Monday, December 31, 2007

Grading On A Curve (Updated)

Everyone's favorite film blogger, that illustrious Jean Renoir of the intertubes, Dennis Cozzalio, posted a very fun quiz, "PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS' HELLA HOMEWORK FOR THE HOLIDAYS CHRISTMAS BREAK QUIZ" at his blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Dennis's was the first film blog I went to regularly-- when Robert Altman died, he had a lovely eulogy that was so thoughtful, funny and personal that it drew me back to his site on a daily basis, just to see what such a generous personality would have to say about other film-related topics (the fact that he was as enamored of baseball as he was of movies just made me like him all the more). I think the greatest thing about Dennis's site is its sense of a blog as a charming cocktail party that everyone's invited to-- there's no imperiousness or snotty hipster posing at SLIFR, and I think this welcoming warmth really makes it stand out.

I was, at first, unclear as to whether Mr. C. wanted folks to post in comments or on their own blogs, then noticed he asked to post in the comments section. But as there don't seem to be hard and fast rules about it, as I don't want to clog up an already busy comments thread (39 people! Wow!), and as a way to encourage you to check out his blog, I'll post my answers here, and encourage you to wander over to SLIFR at your leisure. I don't think you'll regret it.

Fortwith, DC's questions, and my answers. Please feel free to pick this up as a meme on your own blog (but please credit and link to Dennis's post), and please feel free to post your own answers in the comments thread, if you so desire. Happy New Year, everyone!:

1) Your favorite opening shot (Here are some ideas to jog your memory, if you need ‘em.)

See, and right off!, Dennis has me stumped (thank god he's grading on a curve. Um, right?), not so much because I can't think of one, as because I can think of too many, then I'm overcome with a feat that my choices won't be cool enough. But here are a few: the opening shot of Rules of the Game, that cut from the reporter speaking to the long, snaking tracking shot that follows the radio cables through an anxious crowd awaiting their aviator hero (while all the hero thinks of is his thrwarted love, whom we can only see through by cutting away from the tracking shot, Renoir's witty visual commentatary/foreshadowing on their disconnect); The Player, duh, but not just for its Touch of Evil tribute or funny dialogue ("It's like The Gods Must Be Crazy, except the coke bottle is now a television actress"), but for how well it uses the up-and-down, all-around crane shot to create an anxiety in the viewer-- we're always teased that there's more going on in a given moment than we can possibly take in before the camera moves away again; the opening montage of Jules and JIm, with its breathless score acting as a sonic expression of the excitement the cutting builds in me as I watch. Is there any cinema opening moment that promises more?

2) Tuesday Weld or Mia Farrow?

Meh. No feeling for either, although I love Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Can I replace them both with the delightful Paula Prentiss?

3) Name a comedy you’re embarrassed to admit made you laugh

As a comedian might say, timing is everything. Were I to watch Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back today, I'd probably have the same reaction I have to all post-Chasing Amy Kevin Smith movies: that he's pretty much a tired, two-trick pony whose jus' folks hipster geek persona masks a furious ego, and that he's doomed to eventually be the center square. But I will admit that, when I saw it a few weeks after 9/11, my friend Dave and I laughed our asses off. Yes, it's stupid, sophomoric and self-regarding, but it's willingness to do anything to squeeze a chuckle from its viewers was precisely what I needed in that moment.

4) Best Movie of 1947

Out of the Past, for reminding us that we never learned anything by listening to ourselves speak, and that we should always be smoking.

5) Burt Reynolds was the Bandit. Jerry Reed was the Snowman. Paul LeMat was Spider. Candy Clark was Electra. What’s your movie handle?

Spider-pig, Cinephile, "Cohen!"-- people call me lots of things. Some of which are even printable!

6) Robert Vaughn or David McCallum?

Bullitt, The Magnificent Seven, the only man who retains a shred of dignity in Superman III-- there's a lot to be said for Napoleon Solo, especially since Vaughn is making something of a comeback as the charming old man among grifters on the BBC show Hustle.

7) Most exotic/unusual place/location in which you've seen a movie

Tie: the wintery landscapes of Fargo and the equally cold landscapes of Orson Welles' imagination in Citizen Kane.

UPDATE: Wait, I just re-read the question and realized it was asking me for the exotic place I've seen the movie, not the exotic place in the movie (damn speed reading through the questions!). Hmm...well, none of these places are 'exotic' in the John Pierson sense of the word, but as someone whose favorite scene in Radio Days is when the young Woody (Seth Green) goes to the movie palace (the launching pad of desire), I recall fond memories of the State Theater in Kalamazoo, an old palace from the 40s, where I saw many a Disney Christmastime matinee as a child, and Chicago's wonderful art deco gem, The Music Box, where I saw L'Atalante, The Bicycle Thief and Jules and Jim in glorious 35mm on consecutive Saturdays. I also remember watching Marilyn Monroe movies on a tiny TV in my dorm room on a late Saturday night, but that's probably because of the girl I was with. And the Cleveland Cinematheque is just cool and musty and old-school enough to make you think you're about to bump into Jean-Luc Godard or Henri Langlois at the coffee machine.

8) Favorite Errol Morris movie
The Thin Blue Line. Sue me, I'm a traditionalist. But you can't go wrong with that surreal Burger King cup and the insistently avant-noir scoring of Phillip Glass. I've taught it several times, and it never gets old.

9) Best Movie of 1967

Man, is any question on this list not boomer-driven? (: Well, La Chinoise is pretty good. Bonnie and Clyde always makes a nice wedding gift. You might see if they're registered anywhere, and maybe a place-setting, some silverware, or a bit of Point Blank, The Graduate, Fahrenheit 451 or Belle du Jour. Okay, let's get two! Go get 'em.

10) Describe a profoundly (or not-so-profoundly) disturbing moment you’ve had courtesy of the movies

Sitting in a theater watching the Coens' wretched remake of The Ladykillers, everyone around me laughing while I remain silent and want to slink out of the theater to take a shower and get the stink of the picture off my cinephiliac body; suffering through the racist, reactionary, hipster "Just Say No" commercial that was Requiem For A Dream, and realizing that it's the indie version of a Michael Bay movie-- all pyrotechnics designed to 'shock and awe' you (and at least Bay is honest about his hackery).

11) Anne Francis or Julie Newmar?

12) Describe your favorite one sheet (include a link if possible)

13) Best Movie of 1987

Gosh, is it *batteries not included or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? I wrack my brain, wrestle like Bobby Petrino with the consequences my decision will create. Then I think, "Silly! Of course it's Amazon Women on the Moon!" I smile, relieved..until I remember Steven Seagal in Above the Law, and then the anxiety starts all over again.

If I were more seriously inclined (ha!), I'd add that the responsible, earnest, Linus Van Pelt-like side of me would say it's a tie between John Patrick Shanley's delirious ode to urban love, Moonstruck, and Steven Spielberg's most underrated film, the masterful Empire of The Sun. Although Broadcast News is pretty great, too. Tell you what-- let's meet at the place where we did that thing that one time, and we'll let all these films slug it out.

14) Favorite movie about obsession

Annie Hall.

15) Your ideal Christmas movie triple feature
Meet Me In St. Louis, The Godfather and Shop Around The Corner.

16) Montgomery Clift or James Dean?

At the risk of offending Michael Stipe, it's no contest-- Dean was great (I think his performance in Giant is underrated), but Montgomery Clift was extraordinary, his work both highly stylized and utterly involving in a way that neither Dean nor Brando is for me. His scene around the pool table with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun is enough to earn him icon status, but I also treasure his quiet, conflicted priest in I Confess, his cocky young cowboy in Red River and his doomed performance in The Misfits. I haven't even named half his performances, but that list alone gives you a sense of his range. Bonus points for showing up in a Clash lyric, "The Right Profile."

17) Favorite Les Blank Movie
Well, I've only seen one, but it's a monster: Burden of Dreams.

18) This past summer food critic Anton Ego made the following statement: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Your thoughts?

"When I was a critic, I thought as a filmmaker; now that I'm a filmmaker, I think as a critic. It's all one, it's all a continuum. The idea is to approach it from whatever side suits you best."-- Jean-Luc Godard

19) The last movie you watched on DVD? In a theater?
In theaters: Enchanted.

On DVD: Surf's Up.

And I liked them both, in case you were wondering.

20) Best Movie of 2007

This is a hard question, as I live in a small town, intermittently get to the big city for movies, and have yet to see the films all the kids are ravin' about, like There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, Juno and No Country for Old Men. That said, I loved Paris, Je T'Aime, Breach, Spider-Man 3 and Ratatouille; was charmed by Once, Waitress and Hairspray; found myself pleasantly surprised by a trio of Shia The Beef films which were much better than they had any right to be (Transformers, Surf's Up and Disturbia); scratched my head at the hosannas for the alternately gripping and frustrating Zodiac; laughed hard at Superbad; and sat gobsmacked at the batshit audacity of Across The Universe. I also loved this movie made by two Oberlin students for a colleague's French New Wave class. For all that cinematic goodness, no movie, for me anyway, could match the texture, warmth, visual style and everyday heartbreak of the first season of Friday Night Lights, which I'm almost through on DVD, and thoroughly enjoying.

21) Worst Movie of 2007

So far, I'd have to say Beowulf, with the caveat that I couldn't get through La Vie en Rose, which a friend of mine termed The Passion of the Piaf.

22) Describe the stages of your cinephilia

Wow! That would take a whole separate post.

23) What is the one film you’ve had more difficulty than any other in convincing people to see or appreciate?

I think it depends on the audience: it's often difficult to convince my hipster students that a movie like Superman Returns is worth their time, while for my family, it's movies like Slacker or Memento. The most intriguing frustration I've had recently, though, was with Sullivan's Travels, a seeming crowd-pleaser that got a generally negative response in a class on Hollywood. Some of the students were frustrated that Sullivan (spoiler alert!) didn't end up making O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but I suspect from their remarks that the biggest frustration was the film's refusal to "settle" on a tone or genre, or to offer an easy binary of good/bad, political/non-political: it's a nimble film (that's its brilliance), and I think that fleet-footedness, and lack of stylistic coherence, was frustrating for folks who sometimes like their meanings to be what a colleague calls "portable" (i.e., "here's the theme in one sentence").

24) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth?

Put the blame on Mame, but remember-- You'll Never Get Rich.

25) The Japanese word wabi denotes simplicity and quietude, but it can also mean an accidental or happenstance element (or perhaps even a small flaw) which gives elegance and uniqueness to the whole. What film or moment from a film best represents wabi to you?

Three-- John Garfield stumbling over his lines while shoving pancakes in his mouth in Gentleman's Agreement; Marlon Brando improvising in On The Waterfront by not giving Eva Marie Saint her glove back (companion piece: Brando going against script and accepting, rather than declining, the wine in the garden with MIchael in The Godfather: "I don't know-- lately, I drink a lot of wine," forcing Pacino to play along: "It's good for you, Pop."); and Jean-Pierre Leaud laughing at an offscreen Francois Truffaut asking him about his sex life, in The 400 Blows.

26) Favorite Documentary

Michael Apted's Up series-- yeah, it's probably a cliche to say so, but there's a reason for that: this is the most extraordinary document of humanistic love and inquiry this side of Jean Renoir, as funny as a Sturges comedy and as gripping as Hitchcock. I devoured the whole thing in a period of a couple of months last year, and it was 2006's best viewing experience.

27) Favorite opening credit sequence

Bond credits are generally good (even for turkeys like the 1967 Casino Royale), and I also love those for The Pink Panther and Superman, but I'm going to toss up another tie: Vertigo and Bunny Lake Is Missing. Saul Bass was a genius, and what stands out for me about those two is how well he times the images to the music: Bernard Hermann's nightmarish string-and-horn sections floating in tandem with Bass's geometric hallucinations, and Paul Glass's fragile, quiet chords acting as the perfect sonic accompaniment for Bass' ripped screen, both hinting at (but not revealing) the film's outcome.

28) Is there a film that has influenced your lifestyle in a significant or notable way? If so, what was it and how did it do so?

Breathless made me fall in love with the French New Wave, primarily because I was in love with the girl I went with. At the risk of being all Stan Leeish in my self-promotion, I wrote more about that here.

29) Glenn Ford or Dana Andrews?

Dana Andrews, but I'd prefer Joel McCrea to either.

30) Make a single prediction, cynical or hopeful, regarding the upcoming Academy Awards

That musicals and comedies might get as much recognition as hipster dramas, overlong biopics and tired social problem films this year. But that's a longshot-- what I know for certain is that a lot of critics and bloggers will jostle to become the new Roger Ebert by promoting and politicking the hell out of their favorites (The Coens already have a slew of online James Carvilles working on their behalf).

31) Best Actor of 2007
Remy the Rat. Or Shia The Beef-- I can't decide.

32) Best Actress of 2007
I think I'll let Josh R. settle this one, although you can't go wrong with Glenn Close or FNL's Connie Britton.

33) Best Director of 2007
tie: Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and Brad Bird (Ratatouille)

34) Best Screenplay of 2007

I haven't seen Darjeeling Limited yet, but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's wonderfully smart balance of touching and deliriously raunchy in Superbad has to be up there somewhere. I also liked Adrienne Shelly's small-town sketches in Waitress, and the quietly gripping, complex unfolding of motive and meaning in Breach (Adam Mazar, William Rotko, Billy Ray).

35) Favorite single movie moment of 2007

The whoosh! into the past when Ego bites into the ratatouille, Ratatouille.

36) What’s your wish/hope for the movies in 2008?
Less CGI, more hand-drawn; less violence and more sex; a ban of Jon Heder from our screens; and for all the good film bloggers out there (you know who you are) to have a safe and happy new year.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


I didn't watch.

In the British version of Fever Pitch (aka, "the good version," with Colin Firth), there's a great sequence with Firth's character, a long-suffering Arsenal soccer fan whose team is finally in the championship game. And he can't watch. Every good play elicits a mixed response of elation and dread: "That's just like them!," he yells. "They raise our hopes only to smash them down in the end!" He sits down and stands up, sits down and stands up, paces around the room, eventually has to leave his apartment when the pressure gets too intense. When it seems like Arsenal might pull off the improbable victory, he tries to get back into his apartment, but is locked out. His friend opens the door just in time for him to see the final, winning play, and elation erupts.

Being a Browns fan is kind of like that, generally minus the elation. I remember "The Drive" of the '86-'87 season, when John Elway broke our hearts in the AFC championship game. I remember "The Fumble" in the AFC championship game a couple of years later. I remember the screams of anger that echoed around our unfinished basement when Clay Matthews' bizarre fumble recovery/lateral pass almost cost us a playoff victory.

And those are the highlights of the last twenty years. Since the Browns returned in 1999, we've suffered through six losing seasons in eight years, a crappy offensive line, several coaching changes, innumerable quarterbacks (many of whom might have been great if they'd had any line protection), and the clang! of a ball bouncing off the uprights on a sad post-christmas final game in 2004. It was like watching the Detroit Lions.

When Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage arrived as head coach and GM, respectively, my hopes were raised. At last! Smart guys with championship experience! I held out hope through two up-and-down years (even after a devastating pre-Thanksgiving loss to the hated Steelers last year that utterly deflated the team) that they were building something for the long haul. I wondered if ownership would give them time to finish it.

This year was the payoff. Picked to go 5-11 (at best) by most commentators, the Browns remained true to form in their opener, offering their butts to the Steelers for a ritual kicking, 39-0. Local sportscasters who'd declared this "a season of dreams" were mocked by other local sportscasters. Charlie Frye was traded a couple of days later. It looked like Brady Quinn might start soon, despite a contract holdout that had cost him most of training camp. The Romeo Crennel Deathwatch had begun. Everyone talked about signing Bill Cowher for next year.

Then, the next week, Cincinnati came to town, and everything changed. I was at that game, and it was extraordinary, an epic, emotional shootout where the Browns put up 51 points and still made it a nailbiter. Beating the Bengals seemed to energize the team-- it was their first divisional win in ages, and against a hated, hated rival, and suddenly Braylon Edwards, Derek Anderson and Jamal Lewis looked like a potent offensive unit. They would drop a game they should've won to the Raiders the following week, but would follow it with victories over the Ravens, the Seahawks and others. Even a close loss to the Patriots and a closer loss to the Steelers seemed like progress, because the team played well.

They dropped a game to the Cardinals that they should've won (and might have, if not for a controversial ref's call at the end). They won an insane Snow Bowl against the Bills to guarantee a winning season for the first time in five years. All they had to do was beat the Bengals again, and they were in the playoffs.

Well...they didn't. As Colin Firth might say, "of course!" They got off to a sluggish start, and a valiant comeback couldn't wipe out Anderson's four boneheaded interceptions. At least the defense played well. Still, it was a reminder of the heartbreak the team could create. So, I didn't watch today, even though I thought the Browns would win, especially when I read that former FSU star/AARP member Chris Weinke was starting for the 49ers.

And like Colin Firth diving into the room at the last minute, I wish I'd seen the game. All reports say the Browns played a solid game, the defense was strong, and Brady Quinn finally got to play. It's this last item that most excites me-- I like Anderson, who's had a great year, but I saw Quinn play in exhibition, and he energizes the squad in a way that Anderson just can't. Training camp should be really interesting next year. Now, we wait for the Colts to defeat the Titans, to see if we make it into the playoffs.

" 'We won! We won!,' " Jerry Seinfeld used to mock in his pre-credits stand-up routines on his sitcom. He'd add, "No-- they won. You watched." I always tell my students to avoid the second person, to not presume a sense of community or agreement in their writing, that there's an ethics to accepting the first person, to taking responsibility for your opinions and desires. And yet, I write in the second person when I write about the Browns, I feel a sense of attachment even when I don't watch the game. I can dispassionately analyze their play afterwards, but that's not my experience of it, which is far more fraught and emotional (I wonder if I have it better or worse than Jonathan, whose team must achieve perfection for this season to be a success. Is that more, or less fun to watch?). In a response to an earlier post on writing and obilgation, Dave wrote, "I also wonder if there is a more dialectical relationship here--that only upon feeling the drag of obligation that you all describe does one's best writing come out. That is, only after feeling the obligation--and the dread one rightly associates with it--does one find the energy to return to writing with the kind of vigor one sets out with in the first place!" I think that's true, and I think it also describes my relationship to sports fandom, especially with the Browns. Do I need that dread, that avoidance of viewing, in order to follow and enjoy my team? Is that an obligation, or a strange desire? For Cleveland fans, it often feels like the only victories that count are the Pyrrhic ones: we want to be Eyores who revel in our post-game complaining as much as our intermittent victories. But I think this year-- playoffs or no-- is one to be proud of. 10-6, after 5-11 predictions? An actual future to build to? A real, live quaterback controversy to look forward to in the fall? Whoda thunk it?

Oscar Peterson, R.I.P.

Every New Year's Eve Drunk Should Be This Smooth

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Michael Kidd, R.I.P. (Updated)

The deep blue curtain opens to a black screen, which is covered with oversized reproductions of mock pulp magazine covers: “Stab Me Sugar,” “Dames Kill Me” and "Girl Hunt” are just some of the titles. An unseen tommy gun blasts open the black screen, and it gives way to a bluish-purple stage done up to look like an abandoned urban street corner. The lights from the “building” windows define the shapes of their skyscrapers, which make geometric, L-shaped patterns against the dark blue sky.

Fred Astaire enters from stage right, dressed in a white suit and fedora, with blue shirt and white tie (an outfit that echoes the one he wears in 1945’s Yolanda and the Thief). As he begins his narration, framed in a medium shot, he lights a cigarette, thrusting his arms back so the cuffs of his blue shirt are visible, fedora cocked at an angle. He saunters past a very flat street lamp as a mournful jazz trumpet plays. It is a striking image, as if the playboy schemers of Astaire’s earlier films had suddenly taken on an existential loneliness.

He begins to narrate his story, in a neo-Chandler patois: “My name is Rod Riley…The rats and the killers were in their holes. I hate killers…” Rod has barely lit his cigarette when Cyd Charisse’s “Blonde” slides onstage from the right. The camera tracks to follow her, until she is in the frame, next to Rod, whom she grabs in desperation. Framed in a medium shot, he pokes a cigarette between her lips, and her shoulders shrug. She takes a puff and falls into Rod’s arms. This existential loner isn’t having it: he spins her back out, as the camera dollies back to a long shot to capture the movement. A tracking shot follows their dance, until their heads swivel right, and a cut reveals a thug, in brown trench coat and fedora, menacing his way through the fog in a long shot. The thug’s wide frame moves to the foreground, where he picks up a bottle and a hankie. In this pastiche, however, elegance will always trump machismo, so it’s only logical that the next cut returns the viewer to Rod and the Blonde, twirling in dance. Her canary yellow trench coat obscures Rod’s lower left side like a Surrealist tarp in a Man Ray photo, and all we can see is his left leg and arm. Dancing in front of a deep blue shop backdrop, Rod rolls the Blonde off his front, and she lies vertically on the ground.

Since the holidays, I've been somewhat out of the news loop, which means I only just found out about the death of Michael Kidd, the brilliant dancer, director and choreographer, who died of cancer on December 26, at the age of 92. Kidd's most famous screen choreography was for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), one of the most innovative MGM musicals in its use of outdoor settings and the incorporation of "every day" items like axes, saws and tables into dance routines (Kidd would utilize this technique in an even more dramatic fashion in the underrated It's Always Fair Weather, whose trash-can dance is a moment of shake-your-head audacity). Kidd also danced in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free, starred opposite Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey in the aforementioned Weather, and had many successes on Broadway, including Li'l Abner, Can-Can, and the groundbreaking Guys and Dolls.

For me, though, he will always be the choreographer of The Band Wagon, the greatest musical in Hollywood history, and the best showcase Fred Astaire ever had. From the casual walking dance of "By Myself" to the insanely commodified joy of "Shine on Your Shoes," to the lyrical yearning of "Dancing in the Dark" (a pas de deux that wears its considerable heat and tension as lightly as a summer suit), to the hilariously psychotic "Triplets," the film offered Astaire a wide range of movement, and allowed Kidd to remind us that dance can be almost anything: witty gesture, character sketch, narrative engine, roccoco ornament, intertextual joke, conveyor of desires.

Above all, it can be the "Girl Hunt Ballet," whose opening moments I described above, and which for me is one of the most sublime sequences in American cinema. Its quivering mise-en-scene (Kidd's sensuality dovetailing beautifully with director Vincente Minnelli's) makes its Mickey Spillane storyline balance right on the edge of parody without ever quite falling over; it's funny, but it's also genuinely dangerous, and immensely sexy-- it invites a camp reading but never lets its audience slip into the distanced, smug cynicism that camp too often engenders; and because the number cares so much about its style and movement, it forces us to care, and stay involved. It takes every emotion or mood from every previous number in the film-- the explosion of color in "New Sun in the Sky," the relaxed fatalism of "By Myself," the frenzy of "Shoes" and the yearning of "Dark"-- and blends them into something funny and extremely charged: when Cyd Charisse opens her green trenchcoat to reveal a sequined red dress, and wraps herself around Astaire's dapper white suit, every cinematic and critical code is suddenly short-circuited, and I, for one, don't know whether to laugh or gasp.

"She was bad," Astaire says in his noirish voiceover. ""She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn't trust her any farther than I could throw her. But she was my kinda woman." Ironic, sincere, funny, smart, and sensual all at once, "The Girl Hunt Ballet" is not just a model of dancing or filmmaking, but a model for critical writing, a mixture of rhetorical modes that allows each element to speak while blending them all into a new language that feels both social and personal, esoteric and public at the same time, like Cyd Charisse's leg slipping across Fred Astaire's shoulder.

UPDATE: Bob has a very nice tribute to Kidd up at his superlative site, Forward to Yesterday, which has good insights and fun trivia, including Kidd's real age! Check it out, and browse around his blog for awhile-- there's a lot of good stuff there.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Secret Santas

So, I had this idea to do a month-long series of Christmas-related YouTube posts. It was inspired in part by the kinds of cool video grabs and posts that Larry often does, and in part by insomnia: turning on my tv one night, I caught the last five minutes of Shop Around The Corner, and knew I wanted to post it to my blog. I didn't (it wasn't available, I'm still learning DVD grabbing, and I posted a different clip from the film instead), but it did cause me to think-- why not do this the whole month? A theme! A theme that wasn't opaque, that felt seasonal, that would be fun, certainly for me and hopefully for my audience! I also thought it was broad enough that it could encompass Whitmanesque multitudes: obvious canonical clips (gotta get Jimmy Stewart in there), campy pokes at holiday traditions, creepy spins on the season, offbeat music videos, friends' suggestions, and good, old-fashioned sentiment.

At first, it was fun-- I'd search for clips, do subject searches on IMDb to make sure there wasn't something I'd forgotten (The Godfather! Of course!), and map out what order I'd put the clips in for greatest effect.

Then, it got to be a drag: "Oh, right-- the stupid Christmas thing. What else can I post?" I'd be thwarted by lack of available texts-- "Why doesn't anyone have Christmas in Connecticut up on YouTube? How the frack can there be thousands of tributes to Alyson Hannigan, but nothing about Barbara Stanwyck??"--and eventually saw the whole idea as an annoyance. I work so hard to not write from a position of obligation-- in many ways, this blog is about writing precisely against the sense of martyred 'authenticity' that kills the pleasure of the text--and here I'd created a pattern of obligation for myself. Sure, I usually blog every day, anyway, but about different stuff, not the same theme over and over. And while this technically wasn't "writing"-- another reason I did it, as I wanted that Benjaminian sense of the image sans captions (well, besides the post title)--it was still an every day obligation. And I grew to dislike it.

Then, it was fun again-- I'd moved through many of the intial clips I'd wanted to show, and had fun finding other stuff to post, like Billie Holiday. And in ending with A Charlie Brown Christmas, which had always been my plan, I was reminded of the spirit that had initiated it all in the first place.

Why is he telling you this, you might ask? Because it wasn't until I read Jeff's post, catching up on the blogosphere after the holidays, that I realized this whole blogject ended up replicating the protocols and trajectory of academic writing: choose a topic, idea, or area that interests you; dive in with great enthusiasm and vast plans; feel invigorated by what you're doing and the response it gets; realize there's way too much out there to cover in the topic you've chosen, and also not enough available resources to make it click the way you'd imagined (who the hell checked out this book??!? Why doesn't the library carry this?? I hate interlibrary loan!); hate your project, dread your project, wonder why you ever started this project that you now carry around like Marley's chains; chill out, take a break, realize you are actually doing fine; find that second wind just as the project wraps, and say goodbye to it with surprising melancholy, given the stress you've caused each other.

That's the MA thesis, the diss, the article, and I imagine the book project (although I'm only just working up to that last stage). I exaggerate a little-- a blogject is fun, not work, and isn't nearly as difficult-- but without knowing it until it was finished, I'd somehow transferred the same intellectual and emotional responses into this different sphere. Is it simply a matter of authorial personality? Do the structures of obligation (not the "I need to do this" of desire, but of socialization and expectation (even if that 'expectation' is just in your head) always create what Jeff calls the "un-obsessed writer", regardless of space or project? Was finding this out the "secret santa" gift the blogject ended up giving me? And as we hurtle towards 2008, what kinds of new year's resolutions might I make about writing, about figuring out a way to make structures of obligation a generator of desire, rather than a destoyer of it?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dark Knights

The upcoming Batman film, The Dark Knight, has a new trailer (hat tip to the fellows at 2 Guys Buying Comics for mentioning it). The teaser trailer with the echoing voices was pretty effective, but it's thrilling to a comics geek like me to actually have a fuller preview with images. Bale, Caine, Oldman and Freeman are back, Heath Ledger looks insane, and Maggie Gyllenhaal looks like a big upgrade from Katie Holmes. Toss in a Chicago (standing in for "Gotham City") that looks like an eerie, lit-by-Rembrant criminal playground, and I'd say prospects seem strong for a fun film this summer.

23 Days of Christmas: Alvin and The Chipmunks

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Con Games

As winter storms whip through Cineville, it seems like a good time to settle in with some good, warm televisual comfort food, and Hustle fits the bill. This British import, which I've been watching through Netflix, is not going to challenge Buffy, Friday Night Lights or The Sopranos as appointment television, but it does offer some old-fashioned charms: funny characters, smooth acting, and twisty caper narratives that, despite their hip, Ocean's Eleven/Snatch-like surface glitz (enhanced by the club-derived scoring), really harken back to an earlier model of mystery narrative, that of late-sixties and early-seventies programs like It Takes a Thief and Mission: Impossible, or films like The Thomas Crown Affair, where the pleasure is not in where the narrative goes, but the stylish ways it gets there. The casting of Man from U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn (as the eminence grise of a team of Robin Hood-style grifters) enhances this old school vibe, and he's ably supported by a charming cast that includes Dexter supporting player Jaime Murray and British stage star Adrian Lester. Most episodes follow a formula-- find the mark (generally some obnoxious business tycoon or public institution that the audience can have no sympathy for), plan the con, watch it fall into place then almost fall apart, cue the twist that pulls it back together (while also kicking off flashbacks that fill in the missing pieces of cleverness for the audience). Not every episode conforms to this pattern and, indeed, some of the pleasures as the show unfolds are the jazzy variations to the template that the producers occasionally introduce. Still, its overall insistence on a clockwork structure acts as a nice metacommentary on the nature of the con, and the expectations of television narrative overall: do we want change or repetition, the comfort of the old or the shock of the new? Or does the grifter teach us that each shares the same narrative sleight-of-hand, the ability to make us think there's both more and less there than meets the eye?


Wait-- FSU football players are required to go to class?? Who knew?

Maybe they should've taken this good advice from The Onion.

Keith Olbermann, Take Note

I am not, essentially, a political comedian, preferring to think about issues of politics and culture through the filters of pop. Still, things like this make me wonder if Keith Olbermann ever wishes he was on a different network, so he could nail some of the MSNBC morons as "Today's Worst Person in the World."

Like many folks on the mostly-Democratic side, I have mixed feelings about all the candidates, wishing you could combine the best parts of each to make some sort of ideal: Hillary's wonkishness and interest in health care, Edwards' policy experience with issues related to the poor and working class, Chris Dodd's fervent defense of the Constitution, Bill Richardson's vast foreign policy experience, Obama's soaring rhetoric...All of them are preferable to the fools running on the Republican side, and none of them are perfect: that need to compromise is both the frustration and glory of democracy. Clinton is fair game on any number of issues, but Matthews' continued, misogynist clowning is just beyond the pale. Could we do a DNA test and determine if this is, indeed, the same Chris Matthews who worked for Tip O'Neill, and somehow sat side-by-side with Hendrick Hertzberg in the communications wing of the Carter White House, but learned nothing from him? 'Cause I'm not buyin' it: I think he's been replaced by a pod Chris.

23 Days of Christmas: Buffy

Monday, December 17, 2007

Monstrous: Beowulf

You know what Robert Zemekis's Beowulf really needed?

Will Ferrell.

Sitting in the Apollo (Cineville's beloved second-run theater) last week and watching this interminable CGI monstrosity, I just kept imagining our titular hero's pomposity as played by everyone's favorite Ron Burgandy. "YEAH, I killed the Grendel!," Ferrell might comically swagger, while backed by a Wiglaf played by John C. Reilly (my friends Tyke and Mess observed that the King might be played by Christopher Walken). After all, in many ways this Beowulf is already the year's funniest comedy. I'm not sure if I was more amused by the creepy, "uncanny valley" look of the humanoid animations, the frozen-in-adolscence depictions of prudish sexuality, the Shrek-like figurations of Beowulf's fighting men in battle, or the way that Beowulf looked strikingly like Nick Nolte while being pulled along by the Golden Dragon at the end. "I wonder if Anthony Hopkins was really drunk when they filmed him?," I wondered, as Hopkins' character seemed smashed throughout the proceedings (and really, who could blame him? This castle-bound king is a far cry from the dark, brooding majesty of his prince in Lion in Winter). But that's just it-- absent any kind of referent in this CGIfied space, we have no sense of the characters' real bodies, no sense of the blood being spilled. I'm not a luddite-- there are a lot CGI animations I love. But, Grendel aside (and Crispin Glover is really quite touching in the role), there's no reason for this film to be animated, no advantage it gains by having the whole thing processed through the computer. In fact, it loses quite a bit: any sense of texture and grit, any feel for the stakes of the violence, any empathy for the expressive faces, and, above all, any sense of sensuality. Sex is a pretty big motivation in the film's narrative, but the CGI completely robs the bodies of their heat and sweat. Compared to the wacked-out brilliance of something like Excalibur, a film I thought of a lot while watching it, Beowulf is all metallic surfaces and styrofoam rock. Boorman's vision worked because the character's desires and passions dovetailed with his own overheated cinematographic techniques (the naked beautiful people didn't hurt, either); Zemekis's vision fails because Beowulf's narrative demands a rawness that his technique is incapable of, at least here. The only person who comes out well is Angelina Jolie, possibly because she's already an otherworldly cartoon: with her large eyes, slick hair and sly grin, she's immediately a more charismatic presence than anyone or anything else on the screen. For the most part, though, the film is as empty as the theater (six people full!) I saw it in last Wednesday, a cavernous space that's ripe for snide humor.


There's a real, honest-to-goodness discussion occuring at Dave Kehr's blog about No Country For Old Men lately, and it's worth checking out. I know, I know: "Cinephile, people have been talking about this film for weeks!," you say, but the debates going on in Kehr's comments section are interesting precisely because they are debates. The Coens' new movie has been a constant refrain from my students: "Have you seen it?," they keep asking me, and I have to sadly shake my head and admit that, no, I haven't yet (damn grading and stuff!). My students come to the movie with the passion and belief of ten-and-twenty-something cinephiles, which is great, but the vibe I get from those comments in Kehr's blog is something quesier and slightly more sinister, less advocacy than enforcement of belief. It's cinema-as-religion, with your taste marking you as either a believer or an apostate (the excellent Roger Ebert pulled this stunt with Crash a couple of years ago, not only surprised but genuinely outraged that someone might accurately call that film a piece of overwrought, sanctimonious claptrap).

The Coens' movies often invite this sense of hipster/square division (most annoyingly in Barton Fink and The Ladykillers, films which dare you not to laugh, even though the humor of each is roughly on the level of the Scary Movies, which are at least honest about their nihilistic tackiness). Kehr was witty enough to slip his own critique of No Country into a post which also discussed Twin Peaks, perhaps intuiting the link between the Coens and David Lynch as figures of deadpan style who inspire cultish devotion.

I have no dog in this hunt: as I said, I haven't had the opportunity to see the film yet, and its dramatic structure (which generally works better for the Coens than outright comedy) and the opinions of critics I like make me think it might indeed be brilliant. But I am struck by Kehr's response in the comments: "There’s been a lot of anger expressed here over one very small dissent from majority opinion". Exactly, and it's that anger that fascinates. There's a long and honorable history of cinematic proselytizing, from Bazin and Truffaut to Kael v. Sarris to Ebert and Siskel's promotion of films like My Dinner With Andre and Hoop Dreams. And that proselytizing often starts from a position of difference, a demarcation with what's come before: "realism v. plastics," or "auteurism v. metteurs-en-scene," or "indie v. mainstream." So why do I feel drawn to those earlier forms of advocacy, and so put off by this one? Maybe because those earlier pieces felt like invitations to discussion, rather than the shutting down of it, or perhaps because those critics and theorists were advocating for that minority opinion or obscure film, rather than using their advocacy to reinforce conventional wisdom. They felt like attempts to open critical spaces for new, personal sensibilites, instead of groupthink.

What's the line between taste and belief, between advocacy and enforcement, and why the strange desire for closing off the discussion, shutting down the polls, that emanates from some of Kehr's critics? Perhaps Brecht (via Walter Benjamin's remembrances of him) predicted some of this when he spoke of his own nightmare:

‘I often imagine being interrogated by a tribunal. “Now, tell us Mr. Brecht, are you really in earnest?” I would have to admit that no, I’m not completely in earnest. I think too much about artistic problems, you know, about what is good for the theatre, to be completely in earnest. But having said “no” to that important question, I would add something still more important: namely, that my attitude is permissible.”

23 Days of Christmas: Die Hard

Sunday, December 16, 2007



We still have a week or so before a playoff spot is confirmed, but this is a huge win for Cleveland. They maintained momentum from last week, fought through crazy weather, and defended their home turf against a rising Buffalo squad. And Jamal Lewis got 163 yards in the ice and snow, which is amazing. None of this makes them the Patriots, but these are the kinds of things a young team needs to do, and this game is another step in the team's development. It also guarantees a winning record for the first time since 2002, but unlike that Butch Davis group, this Browns season is exciting because it feels like the result of good, slow work by coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage to really build a team for the future. And that feeling hasn't been part of football in Cleveland for twenty years.

Hello, Old Friend

The film version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd opens this week, and today's NY Times has a multi-part interview with Sondheim about his work on the adaptation. I've already noted my qualms about this version, especially given the recent track records of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and the article does nothing to alleviate my concerns (especially the section on cut material). Still, Sondheim-- the most interesting and important figure in the last half-century of American theater-- is always a fascinating interview, and it's a great pleasure to get a peek into his creative process (he's a brilliant analyst of form, and if this theater thing doesn't work out, he'd make a great critic). The Christmas present at the end of the piece was the news that Sam Mendes and Aaron Sorkin are developing a film version of Sondheim's greatest work, Follies, whose intertwining of theater and film history (and theatrical and cinematic techniques) could make for a dazzling movie ("Who's That Woman?" alone could make for a dazzling movie). Just don't cut that killer score guys, ok?

23 Days of Christmas: "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Seth: Do you have any idea how pathetic it is to listen to you talk about mergers while some guy just stares at your boobs?
Summer: Which guy was staring at my boobs?
Seth: Who cares? The point is if that guy doesn't know you, he doesn't care who you really are. He has no idea that every day of third grade, you shared your lunch with that little skinny squirrel who kept getting his nuts stolen by that fat squirrel.
Summer: I hated that mean squirrel!
Seth: And, none of those guys were there when you had to read your poem out loud in class and your hand was shaking because you were nervous and you cared what the other kids thought.
Summer: Poem? What poem?
Seth: I Wish I Was A Mermaid.
Summer: You remember that? That was, like, sixth grade.
Seth: "I wish I was a mermaid and was friends with all the fish, a shiny tail and seashells, that's—
(Summer kisses Seth)
Seth: —what I would wish.

Charming on Gilmore Girls, desperately needy in Thank You For Smoking, and so winningly emo on four seasons of The OC that we're almost willing to forgive In The Land of Women-- happy birthday, Adam Brody.

23 Days of Christmas: Wham!

Friday, December 14, 2007

What Would Clemens Do?

There are a number of ways to respond to the Mitchell Report's revelations of steroids abuse in baseball. You could take the local angle-- how will this hurt my team? You could gnash your teeth once again about the degradation and corruption of sports. You could ponder the double standards of ESPN, who've spent years chasing down Barry Bonds stories, but whose Solomonic wise men spent yesterday cautioning us to not rush to judgment, to let the facts come out, to let players speak (you know, now that one of those players is the sainted Roger Clemens).

Or, you could just read a funny blog response.

Pop Life

So, the list of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honorees is out. I think it's pretty decent, and I note some personal geographic connections: like Madonna, I grew up in Michigan, I went to college in the Coug's homebase of Bloomington, IN (where his name is now on an athletic facility he helped fund), and some of my family resides in Seattle, hometown of the Ventures. Aside from Leonard Cohen and Huff and Gamble, no one on the list leaps out at me (although I don't know as much about Little Walter as I should), but I've enjoyed music from all of them, and none of the choices offend.

There are those that are offended by the very idea of a rock and roll museum, of course, feeling that it's something of an oxymoron (these purists overlook the irony that the museum is in Cleveland, a town whose river once caught on fire-- I mean, what's more rock and roll than that?). Emblematic of these carps was food writer/TV guy Anthony Bourdain's, on his recent trip to our fair Dawgtown this past winter (the episode aired in the summer); he visited the Hall with a Ramone and decried, in voiceover, the enshrining of a music that's meant to be "rebellious," "tough-edged," "anti-institutional," and best of all, "garage."

Well. I can see the point, I guess, but the problem for me is precisely the pairing of the anti-Hall sentiments with this sort of moldy ideological critique, which is itself no less of a museum piece, and no less of an institutional mode of address. As Jeff wrote, "The music collection becomes artifact for display at some point," and those artifacts can be critical modes as much as the Edge's guitar. Like the Hall, this sort of critique works to freeze a certain reading of the music in political and generational terms, works to control the discourse, and therefore to affect the future of the form. Does this kind of reading-- powered by an album-centered, thesis-driven sort of meaning (a critical "concept album," if you like)-- still make sense in the age of the I-pod, the the cherry-picked single, the shuffle (a term which connotes, not bearded folkies or angry punks, but dancing to the beat and sensual bliss)? Don't get me wrong-- a lot of good writing (including folks like Greil Marcus and Simon Reynolds) derives from this position in different ways, but we shouldn't fool ourselves. It's not a garage band sound: it's the music of the Man.

23 Days of Christmas: Bowie and Bing

Monday, December 10, 2007

Surf's Up!

Via the fabulous Kim Morgan, and her essential Movies Filter, I learned of this Vanity Fair interview with Francis Ford Coppola. The whole thing is worth reading-- Coppola has a gift for brilliantly mesmerizing, meglomaniacally poetic phrasing--and his new movie, Youth Without Youth, sounds fascinating.

For all of the piece's great quotes, evocative descriptions of vineyards and thoughtful considerations of Coppola's oeuvre, here's the passage that really grabbed my eye:

The decade between The Rainmaker and Youth Without Youth wasn’t a vacation. Aside from tending to his various business concerns, Coppola released expanded versions of Apocalypse Now and The Outsiders, both of which improved on the originals; mulled a takeover of United Artists (friends and colleagues were peppered with e-mails asking, “Who should I get to run UA?”); kicked around the idea of a Godfather Part IV before it was nixed by Sumner Redstone’s Paramount; co-wrote a musical workshop based on the original Gidget novel and staged it with a cast of non-professional Orange County teenagers... (emphasis mine).

Francis Ford Coppola.

And Gidget.

This is one of those sitcommy, "It's a crazy idea, but it just might work" notions that's nothing less than fascinating. What's it like? Who wrote the music? Is there a gangster or a surveillance expert involved? Would it be like the recent (very good) film version of Hairspray, or more like the layered show-pop of Jason Robert Brown's 13? And as a huge fan of musicals (and someone with a strange fetish for surfing movies), I have to ask-- did anyone think to film it? Because screw Greed-- this is the great lost masterpiece I wanna see.

Don't Touch His Hat

Poster alert! The most accurate cinematic portrayal of an academic ever makes his big-screen return on May 22, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (say that title three times fast-- a little wordy, ain't it? I imagine Lucas had it lying around as an Episode III alternate title). You can read about the new film (and get some non-spoilery plot details) here. I, for one, am geeked-- despite the deflated tone of Last Crusade (where Spielberg and Lucas almost seemed apologetic about the thrills they were providing), the Indy movies are still among the most enjoyable action epics in recent memory, and the superb supporting cast and acknowledgement of Harrison Ford's age in the narrative are good signs.

Even if the movie stinks, though, it's worth it just to have another of those iconic teaser posters the series is so good at. And Ford looks quite good for a painted 65-year-old.

Why Are There So Many Songs About Rainbows?

The rain came to Cineville this weekend, washing away much of the beautiful snow we got last week. It's all slush and gray, dead grass and leafless trees right now, although the Christmas lights are still up and glittering. That combination of rain, light, melancholy and beauty (combined with some animation searches for teaching, and Brendan's recent reminder of that underrated Christmas curio, Emmit Otter's Jugband Christmas), made me think of "Rainbow Connection," the lovely theme song to 1979's The Muppet Movie. Written by Paul Williams and performed in the film by Jim Henson as Kermit (in a head voice shot through with winning naivete), I always thought the song was an interesting one to open a childen's film. The soaring melody and Henson's compressed vocal range give it an appropriately child-like wonder, but the lyric seems to challenge the very dreams and myths the melody conspires to invoke:

Who said that wishes
would be heard and answered
when wished on the morning star?

Someone thought of that
and someone believed it.
Look what it's done so far.

What's so amazing
that keeps us stargazing
and what do we think we might see?

Henson's clipped vocal-- how he strains, rather than easily hits, a high note-- contributes to this slight damper, but also suggests its ultimate resolution: that, no matter how foolish or illusory the rainbow, it's the striving towards it that really matters.

I was going to put up the clip from the film, but when I got to YouTube, I was amazed to discover 544 different renditions of the song were available; clearly, the Williams-Henson vision is one with broad appeal (as the song itself says, "it's probably magic").

First, the original Kermit version from The Muppet Movie:

Two years later, Kermit would do a duet with Debbie Harry on The Muppet Show:

That same year, 1981, the Carpenters would record a demo take-- not finished and released until after Karen's death:

Other versions have played with the meaning of the song, as in the underrated Peyton Reed film, The Break-Up , where the film's a cappella group, the Tone Rangers, find a way to sincerity through irony:

Sarah McLachlan's version of the song suggests that "rainbows" have a political and sexual connotation in their dreams of utopic harmony:

Here's a live version by the Dresden Dolls:

And another, much more intentionally funny, by Office/Daily Show star Ed Helms:

And finally, my favorite version, recorded by Willie Nelson in 2001 for a children's record called Rainbow Connection:

To see Nelson himself perform it in a striking video, follow this link. Universal Music Group, in their infinite wisdom, doesn't allow embedding, but it's worth watching anyway, and I love the Django Reinhardtish solo at the end.

Give That Woman A Cigar!

From Salon's War Room section:

"Appearing on NPR's "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" over the weekend, [White House Press Secretary] Perino said she "panicked" when she got the Cuban missile crisis question because she wasn't exactly sure what the Cuban missile crisis was. "I really know nothing about the Cuban missile crisis," Perino said. "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I'm pretty sure."

23 Days of Christmas: Bad Santa

Sunday, December 9, 2007



I'm glad Tim Tebow won the Heisman last night-- he had a phenomenal year and seems like a good guy, and I'm glad he helped break the silly prejudice about age that surrounded the trophy.

Still, some of the coverage is a bit confusing. I think Stewart Mandel is a good college football writer, but I do wonder about this passage:

Ron Powlus. Brock Berlin. Chris Leak. Jimmy Clausen. All, like Tebow, and like so many others, were anointed saviors before they ever attended a college class. None came close to living up to the overwhelming expectations placed on their shoulders (though Clausen still has a chance), because, quite frankly, not too many could. (emphasis mine).

Mandel praises Tebow for winning a national championship, which Chris Leak did, too. In fact, Leak was the starting quarterback on that team. He didn't do it by himself-- but neither did Tebow. So...Leak wins a national championship, but doesn't win an award that many (including SI) have noted often goes to the wrong person and is subject to any number of biases from its voters-- and that's Leak's fault? Perhaps Leak didn't live up to hype in terms of passing yards or whatever, but I'd say surviving the tumult of the Zook era, dealing with coaching and gamebook changes, and winning a national championship-- while all the while an annointed one was breathing down your neck-- is actually pretty impressive.

Tough room, man, tough room. Then again, I'm not among the wise ones who vote on this award.

23 Days of Christmas: Silent Night, Deadly Night

Friday, December 7, 2007

Vamp When Ready: Wedding Present

"Screenwriter Joseph Anthony's refusal to infuse the proceedings with anything even resembling a plot proves to be disastrous," huffs Reel Film Reviews' David Nusair in his capsule take on the Wedding Present DVD, but that's exactly the quality I loved about this 1936 film, released last year as part of a five-film box from Universal, Cary Grant: Screen Legend Collection. As part of a collection of lesser-known Grant films-- Thirty-Day Princess, Wings In Dark, Big Brown Eyes, Kiss and Make-Up-- Wedding Present offers a Grant whose star persona is still nascent, but whose talent, humor and charisma shine through, not in spite of the film's light-hearted incoherence, but precisely because of it. Freed of the obligation for narrative coherence and thematic "significance," Wedding Present offers a series of performance sketches, which allow Grant and his co-star, the delightfully game Constance [Correction-- I meant Joan Bennett, of course] Bennett, the opportunity to sing silly songs, roll one-liners off their tongues and one-up each other's slapstick. The plot, such as it is, unfolds as a series of surreal, jazzy tangents: what feels like a Front Page-style newspaper comedy quickly becomes a witty marriage comedy (standing in the hallway of the courthouse, Grant offers Bennett a vacuum cleaner like it was a box of candy), which quickly morphs into a Capraesque observation of cross-cultural exchange when Bennett and Grant go to interview a vistiting ambassador, which somehow takes us into one the 30s' favorite genres, the airplane drama. Then, we're back at the newspaper again. Ask for depth, consistency of tone, and narrative closure as your defining qualities of meaning, and you'll get stuck-- but why be a Ralph Bellamy about the proceedings? Wedding Present knows that its real purpose is to provide just enough harmonic background for its stars to riff on, reminding us that Hollywood in the 1930s was best described by French writer and journalist Blaise Cendrars; he wasn't writing about Wedding Present, but his description of a trip to that film's studio, Paramount, conveys its mood:

The studio was jammed with jazz—pianos, violins, flutes, saxophones, the clangs of a gong, brass, drums. Thousands of clustered lamps sparkled, hundreds of spotlights heaved, capsized in the distance. Above the innumerable heads of the costumed actors and extras, the giant lever for panoramic shots moved about the battens in the loft, swinging Robert Z. Leonard, director of this admirable production honoring the cinema, his cameramen, and his team of helpers and electricians in tubs suspended in midair.

Aaron Sorkin Returns to Television

He's not back on the air just yet-- and after critics and bloggers grossly slagged Studio 60 like it was the second coming of Stanley Kramer (while falling all over themselves to praise the enjoyable-but-erratic Heroes, and the godawful Heiglianism of Grey's Anatomy), I can't say I blame his reticence--but he's tackling the medium's history in a new play, The Farsnworth Invention, which just opened on Broadway. Influential NY Times critic Ben Brantley posted a mixed-to-negative review, which makes me suspect the project might have worked better as a TV show (Sorkin's ideal medium, I suspect, despite the commercial failure of Sunset Strip).

Of course, Sorkin's been over this territory before-- one of the best moments of the late and lamented Sports Night was William H. Macy's monologue about Farnsworth (shockingly not posted to YouTube, although Muffmann fans can get their fill of Dana-and-Sam mashups here), which summarizes the figure's historical importance through a succinct anecdote, then uses that anecdote to reveal hidden character motivation. It's a graceful dance of humor, history, camerawork and narrative, and it doesn't really need an expansion into a full-length narrative. This is not to say The Farnsworth Invention, which I haven't seen, is necessarily as bad as Brantley makes it sound-- only that Sorkin is at his best when history and politics (or sports, or TV production) are used as jumping-off points for other imaginative wonderings, and not as the subjects in and of themselves (even The West Wing-- which was often brilliant in its concise and screwball articulation of various policy issues-- was less about day-to-day politics than about a more general sense of grace, especially grace under pressure).

You can watch an interesting interview with Sorkin about the play here. There are mirrors within mirrors in that piece: it's perhaps an ironic, implied bit of support for Sorkin's wider points about TV's commerciality that Studio 60 isn't mentioned among Sorkin's credits in the piece, even though (or perhaps because?) the interview is broadcast by that show's old network, NBC (a network founded by one of the play's characters--and targets-- David Sarnoff).

In the interview, Sorkin says the play is less about the characters or the medium, and more generally about a "spirit of exploration," which isn't a bad summation of a lot of his work, especially the underlying optimism and hope that such a spirit requires. Giving witty articulation to that hope-- while also recognizing its potential dark side-- has been his gift, which makes me intrigued about his collaboration this winter with Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson's War. I think it's fair to say that Nichols approaches his work from precisely the opposite position-- starting with a cynical take on a certain public pose, and perhaps (although not often) finding the humanity underneath--and that's led to work that is much broader, more satiric and far more acidic in its take on human nature than, say, The West Wing. Toss in well-known stars like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and the whole thing could either be a brilliant or messy clash of styles and viewpoints, but that potential messiness might not be a bad allegorical framework for its real-life tale of a crazy Texan hurling himself into the Cold War.

All of this is just prelude, of course, for Sorkin's next project, a stage adaptation of (I kid you not) The Flaming Lips album, Yoshima Battles The Pink Robots. Any chance we might get Allison Janney to play Yoshima?

23 Days Of Christmas: The He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special