Wednesday, January 30, 2008

John Edwards


Boolise sent word this afternoon that John Edwards was dropping out of the Democratic presidential race. I saw Edwards when he came to Gainesville during the '04 campaign, and thought he was smart, funny and extremely charismatic, and a far better articulator of John Kerry's virtues than John Kerry (Kerry is a good man, I think, but not a great campaigner). It seemed clear that, whatever the outcome of that year's election, Edwards was setting himself up for a long and successful career in Democratic national politics.

He might still have that (a President Clinton or Obama would be foolish not to place him in the Cabinet somewhere), but not this year. Edwards didn't seem quite as boyishly enthused as he did in '04, and his campaign made a few missteps (most notably his less-than-thoughtful reaction to the whole Hillary faux-crying 'incident'). But he made many valuable contributions to this primary season, his boyishness replaced with a more focused and mature examination of economic issues and a consistent and passionate defense of those left behind by the current Administration's policies. He never wavered from defending homeless vets, displaced New Orleanians, or a working class screwed by special interests. For that forthrightness he was pilloried by a media culture as "superficial" (a weird case of projection, since they were the ones who wanted to talk about his hair), when they weren't cutting him out of the coverage altogether. That he kept speaking and campaigning in the face of this, and did so while also facing the re-emergence of his wife's cancer, makes him much more the "character" candidate to me than a shameful panderer and media-created "straight talker" like John McCain, but that's the way the Chris Matthews bounce, bounces, I guess.

As a voter, I would've liked a wider range of choices by the time the primaries reach Ohio (and I agree with dday that this is yet another reason the whole primary system needs to be revamped). But I can't blame Edwards for getting out, and I salute him for the progressive contributions he made to the national dialogue.

Rudy Can't Fail?



Farewell, Rudy. Or, as Elizabeth says in Pride & Prejudice, "Yes-- go, go. I would not wish you back again."

(h/t to Eric Boehlert for the "America's Mayor" video link).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Adaptation


Has anyone seen Atonement? It feels like The Costume Picture That Couldn't: despite its pedigree (adapted from a breathtaking-- nay, mindblowing--novel by Ian McEwan) and generally positive reviews, it hasn't gotten the Oscar traction of No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood or Juno, all of whom have fierce partisans maneuvering on their behalf; Atonement, by contrast, feels more like the Bill Richardson of the race, where no one truly dislikes it, but no one feels particularly inspired by it, either.

I haven't seen it yet, but I was taken aback by the ad for it that aired during CNN's Degrassi-like primary coverage tonight. Intercutting some steamier clips for the film with the usual critics' quotes and mentions of various awards wins and nominations, the most fascinating element was the ad's choice of music: Timbaland's remix of OneRepublic's alt-pop ballad, "Apologize." It's a nice song, but a counterintuitive one, for a costume picture set in 30s and 40s England, and feels like a last-ditch long bomb to raise the film's box office profile (similar to the way Keira Knightley' earlier bit of Oscar bait, Pride & Prejudice, cast a distinctly emo Darcy to rope in a younger audience).

Even more interesting, though, is what I discovered when I logged onto YouTube to try to find the clip: a couple of fan-made videos, done months ago, that cut together clips from the film to the same backing track (WARNING: the vids reveal plot spoilers). Was Working Title aware of these videos when it cut its own ad together? If so, it's a really interesting example of viral marketing, picking up on how fans are already talking about the film and incorporating it into your own work. 20 years ago, MTV and radio marketed sountrack tie-ins for Miami Vice and Top Gun as emblems of cool that fans just had to have. I welcome this apparent shift in the direction of influence, the absorption of DIY ethos into an Oscar campaign. Coming as it does during network campaign coverage that often ignores such on-the-ground opinions in favor of pre-set narratives and tired conventional wisdom, it takes on an extra irony.

T'Ain't Necessarily So




I don't mean to sound like a shill for the New York Times Arts & Leisure section, but I would be remiss if I didn't direct your attention to this article about a fascinating new version of Porgy and Bess being staged in Austin, TX. What fascinates is how the production folds Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans into the opera (even though it is set in South Carolina); as the primary birthplace of the jazz that fueled so much of the Gershwins' music, it seems like an appropriate connection, and a politically timely one.

McCain and Romney Face Off In Florida




Crooks and Liars has the gory details.

Keith Richards Is Still Alive


"It serves to condition me, and smoothen my kinks/Despite my frustration with the way you think," Amy Winehouse sang on her 2003 debut Frank, finding the missing vocal link between hip-hop and Eartha Kitt, scatting like a 60s jazz star over electronic drumbeats. The lyric, like many of her songs, details the masochistic underbelly of a broken relationship, but does so in a clear-eyed and even darkly funny way (there's a fascinating tonal balance in Winehouse's work: you never know whether you should laugh or cry, and the singer doesn't seem sure, either).

Maybe the lyric also works to describe the music business? An article in Monday's USA TODAY sported the headline, "Amy Winehouse's sobering transformation could hurt her musical credibility"; the generally reliable music reporter/critic Edna Gunderson quoted numerous reporters and music business execs who mournfully shook their heads, tut-tutted the soul singer's recent drug problems, and spoke of the long-term damage her year-long escapades might do to her career (My favorite quote comes from Tom O'Neil, who the article describes as a "columnist for awards insider TheEnvelope.com," and who notes, ""Amy's arguably the breakout artist of the year, but the music industry is a drug-sensitive world. Her rebuke of rehab may seem cool over the airwaves, but it strikes a scary chord with Grammy voters. If they excuse it as part of the back story of great artists like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, she still has the problem of being British." (emphasis mine). Wow, moralism and xenophobia-- a gossip columnist two-fer!)

Gunderson is a good reporter, and I have no doubt her article reflects a general sentiment in the entertainment business, so this is no reflection on her work when I say: I'm calling "bullshit."

Set aside the rhetorical slip of the headline, which falsely equates musical credibility and commercial success (the latter seems the real focus of the article). Set aside the considerable merit of Winehouse's record, Back To Black, which I think is one of the three best albums of the year (along with Springsteen's Magic and Kanye West's Graduation). Instead, just ponder the hypocrisy of the industry's reaction. This is a business and surrounding media culture that continues to valorize Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon and Janis Joplin; that's romanticized outlaw culture, pseudo-bohemian ethos and the most cliched forms of adolescent rebellion against The Man; that looks up to Keith Richards, for crying out loud, as a truth-talking elder statesman! (Richards and Cobain are really just two sides of the same rhetorical coin: rock culture needs the romantic myth of the young death to maintain its hipster credibility, and the shockingly lengthy survivalism of Richards to prove that one can do all this stuff and still be productive. The two men allow Jann Wenner to have his authenticity cake and eat it, too). Pop songs by everyone from the Beatles to Snoop Dog have referenced and celebrated drugs, and this same culture has either celebrated, looked the other way or wink-winked, nudged-nudged in laddish approval at these artists' "daring."

And now, this culture's going to take its anti-drug anger out on Winehouse? Sorry, but I'm not buying the concern, or the career advice (which seems to fit what one pundit called "The Jon Benet Ramsey Rule," where we talk and talk and talk about this stuff, then turn around and say how "sad" and "horrible" it all is, and isn't it sad this poor girl is being exploited?). Winehouse clearly has a lot of problems, and she definitely needs to get help for them, before she really does end up a tragic case. I'm not excusing her self-destructive behavior or overlooking her serious addictions to drugs, violence and self-abuse. But the disingenuous paternalism of the article is equally off-putting, as are the double standards it implies still exist in the music business.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ironies


Sitting at the Black River Cafe today, by the window, the sunlight streaming in on a surprisingly warm and slushy winter day. At the table across from me, two women are chatting. Well, one woman is, really, as her friend listens, and occasionally gets to nod in reply. And the one woman is not chatting or talking so much as pontificating, at loud volume, about everything from art history to departmental politics to the bad habits of "young people" to Shelby Steele's take on Barack Obama. She's very, very earnest; she's very, very boomer in her absolute moral certainty and dismissal of those younger than her ("I'm 60!," she crows with a laugh at one point); and worst of all, she's very, very, very loud, apparently unaware that she's in a restaurant where other people might want to chat, read, or just eat quietly. I feel like Alvy Singer standing in the movie line in Annie Hall: "Of course you're entitled to your opinion, but do you have to be so loud about it? I mean, a-aren't you a-a-ashamed to pontificate like that?" But my favorite moment comes when, after discoursing for several minutes in a voice that rings throughout the increasingly empty restaurant (boy, wonder why that is), she makes the following declaration, about contemporary life: "I've just never seen people so selfish, so wrapped up in their own rudeness."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Talking Points

I've been thinking a lot lately about the recent arguments and internecine warfare of the Democratic primaries, and even tried crafting a blog response a couple of times, but I could never quite get it to say what I wanted.



I should've known Tom Tomorrow would've said it in a far pithier way than I ever could.

Bully For You!



I've said it many times, and I'll say it again: there is no comics blog that I enjoy more than Bully's, and if you are not bookmarking it for daily reading, you really should. Calling it a "comics blog" doesn't do it justice, since it also offers wonderful essays on PG Wodehouse, cartoon video clips, photo travelogues, and anything else that pops into a stuffed bull's head. I think it's that sense of joyful unpredictability-- as well as Bully's open-heartedness and commitment to creating a community centered on fun-- that makes me eager to see what he's up to each day. And be sure to follow the advice he gives out in his comics reviews: I've discovered X-Men: First Class, Darwyn Cooke's revived Spirit and Damage Control by reading Bully, and I'm enjoying all three.

Oddly, I get a greater sense of personality and honest discourse from a pseudonymic stuffed bull than I do from a lot of our current primary candidates: maybe Bully should run for president!

Beam Me Up


On a cold Sunday afternoon, the desire to get away is strong, so why not boldly go where so many have gone before-- into the NY Times "Arts & Leisure" section, and specifically into this wonderful piece about Patrick Stewart? It focuses primarily on his recent return to Shakespeare, inspired by a production of "Macbeth" that's about to debut on Broadway, but there are also funny anecdotes about Star Trek, about Stewart's early theater training, and about long walks through the Oxfordshire woods. Predictably for an often staid arts section, the Times reporter occasionally condescends to Stewart's sci-fi experiences, but Stewart himself will have none of it, his warmth, self-deprecation and good humor shining throughout the interview. It's a reminder that the best Star Trek captains are always bald Shakespeareans.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Late-Night Karaoke: Scratch



Despite their reputation as poltiical spokesmen and naive optimists, U2's strongest work has always centered on more personal issues of loss: the child's grappling with death at the heart of Boy; the drifting uncertainty that engulfs The Unforgettable Fire (Bono's mumbles and verbal feints-- what the band would later call "Bonoglese"-- not a lyrical dodge, but the most moving expression of a song's essence); the lyrical bitterness, pain and selfish rage that rubs up against the glam arrangements of their best record, Achtung Baby; the emotional hangovers of Pop and the gleefully fractured personality singing about "Vertigo." Darkness isn't a space they stay in-- they're not Nine Inch Nails, thank god-- but crossing through it to reach a brighter space is what gives their sense of community a real depth and resonance.

When I first heard this song, from their 2004 album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, it didn't do a lot for me: it was ok, but felt a bit bombastic. Interviews revealed that it was written for the funeral of Bono's father, as a tribute from child to parent, but that sentiment didn't register for me in the sound.

It wasn't until I saw this video a few months later that the tune began to take shape. I think what I like most about it are those opening moments of Bono walking down the street, singing along with his own recorded voice. His street voice is raspy and cracked, unrehearsed, singing some words while skipping over or just not hitting the notes on others. That spontaneous, almost karaoke-like quality, especially layered on top of the more polished recording, brings the song alive for me: in doubling his own vocal, almost haunting it like an nasty ghost, he really captures the lyrics' attempts to embody that feeling of pain and loss around the death of a loved one. He's writing on top of what he's already written, tracing and defacing it like a graffiti artist, adding to and enhancing what's already there. By the time he gets to the theater and joins the band, I really feel that desire he sings of to find a kind of release in singing and playing, to create a communal ecstasy: the reveal of the band together doesn't just feel like a commercial video necessity, but the literal expression of the song's title.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Tales of Suspense



From the brilliant, Steranko-derived TPB cover by Adi Granov to the inclusion of tasty extras like reprints of Strange Tales #135 (S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first apppearance) and Iron Man #129 (a classic Michelinie-Layton story which resolves the S.H.I.E.L.D. takeover plotline threaded through their "Demon in a Bottle" storyline), it seems apparent that Marvel is intent on using their new trade paperback collection, Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. as one big mea culpa for the abuses they've put this longstanding character through in the last few years (a feeling further enhanced by the insightful interviews with father-son writing team Charlie and Daniel Knauf, and the detailed "character bios" that are thrown in, as if to say, "No, it's really good to know about this character").

Well, good-- Iron Man could use a little love. As I've been noting at length, Iron Man/Tony Stark is a fascinating figure whose complex mixture of power, wealth and superheroics makes him, potentially, Marvel's best character. Sadly, that potential has seldom been tapped in recent years, but the stories collected in Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. suggest the book is definitely back on track. Indeed, reading it in the Houston airport a couple of weeks ago, I found myself smiling in delight-- this is a top-notch blend of action, character, humor and pathos that returns Stark's humanity to him, and uses that humanity to craft an intriguing political thriller.

Some background: after a year-long, multi-book saga called Civil War-- a massively stupid marketing gimmick that crossed over into every Marvel title, to little real dramatic effect-- Tony Stark finds himself powerful and alone. He's become director of the global anti-terrorist group S.H.I.E.L.D., but he's isolated from the superheroes he once counted as his friends because of his actions during "Civil War." And his new friends at S.H.I.E.L.D. don't necessarily trust him either-- he's running it too much "like one of his damn companies," as one character puts it, and he doesn't understand the group's military ethos. Even longtime friends and associates in the sciences wonder if he knows what he's gotten into. A proud, arrogant and driven man, Stark-- close to falling off the wagon just a few issues before-- is determined to push forward and remap the nation's security in his own way. But there's an old enemy coming to life again in China...

All of this is delivered in an often dazzling way by the Knaufs, who bring to the book a real cinematic sensibility (Daniel had previously created the HBO program Carnivale), full of expert cross-cutting and flashbacks, and a keener sense of character than they've previously displayed. They took over writing chores on the title with issue seven (after Warren Ellis's departure), and I found their first year on the book to be pretty underwhelming; with twelve issues under their belt-- and the dopiness of Civil War out of the way-- they've really hit their stride, and this is the most convincing characterization of Stark I've read since the glory days of Denny O'Neil.

Their writing is beautifully matched by the art of penciler/inker Roberto de la Torre and inkers Jonathan Sibal and Karl Kessel and Cam Smith. There's an immense amount of detail and busywork in the backgrounds, as you'd expect on such a technologically-driven title, but de la Torre, for all his fragmented panels and canted angles, also has a beautiful sense of spacing and pacing: I never got the sense, as I do with some contemporary artists, that the chaos would turn into a visually incomprehensible mismash. Instead, there's a distinct rhythm to his pages, and when they finally break out into one or two page, full-page action spreads, it creates a tremendous sense of visual liberation and excitement. Writers and artists feel in tune here, all parties interested in using their considerable skills to tell good stories about their characters (and de la Torre's figuration is wonderfully expressive, calling to mind such past IM artists as Luke McDonnell and Bob Layton). There are a lot of parallels between the artists and their central character: both are thrown into a hopeless situation and told to fix it, while everything around them seems intent on undercutting their efforts (as the Knaufs note in their interview, every other title in the Marvel universe seems intent on making Tony Stark seem like an asshole, no matter how sophisticated the storylines in his own book). They may yet fall victim to Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada's pointless busybodying, but for now, Iron Man is the most enjoyable read in mainstream superheroing.

Taking Solace



For the latest film in the James Bond franchise, the producers have taken the title of Ian Fleming's most offbeat James Bond story-- one where our central hero makes only a cameo. Is this a crazy idea, or a brilliant one?

Bond producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli announced yesterday that the 22nd official Bond feature (not counting Never Say Never Again, or the one with David Niven) would be called Quantum of Solace. The title is taken from a short story in Fleming's 1960 collection of Bond tales, For Your Eyes Only. I read it over 20 years ago, at the teenaged start of a serious Bond fixation that continues to this day. I remembered it as a sad, moody, ironic little tale of marital strife, one told to Bond at an embassy dinner party. Bond historian and novelist Raymond Benson compared it, in his essential James Bond Bedside Companion, to the works of Somerset Maugham. A quick search on the intertubes for some plot summaries (I don't have the collection with me here) confirmed and expanded on my memory of it, and further piqued the curiosity I felt when I read of the new film title in today's Plain Dealer.

Fans of Fleming's novels know that the James Bond of the books is a far more complex and difficult soul than the suave quipster that's often played in the movies, and that the stories have a quiet, fatalistic quality that reminds you they were written in the shadow of postwar Existentialism. A great deal of this mood was captured in 2006's Casino Royale, despite the liberties and expansions the producers took to make the film more conventionally action-packed, and a great deal of the credit for the mood must go to actor Daniel Craig, who really captured Fleming's blend of bitter wit, stoicism and underlying, nagging regret (even as he delivered the action and sex appeal fans of the films also expected).

For all that, though, and for all the admirable ways the series producers seemed intent on returning to source material last time, I have to suspect their Quantum of Solace will be rather different from Fleming's. Indeed, in the linked article, Wilson proclaims of his film, ""There's much more action in this film compared to the last film. There's probably twice as much action sequences. It's pretty much jam-packed."

That's ok-- I love action, and I'm as big a fan of the movie Bond as I am the written one. I would never demand slavishness to the original text, and Craig does action so well that I am excited just thinking about how the new film might top last time's dazzling rooftop chase/shootout. But I'm also gratified by his remark that "We thought it was an intriguing title that references what's happening to Bond and what's happening to him in this film" (Barbara Broccoli noted that the new film starts just one hour after the last one ended).

Indeed, without spoiling Casino Royale for those who haven't seen it, I'd imagine "Quantum of Solace" is a good description of Bond's state of mind at the end of that film. If the producers have managed to model even some of the rich, wry character detail from Fleming's original story and blended it with the series' usual slam-bang action, Mr. Kiss-Kiss-Bang-Bang might continue to surprise us in his fourth decade as a screen icon.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Possible Future Blog Names



1) Because Nobody Asked

2) X-Ray of My Head

3) How Jaws Is Really About Marxism and Fetishes And Shit*

4) Look, You Could Be Reading Lapper

5) Humming To Myself

6) Funky Gumbo

*(Inspired by a real-life student remark many years ago)

Snow Drifts (Updated)



Holy Christ, it's cold here. In case that link's temp changes by the time your fair eyes read this, it is a balmy 12 degrees and falling (I came back to the north...why?). It's cold. Cold, cold, cold. Colder than Dick Cheney's heart. Colder than Eli Manning's Super Bowl chances (you know how I know the Pats will win in 10 days? Because professional idiot Skip Bayless blared out on ESPN today that the Giants have narrowed the point spread, and he wouldn't be surprised to see it narrow further. And he is, always, reliably wrong. Let me tell you, there's no finer experience than hearing Skip Bayless yelling to you from airport televisions). Colder than the sixth season of Gilmore Girls. Cold, I tell you.

The flip side of such a chilly return was the visual pleasure of seeing snow from overhead as we landed in Cleveland, the city's muddy orange light creating an almost sepia tone on the ground. There's actually more snow here now than there was when I got back from Christmas break. Speaking of sepia tones, I came home to discover that Cineville's one local theater is showing No Country For Old Men for the last time tonight. I know Jonathan will never forgive me, but I can't imagine venturing out into the snow this evening, not with a long day of little sleep finally catching up on me. It's a shame, too, as the Coens' epic is right at the top of my must-see list, and the film replacing it in the Apollo's old-school theater space is Rob Reiner's atrocious-looking The Bucket List (Notes on Running A Theater: Your student population has been gone for a month, but will start returning for spring semester next week. Do you a) wait until they return to show an Oscar-nominated, buzzworthy drama by a popular directing team or b) show it while they are gone, then bring in a treacly film that wouldn't pass muster on Lifetime? Discuss). Actually, if you replace the "B" in The Bucket List with an "F," you pretty much have Reiner's entire post-American President career. Which is odd, and a little sad, given what a strong start he had, and that a new, near-20th anniversary (!) DVD of When Harry Met Sally just came out, reminding us of what a enjoyable, character-driven filmmaker he was back in the day.

Would seeing No Country in my exhausted, loopy, vaugely hallucinatory state enhance or detract from its pleasures? Would the violence and humor seem richer, more delightfully crazed, or just freakish, nihilistic and annoying? Could I deal with Javier Bardem's hair in such a state? I tend to recoil against thinking of cinema as a church, but I think I'm avoiding the film tonight as a kind of tribute to the filmmakers (despite my decidedly mixed feelings about them), and everything I've heard about the film. There was an interesting piece on the Persepolis film adaptation in the Film Comment I read at the airport (an issue which had-- well, look!-- No Country For Old Men on its cover (in this state of mind, everything's not just loopy-- it's looped), a piece which spoke of how the cartoon honored Satrapi's wonderful comics while avoiding what it called the pifalls of servile translation from one medium to another-- the film looks like the books, it said, but also finds its own cinematic language to express, enhance and expand upon the tones and themes of the novels. This came up with The Girl while we briefly perused some of the new PBS adaptations of Austen last week-- when we say a film is/isn't "faithful" to the book, whose version of that book do we mean? The images in my head, or the images in yours? And why is fidelity (which the great Roland Barthes listed as one of his "dislikes") always the primary goal, anyway? I somehow think insomnia would be another kind of translation, and while I often feel a sense of disconnect and drift from the Coens' work (as in Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and their version of The Ladykillers), I want such a drift to feel like an honest reaction, not a sleep-deprived one.

No, tonight is about staying in and chilling out, perhaps while warming up with episodes of Crime Story on DVD. Michael Mann's vision of Chicago doesn't resemble the one I lived in for two years, but it doesn't want to: he knows that his brilliant epic (which I am happy to report has aged very well over the last 20 years) is not a documentary or even a genre pastiche so much as it is a fever dream; nominally set in 1963 Chicago, but really taking place in a kind of stylistically and temporally unstable netherworld that feels both 60s and 80s, it's a hallucination of cops and robbers whose day-glo hipster violence feels like the perfect glass of milk before bed.

UPDATED (1/25): Ok, it turns out the Fandango page I read in the airport was wrong: walking past the marquee today, I saw that the Apollo replaced No Country with Charlie Wilson's War instead. Well-played, Apollo-- my faith in you is restored.

Itineraries



For those of you following at home, I finally got on my plane at 12 or so, the fog clearing just enough to let the plane get in from Miami. After such a long delay (we were supposed to take off at 9:53 a.m.), it was a pleasant surprise to find out our short connecting flight would occur on a Gulfstream. We anxious passengers (we noble few) all boarded the same way: our heads in a constant half-revolve, taking in our unusual surroundings. "It's like having our own private jet!," said one passenger, his voice revealing an Eastern European accent. He continued, "...Of course, if the jet was ours, it would've left on time." The plane is a sleek tube, with only a row of seats on each side, tiny little air vents coming from the side (as opposed to those unmaneuverable overhead vents airplanes often sport), and amble leg room. As we prepare to take off, the Florida sun comes through the windows, cutting a warm orange glow through the remaining fog, making the whole jet feel like the mise-en-scene of a Ridley Scott film.

I fall asleep (at last!) on the flight, waking up to the Tampa bay below. The light bends across the window, bending the shoreline with it, making the land look like a Surrealist accordian.

Heath Ledger

A decade ago, I was living in Gainesville, had just started grad school, and gathered with some friends to watch UF's football team defeat some SEC rival (I want to say Georgia). Friend (and occasional commenter at this blog) Pat and I walked to the Winn-Dixie to get some more beer. When we got back, friends at the apartment told us that Headline News had just reported the death of Michael Hutchence.

I thought of that night when I saw the Headline News report about Heath Ledger's death. In both cases, it seems like some surreal, sick joke, where you can't quite believe what your eyes are seeing. At 28, Ledger just seemed to be really starting his career, overcoming the teen stigma of silly films like A Knight's Tale and The Patriot and finding a home in films like Brokeback Mountain, I'm Not There and The Dark Knight. The trailer for that last film was the most recent thing I'd seen Ledger in, and he looks scary as hell, in a very good way: not teetering on the edge of madness like Jack Nicholson's enjoyably campy version, but dancing right across it and transforming the kitschy, runny clown makeup of the character into something truly frightening.

I wasn't going to blog about this, because a lot has already been said in just a few days, much of it either vague or exploitative. But then I read Kim Morgan's exquisite eulogy, and wanted to direct folks to it. I admired Ledger, but she was a true fan, and she writes of his career with tremendous cinephiliac empathy, and her usual fine eye for detail. I can't imagine the late actor will receive a nicer tribute.

Southeastern Promises (Make It Work!)


As the great Jed Bartlet once said, "I'm tired, I'm pissed and my wife is in South America-- this had better not take too long."

Actually, I'm tired (hello, one hour of sleep), missing The Girl, and waiting for this damned fog to clear so I can finally get on a plane and get out of an airport where ongoing construction makes it difficult to hear arrival and departure notices (their drills make a noise that sounds like Harpo Marx's horn, ringing out every three seconds or so). James Cagney movies are playing on TCM, on the TV above my head, so I occasionally look up and see his face, but I can't tell which films they are, and they've started to feel like one big film, one cinematic fever dream of cocked heads, slippery smiles and Pat O'Brien. So far, there's an 1 1/2 hour delay in my flight, so that gives me just enough time to follow up on an earlier post (speaking of fog...).

One of the things I meant to add in my brief Oscar nom overview was how predictable and pre-fab the whole thing ended up feeling. That doesn't mean there weren't nominations that surprised in good and bad ways (again, I say-- Elizabeth II: Electric Boogaloo? Really??), but overall it seemed to go According To Plan, if you've followed reviews, film blog predictions and horse race prognosticating. The Coens, PT Anderson, Juno, George Clooney, Atonement....I guess the lack of a Best Picture nod for Sweeney Todd surprised me, given Johnny Depp's now-suspect allure as awards bait, and the months of hype and "No, I really liked the movie (really, it's ok, really...)" interviews from the great Stephen Sondheim. And a nom for Amy Adams for something would've been nice.

Still, more than anything (and maybe it's just my age and years of Paul Haggis wins wearing me down), what shocked about the nominations was their lack of shock, the sense of a consensus coalescing around approved films and figures. It feels like the film equivalent of the presidential primaries, where it's always a "terrific night" for John McCain, or where no Democratic candidates matter except Clinton and Obama-- the framework is created, and then our choices confirm said framework. Watching Project Runway last night with The Girl, we noted how often the same people got free passes despite some lackluster designs, while rather offbeat and interesting outfits didn't make the cut (ha, ha) because they weren't attached to competitors whose angst, ego and rank incompetence helped to generate the narratives the PR folks seem determined to replicate each season.

(I'd love to see a Project Cinema, by the way, staffed entirely by film bloggers. I think Dennis would be our Tim Gunn, and Kim Morgan our Heidi Klum.)

"Line" is a term in fashion, and also in the kinds of betting a contest like the Oscars generates. We wait and wonder if the writer's strike will keep the Oscars from having any good lines to read (or if Bruce Villanch's absence might actually make the jokes better). But what lines might we write as bloggers to generate more interesting lines, better connections, across these films, and the other released in 2007 and beyond?

I have no idea what those lines might be, of course. I'm tired, I'm pissed, and my wife is in South America. But, for those searching for a longer, more enthusiastic, and perhaps more detailed look at what this year's nominations mean, I urge you to go to Sergio Leone and read Dennis's wonderful update.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I Am A Golden God!


Brief thoughts after skimming the Oscar nominations:

1) Why haven't I seen more of these movies? Looking over the nominations, I felt like Longfellow Deeds in the Big City, gawking at these cinematic city slickers and their hip violence, these movies and performances and set designs I haven't experienced. It's like trying to have a conversation about love in a foreign tongue.

2) The film blogs seem distressed at Zodiac's shutout, which seems a little like being concerned about Fred Thompson dropping out of the presidential race: this meandering thing is the dreamboat you pinned your hopes on?

3) Cate Blanchett was nominated for Elizabeth II: Electric Boogaloo? Really? I bow to no one in my admiration for Ms. Blanchett, but...really?

4) Good for Ellen Page, George Clooney, "Falling Slowly," Julie Christie and craggly, loveable Deep Throat Hal Holbrook. Boo on the Academy for once again overlooking the joy of comedies and musicals, which means that neither Amy Adams nor James Marsden got nominated for any of their multifarious delights in Enchanted, Hairspray or Charlie Wilson's War.

5) Is Juno poised to be this year's Crash (It's already got Roger Ebert's "Best of the Year" blessing)? It's a much better film than Crash, but I already sense a backlash developing, especially since revisionist Westerns like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men seem to have 2007's hipster cred locked up, and fierce partisans bullying on their behalf (this is not a bashing of either film, both of which I'd like to see, just a noting of the shape the conversation seems to be taking).

6) I agree with what Shamus/Larry posted a few months ago: part of me thinks that if the Academy really wanted to be daring, they would've tossed Julie Taymor into the mix for best director: Across the Universe is deeply flawed, but its batshit audacity is as vibrant and imaginative and memorable as any other directing I've seen this year (and, I mean, they nominated Julian Schnabel).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Vodka Shooters



There's a fascinating tonal balance to Charlie Wilson's War, visually and narratively. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt previously shot Angels In America (also with Wilson's director Mike Nichols) and Path To War, John Frankenheimer's brilliant study of Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, both for HBO; screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, shot to fame on a group of politically-inflected comedy-dramas that includes A Few Good Men, The American President. and four magisterial seasons of The West Wing; both men, then, are old hands about staging walk-and-talks in the nation's capital, and joined with the misanthropic humanism of Silkwood/Catch 22 director Mike Nichols, one might expect something like a civics lecture, screed, or self-congratulatory harangue, especially in these charged times. Sorkin, Nichols, Greenblatt and their casually cool cast are after something funkier and more ambitious: deadpan satire masked as patriotic allegory. Or is it the other way around? This scratching of my head isn't meant as an insult, but instead, as a hearty pat on the back for a job well-done. In truth, how seriously should we take a 97-minute paean to obscure Congressman Charlie Wilson, even if he does prove that it's possible for a coke-snorting, drunken East Texas politician to get something done in the Middle East? On the other hand, it's a fascinating story full of crazy characters, inane motivations, loopy rationalizations, pissy spies and beautiful belly dancers: like Charlie Wilson, you'd be foolish not to jump into the cinematic hot tub. In taking Wilson's highball-driven spirit-- part sincere political concern, part craven self-interest, generally all fun-- for its own, Charlie Wilson's War offers us politics as a mixture of Nothing Sacred and Tintin, a true screwball delight that packs a hell of a hangover at the end.

Like Wilson, everyone involved in the film is a pro, and is clearly having fun operating at a high level. I liked Sorkin's last television effort, the underrated, unfairly maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but it did sometimes feel a little skeletal, less the polished finish of Sorkin's earlier shows than an erratically beautiful sketch that kept promising more than it sometimes delivered. It seems clear watching the film that Sorkin was pouring more of his spirit (and patented wit) into his screenplay than his teleplays, and its a pleasure to see his particular combination of slick cynicism and aching optimism working at full power again. It provides just the right impetus for Tom Hanks to let go of his saintliness, too-- he dives into Sorkin's words with the glee of kid out of school; he hasn't been this relaxed in a role for at least a decade, and you can see the pleasure on his face in hitting the notes of comedy he missed so badly in The Ladykillers. He's well-matched by Julia Roberts' stiletto-edged Texas matron, another case of an actor's delight unleashed by a change-of-pace role.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has no pace, of course: he's unsafe at any speed, and he's certainly the dark motor of Charlie Wilson's War. Maybe it's just the Washington setting, but he kept evoking Dustin Hoffman to me, particularly the slobbily dressed, chain-smoking mumbler of All The President's Men: like Hoffman's Carl Bernstein, PSH's CIA agent Gust Avrakotos comes on as a cynical fixer, who knows all the secrets and can't be bought, but that exterior hides a quietly thoughtful idealist. He knows, in a way, that they're doomed in their Afghanistan efforts, even if they succeed: he keeps going because making the effort is both his job and his passion, his secret hope for a better world. Everyone else in the film wants to believe in the Hollywood ending they've crafted, but only Gust keeps glancing behind the "MIssion Accomplished" banner. In that sense, Hoffman is the stand-in for the moviegoer, not because he's so "average" compared to Hanks' and Roberts' star power, but because that mixture of hope and cynicism, faith and agnosticism-- to believe in the myths, but also to continue to glance behind the curtain-- so nicely embodies the experience of plunking down your dollars and sitting down in the theater. Gust's mantra is also the mantra and methodology of moviegoing: "We'll see."

Gimme Shelter



Watching Jonathan Demme's hagiographic documentary Jimmy Carter Man From Plains, I kept thinking of Hendrick Hertzberg's essay on Carter in his book, Politics; Hertzberg, who worked for Carter as a White House speechwriter, found his admiration and affection for the man mixed with frustration at Carter's determined righteousness and unwillingness to compromise, all seen through a clear-eyed appraisal of the political faults and benefits of this kind of approach. All of that-- the idealism, the self-righteousness, the desire for something richer and more flexible-- is on display in Demme's film, which not only follows Carter on a controversial book tour, but ends up embodying some of these qualties itself.

First of all, the title is something of a misnomer-- it's less a portrait of Carter than a screen capture of a certain moment in time, when Carter wrote Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid and defended it against vociferous attack during a months-long book tour. Those going in expecting a wider-ranging look at Carter's life and accomplishments, or any real placement of the issues Carter discusses in a broader historical context, will probably be disappointed. There's something to be said for this approach: in its use of shaky hand-held cameras, its frequent use of revealing close-ups, and its lack of an omniscent narrator or on-screen questioner, it often feels like a modern update of Robert Drew's early sixties' documentaries on Kennedy; you certainly get the sense of being there. The question is, is that an interesting place to be? When John Lennon was asked what the Beatles' most recent tour was like, he replied, "So far I've been in a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room,'' a line so evocative that screenwriter Alan Owun borrowed it for their film debut, A Hard Day's Night. Man From Plains feels like that sometimes-- ex-President-as-rock-star-out-on-tour, and experiencing all the banalities and repetitions that such a 'glamourous' life entails (perhaps that structure also comes from Demme, whose most notable past docs-- Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock, Heart of Gold--were all about rock musicians). It does place the viewer in Carter's shoes, a process also made easier by his wrinkled and wonderfully expressive face, and the way his gentle cadences draw the viewer into his world no matter how brutal the topic. After awhile, though, the space feels cramped.

And cramped space, is, in the end, Carter's project with his book. The discussions that ensue in the film are provocative, but I do wish the film was a bit less partitioned in its style and goals (we get only fleeting glimpses of Carter's home life, the vibrant sense of community around him in Plains, and his habitat work, and I would've liked to have seen more of his eulogy for President Ford-- indeed, any other ex-Presidents or White House figures, in order to give context). At this point, Demme's career itself seems bifurcated between sleek commercial features like The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate and almost ascetic political work on movies like The Agronomist. As a big fan of Demme's pre-Silence of The Lambs work, I'd love to see him return to that earlier sensuality, and merge it with his current political urgencies. After all, who's to say political discourse can't be cinephiliac?

Costume Ball


James Marsden has long been Hollywood's best bridesmaid-- from The X-Men to The Notebook to the deeply underrated Superman Returns, he's always the leading lady's second choice, the romantic runner-up. What makes him intriguing in these roles in that, unlike such past second bananas as Bill Paxon or Ralph Bellamy, he's not forced to clamp down him own considerable charm and grace; by maintaing his charisma and humor and actually seeming like a viable choice, he gives these films an emotional heft they might not otherwise possess-- he refuses to play the dweeb, and that makes the romantic choice all the more affecting, since the audience is left thinking that ending up with James Mardsen wouldn't really be that bad (he found layers of fun peforming this act in the recent Enchanted, where his self-possessesd prince's goofiness came across as much more engaging than Patrick Dempsey's wimpy nice guy).

This second-choice status makes him the perfect choice for 27 Dresses, a film being hyped as Katherine Heigl's big coming-out as a romantic comedy star. As the eternal bridesmaid who lives out her romantic fantasies through other people's weddings, she's really good-- and that's saying a lot coming from me, a person who utterly despises Grey's Anatomy. But Marsden owns the film as her romantic destiny, a reporter who finagles his way into her life in order to write an expose about the wedding industry's manipulation of emotionally needy women. Yes, it's something of a romcom cliche (and the journalistic spin recalls recent films like How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days), and I presume no spoiler alerts are necessary if I hint at some of the steps along the way-- love/hate arguments, meet-cutes, singalongs, Easily Avoidable Misunderstandings and their Inevitable Resolutions-- but the two leads negotiate these treacherous narrative pitfalls with a wry and winningly cynical spirit.

Heigl's questioning eyes, lanky frame and marinated alto delivery make her something of an offbeat casting choice, despite the training ground of Dawson's Creekish Grey's relationship roundelay. She doesn't feel perky like Meg Ryan, or faux-put-upon like eternal wallflower-turned-swan Sandra Bullock-- she seems more like she stumbled in from a 50s romcom, where she would've had the Eve Arden, wisecracking best friend role (a part winningly carried in 27 Dates by the fabulous Judy Greer, continuing to spit out acidic lines with the same glee she displayed in 13 Going On 30). Similarly, Marsden seems more like the self-aware best friend than the himbo/frat boy leads (hello, Chris O'Donnell!) that often populate these films. It's been a good year from Mardsen, who also played an oily TV dance show host in Hairspray, and carries some of that earlier role's crinkled-tux knowingness into this role-- both character and actor exude the knowledge that the roles they're performing are bullshit, but are unpretentious and open-hearted enough not to pass up having a good time, anyway. Marsden has a great, crinkling smile that suggests he knows more than he's saying, which gives a nice ironic spin to some of the genre banalities he's forced to utter. At the same time, his tousled hair and southern boy charm makes him an authentic leading man (just as the occasional notes of hope Hegl lets slip into her readings signifies her hopes that the genre's myths might actually be true).

Putting these two at the center of 27 Dresses' paper-thin plot machinations makes the whole film much more charming and enjoyable than it might have otherwise been. That the movie itself is blatantly meta about its romantic aspirations-- what do we talk about when we talk about love?-- and that the two leads are ably supported by Ed Burns (surprisingly charming), Brian Kerwin, and Krysten RItter (here only in a cameo, but evoking nice memories of her turn as Mayor Woody's daughter on Veronica Mars) also contributes to the fun. With this enjoyably unstable mix of romance and cynicism-- with Heigl and Marsden teetering between full-blown comedy and low-key deconstruction-- it's a bit disappointing to see the film eventually devolve into some unbelievable plot twists, unmotivated character turns and unconvincing heart-tugging. In the end, the film is as silly and occasionally awkward in its choices as some of Heigl's bridesmaid dresses, but as her character says in the film, "I've had a lot more fun in those dresses than you might imagine."

Power Punks


Motion City Soundtrack's tales of romantic woe and suicidal angst would probably be hopelessly emo if it weren't for the band's shiny sense of pop melody and sharp, ever-so-slightly self-depracatory lyrics--"I am wrecked, I am overblown/I'm also fed up with the common cold"-- which suggest a band less interested in wrist-slit navel-gazing then in using the genre's thematic tropes as a canvas for a series of character studies about life and love in suburbia, a concept album made up entirely of delicious power-pop nuggets. I downloaded their 2005 album, Commit This To Memory, a few months back, and have been listening to it incessently on I-Tunes ever since. Like a lot of recent rock bands, this power-punk group from Minneapolis sounds a lot like Green Day and the Pixies, their songs full of short, clanging ejaculations of electric guitar and nasal vocals that tend toward the upper register as a way of "keeping it real." But oddly, for all their WB-ish, mid-90s sonics, the band they kept reminding me of was Cheap Trick. They don't really sound like those great Chicago power-poppers, but they have a similarly loopy lyrical sensibility that walks a fine line between sincere emoting and understanding of the melodramas of teen life, and wink-wink acknowledgments of their own ridiculousness (I'm thinking of the Cheap Trick of "Surrender," not the atrocious power balladeers of the mid-80s). MCS also has a lot of fun matching their guitar attack to layered group vocals that wouldn't sound out of place on an album from 1976. In that sense, perhaps they're less the spawn of Green Day then a Replacements for the I-pod generation -- they share that earlier band's love of hiding a rich sense of songwriting craft behind a punk attack, guarding their emotions behind layers of irony. On nearly every tune, MCS's voices rise and fall across their songs, wrapping around melodies as open and expansive as a summer day-- the kind of summer day for which their album might make a nice, laid-back companion.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Songs About Airports


--Flying into Houston, I notice a bridge full of cars directly below us. I look around and realize the highway snakes around the airport, making one feel like the extension of the other. It's a visual preview of the 'delights' the Houston airport has in store. I've been in Chicago, I've been in New York, I've been in the bizarre tramworld of the Atlanta airport, but none of them have anything on Houston's Bush International, less an airport than a lost set from Logan's Run, full of 70s-era sci-fi architecture, circular gate areas segregated from one another in a confusingly-numbered manner, narrow fluorescent-lit hallways that stretch on forever...In fact, everything in HIA stretches on forever. I find myself walking for what feels like miles through a terminal, directed to an escalator, which takes me up to a tram, which deposits me in another looong terminal, which takes me to the aforementioned circular waiting areas, but not before passing Stonehenge-like edifices covered in bright blue, Christmas-style lights, with fountains beneath. I wonder if I'm going to bump into Box at some point, and suddenly feel glad I brought that Iron Man trade paperback with me: the tale of a cyborg superhero negotiating a dystopian future of violence and political paranoia suddenly feels oddly appropriate.

--A bronze statue of Bush pere graces the airport, a kind of token celebration, but one undercut by its being hidden away in a dark, poorly lit corner by the escalator doorways.

--Scrawled on a bathroom toilet paper dispenser: "BUSH IS A COMMUNIST!"

--As I walk from terminal to terminal, I keep thinking of Richard Linklater movies like Slacker and It's Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books, the latter itself a tale of a young man on a wandering cross-country journey. This might be because I just finished teaching a class on Linklater, or maybe it's because he's one of my favorite contemporary directors, and one of my cinephiliac associations with Texas (even if he's based in Austin, not Houston). Maybe it's the way the sunshine bumps off the cavernous white walls of the airport, or the humming drone of the aiport noise, which seems like the background chatter in one of his films. It reminds me of Jonathan's recent post about films and associations with places: mine's a displaced association, a displaced place (which is what an airport is anyway, I guess).

--Bumper sticker on an SUV in the Lafayette airport parking lot: "What Would Scooby Do?"

Two-Step


This past weekend, I was down in Louisiana, visiting The Girl and her family, and we had an opportunity to catch Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs and their band, Kentucky Thunder, perform at Lafayette's Heymann Center for the Performing Arts. Great show, and one of the most invigorating uses of bluegrass I've heard. I'll admit it's a genre I'll admit I generally have little affection for: there's often something about its twangy banjos and pinprick vocal harmonizing that I find off-putting. But Skaggs, Hornsby and their remarkable band treated the form less like some kind of O Brother-style bastion of 'authenticity' than as a fluid, flexible meeting place of country, blues, jazz and pop: a town square of musical forms (a melange that allowed them to move easily from Bill Monroe to Rick James' "Superfreak"). Three acoustic guitars, a banjo and bass fiddle, a remarkable violinist named Andy Leftwich , Skaggs' mandolin and Hornsby's piano created a down-home version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound: there was a real weight, texture and propulsiveness to their sound that was as reminiscent of a be-bop jam as it was a bluegrass concert. That quality was enhanced by everyone's keen improvisational skills (Hornsby's and Leftwich's especially), and the way they stretched and reimagined well-known pop hits; "Old Valley Road" became a galloping, free-wheeling jaunt whose high spirits cut ironically against its dark lyrics of love betrayed and power consolidated, while the power ballady "Mandolin Rain," a song I hated when it was a hit twenty years ago, took on a revelatory quality in its new arrangement: shifted to a minor key, with Hornsby singing in a lower blues octave, it felt less like one of Michael Bolton's outtakes than like some lost Irish funeral song, a folk piece of tremendous sadness and loss.

That's pretty much the way the whole night went, a group of supremely professional musical polymaths moving between instrumentals and pop songs, covers and original tunes. By the time they brought local legend D.L. Menard onstage as part of their encore, it was clear that Hornsby, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder had the crowd eating out of their hands. "I've already had two bowls of gumbo!," Skaggs annouced in early between-song patter, that dish's mix of flavors, textures and colors might've acted as a wonderful metaphor for the dish he and Hornsby cooked up on stage Friday night.

New Slang


A modest proposal to ban the following words/terms from the film studies lexicon (or at least to impose a moritorium), based on some recent student papers:

--"capitalistic"

-- "bourgeois"

--"the Hollywood machine"

-- "sell-out"

-- "relatable"

--"realistic"

--"commercialized"

--"palatable"

In the 30s or 40s (or in academia, as late as the 70s or 80s), these words could truly be rhetorical weapons, breaks from the norm, whether you agreed with the politics behind them or not: they re-envisioned the space, taught us something new. But now...What do these terms do, at this point? Where do they get us? I would argue, not very far, but they've become pre-approved rhetorical postures, escape valves from engagement-- or, in Star Trek terms, cloaking devices, because their supposed critical or ideological resonance allows us to slip by the critical moment without being noticed. And its proven precisely by the ease with which they've been Borged into the lexicon of bright, savvy undergrads (this is not an attack on students, by the way, but on the ways they are taught to replicate, a frustration with watching smart, talented students get assimilated into the collective). In political terms, they are "talking points," easily memorized shibboleths that become hard to overcome precisely because of their portability, their ahistoricity, their anti-aesthetic, and the strangely lingering appeal it still has for the discipline. To go back to an earlier post and discussion, it seems political, but it's not, because it has nothing to do with anything specific, and everything to do, as Jeff said, with screens, images, and catch phrases (these are academic versions of the repeated use of "change" that Jeff notes in the earlier post's comments section). As Barthes said, "What happens when the stereotype goes left?"

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Algonquin Round Tables


As Jonathan Higgins used to say so well, "Oh. My. GOD!!" Has there ever been a less credible, more jaw-droppingly strange political roundtable than the one MSNBC has on the air now?

Chris "Tweety" Matthews.

Stephen A. "Quite Frankly" Smith.

Tucker "I Beat Up Gay Men" Carlson.

And twangy pollster Craig Crawford.

Crawford seems to have the Rachel Maddow role tonight, trying in vain to keep things calm and sane. And points to Smith for calling Bush "a little bit of a dictator." But-- really-- who the hell put this thing together? And is there a line of hot air balloons outside the studio, waiting to be filled?

Wizardry

Brian K. Vaughn-- comics auteur, screenwriter...magician?

That's the conclusion I'm led to by the latest issue of Buffy Season Eight, Joss Whedon's return to the book after Vaughn's four-issue arc, and one whose quantum leap in quality from Whedon's previous work on the title suggests just how much having a comics pro around raised everyone's game. After a slow start, Vaughn's arc turned out to be a fabulous delight. In part, this might have been because he focused on two of the Buffyverse's most interesting characters, Faith and Giles, whose violent pasts and prickly personalities generated more interesting stories than the rather dull, heavy-handed Slayer Army of Whedon's first five issues; in part, it's because getting away from the core group and going to Cleveland and London opened up the story space, and really exemplified the kind of "global narrative" of Slayerhood that Whedon's been telling without showing; and partially it's because Vaughn has years of experience creating and writing such wonderful books as Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man, and Runaways, and has (at least for now) a much better sense of how to achieve the kinds of cinematic and televisual effects in comic form that Whedon was grasping for in the first five issues, but never quite getting. Vaughn's villains were richer, his dialogue tighter, and his vision of Faith and Giles as a contemporary Steed & Peel spot-on. And the closing pages of his final issue were wonderfully chilling and complex, the best comics translation yet of the kind of prickly emotions the Buffy TV series was so good at exploring, and the first evidence that the show's brilliant aesthetic might really work in this different medium.

I was sorry to see him go, but I'm happy to report that Whedon's return to writing chores (before Buffy and Angel writer Drew Goddard takes over for a multi-issue arc) is a smashing success, and a fine continuation of the various issues-- friendship, loyalty, interpretation of motive, betrayal-- that Vaughn's run highlighted; that it happened in an issue that was heavy with my least-favorite character, the passive-aggressive wiccan Willow, makes his achievement all the more impressive. The issue's title, "Anywhere But Here," is a reference to a game we see Buffy and Willow briefly playing in the Sunnydale High courtyard in Season Two-- what is your fantasy of where you'd rather be right now? They play this game in the issue's opening pages, but it becomes a metaphor throughout the issue, as we see Buffy, Willow, Dawn, Xander, and the others wrestling with the toll that full-time Slayage duty has taken. As in Vaughn's arc, breaking up the core group and letting them have separate moments is a good move, since it allows greater insight into their emotions and (paradoxically) their bonds with one another. I won't spoll any of the details, but Whedon's ability with flashbacks and cross-cutting is much smoother here than in previous issues, and I really enjoyed the way he answered some lingering questions while raising a whole host of others, neatly folding the program's history into the comic's ongoing narrative. I also really liked Cliff Richards' art: apparently, he was the artist on an earlier Buffy series Dark Horse published several years ago. I never read that one, but his art here is wonderful, the best visual translation of the characters the book has seen yet, and it enhances the feeling that, after a slow, slightly rough start, Whedon and company are really starting to click on all cylinders, and that Buffy Season Eight might actually live up to its vast promise.

Great Moments in 70s Cheese

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Audacity of Dopes, Pt. 2


1) I really wasn't going to post anymore today, especially about the fractured and Douglas Sirkian hysteria of the primary coverage (both in the MSM and the blogosphere) over the last two days. Then, I made the mistake of flipping over to MSNBC to watch Countdown's coverage a moment ago.

And I saw Tom Brokaw.

I like Tom Brokaw-- he's smart, experienced, and a refreshing throwback in the age of reportobots like Brian Williams. Plus, anyone who's a friend of Robert Redford's has to have something going for him.

But...

Tonight, Brokaw was in full "thoughful gaze" mode, the kind of "squint, furrow the brow and look down with pursed lips" faux thinking perfected by Joey Tribbiani on Friends. He mouthed pablum about "the lengthiness of the process," what Clinton's possible win means for the Obama campaign, about what's "good for the country." Some of this strikes me as true, a lot of it strikes me as the kind of generic talking points that Brokaw and his cohort have been rehearsing for decades. It has nothing to do with this campaign, or these candidates, and everything to do with maintaining the conventional narratives of American politics and, more important, news coverage of those campaigns. The revulsion I feel is enhanced when the show goes split screen, and the odious image of Tim Russert, his Randy Quaidish cheekbags glowering, appears next to Tom. If anyone is addicted to the pompous, Mean Girls bullshit of the Beltway, it's Russert, confidant of Dick Cheney, reporter who believes sources are off the record unless they say they're on the record, the man who Mary Matalin identified as an easily manipulated mouthpiece for the Bush administration. Thankfully, I came in too late to hear what Tater had to say: he mostly nods with inverted, 'serious' eyebrows, desperate not to shift his facial expression, as if posing for the NBC Mount Rushmore.

They cut to Andrea Mitchell (wife of Alan Greenspan), who reports the shocking news that, after weeks of media fluffing, McCain is projected to win the NH primary. Scarborough and his roundtable of pundit dwarfs follows, praising how great it is for the country that McCain won. Maybe, maybe not (I vote not), but could y'all at least acknowledge your complicity in his rise? Howard Fineman (who wrote a mournful Newsweek column following the '98 midterms about the collapse of Newt Gingrich, and who was a reliable mouthpiece for Kenneth Starr througout the Lewinksy imbroglio) makes a weak defense of Rudy Giluliani. I note how they all sound like campaign managers for the candidates. Katrina Van Huevel tries vailiantly to inject some facts into the bloviating by mentioning how much money the Swift Boat forces have given to McCain. Scarbot, sensing the agreed-upon narrative is getting lost, makes an ad hominem remark about James Carville, and falsely states that there's "Swift Boaters on both sides" (well. No. There's negative campaigning, but only one side has an actually organized, multimillion-dollar group of businessmen (hi, T. Boone Pickens!) and political operatives set to slander and attack). Chris Matthews is tweeting and looking perplexed ("must-- THINK?!?") whenever Keith Olbermann makes the mistake of asking him a probing question. I often wonder if Olbermann wants to slit his wrists when he's forced to share set time with folks like this. I love the look on Tweety's face just before they go to the ad, as Olbermann notes that the Democratic primary isn't actually settled yet, and Tweety glances off-camera, like he's looking for his pizza delivery or something.

2) Is it just me, or does New Hampshire look like a middle finger, as it sticks out on the MSNBC map in red and blue?

3) This is exactly what I'd expect from a Kathy Griffin Fan: Can someone explain James Wolcott's anger to me? Yes, of course the misogynist attacks against Clinton are wrong (although Wolcott and the normally poetic Tom Watson do as much damage as good with their blogpieces, which obscure the issues Steinem and Digby explore so thoughtfully with a lot of over-the-top rhetoric and disturbingly paternalistic head-pats towards Obama), and should be criticized. And of course we should be careful to not let enthusiasm over Obama obscure the very real attacks he's sure to face if he makes it to a general election. But that frankly seems less the point of Wolcott's bitter binge than an implied fear of hope itself; Wolcott's a witty and sometimes gorgeous stylist, and I often agree with his politics, but he's disappeared so far into his persona as a neo-Addison DeWitt that he can't seem to break free from the position of snotty disdain that the persona engenders. I'm glad Clinton looks like she'll be in the race for awhile: I think she's an interesting candidate, I admire her tenacity this week, and I'd like my Ohio primary vote to count for something, but in defending and supporting her, I wish many bloggers would not be cavalier in dismissing Obama, dismissing the racism that his candidacy has already attracted, and not be so damn addicted to losing (and to martyrs like Nader or Kucinich, the latter of whom at least had the good sense to run in the primaries and try to affect the message). Of course, "the audacity of hope" isn't enough by itself, but it's still essential, and not something to be sniffed off on our way to plugging another tired Law & Order franchise.

4) Watching some of ABC's 6:30pm coverage, they did a cheesy but fascinating graphic, with percentage numbers dug into the snow: 75 (the percent who want change from Bush), 92 (percent of NH Dems opposed to the war), 53 (% of Repubs frustrated with Bush). I kept thinking the carved-in-snow numbers had other significations: 92 (the year Bill Clinton came to NH, finished second, and ended up winning the Presidency, with a similarly mocked "Man From Hope" message), 53 (the year Eisenhower ended 20 years of Democratic White House control, ending his presidency with a warning against exactly the kind of "military-industrial complex" we're now embroiled in).

5) Jeff blogged the other day about how "Iowa doesn't matter":

We’ve long reached the state where there is no politics. Or, I suppose, we’ve always been in that state. The age of new media foregrounds the point for us. It shows us that we are not engaging in politics (as if we ever were). We engage screens. Screens projecting screens. The insanity surrounding Iowa pretends politics matter. It gives us a screen, a show, a series of performances. Of course, we know this. Still, it needs to be said. Iowa doesn’t matter. Caucuses don’t matter. Politics doesn’t matter.

If I understand Jeff correctly, he's speaking of a rhetorical mode (or series of modes), he's speaking of media and writing and metaphor, as much as policy or day-to-day occurances; I'm not sure Jeff literally means "there is no politics." I've thought about the post a lot lately, and find myself agreeing and disagreeing with it. After all, what am I doing in this post but "engaging with screens"? (As I say this, Gomer Huckabee appears live to talk to his supporters; someone holds up a sign that blocks his face, a white sign that literally looks like a movie screen that Huck's voice comes through; a few minutes later, McCain takes to the stage with the Rocky theme blaring in the background). I'm not even sure that bothers me-- I write about film, after all. And yet, what those screens project still matters intensely to me, for personal and public reasons. Maybe it's the lingering effects of my political science training; maybe it's my love of arcane polling numbers and historical factoids (poll-ophila?); maybe it's my love of The West Wing, a desire for some sort of larger national narrative, one that's not the authoritarian patriotism of the right or the mao-jacketed socialism of friends on the left, but something more, well, cinephiliac: textured, fragrant, surprising, sensual, working at both the margins and the center, mysterious, both fragmented and unifying. Maybe it's that jumbled desire that makes me frustrated by the master narratives of resigned nihilism that I find on political blogs and those of opportunistic disingenuousness that seem so common on networks like MSNBC. Or maybe I just want the kind of country Bruce Springsteen envisions:

It's an ongoing dialogue about what living means. It's not like a one-on-one dialogue. It's more what you feel back from them. You create a space together. You are involved in an act of the imagination together, imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave to your children. What are the things that bring you ecstasy and bliss, what are the things that bring on the darkness, and what can we do together to combat those things? That's the dialogue I have in my imagination when I'm writing.

6) On the other hand, only John McCain could make "Thank you, New Hampshire, from the bottom of my heart," sound so oily, pedantic and condescending. "They don't send us to Washington to stroke our egos"-- no, John, that's what you have the press corps for.

The Audacity of Dopes


On a day when Barack Obama might increase his delegate lead in New Hampshire, and after a week when we've head lots of commentary about how the Iowa results "transcended race," let's not forget that we're not quite there yet.

More Random Than A Nic Cage Performance


Put the bunny...down...

A potpourri of catching-up thoughts:

-- New Hampshire primary today. Obama seems to be surging, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Clinton do better than expected; despite what the pundits are saying, I think her "emotional" displays yesterday might rebound to her benefit. No matter what happens, though, one thing is certain: John McCain's going to come out a huge, huge winner. He's such a Maverick!

--Looks like Christine Lahti will have plenty of time for a bathroom break this year.

--About Hillary Clinton's supposed "gaffe" yesterday: I don't get it.



1) She didn't cry! She just got a little choked up. 2) Why are people reading this as a sign of weakness? I think it's a sign of strength, that she can feel that committed and passionate, and not be afraid to show it in public. I mean, isn't the knock on her that she's too controlled, and now people are jumping on her for not being controlled enough? Geez, she was showing honest emotion, and while I liked her anyway, it made me like her a whole lot more (and I thought it was interesting that it happened the same day as the Tweety standoff--wait, you mean people can be strong and funny and vulnerable? But where's our false binary??).

--In the previous post's comments section, Jonathan Lapper asks where my post on the OSU-LSU game is. Meh. I didn't see much of the game, and found the pairing profoundly uninteresting. As someone (Michael Berube?) said of Ward Churchill and David Horowitz, couldn't they both lose? After two championship games in a row where he seemed slightly befuddled, I will say this of Jim Tressel: nice guy, good recruiter, good strategist, horrible in-game coach. For the second year in a row, Tressel showed himself incapable of making adjustments when things didn't go OSU's way-- if the Buckeyes don't bully their way to a big (and ten points is not big) early lead, he doesn't seem to know what to do. That said, I'd much rather have him as my coach than Les Miles, whose classless, belligerent, "us-against-the-world" postgame speech came off like he was auditioning for the lead in a remake of Billy Jack.

--Speaking of Jonathan, he has a very interesting blog post up about "good" and "bad" movies, taste, and our responses to questions of canon. It's an interesting discussion, and it has me thinking: what counts as a "bad" movie these days? In an age when both popular and academic writing on film is reclaiming forgotten or dismissed texts as fun, important, "campy," "subversive," etc., is there such a thing as a truly bad movie? And what are our criteria? Form and technique? Narrative? Ideology? Box office success or failure? Awards? Personal desires?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Putting The "Ass" In Classy



Gosh, do I cheer for the team whose back-up QB just pled guilty to loitering for prostitution, or the one whose coach played footsie with another school for weeks, then got disingenously indignant when the story was reported? Decisions, decisions...

Friday, January 4, 2008

Lateral Pass


When great television is discussed, the "important" shows are generally marked by their daring or innovation, either formally or in their challenging of social taboos: the socially conscious comedy of All In The Family or M*A*S*H; the multi-season arcs and open-ended, novelistic density of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue; the darkness of character, everyday texture and always-shifting tones of The Sopranos; the layering of comic books, soap opera and cinematic intertextuality in Buffy and Angel. We love the programs that fly like Icarus towards the new, breaking boundaries and thereby (ironically) enshrining themselves as "landmarks." In his new book, The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross describes a similar process at work in music history and criticism, and I think his words apply to other media:

Histories of music since 1900 often take the form of a teleological tale, a goal-obsessed narrative full of great leaps forward and heroic battles with the philistine bourgeoise. When the concept of progress assumes exaggerated importance, many works are struck from the historical record on the grounds that they have nothing new to say....Two distinct repetoires have formed, one intellectual and one popular. Here, they are merged: no language is considered intrinsically more modern than any other.

The first season of Friday Night Lights (available on DVD) doesn't fit this mold; what it provides is not the shock of the new, but the shock of the familiar, expertly done. It mines the ground of countless family dramas, late-night soaps and sports movies, with their relationship angst and lead-up to the big game. What it brings to this potentially cliche-ridden field is a keen eye for detail, a respect for small-town life and a deep empathy for its characters. Over at the excellent Glenn Kenny's blog, he somewhat condescendingly refers to the phrase "generosity of spirit" as a concept "some critics cite when they can't conjure specifics." I know what he means, but I would argue that an avoidance of the phrase is just as problematic a critical strategy, a desire for the hip and the distanced point-of-view that borders on nihilism (or, as Ross might say, "two distinct repetoires have formed"). The wonder of Friday Night Lights is its avoidance of such a stylistic or ideological binary; like the WG "Snuffy" Walden theme music, which takes a simple repeated guitar phrase and layers a series of searching improvisations on top of it, Lights teases out the depths and imaginative possibilities of its simple form, and makes of it a show that is, in its own way, perfect.



The music references in this post are deliberate: FNL is a show that organizes itself as much sonically as visually, a symphony of noises, music and distinctive voices that blend into a whole (Ross again: "no language is considered intrinsically more modern than any other"). The aural throughline of the sports talk radio we hear coming from houses and trucks, a Greek chorus of the fan that's both sympathetic and self-absorbed; the jostle of plates and glasses at the Applebee's or the other local hangouts; the cacophony of crowd noise, players' grunts and coaches' pleas during the games; all of this provides a soundtrack that dovetails nicely with the documentary-style framing to help us understand the world we're seeing, and just how important football is to the small town of Dillon, Texas. Within this world of social noise, it's the individual voices that struggle to find themselves and be heard: the stammering backup-QB-turned-star; the injured player who must find a new life for himself; the geeky sidekick who's secretly cool; the cheerleader princess with hidden depths; the booster who is both obnoxious and oddly sympathetic. It says something about the sensibility of Friday Night Lights-- dare I say it, Mr. Kenny, its generosity of spirit--that all of these voices are given equal weight and respect, even when we hate what they're saying. There's a lot of Richard Linklater in Friday Night Lights (intriguingly, Linklater himself had optioned the book it's based on for a film version in the mid-90s), and a touch of Freaks & Geeks in its keen-eyed warmth towards folks whose lives are, in one way or another, permanently trapped in high school.

None of this would work if FNL's cast wasn't so strong. Since the cancellation of The OC, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have replaced Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan as television's sexiest and best-developed parental couple: their banter, arguments and heart-to-hearts are wonderfully observed, sweet without being sentimental and tough without being heavy-handed. It feels like a genuine partnership, between both characters and actors, and its realism and sympathy puts those Grey's Anatomy brats to shame. Chandler and Britton also have wonderful moments away from each other, as he must help guide his football players with a mixture of toughness and respect, and she finds a role for herself outside the home as a guidance counselor at the high school. They are the center of the show, but are ably supported by Gaius Charles as the outwardly trash-talking, inwardly sensitive superstar Smash; Aimee Teegarden as their smart and angsty daughter Julie; Taylor Kitsch as awkward bad boy Tim Riggins; and Adrianne Palicki as the tough, confused Tyra. Special note should be made of the wonderful Brad Leland's performance as Buddy Garrity: he takes the thankless role of a clueless booster and imbues it with such heart and humor and grace that in many ways, he becomes the most complex character on the show. I also liked Louanne Stephens as sickly Aunt Sacrecen, another thankless role that's enhanced by her fearless minimalism, and Derek Phillps as Riggins' washed-up older brother.

Special mention should be made of the show's two other primary couples. As the injured superstar Jason Street, Scott Porter is clearly the dreamy romantic lead, but the narrative's twists force him to take on a character actor's role, and Porter is so good at finding both the heart and arrogance of his character that it's become impossible for me to see interviews with real-life young quarterbacks without thinking of his character; his partner in crime is Minka Kelly as cheerleader Lyla Garrity, who rises to the challenge of portraying the show's most hazardous stereotype with perfectly timed glances and an awkward way of moving that suggests a young woman desperate to escape her body, her town and its crushing expectations. The show's best couple is a homosocial one. Zach Gilford is wonderful as backup QB Matt Saracen, and his challenge is the opposite of Porter's: he has to keep his part from feeling too treacly or underdogish, and Gilford does a great job of slowly revealing the core of steel and anger beneath Saracen's nice-guy exterior; meanwhile, Jesse Plemons steals the show as Saracen's best friend Landry, a lovable nerd who constantly defies easy categorization and thereby becomes the emblem of the program: funny, smart, sarcastic, critical and sympathetic, all at once.

The reward of serialized narrative is a deep involvement with the characters, and an investment in their problems and triumphs. A sports show enhances that quality by building mini-dramas into each episode-- will they win the big game or not? Friday Night Lights provides answers and expected rewards to those sorts of investments, but it's real triumph is richer and more complex, its real concerns not the games but everything around them, and taking the time to notice everyday details and triumphs. It halts the sports show's usual narrative thrust, its march-down-the-field momentum, in favor of the lateral pass: let's slow the game down and find new patterns to run. Which is not to say the games aren't exciting: the season's deeply ironic denouement wouldn't be nearly so funny, sad and self-critical if the show's producers hadn't done such a good job of making us feel like Dillon boosters for 22 episodes. After a season of intense close-ups, they pull the camera back just enough to give us a wide-angle view of the proceedings, and to remind us that, as viewers observing this small-town world, "All my friends are vampires...turns out, I'm a vampire, too." That they can do this without losing a smidgen of our sympathy for that world suggests just what a striking blend of the popular and the intellectual Friday Night Lights really is.