are a few good reads around the blogosphere:

--View early and often: The polls are officially closed, the numbers counted, the hanging chads tossed away: Edward Copeland's admirable "Satyajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films" is officially determined and up for your perusal. It's a very good list, full of worthy and offbeat selections-- mosey on over, argue in the comments section, and start restocking your Netflix queue, because the best part of this wonderful enterprise is what it spurs you to see.

--It's hard to love a Mets fan, but when he writes with the grace, wit and precision of Tom Watson, it does become a bit easier. Watson has penned a paean to his beloved team that reminds you, in one short and sensuous rush, of why fall baseball is so wonderfully, exasperatingly essential to civilized living (even, or especially, when your team loses).

--Josh at the Comics Curmudgeon reminds us of our other national pasttime: hating Mary Worth. If you've ever wished your favorite strip was more interactive, Josh has got the link for you.

--If you want a more rational outlet for your anger, and a minute-to-minute updating of the Warner-Webb fight, check out the indefatigible Josh Marshall and his cohort at Talking Points Memo, a one-stop clearinghouse of news coverage and commentary.

--Film critic Glenn Kenny was filing witty dispatches from the recently-concluded Toronto International Film Festival, and also receiving dispatches from other critics about the Venice Fest; all are still up for good reading.

--That cinephiliac chanteuse, Self-Styled Siren, has an evocative reappraisal of Tyrone Power up that looks at Nightmare Alley, and makes a very strong case for both actor and film as lost treasures.


Last night...

--I dream that I am on a beach with Salon reporter Walter Shapiro, at some big departmental/family gathering. As waves crash in and wash away sand castles, Shapiro starts making some point about how expensive it is to solar heat John Kerry's house, and what a hypocrite he is for this. I immediately cut him off and ream him out for parrotting Republican talking points. He tries to do the same with Hilary Clinton and other candidates, and I go into a long, theoretical discourse about why he's wrong, and how stupid he's being. I seem much more articulate and confident about this in the dream than I would be in real life. The odd thing is, Walter Shapiro doesn't really parrot Republican talking points in real life, although he is one of the more moderate reporters that site has. And why John Kerry?

--I dream that I am at a large party in this same summer home. Clarence Thomas is there, talking to Dick Cheney. Friends I haven't seen since middle school are also roaming around. I find it hard to connect with any of them, but also can't make myself leave. I try to sneak out through the front door, then the side, but I'm always caught.

--For some reason, in dream #3, we are shopping at night. We break into a comics store. I find a copy of Fantastic Four #42 for $124.

--Four of us are sharing an apartment whose spacial dimensions constantly shift. My friend finds pictures of me as a baby-- how? This isn't my house, or my parents', but some random domicile, and yet there are pictures of me around. Another friend falls asleep on the bed. I go to take a shower.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Street Cred

Wow-- here's a nice piece of news that almost cancels out Naked Hitchens.

By now, tributes are a dime a dozen, but this one really fits, reflecting both Orbach's tremendous Broadway career and his signature role as Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, so often was that character framed as standing, walking, and quipping on NYC streets.

Star Signs

A busy two weeks of school starting up meant that Zodiac had been sitting in its Netflix envelope by my TV for roughly the same amount of time. Inspired by the ever-groovy Shamus, to finally break it out Friday night (how can you not trust a man who loves Sinatra?), I've been turning it over in my head ever since, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. Is it a great film, or a film with great parts? Is its sprawl-- the way perspectives shift from one character or group of characters to another, then back again, a true ensemble effect--by design, or a sign of material lost in the edit? (It's odd-- at 158 minutes, it feels alternately interminable and somehow too short. To return to one of my favorite movie references: "The food here is terrible!" "Yes, and such small portions!") And the food David Fincher offers isn't terrible, just slightly overcooked.

I'd avoided much of the commentary on the film when it came out, but my immediate impression (as it turns out,also noted elsewhere) was how much it resembled All The President's Men: the newspaper duo who investigate (one of whom smokes everywhere, and is played by his generation's leading character actor), the meetings in the editorial room, the repeating close-ups of important calls at newspaper desks, the overhead shots of the city, even the use of a David Shire score. It's not as good as All The President's Men-- for me, one of the three greatest American films of the 1970s--and it lacks the earlier movie's quiet paranoia, and of course the brilliant work of Gordon Willis. Shamus's excellent post--he likes the movie a lot more than I do, but makes great points and connections-- explores the possibility that this is a more grown-up work by Fincher, an attempt, in Shamus's lovely phrase, to keep "his eye on the long ball." More from Shamus:

For the first time, Fincher tamped down the flourishes and trickery and made that classic, focused, in-the-moment, Gordon Willis-like dark ‘70s movie he probably always wanted to make.

I can see what he means-- the acting is superb (particularly the layered work from Mark Ruffalo, who exudes both calm professionalism and a bit of jitteriness throughout), and there are moments of sustained tone that are sometimes breathtaking (most obviously Robert Graysmith's meeting with the revival theater manager, but also in smaller gestures, like the scene between Gyllenhaal and Adam Goldberg in the newspaper office, or the moment on the boat with Robert Downey, Jr.). But I could never shake off the sense of straining for Significance that kept coming through, and it's worth questioning whether "seriousness" and "tamped down" should be equated, as they are in many reviews of the film I've read. One of the joys of Fincher's earlier work was its delirium, its sophisticated spin on a kind of 80s trash aesthetic-- The Game, for instance, looks like a Tony Scott movie, but doesn't feel like one: he's spooking cliches and working through them to offer us more fully-drawn characters and situations. His skill with actors was always apparent, and is on display in Zodiac, but the film feels flat and washed-out: it's too easy to see the rather exhausted thesis statement at its core.

Reading and skimming through various online reviews Saturday afternoon, I kept reading about a film that felt far more interesting to me than the one I saw; via Jim Emerson, for instance, I found this link to the priceless Mahnola Dargis, whose description of Downey is much richer than the movie itself:

There’s a moment early in the film when Mr. Downey stands in the Chronicle newsroom, back arched and rear gently hoisted, affecting a posture that calls to mind Gene Kelly done up as a Toulouse-Lautrec jockey in “An American in Paris.” Avery has already started his long slip-slide into boozy oblivion, abetted by toots of coke, but as he strides around the newsroom, motored by talent and self-regard, he is the guy everybody else wants to be or wants to have.

That's extraordinarily fine writing--allusive, witty and deeply felt--and in fact, there's a lot of great criticism on the film out there; I think one could easily put together a volume on Zodiac that could almost replace the film as a cinephiliac experience: like the stories in the film, the commentary and coverage come to engulf the actual event. I think that's true of a lot of writing on that 70s period of American filmmaking that so inspired Fincher; of course, so many of those films are superb, but the critical moves of the last decade or so to valorize the period and so many of its movies and figures-- driven by a combination of movie love, historical curisosity, nostalgia (or longings for what we were too young to experience ourselves), theoretical passion, and perhaps a smidgen of rebellion against the similar valorization of 30s and 40s Hollywood-- does often leave us with texts that shimmer as brightly, or brighter, than the films they look at and remember (I'd much rather read Reeling than watch Carrie, much rather look at Moving Places than watch On Moonlight Bay). Is this a kind of Borgesian cinephilia, where the exegesis has replaced the event as the most sensual of texts?

As I thought about it, it struck me that Zodiac is a discourse, not just on President's, but nearly all the 1976 Best Picture nominees: the cynical urban malaise of Taxi Driver, with its scenes in cabs and cars, and its lonely central figure obsessed with cleaning up crime in the city (while having awkward dates with blondes); Network's commentary on media culture and the failures of television (Brian Cox is a marvelous Melvin Belli, both earnest and full of calculating self-regard); even Rocky's tale of the underdog who goes the distance, and manages to lose and win simultaneously in the end, and is quietly revealed as something of an egomaniacal underdog to boot (I can't figure out how Bound for Glory fits into this thesis, I must admit...).

Satuday, with Zodiac roaming around in my noggin, I read this depressing Glenn Greenwald commentary in Salon, then today this piece from the reliably pissed (and I mean that in a good way) Bob Sommerby. Teaching All The President's Men last spring, I made a joke about how old-fashioned it seemed: "Remember the days when The Washington Post would actually assign its reporters to investigate government cover-ups?" If Zodiac speaks to a certain nostalgia for 70s cinema, it also speaks to a nostalgia for 70s journalism, for the scrappy everyperson who goes after the truth, a powerful myth when the most honest person in the room is a comedian (who also can't resist a reference to 1976 cinema):