Monday, March 31, 2008

The Whole Equation

It's Opening Day! And no, I don't know how the Tigers lost to the Royals, either, but the Indians beat the White Sox, and Jonathan's Red Sox won on Sunday, so at least a couple of good things have happened. (For snarkier takes on the day's proceedings, go to Office writer/producer Michael Schur's wonderful baseball/sports media blog Fire Joe Morgan).

Last night on 60 Minutes, Morley Safer did a piece on Bill James, the inventor of sabermetrics, who now consults for the Red Sox. Famously memorialized in MIchael Lewis's book Moneyball, James' statistical analysis has slowly remapped the way a lot of fans, reporters and even a few baseball GMs view the game. Positing, through his Baseball Abstracts, that many baseball stats (like a pitcher's win-loss record or a player's batting average) are overrated, James began looking at other aspects of the game (on-base percentage, ballpark size, etc.) to determine why teams were or weren't successful. James' work was so offbeat that he had to initially self-publish the Abstracts, until they slowly worked their way into the game's consciousness. Because of Moneyball, A's GM Billy Beane became James' most famous disciple, but the Red Sox have been the most successful, using James' methods to win two World Series in the last four years.

It seems appropriate that the James piece followed Lesley Stahl's interview with Al Gore, since Gore's global warming work shares certain qualities with James'. Moneyball is an essential book, not because of its baseball material or statistical arcana, fascinating as both are, but because of the larger question this material informs: what does it mean to rethink an outmoded paradigm? Using James' work, Beane fought to overcome a scouting staff whose insistence on "what they could see" of high school and college prospects was filtered through longstanding prejudices about body shape, cultural background, and sports tradition ("that's the way the game has always been played"), even when those prejudices kept them from seeing what was really happening on the field. The book almost acts as a training manual for how one might break the hold of these kinds of Barthesian "mythologies", and a warning about how strong such resistance to change can be, whether it's in sports, politics, or academic study.

While working in very different fields, James and Gore are both attempting to restructure the way we think about longstanding paradigms of sports and the environment, areas whose powerful interests have strong investments in business as usual, and whose details are so complex that it is often easy for a layperson to be snookered by manipulations of "common sense" (there's an echo of the baseball scout's "I see what I can see" in the gas and oil companies' obfuscations about data and jokes about "well, it's still snowing, isn't it? Global warming is a myth!"). Both men have been decried as heretics, and it has taken nearly thirty years for both men's work to become the mainstream of thought about their respective disciplines. Even the 60 Minutes pieces were similar: James and Gore would lay out their positions and get know-nothing responses from Safer and Stahl, respectvely, who used the old "some people say" canard as a conduit for conservative conventional wisdom (if Safer said "Yes, but don't you believe in the magic of the game?" one more time, I thought I'd scream).

If we take Moneyball as a how-to manual (which I think we should) about shifting paradigms, and apply it to Gore and James (and by extension, our own fields), what are the procedures it lays out?

1.Don't trust what you "know": As Obi-Wan Kenobi taught us (oddly, in 1977, the same year James' first Abstract was published), "Your eyes can deceive you-- don't trust them." There's another game being played besides the one you've been trained to see, another way of reading the weather patterns. If you take what you see as data or pieces or (in Benjaminian terms), collections of material instead of catechisms of belief, you can then re-order and re-think the patterns into which they "seem" to fit. Don't be afraid to rethink everything.

2. Write it down: James was a night watchman when he started writing his abstracts, Gore a U.S. Senator when he wrote Earth In The Balance, but having a text to refer to allowed the ideas to be spread more easily, and to find acolytes like Billy Beane and Leonardo DiCaprio. Which leads to the third point...

3.Find some important friends: Would anyone know what sabermetrics was if the Oakland A's hadn't used it extensively-- and won so many games (at a relatively cheap price) with it? Gore was already famous, of course, but as the 60 MInutes piece pointed out, he understands the advantages of coalition building and publicity, bringing filmmakers, advertisers, and political figures into his work to help spread the word.

4. Expect resistance-- and use it: Some of the best passages of Moneyball document Beane's relationship with the more conservative elements of baseball: other GMs, dopey sportscasters, and even his own staff, who keep telling him he's crazy to go against baseball tradition. A former player himself, Beane knows acutely how baseball's myths can damage players and teams, and takes the resistance as a sign he is on the right track. Similarly, as a former senator, Vice-President and Presidential candidate, Gore is intimately familiar with business-as-usual models, and scored some nice points about the foolishness of those folks in last night's interview, comparing them to "flat-earthers." Which leads to the final point...

5. What will your tale be?: James offered a wealth of statistics in his Abstracts, but also framed them as a story, a series of conversational arguments that functioned as a counter-myth to conventional baseball wisdom. An Inconvenient Truth's combination of slide show and self-deprecating humor offered Gore a useful filter for his dry scientific data, and reminded people that this material could be presented in an entertaining way. By offering their own stories, James and Gore reminded viewers and readers that the long-held "truths" they were counteracting were also stories, and no less provisional.

None of this is new, of course; in his piece, "How To Start An Avant-Garde," film theorist Robert Ray noted that all avant-gardes follow a similar model: rethinking patterns, finding a mythology to work against, looking for analogies or models in fields outside their own, crafting their own new tales that then become the dominant models. One of those avant-gardes, oddly, was classic Hollywood: what would become the most dominant and powerful media mode in history was also structured counter-intuitively, basing itself on the car industry. Searching for a model to counteract what he felt were the excesses of a director-centered independent production (and to turn out the needed one film a week to maintain overhead), MGM head Irving Thalberg turned to Henry Ford's "assembly line" model for guidance: each person doing a specific task instead of one; repetition of form and function, genre and role, instead of artisinal change with every new product; a central producer overseeing everything to achieve maximum efficiency. With this streamlined business model, MGM was able to become the biggest studio in Hollywood within a decade, and established the model for the "studio system" that would dominate American film production for the next twenty-five years.

Of course, not every film fit this model (any statistical model has to account for abberations): Casablanca, for instance, was a famously chaotic production. Based on the flop play Everybody Comes To Rick's, the movie went through casting changes, ongoing script rewrites, and the difficulties of making a glamorous melodrama under wartime rationing conditions. The most famous anecdote concerns star Ingrid Bergman asking screenwriters Howard Koch, Phillp Epstein and Julius Epstein who she would end up with (Rick or Victor?), as they were supposedly rewriting the ending of the script several times on the set. Epstein said in an interview fifty years later, "Warner had 75 writers under contract and 75 of them tried to figure out an ending!...We were driving to the studio. It came to us while we were driving!"

Like many Hollywood myths, this one is only partially true, as later film historians would discover memos and drafts of scripts that suggest the ending was in place, in one form or another, early on. But our desire to believe it's true suggests that the "magic" Morely Safer insists on (for however anti-intellectual a reason) in baseball has an even greater power in movies, whose mythologies are even more sensual and alluring than a double play. What's needed, then, is a paradigm shift that allows for a rethinking of what we "know" while maintaining the magic that's drawn us in the first place.

The Red Sox seem to understand this, using Jamesian analysis while still offering the bright personalities, historical nostalgia and humor that baseball fans have long loved. Even more than the A's (a small-market team), the Sox seem like a Hollywood studio: able to take risks because their large payroll allows for financial security. For all that, though, they suffered for 86 years without a Series win, until they hired a bright young James disciple and Yale grad as their GM. He had grown up in Brookline as a Red Sox fan, later worked for the Padres and Orioles, and was determined to use sabermetrics to finally lift the fabled Boston franchise out of its longtime funk. Within two years, he'd succeeded, as the Sox won the 2004 World Series.

That GM was Theo Epstein, great-grandnephew of Casablanca screenwriter Julius Epstein and great-grandson of co-writer Phillip. It's the kind of twist his relatives might have written: the scion of Hollywood chaos brings order through rationalizaton and analysis. And it's a reminder that the "whole equation of pictures" that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of in The Last Tycoon (memorializing men like Thalberg) didn't eliminate mystery, glamour or strange coincidence, but merely gave it a clearer palette on which to reveal itself. How might our writing do the same, to invent new equations for our own analysis?

Margin Notes

The best moments of Suburban Girl are those at the start, as the credits play over a series of split screens revealing the working life of Brett (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a book editor working on a particularly bad series of books. As she sits in her office or reads while walking, we see her hand constantly writing comments in the margins of the texts, then crossing them out, then rewriting them with even greater vehemence. Her red pen corrects the grammar, makes emotional use of question marks and angry exclamation points, and even doodles pictures beneath purple passages of prose. It's a wonderful visualization of the small steps of writing and editing a text, and a nice metacommentary on the act of translating a text from page to screen: what do you keep and what do you cut out?

Based on two short stories from Melissa Banks' The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Suburban Girl (the bland renaming already giving a hint of the film's problems) is a slight piece, a movie whose potential is apparent but only appears in flashes between the cliched older man-younger woman relationship narrative that dominates it. That the younger woman is played by Gellar and the older man by Alec Baldwin makes those cliches more palatable: they are both gifted at underplaying and finding funny notes to land on, and they both radiate intelligence, which makes them convincing as members of the publishing world. And they have good chemistry together, Gellar's furrowed brow meeting Baldwin's wryly raised eyebrow to make for a winning combination of wit, melancholy and cynicism about love's travails. But how does Brett's dad fit in? Or her dyspeptic brother? What happens to the friends and boyfriends that appear and disappear at random throughout the film? And wasn't there a way to more firmly integrate the professional and personal issues the film explores? I haven't read Banks' book yet, but I suspect its length and detail allowed a greater amount of breathing room for all those characters and plot points. Suburban Girl is fun, but it could've used a Brett in the editing room.


I step off the Atlanta airport tram to the dulcet tones of Steve Winwood and his backup singers, who implore me to bring them a higher love. Concourse A, like the concourse D where I landed, is full of people pushing and shoving and acting like stars of their own, ongoing movies (several minutes later, I stand in a looong line for the central Starbucks in the terminal,as a chirpy pastel-clad family swarms around me, their son and daughter constantly tugging, twirling, and bumping into those around them, while, their bug-eyed, already-overcaffienated father blathers on with some arcane ponzi scheme about how he'll punish them by taking their cellphone minutes away, half-a-minute, then a full minute, then...It's like being trapped in a particularly horrific Disney Channel TV program). I awoke at 3:15 this morning to catch the 6:20 flight home, a plane I must take because an airline that will go nameless (ok, it was Welta) cancelled yesterday's flight due to tug-related injuries; I have no idea what a "tug" is (The Girl tells me it's a golf cartish vehicle), but one apparently crashed into my plane yesterday morning, rendering it inoperable. I'd forgotten the joys of flying Melta, with their omnipresent professionalism, courtesy, and comfort (did the sarcasm register there? My vanilla latte is still kicking in, and I can't really tell). I'm not really in the mood for pushy kids who look like members of the Jonas Brothers. Back off, sport, and give Shaun Cassidy his haircut back.

The chill as I disembark in Atlanta (my Marvel Superheroes shirt/sport jacket combo is stylish, but not warm) reminds me that spring break is over, and I have to head back to Cineville. It's been a lovely week with The Girl in Florida, full of socializing, food, movies, and fun. Lunches begat movie outings begat baseball games begat dinners in restaurants full of loud, middle-aged boomers recreating a David Brent dynamic with the women they were desperately trying to seduce (never take a table by the bar). My divided consciousness, my multiple homelands: my body is in Ohio, my heart is in the south, and my mind is...where? (No jokes, please). Sitting in the plane in the dark as it rattled down the runway (Pelta always uses the rickety prop planes for short flights), my eyes were closed, and it felt like the plane was spinning like a top. My life tugs in lots of different directions, a state which can be frustrating, but also kind of inspiring: I like the idea of the sprawl, the life and the work that spreads like a sensual blob in multiple and unknowable directions all at once. I suspect that's why I like to blog, as I return to the online home I've been neglecting for a week: it becomes another situating, a me-that-is-not-me, but links to me in some interesting ways. The linear line of the tram-- "Doors are closing. Please stand back. Your next stop is..."-- is far less interesting than intertwined line, the thread that links and jumps, like a plane dodging a tug, and taking off for a new adventure.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Labors of Love

P.S. I Love You gives itself away through its architecture, its framing of Hilary Swank against a shadowed, brick-and fire-escape-ridden New York City landscape: it was sold as a conventional romcom, but the city is closing in on these characters, and the space both opens up and constricts their emotional possibilities in interesting ways. In the opening scene, Swank and Gerard Butler walk quickly up one of these dank and crowded NYC streets, rushing into an apartment building and up a rickety staircase, the cutting and camera movement so quick that we feel like we're eavesdropping. Their conversation has started before the film, and it's a lover's quarrel. She accuses him of embarassing her at her mother's; he claims she doesn't know what she wants; they argue over the possibility of a baby, the supposed foolishness of his career goals, the shallowness of her shoe fetish. The tone constantly shifts, from playful to harsh, from funny to playful, and the camera frames them offcenteredly, as if it has stumbled into the wrong movie and is trying to find a graceful and unobstrusive way to move. Their apartment is small, as befits their economic status, but it acts as another way to cramp and cut the space, to surround the characters and embody their anxieties. That the lovers reconcile at the end of the scene, embrace and make love, can't dispel the quasi-Cassavettes vibe the scene has had. The next scene flashes us into the future, and Butler's character has died.

What follows that scene, and the revelation of Butler's death, is an awkward, tender and fascinating attempt to throw the romcom genre off its game by letting the spectre of death hang around the comedy. P.S. I Love You is often funny, and very sweet-- anchored by a fine cast that includes James Marsters, Harry Connick, Jr., Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon, Swank seems to be enjoying a change-of-pace, non-pummelled role--but it doesn't resolve itself in the usual meet-cute cliches and easy answers the form to which the form too often subscribes. Everything in the movie feels melancholy and sad, and even a mid-film escape to the green countryside of Dublin can't shake those earlier moments of cramped urbanity from the frame; Swank's character might find another love in Ireland, but even that love is tentative, and shaped by the loss and dark spaces where we started.

Dark spaces are Tim Burton's true love, whether visual or emotional. His version of Sweeney Todd is thoughtful, respectable, and even, on occasion, fun (although I wouldn't entirely disagree with Jim Emerson, who called it "small," and wrote a brilliant dissection here), but it can't figure out how to translate Burton's natural talent for gothy, emo angst into the more mature and twisted emotional and thematic spaces Stephen Sondheim's score illuminates. By many reports, Sondheim was never entirely happy with Harold Prince's original, Brechtian staging of the play in 1979, which created a factory set full of shadows and empty spaces in order to really highlight the economic context of the events. Fine, but-- with the exception of a wonderful animated opening-- Burton hasn't found anything to replace it (what might it have been like to frame Burton's Sweeney Scissorhands in the asylum setting that John Doyle imagined in his recent stage revival?). The result-- enabled by the tiny and tinny range of stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter-- is a show truncated of both much of its score and much of its insidiousness. A sympathetic Sweeney? Flashbacks? Visualizing (and hence making real) the mad backstory that the stage show often implies is entirely in Sweeney's fevered brain? It's all entirely too literal (if visually impressive), a problem best embodied by Timothy Spall, who plays evil henchman Beetle. Spall's a wonderful actor, and he works hard, but his lip-licking Charles Laughton pastiche, like much of the movie, is simply too obvious: Todd may have been inspired by penny dreadfuls, but it certainly doesn't stay there, and Spall's visually explicit evil is too easy to hiss at. What might it have been like to cast Anthony Stewart Head, who has a small part here as one of Sweeney's victims? Head is an actor with a long stage and musical history, and also brings the intertextual resonance of seven seasons on the very Sondheimian horror fantasy Buffy The Vampire Slayer; more importantly, with his handsome looks, proper manners and posh accent, he'd be far less obvious-- but no less insidious-- an image of terror, evil in a velvet glove. He'd act as a bodily reminder of the show's major point: that we never quite know from which direction love or death might come.

We know where the death is coming from in Marathon Man: everywhere. Libraries, cramped apartments, city thruways, jewelry shops, a dentist chair: everything is a potential space of menace, and no one can be trusted (even the flashbacks aren't safe: Dustin Hoffman's character is haunted by his father's death two decades earlier). Mostly, though, Marathon Man's menace comes from fashion: that mid-seventies vogue for conspiracy thrillers that posited a Richard Nixon on every street corner. I have a great deal of affection for this genre, especially classics like Three Days of the Condor and All The President's Men, and had high hopes for Marathon Man, especially with its fine underplaying by Roy Scheider. But from the dark camerawork to the creeping score to the pained expressions on Hoffman's face, everything in Marathon Man feels forced and telegraphed, to the point where the conspiracy nudges over into parody and the spaces are flattened: if every space is evil, and every character corrupt, it paradoxically lessens the menace, and our investment in the characters' plights. The real love here isn't for history, justice, family or a girlfriend, but for an insistent fatalism, a need to cram every frame with a labored mise-en-scene that smothers just to maintain a facade of hip nihilism.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Bond A Week: Shuffling The Deck

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.
-- Ian Fleming,
Casino Royale

The scene is a suburban living room, circa 1957 (born in 1973, I take these stories on faith).

My grandfather sits in his easy chair, sipping a martini. Frank Sinatra blares on the stereo. He’s my grandmother’s favorite singer, after Bing Crosby. My grandfather, who played sax in swing bands throughout the 30s before going to college and medical school, is less impressed: “Anyone could sound good with that band behind him,” he remarks.

Between 1953, when his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity jumpstarted his film career and he collaborated with Nelson Riddle for the first time on “I’ve Got The World On A String,” and 1963, when the assassination of sometime Sinatra pal John F. Kennedy signaled the beginning of the end for that ultra-masculine enclave known as “The Rat Pack, ” Frank Sinatra’s persona is intense and alluring, and defines everything else around it.

Here’s one image, the cover of the soundtrack from the film Pal Joey—the stylish suit draping the body, fedora cocked, trenchcoat over the shoulder, the smile both inviting and slightly arrogant—“Life is a beautiful thing/As long as I hold the string…”

Sinatra’s is an image that appeals to millions of suburban men, by the mid-fifties a group dubbed by sociologist Daniel Riesman as “outer-directed,” and eulogized by the popular press as “the men in the gray flannel suits.” For such a man, Sinatra offers a powerful alternative persona, even if the outer-directed man can only enjoy it vicariously. In 1953, the year of Sinatra’s comeback, another outlet for masculine desire and discontent makes its debut—Playboy, whose code of masculine cool is also Sinatra’s code, or at least the role he chooses to play in public. In The Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich observes the way the Playboy code allowed its reader to affect a rebellious cool even as he conformed to consumerist models: "Playboy’s visionary contribution…was to give the means of status to the single man: not the power lawn mower, but the hi-fi set in mahogany console; not the sedate, four-door Buick but the racy little Triumph; not the well-groomed wife, but the classy companion who could be rented (for the price of drinks and dinner) one night at a time."

He sits at the baccarat table clad in tuxedo, cufflinks sparkling as he nonchalantly deals cards, the cigarette (above all, the cigarette) dangling from his lips, the very definition of fetish. His heavily lidded eyes have a bored look, his hair is greased back, he exudes a kind of existential charisma. His voice is utterly flat with contempt as he addresses his gambling adversary, the poor, deluded Sylvia Trench. In a series of shot- reverse shots, the woman in red raises an eyebrow and addresses him, but rather than his face, we see the hands, the cigarette case, the cards, the lighter, as if she is addressing a set of signifiers as much as a character. Finally, these objects are pulled together in the form of a medium shot of the man, but Trench’s slightly off-center positioning means that, when he addresses her, he looks off-camera to the right, rather than straight-on, his cool contempt extended to an ignoring of the audience, then, as much as Trench.

Along with Hugh Hefner and the reborn Sinatra, one more character makes his debut in 1953: Bond, James Bond, Ian Fleming’s reconfiguration of the spy as a kind of hard-boiled dandy, saving the world from evil and still knowing precisely how to make the world’s best martini. By the time Bond makes his big-screen debut in 1962, in Dr. No, eight years after the oaf in Casino Royale, the image of the witty, hard-drinking, gambling sex symbol is so ingrained in the consciousness of middle America that crafting Bond for the screen almost becomes a kind of automatic writing-- just fill in the missing pieces. And the biggest piece is Sean Connery, whose core of toughness gives Bond an air that makes the stylistic link with the Rat Pack explicit.

In an interview, Jean-Luc Godard laid out one of the basic questions facing a filmmaker: “The only great problem with cinema seems to me more and more with each film when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.” Godard’s quandary is certainly one that has faced the Bond series, whose elliptical editing style in the mid-sixties owes much to the innovations of the New Wave, and, in the larger sense, that of any film series, which must always respond to the question of “why make another one?” with innovations of plot, character, and spectacle.

Forty-six years after Eon Productions offered Dr. No, their first answer to Godard's question, they are about to offer the 24th: Quantum of Solace, the new Bond film starring Daniel Craig, which opens on November 7. In the 33 weeks between now and then, I'll be borrowing a page from Bully-- whose feature "A Wodehouse A Week" has offered wonderful readings of P.G. Wodehouse's work and related ephemera-- by beginning "A Bond A Week," an ongoing feature that will look at the Bond films and related books, spin-offs and parodies, marketing, soundtracks, and whatever else might relate in an interesting way to Ian Fleming's superspy hero.

To answer, in part, Godard's question of "why?" (and, perhaps, your same question), I'd offer two responses:

First, I really like these films. I didn't have a blog when the last Bond film, the marvelous 2006 remake of Casino Royale was released, and the imminent release of another Bond epic acts as the perfect excuse for me to audodidact on one of my favorite cinematic heroes on a weekly basis. But I do think there's another, perhaps more interesting reason.

Godard's question about filmmaking is also the challenge facing film and pop culture folk in blog-spaces like this one, faced with a massive archive of films and prior texts within which a blogger must situate him or herself. Why write? And how do we begin?

If a blog allows us, as Roland Barthes wrote of his own work three decades ago, to "write what we like right away," the question might be phrased this way: what does it mean to have fun? How do we define it? And what is the role such pleasure might take in a space like this one?

There are many kinds of pleasure, of course, but I’d like to suggest that such highly commercial, seemingly “light” films like the Bond series in fact offer us some interesting and perplexing challenges. We know what the payoff is with a movie like There Will Be Blood or Taxi Driver, films that wear their serious intentions on their sleeves. We might disagree about the meanings those films generate, but we’re pretty certain those meanings are there, and that investigating them will be worth our time. In other words, cinematically or academically speaking, those texts are asking us the “proper questions,” (about art, masculinity, genre, etc) to borrow critic Jonathan Culler’s phrase for a certain kind of rhetoric.

Speaking of “The Three Little Pigs,” Culler says proper questions might be “What did the pigs build their house of? What happened as a consequence? What does the hay of the house stand for,” etc. But because those questions stick to “proper” routes and systems of understanding, we know already the kinds of answers those questions will generate. What is needed, Culler suggests, is “improper questions” like “Why three little pigs?” The text can’t immediately answer those questions, but posing them might suggest to us new ways of thinking about the space of the text, and why we are reading “Three Little Pigs” in the first place.

Does Dr. No pose for us a series of “improper questions,” like, for instance, “why a tuxedo"? And do the films' uncertain, constantly shifting tones ask us to come up with a new way of thinking about them, one less reliant on metaphor (what does this mean? What does it stand in for?) than metonymy (where can this object or analysis take me)?

Like Bond, scholars and bloggers are in the position of the secret agent, licensed to explore the archive of film and poke our nose into anything that interests us. My hope is that each entry in "A Bond A Week" can help us to rethink our standard conceptions about the Bond films, allow us about how every object in the mise-en-scene can allow us to “stage an action” of film criticism that respects the odd glamour and humor of the films while still penetrating their glossy veil. Such an approach might lead to what Barthes describes as an aesthetic discourse: “What shall we call such a discourse? erotic, no doubt, for it has to do with pleasure; aesthetic, if we foresee subjecting this old category to a gradual torsion which will alienate it from its regressive, idealist background
and bring it closer to the body, to the drift." This, then, will be a series of theoretical, historical, and personal snapshots, using this image of Connery (and so many others) as an activator of anecdotes, connections, remappings of cinematic and historical space.

And hopefully, it will also be what "Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" always was (and is): a very good time.

Oh, and in case you were wondering (and just to kick off the fun with a potential argument in the comments section), here's my list of favorite Bond films, in order from best to worst:

3.The Spy Who Loved Me
4.On Her Majesty's Secret Service
5.From Russia With Love
6.Casino Royale (2006)
7.The Living Daylights
8.The World Is Not Enough
10.Dr. No
11.Tomorrow Never Dies
12.For Your Eyes Only
13.Diamonds Are Forever
14.Die Another Day
15.Live And Let Die
16.Casino Royale (1954)
17.Never Say Never Again
19.You Only Live Twice
21.Casino Royale (1967)
22.License To Kill
23.A View To A Kill
24.The Man With The Golden Gun

Better Read

The Jane Austen Book Club sneaks up on you like one of the heroes in Austen's novels: at first, it seems slightly off-putting, puffed up and full of its own goodness, but little by little, it reveals itself to be charming, earnest and trustworthy in all the best ways. Based on Karen Jay Fowler's bestselling 2004 novel, the film tells the story of six people (five women and one man) who gather every month to read and discuss one of Austen's books, as their lives create parallels with the texts that are, by turns, eerie, funny, sweet, sad and thuddingly obvious. The movie loses some of the psychological texture from the book-- it lacks the ominscience of the book's narrator, and I sometimes missed the more melancholy character details and quiet regrets that the characters register on the page. But it gains immeasurably from the fine cast, who humanize and flesh out Fowler's typage and Austen pastiches into something far more believable and loveable. There are some well-known names in the film (Mario Bello, Jimmy Smits, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman and Emily Blunt), but the casting feels organic rather than commercially driven, and none of the stars is big enough to overshadow the enjoyable dynamic across the whole ensemble. Particular mention should be made of Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the sci-fi reader whose geeky exterior masks a soulful intellgence, and Emily Blunt, the pretentious, French-spouting high school teacher who uses her Franophilia as a mask to hide her damaged heart; both of these actors take potentially hazardous stereotypes and make them real, imbuing their characters with tremendous grace until they are the most empathetic characters in the film. But this is not to overlook the fine work by Smits (in an underwritten role, but one with a winning denouement), Baker (who takes the film's "wacky" role and grounds it in the detail of age and experience), Bello (tough, smart and finding the perfect line between self-aware and utterly clueless) and Brenneman (who makes her sentimental role funny and engaging, cutting through the sap with her usual dry line readings). If the ending deviates from the book into a slightly fantastic ending, it's a sign of the movie's success that we want it to do that, to give these characters the happy endings they deserve. Best of all, it's made me want to catch up on all the Austen I haven't read (sadly, I am a Grigg, with only Pride and Prejudice under my belt). Any suggestions, Austenians?

Wrinkles In Time

Thanks to friend and frequent blog commenter Dave, I found out about the new R.E.M. video above, "Supernatural Superserious," the first single from their upcoming April 1 release, Accelerate. The album is getting good buzz, including a four-star rave from Rolling Stone and a shimmering cover story in this month's Spin, and the song confirms the hype. It sounds a little like a track from Monster-- it has that record's mix of fuzzy guitars and cleanly produced vocals, but thankfully lacks its melodramatic bombast. Instead, there's a charmingly bubblegum propulsion to the song, its stop-and-start guitars, chunky drums and playful alliteration all combining to cast an ironic glance at its characters' pasts: with its humor and pop sheen filtering out the bitterness, it kind of sounds like "Like A Rolling Stone," if that song were recorded by the Monkees instead of Bob Dylan. And the video is a nice complement to the song's tale of wasted pasts and getting older: its charm lies in the band's utter lack of vanity, their willingness to show off their wrinkles and their proudly archaic sense of hipster cool. As they haunt Lower East Side guitar shops, laugh at each other's jokes and smile for the camera, they radiate the sense of a band that's been through a lot and come out intact, their personal and political and critical scars on display for everyone to see. Stripped of their glamour, R.E.M. looks more glamourous than ever.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Overheard On The Elevator

I race to catch it this morning, and two men are in the middle of conversation as I run through the doors:

"...Yeah, you just can't count on those new dwarfs to work, but I think that once they're installed, they'll be fine."

Of course, I realize in a couple of seconds that he said doors, not dwarfs.

I still like my version better.


Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated.
-- Ian McEwan,

Sunday evening, three days before it was released on DVD, I finally caught up with Atonement, which opened at our second-run theater, the Apollo, last Friday. I'm glad I saw it on the big screen, and in the cavernous old single-theater space that the Apollo (built in the 1930s) houses: it benefits from that sense of old-fashioned prestige, that big screen and the theater's cushy chairs, and there's something nice about being enveloped by the action and emotion on the screen.

Architecture is central to Atonement's meaning, in visual, generic and critical terms. The film opens in an English country home in 1935, and quickly takes us through its rooms and hallways, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's flowing camera merging with Dario Marianelli's innovative, score to fully thrust us into the workings and class structures that define this world: as young Briony Tallis dashes down the hall to announce her new play, the percussion blends with work noise and the non-diegetic tap of a typewriter in a manner reminiscent of the work rhythms at the start of Love Me Tonight : space, work and music are one. The elaborate set design, the costuming and the period setting all suggest a stuffy tale of repression out of Merchant-Ivory, and indeed, that's how it was surprisingly received by a number of critics, who dismissed it as an outdated relic in their rush to fete P.T. Anderson and the Coens (for many critics, this was clearly the year of the macho hipster, and in awards terms, apparent 'chick movies' need not have applied). But anyone who read the breathtaking source novel by Ian McEwan knew that-- if the adaptation was any good-- something much stranger, richer and more complex was being done to those generic trappings, that the architecture of the country estate was about to be turned inside out.

As a novel, Atonement's architecture was less narrative than stylistic: I was honestly surprised when I heard they were making a movie, since I couldn't imagine how they'd translate McEwan's writerly voice to the screen. And that voice was the whole point: the trappings may have looked like Wodehouse, but the perspective McEwan took was almost cubist: fractured in its vision; fluid and multiple in its perspectives; both objective and deeply subjective; and non-chronological in its temporality (it constantly doubles back on itself). It's the country home novel as seen through a modernist prism, the insistent hum of McEwan's voice acting as a stylistic foreshadowing of how the 20th century is about to gobble up its characters' lives (it becomes, simultaneously, an act of formalist bravado, and a deeply sensual and affecting tale of human loss). It's a very cinematic way of working-- one can almost see the flashbacks, the tracking shots, the montages as McEwan's sentences unwind-- but my fear was that absent that style, it would revert to something more archaic.

I needn't have worried: screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright might not be McEwan, but they are surprisingly faithful to the book's form and approach. In some ways, their kino-eye is even more ruthless than McEwan's-- absent the interiority he offered his characters, we can observe their first half downfalls in an almost clinical way. The flashbacks and repetitions are still there, and they are enhanced by the sensuality of their actors, the way the camera uses their faces as windows and mirrors into the narrative. Keira Knightley is all grown up: I've enjoyed her as an actress since Bend It Like Beckham, but there was always something youthful and coquettish about her, a feeling that she was a girl in dress-up clothes. But here, she is an adult, hitting darker and richer notes in her character, and deploying her movie star beauty in a much more rawly physical way; we believe Cecilia's lust and desire because Knightley presents it to us forthrightly, and without affect. It helps that she is paired with James McAvoy, whose offkilter movement from playful charmer to haunted victim keeps his Robbie Turner from being too sentimental, and by Saorise Ronan, whose young Briony so eerily suggests both longing and malice (and how intertwined those two emotions can be for adolescents). Like many of the year's best films, Atonement is a mystery, but a whydunnit rather than a who: we know what happens, but the motives often feel buried, merely hinted at (and then, in an often untrustworthy way). Hampton was a smart choice for the adaptation: as the writer of Dangerous Liaisons, he's well-versed in finding the sex, wit, and malicious power under stuffy social surfaces, and also in suggesting the human cost of childish games.

About 2/3 of the way through the film, there is a bravura set-piece: a crane shot down, around, and back up a French beach full of displaced soldiers waiting for the ships that might take them home. It lasts several minutes, takes us through several spaces, and tries to give a thorough sense of the pain and deprivation the men are suffering. It is the closest the film gets to sometimes stream-of-consciouness mode McEwan uses-- that desire to take in and process everything at once, and the anxiety that with every turning glance or thought, you are only adding to your perceptual confusion. It's an impressive moment, but its choreography-- while no more (or less) planned than McEwan's, no more (or less) a magician's trick-- creates a different sensation. While reading Atonement, you can get a sensual rush from the language while still being hurtled through the narrative: there's a prickly pas de deux between genre and voice. As the camera took me across the beach in the film, instead of being absorbed in the emotions, I kept thinking, "Wow, this is a really impressive crane shot."

And it is, and in its own way, it's very affecting, but that different response also suggests the difficult task the filmmakers have set for themselves in attempting the translation. The end result is a worthy and moving one, but one doomed to a certain kind of failure: in showing rather than telling, this crane shot flattens our response, becomes an emblem of an earlier form of literary modernism's revenge on a later, visual modernism (there's a clever attempt to translate the final twist of McEwan's book into cinematic terms, but it lacks the shock of the novel, that "holy cow"whoosh! that McEwan's almost rack-focus-like shift in perspective provided). In a movie that's all about the dangers of certainty, the tenuous relationship between seeing and reading, and the terrible results of a lack of imaginative empathy (Renoir: "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons"), such concerns about the "faithfulness" of an interpretation offer another layer of irony: we long to be Cecilia or Robbie, but we know, as voyeurs, that we are an audience of Brionys. And it's all so unbearably complicated.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paul Scofield, R.I.P.

There's no clip of this online, but I will also forever remember his turn as poet Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show, and the terrifying power of his confrontations with his son Charles (Ralph Fiennes). In the film, Mark Van Doren's doddering charm masked a quiet and coiled ego, which manifested itself in passive-aggressive putdowns during a family birthday party (watch how Scofield pulls back from Charles' proud declarations of his quiz show wins, holds the silent moment in a pause, then raises a single eyebrow like an rapier, matched by his cutting, single word: "Well!"), and unleashed itself in a final, angry thundering in an empty lecture hall, all the rage of a father destroying his son: "YOUR name is MY name!"

McCain and Lieberman On Tour

And the hits just keep coming:

When McCain made a foreign policy gaffe in Jordan on Tuesday, it was Sen. Joe Lieberman who quietly pointed out the mistake, giving McCain an opportunity to correct himself in front of the international press corps. In Israel yesterday, NBC’s Lauren Appelbaum reports, Lieberman once again intervened when McCain made an incorrect reference about the Jewish holiday Purim -- by calling the holiday "their version of Halloween here."

(h/t to Digby for the quote).


Monday night, Oberlin College hosted filmmaker and Obie grad Su Friedrich, one of the most interesting and important avant-garde filmmakers of the last thirty years. She screened three of her films-- Rules of the Road (1993), The Head of a Pin (2004) and Seeing Red (2005)--and spoke with students following the screening. Smart, funny and self-deprecating, Friedrich was a delight to meet and listen to, and her work raised all kinds of interesting questions about the intersections of film form, social space and autobiography.

All three films, with running times of 20-30 minutes each, operated in an almost Surrealist fashion: meaning derived less from linear narrative (although there was either dialogue or narration in each) than from the associative patterns that Friedrich's gathering of images teased out. It felt reminiscent of what Andre Breton wrote in Nadja, about his walking tour through Paris:

The words BOIS-CHARBONS, which appear on the last page of Les Champs Magnetiques, enabled me, during the whole of one Sunday I spent walking with Phillipe Soupault, to exhibit a peculiar talent for detecting every shop they serve to designate…And my predictions always turned out to be right. I was informed, guided, not by the hallucinatory image of the words in question, but rather by one of those logs in cross-section, crudely painted on the façade, in little piles on each side of the door, all the same color with a darker center.

What matters, in other words, is less the meaning of the word, then the sensation provoked by the accompanying image; the usefulness of “bois charbons” is not that it informs Breton of where to buy charcoal (the loose translation of the term), but that it allows him entrance to a transformed world, one mediated by images (a far less “stable” signifier than words). Similarly, Friedrich's starting points-- a beat-up Oldsmobile in Rules of the Road, a recurring image of a spider-bug match (like something out of Bunuel) in Pin, and the spectacular gathering of red objects in Seeing Red-- are less symbols than generators or hyperlinks, vehicles that allow her to negotiate the physical and emotional terrain of each picture. Rules documents the arc and dissolution of Friedrich's relationship with a girlfriend, with whom she shared the Olds, and was inspired (she said in the Q & A), by walking out of her apartment one day, seeing an Olds go by, and wondering if it was the ex. Taking this as a starting point, she began to notice just how many Oldsmobiles there were in her neighborhood-- an automotive equivalent to Breton's firelogs--and to document their movement around the city. Out of this collection of images, Friedrich begins to weave tales of romance, daytrips, childhood family car trips, and anxieties about environmental decay, as her first-person narration plays over Olds images, and we begin to wonder (like Friedrich on the stoop that day) if this is "the" car she keeps talking about, or just another model passing through.

An even more impressive, almost Benjaminian collection of images occurs in Seeing Red, as the film opens with a plethora of red objects: stop signs, neon signs, bookbags, bicycles, sports gear, t-shirts, dyed hair. It's a logic of the object-- gather everything you can in one color-- rather than the idea (This "means" such-and-such). Following this red prelude, Friedrich eases herself into the picture-- literally, this time, as we see part of her red t-shirt, and she starts to monologue about her daily life, her ennui, and her fears and hopes for the future. We never see her face-- just her chest, neck, and the corner of her chin, an off-center framing that emphasizes the voice, and suggests the "real" body here is the cinematic one she is constructing (as the film continues, it cuts back and forth between this image of Friedrich and more montages of red objects). There's a musical rhythm to the film that's enhanced by the Glenn Gould on the soundtrack-- it feels both orderly and loose, a kind of controlled chaos that invites the reader to complete the portrait Friedrich is crafting. She notes, at one point, that red is a terrible color for video-- that it never turns out right and can seem too strong, but her own work belies this claim: like the red that dominates the movie, her aesthetic pushes the viewer into new cinematic frequencies, and reminds him that what seems off-kilter, challenging or "new" can also be inviting, enlightening; it offers new forms of beauty, and new ways of moving through a space.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"They Are Tough, Vulnerable, Angry...And Funny"

Richard Pryor! Rosie Greer! And Monday Night Football! This promo has it all, daddio.

Stories For The Future (Updated)

A cold and wet March day just passed, along with two talented men, and I promise to get back to writing about movies and pop culture soon. But I can't get Barack Obama's speech out of my head. I didn't see it on TV-- I was on-campus working-- but I read the text of the speech, and was deeply moved. It's a brilliant piece of work, so strong that even the smart, tough Hillary Clinton supporter Tom Watson (whom I admire a great deal, and with whom I've disagreed about almost everything this political season) had kind words for it. I have no idea how it will play: it is full of complex movements from individual concerns to national ones, from recognizing divisions to calling for unity, from the personal to the social and back again, and there's already been some pundit carping that it "didn't go far enough" (in one regard, it went further than Joan Walsh did, by addressing the Geraldine Ferraro controversy she completely ignored last week, and doing so with a surprising degree of grace).

Personally, I thought its imaginative weave of meanings, emotional registers, historical references and personal detail was enthralling, and exactly the kind of thoughtful and honest exploration of ideas that I always want from a politician, and so seldom get. In his book The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, Robert Ray quotes the anthropologist Michael Taussig, who, when he asked why certain colonial movements had succeeded, was told "Because their stories were better than ours." For so long, American politics has been dominated by well-worn narratives about itself, and about its various threads of race, class, gender and identity; much of the primary season thus far has been dominated those older narratives (of both the left and the right) and their shibboleths. What's exciting about Obama's speech was its desire for new narratives, for better stories about who we are and who we might be, stories that acknowledge pain while still expressing a hope for the future. In blog terms, it's a re-routing of conventional narratives, finding new links and paths through the familiar, whose turns offer different perspectives from the linear fatalism that often dominates such debates. It's a reminder that "the audacity of hope" is not just a good campaign phrase (although it is certainly that), but also a way of thinking about the links between rhetoric, imagination, and possibility (there are many parallels between politics and academia, but a key one might be an overreliance on a patented hipster skepticism, a desire to not be caught out, and to therefore close out the notion of a different future). Please go read the speech: it made me very proud to have voted for him, and on a cold and wet March day, that was a warm thought indeed.

UPDATE: This'll teach me not to blog so late at night: here I was, urging people to read the speech, and I forgot to provide the link!. Bob also provides a link to the video clip in the comments section.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, R.I.P.

He died Tuesday, at the age of 90. A very nice obituary here, and another here. And a hat-tip to Bob, where I first read about Clarke's death, and where you can find this very thoughtful remembrance.

Anthony Minghella, R.I.P.

I logged onto the Internet five minutes ago, and was shocked to read of the death of Anthony Minghella, a director whose work I'd long admired, and who brought a quiet grace and melancholy to almost every film he made. Reports say he died in a London hospital of a hemorrhage following neck surgery. He was 54.

As his career developed, he became known for large prestige pictures like Cold Mountain and The English Patient, for which he won an Oscar. But I will always treasure the smaller moments and more difficult emotions he explored in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Truly, Madly, Deeply. Has anyone ever used the considerable gifts of Jude Law and Alan Rickman so well?

The Talented Mr. Ripley
is one of the most alluringly sensual and decadent mainstream films of the last decade, offering us an Italian playground full of sharply cut fashions, glittering beaches and almost fetishized Vespas, all set to mid-50s jazz. This emphasis on mise-en-scene is essential for putting us in the shoes of Matt Damon's Tom Ripley: for all the film's violence and emotional darkness, I'm sure I wasn't the only person who longed to escape into the screen. At the center of the playground is the film's largest fetish object: Jude Law. Minghella found the cold center of Law beneath the beautiful exterior, and fully tapped that complex mixture of selfishness and charm, neediness and arrogance that the actor exudes (he also gave Philip Seymour Hoffman a breakthrough supporting role, and pulled out very fine performances from Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow). In doing so, he made us complicit in the moral compromises the film explores: I woudn't necessarily disagree with Anthony Lane, who said that Law might have been more fruitfully cast as RIpley than as Dickie, but the offbeat casting choices make the ethical questions that much more interesting: in the end, who's the real "bad guy" in this story, anyway?

Truly, Madly, Deeply asks the same questions, but does so through the form of the romantic comedy. The obvious relation is Ghost, which tells a similar tale of a beloved husband's return from the dead, and a comparison of the latter's hokey comedy and melodramatic staging with Deeply's low-key approach is fruitful. The better comparisons, though, might be with the rest of Alan Rickman's screen work. So often cast as a villain, a cad, or a charming anti-hero, Rickman here is wonderfully gentle, sweet and funny; Minghella allows him a range of emotions the actor didn't always get in his supporting roles in blockbusters, and also pairs him with Juliet Stevenson (a pairing that further suggests how far this is from the himboverse of Ghost), whose shrugged shoulders, quietly dry line readings and vulnerability-longing-to-break-through-the-calm work so nicely with Rickman's vinegar timbre. Rickman is much more the romantic hero here than in nearly anything else (except, perhaps, Sense and Sensibility), but that doesn't mean he's not also prickly, selfish, and frustrating as hell.

It sometimes got lost in his larger historical work, but this kind of emotional complexity was a hallmark of Minghella's best work as a director and producer (in the latter capacity he co-produced films like Iris, The Quiet American and Michael Clayton). Before working in film, television and theater, Minghella worked as a University professor, and that discipline's combination of critical eye and sympathy for the subject served him well: his films were not afraid to pitilessly expose a character's hypocrisies (as in The English Patient) while still maintaining a basic acknowlegment of everyone's humanity (The title Truly, Madly, Deeply might have been the best one-line summation of his style and perspective). That we won't get to see more examples of this sort of thoughtful, adult generosity from Minghella is a horrible loss.

Glenn Kenny has more here, and I'm sure there will be more in the blogosphere soon.

UPDATE: Bob writes of Minghella here, Kim Morgan has a nice remembrance and some links, and the NY Times obit is here.

UPDATE #2 (11:50 p.m.): Not a big thing, but I should've noted that, in addition to his talents as a director and producer, Minghella was also a talented writer, writing several plays, and the scripts for all six of his features. And I didn't realize, until I read it in an Amazon blog, that Minghella made a cameo in last year's Atonement, as the man who interviews Vanessa Redgrave. I just saw and enjoyed Atonement, and will write more about it soon, but it seems apt that Minghella appears, as if giving this knotty, complex cinematic child of films like The English Patient and Truly, Madly, Deeply his blessing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday Round-Up, Larry King Style: Links & Musings

-- A student in my comics class sent me this link for "Garfield Minus Garfield," a site that was also profiled in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly. It's bleak and sad and extremely funny, and a really clever commentary on visual and verbal space in contemporary comic strips. I can't read Garfield anymore without imagining how the strip would read with the cat eliminated (and let's face it: we've all wanted to eliminate Garfield at one time or another). But more than that, it's got me thinking that this is how all contemporary comic strips should function: imagine Cathy without Cathy, Mary Worth minus Mary Worth, or (best of all) For Better Or For Worse without Granthony.

--Walking home from school Friday evening, wearing my Detroit Pistons winter cap, when I was confronted by a young boy who must have been about eight or so, as we were both waiting for the crosswalk light to change. "Pistons?? BOO!!," he yelled. I was delighted: I've worn this cap in the Cleveland area for two winters now, but this was the first time I've gotten any smack about it. See you in the playoffs, kid!

-- Campaspe has a great piece about credits sequences at her blog, Self-Styled Siren. I love credits to films, and mourn their passing in a lot of current films: from The Pink Panther to James Bond, they could establish a mood, a visual style, or a whole fantastic universe to escape into (I still can't hear the 20th Century Fox theme without imagining "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.." following shortly thereafter). Mosey over to her site and join in the conversation, and speaking of George Lucas's epic, check out the great Saul Bass parody she links to.

--Despite my affection for the late, great Roy Scheider, I simply couldn't get through Blue Thunder, a dated action film that shows off the more ham-handed side of director John Badham and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon. Does it get better, fellow cinephiles? Because 20 minutes in, I'm ready to dump the Netflix envelope in the mailbox. Daniel Stern is fun as the nerdy young rookie, and there are some interesting reflections of Los Angeles off the windows of the copters, but it mostly feels like a TJ Hooker episode transferred to the big screen; there are several shots of Scheider scanning the air and ground for trouble, but his pained facial expressions suggest a gifted, physical actor who looks trapped in a metal effects cage, and is desperate to get out. I share your pain, Roy.

-- It looks like I'll be in Cineville a bit longer: the college has recently renewed my position for two more years. I am thrilled, of course, not the least because it means I don't have to change my profile description.

--Speaking of teaching, let's all wish film blogger extraordinaire Dennis Cozzalio the best of luck on his teaching exam!

--And as we ponder the intertwined threads of film and education, it's worth reading this fine review of the new John Adams miniseries in The New Yorker. Critic Jill Lapore is generally favorable to the program, but she also offers a necessary corrective to the everyman hagiography that Adams (and other David McCullough-approved figures like Harry Truman) has received in recent years. As Lapore notes, "He was bold. He was brilliant. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a heel."

War! What Is Good For? Sports Metaphors!

In 2003, then-U. of Miami football player Kellen Winslow, Jr. made the following statement after a loss to the University of Tennessee:

"Yeah, I don't give a hell. It's about this U, man. I don't give a flyin' you-know-what about a Vol. I don't give a damn! He would do the same thing to me. It's war. They don't give a freakin' you-know-what about you. They will kill you. They're out there to kill you. So I'm 'a kill 'em. You write that in the paper. You write that. You make money off that. No, man, I'm pissed. All y'all take this down. I'm pissed, man. We don't care about nobody except this U. We don't. If I didn't hurt him, he'd hurt me. They were gunnin' for my legs. I'm a come right back at 'em. I'm a fuckin' soldier!"

WInslow's comments caused an immediate controversy in the sports media world, with blogs, newspaper reporters and those stalwart defenders of moral wisdom, ESPN, taking him to task. Listening to the normally dapper Dan Patrick bloviate about how 'wrong' it was for Winslow to make those comments while we were fighting two wars overseas, I thought, "Well, yes, it's definitely an overblown and wrongheaded analogy. On the other hand, when you're someone, like Winslow, who's grown up hearing football games discussed (on, um, ESPN?) as "wars," coaches as "generals," and quarterbacks as "field captains"; when sports plays are referred to as "long bombs," "shotgun formations," and "marching down the field"; when ABC (like ESPN, a Disney-owned entity), once started its Monday Night Football broadcasts with computer graphics of military leaders planning football plays, for god's sakes; isn't it just a little strange to think that Winslow wouldn't have grown up making the analogies between war and football?" As Michael says in The Godfather, Part II, "We're all part of the same hypocrisy."

Well, we're still fighting over in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we have another remark to ponder, from Coppin State basketball coach Fang Mitchell:

We were life and death. Last night we were in Afghanistan, and today we're in Iraq. We were in a battle. That's all we knew. So when we got out of there alive, we were happy.

If you want to be judgmental and moralistic, this is actually more offensive than what Winslow said: it's not just an analogy between sports and the military, but between a game and two specific wars, and between playing and dying. Think it will get the same coverage as Winslow's statement? It hasn't so far: SI's Luke Winn called it (without any apparent irony) "one of the Great Uses Of War Metaphors," while Baltimore Sun writer Rick Maese noted it without comment. Is that because the statement is less problematic? Because our perspectives on those conflicts might have changed in the last five years? Is it a sign of our addiction to the underdog-- that we'll let the "little guy" get away with things that football factories like U-Miami couldn't?

Understand, I'm not asking for Mitchell to apologize: the response to Winslow was understandable but overblown, and I'm not sure we need to yell at a coach speaking in the emotionally overwhelming moments after a game. But that's just it: why have one set of standards for a coach, and another for players? Especially when we'd expect the older guy, the leader of a team, to be more mature than a twentysomething player?

Blood From A Stone

If art isn't entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?
-- Pauline Kael

Orson Welles once said that the first ten minutes of a film could reveal the whole: if nothing interesting happened in those early moments, Welles declared, nothing interesting would happen in the rest of the movie. The first ten or fifteen minutes of P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood fulfill Welles' dictum: they quickly reveal everything we need to know about the obsessiveness of film's protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), while also giving us a sense of the film's style. These early moments feel like a silent film: completely lacking in dialogue, they feature only sound effects (grunts and digging and the harsh whop! of a man falling on his back), which draws the viewer ever more into the image (it's a remarkable thing to sit in a modern theater and have it be completely silent even though none of the characters on-screen are talking). These silent film techniques will continue throughout-- the movie makes very self-conscious nods to Griffith, Stroheim, and John Ford-- while it also threads in a host of other references, including the aforementioned Mr. Welles' Citizen Kane, Chinatown (dig Daniel's John Huston growl), and the mid-seventies work of sensual epicmakers like Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci. In many ways, it's an impressive achievement, if an overly intertextual one (as my friend rightly noted on our way out of the theater, "This is the perfect film to teach in a cinema studies class" because of its heavy-handed quotations and reconfigurations), but also a deeply strained one. In addition to revealing character and visual patterns, the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood also allegorize the film's attitude towards cinema as a whole: as Daniel Plainview digs and digs and struggles and falls and gets back up and digs some more (often in darkly lit shots one has to strain to see), the film seems to be saying: movies are hard. You gotta dig and dig and dig, and it's work, and it's painful, but keep digging, 'cause this is real cinema, my friend.

The film's bigness (in every sense), its unflinching embrace of melodrama, its slow-moving long shots and long takes of the Land and the Work, its histrionic, single-entendre perspective on religion and big business, and its daugerrotype cinematography (by ace Robert Elswit) all speak of a certain strain of Seriousness that the movie almost dares you to reject, for fear of seeming out of the hipster loop. I can't entirely reject it (I actually love melodrama), but I also can't settle into it-- for me, the movie oscillated between fascinating and tedious, moving and laughable (and sometimes those laughs were intentional, I think, and sometimes they weren't). I loved the largeness of Daniel Day-Lewis' performance (which Jonathan has written about), which feels over-the-top, but is actually beautifully modulated: the largelargeLARGE ending has been expertly discussed elsewhere, but it-- and the confrontation between Plainview and Son which precedes it--only works because of how wonderfully controlled and still Day-Lewis has been earlier in the movie; yes, he has his drunked confrontation with the oil barons in the restaurant, but so much of the rest of the film shows him working his facial muscles into a mask to hide everything he's feeling. Day-Lewis's walk, his expressions, his vocal timbre, all create a stylized performance both epic and intimate. It's a style for which the film strives for as a whole-- it wants to be character study and social commentary at once-- but can't quite achieve.

I've been turning Blood over in my head since I saw it Thursday night, and it's hard for me to figure out exactly why I find it so unsettling, why I can't quite articulate what it does to me. Every time I think, "Yes, it's a striking achievement" (look at those shots of Day-Lewis walking away from his son on the train! Dig Jonny Greenwood's amazingly expressive score! Look at that hilarious final scene!), I say, "Yes, BUT..." (look at its Capitalism for Dummies ethos, that ridiculous scene with H.W. getting blown down on the exploding oil platform, the needless scenes in the church, the self-conscious Days of Heavenisms), which in turn leads me to say, "Yes, BUT..." Its self-consciousness-- like that of the overrated Boogie Nights-- can be offputting, but one could also make the argument that it needs that constant referencing to tell its tale of a developing America, that the citation works to fill in the narrative gaps. I liked the grasping towards bigness in Magnolia, but I think the falling frogs and histrionics worked for me there because they were framed by a sense of grace, a generosity towards the characters that the baroque visuals matched: narrative, character and style all came together in a call for more. There Will Be Blood's heavy visual palette and manipulative pathos rub more uneasily against its satiric impulses, its desire for distance, its funky mixture of heart, smugness and opacity. More than anything, I was struck by its insistence on a fatalistic point of view, whose licked surfaces mask a deeply sentimental ethos. Blood seeping onto the bowling alley, Daniel Plainview lying prone, this is cinema-as-masochism, a constantly self-defeating utilization of Anderson's considerable skill, and one that, in the end, gives an ironic metaspin to Plainview's last line: "I'm finished."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dark Shadows

On this day in 1972, The Godfather premiered in a cold and snowy New York City (set to attend, Brando cancelled at the last minute, and Henry Kissinger was rushed in as a star attraction by Paramount studio head Robert Evans). Adapted from Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, the film made stars of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan, gave a leg up to character actors like Talia Shire and the brilliant John Cazale, and forever established Francis Ford Coppola as an enfant terrible. Coppola would lose the Best Director Oscar to Bob Fosse (for Cabaret) at the following year's Academy Awards, but could console himself with The Godfather's Best Picture win (along with wins for Best Adapated Screenplay--shared by Coppola and Puzo-- and Best Actor). Oddly, the film's most important figure, genius cinematographer Gordon Willis, was not even nominated (he wouldn't be nominated for the sequel, either, or for Annie Hall, or Klute, or All The President's Men...). Within a year, the movie had become the biggest hit of all time, a position it would hold for three years, until Jaws replaced it in 1975. The film's studio, Paramount, used The Godfather's success to demand upfront money from theater chains, and would utilize faster rollouts of the film across the country to maximize profits (taking a note from Goldfinger, which had done the same thing eight years earlier), forever changing the way potentially "blockbuster" prestige films were marketed by the American film industry. Aesthetically and culturally, the film's impact was deep, wide and long-lasting, touching everything from mob movies to hip-hop to video games to The Sopranos to such recent looks at family and greed as There Will Be Blood.

Remarkably, all of this trivia, history and cultural importance hasn't diminished the film a bit: it remains, along with its first sequel, the finest epic in 70s American cinema. Every time I come across either The Godfather or The Godfather, Part II on television, I have to stop and watch (the other night Part II was on cable, and despite the fact that it was 3/4 over, and it was 1 a.m., and I'd seen it who knows how many times, I was glued to the TV until that final, horrible gunshot sounded across the lake). I love the trailer above because it summarizes so much of the film, without giving anything away. It is the Michael Corleone of teasers: seductive, opaque, and insidious.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Interior Decoration

After watching Black Narcissus with my students this week, there was a delightful intertextual buzz to The Grass Is Greener (1961), Stanley Donen's banana split of a drawing room comedy. Narcissus actors Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons both turn up here, once again embodying the poles of prim repression and overt sexuality, respectively, that they did in the earler film (although doing so in a comedy, rather than the Powell-Pressburger melodrama, makes those turns a lot fizzier). Kerr had already proven herself an adept foil for Greener's two male leads, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum: she'd scored a big hit with Mitchum in 1957's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and an even bigger hit with Grant that same year in An Affair To Remember. The embers of those past romantic entanglements-- as well as the Kerr/Simmons dynamic-- enliven Greener's pedestrian narrative, filling in the backstories of the characters and providing a warmth and realness that the shenanigans might otherwise lack. Screenwriters Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner adapted their own play of the same name, and the script feels very much like a translation: limited sets (along with some nice London location work), a small ensemble, a clear three-act structure of romantic introduction, engagement and resolution. There's a clear professionalism on display, and the whole thing is literate fun, but you do wish they'd occasionally cut loose a bit more: the film feels like a screwball comedy that's sadly grown up and left its childish fun behind (thank god for Stanley Donen, who brings his light touch, elegant mise-en-scene and dancing camera with him from his musical films: even when the dialogue gets bogged down, Donen seems engaged by the country home bric-a-brac and the deadpan faces of his actors).

It is, in the end, an actors' movie. Kerr is quite wonderful as the British housewife torn between two men that she loves very much: if that description makes her role seem like one from a drama rather than a comedy, it suggests just how well she imbues her silliness with a hint of pathos (watch her perfectly timed body language when Mitchum walks into the room at the end-- it complicates the drawing-room comedy by introducing a touch of Douglas Sirk). Jean Simmons is the film's Katharine Hepburn, a whirling dervish of spoiled delirium who shows up in the countryside and immediately shakes Cary Grant out of his torpor: Grant is always a pleasure to watch, of course, but he comes alive in his scenes with Simmons, whose kind-hearted playgirl really gives him something to bounce off.

Best of all, there is the faceoff between Grant and Robert Mitchum. Mitchum is quite good with Kerr-- gentler, funnier and more sensitive than I've seen him in other roles-- but he clearly relishes the opportunity to out-deadpan Grant, and watching these driest of all Classic Hollywood leading men interact is bliss: leaning against a billiards table in their tuxes, they're so cool and elegant that they make the Rat Pack look like a bunch of squares.

News Quote of the Day

From the Houston Chronicle, linked at Crooks and Liars:

CNN said it shouldn’t have used a former U.S. attorney who quit his job after allegedly biting a stripper as an analyst about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal.


We were watching the climax of Black Narcissus today in class. As Sister Ruth slowly puts her lipstick on, I randomly glance around the room and notice one student applying lip balm at exactly the same time.

Random Observation Of The Day

Standing in the Black River Cafe yesterday, paying my bill while Johnny Cash plays on the restaurant's sound system, I have a sudden and frightening revelation: the song "The Man In Black" sounds like the theme to The Fall Guy. Seriously, as Cash sings:

I wear the black for those who never read
Or listened to the words that Jesus said
About the road to happiness through love and charity
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

I keep expecting him to follow it up with " 'Cause I'm the unknown stunt man, who made Eastwood look so fine."


Composer, producer, arranger, filmmaker, music mogul, philanthropist and guardian angel of Roots (he loaned money to Alex Haley to help him finish the book)...

Jazz ambassador, friend of Sinatra, Ella and Sarah Vaughn...

Author of a moving and funny autobiography with the longest and most impressive acknowledgments section I've ever seen...

Mentor to scores of young musicians, model for how to survive and thrive with bad-ass elegance for 40 years...

...The world's smoothest polymath, Quincy Jones, turns 75 today!

And for more good stuff, go over to Larry's site (to which I must give a hat-tip from reminding me of this illustrious date), where you can hear part of the score to They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!