Friday, November 30, 2007

Native Son

About my interests: I don't know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental films can be so classified."
-- James Baldwin,
Notes Of A Native Son

Twenty years ago today, James Baldwin died in Paris, from esophageal cancer. He was 63. He was best known as a novelist, of course, but it was always his essays that spoke the deepest to me. I still remember reading Notes of A Native Son when I was 19, the spark of the lanaguage, that mixture of several registers-- religious preaching, literary analysis, autobiography, dandyish wit-- thrilling and provoking me; for many, it's reading A Movable Feast that makes them long to be part of a Parisian expatriate world, but for me it was listening to Miles Davis and reading James Baldwin, and imagining sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank with the two of them, as Louis Malle and Jeanne Moreau sat down at our table. I remember being intrigued by his trenchant critique of Richard Wright, and moved by his complex view of life in Paris, racial bigotry, and what it meant to be an American, how one carries an idea of home as both a real and imagined landscape of the future.

Baldwin also worked on a screenplay for a film biography of Malcolm X, which he writes about in The Devil Finds Work, an underrated book of memoir and film criticism. The most famous passage is when he details his intense identification with the eyes of Bette Davis, and how "over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping," she became for him an emblem of possibility: "You see? You see? She's uglier than you, Mama! She's uglier than me!...Well, if I was 'strange' -- and I knew that I must be, otherwise people would not have treated me so strangely, and I would not have been so miserable -- perhaps I could find a way to use my strangeness."

But I also love the evocative opening passage, a cinephiliac description of Joan Crawford's walk in Dance, Fools, Dance:

Joan Crawford's straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is
Dance, Fools, Dance.

I don't remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him-- to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what he would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent ot the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful-- she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile-- that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother's little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not embarrassed. Which was rare for me.

I love that passage for its rich play of language, its eye for cinematic detail, and its intertwining of film with personal anecdote. But I also love it for its contradictions and confusions: "I do not remember the film," he says, after offering a beautiful shot description, or the way he knows how the sea feels, although he's never been on the sea. The Devil Finds Work was published in 1976, America's bicentennial year, and those kinds of paradoxes and confusions-- and how Baldwin makes of them a beautiful, jazzy world-- not writing around contradiction, but through it-- are what make him so quintessentially American (it's no accident that Rachel Cohen's dazzling, anecdotal history of American arts and letters, A Chance Meeting, starts with Henry James and ends with James Baldwin-- James was one of Baldwin's favorite writers, and both occupy central roles in the ways American artists have grappled with knotted questions of art, identity and exile).

In 1948, Life would publish an article on the "be-bop craze" that included Dizzy Gillespie doing the "secret bop handshake" with musician Benny Carter. Gillespie recalls how he and Carter decided to turn it into an elaborate joke for their credulous audience:

They made us perform a bebop greeting for them. "Hi-ya, man!" "Bells, man where you been?" Giving the sign of the flatted fifth, a raised open hand. "Eel-ya-da!" We gave a handshake sign that we were playing triplets, ending with an elaborate handshake. That was supposed to be the be-bopper's greeting, but there was no such thing in real life. It was just a bunch, of horseplay we went through so they could pretend we were something weird.

Re-reading the "Autobiographical Notes" section of Notes of A Native Son, I get a similar feeling of signifying play: Baldwin offers us a self-description that feels at once sincere, and also like deadpan parody of the form (as the epigraph above, I think, reflects), full of both thoughtful literary and political analysis and wry, idiosyncratic personal detail. My favorite passage is this one: "I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything." It's another of Baldwin's riddling paradoxes-- the attack on pleasure comes just lines after he states one of his principal interests to be "food and drink," and the tweaking of earnestness is offered in a very earnest declaration. And yet, I think it's a knowing contradiction, not a blind one: between bohemia and earnestness lies the ground Baldwin would stake for himself as a writer-- to be sensual and political, artist and activist, outsider and patriot, all at the same time.

R.I.P., James Baldwin.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Spirit

Via that cinephiliac internet detective Shaums (edit-- Of course, I meant "Shamus" (sorry, Shamus! And thanks to Jonathan for catching the typo), I learned of the new Martin Scorsese short on view above. It's for a Spanish wine called Reserva, produced by the Friexenet company, and it's a nine-minute homage to Alfred Hitchock, featuring Something New's Simon Baker in the lead. It's a stylish, funny movie-- Scorsese's deadpan "archivist" persona is both knowing self-parody and reminiscent of Mel Brooks (never have Scorsese's bushy eyebrows been used to more comic effect), and the various quotations and restagings are as sleekly intertwined as you might expect from our very best Film Geek (the cutting around the theater is also reminiscent of the dazzling opening of Scorsese's own, underrated adaptation of The Age of Innocence). In addition to Hitchcock, there's a hint of Michael Powell in the film-within-the film's opening, which pulls back from Scorsese saying "action!" through the theater, the orchestra by Scorsese still in view, back to Baker sneaking out of another room in the theater-- like the show-within-the-show in The Red Shoes, there's a vertiginous play with the bounds of reality that allows Scorsese to work himself into the diegesis of the very film he's shooting.

Such play suggests what really fascinates me about the film: not the various homages, but the conceit that what we're seeing is, in fact, a filmed version of an actual Hitchcock treatment called "The Key to Reserva." Adding that Borgesian step-- and taking the time to craft a fake script and a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary frame-- makes it more than just a work-for-hire ad or De Palmaish exercise; it allows Scorsese to cheekishly occupy Hitchock's cinematic body, to squeeze himself into the auteur's famous TV silhouette. "I hope people get the spirit of the film," Scorsese laughs at the end, giving up the ghost that what we've seen is real, while also making a punning reference to the alcoholic product he's shilling. But whose spirit is it? HItchcock's? Scorsese's? Mine? (Do I mimic Scorsese's riff on Hitchockian themes by linking-- quoting-- Shamus's riff (itself a riff, as he notes, on another blog post, and so on) on this subject, and riffing on it in another direction? Where does the chain of associations begin and end? And in what spirit should we take it? "Provided one ignores the text one is reading, one can practice Surrealist criticism," Andre Breton intuited more than 70 years ago, but imagining the false text, the film that lies might be another kind of useful criticism: one that's not plot summary or ideological attack, but its own creative gesture, a story in response to the story told. In that spirit, the key Hitchcock film might be one that's only glancingly referenced: Rope, whose editing and camerawork conspire to make a series of disparate shots look like one unbroken long take, one chain of images, an infinite relay of color, character and narrative shifting around an exquisite corpse.

UPDATE: Bob, a blogger who runs the wonderful Forward to Yesterday site, mentioned in the comments that the clip above is in Spanish. I'll admit that I didn't watch the whole clip before embedding, and YouTube doesn't have an English language version up yet. As Bob mentions, you can see the English version at Shamus's site (or is that "Shaums?"), a great space everyone should be heading to on a daily basis, anyway. But since I went back to roam among "Scorsese" links, anyway, on the YouTube site, I thought I'd put up one of my favorite mash-ups, which reverses the flow of homage and quotation that the "Rivera" film plays with back to Scorsese, and remains the great imagined PBS movie:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bones Watch (11/26): Xmas Marks The Spot

After last week's enjoyably plot-driven, twisty serial killer mystery (part of an ongoing, season-long mystery whose episodes I keep missing), this week's episode, "The Santa In the Slush," was a return to what Bones does best: character-driven, character-illuminating narratives whose mysteries are almost incidental MacGuffins. In fact, this is the most complete and enjoyable episode I've seen all year. From the small moment (Zach's slightly nervous turn on the line "Going home to Michigan!" when Cam asks him what he's doing for Christmas, Ryan O'Neal's crinkled, exhausted smile, the final shot of Booth's happy face) to the large (something about a mistletoe kiss), "Slush" pulls together the narrative and thematic threads that have sometimes felt strained and disparate this season and weaves them together into something bright, optimistic and, well, Christmasy.

As always, it took me awhile to follow the various clues and twists to the murder du jour-- like an old professor of mine, I have trouble following the mystery because I'm always distracted by a funny line or bright bit of camerawork. That said, I thought this mystery-- a department store santa is found dead in the alleyway snow-- was warmer, funnier and more coherent than several others this year. I also liked the way it illuminated the dynamic between Booth and Brennan: despite her firece anti-religiosity and suspicion of myth, Brennan's dedication to the evidence at hand leads her to believe that this is the corpse of the "real" Kris Kringle. while the normally ebullient, Catholic Booth finds his Christmas spirit on the wane because his son is going away for the holidays. The murder allows for a more relaxed kind of funny from the "squints" in the lab, who have fun with the mounting, absurd evidence (white beard, reindeer clove markings on the body, etc.). It also makes for interactions with the other department store Santas that is both hilarious and surprisingly touching (the look on Brennan's face as she's surrounded by a dozen Santas singing "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is priceless).

The episode sets up a dynamic between three kinds of communication: truth, lies and magic. Is it worth making up stories to spare someone's feelings, to create a bit of happiness? Does telling a lie reveal a different kind of truth? And when we say "magic," what does that mean, exactly? Those are the questions any kind of fictional television show is grappling with on some level: the shape and purpose of narrative, the ways cameras and editing can both reveal and deceive. The tricky question is the one about magic, and for Bones it comes down to chemistry. That chemistry is most dramatically embodied by the kiss between Booth and Brennan under the mistletoe, but its most resonant example is the final series of shots between Brennan, Booth and her family. In that exchange, one really gets the sense of an ad-hoc family reaffirming their bonds, and of a sweet warmth that transcends boundaries of space, religion, myth and genre. Magic? Maybe. Magical TV? Without a doubt.


There's an appealing plasticity to the world of Bee Movie, a sense that the world is one giant toy: the cars the bees drive in the hive resemble Matchbox cars, which is only fitting, since the "roads" look like the old plastic "Hot Wheels" loop-de-loop tracks from the late '70s. The bees themselves look they're made of Lego pieces, and the shiny walls of the hive are a Lite Brite set come to life.

As I've been discussing with my students this semester, so much of CGI falls into what robotic theorists sometimes refer to as the "uncanny valley": the closer they strive to make the animated figures (especially humans) more "realistic," the eerier and less real they feel to us as entities. Early CGI, especially, suffered from this quality, but it's still fully on display in the Shrek films, whose animatronic-like humanoids act as a visual correlative to the films' unstable mix of intertextual snark and wet sentiment. The valley much non-Pixar CGI represents suffers from both a visual and narrative flatness, and an increasingly smug sense of Manifest Destiny: "we are the future of animation," even subpar efforts like Over the Hedge imply, and that certainty has led to a lot of lazy, confusing work (even the Pixar guys aren't entire immune, as Cars proved). "That's not animation," one of my students, a hand-drawn partisan, complained after class one day, and it's not if we think of animation not only as as technical medium but a state of mind, a leap of the imagination (Compared the the sleek dazzle and reach of Miyazaki, Shrek feels as original as Milton Berle).

Bee Movie is not the redemption of the form, not a great breakthrough in narrative or technical terms: it's just a very charming, warm-hearted, fairly low-key piece of work (stylistically, it's an ironic contrast to the manic hard sell of its omnipresent marketing campaign). In a way, though, that's what makes it so appealing: in giving up the ghost in terms of trying to make a "realistic" visual world, and in embracing its narrative inconsequentiality, it reminds us of the more lighthearted, fantasy-driven charms the medium is capable of.

Making much out of nothing-- celebrating the inconsequential-- is what made Bee Movie's star famous, of course, but I was taken with how well the Seinfeld persona translates into the realm of family film. His delivery is still funny, and especially when the character is perturbed, one can almost hear the echoes of "Hello, Newman." For the most part, though, the cynicism of the Seinfeld TV persona is absent here-- as opposed to TV Jerry, Bee Jerry really cares, and captures the sound of a young man (well, bee) going through life lessons and growing pains. Maybe it helps that Barry B. Benson's face is a smiling, shiny one instead of Seinfeld's patented withering glance, or maybe the child-driven genre trappings just brought out his sweeter side. It helps that he's surrounded by a talented cast-- Matthew Broderick, Rip Torn, Patrick "Puddy" Warburton, the irreplaceable John Goodman, and a game Renne Zellwegger-- who help to move the story along at a light, brisk pace. That story offers a slightly conflicted take on labor relations and lawsuits that seems timely in light of the current writers' strike. I'm not sure the movie knows exactly what its position on residuals and fair payment is, but its final moments of a balanced eco-system-- physically, economically, and emotionally-- are well-taken.

Is that too much weight to give a movie that includes funny cameos by Ray Liotta and Sting, and even gets some jabs in at CNN through a bee Larry King? Perhaps, but then the film itself suggests the key to a happy life is finding the proper proportioning of work and play, seriousness without self-seriousness. In offering its audience a bright plastic playground to fly through, it ends up saying more than a million intertextual jokes could: its lightness has weight.

Did Anyone Totally Request This?

In the ok comedy Josie and the Pussycats, Carson Daly makes a cameo as himself, offering a self-description: "I'm Carson Daly, corporate tool." At the time, I thought it was a mildly amusing bit of self-deprecation.

Now, it turns out to actually be true.

Unless, of course, this is all a post-Thanskgiving Day, early April Fools' joke. I mean, really-- America clammoring for the return of the Car? That's about as likely as Darren Aronofsky making a watchable movie.

Good or Bad Idea?

I love Jake Gyllenhaal in comedy, drama and adventure films, but this casting makes me scratch my head a little. I think he'll get the humor and vulnerability of the man, but wonder about how convincing he'll be as a 60s football player. On the other hand, better him than Freddie Prinze, Jr. or Adam Sandler.

What think you all?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

2 or 3 Things I Know About Him (Look Through Any Window)

Loop-de-link: Jeff beat me to it with his great post, but I did want to follow up on yesterday's post about Bordwell's "adolescent window" with some examples of my own. I'm cheating a little bit by expanding the time frame: Bordwell set it at ages 13-18, but for me it stays open from 11-19, from that first horrific, hormone-ridden day of middle school (future movie idea: sixth grade as a version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where everyone you know is replaced by an eerie, alien pod person version of themselves) until just after the freshman year of college. With that in mind, here are several objects of adolescent obsession:

1) With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: My earliest comics-reading memories are connected to docks and sickbeds. We were renting a tiny cottage in some southwest Michigan town, and I'd fish down at the little dock near the house. Rather pitiful attempts to catch tiny blue gills were punctuated with reading the ragged copies of Batman and Superman found at the local drugstore. I must've been about six years old, and I don't really remember anything about the stories, although I do remember a cover with Batman hanging out a window, as Two-Face threatened to drop him to the ground several stories below. Later, when I'd get the flu in second and third grade, and miss several days of school, my father would bring home comics after work-- more DCs, but also a digest version of a Superman-Spiderman crossover epic that had them teaming up to defeat Lex Luthor. I knew Spider-Man primarily through television: the truly odd Electric Company segments that I eagerly awaited at the end of an episode (despite their distinct lack of derring-do), and the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, where the webslinger teams up with mutant pals Iceman and Firestar to fight crime. The latter was especially appealing-- unlike Electric Company, it had actual fight scenes, and I was also drawn to the idea of having superheroic pals with whom you shared a swinging pad (that can secretly turn into a crime-fighting lair with the flip of a switch). The idea that this superhero (a kid! Like me!) would team up with the Man of Steel (who, again, I loved primarily in cinematic, Christopher Reeve form rather than in comics), a guy from the "other" comics company, was one of those mind-blowing moments that truly defined detente for a nine-year old.

It wasn't until I turned eleven that I turned comics-collecting pro. I had friends who also collected comics, and taught me about arcane new rituals like "bagging" one's comics for preservation, and even keeping a list of issues you needed to "complete" a certain run. See?, I could tell my parents-- this wasn't just time-wasting, but taught you important lessons about organizing and preserving an archive and, um, stuff.

I was lucky to come of comics age during a great period in mainstream superheroing (roughly 1984-1988), when various talents like John Byrne, Alan Moore, Chris Claremont, Bob Layton, Roger Stern, Jim Shooter, John Romita, Jr., Frank Miller and others were having a lot of fun telling new and sometimes daring stories about Marvel and DC heroes. Most of these names probably don't mean anything to mainstream audiences, but to a young, comic-besotted kid, they were like rock stars, fabulous talents that brought a vibrant universe into being, just for me. For a shy, geeky kid who felt deeply out-of-place in junior high, the Marvel Universe, especially, became an important escape valve for anxieties and imaginative longing. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko knew what they were doing when they made Spidey a teenager, and thus tapped into the most powerful metaphor and dream in the history of the superhero genre-- I know I wasn't the only kid who wished a spider would land on him in chem class and give him powers he could use for revenge on his enemies.

That duality-- comics as isolated, individual escape and space of communal desire-- was enhanced by my other bit of fortuitous timing: reading in the age of the comics shop. The rise of the "direct market" in the late 70s transformed comics publishing thereafter, creating a strong market for more complex and "adult" stories that takes us to modern figures as diverse as Adrian Tomine, Warren Ellis and Los Bros Hernandez. I didn't know any of that in 1985-- I was just electrified by the racks and racks of new comics, boxes of back issues (some going as far back as *gasp* 1963!), and folks to talk about comics with. Without knowing the word, it was my first taste a subculture. It also happened as the nostalgia market-- especially for all things Silver Age (1956-1972, more or less)-- was really taking off, and Marvel began reprinting their classic sixties tales in cheap-as-new comics editions, allowing me to catch up on the pasts of my favorite characters without straining my allowance.

I made a joke above about comics-as-archiving-lesson, but I actually think that's true, especially with Marvel. Superman and Spider-Man together? Screw that! How about whole, interconnected universes? Marvel was my introduction to the footnote, although academics would not be nearly as witty as Stan Lee was with his asterisked, corner-of-the-panel notations ("It happened in Spidey #25, remember, True Believer? Sure you do!-- Stan"). In reading one Marvel, you had to ponder reading them all, to understand the intertwined stories and vast thematic architecture the Marvel Bullpen was constructing (sometimes a panel from one book would be reprinted in a different context in another-- simulteneity and cross-cutting across issues, Rashomon-in-tights).

Speaking of the Bullpen, I haven't even mentioned the "Bullpen Bulletins" page in every ish, giving you a "behind-the-scenes" look at your favorite creators, or the brilliant letters pages (especially those of editor Mark Gruenwald), which made you feel like they actually valued your ideas, conjectures and opinions. Yes, the interconnected stories, bulletins and letters pages were all brilliant marketing tools, as Stan Lee later admitted, but they were more than that for a young reader. They taught me basic concepts of authorship (you mean, someone actually writes these stories?) and creative personality at a young age ("I think I like Byrne's Fantastic Four more than Kirby's..."); they helped me understand economies of publishing and marketing and branding (Marvel is "different" than DC) which are still useful; and in their intertwined, decades-long mythologies, they taught me the value and thrill of research (this connects to that, which goes here, but don't forget this plot point...wait, how does this part fit?). I once spoke with a brilliant professor of Marxist theory who told me that he intuitively picked up his research skills and desires for theoretical and narrative complexity and coherence by reading Marvel comics as a child, so I don't think it's just me. At the same time, though, it is-- as I said above, they were writing these stories, "just for me," but I was also "writing" them myself, by imagining character's voices, "hearing" the issue's soundtrack in my head (like a movie score), taking that leap into "seeing" still images move on a page. Without ever saying so, Marvel comics taught me that interpretive acts are also creative ones, and that the text is not just a story, but a discovery of the self.

2)The Value of the Stare:
--1987: I'm fourteen, and my friend Rob and I are being driven to the high school football game by his parents. They have the oldies station on, and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" comes on. I'm thunderstruck, like God coming to Noah: this is the future (even if, paradoxically, it's the past). The song takes root in my ear like one of those slugs that Khan drops into Chekov's ear in Star Trek II-- it's more pleasurable, but it takes over my brain in a similar way.

I head to the record store in the mall, and find a cassette tape (tapes, record stores in the mall-- older modes of delivery) called Meet the Beatles! I must wear it out, playing it again and again, flipping for it as I flip over the tape. It's the first time I've felt the need to immediately play an album again after just listening to it. It never gets old.

--1988: Listening to Sgt. Pepper on Walkman headphones (odd name-- I'm always sitting when I use them) in the back seat of the minivan on a family trip through Gulf Shores, Alabama. I've avoided the album for awhile because I'm put off, at fifteen, by its druggy connotations. There's a part of me that thinks its sound will trip me out even if I'm not high. That part of me is silly and paranoid, of course. And also right-- its psychedelic soundscapes make for an eerie, slightly uncomfortable accompaniment to the shiny grass and beaches that go by my window ("Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away..."). Talking of going on tour in 1992, Bono said in an interview that "I don't think I've ever come back from a tour the same person I was when I left," and that's what the album feels like for me-- it sticks in my head (I hum songs in math class, their melodic power no match for algebraic dreariness), it transforms my vision, it has the dire effect of making me think hippies are cool (this will take years to recover from).

--1989: The album cover of Beatles For Sale, staring at me as I stare at it in the den of my grandmother's house. The image (reproduced above) is haunting and beautiful, even more surreal to me than Pepper's crowd shot, Revolver's collage or Rubber Soul's fish-eye lens shot. It stands somewhere bewteen the cheery mops of Hard Day's Night and the exhausted hippies of The White Album: they're still mods, and they're still boyishly stylish, but there's a look of unease on their faces. Writing of Humphrey Bogart's death in 1957, Andre Bazin will speak of Bogie's face as a sort of deathmask, that he carries knowledge of his doom on his wrinkled cheeks, but goes forth anyway, and it's this affirmation that makes him an existential hero. Years later, I will learn that Paul and John modeled the Beatles' haircuts on explicitly French and German styles they noticed in Hamburg and Paris in the early sixties, precisely the moment when Bazin's disciples are remaking cinema. Is there a hint of Antoine Doinel in Paul McCartney's pensive stare?

3)Pauline at the Beach: OK, I'll admit it-- I did it for a dame.

Well, two dames, actually. The first was a girl I had a massive crush on my freshman year of college. We were having dinner at her dorm cafeteria when she casually mentioned her Comp Lit 190 (Introduction to Film) screening that evening. "They're showing Breathless," she said in her southern drawl. "Do you want to go?"

Now, understand, this woman could've said, "I'm thinking of dropping acid, putting some Garth Brooks on the stereo and munching on crushed glass this evening-- would you like to join me?," and I would've said, "Sounds great!" Of course I said yes. And in answering in the affirmative, I discovered the love of my life.

No, not the girl-- she did not reciprocate my feelings, although we remained friends for several years, until she moved out of the country and we lost track of each other (last I heard, she was married and had two children, and was living in Israel). The real love was the movie itself, and the French New Wave it so brilliantly embodied. At 18, only a semester into college, I could not have told you about the film's use of jump cuts, ellipses and long takes, its heady mixture of parody and sincere affection for genre cliches, its simultaneous debts to Monogram and Marguerite Duras; all I knew was that it was the most fabulous thing I'd seen in my short life, and that it filled me with an exuberance I'd never felt for a film before. It was cool, and not just because Jean-Paul Belmondo flipped a cigarette into his mouth with such panache.

At this point, I prefer the humanist melancholy of Truffaut and Shoot The Piano Player, but Breathless was the first film to expose me to the possibilities of playing with cinema, of ignoring rules, of embodying that youthful experimentation that, as Barthes will later suggest, gleefully ignores "that old specter: logical contradiction." Yes, Breathless calls attention to cinematic conventions and undermines them, but it doesn't do so in the later, drier spirit of Godard's Dziga Vertov work-- it's both deconstruction and celebration, and that tension is what makes the film work; it does what Michael Taussig will later call for in anthropology, "piercing the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality." Looking at the film now, I see that it's not just Belmondo's bantering with Jean Seberg that I loved and learned from, but Godard's desire to speak in all registers at once--analytical, narrative, poetic -- and how I always want my own writing to register in those same ways, and with the same simulteneity. After all, if Godard doesn't choose, why should we?

The summer following that freshman year, I'm at a house by the beach on Lake Michigan, the waves pushing up against the shore in the dead of the night, while I curl up on the couch with Pauline Kael's I Lost It At The Movies. It's the perfect book for this moment, as it collects so many of Kael's early written pieces and radio reviews of films like L'Avventura, The 400 Blows, Grand Illusion, and, yes, Breathless. She confirms my instincts and feeds my desires for this new foreign-language cinema the previous year has exposed me to. She's the second dame in my cinephiliac noir, and almost immediately becomes a hero of mine. Graceful, perceptive and pungent, she's a very funny read on films I hate (I remember her takedowns of tripe like The Little Mermaid and Working Girl in The New Yorker in the late 80s, and her description of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington-- "No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can--but if anyone else should learn to, kill him"-- remains my favorite take on that overrated 'classic'), but its her raves that endear me to her, for the way they sing in a glorious, movie-drunk first person. Pauline Kael taught me the value of the "I," to not be afraid of the first person, and to read it, not as a sign of solipsism, but as a sign of taking responsibility (Barthes again: "It's always someone's voice") for one's tastes, ideas and opinions. Another great Kael quote: "If art isn't entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?" Kael reminded us that those cinephiliac, quasi-physical passions so frowned upon by Christian Metz (and later apologized for by Godard) were not our enemies, but the raison d'etre of our writing, and, by extension, our lives.


Truly, truly sad news. I feel like Annie Lennox's "Why" should play as I read of it.

Can Paula Deen be far behind?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Recently Viewed: We Are Marshall

The meeting takes place in a cramped room, the tight framing emphasizing the flood of bodies in the seats, the sense of claustrophobia created by a bureaucratic mindset. The man at the podium-- the school's well-intended but somewhat too-formal president-- is about to announce that football will be suspended for a year. Suddenly, a player bursts into the room. The usual ripple of foot-squeaking, paper-rumbling and mumble-tutting carries across the room, but the player doesn't care-- he's passionate. He has something to say. Football should go on. When the president explains that the decision has been made, and for the good of the campus community, the player says there's another group that wants to be heard, and points to the window. Outside, an large crowd of students-- even larger than the crowd in the room, its size doubled by the spacing out of the extras, and the way the camera moves across them, instead of staying static-- has gathered outside the administration building, and begins to chant. "We are-- Marshall! We are-- Mar-SHALL!," their cries punctuated by pumped fists, and accompanied by Christophe Beck's swelling score.

It's a scene familiar to any devotee of sports movies-- the unthinking bosses, the scrappy players, the loyal fans (an easy audience surrogate, positioned outside the room, with the team-- "You're one of them!," the filmmakers lie to us), the slightly treacly uplift. It's the sort of scene we expect from We Are Marshall, which attempts to apply this formula to the tragic story of the 1970 Marshall football team, whose players and coaches nearly all died in a shocking plane crash towards the end of that season.

What's interesting is what follows, as the music from the previous scene carries over to a montage of those folks-- surviving coaches, family members, friends-- affected by the plane crash. Their faces are pensive, angry, confused-- they seem as angry or disappointed by the 'good news' of the continuing season as the crowd outside the building were thrilled by it. This is different, unexpected-- it doesn't fit the formula, and brings a dose of sadness and humanity to the proceedings.

That slightly unstable mixture of rah rah and pathos distinguishes We Are Marshall, lifting it above the usual run-of-the-mill sports film (a genre I'll admit I generally enjoy) and making it an honorable tribute to the men and women who went through that horrible year in Huntington. The movie was a bit of a financial disappointment when it was released last year, despite Matthew McConaughey's appearances on ESPN for what seemed like weeks in late December. It had the bad luck to follow Invincible, another football film-- well-acted and enjoyably heart-tugging-- that ruled the box office earlier that fall, and it also came out at the tail end of the college and NFL seasons (when its target audience was either caught up in the playoff/bowl season, or sick of the sport) and in the midst of the Oscar derby, when attention was mostly paid to The Departed, The Queen and other presumptive nominees. Its sad subject matter probably also scared people away, and McConaughey's on-screen pairing with Terry Bradshaw earlier that year (the regrettable Failure to Launch), might have convinced the hardcore pigskinner that the actor had no chemistry with anything football-related.

I wonder, though, if it didn't have something to do with that formula-tweaking. Marshall doesn't deliver cliches, it spins them, and that difference might have made its audience a little nervous. Take McConaughey, for instance-- yes, he's the great football coach with the funny one-liners and inspirirational speeches, but he's also David Wooderson, all grown up. It's the first time I've seen McConaughey unleash that slightly oily/creepy side of himself in a big-budget film (not the scoundrel or scamp, but the self-deluded, used car salesman guy), and it's immensely pleasurable, and very effective for the role. We get the sense that his character, Jack Lengyel, is a good guy, but slightly out of his element, and perhaps a bit on the make-- Marshall is a good career opportunity for him.

Think of the pair that flanks Lengyel-- haunted, survivor assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) and bemused college president Dedmon (David Straithairn). It's their story as much as his, and yet they are sports movie oddities-- the quiet, defeated-before-he-starts teacher (Fox is very effective, all quiet and eyes-to-the-ground) and geeky academic (Straithairn, as always, is a treasure). In other movies, the college president, especially, would be a figure of either villainy or comic relief; here, he's the movie's true hero, and Straithairn's final, quiet moment in the stands is Marshall's version of the last-minute touchdown (ok, there's one of those, too), the most truly moving moment in the whole film.

Or think of the plane crash itself. We have to, because the film doesn't show it to us. Instead, there's a scene on the plane of the team flying home, laughing and joking with each other, one final long shot of the interior-- then a sudden cut to blackness. It stays on the blackness for what feels like a full minute, with no image or sound. It's a daring choice, but an effective one, a moving and respectful way to signify the sudden, terrible explosion of chance, chaos and terror. It makes the slow dissemination of the news of crash to the town all the more suspenful and horrific, too. There's no catharsis here, but also no sense of rubber-neck exploitation-- just a very sad look at how lives are wrenched by tragedy.

The film shot in part on location in Huntington, WV, and does a good job of capturing the brown landscapes, moody skies, and deluded hopes of a small town wrapped up in its team (it's notable that the superb TV show Friday Night Lights, which also debuted in fall 2006, does the same thing-- and has also struggled to find an audience. Do we only like football when it features Adam Sandler?). Many of the smaller roles in the film are also well-cast, especially Ian McShane's booster, who lost a son in the plane and remains stoically, bravely unsympathetic until his final scene. That all of this is orchestrated by McG, auteur behind the Charlie's Angels films, is a little surprising, but perhaps he was touched by something in the story that forced him to chill out the usual campy pyrotechnics and focus on the quotidian.

In the end, that's the film's triumph. A wry voiceover plays over the penultimate images of the film: even as we see players jumping up and down in ecstasy, the film's narrator informs us that the team only won two more games that year, and Lengyel finished his Marshall career with a losing record. In fact, Marshall would not have much on-the-field success until the 1980s, long after this team's players graduated. Marshall had the good grace to induct Lengyel into its Hall of Fame, anyway, perhaps realizing his importance-- and that team's--went beyond wins and losses (or sports movie cliches). Instead, it's about the small moments that surround the big, the recognitions of the real that pop out from behind the cliches. It's a celebration of the everyday, the split consciousness in that photo above: we're both the wild celebration in the middle, and the wary-eyed kid on the left edge, looking out for trouble.

Teenage Angst Has Paid Off Well...

I imagine the sky is about to fall, or at least some pigs might fly through it, because I find myself nodding in agreement with David Bordwell. I have a lot of respect for Bordwell's vast knowledge of film history, his eye for detail, and the gracefulness of his detailed descriptions-- he's probably the most skilled formalist film studies will ever have-- but often find myself frustrated by his dismissal of more theoretically adventurous work and turned off by his scorched-earth critical voice.

This blog post, though (which I discovered through a link on Jim Emerson's site), is extremely enjoyable, and a fascinating glimpse into what makes the professor tick. While I wish he didn't feel the need to qualify his mystory-style musings with an apology like, "What follows may seem narcissistic nostalgia...," I am in full agreement with his take on "the adolescent window":

"Between the ages of 13 and 18, a window opens for each of us. The cultural pastimes that attract us then, the ones we find ourselves drawn to and even obsessive about, will always have a powerful hold. We may broaden our tastes as we grow out of those years—we should, anyhow—but the sports, hobbies, books, TV, movies, and music that we loved then we will always love.

The corollary is the Law of the Midlife/ Latelife Return:

As we age, and especially after we hit 40, we find it worthwhile to return to the adolescent window. Despite all the changes you’ve undergone, those things are usually as enjoyable as they were then. You may even see more in them than you realized was there. Just as important, you start to realize how the ways you passed your idle hours shaped your view of the world—the way you think and feel, important parts of your very identity."

Those are among the ideas that power this blog, which is why I'm fond of posts on Iron Man, 80s pop music and cheesy science fiction television shows, to name only a few totems of my youth. "In time you can turn these obsessions into careers," Elvis Costello once sang, and I always thought that was the best description of academia one could devise, or of any kind of writing. As Jeff is fond of blogging, we write our passions-- not just of them, but through them and within them (another pop reference that feels applicable, this one from The West Wing, when President Bartlet excoriates a Congressional candidate: "I don't like guys who get into politics because they think it's a good gig"). As Bordwell says later in the essay, "What’s kitsch or cheesy or retro to others is precious to you," followed by the most important line of the piece: "Make no apologies." This isn't just nostalgia-- although nostalgia's something of an underrated starting place, if you ask me-- nor just the "mummy complex" of plastic arts of which Bazin writes (the preservation of that-which-was, frozen in its prime), nor the reduction of pop love to sheer "use value" as teaching texts or article examples, although there's nothing wrong with such uses. Instead (for me, anyway), it's a weird, funny "I have to write this," a desire to explore and share, to write and reconfigure, to link up texts and ideas and periods and images as a kind of realization or revisioning of your view (still another pop reference, Jenny Calander on Buffy, typing at her computer late at night to reverse Angel's curse: "This is going to work, this is going to work!" It's like that, sometimes). A professor of mine called it the "snap," when various elements you're writing about link together in an "aha!" of revelation, but I might call it the "shiver," because it does become an almost physical manifestation of intellectual pleasure.

He might object to the reference, but to me, Bordwell's "Make no apologies" carries echoes of Roland Barthes' introduction to Pleasure of the Text: "The pleasure of the text: like Bacon's simulator, it can say: never apologize, never explain. It never denies anything: "I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation." And the most useful (that ugly word again!) form of the adolescent window comes when we take up the mantle of Barthes' ideal reader: "someone...who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity..." For Barthes, this is the "reader at the moment he takes his pleasure," but it's also a superb definition of the blog, at least in its ideal form. It's writing, not as obligation or propriety, but as bliss.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Recently Viewed: Modesty Blaise

Joseph Losey's 1966 take on the comic strip character created by Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway is a fascinating mess, veering from the visually astute (the striking credits sequence, shot as as a series of oblique angles on skyscraper architecture, almost a metacommentary on the intersections of modernism, art, and capital the film will try to traipse across) to the narratively tedious (I'm guessing Dirk Bogarde as a dandyish supervillain sounded funnier in the pitch than it is the execution) to the almost New Wavian (all of Modesty's hair flips, like Anna Karina playing superspy). It's all drenched in mod shimmer, but feels less like the playful teenaged joy of Richard Lester's Beatles films or the hipster ennui of Antonioni's Blow-Up or even the inverted, horrific Swinging London of Bunny Lake Is Missing than a clumsy, slightly embarrassing attempt at the hep by your dad, desperate to fit into the current fashions but just missing the mark (it might make a great double bill with the 1967 Casino Royale).

There is one moment of pure genius though, and that's the sudden musical scene that pops up 2/3 of the way into the film. It seems out-of-place, out-of-character (as much as the film develops any) and tonally off-- and yet there's such a devil-may-care chutzpah to the scene, and such a clear sense of fun radiating off Monica Vitti and Terrence Stamp, that it stands out amidst the awkward a la mode of the rest of the film. I wish the rest of Modesty Blaise had followed its blithe spirit.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Philadelphia, Here We Come...

Our panel was accepted for this spring's Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. It will be great to see old friends on the panel, as well as others attending the conference. I've also never been to Philly (note to self: take picture of myself next to Rocky statue), which should be cool. All that, and I get to write and present about The OC as a model for new kinds of cinema writing (since I am coming from the midwest's version of The OC, it feels appropriate). Of course, now I have to write said paper (there's always a catch)...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Scooter Crit

I'm about a disc or so into the fabulous 3-disc collection Immediate Mod Box Set, and I'd highly recommend it for anyone who loves that British version of 60s R&B/soul/pop that the mods fetishized. There's a wonderful kick to these tracks, which are steeped in guitars and horns and glissando, yet also radiate an otherworldliness that's appealing; it's neither Motown nor Stax nor the Beatles' versions of those styles, but an odd amalgamation of the three, filtered through a need to be a la mode that works very well. Mod is the sensibility between the gray flannel suit and that tired, smelly hippie aesthetic that ideology so often tells us must be the correct retrospective vision of the 1960s. It's rebellion through aesthetics, fashion-as-statement. What would a Mod criticism look like? Roland Barthes might be an obvious model, or perhaps Walter Benjamin on a scooter, secure in the knowledge that the hood on a parka is more eternal than an idea?

Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own: U2's "Window In The Sky"

This video's about a year old, and has probably been written about extensively (I think Dennis had a post awhile back, if I recall correctly). But when I was doing video searches a moment ago, I suddenly thought of it, and found a copy on YouTube which manages to transcend the annoying MTVEurope banners and program announcements that occasionally run across it.

I'm not sure what it is about this video that fills me with joy. It's a nice, Beatlesesque song, particularly with that very Paul-and-Ringo rhythm section Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. establish, and Bono's lyrics are appropriately utopic (it also has that great Revolver-style cut-off at the end). On its own, though, the song wouldn't make U2's top ten. The video, however, might be the best expression of their aesthetic I've ever seen.

The cutting is fantastic, of course (I especially like the moments with Bjork and Nat King Cole), and the attention to detail in not only the "lip-synching" but also the movements of the musicians (cutting to a wild Keith Moon when the drums kick in, finding just the right image of Elvis shaking his head or Jimi Hendrix bent into his guitar as the guitar or vocal line stretches out) really shines. Having the other musicians "sing" the song is a much cooler way to evoke U2's music as being part of a continuum than the heavy-handed, roots rock potpourri of Rattle and Hum, and I like the way they slip the U2ers into various crowd shots, suggesting that everyone's a fan.

And maybe that's it-- more than anything else, this is a song and a video about generosity. For me, what makes the intertextuality work is its breadth: not just The Clash, but also Billie Holiday; not just The White Stripes, but also Britney Spears; not just Frank Sinatra, but also Public Enemy. U2's tastes, and the community they create around them, are wide, and everyone is invited to the party. On their "Vertigo" concert DVD, there's an extraordinary moment when Bono announces to the crowd that a) it's his birthday; and b) he's not in good voice due to a head cold (which they could probably already guess from his raspy, occasionally gasping phrasing). He asks for the crowd's help, and keeps singing, and they sing with him, and the rest of the band is incredibly tight in accompaniment, as if to cover for Bono's voice. You can hear and almost see the energy from the crowd going through Bono, carrying him until he can get back in a groove. It's the most ragged U2 performance I've ever seen-- and also the best, because it seems to embody all the notions of togetherness and change and family that their music so often explores. The "love" in this song could be heard as God, or sex, or romance with a person, but I prefer to think it's a love of the music itself, and its power to transcend narrow categorizations, hipster tastes, and boundaries of space and time. U2 have often been mocked-- and sometimes rightly so-- for their earnestness, but the payoff for all that openness and emotional stage diving into their passions is a video like this one: a world crafted around the beat, harmony as knowledge, melody as bliss.

Friday Afternoon Videos: CBGB's Edition

Thursday, November 15, 2007

To Sleep, Perchance to Blog...

Recent dreams:

-- I have entered the world of MST3K. I don't just mean I'm watching the show, but that somehow I am on the "Satellite of Love" with the robots and MIke Nelson (odd, as Joel was always my favorite human sidekick). Somehow, Joss Whedon and an annoyingly snotty producer are always there, along with some faceless celebrities (is that an oxymoron? I know they're celebrities-- can sense it-- but can't identify who they are). Tom Servo, Crow and Mike are cracking jokes, and suddenly Whedon cracks one, too. The producer becomes irate, and declares that she won't continue the broadcast until Whedon, "this idiot rube from Minnesota," is removed from the set. This causes a mass walkout of many of the celebrities, and I give the producer a tongue-lashing. Why Minnesota (especially since Whedon's from California)? Ironically, MST3K itself started as a cable access show in the Twin Cities, and I spent four years there as a child. And what's wrong with guys from Minnesota, anyway?

--I'm at a party with a bunch of Beltway bigwigs, including Maureen Dowd and Chris Matthews. I know it's unpleasant, and no one (including me) seems to be having any fun. My memory recalls this as a dream in black-and-white, like a German Expressionist film, but, perhaps as a kindness (Chris Matthews?? As Summer Roberts might say, "Eww!"), it's repressed everything else about it; the dream exists as a palimpsest-- I know I had it, but can recall almost nothing about it.

--A family gathering. There are two versions of my uncle there, arguing with each other. I raise a question of theology, and my uncle gets outraged, and his two versions (two parts?), begin spittling vehemently. Clearly, I've been thinking about Miyazaki too much this week.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Heh Heh Heh, Heh Heh Heh, Heh Heh Heh...

Are Matthews and Russert the dumbest pundits in America? Or the most dangerous? Bob Somerby does a good job (as always) of tracking their malfeasance here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mash-Ups: Love Will Tear Us Apart

In a decade full of remarkable films and filmmakers, Powell & Pressburger might just be the 1940s' greatest auteurs, or at least the most fabulous, in all senses of the word. In a remarkable run between Contraband (1940) and The Small Back Room (1949), they offered a cinema at once earthy and fantastical, cynical and romantic, theatrical and filmic, and committed to a humanist belief in the power of the imagination to transform the everyday (and, crucially, for the everyday to return the favor). They utterly demolished that Bazinian split between reality and plastics-- their reality was plastics, and both ends of the binary thrived and pulsed in tension with one another. One of the most mind-altering moviewatching experiences I've had was seeing about a dozen of their films in a two-week period a couple of summers ago, and The Red Shoes will always be my favorite of the bunch. I never tire of its blood-red mise-en-scene, its knowingly affected dialogue, its evocation of a long-passed culture, or its poetic mixture of camerawork, dance, music and melodrama.

Others more knowledgeable than I will have to fill in the Joy Division part of the equation-- everything I know comes from Greil Marcus and 24-Hour Party People-- but I do like the matched rhythms of sound and image in the clip above. The ease with which Shoes' climax becomes a music video is a reminder of how modern Powell & Pressburger were, and the blend reminds that even punks and new wavers have that strain of child-like, Romantic longing in their souls.


Ever since Ron Paul raised $4.2 million on the intertubes last week-- and received strange praise from liberal pundits like Glenn Greenwald-- I'd been pondering doing a post on how my political wing maintains a strange affection for authoritarian 'straight talkers.' But this post says it in a more concise way than I could have.

Monday Morning Postmodern Funnies

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Summer Song

With a very busy fall and a fairly lame set of new programs, I'll admit that my television viewing has been sketchy lately. One show I have enjoyed is Chuck, the spy adventure/parody that airs Mondays on NBC. I'm a big fan of James Bond, The Avengers, I Spy, and other secret-agent-related pop ephemera, and I've enjoyed the ways Chuck has blended the conventions of the genre with an Apatow-style look at geek culture and corporate homogeneity. It has an appealing cast, too, including Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strzechowski, and the wonderfully deadpan Adam Baldwin. Mostly, though, it has Josh Schwartz, auteur behind TV's most pleasurable guilty pleasure, The OC (remind me to tell you sometime about what a delirious screwball delight that program's final season was). Chuck feels like the kind of show Seth Cohen might have written if he'd grown up and become a Hollywood screenwriter: it's funny, bright, sweet and plastic in all the best ways.

Still, even this show is one I miss from time to time, which is why I perked up at the ad for this week's episode, which announced a guest appearance from Rachel Bilson. Bilson played Summer Roberts on The OC, and was that fine cast's strongest asset: cute, funny, and smart, and able to balance snarky dizziness with surprising poignancy, particularly in the show's later seasons. She speaks like she has a gobstopper permanently stuck in her mouth: her cadences and inflections are always offbeat, and she always found ways to make even the most cliched dialogue pop by landing her emphasis on an unexpected word (she made the recurring "Co-HEN!" an expression of exasperation, confusion, love and jouissance, sometimes all at once). I'm kind of surprised she hasn't had a bigger career (although when your last big film was the Paul Haggis-scripted mess-- or is that redundant?--The Last Kiss, I guess you're a bit handicapped), but I'm delighted she'll be back on TV this week, and I think it's nice she and Schwartz haven't forgotten each other.

Monday at 8-- be there or be Marissa, daddio.

Long Bombs

Notes on a football weekend:

--NFL: Bad. How does the defense not stop Ben Roethlisberger running? (See, Ben? Sports are better with a helmet.) How does Derek Anderson-- so strong for so many weeks, and so good in the first half-- throw two incomplete passes near the Steelers 35 (esp. with an 18-yard pass to Kellen Winslow, Jr. crammed in-between)? The Browns have had a very good year-- they're one stupid NFL rule/botched field goal away from being 6-3-- and I think they'll end up about 10-6, which is a quantum leap from the last three seasons. Still, it's clear Pittsburgh remains the Pistons to their Bulls, the Bulls to their Jazz, the Gators to their Gamecocks, the Seinfeld to their Newman. They'll probably sweep the other teams in their division, but they can't overcome the Black-and-Gold this year.

-- College ball: Some good, some bad, some a mixed bag (I'm a Hoosier, but my sister went to Northwestern, so it's a win-win for our family either way).

--Ha! And by that, I mean, ha!

--I'm really enjoying the new pre-game team on NBC's Sunday Night Football show. I never need to watch Michaels and Madden during the actual, snoozer games the network gets, but Bob Costas, Keith Olbermann, Peter King, former Gator Chris Collinsworth, Jerome Bettis and Tiki Barber are all a delight: smart, knoweldgeable guys who are funny and passionate without engaging in that mookish macho BS that ESPN can't seem to avoid these days. A few weeks ago, I suggested Costas was not as good a partner for Olbermann as Dan Patrick had been, and I still think that's true-- there's not that Martin-and-Sinatra, ping-pong rhythm that Sportscenter had a decade ago. Still, they seem to be growing more comfortable with each other, and Costas seems to enjoy being the wry, deadpan reactor to Olbermann's rants, jokes and surreal observations.

--Finally...Whether north, south, east or west; SEC, Big 10, ACC or Pac-10; AFC or NFC; red state or blue state; offense fan or defense fan...I think this is something we can all enjoy, isn't it?:


Everyone's favorite Sunnydale resident popped up this week on the Grammer/Heaton 'sitcom' Back To You, and sadly, that intertextual joke about the name of her character's son is the funniest thing this rather disappointing new show has come up with in its entire run. Still, it's nice to see Carpenter on television again, and I hope she gets some more (and longer) opportunities to do comedy.

2-For-1: Columbo: Murder By The Book and Transformers

Steven Spielberg, circa 1971...

    ...Steven Spielberg (via Michael Bay), circa 2007...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

2-For-1: Jacob's Ladder and Houseboat

Over the course of Thursday and Friday afternoons, I watched Jacob's Ladder (1990). Despite my admiration for its fine cast, it wasn't something I would've rented on my own-- I'm doing a private reading with a couple of students, and one of them suggested it as a follow-up to last week's pairing of Paul Auster's novel, City of Glass and Richard Rush's film, The Stunt Man. Like The Stunt Man, it deals with the difficulty of a Vietnam vet integrating back into the American homefront, and like Glass, it plays with our pereceptions of "reality," suggesting it's a fine line between sanity and madness-- and the only thing that keeps us balanced is genre conventions. Glass filters its commentary and character through the conventions of both detective fiction and the post-Robbe-Grillet/postmodern novel, while The Stunt Man has a lot of fun with the conventions of the "movie about movies" genre. Jacob's Ladder splits the difference: it's a detective tale of a sort, and also a horror film about the quest for identity; as a film from Adrian Lynne (whose best-known work includes Fatal Attraction, Flashdance and Indecent Proposal) it revels in its use of the tropes of late-80s advertising (smoke-as-filter, muted grays and dark shadows seen in long-shot, quick cuts and copious nudity), calling attention to its filmmaking strategies in as blatant a manner as Rush's film.

It's not as playful as Rush's work, though, and that heaviness in approach has its good and bad points. It does a superb job at establishing a deeply claustrophobic tone: extensive use of close-ups and zooms, rapid cutting, and a mise-en-scene heavy on diagonal and horizontal enclosures (staircases, subway tracks, overhead pipes and railings, cages, narrow alleyways) work hard to put us in the mindset of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) and his fellow vets, scarred by their wartime experiences and certain they are being pursued by demons both psychological and corporeal. I also liked the grittiness of the New York locations-- the trash, sleet, dirt and 70s fashions all combine to create a distinctly unglamorous look within Lynne's sleekly moving frames. There's an everyday ugliness to the characters, a real lived-in sense to their lives and relationships that gives depth and pathos to the various horror/war movie cliches the narrative plays with (oddly, that same year, the movie's screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, would follow up Ladder with Ghost, which tackles some of the subject matter in a far more treacly manner). And the cast is superb: Danny Aeillo coming right off Do The RIght Thing, and not yet the hammy set of mannerisms he'd become in the 90s; soon-to-be-stars like Eriq La Salle and Ving Rhames; Macauly Culkin just before hitting it big with Home Alone, and well-cast as...well, that would spoil it; and Elizabeth Pena, taking the difficult and problematic role of Robbins' girlfriend and making it feel far more sympathetic and three-dimensional than it might in a less skillful actress's hands.

Robbins is the sad, strange heart of the film, and he's very effective, although I have to admit that his spooked-out expressions reminded me a bit of his dead-on, hilarious impression of Brian Wilson on Saturday Night Live. But the film would not be nearly as successful without his baby-fat cheeks, gentle smile and spacy eyes, and how he uses all of those child-like features to suddenly express rage or psychotic confusion. Like so many of the cast, Robbins had had some success in films like Bull Durham and Erik The Viking, but he hadn't yet solidified the persona that would emerge in The Player, Short Cuts and Bob Roberts-- the charming, manipulative, Wellesian bastard. He's still the slightly goofy Nuke LaLoosh here, and the film needs that sweet, doomed neediness to give humanity to its nihilistic core.

The timing of Jacob's Ladder is really interesting. It came at the tail end of a half-decade of pop culture texts that explored Vietnam in a much more explicit, surreal and sympathetic way-- Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, television's Tour of Duty, and novels like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. One year after its release, George H.W. Bush would declare that the first Gulf War had laid to rest the nation's "Vietnam Syndrome," even as his 1992 re-election campaign would try to use the war as a wedge issue against Bill Clinton.
With all of that context, baggage and possibly pop burn-out on the subject, one might imagine Jacob's Ladder wouldn't have much to add to the conversation, but I actually found it more effective than any of Oliver Stone's "Viet-wow!" visions. Lynne and Rubin's plays with the surreality of horror actually makes for a world that's incredibly disconcerting-- like Jacob, you never quite know where you are, or when (it took me awhile to realize the film was still in the 70s, even when Jacob returned from Vietnam). We float in and out of Jacob's nightmares, and because the cast is such a good, low-key ballast against Lynne's hyperreal backdrops, they create enormous sympathy for their characters. I don't know if that juxtaposition of the hyper-real and the minimalist makes it a more "realistic" vision of PTSD, only that I found it more affecting than Tom Cruise flailing in his wheelchair in the desert, or Charlie Sheen torn between two daddies in a Vietnam jungle.

So, why did I feel like I needed to take a shower when I finally finished the movie? Why did it take me two days to get through the damn thing (it's only 116 minutes long)? In part, it's the disturbing subject matter, in part it's precisely the slick skill with which Lynne transforms PTSD into a horror thrill ride, but I also think it's the film's vision of a fatalistic world that we only escape from through death. Like Raging Bull a decade earlier, it expends an enormous amount of skill and heart at the service of a kind of brutish entropy-- even as it explores one man's trauma, it displays its own stylistic addiction to the same trauma. I honestly don't know-- I can't deny its effectiveness (or sadly, its continuing contemporary relevance), and I think in many ways it's an effective piece of work; at the same time, I can't help but feel angry at its manipulations and addiction to ceasless darkness (maybe it's a once-a-decade thing: I had a similiar response to Requiem for a Dream, released in 2000, an obnoxiously reactionary piece of snuff-film garbage that dresses up its conservatism in a plethora of color and hipster cutting). Do we need to confuse cinematic "seriousness" with fatalism?

When I finished watching Ladder, I needed a palate cleanser, which might explain my positive reaction to Houseboat, a film I might have read as tripe under any other circumstances. Co-written and directed by Melville Shavelson-- a former gag writer for Bob Hope who would inflictYours, Mine and Ours on audiences a decade later-- it's precisely the kind of movie Pauline Kael criticized Grant for making in her famous essay, "The Man From Dream City" (she believed that only Hitchcock's films saved Grant's postwar career from being a total, sentimental wash). You can see what she means. Here's a list of potentially deadly elements Houseboat includes (remember, Shavelson was a master of the gag):

--Not one, not two, but three 'adorable,' towheaded children;
--A Wacky Trick Setting (a leaky floating houseboat! And his best friend is a talking pie!);
--A weak romantic triangle, with only one potential lover really well-developed;
--A moralistic plot about the importance of family;
--What I like to think of as "la la laaa" musical scoring, the kind of flutes-and-humming-children's-choirs, hippie-dippy, "Up Up and Away In My Beautiful Balloon"-style music that would mar many a Hollywood film in the 60s in their erroneous attempts to signify love and laughter;
--Sophia Loren;
--Bad slapstick. Not good slapstick, like Keaton, but bad (like, well, Bob Hope).

Actually, it wouldn't be hard to see this film as a vehicle for Bob Hope, perhaps with Lucille Ball or Anita Ekberg in tow (and I mean the 50s/60s movie-and-tv-special Hope, not the brilliantly funny Hope of the Road pictures); he might actually have brought to it an appealing sliminess-- his very desire to please and always be the center of the joke would've worked well for the character played by Cary Grant, a self-absorbed jerk who must learn to love. Sure, Hope's persona is so artificial and fraudulent that he wouldn't be at all believable in the post-conversion, "loving dad" parts of the film, but perhaps that would've made it more fun, would've cut right to the story's tinsel heart.

In the end, though, the film is lucky to have Cary Grant, the greatest movie actor in American film history, as its lead. Grant is no stranger to playing bastards, thieves, sharpies and frauds-- last month, I watched him in the fascinatingly odd Once Upon A Time, where he plays a Ziegfeld-type theatrical producer who tries to coax an emotionally unstable boy into giving up a magical catepillar that dances when said boy plays his harmonica (Grant's character thinks it's a show business goldmine). Read that sentence again, and then imagine any actor selling that story (good lord, imagine someone like Robin Williams in the role). Grant, however, is the driest actor in the world, at least when he's at his best, and with his constantly tilted head, darting eyes and smooth patter of a voice, he makes that producer a convincing anti-hero without sacrificing his charm. (George Clooney-- a very Grant-like performer-- does something similar in the underrated romcom, One Fine Day; what makes both actors good with kids is precisely the fact that they don't try to ingratiate themselves-- it's their quizzical response to the vagaries of children that makes the situations funny).

In Houseboat, Grant plays a divorced man, a charming empty suit of a goverment bureaucrat who tries to take in his three children when their mother dies. The bratty children (one of whom, strangely, also has a harmonica as a major character trait) don't like him, he can barely tolerate them-- but luckily, there's charmingly child-like Loren there to save the day, as the family's new maid (and Grant's love interest)! I listed Loren above as a deficit, which is an unfair joke-- I actually like her quite a bit, and she's good in the film, but she's saddled with such a dopey role as the near-magical enabler of familial happiness, like an Italian Mary Poppins (she even sings songs), that even her strong chemistry with Grant (who apparently was madly in love with her in real life) and her own dry wit and physical comedy skills can't quite salvage the character.

It's sappy, it's manipulative, it's even a bit too long, and takes far too long to really get started (they don't even get to the titular boat until 35 minutes in)-- but dammit, I kind of enjoyed it. The film takes on a pleasantly rambling, vaguely anecdotal form once they move onto the boat. The kids settle down and stop telegraphing their character tics, and Shavelson does a good job using the cramped trick set of the boat, staging some good gags and getting some evocative night shots of the water (in fact, credit where it's due-- there are some lovely visual images in the film, with good use of lanterns and trees, and one shot towards the end that almost feels likes something out of To Kill A Mockingbird). The film has a real heart underneath all its trickery, a belief in the basic decency of its characters, and Grant's insistence on grounding everything within his persona-- at once cynical and romantic-- gives an ironic spin to some of the later father-child scenes without canceling out their warmth. If Jacob's Ladder creates a world you long to escape, I'd kind of like to see Houseboat's actors and their characters again, but in a different film, one whose narrative wasn't so insistently plugging away at its schematic patterns. I'm not sure that makes it less manipulative than Jacob's Ladder-- probably just a different set of tropes that are manipulating me. But I'll take humanism over nihilism any day.

Why Cavemen Matters

When Paromita Vohra came to present her film on Monday, some of the film faculty and cinema studies majors took her to dinner, and she asked what we thought about the WGA strike that started that day. I joked that it didn't bother me, as I already had stacks of movie and television DVDs to catch up on, and this actually gave me a breather.

That's a joke based in truth, but the larger truth is that I am fascinated by the WGA strike. I think part of it is my reflexive support for unions, especially in these very corporate times. I think the issues they're striking for in terms of payment for existing and emerging new media set an important precedent. It might also be because, as someone who teaches in film and media, the work of these folks is connected to my own, or because I recognize and admire the work of a lot of the names (Joss Whedon, Larry David, Brian K. Vaughn, Harlan Ellison, etc.) I see quoted in articles and blogs, so I feel more of a connection to it than with other labor actions.

But reading through and watching (via the dreaded Headline News, which was on in the background as I cleaned my apartment) (yes, that channel has gotten so bad that I do feel the need to justify and explain why it was on) some of the commentary on the strike, I began to think it might also be the canary in the coal mine for next year's elections. United Hollywood and Whedonesque, where Whedon has been doing more-or-less daily postings, cover some of the more egregious comments from the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Variety, and I heard similar remarks on HN-- how the writers' strike would throw crewpeople out of work, extend to other media, etc.

Well, maybe it will (although I'm not sure how shutting down "Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas-- The Musical" can be anything but an aesthetic benefit). And admittedly, Whedon and the strike captains running the "United" site write with a vested interest. But I was still struck by the language they noted in some of the coverage, particularly from the Times: “All the trappings of a union protest were there… …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.” Or this, from EW: “Labor disputes in Hollywood may not inspire the sort of tingly feelings of fraternal solidarity with the common man associated with, say, an uprising of mill workers. Some of the writer’s demands – keeping their names on movie posters, for instance – wouldn’t lure Norma Rae to a picket line."

As Bob Somerby notes on a daily, sometimes exhausting basis, this is precisely the kind of language these same media outlets use to describe any progressive group or cause: as "effete," "elitist," "hypocritical," or somehow "less American" than those big companies and manly-manly conservatives who want only to protect you and your interests. Oh, those silly writers...union organizers...Democrats...etc.! As Somerby documents, just zoom in on some trivial bit of appearance or misspoken moment, and that becomes the thing Matthews, Russert, et. al., will pound you with for the next six months.

In many ways, what the coverage suggests is precisely what the writers are striking about-- the power of large conglomerates to control the message (and the money) for their own benefit. I'm pretty far from a Marxist, particularly for people in my profession; I don't think, as some of my colleagues in graduate school sometimes suggested, that what we do is the same as what migrant farm workers do, and neither is what screen and television writers do. But it is labor, and should be treated as such, and when that labor involves words and images-- the basis of democratic exchange--how that gets spun feels important to me. It's not only about when The Office will be back on the air, or whether 24 might be postponed for a year (in an election year, no less! Where will the GOP candidates get their talking points now??), but about that rhetorical frame, or set of frames, that some of this coverage is attempting to build, one not unique to the writers' strike, and one I suspect we'll see again next year, when the stakes are much higher for everyone.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Auteur Theories

She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
--Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past